Monday, November 1, 2010

From Blog to Blog, Musically Speaking

(I pretty much wrote this article myself, with a few tweaks from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's Manager of Publications...he told me he had to excise all the "personality of my conversational style", and so removed some lighthearted remarks I had included. Oh, well, still great to be asked and to have the recognition for the organization that sucks the life out of me on a daily basis. JUST KIDDING!)

Here's a link to the actual DSO blog post, though I've copied all but the photos below.

DSO Guild: Fun Insights for Music Lovers

Meet Nicole LeBlanc, president of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Guild. With these questions-and-answers, LeBlanc introduces the DSO Guild and talks about its membership, social events and support for Performance Preludes, the DSO’s entertaining and informative pre-concert programs. She explains how the Guild lets music lovers meet and hear from DSO conductors and guest artists, and talks about her appreciation for the DSO and its programs.

Who can join the DSO Guild?

DSO Guild members love classical music and love to meet the instrumentalists, composers and conductors who bring that music to life at the Meyerson Symphony Center each week. We are individuals from all backgrounds, men and women of all ages, working and retired, music aficionados all. We are dedicated to deepening our knowledge and appreciation of music. We get to know each other at our member events, making smart new friends and new musical discoveries at the same time.

How is the DSO Guild related to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra?

Since 1968, the DSO Guild has fulfilled its mission of supporting, promoting and funding the adult music education efforts of the DSO. We further that mission by conducting ten Guild meetings during the season, holding an annual fundraising gala dinner and by fully underwriting the DSO’s free pre-concert Performance Preludes series.

What the heck is a Performance Prelude?

Performance Preludes are informative, educational and entertaining lectures, held one hour prior to each DSO classical series concert. Performance Preludes are FREE to all ticketholders. The lectures, which take place in Horchow Hall on the lower level of the Meyerson, last approximately 45 minutes. The presentations are given by some of the most accomplished music scholars in the area and usually include audio-visual components. You’ll laugh, you’ll learn, and you’ll get out in plenty of time to find your seat. Click here for the schedule

What’s special to you personally about the DSO and the DSO Guild?

My world is filled with music of all kinds (from Bartok to Broadway and Baaba Maal to Bollywood) but clearly I do have a special love for classical music. One of the first things on our agenda when my husband Bill and I moved to Dallas in 1992 was to investigate how we could attend Dallas Symphony concerts. Unfortunately for us, the entire season was sold out by subscription! We were placed on a waiting list and we haven’t let our subscription lapse since 1993.

I am an intensely curious person by nature, always seeking more knowledge about the things that interest me—so from the first DSO Guild event I attended in 2005, I was completely hooked. I was so comfortable getting to know the members, almost as though I had discovered a secret society of my own geeky kind--other music and arts lovers who felt just as I did about the fellowship and enrichment opportunities offered by the Guild. There is no other group like it! I genuinely look forward to every one of our meetings and hope to remain involved for many years to come.

What are Guild member events like?

The Guild usually holds ten events throughout the DSO season. Luncheon meetings are held at elegant clubs like the Petroleum Club, Lakewood Country Club and The Tower Club. Evening events take place in some of the most beautiful homes in Dallas and feature wine and hors d’oeuvres. The guest artists at our events are the noted and noteworthy instrumentalists, composers and conductors who are sharing their musical gifts with the DSO at the time.

Past guest artists have included conductors Jaap van Zweden, Andrew Litton and Marin Alsop; composers Jennifer Higdon (winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music) and Steven Stucky (August 4, 1964, to be performed by the DSO at Carnegie Hall in May); and stellar soloists such as pianist Steven Hough, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. Although our events are both elegant and educational, lighthearted fun and camaraderie permeate every gathering, thanks to our common love of music. Each meeting seems more enjoyable than the last – they are anything but boring!

What’s going on at the Guild this season?

Thus far in fall 2010, we have been treated to a presentation and duets by DSO principal oboist Erin Hannigan and associate principal bassoonist Scott Walzel; a Q & A with talented and charming violinist Nicola Benedetti; and an intimate evening with cellist Lynn Harrell, who brought his instrument and played it in the unique and spectacular surroundings of a 1910 church-turned-residence where our event was held.

On Wednesday (Nov. 3), Guild members will spend the evening at the high-rise tower The House in Victory Park, site of the Dallas City Living Tour sponsored by our sister support group the Dallas Symphony Orchestra League. We’ll have wine and hors d’oeuvres and hear a presentation by dynamic conductor Alondra de la Parra, who will be leading the DSO in a program of Latin Masterworks Nov. 4-7 at the Meyerson.

In January, we’ll enjoy a luncheon with composer Poul Ruders, who is writing Symphony No. 4, An Organ Symphony, a world premiere organ concerto for the DSO and its principal organist Mary Preston, who will also join us. That will be followed in early February by an evening meeting featuring composer Stewart Copeland, drummer of famed rock trio The Police. Copeland, too, is working on a world premiere, Gamelan D’Drum, for the DSO and D’Drum, a percussion ensemble featuring several members of the DSO’s percussion section. Also in the works is an early-March luncheon meeting with conductor Gunther Herbig who will conduct Mozart and Dvorak with the DSO March 3-6. We’ll also have three more exciting events that are still under wraps.

Is that all that’s going on the DSO Guild?

Why, no. We have just confirmed that local favorite and international piano sensation Olga Kern will perform at our annual Spring Gala on April 3. Kern will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of her winning the Gold Medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Since that time, she has gone on to great acclaim as both recitalist and concert pianist, but has always maintained a special relationship with the Metroplex because it was in Fort Worth that her glamorous, globetrotting career was launched. Our gala is an intimate affair - a cocktail reception and sumptuous dinner in elegant surroundings, followed by a private recital by Kern! Proceeds from the gala help underwrite the Performance Preludes lectures.

Can I join the DSO Guild?

Yes! All are welcome! Memberships are available at a five-event level for $235 and ten-event level for $395. Non-members are also welcome to attend our regular events for $55 before stated RSVP deadlines, $75 after. Non-members and guests are also invited to the Dallas Symphony Guild Spring Gala with Olga Kern, with pricing to be determined. Sponsorships are also available. For more information on the DSO Guild, its events or its gala, please visit our website at www.dsoguild.com, email us at information@dsoguild.com or call 214-821-2428. We look forward to meeting you and sharing our mutual love of music and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Grand Teton & Yellowstone NPs, part 2

We followed the eastern side of the Grand Loop road as we entered Yellowstone, because this was the easiest day to visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and later in the day would be a good time to drive through the Hayden Valley in hopes of seeing wildlife. We stopped off for a lovely lunch at the Lake Hotel, took in a thermal feature preview at Mud Volcano, then continued on to take in various overlooks of the striking Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with both the upper and lower falls. As we made our way through the Hayden valley, we indeed got caught in a bison jam as I had expected...and finally we made it to our Mammoth Hot Springs cabins. This area was the original HQ of the cavalry when it ran the park in the 19th c., and it has its own historic vibe as an encampment/visitor hub. The current hotel and cabin buildings were erected in the 1930's.

