Saturday, December 23, 2006

Andre's American Chronicles - December 2006

Bluegrass Airport, Lexington, KY. Monday, November 27, 2006, 6:51 AM EST.

A half-sun is poking over the horizon as my Continental flight lifts off from Bluegrass Airport, Lexington, KY. Another Monday morning, and I am taking another trip to Monterrey, Mexico. Since we moved all production to the Mexican plant my sky miles account have increased at a much faster rate than I would have liked. It's not that I don't like to travel, on the contrary, but I prefer to travel to places more exotic than Monterrey and with the knowledge that when I get to my destination I will be experiencing new vistas and be in a vacation frame of mind, instead of addressing issues and holding project and departmental meetings. Big difference!

It has been a long time since I last produced a newsletter. The last time was December 2004. And that was nearly 2 years after the previous one. Looks like I turned into a 2-year-newsletter-man. But then, are there really that much happening in my life that I can produce newsletter on a monthly basis? I don't think so. It is pretty much "life" as usual for all of us. However, enough happened to fill at least one newsletter.

Somewhere over Texas, Monday, November 27, 2006, 7:154 AM CST

An hour and a half into my flight, and the Texan landscape below me looked as if it was transformed into the Siberian tundra, not that I would know what that looked like from the air because I have never been to Russia. A thick mist has settled all over the land and from the air it looks like the earth is frozen solid into a grey-blue haze. In the low lying valleys where the mist is thicker it appears like freshly fallen grey-white snow, not yet frozen into ice.

US Citizenship

In February 2005 we started our applications for US citizenship. The process ends for us in September when, at a ceremony in Cincinnati, Monica, Lamar and I became US citizens. Prior to that we also applied and received approval to remain citizens of South Africa under the new law in South Africa whereby dual citizenship is allowed. Our other son has not yet completed the processes. We applied for him, but he was in the US Army when we did our fingerprinting and citizenship tests and the military would not allow him leave to come to Louisville. He will have to complete the process at another time seeing that he has since then completed his stint in the Army without taking up citizenship.
Monica even made it to the local newspaper when co-workers surprised her with a party to celebrate obtaining her citizenship.

Monterrey, Mexico. Sunday, December 3, 2006. 10:00 AM.
Today was the day for exploration, alas, it's pouring with rain. The plan was to take a day trip out to Obispado Mission on the opposite side from Monterrey where I am staying. When it rains in Monterrey it is best to stay of the roads because the roads turn to rivers. So I will be staying in the hotel room, how exiting, and work on my blog.

Traveling America.......and beyond... (Tales from the happy bus...)

The Bourbon Trail.

Although Kentucky is mostly "dry", meaning no liquor sales, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the state, it is nevertheless bourbon country. Bourbon is America's native spirit. Bourbon is a form of whisky, but where whisky is mostly made from rye, Bourbon is distilled from corn. A last comment: In 1964, a congressional resolution protected the term "Bourbon" and only since then has the product been defined. So you can call it bourbon if the basic elements are met: It must be a minimum of two years old, distilled fewer than 160 proof, and be made from a mash of at least 51% corn, and it must be aged in charred new oak barrels (which gives it that distinctive light caramel color.)

99% of Bourbon Whisky comes from Kentucky. Most consider the unique limestone spring water found in Kentucky the only water with that "just right" combination of minerals suitable enough for the finest Bourbons. I find it so hypocritical that in a state that produces and consumes such a high percentage of Bourbon, one cannot "import" any liquor into Kentucky. For example, it is illegal to go on the Internet and buy any wines and ship it into the state. One can only buy liquor in selected cities or counties where the people voted to be "wet" or in the case of Danville "moist", sales of liquor is only allowed in restaurants by the glass and only if the restaurant comply to certain rules.

