Tuesday, June 12, 2018

An Odd Amusement Park

I first came to China in 2002. At that time many of the other people who came to China used China as a jumping off point to see other countries in Asia. I had a different idea. I wanted to explore China first. China is such a large country that it seemed like it was not only the most financially prudent choice, but just a good choice for understanding the country that I was living in. Thus, in my first three years in China I visited many parts of the country: Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang (a far western autonomous region inhabited largely by a Muslim people group called the Uighurs), Harbin and more. In those three years I did a pretty good job of seeing a lot of China. In the subsequent years I revisited a number or places and saw many additional places. However, there was one place I had never been that was a bit surprising; Tianjin. Tianjin is a large city very close to Beijing. Matter of fact from the Beijing South Railway station one can get to Beijing is a little over half an hour (the high speed rail didn’t exist back in the day, but as you most likely know, I spent a year and half recently living in Beijing). Thus, I decided to spend a few days in Tianjin last week.
First, let me state that I didn’t miss anything by not going to Tianjin. I must say I found Tianjin rather disappointing a boring. I also found its transportation system a bit frustrating. They have a city card which you can refill and use on buses and the subway. I tend to like these kinds of cards because it is very difficult to have exact change for the bus. Some buses in China have conductors who can make change but these are getting rarer and rarer. Most of the time it is necessary to put exact change into the box beside the driver. Thus, I decided to get a Tianjin city card. Well, that was easier said than done. The ticket seller at the railway station metro station didn’t sell city cards, but I found them at the metro station near my hotel. Later, when I tried to refill it, the station I was at couldn’t add money to my card. If you go to Tianjin I would say don’t bother with the card (in Beijing you can now not only buy the card at any station, but you can also buy it online as an app on your phone).
After a couple of days being disappointed with the sights in Tianjin I decided to go out to the Bianhai Aircraft Carrier. A few years ago I visited the USS Midway in San Diego and had an awesome time. The reviews online said that the Bianhai Aircraft Carrier was a former Soviet aircraft carrier and was definitely worth a visit. They also have a destroyer and a submarine, but fellow travelers had posted that they absolutely would not allow people without a Chinese ID card to visit the destroyer or submarine (when I bought my ticket the rules list was posted in English and it said the same thing). 
Thus, I set out to go to this aircraft carrier. I took the subway to another part of Tianjin and then took a long distance bus. When I got to the bus stop I was confused. There were several Chinese people who got off the bus with me and they were clearly confused as well. We saw an area near the bus stop that sort of looked like it was once an amusement park, but it was really run down an clearly closed. At this point I thought the nearly 2.5 hour trip I had taken had all been for naught. There was a Chinese man who instructed us to go into this vacant lot, but I could tell the others were equally confused. Then several drivers appeared as if from nowhere (actually I thinking they had been resting in the shade) and told us that the park was 4.5 km away and they would take us there for 20 yuan. Now 20 yuan is only about three US dollars, but it is definitely too much for a 4.5 km trip (not to mention the approximately 50 miles I had traveled to get to this point had only cost me 13 yuan). However, the other people agreed and the four of them set out together leaving me behind. I heard them say (in Chinese) that the foreigner didn’t understand. I told them I understood, but there were already four people (the max allowed, excluding the driver) and I felt 20 yuan was too much for one person. I then stood there rather undecided about what to do. I checked with my phone and saw that 4.5 km was 2.8 miles. I thought about walking it, but not only was I wearing flip flops, but it was also really hot out. I started walking and thought better of it and thus I was standing around rather undecided. Another driver told me there was a show starting at noon (it was 11:40) and that the park had a lot of fun things to do. Thus, I decided to pay the 20 yuan to get there. 
When I arrived I found two things 1) There was very little English in the park (and a lot of Russian) and 2) there weren’t very many people there. Matter of fact it turns out that there was much more than just an aircraft carrier. There were multiple shows, dancing and a “little Russia” street. Probably the most surprising discovery was that so many of the people working there were white (and I presume Russia, but it’s dangerous to make assumptions). I saw a signboard outside the park which said there was show called Aircraft Storm at 12, another show at 2 pm and and third show at 3 pm. Inside the park though I couldn’t find the show. All I found was music playing through loud speakers and a lot of empty areas (it was a weekday before school let out though). Finally, I decided to give up and just go visit the aircraft carrier.
As I was approaching the aircraft carrier I saw this tall white woman whom I had seen dancing staring at me. At first I thought she was going to approach me, then I thought she wasn’t, then she in fact did approach me. She said one word that I didn’t understand (I’m guessing it was a Russian word) and then she said, “English?” I nodded. She then asked, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes. I speak English.” She then proceeded to ask me where I was from and tell me that the park usually only got Chinese visitors. She told me there was show over there (pointing beside the aircraft carrier) that had already started at noon, but maybe I could watch from outside the stadium. Then she realized the gates were still open and said since there weren’t many visitors that it looked like I could get in. She informed me that the show involved knives and was really interesting. At 2 pm she told me she and the others would be dancing on board the ship and at 3 there would be a car show. 
I went into the show beside the ship and found the most interesting show I’ve ever seen. The storyline was pretty simple there were bad guys trying to take over this ship and they had taken the admiral hostage (this had already happened by the time I arrived). Good guys were trying to take back the ship. They were performing on the water between the ship and the stage. They had built some stages out in the water and attached to the arena. They also drove every kind of water craft imaginable: jet skis, hover boats, speed boats, etc. The show involved cool explosions, mock fighting (well timed to the sound track), repelling down the side of the ship, fake gun shots and more. It was really awesome and I wish they had had another showing so I could have seen it again, this time from the beginning (I missed about the first 10 minutes).
After the show I toured the aircraft carrier. It was a bit strange. First, it definitely wasn’t as well kept up as the USS Midway. Second, it seemed that they had what must have been fake pieces on board. There was a helicopter that said US Army on the side, but I can’t imagine the Chinese had procured a real US Army helicopter. They also had what looked reminiscent of a F118 Nighthawk (beside the supposedly American helicopter), but it didn’t look real at all. Additionally, I couldn’t find anything that could have been much of a flight-line. One of the issues the USS Midway had had was changing technology had dictated the need for longer and longer flight-lines. The USS Midway added onto the deck to accommodate this need, but eventually that wasn’t enough and she was retired. This ship had a steeply angled bow and just didn’t look like it had enough space to have had much of a flight-line. Then again, since the signs were all written only in Chinese (except for the headings), I’m sure there was a lot of information I missed. 
I finished my self-guided tour of the ship in perfect timing to get a front-row seat to the dance performance. It was not at all what I expected. There were signs advertising it as a cultural experience. I don’t know what kind of culture they were trying to go for; much of the performance made me thing of Vegas (although I’ve never been to Los Vegas and am basing that statement on what I’ve seen on T.V.). However, in between some of the very Vegas-esque performances were performances by two clowns (a male and a female). The show was very interesting, but it was an odd juxtaposition. 
The dancing ended in perfect timing to go to the car show which ended up being my favorite part of the day. The car show was a stunt show and they had all kinds of cool stunt driving plus other special effects including a motorcycle that appeared to flip over (they green-screened a plastic piece used to rotate the car), more shooting and explosions. They also split a car in half and had two cars drive on two wheels each. It was really cool. The guy playing the stunt director was either an American or a really good actor because he had a perfect American accent and the show was done in an interesting blend of English and Chinese.
After the performance, like everything else in the park they had an opportunity for you to pay to to get your picture taken. It appeared they were using the caucasians like animals in a zoo to attract attention and get people to pay for pictures. This was further demonstrated by the last event I attended there: the float parade. Everyone in the parade was Caucasian and they appeared to be the same people I had seen at the different shows throughout the day. The dancers appeared to be happy performing in the parade, but everyone else looked pretty sour. The parade reminded me of a sad, depressing version of a Disneyland (or world) parade.
After the parade it was time to head back to Tianjin. I looked up on my Didi (the Chinese version of Uber) how much it would cost to take a Didi back to Tianjin and saw an estimate of 120 yuan. The estimates are notoriously low so I figured it would be more like 130 (or possibly even more), but decided that that was still a better approach to returning rather than trying to take the bus (which ended service at 6 pm. It was about 4 at this time). I got out to the parking lot and tried to request a Didi. Meanwhile, the drivers are offering to drive me back to the bus. I told them I didn’t want to go to the bus, but wanted to go all the way back to the city. I also told them I was calling a Didi. Well, they told me no Didi would come there and sure enough no one answered my request. By this point, they had all taken other passengers and departed. I looked at my map and it showed me a bus that I could either take to the bus I had taken out there or to a subway station. According to my map it was only 0.8 miles away. I decided I could walk that. Unfortunately, there was construction going on and the walk was much longer (and the real roads didn’t match my map). I finally made it out to the main road and was walking to the bus stop when a really taxi honked at me and stopped beside me. I got in and asked him to take me to the subway station. He asked me if I was going back to the city and I said yes. He asked where and I told him. He said he’d drive me. I told him it would be too expensive. He told me to name my price so I intentionally picked a price I knew was too low: 100 yuan. He of course said that was too low and offered to take me for 150 yuan. I told him that was too high and then he said he’d take me to my hotel for 130 yuan. Based on my Didi inquiry, I decided that was a fair price and accepted.

