Burlington, Vermont

We visited Burlington, Vermont on the coldest days of the winter. And from what we’ve heard those cold temperatures were rare even for Vermont standards. It was like we hit the lottery of the coldest days. Yay. Despite the chill, we managed to survive and enjoy ourselves in this town on the shores of Lake Champlain.

We drove north on Wednesday, the first day of the year (Happy New Year!), and we made it to Burlington in four hours. We kept the driving speed low, and we had to stop a couple of times to clear the windshield, as the Golf’s washer nozzles weren’t working–they were either frozen, or the pump had died. The mountains we were driving through were covered with snow. The sky was pale blue with interesting cloud formations. And it was cold, about -1F by the time we reached Burlington.

H. had kept the place we were staying a surprise for me; he kept saying that it was sort of a Motel 7, as in “a slightly better version of a Motel 6”. Of course he was joking, as he has excellent taste (I mean, seriously, look who he is dating *cough, cough*), and he booked us a room at this amazing bed and breakfast called Made Inn Vermont (okay, the name is not that amazing, but anyway…). The place was beautifully decorated in a whimsical way, free of floral patterns and other decor associated with your typical inn. Our room was pretty big, and it featured a record player with a decent record collection, a guitar and a ukulele, books, a black wall where you could create your own chalk art and LED lights around the bed.

We spent a little bit of time at the inn, there were so many cool things to see and explore. Everything was tastefully put together. I really liked the art on the walls, made by the owner’s daughter: acrylic/ink drawings with a screen over them which gave them a ghostly character, same with the monochrome grey/black framed rectangulars along the hallway by the staircase. Slightly spooky and dark. The common sitting room downstairs was beautiful and it was connected to the breakfast area. Linda, the owner (who by the way also decorated the inn) offered us sangria, Heady Toppers and other snacks, which was nice.

We braved the -1F, feels like -19F temperatures and walked the couple of blocks to Church Street, a pedestrian way lined with stores and restaurants. Since it was New Year’s Day most places were closed. But we did check out the record store, the book store and another store selling all things Vermont. We had tea at Dobra Tea (I had the excellent herbal tea made from local herbs). We then went to dinner at Leunig’s, a French bistro and had an amazing meal. We drank some Glug, their warm holiday punch, which was perfect for the cold weather. I had the salmon with the roasted beet risotto, and H. had the macadamia and yuzo crusted mahi mahi. Both were delicious, and when H. asked the waitress for the recipe for the mahi mahi, she responded with a curt “we don’t give out our recipes”. Oh, well. Leunig’s was one of the dining recommendations from my friend Ryan who grew up in Burlington, so thanks Ryan.

Walking back to the inn in the cold was not pleasant. I was alright overall, but it was difficult to breathe in the cold air. And despite the two pairs of socks and tights, my toes were numb by the time we reached the inn. Our room was warm and cozy, and we chilled out listening to records, despite the owner’s repeated reminder about the available HBO on our TV (I don’t watch TV when I’m home, I am definitely not going to watch TV when I am on vacation).

The second day in Burlington was even colder than the first. Everything outside looked frozen. We had a delicious breakfast to fortify us for the day. We wanted to explore around despite the -11F, feels like -32F temperature. The original plan was to go skiing, but we wouldn’t enjoy it in this chill. We drove to Shelburne Bay Park, and walked for a little bit around in the woods, but it was impossible to stay outside in the brutal wind for longer than 10 minutes.  I sort of liked the look of the frozen bay, looking desolate and devoid of any sound.

We went to Shelburne Farms and our visit was limited to the store, where we sampled cheeses, jams and mustard. I bought the clothbound cheddar and the smoked cheddar, as well as a delicious strawberry rhubarb jam, a spicy honey mustard and maple syrup, all locally produced at the farm. Then we checked out the Shelburne Museum, where only one gallery was open. Since we were the only guests the guide graciously gave us a tour and talked about the exhibits, which included old signs, carriages, doll houses, toys and paintings. The most interesting thing to me was the pentimento effect on one of Browere’s paintings about the adventures of Rip van Winkle: you can see the faded form of the girl behind the dog, pretty neat.

