Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why Chelsea Galleries are for Everyone, Despite What Maybe the People who Work There Think

I love Chelsea, and I want everyone else to love it too. I think it's one of the great examples of the multicultural, democratic, high-low mishmash that is New York City. And, it's a relatively contained and easy-to-navigate neighborhood that's conducive to walking, wandering & stumbling on weird stuff, which is also a quintessentially NYC activity that every visitor should experience.

The Chelsea I'm talking about is the gallery area, which runs from roughly, 14th Street to 26th Street, west of 10th Avenue to the water, with the highest concentration being between 22nd Street and 26th Street. This is a neighborhood of old warehouses that in the 90s became the place for cutting-edge contemporary art galleries. The real-estate was cheap, the old brick buildings were generally single-story, with incredible, looming, industrial skylights and you could--and still can--get away with doing weird stuff like digging a enormous hole through the gallery floor into the dirt below. Not that everyone would consider that to be art or enjoy looking at it.

Which brings us to my primary point about why I like Chelsea so much. The layout of the galleries fosters a you-be-the-judge experience. There are so many galleries, on street level, and they're usually just one room, so you can walk in, take a look, and if you think it's boring or ugly or offensively stupid or you don't like it or just don't get it, you walk right back out. No gallery requires a commitment in terms of time or money, like a museum would (admission is 100-percent free, everywhere, and yes I'm aware that free does not need the modifier 100-percent, 'cause either it's free or it ain't, but just for fun, indulge me....), and there's not that pressure to stand respectfully in front of a masterpiece. You spend the day walking around outside, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, and looking at artworks, one or two of which might speak to you. You can regroup at a tapas bar or an Irish pub afterwards and ask your companion, "Did you like anything?" and "Why?" and "What do you think it meant?" And your guess will probably be as good as anyone's.

I find the art world to be largely stifling and full of shit, but Chelsea, itself, is freeing. And that thought gets me all teary on how I think New York City is the center of the free world (despite the fact that previous US presidents made 'freedom' a dirty word), but that is a matter for a different posting. Try it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Devi Cafe, Moscow:Possibly the best Indian resaurant outside of India at the Institute of International People's Friendship

Three years after moving away from Moscow, this is the only restaurant that I actively miss. (And ok, sometimes the Noev Kovcheg for hangover delivery food. That will occasion its own writeup someday, I promise.) So, the place is Devi Cafe, and it is at 21 Mikluka Miklaya. The address is only half the story, though, as the place is very hard to find. As with so many Moscow venues, it's hidden in the basement of one of many poorly marked buildings in a courtyard. You have to walk past a schlagbaum or step over a little chain to even get into the courtyard, so the journey feels wrong from the inception. We've been to Devi Cafe a dozen times and we still sometimes get lost and have to wander around the wonderfully weird environs of the International Uni, looking for it. This is the only place in Moscow (all of Russia?) that's truly ethnically mixed up, and on nice days there will be brilliant groups of black Africans and Asians and other sort of diffident and lost-looking young people playing badminton on the walkways, hanging out, smoking, selling CDs, etc. It is bizarre and I love it. The uni's full name is something like The Institute of International People's Friendship Named After Patrice Lumumba and I guess it's a good, cheap option for students without a lot of money whose home countries don't have good schooling options. But what must these enterprising young people from warm, friendly places make of the hideous post-industrial sprawl on the outskirts of Moscow? Not to mention the weather and the virulent racism? Wow. Also this restaurant is a 20 minute walk from Ug-Zapadnaya Metro, at the end of the red line. I hesitate to recommend trying to find it to any but the most experienced travelers.....

But onward! Find it if you can. It's down a flight of stairs past an Indian grocery. The telly will be blaring Bollywood or obscure sporting events, the waiters speak good English and every single dish is sublime. The raita comes in a tall copper vessel and is thick with various vegetables & laced with cucumber and dill. I've never seen it like that anywhere else before. Otherwise can't remember specific dishes but I think it may be impossible to go wrong.

Friday, October 23, 2009

So you're curious about the difference between Russian perfective and imperfective verbs, are you?

The following is my work of mad genius on a topic I have contemplated for way, way too long: Perfective and Imperfective verbs in Russian.

