Wednesday, February 12, 2014

When I was 21, it was a very good year

The fibreglass jockeys weren't standing sentry on West 52nd Street last night, as I approached the iconic 21 Club.  For the briefest of moments, I was worried the place had closed and was annoyed at myself for not checking earlier.  But on closer inspection, I realised that the owners must care about the welfare of the famous jockeys as much as locals do, particularly in the cold weather and heavy snow.  Because sure enough, as I got up to the front door, I was almost eye-to-eye with the smiling jockey figures, lined up in their stripey outfits on the other side of the wrought-iron fence.  All was right with the world once more.

The last time I came to this gorgeous Club I was with Mum & Dad.  Was that really in 2011?  Time sure has flown.  Last night, I was on my own (at least initially), and I extricated my work pants from inside my rubber snow boots as I chatted amiably to the doorman outside.  Once indoors, the silver-haired maitre d' welcomed me to the Club, helped me check my coat, and ushered me to the front bar and onto a lofty, red leather-clad barstool.

To my left, a pair of young businessmen, engaged in some sort of friendly but pointed one-upmanship.  Their dirty martinis sat largely untouched.  Pity.

To my right, an affable old gent wearing a cravat.  Or was it an ascot?  Do I even know the difference?  No matter his neckwear, the man stood at the bar, slowly working his way through a dozen natural oysters washed down with an ice-cold beer.  The barmen bantered with the old man every time they wandered past him; the old man's eyes twinkling under bushy eyebrows.  It was clear he was enjoying himself a good deal.

The bar menu at the 21 Club lends itself to repeat visits.  There are so many tempting options - not just for beverages, but for tasty snacks to pair with them.  For my pre-theatre beverage I chose a glass of Sancerre, which turned out to be a very tasty option. 

As I sipped my drink and tried not to look alone, I watched the old man out the corner of my eye.  He wasn't like the businessmen that surrounded him - bantering loudly with other patrons, and back-slapping one other in an over-zealous (and decidedly fake) manner.  Instead he savoured his oysters and beer quietly, waiting patiently for the barmen to return so he could trade zingers with them.  That the old man remained standing suggested to me that he was just pit-stopping, not making a night of things.  A bit of nourishment for the stomach and the soul, before returning home for the evening.  I approved.

Then the loud ladies from Chicago wandered in, and the mood of the bar changed.  The slimey businesmen down the end surrendered two seats for them.  Gallant, perhaps - or not.  Obligingly the ladies smiled and fluttered their eyelids, calling the young barmen by name and coyly seeking suggestions for wine ("sweet, but not too sweet, you know").  Such a familiar pantomime - everyone played their parts beautifully.

Depositing the twelfth empty oyster shell back on its plate, the old man drained his beer and paid his bill.  "Be careful now, and watch out for this one," he said.

"Do you mean him or me?" I asked, gesturing to the barman.

"Both.  You're young rascals, I can tell" he replied, and winked at me on his way out the door.

Takes one to know one, I'll wager.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

A grape-filled getaway

When Westo, Kitty, Sharlo and I set off on our road trip on Friday evening, the storm was coming in and a steady rain had already started to fall.  And what should have been a 2 hour drive to Cutchogue on the North Fork of Long Island turned into a nearly 4-hour crawl.  Through what became rather torrential rain, we limped into town and onto the gravelly driveway of this adorable home.  Naturally given the weather, the darkness, and our collective state of mind, we couldn't fully appreciate the beauty of this place until the next morning but still, we enjoyed some wine, pizza, and salad before turning in and sleeping like the dead.

When Saturday morning arrived, it had taken Friday's awful weather with it and in its place, we had blue sky and sunshine.  I was as happy as a clam, though not quite sure what to do with so much living space.  Flat floors!  An island kitchen!  Comfy couches!  It was all so new, yet so familiar at the same time!

Spacious kitchen!

Super comfy couches!
A lovely place to dine!

We sat on rocking chairs on the porch and contemplated heading out for breakfast.  The rental house kitchen had a coffee maker but no coffee (tragedy), so I was pretty much ready to plunge caffeine straight into my vein when about 90 minutes later, we pulled into the neighbouring town of Mattituck.

