Monday, November 1, 2010

Please move on over to where I'll be blogging from now on.

Hello blog readers,

In all liklihood, you are my friend and thus already know that I've finally launched Virtual GDBK (that's a "guidebook" for the new world) and won't be updating this site anymore. This blog was always intended to get me used to internet publishing while developing my own, awesome, much-more-complicated travel guide site. i.e., Virtual GDBK. Head over there for my personal recommendations on what to do it 10 cities (with more coming soon), plus listings guides for those cities, recommended blogs, English-language media guides and much, much more.

Here's a sneak peek:

Hope to see you over there!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

America's Least-Known Small Art Town

Vision, love, commitment, personal passion... these are the qualities necessary to create something truly great.

Even the great group projects—the Internet springs to mind—rely fundamentally on the love and passion and personal commitment of individuals, just, lots and lots of them all tuned to the same spiritual channel. Anytime I stumble across something wonderful, it has been made by an individual, and reflects that person's priorities instead of those of the market, and I'm grateful for it.

This leads me to my favorite small museum in America, the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA.

Icons, for those who don't know, are Russian religious art, usually painted by anonymous artists on wood panels and used to give orthodox churches their eerie every-surface-painted beauty. You know those onion domes you see in photos of Moscow? The inside of the dome is usually painted with eyes and a face, representing God looking down. Ceilings, walls, etc. are all hung with icons depicting religious stories. The gleaming, dark-painted, cyrillic-emblazed, gilded panels are also used in orthodox homes, where there will be a spiritual "icon corner." And they're given as gifts for important life events such as the birth of a child, in that case, it would be an icon representing the child's name-saint.

Like most religious art, with icons, god is in the details. You need quite a bit of cultural context and narrative to understand and appreciate a panel, and this has always been a problem with how icons are displayed in Russia. I've seen several wonderous collections that are either not explained, or explained by guides with poor English and a grasp only of tourist cliches and apocryphal anecdotes. Under those circumstances, once you've seen a few icons, you've seen them all.

Well, enter the newish Museum of Russian Icons in the sleepy country town of Clinton, Mass. This is a beautiful small museum in a renovated mill building, staffed by amazing docents who hop up and start chatting with you when you enter the room. The museum is enhanced by every modern art educational tool—video, audio, etc. Individual magnifying glasses are mounted with each artwork, allowing the viewer to peer at every tiny jewel-like detail. And unlike every museum I've been to showing icons in Russia, the work here is properly lit.

The project is the idee fixe of a local entrepreneur, who started collecting icons in the 90s, when
Russia was in disarray. This is stuff that definitely wouldn't be allowed out of the country now—that it ever made it across the borders is controversial, and upsetting to Russian art lovers. The entrepreneur is from Clinton, made his icon-collecting money in manufacturing in Clinton, and decided to give back to the town with the museum, despite the fact that this is an utterly weird place to have such an esoteric collection, the largest and best outside of Russia, and the best-presented of anywhere on earth.

I think it's a must-see daytrip for anyone visiting Boston, or in the Boston area. The little town also has a good Italian restaurant and some fun thrift-shopping, if you're into that.

Here's me and Ada here over the winter:

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Clubs and bars in St. Petersburg, Russia

Every time I've gone to St. Petersburg, I've been frustrated by how difficult it is to find good places to go out at night. It's one of those towns that you know has a cool scene. Russian-language reviews mention tantalizing items such as "the fashion of minimal techno and rowdy parties in teahouses on Nevsky. " But such things are almost entirely hidden from tourists. The following list includes a few places I've been myself, and a few that sound good from their listings on trusted Russian-language sources. As usual with things Russian, the websites/ phone answering is slim, and hopefuls will have to make do with optimism and an address. I plan to make it to St. Petersburg this summer, and will be able to make this entry more reliable, but in the meantime, this info will still be better than anything else online in English on the St. Petersburg nightlife scene. If you know to the contrary, please comment (below).


12 Sadovaya St, +7 812 925 40 o0
A cafe during the day and possibly a glamtrash bar at night. From the restaurant group that does Mari Vanna in NYC, London and Moscow, as well as many other cool, nouveau-tasteful places in St. Petersburg.

Chinese Pilot (Kitaiskii Lotchik)

7 Pestelya, +7 812 273 74 87
I'm assuming this is a St. Petersburg venture from the owners of Chinese Pilot in Moscow. The Moscow version, way back in the day, was opened by one of the managers of the original Krisis Genre and is still going strong as a music venue, cheap restaurant and late-night drinking venue with a young, bohemian clientele. St. Petersburg version looks to be cut from the same cloth.

Druzhba ("Friendship")

39 Ligovsky Prospekt
Tiny and very cool DJ bar with chilled-out music and backgammon that recently appeared in a cellar under an art gallery. Also serves crispy waffles with condensed milk.

Efir (Ether)

Small Ave. PS 54-56, Friday and Sat only
A big, splashy new venture by many pedigreed Petersburg nightlife folks. Techno music and a kitchen concept—cheap Chinese-inspired— that hopefully is better than it sounds. Translation of Afisha review here.

Et Cetera

9 Belinkskovo; +7 904 551 00 25
Nice design, seems to be affiliated with an experimental theater and may have interesting cultural events.
Translation of Afisha review here.

Fish Fabrique

53 Ligovsky Prospect
The first bar-club in the city, famously located in a squat and to this day a mix of students, local intelligentsia come for the concerts and exhibitions, and tourists. Divey with cheap food.

Club Griboeydov
2a Voronedzhskaya; +7 812 764 43 55
Another very old, casual, underground club and music venue. Listing at the moment is for an acoustic jazz jam.

22-24 Fontanka Embankment, in the courtyard; +7 812 275 05 20
Russia's violence and homophobia makes any openly gay person or venture an act of resistance. I'm always both nervous and thrilled to see one, especially one with a great name like this. Papa Protif could be roughly translated into 'father is against it.' There maybe be a sexier play like there would be in english with 'daddy against,' or I may be stretching it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Two Perfect Meals and one Disappointment, NYC: Omen, Red Hook Ballfields, Sripraphai

Well, I had a near trifecta of perfect meals this weekend, starting on Friday night when meeting Ivan for dinner in Soho.

