Friday, February 28, 2014

Short Story

We've been enjoying some spring-like developments here in London, with brighter skies and blooming trees, crocuses and daffodils. Unfortunately this weekend we're sliding back into winter a bit. Temperatures are supposed to drop into the mid-30s tonight and there were even rumors of snow, though that seems unlikely.

I guess if we go walking, Olga and I should prepare to get chilly and/or wet. Dog bath time!

But at least I won't be as bad off as these guys:

I found this scrap of paper in the school library a couple of weeks ago. What do you think -- a short story? A monologue or improvisation for drama or history? An exercise in leadership? I like the mysterious lack of resolution...

(Top photo: An old Morris Minor 1000 automobile in Notting Hill, this week.)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Newly Green Nessie

Now that you're all caught up on China, I'll fill you in on what's happened this week.

First of all -- jet lag. Ugh! I have been fighting it for two weeks now, first from flying in one direction and then the other. My body doesn't know which way is up. All I want is to be able to sleep through the night, and not wake up at 3:30 a.m. with my body on red alert because it thinks I've slept until practically noon.

Dave and I went to see "Dallas Buyers Club" on Sunday. I loved it. I thought Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both did outstanding jobs. Who knew Leto would make such a convincing drag queen?

Remember Sidewalk Nessie? While we were in China, someone decided to take some paint to her. Now she really stands out!

In other news, for reasons that I can't go into here, I am once again scheduling substitute teachers for the school where Dave and I work. (You may remember this was my job last year, before I went to work in the library full-time.) It's supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but we'll see! I can handle 1 1/2 jobs, plus take care of Dave and the house and the dog -- right?!

(All photos taken this week in Notting Hill, within a few blocks of our flat. The "LOVE" graphic in the top photo apparently comes from Love magazine -- which seems more about fashion than love.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

China: Beijing Smog

If I learned one thing in Beijing, it's this: Just because you have sun one day, doesn't mean you'll have sun the next.

Beijing's notorious smog returned with a vengeance on Thursday. Dave, pleased with our dining experience the night before, decided to take a cooking class at Black Sesame Kitchen that morning, so I was on my own and free to wander. Despite the air quality, I went out to see what I could find.

The streets around our hotel were interesting enough, but I had a few goals in mind that required me to go further afield... I set out for Beihai Park, which surrounds a lake. On an island in the lake there's a large white Buddhist stupa, which you might remember seeing from a distance in my photo of the Forbidden City, posted yesterday. Now, standing on the lake shore, I could barely see it!

The smog didn't stop the Chinese, though. They were out and about as usual, many (but not all) wearing face masks. (I didn't even consider wearing a mask. I figured I was only there for a few days, and they apparently don't do any good anyway -- at least not the usual surgical paper masks.)

These folks were dancing in the park, which is apparently a popular pastime -- I saw lots of people swinging to Chinese pop tunes from cranked-up boom boxes. (Here's my video.)

My goal in the park was the Nine Dragon Screen, from 1756, a brick and tile wall that despite its name actually features 635 dragons of various sizes! (Besides the big ones in the middle, they're all around the edges on the small tiles.) Pretty amazing. There were also some temples and other structures that were interesting, and I had one of Beijing's popular sweet yogurt drinks from a lunch stand.

Then I got on the subway (!) and went down to the Temple of Heaven Park, which contains several structures dating back to imperial China where rites of atonement and prayers for good harvests were offered. The structures are brilliantly painted with bright colors and are quite beautiful, though the effect was muted by the air. I had fun watching hordes of people playing cards and meandering the grounds, then took the subway back to our neighborhood. I grabbed a late lunch of noodles near the Drum Tower before rejoining Dave at the hotel.

The subway, by the way, was easy to navigate and cheap. (About 33 cents per trip, compared to about $4.67 for the London tube!) I love taking public transportation when I visit foreign countries. I learn so much that way.

