Thursday, September 28, 2006

I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing

Last night for my father’s birthday, we went to a fantastic restaurant in the Berkshires, Wheatleigh. It’s the same place we went for my mother’s 60th, as well. We’ll forgive the lack of creativity because it’s so good. This time we had a tasting menu, where, over the course of several hours, the kitchen attempted to kill us with, I think, six different courses. It started modestly, with a small mushroom grilled in butter, and ended with a half a peach served with sweetened ricotta cheese. In between there was grilled black bass, gnocchi, monster shrimp, and aged beef served with the most decadent mashed potatoes I’ve ever had—I hate to think how much cream, butter, and cheese went into them but the dish was barely recognizable as potato. It tasted and felt more like melted brie.

Don’t even start me on the wine. All I can say about that is that we hired a driver, because my father, at least, had the foresight to understand what happens when you have even just a little snort of a different wine with six or seven courses.

The last time I went, I remember thinking that the serving sizes were pleasantly modest—I left full, but not bursting. This time, even though all the plates seemed quite small, they mounted up to the point that everyone at the table passed up the optional cheese course. And this morning, another unprecedented thing happened: To the best of my knowledge, all the Clausings skipped breakfast. And we love breakfast. I personally eat as many breakfasts as I can every day, because it’s never too late or too early for waffles. But not today. I had some coffee, a lot of water, and a tiny bit of bread just to cushion the coffee blow. There was no possibility of a real meal until lunchtime, and even then, I didn’t want much.

In a few more hours, we’ll have to prepare ourselves to have dinner again. Don’t worry; we’re Clausings. We’ll be ready.

(For the curious, the people in the front row of the photo are my sister, my father, and a family friend named David. Back row: my Mom, and family friend Duane.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Must Be in the Front Row

On my flight to the east coast, I was lucky enough to be in first class for only the second time in my life that I can remember. (Actually, luck had little to do with it—my father used a lot of Delta miles to fly me home for his own birthday—thanks, Dad!)

It was great—just like when I was little. For one thing, the service is ridiculously good. My sister and I were once on a trip where the flight attendant happened to mention that the flight had “non-stop service” to wherever we were going. We knew what that meant, but we cracked ourselves up imagining that the phrase meant that the flight attendants would be waiting on us hand and foot to the point of exhaustion, stuffing us full of peanuts and Seven-Up every second of the flight.

This was kind of like that. My flight attendant knew my name, and was constantly coming by with the snack basket and offering refills on my coffee (which came in big coffeehouse cups, not those depressing six-ounce Styrofoam things that make you feel like you’re waiting to pick your car up at the shop). Breakfast was huge, and pretty good (frittata and a bagel). And the room! That’s another way I felt like a child again. My feet touched the floor, but my knees didn’t hit the seat in front of me, and more significantly, my thighs didn’t touch the armrests. It was like being tiny again, right down to the sugar buzz.

I only have one small disappointment. Normally, of course, I travel cattle class, and that almost always means that as I board the plane, I trudge past the swells in first class, already seated and sipping their sunrise screwdrivers. And I always sneak a peak, a little bit out of longing, but mostly because I’m checking to see if anyone famous is on the plane. Am I the only one who does this? I wouldn’t have thought so, but I didn’t get so much as a single look from anyone who filed past.

I guess I have to admit that it’s possible I don’t look remotely like a rock star. And it may be that famous people don’t usually entertain themselves on board aircraft by making themselves sick on soda pop and trying to catch the eye of every passenger on the plane. I’ll have to remember that next time. (And in the meantime, I’m going to buy a really big pair of sunglasses and a floppy hat to cultivate that conspicuously inconspicuous look.)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Gel Is So 80s Anyway

I had a flight from SFO to Hartford today at 7am on the first day of a new liquid/gel policy, and I was worried that this would cause security chaos. But in fact, the line moved right along. I think probably everybody checked toiletry bags just to be safe—I know I did.

