Irish Spring or Officially My Worst Title

If my time in Paris revolved around walking and eating, my time in Ireland revolved around sitting and, well, drinking. I realize that sounds terrible. We only had about 5 days there and the 2 things I wanted to accomplish were catching up with old friends, and listening to some good music and, in Ireland, both of those things often involve sitting and drinking.

The first day we were in Dublin, I met up with a friend in a pub in Temple Bar (not all of the Temple Bar pubs suck, I promise). We sat down, had a couple pints of Guinness in as many hours and caught up on the last 5 years. As I was sitting there, a warm, familiar feeling washed over me, that feeling of timelessly getting lost in enjoying the company of friends. That is something people in the rest of the world tend to do better than people in the United States. At home, my mind tends to drift to all the things I have to do, or should be doing. I can’t help but feel guilty letting a day pass by, doing nothing but enjoying myself. For some reason, while I’m in Ireland, those things don’t bother me as much. It’s not because I have less on my plate. During this last trip, I was just over a week away from landing at home with no real idea how I was going to make a living (Still working on that. Stay tuned).

 

Stag's Head, Dublin

 

 

Stag's Head, Dublin

 

 

Busker, Dublin

 

 

Dublin

 

 

Tunes

 

I squeaked in a couple days in Galway, where I lived for almost all of 2004. There is a new motorway between Dublin and Galway and, holy smokes, has it cut down that trip. I remember 3.5 to 4 hour bus journeys and now it’s around 2 hours and 15 minutes.

My first stop was to meet a friend at a place where I have spent many a day and many a dollar, Tigh Neachtain.

 

Tigh Neachtain

 

 

Tigh Neachtain

 

 

Tigh Neachtain

 

Galway gave me some pretty fabulous weather. I spent about 48 hours furiously catching up with friends and toddling around old stomping grounds.

 

River Corrib

 

 

Ard Bia at Nimmo's

 

 

Of course someone is walking a tight rope at the Spanish Arch

 

 

Galway

 

 

Quay Street

 

There are things I miss about living in Ireland. Things and people and landscapes that I wish I had at arm’s length here. But there is one thing that I love so much that I consumed it on a (sometimes bi)weekly basis while living there and never cared that I could feel my heart working harder simply to keep myself alive after just the first bite. Something that I had 4 out of 5 nights on this return trip.  Something that I am grateful is not within arm’s length here for the sake of my circulatory system and waistline.

Garlic Cheese Chips

Oh my f$%&ing god, I love those things. It’s chips (french fries, obviously) covered with grated cheddar cheese and garlic mayonnaise. I KNOW! I don’t think even Paula Deen would unleash such a beast onto the world. I conducted an unscientific study with a friend in Galway on who had the best garlic cheese chips. If you care to know, the best chips were at Mario’s and the best cheese ratio and garlic sauce were at Vinnie’s. Mario’s had since closed but Vinnie’s is still there on Upper Dominic Street across from the Roisin Dubh. I paid a visit on this last trip and am pleased to say they are still as heart-stoppingly delicious as ever. And while I could wait another 5 years for a plate of those, I hope another 5 years doesn’t pass me by before I’m in Ireland again.

Advertisements

Where There’s Wine, There’s A Way

This past weekend I was able to go Up North for the first time this year. For those of you not familiar, Up North refers to the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan. A major part of the summer culture here is going Up North. While my family never had a cottage there, I was lucky enough to have friends who did and still do. The area draws people to it with its natural beauty,  hundreds of miles of Great Lakes coastline, many inland lakes, an abundance of outdoor activities, charming towns and more recently, a burgeoning wine country.

We were staying in Gaylord but took Saturday to head over the Old Mission Peninsula to cycle and visit some wineries. I had been there before but had traveled by car. The biking provided more time to take in the gorgeous views and enjoy the perfect weather.  I would highly recommend biking if you think you’re up to it but, make no mistake, it was a challenge. I hadn’t noticed how many hills there were on the peninsula the last time I was there, zipping around in a car. But there are hills, many hills, steep hills and a few  of my favorite wineries were on top of those hills. At times it felt like I was in a very long spinning class with intermittent breaks for wine and cheese. I was by far the weakest link when it came to biking. I ocassionally bike around (a very flat) town to get from A to B but I was in the company of some serious cyclists. But still, I couldn’t even keep up with my friend who had RUN A HALF MARATHON earlier that morning.

