Shanghai Expat: November 2009 (first month)

I spent a lot of time from mid-November onwards living and working in Shanghai. This post is a summary of my impressions as of the end of November, and stories about what happened that month.

Getting around / surviving in Shanghai wasn't as difficult as I imagined it would be from my previous trip, perhaps because I spent a large fraction of the time I wasn't at home somewhere else (i.e., work) where I didn't have to work as hard to get food or talk to people. (Most of my co-workers could speak English passably well.) That said, there certainly were hardships--some of which I didn't expect a priori--that I'll describe in detail in this post.

After I'd packed up, moved out of my apartment, and obtained my visa, getting to Shanghai was a breeze. I stayed at my friend Oj's high-end high-rise place in San Francisco the night before my flight. I was one of the last people on and first person off my airport shuttle (convenient!). The plane, a direct United flight, was mostly empty; I had a row of two to myself. I loved spreading out, like it was my own personal office. But, not all was great, though. There was no on-demand television, just a limited number of channels of movies on repeat. The meals were decent but too small, the desserts had partially hydrogenated crap in them, and the mid-flight snack was a bowl of instant soup.

Di Yin met me at the airport so I could avoid the misadventures I had the last time I flew to Shanghai. I landed 30 minutes early and customs was faster than I'd predicted, so I was pretty frustrated that Di Yin arrived 50 minutes later than the time we'd planned--the time I expected to be out of customs. Nevertheless, I appreciated her picking me up, and happily traded standing around to re-experiencing the wild goose chase that occurred on my last visit.

It was 39 degrees out when I awoke the next morning, which was unseasonably cold for this time of year. The apartment was likewise cold, having the same poor insulation as (I'm told) the vast majority of apartments in the city. It turns out people in Shanghai are used to / resigned to the cold. Indeed, I gradually realized the lack of heating and the temperature serves the same role as a conversational backbone here as does traffic or the rain in some other cities.

Most Shanghainese keep their apartments heated to the lower 60s and simply wear multiple layers indoors. I guess this is a habit I'll have to learn.

I began learning it the following weekend while visiting one of Di Yin's family's friends' houses and ended up wearing my jacket for half the time. Thankfully, some Shanghainese guests did too. Others were fine and still others accepted offers of sweaters from the hosts.

Our apartment, I realized, may be colder than most. It was made by converting two one-bedrooms into a two bedroom by walling in the connecting previously-external hallway, making it into a kitchen in the process. I imagine this conversion process yields rooms with even worse insulation than typical Shanghai building standards.

Work, incidentally, is a comfortable temperature.

The apartment, besides having a poor layout (many small rooms, which I'm told is a common design in Shanghai) and poor insulation, had another issue: the sliding door to the bathroom sticks, and one day I got stuck in the bathroom! I put a lot of muscle into opening the door to no avail (though I didn't put my full weight into it for fear of breaking the door). Eventually we called the landlord--a friend of Di Yin's family--who came and opened it. A few days later he returned to fix it. The fix helped a little, but over the next months we learned how to slide the oft-sticking door gently. We also got in the habit of leaving it slightly open (open enough to stick a hand between the door and the frame) to make it easier to shove when it gets stuck.

More about the apartment: I liked the apartment's powerful gas stove (which I imagine is typical for China), but disliked the bed -- it was merely a set of planks. (Yes, it lacked a mattress!) We piled three thick blankets on top of it to make it softer, but it certainly remained a obvious plank with soft items piled on. I'm amazed the landlords--the people who lived here before us--liked it that way (actually, without the blankets on top). Overall, the apartment as a whole wasn't entirely horrid (though I may look for a new place), and the location was pretty decent.

Returning to the subject of weather, the week following my arrival, however, was much warmer, with days as comfortable as the best of those I experienced in New York in October (with the exception of thicker air in Shanghai).

In general Shanghai seemed less polluted than during my previous visit, though I think this observation is partially because we're living in what I observed from my last visit to be the least polluted part of town. (I love that my neighborhood--the former French Concession--has trees lining most roads, unlike mostly everywhere else in Shanghai.) In fact, the pollution sensor readings posted on the web say that the pollution is substantially worse during the winter than the summer. Nevertheless, the colder it was, the less polluted it felt (even if the real pollution levels were actually higher). I guess I found the pollution levels easier to accommodate this trip because of my neighborhood and because it simply wasn't as hot.

As for work, my company's office is centrally located downtown by People's Square. Located on the 16th floor, it has good (though hazy) views of the city, including looking down on the Shanghai Museum. A small office (130 people), it occupies only the one floor, and the office provides only lunch, no other meals. The food, which is always Chinese, is fine / acceptable.

Soon after arriving, I meet two other friendly expatriates at the office. They gave me good advice and I'm sad that they both returned to the states within two weeks of my arrival, having completed their one-/two-year stints in this office.

Outings for Food (and sights along the way) (in chronological order)
Most days I either ate breakfast at home (bread) or on the way to work (steamed buns filled with vegetables or meat), lunch at work, and dinner at home. As for the days we went out to eat or explore, here are some reports.

I took only a few pictures in November, but here they are.

One evening Di Yin and I grabbed dinner at a top-notch sheng jian bao shop (fried, somewhat bready soupy dumplings that I'm a big fan of but also rather particular about) on Yunnan Middle Road, a mere 1.5 blocks from work.

After dinner, we walked by People's Square park. I really liked the way the green-tinted lights lit up the trees -- it made it look otherworldly, like a fairyland.

The night was clear. We walked the most of the circumference of People's Square, enjoying the crispness and vividness of the skyscraper's lights and their electronic ads. We took the bus home, thus approaching our apartment from a different direction and letting me see another part of our neighborhood.

My first Saturday, we had a grand lunch at a showroom-like apartment of Di Yin's family's friends: high ceilings, huge TV, marble floors in the bathrooms, walk-in closets, custom-made couches, etc. The lunch was pretty expansive too, featuring more than ten dishes (mostly home-made), including small crabs with some hair on their largest pair of claws (so called ”hairy crabs”).

The following day we had a respectable brunch at one of the many wonton places on Urumqi Road, one of the main shopping streets near our apartment.

Later that day, we explored the dense shopping area near Jing'an Temple. The area is like central Manhattan. We’d end up visiting it often over the following months. Comparatively, the place we're staying is like the upper west side (a lower density of people and shops, though similarly wealthy). In contrast, the area we stayed in the summer was more like Queens.

Near Jing’an Temple, in a stall on the shopping alley near the Fresh Mart (a high-end, fairly comprehensive supermarket), I bought a variety of small Chinese sweets to use as post-dinner desserts the following weeks.

One evening we returned to the Hunanese restaurant Di Shui Dong that we tried and liked during the summer. We attempted to order the delicious eels we had last time, but this time we ended with a whole eel braised in oil and laid out in a spiral, head and neck still attached. The eel was perhaps 18 inches long, divided into inch-wide segments all connected by a knobby series of bones. It was decent but not as good as the previous version. Next time we'll order the right one, and also reserve ahead of time to get the less-smoking room. We also had quite good eggplant topped with ground pork.

After dinner, while attempting to find a bus stop, we ended up walking down a large segment of Changle Road -- it seemed packed with high-end fashion boutiques, a street much like one would find in tribeca in NYC. We actually ended up walking most of the way to People's Square and spotted nice skyscrapers and the elevated highway, all lit impressively at night. The view looked more modern, indeed more futuristic, than views in, say, San Francisco.

One day, working from home in the afternoon, I ate lunch at one of the restaurants on Urumqi Road: Bo Do One - Hong-Kong Style Chinese Cuisine. There was a good chicken soup and a claypot dish. The claypot included rice and was topped with both bok choy and with pork pounded with preserved vegetables that were cooked into a stewy mass that, while connected, was easily separable by chopsticks. It was decent, and I liked the look of the menu enough to want to return, especially for a dish I saw delivered to another table. Di Yin asked what it was: quick-fried pork with cucumbers in XO sauce.

On Thanksgiving, incidentally, we had fowl (takeout goose and duck) and a variety of non-thanksgiving-y things. I did happen to notice (without looking) that a local fancy American (actually American South) restaurant had a thanksgiving spread, but at $65 USD per head it was too rich for my blood.

My second Saturday in town, we explored the area near our apartment in the opposite direction from Jing'an Temple. We found a large conflux of restaurants near the intersection of Yuqing Road and Guangyuan Road and tried one of them for lunch. We had a typical Shanghainese meal: xiao long bao, pure, warm river shrimp (the essence of shrimp), and sauteed pea sprouts. As it turned out, the restaurant's menu ranges widely, and many people online seem to like the fried whole spicy fish.

A block away, we looked through a supermarket, GMS, where I acquired organic beans, pesticide-free produce, and other ingredients I needed to make dinner that night. I also got some chewy rice cakes I'd never seen before and a zong zi, both for eventual use later. The first floor of the supermarket seemed to be filled mostly with nearly identical sweet shops. I wonder how that works. Are they all affiliated with the supermarket or simply renting? Incidentally, on the way home, we stopped by a green/wet market (lots of individual produce, seafood, and meat vendors under one roof) for Di Yin to grab the last few items I and she needed.

