Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Night at the Egg

In 2007, one of Beijing's newest and most unusual buildings opened officially in the area near Tian'anmen Square.  The building is the home of the National Center for the Performing Arts, and is unofficially referred to by many as "The Egg" because of its distinctive appearance.  The architect of the building was Paul Andreu, perhaps more famous for his disastrous Terminal Five at Paris' DeGaulle airport (which collapsed soon after opening, ironically killing several Chinese tourists), and the project was not without controversy, since it is so out of place amidst the traditional Chinese architecture of the Tian'anmen vicinity, with the Forbidden City and Zhongnanhai just a few blocks away.

In any event, I had wanted to find an excuse to visit the NCPA since it opened, but found that tickets were impossible to procure.  Finally I turned to one of our colleagues at work who is known to have good contacts for such things, and before long he contacted me with news that he could get me tickets for Turandot.  Turandot, Puccini's opera about a cold-hearted Chinese princess and the Prince who seeks to win her heart, appears to be China's favorite opera, most likely since it takes place in China, but also perhaps because it was left unfinished, leaving an opportunity for stagers to put their own twist on the ending.  (There was also a famous staging of it in 1998, held at the Forbidden City.)

Unfortunately for us, we booked the ticket for just a few days after our return from the US, so we were fighting jet lag as the performance wore on, and in the end did not have the stamina to stay for the third act, and the opera's most famous aria, "Nessun dorma", but we felt that we got a good feel for the place, and the opera, during the first two acts.  The theatre is very impressive looking, though in places it seems (like most Chinese buildings) to have been slapped together in a hurry.  Also, the stage is absolutely enormous, with loads of movable parts and all sorts of special effects.  Unfortunately, in this performance at least, the stage wound up moving far more than the performers--the staging was very static and not very interesting, though the costumes were very elaborate and the sheer numbers of people thrown on stage at any given time (another Chinese habit--put five people in a job where one really would have sufficed) made for a big spectacle throughout, though it also was rather distracting.  
Also distracting were the surtitles, which were in English above the stage and in Chinese on the left and right sides.  However, the English translation kept getting 'stuck', so I would revert to the Chinese to stay up to date with the action, though those would go by so quickly that I could not really keep up.  The choreography was a weird amalgam of traditional Western opera with some misplaced Chinese-y acrobatic moves thrown in, and the singers were mostly good enough, though a lot of them might do well to attend acting class, since they exhibited no facial expressions of any kind while singing.  

When they chose to put the theatre where they did, they clearly did not give any thought to what the audience was to do about pre- or post-performance dining.  The opera began at 7:30pm, and with the traffic situation in Beijing being what it is, we were lucky to arrive in time for the curtain leaving work at 5:45pm.  We thus had no time to eat anything beforehand, and when we left we found that there was absolutely nowhere to eat in the vicinity of the theatre (and inside they had a snack bar of sorts, but it was way on the ground floor and our seats were on the third, so there'd be no time to get there, grab something, and return during the two intermissions).  We thus returned home and wolfed down some leftover Chinese food.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Back in the 'jing

On Saturday morning DC time J2 and I left for Dulles airport for our return flight home.  For our last meal in the US we had the quintessential American breakfast at a Greek-run diner not far from the airport with our friends, Jerrod & Jen, who kindly let us barge in on their house for the duration of our stay (thanks, guys!).  This was the culmination of a week's worth of great meals with our friends at some of our favorite spots in the DC area, as well as some new places.  Despite my intention not to use chopsticks for the duration of my time in the US, I caved when J2 declared a craving for mandoo gook (Korean dumpling soup) at the Lotte World shopping center in Fairfax.  

It was nice to revisit DC with J2, and to see some of our old haunts together.  One thing that was a bit shocking was to drive by our old house (J2 refused to participate), which I see has already changed a bit in only a few months--the fence around our herb garden was torn down, and a HUGE American flag now flies from the front porch.  Lots of new buildings have been thrown up in the area, and some shops and restaurants that we used to patronize are now history.  Plus ça change....

