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Archive for February, 2012

Drive-by movie review: Midnight in Paris

February 28th, 2012
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This year, my movie viewing habits prevented me from seeing any of the Oscar-nominated films ahead of the awards ceremony. Even those of the nominees that were already out on DVD did not find its way to the top of my Netflix queue until now. So the very first nominated movie arrived in my mailbox on the Monday following the Academy Awards.

I do not believe Midnight in Paris rises to the level of an Oscar winner, so no qualms here that it did not win anything beyond the original screenplay. But I liked it a lot nonetheless.

Then again, I am an admitted francophile. More importantly, a Paris-o-phile. The movie starts with solid three minutes of nothing but the lovely sights of the city with background music. Nothing else, not even the starring credits. I was instantly hooked.

The movie continued to use instantly recognizable – for us, at the very least – Parisian scenery throughout its duration, and I can easily identify with Owen Wilson’s character’s desire to live there. It was also full of excellent interaction between the characters of just the kind that I enjoy in Woody Allen’s movies. But the plot left a number of questions regarding the fantasy at its center open, and it took a couple of turns that I found inexplicable. It also got a little bit drunk on its own concept and introduced too many passing – but famous – characters that added little to the proceedings, IMHO. From that point of view, I will possibly challenge even the screenplay Oscar once I get to see other contestants.

In short, it is a charming ode to Paris, so highly recommended for those partial to evocative urban scenery. Aficionados of dialogue-driven dramedies will like the movie as well.

Movies

My favorite sights of Madrid

February 26th, 2012
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A second entry in a row brings me to a city that I undoubtedly like a lot, but somehow do not have a wide range of pictures of to share. With Madrid, the reason for that shortage is somewhat inexplicable, since we have hundreds of good-quality pictures taken there. But majority of them have us in the frame and those that do not fail to rise to the designation of my favorites.

So I am mostly left with various shots of one the central squares of Madrid, Plaza de Cibeles. Those I have aplenty.

 

Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid

 
This is Fontana de Cibeles with the cathedral-like Palacio de Comunicaciones (also known more recently as Palacio de Cibeles) in the background. Probably one of the most famous and emblematic sights of Madrid.

On a number of grand squares in the Spanish capital, the fountains are out of the reach for pedestrians, sitting in the bulls-eye of the circular vehicular traffic. So the closest you can get to the magnificent Cibeles fountain is from the seat of a taxi, which is how the picture above was taken. A seconds-earlier-taken shot, from a different perspective, is below.
 

Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid

 
Here is what the plaza looks like from a pedestrian vintage point.
 

Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid

 
Beyond the fountain is the dome of Metropolis, one of the standout buildings in a dense architecturally-striking area, presiding over the convergence of Calle Gran Via and Calle de Alcalá.

And the next view is again the Cibeles Fountain, as seen from the lookout platform at the high point of the Cibeles Palace.
 

Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid

 
I couldn’t leave just one single location named as my favorite in a city as beautiful as Madrid. So here is another lovely sight: Natasha by the boating lake in the main public park of the city, Parque del Retiro.
 

Parque del Retiro, Madrid

 
Definitely one of my favorites!

Travel

Books: Ender Saga

February 24th, 2012

Remember how at the end of this meme I promised to catch up “in the next year or so” on some of the yet-unread books on that list? Well, I am happy to announce that six months in, I managed to check off one single entry.

Of course, me being me, I could not just go in and read a single book when it happened to be part of a series. So, after reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, I proceeded to reading the other three books in the original Ender tetralogy, and then the Shadow tetralogy for good measure. So, it’s eight books in six months, not one. Considering how little time I set aside for book-reading these days, it is not a bad return, if I say so myself.

I planned to pen a review of the series since around the second book. What I ended up with is a whole bunch of gripes and a few things that I distinctly liked. So, I think of this post more as “assorted reflections” rather than a true book(s) review. If interested, feel free to read below the fold.
Read more…

Books

My favorite sights of Amsterdam

February 17th, 2012
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A more extensive photo-essay from more recent trip can be found here.

Our itineraries took us to Amsterdam just once on our journeys, and it was during the unfortunate period of time when we did not yet quite catch on to the fact that our main camera produced inexplicably grainy and blurry photographs in the best of lighting conditions. It was replaced almost immediately upon our return from Amsterdam, but the damage remains. There aren’t that many good pictures of Amsterdam in our archives.

Different people would have different associations when hearing the name of the city, but my first one is undoubtedly canals. Not narrow, picturesque and constantly disturbed by passing boats and gondolas as in Venice, but wider, tree-lined, placid, almost serene in comparison with city streets. Very little traffic on them, beyond a tourist boat. Most other vessels are stationary houseboats.
 

