Sunday, September 30, 2012

Notes from the Columbia

So, a couple weeks back, the Lovely Bride and the Lovely Bride's Mom (Nardi) and I headed south for a long-planned vacation to Ashland. And en route we chose drive up the Columbia to the Maryhill Museum and back, and take in a couple Confluence Project sites along the way.

The Confluence Project is a series of installations along the Columbia river created by Maya Lin, the artist responsible for the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC. In this case, she was commissioned to install seven pieces along the Columbia on the route that Lewis and Clark took at the turn of the 19th Century. We had tried to find these sites before, but no one seemed to know about them, even locally, which made them a sculptural scavenger hunt, this time aided by the net.

Land Bridge, with Lovely Bride
The first we visited was the Land Bridge, an overpass that crosses State Route 14 just before Interstate 5 crosses the Columbia into Oregon. Built at the site of the reconstructed Fort Vancouver, it was about what I expected from the artist - a large installation that brought the terrain into the structure itself, with three resting points for Land, People, and River. Done in sand-colored stones and concrete with dark metal accents, the installation gave a chance for meditation above the traffic. I also could give a view of the Columbia itself, though in our case it was blocked by a parked line of train cars along an adjacent rail line.

Being an overpass, it also allowed access from the Fort to the river itself, at the site of the Oldest Apple Tree in Washington, a sad ent  of a tree on life support, situated behind multiple fences, reinforced with guy wires and concrete, kept long beyond its lifespan.

Bird Blind
The second site was the Bird Blind at the Sandy River delta. This one is at the end of a long, dusty mile and a quarter hike in a dog park near Troutdale. The structure was simpler than the Land Bridge, a ramp leading up to a circular blind, with each slat of the blind a two-by-four dedicated to a creature that Lewis and Clark encountered and noted on their trip. Each had the date they mentioned it in their journals, what they called it, what the current name is, the scientific name, and its status (threatened, endangered, or extinct (only one is such)). While we hiking, dogwalkers stopped us and asked what we were doing (since we didn't have dogs). No one we spoke with knew about the installation. Sculptural scavenger hunt, indeed.

The third site was at Celilo Park, above the Dalles Dam. Before the dam was installed, the Dalles were a set of rapids and waterfalls, which made it both a site of salmon fishing and a hub for native trade. All of that is under the water now. The site, which dealt with the salmon fishing, was to be completed by fall of this year, but when we were the looked unbegun, a rough breakwater sticking out into the river, with a pair of local fishermen with numerous lines at the end.

Maryhill Museum
Maryhill Museum is a small museum just beyond that site, located on the bluffs overlooking the Columbia. Built by Sam Hill (the "good roads" Sam Hill, not the "What in the" Sam Hill), as a mansion which overlook his utopian community, it was turned into a museum after his wife booked out and his ideal community fizzled. As a result, it is an odd collection of material grounded in the turn of the 20th Century. Marie, the Queen of Romania came all the way west to dedicate it, so there is a large display of her regalia and furnishings. Her highness was in the mob that Hill ran with. Actually, that's a good description of Maryhill in general - stuff from the crowd Hill ran with. Sam Hill did the art patron thing with a number of Americans in France and Britain before the Great War, such as the dancer Loie Fuller, who was romantically involved with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, bought a lot of his works, got into financial trouble, sold her Rodins, convinced Hill to pick up her Rodins, and convinced Hill to turn his abandoned house into a museum. She was also in tight with the (you guessed it) Marie, the Queen of Romania. Which is why there are a large collection of Rodins on a bluff overlooking the Columbia in Washington State.

Rodin. Yeah, that guy.
The collection is interesting and eclectic. The Rodins are the big attraction center, but there is the Romanian regalia, and a large number of works from the collection, which they have increased over the passage of time. The have a large but unimpressive collection of Native American Art. They also have a hall on Fuller, who made her name as a dancer. The upper house is unchanged, but they have done a lot of extremely imaginative expansion on the cliff-side - most of it for things like a cafe and educational facility, but also expanding out the basement for more room for other works. Right now, the new acquisitions seem to be sculpture, and are pretty darn impressive.

Maryhill is near another Sam Hill project, the Stonehenge re-creation, which I've talked about before.

Back down the Columbia, evening at a snazzy hotel in Portland, then the long haul along the width of Oregon to Ashland. I've talked about Ashland before, so I will summarize for this trip - Anne Hathaway's is an excellent B&B (we stayed in the Annex a few doors down, which had a nice sense of privacy for us), recommended restaurants include Kobe (excellent sushi) and Beasleys (they bragged about the clam chowder, and yeah, it is worth bragging about). Great chocolate torte from Coquina down by the railroad track (so good we went back the next evening just for desert).

And now on to the plays. More on those later (I hope),

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Notes from Europe

I suppose I need to write about one adventure before beginning the next.

So, Europe.

Doing stand-up in Stockholm
To promote the release of Guild Wars 2, I and Lead Character Artist Aaron Coberly were dispatched to Europe for a whirlwind promotional tour - four cities over the course of five days. The bulk of our tasks involved talking to the media about the game - ensconced in a venue with an introductory video, machines set up to one side to play the game, and Aaron and I available for interviews. It was very much a business trip, where we saw a lot more of airplanes, hotels, and restaurants than of the cities themselves. But here are some notes from the trip.

Overall, if I have to compare US security with that of Europe, I found the US model of huge queues with bellowing agents to be inferior to the polite but continual approach encountered in Europe (it only felt like I was being asked for my passport every five feet. In reality it was more like fifteen).

