Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Yarra Yarra Hey!

I'm sitting with Bryce in the Qantas lounge at Melbourne, waiting for our flight to Brisbane, in QueensLAND. Remember my project to go to all the states/countries that end in -land in English? Well, that's part of why I'm here, all the way down in Australia.

This morning we headed up to the Yarra Valley for a scenic drive and some wine tasting. Both were achieved, to the point where I had to say "no more" at lunch time. On the way up, we stopped in at Domaine Chandon. We tasted two very nice sparkling wines, and a variety of reds and whites. Their Brut méthode champagnoise was quite tasty.

We continued to the Yarra Valley visitor's center in Healesville, where a very helpful lady pulled out a map and marked it up with suggestions as to where we should go. Our first winery was RiverStone, in Coldstream. We tried a variety of reds, but what really stood out for me was a 10 year old Tokay that they made at another winery further south. I'm developing a fascination for sweet dessert wines, and this one really knocked my socks off. It was sweet without being cloying, and had the most wonderful toasted coconut finish that kicked in definitely after swallowing. I really enjoyed that it did that, so I picked up a bottle to bring back to California. The winery building and land at RiverStone were really lovely:


Next stop was Yering Station, which bills itself as Australia's oldest winery -- even though there was a good space of time when the vines were ripped up and the land was used for various agricultural purposes, including stock grazing. The place seemed rather large and full of tourists, so I was a bit worried that it would be sort of a Gallo-type place. However, once we got into the tasting room, we were not disappointed. They had a very long tasting list, which included a really tasty nebbiolo that has given me a really great opinion of that variety. They also had an interesting "M.S.R" blended white made up of 67% Marsanne, 25% Viognier, and 8% Roussane. Bryce ordered a mixed case of this wine, plus some Sangiovese and Shiraz. I was hoping it all would be delivered before I left Brisbane so I could sample a bit more, but alas that was not the case. As for myself, I snapped up yet another sweet wine -- this one a fortified Shiraz. It was really delicious, not quite a tawny port, but not exactly a late-harvest type sweet wine either. I'm curious to learn more about these types of wines, as knowledge of and consumption of them does not seem to be very widespread in the US. I will have to do some research -- including tasting trips -- after I get home.

We were getting hungry, and so decided to stop at the Balgownie Estate. This was a large facility, with a hotel, spa, and conference center attached. We wanted lunch, so we decided to taste wine first to determine what we would drink with our meal. The gentleman helping us taste was quite gregarious, and we sipped our way through some Pinot Noirs, including the proprietor's reserve which was quite yummy. The dining room and menu at the Estate were lovely, but unfortunately we did not have a reservation and so were turned away. Not to be deterred, we headed to another winery that had been suggested, only to find a sign on the door saying that the restaurant was entirely booked for lunch that day. We backtracked a bit, and stopped at the café at Yarrawood. I ordered some pasta with grilled chicken and basil cream sauce, and drank it with something...at this point I can't remember. At that point I probably couldn't have remembered either. I had tasted/drank a lot of wine that morning, so after we finished eating I turned to Bryce and said "No more."

The afternoon and evening were consumed by wending our way back to Melbourne and then flying on to Brisbane.

Monday, December 29, 2008

When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro


Bryce and I headed west along the Great Ocean Road, going toward Warrnambool. The first part of the road leaving Port Campbell followed the ocean cliffs, where there were a series of spectacular rock formations.

Then the road turned inland. I was fiddling with the camera when Bryce announced that he had just seen a kangaroo sitting by the side of the road. This totally bummed me out, as I really wanted to see some native Australian wildlife in their native Australian habitats. As we continued west, Bryce saw a country lane turn-off and said "let's go here!" so we randomly started down the narrow drive. All of a sudden we passed something marsupial in the grass! I was so excited, we turned around and I saw what turned out to be a wallaby hopping across the road. It sat in the grass and stared at us for a bit.

We continued onward to Warranmbool, the road dipping and rising in soft rolling hills. A few kilometers outside of town Bryce saw a dome with a cross on top and remarked with a bit of surprise that he was seeing a Russian Orthodox Church in the dstance. As we got closer, we encountered this structure, visible across hill and dale for many a kilometer:

Obviously that silver ball is not a Russian Orthodox Church. We navigated closer and saw that it was located atop a trouser factory. But why? And especially why the cross? As we drove around town, just looking to see what was there, it seemed to us that there was an inordinate number of churches. There seemed to be a dozen steeples in the distance, a church on nearly every corner. Had we stumbled into some kind of hotbed of Australian religious expression? And why when we cruised by the Temperance Hall was it closed?

Some more random wandering brought us to a beautiful ANZAC memorial. Pretty much every town in Australia has one, honoring and remembering the forces who fought and fell at Gallipoli in World War I (see the film, it is amazing and heartbreaking).

This is where stuff started getting strange. The memorial was in the middle of a roundabout, and we noticed a bright yellow flower power van going around and around while the driver ground the gears pretty seriously. A few moments of observation revealed that the youth of Warranmbool appear to cruise the streets for fun and entertainment. After making some comments about disaffected youth, we hopped back in the car to search for dinner. Along the way we encountered the yellow van again, this time receiving roadside assistance from a tall young guy (it seems all Aussie guys are tall).

From there we decided that Mexican food was our best bet, so we stopped inside Taco Bill and discovered that it is a chain, with franchise opportunities available all over Australia. Apparently Mexican food is kind of new and exotic in the Australian countryside, because the place mats at Taco Bill included handy pronunciation guides to the various dishes. You know that thing made up of corn chips, melted cheese, salsa, beans, guac etc? Yep, that's right, NAR-choes. And you can wash them down with a liqueur-flavored margarita -- they were offered some of the flavors you'd expect, and then some exotics like Sambuca or creme de menthe. Creme de menthe and tequila, it boggles my mind. I had a passionfruit margarita, which was quite delicious with actual fresh passionfruit puree in it.

After dinner we started the drive back to Port Campbell. At this point the cross on top of the silver ball was lit up, and it kind of floated like a holy UFO on the outskirts of town. The drive back through the dark countryside on a moonless night, roads lined with gum (eucalyptus) trees and the ever-present danger of a 'roo hopping out of the woods and wrecking our car (worse than hitting a deer), was like something out of a gothic horror movie.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Off into the Victorian Countryside

We left Melbourne about 2pm, heading west and south toward Port Campbell, which would be our overnight stop and jumping-off point for driving the Great Ocean Road back to Melbourne. This is considered one of the most spectacular drives in Australia, winding along limestone cliffs and sandy beaches.

Our outbound trip was inland, through dairy cow and sheep country. It was very bucolic, with farm after farm, many smelling of fresh-cut hay. We stopped in the metropolis of Colac (population 11,000) for "Australia's Number One Pizza." This was stated as being in terms of "price and value," but based on the taste of the pizza, I'm not really sure what it meant.

We arrived in Port Campbell, a very small town with a cluster of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. After checking into the Loch Ard Motor Inn, we had a cup of tea and hit the road again, heading west.

Cricket 101


This morning I took part in a long-standing Melbourne tradition, attending the Boxing Day Test Match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I'll understand if you are confused. After all, Boxing Day was two days ago, and what the hell is cricket anyway?

Don't ask me where and how cricket started. I heard it was invented by crazy Englishmen who spent too much time in the noonday sun in India drinking gin and tonics, but apparently cricket is older than that. Here are some basics.

There are two teams. One team is in the field, the other is batting. The field is a big grassy oval, with a tan dirt rectangle in the middle. This rectangle is called the pitch, and is where pretty much everything happens. At each end of the pitch stands three thigh-high wooden stakes pounded into the ground close to each other. This is the wicket. A batter stands at each end of the pitch, in front of the wicket, so that two batters from the same team are up at the same time. On the defending team (or attacking, depending on how you look at it, since the bowler can look pretty darn violent when he runs down the pitch), the bowler stands off at one end of the pitch and the rest of his teammates fan out in various locations on the field.