Sunday evening, we walked the thirty (or was it forty-five) minutes to the neon Jing'an Temple area for dinner at How Way Restaurant, a place that gets rave reviews on the Chinese equivalent of yelp. It was fairly good, comparable to other Shanghai restaurants we've selected. Perhaps the restaurant's most remarkable feature was its lack of smoke (good ventilation maybe). Of all the food outings I described, this is the only one I took pictures of (linked below). Details on the meal are in the picture captions.

Other Stories
At the end of November, I noticed workers cutting the leaves and small branches off the trees lining the street in our neighborhood. Di Yin tells me she heard that these trees aren't native to Shanghai and such trimming helps them survive the winter.

One evening we ventured out to buy a heater. Though the big box store we targeted had been relocated, the trip wasn't entirely without value -- we spotted a plaza (on Longwu Road) packed with sculptures. It was perhaps one of the most unusual or surreal sights I've found in Shanghai. I think it was the front grounds of a sculpture warehouse shop. Regardless, it would make a good site for a Game clue.

I noticed the most common two-wheeled vehicles on the street are electric bicycles and mopeds. (Contrast this with diesel motorbikes in India.) Rider-powered bikes and motorcycles are less common.

Chinese people can be very direct. (Note: although I say this, this is from second-hand stories. It's not something I recall experiencing directly.) For instance, when shopping for clothes, Di Yin was once told (in Chinese) that her shoulders were freakishly wide. Also, another friend (who is also very thin), when trying on a jacket that made her look fat (her description), said deprecatingly (something like) "Oh, maybe I may have putting on a little weight" to which the person helping her replied "Yes, you have." As a third example, at our local grocery store, Di Yin frequently gets told which items are good today and which items are not. (e.g., "the green beans and the broad beans are good today, but the long beans are not.") Neither I nor she ever gets such tips at grocery stores in the U.S.

As expected, some cultural differences can be frustrating such as the people who push ahead of you line or the tea that you get charged for that sometimes gets delivered unprompted at meals. However, the most egregious examples are often so preposterous they're funny:

One day after dinner we couldn't find the bus stop for the bus that would take us home nor did we want to make the trek to the subway. Instead, we took a taxi. The taxi driver dropped us off two blocks from our apartment with the remark, you're close; you can walk the rest of the way. Until this actually occurred, I couldn't imagine it happening anywhere in the world.

Another day we went to the local police station to register our presence as foreigners in the apartment we were renting. There, Di Yin and the clerk had the following conversation:

Do you have copies of your passports?
I was told that on Mondays through Thursdays that we don't need copies of our passports.
But it's noon.
[Actually, it was 1pm.]
[Also, the clerk may have said, "But it's lunchtime," rather than "But it's noon," but the sentiment is the same and exchange no more or less funny either way.]
I guess the clerk’s not supposed to use the photocopier during lunchtime or on Fridays? (She made an exception in our case.)

New York City Visits

From Tarrytown, I'd periodically travel to New York City. Manhattan hasn't changed since my previous trips. Both day and night, I like it and how it looks. The only thing that surprised me: I forgot how many street carts there are. Practically every corner in busy parts of the city has one.

This post describes some of these excursions to the city.

On Wednesday, October 22, 2009, I went to the city for a book talk by the authors of SuperFreakonomics (the sequel to Freakonomics). The discussion was okay. Watching the authors interact was revealing. It's neat to see and hear stories about how their relationship evolved from their initial dislike (Levitt to Dubner) and hands-off / object of study (Dubner to Levitt) to their current level of comfort. Sadly, the questions in the Q&A were remarkably poor in quality and as a whole I felt as if I might as well have skipped the show.

Before the book talk, I grabbed an unusual slice of pizza from Cafe Viva in the upper west side. It had sliced shiitake mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, roasted cloves of garlic, crumbled tofu (supposedly green tea and miso flavored), and pesto sauce on a spelt crust. The crust held up impressively against the weight of the toppings--no bending--, yet it was easy to chew. The slice was definitely good for that brief period when all the ingredients were hot.

My Lawyer Friend
On Friday, October 30, 2009, I attempted and failed and then attempted again and succeeded at meeting a lawyer friend and ex-roommate of mine, D. First, I tried meeting him at his office a bit north of Grand Central for lunch, but he got pulled into a last minute meeting and had to cancel. My journey there, however, was not entirely worthless: I passed an RV dedicated to doing mitzvahs. It was labeled a "mitzvah tank" and the people within asked everyone on the streets, myself included, "are you jewish?" I think central Manhattan, certainly including Midtown East, is probably a good place for this. I imagine they're likely to find a good number of lapsed or non-practicing jews.

In the evening, I met up with D at Astor Place in the East Village. The East Village is cool. D shares my love of unusual food, and he led us to Otafuku for take-out Japanese street food. We got Otafuku's specialties: okonomiyaki (a type of flat Japanese pancake) and takoyaki (octopus-filled pancake balls). We walked to his apartment at Stuyvesant Town (also in the East Village) to eat them. They were good. As for his apartment, it was exactly what I expected my former roommate to have (though with the shocking addition of suits). It's nice to feel like I still understand him.

On Halloween (Saturday, October 31, 2009), Di Yin and I returned to the city to meet up with my friends B and C. Di Yin took pictures on this outing. The link goes to the first picture she took this day. When you see a picture of her and Anwar (picture 94), you're done with the set of Halloween pictures.

We arrived in the city a couple hours before we were to meet them. Soon after leaving the train station we discovered a street fair on Madison Avenue. It was big: it started at 42nd Street and, when we turned around at 49th, looked like it continued for another couple of blocks.

The stands sold the usual street fair stuff. (I won't bother listing them here.) Regarding food, we saw lots of gyros (I guess this is New York's equivalent to the omnipresent meat-on-a-stick one sees at street fairs in California) and roasted corn on the cob, plus some more unusual items. Yona's Gourmet Delights sold borekas (a savory dish of phyllo dough filled with stuff, common in the eastern Mediterranean) and mini quiches. There were more vegetarian stands and smoothie stands than I'm used to seeing at street fairs. Also of note: the stand serving the usual street fair staple of kettle corn had a dozen flavors and offered free samples.

On our walk south from the festival, we saw one of the best Halloween costumes we'd saw see the whole day: four men dressed like ghost busters striding into the central New York Public Library. It looked exactly like the final scene in the movie Ghost Busters when the ghost busters enter the museum for the final showdown. Awesome! (Did the movie actually film the scene at the NYPL?) We followed them into the library so we could look at them more. Later, we got distracted and wandered through the library and looked at a few of its hallway exhibits.

As it got later and we walked to Chelsea, we saw lots of costumed trick-or-treaters, some going from shop to shop. It's good that even in Manhattan kids can go out trick-or-treating. It's also cool that some nice shops participated and gave out candy (though it was a little sad that many mis-planned and had to put up signs saying that they ran out of treats). Highlights included a girl dressed as a slice of watermelon and a whole family dressed as the flintstones.

Lucky for the trick-or-treaters, it only rained later in the evening after they'd all gone home.

Finally, Di Yin and I arrived at the Chelsea Market to meet B and C and explore it with them. The Chelsea Market is a former factory that's now been converted into an indoor shopping street for groceries and other foodstuffs. It's a fun place to wander and sample, with many interesting stores. Of note:

  • the dairy, Ronnymilk, that is in effect a "milk bar" and ice cream parlor, with a decor to match.
  • the bakery Amy's Breads with attractive breads.
  • a cupcake store that has cupcakes with artistic frosting, each cupcake unique. I, however, wouldn't eat any. (They didn't look like they tasted good.)
  • an amazingly huge fishmonger, misnamed The Lobster Place that, besides having a large selection of fish, has recipe tips for every fish. In addition, it also has an astonishing selection of smoked fish.
  • a large Italian market (perhaps Buon Italia) with its olives, oils, antipastos, and cheeses galore, and more.
  • another gourmet market that has James White drinks, which Di Yin and I had in London.
After exploring the market, we walked, dashed across the line of a Halloween parade route (an action that reminded me of the Chinatown scavenger hunt I always play in SF), took a subway, and were soon in Chinatown for dinner at a Vietnamese place. I had just okay fried soft-shell crab (for which the restaurant was supposedly famous) as well as shrimp on rice. After dinner, Di Yin and I split up with B and C and we each began our long journeys home.

It was an awkward evening (I'm not sure why), though I appreciated seeing my friends before heading to China.

Other Tales
Other times I'd occasionally have dinner in the city after work. One day we met a friend of Di Yin's in Flushing, Queens, for Korean food. We had a dumpling soup (the dumplings were good; the rest of the soup was not) and bulgogi (good) and some generally poor panchan / kimchi. Another day we met a friend of mine, B, for, oddly enough, Korean again, this time at Gahm Mi Oak in Manhattan's Koreatown. From its atypical menu, we ordered a meat soup (sul lang tang, which was remarkably boring), a ssam (a platter of ingredients to use to make pork-filled cabbage rolls), and Korean-style pancakes (good with the seafood sauce dip).

On Friday, October 24, 2009, I again ate in the city. I selected Cafe Asean because it has an intriging menu with many dishes similar to or clearly inspired by Singaporean hawker fare. It's a cute, lively place. My good duck roll was Chinese-style bbq duck wrapped (with other stuff) in rice paper to resemble a Vietnamese spring roll. The steamed mushroom dumplings, in contrast, were meh: the mushroom flavor was too assertive.

I took only three pictures over the course of my visits to New York. Only one bears a connection to any of the above stories.