The man drove like a mad man and kept trying to pick up additional fares at bus stops (if he had succeeded I decided I would only give him 100 yuan and argue with him about it if necessary). As we were driving he got several calls from his daughter. Something was clearly wrong and he kept telling her to go to her mother, but for some reason she couldn’t. Then when were back in Tianjin proper, but not yet at my hotel he suddenly stopped the car! He stopped in a tunnel and told me to get out and take another taxi! I was furious. I’ve heard of things like that happening in China, but never with the driver stopping in a tunnel. I refused to get out. He told me he’d give me cut the bill down to 110 to take another taxi, but I didn’t know how much further it was. I continued to refuse to get out. I also refused to give him 110 yuan. At this point he was mad! He said he’d find me another taxi and he got out and told me to get out. This time I did get out. He flagged down a driver who for some reason refused to take me. He then flagged down another taxi. He gave the man 20 yuan and the man agreed to drive me to my hotel. I then gave him 110 yuan and he yelled at me to give him another 20 because he’d already given the guy 20 yuan. I gave him the money and got into the new taxi. This driver turned on the meter and found my hotel on his cellphone (he didn’t know how to get there). When we got there the meter was at a little over 11 yuan, but he made no motions to give me any change. I decided, “whatever” and told him simply the other driver had already paid him. He concurred and I got out. It was a strange end to a strange day, but I not only got back safely, but it still only cost me 130 yuan (about $20.30) which was reasonable and was a lot faster and more comfortable than taking the bus.
 Me at the park entrance 
Aircraft Storm show

 The dancers and the clowns 

 The park was odd and had random things like this statue of that famous V-E (or was it V-J) day kiss.

 The float parade (their name, not mine)

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The best long-distant trip I’ve ever had

