Sunday, April 26, 2009

Second Wine Tasting Dinner

Last month we went to our first wine tasting dinner with this amazingly fun group of (mostly) Poles, after having been invited by one of my colleagues to attend. This weekend was our second such outing (and only the fifth that the group has held), and was devoted to wines of places you don't normally associate with wine. The way these events work is that an Israeli-born, French-trained wine expert brings wines that fit some theme (last time was wines of the Southern hemisphere) and then the host organizes a meal, preparing a few dishes him/herself and coordinating what the others bring along. Last time the meal was extraordinary, hosted by two Poles who are excellent cooks, so when we volunteered to host, I knew that I had a big act to follow.

The wines we sampled this time were from Greece, Austria, Switzerland, Mexico and Bulgaria, and, having volunteered to be hosts for the evening, we thought we would serve some dishes from other places that, though they also produce wine, are not most famous for their wine production. As a main course, I decided to make a Brazilian feijoada (black bean and meat stew), and for desserts we decided to make two Hungarian pastries, a chocolate-and-hazelnut layer cake called Dobos Torta, and a poppyseed-apple-walnut layered bar called Flódni. In addition, we also made a baked brie after my sister reminded me of the dish by asking me to share the recipe. The coordination of the other guests' dishes was a complicated affair, and somehow two people managed to bring the same thing (hummus), though they were actually quite different in taste. All in all we had 14 people attending the dinner, which is just about the maximum we can handle at our table.

Most of the wines were not really special, though surprisingly none was actually bad. The Bulgarian wine reminded the Poles of cheap and unpredictable Bulgarian wine that used to be just about the only wine they could get under the Communist system, so their reaction was a combination of nostalgia and dread. Among the wines, easily the best were an Austrian Pinot Noir, a Mexican Zinfandel and an Austrian Gewürtztraminer, though we also decided to up the ante by appending a bottle of Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos that we bought on our Hungary trip in 2004 that was just an astounding wine.

The meal was also delicious, if I do say so myself. The brie was an instant hit with the crowd, with one French guest just going on and on about how it would never have occurred to her to try this and what country did the recipe come from (she was a bit surprised that it was something that I concocted out of two recipes that I thought might be good to combine). The feijoada, which I cooked for about 7 hours, had a fantastic rich flavor that took me back to my favorite feijoada experiences in New York and Rio that the Poles in particular seemed to enjoy very much. But the real star of the dinner was the dessert course--the pastries were amazing, coming out perfectly and tasting and looking almost like a professional had made them (J2 was the architect of the pastries, especially the Dobos Torta). I felt a bit bad for one of the guests who (without telling me) brought along a very simple looking yeast cake that no one even deigned to try. Sorry!!

The party went on until 12:30 or so, and by the end of the evening people were making heartfelt toasts, in what to me is a typically Slavic way, expounding on how lucky they all are to have found this group in, of all places, Beijing, and planning the next dinner for sometime in early June. Something to look forward to!

Photos of the event can be found here.

Kitchen Renovation: Before and During

Here are two photos to give you a sense of what happened to our kitchen:

Here you see what it looks like when you move all your stuff from your kitchen into your dining/living room:



This is the kitchen with the old cabinets and countertop:



And here it is with the new cabinets and the countertop about to be installed:

Saturday, April 25, 2009

差不多

If there is one word you need to know to really understand Life in Beijing, it's "chabuduo" (差不多), which means "almost" or "pretty much", though it's used far more frequently than the English equivalent. People use it all the time, particularly when something is not quite done properly or is left unfinished. Much construction work in China is left only about 80-90% finished, because when you get to that point the job looks "pretty much" finished, and the workers figure it's close enough so why bother to go any further. The fact that that last 10-20% is the touch up work that makes a job look complete (at least to a Western eye) is irrelevant, and if you ask someone why they did not do that last little bit their answer will be "chabuduo".

This is relevant right now because of my recent kitchen renovation work that our landlord undertook on our behalf. I tried to do everything I could think of to forestall the 差不多先生 (Mr. Chabuduo) effect, but I had underestimate how pervasive it can be. First of all, I made sure that the landlord had the guy in charge of the project get my approval on every last thing they were going to use in the renovation, from the cabinet types, to the doors and hinges, from the hardware to the countertop. So imagine my surprise when I dropped by to relieve my ayi from having to watch the workers 3/4 of the way through the project when it turned out that they had used different cabinet doors than the ones I had selected, and different handles. When I asked the project manager what gave, his response was "差不多", which of course set my blood boiling. (It didn't help that I had heard the same phrase at work once or twice during the course of the day.) I went into a tirade about what was the point of going through that lengthly selection process if he was just going to turn around and use something different? Of course, I knew as I did this that I was not going to win the argument, but there was no stopping myself.