That night, our objective was to find the perfect Peking Duck. We went (via subway!) to a restaurant that bills itself as Beijing's oldest duck restaurant, but were dismayed to find it is actually housed in a shiny glass-and-marble megamall full of glitzy shops. The duck was pretty good, and we even tried "duck web" -- yes, the feet, which were gristly and tasteless. I do not recommend them. Our side dish was meh, and overall, we were not that impressed. It was our least successful meal in Beijing.

The next morning, we boarded our flight for home. I was glad I went to the Temple of Heaven when I saw that the creamers served on the airplane included a photo from the park!

Overall, we had a great time in China -- generally very good food, terrific scenery and history, interesting cultural moments. A well-worthwhile trip.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

China: Beijing Sunshine

We had an unexpectedly sunny day in Beijing on Wednesday -- a bright blue sky, fresh air. It was so clear and pleasant that it made me doubt all those stories about Beijing's terrible air pollution. This wasn't so bad!

We took a long walk to Jingshan Park, on the north side of the Forbidden City, the historic imperial palaces of Beijing. From the pavilions atop the hills in the park -- created by the material dredged from the moat of the Forbidden City -- you can see over the palace rooftops and, on a clear day, across the city. Lots of people were enjoying the view, including this couple, indulging in an 11 a.m. beer.

We then walked to Tiananmen Square, site of the Monument to the People's Heroes, as well as the site of several popular uprisings over the years -- including the famed stand-off in 1989 between a single pro-Democracy demonstrator and a tank. (Needless to say, there's no monument to that.)

Lots of people were out and about, and as we stood in the square consulting our guidebook, two families approached and took photos with us. (I guess the sight of American tourists is still unusual to some people!) I, in turn, asked to take a photo of this kid in his cute bear cape.

The Chinese are not shy about taking or being in photos.

After a quick lunch -- in my case, a slightly nausea-inducing oily noodle dish called "ants crawling up trees," which thankfully did not feature real ants -- we walked through the Forbidden City, which was of course amazing. We didn't go into the related exhibit rooms (there's one entirely devoted to clocks) -- we just stayed outside and admired the architecture and the gardens.

We headed back to the hotel, and I went out for an afternoon walk and photo shoot before our evening dinner at Black Sesame Kitchen, where we dined communally in a traditional Chinese house with other expats and visitors. We had a great time, and there was a ton of food. I told the group I was pleasantly surprised by the air quality in Beijing, and they said, in effect, "Oh, just you wait."

They were right...

Monday, February 24, 2014

China: The Great Wall

You can't go to China and not see the Great Wall. It's pretty much a requirement. It's about 90 minutes north of Beijing, and Dave and I puzzled about how to get there. We'd read plenty of horror stories about tourist bus tours, which often drag unsuspecting visitors not only to the wall's tourist hub at Badaling but to jade shops, tchotchke factories and other places no one really wants to go. So we arranged to hire our own private car through our hotel, which cost a bit more but took us by ourselves to a more remote section of the wall, at Mutianyu.

What they don't tell you, but I suppose should be apparent to anyone who gives it some thought, is that a trip to the Great Wall is arduous. You don't just get out of your car and step onto the wall. First you have to get to it -- and it's built atop mountain ridges.

That's Dave climbing up, up and up toward the wall, and gasping for breath.

But of course once you get there it's amazing, and in winter it was especially nice because there were so few visitors. We had entire sections of the wall all to ourselves. We could climb alone atop the guard towers and look out over the surrounding landscape -- at least, as much as the smog and the biting cold wind would allow.

We spent a couple of hours walking part of the wall -- we didn't do the whole 3 kilometers at Mutianyu -- and then we took a chair lift back to the bottom of the hill, where we had lunch in a little bedraggled cafe. Excellent noodles!

(Oh yeah, there is a chair lift, and obviously it goes up, too. So we could have avoided the arduous climb, but somehow that seemed like cheating.)

The tourist towns around the wall are full of little motels and inns, which seem to bill themselves as "farmer's houses." Maybe this is because they're built around courtyards or in a style similar to farmhouses of old? Anyway, I had the driver stop so I could take a picture of this awesome sign -- in the shape of the map of China -- for a nearby nightclub.

