Friday, December 30, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas tout le monde!  I hope everyone had an excellent Christmas and is working towards a great New Year's.  Before the holidays are totally gone, I figured I should post about my holiday decor.  It was sort of a shotgun get-'em-up effort this year, coming home on Dec. 15th doesn't really leave you a lot of time.  However, we did it!  Proof:
(I know, I should be shot for such poor photography.  Someone help me.)

The little tree was up the day that I got home and fully decorated, thanks to the crafting party!  It looks adorable in my craft room:
It looks so homey and welcoming from the street.  On next year's to-do list is a cute tree skirt for this guy.  

I made a brief pass at some candles and decor for the coffee table:
And at 10pm one night I was seized with the desire to do some front-door decor:
The paper snowflake garland was already there as a gift from my dear friend Becca and my charming husband.  For the rest of it, I drove to Whole Foods fifteen minutes before closing, scooped up the last two rosemary mini-topiaries, scooped up an evergreen wreath at fifty percent off, drove home, dumped some lights on the topiaries and some ornaments on the wreath and called it done.  Not too bad, right? 

That said, do you know what Christmas is really about?  It's about this:
The old friends.  It's about this:
The happy family.  It's SO about this:
The new tiny pink silk pajamas that I brought home from Hong Kong for a certain precious niece.  (She asked to put them on the following day and refused to take them off for as long as possible.) 

Happy Holidays everyone!  May all your Christmases be merry and bright.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Crafting 1 and 2

Merry Christmas everyone!  I'm going to celebrate this festive day by telling you one of the most heartwarming tales of my time in China.  One of the things that I was most sad about missing in December was my Christmas crafting party.  The first or second week in December every year, I throw a Christmas crafting party with my friends.  The tradition started when my dear friend Sara and I were living together and we could finally afford to buy a tree, but we didn't have any ornaments.  We invited all our friends over, opened a couple of bottles of three-buck-Chuck, threw down some cardstock and some glue sticks and magically had a decorated Christmas tree.  I've done it every year since, and since Sara passed away last year, it has become even more important to me.
(Sara made the amazing frame above at one of the crafting parties, and then framed a photo of herself from that party in it.  I believe she's wearing a Christmas ball as an earring.  Awesome.)

I mentioned to one of the head guys in the factory that I was sad to be missing my crafting party and he jokingly suggested we should have one with the ladies from the factory line.  Then I happened to be in Hong Kong the following weekend and I stumbled into an art supply store.  I figured "why not?" and picked up some blank Christmas balls, some glitter and cardstock and other festive things.  I told the head guy at the factory and asked him how we could get people interested in coming.  He suggested that we should buy everyone a fancy lunch and that would ensure attendance.  The fancy lunch of choice?  KFC and McDonald's.  Whatever works!

We started off the party with some opening statements.  Our factory liason Michael was translating for me.  I asked him to explain that this is what I do every year at Christmas with my friends.  He said "how about I start with explaining Christmas.  And then I'll explain the crafting."  I have no idea how he managed to cover the guy in the red suit and the baby in Bethlehem in Chinese, but everyone seemed generally amenable.  Then we put out the KFC and the crafting supplies and the magic started to happen.   First I put out the Christmas balls.  And there was a veritable stampede of people to grab one!  I think because they were a cool American thing, everyone wanted one, even the guys that didn't decorate.  Interesting!  Balls gone, I turned to an American classic, the paper snowflake.  I taught a few ladies how to make a paper snowflake and also paper trees (three layers of tree shaped paper, stapled in the middle and fanned out.)  Pretty soon I had six ladies trying to make snowflakes at a time:
Keep in mind that this is in southern China.  Not one of these people has ever seen snow before.  Maybe in the movies.  Best of all, not being traditional Christmas celebrants, they aren't limited to traditional white snowflakes.
Green snowflake?  Love it!  Orange snowflake?  You go with your bad self.  The girls were all super sweet and got really into it.  Those of them that weren't crafting were eating KFC or trying to feed me KFC. Keep in mind that none of these ladies and I have any language in common.  That's ok, fried chicken and paper-craft are universal. 
 That's twelve Chinese ladies teaching each other how to make snowflakes.  Love it.  Some of the girls made ornaments and gave them to me.  One even made a snowflake topped with our client's logo:
 Love it!  Also, check out the pink snowflake on my laptop.  Amazingness.