Anyway, at Dulles we tried to convince the check-in people to look the other way at the excess luggage we had with us.  As a 1K member of the United Airlines frequent flyer program, I am allowed to check up to three bags of 70 pounds each at no charge, but J2, as a non-premier member, only gets to check two such bags (and then only because he had been upgraded to business, as had I).  Unfortunately, we had seven items to check, two of which being cases of wine, so we wound up being charged for two extras, to the tune of $130 each.  If we apply that amount to the wine, then each bottle is now more valuable by a bit more than $10.  Thank goodness they're 2000 Bordeaux, which is a particularly good vintage.  (BTW, the wine was stuff that I bought as futures in 2000, and which I have had since the vintage was released in 2001; I had been keeping them, along with several other less exalted cases, at my friend Bill's wine cellar, and have been slowly bringing them over to China, one case at a time).

Our flight was uneventful--J2 read and slept throughout, without even so much as trying to watch a movie, while I read, slept, watched movies (both on the airplane's system and on my new MacBook Air, which by the way I LOVE), and wandered around the plane a bit, as is my wont.  The non-stop flight from DC lasts 14 hours, though our pilots managed to shave around 45 minutes from that, so there was plenty of time to just sit and relax.  On the Beijing side we were thrilled to see that our seven checked items made it through unscathed, and our driver brought an extra car, driven by his brother, to ensure we'd be able to get it all home.  We spent most of the evening sorting through it all and then welcoming our dogs home (they looked great, all nice and clean!).

Today it was back to work for both of us, though with the jet lag and the millions of emails to go through, and the loads of loot to distribute to colleagues, not a lot of work was done.  The real back-to-work will start tomorrow.  

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Home Leave

The odyssey continues!  After a lovely week or so in Chicago, I finally left the windy city for New York for a couple of days with my mom and some friends, and a visit to my sister and niece in Connecticut.  It was great to be back in the City, and I managed to squeeze in visits to a couple of good friends (and some good meals) as well as some shopping at my favorite stores.  In particular, I made a stop at my favorite tie shop, Andrew's Ties.  Though ties are available in China at very low prices, they're not very good quality and after a short time they look awful.  Andrew's ties, by contrast, are very high quality, and until recently were very inexpensive (duties and the weak dollar have conspired to raise the prices a bit).  The staff at the store on Madison Avenue were very friendly and helpful, and to my great surprise, when I casually, and half-jokingly, asked for a discount like I would do in Beijing, they actually said OK!  That's a new trick I'll have to try more often!  Other stores that I hit in New York included Kiehls for grooming supplies and Johnston & Murphy for shoes (shoes being uniformly abysmal in China).

J2 arrived on Friday night, a bit delayed due to a medical emergency on his flight leaving Beijing, but otherwise none the worse for wear.  This was his first time in the US since we left in August 2006, so I was curious to see what--if anything--he would find unusual now that he's back.  Mostly the thing that struck him was the size of Americans, since we had grown unaccustomed to seeing a lot of obese people in China.  

J2's first morning in New York we woke up very early to drive to my sister's place and head to the DMV to get Connecticut driver's licenses.  The advantage of CT for us is that unlike Virginia, the Connecticut authorities apparently don't pursue overseas residents for state taxes quite so diligently, so perhaps we'll save a little money.  While in CT I was able to fulfill my craving for a lobster, and do yet more shopping!  Only this time my mom was the one who spent the money, buying J2 and me beautiful new Coach briefcases (J2's first!).

In DC we had a list of things to do the length of our arms, including seeing loads of friends and visiting tons of stores.  Since we have both lost a lot of weight, none of our clothes fit anymore, and we thought we'd be better off buying good stuff in the US rather than cheap stuff in China.  So Nordstrom, Macy's, Bloomingdales, Express, Banana Republic and other stores all saw a bump in their March sales numbers as a result of our arrival.  And of course, I had to stop occasionally at the Apple Store...