I did learn something interesting at security today: I knew that I would be allowed to bring up to three ounces of liquid or gel in my carry-on. But I checked the bag that had my shampoo in it, because I carry shampoo in a small plastic container I bought at the drugstore. I had assumed that anything carried on board had to be in its original packaging. But that’s not the case at all. You can carry any sketchy, hand-labeled, opaque bottle of anything on board. It just can’t be more than three ounces of suspicious-looking liquid. And it has to be carried in a clear zip-lock bag. Throw it in an old plastic grocery bag, and you’re looking at hours of interrogation by the TSA. But if you remember the baggie, you’re good to go, because no terrorist would ever think of that.

In other news, I’ve been thinking for a while that the restrictions on carry-on luggage would make it easier to find space for roller bags. But I couldn’t tell you if that’s true or not, because I’ve checked my roller bag the last two times I flew. I’m guessing the compartments are pretty empty—but I couldn’t say for sure, because I haven’t been looking in them.

And I can’t tell you how odd it feels to be walking around an airport with only a small knapsack. I’m used to towing a wheelie bag everywhere with me. It’s not that I’m paranoid about losing my luggage—in my experience, it always comes back eventually. And I don’t begrudge the extra 10 minutes spent at the baggage carrousel. I’m self-employed—my time is just frankly not that valuable. I think I’m just kind of a turtle, and I really like carrying everything with me. I’ll be happy when/if they lift the gel restrictions and I can go back to my bag-lady ways.

(Although come to think of it, the rules may be saving me from myself, since I do have a well-documented habit of leaving my belongings all over the world.)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Not Strictly Related, But….

….Someone at the gym this morning told me there are only 90 days until Christmas. Can this be true? I’m afraid to do the math.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Ladies Who Lunch

One of the perks of being self-employed is getting to go out to lunch in the middle of the day. (I can only afford the places in the bargain bites section of the paper, but at least I’ve got the time.)

Today my friend Marcia (an underemployed substitute teacher) and I went to the Tamale Queen in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. Maria Martinez may well be the queen of tamales—hers are definitely the best I’ve ever had. Today it was pork—tender, smoky, slightly oily, with a nice moist corn wrapper. For dessert we had tres leches cake, and spent several minutes deciding what the three milks might be—condensed milk is definitely one, but the other two are a sweet mystery.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Where the Sidewalk Begins

On my walks through Oakland, I’ve been noticing something a lot: It seems that whenever a local contractor pours a new sidewalk, he or she will stamp the company name and the year in the wet cement.

This tradition has survived into the new millennium--I saw a 2001 date on my walk through Haddon Hill today. I also coincidentally saw the oldest date I’ve noticed yet: 1917.

It’s pretty cool (if you’re as uncool as I am, anyway) to think of all the people who have walked across that piece of sidewalk since 1917. I like to think of all the rainstorms it has been through, and all the earthquakes, roller-skate abuse, and chewing-gum incidents it has survived, dating back to the First World War.

I set out on this Oakland walking project thinking it would be the architecture and general neighborhood vibe I would find most interesting. But more and more I find myself looking out for these date stamps in the street. I’ll let you know if I find any older than this one.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Did You Know….

….That there are only three Japantowns in the United States? And that they’re all in California? There’s one in Los Angles, one in San Jose, and one in San Francisco. (Vancouver has the only other Japantown in North America.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Play it Again, Cui Jian

When I travel in a new city, I often like to set some sort of shopping task for myself. It’s usually not important that I find the thing; looking for it just gives me some kind of framework for wandering the town.

In Beijing and Shanghai, though, there really was something I wanted: Years ago, a friend gave me two cassettes by a Chinese singer named Cui Jian. He was China’s first bona-fide rock star. Just as the Beatles proved that rock ’n’ roll wasn’t exclusively American, Cui Jian proved that it’s not even necessarily Western. His music is a really interesting mix of traditional rock (he apparently loves Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones) and traditional Chinese instrumentation.

