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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Montréal

I had very few preconceptions about Montreal. I knew I liked a lot of bands who formed or live there. I knew it was French-speaking (primarily) and famed for its many restaurants and café culture and that was about it. I had been trying not to think about my stay in New York coming to an end, taking each day for what it was and not counting down any time. Soon it was the day before our train to Montreal and we decided to go to Barnes & Noble and pick up the Rough Guide. I spent the 13 hour train journey through upstate New York and the beautiful Adirondack National Park reading the guide, my mouth watering at the restaurant descriptions. I should add that the journey was only supposed to take 10 hours, but some delays along the route and 2 hours at the Canadian border slowed us down somewhat.

Precisely because I didn't know what to expect from it, has meant that my stay in Montreal has been an eye-opening and fascinating experience. It is such a meeting point of different cultural and historical influences. Architecturally it's very Scottish, which surprised me at first. Here I am in North America and the gothic Victorian sandstone buildings are like the ones where I lived in Edinburgh but with brightly coloured balconies! Then, of course, I remember that Scottish and Irish people came in the thousands to Canada at various points of hardship in their respective histories and naturally built in the styles they were used to. But to make things more strange, these buildings are primarily in Francophone areas with North American style cars, streets and chain stores - all very confusing.

The way of life - in the Francophone areas of Plateau Mont Royal, Mile End, Outrement and Quartier Latin at least - seems very relaxed and - dare I say - European, while the more Anglophone downtown definitely seems more like a North American city. Of course, my inclination was to the Plateau! I pictured myself living, eating, shopping, partying up in the Plateau or Mile End and studying with les anglos at McGill. Something to think about, though I don't know if I'd survive the lengthy and freezing Montreal winter - apparently, colder and longer than even Moscow's winter! On a summer evening the terasses on st Denis were packed with young people, people watching and being watched - the classic summer pastime! It felt refreshingly unpretentious and laid back. Visiting Montreal for me was less about sightseeing and more about enjoying this vibe, promenading the avenues and wandering down the side streets.

While we were there it was the Quebec national day and my friend Catherine took us to see and then participate in the parade. It was really interesting to see the highly emotional separatist sentiments and identities in practice, but it got a bit scary when a minority of the paraders started chanting for everything from the internet to the whole of Montreal to be en francais, which seems to me to undermine the curious dynamic which makes Montreal so unique. The parade was definitely enjoyable and we got to try the Quebecoise speciality of Poutine - the ultimate comfort food! My stay in Montreal was a cullinary extravaganza too - more expensive than New York, but lots and lots of amazing French-inspired food - Moules Frites, Confit de Canard, crepes, mousse au chocolat, pain au chocolat...my mouth is still watering.

Of course, a major reason for making Montreal the second stop on my adventure was my love for several bands based there, namely Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and Islands and so I'd hoped to go to a few gigs and see what was going on, especially at Casa del Popolo, but none of the line-ups were that good for while we were there. We did find a lovely little cafe bar on the corner of Boulevard St Laurent and St Viateur Ouest where a band with lots of different instruments (check!) were playing. In this respect it was like the first time I visited Berlin and we were looking for all the 'cool' things but just spent hours wandering around in vain, failing to find anything. It seems much more insider and harder to access than much of NYC, which is well documented in blogs, guidebooks and reputation. Finding all the exciting stuff in Montreal requires more digging than we had time to do.

People keep asking me whether I prefered New York or Montreal. I really couldn't say! They are definitely incomparable and are great for different reasons. I liked having the balance of hectic, fast-paced and gigantic New York and relaxed, compact Montreal in my itinerary - and it was nice to finish my trip on a slow-pace before everything speeds up back here in London. If I was to go to Montreal again (and I certainly hope to!) then I'd do some more research and make more contacts first, but otherwise, it's a brilliant city just to stroll and absorb!

posted by Robbie de Santos at 6/27/2007 02:08:00 pm 0 comments

Monday, June 25, 2007

Lists

I can't be bothered to write about everything I did or saw, so I'll resort to a stream of consciousness list:

-Lunch at Wholefoods, Union Square x 48478475 - why don't we have supermarkets like this in Britain? Oh wait, one has just opened in Kensington and they own Fresh'n'Wild.

-Cupcakes from Magnolia on Bleecker - heavenly!

-Rooftop party in Bushwick, Brooklyn - the view of the Manhattan skyline at 1am and the distance. Also watching Americans dance...hilarity. Even hipsters dance like they are in a teen movie.

-Franz Ferdinand at the Bowery Ballroom - a fairly short set, but I was taken aback by their terrific showmanship; a truly entertaining live band.

-Watching a thunderstorm attack Manhattan from a pier in Long Island City.

-Finally getting to Misshapes on my last Saturday - the music was unfailingly brilliant, I got my picture taken against the mystical white brick wall (!!), but the club was emptier than usual apparently, so the ambience was slightly disappointing.

