Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Tale of Three Smart Phones

I'm often an early adopter of new consumer electronic technologies. I got a digital PCS back when Pacific Bell was the only carrier to offer them. I had a TiVo before David Letterman ever mentioned them in a joke. I ordered my MacBook Air from a hotel room in Bournemouth, England, hours after they were announced at Mac World. I have been driving a hybrid Honda Insight since before the Toyota Prius became what looks like the most popular car in the Bay Area.

With that kind of background, you'd think I'd have gone straight to the Blackberry or iPhone when they first became available. However, I have a tendency to lose mobile phones in taxis, and could not bear the thought of having a costly device go missing. For years I've always used whatever multi-band GSM phone I could get free from my carrier. Most recently my phone of choice was a magenta Motorola Razr, obtained at no cost as part of my most recent re-up with T-Mobile. It served me well, although triple-tapping to send text messages was beyond onerous.

All my friends were getting smart phones, and more and more of them were communicating via text. I hoped that when it came time for me to renew my phone contract, I'd be able to get an entry-level Blackberry for free. Then I started dating an iPhone user. His comment on my cute pink Razr: "we need to get you a real phone."

He first brought me a Google Android Phone, fresh from the Google I/O Developer Conference, to try out. This phone is now available through T-Mobile as the myTouch 3G, which I think is a lame name. We popped my SIM card in and fired it up. At the time I couldn't figure out how to import my contacts list from my MacBook Air, which was rather annoying because there were about 70 entries that weren't already on my SIM card. I decided if I loved the phone and had to end up typing them all in myself I would, but was not looking forward to that.

I loved a couple of things about the myTouch (do I really have to call it that?). The first is that it just looks slick. And the android alien is super duper cute! Best of all, the little white trackball lit up and blinked excitedly when a call was coming in. It was like having an alien invasion party in my purse.

Sometimes it was a little difficult for me to remember what icon got me to where I wanted to go, but I figured I'd have it all down pat in under a week. Unfortunately, less than 36 hours later I couldn't stand the darling phone any more and happily went back to my Razr. The sole reason for this was texting. I found the touch screen keyboard difficult to use accurately and was spending as much time backing up and correcting as I had been triple-tapping out letters on the Razr. I have average sized fingers for a woman, yet felt fumble-fingered all the time, and never could quite tell what keys I was actually hitting. This frustration showed up most strongly on what has become my acid test for a smart phone: being able to text while driving. Yeah yeah, I know you're not supposed to do it.... Anyway, I couldn't even get out "b there in 15 mins" without major effort.

After a brief respite with the Razr to cleanse my palate, my boyfriend presented me with his old iPhone 3G. I liked it instantly. Already being a Mac person helped a lot: my contacts uploaded to the phone seamlessly, and I really appreciated being able to backup and recharge with my Air. Right away I was downloading apps, playing Foursquare, and IDing music on the radio with Shazam. The touch screen keys were a bit larger than on the myTouch, which made my typing so much more accurate. I especially liked the way the keys animate when tapped, giving a good confirmation that (a) something happened and (b) that I hit the right key. Best of all, I could text easily from a moving car, so easily that now I have to really restrain myself for health and safety reasons.

About three days later we dropped by a Sprint store to check out the new Palm Pre. They didn't have a fully operational one to play with, and their demo models were tethered to the display, making it very difficult to get a sense of the phone and what it was all about. In a display of great salesmanship, a Sprint associate pulled his personal Pre out of his pocket and let me play with it for a good fifteen minutes. I looked at pictures of his kids, played around with texting, did some web browsing, added and deleted a phone number, and made a brief phone call.

The Pre is a nice phone. It's got the techy-slick look and feel of the myTouch, but in a smaller package that was designed to fit comfortably in your hand. Navigating between applications is done with a swipe, giving me the feeling that I was simply mousing around on a larger desktop of sorts. The screen, though the smallest of the three phones, was easy to read due to the very high quality of the display. I appreciated the "bubble buttons," since I touch type it's nice to have feedback from a physical keyboard. I was especially impressed by the fact that the Pre backs itself up to the Cloud every night. This very much alleviated my fears of losing everything if I lost the phone in a taxi in Helsinki or something.

Which then brought me to the deal breaker: there would be no way I could lose the phone in Helsinki or something because the Pre was only available on Sprint in a CDMA model. I have to have GSM, simple as that. It was suggested that I purchase a Pre so I could take it home and try it for a few days, but I turned to my boyfriend and said "You're only getting that iPhone back if you pry it out of my cold dead hands."

I've been happily using the iPhone for a few months now!

Happy New Year

In some traditions, Autumn is the start of the new year. The Jews have Rosh Hashana, the Celtic Pagans have Samhain...heck, in the USA it's the start of a new school year. September has always been a time of restarting and renewal for me. When I was a kid it was about new friends and teachers and classes and shoes and clothes and books, and that feeling has never really left me. Having "New Year's" right after Christmas always seems a bit excessive and arbitrary to me.

So in the spirit of the New Year, I'm thinking about what's next in my life. I've been doing a lot of the same things for a long time, without really thinking about why I was still doing them. I've been putting off a lot of things for a long time, without really thinking why I wasn't doing them. I've basically been on auto-pilot, which was a great coping strategy when my life was turned upside-down a few years ago in a not very good way, but now I'm ready to do and be something again.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

2009 Open British Professional Latin Championship

Tonight is the hottest night in the ballroom. And I don't just mean "hot" because it's the Latin, I mean hot because the entire place is packed to the gills. The Pro Latin event at Blackpool draws the biggest crowd of the week.

I went down and watched the first round and took a bunch of pictures, trying to get shots of every couple from the USA I could find plus anyone else who caught my eye. There was a Japanese couple, Shota Sesoko & Shizuka Hara, who I really liked. They caught my eye in the first round and I was delighted to see them in for a few more rounds. They weren't the highest finishing Japanese couple, but they got as far as the 48. They were the first Japanese couple that I've ever really liked in Latin. It was their Jive that pulled me in -- energetic but not over the top, presented with a lot of happiness that seemed to come from a sense of genuine enjoyment rather than theatrical hamming it up.

It was fun trying to take pictures, I have a whole bunch to process but will stick a couple of the best here when they're ready.

Anyway, to me most everyone is good, and I'm not Latin-trained, so I can't distinguish "stand outs" except for when it comes to things like costumes and personality. And besides, by the time you get to the final (or even the semi) they are all so amazingly good! You will hear things like "Leunis is by far the best girl in Latin today" or "Melia is the best on the floor," or "I really didn't like his new partner" but really I can't truly see or say why one is "better" or "worse" than the other. I can see that they are different, but not what makes one better or even what would make one stand out more than the other. I just watched the final with delight, taking in the costumes, the energy, the performances, and enjoying the whole thing.