Finding time to see friends while in DC has proved to be very difficult--there are some people we would have loved to see but there just is not enough time to get to everyone (so if we did not get to see you, please accept our apologies!).  Fortunately, J2 plans to take a trip to the US in the autumn for continuing education, so with luck we'll be able to see some more people then.  That is, of course, assuming we can fit it in among the shopping stops!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Life in Chicago

The conference is now over and I am back in NYC at my mom's place. Seems a good time to report on my experience of Chicago and on the great meals we had there (and some more on the shopping).

I have to admit I'm a bit embarrassed to write that prior to this trip I had only been to Chicago twice--once when I was around 7 years old, accompanying my folks to a business trip to attend a lighting show at the Merchandise Mart (yawn), and once a few years ago to attend the wedding of two friends. As a result, my knowledge of the city was pretty limited, though I am proud to write that, during the first visit as a 7-year old, bored with sitting around the salesroom and watching people buy lamps (YAWN) I took off on my own and took myself to the Museum of Science and Industry, riding the bus and all that on my own. When I turned up at the hotel that late afternoon, my parents were freaked, but I did not see what the big deal was--I'm from New York City, after all, so what was there to worry about in a tiny place like Chicago?? (Though I have to admit I just surprised myself by checking Google Maps and seeing that 7 miles separate the museum from the Merch Mart...)

Anyway, I really enjoyed Chicago--the people are very friendly, though that may just be in comparison with Beijing and New York, where friendliness is not a primary virtue)--and the restaurants we went to were outstanding.

Non-Foodies Skip This Part

Cafe Spiaggia was our selection for our first night in town, and was outstanding. We sat at the bar when we first arrived, and enjoyed an excellent bottle of Amarone (my favorite wine) while we waited for it to be time to be seated. The meal itself was also excellent; I had a half-order of the potato gnocchi with ricotta sauce with Umbrian black truffles as a starter, followed by a stupendous roasted pork shoulder that was among the most succulent and flavorful things I have had in a while.

The next day, after a hot dog at Portillo's, we had dinner at North Pond, which, as the reviews I read promised, was in a beautiful setting, though we were a bit disappointed at how cold the place was (especially considering that it's in a building designed as a place for skaters to warm up in). But the food more than made up for it--a Soft-Boiled Duck Egg with Warm Seafood-Raisin Brandade, Spinach Coulis, Parmesan Emulsion for a starter, followed by Slow-Roasted Venison Loin, Maple Butternut Squash, Spinach, Red Wine Cipollinis, Coffee Glace and for dessert a Chocolate Mousse Cake, Hazelnut Crisp, Blood Orange Preserve, Granita (I'm cutting-and-pasting from the website; it's not like I remembered the names of these dishes). All this was washed down with an outstanding Hegarty '03 Minervois that was truly delicious despite being one of the less expensive bottles on the list (and the sommelier recommended it over a more expensive bottle by the same vineyard, so kudos to her!).

The third night we went to Trattoria No. 10 as a sort of last-minute thought, and it was very good, too, though not nearly as good as Spiaggia. I started with the octopus carpaccio with watercress, blood oranges, caper berries and Sicilian olive oil (I have a weakness for blood oranges, you may have noticed), and for a main course I chose the farfalle pasta with duck confit, asparagus, mushrooms, pearl onions and pine nuts. Both were very good, but just not as spectacular as Spiaggia. For dessert I really wanted an affogato, but the waitress (who by the way thought a "classic martini" was made with vodka rather than gin...) had no idea what it was, so I just ordered the gelato and the coffee as separate items, though I specified that I wanted them delivered together. This she could not accomplish, so the coffee came first (which I hate anyway--I prefer coffee after dessert, which is very unusual in the US, it seems) and was cool by the time the gelato arrived.

