The Ballad of the Mary Whalen

Aaah, is that the Big Apple I spy through my porthole? Delightful

Even before I abandoned rent-controlled Manhattan tenement life five years ago and up and moved to my very own little shack of a frame house in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the latter neighborhood had become a throbbing termite-mound of home renovation, new construction, face-lifting and just all-around progress, as they call it. On the waterfront, the original setting for the play that became the classic Brando vehicle of that name, Red Hook is on the front lines of the epic gentrification still sweeping New York City's neighborhoods, leaving only a few hidden corners of ground too barren for Starbucks. Gracias a Dios we don't have a Starbucks here yet, but the Ecuadorian bagel and caffeinated swill spot where methadone survivors buy their oversweetened coffees has been supplanted by baked, a delightful free-wireless-internet hipster emporium with glowing pine wood walls and puff-pastries filled with goat cheese and herbs, where one manages all too easily to be dinged seven dollars for a designer latte and a muffin.

In there the other morning I ran into my friend Carolina Salguero, one of the first people I met in the neighborhood and herself a gentrification victim who was asked last summer to move on, when her affordable apartment was caught in the rising rental tide. Now she lives in Oyster Bay, Long Island. She still has interests in the neighborhood, however, as the founder of PortSide New York, an NGO which "seeks to breathe life into the relationship between Red Hook’s landside community and the maritime sector—to the advantage of both." Last summer the organization aquired the defunct tanker Mary Whalen, and Carolina spent much of the fall and winter repairing and restoring it. Getting a 172 foot steel ship built back in 1938 into action again makes makes most of the gut renovations of houses around here seem about as daunting as, say, washing a car, and I've been eager to see the beast since she first told me about the project.

Carolina is big on getting people involved, so I wasn't surprised when the second sentence out of her mouth was a request for me to volunteer at "our first volunteer Sunday," an occasion she seemed almost to have invented on the very spur of the moment to take advantage of our bumping into one another. I mumbled something about the non-sustainable flooring I was trying to get laid down in my living room and then counter-attacked with the observation that she hadn't updated her previously fascinating blog about the Mary Whalen renovation since January. She then mumbled something about someone having suggested she really ought to write a book about it, as if that were an excuse. I took that as an implication that she felt that by blogging it she would be cutting the legs out from under some future publishable opus. Had I already drunk my latte I might have been quick enough to observe that nothing would make a better outline for a book than a completed boat-renovation blog, but it was early and I was still a little thin on the ground. You just might see me on Sunday, I said.

In fact I was the first volunteer to arrive, making me that much more certain that the "spring-cleaning" had been invented for my benefit alone. Fresh from my new floor, in sawdust-covered work pants and greasy suede gloves, I waited for Carolina by the guard-house at the entrance to the Red Hook container port; when I told the guard I didn't have photo-i.d. he said "what are you thinking? This is New York City." Nonetheless, if Carolina would vouch for me when she arrived he would let me in. I've been in the container port only twice before, once to film the behind-the-scenes of a big-budget commercial for a Brazilian shipping company, when we followed a camera crew following Claudia Schiffer walking in front of the Manhattan skyline, before delivering two or three quarter-of-a-million dollar syllables, and once on another shoot when we interviewed a guy who wasn't sure if he was an actor playing a goombah, or a real, actual goombah, standing in the doorway of a warehouse full of cacao pods that smelled like paradise. Carolina picked me up in her pickup truck and we whizzed around the deserted Sunday port, slaloming through stacks of containers until we got to the Mary Whalen's pier. There are acres upon acres of open waterfront space here with the greatest views of lower Manhattan imaginable, and now that this neighborhood has gone from being one big crack bodega to the home of the latest gourmet Fairway supermarket, the developers must be salivating and scheming and hoping the last remnants of New York City shipping would just load up and steam off into the sunset.

In the belly of the beast: eager volunteer and recent Red Hook arrival Jim Clark, proprietor of LOOK NORTH, an Inuit art gallery. That's right, Red Hook now not only has art galleries, it has Inuit art galleries!