As expected, Michal Maltowski & Joanna Leunis from Poland won, but Ricardo Cocci & Yulia Zorguychenko from the US beat them in the Jive. That was certainly a thrilling moment.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

2009 Blackpool Under-21 Ballroom and Amateur Latin

I really hope no one is expecting a real report on these events. I don't like to write too much about actual dancing because people's feelings get hurt so easily, and there get to be snappish arguments that go something like "well you would never even make the first cut at Blackpool so who are you to say anything?!" So the bottom line is there was dancing, a lot of it, and even the not so great dancing was pretty good. The numbers and level of competitors at Blackpool is high, I'm guessing many hobbyist competitors in the US have no idea how big things can be. For instance, the Amateur Latin had 360 couples listed in the program. Competitors had to dance two qualifying rounds, one earlier in the week, and one the morning of the actual competition. Well over 200 couples were cut just to weed the field down to "the first round proper." And once they got started, they still had a total of six rounds to dance if they got all the way through to the final. That second qualifier was at 11:30am, and the final for the whole thing was danced at 11:30pm. It is a long grueling marathon, and some otherwise fine dancers just don't have the physical, emotional, and mental stamina to go that long. And some otherwise fine dancers just don't have what it takes to get noticed and promoted in the early rounds. It's a tremendous event, really.

Tonight the rounds for the Amateur Latin were interspersed with the Under-21 Ballroom. This was much smaller, only 175 couples/six rounds of competition. This event always makes me smile. The Under-21s have so much energy and raw talent, and the floor is a swirl of sweet and lovely dresses. In the early rounds, though, you can really see who is a "young" Under-21 and still dancing like a Junior (regardless of actual age), and who is making that transition to "adult" dancing and really stepping it up. My favorite couple in the final (quite possibly because of her awesome raspberry sorbet and neon mango dress), Jack Beale & Karolina Szmit (England), have only been dancing together for a very few months and already can produce this great a result! I hope that, unlike many young couples, they stay together for a while and I can see how they've developed next year.

I had watched the first round proper of the Amateur Latin in the afternoon, and was completely impressed by Alexi Silde & Anna Fristova (Russia). I liked the way their performance energy was directed strongly toward each other, toward actually dancing with each other while acknowledging that the crowd was there and watching, rather than each playing up to the audience alone. Their basic movement is very very smooth, I saw them dance a long series of cha cha locks across the floor and they looked like they were gliding on wheels. Several people told me that they were "supposed" to win, but this is Blackpool and all kinds of odd things can and do happen. During the final, Alexi went over and hugged Stefano Di Fillippo. I had no idea why, until the very end of the event.

So anyway, Stefano's partner is the truly awesome and lovely Anna Melnikova. As much as I admire Anna Fristova, Melnikova was the best woman on the floor and also exciting to watch. Stefano didn't do much for me, though. He's a muscular broad-shouldered looking guy (compared to the rest of the Latin dancers, at least) and he has to take care not to look hulking. He did dance great in the semi-final, but in the final he got really emotional and spent the whole time hamming it up for his friends in the audience, sometimes it seemed to me that he lost track of Anna. She handled it great, though, and just kept on dancing fabulously.

And now for the result and some explanations. It turns out that Silde & Fristova didn't win, and in fact ended up in third place due to a Rule 10 tie with the second place couple from Croatia. Di Fillippo & Melnikova won, and right afterwards the MC, Marcus Hilton, announced that this was Di Fillippo & Melnikova's last competition together. So that explains the hugging in the final. It was good for them to go out on a high note together. Melnikova already has a new partner, according to what is going around the Empress Ballroom she will be dancing with none other than Slavik Kryklyvyy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted...

Sometimes you just need a vacation from your vacation. So, it being a gorgeous sunny day, I piled into the car with the friends I'm staying with, and we took a drive south from Blackpool.

Blackpool's seaside is a pit, kind of like Atlantic City in the 1980's (maybe even still today, who knows, I haven't been there in like 20 years). Venturing south along the Irish Sea, though, through the towns of St. Anne's and Lytham, is a treat. There are very high sand dunes along the coast at St. Anne's, and Lytham features lots of really nice brick Victorian buildings, and cute shops on the main street. We walked around for a while and had lunch at an outdoor cafe'. I got a little sunburned.

Later that evening I caught the final four rounds of the Senior Latin and the Professional Rising Star Standard. My favorite Senior Latin couple from last year, from Spain, did not dance. I was sorry not to see them again because the lady in that couple was so strong and sexy and soft and mature and classy -- all the things I like to see in a lady dancer. The quality level of the couples improves every year; the friend I was sitting with turned to me at one point and said "it's so nice to see adults dancing Latin."

The big event of the day was the Professional Rising Star Standard. I noticed right away that former Blackpool and World Amateur Standard Champion Edita Daniute was back with a new partner. Judging from his name, Angelo Madonia, he's probably from Italy. They danced very well, and won the event. There was an Australian couple in the final, Matthew Rooke & Anna Longmore, who I also quite liked. The lady had a white dress with large wide silver metallic strips on it -- a sort of "mirror ball" dress. I loved it, but I can't say it was universally admired.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lazy Sunny Sunday

Nothing to report today. I didn't have tickets for the Amateur Rising Star events and wasn't highly motivated to attend, so I puttered around and went for a long walk along the seafront promenade. It was so clear I could see mountains in the north. I also did some fabric shopping -- or rather looking -- but am still trying to decide what I want to purchase.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

2009 Blackpool Professional Team Match

I love the Team Match at Blackpool. It really kicks things off, it gets the crowd going and features some amazing dancing.

This year there the four teams and their "introductions" were:

Their captain was Oliver Wessel-Therhorn, and so they did a pun on his name with their theme of "Ollywood." Each couple was meant to represent a different famous dance team. Standard dancers Stanislaw Massold & Christine Deck were Gene Kelly & Debbie Reynolds in "Singing in the Rain," and danced out with umbrellas. Sascha Karabey & Natascha Karabey were Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers. I missed who Evgenij Vosnyk & Oksana Nikiforva were representing, but they were in western cowboy style outfits. Perhaps they were Roy Rodgers & Dale Evans? Last, but by no means least, Franco Formica & Oxana Lebedew were Rudolf Nureyev & Margot Fonteyn. Franco was shirtless, in white ballet tights, and had a white feather in his hair that made me think of Nureyev in Le Corsaire.

This year the couples did a "Style Swap" -- the Latin couples came out dressed for Standard, and vice-versa. Arunas Bizokas & Katusha Demidova danced cha cha, Victor Fung & Anna Mikhed did jive, and Riccardo Cocchi & Yulia Zagoruychenko an over-the-top tango. And finally, Eugene Katsevman & Maria Manusova danced quickstep.

The Italian women were all dressed up very chic in black, and were fine ladies out walking their dogs. Each of their partners was in a full-on furry dog costume, walking on a leash on all fours! Mirko Gozzoli was a St. Bernard, and he spent a good deal of time marking his territory. There was also a bulldog, a poodle, and a chihuahua who walked on his hind legs. At one point all the dogs got loose and hilarity ensued, including the St. Bernard running upstairs to the balcony and barking like crazy.

