Cock-a-doodle-doo

It’s been over a month since the start of the Lunar New Year. The year of the rooster began on January 28. For us Chinese (and several other Asian ethnicities), it’s the chance for a sense of rebirth on the heels of the Gregorian New Year, just shortly after the French stop saying “Bonne Année.” Not only that, but the celebration goes on for two weeks.

I follow the superstitions surrounding the Lunar New Year, just in case. Clean the house the day before but not the day of. Eat three good meals. Eat long noodles. Don’t get your hair cut. Wear red.

Did I mention eat well?

On New Year’s Day this year, a group of friends and I had lunch in New York Chinatown. Our ringleader was my friend who is Chinese-born. Then there was me, who is Chinese American, and seven non-Chinese Frenchies, several of whom had spent a few years in Beijing.

Perhaps you know how it goes in Chinese restaurants. Rather than ordering our own entrées, we ordered dishes to share (though this place lacked a lazy susan, which would have made second helpings easier). After a meal of fish (presented in complete form), lobster, meat, eggplant, noodles, rice, and more, we wandered out into the streets to watch the dragon dance, in which several dragons accompanied by loud drums went from door to door. Businesses put money in their mouths for good fortune. Sidewalk vendors sold long cylinders that when snapped in half, popped and shot confetti into the air. Kids threw fake firecrackers on the ground that made a loud noise upon impact.DSC00187DSC00188DSC00189DSC00190

About a week later, I came across these fierce dragons near Times Square. Though they’ve apparently been there since last fall, I hadn’t noticed them up close, and they seemed particularly appropriate to take a walk around and greet for the New Year.

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They made me smile. How could they look so ferocious and joyful at the same time? It must have been the heart and happy faces on their noses.

I am still finding confetti. Today I was sitting outside and saw a piece of shiny pink confetti on my pants. It must have fallen out of my purse. That’s how you know you celebrated New Year’s well.

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Oh Snap

Today I had lunch with a colleague who graduated from college last spring. When our appetizers arrived, she asked, “Should we wait till the entrees come to snap everything together or start eating now?”

I didn’t hear exactly what she had said and thought she was asking if we should snack on the appetizers or wait to eat everything together. Whatever the actual question, I knew my answer was that I wanted to start eating; hadn’t we both just said we were hungry?

A moment later, I realized she had actually been asking if we should wait so that we could take a picture of all our food to post on Snapchat, the app that’s all the rage among teens and early twenty-somethings.

This could have made me feel the significance of the seven years between us, but truth be told, I know that even if I were her age, I would never have considered waiting to eat my spring rolls. I do take photos of my food sometimes, but as it comes and not to show my friends. I can think of a few reasons I wouldn’t have started eating immediately (if my food had arrived and hers hadn’t, if she was in the restroom while they came, if one of our orders was wrong), and none of them include an app.

I acted as if her question was normal, but I was really thinking, “Are you serious??” I still wonder if there’s a possibility she was half-joking. Hot spring rolls! Hunger! No one except us cares what we’re eating!

Even when I was that age and up on all the trends, I didn’t feel inclined to follow them. The difference is that now I can use my age as an excuse!

When I Said À Bientôt to Paris

Last year I said goodbye to the people I knew in Paris. I remember in the weeks leading up to my departure, people asked me how I felt, and I felt really fine because I had lived every moment during my time in France and it was my own choice to move back to the States. I already felt lucky to have soaked in every nighttime golden bridge, both with others and by myself. I had doubts about what the transition would be like since there were uncertainties in my immediate future, but I accepted that as a necessary part of changement.

My last night, as I parted with a friend across the street from Invalides after our ride on the bateaux mouches, I was confused by a sudden feeling of sickness that overcame me. I hadn’t eaten anything in the past few hours, so it wasn’t that kind of nausea. It wasn’t that I was hungry, either. I didn’t believe it was post-seasickness, if that is even a thing. It took a few minutes of me standing there and descending to walk a bit along the Seine in the direction of home to realize that my body was catching up to the knowledge that I was leaving and reacting in its own involuntary way. Perhaps I was fine in the weeks and hours prior and would be fine later that night, but I didn’t feel so in that moment.

During my stroll past the people enjoying the summertime air on the berges, a friend called me. We had already had our “goodbye for now” a couple of months prior since he lives in another part of France, so we didn’t have to have one now. He was just calling to see how it was going and to wish me off well. I was feeling better at that point and was further bolstered by his comforting and encouraging words.

