Last Supper in Pompeii

What a wonderful show to mark the beginning of “return to normal” after the pandemic.

Last Supper In Pompeii

Even though the title is called “Supper”, there are actually surprisingly few artifacts demonstrate what dishes were served in Pompeii at 79 AD. But there are plenty about wine and what ingredients were included in a Pompeii dinner.

From top left, clock wise: A fresco of a politician distributing bread to voters; a terracotta jar to fattening dormouse before eating them and a jar to prepare snails (let them empty contents in their digesting system before eating them); A rabbit eating figs before the rabbit will be cooked; a rooster eating pomegranate before the rooster itself will be eaten; carbonized fig demonstrated how fig was served in pompeii–first halved and lay flat, apply honey, then close up with another halved fig like a sandwich, resulting in a giant peanut shaped “coupled fig”; fish sauce that was made from fermented fish, one of Pompeii’s local specialty.

After spending so much time admiring the bronze from ancient China, I’m struck by the common usage of bronze in Pompeii daily life, and their exquisite details. Oil lamps, hand washing pan, lamp stand, fountain fixtures, water heater, wine mixter, wineskin shaped jug, food mold, small dining table, etc.

This bronze statue of Bacchus has its eyes still intact. A rarity thanks to the pumice that enveloped Pompeii at its entirety before the volcanic ash fell upon them. Found this interesting explanation by the Met of what was used to make an eye: marble, frit, quartz, and obsidian.

But what took my breath away and stayed with me days after seeing the show were the three giant garden frescos in the first exhibition hall. The verdant plants, shrubs, trees, blooms, birds were so detailed, accurate and beautiful. Olive trees, bay, oleander, cypress, palm, strawberry, rose, daisy, black bird, dove, pigeon,.

Frescoes from a garden room
Roman, Pompeii, House of the Golden Bracelet, salone 32, second quarter of 1st century AD

The House of the Golden Bracelet was a palatial residence on the western edge of Pompeii, laid out over three floors to accommodate the sloping land scape and the city walls. On the lowest level were the garden and two lavishly painted rooms: a summer triclinium (dining room) and a small reception hall. Both open on one side to a lush garden with a fountain and pools, while beyond the terrace stretches a panoramic sea view,

The north and south walls of the small room (on view here, left and right) are painted with a similar scheme of garden statuary set in a verdant landscape filled

with birds and flora. A scalloped marble fountain is flanked by two marble herms, each holding a decorative panel (pinax) with a relief of a reclining female. The female herm on the left holds a picture lent hold of Ariadne, the lover of the god Bacchus. The male herm, with a satyr’s wild face, holds a panel s a maenad, one of the followers of Bacchus, pair showing of theatrical masks hangs from the top. The garden scenery fresco the middle (to the left) is decorated with a pair of marble circular reliefs (oscilla). Evidence that this room contained a small couch (kline) suggests that it, like the adjacent triclinium, might also have been used for dining.

This show in British Museum back in 2013 reconstructed the actual room of #32. South wall here has a small window.

After some research, I realized there were more fresco in the original UK show but didn’t make it to San Francisco. For example, this three paneled fresco on the south wall of an adjacent room (salone 31).

In the room #31, eastern wall was decorated with glass mosaic instead of fresco, the center opening is no a small window like in its neighboring room #32, but a waterfall cascading down to a small pool at its base.

VI.17.42 Pompeii. Summer triclinium 31, original nymphaeum mosaic pattern reconstructed in exhibition apse. Now in Naples Archaeological Museum.  Inventory numbers 40689A-G. See Conticello, B., Ed, 1990. Rediscovering Pompeii. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider. (194, p. 275-280).
VI.17.42 Pompeii. April 2019, on display in Antiquarium.
Summer triclinium 31, detail of original nymphaeum mosaic pattern reconstructed in exhibition apse. 
Photo courtesy of Rick Bauer.

There is another bigger pool outside of room #31, that has 28 water sprouts built around it. Archeologist has identified room 31 as a dining room. Fountains in the fresco, fountains behind the wall, fountains everywhere.

During my Roman garden research, i came upon this Pliny Younger’s villas and garden letters

At the upper end is a semicircular bench of white marble, shaded with a vine which is trained upon four small pillars of Carystian marble. Water, gushing through several little pipes from under this bench, as if it were pressed out by the weight of the persons who repose themselves upon it, falls into a stone cistern underneath, from whence it is received into a fine polished marble basin, so artfully contrived that it is always full without ever overflowing. When I sup here, the tray of whets and the larger dishes are placed round the margin, while the smaller ones swim about in the form of little ships and water-fowl. Opposite this is a fountain which is incessantly emptying and filling, for the water which it throws up to a great height falling back again into it, is by means of connected openings returned as fast as it is received.Fronting the bench stands a chamber of lustrous marble, whose doors project and open upon a lawn; from its upper and lower windows the eye ranges upward or downward over other spaces of verdure,… In different quarters are disposed several marble seats, which serve as so many reliefs after one is wearied with walking. Next each seat is a little fountain; and throughout the whole hippodrome small rills conveyed through pipes run murmuring along, wheresoever the hand of art has seen proper to conduct them; watering here and there different spots of verdure, and in their progress bathing the whole.

All of these reminded me of moorish gardens in Alhambra.

The Mediterranean

We noticed the birds right away upon our arrival at Granada. They came out in droves at dusk. They reminded me of starlings in Rome. Nine years ago, on our last night in Rome, we saw the grand symphony of starling swarm from Campidoglio. We climbed to the top of the stairs of S. Maria in Aracoeli with a few dozen tourists. We stood in the fading light of the dusk, watched for over an hour. Mesmerized.

Golondrinas in Spain didn’t do swarms. They flew in a more chaotic fashion above the squares and churches. Initially, Noah even suspected they may be bats.

As we moved around in andalusia, i noticed more similarities between Spanish towns and Italian ones. Toledo reminded me of Siena, Tarifa Siracusa. Then as we ventured across the strait of Gibraltar, Tangier Kasbah reminded me of Turkey(or Greece that i’ve seen in pictures): whitewashed walls with bright yellow and blue splashes. The abundant cats wondering the streets and parks.

Paul Theroux’ Pillars of Hercules pointed out that all these cities and towns are distinctly mediterranean. They share more similarities with each other than with inland cities of their own countries. “Alexandria and Venice, Marseilles and Tunis, and even smaller places like Cagliari and Palma and Split.”

He was absolutely right. It is not just Spain or Italy, Roman or Greek, Byzantine or Moorish. They are all Mediterranean.

After we got back, i feverishly devoured a bunch of Moorish or Spain related books: Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain, Xiaofei Tian’s The Red Fort, and Robert Crowley’s Empires of the Sea. While still reading random chapters of Pillars of Hercules in between.

One sentence toward the end of “Empire of the sea” stunned me. Suddenly all the puzzle pieces fell into place. Coherence!

THE TREATY OF 1580 RECOGNIZED a stalemate between two empires and two worlds. From this moment, the diagonal frontier that ran the length of the Mediterranean between Istanbul and the Gates of Gibraltar hardened. The competitors turned their backs on each other, the Ottomans to fight the Persians and confront the challenge of Hungary and the Danube once more, Philip to take up the contest in the Atlantic. After the annexation of Portugal he looked west and symbolically moved his court to Lisbon to face a greater sea. He had his own Lepanto still to come— the shipwreck of the Spanish armada off the coast of Britain, yet another consequence of the Spanish habit of sailing too late in the year. In the years after 1580, Islam and Christendom disengaged in the Mediterranean, one gradually to introvert, the other to explore.

The diagonal frontier! That’s it! Once upon a time, such frontier didn’t exist. The entire Mediterranean functioned as one messy/quarrelsome family. They fought, they traded, they learned from each other. Empires ebb and flow along the tide of time. They might originate from different coasts of the sea. But they didn’t turn their backs on each other. The ancient egyptians hired greek mercenaries to fight off the syrians. The Greek then saw the grand pyramids, came home and went about to replace their original wooden temples with stony ones. The Romans kept up the tradition and improved it further. Then came the Arabs whose beautiful palaces and mosques covered with ceramic tiles in Cordoba and Granada had its roots in pompei’s mosaic clad mansions and aya sophia of Byzantine. They improved irrigation systems on top of Roman’s, brought their fountains and gardens to medieval Europe, they translated Aristotle and Plato and interpreted them in the context of religion. Those treasures were returned to Italy after the dark age, ignited the renaissance.
Until 1580.

In our modern history, in our life time, we’ve never known the mediterranean without this frontier. In my mind Mediterranean has always been two distinct halves, the more prosperous,progressive, and sunlight filled northern and western part, and the dark and backward south and eastern part. The boundaries is actually not just diagonal. The dark side also includes the Balkans.

I looked back further and realized this separation started in Byzantine time. After western Roman Empire fell to the Visigoth, the Mediterranean have slowly came to these two halves and stayed this way.  Coincident with the rise of Christianity and Islam.