Back in Beijing, we had dinner at the highly recommended Mr. Shi's dumpling shop, near our hotel. Terrific dumplings of all varieties!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

China: Arrival in Beijing

Last Monday, Dave and I caught a 10 a.m. high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing, and for several hours we enjoyed scenery of the Chinese countryside. Lots of seasonally dormant farms, many with what appeared to be small grave plots and/or shrines amid the fields. Lots of high-transmission power lines. The day was gray and I make it a policy never to take pictures from trains, because they always turn out terrible, so you'll have to imagine what it looked like.

This was my lunch on board the train, purchased in the cafe car. Nummy!

In Beijing, we took a taxi to our hotel, located in North Dongcheng, a neighborhood of historic hutongs -- or narrow alley-like streets -- north of the Forbidden City. It was a charming place built around a series of courtyards containing bamboo and towering old cedar trees. We set out to explore the neighborhood and found the nearby Drum Tower, once the center of Old Beijing.

We also found a cute cafe called Nai Fen, which provided great Americano coffee and somewhat Communist-looking (and great tasting!) walnut brownies. I went back to Nai Fen every afternoon we spent in Beijing, and even negotiated with the owner to buy one of their mugs as a souvenir. (Yes, the logo shows a duck inside a bottle. I'm not sure of the significance of that, except that it's "cute," and the Chinese are very into cute.)

In the evening we took a walk through a thriving shopping area surrounding a frozen lake. (Yes, it was colder in Beijing -- definitely below freezing our first night.) For dinner we found a "hotpot" restaurant, which provided each of us with a sterno-fuelled pot of boiling water, in which we cooked super-thin slices of raw meat or vegetables right at the table. Kind of like Chinese fondue, and far fewer calories! We loved it, though the waitresses seemed a bit impatient with us because we clearly had no idea what we were doing.

The next day, we were off to the Great Wall!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

China: Shanghai

We're back from China, safe and sound! It was a fabulous trip, needless to say. I am happy to be home and in our own bed and indulging in unrestricted Internet access -- not to mention breathing clean air -- but I did have a great time. We landed yesterday about 3 p.m. London time. We haven't even seen Olga yet -- the kennel will bring her home later today.

I'll give you a quick rundown of our trip, a few days at a time. You may remember that when I flew to Shanghai last week, Dave was already there, so I had to navigate getting to the hotel on my own. I was a little stressed about how to do this without speaking or writing any Chinese. I ended up showing the cab driver the phone number of the hotel, and he called them directly, which worked fine.

Shanghai is huge, a vast urban sprawl surrounding a central city filled with both modern and historic skyscrapers. It kind of reminded me of Los Angeles, weirdly. There's tons of construction everywhere, hundreds of clusters of brand-new residential high-rises stretching out in a loose grid away from downtown. The air was clean enough that I could clearly see the city as I flew in.

When I got to the hotel, Dave and I had a brief reunion before he had to go to rehearsals with his band students. Left on my own, I set out walking in the neighborhood surrounding the hotel, which was a fascinating experience. The streets were full of people, the shops along the main thoroughfares were humming, and because it was a sunny day there were lots of blankets and pillows and other laundry hung out to dry. (The high-rise on the left in the photo above is our hotel -- a Holiday Inn!)

I wandered into a large covered food market, where I saw vegetables that were completely unfamiliar -- one looked like a pyramid of tightly packed brussels sprouts -- and ink-black chickens (head on!) that clearly had been marinated somehow. (Squid ink?)

Dave's students performed their big concert on Saturday night at the American School in Puxi, or west Shanghai, and then Dave and I went out with the other attending band directors (mostly American) to a bar called The Monk. (What would Buddha say?!) After two killer gin & tonics and a bus ride back to the hotel, we ended up at an after-party in someone's room and prowled around our peculiarly decorated hotel (huge lemons!) in the wee hours, probably making too much noise.

