A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Dressing Ethnic and the Spirit of Winning

Nope, I lied. I just saw this article, Ethnic games tainted by cross-dressing cheats and couldn't help but laugh and share it with everybody.

As if minority games aren't bad enough, cross-dressing Han people pretending to be minorities to win games is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of.

I miss China.


Video of New Flat

My last post for today, I promise. Having just posted another YouTube film, I thought I'd go all high tech and post a video tour of my new flat in London. Mind you, it's nothing special (neither the flat nor the video), and I sound like a complete arse, but at least it gives you an idea of where I am now...since I'm sure you cared. Notice the desk in the closet. That's my personal favorite...

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Kunming Mafia

Ok, this is just too bizarre. A friend from Kunming sent me this link to a Chinese cop show, asking "recognize anybody?" The short answer is, yes, like every single laowai (foreigner) in the show. It's so weird seeing them in a totally different context!


Disaster in the Kitchen

Why is it that some of life’s lessons can only be learned the hard way?

No matter how many times I’ve heard the advice “don’t try to serve something you’ve never made before to important guests,” it really takes a disaster to let that message sink in. Stupid malai kofta.

To inaugurate my new London flat, I decided to have a few friends over for dinner yesterday evening. After several calls and several people undecided, I opted for an Indian dinner that would be flexible on how many it could serve. I had paneer (a simple, plain, white Indian cheese used in most of their vegetarian dishes), so I decided on palak (spinach) paneer as one dish. I had potatoes, so malai (cream) kofta (potatoes) seemed an obvious choice too. I even had a tikka masala (a red tomato curry) sauce in my fridge ready to go for a spicy chicken tikka masala. Then, all that was left was a nice biriyani rice (think pilaf) and some naan to round out the meal. Well, and a vegan chocolate/orange cake for dessert of course.

Simple enough, right?

I started with the vegan chocolate cake, and for the first time in a while it came out really well, but that’s what you get with a real oven instead of trying to improvise with a toaster oven. And the palak paneer even came out alright (although I had a terrifying moment when I dumped more than a tablespoon of cumin seeds in the pan by accident at the outset), and the chicken tikka masala was a cinch thanks to the pre-made sauce. My water to rice ratio wasn’t quite right for the biriyani, and it came out a bit mushy, but certainly still edible.

And then came the malai kofta. The dish sounded complex, but still doable. Basically, the recipe is: boil some potatoes, mash them, make them into little balls, stuff something in the center (I chose dried cranberries and cashews for a spin on Kashmiri malai kofta which calls for raisins), deep fry them, and cover them in a creamy sauce.

I made my preparations meticulously. While the potatoes were boiling away, I finely chopped my onion, counted out five black pepper corns, two kernels of green cardamom, two cloves, made a cashew powder and prepared cashews and cranberries for stuffing. After a quick skin and a mash, I started forming the mix into balls and stuffing them with cranberries and cashews.

Just as I had finished that step, guests started arriving; in the end, we were seven in all.

My problem came with the next step: deep frying. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever in my entire life seen my mom deep fry anything. It just wasn’t and isn’t something done in my household, ever. And with the exception of the South where fried pickles seem to be the norm, most American households are probably in a similar situation. Deep frying is the ugly duckling of cooking methods in the US. It is shunned to the nth degree. When talking about it, one practically must turn three times, throw salt over the shoulder, say ten Hail Maries and spit twice just to cleanse the soul. Fair or not, deep frying is perceived as bad as eating a clod of butter.

In China, however, it’s just considered another way to cook things, and so I saw it done on several occasions while I was there. I even tried it by myself a couple of times, both in China and before when I was cooking at Casablanca (the house I lived in my senior year at Whitman), but I had never been super-josu (skilled) at it.

Well, just as all my guests were arriving, I made a fatal mistake: I took all of my carefully prepared potato balls, and I put them all in the gurgling oil at the same time. Instead of turning into golden brown, crispy delicacies, they just disintegrated, turning into a greasy potato, cashew, and cranberry mush. :o( By adding too many at the same time, the oil cooled down too much to be able to fry effectively, and as it was heating back up, the potato balls just mushed into each other. The result was that I was out a dish, and a vegetarian dish at that (which was important as almost half the people coming were of the vegetarian ilk).