While we were based at Mammoth, we had several interesting animal adventures. The first was a horseback ride from the Roosevelt Corral, through the scenic hills of the northeast part of the park. Unfortunately, when a hat blew off the head of the person in front of me on the trail, it spooked the living daylights out of my horse...who then freaked out and threw me! Apparently my flying through the air was "graceful" and I landed with a thud on my rear, surviving with only a few (but impressive) bruises and a sprained (and maybe cracked) pinky finger. While "nursing" my finger with a glass of wine that evening on the front porch of our cabin, I spied a cinnamon black bear sow and her two cubs scampering around on the hill behind the next row of cabins. I grabbed the super-binocs and checked them out as they started to descend. A ranger magically appeared in a vehicle, drove up a gravel road on the hill, bonked the horn or siren and scared the bears back into the treeline. The cubs were surely cute, but I guess they were just about getting close enough to the cabins to become a danger (the sow, anyway, probably not the cubs).

The next morning, we had what many would consider the wildlife highlight of the trip, one I had been looking forward to for months: wolf spotting. This required a 5:30am departure from Mammoth and four people chose not to come (their loss!). But the lighter load meant my father could just ride with me and not drive the second van, a nice break for him. We ventured out to the Slough Creek area, where the newly-designated Lamar Canyon pack had been lately seen. We were not disappointed! We were treated to an amazing display of natural wolf behavior by the seven pack members we saw, several adults and a passel of playful pups. They alternately tore up and consumed the carcass of some animal that they had stored behind a rock outcropping, and when they weren't busy eating, they were quite the frolicking family, both adults and pups running around, jumping on rocks, rolling around wrestling each other. We watched them for at least an hour with extremely powerful Nikon spotting scopes I had rented for the occasion, and everyone who went found it to be a memorable morning, to say the least. For me, it's made even more precious because the wolves are too far away to shoot with anything resembling a normal camera, so you have to capture and hold the pictures in your mind.

After regrouping and checking out, we meandered along the western side of the Grand Loop, stopping at the National Park Ranger Museum at Norris, and then at the Norris Geyser Basin. We arrived at Old Faithful Inn and soon went to join the Geyser Discovery Stroll. Typically, this ranger walk follows an informal path though the Upper Geyser Basin. But a particular geyser erupted as the walk began, and that geyser may indicate an impending eruption of the high-pressure, charming Beehive geyser.

So the ranger changed course, leading us up onto Geyser Hill instead, ad we were lucky enough to see Beehive blow its top. It's one thing to see Old Faithful go off repeatedly and on a schedule, but another thing entirely to see a geyser erupt when it only does so once or twice a day. As they say, timing is everything. We saw about five geysers erupt during that 90-minute stroll, worth the effort we had made to get to Old Faithful Inn with time to catch the stroll.


After dinner, we all met up on the OFI balcony to start our stargazing. Happily, our little crew decided to walk down towards the Upper Geyser basin, where there were no lights nearby to interfere with our night vision adjustment. We lay on the paved path with our blankets and among us we spotted around ten Perseid meteors streaking across the northeastern night sky. Unfortunately, a cold front was making its way through the region, and the sky clouded over after a bit. We played twenty questions to pass the time, and eventually gave up on our big night of stargazing in favor of our beds. It was cold enough that night for snow flurries, and the Inn even turned the heaters on.

We slept in that morning and later followed the Fairy Falls trail to the special off-trail detour one can take to get a bird's eye view of Grand Prismatic Spring--a view which is impossible from the official park boardwalks around the spring, but one which is seen in every book and postcard collection nonetheless. After a short uphill scramble, the Mon Voyage group members appreciated immediately the small effort required to yield such a big payoff! Some folks continued all the way to the charming Fairy Falls, while the rest of us enjoyed a picnic lunch down the road. The afternoon was spent exploring numerous other thermal features like Fountain paint Pots, with an early return to the inn. Dinner at the Obsidian Dining Room (next door at the OF Snow Lodge) was excellent, as always, and we had a delightful chat with the chef after dinner.

Our last day we traveled east, stopping to engage in another close elk encounter...the afternoon was spent near the lake again, this time with lunch at the Lake Lodge cafeteria, followed by a beautiful scenic cruise on Lake Yellowstone. On our way out we made a farewell thermal pass at West Thumb Geyser Basin. It's not the most impressive height-wise, but the thermal features are deep and display a riot of colors, and you can't beat the scenery of those sights right along the shoreline of the lake.We spent our last night in the charming town of Jackson, in order to be near the airport for the early morning departure flights. As dawn broke and I drove myself from the airport back to the Cowboy Village Resort for a day of rest and one more night in the Hole, I spied one last creature that I had failed to spot on my first trip...two trumpeter swans gliding across the blushing sky.

Now that this trip is finding its place in the group's collective memory, I am starting to think about the next Mon Voyage Small Group destination. After ten days communing with nature, I may feel the need for an oenophile adventure!

Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, part 1

I have just returned from the first "official" Mon Voyage Small Group Trip, whereby I returned to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks after a five-year absence and with a dozen other people in tow. DH Bill was scheduled to be my escort/sidekick but due to illness he was unable to travel, and my father Louie graciously stepped in to assist me. Accompanying us were Joan & Harvey, Karen, Jeanie, Shirley & Ricardo, Jill & Tom with daughters Emma & Anna, and my trusty cousin Sara.

We arrived in Grand Teton NP on Saturday afternoon at Jackson Hole Municipal Airport, and went about getting settled and organized after making the obligatory stop in Moose to stock up at Dornan's grocery/deli, and more importantly, its handy-dandy and very decent wine shop. We checked into Jackson Lake Lodge cottage units and immediately set about enjoying our little patio with a cocktail and a view. Most of us had dinner together that first night at the Mural Room, and enjoyed the sunset vista of Mount Moran. Almost everywhere you go in the park, you are treated to magnificent views.

During our days in GTNP, we explored the peaceful, scenic Swan Lake/Heron Pond loop hike as well as the uphill ranger-led Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point hike on the west side of Jenny Lake. (You've got to get there early to get one of 25 tokens if you want to accompany the ranger--we were first in line, because we needed 13!)
One morning we took a breakfast cruise on Jackson Lake, which included a hot western food spread on Elk Island, again with a dazzling view of the Tetons and Mount Moran to make everything taste even better. We rode a replica pontoon ferry across the Snake River, and repeatedly ate fresh trout farmed in it. Animal sightings included an injured moose ensconced just outside the lodge, a beaver, plenty of bison down in the Antelope Flats area...but the best was following some scuttlebutt up to the northern border of the park, where we were "treated" to a grizzly bear roaming around and eating in the ravine next to the roadside where we parked, and then finally deciding to cross the road about twenty or thirty feet from our car. We had not seen a grizzly on our first trip here in 2005, so this was an exciting sighting for me!

