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.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Limning Linguistic Lines of Travel

Looks like it should crunch when you step on it, but it doesn't.
Feel free to copy for your computer's desktop.
Today we woke up to a frost coating the world. For days now we have needed extra time to put on layers before going out for daily walks. At our park this morning we could see the frost at work. This is a moment when I thought the word "limn" makes the most sense -- just enough frost to emphasize the edges of the leaves, dead or alive, and remind us of nature's beauty in everyday things. WRONG. The word "limn" refers firstly to drawing and illustration, with the idea of highlighting coming from the third, or tertiary definition and even that refers to an obsolete medieval usage derived from the word "illuminate."

Here you are witnessing one of Florentina's moments of linguistic obsession, where the definition of individual words can take a thinker from one place (in this case, real and rather cold) to another (I would need a time machine to revisit the Middle Ages and those monasteries, as well as a good drag disguise.). We are able to travel through closer examination of language and in this case, one's mistaken usage of language to see how we are able to access what otherwise would be ancient and dusty. Each of us has the ability to take such a trip by looking at a good dictionary that gives information on the derivations of words.

For Florentina, this obsession has often taken place in two languages, if not more. I would often ask my parents about where certain words come from, in our dialect of Chinese spoken at home. An example: the phrase used at my parents' house for what Americans call "Swiss chard" always provokes a plea for something a little more dignified than "hog weed" or something like that. Every summer, this phrase provokes my usual questions: Where the heck did they get that? Can't we call it something nicer? Why, my mother claimed her sister in California told her that was what it was called. In fact, the vegetable gardening book I bought for my dad last year clearly indicates a more dignified name for what we call Swiss chard. It is so dignified that I can't remember how it translates.

Swiss chard, as sold at the Crescent City Farmer's Market,
New Orleans, LA (GoNOLA.com)
What this shows is how we can influence language usage through individual means, sometimes for the better and for the more amusing. You can see that I'll always remember "pig weed" in this Chinese dialect, but not that more dignified name you might be able to use at a Chinese-speaking garden store to impress someone. It is also important to recognize that language usage outside of the country of origin is also "legitimate" and productive. While I might look like  fool asking for "pig weed" in a moment of weakness in California, after we've had a good laugh about it, the other party will recognize that at least the language of one's origins is still living, though it has taken on a rather different turn. Think of language in its second generation as being similar to children of immigrants, and you'll think twice about how language is learned, used, and retained in this transient world where everyone privileges authenticity, but has no real definition for it.

So, if the grasses and leaves aren't limned, what is it? Turns out that it's hoar frost. This kind of frost occurs when heat from living grasses, etc. meets with colder surrounding air, in a changing season. The frost crystals are rather soft, as Joey found out when he stepped on them. And today we are scheduled to get the year's first snowfall. Wish us luck for tomorrow's walk.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ghosts and Machines

On Saturday, Joey and I took a little road trip to Becket, Massachusetts. We were going to meet two of Florentina's college classmates, who were eager to meet Joey. Becket is just outside of the Pioneer Valley, putting it in the Berkshires, that hilly section of western Massachusetts that lures people to Tanglewood, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Canyon Ranch health spa, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns.

Becket is really quiet, and the three of us women with a dog decided to go for a walk in the woods. Near the house where the classmates were staying is an abandoned quarry. P. is an avid photographer, and she was happily snapping photos of foliage and Joey along the way. When we got to the quarry area, we found some interesting abandoned things, such as motor vehicles from the 1920s or 1930s, and dilapidated buildings. These things are carefully labeled as part of the self-guided walk through the historic granite quarry. We weren't the only groups up there with dogs, either. Two other groups were walking around at the same time, adding to the festive atmosphere on the trail.
When you get closer, you can see the springs in the driver's seat.
The quarry looks like a nice cool swimming hole for the summer. Apparently some daredevils have videotaped themselves cooling off in the water, though there are easier and safer ways to get into the water.