Frustrated, I turned to the naan. I have made naan before, and I have made chappati (an even flatter bread than naan) before, but not this particular recipe which came from a cooking class I took with my friend Chesa in Udaipur. I added the flour and an egg, then some water. The recipe called for three cups…by which it must have meant little tiny Indian cups, because I added two, thinking it was more than enough and my batter was still runny. I added flour, and added flour, and added flour until it started to become malleable but then I realized that I didn’t even have a rolling pin and I just gave up.

What a disappointment it all was! It is nearly impossible to have every exploit in the kitchen work out perfectly, and I know I’ve had my share of complete screw ups—the sheer mention of the words “lentil loaf” to any of the former Casa crew will most certainly elicit a round of uproarious laughter. But that was basically in front of family, not at a special event with new friends.

I guess all that I can say at this point is lesson learned. On Saturday both of my new flatmates officially move in and I think they’re expecting me to cook dinner for them (I told them I enjoy cooking and they latched onto that right away). I think spaghetti sounds like a good plan.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Love Lost and Passion Vivante

Absence de Théophile Gautier

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!
Comme une fleur loin du soleil
La fleur de ma vie est fermée
Loin de ton sourire vermeil.

Entre nos cœurs quelle distance !
Tant d’espace entre nos baisers !
O sort amer ! O dure absence !
O grand desires inapaisés !

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée !

D’ici là-bas, que de campagnes,
Que de villes et de hameaux,
Que de vallons et de montagnes
A lasser le pied des chevaux !

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!

Absence by Théophile Gautier

Return, return, my much beloved!
Like a flower far from the sun
The flower of my life is closed
Far from your vermillion smile.

Between our heart what a distance!
So much space between our kisses!
Oh bitter fate! Oh cruel absence!
Oh grand desires unappeased!

Return, return, my much beloved!

From here to there, only countryside,
Only cities and hamlets,
Only valleys and mountains
To tire the feet of the horses!

Return, return, my much beloved!

“Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée.” These were the words that echoed through my head all of last night. Along with two images: two boys hugging and an old man stepping slowly towards the podium.

Yesterday, I was happily surprised to receive two phone calls, one directly following the other, from friends I knew from Kunming who had just arrived in London. One of them, Aaliyah, a brilliant musician, called with the idea of heading to the London Philharmonic Orchestra to hear a well-known mezzo soprano. “It’s in French,” she taunted, “and I thought you’d appreciate that.”

And so I found myself meeting Aaliyah at Waterloo station just past six to walk over to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. When I was in London several years ago, I got lost wandering the streets from Waterloo to the National Theatre (the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the National Theatre are all part of the same South Bank Complex), missing an opera that I was supposed to see. This time, we found it easily with at least half an hour to spare, so we decided to grab a sandwich to go and to people watch along the Thames as we caught up on a summer of being apart.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but walking down a semi-secluded alleyway, we stumbled upon a scene that set the mood for the evening: a boy with red rings around his tear-filled eyes. He was crying, but trying not to. I say boy, but he was probably somewhere from 16–18 years old. Smartly dressed, he was meant to be going out for the evening. It was a Saturday evening afterall. Next to him stood another “boy” about his age in jeans a blue sports coat, trying to be comforting, but failing. The boy in the blue coat shifted awkwardly at being so exposed in public. After we had passed, I turned around to see the boy in the blue sports coat hugging the crying boy.

I can’t say for sure, but it looked to me very much as if the boy in the blue coat was breaking up with the crying one.

Later, as we sat in the concert hall listening to the mezzo-soprano sing the words above (part of a work by Berlioz called “Les nuits d’été,” “The Nights of Summer”), all I could think of was the image of the two boys hugging. I could imagine the words “return, return, my much beloved,” running through the crying boy’s head as he tried to deal with the shock of being dumped.