Visiting Andalusia reminded me that it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to stay this way, right?

Tropical Vacations

During my traveling days, I’ve always been partial to mountains and cities. Tropical vacations has been very few.  Looking back, I found out the only two tropical vacations I had both happened to be during Thanksgiving week. Both time i went with Gui, who loves the tropics and a veteran of all the tropical paradise: Tahiti, Bali, Bahamas, British Virgin Island, yucatan peninsula, Costa Rica, and many trips to Hawaii since she moved to San Francisco.

Nov. 2001 Cabo San Lucas, Sea of Cortez

I went with my diving partner Jenny, Gui and Matthew. It was right after Jenny and I got our PADI diving certificates from West Valley college. Jenny and I got off work twice a week to attend the classes (usually one lecture, one pool session) for 10 weeks. Final certification happened in the cold water of Monterey bay with amazing kelp forest. Two full day dives of four dives total if i remember correctly. I also failed the swimming test at the beginning of the quarter and had to retake it (and passed, whew!) prior to our ocean dive certification tests.  I forgot how many laps it was required to pass the tests, but it was a longer distance than I could manage initially.

Diving in tropical water is so different from diving in Monterey. I’m very glad we did the trip. I remember seeing my first octopus in flight while diving (thanks to Jenny who noticed him, and i did the incorrect touristy thing by poking it with my flashlight, unknowingly forced it to put up a show for us). It was an amazing sight, not only the octopus changes color as it skid past rocks, ocean vegetation; but its skin also changes texture to match its background. All these happened within the blink of an eye. Then it was gone.

I finished reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the beach in between our diving trips.


I loved the open air lobby of our hotel, where sparrows flew in and out as we were waiting to check in. The air felt warm and comfortable on the skin in the evening, and hot and blazing during the day.

Nov. 2003, Phuket, Thailand

Looking at the photos, i remembered in addition to Gui and Matthew, Gui’s college friend Sara also joined us. I think she was working for a non-profit in Thailand then and used to send Gui funny stories of her work there. I don’t remember if I dived in Phuket.

I remembered snorkel off the beach in front of the hotel during the day, as i was heading back to the beach, i saw a local boy swimming into the ocean holding a long pole with some fixture of ropes and hooks.  I then joined Matthew sitting under a local food stand on the beach. A while later, the local boy with the pole came back with a freshly caught octopus in hand. Turned out Matthew ordered an octopus salad. And we witnessed the entire process of harvesting and cooking in one shot. Matthew said it was the freshest octopus salad he has ever tasted.
I also remembered the last day of the trip when Gui, Matthew and Sara continued on to a diving expedition on the other side of Phuket, I checked out my hotel, still have a few hours to kill before heading to the airport. I walked into the airy patio of Le Meridian on the beach which was next to our hotel but with a much better view and higher price tag, and sat in one of many comfy chairs and read my book on that trip, Enigma by Robert Harris. It was such a pleasant morning, with beautiful view of the Andaman sea, the breeze, the tropical fragrant in the air, always smiling wait staff, leisure sail boat on the sea, and a satisfied read. It must be the low season, the entire morning I almost had the entire large and beautiful patio to myself. Only one other woman customer came in and sat a few seat from me about mid-morning.


In between these two trips, there was also the three weeks Ecuador trip Sara and I ended up going April of 2002. It was also in a tropical setting since Ecuador is right on the equator, and our trip also included one week cruise among the very special Galapagos, but it felt less a tropical trip, more an adventure.

I never quite shook my unease with diving. My sister happened to be an advanced diver, she learned diving in Tahiti while attending a summary school session with Cal’s ocean-biology(or something like that) department. My mom loves swimming more than anything else and she still swim laps three days a week now. I’m the black sheep in the family. The year 2000 was my year of adventure, after mastering skiing, got hooked on rock climbing, and skydived once and loved it. I went for the scuba certification.

But i was always nervous before each dive (even though i really haven’t done that much). Later when i found out my sister also had her own fear about diving each time before she went in the water all suited up. I suddenly felt relieved and decided not to force myself to dive. Snorkel was just as fun in the tropicals and so much more relaxed for me.

My best snorkel experience has to be during our cruise at Galapagos. I remember a penguin shooting past me like a missile and missing my face by a hair as i was entering the narrow entrance of a sunk crater; I remember swimming in the crystal clear water and watch a group of sharks “circling” a large group of fish right beneath me; I remember a sea lion swam up to me and floated itself upside down, stared at me with its huge pretty eyes, and then blew a series of bubble at my mask…

I’m about to visit Hawaii for the first time this Thanksgiving. Surprisingly, everything i read about Hawaii, especially the scenery, reminded me of Ecuador. People’s description of the drive to Hana match exactly what i remembered from our bus ride from Papallacta in the Andes to Pimpilala in the Amazon Jungle. The description of the volcanos reminded me of our mountain biking trip down the volcano Cotopaxi in Quito Valley. And the varied colored sand beaches reminded me of Galapagos.

If Hawaii is a smaller, tamer, more civilized version of Ecuador that’s only 5 -7 hours away from home, then I can see myself visiting it more often. I could also understand why people will equate Hawaii with Paradise.

Living without the Cloud

Trying to work from China is such a bizarre experience.  The Cloud I have been taken for granted simply doesn’t exist in China.  While on-site in our business partner’s office, we would be lucky to have minimum internet access (http/https). VPN was not allowed. So we are subject to the full brutal force of the Great Firewall. No Docs, Sites, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Gmail is intermittent, trying to download anything from a gmail attachment is hit and miss. Search on Google was unbelievably bad.  We happened to be in Chongqing during the same week of the carefully orchestrate murder trial of Gu Kailai. As a result, the word “Chongqing” became a “banned” search keyword. Trying to search anything contains that word will result in “connection reset by peer” (classic indication you’ve been GWFed).  So i had to use Baidu even when all i wanted to search for is as political as a “good restaurant”.

One of the first thing i did was to purchase a Chinese SIM loaded with data plan. I have a Galaxy Nexus, and used to getting HSPA+ connectivity in the bay area on T-Mobile’s network. With a CMCC SIM, the best connectivity i got was Edge.  Then with the often blocked connection, i felt like i was dropped back to the days when one has to use modem dialup connection to the internet.  Everything became excruciatingly slow.

Eventually i got so sick of watching the little spinning wheel indicating the never ending loading process, I avoid using the internet all together when i’m not in the hotel wifi range.

I understood the value of native applications.  They  provide a semi-sane user experience and the illusion of connection to the outside world. I used off-line Gmail on my desktop, Gmail app and Google Reader App on my phones.

But overall, i felt a strange sense of isolation. The world in the Cloud faded into the distance. Even more interesting was i stopped using the Chinese sites that i now have full access to (there is a reverse Great Firewall effect you don’t hear people talking about, for Chinese site with sensitive contents on them, trying to access them from outside of firewall will also result in “connection reset by peer” error).  I couldn’t explain the reason. As if accessing the consolation price only intensified the feeling of isolation.

All the while, the Chinese society kept on bustling along. All these people were happily enjoying the limited internet without the strong sense of loss and withdraw that i was experiencing. Even more admiringly, there were people “climbing over” the Great Firewall on a daily basis, merely trying to get to all these trivial content that we have been taken for granted.

Now i’ve been back in the comfort of highspeed Internet connectivity of Silicon Valley. Everytime I heard people say the word “Cloud Computing”, I would shudder and remember that little spinning wheel on my phone while i was in China, and the despair I felt then.

W Taipei

Staying at W Taipei is like participating in a scavenger hunt without realizing it.  One continues to make new discovery of the amenity of the room.

On my second night, i was staring at this wall of white blocks, thinking to myself, what a waste of space. If this had been a regular residential room, what a lovely shelf space it would have made.

Then i walked closer and noticed the shelf right below the red dianosour seems to have a gap that is hinting at a door. I pushed the front of the shelf, viola! Coffee presser and electrical tea kettle!

When i shared my discovery with my co-workers at breakfast the next morning. One of them just made exactly the same discovery and the other was pleasantly surprised. He even complained of the lack of a tea kettle in the room on his survey after his last stay! Ha, i wonder what percent of patrons actually find the kettle.

Then yesterday evening when we were meeting up in the hotel bar after work. The conversation topic shifted to how nice the shower head is. I was puzzled. i thought the shower is fine, but nothing to write home about. One of my co-worker has this grin on his face, “that’s because you haven’t discovered the shower head on the ceiling!”

There is a shower head on the ceiling?!

Sure enough, there is! and it is HEAVENLY! Next time i renovate our bathroom, i’m putting one on the ceiling too! 🙂

This morning when i walked out the room to check out, i was wondering to myself how many hidden gem were left undiscovered as the door closed behind me…

New York City Trip Highlights

Gui said once that the biggest advantage of living in SF is you rarely gets “post-vacation-blues” because this is such a damn beautiful city. No matter which vacation spot you just returned from, SF is so unique and lovely that it could always hold its own ground.  The only exception will be during the summer of SF. 🙁

For the first time in his 22 months of living on earth, Noah tasted the sentiment of “home sweet home” last Saturday night when we got back. He stepped into our living room and started screaming in joy to be reunited with his old toys and familiar surroundings. I figure he probably had no idea what had happened in the last week while we were in NYC. Maybe he thought we have moved to NYC for good.