We'd chosen to have breakfast at a delightful little place called Love Lane Kitchen, by all accounts a very popular spot for weekend breakfasts, and favourably-reviewed online.  Their coffee certainly hit the spot and given that we were facing a day of grape grazing along the North Fork vineyards, I fortified my stomach with a delicious Breakfast Bowl - roasted potatoes, topped with pepperjack cheese, two poached eggs, guacamole, and spicy salsa.  Plus a side of bacon, because I was being serious about this.  So delicious and really hearty.  Just the ticket.  After breakfast we took a stroll up the Main Street and we did a quick lap around the Bookhampton store, where I was very pleased to pick up the new Dan Brown book in hardcover.

By the time we got home and pulled into our driveway, Driver Dennis was waiting for us. Sharlo had been clever enough to book Driver Dennis to take us around to wineries for a few hours on Saturday afternoon.  Dennis had recently retired after 33 years teaching elementary school in the area.  We got the impression that he knew pretty much everyone in town.  So we piled into Driver Dennis' big car and off we went to take full advantage of his local knowledge and sobriety.

Our first stop was Bedell and it was a very impressive winery.  See how impressed we look?

Me, Westo, Kitty, and Sharlo holding up Bedell's Bar
The tasting menu was about $20 each I think, but the guy taking care of us let us have a freebie taste of the merlot that they served at President Obama's inauguration (or a similar vintage anyway).  I liked it very much, but I didn't buy it.  I did join their wine club though, and walked away with $60 worth of wine for about $25.  I was pretty happy with that, and we set ourselves a cracking pace.

The next stop was Lenz, not too far down the road.  This time at the cellar door we were taken care of by a rather young man in a tight white tshirt.  I can't remember what wines we had, even at the time.  I believe he described some of them as masculine, and others as androgynous - which was unusual.  But we listened intently, quaffed eagerly, and walked out with several more bottles under our arms.  Again, very proud.

I think at this point, Driver Dennis was starting to wonder what he'd gotten himself into.  We were not raucous by any means, but we certainly did our bit for the Long Island economy.

Pulling into Osprey's Dominion, I remember thinking it was a very majestic name and promised great things.  Sadly we were a little let down.  In contrast to the other wineries we'd visited, where we had individual attention and were steered through the tasting menus, this time we were pretty much left to our own devices. And no good can come of that, surely!  Kitty and I took quite a shine to some spiced wine, admittedly a bizarre choice for summery weather, but we resolved to buy a bottle each, and keep it for Thanksgiving.  I also bought a bottle of their Meritage, though in the absence of tasting notes I just remember I liked it but have no idea why.

Given that the place didn't kick goals as we'd hoped it would, we wanted to find another place that would love us like the others.  Driver Dennis knew what to do and put his foot to the floor, stopping only when he got us safely to Sparkling Pointe, a winery celebrated for its bubbly goodness.  The tasting room was bright, spacious, and spotless.  It led us out onto a decking area overlooking the vineyards and in the afternoon sunshine, we were terribly happy.  The afternoon had been redeemed.  We sat outdoors and enjoyed a bubbly tasting menu each, accompanied by some delicious local goat cheese, served on a frosted slate slab, so the cheese wouldn't melt.  Ingenious.  Again, we walked out with yet more bottles clinking.

Originally we'd wanted Driver Dennis to take us to one last winery for the day, but by this point in the afternoon we were pretty much done.  So instead, we asked Driver Dennis to take us back to our rented house and there we zonked out for a couple of hours.

Fresh from our nap, we all rallied and headed out to dinner at Touch of Venice, a very cute little Italian restaurant nearby.  None of us could quite face wine with our meal, so it was cocktails and coffee alongside.  Still an excellent combination and we were well fed.  Sleepytime came shortly after though, no question about it!

By Sunday morning, I could feel the heat in the air and again, the sky was clear and blue.  Cutchogue is a very peaceful place - the sounds of nature.  No jackhammers, no car different to our normal habitat!

We cleaned up the house, piled all our suitcases and wines into the car, and we set off for home.  But on the way, we stopped off to visit the town of Greenport.  The houses, churches, shops (many of which were 'shoppes') were just gorgeous.  The residents are terribly house-proud and all the gardens are well-kept, with green lawns, healthy trees, and flourishing flowerbeds as far as the eye can see.  And Greenport makes lovely use of its waterfront location - as we found out during lunch at Claudio's Clam Bar.  I couldn't resist the cajun shrimp to start and the lobster roll for my main course.  All washed down with a crisp, ice-cold beer.  And the breeze coming off the water just added to the easy-going atmosphere.

