Sunday, March 29, 2009

Logic Problem: Dinner

I've been down in the Bay Area this week, eating out and with my family in their homes. I'm about to catch the train back to Portland, so I can't say much now. But I will tell you this. I ate at Incanto Restaurant last night, in San Francisco. And the whole dinner was wonderful.

In fact, Pavel had 4 courses. Three of those courses had meat. He did have dessert. His entree was sardines.

Yes, it sounds like a logic problem...but it was no problem at all. The answer? Meat in dessert.

For dessert, Pavel had the prosciutto panna cotta. It was perfect. The essence of prosciutto flavoring the just right wobbly panna cotta.

And I had toast ice cream, with strawberry coulis. This could be a perfect breakfast. But it was also a perfect dessert. Little crunches of toast. Genius.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Happy Hour on Amtrak

I've traveled a certain amount by train lately. Last fall I took the train from Portland (OR) to Boston. Three days each way. The second day, when I was somewhere in Montana or North Dakota, I went to the lounge car for my drink. A woman who was ninety if she was a day asked me what I had bought. "A gin and tonic." She smiled approvingly. "Oh, how sophisticated!". And that's how it feels. Well, except for the plastic glass.

Earlier this week my daughter and I took the Coast Starlight Amtrak train down to California to visit family. The train leaves Portland at 2:30 in the afternoon. Somewhere around Eugene or around 5 o'clock (whichever comes first) I like to have a drink.

There are a couple mysteries about gin and tonics on the train. The first is the way it's served. In the west, they always make it for you. The attendant pours the miniature bottle of gin into the glass of ice, and fills it with tonic water. Nearly. Then he puts the remaining tonic water (in its open can) back into his cupboard. Sometimes you're lucky and get the beginning of the can, or the person behind you ordered the same drink. Other times you have to make due with a slightly flat g&t. Back east, for some reason, they gave me the bottle and the can, and let me mix my drink as I saw fit. I enjoyed having nearly two bubbly drinks instead of one flattish drink.

The second mystery is limes. In the east you get them. In the west they give you unadorned gin and tonics. It's a pretty sad drink, a slightly flat gin and tonic in a plastic glass. So nowadays I always travel with a lime. It's just better that way.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Candy Again

When I was writing that maple creams story, I told Pavel about my ill-fated See's bet (the one involving eating a box of See's for lunch).

"A pound? You mean a one-layer box?" He looked at me thoughtfully for a second. "I could eat that, no problem."

And he wasn't kidding. You see, just as I have my beer dinner strategy, Pavel has his chocolate dinner strategy. Usually it happens after a long business trip in Asia. While he's there, he's pretty proud of how easily he, with a pronounced sweet-tooth, doesn't miss desserts.

He might not miss chocolates at all while he's in Asia (or so he assures me). But the minute he walks through a west coast airport, and sees the See's concession, he suddenly realizes he's suffering from a sweet deficiency. And so he buys a box, and eats it for dinner.

As odd dinner strategies go, it's not completely off base. I mean, with the right mix it's practically a complete meal. For protein, you've got all those nuts: marzipan, nut chews, or one of my favorites, the P-nut Crunch (4 grams of protein, thank you very much!). If you come across a Mint Krispy, your leafy green is taken care of. The apricot bonbons are not only fruit, but an excellent beta-carotene source, which is sort of like having a carrot. If you squint. A mocha buttercream with a chocolate-coated ginger makes a nice digestive.

You'll notice I didn't make a suggestion for a dessert. Will it kill you to miss dessert, just this once?

Monday, March 23, 2009

La Stagione

When I turned 40, my husband surprised me with a trip to Venice and Rome. I know, it sounds like something that happens in movies. But it really did happen. Anyway, I'm a youngest child. And as a youngest child, I can be a little, well, self-involved. So the day after my birthday I was kind of sad to be out of the center of things. That's when we came up with 'La Stagione'. It's short for 'La Stagione della Giovanna', which we like to think (we speak pretty rudimentary Italian here) means 'Giovanna's season'. Why have a birthday last one day when you can stretch it out for a couple weeks?

Somewhere along the way I started to get greedy, and pretty soon I was considering most of the year my time. I did graciously make allowances for Pavel's birthday, and of course for the kids. I'm not a total ogre.

This year, looking for a special gift for Pavel, I decided to cede a few of 'my' days to him. I know--pretty nice! So on his birthday I gave him a year of cakes. That's right--one birthday cake a month, on the 11th.