Ogunquit (Maine)

On Monday, October 26, 2009, my parents and I went for a mid-afternoon walk in Ogunquit. I took pictures.

We walked a winding path along the rocky seashore, watched the waves break, and admired the wide Atlantic expanse. We also walked through the town. The town's a typical New England tourist town, a mix of restaurants, including three ice cream parlors, and shops, mostly selling shirts with funny messages or selling tourist memorabilia. It's a bit like Bar Harbor but more spread out and possibly smaller. (It's hard to estimate its size while accounting for its lower density.) There are few stores such as markets, hardware stores, that kind of stuff that sell things only locals need.

The approach to the town is typical for an impressive seaside town: we drove up a hill and, as we reached the crest, the ground dropped away so we were looking down the street through town right at the ocean's blue expanse.

Portland, Maine

On Sunday, October 25, 2009, after a late start (and a tasty breakfast of banana bread muffins and fruit), my parents and I drove up to Portland, Maine. It was a perfect time of year to be driving in this part of the country: the trees were a panoply/cacophony/explosion of colors. In addition, the weather was great: sunny and 60s.

My parents hurried me around Portland, proud to show me the highlights in a packed day trip during which I took these pictures.

Portland looks like a nice place. It has many attractive streets, a variety of different styles of houses, and lots of trees. Most buildings are brick.

[I apologize that the rest of this entry is in brief, telegraphic note form.]

We began by driving on Commercial Street through the Old Port, along the water, passing many interesting-looking, non-chain establishments. We also drove through the West End. Parking by the Old Port, walked around. We spotted a food specialty bookstore, Rabelais Books, which had goats out front. (The store was having a book signing for a woman who wrote a book about raising goats.) We also passed the store Condom Sense, which, by the way, is surprisingly large. It had penis- and breast-shaped pasta in the window.

After lunch, we drove to the East End and walked briefly along the bluff overlooking the water. It looks like a pretty place to run/walk/cycle.

Proceeding along, we headed to Fort Williams Park in South Portland. It's a large, stunning park along the ocean, with many distinctive sights (forts, lighthouses, ruined mansions, etc.). Its coast is pretty like Acadia, with good wave action.

On Shore Road near the park are many grand estates (you know they're estates because each has its own name), all with views of the water. (We could glimpse the ocean across the grounds.)

In late afternoon, we went to my parent's favorite bakery for rugelach, but it didn't have any this day. Instead, we had an okay madeleine (a spongy pastry that's like a light version of a pound cake). We then headed next door to explore a pretty good wine and beer shop.

On the way out of Portland, we drove through Portland's downtown (not the old part of town). It was a perfectly ordinary downtown for a city of this scale, with a decent variety of restaurants.

Drive North (New York to Maine)

We drove north from Tarrytown, NY through New Haven, CT to Kittery, ME on October 24, 2009. Gosh, the drive was pretty -- I can see why all the leaf-peepers emerge in late October to view the trees changing color. Sorry, I didn't manage to take any pictures from the road.

Here are notes on the meals we ate this day.

Visiting Maine

On Saturday, October 24, 2009, Di Yin and I drove up to Maine, and stayed there until Tuesday, October 27. I spent the time with my parents; Di Yin spent the days at Harvard for a conference. It was a typical family visit, with my parents complaining that I'm too skinny and trying to stuff me with food such as banana bread for breakfast.

I hadn't previously visited Maine much during the warmer months. On this trip, I took the opportunity to see Portland and some of my parents' favorite places.


I lived with Di Yin in Tarrytown, NY, in October 2009. Tarrytown is in Westchester County, the county just north of New York City. The area is commonly considered part of the Lower Hudson River valley.

I took some pictures of town that attempt to capture what life here was like. It's also described in more detail in the text below.

Di Yin, incidentally, also took pictures in Tarrytown. The link goes to the first in the album; when you see pictures of friends and I hiking (picture 21), you're done with the Tarrytown pictures. I'll link to the hiking pictures at an appropriate point later in this post.

Our Apartment
Our Tarrytown apartment, a walk up a serious hill from the train station, was one corner of an old Victorian mansion. It was a spacious one-bedroom with many windows opening into trees. The kitchen alone was probably 10' x 10'; the other rooms were larger. Besides the usual suspects (stove, oven, dishwasher), the kitchen had a crock pot and a top-notch toaster. The living room had a corner desk facing two windows, a large dining table, and a "day bed" (look up pictures on Google if you're confused). There were hardwood floors throughout. It was a nice place.

The apartment had numerous quirky decorations ranging from an attractive stick hanging suspended in mid-air above the desk, to models of industrial factories placed atop the kitchen cabinets. There were also more mundane yet nonetheless unusual items such as cactuses in the living room and kitchen, a large painting of a tree (on something like butcher paper!) taped to the wall above the bed, and funky lamps throughout. In further support of our subleaser's extensive interests, the contents of his bookcases were intellectual, sophisticated, and wide-ranging.

Tarrytown is located in the picturesque Lower Hudson River Valley. In fact, the street in front of our apartment has a good view of the Hudson (about half a mile distant). Perhaps this isn't as remarkable as it sounds -- Tarrytown is built on a hill rising up from the Hudson River, and most of downtown has pretty wide views of the river, which glows nicely near sunset. The street in front of our apartment is steep enough that on some mornings as I walked down it, I felt as if I could fall into the Hudson.

Incidentally, during the month I was there, the weather varied. Occasionally, days were cold and wet, with highs in the low 40s. A good number of days were warm and at least partially clear, with highs in the upper 60s, sometimes into the 70s.

Tarrytown has a cute, small downtown. Here are some examples of shops worth mentioning:

  • a local ice cream parlor, Main Street Sweets, that makes it own ice cream (many varieties), and has murals and fun signs on the walls (e.g., "$5 fine for whining"). This place has personality.
  • an intriguing, tiny, hole-in-the-wall, lunch-only shop, also with personality, called Lubins-n-Links that specializes in beef on buns (either slow-cooked brisket or hot dogs). They make lots of homemade toppings; these are supposedly the stars of the meal.
  • a gourmet food shop, Mint Premium Foods, that also has personality. It's an eclectic joint packed full of boxes and crates filled with high-end imported ingredients (cheeses, olive oils, vinegars, olives, chocolates, beers, and much, much more) piled high on top of each other. It's busy in the style of a knick-knack store, but not in a cluttered, disorganized way. Has a deli.
  • a large, quality wine shop, Grape Expectations, with an impressive selection and good descriptions of nearly every wine they carry.
There's also a number of relatively upscale restaurants (white tablecloths), including an Italian joint, two Portuguese joints, and many contemporary-cuisine restaurants, some of which look good. Less formal restaurants cover the range from Greek to Mexican to pizza shops to everyday diners.

On my first walk around town, I was amused to find two churches facing each other and, half a dozen blocks farther down, two funeral parlors facing each other. Incidentally, I was happy to find two supermarkets (though these were not facing each other) that, although not downtown proper, were nevertheless easily reached on foot.

I expected Tarrytown to be dead at night. I was very wrong: not only are there people on the streets, but it's lively. The music hall has shows most nights of the week.

Tarrytown's certainly suburban; it's mostly large, single-family houses. Some houses are so large, they're more properly called estates. We saw one with its own playground. A couple are old mansions, complete with grounds, and hence are even larger. (Tarrytown was a popular retreat for the super-rich a century ago, most notably Rockefeller.) Most of these are now used for receptions and conferences and are open to the public for a hefty fee. I didn't visit any.

Tarrytown is commuter town (evidenced by the perpetual traffic on the two-lane highway that runs through town), inhabited mainly by people who work elsewhere (i.e., New York City) but want to live in and raise their family in a suburban environment. Also, judging by the amount of scarecrows, pumpkins, and other halloween decorations, many houses have kids. (I later confirmed this hypothesis with census data, geek that I am.)

Later, in mid-October, even more scarecrows popped up! Every third street-lamp or parking meter had a scarecrow. Most had nametags. The fence--a type of old-fashioned split rail fence--in front of the library had one on each post. I imagine there must've been one scarecrow in town for each person in town. This town really knows how to go all out for holidays.

On warmer afternoons, I jogged through residential parts of town. On the bigger residential streets, there are no sidewalks. (Happily, cars are rare.) Also impeding running, as I said before, Tarrytown is hilly. At least once I had planned a route on Google Maps, started running, and approached a road and said, "There's no way I'm jogging up that." But yet again on the plus side for running, the town's reservoir has a trail (Old Saw Mill River Road) running along its side. The trail is a pretty tunnel of trees adjacent to a placid lake overlooked by colorful trees. At one point, the trail threads between the reservoir and a pond. I can see why many people choose to walk there just prior to sunset. Indeed, one day as I jogged past two women walking, one looked down the trail and said, "that would make a good picture."

I also found the nearby high school has large, forested grounds and a few cross-country trails, but I stopped running there after I got lost in the forest for over half an hour near sunset.

The commute to my company's offices in Manhattan took an hour and a half (assuming I caught the express train) because after I arrived in Manhattan I still had to take two subways. To avoid the lengthy journey, I often worked from home (three or four days a week).

Even though I tried not to need to take the train to New York City, I should mention the trip is pleasant. The train runs along the Hudson River for much of its length, then jogs along the Harlem River before diving underground into Manhattan. During the middle of the trip, the opposite side of the Hudson has cliffs that rise several hundred feet above the river. Colorful trees cover the bottom half of the cliffs and also serve as a multihued cap on top.

