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Archive for December, 2010

Stranded in New York City

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

by Jian Ping

Christmas Lights in NYC

I went to New York City (NYC) over the Christmas weekend with my husband Francis and daughter Lisa. I lived in NYC for five years in the late 80s and early ‘90s and have always cherished a special feeling for the Big Apple. Ever since I moved to Chicago in 1994, I have visited NYC two or three times a year.  

This time, we made our plans for a short excursion to NYC in early December, flying over on Friday, Christmas Eve, and returning on Sunday, right after Christmas. As time drew close, we heard the forecast of a snowstorm, but took off as scheduled nevertheless.

Snow Started to Fall on Broadway

Manhattan always generates a kind of unique buzz and vibration, one that always make me feel excited the moment I enter the city. The pace of people moving in streams, the noise of speeding cars, and the voices of different languages heard on the streets—nowhere else is as dynamic as NYC. For me, I also loved the sweet smell of roasted peanuts, chestnuts and almonds, permeating the air from street vendors’ wheeled carts.  

We set out to walk along Broadway right after checking into our hotel in midtown. The sky was blue and the sun casted a nice golden glow on the buildings. The Broadway theatres all went dark on Christmas Eve, so we had a casual meal at “Korea Town” on 33rd St, followed by a couple of rounds of bowling games at a midtown bowling alley, and finished the day by watching How Do You Know, a newly released film at the AMC Theater on 42nd St. The following day, the sun disappeared, but the day was pleasant. I jogged along Fifth Avenue early in the morning and checked out Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree and ice skating ring and made a small loop in Central Park. We watched Brief Encounter, a Broadway play, in the afternoon and had a wonderful dinner at a French Bistro on

Korean BBQ

Spring St. in the evening. On Sunday morning, the clouds were low when I went out jogging. By the time we walked out of our hotel shortly after 10 am, flurries of snow began to dance in mid air, seemingly non threatening. With each passing hour, however, the snowfall intensified and the wind picked up speed. We enjoyed a wonderful Broadway Musical: Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, behind closed doors. At the time, I didn’t anticipate I would soon reach that point of near breakdown, albeit for totally different reasons. Several inches of snow covered the ground when we came out of the theatre. Before we finished our dinner that evening, we received United Airlines first notice of our flight cancellation. Lisa called United and after 40 minutes, rebooked our flight on Monday morning, which, before the end of the day, was cancelled again. Back at our hotel room, Lisa used two cell phones to call United, trying hard to reach a representative. 30 minutes later, she managed to book us on a 3 P.M. flight, also on Monday. The city was buried in snow the next morning when I went to an off-site gym to work out. Since moving around the city was difficult, we went to watch another movie, King’s Speech, during the day. However, soon after the movie started, I checked my vibrating BlackBerry. Sure enough, just as I feared, another notice came from United for our flight cancellation. When I finally got hold of a United representative over the phone two hours later, I was told we couldn’t get booked on any confirmed flight until Thursday, December 30th! No begging or plea or breakdown would get us anywhere. Since I had meetings lined up both for Tuesday and Wednesday in Chicago, we decided to take an Amtrak train to Washington D.C. and fly back to Chicago from there. Lisa decided to work out of her company’s New York office and stay with her friend until Thursday, so we took her and her friend Yeye to dinner at an Italian Restaurant before heading to the Penn Station.

Buried in Snow

Postings of delayed trains covered the board and the crowd in the train station made me feel as if I were in China. Our 8:05 P.M. train to Washington D.C. arrived after 10:30 P.M. and on our way to Washington D. C., it continued to get further delayed. By the time we arrived at the Capital, it was 3 o’clock in the morning. The line for taxi appeared to be half a mile long and there were not enough taxi available at the wee hour. I watched in disbelief as cab drivers picked customers, leaving behind those who were not going longer distance. We had to team up with two other passengers—also travelers stranded in NYC, and like us, took the detour to go to Chicago—to convince a driver to take us to the Reagan Airport. Eventually, after on the road for nearly 10 hours, we boarded the first flight to Chicago at 6 A.M.

