Friday, May 28, 2010

Moscow on the Potomac

National Harbor is a grotesque abomination. It is Las Vegas without the tittilation. Disney World without the rides and amusing costumed characters. The local mall, without the bargains. Its buildings are boxes assembled from catalogs of available pre-fabricated pieces ("arch section, $35,000 or 2 for $66,000"), most notably the largest, the Gaylord National Hotel, which resembles nothing if not a late-Stalinist-era train station surrounded by squalid Moscow apartments. But with bling. It's envisioned as a mixed-use, self-contained neighbourhood, with luxury hotels, condominiums, shops, restaurants, and vast parking garages á la Vegas. Condos, if you're interested, start at $199,000 for a studio.

Instead of empty butcher shops and one-style-fits-all clothing stores, this Soviet outpost boasts the big names in consumption. You know the names; open a copy of Vogue to any page. It's here.

The Gaylord is, unfortunately, where I'm holed up. Someone else is paying (and by that, I mean you; all of you). The room isn't bad, unless you consider the price. It's on the twelfth floor, so there's a view, looking east to a six-storey parking garage, a construction site, and three houses in a middle-class subdivision of Oxon Hill, Maryland. To the left is the vacant parcel of land bought for a Disney resort, which might get built if the economy returns to the frothy state it had before the Bush Recession. Inside the room, in addition to most of the usual amenities -- safe, fridge, iron (but no hair dryer) --  is a flat-screen HD TV: I got to watch my first high-definition soccer game, US v. Czech Republic -- or part of it, anyway: the signal went out in the 64th minute and didn't come back on until the next evening. Very impressive.

Consider the size of this place: the hotel is two blocks long, a block deep, and 18 storeys high (with at least two more floors below street level). There are only three banks of elevators. To get to the elevator from my room requires a walk approximately equal to a city block. To get to an elevator that goes to the lobby is two city blocks. That's irritating enough when I'm just going out for coffee or dinner, but imagine what I thought of it when hauling my luggage in from the parking garage (which is a block in the opposite direction).

The architects of this place gave, apparently, no serious thought to the comfort and convenience of its guests. Beyond the disposition of elevators, there is the scale of the building to consider. The spaces inside this building are vast, meant no doubt to impress. But rather than uplifting, they oppress. Ceilings are too high, hallways are too wide, too long, and too monotonously uniform. If they varied some in wall colours, that would at least give one a sense of where in the building one was; instead there is only a stretch of red carpet and tan wall disappearing in the distance, no matter which direction one looks.

The atrium provides the one limited exception to the oppression. With its high arched glass roof -- the one that makes it look like a train station -- the atrium is light and open. Still ugly, in a sort of techno style, but light, and open. The western wall is glass as well, giving a view of the Potomac, the Woodrow Wilson bridge, and Alexandria. At most times of day that view is unexceptional, but at sunset, if the sky cooperates, the view is beautiful, as it was last evening. Sorry, didn't have my camera handy. Maybe there'll be another tonight and I'll be ready. (Nope, there was rain instead.)

But it's the prices of things here that creep me out the most. It's one thing to pay an exorbitant discounted rate for a nice room high up in a luxury hotel, especially since, again, y'all are picking up the tab for that; it's another to be asked to pay $7 for "just toast and coffee" at one of the more casual dining areas in the atrium. (I avoided eating there so far, but absolutely nothing else in this entire development is open at this hour, and I will either have to bite the bullet and eat in the hotel, or get the car out of the $19/day garage (thanks for that, too, y'all) and go somewhere away from National Harbor.

Consider the room-service menu: Say I wanted a bowl of oatmeal. That's $9, an exorbitant price. But, Hey, you say, they're delivering it to your room; you're paying for the convenience. No, you're paying $9 for the oatmeal. The convenience is extra: a 21% service charge ($1.62) plus a $3 delivery charge. That's the cost of convenience. (Plus tax, but that's not the hotel's fault, it's the fault of voters with weak morals.) Staying here is like living at the airport. In the red-carpet lounge, but still at the airport.