The next day, a good friend came over to say goodbye before my SuperShuttle to the airport. We had meant to meet up the day before after an afternoon party I attended, but due to my usual lingering at events, by the time I headed to the bateaux mouches that friend was on his way to another get-together with his friends, and we missed each other.

Luck was on my side, because he offered to stop by my place midday before going to his office. Lucky because everyone else I knew was working since it was a Monday, but his schedule that day permitted him to come by. Lucky because we were then able to open a nice bottle of champagne that one of my bosses had given me and that I would have otherwise left behind. It went well with my last opéra pastry that I offered to split with him but that he declined, leaving me to eat the whole thing by myself (pas de souci).

Half an hour later, as I gazed out the window of the shuttle van during the ride to the airport, I was glad that we had sipped a little champagne. I have a low tolerance, so even the light bubbly made everything just hazy enough so that I didn’t think think think during this bonus tour of the city, but dreamily observed neighborhood after neighborhood, each containing memories made and absorbed into my being.

The Sunday Roast Mystery

On the last day of my long weekend in Yorkshire, my friend took me on an amble through the Shambles, a charming historic street of shops in the city of York. 100_6738100_6736

We saw the York Minster cathedral exterior, the Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, which are now part of a public park, and other sights in the area.

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I could have stayed and wandered in and out of little shops for hours, but we had to get on to experience my first Sunday roast. I remember when a British friend from Birmingham first described the concept of Sunday roast to me. “It’s a big meal with meat, potato, and some kind of veg…” You mean like a normal meal!? I did not really get it. Meat, veg… this is what I’d usually eat for lunch or dinner, except that I’d call them “vegetables.”

At the restaurant, the server went around our table of eight or ten people to take our orders of appetizers and entrees. I was the last one.

“I’d like the summer tart,” I said.
“The what?”
“The summer tart,” I said a little louder.
The waitress paused uncomprehendingly. I was equally confused, as others had ordered the same appetizer before me.
“The summah taht,” the native Yorkshireman sitting to my left repeated.
“Oh, the summah taht,” the server noted.

I couldn’t believe it. I felt like English wasn’t my native language. The disbelief on both of our faces leading up to the clarification still gives me a laugh today.

I also saw for myself what makes a Sunday roast different from any other meal with meat and veg. My roast beef and gravy was topped by a huge Yorkshire pudding made from eggs, flour, and milk or water. Quite a sight to behold. 100_6744

Yorkshire was a lovely peek into a different lifestyle and landscape (and accent). I now understood why during my hostess’s visit to Paris, she remarked that we walked a lot, more than she was used to, that Parisian parks were small, and that she’d be more comfortable taking a taxi from Montmartre to her lodging even after I assured her that it would be simple to take the metro, just one switch involved. In Yorkshire she has to drive to get anywhere from her village home. She walks her dog in a vast, wild field rather than on a busy city sidewalk. Her furthest immediate family member lives only an hour away. Her wonderful swinging bench on her back patio negates the need to seek out restaurant terrasses. I certainly fell in love with her backyard features that she designed herself. Ain’t nothing like jumping into someone else’s pond for a few days, especially a saucy British lady’s.

Arthur Avenue and Blossoms in the Bronx

Recently three new friends and I ventured up to the Bronx to check out Arthur Avenue, the “real” Little Italy in New York. Our day got off to a delayed start due to half the group confusing which subway line they were supposed to take. To their credit, it is confusing that the subway stop “125th Street” is in fact four different stops across the city that ten lines pass through. Both people are also not long-time residents of this region.

Having shown up early to our meeting place in the subway station, I acted as an unofficial informational point for tourists who wandered in and wondered which direction to go, as there were two platforms, one for trains going uptown and the other for downtown. The answer was always: head downtown. You want to go to Columbus Circle? Washington Square Park? Downtown. Do you realize how far up north you are? Most of the island is south from where you are right now.

I can only assume they were coming from attending a Gospel Baptist service in Harlem, as many non-American tourists to New York seem to be interested in doing. Most Americans I know, including myself, have never attended one unless they are part of the church or were invited to a service by a friend for a special event.

Almost an hour after our originally scheduled meeting time, our group of four was complete. We started by having lunch at an Italian restaurant (on the back patio! It is spring!!). Before digging into our meat and pasta dishes, we split a plate of arancini, a Sicilian dish of fried rice-stuffed meatballs. Everything was delicious. The restaurant, quiet when we had entered around 1:30, was full of long tables of families chatting and having their Sunday lunch when we left.

