Well, now that just doesn’t make any sense

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I was really excited about going to Hong Kong, especially during the Mid Autumn Festival.  It’s like Thanksgiving and New Year’s wrapped into a single holiday.  Basically, everyone takes time off (China regulates that) and visits family, goes on holiday and generally just has a nice, relaxing time off.  They have special foods for it, too, and there are always things going on to help celebrate.

Before I even got to HK, I was reading up on things to do there and came across a listing for a huge party and celebration that was set to take place in Victoria Park, one of the largest and certainly the most popular park in the city.  It happened to be while I was going to be there, so I made a note of it, so that I could attend.

I was really excited for this.  I love going to places and seeing and / or participating in local traditions, and this seemed like it was going to be a great one!  In fact, the information page that I saw touted it as one of the largest celebrations of the entire festival.  So, as you can imagine, I had high hopes.

I happened to run into another foreigner (an American) while I was wandering around earlier that day and, since that was a rarity in HK for some random reason, the two of us decided to get together later that night to go to dinner and generally just hang out after the humidity settled down to a nice, tolerable swelter, rather than an out-and-out sauna.

We had already wandered around one of the larger outdoor street markets, which was fun, albeit filled with cheaply-made stuff that I didn’t want to waste my money on, so we decided to go to the festival in the park and then grab some dinner.  We took  a cab to the park and followed a procession of what seemed like millions of people headed to what we assumed would be the celebration.

Once we got there, well . . . what can I say?  When in Malta, there is rarely a night when there isn’t a festival celebration of some kind and those parties are rowdy, loud and last into the wee hours, filled with fun, food and fireworks.  In Italy on New Year’s Eve, the party in Venice spread across the entire city, with music and lights and people shouting and having a great time.  In HK for the Mid Autumn Festival celebration in Victoria Park, there was . . um . . well, there were some lovely lanterns hanging up in the trees.  There were also some random lit-up giant cartoon characters that everyone was taking photos with, but that was about it.  Really.  A couple of places to get some questionable food and really, both of us were a little disappointed.

But the strangest thing was yet to come.  We hung around and wandered, taking photos, for about 30 minutes, when we started to hear music swelling a little bit. We saw some people start to form a circle around the source of the music, so naturally, we decided to join them.  Then we looked at each other.  And looked at the crowd, and then the source of the music, and then each other again.

Now, when you think of China, of HK and of Asia in general, and especially when you think of music, what comes to mind?  That strange Chinese Opera singing that is so quintessential?  Possibly, K-Pop?  Well, yes, that’s what I think that the two of us really thought of.

Here, though, we had not any of that.  What we had was – that’s right – bagpipes!  A full-on, loud, traditional bagpipe band – complete with kilts!  And everyone was watching them, clapping, taking photos, swaying to the “beat.”  Huh?  Okay, I get it – kinda.  HK was a part of Britain up until just a decade or so ago.  But still – this wasn’t a British festival that we were celebrating here – this was a Chinese Mid Autumn Festival.

Yeah.  I don’t get it.  And were they even British-looking people playing those bagpipes?  Nope.  Chinese / HK people.  Interesting.  And the strangest part of all was that, after the grand build up in the music, instead of a great crescendo that ends in a ‘Ode To Joy’ sort-of ending, it basically just waned and eventually died down.  No grand finale, no ending.  No sending up of lanterns or fireworks.

And in minutes, everyone had started to walk away.  Nothing left.  No remnants even that such an event took place.  Just a bunch of people walking to dinner, or to home, or somewhere else.  So strange.

I feel like I should go back there just to see if that same thing happens again.  If they have something more up their sleeve if I stay another day.  If there is a secret, hidden celebration that they don’t want foreigners to witness that is far more interesting.  It has happened to me before (see:  New Year’s Eve in Venice on Giudecca).  Just interesting . .  .


The Best Bedroom in Gatwick Airport

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I don’t even remember whether I was coming or going at this point.  Frankly, a lot of the time, I just know that I am tired, probably have make-up smudges if I have any make-up left on me at all, and clothes that are stale-smelling (unless they smell of the person next to me from the last flight; those are the worst).

Now, I have been to Gatwick on countless occasions and might very well be the only person in the world that prefers it to Heathrow for a layover.  I get it, Heathrow is huge and has a lot of very good amenities.  It’s gotten even better since I first swept through there almost two decades ago now.  However, it’s *busy*.  And I mean that in a very there’s-no-space-to-breathe kind of a way.  Sure, there are places to grab something more than a burger to eat and others to grab a nice drink or peruse the latest in travel pillows or stock up on trial-sized liquids, like toothpaste.  But what Heathrow lacks is a decent place to sleep.