Great Britain
The British team's theme was "circus," and the team's parade included captain Robert Grover dressed as a Ringmaster, break dancers, clowns, a rhythmic gymnast, and a guy doing stunts on a small bicycle. Each lady on the team did a short dance with an animal -- jiving chimpanzee, tangoing lion, and a gorilla (not sure what dance, think it was paso). At the end of each dance, the animal's costume head was removed to reveal an important British coach. For example, the foxtrotting elephant was revealed by Hazel Newberry to be no other than Sammy Stopford.

After all the merriment, the teams changed into their proper dance clothing and the match itself commenced. The final scores were:

USA - 297.4
Italy - 293.5
Germany - 292.9
Great Britain - 290.0

This is the second year in a row that the USA has won the team match.

Friday, May 22, 2009

And We're Off!

Today is the first day of the marathon of dance incredibleness that is the Blackpool Dance Festival. Competition actually started yesterday, with the qualifying rounds for the Amateur Rising Star events, so today is the first day I actually went to watch. A bunch of people I know were dancing in the Senior (Over-35) Standard, so I went down to watch from the first round. Interspersed with the Senior Standard was the Professional Rising Star Latin, so I got to see a few rounds of that, too.

A pair of teachers from Dance Spectrum, the studio where I take lessons, were competing at Blackpool for the first time in the Latin event. I usually see Danielle Gozzi & Cecilia Giovacchini working with their students, so it was a real treat for me to see them competing in a big event. Cecilia's dress was stunning -- and she bought it off the rack the day before at the competition itself! I thought they danced really well, giving a really genuine performance, and was pleased to see them dance three rounds to get to the top 96.

Also appearing in the Latin, and getting through to the semi-final, was Kimberley Mitchell. She used to dance in the United States with Bill Sparks, and came out to the US again a couple of years ago for a one-off with Clive Uter. Her new partner's name is Christian Polanc. Kimberley looked great, I really liked her dress and her style was very fit and classy. I enjoyed seeing her dance again.

The Standard started with 226 couples, and seven US couples made the cut to the second round. Five got through to the "round of 48", one to the quarter-final, and a US couple even made the final! I was impressed with everyone's dancing, particularly with Evelyn Lafferty and Jody Frease. Both of these ladies have developed their stretch and poise and looked very composed and smooth yet strong.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Backpool Hoy!

Today Mom flew back to New Hampshire from Edinburgh, and I took a train down to Blackpool. It took about three hours, and I passed through some of the most lovely bucolic countryside scenery I have ever seen. There were green hills with yellow flowers, young lambs gamboling in the grass, contented cows chewing their cud, and picturesque ruins.

I arrived at my home for the next week and a half, the wonderfully comfortable Coast Apartments, and was warmly greeted by host Steve Livesay. Steve and his wife Karen renovated this old set of flats, putting in brand modern appliances -- including a clothes washer/dryer! I immediately started the first of three loads of laundry :) The first year I came to Blackpool I stayed in a place where we had to bring our own towels, and had to put money in a meter to get electricity. None of that at here, thank goodness.

My good friends Turtle & Ava had just arrived, and were staying in the flat upstairs. Turtle and I walked down to the Winter Gardens to collect our tickets, check out the lay of the land, and do a little shopping. There were qualifying heats for the Amateur Rising Star events today, but I really needed a day off to regroup before diving in to the Dance Festival. Sure, all I'll be doing all week is watch, but there's a LOT of dancing to see and it's very easy for me to go into complete overload to the point where I don't really see or appreciate what is in front of me. So, time for a good meal, a whisky and soda, and a good night's sleep.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


For our final day in Edinburgh, Mom and I visited a cluster of museums near where we were staying. The first was the Museum of Edinburgh, and featured an impressive collection of silver. Across the street was a museum that focused on the lives of ordinary working-class people through the centuries. Called "The People's Story," it showed what their families and living conditions were like, what they did for leisure, and what kind of jobs they had. It was fascinating to know that as late as 1968 there were families of 10 living in a single room. At that time the city had public washing facilities where people could do their laundry, these facilities had these large racks that you could hang your clothes on and then push into a super heated cabinet that would dry out the clothes in about 20 minutes.

From there we visited the crazy modern Scottish Parliament. We were able to go inside the assembly room, and noticed that the back walls are decorated with silhouettes of whisky bottles! Another really interesting feature of the building are the stepped window bays that stick out from each member's office. Each bay has an upholstered bench, and windows that open, and was designed to be a place for private peaceful contemplation for the members.

We wanted to tour the Palace of the Holyroodhouse, but it was closed for a government function. We were able to tour the Queen's Gallery in the gatehouse, though, and took in an exhibition of informal paintings of various Kings and Queens of England. My favorite one was by Landseer, of a young Queen Victoria going out riding with some of her ministers. She was very young when she came to the throne, and I think many people these days forget how glamorous she was.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Of Castles and Witches

Today's big event was touring Edinburgh Castle, located on a cold and windy hill that has held a fortress of some sort or other since, oh, about 600. The first royal castle there was built around 1130. I went to the bathroom in a tower that had been built in 1356. Well, actually, it had been mostly destroyed in 1573 but then rebuilt. No matter how you figure it, this place is old! (The visitors' bathrooms, though, are thoroughly modern and well-heated, which was a plus because it was a blustery day with off-and-on rain interspersed with outbreaks of sunshine -- in short, typical Scottish springtime weather.) The castle also houses the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish Crown along with a sword and sceptre) and the Stone of Destiny (also known as the Stone of Scone). The Stone of Destiny is basically a plain oblong rock that supposedly came from the Holy Land, via Ireland where it was blessed by St. Patrick, to Scotland where it was used in coronation ceremonies. That is, until the English hauled it off to London in 1296 where it sat in Westminster Abbey for 700 years, despite them saying in 1328 that they would give it back. It finally came back to Edinburgh in 1996, but only as a "permanent loan" from the Queen. The timeline of British history is astounding, but then I live in a state where anything over 150 years old is ancient. In Edinburgh, anything over 150 years is still pretty new.

We came down off the cold castle heights and stopped for lunch at a beautiful place with a bit of an ugly past. The restaurant is called The Witchery by the Castle, and is named for being a yard where hundreds of witches were burned in the 1500's. The restaurant building itself was built for a merchant, and features a lovely dining room with a charming painted ceiling. Mom dined on fresh pea soup and a zucchini/ricotta tart, while I had haggis and roasted salmon. Yes, I ate haggis, and I hadn't even been drinking whisky at the time. I definitely enjoyed it, it has an oily sausage taste and was the consistency of porridge. Which makes sense because oats is a prime component. I'd definitely eat it again -- at least at this restaurant.