Farmers Markets
Early on during my stay in Tarrytown, I walked to the local Saturday morning Tarrytown Farmers Market. It's cute and small, with about a dozen booths including three bakeries and a cheese shop (which oddly appeared only once). This looks like the place to get good bread (muffins, sweet loafs, croissants, etc.). (There's no bakery in town.) One stand specializes in donuts! I ended up eating a variety of muffins and croissants from these stands over the course of the month. I think I tried a zucchini bread on this first visit.

One day I took the train to the Croton-on-Hudson Farmers Market. It was roughly the same size as Tarrytown's market and included many of the same vendors. I was only there for bread (got a baguette and some rolls), but got distracted and found a few other things to bring home. Most interestingly, I found a specialist pickle vendor, complete with barrels of different pickles and other pickled vegetables. I sampled his pickles and brought a container of half-sours home, with two three-quarters sours thrown in so Di Yin could get to try two varieties. (Interestingly, these pickles were kirby cucumbers, not the typical gherkins.) I also left the market with a loaf of sun-dried tomato, garlic, and basil sandwich bread (for lunches) (from a different bakery than the baguette), a pumpkin muffin (for breakfast) (from yet another bakery), and two different types of apples from a farmer who lives a mere 40 miles away.

Another weekend I returned to the Tarrytown market, this time with Di Yin. I might've gone a little overboard. From the booth with a dozen types of apples, I selected two. I also grabbed from them a container of apple cider donuts because they sounded intriguing. Elsewhere, I bought a cinnamon swirl from one of the bakeries. It was good and definitely better than I expected, and now I might be willing to try their croissants. (Cinnamon swirls are often made with the same dough.) At a different bakery, I picked up two muffins (blueberry, carrot) for later breakfasts. Finally, I bought an eggplant and a tomato (different stores once again--only one of the vendors who sold tomatoes had ones that smelled fresh/ripe). Incidentally, Di Yin also bought some items for our dinners and her lunches.

On my third weekend in Tarrytown, though we were to leave town at noon to start a road trip, I managed to sneak in another visit to the farmers market. Following my promising cinnamon swirl from the previous week, I bought a pain au chocolat from the same vendor.

Outing: Bear Mountain
One day, Di Yin and I met up with my friends B and C to go hiking in Bear Mountain State Park. It was beautiful, with stunning panoramic vistas about three-quarters of the way up. Leaves had just begun to change; I'm sure the views would really look amazing in a few days. We stopped to snack at a good viewpoint; Di Yin had brought fruit and B and C had brought neat baked goods from a Mexican market. From the top of the mountain, we took a different route down, a path that's actually part of the Appalachian Trail.

Di Yin took a good number of pictures on this outing; I took only three. The link to Di Yin's pictures goes to the first she took on Bear Mountain; when you see a picture of a street festival in New York City (picture 47), you're done. Stop. (I'll link to her New York City pictures in another post.)

After our hike, we wandered through a large festival (beer festival?) at the base of the mountain, then the four of us returned to home to Tarrytown where Di Yin cooked us all dinner.

Di Yin and I ate a few meals in town together. I also ate some alone. I won't bother describing any of these here. I do want to describe, however, some get togethers I had in town with friends and family.

One day, Di Yin's parents came up to Tarrytown for lunch. With a lobster. They cooked the lobster Chinese-style and served it with vegetables and a number of other (store bought) dishes they brought. Di Yin's parents are talkative, fun, and interesting, and we had a good time, topped by a walk along the Tarrytown reservoir.

The next day, my aunt and uncle came to visit. We went to Chiboust, a bistro with an eclectic menu. My quiche and salad were good, and my uncle was happy with his eggplant-compote pizza, but my aunt's scrambled eggs looked small and sad. The restaurant's bakery items looked cute! My uncle used to work in this area, so after lunch he took me on a nice tour of the vicinity, pointing out places he used to work, diners he used to frequent, and roads he used to travel. The only disappointment of this visit was the incessant rain, meaning I didn't get to walk along the reservoir with them as I did with Di Yin's parents the previous day.

During our last day in Tarrytown, Di Yin wanted to take a walk to photograph some sights. Along the way, we found an open house: a three bedroom house with a picture window of the Hudson running the width of the living room, and with an attached sunroom (enclosed patio) with similarly expansive views.


I spent most of October 2009 living in Tarrytown, New York. I detoured a bit before arriving in Tarrytown. This post describes the places I visited before settling into Tarrytown.

I flew into Boston on Friday, October 2, 2009, and got picked up by my parents and Di Yin, and we proceeded back to my parent's home in Maine. (Yes, oddly, Di Yin went up to visit my parents before I arrived.) Slightly hungry, and having not yet eaten dinner, my mom and I pulled together a dinner for me of a tuna sandwich (tuna+celery+mayo+tomato), pretzels, and tomatoes.

On a rainy Saturday, we emerged for lunch at Flatbread Pizza, a fun, quirky pizza joint in nearby Portsmouth, NH. I'd been there before and liked it. This time we had the "coevolution" (olives, rosemary, red onions, roasted peppers, goat cheese, mozzarella, garlic) with added (nitrate-free, my parents emphasize) pepperoni, the "carne special" (peppers, onions, sausage, and more), and the simple "jay's heart" (tomato sauce, mozzarella, and grana padano (a cheese like parmesan)). I enjoyed the simple pizza the most. Di Yin liked the pepperoni pizza, not for the pepperonis but for its rosemary and olives. My dad also liked that pizza quite a bit. Incidentally, as before, the pepperonis tasted more like sausage than most pepperonis do.

The afternoon was many intense hours of shopping for pants.

My mom's evening meal was pork ribs, pan-fried/sauteed potatoes, broiled asparagus, and brownies and ice cream. We had two decent drinks: a zinfandel and a beer (the latter being Fisherman's Brew by Cape Ann Brewing Company, I think).

On Sunday, Di Yin and I drove through early autumn foliage to Tarrytown, dropped off some stuff, and proceeded to Queens to meet her parents. They took us out to a tasty Chinese restaurant for a traditional peking duck feast. We had Shanghai-style smoked fish (which tasted much like sweetened spongy tofu one can find at many Chinese joints), jellyfish slivers (eh), a tasty fried lobster (whose meat was surprisingly easy to extract), peking duck wraps (which we assembled ourselves from the spread: wraps, sprouts, Chinese celery, hoisin sauce, duck meat, and duck skin), sauteed pea sprouts (good), sauteed bean sprouts with duck (okay), duck soup (good), plus a sweet sticky rice dessert (ba bao fan = eight treasures rice) with strange fillings (ginko nuts, unusual berries, etc.).

On Monday morning, I proceeded to work, found a seat on the tenth floor with pretty amazing views of Manhattan and the Hudson, and got some stuff done. Yay! Then I headed to my new home in Tarrytown, a trip made more appropriate by a detour to a grocery store on the way.

Interesting Articles: Q3 2009

* Rating Attractiveness: Consensus Among Men, Not Women, Study Finds (ScienceDaily). Interesting.
* Researchers: Social Security Numbers Can Be Guessed (Washington Post). More things that can be done with data. I'm not surprised. The government always told businesses never to use them as an identifier. Even worse:

Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego based nonprofit, cited another potential problem. She said many businesses have errantly rely upon or have moved to redact all but the last four digits of a person's SSN, the very digits that are most unique to an individual.

"Because of the way the SSN has been designed, asking for the last four numbers of the SSN puts people at risk because those are the only numbers that are unique to you and cannot be guessed easily by someone who might want to use your identity," Foley said.
* Covering Big Food (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). This interview with the producer/director of the movie Food, Inc. is disturbing. The filmmaker had to conquer a wall of silence and multiple legal threats. Listen to the interview to learn what he couldn't put in the film for fear of litigation.
* Hot! Hot! Hot! How Much Heat Can You Take? (NPR). Listen to the radio story. (Don't watch the video.) The human body can survive temperatures higher than the boiling point of water!
* Buybacks (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). Some news that I never heard about regarding companies (amazon, walmart) using DRM to revoke customers' rights to what they bought.
* A Fair Slice: New method makes for equitable eating (Science News via the Internet Archive). Interesting. The I-cut-you-choose method of splitting cake gives each person a piece they're happy with, but, due to differing tastes, both people might not be equally happy with their respective pieces. This new method solves that problem.
A longer article, Cutting a Pie Is No Piece of Cake (Science News's Math Trek), describes this in more depth and also covers the situation with round object (pie) and when there are more than two people involved. Or, if you're having trouble understanding the procedure, the simplest explanation is in How to Slice a Cake Fairly (Science News for Kids). Of course, if you're all over this procedure, you may want to dive more into it by reading a source article, Better Ways to Cut a Cake (Notices of the American Mathematical Society), about the procedure, its extensions, and even existence (or non-existence) proofs of procedures that have these properties in more complex settings. Another source article, more recent, Two-Person Pie-Cutting: The Fairest Cuts (College Mathematics Journal), develops a envy-free procedure for cutting round things (i.e., pies).

Camping in Yosemite

Di Yin and I went camping in Yosemite from Friday, September 25, 2009, through Sunday, September 27. The daytime weather was great--sunny and comfortably warm (70s)--where we hiked. I'm glad we didn't go to Yosemite Valley itself, as it was in the 90s over the weekend. The warm days made the cold night-time temperatures take us a bit by surprise.

