Dear Family and Friends,
Kay and I are on the road again. Wait! I have to qualify that. We’ve been on actual roads only part of the time unless we extend the literal meaning to railroads, for on much of this voyage through North America, we’ve taken the train. In fact, we embarked on four long-distance train journeys: from New York City to Oakville, Ontario; from Toronto across Western Canada to Vancouver; from Vancouver to Portland, Oregon; and from Portland to Chicago. Though no strangers to train travel in other countries, until now we hadn’t traveled long distance by train in our own. The results were not bad at all.
How many of you Americans have never traveled by train? I’m guessing that at least some of you haven’t. Time was that travel by train was the way to go. A source told me recently that when the railroad age was at its peak, one thousand trains a day went in and out of Chicago. This must be an exaggeration, but still, for many, an air of romance infuses the idea of train travel. However, even the best accommodations in today’s sleeping cars are no match for the room where Eva Marie Saint hid Cary Grant from the authorities on the 20th Century in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. Crossing Canada on the Canadian, our room was so small that with the beds deployed it was a squeeze to stand at the sink to wash our hands. Amtrak’s Empire Builder was somewhat roomier, but no matter, we didn’t need to spend all our time in our compartments.
The dining cars on both trains were a major attraction. On the Canadian we dined on white tablecloths with cloth napkins, choosing items like rack of lamb, fried pickerel, and crème brulée. There were wines, too, and what we didn’t finish at one meal was served to us at the next. The dining car on the Empire Builder was more modest, and we feared that the food after the Canadian’s would let us down; however, we were pleased to find this was not the case. Service on both trains was friendly and excellent. We felt the staff was happy to see us and glad we were aboard.
Another discovery is that there are people who eschew flying in favor of train travel in a big way. These are not oddballs but serious travelers who have enjoyed many trips on U.S. and Canadian trains. Train travel in our countries is far from dead.
North America is so rich in natural beauty and culture that, although we’ve seen a great deal of America and Canada in our past, we feel we could travel here for the rest of our lives and not take it all in. Our infrequent trips to the States have a dual purpose: We want to see as many of you as we can, and we want to visit places and see things new to us. In this account we won’t say much about you who have fed, housed, and entertained us so well except to say thanks again for putting up with us. We certainly relished your company. To those of you we couldn’t see in person, we can only apologize, saying there was not world enough and time. We hope you understand.
As for the sights we’ve seen, the meals we’ve eaten and the other pleasures we’ve had, we could write a volume. Don’t worry. We’ll restrain ourselves and give you only a few highlights and observations.
We’ll begin with natural beauty since North America abounds in it. One of our earliest forays into nature was a private boat trip kindly arranged by our friends Roger and Joanne on the coastal waters around Hilton Head Island. There, we saw an alligator swimming to an undisclosed destination in deep water while pods of dolphins seemed to gambol near our boat, surfacing in twos and threes before diving again.
Large northern tracts of our continent are still lands of forests and wide-open spaces. Traveling west through the province of Ontario, the forests of pine, fir and birch seemed endless. Very occasionally we would pass a tiny settlement, and we wondered what its inhabitants could be doing in a place so remote.
There was a lot of water, too. Ontario has an astonishing 225,000 lakes of varying size, many, like those we were passing, quite small. We thought of California’s drought. If only that state could capture some of Ontario’s water it would be a blessing.
There was a different kind of beauty when we passed through the prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. These were great, flat expanses of land, still in their winter brown and tan, and dotted here and there with ponds and small lakes.
From Winnipeg to Edmonton a group of poets colonized the train. They were a raucous bunch that occupied one of the two observation cars and upset the staff by refusing to leave the dining car in a timely fashion.
Jasper, Alberta is a jewel of a town surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks. There, we were able to disembark and walk the streets for half an hour. Its several welcoming restaurants had signs advertising for staff.
We made a dramatic passage through the Rocky Mountains that I did my best to photograph through the windows of the fast moving train. But as majestic as they are, the Rockies didn’t prepare us for the breathtaking scenery along the Fraser River in British Columbia. We became aware that we were seeing some of grandest views in North America.
