Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gray's Papaya: The King of Hot Dogs

El Señor is just gonna laugh his head off about this one. Hot dogs are probably easy to find where he is, and in fact, bratwursts are probably more popular. This week, it's Florentina New York Nosh Week. Today was Gray's Papaya on 72nd and Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Not only was it a fast food excursion, it was also a Florentina sprint day through NYC public transit, namely the subway system. Coming from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, combined with a detour in Grand Central Station because of a mistimed email from my sister asking to meet there beforehand, this trip took an hour and five different subways: R, N, 5, S, and the last and most awesome, 2 train. The 2 train got me from Grand Central Station to W 72nd Street in a matter of minutes as an express. If you were in Grand Central Station at around noon today, you would have seen me sprinting through the terminal. If I had not made that detour for my sister, I still would have needed to take three different subway lines to get up there.

The paper versions of fruits hanging above these besotted fast foodies represent the fruit flavors for various cold drinks to go with your hot dog or two. My sister made sure to order the Recession Special ($4.95) of two hot dogs with your choice of toppings, and a drink. She got me a papaya drink, as requested. The different colored signs also tell you what kinds of drink flavors are available, as if the paper decorations don't grab your attention. Understandably, the hot dogs will take a lot of your attention because they are the star of the show here.

When I was a kid in New York City, I just loved getting a hot dog from the streetside carts. Sure, they're probably terrible for you, but it was a rare treat. Gray's Papaya gives you the same thrill but in a more hygienic fashion, as well as some friendly faces behind the counter. My hot dog with ketchup, mustard, and sauerkraut really hit the spot. In fact, I realized tonight that it was pretty much the only thing I ate for most of the day, with half of the papaya drink. I'm sure tomorrow will be a better day for my nutritional intake.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Moshi Moshi...The Rice Bomb Here...

Moshi Moshi.
(Thanks to Sangsoo L. on Yelp.)
Heads up, El Señor: Last night I went to meet a new friend for sushi in downtown Northampton. Remember sushi? Vinegared rice with a tiny dab of wasabi strong enough to make you remember you have sinuses, and often paired with a piece of fish. Sometimes wrapped with a seaweed wrapper. Mmmmm. I haven't had sushi since moving to Massachusetts over a year ago, so I was terribly excited to be asked to have sushi here. Moshi Moshi (413/586-5865) is located at 4 Main Street in downtown Northampton, right near the railroad trestle.

Sam I Am. (Thanks to Anthony C. on Yelp.)
When I walked inside, the sushi bar faced me directly, and the sushi chef greeted me so warmly. Sam, or as he put it, Sam I Am, not only said hello, but he also has a gong that he'll use to announce your arrival. It's as if the party only begins when you get there! I must admit that it's been a really long time since I made it a habit to sit at a sushi bar when having sushi; San Francisco is now a long time back in my life, as is the sushi bar that I used to visit all the time. Well, it was back in San Francisco that I learned "moshi moshi" is a way to greet someone on the phone, so I thought it was really appropriate to have a sushi bar named this way.
Rice Bombs. The Bomb.
(Photo by Leigh Merriam on Moshi Moshi's Facebook page)
I was lucky enough to try a rice bomb, with its deep fried rice ball topped by a fish and sauce mixture. Tasty and able to satisfy my craving for something fried, as I had aced my cholesterol test the other day.  But Florentina's stomach was feeling a little high-maintenance, so most of the sushi tasting stayed with more sedate choices, such as the unagi roll (roasted eel), a salmon roll (it was one of the recommended fish choices of the evening), and the pickly oshinko roll (the sweet/sour radish that looks yellow). It was all delicious and just what I needed. I really must go back and have something more adventurous. I was a little envious of my dining partner's ability to eat more daring things, such as the spicy tuna roll. I had a little bit of that one, and figured out that it was definitely spicy enough to make the high-maintenance stomach cross over into cranky land.