Even if you’ve never met me, you know that I like to travel and travel quite a bit. If you know me, you know this is especially true. Thus when I describe my recent trip as the best trip I’ve ever taken you know it must have been good.
My trip started pretty normally, or at least as normally as a trip that requires your alarm to ring at 4:15 in the morning can. My uncle picked me up and took me to the airport. I had no wait to drop my luggage off and then I headed through security. There was a bit of a line at security, but with my TSA precheck status, it wasn’t bad and I didn’t have to take off my shoes or my zip up hoodie, I got to go through the x-ray machine rather than the body scanner and thus, even with a short line I was through security in about five minutes (the non-precheck line was much longer). My flight to Seattle was a little boring, especially because the woman next to me spoke very little English, just Spanish and Spanish is a language I don’t speak (that surprises a lot of people). I arrived in Seattle and was double checking seats for my flight from Seattle to Seoul-Incheon. Because my surgery last spring resulted in my taking three trips between China and the U.S. last year I earned silver medallion status on Delta. With silver medallion status you can upgrade to first class on U.S. flights and you can upgrade to comfort+ on both domestic and international flights. You cannot upgrade to Delta One which is the International first class. Unfortunately, there weren’t any comfort plus seats available on either my flight to Seattle or my flight to Seoul. There had been only one first class seat available for an upgrade on my flight to Seattle and I had been number six on the upgrade list. Thus, as I arrived in Seattle and was double checking the available seats I was saddened. My silver medallion status was not prospering me at all.
I didn’t have a very long layover in Seattle and so by the time I got to the general vicinity of the gate it was only a few minutes before they started boarding. Before I found my actual gate I heard an announcement that started with needed to check the passports of the following passengers. I listened carefully even though my documents had been checked at the Anchorage airport. That was then followed up with an announcement that they needed to see a list of people to give them new boarding passes. I heard “Kristine Cannon.” Well, I thought, “I bet that’s me. So many people misread my name. I hope they’re upgrading me to comfort+.” When I found the right gate (I went towards the wrong one at first) there was already a line to speak to the gate agents. As I was waiting in line they started the boarding process. I was getting more and more nervous because they were getting closer and closer to zone one and that was my last remaining perk of having medallion status. The family directly in front of me had all kinds of problems including their names not being on the passenger list (they had both American and Korean passports and there was a lot of confusion). The agent had them step aside and someone else help them and so I thought, “finally. I’ll just barely get this boarding pass and make it to board with zone one.” Unfortunately, a couple who were boarding triggered some sort of problem and as the agent was working with them to fix the problem they began to call zone one. Now, I was frustrated and nervously tapping my passport on the counter. The agent finished with the couple and when I told him I’d been called for a new boarding pass he told me that they had needed room in the back of the plane (coach) and so I had been upgraded. He gave me a new boarding pass which had my zone now listed as SKY. As I walked away, I was looking at the boarding pass over and over thinking, “I think I’ve been upgraded to Delta One.” Since my zone was upgraded to SKY I could bypass the zone one people boarding and jump in the sky priority lane. I got on the plane and was quickly scanning it. My new seat was 9B. Sure enough 9B was the last seat in the middle  of the Delta One section (the section was configured 1 -2- 1). There was a row 10 for the outside seats, but not the middle seats. Now I was excited!
There are four things that determine how good a flight is: the plane facilities - seats, restrooms, video equipment; the flight itself - turbulence, circling the airport in a holding pattern, rerouting due to weather, etc.; service; and your seat mate. On this flight I hit the trifecta (or whatever you would call four things aligning rather than just three). Delta One was awesome in both service and facilities. I had a seat that reclined into a bed. They also provided not only real pillows and blankets, but also slippers and an entire toiletry kit complete with real toothpaste (Crest Complete), socks, hand lotion, lip balm, socks and more. Additionally, there was a bottle of water waiting at my seat and flight attendants came around offering champagne and orange juice in real glasses. The purser, Domingo, came and introduced himself to everyone individually and told us to let him know if we needed anything. Things were definitely off to a good start.
A few minutes later the woman sitting beside me (which really means on the other side of my little table area) arrived. She was speaking on the phone and I could tell from her conversation that she had also been upgraded so I made a comment about it. She then started talking about me to the person she was on the phone with and the next thing I hear is, “he wants tos ay hi.” All of the sudden the phone of a stranger is being held up to my ear and I find myself saying hi to someone I’ve never met on the phone of someone I’ve never met. The person on the other end of the phone starts asking me all kinds of questions about where I was from and why I was going to Korea (in case there’s any confusion I wasn’t going to Korea, just transferring there). He told me he’d been to Korea and China many times. It was a little odd and I had trouble getting him off the phone. Finally he told me to take care of his wife and I said goodbye. Now, this might seem rather intrusive and I must admit it was definitely strange, but it was the beginning of a great seat mate relationship. My seat mate was a Korean woman who had met her Danish husband on a plane to Korea. They