Oh, I know: bitch, bitch, bitch. But it's just sooooo over-the-top, the size and the cost of this place. It makes me uncomfortable, and unhappy. If I am to throw money away of frippery, I want it to be on my own terms and of my own choosing, like when I elect to go to a more expensive restaurant.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Four-Star Food at Two-Star Prices

What keeps a restaurant going for a hundred years? Maybe just luck, or location, or advertising and a steady supply of gullible people. I don't know, though: food might have more to do with it. All the restaurants I know that have been around for so long have great food. They may go through periods when reputation has to carry them through: when the chef is aging or a new one is finding his way; but basically it seems that they maintain a consistently high level of quality year after year. I think first of the great old restaurants in my home town, New Orleans: Antoine's, Commander's Palace, Galatoire's. Their food may not always be the best, but generally, yeah, it is.

Now I can add another old family-run institution to that short list: the Royal Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.

What's that mean?
The restaurant itself isn't in the same class as those venerable old N'Awlinz dining palaces: it's not as dressy, not as elegant, and certainly not as expensive. Its two dining rooms have vinyl-covered booths lining the windows, and nary a white table cloth in sight. The wine list is limited, and a salad bar lines one wall. But based on the three dishes I sampled there last night, I'll put their food up against anybody's.

I had crab cakes. I had, I should say, outstanding crab cakes. I regret having had to share them with the others at the table, but it was the price I paid for sampling their dishes. Large lumps of crabmeat were packed into two large, thick patties, breaded in a light, tasty batter and fried to perfection. The result was a thin, crisp crust enveloping lots and lots of tasty crabmeat. It was served with a baked potato rolled in cracked pepper; not one of those giant steroid-enhanced things you find at the supermarket, but a nice, normal potato. Okay, the potato could've been hotter, but honestly, I wasn't unhappy with it.

The other dishes I got to sample were roast lamb, seasoned in the Greek style and falling off the bone; served with well-prepared green beans and mashed potato; and a moussaka that made me think maybe I should have ordered that. All of the portions were generous. The meals also came with a trip to the salad bar that offered a reasonably large selection of fresh and tasty items, including excellent stuffed grape leaves.

The staff was attentive, knowledgable, and prompt; special mention to Fasika, our main server, who put up with all our questions and set a pleasant, easy-going tone from our arrival.

The total bill was surprisingly modest, considering the quality of what we had eaten. This pleasant fact was in marked contrast to where we'd had lunch that day, across the river in the prefab future slums of National Harbor (see next post).
Royal Restaurant & Caterers on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 24, 2010

The word of the day is: Kitsch

I went to the National Arboretum today, the first stop on my Tour of Suburban D.C. Oddities. I only intended to see the columns that were removed from the east front of the U.S. Capitol when it was expanded in the 1950s, but I got sucked into the place by the awesomeness of it.

The columns are arranged on a slight rise, in the same pattern as when they were attached to the portico. These were the columns that were there when Andrew Jackson was inaugurated, and Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, and his cousin Franklin, and Harry Truman and Ike. They were taken down so that government could bloat without leaving the building, and thirty short years later, they found a home here on this hill in the farthest corner of the District of Columbia.

Now they stand like melancholy ruins. And like the delapidated ruins of Athens and Rome, they evoke a sort of awe. Their clean classical lines, their ornate Corinthian capitals, their lack of further function evoke a sense of how great must have been the people who made them. Their location, so remote from the crowds of busy cities, and from even the hordes of tourists that assault more ancient ruins, give them an aura of forlornness.

They were once at the center of power, the heart of a great empire. They witnessed power; they surrounded it; they ornamented it. Now, stark and alone on this little hill, they embody it.

Across the little valley in front of their reflecting pool stands a single carved stone. From this distance, I can't tell what it is, so I walk across the valley to see. It is a capital, brought down to eye level, where I can appreciate the work of carving acanthus leaves in sandstone, up close. I can look back at the columns. From here, their isolation is even more marked. They are utterly alone and unwanted.

Well, as long as I'm here across the valley, with such a long walk to the car, I think I might as well walk along the road instead of back along the grassy path. This proves to be a mistake. There is a koi pond with water lilies in it, the most perfectly formed water lilies I've ever seen. And next to that, across from the National Herb Garden, is the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. I don't know what Penjing is, but I know what bonsai is, so I go in for a quick look.
Wow. Wow. Oh, wow. These little tiny trees and bushes are astounding. I will not try to describe them. After an hour and a half I realize I will have to come back here with a certain genetic biologist of my acquaintance, so I tear myself away and go see the dogwood grove on the farthest edge of the arboretum. But you can see the pictures I took here.