One really cool feature of this sushi bar, pointed out to me by my sushi buddy when I sat down: regulars are rewarded with their own special chopsticks in their specially marked holders. They hang all over the sushi bar as badges of membership. It reminded me of all the beer boots hanging at the Essen Haus in Madison, Wisconsin. While I knew back then that I could never drink enough beer to merit a boot, I know for sure I can eat enough sushi to get a pair of chopsticks labeled "Florentina" hanging on the wall. I'm really looking forward to more from Moshi Moshi, including an exciting new website.

Many thanks to Lori, sushi buddy, for sharing the rice bombs and spicy tuna roll!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Happy Valley of Cholesterol

WebMD, Cholesterol Slideshow: What Your Levels Mean
Though today's weather is damp and overcast, it is actually a good day in other ways, perhaps unexpectedly. At the doctor's office this morning, I was told that my cholesterol count was excellent and spectacular. In comparing the numbers with last year's lab work, the overall cholesterol lowered by 23 points (it is now 180). The LDL (lazy, bad cholesterol) was lowered by 22 points. The good cholesterol, HDL (or, as my physician's assistant called it, "happy" cholesterol) was up 2 points to 68. I was told the HDL eats the LDL cholesterol, which might explain why it's happy. Numbers aren't my strong suit, but these numbers were amazing to me because a little while ago the doctor's office was starting to watch my cholesterol count because it had crossed the dangerous border past 200 milligrams.

While we typically look at travel and destinations on this blog, we might interpret the numbers presented above through that lens. My new residence in Florence has promoted a happier, healthier lifestyle that has encouraged better habits to flourish, thereby lowering my blood cholesterol count significantly. My family medical history keeps me checking such numbers every year, and this is the first year the numbers have shown a remarkable positive change. Even eating oatmeal for breakfast one year (yes, nearly the WHOLE year) did nothing to make this happen as much as this overall lifestyle change. In fact, the medical news I received today might technically put me in the category of travelers who goes someplace for health reasons. I think I'll talk a little more about those characters in upcoming blogs, since I'm feeling a kinship with them right now.

1976 edition. (Wikipedia)
The amazement I felt caused me to think about the idyllic Happy Valley in The History of Rasselas (1751) by Samuel Johnson. Rasselas is a Prince of Abyssinia who seeks to leave the Happy Valley in order to satisfy his deep curiosity about the ways of man. Rasselas leaves with one of his sisters, Princess Nekayah, and his learned manservant, Imlac. They eventually make their way to Egypt, where they learn astronomy and engage in abstruse debates with other learned men. They also rescue a woman kidnapped by Arabs, Princess Pekuah. Together they resolve to set up various altruistic schemes, but at the novel's end the narrator tells us that when the yearly flooding of the Nile River plain is finished, these schemes are destined to fall away for the return to the Happy Valley. We are told that "Of these wishes that they had formed, they well knew none could be obtained." Returning to the Happy Valley fulfills the idea put forward earlier by the Prince's tutor, as he declares that "if you had seen the miseries of the world, you would know how to value your present state."

While I did not start out in the Happy Valley or in Florence, it appears that some of its cares slough off when you enter. In this case, I am enjoying one of the more material benefits of living in the happy valley with its outdoors lifestyle, and athletic interests. Moreover, eating out in Northampton and Florence offers more healthy alternatives overall, compared to where I had been living before. I'm more than happy to leave behind the miseries of the world, or at least most of the miseries from my previous world.

Rasselas Valley, Tasmania (State Library of Tasmania Catalog)
Though Rasselas found the Happy Valley enervating, he needed to experience the harder edges of life to better see what made the Happy Valley the haven it was. The problem with this allegorical travel narrative is that we know the return home can never happen. Even if his dad's palace and servants all remained in place, with the same abundance of food and comfort, we can be sure Rasselas and Nekayah will never be able to lie around in the same degree of ease and ignorance.