Our commute back to Manhattan was very smooth - and probably only took us the two-and-a-bit hours it was supposed to.  I had made a playlist for our journey. I thought that 180+ songs was probably a bit excessive, but nobody seemed to mind and it was fun to rock out to songs we all knew well, with no lost radio stations or DJ chatter in between.

I had such a wonderful time this weekend, getting away from it all and relaxing with Westo, Sharlo, and Kitty.  I think we travelled so well and I hope this is just the first of many mini-breaks together.  We will all probably need this week to detox, but then we'll be back in fine form and can do it all again another day.

Friday, May 17, 2013

How's the serenity?

If it were up to me, this is the position in which I would spend my entire life Bangkok holiday.  But there comes a point when you have to agree with Ferris Bueller and accept that "life moves pretty fast.  If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it".

And so it was that I booked myself on a private, half-day tour of Bangkok today.  I wasn't stupid about it though because I chose a company that would pick me up at my hotel, in an air-conditioned car, and shuttle me around, not requiring me to wait in any lines at temples and attractions.  Gold star for preparation.

When I came downstairs for breakfast it was already 4,000 degrees Celcius and about the same percentage humidity.  Continuing my theme of inappropriate dressing, I was wearing a black flowing skirt, and a hot pink tshirt.  Naturally when I entered the hotel restaurant this morning, there was about 30 Thai tour guides there too - all wearing hot pink tshirts, and either black skirts or pants.  Tremendously awkward. I piled up my plate with dragon fruit, papaya, watermelon and pineapple (all of which I have come to adore here) and I chose a quiet seat off to the side, to feast.

At 8:00am, my tour guide showed up.  A friendly, smiling lady of about 50 years of age, she showed me out to the car, driven by a younger guy of about 30 (her son, maybe?), and for a nanosecond I wondered if I should have told someone where I was going today.  Would I ever be seen again?  Would Liam Neeson come to save me?

But as the car door slammed, I realised it was too late to turn back and so I just settled in for the ride.  You can see a brief collection of my tour photos here.  Here's a heads up: I'm not actually in any of these photos.  I figure if you can imagine a fat, sweaty, red-faced swamp monster, you don't need a photo of one.

Our first stop was Wat Pho, a Buddhist temple and home to the truly impressive Reclining Buddha.  My guide (whose name I forgot almost the instant that she introduced herself) talked briefly about Buddha, and showed me statues of his different attitudes (see a description of them here).   I didn't know it at the time, but I was born on a Thursday, so if I were Buddhist I could offer particular prayers to the Meditating Buddha (Paang Nung Samadhi).  The description of my Thursday Buddha is:
Paang Nung Samadhi in a sitting pose is a reminder of the classic posture for meditation. The full lotus with both soles upward and visible, the hands resting in the lap, right above left with all fingers extended, palms upward. In this position, some meditators feel the body is receptive to energy entering through the top of the head and through the open palms.
You definitely need to look up your Buddha now.  And at Wat Pho, when you place your lit incense in front of your particular Buddha, and you offer up your prayers and bow three times, you then get to place three little pieces of gold leaf on the statue.  You can just put the gold leaf anywhere, or you can place it on the parts of the Buddha that correspond to any aches or pains you might be feeling.  Given the heat and humidity, I put my bits of gold leaf on the Buddha's forehead and eyes.  Once inside the temple, I was struck by the majesty of the Reclining Buddha, whose photo you can see at the top here.  The soles of his feet are inlaid with intricate carvings and mother of pearl.  Beautiful.  Oh and incidentally, Wat Pho is also known as the birthplace of Thai massage, and they offer a 7-day massage course here.  Even in the name of research I refused to slacken my no-touch policy, so if you want to know more about the touchy-feely stuff, you'll have to come to Bangkok yourself.

Back in the car, with the blessed air-con blasting, we defied death in Bangkok traffic and my guide pointed out Ministry buildings, Royal memorabilia, and various relics of old-school Thailand.