We didn't know anything about this place.  Oddities have been reported and supported or debunked, none of which we detected by anyone in our pack, including the dog. Apparently some of the stories  include references to dogs and their reaction to weird vibes at the quarry, Something about odd voices...  A local person has weighed in on this controversy and said it's all okay -- no ghosts there!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Playing Hooky in Houston

Question: what happens when four women get together and have been all equally deprived of serious shopping opportunities with major department stores and swanky chain stores? Add to this equation the fact that these women altogether have nearly a hundred years of education with about a dozen degrees between them, as well as numerous decades of teaching?

From Houston Galleria's Facebook Page.
This fountain drove me a little nuts after a while.
Answer: OMG. The Houston Galleria is what happens. It was all the idea of one woman, G., who had lived in Houston at an earlier point in her life, and whose parents still live nearby. She was the driver, and grabbed two others who had a record of post-conference shopping. Florentina happens to be one of those lucky shoppers. My initiation was last year on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. This year we initiated a new member of the post-conference shopping club, and we did really well.

How well? Let's see what we bought in a matter of two hours, not including lunch.

  • Pandora bracelets were purchased and discussed obsessively in the backseat. G. and I had no clue, and spent quite a bit of time trying to sort out the attraction. If anyone can clarify the appeal of this jewelry line to Florentina, please leave a comment or two! (Are they like Trollbeads?)
  • ChloĆ© Perfume at Sephora.
  • Estee Lauder face creams at Nordstrom. (Plus two big bonus gifts!)
  • One laptop adapter at the Apple Store.
  • Two nail buffing kits from a good-looking Israeli man who notices women's nails at his kiosk.

What didn't we buy?
...the print of this shoe = no sale.
  • A Macintosh laptop. (It was so busy, the sherriff's office had deputies stationed in the Apple Store.)
  • Gifts for our spouses/partners. Sorry, guys.
(from https://ryggradfashion.wordpress.com/)
The shape of these shoes plus...
  • Christian Louboutin shoes were examined carefully and admired at Nordstrom. We had no idea how anyone affords them, but we'd like to see someone wear them in public. (On the other hand, G. had trouble with the shoes that have been seen on Lady Gaga -- resembling leopard-skin lobster claws.)

Ice skating rink in the Galleria.
 I will admit that the mall was a little intimidating at first, but it was a great trip. The ice skating rink was  really fun to watch, and one of us had been an ice skating instructor during graduate school up in Canada, so it was probably even more interesting for her to watch.

Admittedly, we were rather tame shoppers considering how deprived each of us had been in the months leading to this breakout. But at least no one came out of the Galleria emptyhanded. If that had any chance of happening, we would have marched that woman to the good-looking Israeli man with the nail buffing kits.

We were all glad to return to our hotel, though we secretly wished we had decided to stay in one of the two hotels at the Galleria. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Florentina says Howdy, Houston

Spent a lot of time enjoying this part
of my hotel room because of my cold.
For the last four days, it's been Florentina on the road. This time, Houston was the destination. Unfortunately, upon arrival in Houston's Hobby airport, it became clear that a cold was paying a visit to Florentina's upper respiratory system at the same time she was visiting Houston. The very warm weather made things a little uncomfortable because of my cold, but overall the warmth was really welcome for my entire stay because I was otherwise indoors in air-conditioned discomfort. Luckily the hotel room was really very nice with a super comfortable bed.
UHD at night. View from Spaghetti Warehouse.
Houston was this year's location for a conference I have attended on a number of occasions and have always enjoyed because of the terrific people and great conversations. The conference organizers always pick great places, too. This year's actual conference site was at University of Houston-Downtown, which came as a surprise for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons is that I usually can't quite figure out where the actual panels will be presented from the program materials.