Chatting with Gui on the phone this morning, she laughed, “my apartment looked so NEW!”  I nodded in agreement, “yeah, our place has so much SPACE! and my roses are blooming like crazy in the BACKYARD!”

Before i’m settling into the comfort of San Francisco living. I want to record a couple of more highlights of our trip.

1. High Line Park in Chelsea

I’ve seen lots of photos of High Line park on the net, i’ve heard the rave review of its design. I had very high expectations of this park.

High Line Park Photo from the web.

High expectation usually means disappointment when one sees the real thing. But not high line park. It exceeds even my hyped up expectations. It is original, creative, and such a perfect fit for New York City. When design is done right, it not only provides pleasing and original visual, but it is also highly functional.  It is such a perfect park for this metropolitan.  Even for visitors like us, we thoroughly enjoyed it during our short visit.  The elevated pathway gives every visitor more space to breathe and a different perspective of the city.

Pictures don’t do its justice. One has to experience High Line park by being there to appreciate it. The environment, the sound, the various aspect of the neighborhood as you stroll along the park pathway from 14th street all the way to 30th.

Noah Loves Highline Park

so did i…

2. Met Opera

I’ve only heard of Wagner’s The Ring Opera series from serious Opera lovers. When Gui suggested Siegfried as pat of our NY trip. I happily agreed. Even though it is five hours long. I haven’t seen an opera for over three years. It was such a treat. Not only the stage design and lighting were creative and beautiful, but also the story line and music were rich and full of twists and turns (unlike most typical opera’s story line that just goes on and on about some silly love story).  Not to mention the thrill of being entertained by real actors for such a long stretch of time!

Watching this in New York City added another layer of attractiveness to the whole experience. It is one thing to drive home after a show like we do in SF. It is totally different to walk into the warm night, catching a subway train at Columbus Circle, surrounded by the still alive nightlife of a big metropoli. It makes the whole experience more “alive”. It made me feel part of a city–an almost alive organism that has its blood running 24/7.

We loved Siegried so much that we wanted to watch the next and final opera of the series which was scheduled to show on the Thursday of the same week and it is six hours long! But all the sub-100 dollar tickets were gone by then. We didn’t want to shell out $250 per head. Maybe next time when it comes to San Fran…

3. Metropolitan Museum

I forgot it was supposed to be the Louvre of the States until i saw the room after room filled with Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, and Monet. Until we asked a gallery attendee 10 minutes before closing time, “Vermeer?” and he replied, “We have five Vermeer…” FIVE!!

What a treat!

Vermeer @ Met

Picasso @ Met

Modigliani @ Met

Madly In Love with NYC

Three years ago, Mi and I visited Alice in Seattle over July 4th weekend. We had a great time. But i thought Seattle was way too homogenous comparing to SF, too clean, too new, too YUPPIE. SF was a lot more diverse and gritty than Seattle. I was very proud of our little city by the bay.

The past Sunday we landed in NYC for our first vacation with Noah. and for the first time i realized the hugh contrast between SF and NYC. SF is too homogenous, too clean, too new, too YUPPIE.  Mostly it is too filled with the same kind of Silicon Valley people.  But NYC, OMG. all the bibles i’ve been reading on city planning, on how to create a vibrant and energitic city. They were all written based on NYC! They are living it!

The amount of energy is contagious. So many people, so many shops, so many neighborhoods, so many stories happening, 24/7. Gui and Matthew came with us this time, too. They were equally impressed. “It is like Europe and China combined, but better”. “it is a truly urban cosmopolitan.”

London, Paris, and Rome were all once the cosmopolitan center of the world. Now they are still great urban cities where people have been enjoying urban living for centuries. But they are no longer as diverse as they used to be. Like Paul Theroux said in “The Pillars of Hercules”:

The great multiracial stewpot of the Mediterranean had been replaced by cities that were physically larger but smaller-minded…they…had sorted themselves out, and retreated to live among their own kind. I had yet to find a Mediterranean city that was polyglot and cosmopolitan.

Even under the Ottomans, Smyrna had been full of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Circassians, Kurds, Arabs, Gypsies, whatever, and now it was just Turks; Istanbul was the same, and so were the once-important cities of the Adriatic..It was hard to imagine a black general named Othella living in Venice now, though there were any number of Senegalese peddlers hawking trinkets there.

Certainly London and Paris are better than the current port cities of the Mediterranean. But when it comes to diversity they can’t hold a candle to New York. I met a British trador on my 3 weeks Ecudor trip, and we became really good friend. She blurred out once at dinner during our trip, “i’ve never met a Chinese person outside of a Chinese restaurant while i was in Europe.”  That was 2002. Things must have improved in the past 10 years. But the US have at least a few decades ahead of Europe in that respect.

Not sure if i’m crazy, but i’m seriously tempted to move to New York for a year or two. Just to experience such a great city first hand.  It is amazing it takes me this long to appreciate it.  I’ve visited NYC after i graduated from College. One would have thought being young, i would have loved the fast pase and the aggressiveness of the city. But it only intimidated me then.  Somehow, walking the same street, watching the same fast paced city living around me, i’m no longer bothered by its aggressiveness or its fast pace.  Maybe it was like swimming in treacherous river.  On one hand, i’ve learned a thing or two about myself and the world, so i could navigate it better. On the other hand, i also felt more grounded that I am no longer afraid of being sweeped away by the current.

Oct. 2002, when I visited Mi in NYC for the first time, he took this photo of me in the Temple of Dendur.

Nine and half years later, May 2012, he took this photo of me and Noah at the same place in the Metropolitan Museum. 🙂

Siena 2009

During our trip to Italy in the Fall of 2009, we fell in love with Siena at first sight. Finding the couple of images from Siena for this new WordPress theme brought back flood of fond memories…

Piazza del Campo

Biccherne Covers

Gui suggested Siena as we were planning our trip. She reminded me of its appearance in the book we both loved: “Winds of War” by Herman Wouk.

He took a bus to Siena, a three-hour run up a rutted scary mountain road. Twice before he had visited the bizarre little town, all red towers and battlements and narrow crooked streets, set around a gaudy zebra-striped cathedral, on a hilltop amid rolling green and brown Tuscan vineyards.

Since the fourteenth century – so Byron had learned – nothing much had happened in Siena besides the Palios. A rich city-state of the Middle Ages, the military rival of Florence, Siena in 1348 had been isolated by the Black Death, and frozen in its present form as by a spell. A few art lovers now drifted here to admire the fourteenth-century paintings and architecture. The world at large flocked to Siena twice a year to watch the mad horse races, and otherwise let the bypassed town, a living scene out of an old tapestry, molder in the Tuscan sunshine.

Coming from the tourist swarming Florence, we loved seeing all the university students and locals walking around town when we got off the bus at Siena(an hour and 15 minutes bus ride away from Florence). We loved going into churches and museums and finding ourselves the only visiters and we could linger in peace without being asked to pay at every door way like in Florence.

The only drawback was our visit coincide with a sudden chilly spell that literately froze the town. It was not so bad during the day when the sun was out. But in the evening, the temperature dropped to 2-3C. The first night we put on every single piece of clothing we had in our luggage and braved the evening streets. We quickly admitted defeat. Grabbed two sandwich from the nearest deli and returned to our hotel room for some warmth.

We also encountered our first pleasant surprise of the trip: Biccherne Covers at “Archivio di Stato Siena” (Siena State Archive).

Biccherna is the Italian term used to describe small painted panels, named after the chief financial office of Siena, were initially created as covers for the state ledgers or administrative balance sheets between the 13th and 17th centuries. The biccherne provide a fascinating window into the daily life of an Italian city-state and evolving republic at the dawn of modern economic thinking.

In 1257 the Office of the Biccherna, …inaugurated the custom of commissioning panel paintings from the best artists in the community to function as the covers of its semi-annual collection of public ledgers.

The layout of the boards remains unchanged: at the top there is the painting and at the bottom the inscription bearing the date, the names of the main components of Biccherna, the arms of their families.

We first encountered these covers on our first walk to the Duomo (the “zebra-striped cathedral” described in Winds of War). A young man sitting in a small shop painting his version of these covers. They were fantastic. I then found out about the free tour at the State Archive where hundreds of such cover has accumulated and being preserved.

I loved the combination of the painting, the inscriptions, and the binding materials: gold plate mixed with jet-black inky background, metal studs, leather strips. They looked like those magic books from Harry Potter! ZM loved the varied and vivid arms from different families.

Who would have thought something so beautiful could have been created for tax records! Only in Italy!

The two books on the left were from the State Archive. The two on the right were done by the young man in the shop.