were friends for a long time (they met nine years before they married) and when they did marry her husband ended up having to give up his Danish citizenship (he was a U.S. green card holder) in order for his wife to get a U.S. green card (she’s still a Korean citizen). We had a great time sharing the first class experience together. We took pictures for each other and just enjoyed the overall experience. Our meals were amazing. Before take-off they brought a multi-page menu and we got to select from a Korean menu with a main-course of bimbimbap or a western menu with a variety of entrees including leg of lamb, salmon and a cedar plank and more. I chose the bibimbap and my neighbor chose the salmon which came with potatoes and asparagus. Dinner was served with table cloths, read silverware (mine also came with Korean style chopsticks which are a little different from Chinese ones and felt just a touch odd), and of course real glasses. The flight attendant made sure I knew how to eat the bibimbap (it’s a dish I’ve actually had many times, but it was nice to know that they want to make sure I knew how to eat it). After I had finished eating, I was ready to sleep, but they came by with a desert cart. The menu listed the desert options as ice cream sundaes with a variety of toppings, a lemon tart or cheese plate. My seatmate and I both decided we wanted the lemon tart, but unfortunately, sitting at the back of the section, they were out before either flight attendant got to us (I was served from one aisle and she was served from the other). One of the flight attendants apologized telling us that they had had lots of waste and so they had reduced the number of tarts they carried and now it seems everyone wants it. I got an ice cream sundae instead.
After I finished eating, I turned my seat into a bed and fell asleep quite quickly. It was a pretty comfortable way to sleep and reminded me of sleeping on a train (mostly the feel as we passed through some gentle turbulence - the actual facilities were much, much nicer than anything I’ve ever experienced on a train). I slept pretty well for a few hours, but then I was awake and didn’t sleep again during the flight. They served a second, smaller meal shortly before landing. The Korean option was beef bulgogi, which is another dish I really like, but I chose the frittata with holindaise. It was delicious!
When we arrived in Seoul I was still tired, but felt much better than I usually do after a 12 hour flight.  I have been to the Seoul airport many times, and was confused because things seemed similar, but there were some differences that left me questioning my memory until I learned I was in the brand new (opened January 18, 2018) terminal 2. The last time I was in the Seoul-Incheon airport (See my favorite airport) I had found this really cool cultural experience where foreigners could make a traditional Korean craft. I looked online hoping to find this experience in terminal two and discovered they had a location very close to were I was sitting. I went and made a traditional fan and did a picture where you scratch off the black covering to revel a gold color underneath. While I was making my crafts I also had a wonderful conversation with a young woman who worked there (and wore a traditional Korean dress). I got to learn Korean history and have a pleasant conversation while also listening to live music that was playing just outside the door. The woman at the cultural exchange center, told me that they had another branch in terminal 2 that was bigger and even had Korean clothes you could try on. I didn’t go there, but I did stop briefly at the napping area she told me about (It was pretty nice with little beds in partitioned cubicles in an area with reduced lighting). My layover in Seoul was only about 2.5 hours so it was quickly time for me to head to my final flight.
My last flight allows for a potential future trip that is even better (nonetheless this trip was pretty awesome). I unfortunately had the middle seat, but thankfully this flight was only a little over 1.5 hours. This time I was on Korean Air and I have to admit I was pretty amazed by all the service they had on such a short flight. There were no choices, but they served an entire dinner (not even remotely as good as my first class dinner) and offered duty free shopping.
When we landed in Beijing I discovered they had changed the immigration procedures since I last arrived in Beijing (last February). As we were headed towards immigration they directed all of the foreigners to these machines where we had to scan our passports and be fingerprinted. I’d never been fingerprinted in China before and found this machine really frustrating. Not only did I’d have poor English, but I struggled to get it to read my fingerprints, especially for the four fingers of my right hand (you scanned the four left fingers, then four right fingers and then both thumbs). After that the machine spit out a receipt which you took to the same counters as before. They had added glass around the counters and an automated system which gave you directions for having your picture taken (I had trouble finding the camera though because it was in a different place than before). YOu also had to be fingerprinted again here. I don’t understand why I had to be fingerprinted twice in less than ten minutes, but such are things in China. After that, my passport was stamped, I was able to quickly get my luggage and was amazed to realize I was on the airport express train within an hour of my flight’s touchdown in Beijing (a fact made even more amazing by the fact that we taxied to the gate for about 15 minutes).
I didn’t bring a computer with me and I can’t seem to get edit or add captions to the photos, but here ware some pictures from my trip.
 Me laying down in Delta One.
 Hot nuts before our meal.
 First course
 Main course
  Here comes the desert cart.
 My ice cream sundae. I chose caramel sauce (and no whip cream)
My frittata was delicious!
 The seat across the aisle from me.
 The bathroom in Seoul had a child seat in the stall.
 The signs in the bathroom stall
 My meal on the flight to Beijing was just not comparable to my meals in Delta One.
They had individually packaged pieces of pineapple. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