And then it was beer tasting time! Our first stop was Fiddlehead Beer Company, a small and new brewery, where we tasted their three beers, the AltBier, and their two IPAs. Although I am not a big fan of IPAs, especially in the winter, I liked all their beers, and bought some AltBier for myself. After that we headed to Magic Hat, which of course is a much larger brewing company. We took the tour and then tasted some of their beers.  There were a couple of more breweries along the way we could have stopped at, but we were pretty tired. For dinner we went to Trattoria Delia, yes, exactly, an Italian restaurant, that had a beautiful fireplace, and stone and wood interior. By the end of the day I felt like I had gained ten pounds, as we were seemingly eating and drinking the whole day. But then again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  Thus concluded our second day in Vermont, which also happened to be my birthday. Nice to know I can handle extremely cold temperatures, although being from the Mediterranean I am certainly not designed for them.

And just like that the next day came and it was time to head home. Another good breakfast at the inn, another bloody cold day outside. We drove along Lake Champlain, where we witnessed the pretty neat effect of steaming fog. A little bit more driving around Burlington and the University of Vermont. Then we hit the I-89 south, and that was it, so long Burlington, Vermont. You are beautiful and interesting. We shall be back, some time in the Spring or the Summer when everything around us will be green instead of frozen, and when we can stay outdoors for longer than ten minutes at a time. Au revoir.

(See here for more photos from my trip to Vermont.)

The blizzard of 2013

The blizzard of 2013 was not technically a blizzard, but it was certainly a big snowstorm with strong winds and 26″ of accumulated snow — in Cambridge at least. (It wasn’t a blizzard because the wind and visibility criteria were not met. “By definition, a blizzard occurs when the following happens: winds reach a sustained speed or frequent gusts of 35 miles per hour at the same time the visibility is at or less than one-quarter mile due to snow or blowing snow.”)

Even before the first snow flake fell we knew it was going to be a big storm. TV, radio, on-line media was going crazy about the storm. And when it comes to weather events I just get sucked into the hype. I normally do not watch much TV, but when there is a storm coming up I can’t get enough of the weather forecasts. I mean, all of the weather forecasts, on every channel, non-stop. But in the end Harvey Leonard on Channel 5 is my trusted weather source. What I didn’t really get into was the name Nemo: I guess the Weather Channel started a thing where they name snowstorms, and this one was named Nemo. Hurricanes do have official names, but to me unofficially starting naming snow storms is a little too much.

The forecast was calling for the storm to start around noon on Friday, so the office closed at 11 a.m. I went to Whole Foods to get a couple of things, and it was so busy, it looked like a Market Basket wannabe. It started snowing lightly on Friday afternoon and intensified on Friday night into Saturday morning. In addition to the standard snow emergency procedures that go with a forecast of 2-foot snow accumulation, the Governor of Massachusetts issued a travel ban starting 4 pm on Friday, virtually banning all travel from all the roads in the State. The ban was largely heeded, and anyone breaking the ban would be subject to $500 fine and up to a year in prison, we were told. Travel ban aside,  I had to go from North Cambridge to Spring Hill in Somerville and back, and I had to drive. So I drove. The streets were eerily quiet, the empty streets coated with snow. I saw people cross country skiing and a few people walking around. Driving down Highland Ave I found a deserted street, with flashing lights of police cruisers and plows, and a couple of lone figures trying to walk against the wind. Thankfully I wasn’t stopped by the police. And even if I were, I had prepared a list of excuses to get away with it.

The winds picked up late Friday night and the snow was coming down heavier. When I got up on Saturday morning everything looked blanketed with snow. Mass. Ave and the bike path were completely covered by seemingly deep snow. It was bright and beautiful. People were walking and cross country skiing along the bike path.

The travel ban was still in effect until Saturday 4 p.m. When I went out for a walk in the afternoon it was quite nice to see people enjoying the snow, kids having a blast. Seven Hills Park at the Davis Square T stop turned into a snowmen park. No cars on the roads meant people on the roads. Walking on the street was much easier than walking on the sidewalks which were pretty much still covered by almost two feet of snow.

The wind drifts created 4 feet high piles at some places. Walking on Highland Ave you could see people had started digging their cars out, cars completely covered with at least a foot of snow. Some side streets looked like they hadn’t been plowed at all. Even where the streets were plowed, the travel lane width was reduced. And trying to clear the snow off sidewalks, driveways and cars did not get any easier as there was no room to put the snow.