One of the many, many times the group had to wait for me to catch up.

It also took about, oh, a minute and a half  for me to injure myself. No, I did not fall off the bike. Apparently I can hurt myself just as well while still being on the bike. I somehow managed to ram the back of my ankle into the pedal, which of course had those sharp teeth-like-things (sidebar: why the hell are those on some pedals anyway?!) creating quite a wound.

Smooth move, Exlax.

It helps to be with experienced cyclists on a trip like this. At one point someone had a blowout but luckily there were patch kits and extra tubes and mini-pumps, things that I would have never brought because I don’t know the first thing about bike maintenance.

Ok, so I know you might be kind of confused right now because at first I told you biking was a good idea but then I told you it was really difficult and it made me bleed and that you need all this extra crap. Considering all of that and the fact that I can not yet bend my ankle, I would still recommend it. I just felt that this time I was much more able to take in all the natural beauty around me, the cherry orchards, the grape vines, the views of the bay, the little fruit stands…and it made it all the more enjoyable, even if some of the time I was grunting and sweating and bleeding.

Moving along to the wine…we stopped at Black Star first, which I had visited before.  They charge $5 for 6 tastes and you get a cute, little Black Star wine glass. The ciders impressed me the most there, especially the Apple and Cherry Hard Cider. I can’t stand sweet ciders but those had a nice balance of sour to sweet.

We drove to the next destination, Chateau Grand Traverse. I had been there before and was turned off by the long lines and the fact that they sold lots of country kitsch. We gave it another chance because, well frankly, the tasting was free. I found I quite liked some of their wines, especially the Ship of Fools.

We finally hopped on the bikes and after a long and arduous ride, we arrived at 2 Lads, the standout of the trip.

2 Lads

There are actually 2 lads, one from a wine making family in South Africa and another who grew up in the wine growing area of Michigan. The first thing you notice is how cool the space is, very modern, simple and beautiful. In fact, I kind of wanted to move in as soon as we got there. They take advantage of their position atop a hill  (that drew quite a few expletives out of me on the way up) at the northern end of the peninsula with a giant window you face while you taste.

When can I move in, lads?

Their menu was simpler than the other wineries I had visited on the peninsula with fewer and, I would say, better wines. We had complimentary tastes of the Pinot Grigio, the Cab Franc and the Rosé. I was impressed with all of them but, to our surprise, the favorite was the Rosé. It was made from Cab Franc grapes and was pretty dry and full of berries. I believe they only sell wine off the vineyard right now but I see on their website that merchandise is coming soon. So fingers crossed it will be available online in the near future.

We bought a bottle of that fabulous Rosé and rode to Old Mission Bay for a much needed picnic.

Conspicuous product placement

The final winery we visited was Chateau Chantal. The tasting room sits atop another hill (which meant another expletive-laden journey for me) which gives it some stunning views of both sides of Grand Traverse Bay.

This was by far the most crowded winery we visited and it’s understandable considering its beautiful location. I enjoyed their wines for the most part. We picked up a few bottles and armed with our Naughty Red we headed back the 5 miles or so to the car.

Move the water to make way for the wine.

There’s something about being on a peninsula, especially one as small as the Old Mission, so that you’re visibly surrounded by all that water, that’s incredibly calming. Taking the time to cycle around it amplified that even when I was careening down or struggling up one of its many hills. The Old Mission and the neighboring Leelenau peninsulas might be my favorite part of Michigan. They’re gems in the Midwest, underappreciated ones and not just for their natural beauty. I’ve been impressed with their focus on local food and wine. Now, I’m no wine snob. I would say 90% of the wine I buy is from Trader Joe’s. But  I initially went there expecting to only find sickeningly sweet whites and cherry liquers. But I found many complex reds (it seems to be a great area for Cab Francs), delicious, dry Reislings and that Rosé that I can not get out of my head. I’m not saying Napa is going to have to move over anytime soon but it’s nice to know there is that lovely, little corner of Michigan nearby.

How To Not Eat Dog In China or 为什么在中国不能吃狗肉

It should be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I ate my way through China. Before I left, I had heard from many people that I should be prepared for some of the food to make me sick and that under no circumstances should  I eat street food. “But,” I thought, “Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern are always eating street food and they love it.” And after 6 weeks of eating on the street and never having gotten sick (perhaps I should wait for the blood tests to get back before I swear by that…) I must say I’m happy that I listened to the strangers on TV rather than the perfectly reasonable people I know in real life.