That was love lost, but there was a more inspiring moment from last night as well. It came as the conductor of the orchestra, Paavo Berglund, took the stage. In a scene that reminded me so much of the old man who I would pass on the way to work every morning (see American Anecdotes Part III, he came on supported by a cane in one hand, and a man in a tuxedo in the other. The man escorted him through the orchestra to the podium where, after some difficulty, he was seated on a rather high rotating chair. After he was settled, he swung around and began wihtout a word.

It seemed obvious. One doesn’t require the use of one’s feet to conduct, so why should that stop him? It was beautiful to see him continue to do what he is passionate about despite the difficulty he faces when doing it. A love not yet lost.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Asian Times

Two big news stories are coming out of Asia today: the coup in Thailand, and Shinzo Abe being selected to lead the Japanese Liberal Democrat Party (effectively making him the next prime minister). Both of these events worry me. On the other hand, yesterday China agreed to send 1,000 troops to Lebanon, and this should be recognized as the landmark event that it is.

I have been following Thai politics for the last year and a half not only because I went there but also because they are really quite fascinating. I’ve ranted on several occasions before about Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s former prime minister. He won the election a year and a half ago in a landslide—mostly because he coerced farmers in the countryside to vote for him either by closely monitoring their votes, or by offering free cell phones (he became rich and famous in Thailand for owning one of the biggest telecommunication firms). I just chalked that up to Thai politics, and was at least mildly satisfied with the knowledge that he had fairly progressive rural reforms that were helping the poorer farmers properly establish themselves and earn better livings.

Then, several months ago, things started to go horribly wrong. Thaksin was exposed as the corrupt official that he is, having sold his telecommunications empire to the Singaporean government for US$1.9 billion tax free after having conveniently changed a few laws around so that he could avoid the taxes. $1.9 billion is a lot of money in any country, but in Thailand, where a meal could cost as little as 50 cents, it’s an extremely large sum. And so, protests blocked the streets of Bangkok.

Long story short, the protestors forced Thaksin to dissolve the parliament and have new elections, but they boycotted those, so the results from that election (which Thaksin won, again in a landslide) were annulled. Thaksin stepped down as prime minister (likely because the King, who was having his golden jubilee, asked him to) and said he would be a “caretaker prime minister” until new elections were held this November.

Given the fragility of the Thai democracy, this coup worries me a great deal. Will they be able to re-establish democracy like they say they will? Will they pull a Bush, and declare war on the Muslim terrorists in the south of Thailand and say they can’t leave? Will the Philippines follow the Thai lead and create a successful coup attempt (there have been four or five in the last year) to overthrow Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, further destabilizing the region? Or is this the only way to get a new Thai government without Thaksin? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, China’s reaction: it is internal Thai politics, and we will not interfere. Give me a break.

On the Japanese front, the effective selection of Abe as the next prime minister is also of great concern. He is more nationalistic than even his predecessor, having come into my field of vision on July 4th, when the North Koreans test-launched their missiles (failure or not). At that time, Abe suggested that a pre-emptive strike on North Korea would be in Japan’s best interest. Born after WWII, I’m afraid he missed the impact that had on generations. He supports the annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine (which holds the remains of several Japanese military officials who were later charged with war crimes during WWII), and textbooks that downplay the Japanese-caused atrocities of WWII, both of which are certain to rifle Chinese feathers.

One of my friends in China sent me an email just the other day saying that it was the 60th (or something like that) anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (certainly not something the Chinese would be celebrating). In commemoration, air-raid sirens rang through the air, followed by the Chinese national anthem broadcast over loudspeakers. One of her co-workers shouted out: “fight the Japanese.”

An even more hawkish Japanese prime minister is only going to further a great divide in Asia that would inevitably cause the US to take sides. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States (and maybe Australia) against China, North Korea, and maybe Vietnam. I’m afraid it’s not a pretty picture that doesn’t require much imagination to come up with.

And on a final note, I would like to call attention to the fact that just yesterday, the Chinese announced that they would be sending 1,000 troops to Lebanon. This is big! China loves to take the position of not interfering in the “internal politics of other nations,” for it would be hypocritical not to. They claim that the “Taiwanese issue” is a matter of their internal affairs, and should not be interfered in by other countries (read, the US). This means that they support the Sudanese government by buying oil ignoring the fact that the Sudanese government is committing genocide because it is the “internal affairs” of Sudan.

