As some of you might know, I’ve just been overseas on a whirlwind trip through America. Inset, you can see three ‘ladies of liberty’ in New York – namely moi, my very good friend Vicki and Lady Liberty herself. We did four cities in 14 days with a new passport to break in. It was a journey I’d long looked forward to, as I knew I’d likely see things and experience a culture that would inspire my work and set the mental gears in motion. It would be remiss of me not to tell you about the strange and wonderful things I experienced ‘down the rabbit hole’ – America was truly a topsy-turvy world I wasn’t expecting. Sometimes we think that because both Australia and America are Western democracies that holidaying in the US would be akin to going to Queensland (or similarly theme-park enriched). Same same but different. My preconceptions were smashed as I entered a country where things might look the same on the surface – but were profoundly different on a conceptual level. Enjoy these Ruby Assembly highlights!

Los Angeles

I feel it’s appropriate to start off a blog about Los Angeles with a photo of Scientology. Why? Coz they bring the crazy! As does LA. Vicki and I arrived on a Saturday morning at 7 am to stay at the Los Angeles Sofitel. We hadn’t had any sleep in 24 hours and lost a day, so to say that we were jetlagged was an understatement. However, we still had the energy to check out Hollywood Boulevard (where we took the Scientology pic) and do a lil’ shopping. Hollywood Boulevard was where we went to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (Vick really loves a heartstarter) and had our first weak-assed coffee. However, it was terrific people watching as it looked directly onto the Boulevard where dudes in character suits (ie Scream, Spiderman, Michael Jackson etc) took photos with tourists for tips. We also saw a group of bona-fide blonde permatanned OC style sweeties which we enjoyed mild eavesdropping on.

Coffee Bean & Tealeaf. They said my name properly, but made a bad caffe. Meh, win some lose some.

Other highlights of LA included our trip to see the homes of Beverley Hills, Bel Air (gated community deluxe) and the Hollywood Hills. We hopped in a mini-tour bus and were spotted immediately as Melburnians by our Greek-American tour guide John Mitchell (real name: Yiorgi Harvatis). On our tour of the uber-wealthy Hollywood residences of America’s oligarchs we saw the homes of Johnny Depp ( he recently purchased his hills hideaway from the estate of Bela Lugosi), Christina Aguilera, Don Ciccio (Frank Sinatra), Nancy Reagan, Doris Day, Michael Jackson and The King (Elvis Presley). Below is a picture of Dr. Phil’s house.

 Hey Dr. Phil. That’s a lot of therapy right there!

 The highlight of my LA journey however was Disneyland. As some of my regular readers might garner, I have a predilection for all things Disney – particularly of the Princess persuasion. I admit, I shed a little tear of joy when I walked into the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Even though it took nearly 2 hours on a stinky bus to get there, Disneyland was worth the journey. It was perfectly, authentically synthetic and utterly 1950’s. Nostalgic, oddly peaceful and very beautifully maintained (no doubt by a hidden team of illegal workers, but still).

Disneyland in the Springtime. Just makes your teeth ache, doesn’t it?

Whilst at the house of mouse, we rode on the King Arthur Carousel, enjoyed a swirl in the famous tea cups, enjoyed a boat ride at the ‘It’s A Small World’ feature and drank cherry coke. Full of kids and parents but never congested, Disneyland is the ultimate in Americana. I highly recommend it – make sure you buy ears and wear them with pride whilst there!

San Francisco

After the polluted, sprawling and plasticky Los Angeles coming into San Francisco was such a relief. Set on a breezy bay, framed with the ochre of the Golden Gate Bridge, rich with its own kind of gold-era architecture and bright with a Tasmanian-style white light – it was a pleasure of a city to visit.  We knew from touchdown (cleanest bathrooms and eco-designer airport around) that San Francisco was a Melbourn-ey kind of place. My Aunt Daina lives just outside of SanFran, and we were lucky enough to have her pick us up and give us a quick tour of the city. We spent the afternoon at Pier 39, enjoying a tasty sourdough roll robust enough to be able to hold a full bowl of soup at Boudin. Having barely eaten anything in Los Angeles due to a mixture or jetlag and grotty tourist food, our diets improved rapidly from hereon in.

Aunt Daina who picked us up and gave us sweets!!!!

 God bless the bread that can hold its own. (Soup).

The biggest highlight of San Francisco for me was our visit to Alcatraz Island. Institutional architecture has always fascinated me, and although Melbourne has its fair share (ie Pentridge, Willsmere, Concept Blue aka Melbourne Police opposite Old Melbourne Gaol) Alcatraz is something altogether different. It’s on an island and it has a movie starring Clint Eastwood for starters ! Unlike Melbourne’s bluestone gaols, the Alcaztraz cellhouse is thoroughly 1950’s in design – an odd color scheme of Patricia Piccinini-esque flesh pink and bright red. Like some kind of toothless mouth, the cellhouses rested three high as chicken coops upon one-another. So close to the bubbling city of San Francisco, yet too far to swim – its  location would have driven the prisoners nuts. The island is now carefully tended by a team of gardeners, and it is a protected bird sanctuary rich with rare plantings. I was surprised to learn that Alcatraz was also used by American Indians as a quasi-reservation in a series of protests during the heady days of the 1960’s. Very much worth the visit, not at all cheesy.