And if there is one thing that a frequent traveler needs, it’s a decent place to sleep.

Gatwick has that.  Actually, it doesn’t really have a place to sleep, but when it comes to traveling, I like to think that I can MacGyver things with the best of them.  And it’s at Gatwick that, many years ago, I did my best work.

You see, this one particular time, I happened to be stuck on an overnight layover and as most people in their early adulthood, I didn’t really have the money to shell out for a decent hotel room in one of the over-priced places near the airport.  So instead, I opted to sleep in the airport itself.  I had done it before in other airports, but this time, I found myself stuck in Gatwick overnight with three other Americans – the annoying kind.  The ones that are loud, brash, can’t shut up and seem to think that everyone else within a ten-mile radius needs to be privy to their conversation.  I wanted to scream.

You see, we were forced to be inside one giant room, with an enormous vaulted ceiling and no real chairs.  I mean, there were chairs, but they all had those permanent armrests that meant that you couldn’t stretch out, so really, there weren’t comfortable places to sit and sleep. So all of us were on the floor, resting up against one of the large window walls.  No, the guy that was there by himself – he was quiet enough. The two other girls, though.  Man.  China could hear their conversation.  I was so tired, too.  I couldn’t even see straight anymore and I had a really early flight and just wanted to nap.  I asked them if they could keep it down, but their reaction was to tell me that it was their right to be able to talk all night.  Yup, they were *those* Americans.  The ones that I avoid at all costs.  The ones that opt for Starbucks over the hundreds of local cafes that exist and spend their time complaining that their aren’t hamburgers on the menus in every restaurant in France.  Those.

I am not one of those.  I needed to get away.  I needed to sleep.  I needed an escape from them.

I grabbed my large suitcase and my carry-on bag and started to try to find some place that wasn’t within the range of their conversation detailing the issues with finding a clean bathroom in London.  Like I cared.

As I walked by a set of bathrooms, I noticed that one was labeled “family room.”  I hadn’t noticed that one before during the other times that I was in this airport, so I decided to see what it was like.  I mean, it was about 1am at this point, so how many families would really be in need of something like this?  I opened the door to find a large – and I mean huge – bathroom.  An idea struck me.

I entered the bathroom, closed the door and realized that it had two locks.  Two locks!  This meant that the odds of anyone being able to get into this room without my knowledge (like, if I accidentally feel asleep or something) would be minimal at best.  I decided to MacGyver this into a bedroom for the night.  I opened my suitcase so that the lid of it rested up against the door and double-checked to make sure that both locks were in place.  I then rearranged my clothes, so that the softest ones were on the top.  I tested it out by sitting in it and leaning up against the interior of the lid that was up against the door.  It worked!!!  It actually felt something akin to a bed!

I quickly prayed that this would work – set my travel alarm (yeah, this was way back when people used those things; before all of our phones had that feature in them – heck, this was before cell phones were popular!) – and turned out the lights.  And I promptly fell asleep.  The “family room” was far enough away from the chatty girls that I couldn’t hear them and the security of the dual locking door allowed me to relax a little bit more and actually sleep.

Now, mind you, my flight was very early in the morning, so it wasn’t as if I got eight hours of bliss or anything.  And really, no matter how comfortable it was, it was still me sleeping inside of an open suitcase on the floor of an airport bathroom.  *But* it was at least four hours of good, solid sleep, which is more than I can say for many other airport / train depot / bus depot sleeping experiences that I have had in my life.

In fact, it was so good that I did it again the next two times that I happened to be passing through.  It was the best thing that I ever engineered for the purposes of a nap.  And I would do it again if I had the chance.  I don’t care if there is a family in need of the “family room.”  Sometimes a girl just needs to sleep, okay?

So, if you’re in Gatwick and in need of a nap and you wander by a room with a sign on the side saying “family room,” check it out.  You might have the same experience that I had.  you’re welcome.


No Such Thing as Quiet in Taipei

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There is no such thing as quiet in Taipei.  As one of the most densely populated cities on earth, you cannot help but hear and feel the noise all around you constantly.  It’s on the main streets with the thousands of cars and ubiquitous scooters that seem to be the preferred mode of transportation under the age of 80.  It’s on the side streets and in the little corridors that you find lining the major roads, as you listen to the shopkeepers talk to one another, shout at potential customers and taut their wares.  You can butchers hacking up everything from cows to chickens, hanging the heads and necks of the latter on hooks for display.  You can hear the women haggling on prices for everything from flowers to knickers.  You can hear children playing in the fields of the schools all around.  And you can hear it in the few parks and other green areas in the city – because with that many people, animals, cars and more, sound is everywhere.