There is no foul territory, the entire oval is in play, so fielders can be behind either batter, on either long side of the pitch, spread out, clustered together, and so on. Play starts by the bowler running into the pitch, hurling the ball before his foot crosses a certain white line. The batter being aimed at does his best to hit the ball, which can be traveling at speeds exceeding 145kmph.

The basic idea for the fielders is to catch the ball and/or throw it in to the wicket keeper (a fielder who stands right by a wicket) so that the batter can be caught out or tagged out. There are rules about how to catch it but they've escaped me now. If the batter gets a decent hit, he starts running down the pitch toward the other wicket, and the batter at that wicket runs in the opposite direction, so the two batters in effect exchange places during the scoring of one run. When the batter has a good hit, the batters can run down, tag their "crease" (their batting zone), and then run back to their original locations. In this case, two runs are scored. Sometimes, on a really flubbed fielding play, three runs can be scored. There are also rules where umpires automatically give credit for four or more runs.

Now we come to the part about scores. This is where things get murky for North Americans who are used to baseball. If you've ever watched BBC World News, you'll hear cricket scores reported something like this:
In the third day of the International Test Match at Melbourne, Australia has 347 runs in the first inning, and South Africa is 8 for 249. Play will continue tomorrow.

A "proper" cricket match, the best of the best, are the Test Matches. Why are they called this? Who knows. Probably because it's test of strength and skill to play cricket for six hours a day for five days. An inning lasts until 10 players are out. In the above example, saying South Africa is 8 for 249 means that 8 players are out, and those 8 scored a total of 249 runs while they were playing. South Africa still has two more batters, which means they could score anywhere between another zero (highly unlikely) and 50 or so (much more likely) before the 10th man goes out and the inning is over.

When Grant, Bryce, and I joined the Boxing Day Test Match already in progress, the game was still in the first inning and the score was something along the lines of what I gave in the example above. Game play is further divided into "overs" (a series of six good bowls), and then there are mandatory breaks. After one hour of play at the MCG, a giant bottle of Gatorade was wheeled onto the the oval and all the players and officials were given something to drink. After the second hour of play, everyone stopped for a 40-minute lunch break. That is when we headed out. It was interesting but I couldn't see staying for the full six hours of play on my first attempt, plus Bryce and I wanted to hit the Great Ocean Road.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Nice Little Afternoon Drive

Bryce and I hopped in the car and headed south from Melbourne, following the beaches along Mornington Peninsula about 100km to its tip. Parts of the drive were reminiscent of the Jersey Shore, parts had a sort of Malibu flavor, and the last two towns -- Sorrento and Portsea -- were definitely very Hamptons.

Along the way we stopped for a walk on a municipal pier, and I stuck my feet in the water. I figured dipping into Port Phillip Bay was close enough to count toward putting my feet in the Great Southern Ocean. At this point only the Arctic is left on my list, unless I start adding things like the Adriatic, Black, Caspian, and Baltic seas.

We parked at the end of the road in Portsea, in a neighborhood of very nice houses with modern architecture, tennis courts, and swimming pools, and went for a brief smoke (Bryce) and a walk. Aside from seeing magpies and hearing a kookaburra, we viewed Preppius Australus, the Australian preppie. Like their American counterparts, they wear Topsiders, sweaters looped around their shoulders, walk sporting dogs, drive Land Rovers, and tend to look askance at "those people," which includes tourists, middle-class urbanites who don't belong to the country club, and foreigners. We're all three, so we got quite a glance.


After having a good chuckle about Biff and Muffy, we backtracked to Sorrento where we stopped at Spargos. I had been craving steak, so had a lovely ribeye and yet another glass of Shiraz. Mmmmm. This one was Mr. Ribbs "The Gaffer," a very very odd name for yet another McLaren Vale wine. That's three in a row, I need to try something from another area!

A Day in Downtown Melbourne

Today I started in on the actual hardcore touristic stuff. Bryce and I took the tram down to the central district of Melbourne, and walked around the old "Laneways." This is a series of narrow streets and arcades (passageways cut through buildings) in the center of downtown. They're full of cute stores, cafes', and art galleries, but the truth is that I think they sounded better on paper. We walked around for a couple of hours, and although we had some great coffee and visited a nice wine shop, I can't say I was particularly wowed by the architecture or the people. We passed a couple of nice looking art galleries that were unfortunately closed for the Christmas Holiday, but looking in the windows did whet my appetite for viewing more native Australian art in the future. One of the most interesting features of the Laneways is the graffiti art. It's actually protected as an art form in certain locations, I took a picture of my favorite mural.


On the advice of another Bryce, an Australian transplanted to San Francisco, I stopped at gourmet chocolatier Haigh's. I picked up a small "dark connoisseurs selection" and am impressed. The flavors are very clear and fruity, and the chocolate is not too sweet. So far I've sampled a caramel, and pieces filled with mint creme, espresso creme, and bits of dried apricot. I'm liking these enough that I might just haul a box back to the US on the plane.

We haven't sampled the wine we picked up at Vintage Cellars yet, but the person who I asked for advice was super enthusiastic about this Shiraz. We'll probably drink it this evening :)

After our tramp through the Laneways, including a nice simple lunch at a fish and chips place where I had grilled sea bass (nicely done with herbs) and a salad, we went to the Melbourne Aquarium. I love aquariums, and this one included an exhibit of King penguins from the Antarctic, weird creatures like the highly dangerous Poison Dart Frog, and a huge marine tank with massive rays, schooling tuna, and some mid-sized sharks.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Two Towers

For anyone wondering: the contents of my bag arrived unscathed. Grant is now enjoying the tequila.

My friend Bryce, originally from San Francisco and now living in Brisbane (Australia, not California), arrived this afternoon. I met him at our hotel, the Urban St. Kilda in St. Kilda (of course). St. Kilda is a sort of arty/hippy/beachy/touristy/loungy neighborhood across the bay from the central business district of Melbourne. The architecture is a mix of Victorian cottages, 1960's style boxy brick buildings, and 2000's style modern curvilinear styles. We walked along the esplanade to St. Kilda pier, a very long construction that juts out to a seawall inhabited by fairy penguins (did not see any) and swans (saw a big black one).

Along the beach in St. Kilda are old public "conveniences" (bathrooms), bath houses (to serve beach goers), and a lovely clock tower.

After our walk we stopped at a wine bar/tapas place called Barcelona, where we drank a nice bottle of Australian Shiraz. It was Pertaringa, and was a 2006 McLaren Vale "Undercover" Shiraz. I have no idea what that means, but it did taste quite delicious. The vines are over fifty years old, and grow on their own rootstock.

I've done nothing but eat and sleep for the past three days, but it has been delightful. Tomorrow should bring some actual sight seeing.

Oh yeah, about the two towers...when I arrived in Melbourne yesterday one of the first buildings I noticed as we were driving in from the airport was the modern tower shown here. I remarked that at the angle I was looking from, it was awfully reminiscent of Barad-Dûr from The Lord of the Rings. Grant laughed, apparently this parallel is often drawn. At certain times of the day the gold square on the top reflects a lot of sunlight -- all it needs is a big eye. Unfortunately the picture here is too straight-on, so you don't get the best effect, but coming in from the airport the side towers aren't as noticeable and the tower appears much more curvy and narrower at the top.

Boxing Day, Aussie Style

Had a nice sleep and seem to have awoken on Melbourne time. Nik wandered into the living room at 7:45am to fire up the Wii, and we played through a series of Wii Fit, Rabbid, and painting blob games. I'm really getting fond of the Wii Fit, there are all these fascinating balance games. My favorites so far are ski jumping (you stand on the board, rush down the ski jump, then straighten your knees to jump) and this one where you move a "table" around to drop a marble through a hole. I think I need to get one of these when I get home. The Wii is very cute and friendly and I appreciate that the games don't involve large amounts of blood and killing. Although shooting something with a ray gun can be fun.