This month we were out of town on the 11th, so 'Pavel Day' got pushed back a bit. We celebrated with Flo Braker's angel food cake from The Baker's Dozen Cookbook. It was a good choice, delicious, tall, and fluffy. Also, like many people we're trying to eat down the freezer. And we had a lot of odd bags and containers of egg whites in there. Angel food cake was just the ticket.

I always like the part where you upend the baked cake atop a wine bottle to cool. Last time I tried that trick with a chiffon cake, I called Franny in to look. I figured it might be amusing seeing her watch me turn the cake upside down, and then I would reassure her, explaining (with authority, from all my experience) how the cake never falls out of the pan.

As expected, she was worried. "Mom! The cake! It's falling out!"
And it was.

But this time it didn't.

And in the spirit of eating down the freezer, I also defrosted some red currants (we have a bush that gives us zillions each June) and made a sauce. Since angel food cake is fairly sweet, the tart currants were perfect.

There was a little cake left over the next morning. We toasted it and had it with our coffee. Toasted angel food cake tastes a tiny bit like toasted marshmallows. In my book, that's a good thing. Maybe I should have let a piece of chocolate melt on top. Next time.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Macaroon Day

In the U.S., macaroon day is May 31st. Apparently in France it was yesterday, March 20th. How did I miss my chance to double up on macaroon days?

Maybe what you're really wondering is how I found out. This morning (March 21st) I was reading Dorie Greenspans blog, and there it was. Le Jour du Macaron was yesterday. Why no warning? Imagine my sadness at realizing I'd missed out on macaroon day.

Le Jour du Macaron was started 3 years ago by Pierre Hermé--not only as a day to eat macaroons, but a day to contribute to La Federation des Maladies Orphelines, a charity that helps orphans. I might not have Pierre Hermé's macaroons available, but I do have Pix Patisserie close by, whose macaroons the New York Times famously (in these parts, anyway) said trounced Per Se's. And if teachers can administer make-up exams, I figure I can administer make-up macaroons.

I generously invited Pavel and both at-home kids. Figured I'd get to taste more that way. And I did, though sadly there was some doubling up. Anything whiskey flavored is a big draw in my family. So--a couple whiskey macaroons, one fleur du sel, and a couple margaritas. Those were lime flavored macaroons with a tequila and cointreau flavored buttercream filling, and, you guessed it, a salted rim.

Delicious. I'd put their macaroons onto my 'must eat while in Portland list'. And we also noted that they have a crème brûlée happy hour M-F from 5 to 7 PM ($2.75). Put that some place safe for future reference!

As for May 31st, I'll try to remember not to slight our own national macaroon day. Perhaps I'll go for a coconut macaroon then...I had a delicious one a couple months ago at Two Tarts Bakery, lightly scented with rosewater.

Oh...and I felt a little guilty horning in on le Jour du Macaron and ignoring its charitable intention. So I made a contribution to figure there are a lot of egg whites involved in a day like this, so a flock of chicks seemed appropriate.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Grāppling With It

For an embarrassingly long time now, I've been reading The Fruit Hunters by Adam Leith Gollner. It's an interesting book, maybe a little gee-whizzy. I'm kind of partial to it because he credits my mother with today's widespread use of Meyer Lemons. (Full disclosure: my mom is Lindsey Shere. That makes me awfully lucky).

There are so many fruits to try--Gollner estimates that 70,000 to 80,000 different plant species bear edible fruit. Will I ever taste pitabu, the fruit that tastes like orange sherbet, almonds, and raspberries?

The one fruit I read about that didn't tempt me was the grāpple. Made in Wenatchee, Washington, they're grape flavored apples. The name is a little unfortunate. On the other hand, what else would you call a cross between a grape and an apple? An 'ape'?

(That will always remind me of the talking stuffed monkey my daughter had. It told one joke, in its annoying electronic voice: What's a monkeys favorite fruit? Apricot. Get it? Ape-ricot!)

Turns out it's supposed to be pronounced 'gray-pull'. Good luck with that!

And by the way, it's not really a cross between a grape and an apple. It's a Fuji or a Gala apple that's undergone a process that infuses what was once a perfectly happy apple with artificial grape flavor.

I wouldn't have tried these if I hadn't come across them in a Vancouver grocery store last week. I was traveling--I was curious--I thought I should give things a try (I did, after all, eat tripe). So I bought them. As soon as I got them back to the hotel room, I realized my mistake.