One day during this summer Monica and I decided to explore
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, specifically Makers Mark Distillery. We wanted to make this a whole day affair so we took a roundabout way to get to Loretto, KY, the home town of Makers Mark Bourbon, on Kentucky byways seldom traveled by us. But by taking these byways one gets to see the real beauty of the countryside. From Danville we took the US150 West through the historic town of Perryville and after the small town of Springfield we turn onto the US152 West to Loretto and from there a short ride on the US49 to Makers Mark. Once there we took a distillery tour, which takes you through all the different processes of making Bourbon. Most of the buildings dated back to the nineteenth century and the tour was worthwhile and actually very interesting. The lasting memory is the smells inside the Barrel Warehouse. At the end of the tour we bought some Bourbon-flavored chocolates and I bought a bottle of Bourbon, which I dipped and sealed in wax myself and I put on my own side label. We continue our circular tour by stopping at the town of Lebanon for lunch. We then followed the scenic byway US68 towards Perryville, but turned onto the US34 East, through the small towns of Mitchellsburg and Parksville until we get to the US127 at Danville again. There are several other distilleries in our area, like Jim Bean, Four Roses and Wild Turkey, and maybe we will visit some of them in the future.

For more travels:

New York, New York

London, UK

Chicago: My Kind of Town

Monterrey, Mexico. Wednesday, December 6, 2006. 7:10 AM.

Walking out of the Holiday Inn La Fe, the morning is crisp and clear as only Monterrey mornings can be. I love Monterrey mornings. The air smells clean, the sky is usually that beautiful blue that can only be described as sky-blue. And one can clearly see the surrounding mountains. But by 10:00 AM the crispness will be gone, replaced by haze, heat and the ever present white dust that seems to be everywhere.

Driving west on Avenue Ididoro Sipulveda the moon is hanging low and ‘shines’ brightly in front of me. Behind me the sun is spewing out its first intense rays of golden light as it clears the eastern horizon and brightens the rear window of my rented car. Two mythical titans in opposing ends of our universe, doing what they do everyday, providing us with light, and warmth, and a sense of comfort, and down here on earth we are doing what we have to do to live and survive.

Kentucky Vineyards

As tobacco subsidies disappear, farmers are looking for other cash crops and grapes for wine making have become an option. Nearly 150 start-up vineyards are now in Kentucky. But vineyards are not new to Kentucky - Kentucky was one of the top-three grape states before the Prohibition period (1920 – 1933), with winemaking traditions dating back to the 18th century, when Jean Jacques Dufour in 1798 planted the first vines next to the Kentucky River near Lexington.

One thing I have always done when I visited South Africa was to go on a winelands tour in Stellenbosch, Franchhoek or the Paarl. So it is not strange that I would seek out wineries in the Bluegrass. Now I had Kentucky-made wines before and I can't say I was very impressed by it, but I was willing to give it another try. There are several wineries around us, and although many of them make their wines from the not so well known cultivars, but, understandably, from cultivars that adapts better to the climate and local soil structure. Near Nicholasville is the Chrisman Mill Vineyards (their whites are mainly based on Vidal Blanc and their red a combination of Cabernet, Chambourcin and Niagara). Just outside of Lexington is Talon Winery, more famous for their music events and picnic days than their wines, which are rather expensive. On the edge of Danville is the Chateau du Vieux Corbeau Winery, which uses white and red French-Hybrid grapes for its wines (too fruity for me.) Just outside Midway, KY is the Equus Run Vineyard. The day we were there, there was a jazz band playing outside the tasting room and people were picnicking on the grass. It has actually a very nice setting for group picnicking and good music. (Several of the vineyards have frequent music concerts to boost sales and visits to the vineyards.) I bought a bottle of Vidal Blanc, crisp and fruity, and a bottle of Merlot, which I would give a low 80 on the Wine Spectator chart. My take on Kentucky wines and the vineyards: Their wines still have to go a long way to be really comparable with California wines and the wines are far too expensive compare to the quality.

Monterrey International Airport, Mexico. Friday, December 8, 2006. 8:55 AM.