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We stopped at an indoor market and a deli, purchasing cannoli, fresh mozzarella, truffle lemon zest, tiramisu, ham, and uncooked pasta. We watched an older man at a cigar stand hand roll cigars.

Toting our little plastic bags of goods, we walked to the New York Botanical Gardens for our very first visit. At least I think it was my first visit—sometimes I can’t remember if I’ve been somewhere when I was a kid. It was lovely. The cherry blossom and flowering crabapple trees were in full bloom. Slopes covered by innumerable daffodils celebrated the gardens’ 125th anniversary. Maples from all over the world lined walking paths.

Funnily enough, we spoke in French the whole day (to each other, not to all the Italian servers and sellers). Even though none of us was French, it seemed natural because we had met in a French setting in New York and I was the only one in the group whose native language was English, so it was not as if English would have made communication easier. I thought about how in France if I was in a group of French people, we of course spoke French, but if I was in a group of expats, we spoke English even though usually everyone knew French. I think this is because although many of the expats I knew whose native language was not English spoke French very well, they spoke English almost flawlessly, plus there were usually at least two native English speakers in the group, whether from the U.S. or United Kingdom.

When I initially moved to France, I thought I might meet some expats where our only common language would be French. As it turns out, although there are many monolingual people in the world, a non-French person who moves to France to study or work for a company often speaks English, whether they come from Asia, Africa, Europe, or South America. Many others don’t—I knew a Peruvian and a Russian in Paris who didn’t know any English—but a lot do.

How funny that what I imagined I would live in France—going out with a group of international people and speaking in our second language, French—instead happened in the States, in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, nonetheless.

Do Americans Eat Burgers Every Day?

When I am outside of the United States, people often ask me what Americans eat. Burgers? Bacon and eggs?

Well, the following is what my friends and I ate during my recent trip to Boston from a Friday afternoon to Sunday midday. Keep in mind that this is not our regular daily diet, as many of us usually eat cooked food at home, but this is an example of a weekend eating out with friends.

– Butternut squash risotto with mushrooms and a fried egg (I like fried eggs but have never understood putting one on top of anything, whether in French, Korean, or American cuisine)
– Duck salad with bleu cheese, dried cranberries, and apples
– Almond brioche
– Gruyere cheese croissant
– Coffee with milk and sugar (I am no longer in the land of espresso)
– Japanese buffet with lots of fish, sushi, delicate salads, and green tea soft serve (soft serve is a kind of ice cream and may be called something different in your country)
– Raw oysters
– Lobster roll (lobster pieces on soft, warm buttered bread)
– Cannoli
– Prosecco apple cider cocktails
– Pretzel bunny (a soft pretzel shaped like a bunny, in case you had a doubt)
– Smoked salmon and arugula sandwich
– Lamb and tomato chutney sandwich

Thank goodness my friends are gourmands, meaning we all love to eat.

I will admit that half the reason for making this list was so that I could relive my food pleasures. I am guessing that reading it is not half as interesting or enjoyable as eating it.

To note, I like a good burger once in a while. I probably have a burger less than once a month (except when I had two French friends visiting and they wanted to have burgers almost every day. At least we sampled different restaurants). I usually eat oatmeal or cold cereal for breakfast and only eat eggs on the weekends, usually fried or scrambled. I like bacon but only eat it about once or twice a year.

Casablanca’s Mosque

My first full day in Casablanca, my friend and I headed to the Hassan II Mosque from lunch after a false start. We opted for the English tour. A Moroccan man approached our group and said that our guide was sick and we’d have to come back tomorrow. He paused a beat and then revealed that he was our guide. Thus commenced the jokes.

The mosque was impressive. Our guide told us that much of the construction’s financing came from many individual contributions.

He instructed us to take off our shoes in the main room. My awesome friend had planned ahead and brought an extra pair of socks for me. We padded around, looking up at the extremely high intricate ceiling and arches. The absence of furniture added to the feeling of enormity in the space.100_7768100_7774100_7773100_7775

Almost all of the materials used to build the mosque come from Morocco. One exception is the chandeliers, which are from near Venice.

