July 26, 2009

Montreal - Paris of North America

I just recently returned to New York from a short break in Montreal. After my last trip to Canada in the autumn of 2008, it made such an impression on me that I promised myself I'd try to see more of the country as soon as I could. This time took me to Eastern Canada and to city environs, very much the opposite of my previous visit. Montreal has long been a high priority on my endless list of places I want to travel to, and with it being a train journey from NYC this seemed like as good a time as any to do it.

Being an absolute lover of train travel, the 10+hr trip was just one of the highlights. I had heard from many people that this is a spectacular journey through upstate New York through the Adironacks. It couldn't have been a more pefect summer morning as the train pulled out of Penn and I had been forearmed with the knowledge that I should grab a seat on the left hand side of the train for the outbound journey. The scenery was lovely, but I have definitely been on more breathtaking train journeys. Maybe I'm just getting old and harder to impress! The 10hrs passed by in no time. Dervla Murphy's "Full Tilt" was my companion for the trip, along with the music of Gustavo Santaoalla.

Initial impressions of Montreal as we arrived were of a very North American city - skyscrapers, shopping malls, etc., but my taxi driver obliging played the tour guide and explained that the city is divided into an old and new town. Montreal Vieux was where my hostel was situated. After checking in and dumping my baggage, I set out walking to explore some of the old town at night. On a week night, the whole city was bustling and vibrant, restaurants windows thrown open to reveal romantic couples sharing bottles of wine, jazz musicians crooning in the background, tourists snaking their way lazily along Rue St. Paul stopping to look in art galleries. With snatches of French conversation on the air all around, you could easily have been in Paris.

Over the course of 5 days, I walked as much of the new and old city as I could. Montreal has a beautiful old port, a trendy, chic nightlife, fantastic clubs and bars (I managed to catch the end of the Jazz Festival as well as the Just for Laughs festival), wide open parks and walking trails, an underground "shopping city" (because it gets that cold in the winter!), a fusion of architecture which works very well due to a respect between the old and the new, a very happening gay district, China Town, a Latin Quarter - the list goes on.

The Montrealers I met were extremely friendly, courteous, so helpful and anxious for you to experience the best of their city. One of the most interesting characters I met there was a guide I met one day on a walking tour of the city. Fiercely proud of Montreal and equipped with all the history of the city, he went almost an hour over his scheduled tour time with our group, so eager was he to answer everyone's questions and show us all the most interesting parts of the Old Town.

It's true Montreal Vieux is full of tourists, especially at this time of year, but it's very easy to see why this city holds such attraction for anyone living in North America. It's a thriving modern North American city with a lovely mix of European culture thrown in which gives it something of a unique personality!

July 13, 2009

Recording at Lofish Studios, NYC

Last week I was asked by a friend of mine if I would be interested in recording some piano backing to a song he has just written. I said, "Of course, I'd love to!", thinking he just wanted an amateur recording made by myself after I'd had a bit of time to learn the music.

In the true style of this particular friend though, he landed in New York, booked a recording studio for the next evening at 8pm and I had one hour to put the music together before we would record the session live!! So, I didn't even have time to freak out about it. Probably the best way really.

I've never been in a recording studio in my life, so it was more than a little bit intimidating showing up there armed with my laptop, headphones and a pen drive containing the music and vocals I had to work with.

Lofish studios is situated not far from where I live in midtown on the top floor of a pretty inconspicuous looking building. Ben, one of the sound engineers, led me up 6 flights of stairs to a sectioned off studio with a beautiful centrepiece Yahama grand piano gleaming under the lights, and 3 iso booths.

Truth be told, I haven't played the piano in quite a while, not having my own here in New York, so I actually felt a little nervous sitting down to play such a magnificant instrument. Ben told me that it is maintained lovingly by the owners of the studios, one of whom I actually met later in the evening and who is herself a jazz musician.

Anyway, I had about an hour of practice runs, listening to the music and transposing it to the piano and coming up with some kind of creative backdrop to the vocals. Through the plate glass, Ben gave me the nod to say we would start recording. Nerves! What made it all just seem to glide past was the absolute treat of playing the Yahama with its silky black and white keys and perfectly tuned pitch.