Indeed, when the tsunami struck almost two years ago, Thailand looked to its big brother, China, for support. Where Japan, Australia, the US, and the EU sent millions of dollars of aid, China sent a pittance and eight specialists. And at some level this is understandable; China has enough internal problems that it should be focused on before trying to help others.

But my argument always has been that if China wants to become a dominant player in the world, it has to start acting like a leader. That means helping other countries out when they are in difficult situations, and not covering up when their government screws up (like they did with the most recent typhoon, Saomei was the name I believe).

Well, now they have, committing a significant number of troops to the Lebanese peace-keeping mission, something the US can’t even claim to have done (because we’re busy maintaining “peace” in Afghanistan and Iraq of course). My kudos to the Chinese government for doing something morally correct for a change. At the same time, this could be a first step in a shifting world dynamic which has a jingoistic China on the ascendant.

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London: Center of the World

In my experience, Londoners often ask me why I chose to come here. "Simple," I tell them, "because London is the center of the world." They always laugh and think I'm a bit off for thinking such things, but each day I become more convinced.

Take something as basic as airfare. To fly from Denver to Istanbul, Turkey would be horribly expensive. In fact, I doubt there are any direct flights. From London, 30 pounds return. Not bad, ay? And it's the same for other places around Europe, Africa, the middle East, Asia, and even America. Australia is in a price category of its own, but that's always been the case.

But that's just the beginning. I love walking down the street and hearing language upon language. They say there are over 200 languages spoken in London, and just in my experience, I have heard: English (British), English (American), French, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Turkish, Hindi, Cantonese, Mandarin, Polish, Italian, German, Dutch, some Scandinavian language, and several other unidentifiable languages. It really seems more diverse than even San Francisco, which just seemed such the height of diversity this summer.

Then there are the infinite opportunities. I've been here just a little over one week now, and so far, I've gone out three times to very different bars and pubs, have seen two wonderful movies, Volver (Almodovar's latest, which is getting great reviews from the critics, but I found predictable, and not as over the top as I would expect of his films), and This Film Has Not Been Rated (a movie about the MPAA's film rating system. The mother of the friend I'm staying with now works for the British equivalent, the BBFC, and so we've had quite interesting discussions about rating films and how it changes with time.), have gone to two museums (the Victoria and Albert for their recent Islamic Art Exhibition, and the Tate Modern for its Kandinsky Exhibition), and the Thames festival (which had live swing dancing lessons right across the Thames from St. Paul's, as well as a puppet show and free flying trapeze lessons). I've even managed to get a haircut from a Turkish Cypriot, and all that on top of finding a place to live--it's been a good week.

I keep looking at all the ads in the tube for different theatre performances, and I've already started making a list. Now I just need my student ID so i can get significantly reduced prices. Then it's off to Avenue Q, Wicked, Spamalot, Mary Poppins, and many more.

I hope my studies don't interfere with all this exploring!

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Forward-thinking Afterthought

As I was busy thinking about British food, I forgot drinks entirely!

Two weekends ago now, I was in Seattle with a group of friends, and I said: "Oh, I can't drink a mojito. That was so 4 years ago!" My friends just balked at the idea of a drink going in and out of fashion, but they do, just like food. Remember when people put sun dried tomatoes in everything?! Well, so then they said that the mojito couldn't be four years ago, some of them there had only heard about it last year. I avoided (then) making comments about how Seattle isn't exactly the center of fame and fashion in the US (fine, yes, it had its moment back in the early 90s with the whole grunge thing, but that really ended when Kurt Cobain put a sawed-off shotgun to his head). In any case, mojitos were popular when I was in France studying abroad--and that, my friends, was four years ago (god I'm old).

But now, I am in the center of all things hip and cool, and thought I'd give all you Americans a heads up on the next 'in' drink. Yes, Brazil is the next Cuba; they've given us Rio, Renaldo, the girl from Ipanema, Brazilian meat skewer restaurants, and my personal favorite, capoeira. Next in line: the caipirinha.