It is raining again. After taking a bus to the plane and slowly boarding the steps while it is pouring its time for lift off. The airport buildings are flashing by, roads silvery and wet. Within seconds we are into the low hanging clouds and the land below is obscured. Gone! So quickly! I spent two weeks of my life here and I feel like I achieved nothing, but work, work and more work. From a business prospective projects have gone lived, management decisions have been made, etc., but personally I feel empty, like I lost two weeks of my life. Nothing significant really happened and within seconds the past two weeks have disappear into the clouds with the plane.

As we get closer to Houston most of the clouds fade away. The captain tells us Houston is partly cloudy and 34 ºF / 1 ºC. Nice weather compare to Danville where I’m heading and where the morning temperature was 9 ºF / -12 ºC. At least the reception at home will be warm. It will be good to be back again!

Garden 2006

This year our garden was at its best. Hard work of the past 6 years paid off at last. Here are some pictures.

Window boxes in the front...a la Switzerland.
Entrance to the backyard.

Backyard. The picture was taken late spring of this bed containing late summer flowers.

Garden paths.


Friday, December 22, 2006

Chicago: My Kind of Town

Chicago, IL – August 2006

During August when the heat and the humidity were at its highest here in Kentucky, we trekked north to Chicago, the city of skyscrapers and road works, for a few days. The 6 hour drive from Danville was pleasant on reasonably good and road-work-free highways, until we got to Chicago. The last hour of the drive we could see the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the USA and when it was built in 1974 the tallest in the world, but because of all the road works around Chicago we enter the city at a snail’s pace, bumper to bumper on a Sunday afternoon.

From Danville we drove west on the I-64 and at Louisville, KY we took the I-65 north all the way through Indiana until it meet up with the I-90 north and eventually becomes the I-94. We exit the I-94 where is crosses with the I-290 and took the Eisenhower Expressway East/Congress Parkway towards Lake Michigan. Our destination was a rented apartment on Munroe Street opposite the historic Palmer House Hilton. The apartment was modern, clean and very centrally located. We were just two blocks from the Millennium Park and the Chicago Art Institute. Unfortunately we were also just 1 block from The Loop, Chicago’s rapid transit line that runs above Wabash Street, and its noise. But really, all of Chicago city center is noisy, and the noise is constant, until about 2:30 AM. It quiets for a while until about 4:30 AM and then the early morning car traffic noise from delivery trucks and taxi horns start up again. I guess we are just not use to it.

We arrive just after noon on a Sunday and after unpacking and exploring our immediate surroundings we board a free trolley to the museum district. We walk around the Adler Planetarium, rest on the grass and watched the yachts on Lake Michigan, walked pass the Shedd aquarium, before we took a long stroll back to our apartment – all along the lakeshore, stopped at Buckingham Fountains (pictured right) to take a few photos, and then down South Michigan Avenue up to Millennium Park. We had an early dinner at Pizano’s Italian Restaurant where Monica and I shared one of Chicago’s famous food items, a deep dish pizza. It was very good.

The next few days was a whirlwind of sightseeing. On the Monday we made a short stop at Marshall Field department store, then visited the Art Institute and late afternoon we went to the Lincoln Zoo. The real reason we went to Chicago was to see the King Tutankhamun exhibition that is currently touring the USA. We bought our tickets months in advance and on the Tuesday we went to the Field Museum (pictured left) for this exhibition. We were rather disappointed with the few items on displayed, I guess we expected more and more elaborated pieces. The Tuesday was also Monica’s birthday and we went out to dinner at Miller’s Pub, a Chicago institution next to the Palmer House, famous for their smoky BBQ ribs and excellent service, that has been serving the average man and celebrities for over 50 years. Walls are lined with signed pictures of Frank Sinatra, Jay Leno, and many local sports celebrities. I can confirm: the food was good and the service was above average.

