Sunday, August 29, 2010

Recipe: Creamy-icy coffee dessert

http://marctoutain.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/img_3298.jpg



Top photo is of the final product, which tastes like something between tiramisu and ice cream. (It's prettier if you stack the ingredients in a glass container or a sundae glass, but we were just eating this at home)


I love the combinations of flavors in cafe liegeois, particularly in the summer. The bitterness of the coffee and the bite of the rum are offset by the sweetness of the other ingredients. The icy crunchiness of the granite is offset by the soft, smooth textures of the ice cream, mascapone cream and whipped cream.


This is a translation from Marc's blog, where you can find the recipe for cafe liegeois in French.


Components

Coffee ice cream. (Should be a little soft)

Coffee granite (Like a coffee ice)

Mascarpone cream

"Ladies fingers" biscuits, broken into small pieces

Whipped cream

Cacao powder


To make the granite

Make two espressos and pour into a small, shallow container. Stir in about 3 tbsp (35 grams) sugar.

When the coffee is cooled, add a big dollop of rum.

Put in the freezer until it freezes over. Every few hours, take a fork and scrape it so that it becomes loose and icy.


To make the mascarpone cream

Using an electric mixer, beat together about 1 cup (100 grams) mascarpone cheese, ½ C (10 cl) cream, 2 tbsp (25 grams) sugar, one raw egg. Keep cold.


Assembly

Right before serving, make more espressos and cool to room temperature. Calculate one espresso for two people.

Place in this order.

  1. Small scoop coffee ice cream
  2. Scoop mascarpone cream
  3. Spoonful coffee granite
  4. Sprinkling of cookie pieces
  5. Pour ½ an espresso into each dessert, taking care to soak the cookie pieces
  6. Another small scoop coffee ice cream
  7. Unsweetened whipped cream
  8. Garnish with cacao powder


The Joyceyland cheating version.

I am less diligent than Marc, who started doing the prep work for this dessert yesterday.

For plain old home cooking, I’d skip the granite and mascarpone.

This is also a nice dessert:

  1. Small scoop coffee ice cream
  2. Sprinkling of ladies finger pieces
  3. Pour ½ an espresso into each dessert, taking care to soak the cookies
  4. Pour a drop of rum in, too.
  5. Add another scoop coffee ice cream
  6. Unsweetened whipped cream
  7. Garnish with cacao powder


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Anglo-French-American Canada

I can't think of anywhere else in the world where you can find a British Foot Guard in a bearskin hat standing next to a French fleur de lis. After all, England and France spent centuries trying to destroy each other. And France hasn't used the ancient symbol of the fleur de lis since probably the Revolution in the late 18th century. What's it doing in 2010 Quebec?

This was not some tourist gimmick. This was a working soldier at the Citadel in Quebec City, which is an active military base.

Canada is a funny place. It has many cultural similarities with the United States, its much bigger neighbor. But it also has a resolutely French-speaking area that has not gone over to English even after centuries. And -- in a most un-American way -- Canada is still part of the British Commonwealth. The Queen of England is still on all Canadian money and passports.

Americans and Anglo Canadians (I mean from English-speaking provinces) invariably gush about how "European" Quebec is. I always believed this, too. Where else in North America did people speak French, eat French food, drink cafe au lait, and walk around little cobblestone streets casually carrying bottles of wine? Quebecers are even European-skinny, compared to their hefty North American compatriots. Montrealers are known for dressing a little like their distance cousins on the Continent.

But when Marc visited, he found the opposite. He was surprised how North American Quebec was. This surprised me.
He pointed out our bagel obsession, plus the prevalence of chain doughnut shops like Tim Horton's (which served what he called "the worse coffee he'd ever tasted in the whole entire world"). Amusingly, he took photos of things he couldn't see in Europe: big yellow schoolbuses, big red firetrucks and giant "beer trucks."

This photo is of Tim Horton's doughnut selection. This glowing doughnut case attracted Montreal's early-morning office workers like moths to a light. Gangs of co-workers would come in and just buy a HUGE bag or box of goodies, plus a half-dozen large coffees. Yes, that is very American behavior indeed. Marc the Frenchman was appalled by Tim Horton's "drip coffee" and at doughnuts in general.

He also noted that Canadians had that "Hi! I'm Joyce! How are you!" friendliness that you also get in America. No Brit or Frenchman, no matter how nice, are going be as sunny.
**
At Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, waiting for our flight back to Hong Kong, I noticed about four cowboys in front of us.
They were not fake cowboys. They were not prissy French people dressed up in costume, or maybe tourists preparing for a U.S. trip who had bought a cowboy hat for fun.
You could tell, from the way they stood and walked, the cut of their jeans and their scruffed-up real cowboy shoes. One casually propped his foot up on a chair. They seemed almost unnaturally calm. They didn't talk much.
Or at least, until some girls came by. Then they talked -- and in French. I was too far away to hear the accent, but it seemed half-way decent at least.
Now, I asked Marc -- Where in the world would you find French-speaking authentic North American cowboys?
I got my answer when they all got up to board the next flight to Canada. Of course!


This was not one of the airport cowboys, but one can imagine. Photo from the Cute Faces blog.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Quebec City -- Small but perfectly formed

Quebec City has a big, broad boardwalk along the mighty Saint-Laurence. (Makes Victoria Harbour look like a puddle). Never mind whatever other attractions the city may have, Marc and I just enjoyed walking up and down this riverside strip, taking in the space and fresh air, the clean and the quiet.