Soho is not a location I'd ordinarily seek out, but we were going to a party later at 60 Thompson. The problem is that the restaurants haven't changed much since the '90s, when I worked in the neighborhood and got sick of every-thing. Stumped, I checked Salmaland, but didn't find a suggestion right for the moment. Finally I remembered Omen, a place I used to frequent with a friend in yes, the 90s, but always loved. And man, it has only gotten better. The sushi was of higher quality than any I've eaten in NYC in recent memory, including Blue Ribbon, Nobu, Japonica and 15 East. And Omen isn't really even a sushi restaurant, it's a Japanese restaurant that has sushi among a menu of other options. We ordered a tempura and a mushroom and vegetable dish, both of which were divine. The vegetables, served warmish in a puddle of mild broth, were the kind of vegetables like my Canadian friend Jason Logan made one night at a dinner party and I've never forgotten, vegetables more like vegetable-shaped jewels. Vegetables with dense or rich or creamy textures like no vegetable you've ever eaten. Like some elaborate hoax where the vegetable has been sculpted out of hot custard. But no, they are just vegetables, cooked in secret Canadian or Japanese ways.

Omen is also nice because it's a small restaurant with a beautiful interior brick wall and exposed shelving holding an eclectic collection of pretty little Japanese dishes, deployed with flair for matching the food. And the clientele is romantic and subdued in an old New York, almost Woody Allen way. Loved it.

The second stellar success was the Red Hook Ballfields, about which so much ink has been spilled, I need not add any more. Latin American food carts out every Saturday in the summer with the stuffed-tortilla papusas from El Salvador, tacos, slathered-and-spiced grilled corn, horchata, sickly sweet aqua fresca, etc. A great summer day trek from Ikea or pre-Fairway. Probably because I live in Red Hook, I've been less than a convert to this phenomenon. It's way hot over there and the lines are long. However, this weekend, I became a true believer. The lines weren't that bad, and the papusas from the Salvadorian cart were the world's most perfect marriage of flaky-light tortilla, shredded meat and gooey cheese. Also, my picky little papoosa ate an entire one, and was begging for more.

The disappointment was Sripraphai, another super-cult New York place, this time for Thai, and buried deep in Queens. Ivan and I go here pretty regularly, and for a while I have been contending that it doesn't live up to the hype. Yes, it is better than most NYC Thai restaurants. They load on the chilies in real Thai-style, salads have that stinky fish-sauce funk, meats are battened in sugar.... But, it's still restaurant Thai, that is, junky, somehow unwholesome Thai. We are spoiled because we are better Thai cooks than you'd find in any restaurant. But we don't think this restaurant is really worth the long subway ride out to Queens.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Natura Korean Spa L.A., even more of that West Coast decadence, great massage

Visiting my friends in L.A. is visiting my alternative, better life. In this sunnier existence, it's all about spa-going and parties and shopping and cooking and drinking, and all my friends are lesbians in the film industry or sex educators. To me, this is heaven. In my L.A. home-away-from-home, there is a Meyer Lemon tree in the back yard and a peach tree in the front. And people are inclined to take the day off work, just to hang out with me.

Like, Friday, LD and I went to the Natura Spa which is her favorite Korean spa. She likes it primarily because it has a mugwort bath of the right, hot-but-not-too-scalding temperature, and because most of the clientele is Korean. (Funny: we were surrounded by a group of three Korean women around our age at one point, who were speaking in English about breast-feeding and co-sleeping, and I was like, ha, conversation the same across all cultures!) I love Natura too. It's big, totally clean, gives you free admission when you order a spa treatment (we do scrub and massage), and has a wonderful dry sauna, an aromatic steam room, a large hot pool, the mugwort and an icy plunge pool. There's also a radiant heat floor in the chill out room where people take naps after, or sip hot or iced barley tea. Delicious.

Mugwort, by the way, is supposedly good for the menstrual cycle and uterus, eases aches and pains, and has benefits to digestion.

The scrub, which I highly recommend, is effected on a blue-vinyl table in a room off the main area, by a one of a fleet of Korean women in their black bra and underwear and is excruciatingly painful and takes off probably a pound of skin. It's a mystery to me how something so rough and agonizing can also put a person to sleep, but that's always the end result for me. It's like being intensely beaten into relaxation, which as a New Yorker, I need.

The massages, in these places, are not usually the most trained, but this weekend I had a life-changing one (ask for Jenny). Also heard a woman in the locker room talking about how determined her masseuse had been to get out her knots.

So, that's one of the secrets of my L.A. The spa is in Korea town and makes a good segue into Korean dinner at one of the cool BYO storefronts with delicious tofu or noodles.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Zurich Indie Shopping

The neighborhood Kreis 4 east of the Sihl River and south of the train tracks in Zurich is supposedly the Red Light district, though we saw no signs of it in the January cold—instead, it looked like a great neighborhood to go on a shopping wander. There was an impressive density of small, indie-designer boutiques, little cafes and yoga centers, and no big-box, big-brand commercialism. I loved it.

Badenerstrasse 123a,
Mid-century modern furniture and lighting.

Grüngasse 19
Mid-century modern furniture, cool objects such as vintage children's cars.

Lazer Zone

Backerstrasse 20
Film-buff heaven DVD shop, lots of obscure German stuff, organization by director.

Lyn May
Schrinerstrasse 42
Lingerie: the local equivalent of Kiki De Montparnasse.

Making Things

Grungasse 20
Local fashion designers, crafty accessories.

Ankerstrasse 20
Swiss art-book publisher, lots of cool stuff such as photo book curated by Kim Gordon.

Ooops, I've lost the contact on this one, but if you see it, it has cute clothes, knitwear.