The Wednesday was devoted to shopping and the Golden Mile on Michigan Avenue. After a short trolley ride to the area we split up. Lamar and I went to The Tribune Tower (pictured right) , a neo-gothic skyscraper, and home of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. An interesting fact: Built into the sides of the Tribune Tower are many famous stones or rock pieces, including a moon rock, rock fragments from the Alamo, the Colosseum, the Pyramid of Giza and the Chinese Wall. Thereafter we shopped in a massive Virgin store for music while Monica explored several stores along the Golden Mile, among them the Pottery Barn, Crate&Barrel and many more. We met up with her again in front of the old Water Tower (pictured below) , on north Michigan Ave., one of the few buildings in Chicago that survived the Great Chicago fire of 1871. Nearby is the third tallest building in Chicago, the John Hancock Center where the top portion, consisting of 48 stories of apartments, is sometimes above the clouds and the inhabitants have to call the doorkeeper to find out what the weather is like on ground level.

The Thursday morning we packed up, loaded the car and drove back to Danville. Overall impressions of Chicago: It’s worthwhile a visit, there are lots to do and see, the city center is very clean and flowers were everywhere. The skyline with its many skyscrapers in varied architectural styles is impressive. It certainly is one of the best places to go if you are interested in architecture and it offers many tours on this subject. Public transport is easy accessible and the free Trolley rides (well done Chicago city fathers on this idea!) covers most of the prime areas.

Chicago's Field Museum: The Great Hall.

Chicago's Field Museum: Monica with her name in Hieroglyphics.

Sue, world famous, not only for being the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil skeleton found to date, but there has been court cases, imprisonment, auctions and passionate discussions about the rights and responsibilities of private individuals, the federal government, Native American Tribal Law and scientists in their relationships to the preservation and sale of paleontological bounty. Found in 1990 in Faith, SD, on a farm, the question was who did it belong to: The farmer, The Black Hills Institute, The US Government or the The Sioux Nation. Eventually Sue, named after her discoverer Sue Hendrickson, who was a volunteer for the Black Hills Institute at the time of discovery, was bought by the Field Museum at an auction for $8.3 million.

At the Art Institute: One of the great experiences I get from visiting major cities like Chicago, New York, etc. is the opportunity to see the original art pieces of the masters, like this Claude Monet - Japanese Bridge at Giverny, 1900, oil on canvas.

Or this Pablo Picasso - The Red Armchair, 1931, oil and enamel on panel.

During the summer months, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, there are firework from the Navy Pier.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

London - March 2006

London, UK. March 2006.

After our last vacation in South Africa we decided that our next vacation should be to some European destination. So in the first week of March 2006 we packed our bags and head for London. Beforehand, we spent weeks searching the Internet for cheap airline tickets and lodging. Monica found us an apartment/flat on EBay, just off Victoria Street in Westminster, across from the Irish Guards Barracks, two minutes walk to St. James’s Underground station and a few blocks from Buckingham Palace. A real nice location and it turned out a very nice apartment. Tiny, but with all the amenities. The 1st week of March! Are we crazy? Sure it was cool, everyday was around 8 ºC and we had rain (luckily only on the last day of sightseeing) but it was far cheaper than going in August. The apartment was only $1000 for 8 days and our plane tickets were only $384 each, roundtrip from Lexington, KY. Compare to the usual summertime prices, these were bargains.

Right: Monica parading on Trafalgar Square.

We had a list of places we wanted to go to and I even worked out a day-to-day itinerary, but once there we followed our mood and ignore the itinerary. We arrived at Gatwick and took the train to Victoria Station and from there the underground to St. James’s station, not knowing that it would have been much better to take a cab/taxi to our apartment instead of slogging with luggage up and down stairs in the underground. By the time we unpacked and settled in a bit it was after 2:00 PM and too late to do any major sightseeing, so we walked around the neighborhood to familiarize ourselves. We quickly realized we did not bring enough of the right clothes. We needed good gloves and wooly hats and an extra jersey or two. Wind-chill was the major factor. We strolled down Victoria Street, bought some clothes, and on our way back to the apartment we stopped and explored a Sainsbury grocery store and bought some rations for the week and dinner for that evening, things we have not eaten in a while – steak and kidney pies and samoosas.