We had excellent food at the Mural Room and Pioneer Grill at JLL, and fine views at Signal Mtn Lodge Trapper Grill, but the highlight was our lunch at Jenny Lake Lodge. I think we all cleaned our plates that day!

On the fourth day we packed up and headed north to neighboring Yellowstone National Park, which is our oldest NP and dates to 1872! Both parks have interesting histories, and I recommend Ken Burns' PBS series on the National Parks for the backstory on how each was created.

Cajun Mardi Gras, at long last



Well...it was the first but definitely unofficial Mon Voyage Small Group Trip. I coordinated a small group of friends and relatives to go to Cajun Mardi Gras in February and les bons temps, they definitely rolled! I must have had a six-month hangover because I have failed to post anything about that trip. Better late than never, n'est-ce pas?! We were two aunts, an uncle, a cousin, a few friends of said cousin and of an aunt, plus Bill and yours truly.

We started the festivities by attending super-parade Endymion in New Orleans. With the Saints fresh off their Super Bowl victory, Mardi Gras had turned into Lombardi Gras, and I was not going to be so close to New Orleans without dropping in for a quick visit. The owner of the the Saints, Tom Benson, was the Grand Marshal of the parade, and he brought along with him his daughter Rita (GM), coaches, staff, and a bunch of popular Saints players. Every other parade watcher was garbed in a Saints shirt, and two girls were sporting pig snouts and wings, 'cause pigs flew when the Saints won the Super Bowl!

The next few days were passed cavorting around different towns on the Cajun prairie of South Central Louisiana, from Church Point to Eunice to Mamou to Basile and more. Each town has its own Mardi Gras traditions, variations on a theme. Riders in traditional costumes depart early in the morning, making a circuit around the local homes and farms, collecting the ingredients for a community gumbo (including chasing live chickens). This custom, an ancient European begging and masking tradition, dates at least to the middle ages. If you miss the departure, how do you find them? Just look for the trail of empty beer cans and horse manure. Later in the day--or in some towns, all day long--there's great Cajun music being performed for street dances, because in addition to chasing chickens and drinking, music and dancing are key elements of the celebrations. If you catch the riders while they are out on their run, don't be surprised if one of them starts dancing with you--there's usually a band wagon at the end of the horse assembly.

The whole affair is decidedly unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and must be experienced to be understood. Dr. Barry Ancelet gave an excellent presentation on Cajun Mardi Gras, which only added to one's enjoyment of the trip. Enjoy these few pictures, and if you want to undertake the adventure yourself someday, I can take care of that for you...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Getting with the Program

Blog needs updating. I have been toying with several topics and questions: Does poking arts administrators in the thigh with a fork produce results? What is the best time of year to travel to Italy? Why should you book one of the two remaining rooms on my Yellowstone & Grand Teton small group trip? Is there a scientific basis for terroir or is it all a myth?

Maybe I should just quit toying and start writing. But not right now. In the meantime, check out my Round-the-World client's online travel journal.

I should add that the luggage has been found and will soon be delivered unto her hands in Namibia.

TTFN.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

Fifteen or more years ago, I was planning a trip to California, focused mainly on the Bay Area. A friend suggested that since we'd be a straight shot (ok, five hour straight shot) across the state from Yosemite National Park, that we should try to include it in our itinerary. How prophetic that suggestion was, because once I entered Yosemite, my life was changed forever. I had visited Great Smoky Mountains NP and Hot Springs NP as a kid but didn't appreciate them enough, and had a quickie of Acadia NP when I was at a conference in Maine, but nothing prepared me for this.

Seeing the breathtaking beauty of Yosemite's sweeping vistas and grand glacial granite formations, for the first time and every time, are moments where you feel the wonder of creation; and if you happen to believe in God as I do, it will inspire a deep feeling of gratitude for the creation he has bestowed upon us. Even an atheist or agnostic can easily appreciate the amazing marvels that nature has created, whether you think God had anything to do with it or not!

I have now visited Yosemite at least three times, as well as Mammoth Cave NP, Olympic NP, Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Grand Canyon NP, Hawaii Volcanoes NP, Petrified Forest NP...many National Forests...quite a few National Monuments, including Wupatki, Walnut Canyon, Montezuma Castle, Sunset Crater, El Morro and El Malpais, Bandelier, Pearl Harbor, Fort Sumter, and others.

The first Mon Voyage Small Group Trip to percolate is a nine-day trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, timed to coincide with the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower next August. Several people have taken advantage of my early bird discount offer and it looks like I'm down to about three rooms, which means the trip will definitely make!

The new Ken Burns documentary series on the parks is airing this week on most PBS stations and once it's done, all bets are off for 2010 summer accommodations at official park lodges. Below is the extended video preview (go to YouTube for the wider-screen version), and we've got the rooms. Grab 'em while they're hot!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bollywood Road Trip: Part 3, Postscript

Just want to also publicly point out the chief offenders in this whole debacle, and that would be promoters Monty Syed and Rajender Singh. Nice going, guys. And a special bonus shout-out is sent to Jinesh Modi and Modi Creations, who spearheaded the souvenir photo effort.

The photos were promised in the hours and days immediately following the fair, once even accompanied by a promise of three hours!

I checked the photo website daily and nothing was there. Finally, attendees were notified at almost 11pm on Sept 5th, three weeks after the event, photos were now available. Instead of the $10 they were charging at the event, they were now listed at $18 (to include shipping, which we are forced to pay because they were not even available for pickup at the event). Just to add insult to injury, sometime between midnight of the 5th/6th and the afternoon of the 6th, they conveniently posted this message at the top of the site:
"Attn Houston carnival photo buyers: Due to high volume of images, we have to remove some images. So buy your photos on & before 5th Sept, 2009. After that each photo will cost $25. Sorry for inconvenience. All shipping will be processed on and after 1st Sept 2009."

Mind you, the photos were not even available for sale until almost midnight of the 5th/6th. So to top it off, they were multiplying the ripoff by implying that the photos had been available earlier.