And this is sacriledge in Seattle, I know, but the Airbus interiors are superior to those of the Boeings. Even among the same airline, the difference between the two is noticeable in the amount of legroom the fully kitted-out Airbus provided. Sorry guys.

Surf Munich!
Anyway, Munich was the first stop, and I actually got in a day early, the better to accommodate the time shift (which did not work that well - I must be getting old). Munich itself was gripped in a heat wave, with a temperature of around 37 (98 for us Ammurikans). I had a chance to walk around, and I was impressed with the community's bike culture (everyone was pedaling) and surfing. Yeah, surfing. The English Garden, which is a huge park rivaling NYC's Central, has a powerful stream flowing through it. And where this stream issues from beneath a bridge, there are a set of hydraulics (standing waves), which wet-suited young Germans surf on. It is much more like watching a bucking bronco than a beach.

Also got a chance to get to the Neue Pinokothek, an art museum on covering 19th and early 20th Century art. Excellent Van Goughs, a version of Von Stuck's Sin that is also hanging at the Frye, and a lot of Greek-related art - did not know that for a time the son of the King of Bavaria was the King of Greece.

We stayed at a place called the Cocoon, which was a tidy traveler's hotel that felt like staying in an IKEA flat pack (and me without my Allen wrench). It was full of transformer parts (the bathroom door slid across the sink complex to be the shower door, the heavy curtains were also the closet doors, the shower overlooked the bedroom itself through a clear wall). An amusing place.

The venue for the Munich presentations itself was a bar/cafe/restaurant nearby, its windows open in an attempt to get some circulation in the oppressive heat. We did have some heat-related crashes, but Aaron and I had it easy in that the presentations themselves were in German and we were on hand for interviews and answering questions from the press.

Immediately after the presentations, we headed for Hamburg. Here's one of those traveler weirdnesses - In America, we boarded by row number or zone, and everyone milled around in an unruly mob until their number was called. In Germany they said "Everyone get on the plane" and, much to my surprise, everyone got on the plane. Amazing!

The last time we were in Hamburg (for another press tour), we went to this wonderful restaurant at a hotel called The East, which had fantastic sushi (Yes, sushi. Deal with it). It turns out we pulled up in front of the East as our hotel. Comparing to the spartan/smart/compact nature of the Coccoon, the East was a James Bond lair of huge beds, massive windows, and sinks made of false rock. The presentation was within the hotel itself (In a meeting room called The East Kitchen with a full kitchen), and they catered the operation with ... the sushi I spoke of. It was great, I ended up consuming a lot of wiesbier in the bar, and had probably my best steak in several trips to Europe, in a restaurant overlooking the one of the bays.

Two nights in Hamburg, then a quick bounce over to London. An afternoon off on arrival, which was nice. Got to the Tate Britain, which I had not been to before (partially closed, alas), and ended up drinking in a pub that Aaron had always passed when he lived here, but never stopped in. Much alcohol, you may notice, was consumed over the course of the trip. Aaron also insisted that we get some hummus at a local grocery - Waitrose which was fantastic (picture the two of us, leaning on a fence across from Hyde park, with crackers and hummus).

Not shown: Edna and Patsy
That evening, we were taken out to the Golden Oven, an Indian place in Soho. I am normally not of fan of Indian food, having suffered too many bad Indian buffets, but this was the platonic ideal of Indian food, of which all others were merely shadows. The hotel was just north of Hyde Park and we were packed into a tiny room that made the Cocoon seem like the East, but it was for a single night and by that time we were getting used to crashing completely.

The venue for presentations in London was different again - a penthouse flat that had been rented for the day from the owner overlooking Soho, done entirely in white - white walls, white floors, white furnishings (our white t-shirts actually provided camo in the building). A large buddha head dominated one glass wall, and the Guild Wars 2 art replaced the normal art, and fit well against it. It was strangely like working in an episode of AbFab.

There was a party there that evening, but we did not get a chance to partake - we were en route to Stockholm. We arrived after midnight (as was becoming a habit), and I remarked that Stockholm must be a very pretty city in the daylight. The hotel was "Western" style, which means that the ground floor was the 1st floor and they were putting a celebrity chef restaurant for Marcus Sammuelson. Aaron and I had it easy, by the way, because we did not need to do set-up, so we could at least sleep in.
Other than that, the interview went well.

I had the chance to do an interview on P3, which was the Swedish equivalent of the BBC. After getting lost in the vastness of that building, we found our way to the interview, which was marvelous. The hosts were knowledgeable and warm and made me feel very comfortable. Back to the hotel for more presentations and interviews, and then, to wrap up the trip, a presentation and a Q&A at Webhallen, a game store. We had maybe 400 people total, and it was a lot of fun.

And at last a late celebration dinner, in the restaurant district across the river. The front desk said it is a ten minute walk, and I pointed out that the front desk consisted of very athletic young people whose idea of a fun was to ski and shoot rifles at the same time, and could wrestle bears if they needed to. So half an hour later, my compatriots dragged this overweight, sleepy American to a delightful place, where he feasted on reindeer steak (and of course, had more beer). 

Then of course, up at Oh-God-Early and back to the airport to get home, our mission complete. As we were en route to the airport, back in Seattle, they threw the switch and Guild Wars 2 went live. As I write this, we  have just crested 2 million registrations, a number that leaves us blinking in the blinding glare of sudden importance. It all feels very strange, that after all the worldbuilding and after all the interviews, after talking on the phone and hosting people at the office and flying to foreign countries, that the game is now no longer just ours, just the mad project we have hidden behind the curtain. That now belongs to the greater world. It feels good, but also a little weird.

So naturally, I've left town again. This time, Ashland. More about that later.