Kitt made an awesome breakfast of buttermilk pancakes, tropical fruit salad, and Grand Mariner sauce. We're now sitting around watching the Sydney-Hobart yacht race, drinking champagne, and otherwise digesting -- so that we can have lunch later!

The baggage service just called and my bag has arrived in Melbourne and cleared customs. It's now on a van headed my way, and should arrive within the next five hours. They didn't mention if it reeked of tequila or not!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Flying Cubicle

Due to the interaction of crossing the International Date Line from East to West combined with an overnight flight from the US to Australia, I have no Christmas Eve. I depart Los Angeles on the 23rd, and arrive in Sydney on the morning of the 25th. A whole day, gone, just like that. (I'll make it up on the return trip, of course.)

The flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, once I calmed down from all the excitement of wondering what was going to happen to me, was boring. Nice dinner (herbed chicken in some kind of apricot chutney sauce, with cous cous and sauteed spinach), several glasses of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and a couple of movies later ("Get Smart," "Bottle Shock") and it's time for bed. I recline the seat to its full laid-out flat position, and curled up under a blanket for a few hours. It turns out I slept off and on for about eight hours, which is pretty amazing, but that's the major benefit of traveling in a lay-flat seat. The plane from LAX to SYD is a newly-refurbished 747, with the vaunted new United First Suite.

It's like a cubicle in the sky. Everything is grey and plastic, with nondescript indoor-outdoor type carpeting. The overhead storage bins are a weird shape so people struggled with their carry-on bags, and there is very little storage in the seats themselves. Except for the large video screen and the actual US-style 110v plug, it's not any better than the old First Class product that United offers. In fact, I think the seats might be a bit narrower in this new configuration. Still, it's better than having to sit semi-upright for 13 1/2 hours, so I can't complain too much.

We land and I'm the first person off the plane. Everyone is very cheerful and wishes "Merry Christmas" to each other. I head through immigration (a snap) and on to baggage claim. I'm pretty sure my bags aren't going to show, and sure enough they don't. The baggage services people take my information and tell me that my luggage will be sent to Melbourne tonight, and that I should get it tomorrow. Domestic connections to Qantas are straightforward, and soon enough I am in Terminal 3 waiting to board my connecting flight.

Wonder of wonders, there are open shops in the terminal, and I pick up a cute pair of dark blue cargo pants and two nice t-shirts from the designed-in-Australia brand store Witchery. I'm ecstatic to so easily find pants that fit: usually anything that fits my butt is way too large in the waist. I guess this particular Australian company cuts their clothes for actual human women rather than fashionable stick figures.

I arrive in Melbourne and see my friend Grant at the gate. Huge hugs ensue, he picks me up and spins me around and my shoes come off. The weather is gorgeous, sunny, clear, pleasantly warm but not humid. I'm so excited to be here.

Grant spends the car ride to his home in St. Kilda explaining the basics of cricket. I swear it's one of the weirdest games ever, even more bizarre and pointless than American-style football. I draw a few parallels to American baseball, and sort of get the idea of how cricket works. I'll hopefully attend part of a test match later in the week: it's the big Australia versus South Africa game.


Grant's partner Kitt made the most amazing meal: a terrine of minced chicken and pork, brandy, garlic, thyme, cranberries and pistachios wrapped in pancetta; a potato salad with creme fraiche and two kinds of mustard; salad of fresh greens with figs, chicken, and buffalo mozzarella; and another salad of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, and goat cheese with a balsamic vinegarette. This repast is paired with a sparkling Shiraz -- utterly delicious.

Nykolai, Grant's son, received a Wii Fit, and is now demonstrating all kinds of crazy games. He's playing one now that involves psychopathic French rabbits racing dragster tractors around a farm. I want to try the ski jumping game later.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

K.A.O.S. and C.O.N.T.R.O.L

It started innocently enough: 3:36pm flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with a 10:25pm connection to Melbourne. United had originally wanted to book me on the 7:10pm flight from San Francisco, but SFO being what it is, I asked them to put me on an earlier flight.

I checked in at SFO only to find that my regularly scheduled plane had not only been downgraded to a TED flight, but that the plane was going to be a little late. There were all sorts of delays of people and equipment due to snow in the Pacific Northwest and bad weather elsewhere in the US. Two crew-related flight delays later (the plane was there, but no one to fly it) we finally board for a 5:30pm departure. I find someone sitting in my seat and am concerned that with all the chaos that my seat was double-assigned, but it turns out that it was just someone sitting in the wrong place. Some lady whines to the flight attendant that "there's going to be an insurrection" because we're so late. The attendant asks if the lady would like to get off the plane, and the lady says no, she just wants to get going. The attendant replies that is exactly what she wants too. We all do.

We start to head out to the runway, but not long after the plane circles around back to the gate. It seems there was a brake-related mechanical problem, so they offload everyone and send us to another plane, now scheduled for a 7:30pm departure.

There's still plenty of time for me to get to LAX, so I'm not concerned, until I get the message that my Melbourne flight has been delayed by 12 hours. I didn't want to end up stuck in LA overnight, so I call United to find out what my options are and if I'll be given a hotel room there. The agent tells me that I've been rebooked via Sydney, so I think everything is okay, and head to the new gate. I decide to call United to get all my new flight times, and the agent tells me that no, I'm not rebooked via Sydney, so she tries to do it and can't get the change accepted by the system. She guesses it's because I've got checked bags. Not long afterward, I get another message telling me that my flight to Melbourne is completely canceled. I call United again, and they rebook me for the next night, which means I can go home and sleep with my cats.

Rather than just heading out to BART to go home, I stop by the Red Carpet Club to get my new boarding passes. Truth is, I'd feel a lot better about the changes if I had an official document in my hand. While waiting for an agent to help me, I get a phone call from Ruby in the International First Lounge in LAX, wanting to know where I am. I tell her I'm in the San Francisco Domestic Red Carpet Club, and she tells me I'm rebooked via Sydney and to get on my original flight to LA. I tell her the flight is leaving in 6 minutes and besides I'd given up my seat to someone else. She tells me to get down to the gate, that I can still get on the plane. I tell her I'd be on the plane but someone from United already told me they can't send me via Sydney because they couldn't get me a ticket to Melbourne, and I was all set to go tomorrow, but she says no, she has a ticket for me and will meet me at the gate in LA, I should go get on the plane now.

So I run to the gate, and am worried that the door has closed and that I've missed my flight. The gate agents are very busy, and there is a line, but somehow despite the chaos an agent asks me to follow her and I get on the plane. My original seat is available, so off I go. The flight to LA takes off at 8:33pm and lands 47 minutes later, I've never been on one that's gotten down there so fast. I get off the plane and walk to my connection, and as I approach the gate I hear my name being called. Ruby is there with my new boarding pass and a Qantas ticket from Sydney to Melbourne for the next morning, so it's all good.

I'm now settled in my new United First Suite, which consists of a chair pod that reclines to a 6'6" bed. I've got a big (17"?) video screen with on-demand access to dozens of movies, a glass of champagne, and an actual 110v outlet to charge my laptop. Rather than being 24 hours late for Christmas Day in Melbourne, I'm only going to be 3 1/2. Not bad for going half way around the planet.

The only question, of course, is regarding where my luggage is. It got on my flight in San Francisco, but whether it got on the Sydney flight or not is unknown. At worst case it will arrive in Melbourne the morning of the 26th. I've got an extra pair of underwear in my purse, plus some makeup and a toothbrush, so I'll survive. I'd just hate for the bottle of tequila and carton of cigarettes I'm bringing as presents for Grant and Bryce to be lost in the wilds of the United baggage system for weeks.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I Go to the Land Down Under

It's been a long long time since I've posted. Truth is, I've been busy. Doing what, I don't know, it's not like I have a real job or anything. But I've been running around. First I went to New Hampshire for Thanksgiving with my parents, then I went to Las Vegas to compete in the Holiday Dance Classic. And now I'm preparing for the trip of the year: I'm going to Australia for about two weeks.

