While in Australia my awesome husband introduced me to this French pastry called a Canelé. It was originally a specialty from the Bordeaux region of France. I’d never seen or heard of one before, let alone taste one. I think the word “scrumptious” is a bit silly and you never hear it used anymore–but perhaps because we simply don’t eat scrumptious food anymore. THIS Canelé was SCRUMPTIOUS and gone all too quickly. We found this one at the Max Brenner (Chocolate by the Bald Man) in Sydney.
Welcome to Australia! Here’s a Kangaroo cheeseburger with Beetroot Relish and Rocket at The Rocks Cafe in Sydney; this was my introduction to Australian cuisine. It was definitely tasty on the whole, but I still prefer beef burgers with the American standard of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. I am a beet lover, but apparently not a lover of beetroot relish on burgers
Last weekend, I went to an art festival, saw some really cool pieces of blown glass and got to talk to the booth operator about my love of glass. Since then, the subject of glass blowing has come up many times in my circle of friends on social media, so for days I’ve been telling about the things I’ve seen during my travels. As I pondered some of those things this morning, I found myself shocked that I’ve never written a travel post about one of the very best days of my life; it’s not going to compete with my wedding day or the birth of my children, but it was certainly a favorite as far as rare opportunities go.
Dale Chihuy is a name most glass enthusiasts know; I’ve seen his work in many places throughout the United States and the Bahamas, including a little restaurant in San Diego called Saffron. The owner is a friend of Dale Chihuly’s and you can go in and see some of his creations on display.
I readily admit that I am a fan of Chihuly’s work, but I didn’t even get to go to the Chihuly Museum when I was in Seattle last spring. I didn’t feel too badly about missing it though because I’ve seen his work in so many other places.
Chihuly is, however, always a good subject when talking with other artists and maybe other glass artists get tired of hearing his name, but at least they know that I’m not JUST one of those “oh isn’t that pretty” kind of people. I do pay attention to the process and this occasionally offers me the opportunity to talk more “shop talk” with them since I don’t blow glass myself.
In 2010, I met just such a glass artist when we were strolling around Balboa Park and wandered into his Spanish Village shop. It was kind of a slow day all around so we got to talk to Marty Marshall about glass blowing and also Dale Chihuly, of course; during our conversation, he gave us the heads up about Saffron. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Marty told us that he was going to be in his hot shop later that week and invited us to come watch. I almost couldn’t believe it! We’re almost always up for an educational opportunity and took him up on his invitation. I took a lot of photos and my son video-taped most of our time there.
We saw the process, experienced the heat, and got to smell the smells. Yes, there are smells. Smells like burning wet wood mixed with essential oils. And did I mention the HEAT??? Fortunately, we had a cool breezy day, but the furnace and the annealing oven throw off A LOT of heat! Glass blowing is HOT work –which includes burns if you get complacent. It pays to pay attention. They also have a heck of an electric bill!!! This, clearly, is not an art form I ever want to engage in, but I still find it thrilling to watch others create.
Marty and Mike Marentic did a wonderful job narrating the steps, telling us about their tools and answering all of our many questions. We had a couple of hours of complete fascination and education; it remains one of my favorite memories of a lifetime.
So… I’ve actually been away from New York for a few months now, but it takes a while for the shock to wear off.
…and it’s impossible to cover NYC in a single blog post. I was there for an entire year, for one thing, and can’t possibly fit everything in. For another, it’s like taking a picture of a chameleon. It’s not that it’s particularly hard, it’s just that any picture you get is going to be wrong. The place can be Brooklyn home-brew made by a guy in a baseball cap. It can be the boho-chick cruising in the Lower East Side for The Pert and Lacy Vintage Find. It can be Wall Street rushing with tourists and suits, or the subtle, thrilling ahem of Trinity Church’s bell. It can be the always-endearing smell of smog in the Bronx. It can also be the drunk guy who asks you for directions and then heads in the direction opposite from the way you pointed.