Grāpples might look like regular apples. But they smell like Bub's Daddy grape-flavored bubble gum. Like a lot of the gum. Our room smelled like my 5th grade classroom.

We gave the grāpples a try, expecting the worst. But surprise--when I bit in, the grāpple tasted like a sweet apple. For about a millisecond. And then my mouth was flooded with the most artificial, chemical taste of every bad grape-flavored thing I've ever tried. Put together. And it wouldn't go away.

That's as far as I got in the grāpple. I think I'll hold out for miracle fruit, and even work on learning to love mangoes.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Maple Creams

Apparently, years ago I gave David Lebovitz (who I worked with at the time) a recipe for maple cream candies. He's had it on his website for some time now, and recently asked me to write an update for it. I was, well, thrilled.

David's website (if there's anyone out there who doesn't know) has everything going for it. It's funny, it's smart, it's funny, it's interesting, and--stop me if I already said this--it's funny. I like reading about Paris, I like being reminded via a jar of chocolate and hazelnut spread to avoid the 'too good to use' trap (and I have a story about chocolate and hazelnut spread I'll share one of these days). I like learning about ketchup macaroons, and heck--I even like taking a Club Med vacation in the Bahamas vicariously (though I'm pretty jealous). But I especially like laughing. And David always makes me laugh. Smart and funny. What more could a person want?''

It was fun making these--I haven't made candy in a while, somehow missing out on my traditional penuche this last Christmas. I even came up with a rationalization for making candy that works for me. The hand-beating is a bit of a workout. I'm pretty sure I burn enough calories stirring the creams to more than compensate for however many pieces of maple creams I might accidentally eat.

So here's the link to my post, Giovanna's Maple Creams--I feel pretty honored having it up at his site. Enjoy!

Visiting Vancouver

I went to Vancouver for the first time in 1975, back when I was 12 years old. It was my first trip out of the country. I have a few memories of that trip: driving over Lions' Gate Bridge into North Vancouver and the terrifying Capilano Suspension bridge --I've never recovered, and remain scared of heights.

But I remember the food more. A dinner out at a Greek restaurant--where the friends we were visiting, whose last name was tricky to pronounce with its-ough ending (did it rhyme with cough, rough, or dough?), gave their name as 'Smith' with such nonchalance that I still remember it. In fact, I keep meaning to come up with an alias to give at restaurants and cafes (Giovanna being too hard to spell). Perhaps 'Laura' after my favorite childhood author, or 'Cecile' after the character in Shadows on the Rock. (Suggestions will be happily accepted).

We also ate at a Native American restaurant, I believe called Mukluk (later it was Liliget, now sadly gone), where we sat on the floor with so many First Nations' masks watching over us, and ate fiddleheads and smoked ooligans. Don't ask me how I remember that--but I do.

I like the bustle of today's Vancouver. One reason we ate at the izakayas on this trip was to partake in Vancouver's excitement. It's a cosmopolitan city, with so much to offer on so many levels. The first time I came here, I don't remember all the skyscrapers; when I drive in now, I always think of that old TV show, The Jetsons. Vancouver today, with all its rounded green and white skyscrapers looks to me like what we thought 2009 would look like back in the 60's and 70's.

When I visited as a child, Vancouver seemed very European. Today when I walk down Robson Street, I pass a building that I remember from that first visit. Inside I had bought a Mozartkugel, which then was a very exotic candy. Each time I've visited as an adult, I've passed that building, and each time I remember the thrill I felt as a 12-year-old, exploring a bigger world for a first time.

Today Vancouver is like the whole world. With the changeover in Hong Kong, there was a huge Asian influx to Vancouver. There is Little Italy, Greektown, and Punjabi Market (where would Vancouver be without Vij's?). According to Wikipedia, 52% of the city population have a first language other than English. It's exciting.

At some point, I heard about the West End's Sylvia Hotel.. Maybe my parents stayed here once when I was a kid? In the 1990's, I stayed there with my family. We had a kitchenette apartment, which looked as I imagine it must have in the 1940's. There's even a kids' book, Mister Got to Go ,that takes place in the Sylvia.

At the end of the day, after window shopping, lunch at a Japanese noodle shop, and plenty of walking, you can still amble into the Sylvia. Everything seems to slow down. There, overlooking English Bay, you can sit back and drink a beer or a cup of tea. The waiter will chat just enough, and the couple next to you, surely both retired, rest in each others arms, and look out the window. It might seem like a staid place, but I guess it's not--in 1954, they opened a cocktail lounge here. It was Vancouver's first. Imagine--in 1954.