15 Backerstrasse
Import sneakers.

14 Ankerstrasse
Swiss desingers for housewares & hip, modern design.

Secondbag & Stelline
Freyastrasse 21
Girls clothing and local fashion designers.

Street Files Mini Mart
Badenerstrasse 129
Urban stuff, t-shirts.

Grungasse 10
Local fashion design.

Zwei 25
Zweierstrasse 25, +44 241 02 34
My favorite of the women's fashion labels. Colorful, comfy, chic skirts and dresses.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Location Lit: Paolo Bacigalupi's Bangkok masterpiece, The Windup Girl

I love to read novels about a place while visiting it, and I'm always looking for good ones. You can enjoy a book about Bangkok without having a mental picture of Sukhumvit, or knowing what a soi is, but the pleasure is amplified when you do.

Bangkok travelers, or people following the story of the political unrest there, will enjoy, then, the American short-story writer Paolo Bacigalupi's brilliant first novel, The Windup Girl. You could call it science fiction, but really it falls into the new category of smart, speculative literary fiction that's increasingly making un-sense of the category.

As does your first arrival in Bangkok, the novel starts with overwhelming sun, sweat, a cotton-dampening bath of hot, humid air, and teeming, melty-asphalt streets crowded with vendors of every kind of tropical fruit. That's really what it's like today, but in Bacigalupi's world, set unspecified years in the future, the protagonist is a corporate spy from a big agribusiness company, come to Bangkok to discover the secrets to the Thai Kingdom's outlaw-genetic-code foods.

The action is set in a post-oil world, post-global warming, post-"contraction" when globalization fell apart, a world where power, and the computers and phones and cars that depend on them, is something even the rich and the governments have in preciously small quantities. From there, you plunge into Thai politics, the worlds of spys, slums, refugees and genetically engineered Japanese "wind up" people designed as soldiers or sex toys.

Laying out the premises could make the book sound didactic, but the information takes its sweet, disorienting time to come clear. This was a great book on the level of prose, and also for twisted & surprising views on our hot-button topics. It has a very light touch in terms of references to today's Bangkok, which makes the locations the reader recognizes or suspects might be familiar, more psychologically effective. The genius is in how this transformed, futuristic, barely recognizable Bangkok feels just like the real thing. Read it by the pool at the Oriental, while meditating on the joys of ice and air-conditioning.

Also, there's a Bacigalupi short story online at Pyr books, here. And, people who like the Location Lit concept are directed to the Rough Guides, which have great "Context" sections in the back, recommending destination specific books and movies.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hype-o-meter on the Breslin at the Ace Hotel

I went to The Breslin in the Ace Hotel last night and was pleasantly surprised that it was easy to get a table. This is the second walk-in score in a row, since Buttermilk Channel, shockingly, had tables at 8pm on Tuesday. Both of these restaurants are notoriously packed, so either the NYC dining scene has moved on and I haven't found out where yet (a possibility, I admit), or even the rich people are finally running out of money. Ivan says the latter.

Other things that have dribbled out: April Bloomfield and the locavore whole-animal trend. The crowd at the Breslin was square. There were no good-looking girls. If you are a good-looking girl looking for an older guy in a suit, you may have been happy. The decor is the ironic and overwrought version of the old pub, and I like old pubs, so I sort of liked it, but I also felt like I was at T.G.I. Fridays. If the menu had been ok, I could have gone with it. And the menu, at first, looks ok, or wildly creative, or something, until you realize that there's nothing on there people would actually want to eat. It seemed to be composed entirely of things that the Scottish middle-class outgrew in the '50s. Peanuts boiled in lard and thrice-fried chips and scary terrines and Stilton pie. The people sitting next to us both ordered the lamb burger because it was the only user-friendly thing on the list. Ivan and I debated the $125 steak for two, but I decided to test them on their home ground and have the beef tongue and oxtail in broth. Ivan had the vinegared poussin, which he felt was too vinegary. The broth for the tongue & oxtail was truly divine, but the cuts of meat were both suspect. It was a delicious tongue, but cut way too thick... you don't want the tongue bouncing back at you as you chew it, no matter what the flavor. And the oxtail hadn't totally melted out the fat and connective tissue the way I would have liked. Oh, and the "Garden" gin and tonic, their specialty drink, was bitter and unpalatable. I left with the impression that maybe it would have been fun to go there and drink a ton of beer and then eat the unhealthy fried food in a drunken stupor. Which, really, is what a pub is good for, gastro or no.

Monday, April 26, 2010

My favorite contemporary science fiction novels

Not what I should be doing with my Monday morning. At all. But I'm about to make a list of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers for a friend, and thought I'd put it somewhere publicly accessible. Using "contemporary" a little loosely and mixing some steampunk and new weird in with hard sci-fi.

Octavia Butler, Lillith's Brood
Humanity is sexually absorbed into an alien race. Somewhat unwillingly. Might be my favorite trilogy of all time. Takes place on primordial, post-apocalypse earth and on the alien generations ship. (Please overlook the terrible cover they slapped on there because a woman wrote the book.)

Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon, (& the other Kovacs novels, but not the rest of his work)
Awesome cyberpunk ex-cop thrillers on a galactic scale, working off the premise that human consciousness can be downloaded into different "sleeves" (bodies). Sex, drugs and the possibility of being tortured to death—over and over again.

Alastair Reynolds, Chasm City, Revelation Space, Absolution Gap
An actual European Space Agency rocket scientist who spent 20 years in the Netherlands peering through telescopes and writing these brilliant, nerdy, violent, cerebral hard-space odysseys. Oddly enough, I discovered Reynolds through an Art Forum "best of the year" list.

Iain Banks, Excession, Look to Windward, The Player of Games, any & all of the Culture novels
Elaborate adventures in a high-tech, far-futuristic and somewhat alien culture known as the Culture, a society devoted to enjoyment. Banks is a wonderful writer on the sentence level and nasty and apt about our own society in all sorts of unexpected ways. Depending on the book, these can be spectacularly violent. I also like Inversions, the Banks treatment in a semi-medieval world.

