Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Small Glimpse of Summer

    Meanwhile back on Lake Erie, we managed to snatch out of a soggy, cold, July, a beautiful afternoon's sailing.

 Which would have been perfect but for looking at the grisly abandoned grain elevators and pesky windmills on the Buffalo waterfront. A waterfront that's a sad shadow of what it could be.  Where are the stalls, restaurants, shops, cafes selling decent coffee? At the Marina, where thousands congregate at the weekend, there's one hideous concrete dive, which appears to be clinging onto its monopoly for dear life. There's just a whiff of the Soviet about it. Not least because you have to queue forever just to get an ice cream.  Then there's an expensive restaurant blasting out irritating music and that's about it.
  Not to mention the Ugly Tower (yes, true, I've mentioned all this before...)
Too bad, when you think what Chicago and Baltimore have done with their waterfronts, to name but two. Even the tacky  English seaside could do better than this. But then, I'm only a foreigner.
   But if you look the other way - just blissful emptiness, the sun twinkling on the water.

 Turning back home and in the distance, the skyline of the old city with its one and only skyscraper, now virtually empty.

 Perhaps some enterprising people could shake this place up ....

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Greenbrier Secret

the story continues....

   When, in 1958,  at the height of the Cold War, workmen started excavating a hill behind the Greenbrier Hotel (see below), the official line was that it was for a new wing, exhibition hall and clinic. That much was true. But the hall and the clinic were actually part of a huge 153-room bunker, a fallout shelter with three-to-five foot thick reinforced concrete walls, buried hundreds of feet into the hillside, to house the members of the United States Congress and their staff – over a thousand people -  in the event of a nuclear attack. The Greenbrier was chosen because of its fast links to Washington  (it still has its own railway station) plus the mountains would deter enemy bombers.

  Those hotel staff in the know were sworn to secrecy, as were the engineers posing as  TV repairmen who came at dead of night to keep  the equipment in a constant state of readiness.
   The secret was only unmasked in 1992 by the Washington Post and soon after, the bunker was decommissioned.  Now anyone can take the tour.

  It was a bizarre experience, like entering a  1960s sci-fi film.  The massive steel doors disguised behind innocuous-looking walls,  the 433-foot supply tunnel,  the decontamination rooms, the giant generators,  that could keep the power on for 40 days, the water-purifying plants,  the cafeteria with its black-and-white check lino,   the spartan bunks and lockers, each assigned to individual Congressmen and Senators – the assignments religiously updated after each election.
   As well as the clinic there were dental facilities,  an operating theatre  constantly replenished with the latest drugs and technology, an incinerator to dispose of the rubbish – and the dead.  Separate chambers for meetings of the Senate and the House of Representatives still have their tiered seats and fold-down desks.
  Some bits were hidden in plain sight.  The exhibition hall was used for trade fairs, visitors little knowing that the hidden doors could slam shut and seal it, turning it into secretaries’ offices.
  It was part spine-chilling, part slightly ludicrous. The briefing room, doubling as a TV studio,  with its murals of the White House and the Capitol, in front of which politicians could reassuringly address their public, never mind that the real buildings – and possibly many of the public - might not be there any more.  The stash of riot gear in case the politicians, maddened by confinement, turned on each other. “Imagine” speculated our guide, Nancy,  if our Congress all got locked up together like that!”
   “Great idea,” said someone in the group, 
  All that money and effort for  something that was never needed.  Thank God it was never needed.  Some documents  were sent there during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But no people.
  There's still something secretive about it, mind you. Cameras everywhere (in case some one "got lost") and no photos allowed (the above are from the website) as companies now apparently store classified documents and records there.
   And now we’ve supposedly moved on.   Nancy had to explain to the younger tourists what the Cold War was.
  But every generation has its terrors. Back at the hotel, I asked an employee if you could still take the waters in the little pavilion they used in the old days.

 “No”, she said, “After  9/11, the water was shut off  in case someone poisoned it. But,”  she added consolingly,” it did taste pretty bad.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

More on the High Life

 As I don't often get the chance to experience it...

  The Greenbrier, nestling in the West Virginia mountains, was built in 1913, on the site of an older spa where early Presidents came to “take the waters” and just about everybody who’s anybody has visited.  