I finally made it to Spring Hill in Somerville with my right hand almost frozen. I helped shovel a sidewalk and driveway, and actually that was my first time shoveling.  The snow was light, but still my shoulders and upper back got really sore. And that made me appreciate the fact that my car is parked in a parking garage and the sidewalk around my building is shoveled by a crew.

Later in the evening I walked to Harvard Square, and it was quite something to walk around the quiet city. Everything looked beautiful covered in fresh white snow. But what I enjoyed the most was the silence. Walking everywhere made me think of our ancestors, who at some point in our history did just that, they walked everywhere.

On Sunday things slowly started to return to normal. More plowing, more shoveling, more digging out. Mountains of snow in every intersection made driving and walking dangerous, and you could see dump trucks hauling snow away. It is now raining, so the snow is getting heavier. Most catch basins are under feet of snow, and the streets are already looking messy. This week is supposed to be rather warm and there will be some snow melt, but I wonder how long it will take for the last of the 26″ of snow to go away.

Bye bye Instagram

Instagram published their new terms of use yesterday going in effect on January 16, 2013, wherein they pretty much stated they can use the content you post on Instagram however they please, including selling it to advertisers. But don’t worry user, you still own the content. Brilliant, isn’t it?

Instagram started as a fun way to post-process photos with standard filters and share photos. I followed a bunch of people, and had fun looking through their photos, “liking” photos I, well, liked, or rolling my eyes when it was yet another photo of someone’s boring & bored cat, doing nothing exceptional or cute. (Cue the internet’s collective gasp in horror.)

But there came a point when things changed. Facebook bought Instagram for a cool billion dollars, but you knew the fun would end once facebook was involved. Starting last week Instagram photos were not being displayed on twitter streams, requiring clicking on the Instagram link to see the photo. And now the updated terms of use, which copy those of facebook, will make me stop using the service.

Yes, sure it is a free service, and they can have whatever terms of use they want. It is up to me, the user, to decide whether I accept them or not. And, sure owner facebook has to make money somehow. It is just that the way they are trying to make money is rubbing users the wrong way. It is a sneaky, indirect way. I suppose it would be OK if they just showed ads on my stream like FB does, but deciding they can sell my images because I am using their service is pretty disagreeable. Under the new terms of use, I am not using Instagram anymore. That simple.

I am now back to using flickr only. I’ve been using flickr much longer than I’ve been using Instagram, and I always posted my instagram photos on flickr too. flickr has certainly a different feel from Instagram. On flickr I am not that much into “faving” photos, or having too many contacts.  When I first started using flickr I didn’t use it as a social media tool, but rather as a central storing place. I see it more as a place to have all my photos I want to share with other people. I choose to pay for a pro flickr account. I pay $25 a year, I have unlimited photo and video uploads, unlimited number of photos in photostream, no ads. Plus the flickr app was recently updated with post-processing tools such as filters and basic edits, and there is an obvious turn to make it more of a social media and sharing site.

As I set my Instagram account to private and will never use again, I remember another service I liked a lot, but is not anymore, upcoming.org. That was a pretty cool free site where users were posting upcoming events and shows, and you could check what you were attending, as well as see what other users were attending. But then it was sold to yahoo!, and it got ugly and full of ads, and I don’t think anyone is using it anymore. On to the next thing.

When One Of My Photos Appeared On A Book Cover

I take photographs. Occasionally I take lots of photographs. When I have time I might edit them, and then post them on flickr. Occasionally, someone sees one of my photos and they contact me to see if they can use them in their website. Most of the time, people just use them in their blogs or twitter or facebook by simply linking to the flickr image, or just provide a short credit with my flickr username. I usually decline use of my images for commercial purposes: I am not a professional photographer, and I would rather see a business hire a professional photographer for images they would like to use on their website or other publications.

Back in April of this year, a writer contacted me regarding one of my photographs. It was one I had taken during the snowstorm of January 2011, titled “SnowDay Love“. I was walking on the bike path towards Davis Square and there was this couple holding hands walking toward me. All was white with snow, the trees at Seven Hills Park forming a nice arch overhead. Everything was beautiful and I was really happy with the photograph.