Dinner at the Spaghetti Warehouse
 Unfortunately, because of the cold that traveled with me, I was not as adventurous as I had hoped to be when exploring the food scene. Italian-style food seemed to win out in the choices made, partly because it meant exerting less energy that would be otherwise needed for recovery and/or doing work-related activities. Mexican food seemed to fall out of favor when laboring under a cold, unfortunately.

We ended up at the Spaghetti Warehouse, right near the UHD campus, which has a colorful history to go with its colorful, eclectic decor. It also has its very own ghost that haunts the ladies' room. I was very glad to learn about it long after I had left that space, as I might have been too freaked out to use the faciliities if I had known. Remember that ghost that shows up in the bathroom at Hogwarts?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dogs in Space

Not Joey, but same breed.
I'm sure they both like chicken wings.
N.B.: I have had to redact information about my pet because of security and safety. There is someone who has been overeager about him. Sorry.
This morning's New York Times featured an article on how air travel now has services dedicated to transporting pets. Perhaps I would have thought this a bit odd at one time, but now that I have Joey around, I have to consider when I can take him somewhere, or if I have to leave him with a reliable caretaker. These days we are lucky to have the little man going off to a place he feels is like a really fun summer camp or Walt Disney World for him.

A French Bulldog puppy.
One of the questions that comes from this article, "Banned by Many Airlines, These Bulldogs Fly Private," is why certain dogs have been banned, and how this need has been met, albeit with a somewhat pricey way. Christine Haughney looks at how Pet Jets and Pet Airways have sprung up to fill a need created by various major airlines who have banned the transport of brachycephalic breeds. To you and me, that's various kinds of bulldogs and those who have the snub-nose look, rather than the longer snout such as the one found on Joey above. If you have ever had to get on a flight with stuffed-up sinuses, post-nasal drip, or any kind of upper respiratory problem, imagine being a little dog loaded into an airplane in your carrier, in the cold compartment. The airlines banning these dogs have done so because a number of these poor dogs have died in transit. I always feel terrible for dogs who are getting loaded into the cargo. It's bad enough to be a passenger on a crowded flight, and to be separated from one's parent would be hard.
See Charley assume the
traditional dog pose in this automobile.

Why are pets needing to travel so much? This is an interesting question that arises from reading how these pet guardians are so intent on having such services available. One big reason lies in the role played by pets in American life today: they are family members. Therefore, you wouldn't let your grandmother sit in cargo, would you? (N.B.: I am paraphrasing a bumper sticker I saw last week that asked, "You wouldn't tie your grandma in the yard, would you?") However, though we might have airline services available to transport pets, we would do well to consider how well some pets do with reliable, trusted caretakers closer to home, especially if it grants your pet a sense of comfort or, in Joey's case, a little vacation with someone he loves.

The article does refer to those bulldog owners who have decided to take the high road -- literally. Pet owners have driven their dogs around since the start of the automobile age, and we have some rather memorable titles about this topic: John Steinbeck, anyone? Charley was a poodle who drove across America with Steinbeck in 1960. From Sag Harbor, New York to Salinas Valley, California, Steinbeck and his faithful hound, Charley, logged nearly 10,000 miles. Bill Steigerwald recently revisited this epic journey for the New York Times, and debunks some of the rugged individual-plus-dog myth of this travel narrative.

While I don't have any hesitation in supporting these folks who simply wish to get their pets transported safely, I would like to stick closer to home with Joey, and bring him into a restaurant. I'd love to see pet owners act on this possibly controversial issue in American pet culture. I would love to see a restaurant with dogs sitting under the table next to his parent's feet, just as I did in Paris. Alas, the only way we can see this happening in America is at outdoor cafes. Admittedly, I can't see dogs gaining admittance to some really fancy restaurants (Nobu in New York City, for one), but I'd be happier to see some looser attitudes in this respect. It's also good training for young chefs to cook for the dogs: I think Daniel Boulud and Jacques Pepin talk about this in their memoirs as young chefs. Please correct me if I'm wrong about this last bit!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Guilty Pleasures with a Twist: Florentina New York Nosh Week