There were a LOT of people at the crafting party.  Like, 70.  Not everyone was crafting but I think everyone had a good time.  We ended with a group photo:
This might be one of my favorite photos of all time.  The waving hands and snowflakes in the back and the peace signs being thrown on the left are real highlights, don't you think?  So that was craft party #1, which I thought was a raging success.

My final week in China I went ahead and scheduled Craft Party #2 for the very night that I got home.  I figured it would be a great way to see all my favorite people and to make sure the house had some holiday decor as soon as I got home.  My wonderful husband did all the cleaning and food prep, and my wonderful friends did all the beforehand work so all I had to do was hug people and craft!
Yay crafting!  Some close-ups?  Yes please!
That's my lovely friend Dana, admiring a holly ornament.  Yes, she is nine months pregnant with twins and she still came to the crafting party.  That's dedication!
That's Jill, really excited about her adorable gold snitch ornament.  So cute!
That's me, enjoying my first ham sandwich.  I told my friends that I was really looking forward to my very first ham sandwich in over a month and Krystal and Styne put their heads together and brought all the ingredients to the party so I could do so.  Love those girls!
Krystal, being the classy Santalady.  The crafting tree is on the right, half finished.
The finished product in it's place in the craft room.  Love it!  Thanks for coming ladies!!

As a final warm-the-cockles-of-your-heart Christmas note, there was one more finished product to see after the crafting party.  From this:
To this:
In about two days!  Congrats to Dana, and welcome to the world Gus and Olivia!  I hope to see you at next year's party!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Land of the free, and the home of the brave...

I'm on my way home from China now, yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!  Home for Christmas and as many Christmas-esque activities as I can cram into 10 days!  I'm in Hong Kong for the night and tomorrow we'll be winging our way eastward to the States.

I know I haven't really done a China travelogue.  This is for a couple of reasons.  First, I didn't take any pictures there, because I was working almost every second of the waking day.  Secondly, I mostly saw the inside of a factory, and the neighborhood around the factory, which is not very inspiring.

However, I wanted to take a brief second to acknowledge all the things that China has made me acutely grateful for.  One of the great things about travel is how it throws into sharp relief all the things that you love about your own life.  A brief list of the things that China has made me grateful for:
1.) Garbage Men.  China doesn't have 'em.  God bless those guys.  Just try and imagine what our world would be like without them.  Let me tell you from the other side, it stinks.  Literally.
2.) Drinking water right out of the tap!  This is truly a miracle, if you really think about it.  Pretty much EVERY house in the US, even the ones of poor people, have these magical spigots where you can stick your mouth right up and safely drink from it?  Whaaaaa??? Crazy amazing! The Chinese have to boil every. single. drop.
3.) American butchers.  Do you know how much gristle meat naturally has?  No, you don't, because it just isn't possible to buy meat that grim in the States.  I am not a picky eater, but there are some parts of an animal that you just don't want in your soup.
4.) Clean air.  This is a place where you can not only see the air pollution, you can taste it.  Ew.
5.) Our government.  <record scratch>

This last one is the one I wanted to talk about.  I have never been a very patriotic person.  Sometimes when I go to foreign places (hello, Cambodia) I learn things about the U.S.A. that make me ashamed to be an American.  I recognize the value of that royal blue passport, but I've never been very proud of it.  I've always looked down my nose at most American patriotism as trite, as David Sedaris says "other countries have national slogans of their own, none of which is "We are number two!"


In China, you can't protest.  You can't vote.  You cannot write whatever you want in the newspaper.  Hell, there only is one newspaper and it's full of how to benefit Mother China.  You can't read blogs like this one.  Or use Facebook, or Google, or anything else deemed dangerous by the government.  You can throw your trash in the sea, and ride a motorcycle with your kids with no helmets, but if you are caught with a New York Times in your briefcase, you can go to jail.