The end recording sounded pretty good - a couple of falterings here and there - but for a first take, not bad at all. My friend was over the moon, and I fed more off his enthusiasm than anything else. Ben gave us a CD each and sent us on our way.

I found out just this morning that Lyric Fm back in Ireland have agreed to play our recording on air, so in a couple of weeks I'm heading back to Lofish to re-record again!! I think I'm hooked!

July 12, 2009

Manhattanhenge 2009

We're all familiar with Stonehenge and the significance of the summer solstice right? But how many of us have heard of "Manhattanhenge"? I would wager not many unless you happen to be a Manhattanite! Today, 12th July, was one of two days this year when the Sun sets in exact alignment with the city grid, illuminating every cross street on the island as the sun sinks onto the horizon. As the sun sets, one can witness the golden orb sitting with its top half above the horizon line and the other half below. Manhattanhenge took place earlier this summer also on 30 May, but I only came to learn of it during this past week, and immediately my curiosity was piqued!

It is almost laughable to think that future civilisations would attach astronomical significance to the design of Manhattan's grid construction, but the ancient sites of Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England have long eeen revered as mythical, mystical places for their supposed worship of the Sun by their very design.

The 42nd street bridge here in Manhattan is apparently one of the best spots to photograph this annual phenomenon, and as luck would have it, I live on the very same street. Unfortunately, I could not (as a newbie to all this) have anticipated the crowds that would gather just outside my apartment block this evening. Instead of being there at 7 to set up my tripod and wait it out until sunset at approx. 8:30, I foolishly wandered down about 15 mins beforehand, only to be met with a sea of expectant photographers, both amateur and professional, all eager to capture this unique photo op.

Disappointed, I had no opportunity for a full-on shot of the sun setting from the desirable elevation of the 42nd street bridge. My only recourse was to stand in the middle of the busy city street below with hundreds of other hopefuls, blocking traffic and having abused hurled at me by passing taxi drivers. Nevertheless, these occasions are rare events, and I stubbornly stood my ground in the middle of the road as the golden ball slowly dropped onto the horizon at the far western end of 42nd street. I managed some semi-decent shots, but these could have been superior had I done my homework and secured my spot on time.

It's comforting to me to see that moments of wonder like this will still draw a crowd even in today's hectic, indifferent world. There are those who remain unimpressed by such things, and while I stood on 42nd street I overhead a woman passerby remark "Jesus, would you look at this. It's so American." In my mind, it seemed anything but American....there was something really unifying about it, drawing people of all walks of life together as if by some sort of magic. Sun worship in the medieval sense no longer exists it seems, but to watch this evening strangers standing together all facing towards the golden orb in the sky one would be forgiven for thinking that the practice was still alive and well.

And just to give you an idea of what a professional photographer who gets there on time can do check out this link - a great shot by Steve Kelly taken at the earlier event this year.


And a video posted on YouTube:


Cool, right!!

July 11, 2009

Some Fireworks

Unlike last year, this 4th July I found myself staying in Manhattan for the weekend and decided to make an effort to go along and watch the annual firework display. Usually, these are held over the East River. This year, however, officially marks the 400th year anniversary of Dutch explorer Henry Hudson's sailing up the river west of Manhattan, thereafter known, of course, as The Hudson, and so in a depature from tradition and in honour of this celebration the Macy's Fireworks were launched on the west side of the city this year.

Fireworks are fireworks. Seen 'em once, seem 'em all really, and this firework sequence was nothing special to write home about I have to say, but it definitely was enjoyable to make the trek across 42nd street with the hoards of other revellers. Anyone who hadn't left the city for the Hamptons that weekend seemed to be gathering for the fireworks, armed with deckchairs, food supplies, cameras and more patience than you will find the average New Yorker possessing. In order to secure a "good spot", crowds began moving en masse at around 7:00pm, a good 2 and 1/2 hours before the event was to kick off. I was among them.