No photos allowed during the tour, so i only managed to snap a couple of not so well preserved books in the display case prior to our tour.
No catalog of the covers can be found in any of the bookstores in Siena. I only managed to get a thin little book with Italian and some small photos of these covers before we left Siena.
But i managed to find a few more digital copy of the cover (most of them are not of very good quality) and made a Picasa collection. It is a shame this treasure remained so little known:

Biccherne Cover – Siena

Here are a few more photos from our trip.

People enjoying the sun at Piazza del Campo. I loved this Piazza, it is so airy, lively, and peaceful. It reminded me of the square in front of Pompidou at Paris.

I loved this photo that ZM took at the back of the tower of Siena. Real people actually live here! It is the biggest disappointment we had of Florence, there don't seem to be any real people living in the center of town anymore. It feels like a theme park.

We were the only visitors to this Church on top one of Siena's three hills: Santa Maria dei Servi. We ran into an old couple from New Mexico on our way out. They insisted on taking this photo for us.

"The Zebra-Stripped Cathedral"

One of many pathways leading to Piazza del Campo

A good meal at Antica Trattoria Papei.

Our hotel receptionist recommended Antica Trattoria Papei to us. It is one of the local’s favorit restaurnts, too. The meal was good. The view was fantastic. It was tucked away in the back of the Campo, but it has a view open up to the valley and half of the town below. On our second and last night in Siena. We walked across the Campo, through the narrow medieval path way, toward the open terrace where the restaurant was located. I loved the church bell echoing through the valley. The bell tolled for the slightly fading dusk light, for the green valley opened up in front of us, and for the last shade of pink in the horizon.

I love Siena.

Back from Italy

The Last Night in Rome

The Last Night in Rome

Yesterday was a long day of travel across ocean and continents, starting from 4:40am in a Rome hostel by the train station, and ending in the comfort of our home in San Fran, total of 25 hours in transit.

Turned on my camera this morning and realized the very last photo of the two thousand plus was this one from our last night in Rome: a cello left lying on the piazza of Campo dei Fiori. Seemed a rather fitting ending of the past 21 days. One session of music has ended, awaits for more?

Now i have to go through all the photos and collect my thoughts. Three weeks has always been my upper bound of being away: Europe in 1997, Eucador in 2002, Turkey in 2004, China in 2005, and now Italy in 2009. But this time, I wasn’t as eager to return home as before. We have gotten into a somewhat comfortable pattern during our final weeks traveling in Sicily. Finding a base, then peaking into little towns in the vicinity, deciding on length of stay, checking out the scene, finding our favorite local Trattoria or Osteria, trying out new dishes, new pastry/bakery/sweets, and then move on.

Places we’ve been are: Rome, Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Naples, Herculaneum, Pompeii, Palermo, Corlenone, Syracusa, Ragusa. My favorite places are Rome and Siena…

More to come…

Roman Ruins – Ephesus and Pompeii

Saw a picture of Pompeii which suddenly reminded me of my favorite place in Turkey: Ephesus. Dug out our trip photo from Ephesus, flood of memory came back.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey

Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey

Gui asked me which of the two came first. I thought Ephesus was an ancient Greek city. Since Pompeii was Roman, that puts Ephesus before Pompeii.

Or does it?

Wikipedia browsing turned out more detail dates. Ephesus was founded earlier than Pompeii, 10th century BC versus 7th century BC.

Ephesus (Ancient Greek Ἔφεσος, Turkish Efes) was an ancient Greek city on the west coast of Anatolia, near present-day Selçuk, Izmir Province, Turkey. It was one of the twelve cities of the Ionian League during the Classical Greek period.


But the key difference is the fact that Pompeii was abandoned/destroyed earlier than Ephesus. 79 AD’s volcanic event froze Pompeii in that era. But Ephesus went on living.

After Rome Republic, Rome Empire, Ephesus started its slow decline during its rule under Byzantine Empire. Throug earthquake, Arab invasion, and the silted up receding river, this once great ancient metropolis slowly dwindled into a little village. its past grandeur buried and forgotten.

My favorite structure “Library of Celsus” was complete in 135 AD.

The put Ephesus square in the middle of Roman Empire period. What i saw and what i loved in Ephesus were mostly Roman.

Beautiful Marble Columes and Carvings of Library of Celsus

Beautiful Marble Columes and Carvings of Library of Celsus

I wonder if i would see anything as beautiful in Pompeii?

Vacation in Post-iPhone Age

It has been two years since i took a proper vacation, as in go somewhere more than a long weekend.

Ever since I took my first trip to Europe twelve years ago, i’ve vowed to take an international destination vacation at least once a year. I managed to fulfill that plan until last year.

In the months leading up to this upcoming vacation, i felt, for the first time since i started working, really burnt out. I really need this break.

With three more business days to go, just the mere thought of the vacation ahead seems therapeutic. Felt like I haven’t been this mellow for ages.

While i was doing my research, i found out the way of travel has gone through a quiet revolution in the past two years. Here is an idealistic rendition of how one travels in the age of iphone and kindle.

Instead of buying/carrying a stack of tour guides, you can buy/download them onto your kindle. Similarly any books you want to read during the vacation/travel time, take them with you on your kindle.

Instead of printing out your hotel/flight reservation, you save them onto your iphone/blackberry/smartphones, including your pre-checked in boarding pass. In the airport you let them scan the barcode off your phone screen.

Instead of buying audio tours at museum or touristy sites, you can either download pre-recorded audio tours in mp3 form onto your iphone/ipd, and put on your own headphone when you arrived.

Instead of buying maps, you use Google Map for Mobile with my location, you will never get lost again and you can search for anything real time on the go.

You will travel light and have the world of information at your finger tips.

In addition, you will be twittering, blogging, uploading photos about your trip real time. Everyone in the world gets to watch.

But in reality, a reasonable data plan is still not available. Kindle has a limited book supply.  I was this close of ordering one over the weekend, then i found out none of the latest travel guidebooks can be bought. There is also no way for me to get the books i already own onto kindle free of charge, not to mention the books i want to read are not always available on today’s Kindle database.

Alas. Here is my poor man’s version of an upgrade travel, not perfect, but still better than two years ago.

Book reader app Stanza on iphone allows me to download any old classic that’s current available through Project Gutenberg: The Moon and Six Pence, Frankenstein, and even some Chinese classics!

Google Push Gmail was just released onto iphone which allows me to store email/attachments onto my phone, which i could read later without a data connection. So i could email myself all the hotel/flight reservations, maps, research bits, to-do list and download them ahead of the trip. Only need to make sure i have the proper power charger plug.

I still have to carry the travel guidebooks. Oh well. Reading a physical book has its own charm. I don’t mind the luggage.

And i will be bringing a pen and a little notebook, attempting at scribbling messy and typo-rich (cuz my little paper notebook doesn’t come with spelling checker’s little red squiggle under the alphabet soup i will be making up).

Off we go! Italy, here we come!

A co-worker shared this hilarious cartoon with me, and it confirmed Gui’s comment earlier, Italy is very similar to China!

Europe Vs. Italy

Italy Travel Research

Watching the fog rolling in over the hills behind Glen Park, we are still in the sun. Walked three sunny street blocks to the nearest public library, and cleaned out their Italian travel shelf. Came back with six books on Italy, plus one for Croatia thrown in for good measure.

My favorite part of travel just about to begin… planning and research…

So excited!

Italy! Italy!

Italy! Italy

Chilly Summer

1. San Francisco
Seat warmer becomes my favorite feature of our car in the summer time. Only in San Francisco.

It was rainy during the week. Soft gentle drizzle, you could hardly feel it. Rain in July. Rare.

2. Plants
Woke up to a sunny morning! Glorious! Watered plants in the backyard. The Angel’s trumpet now sports TWO flower buds. Still very small, the bigger one is only an inch long. Can’t wait for them to materialize into the glorious giant “trumpet” bloom. Imagine the mysterious scent in the evening. Ahhhh!

Followed Mom’s advice, dug out the three barely alive cyclamen, which have been under continuous snail attack. Transferred them to a window box and moved them up to the balcony. Lined the window box against the wall under the windows, hopefully it is not too windy nor too sunny for them.

The sun was warm and inviting on the balcony. The lone window box with the cyclamen amplified the emptiness of the space, all that wasted sunshine! When we first moved in, i put a a giant pot of hydrangea on the balcony, and it was blew right over by the strong wind. I quickly gave up the idea of leaving any plants on this wuthering spot.

Today i decided to give it another try. Need to find things that’s wind resistant, sun loving and a pot that’s heavy enough that can stand firm in the gusty wind. I quickly took some succulent from the backyard and the central patio. Since i used sand to fill the pot, it would remain heavy even in between watering.

Our balcony immediately looked more cheerful with the new additions. We will see how that worked out.

3. Midnight in Sicily

Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb

Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and la Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb

Planning a trip to Italy in October, and Gui spotted this book at Greenapple last night. I took it home and started reading this morning.