I like it that for a few dollars you can journey back to an earlier, quieter Vancouver. Today's Vancouver is exciting and fun, but it's nice to have a respite.

Monday, March 16, 2009

My Week of Beer

Duvel and Chimay at Chambar

I hardly ever drink beer. Sure, there's the occasional beer at a barbecue. And I generally have one at a baseball game. Ok, sometimes I accept one when I'm watching a baseball game on TV. And a while back I figured out that if I find myself in a really bad restaurant where there isn't a single tempting food, a pint of beer can be a fairly reasonable dinner. Especially with a bag of peanuts, or some French Fries. It's filling.

The beer dinner strategy should be reserved for the most desperate times. The last time I had to use it was last year in Vancouver, when my sister and I found ourselves on the UBC campus after the semester was over. It's a huge place, and pretty eerie when it's down 35,000 people. We were spending the night in dorms. We had no transportation, and the only restaurant open and serving was 'The Pit'. Yes. That's right, it was called 'The Pit'--not exactly inviting. That night I had 2 pints of beer for dinner. But that was mainly because they didn't have any peanuts.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Grocery Shopping in Canada

I always visit grocery stores when I travel--for me they're mini (or not so mini) museums. The food is fascinating--it's at once all the same and yet so different from what I find back home.

Vancouver is an excellent grocery town. The downtown seems to have markets everywhere you turn. Within two blocks I passed a huge Safeway, a Capers (a Whole Foods affiliate) and a small neighborhood market. The small neighborhood markets pop up every couple blocks, and supply city dwellers with much of their needs. Produce stands line the sidewalks in front, and inside you find a decent, albeit small, selection of most of what you might desire.

The Safeway was much like mine. Well, except at mine they don't sell Riedel glassware, Cuisinart appliances, and Le Creuset cookware on the aisles.

Not to mention 'NoNuts' peanut butter (made with peas, apparently, instead of peanuts). Or jars of duo penotti (a Dutch hazelnut/chocolate spread--a bit like nutella).

Oh--a quick aside. Vancouver is full of Dutch surprises--I stocked up on drop (the salty or not so salty licorice), and they have a chain of Dutch pancake houses (which I've still never visited).

Pavel and I stopped at another grocery store one evening for a box of cookies to have with our tea. One hour later we left with the cookies, and a box of Post Shreddies to take back to our son who lives off cereal and milk between meals. Is cereal a normal gift to bring home?

But we also found a couple oddities (which is why it took an hour to get one box of cookies). For example, these 6 lb. vats of margarine. And they weren't alone--most of the margarines were packed in super-size tubs, at least 3 lb tubs.

And then there was this bag of chips. On closer examination, it's some sort of contest--maybe going on here in the U.S. as well? But who buys a bag of 'unidentified flavor' chips?

Maybe the same person who buys containers of grapples. But I'll write more about those another day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Reading in Canada

MacLeod's Bookstore--Canadian Literature shelf

Visiting bookstores is one of my favorite things to do in Canada. I am always surprised by how familiar they are on first glance, and then, when I start to browse, to see all the unknown (to me) authors and books that await me.

On this trip we stepped into the chain store, Chapters, which looks eerily similar to Barnes and Noble. I walked by the travel literature section. At my Portland Barnes and Noble I think there are 5 or 10 shelves in this section. Here there were 25. They also had a display of books translated from other languages. You get the feeling that Canadian readers look to the greater world more than we do in the U.S.

Years ago I read Where Nests the Water Hen by Gabrielle Roy. It's a beautiful, understated short novel set in northern Manitoba. I'd never heard of her, but my husband had read it translated into Czech. I rarely see her books in the U.S.

MacLeod's Bookstore

I spent about 30 minutes looking through the fiction shelf for authors I didn't know. I picked up a book of short stories by Mavis Gallant, an apparently quite prolific writer I'd never heard of (though clearly that's my own shortcoming--turns out her stories appear in the New Yorker). And then I saw The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke. Written in 1769 by a British woman in Canada, it's considered Canada's first novel. Actually, it's considered North America's first novel. Is that possible? There was even mention on the back about its Jane Austenesque writing. How had I never heard of it?

The childrens' books section holds similar promise. On a visit 10 years ago, my daughter discovered White Jade Tiger, about time travel back to 1880's Victoria Chinatown, and the The Guests of War Trilogy by Kit Pearson about English children sent to Canada during the war. Both became favorites. She also discovered the prolific Canadian writer Jean Little.