I used to wonder why travel narratives never talked about the return trip towards home, but when we think about Rasselas giving us the figurative motivations and lessons about travel, we can see how the disillusionment and the resignation can become problematic in keeping up the narrative's earlier tone of excited anticipation. However, in this case, I am more than happy to avoid returning to Mount Cholesterol, preferring to stay in the Valley. I am especially pleased with the six-pack of cider donuts I bought right after leaving the doctor's office.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Quonquont Farm (say it five times fast)

Farm stand and path to orchard. 
This afternoon we had an appointment at a farm. Joey, Joey's dad and I jumped into the car and drove into Whately to visit Quonquont Farm. This farm has been in operation since 1920, but historical records show this property was raising cattle and growing tobacco from 1860. Quonquont means "crow" according to the farm's website. These days the farm features an orchard where you can pick apples and peaches, depending on the season. Blueberries were available for picking when we last visited in July.
From Whately Historical Society

Joey's dad remembered this place fondly for apple picking when he was a boy. He also remembered when the big Quonquont milk can, once found at the farm's entrance, could be seen on Route 5. It has since been moved to the Whately Historical Society, as seen in the photo. Don't think it's just an optical illusion: the milk can is really very big. Joey's dad says it may be as much as fifteen feet tall. While we do take into account this is a memory from childhood, rest assured that this milk can is highly visible from the road and enormous. Yet it is not taller than the historical society building. (Sorry to confuse you.)

But Joey's dad and I were not about to pick apples or look for the big milk can today in Whately. We were interested in looking at the renovated barn, shown in the photo below. We're planning a big party, and the barn has been fixed up for such events.  Imagine a barn with a shiny floor, chandeliers with wrought iron fixtures, and a beautiful patio made with slate tiles in the back. Unfortunately, the pretty silo below is decorative, not open for visitors to enter.
The renovated barn. The silo is empty.
Before Quonquont Farm became a fruit orchard, it was a dairy farm. You can still see the barn's design inside reflects this use, as you can imagine the stalls for cows. 

What is the big party about, where we're thinking about barns? More to come on this party in the future....

Monday, September 12, 2011

Club Mooncake

Tonight is the Mid-Autumn Festival, or the Moon Festival. The harvest moon is at its largest, enabling farmers and workers to work by the moonlight if needed. The moon is gigantic in the sky, and it has been increasingly so for the last few days. For me and my family, it's that time of year for mooncakes. My mother called tonight to check on my choice for this year.
This year's pick.

A big SIGH.

What can I say, except that I should try to ignore the pretty decorations on the box and read the labels more carefully? Once again, I've failed to find the mooncake from my childhood. Ye olde mooncake eludes me again. This year it's partly through my own forgetfulness, as my parents had saved a very nice, expensive one made of lotus seed paste. Just like the ones of yore. But packing the car and Joey to get out of Connecticut caused me to lose sight of that mooncake.

Instead, I went to the local Asian grocery to buy a box. I should have been aware of something being a little off, to my slightly myopic childhood vision, when I saw a box of DURIAN mooncakes for sale. I should have slowed way down and looked at the side of the box:
Unexpected provenance. Caveat Emptor.
The mooncakes of my childhood used to come from Hong Kong, and as time went on, we proudly bought some of the mooncakes made in New York City. In the last ten years, we as a family have experimented with buying some of the mooncakes from China, and this is where we've run into the problems of diversity. Who would have guessed there were so many different kinds of mooncakes? And now, I managed to buy a box from Thailand (not that there's anything wrong with Thailand, as many ethnic Chinese folks live there) with a fruit/nut/1 egg yolk combo. Where is the lotus seed paste of my youth?

Currently holding up my laptop.

On the left is a box of mooncakes I bought in the recent past; these came from China, but there was still something missing. However, the pretty girls still dominate the scene. In fact, they seem rather modernized: the young woman at the bottom looks much more dissipated and disheveled than the usual fairy lady on these boxes. Hmmm. The fairy lady who lives in the moon, leaving earth for that perfect life up there, always seems to get updated to reflect the current model of Asian beauty. I think the lady at the bottom may have had a little too much fun up in the moon. It's said that life on the moon is perfection, in these stories. Maybe it also means they have the perfect mooncakes.