The Mary Whalen began life in 1938 as a local gasoline tanker and was eventually converted to haul loads of diesel fuel throughout the harbor. The Captain's cabin still has original mahogany trim and the former oil storage holds will hopefully soon become a maritime museum but she's pretty humble. Which may be the point. We set to work offloading the winter trappings, mostly coal and firewood and the woodstoves that had made the ship bearable to work on over the winter. I coiled some vast ropes in piles on a shady corner of the steel deck, where the summer sun shouldn't batter their uv-sensitive strands. We moved some mattresses. We considered what to order for lunch.

At last another volunteer arrived, Jim Clark, an Alaskan fisherman who recently moved to Red Hook. We had barely been introduced before he clambered down a long ladder into one of the Mary Whalen's innumerable gunk-filled foredeck caverns, carrying a shop-vac and a submersible pump. Shortly waste-water began spurting out of a tube and running along the decks, but Jim himself was never seen again. I assisted Carolina by hauling buckets of rust-sludge out of another hatch. She did the dirty work, sweating below decks, shoveling pounds of what was literally the oxidized inner wall of the ship into white plastic buckets donated by yet another Red Hook fixture, Steve's Key Lime Pies. Once these buckets had held some ingredient of his delicious desserts; we filled them with vile metallic goo that smelled like foetid cheese, and lined them up along the starboard side for disposal. After a dozen buckets or so of this I stuck my head down into the overripe compartment and yelled to Carolina, some twenty feet below, that I had better be getting along; I needed to return to the ongoing flooring emergency back on Coffey St. It wasn't quite an Amish barn-raising, but it was a morning that offered up the hope that Red Hook's community spirit, its old-school neighborhoodyness, so exceptional in the heart of the city, may actually be surviving the real-estate feeding frenzy snapping at its shores.

Carolina even further down in the belly of the beast. The small intestine of the beast, as it were. Today's task: shoveling out countless buckets of rust-sludge

Eight of the countless buckets...

I warned Carolina not to wear this crisp white Armani henley for such a foul task, but she wouldn't listen


Winter in Antarctica

My friend Helen, a kiwi who slaved in the kitchens at McMurdo Station for the entire time I was there last year, did the unthinkable and went directly from a full season on the ice at McMurdo to working the next at Scott base, one mile away, cooking for the New Zealanders throughout the long dark winter. It may be summer here, but she writes that there they are deep into permadarkness. A few days ago the hardy winterovers were blessed by a truly stupendous display of the aurora australis, the southern lights. She sent these pictures, apparently taken by Anthony "Antz" Powell, another die-hard who so delights in wintering over that he was actually married in the chapel at McMurdo during an earlier winter season. Last September we spent a hilarious week with him hunkered down against an 80 knot "breeze" on Black Island. Anyway, even though it is late May, the most glorious time to be in New York City, I'm thinking of my antarctic friends...

Photos: Antz Powell

I'm Number ONE on Google...

My last staggeringly hilarious entry on how people find antarcticiana via google garnered exactly one comment, wondering why no eager cooks searching for flan recipes found my site (thank you, Paco.) I am not, however, dissuaded; the mind continues to boggle at the workings of that of others. Here are the top thirteen, guaranteed accurate, all killer and no filler, known-to cause-cancer-in-the-state-of-California actual search terms which recently returned us as number ONE!

gauchito gil world tour

how balloon rises with the passengers sitting inside it

beelitzer spargel andreas gursky

mcmurdo gender ratio

How was flan discovered in antarctica

Reading about abandoned boats

fly agaric mushrooms are they free living or colonial

Hans Rosenhaupt, clifton fadiman

It's sedimentary my dear Watson

antarctic faced head toothfish

tribal fertility ritual

blizzard crevasse plunge

john franklin "first they ate"


Pimp my Castle

Postmodern situation courtesy of AK718

To my own astonishment and that of others I actually find myself back in Brooklyn, New York, for a stretch. My nominal home. Sweet. Seizing the moment around here means that I have spent the last four or five days laying down a spectacularly beautiful Brazilian rainforest tropical hardwood floor on the main level of my house, feeling more and more guilty for being an insensitive planet-destroying landowner with every driven screw. At least once a day I run into someone on the cosy streets of Red Hook who asks me what I'm up to:

"Haven't seen you in a while. What's going on? Flooring your place? Cool. It's about time. Did you go sustainable? Are you using recycled yellow heart pine?"