After our very late lunch we went next door to the Scotch Whisky Experience. This is a combination museum, tasting bar, and Disney's Haunted-Mansion style ride. It sounds really silly and tacky but it ended up being interesting and fun. We opted for the "Gold Tour" which allowed us to taste five different whiskies. I tried a Lowland single-malt on the tour, which turned out to be the same Glenkinchie that I had enjoyed a couple of nights before. Then, in the tasting bar, we sampled:
  • Auchentoshan Select - This is a Lowland single-malt that to me smelled like manure. Adding a drop of water only made it worse, and to me it pretty much tasted like how it smelled. This surprised me because I have enjoyed other Lowland malts on this trip.
  • Glen Deveron 10yo - A Highland single-malt that I quite liked. The tasting notes say "malty with toffee notes" on the nose and "rich maltiness with hints of sherry" for the taste.
  • Tomintoul 10yo - A Speyside single-malt that was Mom's favorite. We both thought the color was beautifully bright gold, and noticed that the nose was consistent whether it was straight or had a bit of water added. Mom remarked that it would "stand up well to ice."
  • Ledaig Light Finish - An Island single-malt that neither of us liked at all at first. To us it smelled like a combination of a blacksmith shop and gasoline. Interestingly enough, once we hit it with a spash of water and actually drank it, we found that it had a nice smoky taste that was not harsh at all. I decided that if I had to keep a "manly" smokey whisky around the house, this would be the one.
Whisky tasting completed, we then did a bit of shopping. Is there any better time to shop than after a few drams of whisky? Scotland is a haven for cashmere knitwear, and the prices I was seeing, even in the middle of downtown tourist Edinburgh, were definitely better than at home -- although this sort of knitwear doesn't come cheap anywhere. I picked up a pair of gloves at Kinross that matched the lining of my raincoat, along with a locally-hand-woven merino-and-silk scarf. Then I stopped in just down the street at Highland Cashmere where I picked up a sort of poppy-colored cardigan and a moss green pullover.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Britannia Rules the Waves

Today we headed via city bus down to the Ocean Terminal in Leith, where the Royal Yacht Britannia is preserved as a historical site. This was Queen Elizabeth II's ship of State, as it were, and we had a great time looking into the Royal apartments, the State dining room, and so on. From there we went to the Georgian House, which is an 18th-century town house set up to show how a "gentleman" (a non-working landowner who derives his income from rents collected from the people who live and work on his property) and his family would live in town.

After strolling past a monument to Sir Walter Scott, we stopped at Marks & Spencer to stock up on whisky and snax. The whisky we picked up is bottled specifically for Marks & Spencer, which makes it a kind of Trader Joe's-type buy. It's a 12-year-old single malt fro the Deanston distillery in Doune (Perthshire).

The weather today was changeable, ranging from downright rainy to mistily dreary to delightfully sunny with a fresh wind.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Traditional Sunday Roast

Today is Sunday, and Mom wanted to go to church, so we made a point of going to Services at St. Giles (Presbyterian) Cathedral. This church has been in use since at least 1559, and parts of it date from 1495. Right now it's being renovated, but I have a feeling that's been a constant over the centuries as much of the church has been altered since the 16th century. What most impressed me were the modern halogen chandeliers, which float like UFOs in the vaulted ceilings.

As part of my personal effort to help change people's perceptions of British food, we headed to yet another New British Cuisine brassiere, Hadrian's at the Balmoral Hotel. We were also there as part of Mom's personal effort to find the ultimate roast beef. She reports that hers was cooked perfectly and quite tasty, but it should have been sliced thicker. My lamb steak in red currant sauce was interesting and enjoyable, and was accompanied by tiny delicious sauteed green beans.

Aside from needing to walk off lunch, I figured that climbing Arthur's Seat is one of the traditional that one cannot miss doing in Edinburgh. It had been (partly-somewhat-mostly) sunny all morning, and I figured now would be a good time because the ground would be in its least-damp-between-the-rains condition. I tramped up the steep paths, every so often stopping to take in the views of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh Castle, and the surrounding city and countryside. Arthur's Seat is but part of the very large and very bucolic Holyrood Park, behind the high crags hides a lovely valley with two little lochs and what looks like a bit of ruined castle. It's wild and windy and I could almost imagine myself out on the moors in the countryside.

It was also cold, and I took a wrong turning on the path down, ending up on a mountain-goat-friendly descent that wore me out. Once back on level ground I strolled past the ultra-modern Scottish Parliament, arriving back in the hotel room to collapse on the sofa in happy exhaustion.

Mom revived me with some shortbread and a banana, and promises of a whisky and soda downstairs, so we made our way to the bar and enjoyed more Isle of Jura and some Glenkinchie (single malt from near Edinburgh), accompanied by fish cakes and a hot carrot-coriander soup.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Whisky Express

Mom has developed a strong fondness for Pret A Manger, so we had lunch there and then did some more power shopping in the Covent Garden area. We hit my favorite British ladies' clothing chain, Monsoon, where I picked up a lovely silk tunic blouse, and then went to Marks & Spencer where I tried on hats and purchased (what else but) "knickers." Supposedly everyone buys their underwear (knickers) at M&S, and I like what they sell, so of course I had to pick up a pack on this trip.

We caught a cab to King's Cross Station, famous for many reasons (an IRA bombing in the 1970's, a Pet Shop Boy's song), most recently for being the location of the London terminus of the Hogwart's Express in the Harry Potter Stories. I went to look for Platform 9 3/4's and found it -- just as a baggage trolley was disappearing through the barrier!

Our train left London at 2pm for the 4 1/2 hour trip up to Edinburgh. It was very clean and comfortable, except for the toilet which was nearly as bad as the one on the train between Beijing and Xi'an in China. Facilities aside, the ride was smooth and quiet, and attendants came through after every stop to offer us tea and coffee (complimentary) and snacks (for sale). We were seated with a guy on his way up to Dundee, and he helped us do the crossword puzzle in the Independent.

The train had free wireless internet for the duration of our trip. It worked great but oddly enough when I'd go to to the Google home page, the default language it came up in was Swedish.

Arrival in Edinburgh was spot on time, and a short cab ride brought us to our hotel. When I booked us into the MacDonald Holyrood Hotel, I picked it because it was a highly recommended mid-price hotel and because I got a good price on it from Expedia. When we got into our room we nearly fell over. It is massively huge, large by even US business-class hotel standards. The room (#300) is about 2 1/2 times larger than what we had in London, and has a million-pound view of Arthur's Seat, the remains of an ancient extinct volcano that broods over Edinburgh. We went down to the hotel lobby for some dinner and to taste some local whisky, enjoying some local smoked salmon with a plate of British cheeses. Mom sampled the Highland Park (a single malt from Orkney), while I enjoyed the light and almost floral Isle of Jura (another single malt from off the west coast of Scotland).

The hotel is a T-Mobile Hot Spot. It works great but oddly enough when I go to the Google home page, the default language it comes up in is German.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The British Empire's Attic

I've heard it said that the Smithsonian is "America's Attic." Well, if that's so then the Victoria & Albert Museum (the "V&A") is definitely the British Empire's attic. Mom and I took the tube over there to poke around, she wanted to peruse the very large silver collection, and I wanted to see a special exhibition about hats. Somewhere between the hats and the silver we got lost and ended up on a floor filled with William Morris and other Arts & Crafts artisan's objects domestiques. There were decorative tiles, stained glass panels, carpets, textiles, furnishings...that whole style of design really appeals to me in the way that it combines various ethnic and natural motifs into useful objects that are anything but utilitarian.