I've always scoffed at "the land of the free, and the home of the brave" before, thinking that it was a very smug statement.  (As if the French and the Thai are lying around bemoaning their cowardice, right?)  However, it is sometimes worth remembering that American freedoms do NOT extend around the world.  Don't take that New York Times for granted, and revel in your Occupy Wall Street and your left-wing blogs.  Be grateful for the skill of our forebears and yea, even our politicians that we have a democratic government that has lasted 222 years.  (Turns out in the rest of the world, the government turns over every 50 years or so!  Who knew?)  In all my travels this month, perhaps my best souvenir is gratitude for the things I forgot I already had.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pennsylvania Travelogue

I know, I'm all over the place!  China, Hong Kong, Macau...Pennsylvania?  I'm all out of order, I actually started out this trip with a long weekend in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, visiting my alma mater, Bucknell University to speak on a panel about creativity in the workplace.  I think the panel talk went really well, and it was fun to be back on campus for the first time.
Yay college!
My college BFF Gina drove up and joined me for the weekend.  We had an awesome time as usual, doing that amazing girl thing where we giggle about nothing.
Gina, in front of my favorite turreted house.

Rural Pennsylvania is the sort of place where nothing happens, but I had forgotten how amazing the historic architecture can be.
I don't even like colonial styles, but sometimes they're striking.
And in Lewisburg, PA, the historicness just keeps coming!  Even under renovation, this house was gorgeous:
Wasn't I just saying how much I love wedding cake architecture?
Hellooooo colonial wedding cake!  Nice to meetcha!  Gina brought her adorable dog Pierre and we had a great time running around our old stomping grounds.
Best of all, the weather was perfect, crisp and clear and sunny.  The perfect weather to complement the best fall activity:
Playing in the leaves!  Oh deciduousity, I've missed you!

The weekend was really fun and to kick off a long trip with an old friend was really great.  If you want to read about my talk, you can see more info here:   (I basically blathered on about creativity and how important it is to my work.  I'm not at all sure I was coherent, but hopefully the pink hair helped convince everyone I'm creative and fun, right?  Right??)  Anyway, it was a great weekend.

I'm about to go back to China and so far I haven't figured out a way around the China web censorship, which is really making blogging hard.  Stay tuned for more adventures in travel as soon as the real internet and I meet again!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hong Kong Travelogue - Part 2

OK, so, back to the 10 best things about Hong Kong:

1.) Victoria Peak Tram
2.) The Star Ferry
3.) Markets!  Temple Street Night Market, Jade Market, Graham Street Market, Cat St. Market, random street markets
4.) Fashion
5.) Flamingos
6.) High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel
7.) The Light Show over Victoria Harbor
8.) Temples
9.) Christmas Decor
10.) Pastries
11.) Motorscooter Umbrellas

I already covered #1-5.  Onwards!
#6: High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel
I love tea.  I love high tea, fancy places and nice hotels.  So me and the Peninsula Hotel were pretty much made for each other. 
So beautiful!  The Peninsula is THE premier historic hotel in Hong Kong.  It was opened in 1928, and the tea service makes you feel as if you could have stepped back to that year.
I ordered caramel tea, which after a long day of shopping and sightseeing, was intensely comforting.
It was a little dim in there, sorry for the poor photography, but look at the tower of deliciousness!  Yum.
Tea sandwiches?  Yes please! 

#7: The Light Show Over Victoria Harbor
I couldn't photograph this.  It's too crazy to be believed.  Every day at 8pm the Hong Kong skyline (already lit up like crazy) explodes with a green laser light show.  Lasers dance down from the top of all of the major buildings and some of the buildings light up in patterns.  It's pretty short, and if you're watching it from the Tsim Sha Shui waterfront there is hilariously cheesy Chinese music to go with it, but it's still pretty darn cool.  Courtesy of the China Tourism website, it looks something like this:

#8: Temples
There are lots of great temples in Hong Kong.  I loved the Man Mo Temple, on Hollywood St. in the Sheung Wan neighborhood.  You know you're getting close to the temple when you can smell the incense.  The incense is formed in great bell shapes that swing from the ceiling and cover the whole building in a fragrant fog.  I accidentally took some pictures before I saw the no photos sign.  But, since they already exist...
 Beautiful.  See the incense bells?  The table in front of the statue is covered in offerings, most of which are fruit or flowers, but some people bring things like lunch in styrofoam containers and leave that as the offering to the gods.  Very modern!
I took this picture before I realized what I was looking at, but these are boxes where people's ashes go.  Very space efficient, like the rest of Hong Kong, and I don't think I would regret being buried in such a lovely, atmospheric place.