Or maybe it’s running in Central Park. Dumplings around the Bowery. Shopping in Chinatown. Chess by Union Square. Bar-hopping in the Village. Weird conversations with complete strangers at the Met. The variety is fantastic, but part of the reason there’s so much variety is because New York is schizo. It’s a technical term: schizo. NYC is just plain huge, and if you can manage to cram one and a half million people from different cultures and backgrounds on an 34 square mile island without getting anything interesting out of them, then you deserve that particular hell. Of course there’s also the M&M in Time Square, Broadway, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central, JFK, the MOMA, stuff like that. You know, tourist-bait.
Another reason I get along with New Yorkers: they loathe tourists. I even hate tourists when I’m a tourist. So when I say I don’t think New Yorkers are rude, you should probably take that with enough salt to give you a heart attack right here and now. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve got a fellow ‘ugly american’ standing in the middle of a crowded street — full of people with actual places to go — to take a yet another crappy picture of yet another monochrome skyscraper, you are totally entitled to bitchslap their ass.
If they ask you how to get to the Statue of Liberty… well, it’s a matter of taste. I like to point south and say something like “It’s real big. You can’t miss it.” And the Bull? “It’s somewhere around Wall Street, right?” Or I bob my head up and down and pretend that I speak nothing but Spanish.* And don’t bother holding out hope for the occasional nice person. Basically there are people like me, and then there are the ‘mystical givers-of-direction.’ E.g. “on Tuesday take 2nd avenue down to 27th street and turn widddershins-wise three times, if an Edible Bouquet truck appears, knock on the basement door in 7/8 time, and a leprechaun will pop up to guide you into the secret compartment of the thrift shop. Or not. But only try it on a Tuesday. Otherwise you’ll be stuck in the land of Left New York.” There’s something about New York encourages this kind of superstitious mode of navigation, though I’m not sure exactly what it is.
Perhaps you’ve gathered by now that I have no tolerance for people who can’t read maps. None. The one good thing about the subway system (which is otherwise terrible and prone to delays and/or explosions) is that there are maps posted everywhere, in multiple languages. All you need to do is find a subway station, and the entirety of New York is yours for low, low price of $2.50. Read:
Of course, I understand that if you’re a tourist, you might not even ride the metaphorical Ganges that is the subway. I wouldn’t. Not if I was there to have a good time.
…and tourists… they don’t really understand what they’re seeing is just Manhattan. Manhattan is not New York. Most people never see New York. Mostly because everyone is still too scared to go to Brooklyn. Which is odd, because it’s already becoming the new Queens — that is, boring and gentrified — and I found everyone from Brooklyn to be really nice. It’s the ones from the Bronx you need to watch out for. Seriously. That wasn’t just a joke that fell flat. They’re scary.
I learned a couple of really interesting things from my time in New York: a) you can wear almost anything as long as you wear it with heels and while driving a Mercedes, and b) there’s actually no free WiFi in many parts of the East Village. And I have a lot of pictures. Enough to bore several future generations
EDIT: Also deserving of another mention. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is easily my favorite New York Thing. My dear old mum feels very strongly that I should tell the entire internet that admission isstill free. Essentially.It’s actually pay-what-you-want and the suggested $25 ‘admission donation’ is just that, a suggestion. This means, of course, that if you tend to hang out with embarrassing people (as I do,) they will use a nickel to pay for the entire party.
Just to get it out of the way: I’ve never tried pot. And the reason I’ve never even thought of smoking marijuana has more to do with the fact that the smell of it makes me feel like I’m riding an angry bull, which is jumping on a trampoline, on a capsizing ship sailing through the middle of a hurricane, than the fact that it’s totally illegal here in the US (sorry Colorado, California, but you can’t just magic away federal law. Nice idea, but no.) …and realistically, it’s not like I need to spend money on an addictive consumer good. I have coffee for that.
Honestly, I spent most of the day looking at graffiti:
…which in Amsterdam is generally very artistic
…not trashy at all. I bring all of this up only because, apparently, for certain people in my age group this is the only attraction that Amsterdam had to offer. They completely ignored the cute Dutch guys and the wind turbines. I mean come on, wind turbines!
It’s not like I’m one of those people who gets off on old, moldy buildings either. For a city to have a history is nice; but it’s like a sexy woman with a degree. Pretty cool, and maybe more important, but honestly, no one cares. I go into all this excruciating detail of course because I get off the ship (yeah, it was a cruise ship, tres bourgeoisie, get over it) and my dad asks someone at some generic help desk where the Nieuwe Kerk — literally, the New Church — is.
