Prague and London: Part 1

Greetings to you all in this new year! I can’t wait to tell you all about the adventures in Prague and London over the past week and a half. We went to many castles, enjoyed warm mead, and even journeyed to an ancestral town!

We began our trip a few days before Christmas in Prague. We were staying relatively near the Old Town Square. As soon as we recovered slightly from our trans-Atlantic trip, we ventured towards Old Town Square. On the way, we found a glorious puppet shop with many handmade puppets including Krampus with his one cloven foot and a regular human foot, a green man with a fish (clearly a local legend), and even Harry Potter. Next door was a beer spa. Yes, a beer spa. I had only learned that these establishments existed about two days before our trip from a coworker. You can bathe in beer while drinking beer…I am not much of a spa person but I would have liked to have done this. Sadly, it was completely booked.

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We then continued on our way to the Old Town Square. Many parts of Europe have wonderful Christmas markets in their public places. Prague had a glorious market. There was a tall brightly lit Christmas tree that occasionally played William Tell’s Overture with corresponding lights. There were some live animals that you could pet and feed. Food vendors sold sausages, grilled cheese, trdelinik or Chimney cakes, and hot mead. We tried the latter too. Trdeliniks were like a form of fried dough. You can get them with ice cream or nutella.

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The best was the hot mead. It was almond flavored. Warm, sweet and strong. Other vendors sold wood carved items, metal items made from a blacksmith, and much more. It was vibrant and wonderful. We got to see the beautiful Astronomical Clock that puts on a little show on the hour. A window opens and the Apostles stream by, Death rings a bell, and several figures shake their heads as the clock chimes the expected number of hours.

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Buildings in the area were beautifully decorated, some looked almost like Wedgewood. What a beautiful city! We had dinner at a local place with Czech fare. I had my first bowl of goulash. I was initially frightened when I opened the lid on my stew to find the smell of raw onions. Once I removed them, the stew was quite tasty. I had some potato dumplings on the side, which were nice and hearty.

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A great start to our trip! That’s all for now!

China and Cambodia: Part 6

And then it was our very last full day in Shanghai. So we decided to do what had worked so well for us before: art and food.

We started off our day at the Minsheng Art Museum in the west side of Shanghai. It’s an an interesting area with lots of galleries/exhibition places. It was like an even more exclusive version of M50. There were public art pieces everywhere.

The museum, funded by a bank, shows contemporary artists. They had two shows on. One of them was one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. Puppets and video installation! The work was by Zhou Xiaohu. He built these life size puppets from found items (pre-made masks) and had them act out Buddhist fables. We spent 20 minutes watching the video installation of these creatures dancing and talking about these fables. It was surreal and poignant. This was a show that resonated with the crazy in my head. We also saw the actual puppets themselves. He also had these amazing pieces where he used objects like feathers, bones, and tools, that he arranged in such a way that the shadows reflected onto a wall made it look like handwritten calligraphy. Incredible.

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After our visit to the museum was done, we took a break at a cafe nearby. It was nice to people watch at this arts area. We also found a copy of TimeOut Shanghai that had amazing illustrations.

Then it was time to head to the Shanghai History Museum. It’s located in the base of the famous Oriental Pearl building in Pudong, the land of the crazy skyscrapers. I had never actually set foot in the area; I’d only seen it from across the river at the Bund. So it was kinda exciting being amongst the skyscrapers (and yes, I grew up in Chicago. Shh). At the train station, we went to a bakery and I got a Portuguese egg tart and a mango custard danish. Holy cow the mango custard was amazing.

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When we got to the Oriental Pearl, we were amazed to find this huge line stretching around and around, all to go up the tower. It was interesting how the ticket sellers and guards were surprised when we said that we had no interest in the tower, just the museum.

The museum was a fine collage of different exhibits. It starts off with a history of transportation. We started with sedan chairs, carriages to cars and buses. As we walked up through the museum, there were lots of dioramas, showcasing life in Shanghai at various points in history. Some dioramas were life sized recreations while others were tiny tabletop models. It was neat walking through their recreation of 19th century Shanghai with all the model shops, etc. There wasn’t the most clear narrative of the history but we enjoyed spending time there.

Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel for one last meal with family. We had a little time to kill before our appointed time so we hung out in a public park near the train. Part of it was hilly and labyrinthine, which was cool. There was a flute player amidst the trees which was a nice touch. We found a little bamboo forest too. As we walked to meet my family, we also found a street with some nice street art. Aside from the day at M50, I hadn’t really seen much.

