Thursday, November 29, 2012

[The Life of Shaun #456] New York, interrupted

Well, I'm about to head back to America, so thought I should write a little something about my last trip there, just a few weeks ago.

I planned this trip about six months ago: five days in Chicagoland to see Mom and family, a long weekend with Natasha and Mike McGirr in their new home, Asheville, NC, and then nine days in New York, a long overdue reunion with Manhattan and my friends, leading up to a wedding, and then working a few days in the New York office.

It didn't quite turn out like that, though.  Shortly before arriving, I got bad news from my sisters that Mom's taken a turn for the worse.  She'd had a scan and her tumours had grown and she was a lot weaker.  She's off her strict diet and ready to go to all her old favourite haunts,  so the timbre of the visit was very different than when planned.  We did have some really good times though; went to my Mom's favourite steakhouse, had awesome Chicago style pizza, White Fence Farm chicken (well, I had Taco Bell that night - we all have our guilty pleasures! [That's a lie - I feel no guilt.]), late nights playing cards and boozing, lazy afternoons trying to put together Mom's impossible puzzles.

Next in the grand tour was Asheville - my third time in the South (Florida doesn't count - it's its own sort of evil).  It was an awesome weekend for so many reasons.  Most obviously was Natasha & Mike, who I hadn't seen in a long time, and who laid out the red carpet and cruise directing.  From start to finish, we moved from one perfect spot to the next - drinks, food, views and gay bars.  Asheville is quite a gem, too: it's liberal, Democratic, gay-friendly, organic-local-foodie, beer heaven, laid back, walkable, pretty.  It belongs in Northern California more than North Carolina, but that foible of geography means that you can enjoy all the good of the Napa Valley lifestyle without the pretence or crushing expense.  We went to so many great restaurants, but still we walked by so many others I'd like to try, and I'd go back anytime.  If I were a small city guy, it'd be an ideal place to call home.

New York came on the back of Sandy and just before a nor'easter.  (That bitch knows how to welcome you back.)  Due to the downed L, housing had to be rearranged and my friends Niels and & John stepped up and let me stay at their place.  The first night followed tradition, a gaggle of gays (and Rachel) at Pongsri Thai, and the next day Obama smacked Romney down.  But as great as it was, my mind was still in Naperville.  So the next day, after talking to my sisters and hearing Mom had some bad days, I bought tickets and headed out of the Big Apple and back to the Midwestern plains to spend more time with Mom.

And I'll be heading back to Naperville a week from Sunday to stay with the family some more.  I'll be there at the very least to the new year, but indefinitely, depending on how things go.  I am very lucky that work's letting me work remotely from there, despite the fact that I can't possibly work full London hours.  They even offered a leave of absence, but my bank manager declined on my behalf.  But I can be there as long as I need to be, and just not having to worry about that is great.

Cheers from London, for the last time for a bit,

Mom and her monster steak at Jack Gibbons.  It was an awesome place - straight out of the 20s, I expected Al Capone to walk through the door.  Loved it!

Mike, Natasha and me on the bank of the French Broad (the river that runs through Asheville).

The Grove Park Inn - one of two competing Gilded Age masterpieces in the area.  Unfortunately, didn't get to see Biltmore; but I'll be back.

Asheville from the Grove Park Inn.  A bit hazy in this pic, but it's nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Asheville's turned its once derelict riverfront into the River Arts District, full of studios, galleries, restaurants, bars and hippies.

This pic tells you just the kind of place Asheville is (the only pic that would have been better would have been of a white guy with dreadlocks).

Asheville's very own flatiron building.

A typical cute street in Asheville's very walkable downtown.

Old piano and piano garage door on Chicken Alley.

9/11 Memorial looking towards the WFC and the new One World Trade Center.  After a decade of wrangling and heartache, I think they've done a really good job.

Look at me being a tourist!  In New York!

My old home!  278 W. 19th St.  Rent-stabilised at $950/month for a one-bedroom.  One reason I could never move back: I'll never get that kind of deal again.

Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK |

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

[The Life of Shaun #455] Bratislava

A few weeks ago, one of my most regular travel companions, Mary Keany, and I took another trip together.  This time our destination was Eastern Europe (i.e., behind the old Iron Curtain - don't get snippy with me, "Central" Europeans) to Bratislava.  Within the Soviet satellite state, Bratislava was the second city of Czechoslovakia.  However, after the conjoined twins were separated, Bratislava became the preeminent and capital city of newly independent Slovakia.

I was always interested in Bratislava because it sits so close to the border of Austria, you can see into it.  Much like the fantasy in my mind of East Berliners peering into a strange world they couldn't enter, Bratislava spreads tantalisingly across the river that should separate Slovakia from The West; an iron thorn in the West's rump.

Overshadowed by Prague in the region, Bratislava did not become known to Brits until RyanAir opened a route there, allowing the masses of hens and stags who'd had their first does in Dublin the ability to celebrate their second/third/fourth marriages somewhere a little more exotic.  Though a local taxi driver complained the prices have risen to Vienna levels (Vienna is just a short ride up the Danube), it was very affordable on the pound (even though they're in the eurozone - who knew?!), and the city seems to have managed the influx of low-end tourists quite well.

Bratislava turned out to be really, really nice.  I didn't know too much about it - just had heard it was "pretty".  But I've been to plenty of pretty and disappointing cities.  It's not somewhere for a massive gaycation, but it's a proper city for a good time with a friend.  The city is walkable and charming, big enough to keep you engaged, but small enough to get the feel of over a weekender.  Crucially, everyone speaks English and, thankfully, everyone we encountered was friendly.  The food was good, veggie-friendly, and wine very reasonably priced.  Add in a camp gay bar and viable gay club, and you've got yourself all the ingredients for a good weekend away.

Cheers from Naperville during some rare quiet time,

Our hotel had a photography conference on the same weekend we were there.  I found this one the most... erm, interesting.

MK with the classic Bratislava view.

Bratislava's main street in the old town.  It's lined with restaurants, bars and cafés.  Though they of course cater to the hen/stags, they are not charmless or overpriced.

Mary and I found this charming: the Slovaks, realistic about their geography, provide blankets in addition to heat lamps for their outdoor space.

The main square.

On one end of the New Bridge is the "UFO Tower", which of course I was immediately drawn to.

Once inside you can see the Soviet-era blocks spreading out from the city centre (new shopping mall to the fore).  Just beyond the blocks is Austria.  In fact, a lot of what you can see from the tower is Austria.

Old Town from the UFO Tower.  An interesting anecdote is the highway driving down the middle of the city, passing immediately in front of Bratislava's main church.  The Soviets did this purposely to show their disdain for religion.  They also paved over the former Jewish quarter to build this highway.

This is either a mural to the glory of the proletariat or an example of pre-internet gay porn, not sure which.

Me at one of the many street cafés; this is how Mary found me most of the weekend.

Map showing how Bratislava abuts the former Iron Curtain.  Light pink shading shows the city limits; where it lines up with the dark grey line on its left, that is the border with Austria (oddly not following the Danube as it it does in most of the region).

Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK |

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Friday, November 09, 2012

[The Life of Shaun #454] Naperville redux

Hi all,

Just thought I would send a quick update.

I am currently nearing the end of a two-week trip to America.  Original plan was to see Mama and the family for about a week, then some friends in Asheville for a long weekend, then New York for a week for visits, a wedding of Rahul's friend, and working from the New York office for a few days.  

First part worked out, but the last bit has had to be altered.  After a few days in New York, I spoke with my sisters to see how things were, and Mom had had some hard days, especially on the day I had called.  So I truncated New York, which means I will miss the wedding, and have come back to Naperville to see Mom some more on this leg of the trip.

Back to New York on Sunday and then London on the 13th.  Planning on coming back for 2-3 weeks in December.

Those who know Mama and would like to call/say hello, she doesn't check eMail very often anymore, so it's best to call her @ 630-995-3198.

More details on the rest of the trip and Bratislava from a couple weeks ago soon, but for now just wanted to let everyone know what's up.


Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK |

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