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Location, location, location. And coffee.


As a break from ranting about copyright and Sprint (though, Sprint fans will want to know, I heard last week that The Carrier of Weeping Doom has grudgingly conceded that they can’t really keep five hundred of my bucks and not give me anything in return, and so the case is now closed) I thought I’d ask a cheerful, fun-loving question instead.

I love hotels. (Yes, I know that’s a statement, not a question, but stick with it.) As a result I get stressed when booking them in cities I don’t know, because the difference between the right hotel and the wrong one is a wide gulf indeed and I plummet into an opportunity cost vortex. There are innumerable little apps and sites out in the infospaces inviting people to catalogue and share (of course, we must always share) their favourite spots in the world, including hotels. These apps and sites are always beautifully-designed and mostly manage to avoid too obviously bellowing their true raison d’etre, which I assume boils down to “We glommed a little venture capital and hired some cool people off Dribblr and what we’re basically hoping is that we get enough traction in 18 months that Google or Facebook buy us and make us bazillionaires”. The problem is that I can’t be arsed to spend my life on these sites/apps, not least because I have no reason to trust the other people on there (in fact, if I’m honest, I have an automatic distrust of anyone who spends a lot of their time ranking things on the Internet, like a kind of grandstanding OCD). At the other end of the scale, while more popularist sites like TripAdviser can be very useful (and have saved me from making dire mistakes a couple of times), it’s tiresome to wade through all the ranting loonies venting about the fact that the staff wouldn’t change the direction of the earth’s spin to suit their specific needs, or that the weather wasn’t great AND IT’S THE HOTEL’S FAULT AND I HATE THEM ONE STAR ONE STAR ONE STAR.

So I’m going to ask you lovely people instead, as your presence here on my blog clearly declares you to be a person of immaculate taste. What are your favourite hotels? Specifically I’m looking for urban nooks, hotels which are good if you don’t already know the place like a native, and especially those which are remarkably well-situated: not merely nice to be in, but inspiring to walk out of. For example: 1. Hotel du Louvre, Paris

Situated on the Place Andres Malraux, this hotel has the clear initial advantage of living up to its name. You couldn’t be much closer to the Louvre without actually sleeping in it, which is frowned upon. There’s three good cafes very, very close by — one as part of the same building: you can get yourself upside a crème or a croque madame without having to open your sleepy eyes. There’s a cab rank (for ease of getting back to the Eurostar) a casual twenty seconds stroll away. There’s even an arty bookstore on the same block, for Pete’s sake. You’re at the start of the Rue Saint Honoré, site of many opportunities for retail incidents including the ineffably/irritatingly cool Colette (and also, until recently, one of my favourite restaurants, Le Dauphin, now sadly gone), and ten minutes’ walk will get put you in the Place de la Madeleine, home to foodie meccas Fauchon and Hédiard. Within the hotel there’s an excellent restaurant and the cosy and low-lit Bar Le Defender, which not only does great cocktails in an atmosphere of heady Chinoiserie, but is also air-conditioned — a rarity in Paris and one that saved our sanity during a weekend we stayed there when temperatures in France hit the 40s and quite a lot of people died of heat stroke. Then, yes, there’s the Louvre, and the Tuileries, plus you’re only about 10-15 minutes’ beautiful walk from St Germain and the Rue de Buci, and less than that to les Halles or the Marais... It’s not cheap, but it’s hard for me to imagine a better-placed hotel in the city — at least given my tastes and interests. The rooms are extremely nice, too, either modern or cosy depending whether you’re on a lower floor or up in the eaves, but — like all the cities on this short list, you’re missing the point if you’re spending much time in the room anyway.

2. The Muse Hotel, NYC

I’m sure I should want to stay down in Soho or in some engagingly off-beat hipster hangout in the East Village or Brooklyn or the arse-end of Queens, but the Muse in midtown suits me down to the ground — or actually, up to the 15th floor. It’s there that the best rooms in the hotel are found, because they have... balconies. Big ones. Sitting with a coffee or beer that many floors up in the heart of midtown,watching the lights of Times Square and smoking (increasingly hard to do anywhere else in the city), is quite something. The wonderfully restful Bryant Park is five minutes away, and Central Park only about fifteen). Grand Central is close by, and 5th Avenue, and if you put your striding legs on then you can be down in Union Square or Chelsea or the Village before you know it. A well-aimed brick will find you several coffee shops and even a couple of half-decent delis, not easy to come across in midtown, and Virgil’s is a very good BBQ restaurant just along the street (yes, Virgil’s is a little touristy, but you know what — you’re a tourist). After a recent regooding even the previously disappointing bar is a pleasant enough place to hang. I keep thinking I ought to check out some other hotels in the city but... I’m probably not going to. This works.

