Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Horrible, No, Epic and Unbelievably Long Voyage from San Francisco to Paris

This should have been a routine holiday flight: San Francisco Departure at 7.55 am on Friday Dec. 18 – Washington D.C., Washington D.C. – Paris Arrival Saturday Dec. 19 at 6.35 am. Total trip time: roughly 15 hours.

As it turns out, there are no routine holiday flights. In the end, the voyage lasted 72 hours and 56 minutes, going through 3 planes, two trains, various buses, a ferry boat and a car. Thanks for the ride, United! Here is how this unfortunate series of events unfolded - around the clock.

Friday Dec. 18, 2009
7.55 am (PST): UA 914. Take off. Direction, Washington D.C. Feeling good. We start watching “Four Christmases.”
10.10 am: Captain announcement. Our Boeing 777’s anti-icing machinery is down. The East Coast is snowed in. We are heading into a big snow storm. You do the math. “Four Christmases” sucks. We start our descent after a not-so-reassuring pep talk from the captain: “This is not an emergency landing.”
11.40 am (MST): We land in Denver. Still feeling OK.
12 pm to 1 pm: Various time estimates on how long it will take to fix the plane. The initial 20 minutes turn into an hour, maybe more. If we don’t leave within the hour, we’ll miss our connecting flight to Paris. Who knows then when we’re getting out of D.C.? The D.C. airport is planned to shut down at 9 p.m. EST for severe weather conditions.
1.07 pm: Husband calls United 1K phone line, talks to United staff about alternatives. We’re in luck. United staff can book us on a Denver-Chicago, Chicago-Charlotte, Charlotte-Frankfurt, Frankfurt-Paris. Estimated arrival time: Sunday Dec. 20 in the afternoon.

1.10 pm: We disembark with our cabin luggage. The flight attendant outside the gate can book us a Washington D.C. – London at 10 p.m. EST. Arriving Saturday morning in London sounds better than Sunday in Paris. We can still make our two family Christmas parties in Paris on Saturday night. We book the London flight in case we miss the Paris connection.
1.15 pm: The captain informs us that the repair status of UA 914 is looking better than anticipated. The technical crew may have the missing part in Denver - or we may change planes. Weighing pros and cons.
1.25 pm: Get back on plane. Return to our seats. Girls play dress-up with stuffed animals.
1.28 pm: Captain announcement. Problem can’t get fixed. We are changing planes. Everybody to disembark. By the way, now’s a good time to get lunch. However, please stay close to Gate 35 in case we board early.
1.35 pm: Our quickest lunch option is Mc Donald’s. It’s fast and it’s food – whatever.
1.45 pm: Suddenly we realize we're too far to hear flight announcements. We make a run for Gate 35, fries and chicken salad in hand.
1.50 pm: In front of Gate 35, panting. Everybody’s there. Nothing’s moving. The chicken is chewy.
1.53 pm: International passengers asked to check in with customer service at Gate B27. Husband takes off.
2.30 pm: Husband comes back. The line wasn’t moving. Thirty people ahead of him.
2.31 pm: We commiserate. Husband tries the red carpet club. Line’s got to be shorter…
2.55 pm: Crew announcement. We’ll get back on the initial plane. Problem fixed. Boarding update in 10 minutes.
3.05 pm: On board UA 914 - again. Washington D.C. international connections have been warned. They’ll most likely wait for us.
4.15 pm: So long, Denver. 
6 pm: Crew announcement. Flights for Paris and Frankfurt both left Washington D.C. 
6.10 pm: London flight, you are our only hope.
8.30 pm (EST): Landing in Washington D.C. Husband jumps on London flight attendants to retrieve our seats. “Sir, your name is not on the list.”
8.40 pm: “Sir, we found you. You are on the waiting list.” I look at the screen. 20 seats left on the plane. 200 people trying to change itineraries.
9.45 pm: United manager prints our four boarding passes. Phew. Thank God for the husband’s 1K status. Only glitch. “Once you guys are in London, you are on your own.” On our own? Surely, United doesn't expect us to swim across the Channel with our luggage. Or do they?
10 pm: On board UA 924.
10.08 pm: Crew announcement. We cannot leave yet. The storm is closing in and the plane needs to be de-iced before taking off.
11 pm: Getting antsy. De-icing.
11.30 pm: Glass of water please? More de-icing. 
Midnight: Flight UA 924 departs for London. At last. We are the last flight out before the airport completely shuts down for two days. 