The guy blinks, very slowly. He blinks again. He looks at my dad like he’s a little bit special* and says “There is nothing new in Amsterdam.” Which sounds like Euro-historic snobbery, but it’s also basically true. I mean really, there’s the old kerk built in 1305, and the “new” Kerk. Which was only re-built in 1645. After it burned down, which, you know, tended to happen to decrepit old buildings a lot in the days before flame-retardant materials and things like plumbing.
So that was the first five minutes in Amsterdam. We walked along the harbor. Got lost. Found the canals (not that hard, there’s practically nothing else in the old section of Amsterdam). We missed most of the flashy stuff like the flower market, and the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum, the annual cheese-bowling fest and, much to certain people’s chagrin, the sex museum. We also elected to skip getting the cannabis T-shirts. So we saw another church, and a (oh my god) pissoir, which was like a little scratch and sniff of the middle ages.
Then we met this drunk English guy who used a lot of old Dutch words to explain how much he didn’t like the Dutch. No one at the time thought to ask him why he was in Amsterdam. Saw some of the shops.Popped in and out of several more churches and then we went back to the ship for lunch. I told you it was all very bourgeoisie.
So yeah, I spent a total of maybe six hours in Amsterdam. Walking very, very slowly.
It’s actually been several years since I was there. But I still had the pictures and I wanted to post this in honor of Still Omgang on the 15th (I think it falls on the 15th anyway). It’s a protestant procession which commemorates a miracle which involved a miracle where a guy at death’s door received the final sacraments and vomited the host up. And the miracle here is not that the guy lived or anything silly like that, but that the host was thrown into the fire (because seriously it freaks people out if something gross happens to the host, if you drop it or crumble it or say a bad word in front of it you have start the whole church service over and all that) and it came out unburned and as body-of-christy as the day it was first baked.
*Which he most definitely is. My father is very special. But there’s also definitely a Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam:
You don’t really know a place until you’ve met the toilets.* Toilets are like people, there are good ones, and bad ones; the calm, reliable sort, and the kind that blow up when you feed them a bunch of BS; and some of them… well, some of them are a little different.
Unlike people however, when it comes to toilets there are times when you can’t afford to be a snob. You don’t care where that toilet’s from or who his mother is. Gold-tone handles and marble stalls would be nice, but you’re not going to look down on that giant pit in the ground either. No, seriously, don’t look down. If you fall in, I’m not getting you out.
Along with death and hemorrhoids it’s a great leveler. Sooner or later (probably sooner), if you travel anyplace remotely interesting you are going to become uncomfortably familiar with the local plumbing, or lack thereof. In some ways, it’s easier when you’re camping (really camping, not being a pansy in an RV. Like Thoreau). What better way to commune with nature than to squat with a chill Appalachian breeze airing your southern regions, the gentle tickle of branches and the rattlesnake rustling of the leaves in your ear? That is if you brought enough biodegradable toilet paper. Otherwise it could get a mite stressful.
Shit happens. It’s just sometimes you don’t expect it to happen. Not having ten pence on you for a pay toilet which is ten kilometers away from an ATM can be a nasty surprise. Obviously not a tragedy, but getting arrested for panhandling or public exposure can be an unpleasant way to spend your vacation.
Of course most people have some sort of story about being stuck in a foreign country without their universal translator, trying to shout “Dónde está el baño!” over the sirens to the man running away from them with the stolen purse only to realize — once they clear their heads and their colons — that they’re in Portugal.
Forget this for a minute though. Pretend you’ve never traveled. Furthermore your character grew up in the Midwest and the most exotic place she’s ever been to is Niagara Falls. For the last few years she’s lived in Ingleton, population one hundred and fifty. She hasn’t even been camping. She’s also just had her second child. She and her husband arrive in 1995 China.