It's a sweet and sour drink made with muddle lime, a dash of cane sugar, lots of ice, and filled with cachaça. What's cachaça you ask? It is a Brazilian liquor made from sugarcane juice.

So, all you Seattle folk, when I see you in four years in Seattle, and you're drinking a caipirinha, and I say "that was so five years ago" (I've been living in China remember, I'm assuming they've been quite the rage for a while here), you can't say I didn't warn ya!


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Po-tay-to, To-mah-to

In the US, when I told people I was headed over to England, one of the first things I would get asked about is the “awful” food. My pocket answer was “Well, I hear the Indian food there is actually quite good,” which was usually accompanied by a smirk.

And I can’t really issue a verdict at the moment, as I still have had a very limited experience with the food here, but so far I’ve had some interesting food-related experiences to share. Nothing as exciting as pigs brain like I had in China, but interesting never the less.

The other evening, I took my friend Kelly out for a lovely dinner in Clapham (south London) at a Mexican restaurant. The food was actually quite nice, and they even had guacamole. Mind you, it wasn’t as good of guac as I was having in California all summer, but it was quite decent considering our locale.

The thing that stuck me about the restaurant, though, was its servers. In the US, a Mexican/Tex-Mex/Cal-Mex place typically has Latino staff. Here, I couldn’t tell where our main server was from, but the others seemed all to be Polish immigrants. Usually, if there seems to be some difficulty communicating at a Mexican restaurant in the US, I break out the little Spanish that I know—and with the food all having Spanish names, it’s not normally a problem of them understanding you. Here, they had given many of the dishes English names (ostensibly so people not too familiar with the food could figure out what they were getting), but when we were having trouble communicating with the staff, it was so frustrating because I couldn’t turn to them and just say what I wanted in Spanish and have them understand. We worked it out, but if anybody know how to say taco salad in Polish, please let me know. I think it would make life a lot easier here!

Other experiences on the food front include a lovely meal prepared mostly by Kelly’s roommate Lil, which included jacket potatoes (I think normal people call them baked potatoes. And what was really weird is that people here say to-mah-to but say po-tay-to, what’s with that? Shouldn’t they be consistent?) that were topped with baked beans flavoured with curry. I thought it was a creative meal until I saw baked beans on a potato at a chain jacket potato restaurant (who knew potatoes would be popular enough for a chain?).

And beyond that, I had my first taste of chips in a bag from a take away fish and chips place yesterday. Added lots of salt and drowned them in vinegar; it was criminally delicious.

As for weird Britishy things, my friend Shan insisted that I try marmite this morning on toast. The only way I can describe it is as a salty/sour yeast spread. The flavour is really quite strong, and its not my favorite, but I could see where they were coming from. In a way, the flavour had overtones of sourdough bread in the US, which I absolutely adore. I say that it usually takes three times of trying something new before really starting to like it, and since I don’t find it completely repulsive, I’m sure that I’ll be spreading on my toast sooner rather than later.

The last food-related story comes from Chinatown. We went there for some cheap chao mian (chow mein/stir-fried noodles) at a place that apparently specializes in rude service. I asked for the spiciest chao mian they had. “Not just spicy, spicy spicy.”

The waiter’s response was simply “What’s spicy spicy? You want spicy, you order the Singapore noodles.”

“Ok, well is that Sichuan spicy because that’s what I mean by spicy spicy.”

“Yeah, it’s spicy.”

“Alright, well I guess I’ll try that.”

They came and plopped down a heaping pile of stir-fried noodles that were quite yellow in color. I took a bite and realized that they were actually flavoured with curry, which I suppose is spicy in its own way, and is certainly very savory, but it’s certainly not what I was looking for.

I guess I’ll just have to learn Cantonese on top of the Polish so I can get what I want here! At least I know the names of proper Indian dishes.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

British Anecdotes, Part 1

Today we went flat-hunting south of the Thames.