Unbelievably enough, the grandiose roof is retractable. 100_7769

Our shoes back on, we saw some baths, which range in temperature. I admired the pretty Moroccan tiles.100_7783100_7780100_7781 2

Outside, the clouds had parted a bit so we could see the mosque exterior.100_7790100_7779100_7785100_7787100_7788

The minaret is the tallest in the world, standing at 689 feet, or 210 meters. From it comes the call for prayer five times a day. 100_7786

I snapped a shot of these satellite dishes before we took a taxi back to my friend’s apartment for tea and a chat. There were clusters of satellite dishes on every roof in Casablanca. It was one of those random things that struck me. I remember a friend who visited me in Paris for the first time years ago who was completely entertained by all the different metro train handles. What is most amusing is often the most ordinary.100_7791

We had dinner at a low-lit, modern looking restaurant that a friend’s boyfriend who is from Casa had recommended. My friend told me that this is a certain type of restaurant in Casablanca—swanky ambiance, contemporary music. I suppose it can be compared to the variations in New York bars, from dive, which serve cheap drinks under dim lights that probably hide some grime, to upscale rooftop or cellar bars that charge five dollars for a soda. At my previous company, our happy hours generally took place at the former.

I topped off my meal with a small chocolate dessert on a large white plate. The experience didn’t end with the food. On the contrary, the hall of individual bathrooms held mystery. I entered one that was deep and dark, with the toilet all the way at the end and a wall of glass that looked out to the sea. It was almost black outside, but I could hear the waves crashing. 100_7795

I was grateful to be with my friend as we (she) chose a taxi to take us home. The drivers parked directly outside the restaurant wanted to horrendously overcharge us, not that I would have known they were trying to do so. As we walked through the parking lot, other drivers solicited us, and one kept bringing the price down but still not to a normal price. She waved him off. As we turned away and walked towards the road to hail a taxi, he brashly told us that we shouldn’t do that. He obviously didn’t know my friend, because commanding us authoritatively was the exact way to ensure that we didn’t turn back. She was already mad that because we were foreign, no one would give us a fair price.

A bit further alongside the road, she hailed one that we took home.

The whole taxi experience made me realize how much more independent I would have felt had public transportation been the means to get around the city. I’m used to arriving in a foreign city, reading the metro map, and figuring out how to buy tickets. Taxis were the equivalent of public transportation in Casablanca. They had a meter, but I would not have known the correct price or how long it should take to go from one place to another. To make it more complicated, taxis were shared with strangers, so it was necessary to note the cost already on the meter when you joined the party. I spoke French but no Arabic to help feign familiarity with the system. I could have done it, as tourists do, but I’m glad I didn’t have to. I felt no stress standing next to my able Californian guide who tossed back her blond hair and bent her tall frame to the dusty red taxi to arrange our ride.

Casablanca

Around this time last year, I rolled my duffel bag into work, excited that at the end of the day I would be rolling it into the Paris airport and a couple of hours later, out into Casablanca, Morocco.

A few days before, I told the people I volunteered with once a week that this was a big trip for me even though it was only a three-day weekend. I had never been to Morocco or anywhere in Africa. One volunteer, a French man who had spent three years in California, thought for a moment and then remarked that it was true that for Americans Morocco would seem more ‘exotic’ than for French people. Among French people who have vacationed abroad, Marrakesh and Essaouira are common destinations. Morocco is geographically close to France, and many people in its cities speak some French. Among the Americans I know who have traveled, many more have been to Rome, San Juan, and Beijing than to Marrakesh.

My decision to visit Casablanca over the more touristy cities in Morocco was easy, as I only had three days and my good friend was at the tail end of a two-year stay there.

Outside the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport, “her” taxi driver was waiting. On certain occasions she called him ahead of time rather than hailing one, which was more uncertain. While she was inside the airport awaiting me and he was outside awaiting us, they communicated by text, which I found funny, as I reserve texting for friends and family.

We were whisked off into the dark and dropped off near my friend’s apartment, which she shared with a roommate. When we entered her apartment, I stared in disbelief at its large size. Having just come from a city where a two-person apartment could mean that one person sleeps on a fold-out couch in the living room, I was dazzled by the spacious living room, kitchen as a separate room, and two bedrooms flanked by two full bathrooms. Faced with this surface space stretching out before me in the darkened living room, I didn’t know where to put down my bag. My friend told me that typically a family would live in this type of apartment, rather than two young women.

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The next day, as I took pictures of a vegetable truck and crossed the street gingerly while my friend adeptly darted among traffic, I realized how at home she was here. Though her physical attributes marked her as a foreigner, her ease in moving around and interacting with people made it clear that she was no newcomer. I, on the other hand, trailed behind her and marveled at the bustle of life, the buildings, the people, and the atmosphere. Above all, I thought, “Are you really going to cross now??” Arriving at the other side of the busy road was an exciting affair.