3. Galleria Park, San Francisco

This is a new entry, and I’ve only stayed there once thus far, so I can’t yet swear to its timeless quality. Initial signs are good, however. It’s close to Union and five minutes from Chinatown and the non-frightening end of Market Street. There’s a very decent coffee and sandwich store and a sushi restaurant attached, plus a La Boulange on the next block. There’s a 7-11 right close by, too, useful for picking up milk and what-have-you... I love boutique hotels with a passion that goes beyond reason, but I’m not going to pay ten bucks and have to pick up a phone every time I want a cup of tea. [Bonus hotel: though bigger, the Kimpton Group’s Hotel Monaco on 4th in Seattle has a similar vibe to this Joie de Vivre hotel, and is similarly well-located to things like stores, coffee shops and convenience stores]. The staff at the Galleria Park are some of the most serenely affable and helpful I’ve ever encountered, and the hotel scores incalculable extra points for having a kind of walking area/small park-style hangout on the roof of the building next door. Finding backstage areas in a city where you can sit and relax without having to move or interact or buy something is a great boon. If one’s actually attached to your hotel, so much the better. The Galleria’s not a big place, and the rooms and bathrooms are smallish, and there’s technically no bar (though the attached sushi place serves reasonably well, and they have wine in reception at in the late afternoon), but you’ll cope. This is a very good place to start and end your San Francisco day.

All the above are big-city urban, note. There are many other hotels of this type out there, of course — the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, the Marquesa in Key West, and so on — but it’s when you’re in the heart of an urban environment that location really becomes key. You need a fixed point to begin, from which you can move in gradually larger and bolder concentric circles. Though the above are all reasonably pricy, it doesn’t have to be that way: I’m a big fan of the Sea Shore Motel in Santa Monica, for example, which is bracingly retro in decor and demeanour, but friendly and clean and well-placed and apparently run by people who haven't noticed that the rest of the world has raised its prices since, say, 1978.

With an urban hotel you need a place that has both refuge and prospect, that makes you feel at home and yet holds a door open to the city, easing the transition with nearby spots and conveniences that jump-start your relationship to the city. Knowing about places like this gives you a side-door into a place that will never be your home, but where you’d like to feel at home, at least for a little while.

Those are three of mine. So. Tell me yours...



Not Being Here Now

A few nights ago I watched a fascinating program called “My Life As A Turkey”, about a man named Joe Hutto. Hutto is (amongst other things) a hardcore method naturalist, and this drama-documentary detailed a period back in 1995 when he lived as the 'mother' of a brood of endangered wild turkeys — an experience he wrote about in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on order) but the documentary was spell-binding, an hour in the company of a rather extraordinary man.

One of the most striking things evoked by his experiences was how, while he was fully-integrated with the brood and operating as one of them, it was as though Hutto’s entire environment (the flatlands of Northern Florida) unfolded and opened up to him — as if the other creatures basically took the turkeys’ word for it that this tall, denim-clad dude was, effectively, a turkey, and behaved as they would as if a human wasn’t around. Deer played in his presence, larking around with the young turkeys. From glimpsing a handful of rattlesnakes a year, Hutto started running into them every day. By removing himself from humankind and going wild turkey, he stepped through a hidden door into another world, as an equal.

When the brood eventually split up and moved away, this passport was rapidly withdrawn. The other animals faded back into invisibility, once more shunning man as the animal-who-is-no-longer-an-animal. There was something heart-breaking about this process, and you couldn’t help believing that mankind as a whole was once more like this, integrated with our ecosystem and environment — living the kind of lives we hear of in legend and dismiss now as fantasy: and that our myths and old animal gods and modern bonds with pets speak of a deep and wistful yearning for when the whole world was this way.