   Princess Grace and family also came, as did the Windsors ...

   Whose shades look out from a weird tapestry on the wall by the Presidential Suite. There’s still an elegant ambience - the clip-clop of a carriage, the thud of a tennis ball, the thwack of a croquet mallet. 

  You can't beat the old photos on the walls of guests long gone by. And the battle scenes on the grand staircase.

   The staff are exceptional, there's a dress code for dinner and two of the chandeliers came from the set of Gone With the Wind.

    The decor was originally designed in the 1940s by an American interior designer called Dorothy Draper. At first it can seem a little lurid.

Though it does grow on you after a while.

   But times are changing and these days  the Greenbrier keeps going by catering not just to the glitterati but to professional golf tournaments and the conference trade, which is how we got in.   We could have done without the naff cutouts in reception, presumably showing what the dress code isn't.

  And its nether regions now conceal a casino. A pity. Unfortunately we tried to have breakfast in one of the hotel's cafes and got shown to a table overlooking the slot machines. A sure way to put you off your granola.  So next day we splashed out on the formal dining room which was another world entirely.
   But that’s nothing to what else is hidden there.    Because for over thirty years, from the late 1950s to the early 1990s, the gracious Greenbrier guarded one of America’s most extraordinary secrets.

to be continued.......

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When America Does Grand.....

  It's really grand.

As a little diversion from western New York, where we're currently living in a swamp, here's a small taste of the high life. Hubby and I fetched up here for a conference back in June. Yes, it's the fabled Greenbrier in West Virginia, now rather sadly monikered "America's Resort".
  More to follow but here's a glimpse of one of the treats on offer. I did not partake. I draw the line at nearly 200 dollars for a short hack. But the horses did look elegant.   Note the English saddles, baggy jodhpurs and horse's head hitching posts.

Watch this space......

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Picasso Pig

I have seen some extraordinary things on my travels. This morning I was wandering around our local farmers' market in Olean, looking for lettuces when I spotted a lady nonchalantly walking what looked like a small, grey dog. 

I also noticed that people were passing her and doing a double take, "Noooo way! It's not is it? Surely not? Yes it is...!

...a PIG!

  Indeed, it was a pig,a miniature, tail-wagging pig,  name of Olivia. And not just any old pig. Olivia is an artist.

 And here's one of her pig-tures.

   I'm amazed that she hasn't become an international celebrity yet. That oeuvre is far better than a lot of stuff I've seen in the Tate Modern.
  Owners the Policastro family (no, not Picasso, Policastro - that's Jess Policastro in the photo)  run Flanigan Farm, which sells their own produce: chicken, eggs, beef, pork (not that Olivia is going to be turned into chops any time soon). I'm not normally in the business of advertising here but their website is so delightful and so western New York that you might like to take a look.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Something to Brighten Your Day

It's pouring with rain again but....

OK the peonies have long gone but they're still some lilies hanging in there and the clematis Jackmanii, or Jack Daniels, as I call it,  looks fit to eat.  Plus the trumpet vine, gift, as a tiny sprig from my Vermont brother-in-law, is showing off its first blooms of the summer.  Life in the swamp continues apace.....

Monday, July 14, 2014

Rural Crime: Who Dug the Hole?

 It's wet, wet, wet. Heavy rain and thunderstorms interspersed with muggy sunshine. As a result we have a new family in the front garden.

More sinister is the following, which appeared suddenly last week.

 Question is, who dug it?  A woodchuck? The Brazil football team?  No it's too small for either of those. Whoever did it, left a mess outside.
  It's  a  mystery, except that yesterday I spied a small stripy personage exiting the hole.

Nothing to do with me!  Just exploring......

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Men's Soccer World Championships

 When I first came to live in America, I thought I could never be really at home in a country that called the World Cup the “Men’s World Soccer Championship”.  At least our local paper did, in a tiny segment at the bottom of the sports page. 
  Back during the 2010 World Cup, hubby and I were in our nearest metropolis, Buffalo, when England were playing.  We finally located a bar that was actually showing the match instead of wall-to-wall baseball.   The first snag was that England were playing Germany. The second snag was that England lost 4-1. The third was that the bar was full of German tourists taking time off from exploring Niagara Falls, who ended up coming up to me and saying,  “Ve are so sorry.”  But there wasn’t a local American in the place.
  Well that was then and now is now. Things are different. Or so the media would have you believe. I’ve read all about how America is finally embracing the Beautiful Game, especially after the  valiant performance by Team USA in Brazil,  with sentimental TV trailers dwelling lyrically on the American team’s varied social backgrounds and the fact that they epitomised  “300 million Americans.” I saw thousands of American fans gathered in New York City and Chicago, got up as Uncle Sam and cheering  them on.    But that’s cosmopolitan New York and Chicago. It’s not around here.  
 I was in the hairdresser’s before Team USA’s last match and I asked her if they’d be showing it. I even said “game” in the American way so she’d understand me.  “Is that today?” she asked, puzzled.  Then she twigged,   “The World Cup?  Wait a minute.  Isn’t there some guy who keeps biting people?” 
  Having spent a couple of days at the start of the World Cup in England and seen England flags everywhere, it was a culture shock to come back to western New York and find life going as if events a few thousand miles to the south might as well not be happening.  There were plenty of Stars and Stripes flags in Tops supermarket but then I realised they were simply gearing up for the Fourth of July.
   The majority of Americans still, quite misguidedly, think of football, no, wait,  soccer,  as a dull pastime with few goals, primarily suited to women, small children and less-than-manly men.  Most of the American lads  I know wouldn’t be seen dead playing soccer much past the day their  voices break.
   International matches are a bit unfamiliar too.  In their traditional sports, American teams mostly just play each other and the Canadians. I suspect the novelty of Brazil will soon wear off, especially as Team USA lost.

     The conservative columnist Ann Coulter got some publicity when she penned a tirade  entitled, “America’s favorite national pastime: hating soccer”, remarking, “Everyone just runs up and down the field and every once in a while a ball  accidentally goes in”.   I might retort, “What about American football, where the players mostly just stand around waiting for the TV commercials and every once in a while run at each other like maddened bulls?”  but most Americans wouldn’t get it. 
   Ms Coulter also implied that the whole concept of soccer was somehow “un-American”, it being mainly popular with recent immigrants,   “I promise you, no American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer”.
  That was an insult to hubby,  whose ancestor fought in the American Revolution and who was sitting right by me, yelling in frustration as we watched Team USA’s last stand.  But true, he doesn’t make a habit of it.  
     They have been showing  the World Cup matches here but the commentators are mostly British – with the occasional Mexican, so we can get to hear him scream,   “Goooooooooooooooal!”
    It’s going to take a lot to wean middle America away from its comfort zone of American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. Plus, America already has plenty of religious fervour  of the more conventional sort without the Beautiful Game to complicate things. 
   To prove my point, I’ve just switched on my TV and looked at the programme guide. And what does the sports channel say?  “World Soccer Championship”, that’s what.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mother Goose

 I have a soft spot for Canada geese.   They get in the way, they, as the Americans put it delicately, poop everywhere and there are probably on balance far too many of them. But I love the way we're under their flight path and hear them honking up above in their great, pulsating v-formations.

 Meanwhile, at Buffalo Marina

 There are new kids on the block.

But things always happen when you haven't got a chance to grab the camera. We were launching the boat down the ramp and I had my hands full with lines when Ma Goose decided to launch the babies the easy way, strutting down the ramp with offspring in tow and plopping into the water at the bottom. Meanwhile the speedboats and cigarette boats and power boats and our little sailing boat just had to wait their turn.
  At the dock, their older cousins came scrounging.

 Totally disregarding the "no swimming" rule.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Smoking Valleys

Is what they call this sort of thing.

Which happens a lot around here.

On misty mornings

When the fog seems to get trapped between the hills.

Like candy floss.

Or as they call it in America.

Cotton candy.

 Another of those expressions that evolved differently in the two countries.

And when the weather's as humid and thundery as we've been having, it seems, since the beginning of the summer.

The western New York valleys, regardless of health warnings, are smoking more than ever.