M. John Harrison, The Luck in the Head
I'm sorry, but you have to buy Jeff & Ann VanDerMeer's New Weird anthology purely for M. John Harrison's short story, The Luck in the Head, which is the most perfect piece of steampunk ever written. In its weirdness and beauty and gore, a new and disturbing format born. Go. Buy it. Now. Please.

Geoff Ryman, Air
Speculative fiction about the time when we go online straight from our brains, set in a tiny village on the apron between China and the 'stans. Female protagonist. Fairly real, quite literary.

China Mieville, Perdido Street Station
The best work by a steampunk pioneer. Set in the disturbing and fantastical city of New Crobuzon. Raunchy sex with an insect-headed mistress. A de-winged bird man. A work of casual brutality and stunning imagination.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars
For the enthusiast, the exhaustive story of how humanity colonizes Mars. An amazing work of science and speculation. When you finish the first 900 page opus and discover that it's a trilogy, you might cry, though.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Museums in St. Petersburg, Russia

Yet another of my beautiful, partial, plot-damaged novel fragments is set in a futuristic St. Petersburg, an ill-conceived work inspired by cold and euphoria while wandering alone for a day in the city center, approached only by scammers and charltans, drunk on cold silver vistas and wet leaves and ghosts. It was a mood, more than a novel, but I remember that day every time I think about St. Petersburg, city of the aristocrats and the damned, such a mad, gray, sinister, ornate, spectral, rotted, impossible place. I hope this isn't making it sound bad. To me, it's one of the most different, exotic, particular destinations there is, the place you go if you want your mind blown, or if you want to go back in time or into an alternate reality. The failed novel fragment was science-fiction, only appropriate for St. Petersburg, though it's actually a pretty low-tech place.

This post, however, is about the art. But before I start talking about it, I will make one more note of a practical nature: Check the forecast before you go. Bring warmer clothes than you think you're going to need. Plan seriously on footwear that will keep you dry.

Regarding the art, visiting St. Petersburg is like going to Florence or Venice in terms of density of museums and landmarks, but, in my opinion, the rightful fame and importance of the Hermitage obscures the position of the equally worthy Russian Museum. Here's the thing: The Hermitage is an impressive, massive European-style palace, former home to the tsars, turned into a rambling and quirkily organized museum full of treasures of international art. There's a Leonardo Da Vinci, a haunting Rembrandt room, a sweeping collection of Matisses and French Impressionists, and my favorite Titian—of Zeus impregnating Danae disguised as a cloud of golden coins. This is all wonderful stuff, but it's not necessarily Russian, and it doesn't occupy that sweet spot of early 20th Century Russian art when the Maleviches and Mashkovs and Filonovs were redefining painting. This is the era of painting that the Russian Museum specializes in—big, powerful, vibrant, beautiful canvases that are possible to "like" and even understand without knowing anything about art history. I don't say they're as crowd-pleasing as the Monets, but they might be close, and you will never see art by any of these painters outside of Russia.

Perhaps I am more naieve than most, but I can't tell you how many times I've gone to the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow, sort of hoping to see some Kandinskys (the Tretyakov collection ends at Kandinsky; for the modernists, you need the New Tretyakov). I spent three days in the Hermitage in 2007 with an art-loving friend who has since become an art historian, and we felt we'd done St. Petersburg justice. We didn't even know about the Russian Museum. Well, now I do. And since there seem to be very limited options about it in English online, next post will be some notes on the floorplan.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What we're looking for when we're looking to travel

I'm full of hatred for the travel industry this morning--probably because I'm writing pitches for certain Travel Media, feeling depressed by the commodification of experience and the relentless pace of "new, undiscovered, un-touristy." There was a great essay on World Hum last week by Eric Weiner on "Why Tourism is not a Four Letter Word" that summed up some of these feelings. Weiner identified the Travel Snob as just that person who is, in point of fact, a tourist like everyone else, but puts on airs about it.

Weiner says the most loathsome tourist the tourist who considers themselves not a tourist. Well, it's irritating I agree. But then I recall that time my dad made me take a tour bus to the Tower of Pisa and we had to squeeze into the very last two seats *and the tour was arranged so that there was no time to go up the tower* and....let's just rest on the idea that tourists and Travel Snobs each inhabit their own circle of hell. And then also, on the other hand, let's not take it too seriously, we're all on vacation, folks.

So what am I upset about? I understand why all of this "new, different, gimmicky," etc. coverage has to exist. News organizations are not in the business of telling you about things that are not new. Unless, there's something new about it being old, like "New Orleans, still kinda the same!" (a very nice story in Travel + Leisure). But in the aggregate it creates a....fundamental lack of gratitude for the places as they are. I've been researching Jamaica and found in the New York Times two stories from the past few years about the quieter, alternative destinations of Port Antonio and Treasure Beach. They sound nice, they probably are, and they'd probably suit me better than Negril, since I don't care so much about seeing live Reggae and smoking dope, but....sometimes the obvious destination is the magical one. My husband Ivan and his good friend Kay are huge world travelers, and they tend to love the semi-obvious. Bali. Belize. Negril. I find that wholesome. Negril is gorgeous, that's where all the music is, and these places became huge, obvious destinations for a reason, and often they aren't "ruined" by being so.

Anyway, I'm off to create news, because that's what they pay me for, but I'm always excited to see stories that take a step back in some ways. Like this New York Magazine piece on "Do Almost Nothing in Culebra." That felt different to me, and fresh, and like what a real vacation would feel like, instead of a continued desperate quest to do the right thing, set onesself apart, continue striving....

Friday, March 12, 2010

How to choose a hotel in Bangkok

When I'm choosing a hotel, I'm usually trying to find the most "real" neighborhood—I like to stay where I'd live, if I lived in the city I'm visiting. That means out of the tourist ghetto, not as close as possible to the local Gucci store, away from anything labeled Marriot, and so on.