I took only a few pictures, instead letting Di Yin take a good number. Her pictures record my memories of the trip. My main memory is the obvious: Yosemite is pretty.

After fighting Friday afternoon traffic (grrrr), we arrived too late on Friday to get a campsite in Tuolumne Meadows. Instead, we camped at Bridalveil Creek, south of Yosemite Valley itself.

On Saturday, we stuck with our plan to sightsee and hike near Tuolumne Meadows. (I'd never seen it before and so couldn't be persuaded to do something else.) We drove the 1.5 hours (at least) clear across the park to it, stopped by the visitor center, and decided to pass Tuolumne Meadows and instead hiked at the secluded Gaylor Lakes, within spitting distance of the far entrance to Yosemite. The lower Gaylor Lake was pretty, aquamarine, shallow, clear, and cold, and with a nice color gradient in the water near the shore. We also spotted funky fishermen, one of whom we talked to. We also hiked to the upper Gaylor Lake, found it similarly pretty, and contemplated hiking to an old mineshaft and abandoned buildings that some hikers who we met mentioned, but decided not to.

On the long drive back to our campsite, we stopped near Tuolumne Meadows to stroll near Tenaya Lake. We wanted to complete the drive across Yosemite in the daylight so, rather than do the 2.5 mile hike around the lake, we spent a bit less time and went wading. I was surprised to find the water was a comfortable temperature. Some currents were warm, some cold: how odd.

Oh, and of course we saw quite a bit of Tuolumne Meadows from the car as we drove past.

On Sunday, we did a short hike up to Sentinel Dome, then drove home early. The top of Sentinel Dome has an amazing panoramic view of Yosemite -- I think it's the best view and hike I've done in Yosemite. It reminded me of my religious experience at the top of a mountain in Spain.

When we drove out of Yosemite, we detoured to loop through the Yosemite Valley and stop at various pretty spots.

As when we camped at Acadia in Maine, we once again forgot a lantern. (Worse, we arrived after dark.) Luckily, I had a flashlight in the trunk, which helped us assemble our tent, but it's not so easy to sit down and have a comfortable meal together in the dark using a flashlight.

In brighter news (heh), we learned we can now start a fire easily, or so I thought when I wrote that in my notebook. Later I wrote "or not." The first few times we needed to start a fire went great, but the later attempts were more difficult. Maybe we need yet more practice. Incidentally, as in Maine, we didn't think of bringing firewood or kindling, but this turned out not to be a problem: we collected kindling on the ground, and Yosemite provided firewood.

For food, we brought the same easy-to-prepare foods that feel like camping to us: potatoes, mushrooms, and ham (roasted together in the fire), corn on the cob (similarly roasted), sandwiches (ham and cheese), and a variety of fruits (tomatoes, pears, apples, etc.). It's satisfying to prepare a simple meal over a fire.

Incidentally, unlike in Maine, we didn't have a mosquito problem (yay!), though we did have bees at breakfast.

Autumn Moon Festival and a farmers market

On Sunday, September 20, 2009, I returned to the city, again by train (though this time by BART). Though my main goal was a festival in Chinatown, I first stopped off at the city's main public library (by the civic center). I figured, if I can't find the books I want at an independent bookstore, and my local county library system doesn't have them, then at least I can get them from another county. Indeed, the San Francisco public library system seems to have a more extensive collection than San Mateo. At the library, I picked up a library card (yes, California residents outside the city can get a card), and checked out a number of books.

I left the library with my now-heavier backpack and immediately noticed a bunch of stands--I stumbled upon the "Heart of the City" farmers market (by the Civic Center). Though I didn't want anything, I knew I'd regret it if I didn't browse to see what it had. It's a large market, with many vegetable and fruit vendors--certainly more such vendors and with a wider variety than San Mateo's market. For instance, there were more types of apples and eggplants, plus date vendors with many types (San Mateo usually only has one date stand, which sells one type of date), plus many items that don't normally appear at my local market such as Thai chilies. The most interesting aspect of this market is that there were practically no prepared/cooked foods, not even a bakery.

Finally, my curiosity satisfied, I hiked to Chinatown for its Autumn Moon festival. It was a large, typical street festival. As such, it had the usual wide assortment of booths: community groups and government agencies doing outreach to this community, business sponsors (banks, insurance companies, Chinese magazines, etc.), art, crafts, knickknacks and low-end accessories (many Chinese), Chinese home decorations, DVDs, plants, and more. Some booths even sold electronic goods such as rice cookers. Incidentally, Safeway set up a large pavilion to give out free samples of items they carry. You should've seen the line for the ice cream bars.

Also, I was surprised to see a lot pre-packaged food for sale. Sure, I expected many booths selling high-end mooncakes in fancy boxes (tis the season), but there were many more baked goods and other packaged foods (e.g., noodles, tea leaves) and bottled drinks (e.g., green tea, aloe drinks) than I thought there'd be. In contrast, I was disappointed to find only two fresh food stands. (I guess being in Chinatown means there's food everywhere already.)

I counted four stages of entertainment, presenting (as least when I walked by): a solo of a traditional Chinese musical instrument, a Chinese opera, a Chinese orchestra, and something I don't know what was happening (there was talking, but it wasn't in English). There was also a small, decent photography exhibit, displaying photos of China and of California.

I then hiked to the Marina district to see a film at the Iranian film festival. An under-promoted festival, it only attracted members of the expatriate community--as I waited in line, I didn't hear any English. Indeed, judging by when people laughed, most weren't reading the English subtitles. Incidentally, there weren't more than four dozen people in attendance. The screening was held in a lecture hall on the Art Institute of San Francisco's campus. Though the room had a modest screen, it at least had comfortable chairs, and, as I discovered when I left, the campus has great views of San Francisco.

I took pictures of the festival and from the Art Institute.

North Beach Festival

After the South Beach festival, I took a bus to the Festa Coloniale Italiana festival in North Beach. I got off the bus a stop early to visit the City Lights Bookstore. (When I have a book in mind, I go out of my way to try to find it at and buy it from a local, independent bookstore whenever possible.)

I took a few pictures at the festival.

At first I was disappointed with the festival, noticing only half a dozen crafts booths and four food booths: olive oil, vinegar, salami, and drinks. No hot food. Then I discovered the inside of the Italian Athletic Club, and found a pretty impressive video, projected in a large screen, showing a close fly-over of Italy (Sicily in particular). Returning outside, I realized the stand labeled salami actually sold hot food. However, the only items it had that weren't sold out didn't interest me (meatball sandwiches, sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, and penne pasta bolognese with tomato sauce). Picking up a festival brochure outside, I realized that there were multiple floors inside the athletic club. Returning again inside, I discovered that a cooking demonstration was just starting. The young chef was entertaining, telling stories of his grandmother's advice and his kitchen misadventures, and the meal he made was easy, healthy, and delicious. The demonstration alone made the visit to the festival worthwhile.

Not in the mood to eat the festival's food for dinner, and because the temperature dropped a bit, and because the park (Washington Square Park) isn't quite a cozy as South Park, and because I was feeling a little tired, I grabbed the bus back to the caltrain station and returned home.

South Beach Festival

On the first Saturday back in California post-London, a typically beautiful California day, after a morning trip to the farmers market, I took the train to San Francisco for the South Beach/Mission Bay/SOMA festival. It was a small festival, with a handful of arts and jewelry booths, a couple community groups, and a good number of food booths (mostly from fancy restaurants located in the neighborhood). Lots of alcohol in various forms was available. The festival was held in South Park, a pretty, narrow park with a good balance of trees, grass, a playground, and picnic tables. (I know that makes it sound rather ordinary but it's heads above any park in San Jose with similar amenities.)

I assembled a tasty lunch from the various stands and hung out for a while sitting on the grass in the sun.

Here are pictures from this excursion.

London: Sep 13: Going Home

I returned to the bay area on an early morning flight on Sunday, September 13, 2009. It was wonderfully easy to go through all the airport lines when at the airport at dawn. The cross-Atlantic flight was cold, making it hard to sleep, but otherwise fine and unremarkable.

I transferred in Houston and was interested to see they're now using a surface scan (something like light x-rays) in security to look for concealed weapons. They have you strike a pose (no, not any pose), they take a scan, and then they have you stand aside for a minute until the remote room that examines the scan radios back to say it's clean.

London: Sep 12: Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, and more

On my last full day in London, I took only a few pictures. This blog entry describes the day much more than the pictures do. Di Yin also took some pictures, though hers don't cover the day any better. That link goes to her first picture from this day. The rest of the album is from this day. If you're in slideshow mode and see pictures of Oxford, you've cycled back to the beginning of the album and are seeing pictures I already linked to.

After a lazy morning, Di Yin and I took the bus to Putney Bridge, then took a long ride on a double-decker bus to Piccadilly Circus. We sat on the second level in the front and enjoyed the great panoramic views.

Once in Piccadilly Circus, we stopped by the Japan Centre supermarket. It has wide selection of Japanese products, including a huge amount of pre-packed sushi.

Piccadilly Circus is a crowded shopping area. After walking around, I guessed I was wrong when I said Oxford Street was London's main shopping street. But, however, we walked the dozen blocks to Oxford Street and, upon arrival, I decided that, nope, I wasn't wrong: Oxford Street is bigger, denser, and more crowded.