In case you haven't figured it out, New York City is really "New Nosh City" for Florentina and her relatives. Wednesday's food tourism eventually spilled over into Thursday, moving from one guilty pleasure to another. For a few brief moments, Florentina and cousins thought about how each tasty bite might take us a step higher to the pinnacle of Mount Cholesterol, but after reminding ourselves this was a vacation for them, we gave that up. In this posting I'll be covering twists on my favorite guilty pleasures: candy, pizza, and sushi. (Sushi isn't actually a guilty pleasure, but these days it's as ubiquitous as pizza, if not more so for its lowfat content. N.B.: Florentina dislikes the American tendency to count calories and cholesterol counts, but we cousins are more adult than we used to be, and perhaps more American now, too.)

Two pounds of candies from around Asia.
Look for the pale yellow bits; they're durian flavored. 
For the candy category, we have this offering from Mott Street in Chinatown: the Aji Ichiban store near the Church of the Transfiguration. This is where Mott Street takes a sharp turn to the left. I don't quite remember what was there when I was a kid, but when this awesome store opened up a few years ago, I was more than excited. Not only can you get all sorts of sweets, but you can also get little dried fish snacks and rice crackers with seaweed. Cousin Mona was excited to try everything, and they always have samples available. In this two pound bag of candy, I picked up four durian candies; you will see them as the pale yellow candies on the right side of this picture. I have one left, after Joey's Dad had one on the street, and Florentina's mom took two of them. (Arrgh -- the whole kitchen smelled like rotten broccoli while she chewed it!) Don't be fooled by those pale yellow candies masquerading as salt water taffy, to those Americans out there looking at the picture.

From www.Kanpai Sunset.com.
If I had ordered this,
I would have made sure to have the
whole thing filled with temaki rolls.
This part goes out to my sushi buddy, Lori. For sushi, Joey's Dad and I limped back to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn after a whole day of hanging out in Manhattan. The walk through the arms and armor display in the Met may have taken it out of all of us. We had some sushi at a place around the block and discovered that they did a great job with the salmon skin temaki roll. I adore the salmon skin handroll because it combines two of my favorite things: sushi and a cone (of nori) holding it together. For this piece of awesomeness, the sushi chef has to crisp up a piece of salmon skin to complement the sushi rice.

Light Pizzas. Left: seasoned beef and egg on pita.
Right: Labne cheese, mint, tomatoes and olives on pita.
Sorry! I had originally said the green stuff was basil
in the earlier version of this post.
For pizza, my cousins went to DiFara Pizza in Brooklyn, a famous place that draws crowds. This was a good bookend to their trip to Pepe's Pizza in New Haven, CT on the previous Friday afternoon. While they all had some traditional pizza, Joey's Dad and I tried a new twist on the pizza at Man'ouChe Restaurant on Fifth Avenue (between 77th and 78th Streets) in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. These pretty pitas are called manakeesh and are surprisingly filling. The pita on the right is like a fresh salad on a pita. Definitely lacking the pale orangey grease spot on the paper underneath both of these pitas, unlike a real pizza like the kind my cousins had. But it hit the spot to get some refreshing Lebanese food after some of the heavier lifting of the previous day.

No, no diet in the near future for Florentina. (The words "diet," and "calorie"are akin to nonsense syllables in any of Florentina's languages in use.) Florentina's next major adventure involves visiting Houston at the end of next week. As it's not a known quantity, I hope to see what makes it an interesting destination.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Happy Rosh Hashanah: Florentina New York Nosh Week

After dim sum on Wednesday, the cousins and Joey's Dad moseyed from Chinatown to Houston Street, via the Bowery. The Bowery is rather different now from what I remembered as a child. If you've ever seen the book Flophouse: Life on the Bowery by David Isay, Stacy Abrahamson, and Harvey Wang (2001)  then you have seen some of the rooming houses and the men who lived in them, frequently visible streetside whenever my parents drove through the Bowery to get to Chinatown. Nowadays we have a new art museum right near the Bowery Mission. However, the more interesting industrial parts are still visible: the row of lighting stores, the cash register store, and the restaurant supply stores. Cousins Mona and Oliver were really intrigued by these stores because they don't often see such things where they live in California; here they are right in the city. The city used to be where we always went to get anything we needed for cheaper. Some people seem to have forgotten that now.