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We ended up a hot pot place. It was a bit challenging meal. We had split the pot in two: one side was mild while the other was spicy. Very spicy. I didn’t want to dunk the meat in the mild side since my companion was a vegetarian. (She was fine with it but I was committed!) So any meat got cooked in the spicy side. HOly cow, was it spicy! I eventually had to stop and drink my juice to calm the war on my tongue. Alas!

After dinner, we had a little misadventure. When we had the reservation made at the hotel for us, we received a receipt that was mostly in Chinese with only the date legible. I saw that it was a date earlier than we needed but I asked and was told it was fine. However, when we checked in around midnight, we had to explain that no we were staying 7 nights, not 6. Unfortunately, the lady who checked us in did not have great English so it was a bit difficult. But we got to a place that made sense. She showed us a price that made sense to add to the price we were paying. We made sure that we understood what was going on. We weren’t go to just agree.

So when we got back to our room on the 6th day, we found that our key cards didn’t work. We went downstairs, knowing what had happened. Then the fun began. It was the same woman but the story changed. She said we had to pay more for the extra night. We tried to explain that we had already paid and had a receipt to show for it. We ended up with a friend on the phone who was a native speaker. The lady kept changing her story. First it was only 400 RMB for the extra night (about $60) and then it changed to 500 Rmb (about $75). It wasn’t a lot of money but it was the principle of the thing. We didn’t know if our bags were still in the room. It was incredibly frustrating. I wanted to leave but my rational side prevailed. If we got our stuff and left, we would still pay more at another hotel. It was Friday night after 9pm. Eventually we paid the 500 RMB and found that the room was exactly as we left it. Thank goodness.

As soon as we verified that nothing had been taken or even moved, we got in a cab and went to the Bund. We were going to have a fancy drink in the fanciest part of town. We wandered a bit trying to find a place with a view. We ended up in the Peace Hotel, which had a beautiful art deco feel. But no room with a view. Eventually, we ended up in the Waldorf Astoria. It was beautiful. No view but it felt right. We got a table in this wood paneled gem. I ordered $30 glass of champagne. I enjoyed every single drop. There was a singer, beautiful and tiny, with a pink shirt and black pants. She wore amazing tassel earrings. It was what was needed after our frustrations at the hotel.

That glass of champagne was worth it.

That’s all for now!

China and Cambodia: Part 5

That morning, I was determined to have more red bean paste. We stopped at the bakery where we had the egg bean paste thing. This time I chose poorly. One of the things was filled with dried chicken (I thought it tasted like dry lotus paste – awkward) and another with pork. Sad panda.

We decided to go on a little journey on the far side of town to Qibao. It’s supposed to look like what a river village would. So we took a few train changes to get there (saw some amazing surreal vegetable and fruit advertisements). I tried what I think was a red bean and chocolate bubble tea from a kiosk in the train station. It was pretty good.

Qibao was amazing. The bridge was beautiful. You saw boats hanging out in the water. Old buildings surrounded it. It was worth the side trip. It also had great tourist shopping; it was less chaotic than Yu gardens area. We had fun looking at the vendors, bought some canvas shoes. And there was a food area! There were lots of meat on skewers but the heat of the day made me want for something refreshing. We bought pickles from a vendor sold them from vats. I also got this tasty gooey red bean paste thing. We hung out in a tiny cafe next to the water to cool down from the heat. I watched amazing ice cream concoctions being made but I wanted to wait for the real prize that afternoon.

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Skewers

After we felt sufficiently cooled down, we decided to wander a little bit more in the area to see the little museums. We found the Shadow Puppet museum that we had to go to. Sadly, we were not there on a day with a show. It was tiny but we saw the intricate shadow puppets. Not a lot to read but it was a cute little pit stop.

Then we decided to head back to the French Concession for one last hurrah. My goal: ridiculous ice cream. Before we explored the warrens of the Tianzifang, we found a little market that sold fruits, veggies and meat. We got several fruits including: dragon fruit, clementines, and these lychee like fruits. I tried eating one of the lychee like fruits and it exploded over me. 🙂

Then it was time to find my crazy ice cream. It was ice cream with cotton candy and fruit pebbles. It has to be one of the most insane things I’ve had. I’ll admit the sight of it was better than the actual taste (the ice cream was akin to soft serve but not quite). But it was worth the experience. We wandered around a bit more, taking in the other ridiculous things to eat.