From there we stopped at Barclay's Bank on Picadilly Circus, which I only mention because a man there told Mom that it used to be a Burger King.

Our evening started with a well-exected dinner of tasteful new British cuisine (Mom had steamed mussels, I had a red onion-stilton tart), we walked around the corner to the Prince of Wales Theater to see "Mamma Mia!" In general I had been feeling kind of dubious about the whole stage-musical-made-into-a-movie thing, but I had enjoyed the movie version despite Pierce Brosnan's atrocious singing on "S.O.S." The movie was so entertaining overall that I decided I wanted to see the stage play, but missed it when it was running in Las Vegas. I'm so glad I finally got to see it, because the live musical was so much more intimate and had a more personal and energetic vibe than the movie. Comparing the two, I feel that some of the production numbers of the movie that rambled all over the island took a bit away from the actual interactions between the character, despite the beauty of the locations where they were filmed. Mom summed it all up the best, saying "It was the best stage play I have ever seen. You could not point to one actor and say well he was better than so-and-so. You could not point to one singer and say she was better than so-and-so. Every single dance sequence was fabulous, it was wonderful!" I also really appreciated the technical aspects of the show, and found that the high-tech sets did not overwhelm or detract from the show, as I find they sometimes do (for comparison, I thought some aspects of "Phantom of the Opera" were just too much of a muchness).

After the show we headed back to the room to pack, as we were checking out the next day and heading to Edinburgh by train.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

London Callling

I ran from Harrison Street to the 16th Street BART Station this morning, dragging two rolling suitcases, so I could make my train to my plane so I could get to London. Fortunately that was the most exciting aspect of my journey. The plane arrived early and I was able to use the rather nice Star Alliance arrival shower facilities at Heathrow Terminal 1 before schlepping over to Terminal 4 to meet Mom. I must note here that Terminal 1 is still kind of a pit, despite the trumpeted consolidation of Star Alliance airlines there last year. I had thought that meant that Terminal 1 would also be renovated, but apparently not on the Arrivals level.

Mom's flight was about 45 minutes late, but eventually she emerged from Customs & Immigration and we hopped on the Underground to head for Central London. Our hotel was the Radisson Edwardian Leicester Square (located just off Leicester Square), not to be confused with the Radisson Edwardian Hampshire (located directly on Leicester Square). Our room wasn't ready when we arrived so I took Mom to my favorite quick food stop, Pret A Manger, for healthy sandwiches. After stopping at Tkts for some discount tickets to Hairspray, we checked in to our tiny but very comfortable and modern-looking room.

We took a nap, but unfortunately Mom was suddenly feeling quite ill, so I headed off to the theater alone. Along the way I did a bit of power shopping, picking up all kinds of face creams and lotions at Neal's Yard Remedies. I love Neal's Yard because everything is all-natural with no parabens or other odd chemicals, and much of each product is organic too. I then passed a store dedicated to socks, called Tabio. Apparently this is a Tokyo-based chain that pretty much only exists in London and Japan. I went a little crazy and bought 10 pairs of socks, but I'm completely delighted because several pairs were the kind of "toe" socks that I very much like to wear. Tabio had them in normal colors, not just bizarre stripey combinations.

The musical itself was wonderful. I thought the original John Waters movie with Rickie Lake totally rocked, and enjoyed but was also a bit let down by the later musical version with John Travolta. The live musical itself, though, is super enjoyable and I much preferred it to the movie musical. (The original movie is still the best in my opinion.)

When I got back to the room after the show, I found that Mom was feeling immensely better, so we planned our next day and then hit the sack.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I've mentioned before that I'm doing this little personal project where I go to every country or state that ends in -LAND in English. My rules are that it has to be the name of the place that we use in English, it has to be a state or country level political entity, and that names ending in "Island" do not count. That results in the following list:
  • England
  • Finland
  • Greenland
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Maryland
  • The Netherlands
  • Newfoundland
  • New Zealand
  • Northern Ireland
  • Poland
  • Queensland
  • Scotland
  • Swaziland
  • Switzerland
  • Thailand
I've made good progess on this list, and next week I will be going to ScotLAND with my mother.

Mom and I take a trip together every year. We usually go on a cruise, but I was feeling cruised out. She kind of wanted to go to London, so we decided that since I was going to the UK in late May anyway, we'd tack on a trip to London and Edinburgh before I went to Blackpool to watch the British Open Ballroom Dancing Championships.

Once we get to Scotland (Edinburgh), I'll just have Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland, Northern Ireland, Poland, and Swaziland left on the list.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

When Lightning Strikes

All I needed was a big hit of inspiration. At this point I've sewn as much as I can, the remaining steps are:
  1. flat stone the bodice
  2. sew the bodice back and side seams
  3. draft the sleeves
  4. flat stone the sleeves
  5. set the sleeves into the bodice
  6. sew the bodice to the bottom half of the bodysuit/dress
  7. sew the skirts to the bodice
  8. finish stoning the dress
  9. hem the chiffon skirts with poly braid
  10. finish the legs of the bodysuit
  11. make the float

Then there's the issue of figuring out what I'm going to do for "support." I wear a 34F dresses made with just those little sew-in bra cups are problematic. I'll worry about this later, at worst case I can replace all the straps on one of my regular bras with nude elastic and just wear it under the dress.

This sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but it is manageable if I just keep working diligently.


I've started again from Burda 7879, with a bunch of modifications:
  • made the back have a V shape
  • added the "salsa" skirt layer to the "ballroom" skirt so as to get an interesting layered effect
  • increased the layers of chiffon in the "ballroom" skirt from two to three
  • am adding sleeves

I've got everything cut out, and have constructed the three chiffon layers in the skirt. Those are now hanging up on my fitting dummy so that the bias will stretch out.

I've also constructed the "salsa" layer, which itself is a modification because rather than having it be straight in the front and pointy in the back, I have it pointy in both front and back. I've finished the edges in poly hem braid, and have stoned the hem. Usually I complete the entire dress before I start stoning, but I realized that it's easier to stone things like sleeves and hems flat rather. So, even though I haven't attached the "salsa" layer to the rest of the garment, I stoned the hem while it was laying flat on the table. I plan to do something similar when I make the sleeves: I'm going to do most of the stone work with the fabric flat, before I sew up the sleeve seams and set them into the armhole. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

Uhh, yeah.

So you know that dress I was working on? Junked it. I just can't get with the light pink right now. I woke up this morning with a new idea and have the new dress cut out, except for the underskirts. Must run to the fabric store and buy some black and red chiffon or georgette!

Saturday, April 25, 2009


I really hate dealing with sleeves. But, being a woman of a certain size and shape, I really should have them on my ballgowns. I made and attached the under-leotard, and then made the left sleeve. The sleeve looks horrible. I feel like my arm is a pale pink sausage. I will have to ponder this sleeve issue some more.

Shell Game

I now have the basic shell of the dress completed. It's just a basic 8-panel princess seamed style right now. The next step is to make the under-leotard, and once that is done I can work out the neckline and sleeve option(s). Then I will sew the dress and leotard together, and start with the "finishing" work, such a putting elastic in the openings and figuring out if I'm going to try to insert a silver godet in the back center seam or not.