Downtown Vancouver has at least two bookstores always worth a stop. One is MacLeod's, at 455Pender West (by Richards) is the kind of used bookstore you could settle into for an afternoon. The shelves make a maze; books are piled in the bookcase, extra ones jumbled on their sides on top of other books. You can find recently used books as well as older hard to find titles.

Another store I like to visit is Sophia Books at 450 West Hastings--just a block away. It's a multilingual bookstore, lots of Japanese, Spanish, and French titles especially, along with magazines and movies. And it's a good place to find Japanese knitting magazines.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Izakaya in Vancouver

It was timely,'s article , '8 Great Izakaya Restaurants in Vancouver', barely a month ago. Timely because we were about to go to Vancouver, and we were hoping to at least try not to spend too much money. Izakaya restaurants offer a lot of bang for the buck; a couple can try out a bunch of small plates without blowing their budget. Without blowing it completely, anyway.

We managed to get to three of the restaurants on the list. First up was Ping's Cafe. Partly because I really liked their website. Except for the music--I am always surprised when (non-music)websites have music, and scramble to mute my computer. Anyway, if you're also easily startled, turn off your volume before you click through. Admittedly the site is a bit confusing, a Japanese restaurant with a Chinese name and described with French words. But I do like the feel of it just the same--very clean.

We made a reservation, and set off for other fun, a little unclear of where the restaurant was. Of course, we walked right by it while exploring a completely different (or so we thought) part of town. So in we went. As Gourmet mentioned, it was not very noticeable from outside.

Incidentally, the reason a Japanese izakaya restaurant is called Ping's is because when they were getting ready to open they found the old business sign in the back--it had been a Chinese-Canadian restaurant.

The interior is nearly all designed and built by the owners and their friends, all in cool grays, whites, and blacks. A little like the faded pencil of their website.

They call their food 'Western influenced Japanese comfort food'. To me it seemed not fusion food, but more the kind of food someone might cook after a generation or two in a new country--I was actually reminded a bit (though the food was completely different) of some of the recipes in Niloufer Ichaporia's My Bombay Kitchen. I don't have it at my side now, but I remember there being a few recipes there for American foods made with a Parsi sensibility. Which I guess, technically, is fusion--but an organic fusion. If you see what I mean.

Anyway, we ate fairly well, especially enjoying the spicy spinach, and the happy faced Kabocha pumpkin croquettes.

Our second izakaya was Guu Otokomae, in Gastown. There I had only the Bibimbap, a perfect comfort meal for someone who was tired, a little cold, and a little hungry. So hungry, apparently, I forgot to take a picture until it was nearly all gone.

Can you tell I liked it? Only one problem--I suppose it's normally mixed together by the server, as it was here. But what a lot of fun to take away from the diner. You have your hot rice and hot stone bowl, veggies and bits of meat, and the raw egg on top. I wanted to stir it up myself!

The third and last izakaya we hit was Hapa Izakaya, their Kitsilano location. My favorites were the saba, the mackerel brought out raw and singed at the table with a torch, the duck with wilted bok choy, and the pork gyoza surrounded by thin slices of lotus root.

I liked all three izakaya we visited, but was reminded again how very special Biwa in Portland is--their saba is one of my favorite things to eat in Portland. I guess I'll have to eat there soon again, and tell you about it. For now, I'll just say that the thing that makes Biwa so special, I think, is their clean flavors--everything tastes exactly like itself, unmuddled.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Vancouver Days 2, 3, and 4

The days all start the same--coffee at Caffe Artigiano, a place we know about from past visits and, of course, There are 4 locations in downtown Vancouver, one is a block from our hotel, the other a half-block from the hotel where Pavel's conference is. Aside from breaking a tooth there last year (the fault of my tooth, not the scone), I have nothing but good things to say about it.

A certain amount of Sunday afternoon was passed in the hotel room, sadly, working. But we got out...for more coffee, and a stop at the wonderful Assembly of Text, a stationery shop that my daughters and some nieces would love.

Back out to the elements. It's been nothing if not cold; I remembered my mittens, but the hat's back in the hotel.

The next day we woke to this:

But by the end of the day the snow was mainly gone, and we walked to dinner (more on that in a later post):

Tuesday's lunch (day 4) was something my mother would not approve of. Come to think of it, as a mother, I'm not sure I approve of it. But it's what I had. Waffles with bananas, chocolate, and whipped cream. Hey, at least bananas are fruit! This was at Mink, a perfectly pleasant chocolate cafe, conveniently located just 2 blocks from me.