#9: Christmas Decor
Christmas decor in INSANE in Hong Kong.  On my first trip, this was the scene across from my hotel:
That's Santa in his sleigh riding in front of a giant silver moon.  On either side are three snowmen with trumpets that blow bubbles over Santa.  Which kinda makes sense since it doesn't actually SNOW here.

Another gem:
Whoa, nellie.  That's the former Marine Police Hong Kong Headquarters in the background (now known as the 1881 Hotel.)  And in the foreground is the insanity of Hong Kong Christmas, this one involves several faux horse drawn carriages (complete with faux horses) and an enormous Christmas tree on a rotating stage.
Oh, Hong Kong.  On the backside, there was a whole carriage done by Wedgwood.
I love Hong Kong, and Hong Kong loves its luxury goods.  I'm lucky enough to own some Wedgwood plates passed down from my grandmother and great-grandmother, and I think I prefer my understated display to this craziness.  But still, very beautiful.  And crazy.

The Christmas lights are also starting to get insane and I'm going to try to take more pics and report back.  Wait till you see Santa sitting ON the moon done in neon.  So great!

#10: Pastries
Last but not least, this is pretty much always on my list of favorite things about a country.  Someday I'm going to write a coffee table book about pastries I've loved around the world.  In Hong Kong, my hotel was right around the corner from the St. Honore Pastry Shop.  They make many wonderful hom bow-like things (buns filled with meat), as well as more French-style pastries.  How about one of these?
Oui, merci! 

Yet another thing that I started an intimate relationship with in Hong Kong was something called an "egglette".  It is made of waffle batter, but it is the same size and shape as a 8" square of bubble wrap.  The bubbles form in a sheet but you can break them off one by one, pop them in your mouth and bite down for a indescribably satisfying crunch.  Behold the new love of my pastry life:
Oh egglette, where have you been all my life??

So that's the short report on Hong Kong.  If you ever get the chance to go, DO IT.  It's crazy, but in a fun way!  Just like every great person I know.  Thanks Hong Kong, you sure know how to show a girl a good time.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Friday Foodday - Macau Travelogue

OK, I know it's actually Sunday here and Saturday at home, but I didn't have anything good to say about food on Friday, as I've been in China (a.k.a. the land of noodles and gristle) all week.  So today, I'm pleased to offer up a report on a day trip that I took today to Macau, complete with a wonderful meal that I'm going to try to recreate at home.  First, a little travelogue.

I barely knew anything about Macau before today, other than it used to be Portuguese, it had something to do with shipping and its an island.  These things are all still true, but now I have a much better feel for the place.  If I had to describe Macau, I'd say take Puerto Rico, and Vegas, and China, shake them all together and yell "Yahtzee!"  It's a strange and wonderful place. 
First picture, welcome to the Macau ferry terminal.  Is that a real Chinese fort behind me, or is it a repro done as a casino?  I still don't know!  (That rock behind it might not be real either, now that I think about it...)

My favorite part was definitely the architecture.  Not sure what you would call this style (baroque? classical?) but I call it "wedding cake".  It's my favorite style, lots of pastels and ornate white trim and details.  With a little bit of China thrown on top.  This was the first thing I saw at the main square, Leal de Sentado.
Pastel green building, melon-colored building, lemon-colored building?  Love it!  Little bit of Chinese holiday flair on the left.  (I believe that is a Chinese lantern dressed up like a snowman.)  But back to the architecture...
Love it!  I did a little walking tour, starting with the Church of St. Dominic, which has to be one of the most lovely churches I've ever seen.
Oh my god.  Lovvvvvvvve it.  The green shutters are traditional for Macau architecture.  The frilly white bits look like traditional Venice to me.  I love everything about this church, I want to put it in my pocket and carry it around. 