Sewing gives me lots of time to think, while actually getting something done. Today I listened to The Police's Message in a Box and remembered the crush I had on Sting when I was 17.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Cut & Sew

Whew, the dress is now cut out, time to clean up the great room (I cut out on my dining table). Then I can move on to actually sewing the garment together. Right now I'm entirely avoiding the whole issue of the under-leotard.

When in Doubt, Stick to the Basics

Actually, when in doubt, go make the dress that you made years ago for a client and always wanted for yourself. We'll see how this works out, I'm cutting out now.

I'm starting, as I often do, from Kwik Sew 2514, with minor modifications:
  • split the front center panel so the dress has eight panels rather than seven
  • make the skirt floor-length

  • flare the skirt out from just below the waist so that it will sufficiently full for ballroom

  • add a sleeve
  • add a float
  • change the neckline

It sounds like a lot but I'm back in familiar territory so I'm no longer panicking.

I Just Can't Do It

I am so daunted by this project that I am paralyzed. Making a high-quality ballgown is a complex and time-consuming process, and I haven't sewn anything in a year. I know what I want to do, but I'm just not up to cutting out and sewing together all the different shapes and pieces. I want something nearly instant. People ask why good dresses are so expensive -- well, there's the time spent thinking out the design, the costs of quality materials, the time spent cutting and sewing and fitting, all the finish work, and then the stoning. It takes time, a lot of time.

I think I need to ease back into sewing by doing something smaller first, as badly as I want a new ballgown -- and as badly as I am going to need one come June.

Sorry for anyone expecting to see an interesting project, I'm just crumbling here.


As far as people who make dresses go, I'm probably weird. I can't sketch, I don't drape, instead I look at existing patterns and figure out how to graft them together. Sometimes while I'm working I'll completely change my mind. It's like doing a weird flat puzzle that becomes this cool 3-d thing.

I like to work with Kwik Sew brand patterns, and usually start from one of their swimsuits, ice skating dresses, or leotards. Today I'm using view B of Kiwk Sew 3272, and grafting it on to either an 8-panel skirt (that's a skirt made of eight pieces that flare out) or a layered skirt (to get my take on the ruffly "cupcake" look that is in fashion right now). If I do the layered skirt, it will be loosely based on Burda 7879.

So anyway, I've picked my base pattern, taken my measurements, and used tracing paper to trace my size off the printed pattern. I do this to save the printed pattern in case I want to go back and make a different size or variant later. Then I cut out the traced pieces and play with them to see how things fit together so I can create my Frankenpattern. Sometimes I cut up and re-shape the pattern pieces, for instance taking something that was meant to be one piece and splitting it into two. One of the things I'm going to do for sure this time is combine the panties and top part of the Kiwk Sew patterns together into one piece -- I don't need a waist seam on that leotard because the skirt is going to be attached to the outermost layer of the dress.

At this stage it's important to make sure you have enough fabric for what it is you think you might want to do. I'm going to go measure things and think for a while.

Making a Ballgown in ??? Easy Steps

I am suffering from fashion fatigue and have decided that I want a new dress for Emerald Ball next week. How does one make a ballgown you might ask? Well, basically it goes like this:

Step One: Inspiration

Some people sketch. Some people drape. I just tend to roll around on the floor with some fabric and see what happens.

Step Two: Fabric Preparation

I like to start by washing the fabric. It pre-shrinks it, gets off any surface dirt or cat hair, and if any color is going to fade it will happen now. I usually only wash the main stretchy fabrics that the dress is going to be made out of. Chiffon, metallics, and other delicate things can just be used as is.

Oh Yeah, I Have a Blog!

Q: Where have you been for the past month and a half?
A: Around.
Q: What have you been doing?
A: Stuff.
Q: With whom?
A: Just people. Jeeze, are you my Mom or something?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Nothing Could be Finer than to Dance in Carolina

Just got back from the Heritage Dance Classic, held at the totally beautiful Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. I had a super fun time dancing, pulled some good marks, and looked pretty nice dancing. It's hard to complain.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

No Cute Title Here

I totally forgot to post this, but I spent Valentine's Day competing at the California Open in Irvine. The dancing was good, the marks were decent, and I even took home a smidgen of Scholarship money.

The video is rather dark but here goes:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Trip the Light Fantastic

Last weekend I danced at the City Lights Ball in San Jose. I had three goals for this first competition of 2009, and I'm proud to say that I achieved them all. One goal was to make the final of the Open Pro/Am Standard "A" (45 and under) Scholarship. There were eight couples, so the cut wasn't so bad, but still the people dancing were very good so it's never safe to take anything for granted.

Here is the semi-final:

I think for the most part my dancing was better in the Semi, but for completeness sake, I've uploaded the Final too:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

In the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room

In the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room
all the birds sing words
and the flowers croon
in the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room!

When I was a kid, and to this day, I was entranced by the "talking" birds in Disney's "Tropical Serenade." This was the attraction in Adeventureland where you'd go into a theater modeled after a Polynesian long house and see talking animatronic birds, singing flowers, and drumming Tiki statues. I loved it. The entire setting was beautiful, especially the birds. It still exists, except that in 1998 Disney added a component from their succesful movie Aladdin to the mix. Now, what a Persian boy has to do with Polynesian kitsch is beyond me -- the premise is that Aladdin has taken over management of the Enchanted Tiki Room. Guess I'll have to go see it some time to find out.

Anyway, last night I went to my friend Danese's 50th birthday party. While there I ran into some other friends who had just come from a Tiki bar in Alameda, and suggested that a bunch of us go back for some tropical cocktail fun. So, Kim, Jengo, Cliff, Kara, and I headed over to Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge. It was an adult-drink paradise!

Friday, January 9, 2009

The 43 Hour Friday

After a long and boring trip where I drank way too much (it started when I found they had a nice Piper-Heidsieck champagne in cute little bottles in fridge in the United lounge) and slept too little (watched "Tropic Thunder," "Baby Mama," and "The X-Files: I Want to Believe") I arrived home. My bag made it, with both bottles of wine and all Christmas presents intact, although the TSA did open and inspect it.

My next "-land" trip will be ScotLAND, in May!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Rainy Day in Sydney Town

Well, not much rain, but some spotty light wetness did fall from the sky. Today was dark, dreary and cold -- a huge change from the unending sunshine earlier in the week. I guess this will prepare me for returning to the dark Northern Hemisphere and cool foggy San Francisco.

I had a bit of a late start this morning, so I headed to the Museum of Contemporary Art. After my great experience at a similar museum in Brisbane, I was very interested to view the work on display here in Sydney. This museum seemed smaller, but it did have one exhibition that I really enjoyed. Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE works with Dutch "wax cloth," which is the very brightly designed and colored cloth used in a lot of West African clothing. He's done collage paintings with it, and a series of sculptural reworkings of famous European paintings. For an example of what I mean, look at this famous painting by Fragonard, and then at the Shonibare's sculpture.