The Dogwood Collection, according to the official brochure, sits in a "tranquil setting with lovely vistas of the Anacostia River." That's partly true. It's a tranquil setting: long alleys lined with trees that seem exhausted by the weight of blossoms; a fountain, some well-placed benches, some colourful flowers. But the lovely vistas of the Anacostia are undone by the muddiness of its water and the masses of leaves that all but hide the river from view. Being really into Views From On High, I leave disappointed.

That feeling gets worse at the next stop: Castle Good Knight. After seeing the exceptional castle created by one man in Ohio, I can hardly wait to see the creation of another in Maryland, one that is described in the literature as a "castle complex" and billed as a children's museum and "enchanted kingdom."

Can you say "kitsch"? Plywood walls painted to look like grey stones pierced with lancet windows conceal three acres or more of ticky-tack. A weird assortment of dross, from Krewe of Rex banners to bengal tigers wearing saddles, is sprinkled among shabby plywood sheds dressed up like stubby towers. A statue of faeries done in a classical style -- Disney-classical, that is -- has pride of place in the courtyard, but it can't help the aura of seediness that pervades the place. Well, I suppose your average five-year-old won't see it the same way. Fortunately. Because I thought it was just trashy.

On to the next stop: the nation's only remaining wrought-iron bridge, in Savage, one of the hundreds of indistinguishable municipalities that stretch from south of Richmond to north of Boston without significant interruption. As I drive through this endless concatenation of polities, it strikes me that this place gives sprawl a bad name. Anything that is unique, anything that has character, is eventually subsumed in the unremitting sameness of progress. Every major intersection is a cookie-cut shopping center, with all the same stores as are in the cookie-cut shopping center in front of our hotel.

So my arrival in Savage is restorative: this town is centered on a precious little historic district, featuring the bridge and a partially-renovated mill complex housing an assortment of local shops. No Hallmark Card shop, no Restoration Hardware, no Barnes and Noble here. Inside the mill-mall I find ... Curmudgeon Books. That's right: Curmudgeon Books. Imagine how touched I felt. Also a gift shop featuring some of the funniest birthday cards I've ever seen. I stock up. And perhaps the most unique mall denizen I've ever encountered: Terrapin Adventures, where you can learn to ride down a zip line or kayak on the Patuxent River out back. If I'd had someone with me, to drive me back from the hospital, I might've taken advantage of that.

My last stop is the National Cryptology Museum, an outpost of the National Security Administration, a half-hearted attempt to lighten up a little. Not a lot to take pictures of in here; it reminds me of the little museum at Stinson Field in San Antonio: a lot of old photographs of airplanes and machinery, and some old machinery. The whole thing looks like it was done by volunteers with no budget. There's a mock-up of a Vietnam-era listening post, some uniforms, some obsolete computers. The most interesting exhibits were a collection of Enigma machines from World War II, and the United States National Seal, hand carved by Young Pioneers (the Soviet version of Boy Scouts) and presented to the American Ambassador, who hung it in his office for six years, not realizing that it contained a KGB microphone. Can we really have ever been so naive?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Finding Jesus Again

I spent Wednesday night in Bloomington, Indiana, famous as the hometown of the fictional Colonel Blake on M*A*S*H. Yes, it was that exciting.

Actually it wasn't a bad drive, across Illinois and Indiana. I left Macomb, Illinois that morning, figuring to get some coffee in the next town ... and this time I didn't have to get off the highway to find an actual town. I found a Bob Evans restaurant only about an hour from my hotel, right on the highway. Had their spinach, bacon & tomato "biscuit bowl" -- the named ingredients, mixed with scrambled egg and something approximating hollandaise sauce, served in a thin curved bread bowl made of biscuit mix. Not bad, as those things go.