Entrance landing at Alcatraz, this particular building is one of the original structures used by the military prior to the island becoming a penitentiary. Note the ‘Indians Welcome’ graffiti above the penitentiary notice. 

Cellhouse at Alcatraz, strange colour scheme in flesh pink and red.

View from outside the Warden General’s office on Alcatraz towards San Francisco. So close, yet so far. Kinda like a carbon trading scheme.

We didn’t have very long in beautiful San Fran,  but we did the touristy thing and hopped on a bus to check out the architecture of the city. San Francisco is very hilly, and is a city that appreciates the arts implicity – in fact a percentage of all hotel fees goes towards a fund to sponsor public arts. Highlights (apart from the wonderfully 60’s art-student come tour guide Calvally) included Zoetrope Studios (Francis Ford Coppola’s production studio), the regal town hall, the bank (owned by her grand-daddy) that Patty Hearst robbed and the Stinking Rose (garlic restaurant!).

Glamorous deco high-rises (and Calvally, arty and ironic tour guide extraordinaire to right)

Like Melbourne, San Fran enjoys an humorous kind of love for its history.

This is their town hall – it’s larger than the Capitol Building. Can you imagine paying your parking fines here, Lord Mayor Doyle?

Las Vegas, Baby

Any city that encourages you to put the word ‘baby’ after it is bound to be a bit of a handful. Although not a drop of liquor passed my lips on this holiday, ‘Drink Up Bitches’ typifies the culture of excess and Dante’s Inferno-esque credit-card fuelled debt that Vegas stands for. More than once or twice Vicki confirmed to me that ‘anything you want to do, it’s find in Vegas!’ No judgement – you can sleep all day and party all night, you can wear tacky tranny cocktail-waitress dresses at 9:00 am. Vegas was hella fun for being amazed at the American desire to replicate with detail. Along the Vegas strip you can see a minature Eiffel Tour, State of Liberty, Venetian Campanile, Mount Vesuvius, Rialto Bridge and Doge’s Palace. Cos that’s how they roll! We stayed at the Venetian where we were welcomed into a cavernous welcome hall, replete with gilded globe water feature, venetian glass everything and Venetian-styled accordian player.

The Venetian welcome entrance – i’m sure you could pick one of these up at Harvey Norman.

The desire to create replicas is fascinating – frescoes and works throughout The Venetian were created by italian painters and craftspeople. So it’s authentically a replica. If you know what I mean, postmodern style aiii?

As Vicki and I wandered inside the cavernous belly of The Venetian we came upon a piazza that on first appearances looks like you’re outside. This is one of the many interior/outdoor spaces where clever lighting and curved ‘infinity’ roofs create the appearance of being outside. It was a shockingly impressive illusion, and really brought on the jetlag. Eternally at dusk. Strange.

Electric-blue waters, giant Rialto bridge and an 8-lane freeway.

Must admit that our evening walking along the Las Vegas strip to see the waltzing waters of The Bellagio was an eye opener. The wind off the water was refreshingly natural in the arid desert atmosphere, and we saw two sessions of ‘choreographed’ waters play – ‘The Lord of the Dance’ and a Chicago mega-mix. Another highlight of the strip included old skool glamma at The Flamingo (where Donny and Marie are apparently a permanent and popular fixture) – however a lowlight were the underpaid (certainly illegal) workers wearing oversized teeshirts advertising ‘Girls! Girls! Girls! Delivered to your room in 1/2 an hour!’ They also had an odd habit of having business-sized cards with pornographic images on them which they slapped loudly to gain the attention of passers by. Do you think they slapped the cards because of some phoenetic in-joke about slappers?

Carbon tax on electricity, anyone? Light it up at the Flamingo.

Just in case you get an urge to gamble whilst you’re on the street, there are mobile poker machines to satiate your fickle nickel.

 Look, where else could you really buy a Swarovski-encrusted Pimp Chalice? Now I know where leaders of industry shop.

Our one and only night out gambling. The gambling floor at The Venetian is expansive, and it’s odd to encounter smoking inside (brings me back to the two times I went to Heat nightclub) and glasses , nay buckets, full of 90% proof alcohol to sup on. The waitresses doling out drinks in gold lame all have a far-away look in their eyes, and men, women (young and old) seem to sit hypnotized in front of machines. Wasn’t a huge fan – but we were in Vegas and so found the ‘We Will Rock You’ Queen pokie machine and put in$2.00. Ruby Assembly says gambling is bad, kids. Go to a cafe instead and support a local business with your $2.00!