Above is the boardwalk at dusk, about 8:30 or 9 p.m. in the summer. The sprawling Chateau Frontenac (now a 600+ room hotel) is in the background.

The boardwalk during the day. (Yes, the guy with the camera is Marc.)

Quebec City, a three-hour train ride northeast of Montreal, is one of the prettiest cities I've seen.
With a population of about 400,000, it doesn't have the scale of a metropolis like London or Hong Kong. It doesn't have the crowds or pollution either. And it hasn't allowed developers to destroy or modernize its Old City, which is more than 400 years old. (And that's old for North America).

The historic preservation is genuine -- it's not like one of those "historic" places in China that are basically rebuilt as Disneyfied versions of their old selves. This is the real thing.

A church spire, seen from the ramparts on top of the city.
(Quebec was once a walled city).

One of the endless small streets in the labyrinthine Old City.

Quebec City has been a tourist draw since I was a little kid -- and certainly, long before that, given that the Chateau Frontenac first operated as a hotel in 1893.

While it is certainly touristy during the summer, it isn't oppressively so. Sure, there are some shops selling cheesy T-shirts and souvenirs. But mostly, it's galleries with works by local artists, or boutiques selling darling items, like old-fashioned chocolat chaud bowls.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Guangzhou's new cultural district

I've been so distracted from work that I didn't even repost this article, which came out Aug. 3. (I was already on vacation then).
Pity there are only two of Christie Johnston's great photos on The New York Times website version -- she took a ton of good ones during one of my trips up to Guangzhou. I think there were more in the print edition.
***
Photo by Christie Johnston for the International Herald Tribune.
A view of the Guangzhou Opera House, seen from the entrance of the newly opened Guangdong Museum.

August 3, 2010

Arts Playground Sprouts in China

GUANGZHOU, CHINA — Hong Kong has always looked down on Guangzhou as its poor mainland cousin. But while the affluent former British colony has stalled for years over plans for a massive cultural district, Guangzhou has gone ahead and built one.

This southern Chinese city surrounded by factory towns opened its new Guangdong Museum and Guangzhou Opera this spring. On tap are a public library and a children’s art center.

The government has not put a price tag on the entire project, though media reports have estimated that the four venues will cost 3.4 billion renminbi, about $500 million. Guangzhou hopes to unveil the complex by November, when it plays host to the Asian Games.

That is the plan. As is usually the case in China, the hardware was built first and the software is still on its way.

Months after the museum’s opening in May, workers are drilling and hammering amid piles of dirt and rubble to prepare the rest of the complex. The opera house and the museum are open for business — two beautiful architectural models rising from a junkyard. But the transport hub, taxi stands and pedestrian walkways have not been completed, causing crowd and traffic problems, particularly when the opera lets out in bad weather.

Rocco Yim, the Hong Kong architect who designed the museum, reported to cost 900 million renminbi, stood at its entrance and pointed past the construction site to the spaceship-like opera house designed by the London-based architect Zaha Hadid for an estimated 1.4 billion renminbi. “The two will be connected by a wide pedestrian avenue,” Mr. Yim said, “so people can walk right from the opera to the museum through open green space. Here will be a large slope where people can lie down in the grass. Roadside pollution will be cut down by diverting vehicular traffic underground.”

The museum is an enormous cube made of gray and red puzzle pieces that light up with a scarlet glow at night. “I wanted to create the feeling of a lacquered Chinese jewelry box,” Mr. Yim said, “an exquisite container holding valuables inside.”

Natural light floods the museum through its jigsaw-shaped holes and skylights. A walkway and a cube-shaped gallery float above the lobby. Spaces are divided not by walls but by translucent screens, adding to the airiness.

There is no stand-out, priceless treasure in the Guangdong Museum’s collection — certainly nothing comparable with the Palace Museum in Taipei, say. But there is much southern Chinese folk art, like Chiuchow wood carvings, calligraphy and ink paintings, and the natural history section is definitely child-friendly. Mr. Yim said his favorite room is the vast atrium where life-sized models of whales and dolphins are suspended from the ceiling, flooded in blue light. From there you can look straight down to the dinosaur fossils displayed on the floor below.

The opera house — all silvery twists and curves — is the aesthetic opposite of the squarish museum. Its latticework skin covers two structures: a large hall for operas and a concert hall for recitals.

Liu Xiaolu, a Guangzhou Opera spokesman, said: “In a short period of time it has changed the cultural scene here, which was relatively limited until recently. Before it was just Beijing and Shanghai. Major international productions — whether it was opera or pop music — would pass right over us and go straight to Hong Kong. We just didn’t have the venues. We didn’t even have a stage large enough to fit all the swans in Swan Lake. Now it’s Guangzhou’s turn.”

In its first two months, the house put on three fully staged operas, all of which were well attended. Mr. Liu noted that they had a good number of visitors from Hong Kong for the opening show, Puccini’s “Turandot.”

Whenever an expensive project is built with state money, questions are raised about its relevance. Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language newspaper in Singapore, asked in an editorial whether top ticket prices for “Turandot,” at 2,880 renminbi, were appropriate in a city where the average monthly salary is 3,942 renminbi.

Arguably, “Turandot” was an exception, as it was the venue’s opening gala and was conducted by Lorin Maazel. Plus, many of the tickets went to officials, organizers and other V.I.P.s.

