American Summer Vacation

 

It’s amazing how technology seems to shorten distance and time.

We’d not been back to the US in over 15 months, but it felt as if no time passed when we visited in July for my Brother’s wedding, and a week-long visit with the in-laws. We kept commenting on how email, skype and the ability to call everyone truly makes the distance seem like nothing. I can’t imagine how different things were just a few decades ago, when a letter might take 3 weeks to arrive.

The wedding in Michigan was absolutely fantastic. The bride and groom were glowing, the location couldn’t be beat, and being a part of it meant so much to both of us. We had a glorious week on Lake Huron, complete with boat rides, jumps off of the infamous lighthouse (I skipped this time due to a special little one, but I received my badge of honor a few years ago!), visits with friends, family and lovable dogs. There’s something so special about the Great Lakes…I feel like they’re this hidden gem of the US- a secret summer wonderland that gets overlooked, but has some of the best water sports and summer fun around. We’re talking huge bodies of fresh, clear water with no critters that will sting, bite or kill you. It’s not crowded, not expensive, and did I mention the stars at night?  What more could you want?

Congrats to the Bride and Groom. We couldn’t be happier for you!

After the  wedding festivities, we headed to Maine, where we met up with my in-laws in Boothbay Harbor. It was the first time to Maine for both of us, and I’m pretty sure I could live there. WOW, it’s stunning. The houses, waterfront, nature, lobster, adorable accents and CHOWDA are just so…charming. We rented a cottage for the week, which sat on a small, warm lake that was perfect for swimming. We visited the HUGE LL Bean store in Freeport, shopped for the baby, went on an unsuccessful, yet fun whale watching adventure,fished for mackerel and the Mr. showed off his campfire-making skills each night.

Dear Maine- you’re another well-kept secret in the USA!  P.S.- damn your delicious, calorie-filled whoopie pies!

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Whoopie-Pies-107615

Special thank you to BOTH families and all of our friends for the surprise baby showers and thoughtful gifts! It meant so much to us.

Things feel different now, but I guess that’s to be expected. While being in the USA and spending time with friends and family means so much to us, we were excited to be back home in Beijing. And yep, it absolutely feels like home now.

You’d think touching down in a hot and sticky, 99 percent humidity with an insane crush of people in an hour-long taxi line might put us off, but nope.

Sure, I sometimes wish I could just drive to the local Whole Foods, understand conversations, and not have to worry about whether or not our electricity (especially our a/c) will last throughout the night before I can spend a few hours figuring out how to add more, but….

We were giggling like kids yesterday while we ate our street cart breakfast, visited the farmer’s market, and stopped by the flower market, snickering at the guys in their ‘Beijing Bikinis’ before getting a much-needed foot massage.

There’s just something about being here, right now, that is so special.

Expecting in the Middle Kingdom

As you all know by now, we’re expecting our first baby in November. We’re beyond excited, and can’t wait to meet this little person who has started kicking and punching me with a vengeance!

Being pregnant in Beijing is unique. There are some specific Chinese customs and traditions regarding pregnancy that are just wild, and I thought it would be fun to share these with you. I’ve also had some really funny experiences already, now that it’s obvious to others that I’m pregnant.

I want to point out that children are CHERISHED in China. While some of these traditions are going to sound really bizarre and crazy, in the end, this is going to be an absolutely wonderful place to have a baby. Children here are fawned over, cooed at, played with, showered with attention and just plain adored. Foreign babies get even more attention. Despite many expats horror stories “they took photos of my child without asking!” I am going to try to remember that its out of serious adoration that the Chinese say and do things we, in the West, just don’t find normal. And with that…on to the crazy!

Shall we start with conception?

To conceive a baby of the desired sex, tradition tells couples to eat specific foods seven days before conception. If they want a boy, they should eat tofu, mushrooms, carrots and lettuce. For a girl, the diet is pickles, meat and fish.

Rubbing the belly too much will lead to a spoiled child.

A baby who kicks a lot will grow up to be naughty.

In China, pregnant woman do not drink cold beverages. EVER.  I have already been scolded for drinking ice water. “It will hurt baby!!!” Ummmmmm, I don’t think so.

After a woman gives birth in China, she does not shower, brush her teeth, wash her hair, or any other part of her body…..FOR ONE MONTH. I’ve asked about the medical significance of the impending tooth decay and stench, however the only answer I’ve ever received is “Chinese women are very weak after having a baby.”  Okay.

After giving birth, Chinese women cannot sit in air conditioning or by an open window or fan for at least a month. This will cause health problems later in life.

Pregnant women should not attend funerals or weddings, as the emotion involved could cause her to miscarry.

Mothers-to-be should not use scissors, needles or knives in their own shadow because the sharp objects could hurt the baby. Personally, I think this one was invented by a husband, fearing for his safety after he looked at his pregnant wife the wrong way. Sorry, Honey!!!