I enjoy the tapes, but I’m trying to upgrade all my cassettes to CDs. This turned out to be harder than I expected, and I’m not sure why. Maybe his original albums, from the late 80s, are out of print. This seems unlikely, though, given how popular he was back in the day. Possibly, his older music is too politically incorrect. He did get in trouble with the authorities around the time of the Tiananmen student protests. His music isn’t overtly political, but his lyrics (I’m told—I can’t understand much) are metaphorically about rebellion and make leaders nervous, without their being able to put their finger on a specifically offending verse.

Whatever the reason, I stopped in practically every CD shop I could find in Beijing and Shanghai, slightly annoying my traveling companions. I couldn’t find either album anywhere, though. I finally settled on a newer album that had Cui Jian’s two most famous 80s songs tacked on. It was terrible. I hated the new stuff—it sounded like an ill-advised foray into rap backed with Chinese opera instruments. And one of the older tracks was corrupted, and wouldn’t play at all.

Just today, though, I found a message-board posting that mentioned a Chinese Web site called I went to it, and as luck would have it, they have one of the two albums I was looking for.

I don’t regret the time I spent looking for the CD in China, but it’s good to know that sometimes these things can be purchased without even leaving my desk.

Thanks for being patient, John and Pipi!

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Analog Tourist

Actually, I take that back. There is one time I was happy to have a film camera. It was in Cuba a few years ago. (Yes, it was a legal trip. Please stop tapping my phone.)

The hotel we stayed in was ridiculously nice—far more luxurious than what Pipi and I usually stay in. I had brought a flashlight, and my own soap and shampoo, thinking this poor benighted country couldn’t possibly provide toiletries and 24-hour-a-day electricity. I also packed a tiny portable radio, because baseball playoffs were on, and I wondered if I might be able to catch a signal out of Miami to see how the Red Sox were doing. The hotel turned out to have ESPN and high-speed Internet. That was humbling.

One other thing surprised us about the hotel. We’d all read that electrical sockets in Cuba were just like ours. As it turned out, though, this particular hotel was a Dutch/Cuban joint venture that tended to attract a mostly European clientele, and they had European style sockets. As a result, everyone with digital cameras spent a lot of time at the front desk trying to borrow the few available adaptors the staff kept on hand. On day three, one guy on the trip cannibalized my flashlight batteries to run his camera on. It was a good time to be analog.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

For the Sake of Sake

I bought a digital camera for two reasons: I was sick of paying to develop bad pictures, and I wanted that little preview screen so that I could tell right away if a photo was bad.

I got my wish with the first part—it is indeed easy to avoid sending bad photos to the printer. The second part, though, didn’t work out quite as well as I planned. Lots of photos that looked fine on the tiny screen turned out to be blurry when enlarged to 4x6, or someone had their eyes closed, or was making a face. But I often wouldn’t notice until it was too late to take another, so I’d be stuck with it.

There is one great thing, though, about a digital camera that I didn’t anticipate. Now that I have one, I have to take many fewer notes when I travel.

If I don’t feel like writing down a whole history of a temple I’m visiting, I don’t have to. I just take a picture of the plaque out front. If I can’t read the characters on a street sign on a boulevard in Beijing, I don’t have to transcribe it. I can just take a picture and look up how to pronounce it later.

When I was in Japan, visiting John’s partner’s family, we were served a sake I really liked. That’s a rare thing—most sakes either taste like gasoline to me, or else they’re cloyingly sweet. I knew there had to be a happy medium somewhere, and in Odawara, I found it. I liked it so much I wanted it for myself.

I could have written down the name, and gone to a wine shop and bought a bottle, but then I would have had to lug it across all of Asia and part of Europe. So instead I took a picture of the bottle, so that I’d have a record of the name with no chance of transcription error on my part.

I had a scary moment when I uploaded the photos to my computer the next day, in another town: The shot turned out so blurry that only two big characters on the label were legible.