*GASP*, “south of the Thames, why would you want to live thea?!” is the usual reaction I get when I tell other Londoners of my plans. It’s always interesting to see what underlying biases run through the currents of people, no matter where they are. And despite the signs by the mayor, Ken Livingston, proudly proclaiming that “WE ARE LONDONERS,” I’m already starting to see the divides in London more clearly.

Of course, I also get “well, London is quite patchy. One street will be excellent, the next quite dodgy,” so who knows what to believe.

Coming into it, I decided that I wanted to approach London with an open mind, going to see flats in neighborhoods that others would pass on without much thought. And so, my approach has been to get on a bus pointed generally in the direction I want to go, and I just observe and try to get a feel for the area and the people.

And today, I fell in love with an eccentric Turkish bakery owner on Walworth Road just south of Elephant & Castle.

We had been off to three different viewings in the area, and finally, around 4:30PM, I decided I needed a break. I was quite tired, and the only think I had had to eat that day was a banana. And so, the second I caught wind of the bakery, my stomach thudded down hard in my gut, and I drew to a quick stop. “Mind if we go in here, then?” I asked my fellow hunters.

I was greeted by a rather rotund, mustachioed Turkish man with a boisterous voice and salt-and-pepper hair. “Seweeet orrrr salty?” were the first words out of his mouth upon our arrival.

“Salty for me,” I replied.

“Den I rec-o-mend dis pastery here. It’s filled with de aubergines [eggplant] and de courgettes [zuchinni] and it’s my favorite. You know, I’m from the Mediterranean, those are our foods.”

I pondered.

“Orrr, you could try dis one, wid spinach and cheese…we also have a spicy vegetarian pizza.”

My interest was suddenly piqued, but I couldn’t decide between them. And so, the three of us decided to each get one and share with each other.

“Ok, grrreat, you want me to heat dis up?” He turned to the microwave without waiting for a response from us.

We sat there chatting about the flats and houses we had seen previously, but he was looking for a conversation.

“You from Australia?” he directed at me.

“No, America actually.”

“Oh. You know, many countries don’t like America right now.”

“Yeah, well many Americans don’t like America right now either,” was the only response I could give him.

The conversation continued, but broke off as other customers came in.

We hadn’t all eaten our full portions and he came back to scold us. Pointing to the last remaining piece he said “aren’ta you the hungry one? It is so de-le-i-cious, you must eat it.”

“Yeah, well, I may be the hungry one, but it’s her piece. She’s not fulfilling her responsibility. Make her eat it!”

Ayesha, a fellow flathunter, obliged and it was on to dessert.

It was an amazingly difficult decision. He had delicious-looking baklava which “the Poles came all the way to London for. See.” He gestured towards a uniformed guard munching on his baklava.

But in the end I settled for a pastry filled with a semolina pudding. The filling reminded me of sweet polenta, and it was really quite excellent.

As we were leaving, he asked us our names. “Jeff,” I said. “Ayesha,” my friend said. “And I’m Alex,” the last in our group replied.

“Ayesha, this is a Muslim name, no? Where you from? Turkey?”





He was shooting off ideas so quickly she couldn’t tell him where she was from.


“Ok, where you from?”

“Malaysia actually, but I’m not Muslim.”

I don’t think he’ll let her back in the store now that she’s crushed his hopes, but I’m now convinced that we have to find a place in the area so that I can make this bakery my local hang out.

Wish me luck!

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The next step: London

Amazingly, for my third consecutive trip to the airport in two months, I have managed to leave my house exactly on time—now we’re not talking Jeff on time (15-30 minutes late), but actual real on time. You can be impressed. I know I am.

And after a few hassles at SFO (one of my bags was over the overweight bag limit, and I couldn’t stuff anything else in my smaller one not to mention that they screwed up my seat assignment) and a 10-hour flight later, I arrived in London.

I sat next to an interesting gentleman on the flight with whom I shared my copies of the International Herald Tribune (best paper ever!). He was of Iranian origin, and was heading back to Iran later that day, but has lived in California for the last 20 years and even graduated from Berkeley. He was an electrical engineer, and I couldn’t help but ask him what he thought of Ahmedinejad (yeah, any thoughts on how the Iranian president’s name is spelled). It was his opinion that Ahmedinejad represented only a small minority of the Iranian population, and that it had come down to a choice of “which guy do I hate least” in the last election.