Incidentally, we stopped by Piccadilly Market, an outdoor street market, where I almost bought a hat. I ended up buying one in a department store later the same day.

On Oxford Street, we stopped by an ultra-hip ice cream shop in the basement of one of London's famous department stores, Selfridges. (Note: it has since moved.) The ice cream shop was painted black and had lighting like a nightclub. It even had a loud, live rock band and two black-shirted bouncers at the door. Though it may still be in its promotional period (it opened two days prior), I can't imagine how it would make a profit.

After a bit more shopping, we left the beaten path. Because we were in the vicinity of one of the guidebook's walking tours that I hadn't yet done, we did part of it before taking the tube to dinner. The neighborhood we walked around was just east of Edgeware Road. Once off Oxford Street and into this residential neighborhood, the area was fairly nice. We saw a number of cute mews and green squares.

On a tip, we had dinner at a Persian restaurant, Mohsen, in Kensington. (Wow, a Persian place that's not on Edgeware Road.) It was decent. We then took the slow route home, riding a double-decker once again.

In the evening we listened to parts of the BBC Proms' Last Night. I'm amused that my last night in England aligned with the last night of the proms. The BBC Proms is a summer concert series known for, on its last night, playing nationalistic music and getting a bit rowdy. This year's last night was as off-beat as in past years (which I watched earlier on video).

London: Sep 11: St. James

On my last Friday in the city, September 11, 2009, I left work at noon. I'd intended to efficiently do a walk, grab lunch, and do another walk before returning to work. But plans change. My first walk brought me through the expensive neighborhood called St. James and its neighboring park, St. James's Park, which I'd visited previously. It was just as beautiful on this visit. Because I was enjoying my stroll through the park and the attractive, elaborate buildings in the neighborhood, dodging well-dressed people much of the way, I walked leisurely. By the time I finished my walk, it was later than I expected and I was famished. I also felt fulfilled, not feeling the need to cram in more sightseeing after lunch. After all, it was such a pleasant stroll, why should I stress myself by trying to run around a lot more before returning to work?

For lunch, I took the tube up to Selfridges, an enormous high-end department store, for a taste of a salt beef sandwich, Britain's version of the American-Jewish corned beef sandwich. On the way, I had to walk (fortunately briefly) down Oxford Street, which, judging by the crowds, the shopping bags, and the storefronts, is London's main shopping street. (It made me think of Singapore's Orchard Road.)

Here are the pictures from my walk and lunch.

London: Sep 10: Shakespeare, Southwark, and more

On Thursday, September 10, 2009, Di Yin and I had tickets for the afternoon performance of As You Like It at the reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Leaving work before lunch, I decided to spend two hours walking around this neighborhood (Southwark), a neighborhood I'd visited previously for Borough Market. Indeed, this was the main reason I decided to do a walk in an area I've already somewhat explored--as an excuse to be in the area for lunch at Borough Market. (I was elated when I realized the market is open on Thursdays.)

I took pictures along this outing.

Southwark is definitely an area that, when most of the buildings were built, was not inhabited by the wealthy. Indeed, centuries ago, it used to be tenements. It has the feel of a place that used to house the down and out.

Within Southwark, I visited the Southwark Cathedral, which is rightly called a cathedral. It's fairly impressive. It has monuments and stained glass that are as nice as the ones at St. Paul's. It has lots of memorials, somewhere between the density of St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, though it's smaller than both. I could've taken pictures if I bought a permit, but decided not to. (I figured if I made it through St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey without pictures, taking pictures of this less impressive sight might blur my memories of all three.) Also, Southwark Cathedral provided a handy walking guide and occasional plaques too, a nice touch.

I ate lunch in Borough Market, which had fewer shops open and was less crazy than on Saturdays, but certainly had more than enough shops open to be interesting.

I met Di Yin at the reconstructed Globe Theatre. It was made with traditional materials and even used the building techniques from the time. Neat! This also meant the theatre's design is unlike most modern theatres -- the audience is arranged into rings that go 180 degrees around the stage. The inner ring is for standing people; the outer, for sitting ones. The rings are about equally sized, meaning about half the audience is standing. This, combined with the small size of the theatre, gave the show a very lively feel; the audience seemed more engaged with the show than most plays I've attended. Indeed, sometimes it felt as if the audience were part of the show as the actors walked among them to get on and off the stage and even acted parts of scenes on the grounds in front of the stage. The crowds parted as necessary. (This is probably why if you buy tickets for the standing section, you're not allowed to sit down. Ushers will remind you of the rules if you do.)

Di Yin and I thought it'd be uncomfortable to stand for several hours, so we bought seated tickets. This may not have been much better, as the (bench) seats were very tough and our butts ached by the end. Ah, one downside of old-fashioned theatre design.

As for the play itself, As You Like It, I hadn't seen or read it previously. I thought the story was decent, though parts of it felt like mere ploys and some characters felt superfluous. Think romantic comedy that's not particularly tightly plotted. I enjoyed the play: the acting was good, and the actors even danced in the last act. The themes include how quickly one's perceived social status can change, the foibles of love, and the freedom of speech.

From the extensive playbill I learned some interesting things about how Shakespeare wrote. For instance, I learned that he wrote As You Like It partially to exercise the abilities of a new actor in his company, Robert Armin, who specialized in playing fools, after his last leading fool, William Kemp, moved on. I'd never previously thought of Shakespeare as having particular actors in mind for his roles while writing his plays, though in retrospect it should've been obvious. I also learned that As You Like It's style is partially a response to a recent change in the theatrical experience: some newly-opened acting companies in London used choir boys as actors and included much singing in their performances. Presumably in reaction, Shakespeare made As You Like It have more boy actors and more songs than any of his other plays. In these ways, though the plays are timeless, they do reflect the local milieu.

We decided not to allocate time or money to tour The Globe's exhibition on Shakespeare or to tour the theatre's backstage.

After the play, we walked across Millennium Bridge to get to the tube. I returned to work.

Later, we grabbed dinner at a place near work that I'd been eying: Wilton Cafe, labeled as Turkish Pide Salon. Its menu includes pide (basically boat-shaped Turkish pizza), lahmacun (round Turkish pizza), and gözleme (gozleme) (Turkish crepes). Pides are hard to find and the others even harder. We talked to the chef about what to order, and he made it fresh. :) The pide I had was pleasing but not great.

On the way home, Di Yin convinced me to ride a double-decker bus for a couple stops (before we needed to get off to get on our regular single-decker which plies the route to our street). To think I've been in London for more than a month without riding one of these. It was great! I can certainly see the appeal of those sight-seeing buses. Through the huge, bubbly windows, we could look down on everything, and across to second-story windows. There's even a roller-coaster aspect to the ride: getting tossed around a bit (especially when on the stairs) when the bus turns, wondering what'll happen as we rapidly approach a bulldozer parked in our lane, and seeing people running across the road where the bus is about to go.

Oxford (Sep 9)

I took a holiday on Wednesday, September 9, 2009, to go with Di Yin to Oxford.

I'll start with the obvious about Oxford because it's true: Oxford's a small, picturesque, university town. The highlights from my visit aren't any particular sights but rather two vistas: one, the architecturally interesting buildings and cobblestone streets that make up downtown Oxford/the university (these two things are intermeshed) (especially as seen from atop the central church's spire); and two, the peaceful, pretty paths along the canals. I was surprised to find the latter so notable, as no guidebook I had mentioned them.

When I say Oxford is small, I mean it. Though the university has 18k people, the town is still tiny. I can easily imagine seeing and knowing every street and most buildings, shops, and restaurants before too long. Di Yin told me of a friend who went to Oxford and complained that she'd gotten stir-crazy after a couple of years because she knew everything about the town and was getting bored of it. I certainly felt like I'd gotten the full flavor of Oxford within five hours of wandering.

Oxford's size and flatness lends itself to bicycle riding -- I saw a good number of bicycles.

Oxford University is composed of several dozen individual colleges, the first few established in the twelfth century. These colleges are densely packed throughout town. My viewing of them was rather haphazard -- I'm sure I missed some famous ones. They are like walled compounds, though attractive walled compounds with ornate medieval buildings and always with a perfect quad of grass within (usually multiple quads). I took pictures from the doorway of a few that were closed to visitors, though stopped once I realized the colleges' interiors all looked roughly the same. Later, I managed to find a college that was open to visitors and free, walked around inside, and decided the impression I got from peeking in the doorways and from viewing the exterior buildings was just about accurate. Also, as implied by guidebooks and by the sight of all the spires, most colleges have their own chapels. If the one I visited is representative, they're as nice as the town's main church (which is quite well done).

Over the course of the day, through guidebooks and museum exhibits, I learned a good deal about Oxford, including how much it had discriminated over the years. Here's a timeline I put together:

  • the twelfth century (roughly): Oxford University founded.
  • 1856: Jews allowed to enroll.
  • 1877: Lecturers (all male) allowed to marry.
  • 1878: Women allowed to attend classes.
  • 1920: Women allowed to be granted degrees.
  • 1948: First female full professor.
The Day
It was a beautiful, comfortable, sunny day. That meant I got some good landscape shots, but also had trouble with too much contrast in my smaller-scope shots (or they just ended up overexposed). Here are the day's many pictures. Di Yin also took some pictures. That link goes to the first picture in her set. In her set, when you see pictures from a double-decker bus (picture 23), you're done with her pictures of Oxford. The rest of the pictures are from another day; I'll link to it at the appropriate time.