The art museum had a nice café, so after a tasty lunch I made my way to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to view the Yiribana Gallery. This is Australia's best collection of aboriginal and Torres Strait islander art. Unfortunately, the Yiribana was closed! I was disappointed, but walked through the 19th and 20th century collections of Australian art. This included some pieces by indigenous artists, but was mostly art by European and European-descended painters and sculptors.

By this time my head was swimming, I can only look at so much art at once, so I picked up my bags and took the train to my final hotel, the Holiday Inn Sydney Airport. I decided to spent my last night here because I have a 9am flight tomorrow to Melbourne, connecting to my 2pm flight to Los Angeles, and I wanted to reduce the chances of me having problems in the morning. When I checked in I was once again pleasantly surprised. The last two Holiday Inns I've stayed in were kind of dodgy, but this one is decently decorated and quite comfortable.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Missed it by That Much

My plan for today was to tour historic houses, but due to a series of barely missed connections, I ran out of time. Still, I really enjoyed what I did get to see.

I started out by taking the train to Kings Cross and walking to the Elizabeth Bay House. This was built during the Australian colonial period, and features a beautiful cantilevered stairway under a domed ceiling. Unfortunately over the years the parkland around the house was sold off and sub divided, so this gorgeous specimen of a stately home is packed in cheek by jowl with apartment buildings.

I walked back toward Kings Cross to get the bus to my next destination, and just barely (by less than five minute) missed it. Then I made a bad decision when a different bus came by -- I should have gotten on it, but I wasn't sure, and so I had to wait about 25 minutes for the next one. Meanwhile, some totally blotto guy was sleeping on the narrow bench in the bush shelter, so I couldn't sit down. At one point he rolled off the bench and didn't even wake up when he smacked into the ground. He just kept sleeping on the sidewalk pavement. It was sad and gross at the same time. I've seen several homeless people in Sydney, and even got panhandled walking around an upscale shopping street, which was a bit surprising because a friend had been explaining to me about how there are basically no homeless people in Australia because anyone in that situation can still get basic health care and other assistance from the government. Maybe this guy was a junkie? Anyway, it was an odd interlude. The bus came and I got on, it was a very nice clean bus, with nice normal people on it.

After about a half hour ride, I arrived in the eastern suburb of Vaucluse, where Vaucluse House is located. The bus conveniently stopped right at the end of the drive. This was another colonial house, built in an oddly gothic style (yet still sporting a characteristic wide and deep shaded veranda). The family who had lived here were well off but were social outcasts due to the fact that the husband and wife only married after they had had two children -- they had ten in all. Also, both the husband and wife had some ancestors who had either gotten on the wrong side of the law or who were actual convicts. Still, they worked hard and built an interesting home, and the family had very nice furnishings and traveled to Europe a lot (where they were more accepted in Society). I wandered the property, where there is a working vegetable garden, and was offered a delicious sample of heirloom cherry tomatoes. After lunch in the on-site tea room, I went to catch the bus, only to find that I had missed it by about five minutes. This means I had another half hour to kill, so I walked through the quite ritzy neighborhood next to the house and stopped by the family's mausoleum.

I took the bus to the end of the line, where I had planned to catch a ferry back to the City. I went down to the pier and found that I had missed the very last ferry of the day by less than ten minutes. This is when I came up with the title for today's post. I went back to the bus stop and hopped on the first bus that I thought was heading back to downtown, but it turned out it was a bus for Bondi Beach. The positive thing about this was that I got to see the beach and people watch as sunbathers and surfers got on and off at the various stops. The negative thing was that it was getting very cloudy so everyone seemed to have decided to leave Bondi at the exact same time, and the bus moved at walking pace for quite some time. After about 40 minutes of this, I got off at the first rail station and took a very fast train back into the City.

My original plan had been to go to Elizabeth Farm in the western suburbs, but it was way too late for that. So, after a spot of shopping for Christmas presents, I stopped in at the Marble Bar, a very beautiful and ornate bar in the basement of the Hilton. The bar was built in 1889, and so has been around long before the Hilton even existed. I had a pink fruity drink called a Love Letter, which was based on raspberry vodka, and then called it a day. I have one more full day in Sydney, although tonight is my last night at the Hilton. I'm moving camp to the Holiday Inn by the airport so as to facilitate me catching a 9am flight on Friday morning. It took me about two hours to completely unpack and then repack, but I got everything situated and I'm hoping that my checked bag still weighs in at under 17kg. It was 16.5kg on the flight from Brisbane, and although I've picked up some things I've also gotten rid of others, so I think it will all work out in the end.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Tourist Marathon, Day 2

This trip has been the longest I've been away from home at a stretch in a number of years. I'm handling it well, usually I get kind of homesick but I think I'm staying too busy for that. I know the cats are well, I've been communicating with my friends via Facebook and email, so it's all good. However, I am starting to get tired of being a tourist, and my writing juices have pretty much dried up. But I also feel like there's so much to see and do and I came all this way that I can't let up now. So, today I toured the Sydney Opera House, briefly visited the Museum of Sydney (where I took a quiz about pet ownership and was told that I should only own a Pet Rock), took the ferry to the Taronga Zoo, walked up on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, stopped in at the Luna Park amusement park to ride a couple of rides, and then went to the top of the Sydney Tower.

I was hoping I'd see a Platypus at the Zoo, but the Platypus enclosure in the Platypus House was being renovated so the animals were in a natural walk-through habitat. It was a hot day, and Platypuses (Platypii?) are nocturnal, so they were not to be seen. I did manage to see another wombat, this one was sleeping in his burrow so really all I saw was a snoring mound of fur. The Tasmanian Devils were out and about in their enclosure, though, and I've got to say that they are charming little guys. Maybe they're called "Devils" 'cause they're cute as the devil! My favorite place was a large walk-through aviary, filled with dozens and dozens of different native Australian birds. They're pretty used to people, and I found that after I sat in the same place for about ten minutes I was able to see many birds up close.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Harbour, Darling!

Spent the day visiting attractions around the tourist area known as Darling Harbour. There was really a lot to see, and the cheese factor was rather low -- no wax museums, for instance. I visited the National Maritime Museum, where I toured a decommissioned destroyer and a submarine, plus saw a fascinating exhibit about Australnesian (they don't use the term Polynesian here, it seems, or this is a new term) navigators. Next was the Powerhouse Museum, where I focused on the exhibits concerning Australian design (fashion, advertising, and industrial). After that I spent a relaxing hour in the Chinese Friendship Garden, which is the largest such garden outside of China and would do any formal garden in Suzhou proud. Next I walked through Sydney Wildlife World, where I finally saw a wombat. There were two of them, sleeping in their burrow, flat on their backs with all four (eight) feet in the air, snoozing mightily.

I capped it all off at the Sydney Aquarium, which many people apologized for in advance ("it's not that great if you've seen the Monterey Bay Aquarium") but I thought it was worth it for three things:
  • seeing a woman struggling with her Louis Vuitton purse while yelling at her kid named "Chanel." I wanted to ask what her son's name was.
  • walking past a another woman who, while gazing at the large fishes in the Ocean Tank, remarked, "those look delicious!"
  • seeing the Great Barrier Reef Tank, and realizing that I can actually take pictures of the fish! I'd never tried it until today.