Holiday Dance Classic was great, I danced very well, wore a new dress that looked wonderful on me, and even got to see "Phantom of the Opera." "Phantom" was lovely, I was afraid it was going to be very cheesy, but it was really rather lush and romantic. I enjoyed it -- although I did nearly fall asleep at one point. Not because the musical was bad or boring, just because I couldn't keep up any more. I had gone out for cocktails and dinner beforehand at one of Mario Batali's restaurants, and I guess there is only so much fun I can handle at once. I'm trying to get the video up, but am having problems digitizing it. Actually, it digitizes just fine, but when I upload it to YouTube it gets converted into something else and looks awful. This is not something I've had an issue with before, so I'm at a bit of a loss as to what is going on.



I'm leaving for Australia in a couple of days, and have come to the stunning realization that I have no summer clothes. I've been living in San Francisco for nearly 15 years. It rarely gets really hot here, and it rarely gets really cold. I can't shop for anything because it's the dead of winter, either. I'll have to sort this out and figure out what to pack for the trip!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I Can't Keep Up

I'm so lame and have barely written in my blog for over a month now. I recently went to New Orleans, basically to have dinner with a friend, but also to roam the lovely French Quarter. From 1975-1976 I lived in Moss Point, Mississippi, and my mom used to take me and my brother to New Orleans regularly -- mainly because there really wasn't much to do in Moss Point. I have fond memories of shopping for toys, going to voodoo and Mardi Gras museums, and having hot chocolate and beignets at Cafe' du Monde.

This time I stayed at the W in the French Quarter in New Orleans. They have an open-air courtyard filled with loungy sofas and chairs, and little curtained cabanas with sofas and light-up cocktail tables in them. There were water fountains and fire fountains, and a jazz band payed in the bar inside the restaurant adjoining the courtyard. It was a very warm night, and people were just laying around chatting and drinking. A guy was stretched out on a sofa near me, chatting with two friends, they were sharing a bottle of wine. It was the coolest, most relaxed and lovely bar I've ever been in. I wish there were something like this where I live. I would go back to NoLa just to chill out here again.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hawai'i Revisited

My video from the Hawai'i Star Ball finally arrived.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Why-ki-ki....

I'm sitting here listening to Hawaiian music and the gentle crash of the surf, while the dusk fades into night looking at the twinkling lights going along the shore to Diamond Head and wondering . . .

Why the heck would anyone fly all the way to Hawai'i and stay in Waikiki??

Really, now, it's a row of high-rise resorts on a stretch of sand, connected by what amounts to a shopping mall. If you substituted gambling for the ocean, you'd have Vegas. And Vegas is cheaper and closer to home.

Don't get me wrong, Hawai'i itself is lovely and wonderful. I've spent a bit of time on Maui, Kauai, and The Big Island and enjoyed them all. And I don't have anything against Honolulu either, it can't help it that it's grown up into a big city. Living in the middle of it in a high-rise apartment could make sense for a lot of people.

But to get on a plane for 5 hours from the West Coast, or 9 from the East Coast or Japan, just to go stay in Waikiki? It's like going to EPCOT to see France. I wonder what it was like here 50 or 70 years ago, before all the hotels and 747's full of tourists? That's the Waikiki that the songs and dreams are all about.

I came here to compete in the Hawai'i Star Ball, and despite a PMS-induced stressed-out beginning (note to self: chill the heck out!) it all ended up great. We came in 2nd place, and I feel like I danced decently. Will check the video later....

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Heh, Politics and Economics

This evening I went out to a wine bar with a dear friend who I'm pretty sure is a lifelong Republican. As the level of wine in bottle went down, the craziness level of the conversation went up. To wit:

*) Sarah Palin is an idiot, and thus is dangerous. (I helpfully pointed out that some liberal commentators have named her "Caribou Barbie".) My Republican friend is rather upset about Palin shooting wolves from an airplane.
*) We're all going to hell in a handbasket, and should start raising chickens. One friend decided to name his Corky after the former World Latin Champion and "Dancing With the Stars" teacher Corky Ballas.
*) Those of us who have accounts at WaMu are going to withdraw $1000 tomorrow and stick it under our mattresses (I am a Bank of America customer, I got some crap for that in the past from my hippie friends, but I notice that BofA seems to be holding things together lately -- and has bought Merrill Lynch).

I suppose I should be freaking out but what can I do at this point? I'm stuck here until and unless I can sell my place, which I can't in this market. And if worse comes to worse I can move back to where my parents live, pay off their mortgage, eat vegetables from their home garden, and raise a couple of chickens. I'll name one Inna, after my favorite female teacher on "Dancing with the Stars," Inna Brayer. Too bad she got voted off this week.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Gaarrrrrgh! Another Social Networking Site!

I broke down and joined Facebook today. Lord help me. I can't keep up with this crap. Well, to be fair, I have been ignoring Friendster and Tribe for years, and I don't even know if Orkut exists any more. And then there's MyDanceChat, which seems to have quickly flamed out.

In other news, I recently visited New Mexico, and learned that I am a green chili kind of girl. See, whenever you order New Mexican food (which is distinct from Tex/Mex and actual Mexican Mexican, and vastly different from American Suburban Mexican), you get asked if you want "red" or "green" sauce. "Red" is made with dried chilies, and "green" with fresh. After sampling both at the Albuquerque institution known as Sadie's, I decided that I definitely like the green. This kind of surprised me as I simply assumed that, based on color and consistency, that I'd prefer the red. But there's just something really nice about that fresh green chili sauce.

I also laid by the pool at the lovely Hyatt Tamaya Resort & Spa, and got an actual tan. Although pretty much no one could tell because I'm so pale to begin with. Overall, New Mexico was beautiful and relaxing with delicious food, I'm looking forward to going back the next time I want a quick getaway vacation.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

There's No Place Like Home

It's nice to not be traveling this week. I spent my weekend cleaning house, reading books, and dancing. I hadn't been social dancing in a very long time, and this weekend I went out both Saturday and Sunday nights. Aside from being fun, I started having a lot of thoughts about music and rhythm -- it was like my techie head finally got out of my way and my body just really danced at times. And I discovered that I'm something of a Hustle queen. Who knew? I might have to find a way to explore this more at some point.

Oh yeah, last weekend I was in another dancing competition, the Embassy Ball down in Irvine (Orange County). I danced well, but didn't get marked so well, I was pretty frustrated with the whole thing until I got on the plane to go home. Once I got up in the air and looked down at the beautiful California coast line, I felt calmer. I was able to let go of a bunch of negative emotions (including envy, jealousy, self-doubt and even a bit of anger) and just move on. Competitive dancing can do a number on a person if they're not protective of themselves. Or at least it can on me some days. I'm resolved to keep "letting go" whenever it gets to be too much and finding the "body happiness" I got when social dancing this weekend, combined with my ongoing pursuit of technical improvement.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Things that go Bump! in the Afternoon

This weekend I went to Wilmington, Delaware, for a meeting related to planning the 2009 USA Dance National DanceSport (ballroom dancing) Championships. I really went because they were having a "thank you" party for the 2008 volunteers, and because I had frequent flier miles to burn.

When I got to Wilmington and met up with the other USA Dance people, I commented to the Competition Chairman (woman) that I didn't know if I was supposed to be at the meeting or not, but I'd like to tag along if she didn't mind. I was a little surprised when she turned to me and told me I am actually a member of the 2009 National Organizing Committee! Good thing I went out for the party :) I guess I'm dense or something. I really get a kick out of organizing dance competitions so this is a nice thing for me.

I funded this trip with a frequent flier award ticket from Northwest Airlines. Right now I'm sitting in the airport in Minneapolis, watching my connecting flight to San Francisco pull away from the gate. But it's okay -- I volunteered to be bumped. Northwest is putting me on the next flight, is paying for most of my dinner, and gave me a $300 voucher to use for my next trip. So it worked out pretty well -- I didn't pay for the plane ticket in the first place, and now they just gave me another $300.

People can complain all they want about the airlines, but if you just stay calm and flexible you can make things go a lot easier -- or cheaper -- for yourself.