One of the suggestions I had received was to only eat in hotels. We had catering provided in almost all the hotels we stayed in. Some of it was good but a lot of it was mediocre, like a whited-down version of Chinese food. The other issue with the catering was that to rely on it meant I would nearly be chained to the hotel and I was more interested in exploring these new places.

I can see how one would be turned off by some of the street food at first. I was lucky enough to have a Mandarin speaker there to translate much of the time which made me more confident that I wasn’t going to end up with dog on my plate. Speaking of dog, the good (or possibly bad) thing about dog meat in China is that they see nothing wrong with eating it so they don’t try to hide it.

The reason I even bring up the issue of dog meat is that when people warned me about street food in China, one of their main concerns was that I would somehow accidentally eat some. Honestly, I didn’t come across it often and found it easy to avoid. I understand there is some hypocrisy in finding one kind of meat revolting and another kind finger-licking good but for me, there is a difference. People have personal connections with dogs that they don’t have with other animals. A dog will excitedly greet you at the door, affectionately rest its head on your lap and even loyally stay by your side when it knows you are sick. I’ve just never seen a chicken do any of those things.

I would hate for any of the fears that were expressed to me to keep people from being adventurous with the food they try. I had so many delicious things. The inexpensiveness of it made it easy to sample many different dishes and fill up on local specialties for a couple dollars a day. One meal in particular, in Nanning, where 10 of us each had noodle soup and split vegetable dumplings, came to 27 yuan, that’s…are you sitting down?….about $4. For 10 people. FOUR DOLLARS!

Cheap and delicious dumplings in Nanning

 

Like I said, dog meat was easy to avoid and there is one simple, sure-fire way to avoid it: learn how to say that you don’t want it. I’m a big believer in trying to learn a few important words and phrases in the language of the country in which I’m traveling, even if that language is as difficult as Mandarin. These days, there are enough resources, including free ones on the internet, that it is an easy thing to do. Learning phrases like, “Hello”, “Thank you”, “You’re welcome”, “Excuse me”, and “Do you speak English?” can make a world of difference in your tarvel experience. That being said, for the first two weeks I had the phrases for “Excuse me” and “You’re  welcome” confused. In my defense, they sound kind of similar. But that meant that for a couple weeks I was bumping into people and following it up with, “You’re welcome!” I’m sure that did not do much for the American image abroad.

Besides those basic phrases, there was one that I made sure to have in my arsenal, “I don’t want dog meat.” or in Mandarin, “Wo bu yao guo rou.” You can even hear the tones here. I also made sure to learn the “dog” character, 狗, so I could identify it on menus. It’s that easy, folks.

In every city we were in, it was easy to find markets or single vendors selling dumplings (I think I consumed about 873 dumplings in 6 weeks, all of them delicious), sticky buns, roasted chestnuts, soup, roasted sweet potatoes, grilled meat, fish and bread… The mantra became the dirtier the better. I remember one specific time in Wenzhou when some of us hopped on a bike taxi and asked our driver to take us to some street food. Instead he took us to a restaurant where we could see tablecloths through the window. “Tablecloths?!” we said, “What kind of people do you take us for?!” Instead, we found a restaurant across the street that was much more our style, that is to say, dirty. We actually sat next to the fish that was about to become our stew. We had the most delicious sweet and sour pork, like nothing I have ever had stateside and a steak dish with ginger, soy, cilantro and spring onions that I have desperately been trying to recreate since I’ve been home. Afterward, one of the dancers and I got $1 manicures. A prostitute came in to the salon to use some make-up and told me I had a beautiful nose. So all-in-all, it rounded out to be a lovely evening.

Lisa sitting next to Splashy, whose number was up.