Since I had plenty of time, I changed my route to take in a few unanticipated counties, scooting north around Springfield and east to Champaign-Urbana, where I bought a long-sleeve University of Illinois T-shirt. It being the end of winter hereabouts, the long-sleeved shirts were on sale. Lucky me. And this one is actually warm, unlike the long-sleeve T-shirts I've bought in Texas and Louisiana. I could've gotten an orange one, but honestly, it was just a little too orange; so I went with the navy blue, with orange lettering. Not an attractive colour combination, but you can't tell these people anything.

I also wandered around Indiana a great deal more than I'd planned, and still got to Indianapolis, where I'd figured to spend the night, before 3pm.

All of Indianapolis is under construction. It's about 24 miles from one side to the other; it took me 56 minutes. Do the math, then think about the kind of mood I was in. At least it wasn't raining, but I did have the top up. Lucky that: didn't have to smell all those exhaust fumes.

So to Bloomington, where the University Motel is so proud of its rooms that their best rate was $90 a night. I opted for the budget motel on the south side, and skipped dinner. Hey, I can afford to miss a meal now and then.

Bloomington is only like four hours from the Cincinnati airport, where I had to be at 3.30 yesterday afternoon. This gave me still more time for expanding my peregrinations to include unexpected counties, including a slow drift along country roads through picturesque farm country, then along the Ohio River Scenic Byway, which, let me tell you, isn't very scenic. It's all smokestacks, convenience stores and casinos, with occasional views of the river. I'd've been much better off taking Highway 56, which goes north from the river, then rejoins it farther upstream. That highway has the signs telling trucks not to take it. I regret not having taken it myself.

I got to the airport early enough that I could go buy gas -- I didn't really need it then, but I knew from the internet that gas taxes are about 12¢ a gallon cheaper than they are in Indiana, and about 6¢ a gallon less than in Ohio, so I figured I might as well. And since I still had bird crap all over the car from Kansas City, where I parked under a tree for 3 days, I figured it was time for a car wash. So, for the first time in my life, I hit the "yes" button on the pump when it asked if I wanted a car wash. Nothing happened, so I hit "yes" again, but it turned out that the first pressing of the button had registered, and the second bought the most expensive ($6) version of the car wash.

The car wash was out of order. Some kind of electrical problem. It was probably designed by Jaguar. Went inside and got a refund, and found out there was another station with a car wash about a mile down the road. So I went over there, but you had to have a code for the car wash. So I went inside and started telling the guy that the other station's car wash was out of order. He asked me how much it was, and I told him $6. So he gave me a code for the $6 car wash.

My first thought was, Ooh, got a free car wash! Then I thought, well I'll have to go back to the other station (which I had to go by anyway, on the way back to the airport) and give the first guy his $6 back. Then I drove through the car wash and came out with bird crap all over the car. So instead of doing the honest thing and stopping off to give the guy back his $6, I thought, Well: I'm certainly glad I didn't have to pay for that! I'd've been royally p.o.'d. See Hamlet, III, 1, 122.

To the airport in the nick of time, where the wife's flight was half an hour late getting in, then to our hotel way out in the boonies north of Cincinnati, near King's Island, an amusement park like Six Flags. I can see the giant roller coaster out the window of our room. Dinner last night at the Outback Steak House next door, then early to bed. Nothing else to do.

This morning, after taking my little kumquat to her conference at the Great Wolf Lodge (next to King's Island), I came back and looked on line for Sights To See Without Going Into Cincinnati.

What I came up with were a castle, and Jesus.

The castle was started in 1929 by a guy named Harry Andrews. The blurb on made him sound like a pederast ("Three facts, however, seem pretty clear: Harry built an imposing European-style castle by himself, Harry had a low opinion of the modern world, and Harry really enjoyed the company of young men."), but I think that says more about the writer than the subject. Harry used to take local boys down to the river and taught them to fish and such, and was a scoutmaster, and gave them Sunday-school lessons. I don't think that was all that unusual in the 1920s in places like rural Ohio; I think it was viewed as the duty of every adult. (And no, I'm not naive.) Harry and his group of boys formed a sort of club, which they called the Knights of the Golden Trail. Then Harry decided that knights needed a castle. So Harry did what anybody would've done: he built a castle. And this is it.