Also, in my defense, I had plain coffee with my waffle. I did not follow it up, like some people I know, with a tall glass of drinking chocolate.

After lunch, we stopped in at the Marine Building, a place you should definitely see on your next visit here. And be sure to look inside the elevators at the inlaid wood as well.

My pictures don't really do it justice, but there are plenty of images over on flickr.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Giovanna Learns Empathy

For some time, my daughter, who goes to college in the Netherlands, has complained about her inability to watch movies online. I've listened to her complaints somewhat, well, unfeelingly. So she can't watch movies online. Neither could I in college. Surely she could find something else to do.

And she did. She discovered the old musicals she wanted to see were often available on youtube--not exactly what I'd had in mind.

Anyway. Now I'm in Canada. And I thought it might be nice, after a day of walking, writing, and reading, to sit back with my knitting and watch a movie. I figured if I looked over my left shoulder once in a while, it wouldn't be a complete waste:

I've recently discovered that with a Netflix account you can watch an awful lot of movies instantly, on your computer. Surprise! This is what I saw when I logged on:

Oh well. At least the World Baseball Classic is on now. Still, I think I owe my daughter an apology.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Vancouver Day 1

The day starts with the view out my window (I'm lounging on the chaise longue).

And then a walk to Café Medina.

I was here last year, soon after they opened, and have been thinking about their waffles ever since--the fig orange marmalade is especially delicious, with shards of candied peel and whole figs.

But their menu has expanded since then, so we also sampled their tagine--two poached eggs atop a spicy pepper stew, a couple merguez sausages nestled at the side.

Then a walk across downtown and through the West End to the Sylvia Hotel, a truly special place. We sat back into a couple easy chairs and nursed our beers. The sun had been playing hide and seek all day, and now was out shining on English Bay. If I slouched just right in my chair I could watch the water sparkle above the rim of my beer glass.

The temperature was also zipping around today. On our way back to downtown, it was even snowing. Luckily we came upon a roasted chestnut stand. We knew what to do.

Exhausted, we ended our day at Ezogiku Noodle Cafe, for a big bowl of ramen--just the thing for us, as we both seem to be flirting with colds.

Czinese Friends

My husband and his family came to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia in the mid-80's. My mother-in-law, when she was a student at Charles University in the 50's, became close friends with L-, an exchange student from China. After college, the friend returned to China to work as a translator. For a few years they remained good friends by mail, until the time came that Czechoslovakia was no longer a favored communist friend of China. Receiving letters from Czech friends was dangerous for the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, and the friendship was put on hold--though I'm sure they both could only imagine it was a permanent change.

Fast forward 40 years, and my in-laws had immigrated to the U.S. One day, completely out of the blue, my mother-in-law got a letter from L-. She and her husband had immigrated to Canada. Since then, they've visited one another's homes. And Friday night, Pavel and I visited L- and her husband in Vancouver.

First we had the tour of their apartment--the walls are covered with B-'s paintings (L-'s husband). He too had been sent to study in Czechoslovakia. In his case, it was to learn about fashion design--not what many of us would expect to be a draw in 1950's Eastern Block, but Prague was one of the more fashion forward cities behind the curtain in those days. He returned to Beijing to start the fashion program at a university. But he was also a traditional Chinese watercolorist.

L- went to Czechoslovakia for the language. She still works as a translator--her bookshelves are full of the Czech works she's translated into Mandarin, everything from Seifert poetry to Hrabal, Hašek, and Kundera. She'll be traveling to Prague in a few months to work on her memoir.

And she cooked us dinner. Roast duck, a steamed carp-like fish, beef with peppers, beef with tripe, soup, and potatoes with Sichuan pepper. Which incidentally is not pepper at all (though the package she had called it gray pepper). And to drink? Pilsner Urquell.

I spent the dinner smiling and nodding; conversation was in Czech, with occasional Chinese between L- and B-, and occasional English between Pavel and myself. For me it was 3 hours in that odd state you fall into when you don't understand the language. I get bits of the Czech, enough to have a clue of what people are talking about. But mainly I don't--so on the one hand, it's extremely fatiguing. But at the same time, I find myself dazing out a bit, and also getting more than I usually would from visual clues and mannerisms. Either way, I was very tired at the end of the night.

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