But even for the “Mulan” opera — a domestic production that has been on tour for several years — the best seats cost 1,200 renminbi.

The Guangzhou Opera countered that it has offered a range of discounted tickets for students and the disadvantaged. In an upcoming Canadian production of “Alice in Wonderland,” for instance, a donation from a corporate sponsor allowed seats for two of the four shows to be set aside for disadvantaged residents. “This is definitely a public facility,” Mr. Liu said.

In Chinese, the Guangzhou Opera’s name actually says nothing about opera — it is probably better translated as the Guangzhou Center for Performing Arts. Its roster of future events includes modern dance, multimedia shows, pop acts and children’s programming like “Sesame Street Live.” The spokesman said the house also is hoping to stage Yue Opera, or Cantonese Opera, with troupes from Hong Kong or Macao.

In terms of balancing artistic ambition with public sentiment, the opera house got it right with “Mulan,” which was about 80 percent full. It was the operatic version of the Chinese costume melodramas so loved by television audiences. It pulled at every populist heartstring, from the plucky woman warrior in a bright silk robe to the backdrops of peony branches and a red sunset over the Great Wall.

The composition for chorus and full orchestra — complete with a conductor in tails highlighted by a spotlight on stage — is Western. But there was a definite Chinese influence to the singing style and the volume of the percussion.

Or maybe the drums were there to drown out the crowd’s babbling, of telephones ringing, of children playing in the aisles and of people trying to sneak into better seats. A review of “Turandot” in the Financial Times in May made note of the myriad distractions, like flash photography and the static of the security guards’ walkie-talkies.

At the Guangdong Museum, meanwhile, Wang Xiaoying, the director of education and promotion, estimated that the venue was getting 7,000 to 8,000 visitors a day.

When construction is finished, people will be able to enter from the ground-floor entrance that is linked to the grassy area and the walkway to the opera. For now, they are herded into a waiting area ringed with metal barriers.

Still, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, the line stretched down the street. Liu Jin, a Guangzhou resident, said he had been waiting 20 minutes to get in. “Of course it’s worth it to see,” he said. “It’s free to the public. Plus, every big city has a big museum and now we do, too.”

Andrea Deng contributed reporting.

Couples blogging

Is that like couples tennis? Maybe more like couples therapy.
Marc the Metrosexual and I both blog, so after holidays, we have to divy up what we're going to write about, as not to bore our readers by using all the same photos and stories.
So far, Marc has blogged about Old Montreal, with lovely photos of horse-drawn carts and cobblestone streets. (On his site, you have to click on the pictures to enlarge them.)
He's also written about our two-day stopover in Paris, where we went with his father to the Sacre-Coeur church in the Montmartre area. It's rather touristy, but pleasant, with a square of street artists -- you know, the kind who will do a watercolor portrait of you while you sit on the sidewalk.

We actually have very few photos of us together while on vacation. (Someone has to hold the camera). Here were are on Prince Arthur, a pedestrian area just off of St-Laurent in Montreal, lined with restaurants, cafes and terraces. It is the best place for people watching. If you ever visit the city, and the weather's nice, consider having dinner there.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Best canned food in the world at PDC (Gluttony part 5)

PDC: Blink and you'll miss it.

There is an enormous amount of buzz around Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. It is now the High Temple for Hip Foodies. Reviewers gush about it. Anthony Bourdin gushes about it. You have to book a table weeks in advance. It's buzzing so much that one worries if it will vibrate right out of its little spot on Duluth Street.
I'm always a bit wary about places with lots of buzz. But I was also curious, and a kindly Montreal friend helped get us a table.

I was relieved when I arrived. It was so low-key that we accidentally walked right past it. With no big sign out front, it looked just like any other packed restaurant on a Friday night. The waiters were wearing T-shirts, and there was a pile of fresh vegetables laid out on the bar, as if the cooks were casually throwing dinner together.

Marc called it gimmicky, but it's gimmicky in the best possible way. It's well packaged and fun. It's the kind of restaurant where you go with a big group of friends and take photos, because the tete de cochon is literally an entire pig's head -- complete with ears and a gold-foil-covered snout. Or because the waiter is making your risotto, a la minute, inside a giant round of parmesan.


Meanwhile, another waiter is wrenching something open with a can opener. Inside the can is half a magret of duck confit, about two servings of foie gras, plus shredded cabbage, a balsamic vinegar reduction, thyme and garlic. It's all been sealed into something that looks like it could be in the discount aisle of the supermarket, next to the Campbell's soup. Then it is boiled whole until it's piping hot and the flavors are combined.
The presentation might not be fine, but the food is. They set down a dinner plate with a thick slice of toasted country bread topped with mashed potato. The server then pours the duck / foie gras mass on top -- it oozes out of the can with a satisfying plop -- and it melts into the bread and potato to form a sort of stuffing.
The taste is amazing, but it is not a dish for anyone squeamish about fat. It is dripping in fat. It is a duck-themed celebration of fat. Even my Montreal friend -- who was just at PDC eating "duck in a can" a few weeks ago -- admits that one should try it once and leave it at that.