Pastrami Palace.
Picnic lunch (www.katzsdelicatessen.com)
(from russanddaughters.com)
But I'll bet the folks at Russ and Daughters as well as Katz's Delicatessen still remember those old days. When I was that kid in the backseat of the car, driving down the Bowery, trying not to make eye contact with some of those tired-looking men lounging streetside, I always looked forward to seeing these two storefronts. I was always especially impressed by Russ who loved his daughters so much that they were added to the company name and the store's neon sign. Cousin Oliver ran into Russ and Daughters and ran back out with a small portion of smoked salmon for all of us to have a taste. 

At Katz's Deli, we got pastrami sandwiches to go. We were going to picnic at Central Park before visiting the Met. It was the best pastrami sandwich ever, and we watched the toy boats lazily sail across the pond at the model sailboat pond.  You can rent a boat and test your ability to tack the tiny vessel. It's kind of nice to be dead in the water when you're not actually in the water. Cousin Oliver was very tempted to rent a boat, but decided we had to move onwards to the Met for the arms and armor display.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dim Sum and Phoenix Talons: Florentina New York Nosh Week

Wednesday was a major day of noshing through New York City. The day began with dim sum in Manhattan's Chinatown. For those readers who have rarely had this pleasure, you want to pick a restaurant that is super busy. I know this runs counter to what some diners would prefer, but in this case, more people = more dim sum dishes = fresher stuff. We were at Kam Fong on Elizabeth Street this morning, and ended up at a table of nine people. All of them are related to me in some fashion, and all of them love dim sum. It is the way for relatives to see each other and have a good time. Dim sum with a large table is a way to show togetherness. Some people forget this fundamental function of dim sum and ruin it for everyone else, but we are not interested in those freaks today. Today we had a spread that would send a vegetarian running for a cave.

On my left were my mother's cousin, my aunt from California, mother's other cousin, and my parents. On my right were Joey's Dad, my two cousins from California, and my brother. My cousins Oliver and Mona were eager to meet Joey's Dad, and they were curious as to his culinary adventurousness. Oliver had laughed about testing him with chicken feet, otherwise known as "phoenix talons" or something romantic like that. My cousins knew that Joey's Dad was a capable candidate because of my story about his consumption of a durian milkshake. Durian is not a fruit to be messed with, as my cousin Mona once described it as tasting like garbage.

We had many different plates of dumplings, and two versions of chicken feet. For those who want to know what the two different versions were, let me know and I'll talk more about it on another blog. Dim Sum is a minor food orgy spread over multiple stomachs, if you arrange things properly. In a matter of seconds, the large round table in front of you can be filled with little plates, courtesy of one's very eager Dad.
Before Dad.
After Dad.
As you can see, there are all sorts of things in little steamers, and the pots of tea are always ready to refill the little teacups. Usually we will also find glasses of water, but we went all traditional this morning because it was a little bit on the early side (9:30am) for the wait staff to pay much attention to us. Lots of older folks will go for a little tea and dim sum in the morning, almost like a stop off at the diner or cafe. It's a good place to get a shot of protein and caffeine. In this morning's dim sum, we had only one item that had any significant vegetable matter: the bamboo shoots wrapped in bean curd sheets. Even that little dish had a touch of pork in it. This protein and caffeine filled morning gave us cousins the boost to keep going to the next stops, as you'll see next.