Saturday December 19, 2009 
London time (GMT)
12 pm: Arrival in London.
12.15 pm: The master plan: (1) Husband runs to book seats for Paris, (2)  I recover luggage, (3) We meet by United ticket counter. Nice and square.
11.45 pm: No signs of our luggage. Same 10 suitcases have been looping around for 20 minutes.
12.55 pm: I start filing a lost baggage claim.
1 pm: “Ma’am, your luggage might be in Washington D.C.” Or it might not. I knew it! Green paper, white paper, staple.
1.15 pm: Husband and luggage-less us reconvene. The Channel tunnel is closed. The EuroStar is closed. 100, 000 travelers are stranded in London trying to get across the Channel. There are no seats on flights to Paris either today or tomorrow. Not until Dec. 26, as a matter of fact.
1.16 pm: Two options. We can fly to Brussels on Sunday morning and get to Paris "on our own", or fly to Dusseldorf Sunday afternoon at 5 pm and arrive in Paris at 10 pm. We decide to try Brussels. We’ll overnight at one of the airport hotels. Fancy.
1.45 pm: I call my dad. “Can you please book us four seats on a train from Brussels to Paris tomorrow?”
2.15 pm: Done. We are booked on the 11.13 am train next day from Brussels to Paris.
3 pm: We have our hotel room and meal vouchers. We’ll fly to Brussels with American Airlines. It’s starting to sounds like a vacation. That evening: rather than rotting away in our hotel room, we go to town in London, walk down the Embankment. So nice to be outside of the airport radius.

Sunday December 20, 2009
6.56 am: From hotel, we hop on the Hotel Hoppa shuttle.
8.10 am: Entering the American Airlines gate area. Special security policy: body search for the four of us, including the 4-year-old. Our hand luggage is literally taken apart and re-packed.
8.45 am: Seated on plane.
8.50 am: Crew announcement. The Brussels airport is closed due to inclement weather. We’ll wait an hour for the airport to open up.
8.55 am: Captain announcement. The weather is really bad. Everybody to disembark.
9 am: Back to gate area.
9.40 am: We’ll leave at 11 am.
10:13 am: In Brussels, the train to Paris leaves the station – obviously, without us.
11 am: We’ll leave at 1 pm. Please line up for re-boarding.
11.30 am: Second body search for the four of us, including the 4-year-old. Our hand luggage is – again – taken apart and re-packed, but the woman does a better job than the man and my carry-on won’t close.
11.31 am: All zipped up. Ready to go.
11.40 am: In gate area. The girls are thirsty. Husband feeds a few coins in a vending machine to get water. They simply disappear.
11.50 am: Curse of the restroom. I walk up there when a woman walks back. “The tap doesn’t work but the soap does,” she says, rubbing her foamy hands.
12 pm: I start writing this blog posting on my chair.
12.10 pm: A fellow passenger does push-ups. Not kidding.
12:37 pm: We’ll leave at 3 pm. The attendant warns "it's a very tentative slot."
2.30 pm: Crew announcement. The flight is cancelled. Very tentative indeed. "Please go to Customer Service..." - I've heard that one before.
2.45 pm: We line up with the other passengers at the American Airlines counter. Our 4-year-old falls asleep on a seat. The other one's cranky.
3.15 pm: At the American Airlines counter, they advise us to go to the United counter in a different terminal. We gather both kids and head out.
3.40 pm: At the United counter it's science-fiction. We finally get a ticket for Dusseldorf that afternoon - it gets cancelled within minutes.
3.45 pm: We can opt for a flight late on Monday night via some German-speaking country or get stand-by tickets for Air France flight tonight. Like we stand a chance to get 4 seats on the same flight.
3.50 pm: Argument with United staff. If we get stranded another night, we have to pay for our own lodging, food and transportation. United policies consider we have been sufficiently compensated with a night at a airport hotel. Would you repeat that please?
4 pm: Intense frustration turns to utter despair. We let them issue Air France stand-by tickets but with the Channel Tunnel closed, there's not a hope in a world we'll get through.
4:05 pm: Sod it! We start thinking straight and give up on planes. Direction: the train ticketing counter at a different terminal at Heathrow. We call the ferry in Dover and book 4 tickets for the following morning.
4.30 pm: We are on the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, then hop on the Bakerloo subway line to Charing cross.
7.09 pm: On the train to Dover Priory. Yeepee! At last we're moving in some direction.
9.30 pm: We take a cab to the Wallett's Court Countryhouse Hotel in Dover, a very charming lodging option and the last one that still had rooms in Dover. Obviously, a lot of the air and train trafic did wonders for the Dover ferry business.

Monday December 21st, 2009
6.50 am: It snowed last night. The radio announces more railway closures and ferry delays. We look at each other. Could this turn awry too? We don't deserve this. The cab shows up on time and takes it super-easy on the road. Conditions are icy and slippery. It's definitely not a good day for a road accident.
 7.30 am: We line up to take a bus at the P&O Ferries counter.
8 am: The bus takes us to a giant ferry on the docks.
8.45 am: The ferry leaves England. We call my dad. He's driving from Paris to pick us up in Calais.
9.30 am: Slightly queasy. Travel motion pills don't help.
11.30 am (GMT + 1): In Calais, France! We consider doing like the Pope and kissing the ground but it's muddy snow and we just want to get out of there.
1 pm: My dad picks us up while we're having lunch in Calais.
4:26 pm: Paris, our final destination.