Crowds at Penn Station

What was most unbelievable for the trip was not only the intensity of the blizzard, but also the inefficiency of the city government in dealing with it. 48 hours after the storm hit, I didn’t see a single snow removing vehicle on the streets in Manhattan. I’m not talking about side streets, but major avenues and squares such as Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Times Square! Everywhere I turned to, I saw cars spin or stuck on ice and snow, and pedestrians transverse over slush of icy water and compacted snow. Despite the warning, the city didn’t seem to have made any preparation. Two days after the storm, flights out of the three nearby airports continued to be cancelled. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he took responsibility of the city’s slow response and committed to remove snow from every street by Thursday. What was he doing earlier? I wondered.  

The experience made me appreciate the efficiency of snow removal in Chicago so much more!

by Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. visit www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com.

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Christmas and the Death of Beauty

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010
Toys-R-Us store at United Square shopping mall...
Image via Wikipedia

by Nancy Werking Poling

author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman and Out of the Pumpkin Shell

I’m not an expert on beauty. When it comes to aesthetics, I have no definitions to contribute, no profound knowledge of the arts. But I recognize beauty when I see it. Right now I see it out my study window: leafless trees against a brilliant blue sky; snow clinging to the drooping leaves of rhododendron; tall pine trees across the street swaying in the wind.

Perhaps because I’m old, out of sync with contemporary practices, I find Christmastime depressing. Toy stores are full of cheap plastic things intended for racing or building or pretending, none of them beautiful. It has become a season of artificiality, from trees to clichéd carols in the malls to commercially baked cookies and candies.

Few manufactured items can compare with what nature offers. The view of a lake from the top of a mountain trail, flowering bulbs in early spring. The silence of snow falling, the song of a bird, the gurgle of a stream, the roar of a waterfall. The taste of fresh strawberries or corn on the cob that’s just been picked.

There’s beauty too in the ornament a child made for the tree, a musical composition, a poem, a coffee table created by a craftsman, a hand-made quilt, cookies fresh from the oven.

A new generation with its Toys-R-Us wish lists, its i-pads and game apps, who spends time looking at screens (even when travelling scenic routes)—what will their idea of beauty be? If they are not exposed to it, if they are programmed to prefer the artificial over the genuine, what is to become of beauty? Who will make sure the forests are preserved, waters kept clean, mountain tops kept intact? Who will protect pandas and tigers and other species?

Beauty is in danger. If our children grow up in a mall world, isolated from the natural beauty beyond the acres-wide parking lot, who will love the planet enough to protect it?

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A Visit to Spain–Segovia

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

The Roman Aqueduct

I was determined not to let the loss of my wallet ruin the rest of our stay. The next day, we took a fast train to Segovia as planned. I was relieved to find Segovia a much more open and brighter city than Toledo. When I finally saw the well-known Roman Aqueduct, another marvel of human history, I became excited again. A close friend of mine had suggested that we visit Segovia. Besides the Aqueduct, he had mentioned the local specialty of “suckling pig.” We found Jose Maria, the best “suckling pig” restaurant recommended in the tour book.

The famous "suckling pig"

 We were lucky to be seated—the place was so packed at lunch hour that one had to squeeze in or out. I took a picture of the entire roasted baby pig before it was served. My friend was right—the crispy and tender “suckling pig” was the best I had ever had. We ate to our hearts’ content and nearly finished a bottle of red wine—I have zero tolerance to alcohol and rarely drink. But that day, I had a glass of red wine while Francis, who usually had one glass over dinner, finished two. Our faces turned red at the end of our meal. When he finished his sorbet and I, a Tiramisu, we pushed our way out of the restaurant, jolly and happy.

The Alcazar, a former fortress that serves as a military institute today

We spent another day in Madrid before returning to Chicago. It was a Sunday and we visited the large “flea market” mentioned in the tour book. Unlike the market in Florence, we were disappointed that the items for sale there were of poor quality. We left the market soon, with a Chinese made flashing bike light as the only souvenir.

Despite my misfortune, I enjoyed the trip to Madrid, Toledo and Segovia. On the way back to Chicago, I began to think of a trip to Barcelona next year.

Jian Ping, Author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com. www.moraquest.com

Mulberry Child is being developed into a feature-length documentary film by director Susan Morgan Cooper and will be released in 2011.