The next morning we went downtown to meet up with a choral music teacher who, coincidentally, is about to move to the London school where Dave and I work. We had brunch in the French Concession, a former European district, and then wandered through a market area known as Tianzifang, a warren of alleys, tiny shops and restaurants.

The sunny weather did not hold out, alas.

The rain made for some nice photos, though! After an afternoon coffee we left the other teacher and walked down East Nanjing Road, a swank shopping street in the heart of Shanghai. Lots of neon lights and posh brand-name boutiques. I kept thinking, this is Communism?

By the time we reached the waterfront, dusk was falling and my shoes were squishy with rainwater. We abandoned our plans to go to Shanghai's famed Cloud Nine Bar, high in one of the downtown skyscrapers, because we wouldn't have been able to see anything anyway -- the rainclouds were too low. We went directly to dinner at Lost Heaven, an excellent restaurant near The Bund, as the riverfront is called, and then grabbed a taxi back to our hotel.

The next day, we were off to Beijing!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Hearts and Stuffed Animals

Well, work is done, Olga is at the kennel, and I am ready to take off today for the other side of the planet. Home seemed awfully lonely last night without Olga, but I must say it did not suck to wake up this morning and not have to walk a dog at 5:30 a.m.

Oh, and by the way, Happy Valentine's Day!

This is Blackie. He was my father's childhood stuffed toy, and yesterday he arrived in the mail from my brother, a complete surprise. A few months ago my dad gave my brother a model train set, and Blackie was in the same box. My brother apparently decided to pass him along to me.

I was on the way to work when I picked him up at the Post Office, so I just took him to school and put him on my desk in the school library. I figured the kids might get a kick out of him, and he did attract lots of attention despite his somewhat bedraggled appearance. It was probably more human interaction than Blackie has seen in many, many decades!

When I finally opened the very-thoroughly-taped box that carried him across the ocean, one of my coworkers asked, "Is it a horse?" Later I heard one of the kids say, "Nice kitty!" No, Blackie is a dog. A Scottish terrier, to be exact.

Coincidentally, a group of first-graders interviewed me yesterday for a school project -- the same kids I spoke to several weeks ago -- and they wanted me to tell a funny story from my life. So I told the story of how I'd picked up Blackie that morning and what a surprise it was to receive him. One of the girls wasn't buying it.

"Why is that funny?" she asked skeptically.

Well, what can I say. It was the best I could do on short notice.

And no, I didn't leave Blackie on my desk. Being around kids for more than a day might do him harm at his advanced age. He's now living on the north-facing (non-sunny) windowsill in our guest bedroom, well out of Olga's reach.

I was sitting at lunch in the cafeteria yesterday when Dave texted me this photo of Shanghai. You know how the skylines of some cities -- New York, London, Paris, Rio -- are immediately recognizable? Well, this looks completely unfamiliar to me. It's going to be very interesting to land there after an 11-hour flight, speaking and reading no Chinese, and try to get myself from the airport to our hotel. Wish me luck! I'll be back in blogland in about a week!

(Top photo: A display of student artwork at school.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Yesterday's Entertaining Walk To Work

1. Boat window, Grand Union Canal

2. Colorful laundry day

3. The Love Boat

4. Small nervous dog, winterized

5. Optimistic lost baby toy

6. "Before I Die" interactive public art project, Regent's Canal

7. Biiiiiiiig pink limo

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Short Takes: Mid-February Edition

-- Our second tube strike has been averted, at least for now. Yay! I'm walking to work anyway, unless it rains. Which is apparently likely.

-- Have you been watching the Winter Olympics? We've been screening them (with sound off) in the library on a huge TV behind the circulation desk, so every once in a while, when there's a slow period, I turn around and watch. I saw the Canadian skier wipe out and I've been fascinated by the curling. In some ways it's a very peculiar sport, but then again, broadly speaking, it's not all that different from shuffleboard, is it? (A couple of those curlers are quite hunky, too -- and let's face it, attractive athletes are a major draw for many Olympics viewers. Me, for example.)