Except in Bangkok. In Bangkok I—and you, if you are taking my advice—want to stay in one of the insane luxury towers on the Chao Phraya River. The towers are close to some major temples, the little streets surrounding them are stuffed with Thai Silk stores, jewelers, one-hour photos, tailors copying clothes, and every other tourist amenity. Any taxi that picks you up around here can take you to Kao San Road, no problem. (That's the backpacker mecca immortalized in the movie The Beach; more on how difficult it is to communicate with cab drivers and get around Bangkok, later). When I was in my 20s, these hotels—The Oriental, the Shangri-La, among others—were the most luxurious places I'd ever been able to afford to stay. Rooms these days are around $350 a night, maybe less depending on how/when you book. These are perfect, gleaming, travel-magazine-porn-shot hotels. Silk carpets and enormous air-conditioned lobbies and uniformed porters and people in livery handing you orchids when you walk in, rooms with marble shower stalls and beds with bolsters and a concierge on every floor to greet you and hustle down the hall to open your room door for you. They're really, really nice. And the view—of the slow, gray, churning river far below, of boat traffic and bridge traffic and other luxury hotel-high rises, and the enormous city all around you—is probably not what you'd be looking at every day if you lived in Bangkok, but it's so wonderful, I don't care.

Also, I find arriving Bangkok from NYC to be overwhelming, and I like to hide out in an oasis like the Oriental and acclimatize to the heat and humidity and time difference for a little while.

Still, people who want the same level of luxury for less $$ could try any of the big hotels that aren't on the river. My brother once got a great deal at Le Meridian, and he felt that it compared favorably to the Oriental and didn't cost as much. At some point, it's all so luxurious, what's one orchid or view or slightly more favorable location for a pool more, or less?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Fairway Review

Well, a little off-topic, though Fairway Red Hook is a legit tourist destination...

[For tourists: The café in the Red Hook branch of this famous NYC family supermarket has an incredible view of the water, blue infinity, big industrial ships, tugboats, water taxis, bridges, Jersey, the horizon. A trip to Red Hook, window shopping on Van Brunt St and having a lobster roll at the Fairway café is a great New York afternoon.]

But the real reason I'm writing this is because I shop at this Fairway almost every day and wish to praise some of its products and pan others. To wit:

Unusually good Fairway-specialty food items:

•The roast beef at the deli counter.
•The lobster salad at the deli counter.
•The aged Manchego, the rosemary-crusted Manchego, the Humboldt Fog, the Livarot, the Moon Madness, the Grafton cheddar in black wax,
•The fresh-made basil pesto--the bright green one--that you can sometimes find on the shelf by the home-made pastas.
•All of the fresh cheese products: Ben's cream cheese, the ricotta cheese, the pot cheese, sold by weight at the cheese counter and in the case next to it. Absolutely superior to any packaged dairy.
•The fresh-ground honey-roasted peanut butter and fresh-ground almond butter. (Machine in the organic section).
•The dark-chocolate-covered graham crackers. (Found across the aisle from the fish counter; you will hate me for introducing you to these.)
•Green's & Blacks dark chocolate bars. (Doorway of the organic section. Imported from England and so yummy.)
•Packaged cashews, slivered almonds, walnuts...all the Fairway-packaged nuts are fresh and delicious.
•Dried cranberry-and-cherry mix. Hard to find and great for fresh cranberry sauce around Thanksgiving.
•The Australian, organic, grass-fed beef, I forget the brand, is, I hear from a reporter who met the farmer, made from real animals, eating only grass, living normal, cruelty-free animal lives outdoors. Anything imported from Australia is bad for the environment, but this is the only Fairway meat I can really vouch for.
•Imported beer. "Duchy Originals" is the Prince of Wales' brand. Also Chimay and Lambics with fruit, if you like those. I think they're fun for specialty events.
•From the bakery: The baguettes, the bagels and flagels and bialys, the sourdough rolls, the raisin walnut rolls, pretty much everything in the self-serve bread area.
•From the dessert counter: the madelines.
•I'm not going to talk about the Fage yogurt and the Wallaby and the kombucha, etc., because that stuff is available everywhere, but Fairway does have a good selection.
•Last, but oh so not least: Ciao Bella sorbet. The Blackberry Cabernet. The Dark Chocolate. The Blood Orange, the Passionfruit....

Things that are bad at Fairway:
•Most of the produce isn't all that.
•Most of the prepared deli-foods are inedible.
•The Fairway soups.
•The fresh salsa and guac remind me of that New Yorker article about the company that imparts flavor to a "tasteless nutrient slurry".
•The rotisserie chicken. It has a good flavor and sometimes is so overdone it's pleasantly chewy and falling apart, but the breasts are too dry.
•The hummus & tahinis (see "tasteless slurry").
•The fresh pastas and gnocchi are not great, and some of the ravioli is downright disgusting (pumpkin).
•Bacon and sausages. Why is the selection so bad?
•Any of those puff-dried vegetables, as well as the big plastic boxes of "veggie chips."
•The bulk coffee ranges from terrible to undrinkable. We replaced our coffee maker twice before catching on.
•Everything at the café, with the exception of the lobster roll is execrable. Including the service. World's worst sandwiches and pizza. I would say that the ham-and-Gruyere croissant sandwich is the closest thing to semi-edible the Fairway cafe produces, but that's nearly as fattening as the lobster roll.
•Fairway does not bake good loaves of bread.
•Fairway does not make good cakes, cheesecakes, cookies, fancy desserts, brownies, etc.

Would love to see comments from other Fairway shoppers!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bangkok becomes ever more amazing

So, it doesn't happen with every destination, but I sometimes start researching a place and find so many great bloggers and cool beta-test websites and interesting literary people talking about the language or the culture that it's really quite exciting. It doesn't happen with every city--and sometimes not with the ones you'd expect (Paris? Why not Paris, people?), or even with most cities, but it turns out that Bangkok is one of the happy few. Maybe eventually I'll get a feel for what kind of cities sponsor lively and loving coverage, and which don't but so far it's always a not-surprising surprise.

