Norway in a Nutshell

My Mom and I met in Norway a few weeks ago, for a girls-only vacation. Norway was the perfect meeting spot, about equal distance from both of us, and we have a friend there who lived with us as an exchange student when I was in high school.

Norway is beautiful. We were lucky enough to have perfect springtime weather (60’s, sunny). We stayed in an adorable town called Drammen, and took trips into Oslo, as well as a trip to Bergen, and a boat trip in the North Sea!

The trip to Bergen was a highlight. We took a train to a town called Flom, where we caught another train that was extremely scenic, through the mountains passing by waterfalls, picturesque towns, more waterfalls and fjords.  We then boarded a boat through the fjords, which was stunning.  Finally, another train ride and we arrived in Bergen. The town is a UNESCO world heritage site, and we spent two days exploring. It was so charming, with a great little fish market where we bought caviar and salmon.

 

Our hostess and her hubby own a fantastic boat, and we were treated to a trip in the North Sea to a place called ‘The End of the World.”  It really does look like things could just end after the rock formations!

The only downside to travel in Norway is sticker shock.  I knew Norway was expensive, but wasn’t anticipating the most expensive country in the world (it truly is listed as #1). A burger is about $35 USD, and a Coke can be $7-8. Coming from Asia, where a coke is maybe $.50, I was a little taken aback, however we managed and our hostess kept us well fed with amazing brown cheese, a Norwegian specialty made from goat’s milk, and breads that are super hearty and full of grains. Delish!

My big souvenir was a reindeer pelt. In Norway, you see them thrown over leather chairs, on sofas, in stollers….they look fantastic, and our cleaning ladies were inquiring this week about what it was. I’m sure they were pretty confused!

I even ate reindeer on my flight back to Beijing. Let’s just hope Santa can make it to Beijing sans a few Rudolph’s!

Advertisements

Random Observations

I haven’t been writing as much lately. It gets tough to come up with new and interesting topics, because as we roll into our 1 year in Beijing Anniversary, it’s all very comfortable and normal to me now.  I have to remind myself to observe things with fresh eyes, something that’s tough to do when you’re going about your daily business. But of course,  when I think about it long enough, there are some pretty interesting things that have happened, and now is as great a time as any to share.

The Right, Right Hand

I take Chinese classes on Mondays, and enjoy going. My teacher, whose English name is Swallow (and nope, not the bird, I definitely made sure to ask), takes a bus two hours each way to teach us Chinese. She does this for free! She taught herself English by listening to the radio, and is always full of energy.  My favorite mistake she makes in English is when she says “you pronounce Asian very good,” instead of “your pronunciation is very good.” An adorable mix-up.

Last week, Swallow decided to start teaching us how to write Chinese Characters. Before that, it was simply listening and repeating which is a very Chinese way to teach.  A new student, a girl from New Zealand, was called up to the front of the class to draw a character on the board. She is left-handed, and started drawing the character.  Swallow immediately corrected her, saying “no, you write with your right hand.”  I was so offended FOR the student.  “I will not write with my right hand,” she said.  And that was the end of it,  But it reminded me- no matter HOW comfortable I get here, some things are just soooooo strange. Why on earth would writing with your left hand be an issue in 2011?

It reminds me of another situation that same day, when learning a Chinese character.  This certain character is comprised of about 12 different strokes of the pen. AND, each stroke has to be in the proper order. So, if you draw the character, and it looks exactly like the character the teacher drew, but you got to the end result in, say, 4 strokes, and maybe you drew stroke 3 before stroke two, you’re WRONG.  We’re talking the character is a carbon copy. Wrong. No reason is given as to why you’re wrong, or why you must make each stroke in the proper order, but that’s just the way it is and there is no other way. Just like you write with your right hand and that’s just the way it is…. Despite everything WRONG about that.

Hello Operator

Another day, I wasn’t feeling well and played hookie. I’d emailed the school and let them know I wasn’t coming.  My phone started ringing 10 minutes after the start of class. It was another Chinese woman , the woman who introduced me to the class. She doesn’t attend the class, but occasionally pops into the community center to say hello. I didn’t answer, and hit reject, but Chinese cell phones don’t come with voicemail.  She called back. And she called again, until I turned off my phone. When I turned it back on, she called SIX TIMES IN A ROW.

It’s just the way it is here.  There’s just not the thought that “oh, she must be busy, or at an appointment or in a meeting,” nope.  You call until the person answers.

I don’t get it.

Cock-a-doodle-do

I tried chicken feet for the first time today. They are as appetizing as they sound. And the texutre, wow.  Make no mistake, that absolutely WAS  a knuckle you just bit through.