On reaching Pier 81 on west 42nd street, there were a lot of cops patrolling the area, and even at that stage, barriers had been closed off to 12th ave. Using my NYIP press pass, I managed to wangle my way through to the pier area itself which put me in a good position to get some shots of the event and settled down to wait for darkness to fall.

After weeks of unseasonable rain here in NYC, the weather on the evening of the 4th was just perfect, and as the sun set in a darkening sky, it threw flashes of, yellow, pink and orange across the heavens - Nature's own far more beautiful fireworks.

As the sky finally sank from blue into indigo, the first burst of colour exploded in the night sky over New Jersey to a chorus of "ohhhs" all around. I try to nurture the child within me whenever possible, and there is certainly something about looking at fireworks that brings out that feeling of wonderment that so often seems lost to time.

I got as many firework shots as I could, although even from the pier I had some trees blocking the view in certain places. I left the camera out of focus for one or two shots to try and capture colours blurring together, like this one:

Within 40 mins it was all over and the huge crowd began to move again back towards the city and to whatever 4th July celebrations awaited them.

July 9, 2009

Another Sunset

I took these shots late in the evening at my home in Ireland. I love watching the sun set behind my favourite childhood tree. Click on the photos to enlarge.

July 1, 2009

NYIP - Picture of the Month - Sunset

NYIP - Picture of the Month - Sunset

Posted using ShareThis

Great piece of criticism on a spectacular sunset shot. Check it out!

June 29, 2009


On Friday night, I witnessed something I had never seen before, and when that happens, I don't know about you, but I immediately want to share that with everyone!!

Friday was a really nice day weatherwise here in NYC, after what seems like weeks of incessant rain now. After work, I arranged to meet a friend for a couple of drinks, sit outside and soak up the evening sun. No sooner were we seated with our beers than a very dramatic change came over the weather. A portentous wind rose unexpectedly, blowing tableclothes up, rattling windows and knocking umbrella stands over. As pregnant black clouds gathered over Manhattan and the fat telltale drops of a storm began to fall, people scurried inside gathering their belongings. People cowered as the thunder boomed right overhead. I'm not sure why I love electrical storms so much, but they give me shivers down my spine! For an hour or so, the New York sky flashed and roared at us, poured torrential rain upon us, violent winds blew and it seemed as if night had descended at only 6pm.

And then it was over, the black clouds roared off to terrify elsewhere, allowing the sunset through to create a most unique canvas of the sky above us. Odd as it sounds, I spend quite a lot of my time looking at the skies, at colours, cloud formations, sunrises and sunsets...and I had never before seen a sight to equal this one. A most unusual light fell over the city - not night, not day, not twilight. If it had not been so breathtaking a sight above, it would have been a little spooky!

Of course, I was nowhere within striking distance of home to grab my trusty Nikon and, for the first time ever I wished I had been the owner of a camera phone. So unfortunately, I had no means to capture this fantastic spectacle of nature myself.

Next day, I got online to check out what other photographers had managed to capture and found these incredible shots of the Manhattan skyline after the storm. http://bit.ly/OfwIM. Photographer: Jason Kuffer.

After you've lived in New York for a while, you realise that it takes something special or really noteworthy to make it as a topic of conversation for the New Yorkers for longer than a day, and unsurprisingly for the last few days almost the first thing from everyone's lips is "Hey, did you catch that storm on Friday night?!!" That evening, the Unstoppable City pretty much ground to a halt as people got out of cars and stood in the middle of street staring heavenward in bewildered awe.....

Why all the fuss? I don't know. As hackneyed as it may sound, I think there's just something about nature that reminds me of what a great and powerful universe we live in, and as a minute and very powerless part of it all, we are so privileged to witness beauty like this.

Listen to Leftfield's Storm 3000

January 28, 2009

A Life Unlived....

One of the books that I am reading at the moment is the mystic John O'Donoghue's Anam Cara. Well, I say reading, but it's more of a book that one can dip in and out of for inspiration when the mood fits. I came across these pages last night and I thought them worth sharing with you....