My friend had an enormous pork chop in a great sauce. His girlfriend had the cromesquis de foie gras, which were two tiny balls of foie gras rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. The foie gras melts inside the shell and it "explodes" when you put the whole thing in your mouth -- kind of like a very, very fatty xiao loong bau. The girlfriend liked it, but he didn't -- it was too much, he said.
The girlfriend also had a shepherd's pie -- and this was perfect. It was simple and non-gimmicky, but easily the most tasty shepherd's pie I've ever tried.
As for me, I just had the salad and picked at everyone else's food. (Of course, the salad came with a similar deep-fried ball of foie gras and pork.)
The portions here are famously giant The last time my friends came, they took the leftovers home and made a stew with them. (That is very Canadian).
I give PDC kudos for great food, fun presentation, friendly service, a surprisingly comprehensive wine list for a small independent restaurant, and for staying unpretentious even as others buzz around them.
A ridiculously large dinner, including a bottle of wine and dessert, came to about US / CAD $200 for four, including tax and tip. It was the second-most expensive meal we had on our trip, aside from the Hotel Frontenac in Quebec, and easily the best.

Poutine gets its own post (Gluttony part 4)

The poutine at Au Pied de Cochon. This plate was CAD / US $7, or HK $50, which is pretty pricey by Montreal standards. I'll blog later on the restaurant, nicknamed PDC. But poutine is important enough to get its own post.

Poutine, a Quebec dish, consists of French fries, chicken gravy and fresh cheese curds. (Not the supermarket cheddar or mozzarella used at some "Canadian-themed" restaurants in Hong Kong.)
Technically, poutine is a side dish. But when I was a student, we would eat one, and c'est tout.
Traditionally, it serves its role as a cheap, filling, hot food with plenty of salt and fat -- comfort food for lumberjacks laboring for hours in the snow and ice.

This being Quebec, there is of course a dispute over its etymology. Some say "poutine" is a variation of the English "pudding." Others say it a variation of old French or Acadian slang for "a mess."
Well, it is a hot mess -- quite literally. Some say that the gravy serves the purpose of keeping the fries and cheese warmer for longer. If there is one thing to be said about poutine, it does have a certain -- is this the right term? -- heat density.

I don't know why Quebecers have such loyalty to poutine, but it's there. When we left a posh art gallery in the old town, the rather fey manager called out to my husband, "Be sure to eat poutine before you leave!"
Marc did at PDC, but he wasn't a big fan. He says he doesn't like this fries soggy. I was going to argue that it's because he let his poutine sit and get cold while he was making his way through the "duck in the can." (More on that later). But I think it's a losing battle. You can kind of tell that poutine wouldn't fly in France. My in-laws looked vaguely appalled when I showed them the photo.
Personally, I love it, particularly in the winter. I didn't even get a main at PDC. I just had salad and poutine. But you really can't eat it regularly -- certainly not as an office worker in hot and humid Hong Kong.
Like I said, you have to be chopping down trees in the woods or, I don't know, dog-sledding across the Arctic, to deserve a dish with quite so much heft.
A real one, with real curds has 700-1,000 calories, or almost half of what a woman of my size should be eating for an entire day.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Great food, casual atmosphere at L'Express (Gluttony part 3)

I love handwritten menus, like the one they have at L'Express on St-Denis in Montreal. Here is a partial translation:

Starters
Green salad
Celeriac salad
Pate
Ham and cheese quiche
Poultry liver mousse
Smoked Atlantic salmon
Duck liver terrine
New Brunswick caviar

Mains
Cold roast beef slices with salad
Homemade ravioli
Roast quail with wild rice
Prawn risotto
Veal kidneys
French beef stew

Montreal seems to have an endless supply of old guys who sit at bar counters reading the paper.

Here is why I like L'Express so much: It is outfitted like a diner. It has the casual, cool feel of a diner. But instead of serving burgers, it has high-quality French cuisine. I don't know anywhere else in the world -- outside of French Canada -- that combines a laid-back American atmosphere with high-end products like caviar and foie gras.

Never mind the French tourist in this photo. Just look at the size of that jar of pickles. Our waiter, who looked like a heftier version of Hugh Grant, put it down and laughed, "No dessert unless you finish your vegetables!"

I had the salad. Well, "salad." I don't know if it counts as healthy food when it's made with warm slabs of duck confit.
Marc the Metrosexual had the onglet, which is a cut of beef that, he says, is only found in Francophone areas. Yes, that is a blob of melted herbed butter on top, with mayo (not ketchup) with the fries.

I can't remember how much lunch was, and I'm too lazy to go look up the credit card slip. I think it was about CAD / US $50-60 for two mains, two glasses of wine and two coffees. (We had no room for starters or dessert). So in the HK $400-$450 range for two.

Montreal smoked meat and Schwartz's (Gluttony part 2)


Before we left on vacation, Mom gave me a piece of advice: Be sure to have some Montreal smoked meat, but don't have it at a big hotel. You need to go to a small local shop for it to be any good.
The photo above is from one of the endless small sidewalk touristy restaurants in Quebec City. (I can't remember the name now).
The one below is from the most famous place to get it -- Schwartz's, which calls itself Montreal's Hebrew Delicatessen. (Yes, that blob in the middle is a hunk of fat. There is no diet menu at Schwartz's. In fact, if you order anything other than the smoked meat, you risk being yelled at.)