Fascinating read so far. Italy/Sicily sounds horribly corrupted/violent, yet extremely intriguing at the same time. Greek speaking origin, conquered by the Roman then the Arabs then back to the Christians. Sun bleached hills, olive groves, orchards, mouth watering seafood, beautiful ocean, half ruined Palermo, politics and organized crime. assassination, murder, heroic effort by “the few honest Italians” to chase down la Cosa Nostra and their government backer(s).

I was horrified and hungry at the same time.

If we really ended up going, then we would have traveled “Roman Empire” backwards. First Turkey-Byzantine-East Roman Empire, now Italy-Western Roman Empire. 🙂

“The essence of travel was to slow the passage of time” – Rober Kaplan “The Ends of the Earth

4th of July Trip Report (1) – Three Perfect Meals in Seattle/Vancouver

Spent the long weekend up north with Alice and James. All of us are into good food, and we were non-stop feasting throughout the holiday. Yum.

Perfect Meal #1: Basque Tapas in Seattle

Harvest Vine @ Seattle

Harvest Vine @ Seattle

When i first told Alice that we are coming to visit during July 4th long weekend, she started planning the “feeding menu”. She said Seattle has the best tapas she has ever tasted. Friday evening we tried out her 2nd favorite restaurant (Her number one favorite closed after we made a detour at REI flagship store) – The Harvest Vine. I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually a Basque style restaurant. Because the best tapas in ZM and my memory was from in a little Spanish town – Girona. That was also Basque style tapas.

The food was delicious. Our favorite was the last course – grilled lamb loin with garlic, and caramelized onion. We finished the dish in mere seconds.

During the day, A&J took us to a cute little store called Paseo for lunch. Alice’s order was the best – seared scallop.

4225 Fremont Ave N
Seattle, WA 98103
(206) 545-7440
Hours: Tue-Sat. 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.

The Harvest Vine
2701 East Madison
Seattle, WA 98122
Reservations: (206) 320-9771
Hours: 7 nights a week from 5pm to 10pm

Perfect Meal #2: Dimsum and Crab Rice Pot in Vancouver

Feasting in Vancouver

Feasting in Vancouver

We told the Canadian custom officer at the border that “the purpose of our trip” was to eat because Vancouver has the best Canton style Chinese food on Westcoast of the American continent. He just laughed and waved us in.

We had dimsum at Fisherman’s Terrace. It is the 2nd best Dimsum place on Alice’s list. The number 1 dimsum place –Kirin Restaurant– told us that the wait was 3 hours and we should have made reservation 2 days in advance.

Fisherman’s Terrace. is located in a shopping center called Aberdeen: a 100% replica of a HK mall. It was filled with Chinese style shop/brand. Dimsum was excellent. I don’t usually eat chicken feet. But these place’s chicken feet is really sensational. Tripe and Seafood dumpling in soup were also very yummy. The only disappointment was the duck tongue and taro cake, everything else was delicious.

We started the “crab count down” since mid-afternoon. Because Alice and James loved their crab rice pot dish – Ho Yuen Kee – they had it everytime they came to Vancouver. it was very very delicious. We made the right decision to call in and made a reservation too. Crab was better than the lobster, ROI-wise.

We also had good coffee at Caffe Artigiano(Hornby, because they have a special coffee press that’s hard to find) and good cocktail at the Cascade Room.

Fisherman’s Terrace
4151 Hazelbridge Way #3580
Richmond, BC V6X 4J7
Tel: 604-303-9739

Ho Yuen Kee
6236 Fraser
Vancouver, BC V5W 3A1
Tel: (604) 324-8855

Caffe Artigiano
763 Hornby St,
Vancouver, BC, V6Z 1S2

The Cascade Room
2616 Main Street
Vancouver, BC V5T 3E6, Canada
(604) 709-8650

Perfect Meal #3: Ballard Farmer’s Market and Home Cooking at A&J’s

Ballard Farmer's Market & Home Cooking at Alice&James'

Ballard Farmer's Market & Home Cooking at Alice&James'

Sunday morning, we went shopping at Ballard Farmer’s Market. Bought fresh salmon fillet, raspberry, mint, apricot, lots of cheese. Had brick oven pizza that was baked on location in the market, and blue cheese and caramel ice cream. Alice and James cooked dinner. Everything was delicious, home grown veggie, baked salmon, and raspberry and mint desert that Alice invented on the spot…

The entire weekend was hot and sunny, summer-like weather that’s rare to come by in the Bay area. We sat on the porch, ate and enjoyed the evening breeze and wine, chatted…

Ballard Farmer’s Market
Ballard Avenue, between 22th Ave. NW and 20th Ave. NW
Every Sunday Rain or Shine
Hours: 10-3pm

Sake Nomi
(Pioneer Square)
76 South Washington Street (btw 1st Ave & Alaskan Way)

June 4th, 1989

This Thursday will be the 20th “June 4th” after the Spring of 1989.

20 years is a big deal.

The whole country is waiting in anxiety. I’m sure the upper management of all the big Chinese internet companies such as, Baidu, Sohu, Tianya, etc. are all sitting on the edge of their seats, praying for June 5th’s peaceful arrival. So are the leaders of China, and local government of Beijing.

As a prelude, both and were blocked by Great Firewall of China since mid-May. Rumor goes that other Google services such as docs, picasa, image search etc. would soon to follow. For the communist party, Google has always been the poster bad boy, whenever they have a need for a public flogging, Google has always been the default choice.

My usual routine is a lot less dramatic. It constitutes of digging up what i wrote down in 2004, re-read it and try to remember that Spring in Bejing one more time. Then maybe feeling a bit sad of how the Chinese youth born after the 80’s or 90’s have no knowledge of that Spring because the government has done such a thorough job of suppressing the past. Then i put that piece of writing away, and continue with my current life.

But 20 years is a big deal. I’m forced to think a bit more, not just because the usual angry youth in Chinese BBC protesting the locking down of service, or the ever expanding banned word list used in the crack down on line. It seems that I’m not the only one who is thinking a bit more this year. I’ve read some interesting discussion on various Chinese BBS.

Both on-line and off-line discussion around me seem to conclude that the generation that felt the strongest impact of the Spring of 89 was the generation that was in high school and college during the crackdown (that would including me, i.e. my generation). We were completely disillusioned. Before the crack down, this generation was very enthusiastic about politics, about the fate and future of China and its people. After the crack down, we turned cynical, we looked elsewhere. Most concentrated on getting rich. Many left the country.

The single-mindedness of today’s China, its sole focus on money and nothing else, had a lot to do with my generation’s shock therapy received in the Spring of 1989.

Another interesting side effect of the complete suppressing of the existence of that Spring is that the newer generations know no fear. They had no idea what consequence of speaking their minds would result in. In that way, they grow up more healthy. Maybe when they do decide speak their minds in a grand way, reception they receive will be warmer. That was largely what happened to my generation too, up till the night of June 4th. All of us had heard warnings from our parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents. They had seen their own share of crack downs, they knew what would come. We didn’t. Now we do.

Let’s wish today’s China is confident enough and brave enough to listen to what they had to say, let’s wish the newer generation will never know what would have come.

Looking for a Tree…

Last night, on the phone, Mom and I were doubting the forecast of a heatwave this weekend, while it was foggy and cold in San Francisco, not much warmer in the south bay.

We woke up to a beautiful hot day! It was in the high 80’s but it feels like 90’s in San Francisco. The lemon tree’s flowers fragrance suddenly turned super strong in the heat. Almost overwhelmed by it while standing on the balcony enjoying the, rare, morning heat.

Loved the hot and dry sunlight in the farmer’s market just now, I was looking for a fig tree that i could plant in the back yard. Maybe it was not yet the right season, we saw some baby olive trees for sale instead.

In the 80’s there was a Taiwan writer – San Mao, whose work was very popular in mainland China, largely due to her exotic bohemian life style. She traveled widely, wrote essays and songs beautified bourgeois aspect of her life. She and her Spanish deep sea diving engineer husband lived in the Western Sahara, then later the Canary Islands.

Before her collection of travel essays hit China, a song called “The Olive Tree” was a big hit.

Ask me not where I am from. My hometown is far away
Why do I wander, wandered so far away, wandering
For the free flight birds in the sky, for the gentle brook in the mountains,
For the vast grassland, I wandered wandered so far away
Oh, also for the olive tree in my dreams, olive tree

Ask me not where I am from, my hometown is far far away
Why do i wander, wandered so far away,
For the olive tree in my dream, Olive Tree…

For a whole generation of youth who grew up with that song, olive tree turned into a symbol of the beauty and mystery of a faraway land.

2004, when we were traveling in Turkey, we saw the olive groves blanketed dry hot hills along Turkey’s Aegean shores. “Olive tree?! This is it?!” ZM was thoroughly disappointed.