I’m so tired that when the alarm rang it took a while to figure out what the sound was

It may surprise you to find out I’m in Anchorage and have been since the middle of February. I had some trouble in China (not legal or medical) and grew really frustrated. I decided to leave China with very little notice and then had a whirlwind week. When I decided to leave China I was in Europe. I went back to China for four days to pack up and then left. As a result I woke up on Monday morning in Paris, Wednesday morning I woke up in Beijing and Sunday morning when I woke up I was in Anchorage.  Talk about jet lag!
I didn’t really tell anyone I was in Anchorage although it’s come up in a couple of comments on Facebook posts. As a result I surprised a couple of friends. In March, I went to the Iditarod dog sled race ceremonial start. My friend T posted that she was going to be a trail guard and where her spot was. I went an surprised her and had a good time catching up. Then while I was talking to T I noticed C playing with his daughter M and realized my friend E was there too. I walked up to C and Eand surprised them. I know E reads my blog (I’m pretty sure T does too so Hi ladies!!)
So now for the big news. 1) I’m moving back to Bush Alaska! You may remember that this blog started with me moving to the Bush and so now it’s come full circle. I will be teaching Chemistry and doing academic support in Galena this fall. Galena is a town (it is officially a first-class incorporated city) of a little less than 500 people located about halfway between Fairbanks and Nome. The high school is much bigger than one would expect because Galena is home to one of Alaska’s three public boarding schools.
This now takes us to the second surprise of this blog post and the source of this title... At 4:15 this morning my alarm rang for my 6:00 am flight and I was sleeping so deeply I woke up very confused to the alarm. It took me a while to figure out 1) that music was playing and 2) why music was playing. You’re probably wondering where I’m going. I’m embarking on a six-week journey that involves going to China to see people and do the things I had been planning to do this spring when I thought I was going to spend the spring in China, a quick trip to North Carolina and then off to Washington state for a workshop for my new job. I will then be back in Anchorage for about three weeks before I move to Galena. Whew! It’s going to a busy summer! Next time I post it’ll most likely be from behind the Great Firewall of China. Take care!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Welcoming the Year of the Dog

I returned to Beijing just in time to celebrate Chinese New Year. For the Chinese, this is the absolute most important holiday of the year and it is a time when everyone goes home to celebrate with their families. I've had the privilege of celebrating Spring Festival (春节 one of the most common names, in China, for the Lunar New Year.) in the past with two different families. Back in 2004 I celebrated with a family in a village in Hubei province and in 2005 with a family in a village in Inner Mongolia. This year I spent Chinese New Year in Beijing I have concluded that celebrating in a major city is quite different from celebrating in a village.