He was still building it when he died in 1981. He left it to the Knights, which operate it now as a museum dedicated to Harry's memory.  It's quite impressive, worth every penny of the $3 admission: four storeys, from dungeon to tower, plus beautiful gardens, moat, and crennelated barbicans stretching the length of the property, which I would guess to be about 6 acres along the Little Maine River. I spent about an hour going through the rooms and gardens.

After that I found Jesus. What more can I say?

Monday, May 17, 2010

First Big Trip of the Year: part one

This trip is five days along, and it's only now that I have enough to write about. The trip through Texas was uneventful, except for a brief thunderstorm near Mineral Wells that was presaged by a brilliant flash of lightning, giving me just enough time to raise the top on the car before the rain hit. Oklahoma was similarly uneventful; after a rainy night in Chickasha, I was lucky enough to catch a break in the weather just at the right moment to get a picture at Grand Saline State Park, where red rocks and water combined with blue sky and high clouds to give a quality to the light not unlike what I've seen in old paintings of Venice ... without the grand buildings, naturally, but with temples of a different sort.

After that it was rain, rain, rain. I wandered around central Kansas, visiting counties that have no attraction save the space they take up on the map, and no evident economy save agriculture. After another rainy night in Wichita -- a larger city than I'd like to have gone to, but the only one I could find a hotel in -- I set off early in the morning. Breakfast at my hotel wasn't offered until 7am, but I wanted to get on the road, so I skipped that and figured to stop at the first diner or café I came to in the small towns that dotted the route ahead.

Alas, the highways don't go through the small towns anymore. They've all gotten bypassed, and there isn't enough traffic on the backroads, even in Kansas, to draw a town business out to the new road. After an hour or more, I finally got off the highway and went a few miles to a town in search of breakfast.

The business district was deserted on a Saturday morning, so I wandered the streets of the town until I saw a gas station sign lit up in the distance. I figured I'd settle for coffee and nothing else. Pulled up and parked on the street across from the station, then realized I was stopped in front of a tavern called The Spot, which was open. So I had breakfast in a booth in the bar -- actually, very good Johnny cakes, and pretty damn good coffee, though the bartender-slash-waiter could use some instruction on things like bringing coffee drinkers cream and sugar and a spoon. I exchanged pleasantries with one of the two early-morning drunks at the bar, then wolfed down my corn cakes and left, only four dollars lighter.

Another rainy trip through counties that serve only to keep the left and right coasts well separated, then a brief stop in Atchison. Though the town is littered with enough historic sights to fill a four-page brochure, and I drove by several, none induced me to drag the camera out of the trunk. I saw the unimpressive home where Amelia Earhart was born; the monument commemorating Lewis and Clark's first visit to the area (and briefly mentioning their return visit), and tried to find the place where they'd set up camp on a certain date, but after driving throught several miles of nuthin' I decided I was on the wrong road, and wasn't sufficiently interested in the site to try another. Instead I headed off to Kansas City, where, yes, everything is up to date, including a monstrously complicated freeway system, made worse by the traffic jam created by a huge rock concert being given near downtown. I don't know who was playing, but considering how many people were jamming the freeways on a cold, rainy afternoon for an outdoor concert, I figure that John Lennon and George Harrison were resurrected for a Beatles reunion, with Matchbox 20 and Bob Dylan as the opening acts.