I was confused for years about when to use perfective v. imperfective, despite the fact that I of course do it correctly in English all day long...I just don't know I'm doing it. (Or I didn't know I was doing it, until learning Russian. That's one of the great things about picking up a second or third language; insights into the languages you already speak.)

So, as you probably already know, or will learn soon, each Russian verb comes as a perfective-imperfective pair. (Verbs of motion in Russian sort of have this too, but are much more complicated, so best to forget about them for this discussion.) Every time you learn a verb, you need to memorize both forms.

People tend to get bogged down here in a few ways. There are some kinda-rules about forming the perfectives. Also sometimes perfectives are made just by adding a prefix to the imperfective form, so you might think, Ah, There is a Method to This Madness. Trust me, it's not that helpful in the beginning. It is best to let knowledge about those rules & prefixes to accumulate as it may without trying to make too much sense of it. Ditto, the meaning of the prefixes. This will only confuse you when you're trying to choose a verb tense. As you get more sophisticated, you'll enjoy knowing the meaning, but you don't need it to use the verbs correctly. Also, just don't worry about the rare cases when your teacher tells you that there's no perfective, or no imperfective, or that it isn't really used or whatever. People tend to fixate on stuff like that, like "ahhh, it's even more confusing". Forget about it.

Here is how to do it:

When you are using a verb in the present tense, always use the imperfective. There is no present-perfect, so this is easy.

When you need to say something in the past or the future, your default verb is the perfective. This is your simple, "I did X or Y", "I'm gonna do X or Y" form. I've told this to Russian teachers and they all scream and say, no, it's not really more common or simple, etc., but for me thinking of it this way has been a godsend in terms of picking the right verb. Yesterday, I scheduled a meeting. (perfective) Yesterday, I gave X a gift (perfective). Tomorrow, I'm going to wash my face and read the newspaper (perfective). And so on.

The only time you want to use the past imperfective, or the future imperfective, is when you're saying something imperfective. That's anything that in English you would use a verb tense like, "I had been reading" "I will have been reading" "I was reading my book when X happened"...i.e. to indicate a continuing action. I'm sure your Russian teacher will tell you at length, better than I can, what "imperfective" means.... An uncompleted action, any action that you are speaking about in general, that you are specifying that you do every day or as a matter of habit, or for a specific duration of time.

I often got confused about this because, say, I was going to say, "Tomorrow I'll get up and wash my face." I would think, "well, that's something I do every day, thus it's habitual, etc., maybe I should use imperfective." No. You use the perfective, unless you are *specifying* that the action is either a) usual, or b) in the process of going on.

Yow. Ok. Well I hope that might help. In my experience with learning Russian, I'd spend years struggling to really grasp a point of grammar, and then once I did, I'd find a really easy way of organizing it mentally so I wouldn't forget it. Then I'd wish the teacher had just told me that easy way in the beginning. But I'm not sure, actually, that anyone gets to skip the lengthy-confusion period. !

Probably you aren't going to Pakistan, but....

I don't have a Pakistan destination page, and I'm unlikely to be starting one anytime soon, though since I know a few journalists and war-photographers, I may have more of a line on the place than I think I do. However, if I did have a Pakistan destination page, I would put this album and video on it.

The artist is a Swedish folkie named Victoria Bergsman, who was a singer for The Concretes before launching her solo project, Taken by Trees. For her second album, East of Eden, she went to Pakistan and did some gonzo recording with local musicans playing traditional middle eastern instruments. National Geographic also did a brief docu-film on the trip, which might show up below if I've done my coding right. If not, you can see it here:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Locanda Verde in the new De Niro hotel, NYC

In my 20s, I never went to nightclubs partially because I couldn't get my head around a plan for the evening that involved Maybe Not Getting In. In hindsight, it seems like it should have been pretty simple to try it and then move on, but especially in NYC the club would be somewhere inconvenient on the West Side and you'd be trying to meet friends and my prime potential-clubgoing years were pre-cell-phone.... Anyway, I never set foot in any of those places, the Tunnel, the Limelight, the Roxy (? was that even the name?) unless some better-connected friend had put me on the list.