Just to be clear she does not arrive in tourist friendly, Hong Kong-style China. No. That would be too easy. That is not the point. Your non-fictional character arrives in Chengdu. Chengdu, the gateway to Tibet. Chengdu of the coal fires. Chendgu, where westerners are still as rare as a kosher renminbi note.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. She is not sent there by Glinda the good witch, or even her non-fictional approximation, Southwest Airlines. She takes a twenty hour China Air flight with a hundred plus other people. Three out of four toilets are clogged, and that’s only because her fearlessly altruistic husband fixed one of them. Everyone smokes. She has two children and one of them has a tendency to put other people’s shoes in his mouth. By the time they get to Beijing everyone is inexplicably ill.
After her brilliant experience with the airplane bathrooms, the barely toilet-trained toddler is eagerly looking forward to sampling more of what Chinese plumbing has to offer. Beijing’s airport is happy to oblige; enter the ‘squatty potty.’ Now I know what you’re going to say: squatting is biologically sound, and really, much better for you than a hemorrhoid-inducing “throne.” Be that as it may, coming into a huge metropolitan airport and having to unexpectedly rough it like you’re boyscouting in the Smokies compounds your culture-shock. The tiny, reptilian part of your brain keeps thinking “they’ve even screwed up the goram bathrooms.” Most of your energies are focused on making sure your three year old jitterbug doesn’t fall in. There are a few squares of something almost but not entirely quite unlike toilet paper.
The next time of course there is no toilet paper. You are in Chengdu. Your hosts (not mentioned here because it will require a long and tedious explanation about why you were in China in the first place) are chomping at the bit to give you a tour. However, everyone — translation: your husband — has spent the last few weeks cleaning out the Mother Hubbard-sized apartment. It is not made to comfortably accommodate corn-fed midwesterners. Because of this and the terrifying thought of a bus ride with your vomiting children, for some reason you pass on a trip to see the Leshan Buddha.
They are not to be dissuaded and plan a day-trip to the DuJianYan River Irrigation Works, where they cheerfully point out the Chinese dam that has been in continuous use for the last millennium, and contrast it with the fifty year old Russian dam that never worked. You see a few temples, wave at peasants and smile as if you are a gracious tourist.
Lunch features the usual delicious fare, plus some interesting walnut milk. Your stomach starts to rumble. In Ingleton this is fine, you probably just ate beans or something, but after only a few weeks in China you are now sufficiently paranoid to not trust liquid that you haven’t seen come to a rolling boil with your own two eyes. You try to make a preemptive visit to the restaurant’s bathroom (two-watt light bulb, walls ‘slick with ick’ and a bar of soap that looks like it’ll do more harm than good). Then your Weiban (foreign affairs officer) takes you down the mountain, on a set of stairs that looks decorative. Six inches wide, a foot deep. Surely such steep, slender, slippery stairs could only have been constructed for aesthetic purposes. Surely.
There are no railings. Not that you could have held onto them while using both arms to clutch your wheezing infant to you. (In a sling of course, being an idiot doesn’t necessarily make one a bad mother.) The husband is helping the toddler, who has already managed to smash her face in an up close and personal encounter with Chinese architecture. Did I mention that there were no railings?
By the time they get to the bottom of the hill you’re certainly thankful to be alive, but there are more pressing issues. You are also somewhat concerned because your past interactions with Chinese bureaucrats have led you to believe that all requests have to be made via a discreet chat about the your problem with the official’s grandmother’s sister.
But, you tell the Weiban that you have to find a bathroom immediately. Fortunately your fears are wrong (if not entirely unfounded) and he points the way. You sprint to the bathroom, only to find your way blocked by a tiny woman with a fistful o’ Renminbi (actually, fēn, the pennies). Your character checks her pockets to find… Kleenex. This lady might as well be Leonidas and the three hundred. You run back to the Weiban (and remember you missed most of your high school PE classes due to a recurring bout of mono) and he returns, waving you through with his open wallet.
The bathroom consists of a long trench separated by stalls, it’s well-lit and relatively clean. You skip toward the end and dutifully squat. Your form is darn near perfect for a westerner if you do say so yourself. Then you realize that there are no doors on the stall. You look up to see around two dozen women and children staring through the opening.
