Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas in the Great Smoky Mountains

It is always amazing what 2 or 3 days up in the mountains can do for one’s state of mind. Three weeks ago I suggested to my wife that we get ourselves a chalet in the Great Smoky Mountains above Gatlinburg, TN, for the Christmas weekend, just to get away, just the two of us. It was the first time in 20-odd years that we spent Christmas alone without our kids. Earlier this year when we went to Italy we wanted to go without kids, but it didn’t turn out that way and when the opportunity to go away for the Christmas weekend presented itself we took it without thinking twice. The only draw back…It was too short.

We drove to Gatlinburg on Sunday and arrived at our chalet just as darkness descended over the mountains. It was rather important to get to our destination before it gets too dark because it can be tricky to find the right mountain roads to get to one’s chalet. The last minute arrival was all due to me taking the wrong road at Knoxville, going west instead of east, resulting in a 90 minute detour, because I forgot to printout directions to get to Gatlinburg. (We had directions to get to the chalet once in Gatlinburg.)

Late Monday morning we went down to the village to fill the car with gas and buy some firelighters, and then we drove down to Glades Drive where there is a huge concentration of arts and crafts shops. At Alewine Pottery, where a duet was playing Bluegrass music on a banjo and keeping beat on a double bass in front of a fire, we bought some pottery and further down the road I bought a colorful glass wind chime for the porch at home. On our way back to our chalet we took a detour along Sky View Drive for a view of the ski slopes of the Ober Gatlinburg resort and a different view of the mountains. It has not snowed yet this winter so the resort is making snow for the skiers. Only one slope was open for skiing. Upon our return to the chalet I started a fire in the fireplace, put on some good music, and just kick back and enjoy a cozy Christmas Eve. For dinner I made pork barbeque ribs in the oven, baked portabella mushrooms with in a Mediterranean balsamic sauce topped with aged Parmesan cheese, and baked potatoes. This was accompanied by an excellent 2002 Chateau Ste Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington’s Colombia valley. A nice full smooth and bodied red, but light on tannins.

Christmas morning we woke to a cold, cloudy day and utter stillness in the mountains. With the clouds a special air of calm and tranquility has descended upon the mountain. In the distance Pigeon Forge (5 miles away) and Sevierville were waking up to a beautiful sunny morning. The cloud cover was just local. Not unusual at all. The clouds play a big role in making the Great Smoky Mountains so unique and so beautiful. [
Click here for a visitors guide on the mountains.]

Out on the porch the quietness was occasionally broken by the soft whirring of the aerial tramway down below as it ferries people from Gatlinburg down below to the resort and ski slopes above. Although we woke early, we only got up at noon, sending SMS’s or talking to friends and family from bed with a hazy view of the distant towns and another blue mountain range on the horizon, basking in an orange glow of the morning sun. Early afternoon freezing rain started to fall for a while before it turned to a fine drizzle, but by nightfall the rain stopped again. For Christmas I whipped up a dinner of Salmon in a creamy herb and chardonnay sauce, rice pilaf and steamed oriental-flavored vegetables. We had key lime pie for dessert.

It was one of the most relaxing getaways we have had in a long time. But good things came to an end on Wednesday morning when we packed our bags again and drove home, luckily in glorious sunshine. At home it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit, highly unusual for the day after Christmas because many a year we had snow at this time of the year. But I’m not complaining. The longer the heat stays the shorter the winter.

A view of Gatlinburg night lights through the trees after sunset.

Ober Gatlinburg resort (above) and Ski slopes (below)

The chalet was nicely decorated for the festive season, including a Christmas tree with lights. On the right, a blazing fire in the corner of the living room.

Sunset over Chalet Village above Gatlinburg, TN.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Last night, all over the news, they reported about “Soda Wars”. In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom has done it again, making a fizz of himself, by proposing a tax on soda, pop, soft drink, cold drink, whatever you call in your area. He claims this is to get money to run anti-obesity programs for children in his city. So indirectly he is saying that soda drinks is causing obesity in children, which is probably true, but certainly not the only contributing factor. What about the sofa, the lay-z-boy, the video games, the pizzas and hamburgers and fries, the fact that children don’t play outside the house anymore, etc, etc.

Just seems to me like another invasion of personal freedom. There is very little personal freedom left in America. There is no more real speech freedom. If you speak your mind they label it either hate speech or politically incorrect. If you say something as it is you are blamed for being insensitive. Already smokers cannot smoke where they want, and there is more tax on cigarettes than the worth of the product. (I don’t necessarily disagree on a separation, but outright ban in cities without any option?) Many cities already banned Trans-fat content in food. And several States already tax any form of fast-food including buying a prepared green salad if sold by fast-food restaurants. (I hate to use the word restaurant for fast-food joints. A restaurant is a sit down affair.)