"Uhhh. Not exactly."


"Ummm. Well, actually not. Unfortunately no, its some stuff I got cheap from the Russian mobsters with the lumberyard down on lower Smith St. I'm pretty sure they stole it from some Amazonian Indian tribe...."

"Nice going, scum. Somehow I had the idea that you were an environmentalist. What the hell is happening to this neighborhood anyway?"

The environmentally insensitive German, King Ludwig II

Flooring is boring, so here is a bit more on the delights of Bavaria, where last week I visited the baroque gingerbread fantasy that is Neuschwanstein Castle. Commissioned by the way gay King Ludwig II, Schloss Neuschwanstein must be the last absurdly self-aggrandizing european castle ever to have been built; as it was Ludwig was declared insane before construction was finished, perhaps when his handlers saw the invoice for the canopy bed. After being carted off to one of his other minor lodges he promptly perished with his psychiatrist in a lake in what was either a swimming catastrophe that led to a tragic double drowing, a homosexual suicide pact or a political murder.

Ludwig's Crib

For the design of his earthly paradise Ludwig naturally hired a set decorator instead of an architect, and a brief stroll within makes it clear that the chosen refugee from the theater was given carte blanche to explore his personal vision. Today no photography is allowed inside the castle, either to promote postcard sales or because the over-the-top murals, gilt and carved swans might proving embarrassing to the macho, boar-hunting Bavarian nation, but having taken the tour I feel I can safely report that Elton John would find the decor rather too garish.

Apparently Walt Disney loved it.




or Fall


The Three Pillars of American Collegiate Culture

Although it is not Oktober, no visit to München would be complete without an authentic beer garden experience, and so AK and I dutifully cycled over to the "Chinese Tower," one of Bavaria's most notorious, high-volume opportunities to trade your hard-earned euros for a full bladder. The hip people in Munich (both of them) consider the Chinese Tower to be a hideous touristic display of all the worst elements of south German culture, but we think, of course, that it is never the wrong time or place to drink crisp gallons of beer in the afternoon sunshine.

We all associate pretzels, beer and hotdogs with German culinary culture, but two beastly wars in the last century seem to have eroded America's full recognition of the cultural debt due our sometime enemies. Pouring down the liters and devouring delcious barbecued ribs as the oompah marches of the brass polka band wafted out from the second tier of the tower, I realized that, except for the lack of a couple dozen guys booting a pigskin up and down a field, I was at an American college football game. The combination of binge drinking, bad music, worse singing, and chicken and ribs drenched in molasses and mustard sauce reminded me of numerous Saturday afternoons back at the alma mater, so that the visit to the Chinisische Tor left me with a newfound appreciation for just how very much we owe to the German nation for providing the firm tripod of beer, grease and polka on which the collegiate experience sits.

Many litres meet their demise at the acres of green folding tables in the shadow of the Chinese Tower.

This dude is schlepping twenty pounds of beer, and that's not including the mugs.

Half chicken with kraut, slab of ribs, "German" potato salad, pretzel. Forget North Carolina, this was really good 'cue!

This worthy, and indeed his entire table, "livened up the joint" with a constant patter of drunken singing, asynchronous chanting that may or may not have been football (soccer) related, and various other embarrassments. Standing up and removing his shirt and then thrusting his pudgy arms in the air in triumph, as if the other thousand of us enjoying our pints had been waiting desperately for just such a display of sweaty corpulence, this brilliant specimen attempted to down a full liter of Munich's finest malted hops, funnelator-style. His table cheered him on at first, but when he interrupted his chugathon with a brief pause for air and sanity he was rewarded with a cascade of soggy french fries, crumpled napkins and cigarette butts, lofted towards his round, taut belly from every corner of the garden.

As Sarah Wheeler puts it in Travels in a Thin Country, "the deadly combination of hot sun and cold beer conspired to cause the afternoon to evaporate."