Before long we pulled up at The Grand Palace, which was built in 1782 and is not just a royal residence but also the site for the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  We spent much of our time walking around the exterior of the Palace and looking at the mural panels that depict the Ramayana, an epic that tells the story of Rama (an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu), whose wife Sita is abducted by Ravan, the king of what is now Sri Lanka.  The mural panels are all hand-painted and the imaginative characters, both human and mythical, explore human values, moral transformation, and universal harmony.  Yes, I read the pamphlet.

Back in the car, my guide asked if I wanted to go to buy some jewelry or get some clothes made.  I declined both offers, but she said it was good to relax and not be so rushed all the time. And so I found myself being stalked by a jewelry wholesaler, and a tailor wielding a tape measure and six pattern books, and I was getting more huffy by the minute.  This was not the tour I'd signed up for.  When I laid down the law with the shop owners, and told them I was not interested in shopping today, they all but threw me out of their stores.  It was pretty impressive.  But my guide quickly got the picture that I was not likely to be the very embodiment of serenity any time soon, and we set off again.

Our final stop was Sukhothai Traimit, or the Temple of the Golden Buddha, in Bangkok's Chinatown district.  You have to be a bit of a mountain goat to get to the top of the Temple - the steep steps out the front bake in the hot Bangkok sun.  Fortunately my tour guide bribed the security guard, who let us use the elevator.  I am not sure what the Buddha says about bribery.  Perhaps in 4,000 degree heat and humidity, even he can look the other way.  In any case, I had recovered from my huffiness and unwelcome jewelry/clothing side trip and happily rode the elevator to the top floor.   Before us serenely sat the world's largest Golden Buddha.  At 15 feet high and 12.5 feet in diameter, the statue weighs 5.5 tons and is over 700 years old.  It actually used to be covered in plaster, and the precious gold underneath was only discovered during building renovations when the outer plaster was chipped.  Classic!

It was actually really relaxing being in the final temple of the day but by the time we left and started weaving back to the hotel through stop-start traffic, it was almost 1pm and I was pretty much done.  The tour guide shared the back seat with me on the way back to the hotel and even though I liked her, I still half expected her to chloroform me.  Maybe I should stop watching movies.

When we got back to the hotel and I paid for the tour (plus a little extra), and I was really glad that I made the effort to get out and about today.  Plus I know that a lion (singha) is a good luck animal in Thailand, so I will enjoy the namesake beer all the more.  Now that's my kind of afternoon serenity.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Getting to know you, getting to feel free and easy

I've just finished a day and half of a big meeting at the UN Conference Centre in Bangkok.  As we were pulling into the driveway on Day 1, I panicked when I realised I hadn't brought my UN pass from New York with me.  Then just as quickly, I remembered I was actually here as a visitor, not as a staff member - and relief washed over me.  The Conference Centre was pretty quiet too; a distinct change from the bustling UN Headquarters building I've come to know well.  Sure there is plenty of traffic around the building outside, but then again there's plenty of traffic everywhere here.

My meeting was hosted by the Royal Thai Government and UN Economic & Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), with some support from our Government and from the World Bank.   I met some really lovely people over these last couple of days, and I got to work with a girl from our office who is based in Cambodia and who is so much fun.  She has been to a lot of UNESCAP meetings before and they run slightly differently to the ones I've attended in New York, so I relied on her expertise and pretty much rode her coat tails for two days.  I don't think she minded though, particularly not when I volunteered to draft the official report of our visit.  I figured that was only fair.

I am quite enjoying the hospitality of our hotel too - we're at The Royal Princess which is a terribly apt name, given the standard of accommodation I like.  The other meeting delegates are also staying here because we managed to get a group booking, and it's only about 10 minutes drive from the UN building so it is very convenient.  The buffet breakfast has been really nice too.  I didn't think I'd get organised enough to have time for breakfast every day (since I can never seem to manage it in New York), but I've been quite good at that too.  In fact, I have been awake at around 5am each morning, well before my alarm. It was just anxiety I guess.  Now that the meeting is over I'm sure I'll sleep like a baby, but I can't get too comfy because I'm doing tourist things all day Friday, and early Saturday morning, before my flight back to NYC on Saturday evening. No rest for the wicked.