Not surprising because Bangkok has always seemed like a place I could almost live. You know that travel thing where you start imagining what your life would be like in every new place? I've sort of dreamed of Bangkok days with the cool arts people I would meet and the jaded Aussies and even the awful spectacle of the sex tourists, these terrible lone men like dinosaurs or deep-sea creatures, pale and wattled...I've seen them in hotels. Anyway, a lot of blabber to say that from the online profile, one, it seems like there are a lot of cool people speaking English in Bangkok and two, it seems like the hotels and the bars and the restaurants are creative, fascinating, very Thai but also accessible to tourists. I'm looking forward to going again.

And, in the meantime, before my city page is up, check out this great blog by Marcel Barang, a translator of important Thai literary works into English and French. It's called "the written wor(l)d en deux langues" and you could live your cool Thai life just by following in his footsteps.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Zurich Indie Shopping

The neighborhood Kreis 4 east of the Sihl River and south of the train tracks in Zurich is supposedly the Red Light district, though we saw no signs of it in the January cold—instead, it looked like a great neighborhood to go on a shopping wander. There was an impressive density of small, indie-designer boutiques, little cafes and yoga centers, and no big-box, big-brand commercialism. I loved it.

Badenerstrasse 123a,
Mid-century modern furniture and lighting.

Grüngasse 19
Mid-century modern furniture, cool objects such as vintage children's cars.

Lazer Zone

Backerstrasse 20
Film-buff heaven DVD shop, lots of obscure German stuff, organization by director.

Lyn May
Schrinerstrasse 42
Lingerie: the local equivalent of Kiki De Montparnasse.

Making Things

Grungasse 20
Local fashion designers, crafty accessories.

Ankerstrasse 20
Swiss art-book publisher, lots of cool stuff such as photo book curated by Kim Gordon.

Ooops, I've lost the contact on this one, but if you see it, it has cute clothes, knitwear.

15 Backerstrasse
Import sneakers.

14 Ankerstrasse
Swiss desingers for housewares & hip, modern design.

Secondbag & Stelline
Freyastrasse 21
Girls clothing and local fashion designers.

Street Files Mini Mart
Badenerstrasse 129
Urban stuff, t-shirts.

Grungasse 10
Local fashion design.

Zwei 25
Zweierstrasse 25, +44 241 02 34
My favorite of the women's fashion labels. Colorful, comfy, chic skirts and dresses.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Where to Ski in Austria, Lech-Zug am Arlberg, Zurs, Stuben, St. Anton

As usual, the price of all this free content is limited resources.... I can only tell you about what I did/ saw. I don't have a team of reporters out scouring the country, so the expertise of this entry concerns the Arlberg cluster of Austrian resorts near the Swiss border.

We started with the plan of skiing in Austria because British high-end tour operator Scott Dunn (we love Scott Dunn) has chalets there. Our friends stayed at his place in Zermatt when we were there a few years ago, and we were quite jealous of their accommodation, especially the private spa-floor in the chalet, and the cool private chef who cooked breakfast and dinner every evening. Our much-less-nice hotel wasn't much cheaper. Our friends were sharing the chalet with strangers, who turned out to be some rich, young, childless Brits of around the same age as we were. If I remember correctly, I was not the only person at the table to have written and published a novel—interesting dinner companions. Anyway, our friends have also stayed at a Scott Dunn property in St. Anton. We considered it for this trip but it didn't work out $$$-wise for our dates. And that turned out to be very much for the best.

St. Anton is the biggest, most party-oriented, most English-touristy of the cluster of resorts in the Arlberg area. It has the jock-reputation because of a face—I could look up the name, but hey, this is a blog, Valluga, maybe?—that's very extreme, must be skiied with a guide, etc. Awesome, if you are the kind of extreme skiier who can appreciate the terrain, but probably not necessary for most of us. We didn't ski there, but we went into the town one evening, and felt like we were descending from village to big city after mellow Lech and tiny Zug. It was much busier, more English-speaking, the crowds seemed younger.....

It's so difficult when you're wading through ski guides to understand which of a million resorts to choose from, what the terrain is really like, etc. In terms of Arlberg, the resorts of St. Anton and St. Christoph are connected by lifts, forming basically one area; a separate area is the resorts of Lech, Zug, Zurs and Oberlech. It's possible to ski with a guide from the St. Anton area all the way to the Lech area, and might be a fun day-long venture. As seems to be usual with these European mountains, most of the on-piste terrain in the Lech-etc. lift group is pretty easy blue (beginner) runs, with a few pockets of red (advanced) and one or two blacks (extreme). There are a lot of flats, making it difficult for snowboarding. The joy of the Lech area is skiing what's known as a "ronde,"—a round—of the "White Ring." You can pick up a map of "der Wise Ring" at the bottom of the Stubenbach gondola. The idea is that you traverse the terrain in an enormous circle, peak after peak, spectacular view after spectacular view. This, as we discovered, is a great way to spend the day, providing that sort of relaxtion-with-a-purpose that the modern workaholic really needs on vacation. It's like a bar crawl or any other party where certain "goals" have been set. And speaking of bar crawling.... plenty of stops for champagne or schnapps around Der Wise Ring. Oh yes.

Now, would you choose to stay in Zurs, Lech, on the mountain at Oberlech, or Zug? Lech is small and very pretty, but still the only "town" of the cluster, with a main street with lots of open-air apres ski action at night. We would have been perfectly happy staying there. (See hotel recs.) Oberlech is a stop on the mountain known for having all the various venues connected by underground tunnel; Zurs supposedly has the highest-end accomodation but our local friend described it as "a truck stop on the way to Lech." Didn't look that bad to me. Also, the way the lifts are set up, you can only go in one direction around the ring, and, in my opinion, the best terrain was closest to the Zurs lifts. So really, nothing wrong with Zurs either.