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Panda egg tarts

Then it was time to head to the train to meet my family for dinner at their apartment. We ended up in the food court of a mall where the train station had an entrance. Again, we saw amazing food experiences but we had to pass them up since we were going to dinner.

That’s all for now!

China and Cambodia: Part 3

On our third full day, we decided to check out some markets in Shanghai. We had read about an antique market. There was also a Flower, Fish, Bird and Insect market near the antique market so we were especially keen to go. When we got there, we found the Flower market first. It was surprisingly loud. Several vendors sold crickets in little wooden cages; the sound was the 100s of crickets singing(?). THe market was true to its word. There were lots of birds, including parrots and even house sparrows. There were various fish and amphibians. It was pretty neat. THe market was a pet market for people of Shanghai. Cute fuzzy scaly winged creatures!

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Cricket baskets

Then we decided to find the antique market. We wandered around a construction site; there were bulldozers everywhere. Then we realized looking at the directions in the guidebook; we were where the market used to be. All the bulldozers were taking out the remains of the neighborhood. This we knew was pretty typical. Things changed quickly in Shanghai. One local told us how he saw a store open in the morning to bulldozed a few hours later with no warning. I should also mention that my guidebook was from 2013…so not exactly up to date. (The subway in the map was our guide but had several lines missing!). So we skirted the place and found two holdouts.

After our adventure with the antique market, we decided to head back to the French Concession for some exploration and shopping. We ended up in the very posh area called Xintiandi. It has lots of very upscale stores and restaurants; it’s meant to mirror the other area of the French Concession, Tianzifang. It has echoes of historical architecture but it’s like a reinterpretation. On the way from this fancy area back to Tianzifang, we found a vegetarian place where we had incredibly fresh food including skinned cucumbers, vegetable dumplings, and a salad of bananas and dragonfruit.

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Xintiandi

 

We wandered around Tianzifang again, taking it all a bit more. We got another dumpling from the dumpling shop with all the characters. This time it was shaped like a penguin with custard inside. It was prettier than it tasted. It was fun but that was the last time we got a dumpling from the place.During our time there, I accidently ended up trying a $3,000 embroidered shirt and then a $500 shawl. Eep!

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After trying on such expensive outfits, we decided to check out the Shanghai Liuli Art Museum. It was opened by  Chang Yi and Loretta Yang and features art glass all over the world. They had a special exhibition of Toot Zynsky. She pioneered this fiber optic glass form and made these vibrant vases. Very cool. My friend described them best: “It’s like the glass version of Georgia O’Keefe.” In their permanent collection, Loretta Yang displays her ethereal pieces influenced by Buddhism.  The outside of the building is this beautiful LED light flower that fades from color to color.

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Liuli Shanghai Art Museum

Then a downpour came upon us. We ended up hiding under the awning of a local hospital. So it was naturally more museum time! We found a cab that took us to our next destination (and a personal favorite): the Shanghai Propaganda Museum. I had been there before on our first trip because propaganda. It’s a lovely gem of a museum. It is housed in the basement of an apartment complex but worth going. It has a collection of posters starting with the Shanghai girl posters to the present day. You’ll see how the styles and ideology changed. And some of the images are truly spectacular. Lots of space babies, babies riding wheat, even a poster on Einstein!

Afterwards we walked a bit around this residential area of the French Concession. We stopped at a cafe channeling retro France with old school refrigerator and 1960/70s movie posters. We had a snack of pickles including pickled apples. Very refreshing! I had a red bean tea latte that was tasty. IT had red beans in the bottom!

For dinner, we had dinner at a Yunnan restaurant that was amazing. I’ve never had minced meat that was so delicious before! Everything was amazing. We ended the night hanging out in a Carrefour because grocery stores in foreign countries are a lot of fun. We bought lots of haw snacks, a sweet red plant based candy, that we devoured quickly.

A great day!

Wisconsin Adventures: Part 2

Before I talk about our last day adventuring in Wisconsin, I’m going to plug a small project I just worked on. As some of you know, I have been trying to participate in the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s Short Docs competition for the past few years. This year, they teamed up with Manual Cinema for this year’s competition. The following piece “And Through We Went” is my contribution this year: http://www.thirdcoastfestival.org/library/1891-and-through-we-went

I hope you enjoy!