I even noticed it in my hotel room.  I had to keep the television on a lot, or I could hear the outside world constantly.  True, my hotel was located on a major road, but even still, the sound – the noise – was just astonishingly constant.  At night, I wore earplugs (the ones that the *really* nice Korean Air attendants kindly gave me on the flight over) to shut out some of the sound, but it was never quiet.

I really didn’t mind that level of constant sound, mind you.  In fact, that was a large part of experiencing Taipei.  It’s part of what makes it what it is and what drew me to it.  Sound like that denotes a city that is constantly shifting and changing and if you don’t catch it now, or you blink, it will change and you will never get to see it like that again.  Nor will you ever get to hear it like that again.  So, I went into it knowing and enjoying that experience – albeit slightly muted when I needed to sleep.

Flash forward, though, to my final day in Taiwan.  The previous day (more on that later, I am sure) I had been in the mountains nearby the city to a temple and the tea plantations and had experienced something close to quiet, but not quite.  The birds sang loudly and there was a little dog that wanted to be my friend and I could hear him jingle behind me for a long while.

This final day, though, I craved quiet.  I craved calm.  I craved something other than deep city life – and sound.  I had heard that Taiwan was well known for its hot springs and one of the few things that I had marked in my guidebook before leaving (why do I always buy them and rarely really use them?) was a listing of a nearby suburb and accompanying hotels and resorts where I could partake in a hot spring bath.  Ostensibly with the locals.  I had made sure to pack my bikini just for that reason and had even sent myself on a wild goose catch to find (out of season in September in Colorado, it turns out) a cheap pair of flip flops, so that I could walk around the bathing area comfortably.

However, by this point in the trip, I was a little tired, still likely jet-lagged and definitely not interested in carrying more than necessary.  Couple that with the fact that when I left in the morning it was actually chilly and I had run back into the hotel not once, not twice, but three times (please tell me that I am not the only one that has done that!) to grab first my jacket, then mu umbrella and finally a pair of jeans (just in case; although I had avoided them due to the unrelenting, horrible humidity in Taiwan and Hong Kong).  Did I remember the bikini?  Nope.  How about the flip flops?  Nope.  Because, see, that would have been easy, simple, smart and worthwhile.  And we really can’t have that all the time, can we?  Of course, I didn’t notice that until *after* i arrived (two hours later) in the suburb and was already off of the train.

Well, I still had my guide and fortunately enough, I had also accidentally run into a fluent English speaker while asking at the tourist counter at the train station where I could go for the hot springs.  This kind gentleman (thank you, wherever you are) walked me in the right direction and then asked me where I wanted to go.  Finally realizing that I didn’t have anything to wear and not seeing any nearby shops where I could get anything to fit me, I quickly scanned the book and saw a listing for a five-star resort offering “individual bathing rooms.”  This was the answer!  Great!  Where is that, I asked.  Well, it’s far up that hill, replied the gentleman.  It was now *very* hot and humid.  I had long ago given up on make-up, doing my hair or looking like anything other than something that the cat dragged in.  And if I was going to just be sitting in a bath, then you know what?  Who cares, let’s start walking and if I see a cab, I will take it.

Odds of find a cab in Taipei – 100%; you can’t spit without finding eight of them.  Odds of finding one in this place?  Well, turns out, it’s about 0%.  So fine, I can walk.  I love walking.

By the time that I get to the resort, it’s half an hour later, up hill all the freakin’ way, and by uphill I mean that at one point I wanted to invest in some rope and hooks to help.  But, too late.  I was there.  The gentleman had warned me that it was expensive, but that’s all relative, isn’t it?  Turns out, expensive in Taiwan is about $9 US for an hour of total peace and solitude.  Yup.  I can do that.  Sign me up.

I walked in (I can’t even imagine what the impeccably-dressed women tending the front counter must have thought of me) and pointed to the sign that cheerfully said in English “Private Bath Rooms Here.”  And that’s what I did.  I paid in cash, which the woman helping me must have thought was strange, given the look on her face.  But she led me back to an available room (#13, which I usually don’t find lucky and had a little trouble with at first, but at this point, why fight it?) and opened the door, reminding me that I could stay as long as I wanted and just pay the extra when I left.