Since when did it become the job of government to try and force the population to change there eating habits? Doesn’t that fall within personal choice? I remember a few years ago they tried to pass the “Hamburger Act” in Congress, which would have held McDonalds, Burger King, etc., liable for people that become obese eating their food. Thus people could sue these companies. Thank goodness common sense prevailed (for Congress it was a surprise…the common sense part) and the proposal was soundly defeated. I don’t disagree, I am sure soda can be bad for you like anything else that is overdone or taken too much of (except of course being too rich according to my interpretation of rich.) But to just tax soda manufacturers or to just blame and isolate soda drinks for child obesity is ridiculous (Seems more like they threw a dart at a board of names or industries to target.)

Mr. Newsom maybe you should concentrate more on saving the city’s money by not providing any services to illegal immigrants. Or even better, tax them on the cost of the services provided. I am sure you will suddenly have millions for obesity education for San Francisco. (But that’s another subject for another time.)

Oh, by the way, in LA another city councilor now wants to prevent the opening of any new fast-food restaurants in certain areas. See here. Make you wonder what makes politicians think they can prescribe to others once elected. It must be the drunkenness of power.

Let’s tax stupidity and then we will all be in jail for tax evasion. Or let’s tax breathing because the result is the release for that nasty carbon dioxide that causes global warming, such an inconvenient truth.

“Let’s just tax, tax, tax the bastards! They wanted to work for money and we the government wants a part of it, as big a part as possible.”

Stop invading our personal freedoms! What’s next? It certainly won’t stop with soda! Give a shark a pinkie and you’ll quickly lose an arm.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Angel in the Sun

From my Italian collection.
Venice: The San Marco Companile (Bell tower) in the late afternoon.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Venice: Sleeping Gondolas

From my Italian collection.
Gondolas still resting in Venice in the early morning.

Friday, December 14, 2007

It is a commute, not a journey

8:05 am Central Time – Somewhere over Corpus Christie, TX

Is it going to be one of those traveling days? Let me say commute days. Flying is not traveling. It is simply commuting from point A to B.

After liftoff from Monterrey I settled myself to get a catnap. 30 – 40 minutes would do wonders to my tired body and mind. I made myself thin in my seat, made sure no limbs where sticking out into the isle space. But...I was halfway down the tunnel to dreamland when…Whack!...The steward ran his cart into the back of my seat. Thank you very fucking much. But as the advert goes…But wait, there’s more. With the cart parked right next to me, he opened the first tin of soft drink and sprayed me with the gases of the fizz. Only lightly, but still. It adds to the growing “pleasure of the commute. But wait! Up comes the chatty pilot or co-pilot or who ever the hell make the announcements just to inform us that he will now be switching of the seat-belt light and he estimate we will be landing on time in Houston. COME ON! Just put the bloody light off. You don’t have to tell me about it. The passengers that are awake will see it. Those that want to sleep don’t give a shit.

When the 1 year old toddler across the isle started to through a tantrum because he rather wanted to sit with his mummy behind me, who is already handling her 5-6 year old daughter, than with his daddy, I gave up and started to write this post. The little bugger eventually got his way and went to sit with his mom, but the loud-mouth kept on screaming from time to time just because he can. “Discovering his voice” I guess. Then it was the pilot’s turn again, announcing our descend, still 90 miles away, then the steward to say they will be coming through and cleanup the cabin. Then the pilot again telling us he will be switching on the seat-belt light, then the steward again…and on and on it went.

The commute is usually the only part of travel, foreign of domestic, that I dislike. Immensely dislike. They also say that you should enjoy the journey as much as the actual destination. BS! Maybe if you go by private jet with top drawer service. To journey in style like they use to do in the 19th and early 20th century, you have to journey by sleeper train or by ship. But otherwise…the commute is a necessary evil.

Liftoff from George Bush Airport, Houston, TX – 11:05 am Central Time

It seems that it is going to be one of those traveling days. How fucking unlucky can I be? Getting a seat directly below an uncontrollable vent that blows cold air onto my head. Now if there is one thing I dislike and get my blood boiling then it is to sit in a draft. It’s because I know the result, most of the time, will be a 24-48 hour cold. And I hate feeling sick and shit. To prevent a mental workup, I got up, took a pill to prevent heartburn from the quick hotdog I had at the airport and another for an arthritis knee, put my head back, ignored the draft and its consequences and fell asleep. Thank goodness the pilot and the stewardess got on with their job without chatting about it, and I only woke up when we descend into the clouds 40 miles from Lexington. I woke up with a blocked nose, but felt much better after an hour’s sleep.

It’s what I and many others wanted to do on the morning’s flight, but weren’t allowed to do. Is a catnap too much to ask?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

South African Monopoly

Monterrey and the Art of Julio Galan

When I woke up this morning the sky was overcast with low clouds, perfect weather to get out early to explore the city. The plan for the day was to visit the museum for contemporary art, the Marco, and to maybe walk around a bit on the Macroplaza, the central square of Monterrey. Getting into the city was much better today than yesterday. Traffic was light and I was in town within 15 minutes.