The trip is over. It takes a while to sink in. Over. We've been away for three days, have only had one warm meal outside of plane meals and airport sandwiches, and we are finally getting to our holiday destination. 

Time to unpack. Husband calls United to recover our luggage. Looks at me, speechless. United lost our luggage... 

Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas at Sea at the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park

Christmas at Sea is a yearly event organized at the Hyde Street Pier historic ships with sailors and their families dressed as in 1901. Why 1901? David Hirzel, head of the program, sea poet and author, gave me the answer: although the ships in the park operated at different times, the one year in which they all could conceivably have moored at a single pier in San Francisco is 1901. So from 6 to 9pm on December 12, 2009 or 1901, Sam the nightwatch took 14 visitors on a round of all the ships by lamplight. The program featured musicians, sailors, toy makers, the captain and his wife, and a puppet pantomime. Like all living history events at Hyde Street Pier, it was a great reminder of a fact long forgotten: San Francisco was built to be a port.

On Saturday in the afternoon, I went over to the visitor center and reserved a time slot. There wre a few cancellations so I got in easily. At 7.20 pm I showed up promptly at the gate. The uneven pavement was still wet from the day's downpour. Cablecars decked up with strings of colorful lights honked at the corner of Hyde and Polk, transporting their loud lot of revelers. The ranger on duty circled the number next to my name on the list of 14 signed up on the tour. A few minutes late and fresh off the previous tour, Sam the watchman arrived. Beret on the head, lamp in hand, and talking of 1901 as if it were yesterday.

We first stopped at the boathouse on the pier. Sam introduced our group as his relatives and we were ushered in by two elegant ladies, a mother and her daughter. Inside against the wall, an upright piano held a center place next to the tree, and all around the room, low couches, chairs and tea tables.

Our hostess sighed that their real home was up on the hill but this year they were down at the boathouse. Why? An electrician showed up that morning and spent the day wiring up a tree with little glass bulbs so the house would have an electric Christmas tree, just like the one that made its appearance in the White House in 1895.

An electric Christmas tree in 1901 - that must
have caused quite a stir in the community even if by then San Francisco was by and large electrified.

There were four boys in the audience and to reinforce her point, our hostess showed them how trees were lit before electricity. At the tip of her fingers, she held candle holders on clips and tiny tapers. Then she showed us oranges she brought to decorate the house. I thought of clove orange pomanders the way I used to make as a kid. The tiny boat house felt wonderfully cozy and I wished we would have stayed there by a fire.

Since there were so many of us, Gene the daughter offered to rehearse the puppet pantomime she was to perform that night. It was "The Blue Bird" a fairy tale part of the "Sleeping Beauty" ballet, whose music had been composed by a young Russian man, Pyotr Tchaikovski. Now, I regretted I didn't have my girls with me. I had no idea it was going to be so much fun. Alas the next group was already on the house's steps and we followed Sam out, to the Eureka ferryboat.

It was pitch dark and we walked in a few puddles all right. "Hold on to the hand rail!" warmed Sam as we walked up the stairs to the second floor where a surprise was awaiting us. Through the windows, we could make a few people in elegant attire as well as a

harpist playing on a bench. A Christmas party for us! They were indeed waiting for us to sit on the benches and join in their celebration. The children were asked to find an ornament to put on the tree. We each got a booklet with lyrics to Christmas carols and I have to say, it's that singing moment that got me into the Christmas spirit for the first time this year. Accompanied by the harpist, "Deck the Hall" and "Jingle Bells" felt very sincere.

Just as I thought we were going to move on, a woman stood up and started reading a story. It was a Victorian Christmas story "that just came out" in the Ladies Home Journal about a little girl in the mines of Colorado. Because of a blizzard, her mining community suffered many shortages. The girl longed for a real doll and worried that Santa Claus wouldn't be able to go down the chimney because of the fire. After several attempts at directing Santa to their house not through the chimney, the girl's father removed a windowpane and a miner wrote with charcoal on a plank on the snow "Go through the window."
The next morning, the little girl woke up to find the most beautiful doll in her stocking. It was made out of white potatoes, flour sacks and salt bags. All the 16 miners had agreed to not eat the potatoes and carve them instead so the little girl would have a real Christmas. Wasn't that sweet? I love it even more when I know it was a true story. We said goodbye and under a steady drizzle, headed towards the three-masted Balclutha.

A carpenter (or toy maker) greeted us on the deck and showed us tops he had been making when bored of being docked. They were wooden tops with a string to launch them on a surface. Clever simple tops. The boys were delighted when they each got to take one home. In the forecastle (the foc'sle), three sailors told us the story of their daily life aboard the ship. Twenty eight sailors slept in the non-heated bunk beds and the only mattresses they had were filled with hay at the beginning of each trip. Of course they had spent all their money in San Francisco and had no money left for a Christmas tree so they made one. Indeed, blade in hand, two of them were chipping away on bits of wood to complete the tree. Up on the bare wood branches hung star fish, lids of cans pierced with designs and ornaments made out of a ship's biscuit.