Things only got better inside.  The interior is amazing.  Tall, white and airy.  Wooden details as you might imagine a tropical church to have.  Gorgeous altarpiece of Mary.  Even more amazing:
As I stepped in, a tiny youth orchestra struck up "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" by Bach.  I have no idea what they were doing there.  No one but me seemed to be listening.  That music was made for that space.  It was transcendent, as if you were standing next to Bach and he was nodding at a job well done.  Amazing.

When the orchestra wound down (I think they did Handel next, I couldn't name it), I looked around the church a little more.  My photos don't do the charming wooden details justice.  The ceiling is pierced wood, the balcony is made of little wooden panels, the shutters are wide open to admit light and antique crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling.  Of course, more white scallopy trim and corbels.
So beautiful.  Soooo beautiful.  I hated to leave.  I wonder if I can put wedding-cakesque trim in our house?

The only way to follow that up was with an amazing lunch.  I went to a restaurant called Platano and sat outside in their lovely courtyard.  Such a luxury on the 4th of December.  First item of lunch was an amazing homemade orangeade:
I believe the recipe for this is something like squeeze a couple of oranges, add some soda water and some simple syrup.  It was completely ridiculously delicious and with citrus season just coming up in the US, I'm looking forward to recreating it at home.
For lunch, I ordered something translated as "cakes made of crab meat".  Hoping that this wouldn't turn out to be actual cake, I wasn't disappointed:
Awesome.  This was very different from an American crab cake.  I don't think a bread crumb got anywhere near this little bit of heaven.  It tastes more like a souffle, mostly eggs and giant hunks of crab meat with some tiny diced savory things.  I think maybe gherkins or pickles, red onions and celery, minced incredibly fine, so they barely even crunch but add lots of flavor?  I might have to experiment with this one, but I think it will be worth the effort.  Hands down the best thing I've eaten in days, although it's pretty hard to go wrong with succulent fresh seafood, right?

After being thus fortified, I continued on the walking tour, up to the Monte Fort. 
This photo might be the most evocative of the feel of Macau.  500 year old banyan tree in the foreground, crenellations of a colonial fort behind that, and behind that, giant skyscraper casino shaped like a spray of water.  (That casino has neon all the way up so at night it becomes a pink fountain that fades into a blue fountain that fades into a yellow get the idea.)  I stayed clear of all the casinos and went for vintage Macau, but there is a lot of Vegas there if you want it.
Monte Fort also features the Macau Museum which is actually a really great and interactive museum with cool exhibits about daily life in Macau through the ages.  I loved the 1/2 scale streetscene and the traditional Macau living room and the old "shops" set up to educate you about the traditions of pastry-making, firecracker creation and gambling dens.  Moving on...

The biggest landmark of Macau is actually the Ruins of St. Paul.  It's the front of a church that was built in the early 1600's and destroyed by a fire in 1835.  The facade is all that's left but it's pretty cool:
It was intended to educate the illiterate about Christianity so it's decorated with scenes from the bible as well as fantastical devils intended to warn against sin.  
On a gorgeous sunny day like today, it's hard to feel anything but happy.
Pretty cool.  I kinda love the open air aspect, it lets the sky play a starring role too.

I finished the walking tour up with a little more wedding-cake-itude.
Gah!  Mint green with a wrought-iron balcony?  Someone hold me back.
Salmon-pink?  Yes please!
Peach?  With laurel wreaths and swags?  Yesssss.

Finally, I couldn't abandon this post without reporting that Macau also gets into the Christmas spirit, but it looks even more odd than Hong Kong.  In the main square, Leal de Senado:
That is a giant green-and-white tree made of Astroturf, people.
Do the shades hide my bemusement at this freaky reindeer with no hands?  Or my skepticism at celebrating Christmas when its 75 degrees and sunny out?  Hmmm.

So that's Macau!  It wasn't all sunshine and roses (there were some completely mind-numbing customs lines involved), but for a day trip, it was pretty cool.  How often do you get to drink fresh orangeade and appreciate your favorite style of architecture, in the sunshine, on Dec. 4?  Not very often, my friends.  Thanks Macau! 

Next up, #6-10 of great things about Hong Kong.  Stay tuned for more Asian adventures!