Like many Montreal foods -- like the bagels -- the "viande fume" originated with Jewish immigrants. Schwartz's, which has been open since 1928, claims to use no chemicals. Instead, it marinates the beef in spices for 10 days, and then smokes whole briskets of it every day. It's a little hard to describe the taste -- kind of like a fresh, warm corned beef or pastrami, but better. The meat is incredibly tender.
Schwartz's has long been a tourist draw -- evidenced by the line-up outside even though we got there for an early lunch on a weekday. There has even been a movie made about it.
That said, they haven't given into the temptation of expanding, jacking up the prices or even tidying it up.
While half the patrons look like visitors (Asians like me taking photos), the other half look like truck drivers, who sit at the old-fashioned deli counter, drinking coffee and reading La Presse. The lady next to us looked us up and down and said in French, "Not from around here, eh?"
The sandwich (just under CAD / US $6, or HK $45) is very simple. A mound of smoked meat, on two small slice of rye bread with mustard. Then you can order sides like fries, coleslaw or their famous "half-sour" pickles. I really wanted to bring a jar of pickles home for Mom, but Marc said it would be too hard to carry a glass jar from Montreal, to Quebec, to Paris, to Normandy, to Hong Kong. It would probably break, and then our entire luggage would smell like vinegar. (Sorry, Mom!)
But I did get a package of their homemade spice mix, which I will use on steak. But I know it will not be the same.
Lunch for two at Schwartz's: CAD / US $20, or HK $150.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Suite 701, Montreal (Gluttony Part 1)


Suite 701 is the hotel bar / restaurant at the Hotel Place D'Armes in Montreal. During the day, when sunlight filters through the very tall windows, it is a pleasant, stylish and reasonably laid-back place to have lunch.
In the evenings, after all the yuppies come for after-work drinks, it gets a little buzzier, a little Hipper Than Thou. The waitresses look like they should be trying out for Canada's Next Top Model -- that's how extremely tall and thin they are in their black mini-dresses. (I could have sworn I'd shot a photo of them, but now I can't find it. Maybe it's on Marc's camera. Sorry Fumie / Foamie!)


But the thing that impressed me most -- more than the interior decor or the modelesque staff -- was the cheese plate.
This looks like something a family would share during a picnic in some Canadian village. It is robust, colorful and natural.


I made Marc the Metrosexual order it, since that much cheese would give me a stomachache.
The cheeses were from local Quebec farms, and Marc said they were excellent, fresh, varied and interesting. That's alot coming from a French chef!
But what caught my eye was the presentation. Along with the usual grapes was a generous portion of blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, sour orange gooseberries (my favorite), fig, nuts, raisins and other healthy treats, plus country bread in a side basket.

This was a big difference to a cheese plate I had recently in Hong Kong at a very expensive restaurant. The waiter ceremonially wheeled the cheese trolley out. Each diner read out (in often difficult foreign names) the cheese they wanted. Then tiny slices were placed onto fashionably oversized plates.
I'll take the hardy Montreal farm cheese and fresh fruit platter anytime!

I had a vegetarian ravioli, with a small amount of very sharp cheese that gave it a bite. On a second night, we tried the four mini kobe beef burgers, but they were a little disappointing -- the buns were a bit dry. But we appreciated the huge-ness of the thick-cut fries and dollop of mayo. The one dish I wanted to try, and didn't, was the lobster bolognaise on pasta.

All the dishes mentioned here were between CAD $15-$22 (HK $112-165). A modest dinner for two with wine, but no dessert, would probably be CAD $70, including tax and tip (HK $525). What do you think? Is that a fair price by Hong Kong (or any other) standards?

(Note: USD and CAD are almost the same now, so I'm not doing that conversion.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Thanks, crazy old lady: Skyscapes in blue


Top, the St-Laurence River, looking toward the Ile Ste-Helene. Below, the back of Bonsecours Market.

Marc the Metrosexual and I were walking along Montreal's Old Port one morning, early enough to beat the tourist hordes.
An elderly lady slowly cycled up to us. She was strangely dressed -- Crocs with socks, some sort of woven beenie-type hat, and layers or jackets and scarves.
Great, I thought. A crazy person.
"Parlez-vous francais?" she asked.
"Oui," we said hesitantly.
I was bracing for a lecture on her personal views of life on Mars, or a demand for money -- or both.
But I was wrong. All she wanted was to give us a gentle suggestion.
"See that blue pier? Turn there and walk way down to the end. You will see a clock tower. There is the best spot for taking photos. You will get the water and the city."
Then she slowly pedaled away.
Maybe Hong Kong has made too much of a cynic of me. I've been reprimanded for talking to anyone here -- waving to strange babies, helping lost tourists or lending my phone to someone in need -- because the idea among the Chinese is that anyone could be a potential scammer or criminal.
It's been a long time since I've experienced a random and unprompted act of kindness from a stranger. And it wouldn't be the first one on our trip.
These photos are from the pier the lady pointed us to. As you know, I am not technically apt enough to doctor them in any way -- it really was that blue. We didn't smell a whiff of pollution for a week.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bagel pilgrimage and a pang of heartbreak


Our first morning in Montreal, I woke up at 3:30 am, thanks to jet lag. Marc was up at 5:30 am. By 6, we were desperate for coffee and itching to get out of our hotel room.
Good thing we were in one of the few cities in the world with 24-hour bagel factories – the best known are St-Viateur and Fairmount.
I took Marc out into the grey dawn and cabbed it up to St-Viateur.
The bagel factory was there alright. But I’d forgotten that it was literally a factory, with piled-up sacks of flour and a big wood-fired oven. You can buy Montreal-styled bagels there, which are thinner and crisper than their giant, bready American cousins. The ones from the factory are fresh and hot and covered in sesame – but there’s nowhere to sit down and have a coffee. If you want cream cheese, you have to buy a whole tub. Factories, after all, don’t serve sandwiches. (Note: It's not a factory in the Dongguan sense. It's like a small shop, only more industrial).