We got to Oxford by bus from London. When the view wasn't blocked by trees, we often saw wide-open fields and pastures and sometimes even a herd of sheep or cows. I wasn't fast enough to get a picture of these. While they may not match the views from the train in Scotland, the sights were nonetheless nice to watch out the window.

We arrived in Oxford and quickly stumbled on an open-air market (the Gloucester Green Market), which sells a wide selection of goods ranging from clothes to books to nuts to dairy to produce. I then dragged Di Yin around to some relatively famous places mentioned in my guidebook, before letting her bring me to the "Covered Market". Although not a particularly attractive space, the stores within are neat. Most have character. Besides a number of delis (each with a different atmosphere), there are cute pastry shops, meat shops, a barber shop, a shop with funny shirts, and more.

We then walked up and down Cornmarket Street, Oxford's main pedestrianized street and probably one of the first streets created in the town. A bustling street (at least in the daytime--it was much quieter in the evening), it's filled mostly with chain stores, bank outposts, and fast-food restaurants.

Di Yin split for her meeting, and I returned to the covered market for lunch. Realizing I hadn't eaten enough meat pies when in London, I selected Pieminister, a mini-chain meat-pie company with about a dozen locations in England (the number depends on whether you count farmers markets or not), including one in London's Borough Market. I had a reasonable meat pie, surprisingly non-heavy despite containing beef.

First thing after lunch, I explored the Museum of the History of Science. This two- or three-room museum is packed with instruments, dials, microscopes, telescopes, quadrants, astrolabes, globes, gauges, sundials (even portable ones--think about that), and calculating devices. Though accompanied by descriptions of what each items does and when, where, and for whom it was created, there wasn't much about how the design of the instruments changed over time or about how the invention of or improvement of the devices changed science and our understanding of the world. In short, it's a fine museum, if limited in scope.

Next I walked down Oxford's High Street, stopping in Oxford University Press to browse its intellectual titles, including its series of Very Short Introductions to any subject, which cover topics ranging from anarchism to witchcraft to english literature to kant to nothing.

I also stopped by University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin (a.k.a. Saint Mary's), which I explored and where I climbed the tower's tight, dangerously slippery stone steps. From the tower, there are terrific views of Oxford! Incidentally, it's a good thing there were alcoves along the stairs (with slits for archers), or else people would not be able to pass each other going up and down.

After the church, I walked east, seeing the sights on the way to the River Cherwell, then came back along a different path to see more colleges and back lanes. Merton College, one of Oxford's oldest, was actually open to visitors, so I got to explore its estate.

Returning to Cornmarket Street, I rejoined Di Yin, and we proceeded to stroll through the Museum of Oxford. Although not large by any means, I'm reluctant to call it small. It's a respectable museum, well-laid out and with clearly written signs. I learned some neat facts. For instance, I learned that bread bowls are a modern version of medieval trenchers: an often square piece of stale bread used as a serving dish or a plate. The bread is later given to dogs or the poor. I also learned that, for a time, the Jews in England were considered private property of the king.

From there, we walked through town, a large field (Port Meadow), and down a river/canal. I was amazed to find nature so close to the center of town. Along the river, we stopped and ate a snack of blueberries that we brought with us: good eating a nice setting. :)

Despite the sun, it was cold near the river, and we walked back to town without much dilly-dally-ing.

We looked around for dinner and, finding the covered market closed, eventually decided on a restaurant with the neat name of Nosebag. The food turned out to be mediocre.

Before catching the bus back to London, we stopped by G&D's, Oxford's local specialty ice cream shop. It has three locations and apparently many devoted fans. We were, however, too full for dessert, though the ice cream looked good and interesting.

Before concluding this post, I should apologize to the people who recommended that I go punting on the river: I'm sorry; I didn't have time.

London: Sep 8: St. Paul's Cathedral, British Museum, and more

On Tuesday, I met a friend of mine, J, for lunch and to explore St. Paul's Cathedral.

We met at The Wine Tun, where we sat and ate in the sun. I had a fine open-faced portobello sandwich, topped with a fried egg. Eating in the sun was nice, as the day had perfect weather -- definitely one of the nicest days I've had in London, on par with bank holiday weather.

St. Paul's Cathedral is majestic. Designed by Christopher Wren, it's an elaborate, ornate, baroque building rightly called a masterpiece.

Sorry, like Westminster Abbey, photography wasn't allowed inside. I did, however, take pictures outside and during the rest of the day.

The interior layout is spare and open. It's the flourishes on the arches and the columns that make it special. Indeed, there's something ineffable about the interior architecture, something that makes me agree with the quote that the design shows "mastery of space and light."

The ceiling has beautiful frescoes and mosaics, though they're perhaps a little more decadent, more glittery, than I prefer. I really liked the sepia-toned old stone feel of the dome's fresco by Sir James Thornhill.

Monuments are sparsely placed around the periphery of the cathedral -- nothing like the overwhelming density of Westminster Abbey. There are pretty metal screens by Jean Tijou placed near the high alter, and many mosaics throughout. Unobtrusive / well-integrated grills are placed in the floor; they provide central heating.

J and I climbed to the Whispering Gallery, which gave us an amazing view of the interior and the paintings. Ceiling painters should not be afraid of heights! I think the cathedral's design, with different inner and outer domes, is an elegant solution to making the cathedral look good inside and out.

We climbed higher, to the Stone Gallery, which is outside the dome (but at its level), for a nice panoramic view of London, and higher still to the Golden Gallery (above the dome), which had an equally good view. The latter gallery was smaller and therefore more crowded, but, on the positive side, the view is less obstructed by railings.

In the crypt, which is not overfilled as in Westminster Abbey, I found tombs of Wren, Turner, and Lawrence of Arabia, among others.

After St. Paul's, J had to leave, and I took the tube to do a walk and finish exploring the British Museum on the way. First I walked through the well-used park named Lincoln's Inn Fields, through the cute and quiet Lincoln Inn (a small enclosed district used by lawyers) with a prettier green space, and through Gray's Inn, which has a similarly nice "garden"-park but has much more boring architecture than Lincoln's Inn. After passing Bloomsbury Square Gardens park, which only appeared nice from a distance, I was at my second major destination for the day.

Once in the British Museum, I breezed my way through an exhibit on coins and the remaining exhibits on Greece, Rome, Etrusca, and Cyprus. I particularly enjoyed the room devoted to Greek and Roman life; it has many interesting panels (along with appropriate objects) on aspects of life ranging from children, games, and medicine, to armor, chariot-racing, and wrestling. I wish I'd scheduled my afternoon to allow myself time to read all the text in this gallery.

I walked more, passing the nice Queen Square park (well, nice after one ignores the flowerbeds, which could use more attention), the still very nice Russell Square Garden park, and the Woburn Square Garden park. I also walked by some University College London buildings, including the Greek-style main building. There were many people in graduation caps and gowns running around. It's a decently nice campus for a city university. Finally, I took the tube back to work, returning much later than I'd hoped.

During the day, I passed a couple of supposedly-noteworthy museums but decided to skip them all. Given how beautiful the day was, I wanted to spend as much time outside as I could.

London: Sep 7: V&A Museum Part 3

I finally finished seeing the V&A Museum on Monday, September 7, 2009. (I'd visited twice before: first time, second time.) It's still eclectic. I browsed the wing on 20th-century design movements (arts and crafts, exoticism, new design, etc.). These movements were displayed through furniture, kitchenware, electronics, posters, and more (basically anything). Likewise, when I discovered the museum had lots more British galleries that I didn't see in earlier visits, I concluded that it seemed to have everything made in Britain in the 1760s-1900s: a wide assortment of objects. I also browsed this day exhibits on tapestries, embroidery, carpets, and other textiles, and on metalwork.

Some particular exhibits struck me:

  • In one room, I discovered micro-mosaics. (I hadn't previous known about them.) I like them.
  • There was a neat exhibit of old locks and keys from the early days of locksmiths.
  • I liked the interesting small display about how to identify fake antiques.
  • There was a decent exhibit on architecture, with many models.
  • The densely-packed, information-filled room about glass and how glassware and glass art have changed over time was just as incredibly detailed as the jewelry display I saw during my last visit.
I took pictures on my trip.

London: Sep 6: Smithfields and Vicinity

I spent Sunday, September 6, 2009, doing walks from my walking guidebook. Though overcast, it cleared up for brief periods in the afternoon.

For lunch, I bought another sandwich from my local French deli, Chanteroy, in Southfields, carrying it with me until I was ready to eat.

I first did a walk that took me through Clerkenwell, a neighborhood north of Smithfields. I call it a neighborhood for a reason: it feels like a place people live who want to live in a city but don't want all the city action. This isn't a tourist destination. In fact, it's not listed in my regular guidebook. The buildings are functional, ordinary, though there are a few historic ones scattered around. The whole area was very quiet; I'm not sure whether it's because it was a Sunday or, as I'd like to ascribe, because it's a quiet type of community, not on any regular trail that brings visitors to the area.