I went to the magnificent Andreas Gursky show at the Haus der Kunst in Munich today and found that one of his monumental images is entitled "Beelitz." Beelitz is of course the region in which all the best spargel is grown, Beelitzer-spargel being to Germany what San Marzano tomatoes are to Italy, or Vidalia Onions to the state of Georgia. In this aerial photograph of many parallel black lines, rows of plastic sheeting protecting the asparagus, spears of spargel are visible in the wheelbarrows of the polish harvesters. The image is online, but rather too small to see the spargel-detail, here.


Joy Comes to Germany

Here in Deutschland, the land of wurst and beer steins, the annual eating of white asparagus is a culinary cult that sweeps the nation from late April right through to June. These special spargel, thick, white, fat asparagus stems grown underground to prevent the development of chlorophyll, are considered sweeter and more delicious than their generic green cousins. In May in Berlin no restaurant is without a spargel-special on the menu, and the street markets are filled with tables displaying fearsome arrays of this ur-phallic vegetable, inevitably considered to have astonishing aphrodisiac qualities. The very best specimens, for want of a better word, run up to twenty euro the kilo. Spargel is expensive because its subterranean cultivation is labor-intensive; it is fragile and must be dug up and picked by hand. During the harvest hordes of Polish migrant workers are bussed in to gather up the spears. Despite the vegetable's cost, the annual season of the aspargus brings smiles and laughter to an otherwise taciturn and serious German people.

Contented merchants hawk the annual delicacy to addicted but equally smiley German consumers

AK718 and everfred bask in the connubial joys of spargel-shopping after a successful two kilogram score. Note the bag of spring potatoes, which always accompany the classic plate of spargel

I've had the good fortune for several of my visits to Germany over recent years to have landed me smack in the middle of the sparglezeit, and this year is no exception. Upon my arrival in Berlin, at an Italian restaurant in Mitte, a festive group enjoyed fresh spinach tagliatelle with a spargel and speck alfredo sauce, while earlier in Munich, at home with AK718 and everfred, three of us feasted on spargel wrapped in ham and drizzled with baerlauch pesto, a garlicky invention of mine and my good friend Mareike's, with whom I enjoyed yet another spargel-essen two nights ago at the legendary Prater, a biergarten in Prenzlauerberg the size of an olympic swimming pool.

Mareike observes the Prater's spargel with anticipatory delight

Aah! Spargel-extase!

One hopes that overexposure to the spargel cannot be dangerous. All things in moderation, my grandfather used to advise, but at the moment I feel rather as if I am turning into an asparagus spear. Just as the green ones do, white asparagus give the genetically predisposed a powerful olfactory reminder of the previous night's consumption: the solemn occasion of the subsequent morning's evacuation of the bladder is accompanied by a sharp, tangy odor, reeking, as it were, of toxicity. No culinary morning-after experience save a vicious hangover provides quite such a vivid reminder of the last evening's excesses as spargel-pee, but despite the pong whatever chemistry is happening is apparently harmless.

Freshly-peeled spears are wrapped in a moist towel to preserve their sweetness and texture


Fighting Crimes and Righting Wrongs

Although we have a firm policy over here at antarcticiana of never hooping images from other websites, some injustices are so profound that the need for redress overwhelms any squeamishness we might have about committing the heinous crime of plagiarism. Originally posted at the usually excellent apartment therapy blog, these photographs are of a crime scene. I'm not referring to the many bottles of fine Sicilian wine and plates of exquisite home-cooked Italian food that I have demolished while seated at the immaculate and ingenious rotating table seen in the photograph of the kitchen. No, indeed. The crime is this: failure to recognize greatness. Entered for consideration in apartment therapy's smallest coolest apartments 2007 competition, these photographs have just been posted there as a sort of hors du concours honorable mention feast for the eyes. In other words, this apartment has been removed from contention, as if the proprietors of that website knew that these luscious digs would trample all other comers on the rush down the turf to the finish line, and therefore disqualified them in the desperate hope of retaining any remnant of the competitive element in their "contest."

What is glorious, though, is to see the democratic voice of the people surging together with one shared chant into a tsunami of public opinion, a rising, roaring tidal wave of dismay and indignation that this apartment is no longer in the running. In short, once you have looked at this beautiful home and wiped up the puddle of drool at your feet I urge you to go over to apartment therapy and read the FIFTY-SIX comments and counting, in which readers the world over chime in to express their outrage, adulate my very good friend Joseph, the brilliant designer of this space, and virtually offer to bear his children. Or offer to bear his virtual children, or however that idea might be best put.