New York

New York! You impressed me with your tasty non-exclusively deep fried fare, your beautifully curated museums and your verdant parks. You scared the crap out of me with your response to the assasination of Osama Bin Laden. Compared to the other cities we visited across America, it was certainly the most Melbourne-ish. We had five nights to finish off our hectic sojourn at The New Yorker just near Madison Square Gardens and Macy’s. The height of buildings in New York has a dizzying effect when you’re inside them, but an oddly cavernous and ‘natural’ feeling when you’re at street level.

New York was a bit of a family event for me – through my Aunt Daina I managed to connect with my Father’s Uncle – an effervescent Dick van Dyke style fellow who kindly met Vicki and I at the airport. I was told I would know him by the Airforce cap he always wears! He was charming and very generous – I had that odd sense of familiarity as he looked very Lithuanian – a lot like my own grandfather. Uncle Don took me on a very important adventure all the way to New Haven in Connecticut to visit my Grandmother Dana’s sister – Grand Aunt Salome. This was significant for my family as my own grandmother passed away when I was a baby (thus, I never really met her) and my father had never met his own Aunty (also his Godmother). She was sprightly with a natty pure white bowl haircut and she said my name perfectly. It was all very familiar and I loved her to bits. Like all migrant families, there are tensions when siblings are separated. She told me some family stories which visibly relieved her conscience. Here are some photos of this special adventure with Uncle Don and Grand Aunt Salome.

Dapper Uncle Don: Full of family stories, Vietnam stories and gave me both a New Yorker magazine and a family sized bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. What a champion. This is him outside the New York Library.

Me outside the New York Library – did you know this area in the fore court include an outdoor reading room full of classic books and current magazines? Highly impressed by their civic generosity.

L – R: Me, Grand Aunt Salome and Uncle Don. She was very generous and had a full giant-sized Lithuanian lunch prepared.

Grand Aunt Salome as a young woman with her handsome Christopher-Plummer-esque husband.

 Evocative photos of my grandmother’s family pre-war – she’s the good looking doll in the bottom right photo with the triangle bosom detail. What panache!

Something that simply can’t be missed when I talk about the experience Vicki and I had in New York was the Tick Tock Diner. Imagine Happy Days. Or Seinfeld. Then add more Eastern Europeans and amazing American-style home cookin’ done in a healthy (ish) and delicious fashion. That’s Tick Tock Diner, located in the base of The New Yorker Hotel. It had a warm homey feel, clattering heavy dishes, lots of accents – and an extensive and very tasty menu (with vegetables too!!!)

Hustle bustle at Tick Tock Diner. All meals served with a soup or salad as a starter. Win!

One meal between two was more than enough – see the roasted turkey with candied yams, salad, cranberry saucy and garlic broccoli!

My face about to split in half with joy at the New York Strawberry Cheesecake we’re about to devour.

Ok enough with the food already. Another experience I really enjoyed was our trip using the Subway to the Bronx, where we saw a New York Yankees game. Unlike our other more ‘touristic’ experiences, this was a real American event and gave us a good feeling of the culture. Yankee stadium wasn’t as large as we expected, and the baseball took much longer than we thought. It’s kind of a meditative, hot-dog munchin’ kind of proposition.

There was a couple of ‘hand on heart, hats off head’ patriotic moments which was interesting to watch. It highlighted to me what a secular society Australia is and how active patriotism (generally speaking) is odd to observe in our own culture. Cronulla, anyone?

New York’s newest Yankee fans. Pre-hotdog.

The last thing I’ll touch on for this brief blog on our grand American Voyage was Ellis Island. As you know from my Alcatraz commentary, I’ve always been fascinated by spaces of entrance and egress – particularly state-built spaces of permission or denial. Ellis Island was the migrant processing centre where hopeful travellers wishing to join their families or begin new lives would hop off the boat and wait for judgement. It’s also used as the introductory centrepiece for The Godfather 2 and Vito Corleone’s journey to become an American. I travelled out on the Ellis Island ferry on a very foggy day seated next to a NYC fireman who told me about September 11 and his experiences. Interestingly many New Yorkers wanted to talk about September 11 to us very swiftly – it has certainly shaped their consciousness. This was probably enhanced as we were there during the Bin Laden assasination (which was scary).

A favorite photo of mine – on the way to Ellis Island we passed The Statue of Liberty. She loomed through the mist.

Facade of Ellis Island. This amazing structure was both decorative and elegant and also a little scary. Imagine not being able to speak English, arriving here and being told to dump all your cargo in a big pile before being processed by people in white coats.

One of the arched windows from the impressively-tiled processing hall – located upstairs so that they could observe who had difficulty climbing and was physically lame. Hard deal, that.

Same space, and a poor photo of original documentation of processing hall. It really sets tone, so crowded and confused.

So goodbye New York (and beloved Tick Tock Diner). For those of you who have stuck with me all the way through this blog, congratulations! To my sweet friend Vicki, thankyou for accompanying me on this special journey where we discovered how truly unusual human beings can be – including both of us! I’ll be back again… this was only part 1 of Ruby Assembly’s adventures in Wonderland!