And here I sit. My host here is David, whom I first met in San Antonio when he came down for some spelunker-related conference last year. He's a geologist who tests food for a living. Don't ask me to explain that. He lives in a 100-year-old Craftsman-style house that is on its way to being exquisitely renovated. I've spent a good part of the weekend sitting on his back deck, admiring the pond that a friend installed a few years ago. It's like what I wanted for my own back yard, but on a much grander scale.
Saturday night I went to the Wizards-Fire soccer match in Kansas City, Kansas. It was cold and rainy, and the overpriced seat I bought was behind the end line -- it should have been on the sideline -- facing into the drizzle. I was so close to the field that when the first goal was scored right in front of me, I couldn't see it because the advertising hoardings facing the field blocked my view. At that point I decided the game was best watched from the main concourse of this peculiar little baseball stadium, pressed into service for MLS by laying a soccer pitch across the outfield.
As a spectator sport it was pretty good: I got to see Brian McBride, formerly one of the brightest stars of the US National Team, score a beautiful goal shortly after his introduction at half-time; and the game ended 2:2, the tying goal being scored just in the nick of time for the home team to salvage a draw. But as a soccer match it was disappointing. After a dozen years of professional soccer in this country, I tend to expect better-quality play.
Driving back to David's after the match was an experience, in the dark and rain with my contact lenses in. (I can't see all that well with them, but didn't want to be wearing glasses in the rain; I'd expected David to be driving when I put them in, but given the weather and a better offer, he decided not to go with.) A persistent glitch in my archaic Jaguar navigation program put me going the wrong way down a one-way street, then caused me to make a wrong turn at the first intersection. A freeway lane that exited without the usual "exit only" warning, combined with heavy traffic in the through lanes, put me on city streets, with no re-entry available at that point. But I made it back to the house, and now that I've seen the streets in the daytime realize that they aren't the pig's breakfast they seem in the rainy night.
Sunday, after a lazy morning lounging around the house reading what passes for a newspaper in these parts, we trucked on over to the Nelson-Atkins Museum for a look at a Venetian glass exhibit. That was disappointingly small, but the rest of the museum more than made up for it. It's a grand deco pile attached to an unfortunate modern addition and set in vast lawns dotted with sculpture, most of which was interesting: a copy of Rodin's Thinker, the third such that I've seen; a number of Henry Moore sculptures -- easily the best sculptor of the past hundred years -- and a few that are whimsical, like Claes Oldenburg's badminton shuttlecocks and an assembly of headless people similar to one I saw in the Dallas Sculpture Garden a few years ago. Plus your usual assortment of postmodern crap, the kind that makes one snort and giggle about what people with too much money will pay for. Inside the museum, in addition to the glass and several other temporary exhibits, some worth more than a cursory look, is a huge collection of Old Masters, which I love seeing, and Impressionists, which I regard as the last gasp of real art before the secular-humanist mantra of unpleasant Realism, ironic Pop Art, and boring Modernism put an end to the value of real talent, and made entertainment and "Meaning" (necessarily, in quotes) the two touchstones of the plastic arts.
We grabbed lunch at a Thai restaurant nearby, and I can honestly say it was the best Thai food I've ever had anywhere, even though they didn't offer pad wun sen.
Today, David is off at work, and I'm cooking dinner. This morning I went for coffee at a local place, and ended up with a breakfast of Farmboy Benedict -- eggs, scrambled with onion and pepper and served over biscuits and gravy. Fattening as hell, no doubt, but for what it was, it was very well done. Then a trip to the supermarket for the fixin's for tonight's dinner. Took that home, then headed off to see the sights of Kansas City. Stopped first at The Plaza, a ritzy area not far from the house, for a look at the fountain and the unexplained statue of Massasoit; then on 39th street to take some pictures for a friend of mine back home, who said that was his old stompin' grounds back when he was young and living here. Didn't look like much, and was not the kind of neighbourhood that I'd want to get out of the car in. (Later, when I went to write him about it, I realized he'd said 35th Street, not 39th, so I had to make another run.) Then to the Liberty Memorial and National World War I museum, which, in the great tradition of my travels, was closed on Mondays.
After that, I headed downtown to see the Steamboat Arabia museum, which my host told me was not to be missed. He was right: this is a very well-done small private museum displaying artifacts relating to the salvage of a small riverboat that sank in the 1850s, and, after the river changed course, the wreck was discovered in a field on the Kansas side. Two local families salvaged tons of trade goods and foodstuffs destined originally for settlements along the river in Iowa, and have much of it displayed in well-conceived exhibits that illustrate frontier life in ways that other exhibits, like preserved and reconstructed individual homes, can't convey.
Unfortunately, they didn't locate the 400 barrels of Kentucky whiskey that were the prime objective of numerous treasure hunts. They had been stored on deck, and were washed away when the boat went down. But there was gin, and champagne, and cognac, all still drinkable, and pickles that were as fresh as the day they went down. And, of course, jewelry and tools and ceramics and clothes.
Tonight the clouds have finally parted, and I should have an excellent day for driving across Missouri tomorrow. We dined al fresco on salsiccia con i peperoni over capellini, with salad and zuppe chin' al fiesole, as the clear sky faded into starry, inky black beyond the trees.