And then there was our darling little Zug, which was basically a cluster of hotels with restaurants and one charming cafe. This was a magical Alpine experience, totally quiet, surrounded by gorgous peaks, only one lift going up and one run coming down, the rest of it untrammled mountains, a mountain stream, a walking path through the forest for the 2km trek down to Lech, a cross-country skiing loop. For us, who did our partying with our ski-boots still on and then were home for dinner and an early bedtime, the lack of nightlife here was no problem. Also, there are free buses that run every 20 min, so even if you do want leave Zug, it's easy to get around. Getting back down to Zug at the end of the day was a bit of a pain—the return runs are either expert off-piste or a long, switchbacked riverbed-run with a lot of flats and a 300 meter hoof at the end. However, starting the day from Zug is awesome, since the Zug lift leads to the best restaurant on the mountain, the Balmalp, where we stopped in first thing for a shot of the Rote Williams.....

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hotel Helvetia, Zurich: Cheap boutique, great location

The category of "no-frills boutique hotel" tempts me to digress on the topic of style verses substance. But then sometimes I'm not sure that "no-frills luxury" is a bad thing. Maybe providing chic rooms to design lovers at a comparatively low price point is a mitzvah. People on a budget want to enjoy Moooi lights and stripey, graphic wallpaper, too. And, the young don't really care if there's room service or a bellhop or the lightbulbs are burned out. So, that was the Hotel Helvetia. It's nice-looking, even better than the website suggests, and the rooms have comfortable beds with the fresh, white duvets instead of comforters—the modern boutique signifier ne plus ultra. But there's not even properly a lobby, just a desk in the restaurant, the Internet didn't work in our room, no room service, unacceptably dim lighting, burner in the kitchenette on the fritz, etc. Still, we are very finicky and high-maintenance when it comes to hotels, and I think lots of people would like this place. It has a cool restaurant, a great look, low prices ($220 for a double) and the location could not possibly be more convenient for people who want to explore both the old town and the fashionable Kries 4/ Zuri-West. It's also right on a big tram line, which is great in a city where cabs cost more per ounce than caviar.

Hip, delicious, restaurants in Zurich, avoiding the beer halls and spatzle

Zurich is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, near the Austrian border, and the combination of all the money, the liberal society, and the influence of the sensual and decadent Austrians means that this is a great town for pleasure. I, as a respectable married woman, did not get to visit the Red Light District, nor did I figure out how to buy the semi-legal marijuana, but I did eat well. Since our guidebook was abysmal (thanks for nothing, Lonely Planet) I'm writing listings for everything I saw and researched, regardless of if I ate there or not. My personal Zurich shortlist is: Volkhaus, Mauri's La Rocca and La Salle.

Stauffacherstrasse 60, Kries 4, +41 (0)44 242 11 55

Volkshaus was our most spectacular find in all of Zurich. It's a huge hall on Stauffacherstrasse that used to be/still is a "people's center" with public baths and meeting rooms and other functions. The part we saw is the first floor, where there's a great, hip cafe and restaurant, done up in adorable plaid table-cloths and velvet-flocked walls and vintage deco lamps and so on. Here is a photo of Adeline sitting in the wooden, cane-bottomed high-chair they had. (They also had a box of toys and didn't seem annoyed when she spread out on the floor with them—we were there during an off-hour. Another miracle: In Zurich, finding lunch after 2pm).

The hipster-retro-traditional menu was in German, which was unfortunate since the waiter really couldn't translate. Duck liver terrine, sausage salad (this was a local specialty that I never tried, assume it makes more sense than it sounds like it would), spinach spaetzle, ravioli with pecorino. There was also an artisanal cocktail menu in the new style. And when Ivan asked for schnapps, they rolled out the following trolley:

Overall, beautiful vibe, great food, friendly service and a lively, thriving place for lunch, dinner, sitting with coffee, etc.

La Salle
Schiffbaustrasse 4, Zuri-West, +41 (0) 44 258 70 71
The glamor of Zurich is private-bank glamor, the glamor of vaults and strings of numbers and impassive Swiss faces.... Zurich is money, crime behind a facade of industry. The first thrilling scenes of the Bourne Identity, when Matt Damon goes to investigate the account number he found on the chip implanted in his hip, are set in snow-covered, winter Zurich. La Salle, probably my favorite restaurant of the trip, channels that...conservative avant garde, if you'll allow me the oxymoron. The menu is a high-end, modern but essentially traditional fusion of French, Italian and Swiss—we had the only interesting spaetzle of our trip here. Ingredients are perfect, the carpaccio is so thin it may have been painted on the plate, the cocktails are impeccable. Yet the restaurant is located in the Schiffbau complex, an enormous converted-warehouse with a jazz club and glass-cube bar on top (Nietturm), in trendy Zuri-West. The industrial glass-and-girders room glows with champagne light like a French bistro and is hung with an enormous, pink Venetian crystal chandelier. A lovely, sexy, exotic evening.

Muggenbuhl Gastuben
Muggenbuhlstrasse 15, +41 (0)44 482 11 45
I found this restaurant on a list of most-interesting openings of 2009, and though it's a little out of the city center, it was open New Year's day, so we tried it. This was a very odd experience indeed, a restaurant in a freestanding house next to the highway, with a bowling alley in the basement and four or five brightly lit dining rooms hung with cheap, stiff lace curtains and lined with banquettes in cheery-synthetic yellow fabric. Again, menu only in German. The very nice chef was rolled out to help explain to us what to eat, and all best dishes seemed to be hunks of meat breaded and fried etc. I didn't take notes but I think I ate some veal breaded and fried and wrapped around cheese and a piece of ham.... a Cordon Bleu? The subtlety of why this was on a best-openings list eludes me.