The next day we went to the Tower of London, looked at the Crown jewels and explored the surrounding areas on foot. The place is interesting, but nothing spectacular. The second day, a sunny, cool Saturday, with clear blue skies, we bought tickets on an open air bus at Victoria Station and got a second day free. We decided to abandon the specific itinerary and hop on and off the bus whenever we were close to one of the places we wanted to see or didn’t even think of seeing. That weekend we drove through Kensington and Chelsea; Notting Hill and Mayfair; pass Grosvenor Square and through Berkeley Square; had breakfast just off Trafalgar Square and snap pictures of pigeons, statues and South Africa House; explored Westminster Abby. What a contrast: disappointment…in some areas there were so many people one hardly had time to properly look at anything before one gets shove on to the next, a real human sausage machine; historical wonderment…walking over the same hollowed-by-time steps and stone floors and through the same cloisters that so many kings, queens, clergy and statesmen have walked (the thought that both Monica and I thought of while in the place was: if walls could talk…), and amazement…amazement at the overall artistry of the sculptures and the work of the master builders who built the place over hundreds of years, especially The Lady Chapel (Henry VII’s chapel, 1502-1519) (Pictured left), which must be one of the most incredible buildings ever erected in the medieval times and even beyond, from an architectural and artistic points of view the roof is unbelievably beautiful. More pictures of Westminster Abbey.

We gaped at Big Ben, the Parliament buildings and the London Eye. We spent too much time at the Victoria & Albert Museum (although some art and fashion clothing pieces were exquisite, and we paid too much for a brunch.) We cross the Themes via the Westminster Bridge and then cross back and fro several times via the Waterloo, London and finally the Tower Bridges. We contemplated tea and scones at The Ritz, but settled for it in a cozy tearoom, a block from Buckingham Palace. (It is amazing how good hot tea taste when coming out of the cold into a warm, cozy room.)
(Pictured: Lamar and Andre at the Tower of London with the Tower Bridge in the background.)
We walked across The Green Park, took photos of Buckingham Palace, decided against waiting for the changing of the guard, explored the Queens’ Gallery store and ate fish and chips and bangers and mash in old taverns…and just generally indulged ourselves in the ancient and historical beauty of London’s architecture…just like kids that just discovered an unknown candy world.

The Monday was undoubtedly the highlight of our vacation. We

took a train to Russell Square station to visit the British Museum.

Andre freezing on an open bus.

We spent the whole day there and when we had to leave at 5:00 PM we could hardly stay on our feet anymore. There was just so much to see and not enough time. Highlights were the Rosetta Stone, the Assyrian relief carvings from Nimrud and Nineveh Palaces, the Egyptian Hall with its massive statue of Ramesses II, and the Parthenon sculptures. How they got all the wonderful pieces to London is still unbelievable. For years, ownership of several items in the museum has been questionable of how each was acquired. I guess some was outright theft, others the spoils of war or because of a treaty at the end of a war (The Rosetta Stone from Napoleon), and others still from colonization or treasure hunters. (Greece has long been demanding the return of the 253 sculptures from the Parthenon.)

Monica and Lamar giving their feet a rest in the British Museum.

The Tuesday, we took an Underground train to Waterloo station and from there a British Rail train to Hampton Court Palace, to hang out at Henry the VIII and Cardinal Wolsley’s old joint. What an interesting place! The old 17th century kitchens and state departments of the Hanoverian kings were the highlights. On our penultimate day the rain came, a soft constant drizzle. We took a London cab (what else but black) to Harrods, explored the place and bought a few things and thereafter had an English breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and baked beans at Giraffe in Kensington (that bacon was excellent…just as we always remember it from South Africa.) From there we walked to Kensington Palace for our last visit to a London attraction. I can’t really say I found the old lodgings of George III and Princess Diana enchanted. Rather plain and boring.

The London Eye next to the Aquarium.

The next day we took a cab to Victoria Station, board the Gatwick Express to the airport and flew back to Lexington via Detroit. As always we could not get to all places in such a short time. We never got round to St Paul’s Cathedral, or do a walking tour in the Paul Mall area and I would have like to explored the streets and architecture of London more.