 

Splashy stew amongst other delicious dishes

 

The thing is, I never get Chinese food at home. I find it heavy and greasy. I found the food in China to be much different, lighter and fresher. I was often wathcing them make it right in front of me. A great example of that was a Uighur restaurant we found in Foshan. Uighurs are a Turkic people from the Xinjiang province of northwestern China. They are Muslim so their food is halal. They are known for their lamb kabobs and homemade noodles. I was able to watch the amazing process of making the noodles and I have a video here. The noodles were so tender and soaked up the delicious sauce they sat in. We tried a few different dishes but I really loved a very simple dish of noodles with eggplant, green beans and a light sauce heavily flavored with cumin. We loved it so much went back to the restaurant the next night and they didn’t even serve alcohol which is SAYING SOMETHING for his group. If you are traveling in China I would highly recommend trying some of the Uighur cuisine.

Uighur noodle dish

 

I could honestly go on and on about different dishes and meals I had while in China. I tend to be a bit evangelistic about food in general but I was particularly happy, and honestly, surprised at how much I liked nearly everything I had. There is one thing I can not leave out, though, and that is The Most Delicious Banana In The World. I know that food tastes best when it’s perfectly ripened and picked fresh. I’ve tasted it for myself. Being that bananas are grown in the tropics and shipped long distances to us in the states, we probably don’t even know what a really good banana tastes like. I certainly didn’t till I had one in China. We were touring some gardens in Foshan and one of the girls spotted a cluster of bananas. She climbed up the tree and threw a few down. Sweet mother of baby Jesus in the manger they were delicious. They were so….banana-y. I never suspected bananas had so much flavor. Every person that took a bite had the same initial blasé response (How good could it be? It’s a banana.) which turned into wonder and amazement. Every banana I’ve had since has just been a disappointment.

So the moral of the story is, if you see a banana tree, grab yourself a banana and enjoy. And if you’re traveling in another country, or anywhere, or heck, even in your hometown, be adventurous with what you eat. You might just find The Most Delicious Something of your own.

Or you might get a tapeworm.

The Most Delicious Banana In The World

Hot Pot: Revisited (Now With Stomach Lining)

I really loved my time in Chongqing and tried to pack in a lot in the few days we had there. For the most part, it was all about the hot pot. The day after our delicious meal the first night in town, we discovered another hot pot restaurant that set up under a tent across the street from our hotel. 

Hot Pot Tent

 

It’s run by a family that lives in the apartment building behind it. Luckily, Lindsay was there and could translate. They sat and talked with us for a while and told me a little about how the soup is made. They said it took them 100 days to learn to make it. I’m guessing that is a euphemism for ‘a long time’ instead of exactly 100 days. They said the actual process of making the soup takes three days. It contains 30 different peppers that they cut, wash, fry and then mash into a paste. It’s then cooked in water oil and garlic. The soup there was much hotter than the soup we had in the alley, which makes me think the first place gave us the Whitey Special. Even the soup that we asked to be mild was noticeably hotter.

At one point, the father grabbed something that looked like a dirty dishrag and threw it in the pot, saying it was the most delicious thing in the place and that we had to try it. No one would. In fairness, it looked pretty gnarly. But I didn’t want them to be offended and I’m pretty hard to gross out so I strapped on my food balls and volunteered. I started to regret my decision upon closer inspection of the dishrag. It was coarse, bumpy, and gray.  Lindsay said she couldn’t completely understand what he said it was except that she heard him say “guts” (Yum!). Later, we collectively decided that is was stomach lining. I slathered on the garlic and sesame seed oil and tossed her in. It didn’t have much of a taste but the texture was awful. It was really, really tough and honestly took a couple minutes to chew. The wife was standing over me repeating, “Hao chi, ma? Hao chi ma?” which means “Does it taste good? Does it taste good?”

Truthfully, lady? It was disgusting. But I couldn’t say that. Instead, I said “Mmmm! Hao chi!” which means, “It tastes good!” But, unlike Lady Gaga, I don’t have a poker face no matter how hard I try. Everyone could tell how terrible it was.

Besides the stomach-lining incident the night was wonderful. The family was so accommodating and kind. They even gave us their phone number so that if we went out and got in later than one, when they close, we could call them and they would open back up for us. We obviously would never do that, but it was touching to see that kind of generosity to strangers. 

The next day a group of us went to visit the Ciqikou Ancient Town. Most of the buildings date back to the Ming Dynasty but there is a monastery, the Baolun Si monastery, which dates back to the Western Wei Dynasty from the 6th century.