-Becoming addicted to walking along Brooklyn Promenade and watching the sun set behind Manhattan from Fulton Landing. Then going for amazing Pizza at Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn Bridge.

-Exploring Brooklyn lots - I love Park Slope, I could quite happily live there. I love Fairways supermarket in Red Hook - in fact, I love all the gourmet faux-hippy ueber grocery stores. Brooklyn Heights is stately and feels like posh West London and even has simialr architecture (and then some skyscrapers, of course). I think I'm definitely a Brooklyn boy.

-But Queens is great too. People may turn their noses up at Queens, but it's so vibrant and multcultural that it is more exciting than some staid Manhattan neighbourhoods. I love Jackson Heights which is where Betty Suarez in Ugly Betty is supposed to live. I went there twice and each time it was like stepping into those scenes, the latino music on the streets, the smells of greasy street food, the well-kept latina-chiquitas, the neon lights, the occasional glimpse of the Manhattan skyline reminding you which part of the world you are actually in.

-Each time I saw steam coming from manhole covers I smiled.

-Central Park is a wonderful place to get lost for the day.

-But not on Friday afternoons, as that is when it's free entry to MOMA, Guggenheim and most other museums and galleries. Save yourself some $$$$!

-All the clichees about shopping in New York are true. It is 'great for shopping', the shops are far less busy than in London, they have better stock and better layouts. And they are nicely consolidated in areas like SoHo. There's something about seeing people with lots of shopping bags which makes you want them too. For the best savings visit Levis or other All American brands.

-The L and the G trains! They both had their failings (30 minute waits at night, the L is almost always packed, being stuck in tunnels) but they both delivered me from where I was to where I wanted to be; inevitably Greenpoint, Williamsburg, East Village, Union Square or the West Village.

-Gigs in New York were strange. People applauded every single thing the bands did - ooh a solo! WOOOOO! Oh they had a sip of beer! WOOO BEER! Ooh they said something I couldn't understand! WOO THEY SAID SOMETHING. That was really strange and just a bit too full on. Then other gigs were really staid and nobody danced - that was also strange. Even more strange was how the first four rows was entirely CAMERAS ALOFT, and not just any old cheapy digital cameras - no, SLRs, everyone has one and they are not afraid to snap and flash away for the duration of the set. I think there's an art to taking some good pictures AND getting into a 'show' which needs to be learned. I therefore call for DANCING PHOTOGRAPHERS!

-New York feels amazingly safe. My dad lived there in the late 90s and the NY he painted seems completely different to the present reality. My trusty Time Out 2007 guide is full of the word gentrification but I don't feel like it' been a negative process like it has been in some cities. I also got the feeling that New Yorkers really look out for each other - and tourists too - out of pure pride in NY. So many times in my first few days there when I was frantically trying to find where I was on the map or where the Uptown subway entrance was, people came up and helped me. That would not happen in London.

-Deborah and I saw Maggie Gyllenhall in Williamsburg and I spotted Chloe Sevingy at Misshapes.

-I loved staying in Greenpoint but I wouldn't recommend the YMCA there - we had a MOUSE PROBLEM, which is admittedly better than a rat problem, but it's not nice to hear them scuttling around at night. I became quite OCD about having nothing on the floor (so that they couldn't make any noise) and making lots of noise as I entered the room to give them a chance to get down their hole before I had to see them. Furthermore, the Y didn't have proper curtains and there was roadworks every morning but Sunday, which does not make for good sleeping. It was really cheap to stay there and I probably couldn't have done it any other way (apart from a good sublet or house swap) and it really wasn't all that bad - but if you were to do the same thing, prepare yourself mentally for the possibility of mice (we only saw one!) and maybe call in advance to see if they have sorted it out by then!

-I could quite happily live in New York, but - unless I do a Masters there - I don't think I'll be back for a while so that I can keep it the special place where I had some great adventures after I finished my degree.

posted by Robbie de Santos at 6/25/2007 03:50:00 pm 0 comments

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Eye behind a camera, pass the city music hall

Here are a few random pictures from my first 10 days:





posted by Robbie de Santos at 6/24/2007 06:36:00 pm 2 comments

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I'm not in NY anymore

The rest of my stay in New York went so quickly that I hardly had any time to check my e-mail, let alone think about what I'd seen, experienced and felt and convert those musings into a blog entry. I had an absolutely incredible time and I really feel like I gave it my best shot.