After I parked my car next to the Marco, I decided to first take a leisurely stroll down the Macroplaza before the heat of the day descends and become intense. I stopped to take some pictures at the Neptune fountain, and then walked further until the Justice Palace where a graduation ceremony was in progress, I presume a group of new lawyers. Who else will have their graduation ceremony at the Justice palace except lawyers? Although I have never been to the museum inside and it was open today, I decided against it because all the comments would probably be in Spanish and totally useless to me. From the plaza I saw a church tower, which didn’t look to far away and headed in that direction. Well, although not too far to walk it was farther than it looked and farther than I wanted to walk. Nevertheless, the tower reminded me a lot about Italy because of its similarity to towers next to Italian churches. After taking some pictures of the church I headed back in the general direction of the Macroplaza, zigzagging my way until I got to a small plaza just off Padre Mier Avenue, where I stopped to buy a bottle of ice cold water, sat down on a bench for a rest, a cigarette and some people watching. The sun was now doing a fine job of burning off the low clouds and the heat was intensifying. And I was kind of tired too.

After my rest I went to the Marco museum. The museum now has a permanent exhibition of Mexican artists in the Sala Mexico, which was the prime reason for coming to the museum today. However, it was the exhibition of
Julio Galan, a neo-expressionist painter, who grew up in Monterrey and one of the great Mexican artists of the so-called “Great Change” generation that became the highlight of the day. I started off viewing the paintings in the Sala Mexico, which were all oils painted in the first half of the 20th Century, the period that Carlos Monsivais, one of Mexico’s foremost journalists, describe as the Revolution and Revelation of radical change, a period of great transformation of literature, arts, music and theater. I was not allowed to take pictures, but I did sneak in a few. A trick I learned in Italy.

However, that was not possible in the Galan exhibition because there were too many museum employees looking out for just that, no picture taking. To me his paintings is very similar to those of Frieda Kahlo (the other great Mexican artists) – bright, autobiographical (the artist appears is most of his own paintings), surreal and multi-facetted. They also both spend some time in New York, which affected the work greatly. He hated it that he was compared to Kahlo, and always said that critics that does that don’t know and understand his art. They both painted pain and suffering. Kahlo’s physical and Galan claimed his was psychological. Both were very sickly persons, and Galan died in 2006 at a relative young age of 48. However, there is a difference in their art. Galan excelled at using mixed media, where Kahlo painted mostly in oils. I also find Galan’s paintings more chaotic than Kahlo’s. But then, they lived in different times and Galan was exposed to modern, pop-art of the likes of Andy Warhol and many more. However, I did enjoy his paintings today. It made up for the Frieda Kahlo exhibition I missed in September here in Monterrey. So until I get another opportunity to see Kahlo’s work for real, I will have to appreciate it from photos.

After the Marco, I walked across the street to the Metropolitan Cathedral for a look inside. I have seen the cathedral on previous visits just from the outside. Well, I missed nothing. There is no artwork worth mentioning. Because of its proximity I decided to take a stroll through the Barrio Antiguo and stumble upon a flee market selling junk and the State Museum of Popular Cultural art, another museum one could give a skip.

Upon my exit from the central zone I missed my turnoff onto the highway and ended up in bumper-to-bumper traffic, no idea where I was going. I could only hoped for an opportunity to turn northeast, I think, again in the general direction of my hotel. That happened when I came to a dead-end where I had to turn left, and eventually ended up on the highway on the “other side of the river”, on Avenue Morones Prieto. I have been on this road before but then others were driving, but I knew there were several roads that cross over to river (which is really a dry river bed) I just had to find the one that would best meet up with Avenue Miguel Aleman. I study the map I had with me while driving and eventually crossed at Avenue Azteca.

At the Sierra Madre Brewing Co., a restaurant that makes food best described as Americana, I was back in familiar territory because it is only a mile or so from my hotel and have been to the restaurant on many previous occasions, I had a small Mojave Chicken salad and a large beer. The spicy chicken was well offset by the cool, creamy blue cheese vinaigrette...and the beer was most refreshing.

All in all it was a good day of exploration and education.
For more on the MARCO and a view of the paintings on display click here.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Monterrey.

On the ground floor of a building across from the MARCO and the Cathedral a big band played Latin American music and mostly older folks were dancing their pains away.

Certainly the highlight in the Sala Mexico was this painting of Saturnine Herron "Our God's", oil, painted in 1918.

The oldest part of Monterrey, the Barrio Antiguo, the old neighborhood.

In the Flea market I saw this novel way of lighting one's life, candles in eggshells.

Julio Galan Paintings.