An Amsterdam canal

 
We considered renting a houseboat for our stay in Amsterdam, but opted instead for an apartment in a canal house, not unlike the one in the following picture. The narrow stairways between the floors, coupled with an absence of a toilet on the bedroom level, forced some hilarious night-time adventures that we frequently recall.

But the gabled houses themselves are a beauty.
 

View from a canal, Amsterdam

 
In my opinion, Amsterdam is remarkably short on monumental architecture for a city of its stature. Even the main city plaza, Dam, can hardly compete with major public spaces elsewhere in Europe. But the canal houses definitely make up for that shortcoming. We tried to pick different walking routes everywhere we went, and had a chance to admire many examples of the architectural style that is unique to Amsterdam.

You can see a beam sticking out from the middle part of the gabled roof in the picture above. That is actually a common feature of the canal houses. It is a hoist, to lift furniture to the upper floors through the windows. The narrow staircases are impossible to navigate with anything larger than a small suitcase.

My fondness for impressive tall buildings was well served by several great churches in Amsterdam, among them Westerkerk.
 

Westerkerk seen from the Houseboat Museum, Amsterdam Westerkerk, Amsterdam View from the top of Westerkerk, Amsterdam

 
On the left, the church is seen from the deck of the Houseboat Museum (which is a curious enough visit to be worth the small entry fee). The middle is an early-evening close-up. An on the right, one of the views from the top of the building. Getting there requires some luck and determination, as the flow of visitors is extremely limited. But for those who like vistas of a city from above, the effort is rewarding.

Amsterdam is a well-known city of bicycles, and one finds bikes parked pretty much everywhere, Bikes on a bridge, Amsterdamincluding along every available spot of railing on any given canal bridge. They all need to be secured with anti-theft devices, and we were explicitly warned not to ever leave our rentals unsecured.

But the city is not just cycle-friendly, it is practically cycle-dominated.Traffic light, Amsterdam Traffic laws and signage favors cyclists above all other modes of transportation. We had several occasions of sitting at a red light in our car while a seemingly endless stream of bicycles was moving in various directions. Then, there are alleys where only the bikes can operate.

Pedestrians, by the way, do not get any privileges versus cyclists. In fact, one crosses a busy cycling lane at her own peril. Unless, of course, one is smart enough and patient enough to walk to the nearest intersection with a traffic light (as opposed to someone from New York, like me, who crosses the street where convenient, not where regulated). The traffic light on the left is not a curiosity at all, but a standard implement at many cycling crossings.

Yup, this entry is lacking impressive photography. All the more reason to look forward to eventual return to Amsterdam.

Travel, World Heritage

09/11 Memorial

February 12th, 2012
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A bit overdue, we went to see the 09/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan on Saturday.
 

09/11 Memorial, New York City

 
 

09/11 Memorial, New York City

 
 

09/11 Memorial, New York City

 
 

09/11 Memorial, New York City

 

New York City & Environs

My favorite sights of London

February 8th, 2012

When you lived in a given city for several years but you always approached it as a kind of “tourist”, targeting specific points of interest, never failing to admire the scenery, and practically never walking down its streets without a camera in hand, you end up with much more than a dozen of visuals that you can call “favorite sights”. When I decided to make London the next installment in this series and gathered my favorite pictures from our time there, I ended up at first with over a fifty photographs. Cutting it down to reasonable size proved to be a painful exercise.

In the end, I stopped at a bit over a dozen shots. Some of them featured in the past in London and environs category, but barring a stray exception, they do not specifically focus on famous landmarks even when said landmarks appear in the shot. Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London – I dropped these and other locations because you can freely find thousands of shots of them on the web, and also because while I will no doubt enjoy seeing them again one day, they probably will not bring back as many memories or feelings as the selection below.

We will start with a pretty obvious tourist stop, though. Trafalgar Square.
 

Trafalgar Square, London

 
Since we actually lived in the Southeast part of London, several miles outside of the city center, we frequently came to the city via commuter rail line that terminated at the Charing Cross station, a hundred yards or so from the edge of Trafalgar Square. On many occasions, we crossed the square on foot, or lingered on its expanse. This is not a very exceptional shot, but it illustrates the busy nature of the square pretty well, and I can vividly imagine an excursion around the city with a visiting friend that would start here.

The next shot approximates a pretty awesome sight of Big Ben seen through the humongous wheel of the London Eye as a Southeastern commuter train approaches the Hungerford Railway Bridge. We never managed to properly capture the sight through the train windows, so one day I made a point of capturing a similar view from the playground at the foot of the London Eye.
 