For the longest time after our trip, i often pointed out the olive trees lined Haight-Ashbury in our then neighborhood just to wait for ZM’s expression turned bitter, ‘Not good looking at all!’ (一点都不好看)

I on the other hand think the unique look of olive tree was not that bad. As time gone by, ZM seems to have softened his dislike of it. Today, looking at the baby olive trees for sale, we were debating whether we should consider an olive tree instead of a fig. “How long will it take to bear fruits? Maybe we could get one if it would bear fruits in a couple of years.” ZM said. “Why? You don’t even like olives.” I was surprised.

Just checked on-line, turned out an olive tree could bear fruits in 4 years. As i just announced that fact to ZM, he seemed to be very interested.

I still want a fig tree.

After reading Fig hunting in Napa by pastry chef Shuna fish Lydon, i’m dying to get a fig tree.
Figs in Coastal Southern California

Su Zhou (1)

Looking at Su Zhou makes me realize what Beijing could have been. Not that Beijing is in any way similar in its characteristic. It is mainly how Su Zhou preserved the old so well, and created the new well too. The old town of Su Zhou was still lived in by many residents. So Su Zhou itself is more a normal Chinese city now. But the city planning people managed to keep the city structure, some of the old city walls and gates are still standing. The moat around this square city is preserved too. defining the city boundary.

Ping Jiang road is also preserved as an example of how people used to live. Similar to old towns in Europe today. Interior is thoroughly renovated for modern living, but exterior is left as is. The atmosphere is preserved. Of the old days. A bit like Vennice because of its zigzagging waterway, numerous stone bridges, and tiny alleys. James and Alice told me it is better than Vennice cuz people still live in Su Zhou while Vennice is becoming a theme park. And James also said Venice stinks, while Su ZHou is still pleasant. Let’s hope that will last.

Then there are the gardens.

Alice mentioned a book that we should read to understand how a Su Zhou garden is built and how to appreciate a good garden. We couldn’t find it in the bookstore, instead we got a similar one by a different author. We didn’t have time to read the book till we’ve finished seeing the gardens. Luckily beauty is universal. People don’t need to get a degree to appreciate what is beautiful.

We’ve only been to two gardens this time: The Lingering Garden and The Humble Administrator’s Garden.

According to the garden book, the former is supposed to be enjoyed sitting down at various spots and in peace and quiet, while the latter is more a dynamic garden that the visitor could continuously walking along and more and more scenery would unfold in front of you like a story.

That was the undoing for The Lingering Garden. It was filled with tour groups with their guides yelling over their battery powered speakers. The whole place was a circus. We had no place to hide and no way to enjoy the garden the way it is supposed to be enjoyed. It looked better on photo now when we looked at them. We realize how pretty it is now minus all that noise filtered out by a 2-dimensional photo. Pity.

The Lingering Garden is famous for its “fake mountains”. Little hills built by piling up many of the rocks dug out from the bottom of Lake Tai. A pleasant surprise for me was these fake mountains have many built in caves and pathways. It is shady inside, but also with light streamed in because of the natural erosion of the rocks. The pathway inside usually has branches. So you wouldn’t know which way will take you where. No matter which way you took, you were delivered to a new spot in the garden and a new perspective would materialize and lightens up your eyes.

These rocks are part of the architecture sometimes. For example, in The Humble Administrator’s Garden, there was a two story structure along one of the paths, but it has no stairs. Instead, it was surrounded by these “fake mountains”, you pick your way in the mountain and suddenly there is a path going up. At the end of the path way among the rocks, you are on the second story of the little pagoda. very neat.

The Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园) is amazing!
Its design is such that no matter how crowded and noisy the main sections are, we just need to turn a corner or walk down a little further along the path to reach a secluded corner all to ourselves.

We found many such quiet corners and enjoyed them tremendously.

I loved “Listening to the sound of rain pavilion”. I loved the abundant banana leaves planted outside of the window. Its lush green makes the pavilion looks tropical. Imagining reading a book there while the sound of rain maginified by these lovely leaves. cozy and quiet.

I loved the names of these pagodas, pavilions, hall, bridges. They served as an extension of the view, added in the poet’s own point of view and another dimension to what you see. It seems to me that the ancient Chinese intellectuals wouldn’t ever leave a natural beauty alone. A human imagination, mood, story must be added to the scenery, only then would the scene be complete, becomes more superior. In some ways I actually agree.

For example, on top of the little hill by the main lotus pond in the Garden, there is a pagoda on top. Its name is “Waiting for the Frost”.

Another pagoda on the water is called “Lotus wind from four sides”.

A hall in the end of the stream in a more remote corner is called “Distance Fragrance Hall”.

The name brings what is not there into the scene, and excites one’s imagination. As if i was back in time when it was built and i could feel what the people felt then while they were standing at the same spot. The name connects two dots on the dimension of time.

Stone foot bridges across pond are usually built to be lower than the water bank, to create the illusion of walking on water.

patterned window on the wall is used to “borrow” scene from the neighboring section into your current surroundings. This should only be used in a big garden a dynamic garden. Not suitable for a small garden, where hiding the next surprise is essential.

Hiding away what’s next is another essential part of Su Zhou garden creation. Nothing should be in plain view.


Supposedly there was a conference once, where the YouTube’s founders were supposed to give a speech. While setting up their talk, they showed this video as an filler. When they cut it short to make their speech, the audience expressed dismay, they want to finish watching the video! 🙂 Now you can watch it and find out why:

It is a very well made video. And it seems to have the power to seduce people, “get on the road again! Go see the world!”

Leaving for São Paulo

A last minute business trip.

ZM was very jealous because his all time favorite movie is “City of God”. He has been dreaming of going there to photograph the shanty town of São Paulo. I, on the other hand, never had the slightly desire to visit any big cities of Brazil. The Amazon, maybe.

Business is business.

I reluctantly agreed to this one week trip so they won’t have me stationed there for a few months (you have no idea how disappointed ZM was when he learned I turned down that opportunity. But i couldn’t imagine myself live there for that long. I would go insane.). First shock came when i booked the flight. 15 to 21 hours flight time (depends on the number of connections you end up with)! I had no idea Brazil is that far away. Reminded me of the only time when i researched Buenos Aires, a city i DO long to visit. From that time on, i knew, going to Buenos Aires is like going to the end of the world, makes that city seems even more lonesome and melancholy.

If i knew how close São Paulo is to Buenos Aires, i might have agreed to a longer stay. 🙂

On this eve of my flight to the end of the earth, i did some quick research to find out the basics. Came across a few very interesting items:

1. The EXPANSIVE city: endless skyscrapers stretched to the horizon.

Tall buildings stretching into the horizon in all directions, even moreso than Tokyo (New York doesn’t hold a candle to either, although its tallest buildings are taller). I felt I had finally seen the maximum city and could hardly believe the expanse, as if I dreamt it.

2. São Paulo has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. “The city has 1.5m citizens of Japanese descent.”-according to

3. In the Chinese site, one guy left a remark under the entry “São Paulo”: “The holy city of great food and wine.”吃喝圣地.

NOW, I’m really interested. 🙂

4. In May 2006, there was a huge gang violence surge in the city. 150 people died, including 40+ police officers. It started because the imprisoned gang leaders ordered the killing of those 40+ police officers. And on Jan 2nd, 2007 (3 days ago), a huge explosion happened in one of São Paulo police’s weapon storehouse. And my co-worker warned us not to take any taxi from the airport cuz we could get robbed.

After I told ZM all these, i could see sparks light up in his eyes, “I have to go there one of these days.” He said dreamily.

5. People are really beautiful there. Some say it is because of the large number of diverse ethnicity live and assimilated there. Some say it is plastic surgery. But apparently everyone around you has a perfect body and looks like he/she just walked off a fashion magazine.


I’m bringing my camera along. Expecting a really busy week so not sure what i can do with touring. But at least, expect some food photos.

Paris Inspired Topic: French Revolution and Marxist

It has been six years since I last came to Europe. I was expecting more immigrants on the streets of Paris. Surprisingly, I didn’t see too many headscarved women. But I did notice that lots of souvenirs peddlers were African immigrants. Gui asked me who were peddling these trinkets on the streets before? I thought for a while, nobody. I don’t remember peddlers on the streets of Paris before.

How interesting.

While we were in Paris, we were constantly comparing the French to the Chinese, Paris to Beijing, Paris to Shanghai, Parisians to Shanghainess.

One thing that puzzled me was why communism never flourished in France?

The French revolution is every bit as bloody and maddening as any Communist Country’s revolution. But why didn’t it go anywhere? Why did it just fizzle?

As we walked the maze-like alleys of the Latin Quarter, as we climbed the steps of Montmartre, as we wondered the quietness of cemeteries, as we pondered the such familiar rudeness of Paris service staffs, we tried to figure out.

The French’s forever suspicion attitude toward anyone or anything the resembles previlege could have been a sure sign of its inclination toward communism. But there maybe a couple of other factors prevented it from becoming red. Its free spirit and easy-living attitude. Deep down, maybe, just maybe, French is too bourgeoisie to care about maximize efficiency or productivity. They care, rightly so if you ask me, more about having a good cup of coffee, a delicious piece of pastry, a nice dinner, and a good conversation than about having a revolution.