-- You probably also saw the story about Marius the Giraffe. A Copenhagen zoo dispatched Marius to the great beyond, even though he was young and healthy, because he was considered "surplus" and genetically uninteresting. This despite the fact that other zoos and parks had offered him a home. The Danish zoo people apparently didn't want Marius taking up space in anyone's facility when another giraffe offering more genetic diversity could be there instead. I understand their reasoning, but there's something awfully cold and calculated about looking at an animal solely as a packet of chromosomes. If they didn't want Marius's genetic "sameness" polluting the gene pool, couldn't they just sterilize him? What about an animal's status as a sentient being? At least when we kill cows and pigs, we eat them. (And yes, they fed Marius to the lions, but still -- those lions could have eaten slaughterhouse remnants just as well.)

-- Have you ever heard of an interrobang? It's a non-standard punctuation mark that apparently dates back to the '60s, combining a question mark and exclamation point. So rather than typing, "He said WHAT?!" you could type, "He said WHAT‽" (Hey, look at that -- I made an interrobang!) Anyway, I'd never heard of them before, but our middle school newspaper wrote an article about them. I learned something from middle-schoolers! Scary!

-- Dave has informed me that my blog is blocked in China. And while I'd like to think that's because someone in the Chinese government finds me subversive, I'm sure it's actually because all of Blogger is blocked in China. (Probably even a blog espousing the wisdom of Chairman Mao would be blocked.) Apparently I could buy something called a VPN and blog from there as usual, but I have decided instead to simply let my blog rest for the week that I am in China. I will catch you all up with my activities upon my return.

-- For the latest installment in my litany of London-is-too-freaking-expensive complaints: I bought a can of Noxzema shaving cream last night from a local pharmacy and it cost £6.49! That's $10.69, which is, needless to say, obscene. We won't be going there again.

(Photo: Nighttime football in Westbourne Green.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pigeon Woman

There's a homeless woman who lives next to the florist in the square beneath our bedroom window. Every morning at dawn she rises from the collection of cardboard boxes where she sleeps, and has a smoke.

Then she puts on her shoes... the neighborhood pigeons congregate. Because they know what's coming next.

The woman retrieves a bag of bread from one of her boxes...

...and feeds the pigeons.

Then she puts all her boxes together in a way that probably only she understands, and stashes them somewhere in or near the florist's shop. They are always gone by the time business gets underway. She must have some kind of agreement with the owner.

She brings them back out again after dark.

During the day she patrols the neighborhood, always dressed in a fairly heavy hooded coat, sometimes talking to herself. Once she got agitated in the middle of the night and began yelling an internal dialogue, pacing on the square. It was loud enough to wake me up. But usually she's quiet and she seems to be accepted. She's been there for years -- longer than we've lived here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Olga the Celebrity

I took Olga to the park on Saturday, as usual, and this time I didn't even take my camera. It felt wonderful to be blissfully unencumbered and able to just play with the dog and wander. (I took these photos the weekend before, but they could just as well be from Saturday -- once again we had mostly sunny weather and Olga got quite muddy.)

She amused everyone with her squirrel-hunting antics. Crouching stock-still with her tail straight out behind her, then darting forward, all with that ridiculous Kong protruding from her mouth -- people stopped in their tracks to watch, and laugh, and take pictures. Olga is a star.

We heard a huge clamor coming from the park's southwest corner, and when we went to check it out, we found people shouting and drinking and wearing perplexing costumes. Turns out it was a celebration of Waitangi Day, commemorating -- as you know, if you read about our recent pub quiz -- the 1840 treaty that made New Zealand part of the British empire. Drunk kiwi alert!

On Sunday morning Dave departed for China, leaving me and Olga to fend for ourselves this week. (Lentils and salmon, both of which Dave dislikes or can't eat, are on the menu.) I enjoyed a very quiet day yesterday while I caught up on my reading, but it felt a little lonely too, I must admit. I'll join Dave this coming Friday, when my work week is complete!