Now on to our regularly scheduled programming! On Sunday of our trip, we were going to head back to Chicago making a detour through Milwaukee. We had a meeting at the Milwaukee Makerspace. In 2014, we had the chance of going to the Maker Faire up there. You can read about that experience here: https://makerfairechicagonorthside.com/2014/11/19/a-belated-summary-of-maker-faire-milwaukee/

This time we were going to get a tour of their space. It was really cool. It’s quite an extensive facility with a wood shop, machine shop, and even pottery area. There was a man doing blacksmithing in the corner. There were giant CNC machines, several 3D printers, and beautiful organized supply areas. There was a full sized Dalek and a handmade wooden boat! The whole space was really impressive. I started getting ideas again of things I could be making…

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Daleks at the Milwaukee Makersapce

 

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Pottery Wheel at Milwaukee Makerspace

Afterwards, we decided to head to our favorite cheese shop in downtown Milwaukee: the Wisconsin Cheese Mart. We always go there after a trip to Milwaukee because it has the best selection. I always get 5 year aged cheddar, which is heavenly. If you have never tried it, you should find it and eat it all. It’s so much better than regular cheddar at the store. (They also had 25 year cheddar but it was super expensive!). They have lots of samples so you can try a lot of different cheeses. Plus they have Wisconsin beers, including New Glarus, and brats if you are so inclined. We’ve tried other cheese places but they have paled in comparison.

Then on our final leg of the drive home, we finally went to the Mars Cheese Castle. It was something we had been meaning to do for years but road construction and schedule always got in the way. This time we made it. The experience? Well, the outside building is kinda neat with the fake drawbridge and whatnot. Inside, it’s an overpriced store with inferior cheese selection. Alas. We had been warned that we may be a bit disappointed. But I’m glad we went.

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Mars Cheese Castle

That’s all for now!

 

Part 11: France and England

On the 31st of December, we had a mission. A friend of ours was getting married. In the course of her research, she learned that there is more to the “Something Old” poem.

The full verse is “Something old/ something new/ something borrowed/something blue/ and a silver sixpence in her shoe.” Since we were abroad in England, she asked if we could find a six pence. We first tried calling some antique coin shops around the city. Many were closed for the holiday. The one we could get in contact with did not sell it. BUt they suggested we try the Bank of England Museum.

And so the morning of the 31st, we were off. We got there super early, before it opened. After waiting in line to go through security, we were in. And within moments of getting in, we found what we were looking for. Mission accomplished. I acquired a six pence for my dear friend who was also getting married in 2016. The museum was fun and free. The first room had some interactive displays trying to teach the basics of finance and economics. I liked this balance game where you had a ball that you had to keep in the optimal area for inflation by adjusting interest rates, etc. But the fun part of the museum was the history. They had a section about animals on bank notes. And a small room on the evolution of bank notes. Originally, bank notes were a lot like checks; you’d sign the bill over to someone. Eventually it evolved to the bearer of the note instead of a specific person. Also, I was surprised to find out that the image of the monarchy on the bank note was a later addition, mid-20th century.

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Bank of England – Pretty note!

And you can try to pick up a solid bar of gold. It’s extremely heavy with only one hand!

Then we met up with my parents and a family friend at the British Museum. We continued our exploration of the back part of the museum. We hung out in the Meso-American gallery, which has really nice sculptures even if it is small. It was a little weird to see a gallery of Native American art there… I wonder if this is what it is like for Australians to see aboriginal art in other continents…Hmm… We also spent time in the Chinese and Korean pottery galleries. Lots of different pottery from different eras in Chinese history.

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Two stories!

Afterwards, we headed up to Covent Garden to see street performers and check out the tourist market. Covent Garden is always a lot of fun because of the street performances. In the past, I’ve heard opera singers, string quintets and more. We watched one man juggle a bowling ball and two apples. Pretty neat.

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Covent Garden Performer

Then we did the best thing of all. We found a secret tea shop. In a bar near Covent garden, you can ask to go to the tea shop on the second floor. The barman said “You know the only serve tea up there.” We knew we were in the right place.