Baolun Si Temple

 

We walked through the narrow lanes, shopped and ate. The buildings were built into the side of a hill that rose up from the Jialing River. Once again I found myself  at a major tourist attraction on a Sunday. There was a sea of people but there were smaller lanes shooting off where we could escape the majority of the crowds. We were able to sit down at a teahouse and have a traditional tea service with the most darling woman who owned the shop. We strayed even further from the main drag, across a bridge and over to another hill where houses were on stilts built into the hill. These older neighborhoods give you a glimpse into what China was like hundreds of years ago with smalls homes, tightly packed in together on winding roads. People still live there today but these little enclaves are now standing in the shadow of the skyscrapers, neon signs and sweeping spotlights of the city.

Hot Pot

Between the Great Firewall of China and really slow internet connections, I haven’t been able to post for a while. I’m going to try to play catch up. Here goes….

Last Thursday we had a nightmarish travel day leaving Huizhou at 4:30am for a bus ride to the airport in Shenzhen, then flew to Chongqing, which is just east of the Sichuan province. Chongqing is not technically a city; it’s a municipality. I don’t actually know the difference and the only reason I mention it is that there are 30 million people who live here. So I believe, if it were actually a city, it would be the largest in the world. It sits where the Yangtze and Jialing rivers meet. In fact, the theater we performed in sits on a hill looking over where the two rivers meet.
A blurry shot of the Yangtze meeting the Jialing River.

The Yangtze is the third largest river in the world and Chongqing is a popular stop for those going on a cruise through the beautiful three gorges. That is, until the building of the Three Gorges Dam is complete, after which the gorges will be submerged. I would have killed for a couple days off to take a cruise myself, but it’s not in the cards this trip.

This area of the country is known for its spicy food, particularly a dish called “hot pot”. Actually, the literal translation from the Mandarin is “fire pot”. It’s a broth made with chilies, garlic, water and oil. It sits over a burner on the middle of a table, boiling. You select different vegetables, seafood and meat and cook them in the soup. Everyone is given a dipping sauce of toasted sesame oil and garlic. Chongqing is said to serve the hottest of the hot pots and it was a goal of mine to give it a try. A lot of people in the cast were eager to as well.

The first night we got into town we took a suggestion from the hotel for a restaurant and a few cab loads of us headed into town. They dropped us off in the middle of a huge, outdoor shopping area that was bustling with people. The restaurant looked really nice but was in a mall-type place. I’m just not too keen on eating in malls, especially in another country. We had some time to kill so we split up and walked around hoping to find something more authentic.  It didn’t take long till we found a market with dozens of vendors winding up a little lane.

It was here we spotted what looked like a perfect spot but I feared it would be a hard sell. See, it was kind of in an alley. This was truly street food, as in, you’re sitting on a short, squat stool on an actual street. And it didn’t so much have a ceiling as it had a few tarps hung between the buildings. But the food looked and smelled amazing. They were making the broth in big pots in the middle of the alley. There were shelves of meat, seafood and vegetables on skewers.

Making the broth

 

The tour manager, Lindsay, who speaks Mandarin, talked to the owners and they were very accommodating of our large group. We gathered the troops and brought them there; a little nervous that they might notice the health inspector hadn’t been there in a while. We kept saying, “But you cook the food in boiling hot broth so that has to kill anything bad, right?”

A few were turned off but 12 of us stayed and were lucky to have. The food was amazing. Some people were scared of the hot soup so they offer a pot with a divider, half with the hot soup, half in a delicious vegetable broth with no heat. We went to town picking loads of skewers: broccoli, various greens, cilantro, seaweed, tofu, tofu skin (which looked really weird but was quite tasty), potatoes, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, different kinds of mushrooms, taro root, quail egg, sausage, beef, ham, pork….I think I got it all. Since I was mostly eating vegetables, I was able to just eat and eat and eat. Or maybe that’s because I’m a gluttonous pig.

The soup was hot but not overwhelming. It was a different kind of burn than I’m used too. It was spicy for sure, but not very painful and it didn’t overwhelm the other flavors. Also, it went straight to my head, giving me a bit of a buzz. And hours later, I had this heat in my stomach that I can only describe as oddly comforting.