Which brings me to a comment on Delta Air Lines. Not only am I traveling on an award ticket, but because I flew on an off day or during off hours or something I managed to get the outbound trip to be first class on Delta without having to spend extra miles. Usually I fly United, and have been in domestic first class on United and US Air this year. I must say, Delta's first class beats the pants off of these other two. It's the little things that count: the cabin seemed cleaner and in better repair, the flight attendants seemed happier and more attentive, the coffee was served in a nice-sized coffee mug, lunch was quite delicious with real butter (United just stopped serving real butter), and there was an excellent personal seat-back video system that allows you to pick and choose what you want to watch, fast forward, pause, and rewind.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Nod in Nevada

I'm back on the dance competition circuit, this weekend competing at the Nevada Star Ball held at the Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson (Las Vegas). I'm not usually one to go ga ga over a competition hotel, but this one was really nice. The rooms were large with a variety of well-lit mirrors, including one with a console table in front of it, the perfect height to sit in front of and do hair and makeup. The bathroom was huge, with a very deep tub, perfect for soaking in between or after rounds. I had forgotten I was in Vegas until I had to walk through the casino to get to the very nice and very large ballroom in the "Event Center." On top of all that, the comp was run precisely on-time, and hosted by the lovely and gracious Sue Puttock. I'm already looking forward to going back next year -- and not just because of the hotel, but because I also danced well.

For the first time since I was in Bronze level, I won all of my single-dance events. We were only dancing against one other couple, but still a win is a win and it felt good :) After that came my best round, the DanceSport Series event. We came in 4th out of 5 couples but we took the Tango and Quickstep off the 3rd place couple.



Since my last competition, Desert Classic, I've been working very diligently to improve my Waltz. I've always felt it was kind of messy and lacked impact. The effort has paid off, because in the Scholarship event at the end of the day I danced what I think was my best Waltz ever.



All in all, a good weekend!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Magic of Mayo

I have been a fan of Jamie Oliver's cookbooks ever since I saw his first (and second best, after "Jamie's Italy") TV series, "The Naked Chef." A few months ago I picked up Cook with Jamie as an impulse purchase at Whole Foods, but haven't gotten around to looking at it.

I'm still kind of jet lagged from that quick trip to Finland; I've been waking up at dawn and falling asleep around 10pm. This morning I finally picked up "Cook with Jamie" and started reading. Not too far in I got to his recipe for mayonnaise. It sounded so perfect: I had too much canola oil in my fridge, plus a few egg yolks. These were leftovers from my failed wedding cake project.

Making mayonnaise is extremely simple, but not easy. All you have to do is beat oil into an egg yolk. Simple, but not easy. You have to drip in the oil slowly enough that it and the egg yolk will form a creamy emulsion. As you add oil and keep beating, it's possible that the resulting gel-like substance will "break," meaning it will suddenly turn from a thick creamy spread back to liquid.

I had just read Julie and Julia, the one about the woman who spent a year cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Aside from being in turns hilarious and disgusting, it contained a few cooking tips. When Julie was desperately trying to master mayonnaise, she figured out that the little hole in that cup/plunger like thingy that goes in the top of the food processor is the perfect size for dribbling in oil when making mayonnaise. So, I decided to use Jamie's recipe and Julie's food processor technique.

I started by putting the egg yolk and some dijon mustard into the food processor, and turned it on. Then I measured out a cup of canola oil, and put it in the dribble cup. Magically, the oil incorporated into the egg yolk and a beautiful creamy sauce developed. I was entranced. Jamie's recipe called for one egg yolk to a pint of oil, since I had started with two egg yolks (that what was left over from the wedding cakes), I attempted to dribble in four cups (two pints) of oil. After the second cup, I had a very thick mayo that was getting stiff and globby. I thought that continuing adding the oil would smooth it out, so I forged on ahead with the third cup.

Sure enough, the mayo got creamier -- for about five seconds. Then it all turned to liquid. I don't know if this was because of the oil/yolk ratio, the heat that had built up from the food processor motor, or what, but there it was, a mess.

Fortunately Jamie had advice: don't throw out the broken sauce, start over with a new egg yolk and a couple of tablespoons of oil, and then slowly dribble the broken mayo back in.

It worked! I ended up with about two cups of perfectly creamy mayonnaise. I added lemon juice, salt, and pepper to season it. I put it into a Mason jar, and wonder how long this will last in the fridge?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Goodbye, Helsinki

All in all it was a very nice trip. Helsinki, while not the most thrilling city in Europe, is very tourist-friendly. It's incredibly easy to get around, the Helsinki Card make sight seeing and transportation quite affordable, and the whole environment is rather calm and relaxing. Would I come back? Probably not, unless it was part of another trip I wanted to make. Helsinki strikes me more as being a great place to live than a place to keep revisiting (like my favorite of favorites, London). That said, I do think that if I ever needed a place to go to get away from accelerated global warming, Helsinki could be a great place to live -- provided I learn Finnish and take sunny vacations in the winter so I don't die of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Next -land on my list? Most likely Scotland, next May.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Nature of Art, the Art of Nature

This morning I walked over to another market hall, this one about two blocks from my hotel. Outside were dozens of fruit vendors, each with piles of berries. I don't think I've ever seen such luscious looking blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries all in one place. Plus there were other Scandinavian berries, like cloudberries and gooseberries. The strawberries were smaller, darker, and more tart than what I'm used to in the US, and had a much more fragrant smell. Cloudberries are vaguely like yellow raspberries, but with sort of apple-ish taste all their own that I later enjoyed in ice cream form. In the market I had another one of those great salmon sandwiches, this one made from cut-up bits of salmon mixed with dill and something called rose pepper. The lady behind the counter explained that rose pepper is not really pepper, but the skin of a berry. It does have a sharp taste, but it's not at all like black pepper, and goes very nicely with the fish. I found a packet of it in a nearby spice stall to try at home.

My first sight-seeing stop this morning was the Kiasma, a rather mind-bending museum of contemporary art. To begin with, the building itself is a sort of sculpture itself. Exhibits flow from level to level, and it's not always entirely clear how to get around and through things. The shape and interconnection of levels in the exhibit space breaks the mold of more traditional museums that feature row on row of gallery rooms. Much of the works on exhibit were video installations. In a regular art gallery, a visitor can sort of 'cruise' by many pieces and form instant impressions of them. The video works, however, have a fourth dimension -- a time element -- that forms like painting and sculpture don't have. So, at each installation the visitor needs to stop and sit for at least a few minutes to get a fuller sense of what the work is about. I found it fascinating, and a bit challenging. How long is long enough to watch a piece? If it doesn't interest me and I decide to leave, will I miss something? It wasn't like looking at a painting and being able to decide if I wanted to keep looking at it or move on.

What I saw yesterday at the Design Museum, and then today at Kiasma, made me ponder of the nature of art, and I came to the comforting conclusion that art can simply just be something that the artist wants to show the world. It doesn't have to be brilliant, original, of a certain style or technique. It just is a manifested idea. Sure, there's a lot more to it than that, but this simplicity is helping me to see a way to get past the huge mental block I've had about creating art.

With this in mind, I headed to the meeting point for my afternoon bus tour to the Nuuksio National Park, located about 25 miles from Helsinki. The Finnish countryside in this area looks a lot like where I grew up in New Hampshire, but with no real mountains, just hills. The tour group walked through the forest for about an hour, passing along small lakes, until we ended up at a small resort where we had coffee and fresh-made bread and butter. Some people went swimming on the lake at the resort. I stuck my feet in and it wasn't cold but it did have a lot of organic matter floating in it that made the water kind of blackish.