I don’t know much about that election, but it reminds me a bit of the 2000 French election wherein Chirac went up against the far-right Jean Marie Le Pen (whose brilliant idea is to give all the immigrant families 1000Euros for making it this far, then sending them back on their way) in the second round of elections because Lionel Jospin’s socialist party didn’t bother to get out the vote in the first round. Jospin could have won handily in the second round, but it came down to, who do we hate less: a corrupt Chirac or the really crazy guy?

Perhaps there was something similar in Iran?

In any case, the flight was mostly uneventful. It was the first long-haul flight I was on that had the full self-selected seat-back entertainment. They had lots of interesting choices and so I rewatched part of an Indian movie that I had seen in Mumbai, Rang de Basanti, but this time with English subtitles. It made soooo much more sense! I then switched between Chinese TV, the Simpsons, and Little Britain while I was awake, and interesting music while I was trying to sleep. Heck, they even had an interactive trivia game. All in all, not a bad deal.

London was under beautiful weather yesterday, and jetlagged or not, I took advantage of it to walk around the city a bit. It is raining now, and is supposed to keep doing so for the rest of the week. Welcome to London, I guess. I even made it to the London School of Economics campus for my first time ever. It’s a very interesting mix of classical architecture and modern sleek buildings with a few 50’s-style, post-war buildings tucked into corners. The people I met there have been very friendly and helpful, but I still don’t feel any closer to finding a place to actually live.

And in a rather absurd development, I can’t get an apartment without a phone to call people from, I can’t get a bank account without a local address, and I can’t get a mobile without a bank account… talk about a convoluted catch 22. Luckily, LSE has land lines available for students looking for housing to use. The cycle has to stop somewhere, right?

Rain or shine, I must now go find a place to live. Wish me luck!

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Busy Weeks and Busier Weekends

These past couple of months in California have actually been quite enjoyable.

I have grown into new responsibilities at work that have given me a chance to really make me feel like I belong. Beyond answering phones, I’ve been proofing reports and press releases, helping coordinate their release, and leading the production of our state reports. We release Measuring Up this Thursday, and so now I’ll be fielding reporter calls. It should be interesting. I think we have C-SPAN lined up for the release on Thursday morning EDT if you’re that interested. Otherwise, just know that if you hear things like “such and such a state receives an F in affordability,” that’s us!

But beyond work, the weekends have been lots of fun too.

Four weekends ago, one of my friends from Whitman, Harrison, came down to show his French “brother” (from the family who hosted him while he was in France) the Bay Area. We had a really fun time going down to Santa Cruz (my third weekend in a row, by chance) and visiting its famous boardwalk. While standing in line to buy tickets for the old-fashioned roller coaster, François ran into a Parisian whom he had met on the flight from Paris to Chicago. It truly is a small world! They started speaking in French and were so involved that they started to hold up the line. They eventually noticed and stepped over so that others could continue forward in line. The guys behind them came up behind us and scoffed. “Why can’t they just speak English?” he questioned disparagingly. Yes, we were showing François America.

The weekend after was spent with my mom, her brother (yes, that’d be my uncle), and his two younger sons on an excursion up to the Sacramento Valley and, more specifically, the ranch where my mom grew up. It was interesting to see just how isolated she had been growing up, and it was certainly good to finely have a clear picture to go with the numerous stories.

The old house had been long-since demolished, the farm having been bought at some point by a large farming conglomerate. The area where the house had been was so overgrown that we could only skirt the perimeter, staring through the spider webs. The sheep barn was still standing.

On my trip, I garnered a real appreciation for what my granddad accomplished when he was younger—raising five kids on a ranch thirty miles from the nearest quasi-town, working the fields, all while commuting in almost daily to Davis to get his PhD in Plant Pathology. To be fair, his mother did much of the managing of the farm, and my grandmother raised the five children, but it couldn’t have been an easy life. I began to understand better how it all fell apart.