On the right below is a box of mooncakes with their attractive crusts. The different shapes suggest different fillings, of the sort I never dreamed of when I was a kid.

And for what it's worth, below is a very crummy picture of the moon tonight.

Friday, September 9, 2011

An Isabella Bird Bender in Northampton, MA

Isabella Bird (Unlocking the Archives, www.rgs.org)
 In my readings about Isabella Bird, I occasionally read the biographical material, and very rarely go near the religiously oriented things she wrote early in her career. As the Victorian British woman traveler best known to Americans for her jaunty narrative, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (first published by John Murray, 1879), the travel narratives naturally receive the most attention. Missionary work is hardly considered as exciting and feminist as what Bird was able to accomplish in her travels through Asia late in life. But yesterday, I found myself on a Bird bender. This is what it looked like:
One online book, one hard copy, and one downloaded book all going at the same time. This collision is what enabled me to figure out that Bird had spent two months in Northampton, Massachusetts at a time when elm trees still lined New England streets, Smith College had yet to be founded, and the Jonathan Edwards fracas with his local Congregationalists was still relatively fresh in the collective memory. Well, the narrative about Hawaii was supposed to be my primary reading but I thought it might be interesting to see what Stoddart had to say about this trip. Stoddart's biography holds a special kind of fizz because she was a friend of Bird's. While we know that such relationships do not always bode well for biographical integrity and accuracy (see: Elizabeth Gaskell's biography on Charlotte Brontë for the foremost Victorian example), for this reserved woman Stoddart enables us to see more of the motivations and emotions than were expressed in writing.
   Stoddart writes about Bird's second trip to America, where her interest in religion was explored. Bird's father was a clergyman who had tried to cultivate Sabbatarian tendencies in his parishes, but found English parishioners averse to a complete day of rest. Stoddart's narrative includes a list of places visited, and I found this mysterious reference to a village in Western Massachusetts, where Bird stayed for two months. That's a long time to stay somewhere and not know the place name, I think.
   When looking into The Aspects of Religion, the New England section receives high praise from the daughter of the Sabbatarian minister. She writes glowingly about this idyllic village on a typical Sunday.
I take the loveliest village in that surpassingly fair portion of America. It is a village of 5,000 people, built on a collection of knolls, rising from park-like meadows, through which flow the bright waters of the Connecticut. (60)
That's a sizeable village, which Northampton would have been at this time, and the Connecticut River currently threatens to flood it from time to time. Bird goes on to name some other qualities that help mark the possibility of Northampton being this village:
First Churches of Northampton, UCC/ABC
from their Facebook page
The village itself consists of a collection of lanes shaded by avenues of gigantic weeping elms, and along these lanes are erected detached cottages, enbosomed in roses and vines. It dates from an early period of the seventeenth century, and some of those families are descended from those who landed at Plymouth Rock. There are five churches: two Congregational, one Episcopalian, one Baptist, and one Methodist. (60)
You can see some of these old churches and the lanes today, as they form part of downtown Northampton and Smith College campus. Settlements such as Northampton rose earlier in the colonial period because the Connecticut River allowed settlers to move north from Connecticut and Long Island Sound, so the early seventeenth century settlement period is not far fetched. The number of churches is actually small when we're told that these churches are all packed, from Bird's observation. "All the people are church-goers" (62) she claims, as well as the fact that this is not an unusual village but rather typical of New England.