Out of Control Top

Young women’s fashion here is….interesting. It’s a mix of ohhhh, first communion meets cheap floozie. Lace, frills, sequined heels, glittered denim…. you name it, it goes together. Even in the office.  We were at Starbucks a few days ago and saw a young woman wearing control top pantyhose and a shirt….. with very high heels. I know what you’re thinking, but no, if the shirt was long I would have mentioned it. 

I mean everyone knows the control top part is pants……right?

Just received a text from the Mister that sums all of this up:

 “In a taxi with a guy who has a pet cricket. Thought I’d seen everything.”

Apparently not.

Country Driving

The Mr. has been reading a great book by Peter Hessler called Country Driving. Hessler is an American who lived in Beijing, and during his time here, wrote a few really great books on what life’s really like in China. Country Driving details a series of trips along The Great Wall, and is incredibly well-written, accurate and funny description about what driving in China is truly like.

We got up early on Saturday and decided to do a little country driving of our own.  China is made up of provinces, but Beijing is considered a ‘special administrative region,’ similar to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau.   The actual region of Beijing is huge, and while we mostly just think of it as an over populated city (22 million!), there’s actually quite a bit of country to be seen outside of the 6th ring road.

We drove about 50 miles outside of the city. I am still amazed that we can take a drive and pass by sections of the Great Wall….

 

We spotted a sign for a ‘scenic route,’ and turned off. We started climbing into the mountains, and it reminded us a lot of the drive from Reno to Virginia City in Nevada, except instead of other cars, or motorcyclists, we saw local villagers on bikes, and grinding corn in their yards with stone tools. Wild.

It’s amazing to drive just an hour and be so far from the hoards of people in the city, and get out into some fresh air and nature.

But not to worry, readers. Being out in the country doesn’t mean you don’t get to see the  strange and unexplainable things that make China so fun-

Aria

I won a contest in a magazine a few weeks back by answering a question about Chef Matthew Mccool, Chef de Cuisine at Aria restaurant in Beijing. The prize was dinner for two at Aria, so I scheduled it for last night, in celebration of my 34th birthday.

We didn’t know what to expect, but the minute we stepped into the restaurant, we knew we were in for a treat. The restaurant was casually elegant and the kitchen had floor to ceiling glass so we could watch exactly what was going on. We were immediately poured Moet Champagne in celebration of my birthday, and were told Chef Mccool would be out to greet us personally.

How great is the name Mccool, by the way? Get the man his own TV show STAT.Chef Mccool is Australian, and studied under Gordon Ramsay in England. He was humble, kind, welcomed us warmly, and asked if we had any allergies. “We’re in your hands,” we said. He said we shouldn’t even look at our menus- he’d create something for us. This is EXACTLY the way we like to eat. The Chef always knows what’s fresh, the perfect wine pairing, the way the dishes should flow.

Still unsure of what to expect, we speculated. It was a free dinner, so maybe he’d skimp, give us just little tastes, or send out something basic.

Boy were we wrong.

Out came a stunning amuse bouche followed by an appetizer of spicy beef tartar, paired with artichoke soup drizzled with truffle oil. Then there was a gorgeous Goat’s Cannelloni, a purée of goat’s cheese and yogurt, smoked eggplant puree and dried olive liquorice. After that, we were served yet another appetizer of duck ravioli with foie gras and more truffles..not just truffle shavings, no…big hearty pieces of truffle. Every dish was beautifully presented, creative and artistic.

I was getting full after the appetizers, but our waiter told us we’d better get ready, because there was so much more coming. Three main courses to be exact. We unbuckled and prepared for a poached steak with braised root veggies. Again, it was delicious, but I could only get down a few bites.

At this point, we were scared. After a steak, what else could the chef send out?

 “That is main course, number 1, our waiter said. There are two more main courses, including another steak…the best steak in the world.”

Are you kidding me? Who gets two steaks at dinner? We begged please, could the chef skip the second steak, but no. He wanted us to try it. How about a fish course?  We were served salmon three ways- smoked, poached and pan-fried. We were beyond the sick point, but what do you do when they keep sending out more and more?  

Did I mention the wine pairings? Next up-a palate refresher of tomato tea served in test tubes in crushed ice. Adorable.

The SECOND steak arrived, beautifully presented with a foie gras mousse in a potato nest.  I have never asked for carry out in a fine dining establishment, but we had to.  We thought it rude to send back Wagyu beef and we couldn’t let it go to waste.

We convinced our waiter to only bring one plate of dessert, rather than the two courses of dessert that were supposed to come out.  They managed to sneak three dessertes on to one plate. And, since there’s always room for dessert, we managed to squeeze in tastes of amazing cheesecake topped with crushed pistachios, caramel corn and homemade caramel ice cream.  Kill me.