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A Visit to Spain–Toledo

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Entrance to Toledo

We took Madrid as our base and made two side trips to Toledo and Segovia. The fast train took about 30 minutes to each of these cities, one in the south, and the other, north. Toledo looked like a city frozen in medieval times, when it was most prosperous. Dark streets with cobble stones and old gray buildings hovering over the winding roads looked ancient and suppressive. Most of the streets were so narrow that each time we heard a car coming, we had to flatten ourselves against the wall to stay out of the way of the fast moving vehicle. What was truly magnificent in Toledo was the Gothic Cathedral, which took more than

Altar at Toledo Cathedral

two centuries to complete. I had visited the marvelous Duomos in Florence and Siena in Italy and even climbed to the top of the buildings. But this grandiose Cathedral—390 ft long, 194 ft wide and 146 ft high, with its extravagant sculptures in multi-layers and gold plated panels, surpassed anything I had seen. I was awe-struck standing under its enormous arches. I could hardly imagine the power and awe it would strike over the commoners in mediaeval time.  

The Toledo Cathedral

Coming out of the Cathedral, we walked up and down the streets to look for a good restaurant to have lunch. There were many tourists in town and it took us a while to locate a restaurant that looked appealing. I was relieved to take off my backpack. But before I could sit down, I noticed the zipper of my bag was wide open. My heart skipped a beat. Looking inside, I saw that the second zipper to an inner pocket where I stored my wallet was also open. “No, no, no! It couldn’t be!” Despite my effort to control myself, these words sprang out of my mouth with fear and anger. Francis had warned me about pickpockets and asked me to put my passport and wallet in the front pockets of my fleece jacket, under my raincoat. I did, for one day. But the wallet, stacked with more than five hundred dollars and some Euros, plus all my credit cards, driver’s license, insurance, library and CTA cards, turned out to be too bulky. So I moved it to the backpack, thinking two zippers would keep it safe. I felt like an idiot that I had all my valuables on me, all in one place. I was rendered literally penniless. My stomach churned and my hunger disappeared. We barely touched the chicken and beef entrees that we ordered.

“At least, you still have your passport,” Francis tried to comfort me. I winced.

We visited a few sites in the afternoon, but I could no longer enjoy the sightseeing. I was a frequent traveler and had never had my wallet stolen before. Besides kicking myself for being careless, I felt my sense of safety and security had been violated.

We took the train back to Madrid in a subdued mood. All I could think of Toledo was the magnificent cathedral and my lost wallet.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com

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A Visit to Spain–Madrid (2)

Friday, December 17th, 2010

By Jian Ping

My life saving clam entree for dinner!

I was warned that Spaniards ate late and no restaurants would open for dinner until after 9 P.M. I didn’t take it seriously until I was starving at 7 P.M. and couldn’t find any restaurant that would serve dinner. We searched up and down the streets and eventually settled with some simple tapas and pastry. The following day, despite a late lunch, I still couldn’t wait until 9 P.M. for dinner and ended up having a light meal of lentil soup and clams, consumed with a freshly baked roll of bread!

Metropolis Building at Night

I was amazed, however, to see Gran Via came alive at night, after 9 o’clock. Streams of people at all ages dressed smartly and strode the streets—it was so crowded that I sometimes had to say “Excuse me” to pass by. People appeared patient and good natured and all the shops were open. There was a Starbucks and a MacDonald by our hotel and each night before going to bed, I took my NetBook to one of these places—I was too cheap to pay the hefty fee charged at the hotel for Internet access. I used the free Wi-Fi at Starbucks or MacDonald to get online and check my emails. Both places were packed with so many people at night that each time we stopped by, I had to look for an empty table like a hawk while Francis stood in line to buy pastry and drinks. There was no sign of Spain going through financial crisis in these places or the crowded shops along Gran Via.   

A constant long line of people purchasing lucky Christmas lotto tickets!

Another surprising scene that drew my attention every day was the long line of people purchasing lottery ticket. A small store front near our hotel sold a special “good luck” Christmas lottery and every morning, before the store was open, a line would form. During the day, when we came back to the hotel to take a break, I saw the line extended more than half a block to a side street, and in the evening, before the store was closed, the constant line didn’t get any shorter. It was fascinating to see people, young and old, patiently waiting in the cold! Was it a manifestation of optimism or desperation? I wondered.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com.

Mulberry Child is being developed into a feature-length documentary by award winning director Susan Morgan Cooper and will be released in 2011.

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A Visit to Spain–Madrid

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

By Jian Ping

Metropolis Building in Madrid

I’ve been to quite a few cities in Europe, including London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Prague, Florence, and Milan, but never anywhere in Spain. So during a recent weekend when my husband Francis and I sat in front of his computer to make travel plans, we selected Madrid. Compared to Barcelona, we believed Madrid had more cultural and historical heritage. 