Just this week, though, I emailed a copy of the photo to a sake store in San Francisco, True Sake. A very helpful person emailed back that he recognized the label, blur and all, and told me that they can get it for me. It turns out to be a brand called Masumi Cho-Karakuchi Ki-ippon Junmai Ginjo. Please don’t laugh at me if you recognize this as a lowbrow brand (though I doubt Daisuke’s family would have served it if it were.) I don’t know much about sake. I just know what I like.

And I know that I’m never going anywhere without my digital camera again.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Dates Firmed Up

I have my reservations now. I’m leaving out of SFO on the morning of Sep. 26, and returning the evening of Sep. 29. Sep 26, incidentally, turns out to be the day of my father’s last flight—he’s a pilot and will hit the FAA mandatory retirement age the next day.

The one thing I know we have planned is a retirement party at a restaurant called Wheatleigh. It’s a swanky place near Tanglewood in Lennox, MA that my Mom recently had a big birthday at. It had just about the best beef I’d ever eaten. I’ve only had beef once since then, in fact, and that was at a wedding, so you can imagine it wasn’t the same. I need to dispel the ghost of that wedding steak with more of that good Berkshire beef pronto.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Anything Funny Happen Today?

Pipi used to have an acquaintance with a preschool-aged daughter. The mother told us once that she figured out pretty quickly that the question, “How was school today?” seldom got much of a response. Somehow she realized that a much better question to ask is, “Did anything funny happen today?”

Sometimes Pipi and I greet each other with this question when she gets home from work. And if she asks today, I’ll be able to say “yes.”

This morning I was on one of my Oakland urban hikes. I went down East Twelfth Street as far as First Avenue. It was a good walk—I discovered that an Asian supermarket that burned down about a year ago has reopened in a temporary location, so that was good to know.

That’s not the funny part, though. The funny part is that on the way there, some cops pulled up next to me and asked me for directions.

That’s a funny enough scenario—police officers lost in their own jurisdiction. But as anyone who knows me realizes, the really funny part is that they picked the absolute worst person on Earth to ask directions of. Seriously, for an explorer, I have no sense of direction. My father has written a book on navigation, but I can’t find my way out of a paper bag with a compass.

The story does end happily, though. They were looking for the Scottish Rite Temple, and I actually did have a pretty good idea where it was. It helped that they were already quite close, and it’s a big building.

Almost the funniest part is imagining why they needed to find the Scottish Rite Temple in the first place. Did a ritual go bad? Was someone playing caber in the house? Was there a haggis incident? I’m definitely picking up an Oakland Tribune tomorrow to find out.

And the next time I call the police, I’m definitely keeping Mapquest open while I’m talking to the dispatcher.

Monday, September 11, 2006

One Cingular Sensation

My cell phone was useless when I was in Japan, and I assumed it would be useless across much of Asia. I almost didn’t bring it on my trip at all, but I had this idea that it might work in Russia, so I took it along for emergencies.

Imagine my delight when I flipped it on in Shanghai and found it worked perfectly. It even knew the local time. When I was waiting at the airport to meet Pipi’s flight, I was able to leave her a message assuring her I’d be there.

I experimented with phone cards for calling home, but they’re expensive and the concept is hard to pantomime in a store. Eventually Pipi got Skype on her computer, and this seemed to solve the problem completely. She loaded up $10 worth of credit on her account, and in several weeks of calling my cell phone regularly, she didn’t even burn through that. Problem solved, or so it seemed.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my first Cingular bill when I got home and discovered an astronomical charge. I’m not going to say how much it was, but let me put it this way: I’ve seen used cars sell for less. And they sort of ran, even.

The moral is: Skype is a great thing. But for the love of Pete, don’t use it to call a cell phone internationally unless you understand your plan’s international roaming charges perfectly--that includes inbound calls as well as calls you make.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Urban Hiking

I forgot to mention a close-to-home travel project I’m working on. Recently I read an article about people who walk every street in their city. It was mostly about people walking San Francisco, which at 49 square miles, is achievable within an average lifetime. (Actually, it only takes a few months, if you’re really dedicated.)