The other insight Hutto focussed on was how the turkeys lived in the here and now, rather than ‘betraying the moment’ (his phrase) by casting their consciousness back or forward in time. This a far more commonplace observation (humankind’s tendency not to live in the moment is well-documented, and addressed with varying degrees of failure by a very large and profitable self-help industry) but it struck me for the first time how there’s now an added dimension.

We don’t just betray the moment any more. We betray place too.

Living out of time is an ancient human trait, probably the one that got us where we are today (for better or worse). It’s part of the educating and socialising of children from a very early age, after all — encouraging them to endure present tedium for alleged future benefits. Grill a five year old about their day at school and they soon learn to mutter a meaningless ‘Fine’, knowing a response is expected but unable to comprehend why anyone would care about something that happened somewhere else and at another time. Virtually everything that happens within the education system after that (and in the workplace, and life in general) is a sustained exercise in moment-betrayal. Living in somewhere other than our present locale, however — at first very occasionally through the written word, and then the telephone, and now continually via email, tweet and status update — is a more recent gift from our technologies (themselves a function of transcending the moment, the realisation that ‘it would be cooler tomorrow if we could...’), and one which takes us a dramatic step further from authentic existence.

From being in the here-and-now, we are headed toward forever being there, and then... and arguably this does not constitute ‘being’ at all, at least in the old sense. We are twice-dislocated from reality, bedded neither in time nor place.

When we experience the moment or thought, we’re being: but as soon as we start to compose the tweet describing it, we’re doing this other thing. If our minds are continually on what we’re doing in ten minutes' time, or with the utterances of distant strangers... then who or what is actually left here, in this space taken up by our bodies? Will there come a point when it is more convenient to simply park them somewhere comfortable while our consciousness flits across space and time, inhabiting every spot in creation except for the one where our corporeal form waits, experiencing the here and now quietly by itself? I realise this is a time-worn science fiction trope, but I’m not talking about sf. I’m talking about the way things are, right now. The future never presents the way stories say it will. We have no doors that briskly swish-thupp as they slide open and close. There are no hover cars overhead, nor robots with amusing insights into the human condition. We have laptops and smartphones instead, and actually leaving this ball of rock in a physical sense will merely be a matter of degree. We’ve already left the planet behind.

And that’s okay, and many fine things may come of it, but it’s also strange:

Goodbye, body, farewell — I will always be elsewhere now. But don’t worry, I’ll let you know where I am via status update, email and tweet: virtual postcards from anywhere but here.

Anyway. My point is that I’m going to compound this trend in my own small way by starting another Tumblr while I’m in the US — for stuff encountered while at large in Northern California. It will be found here, won’t start until the second half of August, may be brain-meltingly dull...

... and if you’d rather ignore it altogether and talk to the person next to you instead, you have my whole-hearted support.



Hmm, Coffee…

Well, it’s 1:40 am and I’m awake. No real idea why. Could be delayed jetlag, I suppose, though I’ve been back a week and I don’t like the idea of jetlag anyhow. I feel I should be able to hop insouciantly between continents like some some globetrotting gazelle, a citizen of the world not bound by trivialities like time zones. Maybe not. Either way, for something to do, as I sit here in the study listening to a fox making disquieting noises in the street outside, I thought I’d make another list — and this time it’s of some of the best places to sit and have a cup of coffee.

1. Bryant Park, New York My most recent haunt, and a pretty well-known one. I happened on it as a result of mere hotel-proximity, on my first grown-up visit to the city four years ago, and have sunk many a happy coffee in it since. I don’t know what it is that makes Bryant Park quite so restful. It’s basically just a large square of grass, with beds and paths and trees on three sides and stairs leading up to the rear of the Public Library on the other. It could be the presence of very tall buildings on all sides, which gives something of the quality of a hidden garden. It could also be that, standing bang in the centre of Midtown as it does, it’s the New York park that contrasts most strongly with the streets around it. I have even toyed with wondering whether the fact this block held, for the second half of the nineteenth century, a reservoir, has something to do with it — a large body of water somehow changing the energy field. Though that just sounds like so much new age bollocks, really, not least as throughout 1970s the park was by all accounts an excellent place to score drugs or get cataclysmically mugged, which you might expect to have muddied the energy waters somewhat.