We flew from Chicago to Madrid right before Thanksgiving. I read a travel guide on the seven-plus-hour flight and was ready to check out the city when we arrived early the following morning. As we always did when visiting London or Paris, we bought two ten-ride tickets for the Metro and took the train to the Regente, a local hotel on Gran Via in the center of town.

Velazquez before Prado Museum

Despite checking out the weather forecast, we didn’t bring enough warm clothing, and Madrid was much cooler than we expected. We put on multi-layers of clothes and set out to roam the streets around the Prado Museum, the Botanic Garden, and the Atocha Railway Station. I was very impressed by the broad streets, much grander and open than the tour book described, and the city buildings decorated with elaborate statues and carvings.  I also noticed a surprisingly pleasant phenomenon: Madrid’s bright blue sky—I had ever been to a city with a sky so brilliantly blue! I pointed my camera upwards and tried to capture the pure, fascinating color.  

Me in front of Egyptian Temple of Debod

We spent two days in Madrid, walking all over the city. The Egyptian Temple of Debod, the Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace, the Almuden Cathedral, and of course, the Prado Museum where many paintings by Diego Valezquez, Gredo and Goya were exhibited, and the Plaza de Espana where a statue of Miguel de Cervantes, along with his two protagonists in Don Quixote de la Mancha, stood prominently. I also selected a “literary walk” from the tour guide and wanted to trace the footsteps of Hemingway, Federicao Garcia Lorca, and Cervantes. But the streets in Madrid were so irregular and the turns so confusing that we soon gave up the attempt. Instead, we marked the area we wanted to visit each day and guided our walk by checking the city map posted on a panel above each Metro station. “You’re here,” a red dot indicated. We used “squares” such as Puerta del Sol and Plaza de Espana or signature buildings such as the Metropolis Building as our compass. Getting lost for a few blocks served as a nice excursion of adventure that gave us a chance to see side streets and cafes, and we enjoyed the surprises.   

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com.

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Where are Christmas cookie recipes for the culinary inept?

Monday, December 13th, 2010
christmas cookies
Image by TidyMom {busy & WAY behind} via Flickr

by Nancy Werking Poling

author of  HAD EVE COME FIRST AND JONAH BEEN A WOMAN and OUT OF THE PUMPKIN SHELL

Ah, now I remember why I don’t cook. Or bake. The cold, snowy conditions yesterday inspired me, for the first time in years, to bake holiday cookies. I wasn’t alone. Though few cars were on the road, six of us meandered up and down Bi-Lo’s baking aisle. I left with almonds, almond extract ($5.99!), and coconut.

Seems like every time I cook, I discover I’m missing an ingredient. I either decide to leave it out altogether or find a substitute. A recipe calls for cream; I substitute skim milk. It calls for butter, I use olive oil. (Before you culinary types gag, I’ll admit to a little exaggeration there.) Yesterday I wrongly assumed I had baking soda on hand. Not to be deterred, I took out the box I’d been using as a deodorizer in the refrigerator—probably for six months or so.

I also have a penchant for taking shortcuts. I didn’t do that yesterday; I just plain forgot to review the recipe. Early in the procedure, the baker was to put in a third of the sugar. Which I did. My negligence in later checking again resulted in my forgetting the remaining two-thirds. When I went to clean up, there was all that sugar in the measuring cup. Needless to say, the lemon cookies are on the sour side.

Is there any wonder why fifteen years into our marriage my husband took over the kitchen?

By the way, the coconut macaroons are delicious. A little on the dark side, but delicious.

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Asian Trip—Hong Kong

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

by Jian Ping

Inside the Aviary in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s weather was calm and sunny when we got there. We felt very blessed. I had been coughing since the moment we landed in Vietnam and the pollution in Hanoi and Ho Chi Ming City only made it worse. I decided to take it easy in Hong Kong.

A friend took me to the Aviary in the center of the city. I had been to Hong Kong many times before but never knew the existence of this large “cage” in the middle of town that raised a variety of birds. I snapped many photos, wishing I had my long camera lens with me.

The following day, three of us paid a tribute to the “Big Buddha”, taking the long cable ride, 5.7 km or 26 minutes in mid air, to the Tian Tan Buddha Statue at Ngong Ping. Despite the haze, we had a good view of the Lantau North Country Park and the Hong Kong International Airport. The Buddha statue was completed in 1993 and had since become a visiting center for believers and tourists.