Frontera Grill: I had an excellent meal at FG with two Chicagoan friends, who apparently know the place very well. The only disappointment for me was my decision to have a blood orange margarita instead of the Topolo one, demonstrating that blind adherence to a bias for something is bound to trip you up eventually. But the food was great, starting with the Trio, Trio, Trio combination of seviches, and having an amazingly rich and complex Pato en Mole de Chabacano (red chile-rubbed wood-grilled Gunthorp duck breast in savory red chile-apricot mole with chipotle mashed potatoes and Three Sisters Garden "shoots" salad). Excellent!

Aigre Doux: the friends who took me to FG recommended AD instead of going to Topolobampo, so I made a lunch reservation there, taking one of my Chinese colleagues along for the experience. I had the celery root and chanterelle raviolis to start, followed by the pan-seared halibut with fingerling potatoes, swiss chard and roasted tomato vinaigrette. We were told not to miss the sticky toffee pudding dessert, so we ordered one of these to share, too. I liked the food very much, though the raviolis were served under-heated (they replaced the dish readily) and the dessert I found very disappointing--nothing like the sticky toffee pudding that I am used to in the UK.

Finally, a solo dinner at Vermilion, a very unusual restaurant, insofar as the food is a melange of Indian and Latin American. As a result, the menu was a bit hard to navigate, but a waitress helped me out--in the end we chose a starter of duck vindaloo arepa brushed pomegranate molasses and a main of pistachio crusted veal chop roasted in mexican classic hierbos de olor, on channa saag with chaat onion rings. The former was a bit of an anti-climax, but the latter was fantastic. Truly deserves having been named one of Chicago's top dishes by Chicago Magazine. Kudos to Ken and Connie for recommending that I go there!

I should also mention my experience at Intelligentsia Coffee while I'm at it. When we moved to China I initially continued to have Peets Coffee sent or brought to me from the US, since the coffee available in China is pretty lousy and I don't like Starbucks all that much. But at some point I read about Intelligentsia, based in Chicago, gave it a try, and loved it. I have been buying two of their blends--the Black Cat and the El Diablo--mostly for making into espresso, but, having recently got back into using the French Press I thought I should find a more suitable blend for "plain coffee". As luck would have it, I also recently read about this big-deal new coffee maker that is starting to pop up in coffee bars around the country. It's called the Clover, it apparently costs a fortune, and its claim to fame is that it makes outstanding cups of "plain coffee" one cup at a time, thus allowing a coffee shop to offer patrons any of their blends to sample without having to brew a whole carafe. And of course, Intelligentsia Coffee had one of these machines at the branch closest to where our conference was held.

The first day I went to Intelligentsia (I stopped there every day I was in Chicago, so it's kind of the Apple Store of coffee shops...) it was pretty early on Sunday morning, so the place was empty and the baristi were able to spend time with me helping me to find a blend that would suit my taste. Based on my description of what I liked and disliked, the barista recommended that I try the Rwanda Zirikana, the Miller's Blend, and a third one that I cannot remember. I tried the Zirikana first, and really liked it, though I was not sure if it was the coffee beans themselves that I liked or the way the Clover machine-made coffee comes out, so I tried another blend (that third one, whose name I cannot recall) and found I did not care for it. I subsequently tried the Miller's Blend, too, and also liked that, so I wound up with a few pounds of that and the Zirikana to take home.

Non-Foodies Resume Reading Here

On the shopping front, things continued apace throughout my stay. I made a daily visit to the Apple Store, eventually buying--and unlocking--a total of three iPhones (plus two for other people), with the result that the very nice guy who was doing the unlocking let me keep the software so that I can do it again if the need arises from Beijing. I also went to the Levis store, where an amazingly helpful sales person recommended that I not wear the 501s that I have always preferred, but rather the 539s that I had never heard of. Sure enough, they looked FAR better on me, and best of all, the size that fit me best was the 32; so I guess all the fancy dining in Chicago did not undermine my diet too much.