Mind you, I almost didn't make it that far this afternoon.  I thought it would be good to find a Diet Coke salesman somewhere close to the hotel.  I can get Diet Coke in the hotel bar, but I just thought it might be good to get some fresh air or society, and go for a bit of a walk.  That said, there isn't much around here to see, and all the street signs are in Thai, which hardly helps.  But late the other day, I did spot a 711 around the corner from the hotel, and I knew they'd be able to hook me up with some fizzy goodness.

I made my way to the pedestrian crossing and waited.  And I waited.  I could see the 711 from where i stood.  It was so close, so tantalizingly close.  And yet, the traffic refused to stop for me.    There were short lulls in traffic where I could have made it at least halfway across the road, but I didn't have a hope in Hades of getting the full way over.  All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a Thai man appeared and reached into a bucket hanging off the street light pole next to me.  He pulled out a piece of wood with a coloured flag on the end.  He held the flag aloft with one hand and gingerly stepped out into traffic, daring the tuk-tuks and motorbikes to run him down.  With his back to the traffic, he reached out his other arm to me and began beckoning me across the street.  Nothing got lost in translation as I shuffled across the road spluttering praises at my hero.  When we were safely across, my traffic monitor neatly deposited the traffic flag in an empty bucket attached to the street light pole.  He put his hands together in a prayer position and bowed deeply to me.  I was too busy thanking effusively and clumsily that I neglected to return the gesture.  And before I could remedy it, he was gone.

Four cans of Diet Coke successfully purchased, I made my way back to the pedestrian crossing to return to the hotel.  Fortunately I could see a lady across the street, getting ready to march across the road.  She was clutching a coloured flag on a stick, waving it badly (and somewhat threateningly) at the cars as they sped by, so I knew she was well-versed in how to navigate busy Bangkok streets.  I waited until she had begun to forge a way across and I shuffled over with her.  Admittedly I did nearly get cleaned up by a rogue tuk-tuk, and then again by an ambulance coming the other direcction, but those near-misses were just that.

Safe in the air-conditioned comfort of my room, Diet Coke cans chilling in the minibar, I am a happy girl.  An early night ahead, and looking forward to my private half-day tour of Bangkok tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tropical discomfort

Jetlag woke me up at 4am and I immediately regretted not bringing my melatonin tablets to Bangkok with me.  I don't even remember how I found out about those magic pills, but they work wonders to counter the tossing-and-turning effects of jetlag and lull you back into a non-habit-forming dreamland.   Since I had neglected to pack them, I got myself out of bed and played around online for a while, before fatigue got the better of me and I crawled back into bed for a few more hours.  I got up in time for a conference call with work and then pulled myself together in time for breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

I seriously did not pack properly for this trip.  For one thing, it is so oppressively hot and humid here.  I think part of me always knew this would be the case, but I just didn't pack well enough for it.  For instance, why the hell didn't I bring any summer dresses with me?  And why did I think work pants and a Gap tank top would look good on me, after nearly 5 months of frigid New York temperatures?!  I should have faked tanned.

Let's face it, the Thai women who work in this hotel are stunning.  They have model-like bodies and their skin and hair don't show any signs of living in a humid environment.  How do they do this?!  How can I ride the elevator six floors to the lobby and look like I've crawled out of a South American jungle?!  There is no justice.  And the hotel staff are so lovely.  Their English is about as good as my Thai, but we are making do with hand gestures and lots of smiling.

My hotel is lovely though and I uploaded a couple of photos here (more to come).  The hotel pool looks great but of course I did not bring my bathers.  I haven't put them on in several years and I never even seriously considered packing them anyway.  I have a red two-piece bikini and even typing that made me laugh out loud.  Then again, the pool also has some closed-in cabanas, and a poolside snack and cocktail menu.  Now that's what I call incentives!

For the rest of today though I'm going to be preparing for the next two days of meetings.  My job is to write Australia's report of this meeting, and while that's a big responsibility for me, I fortunately have a couple of people on standby to proof-read it before it gets submitted.  It does of course mean I have to pay close attention and capture all the pertinent things that get discussed over the next two days.  Let's hope the Conference rooms air conditioner is fully operational, and we can find a Diet Coke vending machine before things get underway.  More news to follow.