Some of the things I did:
Coney Island and Brighton Beach was a super day out. Coney Island lies at the southernmost tip of Brooklyn (and therefore also Long Island) and was a crazy experience. It is often referenced in pop culture, from films like Pi to songs by Franz Ferdinand (see: Eleanor Put Your Boots Back On). We took a long ride there via Staten Island ferry and then a bus over the Verrazano Narrows bridge before we arrived at the faded pastels of the eccentric peninsula community. We rode the Wonder Wheel and opted for the swinging capsules, which had some swing, but we had some beautiful views of the seafront and Manhattan in the distance. We also plucked up the courage to ride the Cyclone Rollercoaster - a wooden rollercoaster with several near vertical drops. I hadn't been on a proper rollercoaster in 7 years so it was really exihlerating. Pete bought the photo of us as we went down the first big drop and it's hilarious. I didn't realise how brown I was until I didn't recognise myself in the picture. Haha!

Brighton Beach is the next nabe along the coast from Coney Island and it could not be further removed from the Brighton we all know and love (apart from the fact that it has a beach). It is THE Russian neighbourhood in NY, everything is Russian, the people, the clothes, the lettering, the fashions, the restaurants. It was amazing. We went into a couple of shops and they spoke Russian at us - the community is so insular that it's hard to imagine why anyone non-Russian would be there. Luckily some of the useful Russian phrases I'd learnt in Moscow would come in use. We ate in a Georgian restaurant that evening - a delicious three course gigantic meal with wine for a mere £10. Incroyable!

Another really interesting thing was visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, recommended to me separately by my friends Deborah and Beth. The Lower East Side is a pretty hip area these days, with lots of great bars and clubs, snazzy vintage shops and y'know interesting graffiti and good ethnic cheap eats. Like all the 'cool' areas in New York it hasn't always been cool (OMG) and it has been an immigrant area since the 1860s. The museum consists of two preserved tenements with rooms kept as they would have been at different stages in LES' immigration history. There are two tours and ours followed the lives of a family of German Jews who stayed in the building in 1890 and then an Italian family who lived there in the 30s. I'd highly recommend it if you are interested in that kind of thing.

I'll update some more soon. Where we are staying in Montreal (lovely, btw!) has free wi-fi so I'll be updating in my free windows of time more freqently!

posted by Robbie de Santos at 6/23/2007 03:52:00 pm 2 comments

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Big Apple (Store)

I'm in the apple store again because it's raining. I'm slowly becoming a MacPerson, maccing away, being creative, y'know. It's very clever marketing. You pop in out of curiousity - it's a prime retail location, a nice design and voila - you can surf the internets for free (apart from MySpace, strangely - I'm behind on the ol' MySpace) and you learn that the beautiful, clean aesthetics of the Mac are not a compromise of style over function. And they do look good. It's also raining again, crazy style raining. It's hardly rained since I last posted when it was raining, I wouldn't want to under-sell the New York weather because it's been lovely - and not tooooo hot the last few days.

In terms of gigs, I've been to a couple and they were both the Long Blondes. My interest has never waned with the Long Blondes, but these two gigs have been a 'return to form' of the early gigs. Maybe it's because they aren't as big over here, or maybe they realise that pencil skirts are cooler than hot pants, but they were both excellent and convinced me that the LBs are going to be around for a long time, if their new song Guilt is anything to go by! Tomorrow it's Franz Ferdinand at the Bowery Ballroom. It sold out in 20 seconds (!!) and it's an absolutely tiny, beautiful venue. I doubt there is a bad place to stand in the whole room. I'm sure there'll be an exciting support too!

I've swapped bed-guests too. Deborah is back in Denver and Pete is over from London. D and I went to Grimaldi's Pizzeria in Brooklyn Heights on Thursday night - the best pizza I've ever tasted, complete with some mafia-style Italian Brooklyn service. We followed it with some good authentic Italian ice-cream by the East River, watching the Lower Manhattan Skyline glistening on that warm June evening. The sunset before the meal was even more beautiful! On Sunday Pete and I went to Katja's sexy Bushwick warehouse/loft space - it was the dream, views of Manhattan, high ceilings, cool decor and a roof terrace. It was also Puerto Rico day and Bushwick is a big Puerto Rican neighbourhood. The celebrations were crazy, all blue, white and red, music in the streets and the smell of barbecuing...super.

I only have a week left in NY and I've still got loads to do. Hopefully I'll be going to Coney Island on Thursday, Guggenheim on Friday, Top of the Rock on some evening, Little Italy in the Bronx, Soul Food in Harlem...in fact...what the hell am I doing in the apple store?!?!?! I'll write soon.

posted by Robbie de Santos at 6/12/2007 09:07:00 pm 2 comments

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Concert Marathon

Last night I pulled off a three gig's in one evening bonanza, starting at the Pipettes instore at Other Music (SoHo), then on to the Pipettes main gig at the Highline Ballroom (Meatpacking District) before heading down to the Horrors secret last minute show at Pianos (Lower East Side). Very exhausting. The gigs were all interesting - the instore was short, but sweet. Their headline gig featured excellent support in the shape of Marit Bergmann, a Swedish singer-songwriter who was joined by Nina Peerson (of the Cardigans) on back vocals, which was a nice surprise. Smoosh were the main openers and were more confident than when I saw them support the Go! Team last year. The youngest of the Smoosh family came and joined them on bass duties for a couple of songs - so sweet. The Pipettes were good, but the new songs they played lacked the catchy genius of their earlier songs. Whether their success will continue depends greatly on their ability to come up with the magic a second time round. Let's hope they can do it.