Then you are pointed to a flight of stairs behind the bar. Walk up and you’ll find yourself in a wonderful land of tea and homemade cakes. And no, I won’t reveal the name. You’ll have to find it for yourself. Because it will be more satisfying that way.  It was wondrous. The china is all mixed up, which is perfect. The cakes are delicious and the tea is spot on. I can’t wait to go back.

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Secret Tea shop

That evening was New Year’s Eve at Sarastro in Drury Lane. We’ve spent the past two years enjoying the evening there. It’s a combination of an opera house and a harem with the most pornographic bathrooms. (Women’s is more graphic than the men’s). The food is Turkish, which is pretty cool. There were masks, Christmas crackers, small poppers, and delicious food. We danced the night away. There was a raffle and we went home with a drone. I haven’t assembled it because the weather in Chicago wasn’t great. But soon, there will be adventures.

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Sarastro!

That’s all for now!

France and England: Part 5

Christmas day in Paris! We had a late start in the morning since it was Christmas day. We spent the morning just wandering around the city. Mostly everything was closed but people were out and about.

We went to Luxembourg gardens nearby and enjoyed the little bit of nature. The grass was still green, which is always amazing to me since Chicago is usually a barren wasteland of ice and snow by mid-November. Along the gates of the park, there is always a photography exhibition. One year it was political cartoons, another year it was animals of the jungle. This time, the exhibition dealt with bees and beekeeping practices around the world. I have a soft spot in my heart for bees (a hobby I plan to take up in my retirement like Sherlock Holmes) so this was really neat.

On the way back to the hotel, we saw a cafe or bar that seemed to specialize in broadcasting lucha libre. I’m seeing more and more Mexican restaurants in France, which is interesting. I’ve only tried Mexican food once in France (in Nice incidentally) and it’s a mistake I’ll never make again. The signs on this cafe/bar though are pretty swell.

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Lucha Libre Bar

That afternoon, we attended the Cirque d’Hiver again! This was our third year going to this Paris institution. Again, we were the only people without children with us. The main clown was a clear homage to Jerry Lewis and the show began and ended with him putting on and taking off his makeup and clown clothing. The circus was top notch as always. This time the show started with tigers. Very odd to see tigers jumping and sitting up on their hind feet. What beautiful creatures. There was also a guy with trained parrots, which was pretty cool. One drove a little car!

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Cirque d’Hiver

The best piece was this duo acrobats who did foot juggling but with a person instead of a ball or a chair. Very impressive as the one acrobat flipped the other through the air with his legs and feet! There was also a cool trio hand-balancing act where they did things that seemed impossible. I love when circus does that!

I thought the flying trapeze with a 1920s Parisian theme was really quite good. I’ve seen a fair amount of flying trapeze acts and they don’t give me the same thrill anymore. But this one had a special energy or something that made it stand out from the rest.

On the way home to the hotel, we did pass Bataclan theater where people had died in the terrorist attacks in November. People were still putting flowers and other memorials nearby the theater. What a tragedy. We also passed the Place of the Republic where people are putting memorials near an impressive statue of Liberty. Incredible.

That night, we had our Christmas dinner at Le Procope, the oldest restaurant in Paris. It actually started out as a coffeehouse and was frequented by the stars of the Enlightenment. It has both Rousseau’s and Voltaire’s desks. Also, the founding fathers, like Benjamin Franklin, also frequented the place. In the foyer, they have Napoleon’s tri-corner hat on display; apparently, he left it as collateral for an unpaid bill!

My mom and I opted for the giant sea platter for our Christmas dinner. I love love love oysters. This platter had four different types of oysters including weird black inky ones that stained my skirt. THere were big shrimp, langoustines, and tiny tiny shrimp. So good!

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Our Christmas Feast

After dinner, we decided to go to a movie, a recent tradition on our European winter holidays. Past years, we’ve seen the Hobbit movies. So this time, we saw Star Wars VII even though we had already seen it. It’s a fun experience going to a movie theater in a foreign country. It’s a different experience. Aside from France, I’ve never done it anywhere outside of the US. We had to wait outside for the movie (kinda like NYC). The commercials are all in French which is fun and strange. You get to see trailers for movies that may never make it to the US. THe movie was fun the second time around. It was in the biggest screen in the movie house but it was far from full. The Big Short, in contrast, was sold out.

That’s all for now. Tomorrow I’ll talk about our trip to the Louis Vuitton Foundation and a French Revolution walking tour!