One part of me applauds St-Viateur for sticking to its working-class, down-to-earth roots, though it is now touted as a tourist attraction. Another part of me – the capitalist Hong Kong part – thinks, “Why don’t they open a coffee shop? They could hawk cute bowls of café au lait to tourists and make a killing.” (Note: They do serve coffee at other locations, but not at their original shop)
Clutching my paper bag of bagels and cream cheese, I started wandering down the street, looking for a civilized place where Marc and I could sit down. I figure we’d find somewhere – anywhere, right? We turned onto Boul. St-Laurent, aka The Main, or the city’s main thoroughfare.
Then it hit me. Sweet Jesus, what happened to this neighborhood?
OK -- it isn’t quite fair judging a place at 6 am on a weekday.
But did it always have so many boarded up buildings? Were there always “A Louer” (To Rent) signs in every window? Was it always deserted, depressed and covered in graffiti?
I wasn’t worried about being mugged or anything -- parts of Montreal may be grubby, but it’s generally not violent – but I also wanted to leave. Marc was clearly uncomfortable. So we hailed another taxi back to the hotel, where we ordered coffees in our room. And after all that, Marc didn’t eat one, since the French don’t do bagels.
The irony is that we took two cabs, at 10 bucks a piece, to buy two bagels, at 70 cents a piece, and ended up with a tour of a got-so-great neighborhood.
Our trip would thankfully take a better turn – but that first morning broke my heart. The economy wasn’t exactly great when I left in the 1990s, but still – what happened? Was it really that much more run-down? Or had my perceptions simply changed from living in booming (and sanitized) Hong Kong? Had my protected Asian life – with my nice office job and my nice flat in what is essentially a gated community -- caused me to lose my Montreal street smarts?
Later I would ask my old friends this. Their view was that I had changed, not the city.
“Montreal was always filled with crazy people and graffiti,” one friend said, adding, “ 6 a.m. on St-Viateur is probably not the best time to be wandering around making friends.”

A bad case of deja vu

Top photo: My old stomping grounds: St-Denis in Montreal's Latin Quarter (or student quarter).

I think most old memories are not true memories – or, better put, they are actually secondary memories. I “remember” sitting on a wooden stool in our Montreal home while holding a children's book -- upside-down. But is that particularly memory so vivid because my parents happen to have a photo of it? Maybe I don’t really remember from when I was 4 years old – I just think I do because I’ve seen that picture so many times.

People whose families are rooted in one place tend to have better memories of their earlier lives, because they have so many more triggers: They return to their hometowns every year, where the sight of their own room or street may evoke something. Their elderly parents may gossip about the neighbors. Old friends may live nearby and attend regular school reunions.

But I don't have such reminders. In 1992, my senior year of high school, my parents and brother left North America for good. I was the only one who stayed, to go to university in Montreal.

As a result, I've had almost no concrete links with Canada since I moved to Hong Kong in 1999. I have no relatives there. I haven’t visited for years. There is only one Canadian friend I see with any regularity at all; the rest are “friends” of the Facebook variety.

To top it all off, a big box of my diaries and photos of that time were lost (ahem, I think deliberately “lost” – but that’s another post) when I broke up with my longtime boyfriend of the time.

Perhaps this is why I couldn’t turn a street corner in Montreal without being hit by endless waves of déjà vu.

Here was La Maison de la Presse, which was where I splurged on stacks of imported newspapers and magazines. There was SuperSexe, the first strip joint I ever saw. At age 17 or 18, I was shocked. (They even had a lunch buffet! Not that I ate there.)

Here was the ATM that ate my card after my bank account ran empty my freshman year. (It was my first lesson in financial control). There was the dark and foreboding hall outside the McGill English Department, where I suffered endless anxiety about missing classes or failing exams. Even walking into the subway suddenly conjured up old memories –for some reason, I associate boy-related heartbreak with Lionel Groulx station.

It was only on returning that I realized what a big impact the city had on my later culinary tastes. It hit me as we were walking down Boul. St-Laurent. EuroDeli was the first place I ever had tiramisu. Frites Alors! was where I realized one could put something other than ketchup on potatoes.

Prince Arthur Street was my first taste of both escargot and Greek salad. A run-down corner store on Ste-Catherine was my first try at Middle Eastern foods like falafel. Even the sandwich shop near McGill was a revelation to me – I felt it was very fancy that people would use smoked salmon instead of tinned tuna, or Camembert instead of an orange-hued, plastic-wrapped Kraft Single.

Montreal was where I learned to hang out at cafes, and do my grocery shopping at small markets and bakeries.

Until I went to university, my entire life was spent in an immigrant household in a Connecticut town so small that, at the time, it didn’t have a McDonald’s or a movie theater. Tiramisu, moules frites, feta cheese and souvlaki -- not to mention highrises and nightclubs -- were strange and untried tastes until I was 18.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Paris's airport -- pretty, but pretty useless

Charles_de_Gaulle_International_Airport_T2_01



Our experience at the new – and lauded – terminal at Charles De Gaulle airport caused Marc to spew the kind of language not allowed on the family-friendly Joyceyland. Things he said about his home country are unprintable here.