Inside – wow.  WOW!  I mean, wow.  Quiet.  I had’t heard *nothing* in days!  Not for a week!  And in here, it was totally quiet.  It was dark, with stone floors and an enormous stone bath.  Green stone.  Beautiful.  On the side were robes, shoes, shampoo, combs – everything that you would need.  In the bath, she had turned on the hot springs and then the cold water to balance the heat and set out some towels for me, telling me that it was all part of the price.  I had this whole silent world all to myself.  This was unbelievable.

I stripped and took a deep breath.  These hot springs weren’t strong-smelling like others in the area (sulfur; eew).  Instead, it smelled of nothing.  And I heard only the sound of the water pouring into the tub.

Then I spent the next hour sitting.  Just sitting.  Soaking in the hot water, pouring it over me.  Just sitting again.  Not thinking, but practicing mindful meditation.  The type where you concentrate solely on being in the moment.  I made shapes in the water with my hands and relished the ripples that that made and the light reflecting over it and under it.  I just was.  For the first time in a *very* long time, I just was.

An hour later, I climbed out, changed back into my now-somewhat-dry clothes (eew, back to sweating buckets) and walked out of the hotel and back into the punishing heat and humidity of the afternoon.  And I was okay with that.  I was.  I had just spent the best $9 of my life to just *be* and not think, not move, not work, not read, not talk.  Just be.

Like hearing the sounds of the fast-changing city of Taipei or Macau or Hong Kong, I will never be able to replicate that experience.  But forever, or as long as I have a memory, I will be able to relive it in my mind and have a new “happy place” whenever I need a calming moment and a time to just be.

And yes, having come back just a couple of weeks ago, I have already gone there in my head many, many times.

Turku, Finland

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Turku, Finland

This is the last remnant of a medieval road located in Turku, Finland, which is one of the few places in Finland with remnants of medieval times. Most of Finland lacks that.

The Highlight of Finland – Food-Wise

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The Highlight of Finland - Food-Wise

This is Fazer – The Finnish Equivalent of Godiva, but much much more. They make everything from breads and rolls to chocolate, cakes and cinnamon buns. And there is nothing that they make that isn’t fantastic. This is their Helsinki cafe that I spent a lot of time in and absolutely loved! I only wish that I had had the time to try everything that they offered!

The World’s Best Bread

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You know, sometimes there are things in life that you run across that are just perfect.  They don’t need added embellishment or jewelry or toppings or anything to make them better, because they are just perfect in their original form.  A beautiful autumn full moon night, with clear skies and a slight wind bringing a touch of chill to the air is one of those things.  No amount of lighted pumpkins or cups of cider will enhance that experience.  It’s just great like it is.

The bread at the Balzan Bakery is like that.  I, along with everyone else that lived in the student housing flats in Lija, Malta, discovered it and honestly, I can’t even remember how we first ran into the place.  I can’t imagine that it was when we were entirely in our own minds, since the place is really only open between 1am and 6am, which historically (at least among college students) is not a time when minds are completely clear, whether from alcohol, sheer lack of sleep or some combination of those two, coupled with a long night in the discos.

Balzan Bakery is so unique that I have never before nor since encountered any bakery like it.  Not even watching Bizarre Foods or No Reservations on television.  It’s at the most only a small bedroom in size.  Just big enough for the large, and I really mean, immense stone oven in the back, a large, flour-covered table in the middle and a shelf of freshly baked bread, and other sweets to the right.  No credit cards.  No checks, of course.  Just cash.  

Run by a family, which appears to include a husband and wife, the latter’s sole purpose in life seeming to be to take your money, bag your bread (as if that was necessary) and then yell at her children to get back to work, as they stop what they are doing and stare at the tall, extremely white (or sun-burnt, depending upon the night) foreigners who can’t speak more than a few words of Maltese drool over the freshly baked Maltese breads and sweets; and of course, the two boys (at least, that’s what I remember) who could barely reach the top of the large table, and were covered in flour, rolling and kneading dough all night.  In the heat, with the door open, so that air could come through.

One lone light in the tall ceiling managed to highlight everything there, as the glow from the oven beckoned you and the overwhelming smell of the yeast, salt, flour and unmistakable and indescribable Maltese water (seriously, this stuff is strange) perfectly charred on the outside and perfectly airy on the inside enticed you to come, night after night, with one sole purpose in mind:  Get more bread.

Drunk or sober, tired or wide awake, it was like a pilgrimage every time that we went.  Like a pact among thieves, we would conspire in the evenings, sitting by the pool, or in unit #207, to gather a handful of us together and wander over there.  Always dreaming of the bread loaves that we would hopefully get our hands on.  Oh sure, we could buy the same type of bread loaves in the market, but these were just ethereal.  As if the ingredients that this family used or the oven they employed or the techniques that they used just somehow elevated their bread to another level altogether.