Mauri's La Rocca
Limmatstrasse 273, Zuri-West, +41 44 271 02 77
This restaurant is right across from the Lowenbrau center (contemporary art museums and galleries in a former brewery in Zuri-West) and we happened to stumble in for lunch, to our great delight. A beautiful crowd—glamorous tall girls in glasses and their blond Italian boyfriends.... An art dealer? An owner of a small motorcycle company? lingering over light, refined Italian dishes. The menu, again, was German to us. I ordered at random and ended up with a meatball-and-eggplant dish in crimson-red sauce, accompanied by silk handkerchiefs of hand-cut pasta so sublime it could have been dessert. Absolutely worth it to understand the flavors of the city, despite that Italian in Switzerland is not the obvious call. The restaurant design was intimate and casual, with blow-up black-and-white 70s film stills printed straight on the walls and exquisite Deco details. This was the butter dish (and you can see how good that home-made bread ws from the photo):

Also, there was a lunch special for 22 CHF (the exchange rate with dollars is basically 1 to 1), a fantastic deal in expensive Switzerland.

Si O No

Ankerstrasse 6, Kreis 4, +41 (0)44 241 0301
An casual, somewhat distressed wine bar in Kries 4 that's obviously a beloved neighborhood laptop cafe during the daytime. Smoky, alternative.

Rämistrasse 4, +41 44 262 99 00
Didn't try this one but am including it because it was recommended several times as the most famous restaurant in Zurich. Probably a tourist place, probably very expensive, but at least one friend has been and liked it. There's also a bar next door that supposedly lets you get the experience without having to pay to actually dine here.

Heinrichstrasse 267, Zuri-West, +41 (0)44 271 1030
A mod-looking brewery serving Asian food. Don't know, but it was on my list to try.

Caduff's Wine Loft

Kanzleistrass 126, +41 44 240 2255
A foodie place that gets some play in media about Zurich. I didn't try it, as it has gotten mixed reviews (none of them particularly trustworthy, so it's a real toss-up) and is slightly outside the city center. There is some rigamarole surrounding the enormous wine cellars that could be fun for the enthusiast.


Schlusselgasse 8, Old Town, +41 (0)44 225 4040
Again, I'm only including my vague rumors because the English info on Zurich is so poor. This is a restaurant right on the main square where St. Peter's cathedral is, supposedly in a historic house and serving Swiss food. I would only go here if I were desperately slogging around the Old Town, wondering which expensive touristy restaurant might also be edible. Looks nice but stodgy from the photo.


Fabrikstrasse 12, Zuri-West, +41 (0)44 271 3919
Claims to be a seasonal organic restaurant serving Swiss specialties. We went, but it was closed for lunch on Tuesdays and looked somewhat weird from the outside. However, anyone else tempted by the promise of Swiss seasonal organic, could check it out, and if the inside looks equally dubious, it's a short walk from Mauri's La Rocca and at least one other nice-looking Italian restaurant whose name I didn't note.

Backerstrasse 19, Kries 4, +41 (0)43 317 9919
Nowhere are the insane high prices more evident than in restaurants you'd expect to be selling cheap take-away cuisine. SomTam is a new, minimalist-decor Thai place that has an authentic sounding menu. We didn't try it, but after days of rich continental food in Austria and Switzerland, we wanted to. Don't know what the dinner scene is like, but it's in indie Kreis 4. To the American mindset, paying $21.50 for a Thai soup is almost inconceivable, but as we saw in Zurich, such prices are not on the highest end.

Blue Monkey
Stussihofstatt 3, +41 (0)44 261 76 18
This restaurant was listed in the english-language Zurich Guide we picked up, and one night we ordered take-out to our hotel from here. (Baby sleeping; sick of room service.) Well, we did not save any money, as I realized mid-order that the pad thai was $36. I only bring the place up because the so-called Thai food was bland and someone dumped a can of coconut milk on some chicken, basically, for every dish. Also, it may have been a fusion thing, but that $36 pad thai? Made with spaghetti noodles!

+41 (0)44 433 1414
Last but not least, anyone else crazy enough to want to order delivery food can go to thid website, which has dozens of restaurants delivering by neighborhood.

Traveling with an iPhone and other necessary Europe-hacks

I know I should have been blogging live from my latest trip—Zurich, then Lech-Zug-am-Arlberg in Austria, but it seems that no amount of foreign travel experience prevents the slew of technical difficulties that accompanies each trip. My problems this time were a combination of a) everything in Europe being closed on Sundays and holidays b) mountains and c) iPhone.

I'll start with c. I did some online research on how to travel with an iPhone without breaking the bank, and was directed to sign up for a data roaming package; the smallest amount is for 20 MB for around $20. I signed up for this online with AT&T, and off to Europe I went. Well, the data roaming package was not applied to my account, which, I discovered later, seems to be because I also needed to sign up for an additional $5 for the international dialing plan. They aren't linked on the website, but it seems you can't use the data plan withough the dialing. I did all the other things recommended: reset your usage so you know how much bandwith you've sucked since going abroad; turn data roaming on only sparingly, manually check e-mail, but still got hit with about $20 in unexpected charges for text messaging while abroad. I sent and recieved maybe 4 text messages but have been charged for 38 at a shocking rate.....I'm sure there's an explanation & it won't be in my favor. I eventually called customer service and got the phone working, and with very sparing usage for about a 10 days, squeaked in under the 20MB limit.

a & b, well.... at this point I think of wireless internet as a basic human right, but obviously hoteliers do not concur. I am going to start asking hotels if they have WiFi in the rooms, and if I get my money back if it doesn't work, as so often seems to be the case. Both of our hotels on this trip claimed to have it, but didn't work in our rooms. It's either 'cause you're on a high floor or the thickness of the walls or always some bullshit. In the case of the Zurich hotel, the Helvetia, we arrived New Year's Eve, went to a party, and when we woke up New Year's Day and tried to use the Internet for the first time, discovered that our Internet didn't work and there was no way to fix it because the hotel was closed and the staff was gone for the holiday. No one appeared till January 2, when essential services like coffee was restored, but nothing else--no food, no bread, no Internet. This, I suppose, is the wage of European quasi-socialism. Laborers have more rights and are higher paid, so people just don't have to work as much. Sounds great, but it means the cities shut down entirely on Sundays and holidays and sorta on Mondays as well, and it can be a real pain-in-the-ass to the American traveler, who isn't used to it. Remind me, next time, not to expect to be able to DO anything on New Year's Day, and to avoid the continent on Sundays.