The next walk brought me through Smithfields into the area south of it. The following walks comprehensively criss-crossed the part of London's financial district ("The City") around St. Paul's Cathedral (which I held off on visiting, saving for a later day). Except for tourists around the cathedral, this area was similarly quiet as Clerkenwell, but had a different feel: this district felt quiet not because the residents are quiet but because the district's primarily a business one. Not many people live there; hence, it's relatively depopulated on a Sunday and everything was closed.

From these pictures I took this day, it may seem as if I went out of my way to visit churches. I did not--it's just that there are an astounding number of churches in the areas I walked through this day.

In the evening, I met Di Yin for dinner in Tooting, an Indian neighborhood south of London. We've been to Tooting before, but didn't get a chance to explore due to the rain. This day, we walked up and down its largest street, examining its markets, glancing at its mosque, and inspecting its restaurants. The neighborhood felt urban. I don't think I'd feel comfortable there at night. In contrast, the town where I'm staying, Southfields, is suburban. Incidentally, they're an equal distance from London. Nor does Tooting have a (non-cemetery) open green area nearby, like Southfield's nearby Wimbledon Commons.

London: Sep 5: Borough Market, The City, and Covent Garden

On Saturday, after going running in the morning, we returned to Borough Market for lunch (previous visits: 1, 2). We got there by taking the tube to Wimbledon to the NLR (national rail) to London Bridge/Borough Market. On the way, we passed cute houses, but I wasn't fast enough with my camera to photograph them. I did, however, take a smattering pictures later in the day. It began as a beautiful day, then got cloudy.

Borough Market was crowded--more crowded than we hoped--, perhaps because we arrived later than we intended. We had lunch there, then walked north and followed one of my walking tour book's routes exploring part of the neighborhood known as The City. (I'd previously explored other parts of it.)

We continued onto another route, which was mostly a walking tour of the neighborhood around Covent Garden. With the same bustling quality as Leicester Square, Covent Garden is another large, outdoor, pedestrianized shopping area. Restaurants line the nearby streets. The whole larger area is also mostly car-less like Leicester Square. There are a lot of theatres, dance companies, and an opera house in the area. This is to be expected, as Covent Garden is located within the larger district known as the West End, which is the entertainment centre in London.

Near Convent Garden, we also walked through Victoria Embankment Gardens, passing its many monuments and sculptures.

At home, I had a special meal in the evening.

London: Sep 4: The Inns of Court and Vicinity

On Friday, September 4, 2010, a friend and former housemate of mine, J, came by for lunch and a tour of work. We then explored The Inns of Court, so called "legal London". The Inns are associations of lawyers (well, technically barristers) in London; each has a compound with offices, a restaurant, a library, etc. We visited the four Inns (Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Gray's inn, Lincoln's Inn); they're all in central London and all many centuries old. Because of the way they're designed, they feel secluded and quiet. We also looked at the streets nearby, and got reminded that the architect Christopher Wren did a lot.

Because I spent the time catching up with J, I didn't take many notes. J knows a lot of history and especially symbolism; she was a good person to explore a historic section of London with. She told me that British letterboxes are annotated with who was the monarch at the time. (Note: most of the things she told me were interesting, less-well-known facts than that; that fact isn't a good example of what I meant by my sentence about J's knowledge.)

I took a handful of pictures on this trip.

London: Sep 3: V&A Museum Part 2

On Thursday, September 3, 2009, I re-visited the V&A Museum in a failed attempt to finish seeing it (first visit).

I took another batch of pictures this trip.

I realized while walking through the museum this time that silver is another emphasis of the museum. It didn't occur to me before because I was thinking about types of art, not the material with which it was made.

This day, I browsed sculptures, cabinets (I liked the 17th century European ones), jewelry boxes (these were intricately carved and richly detailed), gold table pieces (precisely crafted), religious ornaments (plates, lamps, crosses, etc.), and paintings (nothing remarkable), most from the early days of the museum (the 19th century). I also visited the densely-packed exhibit of jewelry, showing century by century and country by country how jewelry has evolved over the last two thousand years. (Yes, the exhibit is as extensive as I make it sound.) Finally, the last exhibit I visited before I ran out of time was the exhibit on theater. It includes not only costumes and advertising posters but also interesting items one wouldn't expect: old account ledgers and cue books.

The museum's age and historical significance shows. For instance, the museum has a small photography exhibit displaying, among other things, photographs shown in the museum in 1858 as part of the world's first museum-held photograph exhibit. I'm also amused that the museum is so old that the mid-19th-century frescoes it had installed are now appropriate to display as historic work.

London: Sep 2: Tate Britain Part 2

On Wednesday, September 2, 2009, I left work intending to go to the V&A Museum but realized on the way there that I forgot my camera and so redirected myself to the Tate Britain (which prohibits photography, so my lack of a camera wasn't a negative). I finished exploring the Tate Britain this day (see earlier visit), completing the section on historic British art and going through the sections on modern and contemporary British art and, the part of the Tate Britain that I was most looking forward to, the Turner Galleries.

The Turner Galleries were pretty good. Although (not surprisingly) I didn't see anything I liked better than the paintings I know and love by him--those paintings I love are great and famous for a reason--, I enjoyed seeing the breadth of his work. He painted a variety of subjects I wasn't aware of, including scenes of the Thames, paintings of scenes from mythical stories, paintings of people (sometimes even large groups of them), and paintings of Italian landscapes. I noticed he painted buildings well. (I never knew.) In particular, I like his paintings of Venice, both his unfinished atmospheric ones and his finished, detailed ones of canals, boats, and buildings.

I also learned about Turner's technique, how his palette evolved over his lifetime, and what colors he selected for various countries he visited. I even learned he did watercolors in his early days (and saw some of them). In addition, one room showed how black and white prints of his paintings were distributed. (They didn't have copy machines at the time, let alone color ones.) I learned how closely Turner worked with etchers, artists in themselves in the same way that translators are, and the kind of feedback he gave them. He did his own etchings at times, although rarely; I saw one of his etchings and compared it with the ones etchers did with his guidance. In all, the visit to the galleries was mighty educational.

I enjoyed reading the story about Turner on the day he finishes his paintings (read the first paragraph). On so-called "vanishing day", Turner implicitly challenges and out-shines (figuratively and literally) the other painters.

Within the Turner galleries, I particularly liked the following:

I have these comments about other places/pieces in the museum:For dinner, Di Yin and I went to Tooting, one of London's many Indian neighborhoods. It happens to be not far from our apartment (20 minutes by bus). We got to explore a bit of it, but the rain made us want to pick a restaurant quickly and we ended up in Lahore Karahi, the first bustling place we saw. I took pictures.

London: Sep 1: The East End and the West End (inc. National Gallery Part 2)

Beigels & Vicinity
I spent the morning following a guidebook's walking tour in the vicinity of the East End around Brick Lane, taking these pictures on the way. They document the sites much better than this blog post. My main excuse for doing this tour was to visit a particular bagel shop for breakfast. The tour was only okay for three reasons: I'd already seen most of the area before, the architecture is low-end and bland, and the tour's historical emphasis was on Jack the Ripper (whose story I don't care about).

First, I stopped by Beigel Bake, this time to actually try some bagels. (I saw it once before with Di Yin, but we weren't hungry then.) I had one with butter and one with cream cheese and lox. They were okay bagels: better than supermarket bagels but not as good as New York bagels. I'm not sure what was wrong with them -- perhaps not enough bite to the crust? I wouldn't buy them again.

On my route around Brick Lane, I stopped by Spitalfields, which was setting up for a clothing and accessories market. Soon after, on Wentworth Street, I found another fashion market, or it could just be that all the shops on the street were placing their racks outside.

The National Gallery & Theatre District
In late afternoon, I left work to explore the area of the West End around Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and Chinatown, with a stop by the National Gallery to see what I missed on my last visit. This area includes much of London's theatre district, though the district covers a wider area than I explored this day. By the way, the West End is east of Buckingham Palace and where I work, so I have trouble with the name.

While wandering the West End, I took pictures. Again, these pictures describe more sights than I'm writing about here. This area is definitely a much nicer part of town than the East End. I like the liveliness of the area, and that there are few roads crossing the district to interfere with strolling.

As for Chinatown, in particular, it's no bigger than I previously thought (a couple of blocks). Still, it's not quite as bad as my previous impressions: I saw people behind windows rolling noodles and steaming dumplings.

As I mentioned, I stopped by the National Gallery. Here are my notes:

  • I breezed through 13th-15th century paintings because religious art generally doesn't interest me (and many paintings had such themes), and because a good fraction of these paintings don't include perspective and I thus had trouble finding them attractive.
  • Carlo Crivelli, a 15th century painter, paints religious scenes with naturalistic details. He uses vivid paints and does a good job with depth.
  • I wanted to photograph one painting because of its elaborate frame: rose vines surrounded the painting and were elevated above the frame itself. It was no mean feat to remove that extra underlying wood.
  • I took longer in the wing of the 17th century paintings because they varied much more in subject and look than the 13th-15th century wing. Incidentally, the 17th century wing's emphasis was on Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Rubens.
  • I like Richard Wilson's landscapes, especially A view of Holt Bridge on the River Dee.
  • Claude Gellée (a.k.a. Claude Lorrain) was the model for / precursor of many later landscape painters I like.
  • I definitely liked the Flemish painting Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures (circa 1620). A painting of paintings, it reminded me of two similar works I saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: 1, 2.
  • Hendrick van Steenwyck (the Younger) made good paintings of attractive architecture.