I realized that the light slanting through the trees and making patterns on the forest floor reminded me a lot of how the light came into that Russian Orthodox church I visited on the first day. I started seeing the mosses and leaves on the forest floor as carpeting, and the patterns of the leaves and sunlight on the floor as similar to stained glass windows, and tree trunks as being like structural columns. The forest suddenly seemed very artistic in an architectural sense. I tried to capture this in a photograph:


Later on, at the lake, I was intrigued by the green lily pads on the black/blue lake. I've always been fascinated with patterned rugs and ornate floor tiles, and thought I'd try to picture them as something on a floor. I also played around with color saturation in Aperture, and basically pushed the greens up very high because I liked the shade and because I wanted to make them start to look manufactured rather than something organic:


On the way back to Helsinki I considered heading over to the zoo once I got back into town, but when all was said and done I was just too tired to do anything more. Tomorrow will be a very long day traveling back to San Francisco, and although I haven't seen everything there is to see in Helsinki, it was just time for me to stop.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Market, Finnish Design, and a Sea Fortress

The weather report called for showers today, so I planned to make it an all-museum day. After browsing the Old Market Hall and eating a delicious rye-bread-and-smoked-salmon sandwich for breakfast, I headed to the Design Museum. This month they featured a brilliantly humorous and thought-provoking collection of young Finnish artists who use a variety of mediums. The displays included clothing, oil paintings of traditionally-garbed Finns skiing with Elvis, videos of ravers (including a DJ dressed as a starfish), sculptures made of piles of pillows, and samples of gorgeous glassware. After that, I realized it wasn't going to rain, so I went back to my hotel to pick up my camera, and headed to Suomenlinna, a "Sea Fort" (Naval Base) on a large island a couple of miles from Helsinki.

Walking around on the island on a gorgeous summer day makes it tough to picture what that place was really like when it was in use. The Swedes built starting in the 1700's to keep the Russians at bay, but the Russians captured it (along with the rest of Finland) not long after it was completed. Over the years, it degenerated into a sort of garrison to park young men while serving out their compulsory military service. At one point doing the Crimean War the British sailed up to the island, ready to bombard it with their newer and more superior artillery. The people of Helsinki spent a few days taking all their valuables out of the city, thinking at least if their homes were flattened their belongings would be spared. When the fighting started, the people shortly realized that the conflict was confined to the British fleet and the Russian garrison, so they dragged out sofas and tables and chairs and sat on hilltops watching the fireworks.

Although the Russians didn't have very advanced weaponry in the fort, they were still able to put up a fight by sending ships out toward the British to launch fireballs in an attempt to burn the fleet. After a couple of days of this, the British turned around and left. The Russians later installed better cannon, just in case they came back. I'm sure I've forgotten major points in this history, but it was quite interesting to realize that Western Europe has been trying to contain the Russians for centuries, that fear of Russian military might and presence wasn't just a Cold War thing.

The island itself is lovely in the summertime, and many people were out there having picnics and swimming because the afternoon was warm and sunny. Despite the extreme pleasantness of it all, I could not stop thinking about what it must be like in the winter time. They say it doesn't snow that much in Helsinki because of the moderating effect of the Baltic Sea, but still what with stiff onshore winds, many hours of darkness, and temperatures commonly below zero, I just cannot imagine living there. There are a decent number of people living on the island year-round, it's so popular that when last winter eight accommodations opened up, nearly 200 applications were file for each place. I walked around a good portion of the island until dark clouds piled up and it started to thunder and lightening. By the time I got back to the ferry I was quite wet, but it was kind of nice to be walking in the rain since warm summer rain is rarer than rare in San Francisco.

I dried out by riding the clean and comfortable 3T Tram on its figure-eight route around the main part of the city. Helsinki strikes me as being very pleasant and comfortable and livable. The public transportation is so good that many people don't own cars.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Helsinki Basics

Helsinki is a city of about half a million people. It's extremely clean, quiet, uncrowded, and gorgeous in the Summer. For some reason I thought it would have a lot of modern architecture, but most of what I've seen so far is in that kind of "Imperial" style that I know from Vienna and from pictures of St. Petersburg. I started out this morning by walking down to the Market Square and browsing the good-sized Farmer's Market there. The berries were plentiful and gorgeous, and there were stalls selling all kinds of grilled and fried fish. There were some typical totchke vendors (shot glasses, magnets, t-shirts) and also a number of arts and crafts people. One artisan makes trays and serving utensils out of steel, sandblasted with modern designs, another had bowls made of birch, others had fur hats and winter accessories like mittens and woolen socks.

I've never been in a Russian Orthodox church, so I climbed the hill above the market
to visit Uspenski Kathedralen. I believe that this is the largest Russian Orthodox church outside of Russia. The inside was full of very colorful paintings and ornate icons trimmed with gold and silver. I found out that the "onion" domes on top of these churches represent flames.

There were a lot of people inside lighting candles placed near the various icons. My favorite feature of the inside of the church is that the interior of the main dome is painted with stars. I like that you can look up at the highest point of the church and see "heaven." It was very lovely and even peaceful, considering how many people were milling about taking photos.

When I boarded the bus for my afternoon tour of the city, I noticed something extremely interesting:

As you can see, the bus tour is even offered in Latin. And you thought that was a dead language. I should have tuned in to hear what it sounded like....

The most interesting stop on tour was Temppeliaukio Kirkko, also known as the "Church of the Rock." The architect brothers who designed it decided to quarry into the hill of rock at the site rather than blast it all away, and the result is a very beautiful, very modern yet very "organic" church. The interior dome is made of a sort of woven copper wire, and seems to float above the ground.

After following a self-guided walking tour for a couple of hours, I stopped at the Ateneum Art Museum. The main draw there was the exhibition of paintings by Finland's foremost artist, Pekka Halonen. My favorite works of his are his paintings of the Finnish forests in winter. They're sort of impressionistic, and sort of like Japanese woodblock prints, and evoke my own memories of the woods in New Hampshire. Trees are covered with soft mounds of snow, branches bending down to the ground, everything is very still and quiet and calm. The Ateneum is not a huge museum, it took me about an hour and a half to survey it all. By this time my feet were killing me and my jet lag was in full swing so I stopped by a supermarket to pick up something for dinner and headed back to my comfy hotel room for a long soak in the very deep bathtub.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Le Fin des Landes

Supposedly "Finland" got its name from Medieval French sailors, who called it "the end of the lands." I don't know if they meant it based on land features, or based on distance, but to me it's more like "the end of the Earth." In other words, it was a long trip. Despite a strike at Lufthansa, my flights ran reasonably on time and completely without anything remarkable happening, unless you count seeing the sun set twice in the same day. We left Munich at dusk, with the sun slipping below the horizon. There was a good bit of cloud cover over central Germany, but as we got clear of it over the Baltic Sea I noticed the sun was back in the sky again, and witnessed a very long slow second sunset. We landed in Helsinki at about 11:30pm, and the last rays of daylight were fading -- but not enough to notice any stars.

I started wondering if there were any great Scandinavian astronomers from back before people could and did travel everywhere: what kind of observations could they make in a land where it doesn't get dark enough to see the stars for several months out of the year? But then, what kind of observations could they make in a land where it's very dark indeed for several months of the year? I can't imagine what it would be like to live this far north. Sure, Summer is warm and glorious right now (high 70's), but in the winter it can get down to the negative teens!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

For the Want of $1.50....

I'm heading off to another "-land" right now: Finland. I have this goal to go to every country that ends in "-land" in English. However, for the want of $1.50 I might have missed my flight. I was all packed up and ready to go and I realized that all I had in my wallet was a bunch of $20's. I needed change to take the bus to BART so I could take BART to the airport...thank goodness my synchronized-swimming neighbor Bob came through, I made it to the airport right on time and am now enjoying a drink in the Red Carpet Club before boarding my flight to Munich. Today San Francisco, tomorrow Helsinki!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

It's a Nice Day for a White Wedding Cake

Taking advantage of California's all-inclusive marriage laws, last week my ex-dance-partner Kyle married Michael, his boyfriend of nine years. I decided to throw them a dinner party to celebrate, and inquired as to what type of cake they wanted. It came down to a white cake, with lemon filling, and buttercream frosting. I cracked open my Betty Crocker Cookbook and followed the directions for the "Silver White Cake."

