About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Videos, Photographs and a few Polar Bears for good measure.

If you're of a certain age, you'll remember the at-times miserable marathon of sitting through a friend's essentially silent movies of their summer vacation. Poorly shot video snippets of little Johnny playing the in the plastic lawn pool, splashing around and usually getting beaten upon by his older sibling.

It was a mind-numding obligation for all party guests to coo and awe appropriately, even as each of them was searching for an individual reason to bolt from the room.

For that, and other reasons, I'd always rather stayed away from taking videos of trips. Maybe a few short snippets here and there, but nothing dramatic. Which is funny, because one of my early passions in life was video, and I, in fact, studied television production in both High School and college. So it's not for lack of talent (he said immodestly) but my thinking was sort of the same process which led me to be a late convert to digital photography. I just didn't think it could convey my impressions of a place in an effective way. It seemed, to me, to be uncomfortably close to those homespun images flickering on a silvery stand up screen of my youth.

But there are two forms of video, when you get right down to it. One is a series of motion shots, the other is little more than a slide show of photographs taken. And, as you can see on this page, I've done a few of the latter.

(A little early for Christmas videos, I know.)

So, on a recent trip a traveling companion of ours showed us some videos he'd shot while we were in Europe together last year. Yes, my first response was "really?". Grey screen? So we dutifully trudged to his hotel room where he'd hooked a camera up to the large screen digital tv. For the next half hour or so we watched, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves talking about the trip, about our memories, and about the vast difference between the modern hi def videos versus those staticky super 8 images of the past.

And, I admit, it does a solid job of conveying the feel of a place, and returning the memories of that voyage. So much so that I shot a few video scenes of my own during the remainder of this particular trip. I haven't yet edited them into something interesting -- simply showing raw footage is great if you were there and can readily recognize what was happening, but without that framing it seems to strangers as little more than a static pan shot of a particular destination.

Earlier this year, and hoarded for my own use it would seem, I took video of the sunrise over Mount Haleakala. Like our friends, I too have video of parts of our European trip, including a gondola ride through the canals of Venice.

So. Hmmm. There are times we need to reexamine why we think certain ways and what we dismiss from our artistic viewpoint. This may be such a time for me.

That noted, I am posting the first videos to my blog. Some of you have seen them before -- most of them are, essentially, music videos for songs from my wife's catalog. There are a couple of Polar Bear videos with different goals in mind, and the quality of the shooting was, to be honest, not my best camera work. Going to take a tripod next time (you'll see what I mean) -- or, more accurately, USE a tripod.

I'm working now, however, on my first combination video/photo combination as an online ad for ye olde blog. My eventual goal is to do an actual online series of travel videos as part of the ongoing broadening of the Thumbnail Traveler brand. We're in our infancy yet, with a long way to go.

If it turns out well, I'll share here.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Casual Dining

"Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life." 
                 - Anthony Bourdain 

I don't think it's a secret that I love food -- a little too much, if my doctor has a say. So when I'm traveling, I see food as an opportunity to try different things and enjoy the specialities of the region I'm in. But a curious thing occurred to me on my recent visit to the Pacific Northwest. In the vast majority of cases, the most memorable meals have been at smaller, local hangouts and not at the haute cuisine creme-de-la-creme expensive bistros of the rich and famous.

Peppermill, Las Vegas
Don't get me wrong. We've had plenty of wonderful and memorable times in high end eateries. This includes Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak in Las Vegas, Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in both New York and Vegas, several meals at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, and a host of other justifiably excellent destinations. They're all terrific, with at-times extraordinary foods in a beautiful environment. Great stuff, no question. And certainly no disrespect to the masters intended. But if you ask me the next day what I'd eaten, five times out of ten I'd need to think hard to come up with the answer.

Not so the more simple eateries. And maybe the answer is that it's easier to recall a breakfast burrito at the Bang Bang Cafe than it is the Liberty Farms Duck Cassoulet at Michael Mina's RN74. Sometimes the simple experience is more impactful than the complicated one. In New Orleans I readily remember eating at Brennan's -- but it's the beignets and coffee at Cafe du Monde which implanted themselves in my permanent mental collection.