Made with flour, water and salt, the ship's biscuit is not exactly your San Francisco foodie biscuit. It's hard as rock and needs to be pounded to be used as thickener in meals. The three sailors had borrowed money and bought powdered jam, mixed it with pounded ship's biscuit and convinced the cook to bake it for them. Et voila, cracker hash! We all had a taste and I cannot say that I went for seconds. It's probably great if it's the only sweet thing you can have, but otherwise it's sticky, chewy and sweet. Our next stop was the captain's cabin so we went outside to get to it. I noticed the lighthouse blinking on Alcatraz across the bay. That night was not a night to swim. Now the rain replaced the drizzle and we all made for the cabin pretty fast. This was to be our last stop as I had to leave before the culminating chantey sing and hot cocoa. The captain's wife had been shopping at the City of Paris and Bloomingdale's and brought back bottles of liquor and wine in shoe boxes. In Victorian days, a woman getting out of a store with liquor was not proper so stores provided shoe boxes as a subterfuge. We heard about plum duff, a sailing ship boiled cake, about the carpenter who made a tree out of wood shavings and painted it green, about the captain reading the good book to his crew. It was delightful.

I had to leave but I promised myself I would find it if there were more of these programs. As it turns out, they occur on the second Saturday of almost each month between March and December so keep your eyes peeled for the Living History Players events in 2010. They will be:

March 13, 2010: Suffragette march
April 10, 2010 : "Make and Mend" and a recreation of a "Crossing the Line" ceremony
May 8, 2010: President McKinley's Visit (He came to SF in 1901)
June 12, 2010: June 1901 Wedding in recent years, a chautauqua for 2010
July 10, 2010: Recreate the July 1901 waterfront strike August: No special event, as most (not all) LH Players are travelling
September 11, 2010: 1901 Swimsuits and picnic on the beach
October: No program, Fleet Week makes it too noisy
November 13, 2010: Ladies' Seamen's Friend Society event
December 11, 2010: "Old Time Maritime Christmas"

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Rombeiro's Christmas House: 34 Devonshire Drive, Novato

It's very simple: there is no other house in the world like the Rombeiro's in Novato, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. At least, that's what the owner, Ed Rombeiro, says with a Santa hat, beard and plush red jacket in front of his Christmas Wonderland house. Every evening from the first Saturday of December through the New Year's, from 6 to 10pm, the Rombeiro's turn on the power switch to 100,000 light bulbs through the entire house. There's a neon sign outside that says "Open" and it means just that. Please come inside the house and visit every single room except the master bedroom. Now, that is something.

I first read about that house on SFGate through a 2005 article entitled Merry Glitzmas. I knew that some people went all out decking the hall but opening their house to the public? That sounded crazy. I needed to see it by myself. Arriving on Devonshire Drive in Novato, there were already some pretty nicely decorated front yards. However the number 34 outdoes everything I've ever seen in suburbia - with a completely personal take on the holiday house. For the personal, Mr. Rombeiro greets people in front of his house with a smile and welcome phrase. Inside the house, his cousin and nephew docent and hand candy canes to visitors. Just to give an idea of the popularity of the house, last year they went through 40,000 candy canes. Now for the aesthetics.

The front yard is entirely covered with fake snow, twinkle lights and blow-up snowmen, complete with a spinning carousel, animatronics and my girls favorite feature, a lighted mailhouse that opened to display a small Santa.

As you walk in, there's barely an inch on the walls, ceilings and floors that isn't covered in Christmas-related regalia. Totally impressive. The first room drew oohs and aaahs from my girls and with eyes wide open, they walked on the rug trying to take in the Christmas extravaganza. As we progressed, our eyes meandered from decorated dining tables to teddy bear fireplaces, from Santa chairs to Joy floormats. My friend wasn't exaggerating when she told me it was Christmas down to the butter dish. It's down to the floor mats.

The ceilings, though taking a back seat in terms of visual overload, are as decorated as the rest of the surfaces. It's a storm of Christmas balls, ribbons, wreaths, candy canes and icicles hanging above your heads as you explore the underworld. The train room with a car-size snow village set up got my girls glued stiff in front of the white picket fence during a very long time. It's a room any child or adult would find absolutely fantastic. There is so much detail, so much going on everywhere you turn your head that you could easily stay there an hour and still discover new scenes. In the same vein as the grand display at San Francisco's Hyatt Regency in the lobby, this huge snowy lansdcape has skiers sliding down slopes, children making snow angels, skaters gliding on ice rinks, snowboards snowboarding. You get the idea. Winter wonderland, again. Last but not least, the really interesting part of the house tour consists of the two back rooms.