Anyway. There’s lots of places to sit, and a bar in the evenings, and free wifi too, though I can’t always get that to work. This actually makes it even better. I like places where I can’t be in contact with the outside world. They’re increasingly few and far between.

2. Outside Les Deux Magots, Paris Another non-controversial choice, unless you’re achingly cool. People have been knocking back café crème outside this St Germain hotspot for a long time — it was a popular haunt for Satre and Simone de Beauvoir, not to mention Hemingway and Camus. I tend to wind up spending a good few hours outside the Magots whenever I’m lucky enough to be in Paris, not least because there’s a great bookstore just behind it (the name of which I forget: maybe I’m more tired than I thought). Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but you know what — when I’m in Paris, I’m a tourist. Actually, outside pretty much any Parisian café will do, so if you’re worried about not seeming cutting edge enough, why not hop on the Metro to the outskirts of town and find somewhere there instead. Don’t feel that you have to come back, either.

3. Outside the Seattle’s Best opposite Pike Place Market, Seattle Especially early in the morning, so you can watch the market swinging properly into life.

4. The Meeting Place, the seafront, Brighton The fact that the coffee here is actually pretty dire possibly indicates that the quality of the beverage on offer is not of paramount importance. With the sea, gulls, and the teetering remains of the old West Pier to gaze upon, it’s a good place to be. If the weather’s dire (which is far from unknown in Brighton) then outside the Starbucks in the Lanes is a decent second choice. (And don’t give me any crap about Starbucks not being proper coffee. Of course it’s proper coffee, you muppet. It’s not the best coffee in the world — but it’s good enough. Disliking things just because they’re popular does not make you cool. What are you, fourteen? Get a couple of extra shots in your drink like a grown-up, and go peddle your angst elsewhere.)

Hmm. Four isn’t many. I notice that I don’t actually have one for London, for example. Perhaps you need to not be local, for the perfect coffee-sipping experience... Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet. I notice also that all these places are outside. This is partly due to the smoking thing — I like a cigarette with my coffee, and there ain’t nowhere in the civilized world they’ll let you do that any more. But it’s also that I associate coffee with watching the world go by. Tea is for drinking indoors. Tea is self-referential, a medicine. Coffee is for turning outwards and taking in the other: and therefore part of the essence of a classic coffee-drinking spot is it allows you to observe a corner of the universe — without necessarily feeling that, right at this moment, you have to be an active part of it.

Christ, it’s half past two. Better try sleeping again, not least as tomorrow I have a day designing stuff for WHC2010. May your Fridays be golden. And if you’re at a loose end...

5. [...] Suggestions, please.




Tip It, Flip It...

I went out for dinner last night by myself, picking somewhere fairly randomly on 8th, close to the apartment I've been borrowing. It was a nice place. Buzzy, not overtly unfriendly, and did very good New Mexican food.

What perturbed me was that I noticed — while lurking outside having a cigarette between courses — their delivery menu featured, amongst other things, T-shirts. The place didn't seem to be a chain, and yet, it had clothing for sale. Said shirts had the restaurant's slogan on them (do restaurants need slogans?), and I can't remember exactly what it was, but basically it was existential self-definition in seven words or fewer, and the caption indicated that such a garment was quite the thing for anyone who was willing to 'tip it, flip it, and make the world their way.'

Now, I'm from England. Our restaurants don't come on like that. They don't feel the need to provide life coaching. They concentrate on providing food. I tried to imagine the above, or something similar, happening in a gastropub in London: me walking in, going up to the bar, and the guy there shouting —

"Yo! Welcome, friend! Are you ready to tip it, flip it, make the world the way you want it?"

'Well, mainly... I just wanted a beer.'

'Dude, seriously — tell me you're going to take this world, scrunch it up in a ball, throw it up in the air and then kick that motherfucker through the goalposts to Successville.'

'I'll have some crisps, if that's what you mean.'

I have trouble even being the second-best I can be, and I can't see a restaurant — however fine their deconstructed burrito with watercress, avocado and pickled this-that-and-the-other might be — changing that any day soon.