More Julio Galan
And more Julio Galan

Monday, December 10, 2007

Monterrey: Mirador Obispado and Other Touristy Things

I woke up Saturday morning when the hotel’s cleaning services tried to enter my room. It was 10:30 am. All the early morning wakeups and late night work the past week preparing for our annual security audit from head office took its toll and I slept late for a change.
One of the places I have always wanted to visit on my trips to Monterrey is Mirador Obispado (the Bishop’s Lookout) and the nearby museum. Somehow I have always missed or never had the opportunity. Seeing that I am in Monterrey for the weekend, have a car to travel, today was the day I would visit the lookout point. After a good breakfast I setout on my exploration of Monterrey. Traffic was slow on the highway into town. Either it was because the Cultural Forum came to an end today (many people heading to Fundidora Parque or it is just normal for Monterrey that traffic was so bad. The usual 10-15 minute trip took 30 minutes.

Monterrey is a stretched out city, surrounded by mountain peaks. But close to the center of the city is a hill that provides one a 360 degree view of the city. The hill, the Cerro del Obispado, got its name from the building that was erected half way up the hill near the end of the 18th century, the Palacio del Obispado (the Bishop’s Palace.)

On top of the hill, from the lookout point, is a large esplanade and a massive Mexican flag, the biggest in Mexico. If you want to get great, clear and crispy vistas in Monterrey, you have to get up early in the morning, which of course I didn’t, because after about 10 am haziness set in, either because of the fine white dust that is everywhere or pollution. Therefore, the photos I took do not show the city at its best.

Afterwards I went down the hill to the museum. It is not a big museum and its permanent exhibition reflects the history of Monterrey. Saturday they also had a small special exhibition of the Mayan culture. From here I went to Fundidoro Park, the biggest public park in Monterrey. I visited an old steel factory, which is now the Science & Technology museum where I had lunch and just stroll around the big park.

The Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Hill, for obvious reasons) as seen from Cerro del Obispado. The haziness or pollution can clearly be seen. Just to the right of the road one can see the dome of the Palacio del Obispado.

Another view of the city and a clear view of the pollution. In the centre is the Puente de la Unidad, a bridge that spans the Santa Catarina River and that connects Monterrey with the adjacent city of San Pedro Garza Garcia. Below is a picture I took from for a better view of this contraversial bridge. See more about that here.

The massive Mexican flag at the top of Mirador Obispado.

Inside the Palacio del Obispado they had a small exhibtion of artifacts from the Mayan culture. Above is an ornimental plate and below is a figuring with some earrings on the right and large rings worn on the head.

Above: A figurine of a Mayan King

At Parque Fundidora, an old steel factory area, here is one of several large water features that is all part of the Paseo Santa Lucia, a canal that flow from the park to the center of the city.
The Paseo Santa Lucia.

If you don't want to stroll along the canal you can always take a boat ride on it.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Spice Girls, Tight Girls

The Spice girls had their first concert in Vancouver the other night. I see the Internet is full of rumors that there was a lot of lip-syncing. Some call it the lip-syncing tour.
When I saw this picture I wonder how Posh Girl, Victoria Beckham, got a word out in this tight number.
Britian's Daily Mail was even nastier, reporting on the "Golden Girls" and using words like recycling.

*Photo's courtesy of The Daily Mail.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Getting Ready for Winter

With the first winter storm heading towards us (it has already dump several inches of snow to the north), this is the last photos of the 2007 fall/autumn.

A couple of weeks ago we went out cruising the countryside, looking for fall colors, but most of the trees had already turned grey and bare-leaved. We should have stayed at home and walked through the neighborhood. For some reason, I don’t know why, but I’m sure there is a natural explanation (maybe the drought), trees in the city limit paraded their fall colors a week or two later than their counterparts in the countryside. As always with fall and its colors, and unfortunately so, within 5 – 10 days it was all gone again.

Everyone is raking and bagging or using the lawnmower for the last time this year, mulching the leaves and let winter do the rest. And if you live on Maple Street you can just rake the leaves to the side of the road and the city workers will come along with their motorized vacuum and suck the leaves up. I can remember they use to do the same during autumn/fall when we lived in Durbanville, Cape Town. The only difference was that they use to burn the leaves on the truck as they picked up the leaves from the street. Off course that would never be allowed in today’s green conscious world.

The big clean up before winter. I’m done now. Today I raked and collected the last leaves in the backyard. Tools have been put away. I closed up shop for the winter. Waiting for the snow and the icy winds from the north. And 4 months from now it will all start over again. Spring cleaning! Then we throw the house open, invite the warmer breezes and fresh air into the house to replace the winter-induced stuffiness. Another new beginning. Another cycle of life.

A view across the front yard. Within three days of taking this photo it was all gone.

Fountain grasses turning yellow and brown and in the background, Burning bushes display their brilliant red fall coat.