"[O]ne of the greatest sins is the unlived life. We are sent into the world to live to the full everything that awakens within us and everything that comes towards us. It is a lonely experience to be at the deathbed of someone who is full of regret; to hear him say how he would love another year to do the things his heart had always dreamed of but believed he could never do until he retired. He had always postponed the dream of his heart. There are many people who do not live the lives they desire. Many of the things that hold them back from inhabiting their destiny are false. These are only images in their minds. They are not real barriers at all. We should never allow our fears or the expectations of others to set the frontiers of our destiny.

We are so privileged to still have time. We have but the one life and it is a shame to limit it by fear and false barriers...If you allow your nature to come alive then everything will fall into rhythm.

The shape of each soul is different. There is a secret destiny for each person. When you endeavour to repeat what others have done or force yourself into a preset mould, you betray your individuality. We need to return to the solitude within, to find again the dream that lies at the heart of the soul."

January 25, 2009

NYC - Cultural Capital of the World?

On my way downtown on the subway the other day, I overheard one middle-aged woman remark to another "Well, aren't we lucky. We live in the cultural capital of the world". I hadn't really been listening to the context of the conversation, as you find when you live in a city of this many million people, you often have to tune out what's going on around you in order to be kind to your ears. In the midst of my day-dreaming though, I caught this snatch of the conversation on the air as I deboarded the 6 train and went on my way.

I suppose there aren't many who could argue with this statement...maybe the Parisians would like to lay claim to the title, or perhaps the Londoners...but New York can certainly put up a good fight, if not win the battle hands down. I've only been a visitor to London on a handful of occasions, and have just whizzed through Paris for work, not having the time to stop and really savour the city. So, I can't say if they would be contenders or not, but I can tell you about some of the exciting things I have done this past year here in NYC!

When I am in search of things cultural, I tend to look towards Europe for obvious reasons. "Culture" is not a word I have generally associated with America in the past, but in this new home of mine, I find myself with a myriad possibilities for something interesting, exciting and soul-nourishing to engage in on any and every night of the week. The trouble is whittling down the endless list of performances, shows, concerts, readings, films, restaurants, bars and clubs to some sort of schedule that is both manageable and affordable! Never before have I had such exposure to the great composers of our age, the orchestras of the world, famous screen and stage actors in the same room as me, meters in front of my seat on Broadway!

During 2008,I saw some wonderful performances, including Madama Butterfly at the Metrpolitan Opera, world reknowned pianists Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall and Lang Lang with the New York Philharmonic. Towards the end of the year, I went to see Mahler's famous Resurrection Symphony with the Philharmonic, which was conductor Gilbert Kaplan's New York debut and therefore a very exciting event! For an aficionado of classical music and opera, New York City is heaven!

And then there's Broadway! Both on and off Broadway there are just so many theatrical treats to choose from. In June last year I saw Morgan Freeman in The Country Girl. It was bizarre to suddenly be in the same room as this man who seems as familiar to me as anyone I know. Recently, a friend and I got tickets to Arthur Miller's All My Sons, starring John Lithgow, Diane West and Katie Holmes.

And it's not all to be found in the centre of Manhattan. A short train ride out to Brooklyn one evening took me to St Ann's Warehouse, one of the most impressive playhouses I've ever been to, to see Black Watch, a really powerful piece of theatre that has been filling venues worldwide.

Coming up in the first quarter of this year, I'm planning to see Chekov's The Cherry Orchard, Beckett's Waiting for Godot and the pianist Murray Perhaia with the New York Philharmonic, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

It's no wonder the New Yorkers don't want to leave New York!!

January 24, 2009

Obama Ushering in a New Age of Hope

It's been something of an eventful few months recently here in the US. Banks are toppling, Wall Street is see-sawing schizophrenically, and not least the country has been waiting, literally with bated breath, to watch the baton of power being passed from George Bush to Barrack Obama. Tuesday, Inauguration Day, felt like one of the most significant days in my life so far, and now four days later, I find myself still in the same reflective mood I was then. I'm sure the whole world watched as Obama took his oath of acceptance on the steps of the National Mall in Washington, but I wondered if my family and friends at home in Ireland were experiencing what I was here. I had an enormous sense of the importance of the occasion. Somewhere deep in my being there was a feeling that this day was going to be hugely historic, one that I would look back upon and remember in years to come.