Azores Traditions
The Rombeiro's are from the Azores, that Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean smack in the middle between Europe and America. Being Portuguese, it is heavily Roman Catholic. To honor their native island called San Miguel, the Rombeiro's dedicate one of the rooms to the San Cristo de la Las Milagres, a spring festival that includes a procession of the saint Senhor Santo Cristo through town followed by street festivities. The festival is very important in the life of the island. So if you go to Novato, do check out that room and listen to the commentary of the Santa Elf that night. I talked with a cousin who described the beauty of her island and Sete Cidades, two mountain lakes side by side, one green and one blue. If I could, I'd be on a plane tomorrow. As a Christmas parallel to the Rombeiro's origins, the next room displays a lavish Nativity scene with enough angels and archangels to outnumber any army of snowmen. This, to me, represents the essence of the house. Ed Rombeiro may be dressed up as Santa in California, but the Azores remain his origins and he is proud of them.

Candy canes!
After the two last rooms, each person who's on the good list - everyone is - receives from another Santa Elf a nice big candy cane. As far as my girls, the candy canes lasted 5 minutes. I went to thank Ed Rombeiro for his house. He is a very gracious man. There is a little donation box his house so I left a bank note for his electricity bill. Which brings me to the white elephant.

End notes
Understandably, the Rombeiro's have been featured on all local newstations and newspapers. Could they just call it quits one year and let their decorations gather dust? I mean, the electricity bill must be as impressive as the display. The tour is free. I asked Ed Rombeiro if he had LED lights and he laughed saying they were too expensive and it would be a waste to get rid of all his equipment. Fair enough, he's well geared up. So Ed and his family will probably continue to wake up one August morning and say "Let's get the Christmas stuff out!" Because that's when they start each year: in August to be ready in December. Darn, I would hate to do the storage part in January but hats down to the over-the-top Rombeiro's Christmas house.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Bay Area Family's Traditions

On Thanksgiving day, we were invited to the family dinner of a friend of mine. I'll call her family the Greens. When I say that they rented a youth camp for their family dinner for Turkey Day, people go "What?" Yes, the Greens are a large family. Make it five siblings here, five cousins there, children, spouses, parents, uncles, aunts, handful of friends. Give or take 80 people present.

Aside from the anecdote, the real reason I want to write about the Greens is their incredible family traditions. Here are four generations of a family getting together three or four times a year, just for fun - not only for funerals. No matter how far people live, no matter how too-cool-for-school they are, they all get together and enjoy the moment.

Halloween Pumpkin Carving Party
It all starts in October with a pdf flyer emailed to a long list of Greenses. One of the cousins throws a pumpkin carving party in San Francisco. On the face of it, it sounds pretty easy but you still need to find a space to get them all together with food, drinks and music. This year, it was a picnic area at the Golden Gate Park. I got there pumpkin in hand at 3pm. There were already dozens of Greeneses carving away, chatting, eating and drinking. Tables were set up with kids activities, Jack'o Lanterns pattern books, carving tools and bins for composting. It was only the middle of the afternoon but the party went strong into the night since the idea is to light the Jack'o Lanterns. Last year the Greens gave their own version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre on pumpkins in a backyard. No harm was done for purposes other than to carve impressive designs.

Thanksgiving Dinner
As we've seen, Thanksgiving is a challenge: the 80-people sit-down dinner indoors. The youth camp option has a lot of pluses: professional kitchen with several ovens and twin-bed size fridges; outdoor space to run around; two outdoors fire pits, one fireplace inside; public restrooms outside; big parking lot; cabins in the hills for overnighters. Again, the shindig starts with a pdf invitation emailed to the Greens family. The invitation sets the mood right away: "When: Thanksgiving Day (duh!) - around noon (dinner starts at 2pm)." Leave your formal self at home please! It was a potluck Thanksgiving and as the invitation predicted, it worked out just great. Catch of the day: 3 turkeys, 2 hams, fireworks at nightfall. Even the teens and younguns didn't leave right after dinner. That's sayin' a lot.

Christmas Tree Beach Bonfire
That's the January Greens family Burning Man project. Everybody brings their dried-out pine trees to Ocean Beach in the evening. It's pitch dark, kind of cold. Kids play in the sand. One of the Greenses is in charge of cooking the cioppino, this San Franciscan seafood stew right on the beach. Others barbecue oysters. The rangers come occasionally to check that the Greenses have their bonfire permit - which they do. Flames go up high in the sky and it feels warmer. We gravitate around the fire depending on the winds, like everybody else. It's a great night to be out on the beach across from the Beach Chalet.

When the Greens are in great shape, they also organize a July 4th camping weekend in the sierras. As you can see, these guys sure know how to throw a party. How's that for traditions? (by the way, the photos are blurred because I intend to get re-invited. It's not because my camera's autofocus is kaputt.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Follow me on the San Francisco Examiner

Green news! This week, I started writing for the San Francisco Examiner as one of their green parenting specialists. Check out my Examiner page here. My first article covered sustainable fish sticks, a topic I had no idea depleted the oceans until now. In the next few weeks, I intend to concentrate on holiday topics so if you want to share green parenting tips, classes, or events, I'm all ears!