View from the playground by the London Eye

 
This next composition is one of the aforementioned exceptions, focused around major landmarks. This is Millenium Bridge running towards the imposing dome of the St Paul’s Cathedral. I just like this shot too much to leave it out. Especially considering how many times we strolled along the Riverside Walk in good weather and admired this view.
 

The Millenium Bridge and the St Paul Cathedral, London

 
The shot below also features a couple of well-known landmarks, such as the Bank of England and the cone-shaped top of 30 St Mary Axe, also known as The Gherkin (or the “pickle building” as my kids called it at first). This view is quite emblematic of the solemnity of the City of London as I remember it.
 

The City of London

 
Everyone who have seen pictures of London is undoubtedly familiar with the iconic view of the Tower Bridge as seen from the riverbanks. The perspective of the bridge as one crosses it is much less commonly seen in photography. Which is one of the reasons this is among my most favorite sights in London.
 

The Tower Bridge, London

 
A shot of the Parliament from this angle is also not a common sight – most of the photographers prefer to have the Big Ben tower in the foreground, and shoot from under the London Eye. This is taken from Lambeth Palace Road, while on the upper deck of the tour bus. Natasha and I were on our reconnaissance trip to London in September of 2006. It was not my first time in the British capital, but it had a special feel in terms of excitement and anticipation before our move across the pond. We were preparing ourselves for having these sights to be a regular part of our lives, and this particular shot evokes that memory like no other.
 

View towards Parliament from the South Bank, London

 
A typical corner of West End, this is New Row running into Martin’s Lane.
 

A corner of West End, London

 
The hanging flowerbeds are an archetypal exterior decoration for pubs and restaurants throughout the country. One of my biggest photographic regrets of those years is taking too few of these pictures around England.
 

A restaurant, London

 
Craven Passage is a lowered walkway underneath the Charing Cross station. I always found the perspective from the bottom of the staircase rather different.
 

Craven Passage, London

 
The next shot is one of the feel-good memories – and I am not a skater myself. This is the Somerset House skating rink, where I took the children for a splendid hour on ice during Christmas of 2007. The mansion itself is one of the second-tier tourist attractions in the city, boasting a pretty good paintings gallery.
 

Skating rink at the Somerset House, London

 
Moving out of the city center, this is the view towards Canary Wharf, where my offices were located, from the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Inexplicably, I cannot locate any shots of the same vista from the top of the hill in the Greenwich Park, which provides a significantly more dramatic perspective. All pictures we took there were with one of our visiting dignitaries in them. Still, this view approximates the one we lingered to take in on probably a hundred occasions.
 

View to Canary Wharf from the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London

 
A considerably less dramatic view is next. This is Abbey Road. As a lifelong Beatles fan I was pleasantly surprised one day to realize that our good friends lived right around the corner from this intersection. We walked across the street at the same spot where the Fab Four had shot their famous album cover quite a few times.
 

The famous Beatles Abbey Road crossing, 40 years later

 
My thoughtful eldest child presented me with a blown-up poster of the album cover a couple of years ago, which hangs in my study. Despite the nearly 40-year interval between that picture and mine, I can still see the resemblance. The white garden fence remains the same, even if today it is practically completely covered with handwritten notes from the fans who make pilgrimage here.

You are unlikely to set foot in Blackheath if you come to London as a visitor. It is a picturesque village abutting a large meadow in Southeast London that was close enough to our place of residence to host us one way or another almost weekly. This tranquil pond in one of its corners stirs many good memories.
 

A corner of Blackheath, Southeast London

 
Becky went to school literally a couple of minutes away by foot from this spot. She walked by here more frequently than any of us.

My parting shot is not a vista or even a street corner. This mushroom stand happens to remind me of the fantastic feast for senses that is the Borough Market.
 

Mushrooms at the Borough Market, London

 
Quite a few great memories in these pictures. I’m making this enjoyable for at least one person, for sure. 😉

Travel

The NY Giants victory parade

February 7th, 2012

I don’t get these victory parades. You stand in the crowd for several hours. You block passage for people who actually have business walking down the streets that the mob you’re part of is blocking. You have to exercise a significant bladder control above and beyond your normal exertion. And then a bunch of double-decker buses with people whom you’ve never seen in your life goes by, interspersed with some marching bands. And a few floats carrying your conquering heroes. Only the floats move at such a brisk pace that you can at best get just a glimpse of the people you came to see. Total cumulative amount of gratification: sixty seconds, tops.

I guess I am just not a hard-core fan, for all of my overall interest in sports.

The bright side for me and my co-workers was in the fact that the office windows come out directly onto the parade route. So, for about an hour, everyone including senior managers dropped what they were doing and lined up by those windows. A nice break. I made a few dozen shots, but none were exciting. I am posting one picture solely as a proof of participation.
 

 

New York City & Environs