My day got off to an unexpected start, as I woke to a text from my cousin, a radio presenter with a local radio station in Ireland, to ask whether I would be interested in going on air for a quick interview about the atmosphere here in NYC leading up to the inauguration. At 7am, and having not yet had my morning coffee, I wasn't too sure if I would be up for the task, but decided that this was one of those opportunities in life for a new experience and decided to do it. I actually found it hugely enjoyable and it was a lot of fun talking to my cousin Paul live on air! Somehow that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the day. All day at work, I watched the inauguration being streamed live on CNN, and it was impossible not to be affected by the joy and positivity of the onlookers being interviewed down in Washington. In the past, I have kept a close eye on the presidential elections and inaugurations in the US, but there is something uniquely different it seems about this one. Barack Obama has captured the imagination of the American public in the way perhaps that Kennedy did in years gone by. Leaving the fact that he is the country's first black president aside, an enormous achievement in itself, he has come from nowhere, having almost no experience in the political corridors of Washington. Not only that, he is an entirely likeable personality - Democrats and Republicans alike are behind him, America's black, white, hispanic and other communities love him equally. He has inspired adults and children alike. It feels as if America's citizens, wounded by the last decade under George Bush and by the vicious attacks of 9-11, are looking at Obama as something of a presidential Messiah!

One can't help but be inspired by this man. Born of a white mother and a black Kenyan father, his father left when Obama was a young child and he was raised by his mother. All his life he has worked for what he believes in and has achieved his goals tirelessly. His youthful vigour and nationalistic pride are, I believe, the reasons he stood on those steps in Washington on Tuesday. I can see no obvious hunger for power in this man. In the openness of his handsome face, I see goodness; I see a person who wants a better life for everyone, not just for Americans, but for the whole world! It was poignant to see the media shots from around the world, particularly one of little kids in Kenya waving American flags and wearing Obama t-shirts. He seems to have gotten the attention of every country on the planet and for all the right reasons. Yet another poignant moment was watching an interview given by the singer Beyonce after she sang for the First Couple's first dance at the Neighbourhood Ball on Inauguration Day. She was very emotional, fighting back tears when she said "He makes me want to be smarter. He makes me want to be a better human being. I'm so proud I could burst. I'm so happy to be here today singing for him!" And she wasn't the only one who felt that way. It seemed as if everyone I met on Tuesday was imbued with hope and joy. It was infectious here that day!

As I walked down 5th Avenue later that night on my way home, past St Patrick's Cathedral, I looked up at the huge American flags waving gently overhead and I sensed that a new era was dawning in the United States and felt real affection for the Americans. We have all at one time or another bought into the idea of the American Dream. We have all loved that something special that America used to promise, and I like to think that all of us, on some level, would all be glad to see the country rising up of its knees again and being the great nation that it once was, and better! Barack Obama wants that for America, he believes he can achieve it. He faces an uphill task undoubtedly, but I believe he has the support of the entire nation willing him on, and I, for one, am certainly rooting for him!

Food for Thought in Canada

Another year is upon us. 2008 ended up being a very busy year for me, and I found myself in the final months of the year with little or no time to devote to blogging. In the true spirit of Resolution Season, I have vowed to set aside time once again when the interesting escapades in my life are worth recording.

One thing I have been meaning to record for many months now was my trip to Canada in the autumn of 2008. My first time to Canada, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect of it, apart from what I may have picked up in travel publications and online, and to my shame I had supposed it to be almost idential to the US in terms of its culture, people and so on. I was pleasantly surprised.

Something that is always desirable when travelling in another country for the first time is to see it through the eyes of the natives and not through the blinkered view of a tourguide. (no offence to the tourguides reading this :D). On this occasion, I was visiting my brother who had been living in the British Columbia and Alberta regions for about a year, and was well settled in with the locals and the Canadian way of life. During the two weeks I spent there, I was lucky to meet a good cross section of Canadians from many of the country's states. Common to all of them was a lovable roguish sense of humour and an inherent warmth and welcoming nature. On my own travels around the globe, I have met many Canadians before and my general impression of them was of a very chilled out people with a can-do approach to everything. However, most backpackers tend to be like this, so I was surprised to find that the average Canadian in his own land was exactly that also.