We took a taxi to Hassan II Mosque, which is the largest mosque in Morocco and one of the few tourist sites in Casablanca. My friend told me that the city is proud of the mosque, which was completed in 1993 after a seven-year construction. Unfortunately, a mist obstructed my first view of the building. However, we’d have to come back anyway. We had showed up for a tour, but the typed sign on the entrance displayed different hours that the web site had listed. My friend was not surprised. 100_7758

In the time before the next tour, we had tajine for lunch at one of the only Moroccan restaurants my friend goes to. She said that she and her friends rarely ate Moroccan food outside. I suppose it is like how my friends and I hardly ate in French restaurants during our study abroad experience in Paris, trying Polish and Vietnamese and Ethiopian restaurants instead and eating French food at home. (This was not the case the second time I lived in France as a working adult—I had my share of confit de canard and moelleux au chocolat in brasseries and restaurants, although I did also later discover the supermarket and Picard versions of these).

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Our lunch outside was lovely. We caught up under the gray sky that my friend insisted had been sunny the previous week. “Casablanca is never like this! We were at the beach last weekend,” she said. Okay.

I did enjoy my first tajine experience. My friend in Paris who is married to a Moroccan tossed around the word tajine all the time, but I hadn’t ever seen one until now. Meat and vegetables are cooked in a tajine pot, whose lid is narrow at the top and widens into a funnel shape. Lift the lid, and you can eat out of the bowl. They are used in North Africa and the Middle East.

Up next: We make it into the mosque.

Pancakes in Small Spaces

Prior to our Amsterdam trip, I caught a horrible cold—or who knows what it was, but it involved a constant, conspicuous cough. My poor travel companion good naturedly put up with my hacking. I’ve been told I’m pleasant to travel with, and I tried this time, but his periodic attempts at humorous imitations of my cough were met with a withering glare. I now laugh when I come across one photo where I look miserable under a blue sky and a sunny bridge in the background. Fortunately, we still got to walk around the city and enjoy our experience. No late nights in the Red Light District, though. Rather, nighttime tea and cough drops in our quiet apartment.

During our second day, we strolled through a couple of markets selling food or gift items. One stand featured Amsterdam’s signature cheese. I did not know this round yella fella was considered a local specialty until we saw it everywhere.

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A salesperson was rude to me as I decided whether to buy fluffy red slippers in the shape of Dutch clogs for my mom. Not sure why he thought that was a good idea, since he was selling items that could be bought for the same price elsewhere. That’s exactly what I did, of course: walk away and find a store with the identical product but better service.

We crossed more picturesque canals and streets lined with bikes.

I noticed right angles in boxy cars and panes of glass.

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We lunched at a Dutch pancake restaurant found at the top of a steep staircase. I have no idea how they haul groceries and laundry up and down those narrow stairs. Amsterdam was full of staircases like these. Interior spaces were small, too. The apartment we rented was large enough for city living, but the bathroom was surprisingly tight. You could not leave the shower door open and the toilet lid up at the same time.

We took the city tram, which was clean and a good way to see different neighborhoods. You swipe your metro ticket to enter, and for unknown reasons, swipe to exit it as well, though it is not enforced.

We walked through a park and stretched out on the grass for a while. I was reminded of our nap along a dusty river bank in Florence the previous summer. Therein lies the benefit of traveling in warmer weather; when you need respite, you can seek out a patch of lawn to take a restful break.152.amsterdam.l

A bit refreshed, we went in search of Foodhallen, a food hall that a colleague had told me her friend in Amsterdam recommended.

We had some difficulty finding it, but after asking a couple of kindly people, we arrived and found… a dead quiet, practically empty space.152.amsterdam.m

I was surprised, especially since it was definitely still open according to the hours listed outside. As we walked through the hall, we saw doors on one side that displayed this sign.

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Through the doors, another huge space opened up, this one bustling with all kinds of food stands lined up along walls surrounding tables and tables of people eating, drinking, and chatting on matching high wooden benches. What acoustics; how incredible that the main hall remained so silent when all this life was going on right adjacent to it.

We made a full tour of the offerings before selecting Vietnamese sandwiches and finding a table off to the side.

Post dinner, we took a walk and looked for a bus line that would take us back to the apartment. While waiting at the stop, I fished a cough drop out of my bag, threw out the used tissues accumulated in every pocket (a delightful detail you appreciate, I’m sure), looked at the blue evening sky, and felt lucky indeed.

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