In the future, I'll love hearing about green schools efforts, teachers who make a difference or simple tips that can improve our carbon footprint. If you want to keep abreast of green news in the Bay Area, get on my page, subscribe to my article feed and it'll come by email pretty smoothly.

Back later for Frog Mom postings, covering a Bay Area family's traditions.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Festive Holidays in Period Costume

Nothing spells holidays and cheer like a Victorian postcard. To me, Victorians incarnate the essence of the holidays as we know them: snow, skaters, carolers, evergreens, plum puddings and a red plump Santa. Before the Victorians, religion and nature took over decorum and the year’s end holidays were celebrated - with as much good cheer and reveling - through a seasonal and nature magnifying glass. The winter solstice was sometimes as important as Christmas, and certainly more than the new year.

Yes, there's a lot to love about them all and fortunately, Northern California offers a cornucopia of holiday events in period costumes, covering from the Renaissance through the early 1900s. You want an early 19th century Bavarian feast with songs and dance? You got it. A Victorian tree with family ornaments in an 1886 Queen Anne house? You got it. A Renaissance black-tie banquet with singers from the San Francisco Opera? Done. That's why I like the holidays so much. They inspire great events that mix history and other cultures with a healthy dose of music and theatricals, leaving aside the commercial shiny plastic eyesores of the season. Here is my short list, in reverse chronological order, taking you from the Belle Epoque to the dark ages...

1901: Christmas at Sea
For one day on Saturday December 12, San Francisco's Hyde Street Pier historic ships celebrate a 1901 Christmas. Last year we went and loved listening to the Dogwatch Nautical band aboard the Eureka ferryboat. The kids made early 1900s crafts, then everybody ran out because Santa was arriving by boat. Ah, the joyous chaos of children hanging to the handrail to catch a glimpse of the red man. After Santa came inside, the children neatly lined up to tell him their wishes and receive a candy cane. It was great. The part I haven't seen yet but that I'm looking forward to see this year, starts at 6pm. At 6pm, costumed ship crew, passengers and San Franciscans come out of the dark and tell you stories of a bygone era on the three ships, all during a lamplit tour. Dress warmly, the night is cold!

1880s: The Great Dickens Fair
If you have never been to the Great Dickens Fair at San Francisco's Cow Palace, it is the place to elbow Tiny Tim and Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past in a microcosm of recreated London's Victorian streets. It starts the Friday after Thanksgiving and goes on every weekend until Christmas. With 600 costumed performers, men, women and children, the Dickens Fair is like no other event. It truly transports you to this faraway chestnut-scented London, with its street jugglers, man-powered carousel, and lively dances. We never miss Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance at the Imperial Music Hall, an action charged 60-minute rendition of the famous musical. And we also never miss a Punch & Judy puppet show.

1886: Haas Lilienthal House Museum
There is a Victorian house museum in San Francisco. Only one. It was built in 1886, housed 3 generations of the same family, and is now open to the public in Pacific Heights. On Sunday December 6, the holiday open house will include the 13-foot high Christmas tree with the Haas family ornaments in the front parlor, the train set in the basement (running with holiday lights for the occasion) and holiday decor throughout.

1850s: Columbia Lamplight Tour
In Northern California, a Gold Rush event seems de rigueur and Columbia is my absolute favorite Gold Rush town. Columbia State Historic Park is a town in the Sierra foothills that has been entirely frozen in time as a park - with period storefronts, book shops, hotels, dirt roads, small alleyways and saloons. On Friday December 4th and Saturday December 5th, costumed volunteers will take you through a magical evening through the city by lamp light. If you enjoy a change of scenery, go for it. Columbia faces drastic budget cuts each year and this event doubles as a fundraiser.

1800s: The Christmas Revels
Last year's Christmas show by the California Revels included an English manor as a stage for a winter solstice celebration; a story called "The King & The Fool" told at bedtime by a father to his children; knights and dragons; and old Wessex carols. Our children laughed and hid behind their hands. It was great. This year, the setting is Germanic and will take you on a little journey to early nineteenth-century Bavaria and the surrounding regions at Yuletide to explore the roots of modern Christmas with song, laughter and children. Come on, it isn't far! It's in Oakland across from the Oakland Museum. Spend the day at Children's Fairyland, dine at the Lake Chalet across from the Scottish Rite Center and see the California Revels at night fall.

1700s: The Bracebrice Dinner
A Yosemite tradition since 1927, the Bracebridge Dinner transforms the cathedral-style dining room at the historic Ahwanee Hotel into a Renaissance English manoir where a yuletide story is about to unfold. If you go, don't miss the caroling by the piano in the huge lounges with walk-in fireplaces. Yes, walk-in. Kids can grab a hot chocolate at the bar and adults can roam around with drinks, all while singing in unison. Truly a great experience, if you can afford it. I guess the San Francisco Opera singers, the outstanding decor, the remote location and the starred menu explain the price tag.