At dinner that night, we got to talking with my uncle, and it was decided that we would come up to Napa (where he lives) to see him and go wine tasting the next weekend. He is the lead on-site supervisor for the construction company that has been working with Francis Ford Copolla on various projects around his vineyard, Rubicon.

We started down at the vineyard proper, and got to go briefly through the whole history of the grapes at this particular vineyard, see some movie memorabilia, and finally get on to the actual tasting. They mainly make reds at the vineyard, and the flagship wine, the Rubicon, was deep and full-bodied cabernet. That vineyard is not all talk!

My uncle then took the lead and showed us up to the project he is currently working on, the Copollas’ retirement home on a hill behind the vineyard overlooking the valley. It is an interesting house made entirely of cement. They had lined the concrete forms with cedar planks, giving the concrete a very interesting, wood-like texture. It is absolutely a piece of art, as my uncle doesn’t hesitate to mention, but I worry at how practical some of its spaces are.

After an afternoon of touring, we were ready for some of Napa’s famous foods. We actually stayed right by the Rubicon Estate, and went to the Rutherford Bar and Grille. I can honestly say that I haven’t had a better meal in a very long time. There was good wine, amazing corn bread, and a delicious ostrich steak, all topped off with a incredibly knowledgeable waitress. Having lived in China for the last couple of years, I have grown accustomed to not tipping, and find it almost absurd in most cases here in the US, but this waitress was so outstanding that I made sure she got a good tip.

And for this long weekend, it was a whirlwind (or a world-wind, as I kept accidentally saying) trip to the PacNW. I flew from San Jose to Seattle on Friday evening. In total, I saw 21 friends/family members on my three-day trip somewhere in and between Seattle, Portland, and San Jose. We even managed to have a mini Whitman reunion on Saturday night, and I enjoyed two (count ‘em two!) happy hours that evening. Apparently 5-7PM isn’t long enough anymore, now we must also have 11PM-1AM as an excuse to drink more. I’m really not complaining!

It was REALLY good to see all that I did, and I’m sorry if I missed others of you! Now, we hope that my British student visa comes through so that I can get to London next Sunday…

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American Anecdotes, Part IV

Today is Labor Day, and it’s a travelling day. We started out this morning in Portland, Oregon and ended it in San Jose, California--lots of I-5.

We stopped in Mount Shasta City, CA for an early dinner at Burger King just around four. We would have held out for Redding, CA, but there was a radio traffic advisory that informed us of hour-and-a-half road delays ahead (and it turns out they weren't joking!).

With dinner in hand, we stepped out of the BK towards our car, which was parked at the far end of the lot under the trees. And, in a scene that drew my mind to American Beauty, a BK worker in a black polo and baseball cap sat on the curb smoking and communing with his surroundings. I felt as though we were trespassing upon his solitude and walked quickly by.

There was a car parked just to our car’s left with its back-right side door open, blocking the way to our driver’s side. A veiled woman sat in the back. She glanced at us and pulled the door shut for us to pass.

But then, there was her husband in front of their car, facing east towards Mecca. Hidden by his car on one side, and protected by the sanctuary of trees on his other, he was in the middle of his daily prayers. Talk about trespassing!

We got quietly into our car, and I appreciated more than ever that we had a hybrid that uses its silent electric motor at low speeds as we pulled out, abdicating the parking lot to its sacred stillness.

This is America.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Surreal Moment for Today

I took my lunch today at the park across the street from my work. Having stayed up much too late the night before trying to get reports printed, I managed to fall asleep on a park bench (not unlike several others I might add, but I was probably the only one wearing a pink tie).

The surreal moment came as I woke up, in that instant between sleep and wakefulness:

The sound that woke me up was a Hispanic MTF (male-to-female) in cutoff jeans on a bike yelling over in Spanish to her approaching friend, a very built Latino with a completely unbuttoned, flowy, black cotton, button-down shirt. They started to argue in front of the trashcan (in Spanish).

I wasn't sure if I was dreaming or awake, but I guess that's San Jose for ya! I only wish I actually understood Spanish when spoken rapidemente.

What I would have given to have understood what they were talking about!

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