I bring this up because nowadays I have a similar attitude about getting a table at a hot restaurant. I can almost never get excited about showing up at a place that might make you wait for an hour--and even then might not seat you, when, you know, you're hungry and it's loud and crowded by the bar, if there is even a bar to wait at, etc. This, is, however, I guess how the zillions of people without restaurant-world-pull try these places. Also not that into dining at 5:30 or 10:30. Last night, however, I did manage to dine at Locanda Verde, which is the new restaurant from the chef Andrew Carmellini in Robert De Niro's Greenwich Hotel, and it was both delicious and seemed not-that-impossible to get in. I called same-day got a table for two at 8:30 (it was a monday, but still). We showed up at 7:30, hoping that the table might free up earlier, and they told us that the wait for walk-ins was about an hour. There was a big bar there to wait at/ by and two cute places across the street where one could also drink and wait. Probably should be talking more about the food than the logistics but, what do you want, a place like this with such great buzz and such a wonderful chef is going to be, and was, delicious. We had a great time--celebrating a big professional milestone for Ivan--and thought it was a perfect New York evening.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Toska b mine 4ever

Traveling a lot has made me into an opera fan—somehow, it becomes the kind of thing you do when you're in a foreign city that's known for opera and you aren't sure what else to do. If that makes sense. Like, the same way I've ended up at random classical music concerts in St. Petersburg and Vienna.....

In Moscow especially, it's easy to get great, last-minute seats at the Bolshoi, and the programs offer both English and Russian libretto, which is often just-possible to read in the dim light. (Making this one of the few original-language entertainments that is also semi-doable for tourists.) What you want in Moscow is a Russian opera deep off the shelf--Ivan Susanin, Mazepa, some impenetrable stuff about wars between Russia and Poland that no one has ever heard of, full of big, whirligig set pieces of apple-cheeked singing peasants. What's to like about this? Maybe that....the Bolshoi hasn't been rationalized? The financial pressures that cause opera companies (along with every other form of modern entertainment) to cater to the wallet of the audience haven't penetrated the deepest cultural corners of Post-Soviet Russia, allowing the Bolshoi to continue to mount these moldering, fabulous, ancient productions. Cultural treasures of a vanished world.

In London, I saw a hyper-modern, monochromatic Macbeth once, alone, and drank pink champagne at intermission & marveled at the Brits' sophisticated opera house and superior design sense. But the voices were like drills to the skull.

New York is warmer. The talent is the best in the world (like London, unlike Moscow), the Met's staging of Eugene Onegin is my favorite ever, but....I tend to find the performances distancing. Don Juan, The Barber of Seville, it's all slick & virtuoso and the music is great but I've never had an emotional connection to the show itself. Opera as art for this world, has never been an issue. Until! Funnily, yesterday, at the critically panned new staging of Tosca. There's been a lot of flap about Tosca getting boos, and people have found the new performance unnecessarily idol-bashing, accused the director of adding stuff that shouldn't be there, etc. I went with dread. I'd dragged my poor father down from Boston to go to a matinee. And you know, braced for the worst is always the best way to be blown away by something. This was the first time I cried at an opera, the first time that I felt the humanity of the characters and found some today's-reality in an opera theme. The story is about a painter (Caravadocci) and his singer-lover (Tosca) who because of love and an old friendship with a political rebel, run afoul of their corrupt and brutal government (manifested by the evil police chief Scarpia). Arts & humanity verses power and corruption is a very relevant theme for today's world, for me, at least; individuality and goodness against faceless systemic evil should resonate with all of us.

The sets, loudly complained about, reference prison, concentration camp, brutalist architecture and I found them to be absolutely necessary to bring in the sense of evil, power and corruption that Tosca and her lover, and the music itself, as a thing of surpassing human beauty, are reacting against. I don't know what Puccini would have intended, since his music is so warm & lovely & baroque, but against the death that the director created onstage, this music became a benediction and a lament, luscious, impossible, like Tosca the heroine herself was intended to be, all passion and frailty. Yum. Anyway. This was a brave thing to do, and is such an exciting sign for the new director and the Met. I cannot wait to see what else Peter Gelb comes up with.