Much to my dismay, it came out flat and rubbery, like an overgrown sugar cookie. It was then I realized that not only had my baking powder expired two years ago, but also that I had used jumbo eggs rather than large, which resulted in there just being too much egg white in the batter.

No problem, I thought, I'll just buy more baking powder and start again. Sadly, once again, it came out flat and sort of rubbery. At this point I kind of panicked, and decided to use a store-bought white cake mix. I was feeling kind of angry at Betty for her cookbook failing me twice, so I chose Duncan Hines mix over Better Crocker and Pillsbury. I followed the directions exactly, and when it came out of the oven . . . it was still kind of flat, but at least it had good texture and wasn't rubbery. I wonder if there's something goofy with my baking pans: they are non-stick stainless steel, which does not seem to appear on any list of good baking pans that I've seen.

When all was said and done, the came was yummy, with homemade lemon curd and buttercream frosting. I wished the layers would have baked up higher, though.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Down to Brass Tacks

Okay, so the purpose of this blog wasn't to chronicle my dancing successes (or lack thereof), but rather to just freakin' write. It's time I just sat down and blathered for a while.

Tonight I'm watching the premiere of "The Gong Show with Dave Attell." I'm old enough to recall the original "Gong Show," hosted by purported CIA-undercover-operative Chuck Barris (see "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"). I loved that show when I was a kid, because it was completely wacky, had adult humor that I didn't get but still knew was funny, and most of all because of the big brass gong.

So far the reincarnation doesn't disappoint. It's even campier than the first, with an even snarkier host. Dave Attell is a kind of regular guy who drinks too much, smokes too much, stays up too late, and has too much fun all while having a slightly misanthropic view of the Universe. His judges are the insanely hot rocker Dave Navarro, the insanely annoying Andy Dick, and the just plain insane JB Smoove.

Acts included a magician who pulled a rabbit (bloody) out of his stomach, a burlesque girl named Trixie who popped out of a volcano, and a guy looking like Thomas Dolby crossed with a homeless person playing my favorite quickstep, "Istanbul Not Constantinople" on glasses partially filled with water. (So far he appears to be winning, but then I wasn't paying attention to Trixie's scores because I was still getting over Dave smoking on camera after the midget wrestling.)

God this show is AWESOME. Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 10pm.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Video Ga Ga

More video from Desert Classic, this time the Open Pro/Am Standard Scholarship "B":


I have to say, I'm kind of boring myself here. The dancing is nice and all, but that's all it is. I show no particular spark or fire, and I'm wondering what to do with myself between now and the next competition to improve it. Maybe it was just comp burn-out, maybe I'm such a dance nerd that I can't get past the technical aspects, maybe I was just off because the event ran early and I panicked because my teacher wasn't in the ballroom when they started calling our event to the floor.

Anyway, something has to change because I'm feeling a little pointless as a dancer. Also, as lovely as my dress is, I'm kind of getting sick of it. Yeah yeah, whine whine whine....

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dancing in the Desert

I'm now at the end of my dance competition mini-marathon: three competitions in four weeks. Compared to professionals chasing a title, and the big Pro/Am heavy hitters, this is nothing, but for me it was a big deal. My third comp in this cycle was the Desert Classic, in Palm Desert (next to Palm Springs). My best dancing was in a somewhat odd multi-dance event. What made it odd was that we only had to dance Waltz, Tango, and Foxtrot, and that they played the music for a very short amount of time.

We finished third out of six couples, our best result of the day. I'm not sure if this looks any better or worse than the other competitions we danced in this month-long competition binge -- I really feel like I want to take a day or two off, then get back and have several weeks in the studio to work on my dancing and several weeks at home to work on my fitness level.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Uh oh!

Ooops, I haven't posted in a while. I guess talking about myself is boring even me. Or that I've been busy. Or both.

In late June I went to Denver, Colorado, to dance in the Colorado Star Ball. It went wonderfully well, we came in second in the Open Pro/Am "A" Scholarship (warning -- something is wrong with how I edited the video, and the audio got out of synch...I'll try to fix it at some point but in the meantime believe me when I say that we were dancing on time!):


Two weeks later I went to New York City to work the Fancy Foods Show for Charles Chocolates, and then to dance in the Manhattan DanceSport Championships. The field was much larger and stronger there, 22 couples entered, and we came in 10th (also audio synch issues here):


Working the Fancy Foods show was a ton of fun. Imagine a gourmet grocery like Balducci's or Dean and De Luca as large as the Javits Center. There were all kinds of makers of fancy sauces, baking mixes, drinks, spices...it just went on and on...and there were so many chocolatiers. My job was to hang out around the booth all day, entice people to try the chocolates, and answer their questions. Unlike some booths, ours was large and roomy. The product was set up on self-serve trays on a very large table that people could walk around. Everything was labeled with a description card, plus we were there to describe and explain things. I felt like I was at the show with the "in" crowd, because our booth always had a lot of traffic and people were raving about how beautiful everything looked and how wonderful the chocolates tasted. I would so love to do something like this again!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

42

Many of us know that 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Unfortunately what the actual question was has been lost to the world, until now...

The question is "how many pairs of shoes does a woman actually need?"

I just counted mine and it came out to 42.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Too Much Small Stuff

I've got too much small stuff to keep track of. In late April or early May I lost one of the remote controls for my TV. It's annoying enough that it take three remotes to watch TV -- one for the amp (some exotic South African brand based on tubes), one for the screen itself (a Samsung LCD flat-screen), and one for the TiVo (so I can do necessary things like change channels). Since I lost the TV screen remote, the "TV" setting has been set on Wide Screen (annoying, because most TV shows are in the usual 4:3 aspect ratio) and the DVD player has been set in "normal" (annoying, because most of the movies I watch are in letterbox format). I can't win.

I searched everywhere for the damn remote and ended up having to spend about $45 (includes shipping and handling!) to get a replacement.

In other "small stuff" news, I combed through years of travel photography to select images to use on my new Moo cards. These are half-size mini cards that are basically very informal and creative business cards. On one side is an image (up to 100 different images for a 100-card order), and the other side holds text (I used my name, email, blog address, and phone number). Moo cards are the new "in" way for techies, artists, and other fringe/freak types to pass personal information around, and of course come with special accoutrements in the form of custom-made holders and dispensers. I am looking forward to the arrival of my shipment!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Winging My Way Home (5/31/08)

I'll admit it, one of the things I enjoy about traveling is the actual trip. So many people complain that flying has become this horrible ordeal, but I maintain that this is only so if you aren't doing it right.

One way to do it right is to know what you're doing and plan for it, even if you're flying a low-cost airline like Southwest, TED, or Spirit. There's so many common sense things people could do to make their trips better, but since the majority of the public only flies once or twice a year they don't have the skills to handle less-than-perfect situations. These are the passengers who don't know about the carry-on liquids in a baggie rule, or who forget that they have to take their shoes off at security and so wear fussy shoes that are difficult to deal with, or who don't bring a nice snack from home on board and then complain that the food available is overpriced and tasteless. But I'm not talking about these scenarios, although it would make a great topic for the future.

No, I'm talking about the other way to have a great time flying: pay for it. Either through frequent flyer miles or through outright purchases, flying can become a pleasant day's past time.

Right now I'm on leg three of a trip that originated in San Francisco, involved 10 days in the working-class seaside resort of Blackpool, England, and then returned to San Francisco. I had a bunch of frequent flier miles available for me to use, and so I spent them on First Class plane tickets so I could go watch the British Open Dancing Championships -- the most prestigious ballroom dancing competition in the world.

The outbound trip was on United. United, like all US-based carriers, is not known for the quality of its premium -- especially First Class -- product. However, it beats sitting in the "back of the bus" for 10 hours. There was a dedicated check-in line, a lovely First Class lounge that resembled a swanky hotel lobby right by the gate, and the flight had a pleasant meal and best of all a completely horizontal lay-flat bed for sleeping, complete with poofy pillow and duvet. I slept soundly for about 5 1/2 hours on the outbound flight, which is a record for me.