And perhaps that's the key. When the food is competing with the overall experience of a high-end restaurant, it can be lost in the mix (no pun intended). When the food itself is the focus of the experience, and the environment doesn't intrude on the flavor -- or enhances it as the case may be -- then the food itself can make more of an impression when it's particularly good. Perhaps it's because of expectations, perhaps it's a reflection of what is going on around the diner, but by and large I know I'm going to have a fabulous meal when I walk into Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill. No question. So perhaps something in the back of my brain etches that in and doesn't bother recording the details -- whereas a brilliant meal in a less than elegant surroundings startles the palate and grabs the reigns of the memory bank. The food must organically join with the surroundings to create a memory, not be the memory in and of itself.

I know, I'm beginning to sound a bit like Guy Fieri. (Or maybe, if I'm lucky, Alton Brown.) But the intent here is not to tour around looking for places to eat, it's about being someplace you want to go, and THEN finding the local hangouts and cuisine to match. Getting the feel, the vibe of a place is much more fun -- and more invigorating -- than sitting down at a high-end haute cuisine eatery unless that sort of thing IS part of the local scene and represents some truly local flavor along the way. But walking away from Michael Mina's RN74 -- an excellent restaurant in every possible way -- in Seattle isn't nearly as culturally satisfying as a single bowl of clam chowder at Ivar's. It just doesn't convey the sense of Seattle to the outsider. You could transplant RN74 to Los Angeles, Chicago or New York with very little changed save perhaps a few items on the menu, and it wouldn't be out of place.
Snowflake Burgers, Lake Tahoe

The key here is the food. Far and away, most meals at the high-end restaurants are spectacular. No question. And this is not about them. I have eaten at the now-closed Tavern on the Green restaurant in Central Park. I remember the ambiance, not the food. Likewise Clyde's of Georgetown in Washington DC's Georgetown district. Or dozen's of other excellent but trnspositionable places nationwide. 

(There are many exceptions, of course. But that's a different topic for a different time. I love seeking out celebrity chef's restaurants, but this is more about eating their food than exploring the town the restaurant is located in. One is a culinary adventure, the other a geographic one. Some of our choices for best "local" hangouts are actually quite nice restaurants -- but they readily evoke the local cuisine AND culture. The Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans is just such a place.)

Arturo's, Manhattan
As Gordon Ramsay is apt to say -- well, yell -- to the mid-range restaurant owners on the guilty pleasure Kitchen Nightmares, the food needs to be simple and honest, and representative of the fare being presented. Nice surroundings, of course, but is the meal I'm paying for somehow representative of the city I'm in? Is the setting local, or is it cookie cutter? A diner in Nashville may resemble a diner in Long Beach, but if the food, the service and the setting are all individualized then all is good with the world.

I'm all for treating oneself to a great meal at a high-end restaurant, but when it comes to traveling, the most memorable meals have always come from the local joints.

Some of my regional favorites:

http://www.redparrot.org/  (Newport, RI)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Lurking Around, Down Under

It's only forever
Not long at all
Lost and lonely
That's underground

History is a fascinating subject for many people. Not that old, musty tired and worn version you sometimes got in grade school when the teacher had been over the same facts and figures so many times that their own boredom rubbed off on the dazed students taking class, but the energized live and in your face variety you get by going and doing. There's nothing like standing on a snowy field in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania looking out over the same view a soldier might have shared two hundred and some odd years before. Or stepping down into the stone dungeons in Salem, Massachusetts coming to a stunned realization of how ugly religious fervor can become. Or looking down onto the deck of the sunken battleship Arizona in the waters of Pearl Harbor.

History can be made to come alive if you let it have a chance.

Going down below is in many cities a lesson in both history mixed with a little pre-Halloween macabre. The catacombs of Paris. The New York subway system. The aforementioned Salem dungeons. The sewer system of Los Angeles -- where the giant ants hid in the movie THEM! The feeling of descending down into the bowels of a city is both intriguing and somewhat frightening at a visceral level. So it was when we started off on our recent evening tour of the Seattle Underground, which explores three different underground walkways in the city's historic Pioneer Square.

The tour, entitled "Bill Speidel's Underground Tour" starts at an old 1890's era saloon. Your host and guide begins by describing a few of the challenges, heroes and villains of early Seattle. Done deliberately tongue in cheek, the story does nobody any favors in reminding the attendees of how some of the planning -- or lack thereof -- ended in mishap (or worse) for the early citizens. This isn't a scary story, nor is it one of truly gifted and heroic city founders. It's a story of human beings, and the unexpected consequences of ill-conceived ideas. That Seattle grew and thrived is itself the heroic story here, because at many points of the tale it seems as if everyone would have been better off packing up and moving to more stable environs.

Stability is the key. Or was, it seems. Urban planning didn't hold much sway in the early days, and the tour does not shy away from the at-times nose-holding results of bad ideas. (The simple reality of high tide versus low tide apparently caught the early settlers of Pioneer Square completely by surprise.)

Bill Speidel, a mid-sixties historian dedicated to the preservation of the Pioneer Square district when it was in imminent danger of being bulldozed under, ran an ad in local papers for a walking tour of the Seattle Underground. He expected a handful of participants, if any. More than 500 showed up, beginning a long tradition of tours and support for keeping the past alive with a touch of humor to guide the way.

Our own tour guide, Shane, did an excellent job of describing the details without making them boring or expected. Along the tour route there are several areas set aside to show the city as it originally was, to make each of the rooms and hallways visited relevant to the modern participant. The learning is by laughing in some cases, but I will admit that I walked away from the tour with a much better appreciation and understanding of the history of Seattle -- with a slight focus on, well, what we in polite company might refer to as "bodily functions", and how the early settlers tried, mostly in vain, to accommodate them (pun intended). Despite what must be thousands of such talks, Shane still tells the tales with humor and more than a little twinkle in his eye. He, and presumably the other tour guides, knows how to bring that history alive and make it both enjoyable and relevant. To quote their own website, the tour...

is a leisurely, guided walking tour beneath Seattle’s sidewalks and streets. As you roam the subterranean passages that once were the main roadways and first-floor storefronts of old downtown Seattle, our guides regale you with the stories our pioneers didn’t want you to hear. It’s history with a twist!

And if the Underground Tour's Marketing Department doesn't convince you, hopefully I will…

Which brings me to the second recommendation, and you'll be thrilled that it is mere steps from the Underground Tour's gift shop. Since you'll likely be wanting lunch, dinner, or maybe just a good stiff drink after wandering the underbelly of the Pioneer District, you'll be pleased to note that one of the city's oldest -- belay that, THE oldest -- saloon in the city is directly across the street. In fact, on your tour, you will have completely circumnavigated it as you go from one passageway to the next. 

The Merchants Cafe and Saloon, at 109 Yesler Way in Pioneer Square was a genuinely pleasant surprise. The owner happened to be out in the alleyway behind the cafe as our tour group emerged from the bowels of the city. Dillon -- "That's Dill-ON!" -- saw a couple of us shooting the alleyway and immediately jumped in on the action, hiding behind a bush and pretending to stalk the tour group. (Not many better ways to get on my good side that by playing along.) He mentioned that we would be welcome back after the tour, and that he had "Great Grandma's Chowder" as one of the specials for the night.

Who can resist a cup of Grandma's Chowder, especially coming from a guy like Dillon? Not us, and an hour later we were sitting ourselves down in the center of the wonderfully atmospheric restaurant and bar. Sporting a truly haunting history which matches the classic decor, the cafe is a great place to grab a meal or just a drink. Highly recommended are the chowder -- we had a cup but wished we'd ordered a couple of bowls, to be honest. Bacon, yes bacon, in the chowder!!! -- and the salmon burger named for the Native American who gave the city its name, Chief Seattle. My wife and I both had the Hot Wings Salad, featuring Great Grandma's recipe -- highly recommended if you've got asbestos lips. Really, really good.

The menu is a hoot, the food is delicious and the people were all friendly, helpful and well into the atmospherics of the place. Dillon's done an excellent job re-invigorating the place with an eye toward the past and a well-considered, flavorful menu. And being just a genuine and great guy doesn't hurt. 

Certainly worth an extra side trip, but even more fitting if you've just clawed your way up from down below.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Good Life

As I write this, it's Tuesday, the middle day of an all-too- short stay in California's amazing Napa Valley wine country.

I'm sitting in the Calistoga Village Bakery, sipping at a triple shot latte, watching the world go by. This is the second of what will eventually be three stops in which I begin my day this way. It's crazy busy for this early morning in a relatively small city. At least six other patrons sit, stand or wander around in a pre-caffeine daze trying to decide what to order. While I'm sipping at my coffee, seven more hit and run workers come in, get their coffee and leave, headed for their day. Starbuck's might consider this a good day, I don't know. I'm too wrapped up in the wonderful gentility of it all. Some people obviously know each other, while others are simply friendly.
The Village Bakery

Despite the expected heat of the coming day, the predawn temperature outside would be described by most of us as chilly. The sun isn't quite up, but the sky is a beautiful pale blue. I'm sitting at a table adjacent to the front window and just outside a dog lies resting, securely leashed to a pillar on the sidewalk. She seems to be at ease, indicating this is perhaps a regular event.

As far as I can tell, I seem to be the only out of towner. A group of people at the table next to me clearly know each other, as do most of the folks who wander in. The owner of the dog in question tells a friend that she's recently had the dog groomed, then excuses herself to go outside for a moment to share a treat of some kind which the pup readily consumes.

One of the other patrons at the table makes note that the music of the morning is French in origin, beautiful haunting ballads to set the mood for the morning. Songs of love, and loss, and gentle thoughts.

This is why Calistoga ranks among my favorite places in the world. It's unashamedly relaxed, unashamedly small town yet also quite worldly. It comes as no surprise, really. The century old spa town is built around taking life quietly and easily, a respite from the restlessness of the rest of the world. The point of the town seems to be, specifically, to step back and remember what it was to stroll streets, window shopping and smelling the gentle aromas of the various coffee houses and restaurants that dot the street.

Lincoln Avenue shops before sunrise
Located at the northern end of the legendary Napa Valley at the highway crossroads of what will eventually open out into the slightly less famous but equally notable wine country of Sonoma County, Calistoga boasts numerous spas, hot springs, restaurants, inns and even a few wineries. The local culture is based on the simple and best things in life, seemingly at odds with the wealth of the rest of the valley. Calistoga finds its own vibe and marches along, seemingly oblivious to the call of the outside world. Here in the center of the California wine country it sets itself apart, yet is still part of the unified whole. It isn't so much that time has left the town behind, it's that the town ignores the pressure of time and makes its own pace. It knows the rest of the world is there, but the rest of the world must come to Calistoga and relax, not the other way around.

Tyra, the bakery's friendly counterperson, engages everyone who comes through the door with a bright smile and conversation. Yesterday she shared with me that she's lived in Calistoga her entire life. Apparently she's studying psychology at the local junior college (I'm getting much of this from her interactions with her patrons).  She adds just the proper dash of morning energy to the otherwise calm shop, and makes the difference between just a regular coffee house, and one with a friendly soul that makes you want to come back.

Hot Springs and Hotels
(The music has just shifted to more of a southern ragtime, changing the background mood to an almost Disneyesque atmosphere...in a good way. Oddly enough, the change in tempo nearly matches the increasing light coming in from the windows. The town and coffee house are growing steadily more awake under the guise of a triple shot latte. Or is it that I'm finally waking up myself?)

Have I convinced you of the town's unique nature? Even in its mid-1800s birth, the town had to do things differently. Its beautiful location, coupled with natural hot springs with a high sulfur content, attracted the attention of the nearby gold-addled town of San Francisco.

Cafe Sarafornia
Calistoga was essentially founded In 1859 as a spa resort, though it didn't officially incorporate until 1886. The name, perhaps apocryphally, is reported to come from a quote from Samuel Brannan, the wealthy owner of the first spa to open in town, when he tried to refer to it as "The Saratoga of California" at a public gathering. The story goes that he was overly indulged (inebriated) while speaking at an event announcing the creation of the resort -- and managed to blurt out the description of the new spa town as "the Calistoga of Sarafornia". 

(A much more likely recounting is that Brannan named the place as a mash up of California and Saratoga, but the legend is far more fitting of the town's disposition.)

(BTW - Regardless of the origin of the name, there is an excellent family diner in town by the name of Cafe Sarafornia. Have to love a place with a sense of humor.)

The sun finally peeks over the Vaca Mountains east of town, lighting up Lincoln Ave in a new day. Almost all of the patrons have gone on to their lives, leaving the Village Bakery quiet again, save for the thrum of the refrigeration units and the music, which has now returned to the original gentle French ballads, again echoing the drop off the bakery's energy level. Tyra busies herself with tasks behind the counter, readying for what will be the next wave of guests in an hour or so.

It's a good life, here in Calistoga.