It was a case of great-looking design that simply doesn’t work.

Both the check-in area outside, and the waiting area inside, were far too small for August tourist crowds, causing long, chaotic waits. An hour before the flight, people were already sitting on the floor outside the boarding gate.


The atrium looking down into the shops and café below was nice, but a total waste of space considering the lack of seats. My Hong Kong mind thought that it should be paved over and used for more chairs – airport reclamation!


The only good thing was that people were extremely polite. It was a Paris-Montreal flight, so the crowd was mostly Canadians and French. Despite behind herded like cattle for nearly an hour, not a single person pushed, cut in line or raised their voices. Try that in China.

***

Air France has self-check-in machines with touch-screens. You put in your credit card and passport, and it processes your flight details sans human.

Great idea in theory. In reality, there was no sign telling you to use them before lining up to get to the counters. So people waited in a queue, only to be sent to the machine, and then had to rejoin the back of the line. A mess.

Marc and I are reasonably computer literate, and we couldn’t get the thing to work. An exasperated staff member helped us. We went through the steps, took the digital print-out, and quickly got into another line to drop off our one bag.

When we got to the counter, the man rolled his eyes (it’s a particular French skill) and told us we had left our boarding passes in the machine, which took some time to process. What? How could we know? Marc was on the edge of losing his temper.

The Air France guy reprinted them for us. But that was a security breech if I ever saw one – in the 20 minutes that had lapsed, anyone could have taken our boarding passes from the machine and tried to get on the flight in our place.


The security check, of course, was awful. You have to put each electronic device in a separate tray, even if it’s a small point-and-shoot camera. You have to take off your shoes. The lady did such a thorough pat-down on me that she put her hands down the band of my underwear.


(Side note: What's up with the global crackdown on asthma medication? I was stopped for carrying it in both Hong Kong and Shanghai recently).


Not wanting to sit on the floor, we went to a café where, for 23 Euro, or HK $230, we got an awful sandwich, a pasta salad and two waters. Good thing because, in the end, our flight was delayed anyway.
***

I don’t know how regularly traveling businesspeople do it – the kind who jet off to Chicago for three days, and then are off for a weekend in Germany.

We find travel exhausting. We fly economy. But even business or first-class doesn’t exempt you from delays, security checks, the fatigue of flying for 10 hours, or jetlag.

It is my third night in Canada, and I am only now back on a normal sleeping schedule.
***
I have not come across a digital camera cable thingie -- though it's not really my priority, when I have cool restaurants, art galleries, parks and farmer's markets to go to. I think I'm going to wait till France, where my father-in-law has one.
Anyway, this airport photo is from The Lightness of Being blog by a black, gay student and writer named Patrique. Thanks, Patrique!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Summer reading part 1: Stephen King

I finished my first summer vacation book before actually arriving in any of my vacation countries.

That's what I get for buying a novella / short story combination that some clever publisher produced as a hard cover. (And, I admit, one with attractive cover art). It's only when you look inside that you notice that the type is HUGE, like a kid's book. I finished reading it in no time.

I hate to say it, but Stephen King's "Blockade Billy" was not worth the whopping HK $170, since it is thinner than any novel.

The two stories aren't bad, but they aren't horror, as advertised. (If it's King, the marketer is going to tag it "horror" regardless of whether it's about monsters or baby kittens)

"Blockade Billy" only makes sense if you understand baseball. The whole plot is driven by innings, balls, strikes and outs.
If you don't know the game, it would be like my reading the IHT cricket, chess or bridge columns -- which, to me, are gibberish.

It is a rather nostalgic work that looks back on simpler, quainter days of American life. The language is unrelentingly macho, all-American, locker-room talk. Here's an example: "It was a cunt's hair outside and I never saw a catcher pull one back so fast, not even Yogi." That's how it's written: Profane, chest-thumpingly male and totally incomprehensible to non-baseball fans.

Oh, and SPOILER ALERT.

Here's something interesting.
In "Blockade Billy," the main character does something terrible. He murders a farm family in cold blood -- the humans first, then all the cows -- and then slits the throat of an umpire.
But King writes it in a way that you feel sympathy for him.
You feel sorry because Billy spent his whole life abused first at an orphanage, and then at a farm where he was treated like a slave. You feel sorry because he's a little slow in the head, is near illiterate, and got caught in a bad situation. He had this incredible athletic talent, and all he was fighting for was to excel at the thing he loved. Only Stephen King could make a mass murderer so likeable.

On the other hand, I felt zero sympathy for the protagonist of "Morality," the second story. It's about a hard-working and loyal wife who is struggling to keep financially afloat. Unlike Billy, she does no huge wrong. The worst she does is hit a child on a playground, but does not gravely injure him.
But, because King is such a good manipulator of words and feelings, you end up feeling like she is a terrible person -- worse than the mass murdering Billy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Paris "budget" hotel

Maybe that title is not quite fair.
The Hotel Fertel Maillot -- not a hole in the wall, but a solid three-star -- is only a "budget" hotel relative to what is usually charged in August in Paris.
For two people, it's costing us 85 Euro a night, including breakfast. (That's about HK $850, or US $110). A sign outside has listed rates at about 100 Euro a night.
That's nothing compared to a nearby big-name five-star (which I can actually see from our budget hotel window), where even simple rooms are about 200 Euro.