In all, a long day, and completed with a soak in my large and deep bathtub while sipping more of that wine.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sydney Style

I like to travel in style and relative comfort. I also like getting a good deal for my money. When the two intersect I'm really happy. I managed to book the Hilton Sydney through Expedia for much less than the hotel was charging for its best rate. I've stayed in many nice business-class hotels over the years, and appreciate fancy toiletries and fluffy duvets. But when I got to my room today, I was really wowed. It's a corner room with a partial view of Sydney Harbor, and a full-on view of the Sydney Tower (as pictured here). I love having windows on two sides. There's a sleek chaise lounge, and a very modern frosted glass bathroom with separate tub and shower.

After I unpacked, I resisted the urge to lounge and headed out for some lunch/dinner and for a walk. The Hilton is in the Central Business District, but it's a straight shot to The Rocks and Circular Quay, where the famous bridge and opera house can be seen. When I got to the quay, the first thing I noticed was that Celebrity Millennium was in port. Mom & I have cruised on two of Millennium's sisters, Summit (Panama Canal) and Infinity (Alaska). Millennium was berthed right between the two famous sights I had come to see.

I also made a stop at David Jones, Australia's fancy department store, for some wine and Australian cheese. This time I'm drinking Wirra Wirra "Church Block," a Cabernet/Shiraz/Merlot blend that is very nice. I usually don't like Cabernet but the addition of Shiraz and Merlot makes it very enjoyable for me.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Take Me to the River

My final full day in Brisbane began with the soft pattering of rain on the corrugated steel roof of Bryce's traditional Queensland-style house. The weather had turned quite cool, and the rain was soft and dreamy.

We decided to head to the Miegunyah Folk Museum, which was housed in a historical old house. Unfortunately, when we got there, there was a sign on the door saying it was closed until February. So then we tried to go to the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, but when we got there, we found out that the address given was just an office space. The real Hall of Fame is about 1200km away in Longreach!

Not to be deterred in our sight-seeing, Bryce suggested a cruise on the Brisbane River. It meanders through town, and a series of boats and motorized catamarans taxi passengers up and down and across. Many people use these, which are owned and run by the city as part of their public transit system, too and from work.

Continuing in our theme of things being closed, we had planned to go to Tukka for "advanced Australian fare" -- i.e. "bush tukka." They offer dishes such as strawberry and tonka bean cured Queensland crocodile with asparagus and a passion fruit dressing, and kangaroo fillet. When Bryce called for a booking, though, he was told the restaurant was closed until next week. So, we went for Balinese food, which I had never had before. I had a spectacularly delicious lamb stew cooked in a hot pot with bok choi.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Artistic Optimism

Spent this afternoon at a fantastic art exhibit, "Contemporary Australia: Optimism" at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. The three most interesting exhibits were a video montage of rabid Michael Jackson fans singing along to all the tracks on "Thriller," a plush fake-fur winter wonderland forest, and a series of information kiosks about space aliens that were aimed at little kids (one of which showed an alien dancing happily to Outkast's "Hey Now").

Tony Albert

Alien nation embassy

Tony Albert’s interest in aliens responds to both the alienation of Indigenous people within their own country and the ‘alien invasion’ of Australia by Europeans in 1788. Especially for kids, Tony Albert has created the Alien nation embassy and invites all earthlings to become honorary citizens — but not before passing the ‘citizenship test’! The multimedia installation features a population counter, video footage of the artist with the aliens, and electronic swipe cards for kids to access secret alien information.
(Warning -- this video is really awful quality, but you'll get the idea!)

After that, I did did a spot of shopping and picked up a new bathing suit at my now-favorite Australian store, Witchery. Since summer is in full swing here, everything is on sale, and I got a great new tankini for the equivalent of $20 US!

I capped off the evening sipping yet another great Australian Shiraz with Bryce, interrupted by a possum wandering into the kitchen! It brushed up against his toes under the kitchen table, and when he flinched and jumped to look at it, it rapidly scampered out to the back porch.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Surf 'n Turf

We hit the road around 10am and head north out of Brisbane for the Sunshine Coast. This is a string of beaches and beach towns extending upward toward the Tropic of Capricorn. It's Florida-hot here, but not at all as humid. We arrive at Sunrise Beach, find a place to park the Land Rover (it's wide and long), and head down to the sand. Now, I usually hate sand, but a good experience last week when we drove down toward Portsea has made me think twice about it. Australian sand is golden, and sort of the consistency of light brown sugar. The sand I can't stand is the very soft, very talc-y, and very dry.

I slather myself with sunblock, and then hit the water. Although the surf is kind of rough, there is no real undertow and the water is pleasantly warm. A team of surf lifesavers have set up a patrol area, the idea is to always swim between their flags. It turns out that the surf lifesavers are volunteers, and that there are surf clubs all over Australia that watch over various beaches. Bryce continues further up the beach so he can go fishing.

I go in and out of the water a few times, and crack open the huge Thomas Pynchon novel that I've been hauling around all week. The breeze is stiff, the sun is bright, the day is warm. I am so relaxed that I think my brain would just slide out of my head if I tilted it the right way. I take a long walk to the far end of the beach, where there are rocky tide pools. The rocks are covered with little limpets and barnacles, and tiny fish. After my walk, Bryce notices that I'm starting to sunburn, so we pack up and head back toward Brisbane.

After a stop at McDonald's (abbreviated to "Macca's" by the locals, Aussies seem to abbreviate everything) for a frozen Coca Cola (think Slurpee), we drive the tourist road to the Glasshouse Mountains. On the way we pass the zoo started by Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, the guy that was killed a couple of years ago in a bizzare stingray accident. The mountains are all that are left of a series of ancient volcanoes. All the parts of the cones have eroded away, leaving only the basalt lava "plugs" that were the heart of the volcanoes.

Happy New Year!

Bryce gave me the scenic tour of Brisbane yesterday. We walked around the lovely City Botanic Gardens, which included an actual mangrove, and drove up into the hills of Mt. Coot-tha, the highest point in the city. After taking in the panoramic view, we navigated toward a large scholastic-gothic building we had seen on a hill. It was private school, and seemed extremely upper-crust. As we pulled up to the main buildings and stopped to take pictures, a security guard came by and informed us that this was private property and suggested that we move along. From there Bryce drove to an old cemetery, located along hillsides with spectacular views.

We ended our perambulations downtown at the Anglican Cathedral, which has the distinction of being a brand-new gothic style church. The spires were just completed this year, in fact.

There were several sets of fireworks planned for bringing in the New Year, but I was feeling hot, tired, and sticky, and so we stayed home. Bryce fired up his grill and cooked lamb steaks, eggplant, sweet potato, and summer squash. Everything was delicious and we washed it down with yet more shiraz (regular and sparkling). I fell asleep around 10pm watching a replay of Aussie Rules Football. Guess I'm getting old. Happy 2009!