One of my friends is married to a Chinese woman and they invited several of us over for dinner on New Year's Eve. I happened to be over at their house for most of the afternoon (for some other reasons) and C spent the entire afternoon cooking up a feast. In the evening we could see some fireworks, but we couldn't really hear any from inside. This is because Beijing really cracked down in firework usage. This year they prohibited fireworks from being set off within the five ring roads of Beijing (much like Washington, D.C. has a beltway, Beijing has a series of beltways that make rings around the city - there is no first ring road though). My friends live between the fourth and fifth rings so nothing was allowed to be set off where they lived, but you could see the fireworks that were being set off outside the fifth ring. Many people had thought that the officials had made a rule, but wouldn't enforce it (in China many rules aren't enforced and generally speaking if you don't force people to follow a rule, they don't). When we left that night, we figured out why everyone was following this new rule - there were cops and security guards out on the streets. They were stationed approximately one every 30 feet! As another friend of mine and I took a Didi (the Chinese version of Uber) back to her house (where I was staying), we saw that this continued throughout the city.
When we got back to A's house (A is a Chinese friend of more than 10 years) we needed to put up the duilian (Chinese couplets). Traditionally in China, you put up a pair of duilian on either side of your door along with a piece above the door. These Chinese couplets are a form of poetry and each side has approximately the same meaning and matches in form. They are painted on long strips of red paper and put up to bring good fortune throughout the new year (usually you leave the duilian up all year). Many people buy them, other people will pick one out from a book and make them themselves. A had a student paint hers for her. In addition, you typically put the character 福 (fu- meaning: wealth) upside down on your door because to say fu is upside down sounds the same as wealth is coming. The old people had told A that she needed to get her duilian up by 3 pm on New Year's Eve. We weren't home in time for that and she wasn't worried about it but did feel that she should have it up by midnight. We got home at about 11:45 pm and set to work right away. We successfully mounted the couplets to the door before midnight so we called it good.

The next day we met C and I at a temple fair. I (who is American) and I were both very confused because it was called a temple fair, but there was no temple. You should have seen the confusion on our faces as we asked C and A why it was called a temple fair if there was no temple. The temple fair really was just an opportunity to shop. It was an area with a bunch of shops selling largely cultural items to hordes of people (who also loved to try to take C and my pictures). After a while, we decided to try another spot and went to Chaoyang Park. At Chaoyang Park, we found what was essentially a carnival. We had to pay 5 yuan to get into the park (this was the regular price to enter the park - a lot of Chinese parks charge admission) and then inside were all the overpriced things you'd find at a carnival - food, rides, games, etc. We had a great time and sampled quite a bit of food. Not quite the family celebrations I experienced when I celebrated Spring Festival in the villages.
This appears to be a poster instructing people
to not set off fireworks because of
the pm 2.5 pollution it creates.

This is squid
This is also squid.

Friday, February 2, 2018

it's National Crepes day!

Did you know that in France they have a holiday for Crepes (by the way the word rhymes with step rather than grape)? I can neither pronounce nor write the name of the holiday, but this is something I learned today in my crepes-making cooking class today (they scheduled the crepe class for today because it's the crepe holiday today). Apparently, the holiday is both for galettes and crepes, but I'm guessing you've never heard of a galette. I hadn't until recently. A galette is savory crepe made with buckwheat flour whereas crepes are supposed to be the sweet ones. On this holiday people mostly just eat the sweet crepes because they are quicker and easier to make. According to our chef, the schools are filled with the smell of crepes and all around. He said that since today is Friday and a lot of people won't have time to make crepes that people will celebrate all weekend. After class, I even saw a sign on a cafe with the name of the "holiday" and something about a deal on crepes (I can't really read French after all). Here are some photos from my cooking class (we made a mushroom and onion galette with a bechamel sauce, salad with bacon and a mustard vinegarette, and Crepes Suzette.
I think I did a great job on my galette.