Then, while checking out the interiors of the cabinets, I noticed that, though each hinge had space for four screws, only three screws were used. So I asked the worker why that was and his answer, of course, was "差不多". Again, blood at full boil, I asked him why did he think that the manufacturers designed the f**king hinges with four holes if three screws were good enough? He just gave me the blank look of non-comprehension that usually results when a foreigner asks this type of existential question of a Chinese person.

When I came back later on to find that they had put different door handles on the cabinets than the ones I had ordered, again I was told "差不多", but here I thought I had an ironclad case--since "差不多" literally means "the difference is not big", and these handles were completely different from the ones I had ordered (I had ordered plain metal handles, whereas these were metal with sort of Delft-style porcelain in the middle), I countered with “差很多" ("chahenduo" or "the difference is very big"), which to my great surprise just elicited a shrug and the response that they thought I'd like them better. This really set me off, since the whole premise of letting me choose the hardware was that there was no way for the landlord or his minions to know what I might or might not like. This time at least I emerged victorious, since they agreed to put on the handles that I had ordered the very next day (postscript: they look infinitely better).

Finally, when they brought in the countertop and it turned out to be not quite the one that I ordered, I got one more "差不多" from the team, but this time my resistance was weakened and I just conceded that, in fact, it was pretty close to what I had ordered, and I gave in (since at this point, it was too late to have it changed, and I needed my kitchen back in time for Saturday's dinner party). I guess this is the lesson of the old Chinese water torture--after a couple of drips you start to go slowly insane and you completely give in to your tormentors.

Let's see how many 差不多s we get when they renovate our bathroom on Monday.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Kitchen Remodeling Begins

We recently negotiated the renewal of our lease with our landlord. As part of the deal, not only will he lower our rent by RMB 1000 per month ($140), but he's also going to renovate our kitchen and master bathroom, as well as fix a number of small problems throughout the apartment. In the case of the kitchen, our objective was to have the quickly-disintegrating cabinets replaced with something sturdier (and more attractive), get rid of the (useless) dishwasher and replace it with some more drawers or cabinets, and raise the way-too-low counters to a height that will not cause me to get an achy back every time I cook. In the case of the master bathroom, the only thing we really wanted was to put a shower stall in there either in place of or in addition to the jacuzzi tub which, while nice to have, is utterly useless since our water pressure is so pathetic that it would take hours to fill the tub.

We insisted that we be able to help pick out the materials used on both projects, so our landlord had the workers come by with samples and plans and we chose some pretty nice things, though in several cases the landlord eventually nixed the choices as too expensive. Once we had made all the choices, I asked the workers to give me at least three days' notice of when work would start so I could make arrangements for the dogs to be out of the house and have time to empty the kitchen cabinets. So what do you suppose happened today? Sure enough, the kitchen guy phoned to say that he would be coming TOMORROW. Never mind that I asked for three days notice, or that I have to start preparing dishes for a dinner party for 16 that we're hosting on Saturday, or that our ayi does not work on Thursdays. They were coming tomorrow no matter what.

My first step was to call the vet to see if they could fit Ivan in for his neutering surgery tomorrow and take Leo in for kenneling. Check. Then I had to call the ayi to see if she could come in for the day to let the workers in and keep an eye on them. Check. Then I had to ask the ayi and J2, who was off today, to start emptying out the cabinets so that the workers can get right to it when they arrive. Check. Then I had to call the workers to make sure they got to us as early as possible so that ayi could leave by 4:30 when she has to pick up her child from school. Check. Somehow I managed to get all these things sorted out and sure enough, when I came home my kitchen was empty and all the stuff from the cabinets was strewn around the living room. They promise that the work will be completed in one day, and for some reason I believe them, even though the promise that our hot water would only be off for one week has proved to be absolutely empty (so far it's been off ten days, with no end in sight).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I've Been Kindled

After several weeks of waiting, my new Amazon Kindle arrived yesterday, thanks to a friend of a friend who was coming to China for a few weeks. For those of you not in the know, the Kindle is Amazon's ebook device, sort of like an iPod for books, that allows you to store dozens (if not hundreds) of books in a single thing the size of a slightly larger-than-normal Reader's Digest magazine. The books are downloadable virtually instantaneously from Amazon.com, and the battery apparently lasts a very long time. In anticipation of the Kindle's arrival I bought a few books that I want to read on our upcoming holiday trip, some of which I have already begun reading on the Kindle iPhone app.

I was really excited when the Kindle arrived, but the excitement soon turned to disappointment when it appeared that I could not use the thing without first activating/registering it, which can only be done in the USA. Fortunately, it turns out that you don't really need to register it to be able to read on it, you just need to connect it to your computer by USB cable and manually copy the files onto the device.