So I’m doing Oakland now. Realistically, I probably won’t ever walk all the streets—I think I read that there are about 800 miles of paved road within the city. Some of them are war zones. Worse, some of them are really hilly. Also, I don’t’ walk very fast and I only have a few hours a week to devote to the project—I usually only walk two days a week.

Nevertheless, I am making some real progress. I don’t know how many miles I’ve covered so far. Thirty would be a rough estimate. Maybe more. For those of you who know Oakland, I’ve covered a lot of Eastlake: most of the streets between MacArthur and International Boulevards on the (roughly) north and south, and First through Fourteenth Avenues on the east and west.

It’s been interesting for me to explore a place I thought I knew pretty well. I’ve discovered that within walking distance of my apartment, there are several antiques stores I didn’t know about, a bubble-tea place I can get to in about 15 minutes, and lots of architecture I’d never noticed. I’ve realized that “walking distance” from my place includes a much wider area than I ever knew. It’s fun, it’s educational—it’s travel, in a way.

I don’t have a scanner, but I’ll try to find a way to track my progress online for you. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ten Must-See Hilltowns for Fall

People often ask me where I’m going next, hoping I’ll say someplace exotic. But in fact, for the last few weeks, I haven’t had anything up my sleeve at all. But now I do have a trip planned, or at least penciled in: I’m going back to Northampton at the end of the month for my father’s birthday/retirement party.

I don’t know the exact dates yet; my homework for tonight is to look at flights into Harford that week. I’ll keep you posted. (So to speak.)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Writer’s Rite of Passage

I’ve heard of this happening to travel writers, but this is the first time it’s happened to me: After sending off a 2000-word article on Mongolia, suitable for the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle (I’m determined to make that guy publish me), I pick up my Sunday paper. And what’s the main teaser on the front page? An article on Mongolia. Written by someone else.

This article wasn’t the cover article, it was much shorter, and covered a different angle. Mine was an Ulan Batar overview, whereas his was about the trans-Mongolian train line, with a little bit about U.B. attractions. Still, I doubt the Chronicle travel editor is going to run more than one article a year about Mongolia in any case. So I’m disappointed.

I’m trying to look on the bright side, though: At least I know now that Mongolia isn’t a completely off-the-wall topic. Maybe someone else will publish it. And I now have a good woe-is-me story for my next writers’ networking event.

It’s a milestone of sorts.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rejection at the Speed of Light

The Cowboy Junkies have a wonderful song (“Sun Comes up, It’s Tuesday Morning”) about waking up in the morning and hearing the telephone ring. The singer doesn’t answer it, though, because, as she says, “Everybody knows that good news always sleeps till noon.”

And that may be true. All I know is that rejection sure seems to be up and at ‘em early these days.

It used to be that newspaper editors liked submissions via snail mail. It would take days for my article to get to their office, days or weeks for the editor to actually open the envelope, and the rejection, if one ever came, could easily come months later. (I once got a manuscript sent back to me nine months after I’d sent it to a certain San Francisco-based publication. Hint: not the Examiner.)

Now more and more editors are accepting e-mail submissions, which turns out to be a double-edged sword. The good thing about that is that I save tons of money on stamps, envelopes, and ink cartridges.

The bad thing is that the rejection is almost instantaneous. Overnight, in some cases. For example, I spammed a Mongolia overview article to 17 papers two weeks ago. The Kansas City Star gently but firmly rejected it the next morning. The Chicago tribune dinged it within a week. One submission bounced back (did the Atlanta paper get rid of their travel section?), and one of my emails drew an immediate auto response saying the editor was out on leave and that all her email was being deleted in her absence. It’s….what’s the opposite of instant gratification? When there’s no delay between an action and getting slapped upside the head for it? Do we have a word for this in our language?

We will soon.