The city of Vancouver where we spent three days has a modest charm. Its most outstanding feature for us is the large covered Public Market on Granville Island. We’ve walked through many food markets in our travels, but the Public is unrivaled in its variety of produce, meats, and grocery items. We only wished that we could have carried some back to Istanbul. As it was, we bought two packages of Canadian Indian-smoked salmon dressed with maple syrup.
Portland Oregon has to be one of the most livable cities in our country. Not only do its downtown streets catch the eye in surprising ways, it is also really bike-friendly. While walking, we had only to look as though we meant to cross a street to have the traffic stop for us. One musical event that our old friends Mike and Judy escorted us to was as unusual as it was enlightening. It was a rehearsal of Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. In this case the orchestral sections were reduced for piano.
The trio of master musicians played through the three movements of the concerto, stopping occasionally to discuss and replay a section. At the end, the cellist led a discussion of the challenges with this work. He was very well spoken and knowledgeable about music generally. Some of the audience were either musicians themselves or at least very knowledgeable about music; their remarks were not run-of-the-mill. We enjoyed this program very much, feeling we learned things about how musicians think while rehearsing a difficult work.
Earlier in our trip we had attended another notable musical event. In Toronto’s venerable Massey Hall we had had the unique opportunity to hear Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, two masters of jazz piano. The large hall was filled to capacity. Our seats in the first balcony gave us an unobstructed view of the stage with its two open grand pianos and synthesizer keyboards.
Some of the pieces they performed were their own compositions; others were improvised. For their encore, the entire audience was invited to participate by making single-note sounds in different pitches on cue. It was a lot of fun.
We have to mention one evening at the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood because it was so uniquely entertaining. We thank our niece Jane for introducing us to the Green Mill’s Tuesday evenings when a jazz band named The Fat Babies takes the stage. There was nothing baby-like at all about the seven mature men who played a style of music long out of vogue. It reminded us of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, up-tempo jazz we associate with the 1920s. In front of the stage was a small dance floor, and we had never seen such wild, passionate dancing. The young men and women, regulars all, were in the zone. We had the feeling that this was what the roaring 20s must have been like.
As is our wont, Kay and I have visited several museums during our travels. In New York City, I went alone to the recently opened 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero. As much a memorial as a museum, it is a dignified, underground space devoted to the memory of those who died in that horrific attack. The walls of one gallery are covered with photos of the victims, each sized and framed alike with the person’s name engraved on the frame. Other galleries contain twisted remnants of the fallen towers as well as interesting facts about their construction in the early 1960s.
The new Aga Kahn Museum of Muslim Art, located in an outlying district of Toronto is impressive for its architecture and for the choice artifacts in its small permanent collection drawn from the Islamic pasts of Iran, Turkey, and the Arabian Peninsula. Among these are a mosaic-tiled Egyptian Fountain from the 16th century; an ivory drinking horn from 12th-century Sicily; a large candlestick from medieval Iran; and an Isnik-tiled plaque depicting the Ka’aba at Mecca.
At the time of our visit the museum hosted a temporary exhibit entitled The Lost Dhow, containing artifacts from the excavation of a commercial ship that sunk in shallow water of Belitung Island between Sumatra and Borneo more than 1,000 years ago. The dhow carried a commercial cargo from China, including more than 50,000 mass-produced Changsha bowls of a brownish color and a huge variety of designs. Made to be traded cheaply, these were found packed in large ceramic jars, the earliest instance of containerized shipping.
By now, we’ve all read stories of the decline of the great city of Detroit. Certainly the city’s economic woes are significant, yet we found that news reports have focused too much on Detroit’s problems and not enough on the signs of its renewal. As a city that both Kay and I had once lived in, it was gratifying to visit the thriving Detroit Institute of Arts and recognize it as one of the country’s great art museums.
At present there is a special exhibit entitled Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit. It explains and illustrates Rivera’s work on the famous murals commissioned and paid for by Edsel Ford that adorn what had formerly been a garden room in the museum. The exhibit also includes works by Kahlo and describes the state of the artists’ relationship during the months it took for Rivera to paint the murals.
It was in Detroit also that we accompanied old friends Brian, Toni and Lauren to a production of Charles Gounod’s Faust at the Detroit Opera Theater. The downtown auditorium that we had never before been in is beautifully designed and decorated in the grand style of the past. It has been restored after decades of use as an obscure movie house. Our expectations for this work were not terribly high, so it came as a surprise at how entertaining it turned out to be. Although the philosopher Faust is the title character, Méphistophélès is the star. This flamboyantly evil devil sung by Jamie Offenbach was wonderful in looks and manner. With streaks of red in his black hair, his makeup was terrific. The beautiful Sarah Joy Miller sang the role of innocent Marguerite, seduced and abandoned by Faust.
Toledo, Ohio is nicknamed The Glass City. In 1888 Edward Libbey moved The New England Glass Company there. In 1962, it was Toledo that gave birth to the Studio Glass Movement. Thus, it is fitting that the city should be the site of a single-storey structure created almost entirely in glass. Opened in 2006, it is the creation of SANAA, led by two Japanese architects, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Made up of more than 360 enormous glass panels, the Pavilion is a work of art in itself, and, as a museum, it houses galleries of glass objects by other artists. Since Kay and I have a special interest in art glass, the Glass Pavilion was a fine destination for us.
For Kay and I, travel means indulging ourselves in the things that interest us most, natural beauty and city life filled with history, architecture, museums, music, and interesting food. Unfortunately, we also buy things. We say “unfortunately” because we then have to carry our purchases and figure how to get them home to Turkey. Because of their bulk and weight books are the worst, and we have a weakness for them. Bookstores have been favorite destinations for me since I was a child. Some great ones still exist in America. There is Powell’s in Portland, certainly one of largest in the world, and New York still has the Strand, famous for the variety and size of its stock.
New York also has the Argosy, filled with rare and unusual classics from the past, and there is a new gem of a store called Albertine; it is small in size but beautifully designed and with an excellent choice of titles in French and English. It is found in a historic building on 5th Avenue at 79th Street, a building designed by Stanford White. You book lovers, don’t miss Albertine on your next visit to the Apple.
One of our pleasures while traveling is walking in towns and cities. New York is always rewarding. Even though we lived there for twenty-five years, its neighborhoods are always changing. We mark those changes and sometimes marvel at what has managed to remain.
It’s probably a toss up as to whether New York or Chicago has the most distinctive neighborhoods. I am especially at home in Chicago, in the residential neighborhood of Beverly Hills where I grew up. Located on the city’s far south side, it is perhaps one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Although Beverly contains a few houses dating from as far back as the 1870s, most were designed by architects and built during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. They are large, built of brick and stone, and recall a time when families wanted homes in Italian, French, and other European styles.
There are American Colonials, too, and even one of the Prairie School by Frank Lloyd Wright. What amazes me about Beverly is that although the demographics of the neighborhood have changed since my childhood, the houses and their landscaping look as good or even better than they did sixty years ago.
Because members of my family have diversified throughout the city, this time Kay and I visited them in neighborhoods new to us: Elmhurst and Arlington Heights are suburbs, while Uptown, Andersonville, and Pilsen are in the city itself.
Uptown on Chicago’s far north side is an older section of detached houses and small apartment buildings that has been revived by young people looking for less expensive housing and especially by gays. It also boasts a thriving Vietnamese community whose shops and restaurants cluster together. Uptown is close to lively Andersonville full of shops and restaurants on North Clark Street.
Exuberant Pilsen just south of Chicago’s downtown is another old neighborhood whose long-established Mexican community has expanded in recent years. It has some of the most colorfully impressive wall art in the city, and its restaurants serve authentic Mexican cuisine.
This voyage through North America has also been in part a voyage through our past lives. There has been continuity of old friends and old haunts that will climax in Crawfordsville, Indiana in a few days with my 50th Class Reunion at Wabash College. After that, it will be home for a while until our next adventure. In the meantime, love to all.