Great food stores of the world…

I’m still in New York, and hacking up and down the streets for a few days has reminded me just how much I love good food stores. I can browse in these places for hours, even if I have no intention of buying — doing so with almost the same level of beatific absorption I attain in bookstores. A quality food purveyor reminds you just how wonderful it is that we have to eat (and also how lucky we are to live in privileged countries, where what we eat can be an existential choice, rather than a matter of bitter existence). Finding an awesome food emporium is like discovering a tiny, wood-paneled and coffee-infused independent bookstore that somehow happens to stock as much as a big chain, only in far more interesting ways, and studded with prizes the big guns don’t even know exist. Wandering around these places is a kind of meditation, and time spent there will find your heart rate slowing and brain waves settling into a contented hum.

Or... maybe I’m just a pig.

Either way, my top choices in this very provisional list come from America, possibly controversially. The rest of the world — and even many Americans, it seems, certainly the ones living near the coasts — tend to portray the United States as a country where the ill-informed and massively-sized chow merrily down on any old crap, so long as it comes by the bucket-load, and are never happier than when stuffing a burger into every orifice. Yet the average Publix or Ralphs will have deli and meat and fish counters that would put European specialty stores to shame, not to mention acres of choice in more prosaic departments. No self-respecting American supermarket is going to offer you just one of something, be it a tin or jar or packet: they will have a choice of nineteen different brands, and many of them will be good. Unless you’re specifically looking for patés, cassoulet and the like, you’re a lot better off here than in the average French hypermarket...

1. The Westside Market on 7th Avenue (at 10th), NYC New York is, of course, one of the great food cities, with food supplies in breadth and depth. An unassuming deli can turn out to have hot and cold food choices stretching for ten yards, not to mention a perfectly competent sushi chef beavering away in the corner. The Westside Market actually did my head in (more so than the oft-lauded Garden of Eden chain, excellent though they are). I went into near-catatonia with Opportunity Cost Anxiety at Westside, wandering round open-mouthed, like someone in town not so much from the sticks, as from the 8th century — painfully aware that I’ve only got one stomach and only had so many self-catered meals ahead of me. So I settled for buying merely seven times what I needed, and walking with a pronounced list for most of the time. It was worth it.

2. The Broadway Market, Seattle A big, spacious store, this doesn’t have quite the sense of lunatic crammed-in cornucopia as the best New York markets, but you still want to check it out. As an added but unrelated bonus, in side streets nearby there are some extremely attractive Arts & Crafts bungalows, if you know where to look (or, like me, wander around like a lost dog until you accidently come upon them). Broadway is a bit of a hike from downtown, but it’s worth it. While you’re in the city, don’t forget Pike Place Market. It doesn’t count as a food shop, but is a cool place to walk around (especially early in the morning, watching tough-looking guys bellowing weirdly about fish) — and there’s lots of other food-related goodness in the surrounding alleyways. Seattle’s not just about depressed bands and perpetual drizzle: the food there is good.

3. Hédiard, Paris I find the much-vaunted Fauchon (just across the Place de la Madelaine) a bit pretentious: there’s a lot of nice food there, of course, but it’s too mannered and arch, packaged as if to be part of some grandstanding gift basket. Hédiard feels more homely and comfortable, and has more game on the savoury stuff, too. There’s another great general food store in Paris, just the other side of St Germain, but I can’t remember what it’s called. Feel free to remind me. And yes, if I was including food markets, then France would move up the list, as it would if I was talking about the effortless ability of just about anywhere to chuck together a simple meal of greatness. But I’m not. Nor am I talking about indoor multi-outlet food markets of the kind Toronto has, fan of these places though I am (and I’m receptive to tips as to where to find others, too). I’m just talking about food shops here. Read the title of the blog, and don’t give me grief.

4. Selfridges Food Hall, London It’s very good — by all accounts Harrods’ is even better, but that’s too far West for me, and I find the whole idea of Harrods obscurely annoying, for some reason — but it’s not really a patch on any of the above: and oh my God it’s expensive. Deciding to buy a picnic in Selfridges Food Hall is like picking up a copy of the Guttenberg Bible to read while you have a poo. It does have European items like rillettes, however, which can be tough to find in American stores. Though not in France, obviously. Duh.

Four is a weird place to stop, but I’m missing a number 5 for the list — not to mention 6 through 173. So — what have I missed or not yet encountered? How have I been stupid and wrong-headed and completely like a nutbag fool? If I should be in your (or any other) neck of the woods, where should I go to stare longingly at stuff?

Tell me. And be quick about it.