Some of my pregnant friends have been told by taxi drivers that they will not turn on the air conditioning for them. Again, this cold thing and pregnancy in China- it’s seriously considered horrible. Mind you, it’s 95 and humid here. My friend told the taxi driver she might die if he didn’t turn on the air, so either way the baby would be harmed.

Today, I was at the market, bargaining with a tailor. It was getting heated, and the tailor told me “please don’t get angry, please…you are pregnant, it is not good for the baby.” He still didn’t come down on his price.  Nice try, buddy. Ummm, can I use your scissors for a minute?!

Pay As You Go Utilities

Living in a ‘serviced apartment’ had a few perks, one of which was we never had to deal with utilities, as they were included in our rent. Now that we’ve moved to a non-serviced apartment, things are a bit different. Not only are our utilities not included in our rent, but they work on a system that I’d swear is from another planet…Um, that is if I didn’t live in China.

Here’s how it works. Upon move-in, you’re given a handful of different utility cards- Hot water, Electricity, Toilet Water, and Gas.

Each room in our apartment has meters that require us to insert a card to add a value to the meter. So, if we need hot water in the master bathroom, we have to insert the hot water card into the hot water meter and deposit units on to the meter. That goes for every room- if we want hot water in the kitchen, we have to insert the hot water card into the kitchen meter and add units to that particular meter. Same for toilet water….gas, etc.

But, being China, it’s not as easy as just inserting a card into a meter. Those cards need money added to them, and there are rules about how much you can add, certain places you can add the money to the cards, and certain bank cards that you can use to add that money. There are also rules about when you can add a value to the meter, and when you can add money to your cards.  Confused yet?

The cards have no value until you add money to them. It took some serious leg work and many hours one day to figure out how to do this.  Off to the bank I went to deposit cash into a Chinese bank account. Once the account had cash, I could then put my ATM card into another machine, select ‘electricity’ (in Chinese characters, no cheating with an English menu on these puppies), remove ATM Card, insert electricity card, type in amount I wante to add, hit confirm and bam- I now had units on my electricity card that were purchased with my ATM card. I thought the amount I added was Chinese RMB, not units, but how would I know? I couldn’t read a thing.

Back I went to the apartment to try to add these new units to our meter. But can I I access that meter myself? No way!  I have to call an engineer up to our apartment to open the utility closet door. An hour later, he arrives, unlocks the door and inserts my electricity card.

“Bu ke yi.” You can’t, he says.

Hmmmm. I then learn that unless my current electricity balance is UNDER 200 units, I cannot deposit money on to the machine. But in order to check that balance, I have to call the engineer come up, unlock the utility closet and read the meter. Or, we can wait until the building management leaves a note under our door saying our balance is below 200 units.  That little note doesn’t always arrive in time,as our friends have experienced three times in the last month,  and we may run out of electricity in the middle of the night. That sucks for those of us using an alarm clock…or lights…or air conditioning.

So fast forward one day, I again have the engineer come to the apartment, unlock the utility door, check the balance. 185. Sweet! Now, we insert the utility card and (can you hear the chorus in the background?) we have enough electricity for…….well, for the next few weeks, until I have to do this all over again.

The rules:

1. Meter cannot be accessed by tenants, only engineering.

2. You cannot add any money to a utility card without first depositing the entire balance of the card into the meter. So if you have 100 units on the card and want to add 900 units to the meter, you first have to add the 100 unit balance to the meter, then head back to the bank to get 800 more units, go back to your apartment, call the engineer, and then deposit the units.

BUT-# 3. That’s only if the balance on the meter is under 200 units. Remember, can’t add units unless you’re below 200.

Just to kick this up a notch, how about #4-

You cannot add more than 1000 units of electricity to a card or a meter at a time, and therefore cannot add enough units at one time to last a few months.

How much does your head hurt just reading this?

I’ve yet to solve the problem of how to deposit a specific amount from the hot water card into the master bathroom, and still have units on the card to deposit on the meter in the guest bathroom. Read between the lines, those of you coming to visit…. You’d better be nice or I may decide not to unravel this mystery, leaving you with an extremely cold shower!

I used to think pay-as-you-go phones were ghetto. But, as it turns out, I just might have one of those here in China also.

Never say never, people.

The Secret to Suckling Pig in Bali

It’s amazing how fast time can pass. Not only have we officially been in Beijing for over a year, but May zoomed by in a flash with a trip to Bali, moving out of one apartment, into another, and there’s also this growing belly I’ve been working on…

We spent 10 days in Ubud, on the island of Bali, Indonesia last month.  It’s the same Ubud, Bali that Elizabeth Gilbert writes about in Eat, Pray, Love, and the same Ubud that Julia Roberts visits in the movie version to ‘find herself.’  These two facts had no influence on us choosing the destination.  We hadn’t lost ourselves, and we weren’t going to find anything in particular. We  just went to relax, explore and unwind. It was the perfect place. We opted for Ubud, a small town a bit inland, rather than a Bali beach vacation for a couple of reasons…

Number 1- We aren’t beach people. Sure, we love being on/near the water, but a week at a resort laying in the sun with thousands of other tourists in speedos drinking watered down pina coladas just isn’t our thing.  It gets boring, and often times the culture of a place is totally lost at a resort.