Those of you who know us well know we might be a little, tiny bit obsessed with good food.  We’ve eaten at some pretty spectacular restaurants in our day, including Daniel Boulud’s place here in Beijing.

Chef Mccool’s dinner was hands-down the best I’ve had, EVER. The attention to detail was beyond impressive, and the dishes were so unique. He was overly generous, and I can honestly say we’ll be back and recommending Aria to everyone we know.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to go change into some elastic waist pants.

Truly Asia.

 

CNN China plays the same five or six commercials over and over again and they’ve not really changed in the year we’ve been here. It is now deeply embedded in my brain that ‘Turkish Airlines is Globally Yours,” and “Malaysia….is Truly Asia.” 

We spent last weekend exploring Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the commercial is right. Malaysia truly IS Asia. The country is a fascinating Asian melting pot, the population consisting of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures all blending together to form a city that’s not only beautiful, but delicious.

 

We visited a stunning Hindu temple, located directly across the street from a Chinese Buddhist temple, which was around the block from a Mosque.

We ate spicy chili crabs in open air street stalls, drank Indian sweet lime, and sipped the thickest, sweetest Malaysian-style coffee at a place called Yut Kee.

The “World’s Largest Free-flight Walk-in Aviary” is located in Kuala Lumpur, and we spent a morning strolling the grounds next to peacocks, pelicans, parrots, owls, herons, birds whose names I can’t pronounce and the most shockingly red bird I’ve ever seen- the Scarlett Ibis.

After visiting such a culturally diverse city, I realized I really miss the huge ‘melting pot’ that IS the United States. There are a handful of expats in Beijing, but in a country of 1.4 billion, it’s a needle in a haystack.  I now realize just how colorful the US is- the myriad different cultures representing one country.  It’s so special, I don’t think I really appreciated it before moving here.  Look around today and count the cultures represented in your office or at the gas station or grocery store….and then take note of people who are a mixture of those cultures and backgrounds. Amazing, right? I definitely  took it for granted before, but now I get it.

Thanks, Malaysia!

The Greatest Show on Earth

 

If I had to offer you one tip of travel advice, it would be this-  When you see a sign advertising a Freak Show, RUN, do not walk, and buy a ticket immediately. Especially if that Freak Show is in China.

I attended a Temple Fair today. They’re huge festivals held around town during Chinese New Year, usually in parks (not exactly temples). I’d read that the fair at Ditan Park was the most extravagant, and today with the temps in the high 40’s and sunny, I thought it was the perfect day for an adventure. Oh, who am I kidding? I feel like every day is worthy of an adventure, but today was especially pleasant.

 Oh, what an adventure it was.

Carnival games, karaoke, acrobatics, street food, stalls selling trinkets, rides, toys, it was a mad house.  I can’t even approximate how many people were there, but at one point I had to keep myself from panicking at the thought of a stampede.

These photogenic men are eating a Beijing specialty Chuan’r (chew-ar).  The Beijing dialect adds a slurred  arrrrrr to a bunch of words ending in ‘n,’ which makes things insanely confusing when you first arrive and memorized the words with the N pronounced. For example, I’d say chewan, but nope. It’s chewar, and it’s yummy. Well, unless it’s chicken feet or duck tongues, in which case I’d let you decide for yourself.

After a good hour or so of walking around, I stopped to check out this board, advertising…..I wasn’t sure what.

Then it hit me- it was a freak show- a good ‘ol fashioned carnival side-show act! When I saw the photo of the two-headed person (not pictured), I couldn’t say no.  And heck yes, I wanted to see a person pull a snake through their nose! I paid my 10 rmb ($1.30 ish), and grabbed a seat inside the tent.

What followed was pure magic. This man started off chewing on the back of a bicycle (huh?), gagged an awful lot, and then lifted the bike into the air using only his mouth.

There was the disappearing bird act,  the highlight for me being the fact that the man decided to don a cowboy hat with his otherwise very Chinese costume:

Out came the snakes:

 

And then an act of brut strength, where a metal rod was bent using the sternum. Quite entertaining to say the least.

But…but….where were the FREAKS? The bearded ladies? Shrunken heads?

The moment I was waiting for had arrived. It was time for the TWO-HEADED REVEAL!!!

Want a closer look? I did.

Thankfully, I’m not a skeptic. If I were a skeptic, I would swear that’s a guy resting his head on a girl’s shoulder. And, I might even recognize those two, single-headed individuals from earlier acts in the show.  

But like I said, I’m no skeptic.