This is obviously not the ideal way in which to meet the locals, but you wave and say Hi! in your cheeriest voice, because hey, what else can you do? You continue to squat. They continue to watch. You’re kind of tied down and they’re enjoying the show, but hey at least you have Kleenex. You have a feeling that trying to communicate a need for toilet paper with your limited Sichuanhua vocabulary could irreparably damage Chinese-American relations.
..but eventually, every mortifying, horrible experience has to come to an end. You rejoin the group having learned that carrying a few fēn with you is far more essential than the phrase “Zai nar tze swo?” since that usually only works if someone takes you by the hand and leads you there. You fall in love with Immodium and live happily ever after.
Obviously, life goes on. You see the city since you’re there, you become acquainted with the indigenous bacteria (giardia being a local favorite) and click your chopsticks together helplessly until a kind waitress takes pity on you and brings you a fork. Eventually you’re comfortable enough that your family can visit the local park along with a couple of friends. The park consist of great , towering stands of deep green bamboo. Everyone passes on getting an ear cleaning with tools that look like they were made for removing plaque.
Lest we forget, in this area of China at this time, children do not wear diapers for the most part, but instead wear split pants. Their parents simply hold them over the nearest sewer and let them get it over with. For those of you that did not take introductory economics the low demand for disposable diapers means that people who do use disposable diapers pay a shitload of money ( When not on family outings you use cloth diapers.)
Like all infants your youngling seems to be perpetually in need of a diaper change. You spot some clean tables near the outdoor tea house. Clean tables. Try not to wet yourself. That’s kind of counterproductive. And more than a little ironic. So you put out your changing mat on this clean! table and go through the motions. Of course a large crowd gathers to watch you do this.
It’s moments like these that define you. At that instant you know you will never be able to look at a Koala Care changing station again without taking a solemn moment of silence. It’s natural of course; you and your family are all very white, you have two children, because as foreigners the one-child policy clearly does not apply to you, and you have curly hair. At least you’re not a red head. Then there’s no way to blend in. Plus, people on the bus are always be trying to take some. (True story.) However, recognizing this doesn’t make it any less difficult and your blonde friend that happens to be with you, who is the very antithesis of shy, simply can’t stand it anymore
She sticks out her hand and traverses the crowd shouting “Yi Kwai! Yi Kwai!” (one buck!) No one is exactly sure how to respond to this. Since it no longer appears to be free entertainment most of them leave. But some of them follow you around as you take your son’s neatly wrapped gift in search of a trash can. When you finally find one it is naturally overflowing. Their eyes follow you as you carefully place it on top of the mound of junk.
I know a lot of this doubtless sounds very chauvinistic and intolerant of cultural differences. ..and yes it is odd that sometimes four star hotels didn’t have toilet paper. It’s strange to someone who grew up in a different way. But you can have pretty weird stuff happen anywhere.
There was, and certainly is, a lot more to China than squatty potties and soot. There were wonderful students, phantom doughnut shops (there on the corner one day and never seen again), epic searches for “efficacious disinfetant [sic]” (bleach), the sound of pedicabs, bicycles and more bicycles, giant red panda balloons, Mongolian hot pot, Chinese not-cinammon buns (red bean paste, apparently if it looked like the real thing that was good enough), the abundance of la jao peppers (hot), and hua jao (with seeds so hot that it feels as if your esophagus is being lovingly flayed with a half-tempered katana) and always, ceaselessly, never-endingly boiling water.
Chengdu was so much more than that though, and definitely a lot more than a series of toilets.
* If you think is just a hook put there for the shock value of bathroom humor, well… it’s not. If you’re not into scatology you’d probably better skip this post.
Lisboa is as nice a town in Iberia as you’d care to meet, but just like the only thing you remember about that brilliant topologist who donates kidneys in his spare time is how he clogged your toilet with spent Indian food, there’s only one thing I’m going remember about Lisboa:
You see, I was not traveling alone. I was with my mother and grandmother, so the first thing we have to do is go for a tour of the local bathrooms. Because, you know, there are no lavatories in America and we’ve only recently invented fire. That’s ok though, honest, because I don’t feel thoroughly acquainted with a place until I have to use the toilets.1
So we waddle past Praça do Município (city hall), down the Rua da Prata (Portuguese for ‘giant tourist trap’) and turn off at the first likely looking café:
Like polite people we buy some coffee. At least I think it was coffee. They called it coffee, that was the important thing. So we’ve got the coffee and are now customers in word and deed. We go downstairs to use the toilets near the stockroom. Now, truthfully lower level bathrooms aren’t really unusual in Europe; the fact that it feels like a set from Young Frankenstein can’t be helped.