The writer –Tom Weston of Boston – said they had discovered my photograph on flickr. He sent me a very nice email with a brief description of the book, as well as a draft of the conceptual design for the book cover asking for permission to use my photograph. This is how he described his book:

I can think of no one deserving of a wider audience than Lise Meitner, the protagonist of FISSION. Based on the life of the real Lise Meitner, it is the story of a woman who overcame sexism, fascism and two world wars to discover nuclear fission and spark the race for the atomic bomb. FISSION begins in 1906 Vienna, as Lise becomes the first woman to obtain a PhD in physics from the University. It follows her to Berlin where she rises to be the Director for Physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and endures as a Jew in 1930’s Germany, before she flees the country, one step ahead of the Nazis. Exiled in Sweden, on a walk through the snow on Christmas day, Lise discovers nuclear fission. Following her discovery, she is lauded as Woman of the Year, but is ultimately betrayed and controversially denied the Nobel Prize. All of this plays out against the backdrop of the 20th century: the fall of the Austrian Empire, two world wars and the atom bomb at Hiroshima. Lise’s story is packed with many famous people from that period: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Adolph Hitler, Eleanor Roosevelt, President Truman and Kaiser Wilhelm II, to name a few.

Lise Meitner sounded like an exceptional woman with a very interesting story. I was intrigued. And as I mentioned Tom was very nice, he said that although they could not offer me monetary compensation (he is self-publishing), they would credit me in the copyright page and offer a complementary copy of the book once it is published.

Oh, yes, the inevitable lack of monetary compensation. Under other circumstances, I would say no. But I liked the story, Tom was very polite, and I was flattered that someone wanted to put a photograph of mine on their book cover. I replied to him granting permission to use the photograph under certain conditions: I will retain the copyright of the photograph, they will have to credit me in the copyright page, the permission is for the image to be used on the hard cover and paper back book covers only and only of those published by his publishing company, if they would like to use it for any additional material or purposes they would have to ask for permissions again, and finally I asked for three copies of his book singed by him once it is published.

Tom accepted, and offered three hard cover and three paper back copies of his book, all signed by him (there’s some compensation after all). After that he sent me a couple of quick email updates, and it was great to hear that ‘FISSION’ was published in August (it can be purchased from amazon here).  In early October I received my three copies, with a very nice thank-you note. I look forwarding to reading the book soon.

This is a photograph of the book:

And this is the original photograph:

HONK! Festival 2011

This past weekend HONK! invaded Somerville. It was the once-a-year crazy scene with awesome brass and marching bands flooding Davis Square. It was the time of the year when young and old glow joy. HONK! is the festival of activist street bands, and the crowd is invited to participate and show support for the message. What is the message? You can read it here, but by just looking around I could see support for democracy, peace, sharing, the environment. It’s also about participating in the fun, and that’s not really a tough one to do.

It was fun wandering around. By the end of the day Saturday the square was overcome with the smells of HONK!: sweat, multiple varieties of body odor, pot. And then Sunday was the great parade when the bands joined by various groups, march down Mass Ave from Davis Square in Somerville to Harvard Square in Cambridge. You see policemen, Mayors, cross-dressers, people on stilts, people-wheels (you know, like a hamster-wheel but with people instead of hamsters). You see weird, you see crazy, but it is all fun and it is all good. HONK! is just another thing that make me love my neighborhood.

I took some photographs, you can see the full set here.

Disconnection / Connection

I spent the past weekend in New York City. I walked a lot around the city, which resulted in bruised calves and a sore Achilles tendon. While the body got tired, the eye got full of new and familiar images, and I felt surrounded by that special NYC vibe that I have become to love.

On Sunday, my last day there, I went to Staten Island. I took the Staten Island ferry from the Whitehall terminal in lower Manhattan. The ferry is free and quite big, it holds up to 4,450 passengers. It offers nice views of downtown and lower Manhattan, as well as the Statue of Liberty, all lovely. When we arrived at Staten Island, I got off the ferry and walked along the path by the water, and came to a memorial. It turned out it was Postcards, Staten Island’s 9/11 Memorial, honoring its residents who died that day. The vertical stones look like envelopes, and on the inside you could see the names of the honored. It was a bright, sunny day, the blue sky was decorated with white puffy clouds, and there was a nice breeze. The flags made nice contrast with the blue sky as they were blowing in the breeze. I kept walking until I reached the end of the path, and then decided to go back towards the terminal.

