Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rocktober Shocktober

As I sit here on Halloween, rejoicing that I don't have to trick-or-treat or go to any parties (costumed or otherwise), I can reflect on what has been a really surreal month.

When October started, I was really anxious and excited about the UN Security Council vote on 18 October.  We had been talking about "the campaign" ever since my first day at work, though it had been a priority for years before I even arrived.  Energy levels were high, and the anticipation was palpable.  As UN Leaders' Week got into full swing, we hosted visits to New York by the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and their respective delegations.  Timetables had to be kept straight, programs had to be managed seamslessly - it was an all-hands-on-deck affair and we were all strangers to sleep.

Before we knew it, Vote Day had arrived and we were all given jobs to do.  Even though everyone had been working crazy hours and we were all exhausted, we all had just enough puff left to want the day to go over well.  As the General Assembly hall filled up, we all pitched in to help.  We did what we were asked to do, and then we waited with baited breath to see how the dice would fall.  When the President of the General Assembly read out the vote tally for the first round and we realised that Australia had won - and won decisively - we were in total shock.  Then that gave way to elation and excitement.  I was sitting in the gallery with my colleagues and despite my firm no-touch policy, we hugged and smiled.  And we collectively breathed out for the first time in a long time.  It was really a wonderful day.  The first champagne cork popped not long after that, followed by so many others.  Needless to say, the weekend was somewhat of a write-off.

I didn't visit the General Assembly Hall for a few weeks after that.  Indeed it wasn't until last Monday - UN Day - that I headed back.  This time, I had tickets to the UN Day concert, hosted by Stevie Wonder and friends.  Yep, THAT Stevie Wonder.  I'm not sure I would have bought tickets to a Stevie Wonder concert, but I was curious about how they would stage the concert inside the GA Hall.  I had seen Beyonce peform there in August for World Humanitarian Day and I just had to be a part of this latest musical spectacular.  And the show really was great.  Streamed live on the internet, and recorded by the BET network (for screening in February 2013), the show was non-stop entertainment.  Stevie Wonder is very good live, and his supporting acts were equally good - except for the woeful Korean all-girl band.  That was just weird.  Can you believe that one of the MCs was Theo Huxtable from "The Cosby Show"?  He hasn't changed a bit!  It was great.

The week ended with some cocktails on the rooftop of the Library Hotel, and a Saturday excursion to Broadway to see the adorable production of "The Heiress" (hello Matthew from "Downtown Abbey" woohoo!).

Sunday dawned and I watched the news stories about the approaching hurricane.  I remember being a little concerned at the size of the storm front, and the projected devastation.  With K out of town, I made sure I had enough filtered water in the fridge, and cans of soup in the cupboard - just in case stores would be closed (or worse, the delivery guys would be off duty).  That may sound flippant to you, but I honestly never thought my building would be as affected as it turned out to be.

If you look on a New York disaster map, my apartment building is in Zone B and that is the "evacuation likely" section.  I guess on Sunday afternoon they must have revised the zones a bit, because at about 3pm the NYPD drove down my street, yelling into a megaphone that we had been upgraded to Zone A, the "mandatory evacuation" area.  I had only just had a giant pizza delivered.  Can you believe the timing?!  Here I was thinking I'd be able to live off the pizza for days, and now I was being told to gather up my belongings and do the skedaddle.

My lovely friend Sharlo lives on the Upper East Side, almost sixty blocks north of me, and she offered me asylum straight away.  So I packed a couple of bags, plus the pizza and a bottle of wine, and headed up to her place.  Four off-duty cabs refused to pick me up and instead left me stranded on the street, before one good samaritan finally stopped and drove me away from my place.  I had no idea what condition I'd find it in once the storm passed by.

Sunday night passed without incident, despite the fact we were glued to CNN and watching the storm inch ever closer to the eastern seaboard.  By the time Monday dawned, and the UN and my office declared they would be closed, we hunkered down in the apartment and tried hard to fathom the destruction were seeing on the TV screen.  Originally Sandy was supposed to hit New York around 8pm but that was later brought forward to 6pm.  We listened intently to NY's Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo as they hosted press conference after press conference, updating residents on what to expect and how best to cope.  I was particularly impressed with New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie, who took a very no-nonsense approach to the storm and put pesky news reporters back in their places quick-smart.  The public information was very impressive.

Everybody has seen the news footage and photos of the total devastation that followed.  Not a single New York borough was spared Sandy's wrath.  I was truly lucky to have Sharlo as my good samaritan and friend through this process.  We have full power where we are - the water is hot, the toilets flush.  Life continues without interruption.   South of 39th Street in Manhattan, it is a different story.  In my apartment, the power and water is off and the corridors and stairwells are the very definition of 'pitch black'.  Traffic lights are out, so the NYPD traffic cops are working overtime.  The subways are all obviously out of action, and taxis are doing a roaring trade.  Bus service is limited but at least it's coming back to life too.  The city looks much more crowded than usual, as tourists and locals alike are forced above-ground to walk everywhere and assess the carnage.  Downed trees, littered streets, seaweed on cars - it has all been very strange.

It's hard to believe that all this excitement has happened in one little month.  I'm almost too afraid to ask what November will bring.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

When nature doesn't come so naturally

There is something to be said for impetuosity - particularly when someone is impetuous on your behalf, and you just allow yourself to get caught up in the whirlwind.  Such was my weekend away from Manhattan, the plans for which were only cemented late Thursday night.  Nothing like making a late entrance, hey?