After assembling downstairs — chaining ourselves together with a rope, because none of us have money, phones or the slightest ability to return to the place we’re staying at if we get separated– we find the bathrooms. My mom and I let my pint-sized grandmother go first because her bladder to height ratio is the largest. So I’m there in this little hall, chatting with my mom and we start hearing these strange noises. It sounds like a constipated motorcycle engine. There’s kind of a rhythm to it. Our first thought is that someone in one of the two bathrooms is.. how shall we put it… suffering from some sort of internal instability?
It gets louder. Much louder. I hear a crash from the stockroom. A dish breaks. We then realize the source of the noise is not one, but two people. A minute later the stockroom door opens, a rosy-cheeked, slightly out of breath portuguese gal walks out, trying to avoid eye contact with the four people now waiting for the toilets. For the record it is very difficult to grind against four individuals in a tiny hall without looking at them. A short while later another employee walks out. He looks to be in similarly fine health. By the time my grandmother comes out, my mom and I both look like we’re having seizures we’re laughing so hard. Unfortunately, my mother and I both lose our minds in the gutter so often we’ve taken to leaving them there, and my grandmother thought we were making it all up.
So we get upstairs, back to the un-coffee, funny tartlet portuguese pastries and of course the very annoyed proprietor. We talked to some customers upstairs and it turns out they heard too and it wasn’t just us. The owner’s calling the employees various names some in english for the sake of the patrons, others in portuguese, which, based on the tone he was using, I think I’m glad I didn’t understand.
As you can imagine, we do not stay to finish our coffee. This was my introduction to the fair city of Lisboa.
After our crash course on portuguese culture, we escaped various vendors, tourists and street musicians (pics here), stared at the big clock and generally enjoyed the city. Lisboa is kind of like an old supermodel; you know she’s maybe seen better days, but she’s still light years ahead of your average person shopping at Walmart. There’s still a lot of marble,which is as clean as five hundred year old marble can be reasonably expected to be, and the architecture is cool. ( Note: I’m an architecture nerd, my computer is full of pictures of spandrels and artistic manhole covers and shots of ‘exotic’ paving materials. I did not have time to geek out when I was there, which is fortunate for.. well.. pretty much everyone in the universe).
We actually did stop to see Praça do Município (aka City Hall) with its cute little Portuguese flag and a square or two and some other stuff, and then caught a tram to see the Explorer’s Monument ( PadrãodosDescobrimentospictures). After London’s fantastic Tube, Lisboa’s public transit system requires some adjustment. It’s actually fine, once you actually y’know find the stop. For someone coming from a culture where everything is over-communicated and writ large, in technicolor, it just takes a bit of time to adjust to the teeny tiny signs, which are almost always in portuguese… and tourist information/post office, which is only open three days a week (yes I am being hyperbolic, and no I’m not sorry). Which is fine, I don’t feel entitled or anything, I come here, I don’t know the language and all I want to do is spend money on the “natives”. If they don’t want to help that’s fine with me.
The best touristy thing we did was easily the Jerónimos Monastery. It really is beautiful, it’s a great example of Manueline architecture and it’s important in Portuguese history or something like that. It’s like one of these little restaurants that has some sort of “Vasco de Gama ate here” placard hanging up near the entrance.
The history was probably fascinating, but I wouldn’t know: all the signs were in Portuguese.
All kidding aside, it’s a lovely city, it’s got friendly people, they’re not into obnoxious siestas and it’s on one of the most gorgeous stretches of ocean I’ve ever seen. I just wish I could pronounce the names of the streets.
1.You can tell a lot about a cultured from their toilets. If you want Cyndi to write a post about every funny bathroom story she has, beg her in the comments.
And: If the name of this post sounds familiar, it’s because I stole it from a great short story by William Tenn, from this book.