On my last full day in Chicago I had the afternoon free, so I took one of our Chinese colleagues for an afternoon of lunch (as described above, at Aigre Doux) and some shopping and sight-seeing. She had quite a list of things that her husband wanted, including just about anything that was associated with Michael Jordan, and she was desperate to see Chinatown. The shopping went well enough, though I found myself sitting alone on a bench for a long time like some husband/boyfriend accompanying his wife/girlfriend on a shopping expedition, but the Chinatown visit was an experience. Unlike Chinatown in NYC or SF, the one in Chicago is overwhelmingly depressing, and Mellisa hated it, though she enjoyed pointing out to me all the "illegal" immigrants she was sure she was seeing. (She also claims to see ghosts, though, so I did not notify the authorities.)

So, that was my visit to Chicago. The conference is held there every March, so there's a good chance I'll go next year, too, which is definitely something I'd look forward to!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Buy Apple Stock

 I flew on Saturday from Beijing to Chicago, leaving the relative warmth of Beijing in the early stages of the onset of Spring for Chicago in the late grip of winter (whereas it had been comfortable enough in Beijing to wear a light jacket, in Chicago it had snowed and I ended up ruing my decision not to bring a hat along).  My colleague, Alan, and I flew on the same flight, though he was in economy whereas I got upgraded to business, and are staying at separate hotels a few blocks apart.  After we got settled in we met up to start the frenzy of shopping that seems to overtake all of us as soon as we hit US territory.

Our first stop was a Radio Shack to pick up some electrical things that we cannot source in China, but our main stop was the Apple Store on N Michigan Avenue (just 1 1/2 blocks from my hotel!).  With the announcement the other day that the iPhone would soon have an upgraded software package that will include support for company email through Microsoft Exchange, Alan and I decided that iPhones were on our list of must-buys, and Alan had a request to buy a further two units for friends back home.  Then I had a request from our colleague Susie to buy her a MacBook Air, the new super-thin laptop that has been flying off the shelves since it was introduced two weeks ago.  And finally, I wanted to get myself a TimeCapsule, a combination 1-terabyte hard disk and wireless router that will allow me to untether my iTunes collection from my computer(s) at home and also handle my backups.  Unfortunately, that item was out of stock, so I was unable to get that, but everything else was unavailable.  

Unfortunately for Susie, after playing with the MacBook Air for a few minutes, I decided that I'm keeping this thing, and will just have to buy her another one.  It's soooooo small and easy to use that I think I will finally be able to unhook myself from the PC universe (in my personal life at least), since I now will have a computer that I can easily travel with (previously, I used a small and woefully inadequate Sony VAIO for that purpose).  

Finally, the one drawback with the iPhone for those of us living in China is that the damn thing is locked for use only with AT&T accounts.  Now, just in case anyone is listening, I did set up an account with AT&T, and plan to use the AT&T number as my new US phone number, but I wanted to have the flexibility to use the phone with my Chinese number when I get home.  As luck would have it, I found a listing on Craigslist for a guy who would unlock my phone remotely, and in the course of doing this I learned that he is a hospital IT guy who knows quite a bit about systems that we're looking at at work, so we may even be able to work with him on a more legit basis down the line.  After not very much time working with him remotely, the phone now will accept my Chinese SIM card and I'm good to go.

I anticipate several more trips to the Apple store over the next two weeks, so if any of you are in the stock market, I think it might not be a bad idea to add a few shares and keep Steve Jobs in black turtlenecks...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Heading Home

So tomorrow afternoon I fly back to the US for a combination conference and holiday trip. It's also going to be J2's first trip back to the US since moving to China, so he's pretty excited to see his friends and buy some decent jeans. We have relatively short time to do everything in, but have tried to squeeze in as many friends as possible in between our must-dos of shopping, organizing our storage stuff so that we can send more of it back to Beijing and also doing some shopping. Should be a fun trip despite the frigid weather in Chicago (where my conference is).