I'm in Berlin at the moment, and therefore hopefully immune from prosecution for image theft. Despite getting absolutely no permission from anyone I'm quite certain the photo credit should read: All images courtesy Joseph Fratesi (and apartmenttherapy.com)


The Fractal Geometry of Nature

Polygonal cracking of the surface in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

I've already touched on the idea that the cracking and blistering of the earth's surface must have some sort of fractal quality to it, since all over the world, at various latitudes and under enormous variations in temperature, the polygonal patterns that result from drying or freezing are uncannily similar, although they may vastly differ in size. The Antarctic polygons above are some twenty to thirty feet across; I took this picture from several hundred feet in a helicopter. Those below, from a Gobi desert riverbed, are on the order of three to five inches across. Any geophysicists out there who want to chime in and explain the reasons for this phenomenon, please, share.

Polygonal cracking of the surface in the Gobi desert, Inner Mongolia. Note the scale suggested by the dessicated branch of a shrub in the upper right hand corner

Chairs with a view

There is no doubt that with their one-point-two billions of people, the Chinese have a different concept of privacy and personal space than do we occidentals. In Yinchuan, near the central mosque, we found to our great surprise that dentistry is performed right out in the open, in full view of the public. We walked by the plate-glass windows of a string of dentists offices, all in a row, like kitchen supply places on the Bowery. In many of these vitrines we saw dental technicians groping deep into their patients' mouths, as if having a root canal is no more traumatic than getting your bangs trimmed at a hair salon. Nobody seemed to find this in the least odd, and we were the only gawkers.

Space available: walk right in and sit down for some while-you-wait teeth-cleaning. The logic seems to be that customers, seeing the empty chair in the window, will be tempted to pop in on the spur of the moment to finish up that nasty bit of bridgework they've been putting off.

Some of the dentists' shop windows displayed jars of teeth, as if to show that they had been in business a long time. Nonetheless I found this macabre advertising rather counterproductive since I, when and if I ever visit the chair, am of course very much hoping that no teeth whatsoever will be removed.



We did a lot of camel-jockeying in inner mongolia. The creatures all have distinct personalities and, unlike many animals, have facial expressions that make it easy to tell one from the next. The ride is smooth, yet slowly swaying as the beasts clamber up and down the dunes. Control is via a nose-peg, with a single strand bridle.

Help, my nose-peg is too tight...

The underbite on this baby kind of reminds me of my friend Bob, a shitsu...

Camels generate a lot of really frothy sputum and enjoy shaking their jowls and spraying it all over themselves and their riders, in the way of dogs that charge up out of a pond and wait until they are beside their master before shaking.

I'm quite surprised this nose accoutrement has yet to catch on in the East Village...


Hoist on their own Petard

The dessicated environment in which the quasi-nomadic Gobi desert goatherd finds himself is one offering little in the way of useful resources. In a landscape of endless dunes and blowing sand even the most basic needs of animal husbandry pose a challenge. There is, for example, apparently nothing more sturdy than the spindly reeds ringing the salt lakes from which to construct fences and pens.

Such deprivations require resourcefulness, and looking at the goat and camel stockades of the Mongols I ask myself the same questions that spring to mind whenever I encounter extraordinary ingenuity: whose idea was this, and when did they have it? Someone, probably many generations ago, realized that the layer of sand beneath his herd became, when impregnated with dung and urine and baked in the desert sun, a sort of airy and organic cement slab, firm enough to be chopped into rough blocks and stacked.

Pungent yet effective, these walls are entirely constructed from this turd-wattle, thereby collecting these splendid goats for nocturnal safety and, of course, the continued, concentrated production of more fencing material.

Barbequed goat is the pinnacle of Mongol hospitality, and from this herd our hosts selected two, which we enjoyed on our last night in the Badain Jaran desert, along with copious volumes of a singularly vile anis-flavored liquor called Baiju which it would apparently have caused mortal offence to decline.