Looking down at the winding trail on the mountain ranges leading all the way to the Buddha, I told my friends we should hike next time.

“We can watch you hike from above,” one of them responded, laughing.

The "Big Buddha"

From a distance, the statue of the Big Buddha appeared magnificent and mysterious. When we got close, I was awe-struck. High up on an alter, the bronze Buddha sits on top of a lotus throne, with her right hand raised, a symbolic gesture for the removal of affliction. Her face was calm yet benevolent. Many people crowded the 268 steps to reach her on the hill top. A middle-aged woman not far from us kneeled down and covered each step on her knees.

We were not Buddhists, but standing in front of the Big Buddha, we bowed our heads, put our hands together in front of our chests and prayed for her blessing. It was a serene and peaceful moment.

The next day, I boarded United Airline Flight 896 to return to Chicago. The 14-hour flight was long enough. To make matters worse, our plane sat on the Tarmac for more than an hour after the scheduled take-off time and had to take a detour to San Francisco to refuel, “due to strong wind,” the captain announced. The stop resulted in an unexpected change of crew and we ended up waiting on the plane for more than two hours, once again sitting on the Tarmac. By the time we landed in Chicago, we were 5 hours behind schedule. It was the longest flight I had ever taken—a blemish to my otherwise wonderful Asian trip!

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com.

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Old

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010
psiloceras planorbis (Ammonite Fossil)
Image by cobalt123 via Flickr

by Nancy Werking Poling

author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman

and Out of the Pumpkin Shell

All around me were bins of fossils—ancient sea creatures, ferns. I was in Dave’s Rock Shop  (Evanston, IL) searching for Christmas gifts for my grandsons.

“We all’d like to go back to a younger age,” the woman beside me said into her cell phone.

I picked up and studied a 350 million-year-old orthoceras from Morocco. Glistening black, smooth to the touch.

“Sure, you’ve made mistakes. We all have,” she said. She too was rummaging through the specimens.

Would this shark’s tooth embedded in rock captivate a grandson’s imagination? I wondered.

“Yes, childhood was an innocent time. I’d like to be ten again too.”

Maybe one of the boys would prefer a 400 million-year-old ammonite. Did this chambered mollusk live at about the time of the dinosaurs?

“Sure, getting older is hard.”

I held a plant fossil from the early Pennsylvanian period. Chalky white fronds on a black background.

“Eric, you’ve got plenty of time to become the man you want to be. For God’s sake, you’re only twenty-five.”

And here I’d been thinking in terms of millions of years.

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Asian Trip—Ho Chi Minh City

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

By Jian Ping

A guide demonstrating a hidden entrance to the tunnel

When we arrived at Ho Chi Minh City, Typhoon Megi, the strongest in Asia for the year, was forecasted to hit Vietnam. We were very concerned and kept checking weather forecast. Luckily, Megi changed its route and skipped Vietnam and Hong Kong, our next destination.

We made usual tourist stops at the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Ben Thanh Market. Then, we visited the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Exhibition of American War Crimes. Despite the bias of the exhibition that demonstrated only the cruelties committed by the Americans and my awareness of how the war was fought, the devastation of the Vietnam War was still nerve wrecking. The impact on me was much stronger than I expected, perhaps partially due to the fact that I was standing on the ground where the war took place.

A trap with bamboo spikes

In addition to photographs of the burning of villages and killing of people, there on display were gruesome samples of “tiger cage” and deformed fetuses, resulted from the use of Agent Orange. There was no much shown about how the Vietnamese fought the war. However, when we visited the Cu Chi Tunnel the following day, we saw the weapons that the Viet Cong used, including metal and bamboo spikes in hidden traps that were designed to pierce through people feet, rib cages, shoulders, and head. The Cu Chi Tunnel, which extended to 250 kilometers in distance, was first dug during French occupation in the ‘40s and expanded during the Vietnam War in the ‘60s. Listening to the horrific battles fought around the area by both sides, I couldn’t even raise my camera to capture the images of these weapons. I couldn’t imagine the fear and pain of all the people involved in the war, including the civilians! Yet, standing right then and there, I wondered if we could ever truly learn from history given that fact that war is still being carried on in other part(s) of the world by the U.S.  I followed a guide and crawled through a section of the tunnel, bending more than 90 degrees. I felt suffocated, both emotionally and physically.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com. www.smearedtype.com

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