Beyond 1700s, you won't find anything in Northern California. At least I don't know of a medieval Christmas, a Miwok winter celebration or a Roman solstice feast. But if you know other fun events, feel free to share in the comments.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Piccheti Ranch Open Space Preserve & Winery

Looking for cherry blossoms in November as is irrelevant as looking for meat on a vegetarian menu. It's just not there. And yet last Sunday when I took my family to Picchetti Ranch near Cupertino in the Silicon Valley, I was intent on examining each single tree of the orchard to find a cherry tree.

Why the nonsense? I recently suggested an article on Bay Area places that would remind families of the landscapes of the movie Where the Wild Things Are, and my editor at SFKids was enthusiastic. One of the scenes has Max twirl in a forest of delicate pink cherry blossoms swirling in the wind. Now, I had a problem and no immediate solution.

Apart from Brentwood, the cherry-picking town, I didn't know many places with cherry orchards in the Bay Area. I sent a half dozen emails around to nature-related places, asking for forests with cherry trees. Might as well have asked for the moon. However, I did receive this from Jane Huber at Bay Area Hiker: "Can't think of one. Cherry trees are pretty uncommon. There are a few plum trees mixed through woods in places like Edgewood County Park. There might be cherry trees at Picchetti Ridge Open Space Preserve, but not mixed through a forest."

I looked up Picchetti Ranch. It was in Cupertino and there was a winery on site. Aha. Two reasons to drive down then. We packed a picnic lunch and hit the road.

However unlikely the idea of a winery in the Silicon Valley sounds, there are actually quite a few, but Picchetti Winery has an edge over most: the 1892 winery complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and there are hiking trails starting right outside the tasting room. Frankly, that's a winning combination.

Right on the parking lot, I saw a gorgeous Fuyu persimmon tree loaded with pale orange fruit. I dared not hope that the orchards would be so accessible. We proceeded to the winery complex with our picnic. What a lovely red-and-white brick building the tasting room is. It's just really charming. Once filled with redwood storage tanks and oak casks for aging and storing wine, the inside features a strong cellar smell, a long bar and strings of white lights on the exposed ceiling, giving it a very festive look.

Outside on the lawn, we easily spotted a picnic table by the creek. The winery provides a public picnic area with 10 tables every day from 11am to 5pm. Fittingly given the location, we saw someone bring back a glass of red wine from the tasting room. In less than a minute, my husband got up and came back with a glass of Zinfandel. The "glass of wine for the picnic" thing is so well organized that there is a small wicker basket outside the tasting room to return dirty wine glasses.

Picnic only lasts so long and our girls soon got antsy. Since we were there for the orchards, we started hiking the short (1 mile) orchard loop. Jane mentions plum, apricot, and pear trees in Bay Area Hiker's description of the trails there. I would be lying if I said I positively identified cherry trees. I know vaguely what they look like and I don't think I saw one, but then, poison oak obliging, I mostly stayed on the trail. That said, the hike is very easy, wide, and makes for a relaxing post-lunch walk. For more challenge, I suggest the Zinfandel Trail.

An hour and many photo stops later, we were back at the starting point. No we didn't see the cherry trees I came to see - but we saw gorgeous black oaks, some arching their sturdy branches over the path, and we discovered a local winery inside a historic building. To me, that's a pretty fine day.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hoffman Farm: The Last Walnut Orchard in Napa Valley

A Napa day trip without wine? For a change of pace and an escape from city bustle, Hoffman Farm is just the place for your next Sunday trip. I found out about this place looking to pick walnuts. I knew it was about the end of the season and walnuts are not a particularly popular u-pick item in the Bay Area. There were orchards in Vacaville/Brentwood but this one in Napa promised to be something special.

This 23-acre farm is maintained by John and Margaret Hoffman, respectively 93 and 90 years old. Visiting the farm is like visiting your grand-parents' orchard, only this one features 3 kinds of walnuts, 3 kinds of prunes, 3 kinds of plums, 10 kinds of apples, 4 kinds of persimmons, 1 quince tree, loquats, pineapple guavas, 5 varieties of pears, 2 varieties of peaches, 1 mulberry tree, 4 apricot trees and 3 kinds of figs.

As I arrived at the farm, I parked the car and looked around. With nobody in sight, I simply made my way into the orchard. I wasn't sure how many walnuts would be left on the ground though. When I called the previous Saturday, Mr. Hoffman warned me that the storm has badly shaken the trees and that many walnuts had fallen. I was set with low expectations and a big wicker basket - because you never know. At first, my non-expert eyes tricked me. I'd never picked walnuts off the tree before. "These are old apples," I explained to my girls, pointing at several trees with shriveled black fruits dangling off the branches, except ... the ones on the ground were particularly hard and round under my shoe. I bent over, peeled a slimy black skin off, and a walnut appeared. I blinked and took a second good look around. All the trees around us were walnut trees. "Bring the basket girls!" I said.