Number 2- Ubud has been voted #1 on a lot of travel magazine lists lately. It won Friendliest city in Asia, Best Spas, and even Best Destination in Asia. You can’t really top that.

Number 3- I’m pregnant. We initially were going to visit Cambodia, but didn’t want to take any chances with food and the possibility of getting sick.  This pains me, since I like to try everything, especially street food. But, now that I’m sharing my body, I wanted to be extra careful for the little one.

So, we booked an awesome villa at a place called the Desa Sanctuary. It had five joglos (Indonesian style houses) surrounding a pool. Gorgeous. Our joglo was open-air downstairs, with a big, comfy King sized bed in air-conditioned comfort upstairs. Oh, and the bathrooms are also open-air. It was fantastic.  It wasn’t fancy or five-star luxury, but it was lovely, private, big, and lush.

Ubud was more touristy than I expected, but still wonderful.  The small town is full of galleries, health-conscious restaurants and yoga studios. Plus, like everywhere on Bali, there are stunning temples around every corner.

I’ve learned when traveling that while you sometimes want to be the first person to find that ‘undiscovered’ destination with zero tourists, that can also turn into a  lot of work. Ubud was a nice mix of authentic, beautiful Bali, but also caters to tourists enough so you don’t spend half the day trying to figure out how to…say…rent a scooter.

Which we did. We rented a scooter for six dollars a day and drove all over the place. We rode to a volcano, we rode down gorgeous empty roads surrounded by rice terraces, we rode to the beach. We also snorkled, attended a beautiful Balinese dance performance at the Royal Palace, bought  paintings, read, bathed at a holy temple, swam and just soaked it in.  We even felt an earthquake on our last morning in Ubud.  It was just a little sway, but we felt it, and later confirmed that it was a 5.5 on the island of Java.

Fun tip-

Anthony Bourdain did a show in Bali a few years back, and featured a warung (small restaurant) called Ibu Oka. Bourdain is a pork freak, and claimed that the Babi Gulung (suckling pig) at Ibu Oka might be the best in the world. That’s a pretty hefty title coming from a guy who travels the world to eat. Ibu Oka is now famous, and there’s usually a line  just to get a seat.

Here’s the secret- the restaurant Rai Pasti on Monkey Forest Road serves the Babi Gulung from Ibu Oka. I’m not talking the same recipe, I’m talking Ibu Oka’s Babi Gulung. When you order, a member of the staff zooms off on a scooter to Ibu Oka and brings the suckling pig to Rai Pasti where you can enjoy it without a wait or a crowd in an adorable environment overlooking a field of rice.

How do we know? We ordered it, at least 6 times during our stay. And on one occasion, a certain tall, tan and handsome guy placed one order, ate it, and ordered another serving  immediately. It’s that good.

Cuandixia

The Mister and I took a country drive yesterday.   We’d heard about a village called Cuandixia, about 90 kilometers (quick, how far is that in miles?!) outside of Beijing, that is a settlement from the Ming Dynasty, known for its well-preserved courtyard homes. We were excited for a peek into the past.

We headed out on a perfect spring day. The weather was in the 70’s, the sky was clear, and the drive was stunning. It’s still amazing to me that Beijing  (a city so flat nearly everyone rides a bicycle) is surrounded by such gorgeous mountains.

Cuandixia was…..soooo touristy. It seems that a lot of our trips to ancient sites or attractions around Beijing turn into a big, fat tourist trap. Potential learning experiences here seem to be completely overshadowed by money-making ventures. Ancient courtyards, which could give a glimpse into village life years ago are now turned into souvenir shops selling cheap, junky trinkets.  People set up stands selling water, trying to arrange drivers back to Beijing, and selling ice cream. Not once did we see a tour guide, or a brochure explaining the history of the village or the descendents that occupied the homes.

 

 

Driving in the countryside is always fun (yet completely life-threatening). Two lane roads that twist and turn around the mountains turn into an F1 racetrack among Chinese drivers. I have no idea where in the driver’s manual it says that it’s totally appropriate to pass on a curve, with no sight of what’s around the bend, but here, it’s done 3 cars wide at 50mph with absolutely no regard to life in general. Holy Speedracer.

 

But enough of my Negative Nancy tone. Look at these photos!! I mean, if you aim your camera just right, you can’t tell that it’s a tourist trap, and you certainly can’t see the tee shirts and postcards being pushed on you at every turn.

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!