Honestly, it was one of my favorite meals of all time. The flavor of the food was incredible. Sesame oil and crushed garlic, folks, I’m putting it on EVEYTHING when I get home. The company was excellent. The staff was so helpful and kind. And here’s the kicker: When they gave us the total, by counting the used skewers and adding up the beers (about 15 32 oz beers) the total was 180 yuan. Do you know what that comes out to in dollars? 26, for 12 people eating and drinking like kings. That’s TWO DOLLARS A PERSON. I kept saying, “Have them count it again! They must be wrong!” But they were right. We left them a nice tip telling them, through Lindsay, that it was the best meal we’d had in China and in our country, when you enjoy your meal, you leave a tip.

We’ve had the option of eating in the hotel three times a day for free. That’s very convenient but it’s the same food everyday and it makes you feel like you’re chained to the hotel.  I’ve done most of my eating on the street and have found that, for the most part, it’s fresh, made by hand about 5 seconds before you eat it, and ridiculously delicious. I mean, one must be smart. If it looks shady, don’t eat it.  But I haven’t seen much that’s really dodgy.  Kieran, the uillean piper on tour said to me before the meal, “I’m so glad you have food balls”. I like that term, especially in lieu of “foodie” which rings with pretension and prissiness. So strap on your food balls, folks, and try something new.

Hot Pot Crew

One Day in Shanghai

I was only able to have one day to explore Shanghai with the rehearsals, run throughs and sound checking that needed to happen for the first gigs. The hotel and theater we were in are in an area called Pudong New Center. The “new” bit of the name is there because just 30 years ago this was boggy farmland. Now it’s the financial center of Shanghai with towering skyscrapers including the tallest building in China.

Pudong New Center

 

But there’s also a hint of middle America. There are chain restaurants, strip malls, “American” things and the two aforementioned Irish bars are in Pudong. There is an ill-named area near the theater called “Originality Street” with establishments as original as Starbucks, Papa John’s and a recreation of the Munich Hofbrau Haus. I trust you’ve picked up on the irony. 

Then there are all the apartment and condo buildings. As you can imagine, in a city of nearly 20 million people, you would kind of have to live on top of one another, and they do. Picture a stereotypical, new condo building in suburban America, make it 10 times as big and then put 12 of them in a block. Then do that with another design again and again and again till there’s a sea of them.

The area’s a bit soulless, to be truthful so I wanted to get across the river to the older part of town and explore some neighborhoods there. When in a new city, I am quite content to walk around for hours, people watching and window shopping, without a particular destination. I headed to the former French Concession neighborhood to do just that. As soon as the taxi dropped me off there, I was glad I made it. The French handed the area back over the China in 1943 but it retains a French character with European style residences, charming boutiques and little cafes. The streets are lines with trees called London Planes adding to the charm and atmosphere of the neighborhood.

I did have one destination in mind, though, and that was Yang’s Fried Dumplings.  It was about a 3 mile walk closer to the city center and by the time I got there I was starving.Yang’s is on a little lane, full of food vendors, that cuts through the upscale shops, hotels of (what I believe is) the Huangpu neighborhood. It’s easy to spot right away because there’s usually a long line of people out front. They’re famous for their soup dumplings and a box of four costs a whopping 60 cents. Now, I’m not going to lie, this spot was plucked straight from the No Reservations Shanghai episode and Bourdain did not steer me wrong.
I ordered and waited, watching the dumplings being made then fried. The whole operation happens right in front of you. The dumplings are made and then given to a woman at the front window who fries them with sesame seeds and oil, scoops them up and hands them to you in a paper carton.

They were steaming hot so I left them to cool for as long as I could possibly stand it which, honestly, wasn’t that long. There’s a specific way you are supposed to eat them and I’m glad I saw Bourdain do it first. You bite the top off then slurp out the broth, which inevitably ends up looking very ungraceful because the broth is so frigging delicious that you’re just trying to get every last bit out. I had it running down my chin onto my jacket and purse. I couldn’t bear to let that go to waste so I actually wiped it with my fingers and proceeded to lick them. I know. Gross. But I am confident you would have done the same had you tasted the broth. I even drank what broth ended up in the carton. It must have been a sight. The dumplings themselves were delicious too, part of them being crispy from being fried and part being chewy and tender. In the middle was a delicious pork meatball.