Of course, when you are just visiting somewhere for a short time, it's easy to view everything through the snap happy eye of a tourist, but I only had to look to my brother and his love of his lifestyle and surroudings at Lake Minnewaka, high in the moutains outside Banff. He seemed to love everything about this country and it was easy to see why.

I spent the majority of my visit in the Banff National Park, but also ventured into Jasper and Yoho parks at various times. Leaving the absolute mind-bending beauty of the Canadian rockies aside, these parks were a source of fascination to me for the sheer efficiency and strictness of how they are regulated. Parks Canada seems to be, in my opinion, expert at wilderness management. However, there are many Canadians who would disagree. So, I set about finding out something about when and how these parks came into being and what the Canadians really think of how they are run.

The Canadian Rockies National Parks are in their entirity designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. Parks Canada is responsible for managing and protecting close to 40 regions right across the country, including many national historical sites. It's remit is two-fold - firstly, to safeguard the ecological integrity of these protected regions, and secondly to facilitate the public's exploration, education and enjoyment of the parks. But however simple that might sound, it is a huge task, fraught with controversial issues and stumbling blocks. It is never going to be easy to act as the buffer between the unpredictable wild, and irresponsible and unthinking humans beings.

Canada's first national park was originally called Rocky Mountains Park, later to become known as Banff National Park, and the story behind how this park came into being is a fascinating one. Too long and interesting to detail here, it all hinged around three brothers who, when walking into the woods one day, discovered the hot springs not far from the town of Banff, and in the true spirit of entrepreneurship opened the first hotel close to the site called, naturally, Banff Springs Hotel. Subsequent to this important discovery was the creation of the National Park, as the Canadians began to realise that they needed to protect local resources such as the hot springs. As time elapsed and technology advanced, people also began to recognise the threat to the wildlife in the parks. More cars were appearing on the roads, more tourists were populating the beautiful regions of the country and human life started to have more and more of an impact on the wilderness of the country. And so, over time, more and more regions of the country were sectioned off into protected areas and called National Parks.

To the unschooled visitor, it seems the Canadians must be doing something right when you see with your own eyes species of animals that have long sinced disappeared from Europe. Probably the most thrilling aspect of my trip to Canada was catching stolen glimpses of the elusive wildlife. There is something magical about rounding a bend in the road late at night and coming upon a statuesque elk surveying the forest below.

On one afternoon, my brother took me to visit a wolf sanctuary located in the Yoho National Park, and this was something truly new to me. Entirely ignorant of wolves, I found this to be an extremely enlightening experience, as we learned about these mysterious animals and their social structure, which is so similar to our own as humans. I've since developed something of a fascination with them and I'm in the middle of reading a very interesting book called The Company of Wolves, which, if you are an animal lover, I highly recommend. Our guide at the sanctuary, however, was very critical of Parks Canada and their negligence in taking care of Canada's dwindling wolf population.
Before leaving the sanctuary, we were treated to something very special, as the five wolves we were visiting began to howl in unison, their ethereal harmonies rising on the air through the pines above us - truly beautiful. I had never heard anything like it before. The sound is with me still.

The part of Canada I travelled through on this occasion was one of the most awe-inducing places I have seen in the world, the majestic beauty of its peaks rivalling those of Patagonia. It was for me the perfect antidote to my busy noisy life here in New York. I left Canada feeling recharged both physically (after lots of spectacular hiking!) and mentally. I can't say it was easy to leave behind the pristine air and peace of Lake Minnewaka and arrive many hours later into the mayhem of Penn Station once again! That's just New York though, and I love it just as much but for very different reasons. Canada was an adventure and an unexpected eye-opener for me in many ways, and I am looking forward to going back at my earliest opportunity!

Thanks to the lovely Canadians I met while I was there and who shared their thoughts and experiences with me.