Chef flambeing the crepes

Crepes Suzette
Here's so more food porn from France. This had ice cream
in the middle and a caramel sauce in the cup. The white
peaks are meringue. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

I'd heard of it, but didn't actually know what it was

I decided I needed to have a relatively relaxing day today. Some people are good at relaxing on vacation, but I'm not really one of those people. I tend to go, go, go. Today I decided I was going to relax. I wanted to have a good lunch a visit the Eiffel Tower. I didn't have a pre-booked ticket to the Eiffel Tower and I thought it would probably be okay, but after yesterday's long wait to get into the Catacombs I was a little nervous. Thus. I went to the Eiffel Tower in the later morning just to check out the ticket situation. You had to go through security first and then you could purchase tickets. It appears in the high season they have 4 areas for ticket sales, but today they only had two: One for the stairs and one for the elevator (also the summit was closed for annual repair work). It looked like I'd have no problem getting a ticket when I was ready to go up so I headed off to find lunch.
My meal. They also served it with a bread

I had decided I wanted to have some sort of really nice lunch today. When I travel I tend to eat a lot of small dishes, street food and prepared foods from grocery stores in order to help keep the costs down, but I do indulge in special meals here and there. I started wandering into the neighborhoods surrounding the Eiffel Tower looking for a restaurant. Thankfully, everyone here posts their menus outside. I ended up wandering through the neighborhood for about 20 minutes before I found a place that looked like what I wanted to eat (thankfully all the restaurants in this area had English menus as well as French ones so that I could understand the options). I walked in and it was a bit awkward. I wasn't sure of French restaurant etiquette and so I just sort of stood there. The waiter greeted me, but I didn't understand him so I still stood there.
My French onion soup
 Another waiter seemed to realize that I wasn't understanding and said in English, "Only one?" (or something like that) I said yes and he showed me to a table. I suspect the first waiter didn't have any English and that this guy didn't have a lot because another person who I think may have been the manager (based on the fact that he was dressed differently than everyone else and seemed to do a bit of everything) was the only one who served me even though the first waiter was taking care of everyone else in the area. His English, by the way, was really good.
I love French onion soup so that was one of the things I wanted to try in France. I ordered French onion soup as my appetizer and the duck confit. The duck confit came with a salad and something else, I couldn't understand (the translation didn't translate everything). I had heard of duck confit, but I didn't actually know what it was. I knew I liked Peking Duck so I hoped I would like it and I figured that if I didn't, it would still be an experience.
My soup came first (of course). It was delicious! It wasn't the cheesy mess they are in the States. My soup came in a cast iron bowl and had three (or maybe four - in looking at my picture I see that it was five) slices of toasted french bread on top with cheese on each slice. It had an amazing depth of flavors and was so good I would have been pleased with my meal if it had ended there. The waiter who was serving the area asked me what I assumed was are you finished after I had finished my soup and made motions to take it away. I nodded and then he took my bowl and looked towards the guy who I still think is the manager. It rather appeared to be a signal that I was ready for my next course. A few minutes later the manager brought out my main course. It turns out it was the duck confit, a salad and a dish that was a lot like potato wedges. Everything was delicious, but the duck was out of this world! I've never had anything like it. I googled duck confit after I got back to my hotel room. Wikipedia says that it is rubbed with spices and salt-preserved for up to 36 hours and then slowly poached in a low-temperature oven for four to ten hours until meltingly tender. The meat was so tender I actually had trouble picking it up with my fork. I could taste the salt (Wikipedia says prior to cooking the spices are rinsed off and the meat is patted dry) as well as other flavors. I'm really at a loss for words. My lunch was also served with fresh bread which was soft on the inside and wonderfully chewy on the outside. I couldn't finish my meal although I did eat every bite of the duck because it was so incredible I couldn't waste any of it. Afterwards, they asked if I wanted coffee or dessert. I don't like coffee and there was no way I could eat another bite. I walked out of the restaurant reminiscing abou the meal and just savoring what an amazing meal it was.
I've also included pictures of my trip to the Eiffel Tower today. That was a sight to behold.

Every hour for the first five minutes the tower sparkles. You
can't really see it in the pictures although if you look at the dark part
you can see some of it. Yesterday, I saw this from the Arc de
Triomphe at 6 pm. I, therefore, hurried off the tower to get to a
good viewing spot by 6. Tonight it didn't light up at all until about 6:15
and the first "sparkle" was at 7.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Dem Bones, Dem bones...

Notre Dame before Sunrise
Yesterday I decided that I would skip the long line to get into the Notre Dame Cathedral (They had timed tickets for the tower entrance, that's where I took the gargoyle pictures) and make use of my jet lag this morning. The Cathedral opens at 7:45 am and I knew I would be up by then because my body thinks its about 7 hours ahead of Paris time.
I arrived at Notre Dame about 7:35 am. There were two people waiting to get in. By the time the cathedral opened there were about 20 people waiting for admittance. It was a great time to go. The cathedral wasn't crowded at all. I was able to take lots of great pictures and then I was in there as the sun rose lighting the stain glass windows (although it was cloudy today, like yesterday and like it's forecasted to be all week).
Afterwards, I went to have breakfast. By this point, it is 9 am and I am shocked at how difficult it is to find breakfast. I had seen a cafe the day before that I wanted to eat at (they had a breakfast menu posted on a chalkboard outside), but it turns out they don't open until 11! I did find a place and had lovely breakfast.