There was another understanding, too:  Everyone went with the intention of buying at least two loaves of bread.  If you could that much.  Sometimes, you would go with four people and they would have only four loaves of bread left.  Those were depressing nights.  Why two, you ask?  One was definitely for bringing home, so that the next day you would have it for breakfast, spread with newly discovered Laughing Cow cheese and strong black tea (to help alleviate the hangover that you might be experiencing) or for lunch / dinner, dipped in pure olive oil and a little salt.  The other loaf, that was the best one.  That was the one that you tore into right away after you gave the mother your coins.  It was the one that burned your fingers as you were too eager to bite into it to wait for it to cool, since it had inevitably just been pulled from the stone oven.  You would see the char bits on your fingers, tiny, like dust, and tear off a piece, exposing the airy pockets that characterize Maltese bread, and on the walk home, proceed to devour it, heedless of the fact that it was really the size of a normal loaf of bread, but heavier, denser.  You didn’t care.  No one did.  It was too perfect.  No toppings, no spreads, nothing.  Sure, we added those later, but only because it was habit, or the options were there.  But really, nothing truly made it any better.  It was perfect just in that form.  So perfect that, as you stepped back into your flat, you would still be happily be licking the last flecks of flour and char that has stuck to your fingers as you tore into the loaf, piece by delicious piece.

I still dream of that bread.  I have tried to make it here, but as people in NY think about their pizza not being able to be recreated anywhere else, because the water in NY was somehow different, I realize that there was just something magical about that particular bread that cannot be replicated anywhere else.  Not really.  Not even close.

And when I went back to Malta the second time and found the bakery again, a few years later, and tried it.  Was it the same?  Did the memories live up to reality?  Well, the only difference was that now, the boys were better able to knead the dough, having grown tall enough to reach it more easily.  But otherwise, it was exactly the same.  And yes, I still bought two loaves.  And yes, I burned my fingers.  But sometimes, you have to make small sacrifices to experience heaven, don’t you?

Tourist Sites That Really Disappointed Me (Part One)

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1.  The Sistine Chapel – Wow.  Talk about overkill.  I mean really, I have seen toddlers create finger paintings that have less clutter.  It was like someone ate a pizza with everything and then threw it up on the ceiling.  Truly, this was a case of “No really, I think that I can add just one more thing and it will be perfect!”  Or possibly, like Charles Dickens (who was paid by the word), perhaps Michaelangelo was paid by the brush stroke?  Ugh.


2.  The Coliseum in Rome – Well, I suppose that this would have been more impressive had I not seen it at around 7 in the morning, which is apparently when every single Japanese tourist with a giant camera was scheduled to tour the site.  It’s hard to picture the great Coliseum, filled with Roman citizens watching gladiators when you spending your time dodging camera flashes and hoping to avoid being the scenery in every single photo that the Japanese tourist group takes.  Also, it’s only actually partially (not even half, apparently) original.  That takes it down a notch, too.  And finally, it’s hard to picture Ancient Rome when the only outside sounds that you hear (other than cameras clicking) are the whirs of vespa scooters outside on the ring road.

3.  The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt – “What?  You have got to be kidding me.  Are those it?”  That’s what I asked myself when I first laid eyes on the pyramids back in 2001.  I had been studying them for years, and had even been considering doing a Master’s degree in Egyptology at the time.  And, of course, I had also been indoctrinated my whole life with the idea that they were these massive structures, influencing writers and poets and directors, etc.  Even Napoleon’s army thought that they were amazing.  Well, guess what?  They are tiny.  I mean that.  If you have ever lived in a city of any size, with buildings about ten stories high, these are a disappointment.  Totally.  And it didn’t help that when we were allowed to tour the inside of the smallest one (the one ordered by Menkaura), I forget that I am about a foot and a half taller than average ancient Egyptians, and clocked my head on the ceiling of the ramp going down to the bottom.  Have you ever heard granite echo?  It’s not particularly inspiring and I knew that it was going to leave a mark when I didn’t even feel the pain for a solid two minutes.  That’s when you know that it’s bad.  Oh, so bad.  Did I mention that, despite the fact that the pyramids have been around for thousands of years, the efforts of so many tourists climbing all over them and wiping their grubby hands all over the paintings inside basically guarantees that they will only be around for another twenty years or so.  Quick!  See them before they start allowing tourists to take pieces of them home as souvenirs!

(Don’t worry – there are a lot of place that I thought would be really disappointing and turned out to be amazing! – Those are coming up)