Thus began our walnutty afternoon. We couldn't resist picking up the nuts and filling the basket, slowly making our way through the trees. Soon our hands and nails got pretty black. Walnut husks are a common natural dye and if you want to give it a try, here is how to proceed. Knees in the damp dirt, I kept peeling off husks and my girls got in the game too, comparing walnut sizes. We got to the edge of a clearing and standing there, I got the full measure of the orchard. Trees as far as the eyes could see. I could tell most were walnut trees because they had a darker base and a lighter grafted tree on top (walnuts need grafting to grow well). It was big and the fact that I couldn't see a single grape was re-assuring because we were in Napa.

"Girls, apples!" I yelled. Across from us, a Fuji apple tree. This time I was right about the apples. Getting closer, I understood why Mr. Hoffman had said that there were still a few apples on the trees "if I could get to them." At 5"5, I wasn't tall enough to grab the first apples! So I climbed in the tree, careful not to damage the branches. I got my girls to move the baskets below so I could aim properly. Next to the apples, another apple tree, and a persimmon tree. We were enthusiastic and picked as if we were hosting a fall banquet the next day.

That's when I saw a man in the distance: Mr. Hoffman in person, hanging his laundry to dry in the sun. I introduced myself. He was standing under yet another apple. "Arkansas black," he said, "My favorite apple." Of course, I wanted some and again, I was too short. "Could this help?" said Mr. Hoffman, offering his cane to knock down the apples. I gladly took him up on his offer and had my girls run under the tree to get the apples as soon as they rolled on the grass. Mr. Hoffman started telling me about the orchard and I discovered a slice of Napa that's now almost all gone.

When he and his wife bought the land in 1949, it was almost entirely planted in French prunes, with other small crops such as an acre of cherries. "There was a factory downtown that made maraschino cherries," said Mr. Hoffman. Instantly, I had pictures of post-Prohibition cocktails with bright red cherries on the brim of clear glasses in my head. The factory's now gone. There was also an acreage of wheat down by the river - the Napa river, that is. "The wheat was milled in the mill by the river and shipped by boat to San Francisco," he went on. Again, I tried to imagine a pre-grape era Napa. The mill's gone too now. Mr. Hoffman bought the land and a tractor and got to work. He started pulling half of the prune trees and planting walnut trees instead, gradually increasing the acreage of walnut trees through the years.

"Why walnuts?" I asked. "There was a man up the road here who had a small walnut orchard," said Mr. Hoffman. "I consulted with him and decided it would be a good crop that was not too time-consuming." With four children at home, he needed a crop that was not too labor-intensive. Back then, there was a backlog of old Italian people living in a hotel downtown who pruned the trees during the winter.

I wanted to know more about the walnuts, when did they arrive to the Napa valley? Mr. Hoffman, a living encyclopedia about trees -he wrote a book called Trees of Napa Valley that you can order here -obliged. The first walnut variety was Franquette, a French varietal. A man named Mr. Hartley brought back a bagful of them in the late 1880s and planted them at his ranch in Napa. In 1892, he experimented with a new Franquette-based varietal that later became known as the Hartley walnut. "It was an outstanding nut," said Mr. Hoffman. The Hartleys brought their walnut to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and won a blue ribbon. Hartley walnuts thus became very popular. Showing me a tray full of walnuts drying in the sun, Mr. Hoffman pointed to some big ones. "These are Carmelo walnuts," he said. They were twice as big as the regular kind.

Mr. Hoffman's wife, Margaret, joined in the conversation. "We live here as in the 1940s," she said with a smile, adding:"When we moved here, our plan was to grow as much food as possible." Indeed, they have a vegetable garden for their meals; a well for their water; they keep their house warm with a wood stove during the winter. When they were raising their children, they also raised a couple of cows and goats for milk, and made a goat cheese similar to the Neuchatel cheese. Honestly, you've got to love a nature-loving couple who grew and ate locally seasonal produce before the word "sustainable" went around! More than sustainable, all the fruits they grow are organic (they don't spray) and because of the proximity to the river, the orchard is not irrigated. How's that for the green award?

Before I took my bow, I went to pick a few Asian pears (the variety that actually looks like pears, not like apples) and Mr. Hoffman weighed all my produce on his wood and metal scale. I might come back before the winter is over. There are still cartwheels of walnuts around and there will be persimmons until Christmas.

Since the Hoffmans don't have a computer (nor a website), here are the practical details:
Hoffman Farm,
2125 Silverado Trail,
Napa CA 94558
(707) 226-8938.

My last words: the Hoffman Farm is an endangered species in the Napa Valley. These walnuts grow on land worth millions of dollars in grapes. Let's hope that whoever takes over from the Hoffmans prizes this luxury as much as they do. More than a reminder of the past, I'd love this farm to be a sign of the future. And when you go there, don't forget to stop at Dorothy's, their neighbor up the road. She sells fresh brown eggs by the dozen.