The Horrors were loud and frightening. Really scary. I saw them last summer in Berlin and they were very intense, but not really terrifying. This time Faris Rotter was swinging from lighting rigs, lashing out into the crowds, jumping across like some praying mantris. There were hardly any stage lights, just a strobe effect caused by the many photographers trying to document this unbelievable and 'you had to be there' show. The Horrors definitely aren't for everyone, but if you want some theatrics and you don't have a low fear threshold, it should be enjoyable. On an OMG note: Nick Zinner + gf were there as were Dorian and Emma from the Long Blondes, who I am seeing tonight with We are Scientists as not-so-secret openers!

One thing that has really struck me about going to gigs in NY is that people are obsessed with 'hipsters'. In the queue for CSS, the Pipettes instore and also inside the CSS gigs I heard the people behind me discussing the merits of hipsterdom and constantly referring to 'hipsters' as a groups, making them into these unattainable super-beings, yet at the same time identifying themselves as on the peripheries of this intangible movement that isn't a movement. I heard two talking about how hard getting into MisShapes so I turned round and asked how hard it was. They were two gawky 16 year old boys, very nice though, and they quickly explained that they wouldn't know and they only go to free things. I realised then that NY hipsterdom was a very aspirational thing - something that was there for you when you turn 21 and can get into these places, but until then you observe from too far away. When I turned around at the Pipettes main gig to see who was obsessing over hipsters I realised it was the same people who were behind me in the CSS queue, making fun of hipsters yet at the same time identifying as them! The same people! Still talking about it! Hipsters don't exist, they are social constructs evident only when sufficient people believe in them to be a social reality. Don't worry about it all y'all!

posted by Robbie de Santos at 6/06/2007 07:02:00 pm 1 comments

Monday, June 04, 2007

Singing in the Rain

A storm descended over NYC yesterday afternoon and 24 hours later it's raining heavier than ever. It's quite incredible seeing how a sudden change in the weather can transform the idyllic sunkissed, blue-skyed city of tree-lined avenues and beautiful people into a haggard, chaotic and unbearable cacophony of beeping-horns, grid-locked traffic and foot deep puddles. Gross. Maybe it's the fact that I woke up at 6am with the sound of the rain or perhaps that I don't have any suitable attire for this weather (why do I only own canvas shoes?). The good news is that it should hopefully be gone tomorrow and we will see a reutnr to the 28degree heat to which we have become accustomed.

D and I went to a couple more gigs last week. We saw Bright Eyes' show 6 of 7 at Town Hall and it was not as good as the previous night, despite our Row A seats. The guest was off our pop-culture radar (Steve Earle...some old hippy) and then Zea from The Like came on to embarrass herself not knowing the words to the song she was supposed to sing. We saw Cansei de ser Sexy at Irving Plaza, or should I say 'The Fillmore(TM) at Irving Plaza' as it was rebranded last month. That was excellent - they through food out into the crowd (always a winner), did a couple of great covers and were exciting to watch. I got some really good pictures which you'll get to see...in a month. Or sooner if my boyfriend brings over his laptop when he comes on 9th June.

On Saturday we went up to Morningside Heights where Columbia University is - I conteplated the merits and costs of doing a masters there rather than in London. Hmm. Something to keep pondering, but it is quite beautiful up there - one of the only hills in Manhattan and only a stone's throw from Harlem. We went to Harlem too - it was lovely, which isn't the first thing you expect people to say of Harlem. There's so much life on the streets and its political spirit is still alive and well. We saw lots of different groups and individuals preaching - Nation of Islam, the one about Israel, Christians, anti-war people, anti-slavery. We then walked through a park between Harlem and Spanish Harlem where they were having an Afrikafest. There was such a great, positive community spirit there - everyone was out, using the park, having barbecues, banging drums, playing in the playpark. Although it's still riddled with social problems, I think there are some real lessons to be learned from Harlem.

We also took the Staten Island Ferry, explored some more of Brooklyn - including Red Hook which is brilliant, walked up the East Rver from Battery Park to thge East Village - with lots of bench stops to rest our tired feet! Today we are going to take a tour of the UN and see the place where all my essays happen, or something. I'll be seeing the Pipettes at Highline Ballroom tomorrow night and the Long Blondes at our local (kinda) venue, the Luna Lounge on Wednesday. Exciting.

posted by Robbie de Santos at 6/04/2007 05:21:00 pm 1 comments

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