When I came to the Memorial again, I saw there were four or five people around. There are many benches around there, so I decided to sit for a little while and rest my tortured feet. I sat on one of the stone benches. I sat on one half of the bench, not exactly in the middle. All other benches were empty. A minute later a woman came and sat next to me. It was somewhat awkward, since she had to sit close to me to fit on the bench. And, of course, it was quite strange, since there were so many other benches around, empty. There was even an empty one right next to mine. I had the urge to stand up and go sit somewhere else. I kept thinking “seriously, lady, there are like 10 other empty benches around, and you come and sit right next to me? Why?”. Under normal conditions I would sigh, look at her irritated, and go sit somewhere else. But at that point, I was very tired, both emotionally and  physically, so I just sat there. I didn’t move. I tried to be less annoyed. I looked out to the water, while wishing she wouldn’t talk to me, as I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I was enjoying the silence.

The precious silence was broken, when the woman started humming. My first reaction was disbelief, “Seriously?”, I thought to myself. “What is next?” Everything was getting annoying again. Then a little bit later, I realized her humming was not irritating me. It was actually soothing. I did not recognize the tune, if any, but it was agreeable. It was like my private soundtrack for a beautiful day at the Postcards memorial on Staten Island. I went along, I was willing to accept what was happening. It was all slightly absurd, but it turned out pleasant.

A couple of minutes later a man came over, and started talking to the woman. In French. I do not know if it was Canadian French or French, I cannot tell the difference in the accent. They both looked like tourists, cameras hanging from their necks. They looked to be in their mid 50s. The man asked a question. As I do not speak French, I didn’t understand what he had asked. The woman ignored him and kept humming. A minute later the man asked something again, and the woman gave an abrupt answer, or at least that’s how it sounded. Then the man lodged himself on our bench, putting the woman in the middle between him and me. I’m sure we looked absurdly entertaining: at least ten benches around us empty, and we three people sitting on one bench, looking cramped. I was occupying one half of the bench, and they, the other half. I made a slight move, one inch to my right to give them more room. The dialogue between them consisted of short sentences, then silence. Three minutes later they left.  “Well, that was weird”, I thought to myself. I was glad I had the bench back to myself.

I looked at the path, and there was a woman pushing a stroller talking on her cellphone coming towards my direction. There was a little black poodle with a tennis ball in his mouth walking along with her. The dog came right up to me, and placed his tennis ball right next to my foot. I had my legs somewhat stretched out in front of me, so that my legs, the ground and the vertical surface of the bench were forming a triangle. The dog wedged itself in that triangle under my legs. He was moving his little body pressing against my legs, while wagging his tail. Was he asking to be petted? I didn’t pet him. I smiled. The woman called the dog, and in an instant he was gone.

I found both incidents slightly strange. A woman and a dog demonstrating something that looked like a need to be close to me, to be around me. I felt like some sort of magnet in that peculiar quiet setting. What had attracted them to me? Earlier someone had commented on my unwillingness to touch and be close. Did I look lonely? Did I send out come-close-to-me signals? I felt quite the opposite, I felt like I wanted to be on my own, alone and think. Perhaps I looked sad, because I felt sad.

There is a sense of irony in having strangers briefly cancel the alienation from people I was feeling that day. An abbreviated connection took place. For an instant it felt like a random woman and a random dog wanted to reassure me that there would always be someone around, I would not be alone. It was good to know.

Hey Look!

It only took me four months to post these Chihuly photos on flickr! Back in May, I visited the Dale Chihuly exhibition ‘Through The Looking Glass’ at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was big, flashy, loud and glassy. And sometimes it was impressive. You would go in, look around, take photos, exit through the gift shop, spend money on Chihuly-approved merchandise. I did all the above with the exception of spending money. I took some photos with my other than the iPhone camera, you know, a real camera, and in typical fashion I procrastinated seemingly forever to review, edit and upload them.

So, yes, now that the exhibition is over, a month after the chaotic last days when the lines stretched all around the museum block and people waited for hours to see it, now that no one cares anymore, I have posted the photos on flickr (you can click here for the slideshow). Here are some of my favorites: