Monday, April 28, 2008

The Big Trip: Wellington

I always say, “Serendipity follows me around like a little dog – I just never know when it’s going to bite!”

Wellington is a perfect case in point.

Even though it is the capital of New Zealand, Wellington seemed like it would be a good place to check out NZ flora and fauna since it is home to the world’s first urban wildlife refuge, the Karori Sanctuary.

Our coach tour took us through Wellington’s CBD, past the Beehive (where the Prime Minister and her members of the government have their offices), and up the steep hills into the suburbs. On the way into the sanctuary, I noticed a little green car in the visitors’ parking lot that was plastered with rainbow stickers, including one for Palm Springs, which I took as a good omen.

Before exiting the bus our tour guide pointed out that the Karori folks would be splitting our group into three sections, each to be led through the sanctuary by a trained volunteer. Considering we were sitting with a bunch of yakkity old ladies (and it was the yakking, not that they were old ladies) I thought to myself “so long as we’re in a different group we’ll be fine.”

Then I set eyes on one of the tour guides. He looked sort of like Frodo’s grandfather. Short, slender, balding pate, white fringe, in his 60s, vivid blue eyes, big silver earring, a cute little jade necklace, and a gorgeous pewter bracelet.

“We want to go with HIM,” I whispered to Naoyuki and promptly steered him in that direction.

It took us all of 15 seconds to look each other up and down and have him say, “Are you a couple?” in that marvelous Kiwi lilt. We allowed that we were indeed and he extended his hand saying, “Well, then, welcome to the club!”

His name was Des and he was the perfect tour guide, extremely knowledgeable with respect to both the flora and the fauna, especially the birds. And Naoyuki, of course, is pretty much the perfect eco-tourist, given his botanophilia.

Eventually, after Des had run us and the other members of the group up and down and all around (in other words, completely ragged, considering the steepness of the terrain), he asked if Naoyuki and I would like to go home with him to meet his partner and another couple who were coming down for lunch.

We were delighted by the invitation, of course, and perfectly happy to accept it (and how many places in the world would that be true?) We stopped by another nature preserve on our way to Des and John’s home in the suburb of Ngaio, way up the hill overlooking Wellington.

John, Des’ partner of 20 something years, is 78 to Des’ 68 years old. Widowed, John has two grown daughters who live nearby with their young children live nearby. They're perfectly accepting of Des as their father’s partner and fellow co-grandparent. Des built their house and the steeply sloping lot represents nearly 30 years worth of gardening work on his part.

Over lunch we learned that Des and John were key players in helping secure passage of New Zealand’s Civil Union legislation a few years ago, so much so they were granted Civil Union License 001 and were the first couple in Wellington to have a Civil Union ceremony (in the mayor’s chambers, no less, with a brass band a parade following them to their reception.)

At one point I said, “Oh my gosh! I remember reading about the two of you! I thought ‘Joliff’ (John’s surname) sounded familiar!”

After lunch, the straight neighbor couple (whose names completely elude me) headed home and John and Des took us for a quick tour of town, including a quick visit to the Lady Norwood Rose Garden (sneaky John found us a couple of adorable little NZ bird pins while Naoyuki was drooling over the gigantic begonias in the conservatory) and then a drive through the entertainment district (Courtenay Place) before taking us back to the port and the ship.

Quite the loveliest day of our (totally splendid) cruise!

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The Big Trip: Napier

[Check the January and February archives for previous posts on The Big Trip]

Oh my!

I knew I was slacking on writing up our cruise but here it is almost May and I haven’t gotten beyond our first port of call, Tauranga!

Here’s the scoop on Napier:

The town was flattened by an earthquake in 1931, one so intense it actually elevated the surrounding swampland and thereby tripled or quadrupled the town’s growing room. The ambitious locals decide to rebuild in the “modern style,” namely Art Deco, and now Napier boasts the largest collection of Art Deco buildings of any city in the world.

We did the Art Deco tour, which included (1) a visit to the Art Deco museum, with a gift shop and a film about the earthquake and the rebuilding afterwards, (2) a coach ride to a close-in residential neighborhood with a perfectly restored Late Deco house and a visit to the really exquisite National Tobacco Company building over by the port, (3) a walking tour of the Central Business District (CBD), which boasts more than 100 Art Deco buildings from the 1930s, and (4) tea and scones at the beautifully maintained Hawke’s Bay Club, a former gentleman's club dating back to the 1800s.

After the tour we had lunch at a downtown café and then strolled down the lovely Marine Parade, with beautiful views up and down the coast, to the National Aquarium of New Zealand. The aquarium was nice but not very impressive compared to those we have seen in the States.

Glorious weather, too, as I recall. Sunny but windy and a bit brisk. “But we’re going South,” Naoyuki said. To which I replied, “Yes, towards Antarctica, silly!”

As with Tauranga (and all the other cities we visited in New Zealand) Naoyuki and I were incredibly impressed with the city and its people. Ultra clean, very efficient, very helpful, friendly, and glad to see us. There are definitely some advantages to traveling in a developed country (even if it is pricey!)

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Turning 50

As I told Emily, every time I have another ZERO birthday I feel that much bolder than I did before. Her reaction, "Oh, dear!" is probably appropriate but that's the way it works. At this point in my life I'm over being upset (much) about what other people think.

It was a fun birthday, all in all. As usual with us, it transpired over several days:

(1) The day before, Thursday, April 10, I had my birthday work out with Bally Boy Josh; that evening, Naoyuki and I went by Wegman's for their famous chocolate cake with the fudge frosting.

(2) On the day itself, Friday, April 11, I taught two classes at GCC and staffed the reference desk. I took Dunkin Donuts in to work and my colleagues treated me to pizza for lunch! That afternoon Naoyuki headed to San Diego for his conference. I came home to find my lawn littered with plastic black and white cows and a big sign that said, "Holy Cow, Richard's 50!", courtesy of our across the street neighbor Anita. That evening my friend Jim and I went out to dinner at Cucina Aroma, a nice Italian place off of Elmwood on Bryant in downtown Buffalo.

(3) Saturday I joined Naoyuki in San Diego (see previous post) for 4-5 days of eating out, gadding about, soaking up sunshine, and enjoying that sunny SoCal ambience. Naoyuki greeted me with a bottle of wine and some big ol' Hawaiian beads, courtesy of the Hilo Hattie's in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter.

But the best of all:

On my birthday itself I received e-mail from the University at Buffalo making a tentative offer of the position of Head of the Continuing Resources Division in the University Libraries. If everything works out OK (and we expect that to occur), I will start work (full-time, benefits, decent salary, 5 miles from our house) on Monday, May 19.

After nearly three years of looking, I am finally going to have a real job in Buffalo! It's a great way to turn 50!

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Friday, April 18, 2008

San Diego Trip

Friday Naoyuki flew to San Diego to attend the AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) conference, which draws about 15,000 attendees each year. I had to work Friday (which was also the occasion of my 50th birthday) but I joined him San Diego the next day.

As usual, getting "there" was half the fun. In Naoyuki's case he'd booked his flights with American Airlines, which, readers will recall, was the one having all the trouble last week. We spent three days having neurotic conversations about "what if...?" before he finally decided to buy a cancelable, refundable, one-way ticket from Chicago to San Diego on US Airways. By Friday American had sorted out its maintenance problems with the MD80s so he flew the Chicago-San Diego leg of his flight on American and canceled the US Airways ticket.

I flew out on United, which wasn't having problems, but it turned out the plane we were supposed to take from Dulles to San Diego had a malfunctioning toilet and the captain wasn't willing to fly us across the continent with one of the restrooms down. Eventually they fixed the toilet and we were free to go but we were delayed at least 90 minutes.

I didn't make it to our hotel (the rather plush Coronado Island Marriott Resort) until about 7 p.m. San Diego time (10 p.m. here in Buffalo) and given that I'd been up since 5 a.m. I was pretty zonked. Even so we went to a fairly cool Hawaiian restaurant, Peohe's, right on the water in Coronado with a completely splendid view of downtown San Diego. Nice food, fabulous view.

The next morning we stumbled across Tartine, a wonderful French pastry / sandwich / coffee shop at the corner of 1st and Orange in Coronado. Totally scrumptious food and amazing desserts.
Naoyuki came back from the conference long enough for us to go to lunch at a pasta place in "downtown" Coronado, close to the Hotel Del Coronado.

That afternoon I entertained myself by visiting the (very aptly named) Hole, a long-established gay bar on Lytton, just off Rosecrans and close to the northeast corner of the San Diego airport. Aptly named, in part, because you walk down 15-20 steps to a concrete patio surrounded by a high fence on all sides, with a sort of ramshackle roof over the bar portion. When I arrived (about 2:30 p.m.) there were only 3-4 other customers so I had a nice half hour flirting with the hunky bartenders while they got set up for the Sunday afternoon crowd, which started trickling in about 3 p.m. and was in full-swing (probably 300-400 people and a line waiting to get inside) by the time I left at 4:30 p.m.

I hung out with a tall skinny drag queen, a cute librarian boy (25 years old and a year out of library school at Queens College in NYC), and the librarian boy's fag hag. The night before had been "Raquel's" birthday and she was so blitzed by the time her party was over that she just crashed in the section of the complex known as "B.J. Alley." She (literally) popped up about 3:30, looking for her shoes, which the bartenders had graciously kept in a magnum behind the bar. (And, no, as far as I can tell you just don't get to do these things in Buffalo, more's the pity.)

That evening I took the shuttle bus to the convention center, then Naoyuki and I walked over to Chive, a very chi-chi, nouvelle California cuisine restaurant over on 4th Street. Nifty food but given the crowd and the lack of wait staff the service was a bit slow.

Monday morning I hit Urban Body Gym in North Park while Naoyuki did conference stuff, then we did one of our all afternoon / into the evening car tours. Down the Silver Strand from the Hotel Del to Imperial Beach; back up I-5 to Balboa Park (most stuff was closed, since it was Monday afternoon); a quick drive through Hillcrest; out Rosecrans to Point Loma and the Cabrillo National Monument; back through Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, and Mission Bay to La Jolla; an unplanned detour through University Town Center; along the periphery of UCSD and up to Torrey Pines State Reserve; back to La Jolla for pretty yummy sushi at Toshi San; and back to Coronado and Tartine (yet again) for dessert.

Tuesday morning I vegged out while Naoyuki was at conference and had finally worked up the energy to get some lunch and visit the gym again when he called to say he was done for the day. So I turned around and after we'd changed and lunched headed out again, this time out Interstate 8 through El Cajon, Santee, and so forth to Alpine, where we picked up State Highway 79 for the ride up to Julian, the little mountain town (we'd visited once before) famous for its pies.

Last time we'd visited it was the weekend and so many people were there that we skipped pie. This time it was pretty deserted, so we had our pie (crispy apple for me, cherry-apple for Naoyuki) and coffee, then headed back to San Diego, this time through Santa Ysabel, Ramona, and Poway. On the way up we had been aghast to see how badly charred the area was (presumably from last fall's massive wildfires); apparently the Santa Ysabel-Ramona route wasn't as badly affected. Wildflowers, including California poppies, lupines, and creeping phlox, were all present in abundance, making for a nice visual treat.

That evening Naoyuki's friend, Greg, who has been MIA since leaving Roswell Park in September 2006, picked us up in Coronado and took us to one of his favorite Hillcrest restaurants, the St. Tropez Bistro and Bakery, another lovely little French pastry, quiche, sandwich, coffee shop. (We need some of these in Buffalo, dammit!)

It was nice catching up with Greg after all this time and he really did NOT need to give us that lovely little teapot (but it is quite thoroughly fetching, especially in that 1950s vintage bathroom pink glaze!)

Wednesday morning we did breakfast at Tartine one last time, I did yet another mini-road trip (this one up to Del Mar), then it back to Budget to drop off the car and along to the airport to catch our long flight home.

What a nice way to celebrate one's 50th birthday!

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