The aforementioned message has now been removed, but ten days later (16 Sept, as this is finally posted), the PayPal link still doesn't work so you can't even buy the pictures. If you want to see mine, click here and then enter "saif kareena 92" in the search box. Someday i hope to be able to (grudgingly) buy the darn thing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bollywood Road Trip: Memorable*, part two

(read part one first, previous post, below)

Now I high-tailed it back to the line, where Sara and/or Yoori had continued to stake out our spot in the throng. Still waiting. I was losing track of time at this point...do you decide to just blow the whole thing off after 4 1/2 hours or do you remind yourself of the time already invested in waiting? I called my husband and told him how glad he should be that he wasn't there with me. He would have left and come back to pick me up, no doubt. He then told me about the biggest star of the group (Shahrukh Khan, scheduled for Chicago Saturday and Houston Sunday) having been detained at immigration. About 6:15 or 6:30, Saif Ali Khan--a huge star and a good actor, especially when he is working off a decent script like Omkara, Love Aaj Kal or Kal Ho Naa Ho. Tells some tale about late flight and lost luggage. No one believes him. He flashes the million-rupee smile and starts doing his star duty.

At this point the organizers are pretty much rudely grabbing people and shoving them across the stage and have ceased allowing people to take their own pictures or seek autographs as promised. The crowd is getting cranky, and I'm still far enough back that I don't know if I'll ever make it to the stage. Perhaps 20 or 30 minutes later (close to 7:00), Kareena Kapoor, his real-life girlfriend, arrives on stage to join him. She has developed into a good actress, best roles being in Dev, Omkara and Jab We Met. I guess it takes her a long time to get ready--she should have just come out in whatever she wore on the plane, if indeed they had just come from the airport (doubtful). People pass across the stage, no signing, and the only pics are allowed are from their $10 a pop photographer. This after I was told by the producer that there was no extra charge for pictures (I guess that was for taking your own pictures, now verboten).

So now we are closing in on the stage at long last. After waiting in a reasonably orderly line all day, then entering a rope-and-stanchion zigzag configuration, we were then just dumped out into a giant, seething mob situation at the side of the stage. People were pushing and shoving from so far back it was as though the crowd were a living, squirming creature itself. It really was almost like a moving sea of humanity. Parents holding babies were getting smashed, I was about to have a panic attack from the claustrophobia, and it was just turning into a nightmare. Some kindly people let me pass through so that I could be on the edge of the crowd.

When we finally got up on the stage to meet the celebs, we were shoved off there so fast that I think I was facing sideways when the photo was snapped (not available yet, natch). I did manage to foist my Omkara DVD on Saif along with a Sharpie, and while I was hoping he would sign his face on the case, he signed the DVD itself. I wanted Kareena to sign too, since they were in this film together and it really represents their best work, but I took what I could get; and in a blink of an eye, I was shooed (pushed) away by the staff. I took a few pics from the ground, and we high-tailed it out of the center about 7:45. There was no way all those people were going to make it to the stars before security shut down the "festivities", and we did not want to be there when everyone figured this out. It could get ugly.

We had planned to go see acclaimed new Indian flick Kaminey but were too tired. We weren't even up to watching any of the four great Indian DVDs I had in my bag. Thank goodness we had plenty of good wine and Sara's tasty food to comfort us after our dreadful afternoon.

We also had tickets for day two, but our experience on Saturday was so unfortunate (bless Yoori and Sara for sticking with me), we decided to try and sell our tickets the next day. I could not believe I was giving up a chance to meet the King of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan, and have him sign my 2007 birthday invitation, on which we are pictured dancing together. I may be wistful about it after the fact, but I was DONE. As I mentioned before, we had been unable to pick up our tickets for both days at once, so we arrived at 1:30 to pick up our tickets on Sunday (at least we knew this time not to show up at noon). Again, no one was there with the tickets--only this time they did not show up until 2:40. As fast as I could grab the tickets, I turned to the side and found some teenage boys who would buy them for the $25 I paid rather then the $35 they would pay at the door. We could not get out of there fast enough, even though it had cost is $10 just to park.

Thai lunch in Rice Village, a stop at the chocolate shop and we were on our way back to Dallas. Yoori, now having discovered the deliciousness that are Sam's pies, requested a Sam's break along the way so she could buy some pies (chocolate meringue, pecan, and apple or peach crumb). We arrived home around 9:15, I think, and once the car was unloaded and the road snacks put away, I enjoyed a glass of wine and related this exciting tale to my dear husband, who had sweetly encouraged and supported me in taking such a silly trip in the first place.

I'll definitely never forget the adventure, but I wish it were for more pleasant reasons. So yes, it was memorable, but not in a good way*. Why did I go against my very deliberate nature and do something that spontaneous? Why didn't I just stay in Dallas and go to the Indian Independence Day celebration here (Anand Bazaar) for five bucks? Live and learn!

I'm a devoted fan of Indian movies, but I guess I'm just not quite that kind of fan...unless my radio journalist husband gets to interview one of them someday like he has Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman ("the Mozart of Madras")and Sonu Nigam (a top Bollywood playback singer). In that case, I'll be there with bangles on.

Bollywood Road Trip: Memorable*, part one

I was promised a meet-n-greet and photo op with Bollywood stars, good food, fashion shows, great music, and a huge Indian shopping bazaar. Doesn't it look like fun? Alternating big stars and singers on a whirlwind weekend in Chicago and Houston. Have a gander at the promotional video and website. Girls-only road trip; Houston, here we come!

What I got was a three-second blurry view of two stars as I was essentially shoved across the stage, so-so food at high prices, fashion shows I couldn't see because I was stuck in the meet-n-greet line, and a few shopping booths (which I also didn't get to visit due to the standing in line problem).

Even so, I went with low expectations. What I experienced was probably the most frustrating and poorly-organized event I have ever attended. It makes all my experience living with Mardi Gras look like an annual picnic in the park. And because both Sara and I have long and productive experience in organizing large events, every little thing that went wrong was another stake in the heart of what could have been.

Yoori and I piled into the car late Friday afternoon and headed for I-45. We fought the mixmaster mélée for a few minutes, but soon enough broke free and set out on the open road. Our timing was perfect for a dinner pit stop at Sam's restaurant in Fairfield, home of tender, flavorful barbecue and mouthwatering homemade pies. It's a challenge to drive to Houston without being sucked into the Sam's vortex, something Yoori would unwittingly discover. I had my usual sliced brisket sandwich with a side of black-eyed peas; I didn't know Yoori was such a burger gal until she passed up the succulent barbecue for a cheeseburger. We shared a piece of coconut meringue pie for dessert and, I have to say, the meringue at Sam's is a work of art.

We arrived in Houston without misadventure and settled in at my cousin Sara's townhouse.

I began the day most delightfully by spilling scalding hot coffee on my chest (leaving a smallish, barely-second-degree burn). Slathered in aloe vera gel, I got dressed...which cute outfit should I wear today? I think I'll save the black fedora for Shahrukh, so for today, let's go black/brown and funky. Here are Yoori and I, pretending to have fun.

We arrived at the Reliant center promptly at noon, exactly as we had been told only a few days before by the producer of the event, and exactly as it had been listed in the paper. I had cleverly--or so I thought--bought our tickets online at Sulekha in order to save $10 each over the door ticket price. Now wouldn't you think that the people who had already paid for their tickets should be the first to get in the door at noon and form the line to meet-n-greet? Well, you'd be wrong in so many ways.

First of all, upon our arrival we (and a slew of other people) were informed that the producer had arbitrarily decided that the event would now begin at 1:30. Of course, the Starbucks in the center was closed and you could not exit and re-enter the parking lot, so we were forced to cool our heels (and our stomachs) till then. Well, how about picking up our tickets in the meantime? Nope, the box office wouldn't open till 1:00. When the box office DID open at long last, the employees were not in possession of the tickets for all the people who had purchased them in advance. No one knew where they were or when they would show up. Finally, someone appeared with our tickets and we had to go form yet another line to retrieve them, while everyone else who had purchased them at the door was let into the venue at 1:45. I got my hot little hands on our tickets at nearly 2:00, and of course I could not simultaneously pick up my tickets for the next day (that would have been too efficient). Have these people never heard of e-tickets with a bar code that can be scanned at the door??? The step of having to pick up physical tickets was completely avoidable!

When Yoori, Sara and I gained entrance to the space, I proceeded directly the meet-n-greet line, where there were already hundreds upon hundreds (thousands?) of people ahead of us, thanks to the completely unnecessary delay in claiming our tickets. At this point, we were starving and the first order of business was taking turns getting something to eat. The food variety was not impressive and the prices were high, but it was decent enough. Sara went shopping and found herself some fabulously elaborate ruby and ruby-esque jewelry.

Some Reliant Center security doofus decides she is going to adjust the line, make a snake or something so it will curve back or double up on itself, because it is so long and takes up so much room. She comes up to exactly my point in the line and tells everyone past that point (500 people or more) to move over to form a sideways turn next to a point farther up in the line that she has designated. We go along like sheep. Then it just gets totally screwed up, and she ends up with no plan whatsoever, and has all of us who are facing in one direction turn around and go back to the new end of the line, resulting in the complete reversal in order of half the people in line. Whereas we were formerly close to the halfway point, we're now almost last. Are you following this? It didn't make any sense at the time, either.

Finally, sometime around 3:00, somebody shows up on the stage: it's Katrina Kaif, a stunningly beautiful but relatively talent-free Bollywood star. Line moves imperceptibly for the next hour as she meets, greets, signs and poses for photos with fans. Then she goes to the other stage and has an audience Q & A. Now she comes back to the star stage. Clearly she is starting to fill time for the other expected stars as the day wears on. Shortly after 5:00, she's done.

Meanwhile, on the other stage there has been a fashion show, one or two actually talented and quasi-famous singers, and some questionable other "talent" essentially performing karoake. Now I took a turn to go shopping. I found two gorgeous 3-piece churidar suits, one of a kind and hand made by a Desi designer in Atlanta. They were so much more creative and interesting than the usual suits (although there are many beautiful items even in the world of the usual suits) and I was really excited about buying them after I had tried the long tops on. Typically you can skip even trying the pants because they are loose at the top with a drawstring or elastic, and the long, skinny calf sections are meant to slouch and gather at the ankles so length is not an issue. But I thought that these pants looked awfully skinny all the way up the thighs, so I went to try them on just before handing over my money. Good thing, because they were too tight!! So I saved myself a few bucks there, but then again, since she makes everything herself I have a feeling I'll be looking her up in Atlanta the next time I go to visit my sister. I feel a custom-made churidar suit coming on.

At another booth, I found a cute Anarkali kameez instead and didn't have to worry about pants because it was only the tunic, not a suit. So now I had a sparkly tunic, but still no glittering stars.

end of part one

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Baby Scarlett's tips for Hot-lanta

This is yours truly with Scarlett, the aforementioned niece. She says that Atlanta is full of good food, history and southern charm. Her advice for your next trip to her stomping grounds, although she can't actually stomp yet:

Places to visit:
Carter Center
Martin Luther King Memorial and Historic Site
High Museum
Carlos Museum at Emory
CNN Center

Her dining recommendations:

Swan Coach House:
This joint is dripping with gentility, and a lovely place for a ladies' lunch. I mean, it's been featured in Southern Lady magazine, for heaven's sake. Order the famous chicken salad and have a mint julep for Scarlett because she's underage.

Rathbun's:
Scarlett can't say enough good things about this place, even though she did not get to enjoy it herself. Her mother and Aunt Nicole went there all alone (well, them and the crutches...they left the wheelchair at home) to live it up on their night out. Mom had just gotten a new, slightly smaller and considerably lighter weight cast on her calf and foot and they desperately needed to celebrate.

The menu at Rathbun's is extensive and enticing, and everything is quite reasonably priced. There's an accent on Southern foods with locally-obtained fresh products but with a much wider frame of interesting ingredients under consideration. I had to satisfy a craving for shrimp and grits, and these were probably the best I've had anywhere, rich and flavorful enough to moan about but not crossing the line into heaviness. Texture was perfect. Desserts were human-sized portions and all priced at $3.95; we had a scrumptious white chocolate banana bread pudding, along with a glass of sauternes and a glass of Quady Elysium, which is like liquid heaven (guess that's why it's called Elysium).

Which brings me to the wine list: the offerings at Rathbun's are exceedingly thoughtfully chosen and well-priced. The list itself was wonderfully varied (I hate places that have a zillion chards, a pinot grigio from Italy and a sauvignon blanc, poof, that's it). There were many of my favorite regions and varietals from Oregon pinot gris and pinot blanc to multiple viognier, gewurtztraminer, and white burgundy selections like a true chablis, to interesting chards and sauvignon blancs. On the red side things were just as wide-ranging, with both classic and adventurous selections from the old and new worlds. Prices were arranged at $24, $34, $44, $54 and $64, with glasses starting at a friendly $6.50. And lest you fear that you won't consume a whole bottle and will be stuck with limited by-the-glass options, good news: there are at least thirty wines available by the glass. We drank a bottle of rich and aromatic 2007 Miner viognier from CA, which I would compare favorably to a fine Condrieu in pure sipping pleasure, and it was enjoyable alone as well as with my entrée.

Nothing can ruin a delicious meal like bad wait staff; no matter how memorable the dishes may be, they are blotted out by inferior service. Had you going, didn't I? To top off our fully fabulous experience at Rathbun's, all the service was top-notch. From beginning to end, top to bottom, stem to stern, it was a wonderful dinner.

My only complaint would be that in the converted warehouse that now serves as Rathbun HQ, the surfaces are hard--brick, cement, etc--and thus conversations at the closely-spaced tables in a room with no sound absorption yield a medium-level background rumble and roar. But it's not enough to keep me from going back as soon as humanly possible.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hot-lanta?

I am at present in the semi-sweltering Southern metropolis of Atlanta, helping my sister--who has a broken foot, crutches, a three-story house, and a four-month old baby named Scarlett (I swear, it had nothing to do with GWTW). Being chauffeur, cook, personal assistant and babysitter doesn't leave a lot of time for socializing or getting out and about on the town. I do hope to at least make it up to visit my friend Grace and her family at some point. But I feel that I should impart some suggestions for almost any place I might visit, so I'll post a few notes once I figure out all the fun things I could be doing if I were actually here on vacation.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

13th Van Cliburn as Travel Experience

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is a three week geek-fest for the music lover, and I mean that in the most loving and devoted way possible. If you have enough vacation time, or even able to make it down to Fort Worth for even one or two rounds, you should mark your calendar now for late May/early June 2013. This is my fifth Cliburn; once you've gone, you're hooked. It's like meth or heroin (or porn?) to a classical music junkie. And yes, Van Cliburn is actually in attendance (left, signing autographs for fans).

After a round-the-world search and live screening jury auditions, thirty of the best young pianists from countries near and far descend on Fort Worth for an intensive three weeks of piano music-making. If a pianist makes it to the finals, s/he will have performed three recitals, each close to an hour; a quintet in collaboration with the Takaçs String Quartet; a chamber concerto; and a large orchestra concerto. And throw in a lot of practice and rehearsals to boot. It's enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the concert-career-ready players from the need-to-percolate pretenders.

Because the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience overlapped with the first days of the Cliburn, we missed some of the preliminary-round recitals. We did catch the final few competitors, but our experience and judgment this time was based mainly on the semifinal round. At this point we've just begun the final round, with the second session tonight. Opinions in the press room coalesced around four players (Bozhanov, Son, Wu and H. Zhang), and those four advanced to the finals. But the remaining two finalist spots were a crapshoot. We ourselves predicted the judges would take those four, but our last two picks did not make it; we liked Dank & and chose Deljavan (right) as our "jury wild card"...and I do mean wild. The other two chosen by the jury were Vacatello & Tsujii, the first sightless pianist to advance this far.

But guess what? I'm neither musician nor music critic, just a woman who has been an avid classical music lover and regular concertgoer (both at home and on my travels) for 30+ years. So I won't try to rate the performances. I simply want to create a picture of what it's like to BE at the Cliburn, and leave you with no doubt that it's worth a special trip to Fort Worth for as long as you can be present, be that three days or three weeks.

The music speaks for itself. All in all there are about two dozen three-and-a-half hour sessions of music over two and a half weeks. The caliber of performers gets better with every competition, and the Fort Worth Symphony has significantly matured under its usual guidance of its music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya (though the competition conductor is the distinguished James Conlon).

The music brings out all the geeky marvellousness of the Cliburn and it atomizes into a general atmosphere of camaraderie and shared interest among everyone in attendance, from competitors to volunteers to staff to press to every audience member. It's impossible to put into words, but it's palpable and pervasive. The idea that you all have something so meaningful and deeply enjoyable in common simply bonds everyone, friend and stranger alike, for the duration of the event.

That bond extends to previous gold medalists Stanislav Ioudenitch (pictured with me, left) and José Feghali, 2005 silver medalist Joyce Yang, and former competitors like Frederic Chiu, our favorite from the 1993 Cliburn (he was robbed of a finalist spot). It's nothing short of delightful to see these talented folks again, chat and catch up on their careers. Frederic, the press darling of 1993, always makes sure to visit the press room ;-) We talked again at a party (photo, below right: Frederic with Yoori Marti of Steinway, at the Cliburn's Zoo party) and he told us that, having completed his ten-year recording cycle of Prokofiev's complete piano works (highly recommended, and in my humble opinion, he is the foremost Prokofiev interpreter of his generation), he has undertaken a new challenge. This time he aims to record Lizst's transcriptions of Ludwig van Beethoven's nine symphonies. The first one in the series (Beethoven's Fifth) has been released and is available at his website. My dream is that when he gets around to scaling the the mountaintop that is the Ninth and one that probably requires four hands for a live performance, that he come to Fort Worth and play it together with some other Cliburn laureate (so what if Chiu didn't "win", laureate-schmaureate) on the Cliburn's excellent concert series.

But wait, there's more! Besides all the terrific music and the great vibe, the Cliburn makes sure there is plenty to entertain you when there's no competitive playing. This year there is a symposium series on music and its connection to diplomacy in the 21st century as well as a huge series of films by award-winning documentarian Peter Rosen, covering everything from composers to facilities to the competition to even architecture. Not enough to fill the time of those very few days away from the competition sessions? How about two more sessions of unofficial recitals? On the two "off" days before the finals commenced, there were at least six recitals by competitors who did not advance but who agreed to play some of their remaining recital repertoire for a couple hundred fans, while the finalists rehearsed with Conlon and the Fort Worth Symphony. (Below, finalists with Van. L to R: Yeol Eum Son, Haochen Zhang, Mariangela Vacatello, Nobuyuki Tsujii, Van Cliburn, Di Wu, and Evgeni Bozhanov.)

If you need a break from the competition on those days off, Fort Worth is home to some small museums with impressive collections, each a jewel in its own right: the Kimbell, the Amon Carter, the Modern, the Sid Richardson...it's more than enough to satisfy your craving for visual art along with your more-than-adequate performing arts fix at the Cliburn. In Dallas you can visit the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Crow Collection, Fair Park...and endless shopping, if you see fashion as the perfect souvenir. There's excellent community theater all over the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well. As an aside, the Texas Rangers play in nearby Arlington, and the Colonial golf tournament also overlaps with part of the Cliburn, so if one of you is a golfer or baseball fan, there are also those diversions for the more sportif among you.

There are plenty of convenient and delicious restaurants in downtown Fort Worth to satisfy your baser needs as well (bars, too). The Cliburn is so utterly all-encompassing, though, that you may sit down to dinner and discover that your waiter was a vocal performance major and that the restaurant's cool new piece of art has donated parts from Steinway and was unveiled for the competition (The Vault, quite good food and excellent service), or that the kitchen staff is listening intently to every note live on the radio, as we found at Riscky's BBQ a few years back.

Love the idea of following the entire competition note-for-note on the radio? This year, it's a whole new world (-wide web) and almost everything, including rehearsals, is being streamed live on the internet. Most of it is also being archived (at least everything the Cliburn could get the rights to) and is available at the same site, so if you're not here in Bass Hall, you can catch up anytime. You'll feel like you are right there in the moment, with a backstage pass. Above left, Haochen Zhang and right, Yeol Eum Son, after their final concerto performances. Both played Prokofiev's #2, as did silver medalist Joyce Yang in 2005.

You can read all about the competition at the Cliburn's website.

View blog posts here, here, here, here and here. Pictured at right are two of the Cliburn's "official" bloggers, Ken Iisaka of California and Mike Winter of Idaho.

Look through print and radio news archives here, here and here.

Have fun with the virtual experience, and please contact me to plan your 2013 Cliburn extravaganza! My sixth competition could be your first. If you can't wait that long, ask me about the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs that will take place in May 2011.

NOWFE, digested

If only wine had no calories! I stepped on the scale and was so frightened that I just fell off without looking. OK, I looked. And I had to avert my eyes. I really should exercise something besides my fingers and my mouth. I was on a walking program with a friend but I think she chose the gym in the end because, unlike walking, it produces measurable effects...

The first day in New Orleans, we shopped. We went to Orleans Coffee Exchange to pick up a grocery bag full of fresh roasted coffee. I always got my coffee from OCE when I lived in N.O.--I was actually one of their early customers back in the old Sandy & Grandma Ruth days. Now Bob runs the place, and the offerings are as delicious, aromatic and diverse as you could wish or dream. I can only drink decaf, and no one else has anything even remotely close to the large selection of decaf coffees that OCE does. We get our coffee via the OCE mail-order program now, but when we are in N.O., we like to make a pilgrimage to their place to get it ourselves.

Our other main shopping goal was seafood. We ended up getting 12 pounds of shrimp and nothing else. And we paid about $35 for them. Fresh (no IQF) shrimp in Dallas--especially shrimp that large--would have cost us 3 to 5 times what we paid. We will be having shrimp for dinner next week, natch.

We weren't able to attend the Royal Street Stroll this year, because we were sharing dinner with our old Dallas next-door neighbors Leo & Bret, who have moved back to New Orleans. They have bought the most incredible 1960's house with a view onto Lake Pontchartrain (ok, onto the levee) and are restoring it to its mod glamor. It's huge--our whole house could fit into the "great room", which is more like the "party room", with Herman Miller built-ins, a wet bar and a koi pond (no new fish yet, but there will be)!! Each bedroom is like a master suite, with a giant bathroom attached. One bathroom has a tub with three steps down into it, my favorite. They even have some of the home's original super-cool HM furniture that was made for the house, and in fact took possession of the home when it was still chock-full of the original residents' belongings. There are so many stories that this house can tell, and it has definitely fallen into the hands of the right couple.

Friday and Saturday we immersed ourselves in the seminars and the Grand tastings of NOWFE. Between us, we heard seminars about 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, the French bistro craze, Women in the Wine industry, Louisiana-Italian cooking and wine, cooking a whole pig with Donald Link, sustainable production and cooking jambalaya with John Besh, and tête de cuvée champagnes led by Ziggy "The Wine Gal" Eschleman.

A full day of seminars on Friday was followed immediately by the first Grand Tasting, where we had plenty to eat and not too much to drink (this was deliberate). Saturday brought two more seminars and another Grand Tasting. We normally only attend one Grand Tasting but our host and friend Julian decided not to use his own tickets and very generously bestowed them on us. Again, we tried to focus on eating first and drinking second. We have learned from bitter experience that if you don't make sure you get to certain food offerings in the first two (of three) hours, you may just remain empty-handed when you belly up to the booth and there's nothing there but empty pots and pans, and maybe a little pot liquor. Plus it's good to fill up a little bit with food before you dive into the wines, no!? This strategy worked very well for us. I did not feel even tipsy after either tasting, a thing of beauty. It takes discipline to come out standing and smiling rather than staggering and stuffed when there are 75 restaurants dishing up their finest fare and something like a thousand wines being poured. At this point I have it down to a science.

If you've never been to New Orleans, or you have and you are enamored with the fine local cuisine and hedonistic aspect of life there, NOWFE is not to be missed. Of course, it's really a must-do event for wine lovers everywhere. But there are lots of other ways to fill your time there, even if you can't time your trip with NOWFE.

Sunday we crammed in visits with three friends and finally landed at my aunt's house in Baton Rouge, where we spent the last night. It shaves off a bit of the long drive home...

And as soon as we got back, we were in DEEP CLIBURN COMPETITION (see above) with no break in our momentum.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

NOWFE, cont'd

When I finish digesting all the food and wine, I'll get back to you...I'm afraid to step on a scale...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, cont'd.

I frequently surf over to the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune when I'm feeling the pull of the Crescent City. In addition to the truly mind-boggling level of political ridiculousness, there are a couple of pithy columnists over there, one of whom is Chris Rose (author of the moving post-Katrina essay collection One Dead in Attic). Today he's got another one of his pleasant dashes of local color in the form of an interview with the king of the Krewe of Corks and maître d'about town Patrick Van Hoorebeek. This is a French-Quarter-based marching krewe of oenophiles and one of their regular activities is to "parade" during next Thursday's Royal Street Stroll, part of NOWFE. Check it out here. See you on the rebound.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

À la recherche du temps perdu

I've been planning a trip to France for a client...name of Marcel Proust. Something about a madeleine... Just kidding. But as I was organizing this client's chateau-based accommodations for a side trip away from Paris down to the Loire Valley, I discovered some sad news that made me relive some of the favorite moments from our last trip to France.

That winter, we made an almost-complete route along the Loire, beginning at St-Benoît and Sancerre at the eastern end, going as far as the suburbs of Nantes, on the western end. We began and ended the trip in Paris, but the focus was assuredly vins et chateaux. We did justice to both.

The first lodging we chose to stay was a farmhouse in St. Benoît. Its owner was most hospitable but her English was limited. That just meant I had a great opportunity to dust off my French. Bill undertook his morning runs around her fields, and one evening we shared the family table and enjoyed a delicious dinner of fresh trout from the local river. While we were in that area we visited one of the smaller chateaux, complete with moat if I remember correctly, and discovered some excellent Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé wines made from the sauvignon blanc grape that dominates vineyards at that end of the river.

My memory is foggy on the exact delineation of the days that followed...apologies to Marcel. But let's just say for the sake of moving the story along that we then traveled to the other end of the Loire. Along the way, as we were driving through a village between there and here, we happened upon an interesting-looking small family winery. We pulled in; before I could achieve the mental calculation that the sign said "closed for winter", the owner appeared right there in the driveway inviting us in. We stayed there for at least an hour, learning about his family history (again, a chance to dust off the French), and he opened a bottle of literally every wine he had bottled there, including many that were still aging, not labeled or released just yet. To top it off, we had the pleasure of using a fresh glass for every wine (photo of us on my website footer). We bought several bottles...you're shocked, I know.

Other end of the river? Crazy logistics? Not in the least. I had discovered a few weeks before our departure that my favorite French musical artist, Sanseverino, was performing near Nantes. Since it was only an extra 110km out of our way, we rearranged our itinerary to accommodate his concert. It was a blast! Just the kind of thing that makes a trip more memorable. We spent that night in the middle of a muscat vineyard.

After that we traveled to Poitou, a bit south of the major chateau zone, because I had ancestors who lived in the region. Our room there was in the turret of an incredibly old and fortified chateau (it's the one on my website's home page), whose proprietress was a chef. Naturally, we consumed a fabulous dinner with fine--and affordable--local wine.

We went to visit some distant LeBlanc cousins who lived near Poitiers, and they took us to see one of the remaining Acadian homes there. My own ancestors, who had gone to Nova Scotia in the early 1600's from a nearby Poitou village (Martaizé), were later deported by the English from Nova Scotia in the Grand Dérangement of 1755, and sent on a boat to Virginia, which refused the Acadians. At that point the English turned the ship around and sent more than 1100 Acadians to England as prisoners of war, and my ancestors, both father and son, were held in Liverpool for almost eight years. France secured their release with a treaty in 1763, and the surviving 800 or so were repatriated to France. Some of them returned to Poitou and it was one of their homes that we were able to check out. My own people, instead, took advantage of the king's offer of free land to farm on the lovely--but very rocky--Belle-Île-en-Mer. Needless to say, planting crops in the rocks did not yield any, uh, bountiful harvests, so after that struggle and a few more years in France, they finally decided to go back to the New World on one of the seven famous Acadian Voyages that took place in 1785 or so. That's how they finally ended up in Louisiana.

So back to France...after Poitou, we headed back to the heart of the chateau country, just across the river from Villandry and its rightfully famous gardens (not quite as impressive in the dead of winter, alas). This time we were at a beautiful French country home, complete with horses, chickens, cats and a dog. The family who welcomed us into its home (B & B) could not have been warmer or more charming, just entirely down to earth. When we took two evening meals with them en famille, it was in the centuries old huge kitchen with a massive fireplace that was clearly used for cooking in its former life. When I say "with them" that would include Anne and Eric, their four kids, one daughter's boyfriend, another guest couple with their baby, and us--all arranged at an endlessly long wooden table in front of that amazing fireplace. Many courses, real home-cooking, great local wine, intelligent conversation (and more French practice)!

There were so many wonderful aspects to the trip, but Bill and I both have especially fond memories of staying with this family and sharing two evening meals with them. Eric was an oenophile and turned us on to a gifted winemaker by the name of Jacky Blot. His labels are Domaine de la Taille aux Loups (whites, Montlouis-sur-Loire and Vouvray) and Domaine de la Butte (reds, Bourgueil). Everything we tasted was excellent, and of course we went home loaded up with wine. One of my clients also went to visit M. Blot and very kindly transported to me another bottle of his wonderful late-harvest Montlouis (chenin blanc) Cuvée des Loups 2003, which I am hoarding for a special occasion. It should keep nicely.

I do believe that it snowed every single day we were in the Valley and Poitou, which is highly unusual in their moderate climate. Here's a picture of the magnificent, river-straddling Chateau de Chenonceau, which I rechristened as ChenonSnow.

And that brings me back to the sad news I have just discovered. I wrote to Anne and Eric this week to inquire about a guest room for my client. Eric wrote me back and said that Anne had died two years ago of cancer, at only 50 years old. She was such a lively, warm person who clearly gave as much pleasure to her guests as they got from her. I am sure she had brought light to the many lives she touched, both in her own family and community as well as through her B & B business. Eric said he has recently started taking guests again (but not having dinners for them), and believes that is what Anne would have wanted.

I know he is right.

Monday, May 4, 2009

New Orleans Two-Fer

We're between May trips to the Crescent City. Last weekend we headed down to relax with friends and attend Jazz Fest. We were chatting about our Fest experiences over the years, 'cause I've been a regular since about 1982. (I think I went once as a teenager with my mother before that.) I remember in college it always fell at precisely the same moment as final exams and due dates for major papers. Yet somehow I always managed to get there for a day, at least. Granted, when I lived in NOLA it was a tad easier to get there, though wrangling that day off work was a challenge sometimes. I've missed it twice: in 1987, when I was living in Europe, and 2008. That year we returned from Istanbul on the first weekend of Fest and my husband could not disappear from work again so soon for us to catch the second weekend...

So this year we went on the second Friday with our friend Anne and saw The Chilluns, Beausoleil , The Revealers, The Iguanas, Doc Watson, Dirty Dozen & Rebirth Brass Bands, Pinettes (all-girl!) Brass Band, John Scofield and the Piety Street Band, Bonnie Raitt, 101 Runners, and interviews with members of the Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indians and also with Chris Owens (one of my old hat customers).

The other main activity of Jazz fest is EATING. This year we ate crabcakes, crawfish sacks, crawfish etouffée, banana bread pudding, and a most refreshing mango freeze when we were burning up in the sun. Also had a caffeine-laden 24oz frozen café au lait later in the day when again, we were feeling a bit piqued from the heat and humidity. The upside is that it didn't rain.

The third thing on a Jazz fest agenda is crafts. There are multiple crafts areas featuring all kinds of artists and artisans. I have two favorites: Robbiewear leather pouches and bags and Diane Harty hats. Thomas Mann was there the first weekend and we were there for the second, so we made what is now a habitual pilgrimage to his gallery on Magazine St.

One cannot fail to run into people one knows, or people one hasn't seen in ages, at Jazz Fest. This year we (deliberately) met up with a few and then ran into a bunch more as we were leaving.

I said we were between trips to New Orleans, didn't I? The next one is another annual event for us and a lot of other folks, the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. This year's festivities look as enticing as the ones I mentioned last year, so we are certainly looking forward to the extended "weekend" of indulgence. This year's events will be May 19th to 23rd. Famous chefs, endless delicious food, noted winemakers, hundreds and hundreds of wines, seminars, dinners, on and on...NOWFE has matured into one of the premier wine and food events in the country, if not the world; and like I wrote last year: New Orleans...Wine...Food...Enough said!

Though we flew last weekend, thanks to some great fares on Southwest, we'll be driving to NOWFE. Why? Because we need to bring home a chest full of fresh Gulf seafood from the seafood market in Westwego! Last year we brought home flounder, lump crabmeat, huge shrimp (at $3.25/lb), and crawfish tail meat. We ate like the king and queen for the next ten days, at pauper prices. Mmmmmm, I will have to think about what to cook! Crabmeat stuffed rolled flounder...crab and yellow tomato salad...crawfish pie...shrimp creole...gumbo...good old boiled shrimp...or maybe some of that shrimp will go into a recipe from my new Indian cookbook...