Once back at home we needed a day or two to recuperate. But London was magnificent, most definitely worth the visit and worth a return visit in the future. I never had a better birthday present.

One evening we ate at this tavern, around the corner from Buckingham Palace. The tavern has been in operation since 1820.

Monica inside Harrods at the Diana and Dodi Memorial.

Hampton Court Palace - Monica on The Staircase leading to the Queen Anne's State Apartments

Westminster Cathedral in Victoria Street.

The Parliament Buildings and Big Ben at Westminster Palace. Just behind the Palace is Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey - The west entrance.
The Old and the New: A modern glass walkway attached to the old wall of the London Dungeons.

In Front of Buckingham Palace.

Monica and Lamar in front of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New York, New York

June 2005 and again September 2005

If you have never been to New York City make an effort to get there because it certainly is as exciting as the travel flyers tell you. As a matter of fact, we enjoyed our first trip to New York so much we went back for a second visit and also because we ran out of time to visit all the places we wanted to visit. During early June we drove the 13 hours from Danville to Manhattan. Traveling steadily east and then north on a myriad of interstate highways we crossed the states of Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and then New Jersey until we arrived at the town of Secaucus and the Crown Plaza Hotel. Secaucus is immediately south of the Hudson River, and the island of Manhattan. We decided to stay outside of Manhattan because of the good rates we got at the hotel and a regular bus service from the hotel to Manhattan. We decided to go in spring because during the heat of the summer New York can be unbearable. However, when we got there an unusual spring heat wave hit New York and it was sweltering most of days we were there. Every morning we would leave the hotel at 9:00 AM, take the bus into town, enjoy a continental breakfast at Au Bon Pain in the main bus terminus and from there venture into the city. Evenings after dinner in Manhattan we would take the bus back to Secaucus. During September an opportunity presented itself that Monica and I were able to go to New York again. It was a long weekend and I had to attend a conference 2 days after the weekend so we turned it into a short vacation. This time we flew there by plane instead of driving.

Instead of giving you a wordy description of our experiences there, enjoy the collage of pictures of New York City. I just want to say that the Metropolitan Museum for Art is a must, the Guggenheim for Modern Art is recommended, and if you are interested in politics and world history, a visit to the United Nations is well worth the time. A cruise to the Statue of Liberty is very interesting, so is a walk through Little Italy. Times Square is crowded and over rated, to see a good Broadway play is highly recommended, and there is hardly a bad restaurant in Manhattan (I’m sure there is, but I’m yet to find one.)

New Yorkers do not have much space, but they will always make space for flowers in a sunny spot.

If you are a music lover like me you cannot go to New York or Central Park without a visit to Strawberry Fields, in honor of John Lennon.

We did not plan to go to Ground Zero specifically. We ended up in the vicinity when we went to Centrury 21, the clothing store that sells designer labels at a discount. Ground Zero is just opposite the entrance of the store. Ground Zero is just a whole in the ground, but standing there and looking is quite an emotional experience.

Egyptian Wall Art. The Metropolitan Museum has the world's largest collection of Egyptian art and artifacts outside of Egypt. We spend half the day just on the Egyptian section. Although we saw Egyptian artifacts in a museum in San Jose, CA too, and we would subsequently see more Egyptian art in the Britsh Museum and in Chicago's Field Museum, the collection in the Met is superior to the other museums.

Metropolitan Meseum: Galloping in from the past. Medieval riders in chain mail armor.

Central Park. Monica pooped after a whole day of walking in the Metropolitan.

Time Square by Day.

Time Square by night.

Waiting in line to go and see a Broadway play, The Producers.

Monica in fornt of the United Nations Buildings. It was a Monday and we planed to go to the Metroplitan Museum again, but it was closed for the day, so we went to the UN on the spur of the moment. Good choice. Very interesting.

United Nations Security Council hall. Quite an amazing place to visit.

Little Italy on a Sunday morning. There was a festival going on that Sunday and most of the streets were filled with thousands of people.

Little Italy. Barbeque the Columbian way.

Lamar, Nelson Mandela and myself at Madame Tussauds's wax museum.