  Bird's study of American religion is often forgotten, and it marks an interesting aspect of Bird's character. Her religious training and practice are not at all secondary to a better understanding of her character when we look at how missionary influences and Christian outreach marked her early life. The publication of this book, Aspects of Religion, also marks the death of Bird's father, Reverend Edward Bird. When we know that fact, the study seems to be a fitting tribute to a father who wanted his parishioners to have a dedicated day of rest, as Bird praises the New Englanders most of all for their continued adherence to this practice.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Hatchet Lady at Taylor Farm

Photo by Callie Bundy; norwalk.patch.com
A long time ago, when I was growing up on Long Island Sound in Connecticut, I was brought to this place by a day camp counselor or two. One of them singed her eyebrows trying to start a barbecue for us, while the other one insisted on sending us away to play hide and seek after scaring us with a story about the hatchet lady who lived in the thicket of trees at the top of the Taylor Farm property. Making this problematic was the fact that people would often park their cars at the farm when watching the Fourth of July fireworks at Calf Pasture Beach across the street. Wouldn't the hatchet lady have them for dinner on the Fourth?

I was visiting my family for the Labor Day holiday weekend so that they could meet Joey. We had never been to a dog park, since they weren't really popular when we had the family dog. At first my brother suggested going to the other dog park in town because he remembered Taylor Farm and Calf Pasture Beach lay underwater for days after Hurricane Irene. But the beach is irresistible.

Photo by Callie Bundy; norwalk.patch.com
This time: no hatchet lady, no stupid camp counselors, but just lots of dogs and dog owners ready to make conversation. It's interesting to imagine how the Taylors (if they were the farmers) held this piece of land with their cattle grazing on what is now our city beach, across the street from the farm.

As a kid growing up in this town, we learned nothing of its history, not how this piece of land came to be a farm, or how there had been a vicious Revolutionary War battle fought a half mile away from my former middle school. We weren't even told that my former middle school was once an airfield because it sits at the highest point in the town. Even worse, I certainly never remembered writing down "1651" in my third-grade notebook for the town's incorporation. In fact, it was incorporated on September 11, 1651. This means Norwalk is 360 years old at the end of the week.

Calf Pasture Beach (wiki.worldflicks.org)
What I do know now, besides the fact that I had some pretty crummy public school teachers and will not excuse their failings, is that the name of this town is only one of two municipalities in Connecticut to retain its original Native American name. The name "Norwalk" is deceptive when placed against the other Fairfield County place names such as Westport, Ridgefield, and Easton because it looks like a match. But in fact this was the name of the Native American tribe that lived here on the water, digging up oysters and clams, catching lobsters, and fishing for dinner. I wonder what they did with the horseshoe crabs that I used to see lurking near shore.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Travel Bookshop at Notting Hill

The Travel Bookshop's real façade (www.thisislondon.co.uk)
The Travel Bookshop, Notting Hill, London.
For all those fans of the film "Notting Hill" (1999) starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, the bookshop at the center of the action has become a tourist destination. Unfortunately, this bookshop is scheduled to close within a day. This impending loss has been reported in the media recently, from news outlets in Britain such as The Daily Telegraph to NPR in the United States.

The Travel Bookshop is a landmark for those avid travelers, collectors of travel guides, and readers of travel narratives. It arranged its books by country rather than by genre, as a more general bookstore would do. This arrangement has become more commonly seen in larger bookshops now, such as those gigantic Barnes and Noble megashops. But the Travel Bookshop also attracted real travel writers, those adventurers whose books were sold in the shop, such as Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron. If you look at the website you will find travel narratives and writers producing work on all parts of the world, near and far. Such a shop clearly gathers together a vast amount of knowledge and creates a tremendous resource for readers of all levels and interests. Travel is a way to explore and test your curiosity about others, and the books featured on the website, even on the eve of the bookshop's closure, shows us how this field is vital and flourishing.

Alec Baldwin has already stepped up to support the continued operations of this bookshop. If you recall, Alec Baldwin played the boorish celebrity boyfriend to Julia Roberts, the last person in the film who would seem to have an interest in books. He has spoken out on his Twitter feed about helping out. You too can help out by continuing to support writers and bookshops, in your own communities and beyond. Travel writers in particular seem to be increasingly relevant in today's globalized economy, so please try to reach out and support these intrepid writers and booksellers whenever you can.