When I saw the bright floral orange cover and matching curtains of our room, I thought of Daisann McLane's wonderful book "Cheap Hotels," a no-holds-barred look at the charms of cheap and cheerful travel.
The Hotel Fertel was all that we needed -- clean, safe, decent and well located, near lots of good restaurants, the Metro, and the Palais des Congres convention center and mall.
But it was not luxurious. Our room (which was similar to -- but slightly smaller than -- the one pictured) had a double bed, a phone, a small TV on a counter / desk thing, and a closet with a cracked mirror.
There is WiFi, but you have to pay for it. And I only got mine to work after spending some time with Orange France on the phone.
The private bathroom was basic, but clean and functional. The shower had good pressure and plenty of hot water.

If you stay here, keep in mind that packing for a budget hotel is different than packing for a luxury one. If you want toothpaste, conditioner, slippers, etc., bring your own.

Marc the Metrosexual and I were fine here, but I wouldn't, say, send my mom here. (She wouldn't like it because it has no in-room water boiler).
For me, the only real downside was that there was no in-room safety box. Luckily, we only stayed for quick layover en route to Montreal. Plus, we didn't bring anything really expensive ... but still. That would be my only serious complaint.

The upside is that -- even in its basement "cafe" where we were served breakfast -- they had wonderful locally made jams and great croissants. Seriously, you can't get a croissant like that even in a top hotel or restaurant in Hong Kong.

Note: The photos are from the Hotel Fertel site. My travel posts are going to be mostly photo-less until I get home, since I forgot the digital camera-laptop cable.

Arriving in Paris



I've heard of Asian visitors being let down when they finally set foot in Paris. Partly, it is because expectations are set so high. (No city on Earth is as wonderful as Paris is in the movies). Partly, it's because Asians relate good travelling experiences with everything modern and slick. And Paris (and London and New York) have a certain Old World grittiness.

Charles de Gaulle is certainly not as new as, say, Hong Kong and Shanghai -- and it shows.
Its older terminals are really worn, and the line-up for customs and baggage are long.
Heavily armed guards serve as a reminder that terrorism is still a major concern in the West. The airport staff don't smile.
Outside, it was dark and reeking of smoke. We got into a cab that took us through the rather industrial areas that lie between the airport and the city, complete with graffiti.

But then... we see the tip of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. It is nowhere near the tallest or most impressive building in the world. But there's something very pretty and elegant about the way it looks out there, and something about Paris.

We finally pull up outside our budget hotel and I haul our big suitcase out of the trunk while Marc pays the cabbie.
Then I just stand there for a minute.
The air is fresh -- fresher than even the cleanest day in Hong Kong. There is a crisp summer's night breeze I couldn't buy back home, even if I had a million dollars.
There is a yellow glow to the cobblestone street, where a beautiful woman in impossibly high heels is walking into a restaurant.
There is a man in a porkpie hat, standing on the sidewalk, casually playing a jazzy rendition of "When The Saints Go Marching In" on the trumpet. And then I remember why I love Paris.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Packing for vacation

Packing for vacation
Packing for vacation by Joyceyland
Note: The Polyvore collage is not exactly what I am bringing -- it just gives you an idea. The only exact match is the awesome sunshine-yellow Marc Jacobs cardi with the mustard trim. I actually have that one.



I'm trying to figure out what to pack for our 2.5 week trip.
We need to dress for warm weather (Montreal afternoons are in the high 20s C, or about 80F) and chilly weather. (Evenings can quickly drop down to about 13C or 55 F).
There will be, forecasts say, rain and sun.
We also need to dress for a wide range of activities. We need reasonably classy clothes since we're going to a few nice restaurants, plus walking around Paris for two days, and meeting my inlaws.
But we will also be doing outdoorsy stuff, like walking along the beaches in Normandy and, God willing, riding horses.

I decided on
* One pair of black jeans
* One pair of khaki shorts
* Two casual skirts
* Three T-shirts
* Two long-sleeved shirts
* One cardigan
* One jacket
* One decent dress

I just read a New York Times story on the "shopping diet" which challenges "fashion dieters" to try to wear only six items in rotation -- excluding underwear -- for one month. (Rather cool examples are here).
That made me think -- can I live off of six pieces of clothing for my vacation? Nah.

* Ooooh, and undies and bras. Once I packed everything for a trip to the English countryside, and realized I didn't have a clean pair of knickers to last me the whole week. (I did buy some, finally, but they were ill-fitting and hideous. Outside of Marks & Spencers, Britain is not particularly good at pantie design)

Hmm. Not bad so far. I will also need shoes for my trip
* Riding boots.
* A pair of heels to go with the nice dress in case we go out
* Plain brown leather flats for walking around

Then, of course, all my technical accouterments (especially since I still have some odd ends to tie up on my two yet-unpublished work stories)
* Laptop and various plugs
* Digital camera and its plug into the laptop
* i Phone

* And toiletries. Can't forget those. Also a purse, wallet, passport and tickets. Did I mention souvenirs for friends, too?

Marc and I were thinking (optimistically?) that we would try to cram all our stuff into one big suitcase.
But when he was done with his clothes and shoes, it was already almost full. (I am not the only clothes- and designer-shoe- horse in this family).

What do you pack when you travel?