In my first few hours of playing with the device I have found it pretty awesome; the fact that you can have a whole library of books in a single thin device is amazing; the fact that there are zillions of free books available on the internet for download to the device is amazing; and the fact that you can look up words you don't know, make bookmarks and other annotations, and even search Wikipedia (if you're in the US) with the device is also amazing (even though I doubt I'll need the dictionary feature much). I am really looking forward to getting to know the thing!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More on Our Tailor



A lot of people (really, an incredible number!) have written to me asking about Mr Ding, our tailor. They have asked how to contact him, whether he brings material to the house with him, how long it takes to get a suit, etc. And these people have apparently found my little blog through Google or other search engines, which really is surprising to me. Anyway, Mr Ding and his wife were over on Thursday evening, helping a friend to get some clothes made, so I took a few photos to show you what they look like and give you a flavor of the process. To protect my friend's privacy, I have edited her out of the photos, but you can see some of the clothes she wanted copied in the images.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Perhaps Ignorance is Bliss

I just learned through James Fallows' excellent blog on China that the US Embassy here in Beijing publishes an hourly Tweet reporting their own recording equipment's pollution findings from the embassy's roof. Unlike the Chinese authorities, who only report the 10PM (part per million) findings, the US Embassy also reports the 2.5PM findings, which represent those particles that you cannot see, but which, because of their tiny size make it past your nose and sinuses all the way into the deepest recesses of the lungs (making them the most dangerous).

The Tweets are pretty scary, but I have opted to subscribe anyway so that I'll know whether I should be avoiding outdoor activities. If you're interested, here it is: http://twitter.com/BeijingAir

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Passover in Beijing (#3)

In a break with tradition, this year we attended the Passover seder at the home of our friends Phil and Judy, who live not too far from us, rather than at the home of the chairman of our company. The two seders could not be more different, with the chairman's being considerably larger and a bit more by-the-book, not to mention vegetarian, and Phil & Judy's being more laid back, much smaller and carnivorous. Also, with no ayi to help, Phil & Judy instead enlisted the help of their guests to prepare the meal. We were responsible for the desserts, so I made a Fruit Salad of Oppression and my mother's Apricot Sponge Roll of Servitude, while other guests made the remainder of the meal, including fantastic matzo ball soup, an excellent tzimmis and candied baby carrots, and chocolate pots de creme. We did not get the seder rolling until 8pm, but even so we were on our way home by 10:30 (everyone had worked long days and were pretty exhausted). It was nice to have a seder that reminded me more of my own growing up, with no pressure to perform (having two Israelis with liberal religious attitudes helped a lot). Next year, we hope to be invited back.

Monday, April 06, 2009

It's Ivan and Leo Again!

I finally got around to posting some photos of Ivan and Leo again. To see them, click here.

A Grand Day Out



No, we did not go to the moon like Wallace and Gromit, but instead we took advantage of a gorgeous day to take our bikes out for a spin. The weather has certainly improved drastically since last weekend, when we were shivering in our unheated apartment. During the course of the week the temperatures climbed steadily, and this weekend it was actually warm enough to go out without a jacket. And not only was it warm, but the skies were nice and blue, with very little pollution at all (partly due to the fact that this is a holiday weekend, I would imagine, since usually on holidays they manage to turn off the pollution machine).

So this morning we got on our bikes for the ride down to the Liulichang art district, where we wanted to have a rubbing that we bought in Xi'an during my sister's visit last year mounted. The ride took around 30 minutes, and probably was around five miles in each direction, so it counts for the day's cardio requirement (in case Alpha is reading this). Once at the Liulichang market, we dropped off the picture to be mounted, and then had two hours to kill, so we dropped by at our friend's teapot shop for some tea and a little browsing. As we sat there sipping tea and chatting with our friends, we realized that we had a few occasions to buy gifts for coming up, so a few purchases were made, and since we were buying gifts for friends, it seemed a shame not to buy something for ourselves, especially since J2 found a nice little teapot in a shape we don't already have. And to whet my own interest in the pot, it was not yet carved, so we were able to commission a poem to be carved on the side that faces the pourer and a picture to go on the side that faces your guest. It should be ready next week, so there'll be another reason to go to Liulichang next weekend.

When our picture was ready we realized that we had not considered how big the thing would be once mounted on a scroll. On the way to the market we just had it folded up in my backpack, but now it was suddenly a long tube-like thing, easily three feet long, and there was no alternative but to shove it in my backpack and hope that it wouldn't fall out en route. Luckily, the road between Liulichang and our place is pretty well-maintained (actually, most roads are pretty good here, especially when compared with NYC or DC), so it was not a big deal at all.

I did not take many pictures on this little outing, but here is a shot I took of a cherry that is on the road outside our apartment. Sort of typifies the profusion of flowers that welcome spring in Beijing.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

I Smell a Road Trip!


My driver's license has arrived! It came in a lovely little leatherette pouch, and consists of two laminated cards--the one you see here, and another one that reminds me to renew my license within 90 days of its expiration in 2015. Now to build up my nerve and actually get behind the wheel here!