Upon arriving at Heathrow, I had to walk myself through customs, immigration, security, etc. to connect with my very short BMI flight to Manchester. Really, it was an easy to deal with experience, especially after having had a reasonable amount of sleep.

My return trip was on Lufthansa. People have long extolled Lufthansa's superior service, and I was interested to try it to see.

Check-in at Manchester was as expected: dedicated First Class check-in line, and a clean modern lounge with amenities comparable to the IFC (International First Class) lounge at SFO. My flight was on a Boeing 737, it took about two hours to fly from Manchester to Munich.

It was when I arrived in Munich everything changed: the level of service and comfort went off the scale for this American girl. I usually can handle luxe service with aplomb, but even this left me feeling a little homespun!

To begin with, when I stepped off the plane a Lufthansa agent was standing there with my name on a placard. She ushered me to a Mercedes-Benz sitting on the tarmac, and drove me and one other gentleman to a special passport control area that seemed to only be for First Class passengers. We were the only people there, and the agent stamped my passport and sent me on my way. I got back in the car, and was driven to the entrance to the First Class lounge. Upon arrival in the lounge, the desk agent explained to me where things were, and took my passport so she could get the outbound Immigration official to stamp it for me in advance so that I could just pick it up when I left the lounge for my flight.

I admit I felt a little squeamish about giving up my passport, but the Immigration desk is right inside the First Class Lounge, so it didn't seem to be that big a deal.

The lounge itself is lovely and comfortable. A few moments after I sat down, an attendant offered me a drink. I asked what my options were and she said "pretty much anything" so I asked for a glass of red wine. "Chile, Italy, or France" she inquired. A minute later I was brought a proper Spiegelau glass of a nice Italian red. There are meeting rooms, shower rooms, and one corner has a box of Legos and building blocks for kids to play with. A huge screen TV set to CNN International played quietly in another corner. About a third of the lounge was set up as a buffet area, with a spread of hot and cold German treats, including sausages, fresh fruits, local cheeses, and tea sandwiches. There were tables set with linens to dine at. There was also a bar. Little treats were set on low tables around the entire lounge, including chocolates, peanuts, pretzels, fancy hard candies, and tea cookies. And if it's too much effort to get up and get something, an attendant will bring it to you if you look the least bit interested. I found myself avoiding eye contact with the attendants because they kept coming over to ask me if I needed anything.

I had thought that the little buffet with the smoked salmon sandwiches and serve-yourself bar at SFO was luxe, but this has it beat by a mile. If I were ever to open a bar, I'd like to be like this lounge: a very large living room that is comfortable to hang out in either alone or with friends, with leather chairs and sofas and plenty of coffee tables, magazines, and newspapers.

As for myself, I selected some cheese to go with my wine, and sat back to await my connection to San Francisco. Unfortunately I'm going to have to actually walk myself to my gate -- no chauffeur -- oh the horrors -- but I think I will survive. Especially since I can probably get another glass of wine on board to take the edge off my journey to the gate.

I've flown Business Class on Lufthansa before, and at the time marveled at the slamming acid trance on one channel, and the huge amounts of wine the steward served me (always alternating with glasses of water, after I had asked the first time). It was comfortable and had quite pleasant food. Now I'm very curious to see what the First Class service is like! If this lounge is any indication...well, I'm glad this is a Westbound trip because it means I'll probably be awake to enjoy the whole 11 hours!

...

Post Script: The trip was very comfortable, but even 11 hours in the lap of luxury with champagne and caviar can get tedious beyond belief. I could barely sit still for the last two hours and felt that crawling out of my own skin might be entertaining. The good news is that my luggage arrived undamaged, including the bottle of dessert Shiraz that I had packed.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Watching the Clothes Go 'Round

Ahhh, lazy Sunday...I took a 'day off' from watching the competitive dancing. See, if I watch too many consecutive hours of ballroom dance (or anything, for that matter) I get grumpy and feel like my head is going to explode. Or maybe my eyeballs, after looking at some of the dresses (scroll down) this week. Very stiff frilly frou-frou ruffles and garish combinations of neon colors seem to be in fashion this year.

So today I went ice skating with Ava & Turtle. There's a rink down at the Pleasure Beach amusement park (Europe's Largest!? Who knew?!), where they do an ice dancing show called "Hot Ice." I've never seen the show, but it seems to involve ice, and hotness. The ice is a small rink with a stage at one end, and there is ice on the stage too which was kind of nifty. The hotness part seems to be a combination of very skimpy costumes (with female upper body parts revealed, or maybe that's just for the evening show) and lots of rhinestones. I bet there's some fake tanner involved too.

I love to shop, so shop I did. I started by wending my way around the vendor area at the Winter Gardens, but since I have a personal moratorium on purchasing more fabric I ended up buying some lace at Chrisanne that goes with the tulle I bought at the UK Open last January and the net and chiffon I bought at Blackpool last year. Who knows, maybe some year I'll even actually make the dress that all this fabric is for!

My favorite women's clothing store in the UK is Monsoon, and since their web site won't ship to the US I visit a branch every chance I get. The one in Blackpool is right near the Winter Gardens, and I got a lovely silvery gray and black silk dress. Of course, I needed shoes to go with it, so I popped round the corner (look, British idiom...I'm picking it up fast) to Marks & Spencer and found a nice pair of slingbacks. They are black and gray patent leather, the black starts at the toes and shades back to gray. And, since it is M&S, the price was good even if I translated it into dollars

Now I'm back at my flat cooking dinner and doing laundry. I love to cook and am having a little dinner party for Ava & Turtle. The laundry machine here is quite interesting, it's an integrated unit that washes and then dries all at once. It sounds like a fantastic idea, but the first load I did didn't really get all the way dry. This could just be a learning curve thing, as I don't think I set the dryer on a long enough cycle.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On the Road Again

May is a busy month for me. I am in the scintillating (ummm) metropolis of Blackpool, England, which has been referred to as "an armpit" and "as bad as Atlantic City." Why have I come to a kind of worn-down tacky cold and damp seaside town in Lancashire? Because the world's biggest and most prestigious and truly scintillating (not sarcastic this time) dance competition is held here, the British Open Championships, known to all in the dancesport world as "Blackpool".

I'm staying in a really lovely flat, complete with clothes washer and wireless internet. Except for the cats being eight time zones away, it's a lot like being at home.

I'm here to watch seven days and nights of incredible competition, everyone who is anyone in competitive ballroom dancing -- and a lot of people who just want to be in the mix -- are here. In tennis, there is Wimbledon. In horse racing, there is the Kentucky Derby. And in ballroom, it's Blackpool.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Victory in Victoria (5/15/08)

The captain had said that we'd start seeing nice scenery around 6am, so we ordered breakfast to be delivered at 7:30 so we'd wake up. The morning, once again, was foggy, but as we headed south the clouds lifted and we found ourselves sailing between beautiful islands with high snow-capped mountains off in the distance.

We arrived in Victoria in the early evening, and it was warm and golden and beautiful -- a real treat after the mists and fogs of the past few days. Just after docking we saw our first marine mammal up close: a very sweet-looking harbor seal swam right up to the side of the boat near our balcony. The only other wildlife of note that we've seen on this trip were a small pod of porpoises earlier in the day, some huge ravens in Ketchikan, and bald eagles in Ketchikan and Juneau.

We took a taxi to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The museum is partly housed in a beautiful Victorian mansion, which has a lovely little rock and fern garden outside. After that we headed to the Inner Harbor and walked around a bit; it seemed that all of Victoria was out enjoying the beautiful weather. After a drink in the Empress Hotel's Bengal Lounge, we would up our lovely day and reboarded the ship for dinner.

It was a shame this gorgeous weather only came on our last day of the trip, but at least we can say our cruise ended on a high note. Tomorrow we arrive back in Seattle, and Mom will fly back to New Hampshire and I to San Francisco. Our trip was lovely and we had a lot of fun, and plan to cruise again together next year in the Caribbean.