After that I hopped into a taxi to head to the Old Town neighborhood, which as you can imagine, is the oldest part of town. That day I added another thing to my List Of Things I Would Never Ever Like To Do, right beneath swimming with sharks and sinking in quicksand, and that thing is driving in China. It’s total and complete mayhem especially in a downtown area like Shanghai. It makes driving in the city of Detroit look like the picture of traffic obedience. I can’t say we stayed in one lane for very long, or that we were ever truly in only one lane at a time, or that we were ever truly on one side of the road at a time. I found it was an experience best handled with my eyes closed or at least looking up, admiring the many skyscrapers and neon signs.

My guidebook said to avoid Old Town on the weekend unless you don’t mind crowds. I went on a Sunday. I would go a little further and say, don’t visit Old Town on the weekends unless you really, really love crowds and people touching you and bumping into you and taking your photo if you’re not Chinese. That’s right, not being Chinese means I get my photo taken a lot here. It’s much worse for the blonds. I’ve heard horror stories from a couple blond cast mates going to the Great Wall last year and having their hair touched constantly. For now, I’ve just been really owning it, throwing up a peace sign, posing, asking them to tag me on facebook.

Despite the crowds and the kitsch, I’m glad I went. The buildings were beautiful and I was able to hit my first temple, the City God Temple. I can’t say it was a very spiritual experience as it was ridiculously crowded and I didn’t even know which faith or spiritual practice it was built for upon entering (I now know it’s Taoist. Thanks, Wikipedia).

Worshippers burning sticks at the City God Temple

 

It was beautiful and it was interesting to see people pray or worship even though I felt like a bit of a voyeur. But I know that’s how I’m going to feel with the Chinese the whole time I’m here. I have no hope of communicating with them apart from some desperate hand gestures. I’m traveling around with a pack of Westerners with little personal contact with any Chinese. Combine that with the inevitable culture shock and I realize that I’m going to feel like an outsider looking in the whole time I’m here, taking photos and never penetrating the surface. So I take pictures of them and they take pictures of me. It’s an arrangement that seems to be working out so far.

The Great Kale Giveaway

I planted a vegetable garden for the first time this spring. I am actually surprised at how little I know about gardening. My mom usually had a garden in the summer when I was growing up.  I would have thought something would have sunk in via osmosis. And I loved helping my grandfather in his huge garden though, come to think of it, my job was usually limited to the finding and killing of slugs. 

I’m considering this my starter garden.  Some things are growing nicely like the tomatoes and eggplant.

eggplant

Other things…not so much.  The pole beans are a hot mess.  I grossly underestimated the amount of poles needed. I planted three seedlings per pole and it has become clear to me that I should have only planted one. I’m sure that this is common knowledge that I have somehow missed. The poor beans are just grabbing onto anything around them, including each other,  leaving this tangled mess on the ground with one lucky plant flourishing up the pole. I also misjudged the poles and trellises needed for some other plants as well. I tried to remedy this as they were growing  but I think it was too little, too late. You can see my efforts in the photo below:

 garden

Are those ski poles, you ask? Why yes! Is that an upside-down clothes hamper frame?? Indeed it is! Kudos to my dad for making some trellis-like-things for me out of scrap steel from his shop. But clearly, it looks ridiculous. I mean, it looks like I just dumped a bunch of trash on it. Or it looks like some sort of art installation commenting on a post-industrial green revolution.

The one vegetable that is growing at a rate that I can not handle is the kale.

all this could be yours!!

all this could be yours!!

Kale kale kale. I’ve been eating it nearly every day for weeks trying to put it into everything. I never really ate kale all that much before and I’m not that sure what to do with it. Honestly, I grew it because when I saw Anthony Bourdain’s show on Greece he talked about how all the greens in the Greek diet make them some of the healthiest people in the world. Well, I wanted to become a healthy, strong Grecian so I thought I’d try my hand at kale. I’m finding it’s one of the heartiest, easiest plants to grow. Here’s where you come in. The first person to comment with a recipe incorporating kale will win some kale fresh from my garden. I will mail it to you. Don’t worry, when it’s fresh off the plant it stays good for quite a while. If no one has a kale recipe then the first person to comment with the word ‘kale’ will win. Just type in ‘K-A-L-E’. Please? Pretty please?? And, mom, if you’re the only one reading well then, I will just hand some to you tomorrow.

Also, if anyone has any gardening tips I would love to hear them. Including what grows well in this area and when to plant it. I’m hoping to have a garden every year. And I’m hoping this will be the only one with ski poles.