After breakfast, I went to the catacombs. The ground underneath Paris is like Swiss Cheese because there was a lot of abandoned underground limestone quarries from the 15th century (These quarries were the source of stone to build many of the buildings in Paris, including Notre Dame). After a while (think a couple hundred of years) they were having problems with the gound collapsing (not too surprising when you've hollowed it out) and they had to figure out the structure of all the tunnels beneath the city and start fortifying them. In 1780, due to concerns for public safety, they began moving bones from cemeteries to the Catacombs. Over time the closed more and more cemeteries and moved more and more bones. They also used the ossuary (a depository for bones of the dead) as a morgue during the French Revolution. Today there are, if I remember correctly, the remains of about 200,000 people in the Catacombs.
Notre Dame after sunrise
My guidebook recommended getting to the Catacombs by 9:45 am (they open at 10). I thought since it was the off-season, I'd be okay if I got there a bit later. I was wrong. I got there at 10:30 in the morning and had a nearly 2-hour wait to get it (it took me just under an hour to tour the Catacombs). I wonder if part of the issue was that it was Sunday. There seemed to be a lot of French-speaking people around and I wonder if a lot of locals go to sites like this on the weekends (especially in the off-season). Nonetheless, it was really neat. You enter and immediately start climbing down a narrow, spiral staircase. According to the visitor's guide, there are 130 steps taking you 30 meters down. I didn't count. When you get to the bottom you're in part of the old quarry. The quarries were so extensive that even though there are 200,000 people's remains down here they are only in a very small fraction of the catacombs. As you go along the path through rather small, low tunnels (made me glad I'm short) you find signs marking each dig. Apparently, these can be used to determine exactly where the stone for different buildings came from. There are also signs indicating what street you're under, except they don't correspond to the modern-day streets.
The guy facing the tower is the architect while the disciples
(there are more on other sides) are watching over the city.
As you continue through these tunnels you suddenly pop out at the ossuary. Here the front is made of long bones with some skulls (in a pattern) and then other bones are tossed in the back (and according to the narrative signs back further under dirt where we can't see them from the front of the piles). It just feels like the bones go on and on and on. As I was walking through here I couldn't help but imagine how it must have felt to have been ordered to move bones from a cemetery (where they were often in mass graves) to the Catacombs. I would not have liked that task.
The back of Notre Dame (and me of course).
After visiting the Catacombs I planned to stop at a grocery store to pick up a light lunch and then go take a nap. Even though I've never been to France before I've been to Europe enough times I should have realized the folly in that plan. Today is Sunday. The grocery stores (and many other stores and restaurants) are closed today. I did find a small store and bought some of the things I needed (including a couple of items I forgot to bring with me).
The Seine is quite flooded. I can't take a boar tour down it
like the guidebooks recommend because most boats
can't fit under the bridges with the water levels so high (not to
mention it appears at least one river tour company's ticket
office is underwater).
Since it's January the sun sets at about 5:30 pm so by the time  I arrived at the Arc de Triomphe it was getting dark. While I was exploring, I noticed that they were setting up for a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As I stood watching a guard came up and asked if we spoke French (there were other people there too). One woman said she did and the guard invited her to come past the gate to participate in the ceremony (or at least that's what I concluded). She started to walk into the area followed by her friends when the guard stopped them. Her friends didn't speak French and so they couldn't enter. The ceremony was interesting (although I didn't understand it), but I could see why they were only allowing French speakers in - they actually took part in parts of it. Afterwards, they were changing things over and I was just watching the action. I knew the ceremony was over, but I guess that same guard was concerned that I didn't because he looked across the way at me and made an "x" with his hands (and a few other gestures that I can't remember well enough to describe) seemingly indicating that it was over. He appeared concerned about me, which I thought was nice.
I concluded my evening with a stroll down Champs Elysee, but I have to say I didn't find it all that interesting.

Inside the Catacombs

Marking inside the quarry

More of the quarry area of the Catacombs

The bones

More bones

There were signs like this that stated when and where
the bones were transferred from as well as signs that made
commentary on death.

A "barrel of bones"

Arc de Triomphe

Tomb of the Unknown Solidier at the Arc de Triomphe