There I was 2.30pm on Friday afternoon, leaving the office with Sharlo and we met up with The Great Dane, who had booked a rental car (with GPS) and had the road trip all organised.  We were headed for a beautiful house just outside of Front Royal in Virginia.  A good friend of The Rodster at work had agreed to host the first of his many farewell parties, and a bunch of the Rodster's friends (including The Great Dane) were headed for VA to kick off the celebrations.

The weekend got off to a VERY slow start, because it took us nearly 2 hours just to get of Manhattan!  We were crawling at a snail's pace all the way to the Holland Tunnel (and then through it), but even once we were on the other side, the bumper-to-bumper traffic extended through New Jersey.  It was excruciating!  But soon enough we were on the open roads and cruising through Pennsylvania, into West Virginia, and then - at a little before midnight - we finally arrived at our destination.

It was hard to tell what J's house really looked like when we arrived - it was just too dark to appreciate how picturesque her property is, and what a stunning outlook it enjoys.  So we just settled down inside and drank beer after beer, relaxing into the start of the weekend.  Some more house guests arrived about 40 minutes after us, and a few more beers were consumed, before we all gave up for the night and retired to bed.

Saturday morning we were all up early.  J had scheduled breakfast service between 8-9am, which was an excellent way to get us kickstarted for what turned out to be a MASSIVE day out.  I was up in time for breakfast and had a lovely hot shower to get my blood pumping properly.  The beers from the night before set up residence in my frontal lobe so I wasn't feeling the best; but the hot coffee and home-made oatmeal did the trick.  Despite the frosty cold, I sat out on J's verandah and gazed over the road to the Fox Meadow winery, and the sheer expanse of beautiful trees beyond, only a taste of the majestic Shenandoah National Park, not far from J's front door.  Some of the trees had started to turn a soft yellow and orange colour, while some stubbornly remained green (at least for now).  The effect of hills and hills of such beautiful and diverse colour is instantly calming.

Before long, me and Sharlo and been able to negotiate a ride with a couple of other Aussies and an American friend, who were also staying at J's house, and we set off for our day.  First stop was the famous Apple House, an institution in the area.  We stocked up on the much-celebrated apple donuts, but also grabbed some pumpkin ones - just to taste.  They were both pretty yummy, I have to say.

Further down the road we came to Front Royal, and helped to celebrate the Fall Festival.  We called into the Visitor's Centre to get our bearings, but then wandered down the community market on Main Street and looked at the jewelry, handicrafts and local foods on sale.  We walked down Chester Street and explored Balthis House, which has the proud title of being the oldest house on the oldest street in Front Royal.  A little way down the street is the Warren Rifles Confederate Museum, and of course we went through that too.  As far as gift shops go, the Confederate Museum was sadly lacking the tacky merchandise I usually enjoy.  That said, it had more than its fair share of historical literature; pro-Virginia materials; and brochures on anything you ever wanted to know about the US Civil War but were afraid to ask.

Judging by the camouflage hunting jackets and pants being sported around the Fall Festival, residents of Front Royal are outdoorsy types.  They are also proud Republicans, happy to stake political signs in their front yards declaring allegiance to the Romney-Ryan campaign.  But the Front Royal residents I met over the weekend are also hugely family-oriented, with fantastic southern accents and friendly manners to boot.  They can also smoke a mean BBQ pulled pork sandwich, which I enjoyed immensely as I sat by the gazebo and listened to a guitar band entertaining the crowd.

Having ticked the cultural boxes of downtown Front Royal, we were happy to spend the rest of our afternoon playing tourist and injecting some money into the local economy.  And so it was that we ended up at Rappahannock Cellars for a delicious tasting.  It was there that I learned that Virginia is well-known for its Viognier and its Cabernet Franc, so I have stored that knowledge away in my brain for the next time I find myself at a bottle shop with no idea what wine to buy.  I walked away from Rappahannock with several bottles of wine, clinking happily together in the boot of the rental car.  But we weren't quite done yet.  We drove back to J's house and walked across the main road to Fox Meadow winery, where I was a little less happy with the wines I tasted, but stoked with the food/wine pairing format of the tasting itself.  And you seriously cannot fault the view that Fox Meadow enjoys.  "Stunning" hardly does it justice.  There is something really lovely about spending a Saturday afternoon enjoying a glass of wine with still-warm baguettes, slathered in spicy Virginia plum chutney and topped with thin slices of Vermont horseradish cheese.

Back across the road we went for dinner and Farewell Party v1.0 with the Rodster, his wife, and a bunch of their friends.  We had a huge BBQ spread with all the salads and dessert trimmings you could think of.  The cold had started to creep in so we all tried to stay warm, but before long we were back inside for the karaoke party.  I had stopped drinking at the winery, so I was well-qualified to play Karaoke DJ and encourage the sing-alongs, but by that stage the crowd didn't need much prompting.

It was great to wake up this morning feeling bright and chipper.  It was just a shame that the weather didn't match my mood - it was very crisp but also very overcast this morning.  We seemed to have all the good weather luck yesterday.  But despite the grey skies, the air at J's house was so fresh and clean.  It felt really good to breathe it all in deeply.  But spells are made to be broken and in an effort to get ahead of the Sunday traffic, we left J's house at a little before 11am.

It was weird to have the weekend be over so quickly, but I think I surprised myself at how easily I relaxed once I got out of Manhattan.  I love nature, but I don't often go off in search of it all the time.  We were saying how in future, we need to make more plans to go away on weekends, even if it's just an hour down the road - just an excuse to get out and spend our Saturday doing something much more soul-satisfying than laundry or groceries.  Here's hoping we can stick to that plan.