Or it maybe because the French revolution happened too early, there is no The Maoist or Marxist to guide them? There is no theory to help them keep the fruit of their revolution? Without the shinny beacon of Communist Manifesto, with nothing better to model after, they settled for the dictatorship of Napoleon?

Then I came upon this: The French Revolution and Socialist Tradition, and I realized how upside down my thinking has been.

To say all of this is not the same thing as saying that the revolution died or that the revolutionary faith, for it is a faith, had simply run its course. The French Revolution did not directly produce the 19th century ideologies known as socialism or communism. But the Revolution did provide an intellectual and social environment in which these ideologies, and their spokesmen, could flourish. In other words, the history of the socialist tradition is something more than the words of Marx and Engels (the subject of Lecture 24). We must remember that Marx and Engels, major prophets of this tradition that they were, were educated in the peculiar circumstances of late 18th and early 19th century revolutionary activity. What, after all, would Marx and Engels have been had it not been for the French Revolution?

That settled it. 🙂

Plaza Reial – The Prettiest Square in Barcelona

It’s one thing to turn off the bustling Rambla, walked through an arched doorway, and entered into the warm toned Plaza Reial. It is something completely different to wander around the maze-like old town‘s back alley, and to follow its twist and turns, to come upon little neighborhood grocers or a butcher shop (often unexpected because none of them has signs as you walked down the alley, then suddenly there is, an oasis of commerce opportunities amidst the quiet and desolate cobble stone pathways, which was occasionally punctuated by a hurrying local), then there you see it, an archway of light and sun, at the end of one such dark and still alley.

As you walked closer to the light, as you walked into the light, the sudden joy and warmth you would feel, was simply overwhelming. At that moment, Plaza Reial suddenly assumed a complete new importance and a brand new kind of prettiness.

Then you find an empty chair under the palm, in the shaded sun, you sit down, started admiring the after lunch crowd to disburse, observing local elders spread around the square’s bench, reading newspaper, or talking to each other, snooping on the lucky residents of the square making phone calls on their balcony, or having a loud conversation with neighbors three balconies away, while the fountain happily bubbling away. You would find yourself grasping for a reason why would you ever want to leave.

The magic of the old continent.

Girona – The Overwhelmingly Beautiful Medieval City

Girona is a pleasant surprise of the trip. Completely unexpected for me.

I was only considering it to be a transit point. A place that we must stop for a while in order to go from A to B. A being Paris, B Barcelona. There was no G.

When Gui told me that we should plan on spending the day in Girona, I was a little shocked, “for what?”

“It sounded like an interesting place, very well preserved medieval town, conquered first by the Romans, then the Moors, then the Catalans. It was attacked by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood. ” That does sound interesting, especially the Moorish part.

I’ve seen plenty little medieval towns in the South of France. The narrow walk ways cut through fortress-like walls, Churches on the top of the hill, where all road leads to. Lots of stone walls, cobble stoned streets.

But Girona was prettier.

The maze like streets were fascinating.

The buildings were well preserved from outside, and extremely modernized from inside. All glass and steel, plus decorative rough stone walls thrown in for good measure. The genius of Spanish architects (or is that Catalan?) shone through in all the lovely curves and artistic touch in the little places: door handles, signs, lamp shades, etc..

After four full days of walking in Paris, my tired feet were begging for some rest. But this pretty little town attempted me so, that i couldn’t stop wandering among its mysterious alley ways. From day to night.

During our wandering hours, one of us always exclaimed, at every turn, at every new alley we managed to step into, every bridge we found through the dark entrances, “Why is it so quiet?” “Why isn’t there more tourists?” “Why are we the only guests here?” Gui was the only sane one, ‘What are you guys saying?isn’t it great?! We have this lovely place all to ourselves!”

We have to thank Ryanair for the discovery. More people start to discover this pretty town because Ryanair chose GIrona-Costa Brava Airport its airport for Barcelona.

Our host told us that Girona actually has the highest income per household in the entire Spain. That explained all the quiet but still well run businesses, shops, bars, tapas tavern, restaurant, etc. etc.

I loved this description from Gui’s travel book, “Rough Guide to Barcelona”, on Girona.

“The ancient walled city of Girona stands on a fortress-like hill, high above the River Onyar. It’s been fought over in almost every century since it was the Roman fortress of Gerunda on the Via Augusta and perhaps more than any other place in Catalunya, it retains the distinct flavour of its erstwhile inhabitants. Following the Moorish conquest of Spain, Girona was an Arab town for over two hundred years, a fact apparent in the maze of narrow streets in the center, and there was also a continuous Jewish presence here for six hundred years. By the 18th century, Girona had been besieged on 21 occasions, and in the 19th century it earned itself the nickname “Immortal” by surviving 5 attacks, of which the longest was a seven-month assault by the French in 1809. ”

Overwhelmingly beautiful medieval city.

Girona photos (click the photo below to see more):

All photos from the trip: Paris, Girona, Figures, Barcelona

Sin City

I’ve been indulging my fascination with Sin City – “Las Vegas” – ever since my weekend trip.

It probably all started with a casual comment from my friend B while we were leaving Wynn. She was wondering when will the gardeners of Wynn have a chance to care/move/replace flowers/plants in the botanic garden at Wynn. Because during the day, it was full of tourists, at night it was full of gamblers/drinkers/party-goers. She concluded that it must be around dawn. As she reached her conculsion, we reached the front door and the door man opened the door for us. So i thought, these are the people who really know the stories of the city. All the behind the scene gossip about casino owners, celebrities and in general the real life behind this non-stop show that we see.

So I’ve been googling like mad since my return. First on blackjack rules, the statistics, the basic strategy. Then on designers/owners/developers of the casino/hotels that i liked: The Venetian, Bellagio, Wynn.

I want to know who made these places and which kind of people they are. I want to know who work and live here, and which kind of people they are. I wasn’t disappointed. Came across a couple of good residents view of Vegas, one in Chinese, one in English.

Turned out that Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio and Wynn are all designed/build by the same guy: Steve Wynn. He seemed to have an obsession with water.
The Venetian owner is a different guy: Sheldon Adelson, who happened to be the number 3 on the richest American list on

It is truly an intersting place, that’s full of colorful characters.


Vegas was never my type of town. I avoid it by all means.

Before this weekend, summer of 1998 was the last time i was in Vegas, for a conference. It was before this new wave of new hotels being built (both Bellagio and Venetian opened in the fall of 1998). I remembered i spent most of my spare time sitting in my hotel room watching History Channel, at the time there was a series on Alexander the Great. I loved the show. Hated the endless rows of slot machines I must navigate from the front door to the elevator. The interior of a casino was so depressing. People sitting in front of slot machines, their faces expressionless, their movement mechanical. It felt like death. Everything looked dark, gloomy, and cheesy.

The only highlight that i enjoyed from that trip (other than Alexander the Great) was a night i spent with my fellow co-workers in a bar at New York New York, it was a blues bar, quiet, with a older black man singing the blues at the piano. We drank martini and smoked cigar. Maybe i liked it cuz it was not cheesy or loud, like everywhere else in Vegas. Maybe I liked it cuz it didn’t look like vegas.

That was my second trip to Vegas. The first time i went when i was still in college. Vegas’ night dazzled me. I disliked the gloom of the casinos at first sight. But i was amazed at all the light and spectacles one could see from the street and in the shops. I liked ceasers palace’s painted sky. But that section was rather short.

I didn’t have much expectation about vegas this weekend. I figured there would be now enough new hotels and attractions for me to check out during the day, and there will be plenty of alcohol and good food to keep me happy at night. I can handle one weekend in Vegas.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Because Vegas has grown up. The cheesy vegas built with the old money was slowly fading away. Vegas now is being built with the new money from the 90’s, lots lots of money. Came along with the money is a classier taste, a more creative design, and endless ambitions. The newly rich of the US has been yuppified. Maybe money does age well, like a good wine.

The new hotels are beautiful, grand, and fantastic. Even the casinos are not so hateful looking in these new hotels. Especially in Bellagio and Venetian. The casino is less gloomy, lighting is more closely resembling one’s own living room. It is comfy and cozy. Chandeliers in the casinos are tastefully done. In Venetian, the ceiling is as usual painted with gorgeous renaissance images.

There is a new theme, too. Americanized Europe.

Europe has its over a thousand year’s history and deep routed culture heritage. The United States has money, lots of it. So Europe has Venice, and Paris. The US can capture each city in its finest moment — Venice in the early morning, and Paris in a early spring evening–freeze it, built it from ground up in the center of a desert. What’s more, it is new, clean, not smelly, perfectly air conditioned, no need to deal with troublesome foreign language, and they are 10 minutes walk apart from each other.

Looking at Venetian’s gorgeously painted ceilings and exquisite details of each element of its interior (from lamp to door knob), one realized that the US really has nothing to feel inferior about herself comparing to Europe. Everything here is just as grand, beautiful, and aesthetically pleasing as any European palace, and these are newer, more elaborate, brighter, with certain sense of creative repackaging in a modern sense. It is as if Europe the old man one day wake up and was 500 years younger and dressed in Armani instead of medieval knight armor.

The ultimate representation of capitalism.

I also just realized that with most of American cities been built to its capacity back in the 1950’s, Vegas is the only place left where one could see all the newly created wealth at work in physical forms. Each wave of development represents a new generation of wealthy tycoons, the theme represents the current aesthetic inclination. i.e. Greek Parthenon versus Roman Coliseum.

Rushdie has long ago claimed that today’s celebrities are the new gods. We worship them and we crucify them. They behave just like the ancient Greek gods, full of genius, talent, and humane weakness. If that’s the case, then today’s Vegas is our Athene. We built temples (hotels) to worship our god (money).

-Flew in Friday evening

-Check in The Venetian, we ended up in Venezia tower, the nicer/newer part of the hotel

-Had buffet dinner at Rio (not as good as many of us remembered, but enough to fill us up and get ready for a night on the town)

-Went to Shadow Lounge at Ceasers Palace, where PURE lounge is the main sensation, the line of people trying to get into PURE was out of control, supposedly people wait till 2am in the morning to reach the door! The attraction of Shadow lounge are these two walls flooded with pink lighting, and projected on it are video clips of human sized shadow of dancing women. Similar to those ipod billboard one sees everywhere. Except these women was shown as if they were naked, cuz you get to see their nipples when they dance side ways. The lighting and the projection was cleverly done. It created the illusion that the women were dancing on a hidden stage in real time behind a screen, right behind the bar. It was sexy, classy, and simple to operate. Turned out Friday was Mexico’s Independence day. We had a few guys and gals waving Mexican flag and dancing on the table from time to time. The ambient was lively and happening. I liked it here.

Saturday woke up early, checked out Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes, Wynn, Fashion Show Mall, Bellagio (had the most expensive bowl of noodle for lunch in Bellagio), Paris. Wynn’s interior used simple lines, and dark wood framing against white. It is like a supersized Crate and Barrel, only prettier with the Barcelona style mosaic tiled walkway, and nicely maintained botanic gardens. Bellagio is elegant, Dale Chihuly‘s hand-blow glassworks were seen throughout the vincinity, airy and light, too pretty to be true. The music fountain took my breath away. The Chinese restaurant in Bellagio, Jasmin, provids the VIP view of the fountain. The menu indicated a bowl of tofu costs $30. After we watched the fountain dance by the lake, seeing how great a location Jasmin has on the lake, my friend sighned, “of course, that’s why a bowl of tofu costs 30 dollars. You are eating the view.”

– Saturday evening, Dinner at AquaKnox, Party at Tao nightclub. Both places were excellent. Everything we had at Aquaknox was excellent, from appetizer to desert. Truly an amazing feast. When i was in beijing earlier this year, friends were showing me various clubs and bars. I was under the impression that Bejing has surpassed the US in their club creation capability. But seeing Tao, I realized that Beijing still has a long way to catch up. But i must admit i felt a little disturbed seeing all these stone budda statues surrounding this three story space, which was filled with overflowed desire and lust. Maybe i worry too much. Budda can find serenity from within.

More Photos:
The Venetian
Wynn, Bellagio, and Paris.

More Dale Chihuly’s work here.

Hatless in Beijing

I lost my favorit hat today. First day working in Beijing.

It has been with me since 2000. I bought it from a small hat shop in downtown Santa Cruz. It has earned me many praises cuz it fit me so well. It has kept me warm (and stylish) in many cold winter days/nights in SF, New York, and Beijing. Yeah i was wearing it during the last few days in Beijing and feeling very special cuz i see most girls here don’t wear hats.

I thought i dropped it in our building lobby or in the elevator, but after going up and down the building a few times, i decided that maybe i dropped it on the crowded subway.

Why did i bother to take the subway instead of taking a cab, i had no idea.

Now i want to get back to the bayarea, drive down to Santa Cruz, find that hat store and buy half a dozen my favorit hats, provide they still carry it. Keeping my fingers crossed.

While I sat on the 15th floor office, overlooking the Chang An Avenue, moaning over my lost hat; i heard a sound that i have been missing so much over the past 15 years. The wind whistling in between tall buildings. It sounded absolutely horrible. But i loved it so much that i turned to my co-worker sitting next to me, “This is the sound I missed the most since i left Beijing!” He rolled his eyes, “I wish I could just miss it instead of hearing it.”

But when we hear such sound, we are usually inside, warm and content. We weren’t suffering. On the contrary, the horrid outside, ehnanced by the wuthering wind, could only makes one treasure the warmth and coziness we have while sitting indoors.

Beijing’s winter.

Turkey (1) – Songs of Faith

The last Sunday morning before we left for Turkey, as usual, the church bells from St. Ignatius Church across the street waked us up. I was so excited, “in a few days it would be the morning prayer calls from minarets that wake us up every morning!!” Mi thought that was a hilarious comment on a Sunday morning.

The first time I learned of morning prayer calls was during my first year after graduating from collage. A co-worker was describing to me his first trip aboard at the tender age of sixteen. He went to Egypt. After telling me the his first diving experience and the amazing clear Red Sea, he grunted, “Urgh! There was also this really annoying prayer calls before dawn. It was so damn loud and there were so many of them in the city, I was wide awake everyday at 4am!”

This public demonstration of faith, in such an intrusive manner, fascinated me. It reminded me of the Culture Revolution years in China, when big loud speakers were placed on trees throughout every city, every town, every village; and it was constantly making stern and cold announcements that dictated everyone’s life.

Low and behold, came “The English Patient”. First the movie, then the book, I fell in love with the story and Michael Ondaatje’s poetic narrative:

Sometimes when she is able to spend the night with him they are wakened by the three minarets of the city beginning their prayers before dawn. He walks with her through the indigo markets that lie between South Cairo and her home. The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows, one minaret answering another, as if passing on a rumour of the two of them as they walk through the cold morning air, the smell of charcoal and hemp already making the air profound. Sinners in a holy city.

Suddenly, morning prayer calls turned into something romantic and exotic.

By the time we were ready to return home, on our last night in Istanbul, we had settled into a comfortable daily routine. Getting to know a new city has always been a favorite process of mine. I liked the feeling of finally being able to relax in a new city, knew where to go for comfy food, knew where to go for a quick bite, knew where to go if I want to relax or just to sit down and read a book, knew where to go if I crave beauty and magic views, knew where to shop for daily items, knew which shop to avoid, which train to take going where…

So it was such a night, our last night in Istanbul. We went to the little food stand on the sidewalk, ran by the Kurdish family from Eastern Turkey. Mi ordered his favorite lamb kabab, with lots of Aci sauce that he loved; I ordered grilled eggplant and veggie; and we both had our share of flat bread to go with our meals. Mi had the one and only Turkish beer Efes, I had “chai” (Turkish tea). We chatted with the second son of the family who acted as both the host and the waiter because he was the only English speaker; joked with the Dad using sign language. The son told us they would soom move to a new apartment that would be closer to the restaurant. Their currently place was a townhouse by the sea, but it was a long walk home every evening after they closed shop, and since they had practically no furniture in the apartment, it didn’t really matter how big it was. He also made us drool by telling the feast his Dad will participate in making for the upcoming Ramadan. After dinner, the Mother made us Kurdish coffee served in elegant china. We wished them best of luck and walked to the corner grocer to buy a pack of sunflower seeds. Turkey was the only country other than China where I had seen people know how to eat sunflower seeds as a snack.

Returning to our little hotel two blocks away along the cobble stoned street, Mi started watching BBC news on TV. I continued reading Paul Theroux’ Dark Star Safari. Together, we worked on the pack of sunflower seeds. It was warm, we left the window ajar, through which we could see the illuminated minarets of the Blue Mosque. Then, I heard it, the evening prayer, my favorite sound in this country. I ran to the rooftop terrace of our hotel, listened as the prayer calls from four or five different mosques in the old town (Sultananhment), they echoed each other. The dusk had settled on the sea of Marmara, Istanbul’s Asian shore was slowly disappearing into the evening lights, fishing boats returned home, the night was gentle and young, the “beautiful song of faith” was melancholy.

I wished, for one last time, to be able to record this sound somehow, to keep it with me. This sound has become my favorite part of the city of Istanbul. That night, it sounded like a call to the glorious past, to the past that was lost forever, to the past that remained alive only in the singer’s voice, and in my books.


Mom told me that raining season has started when I was away. So I have missed the beginning of the raining season. Surprisingly I didn’t feel any loss even though I had always been fond of “the beginning of the raining season.”

This morning I woke up to a wet morning in San Francisco. The dripping rain was soft as a velvety cloth. My mind is still not quite back yet. Not willing to settle into a working routine. My mind’s eyes look at everyday occurrence with a startled expression, like a young puppy fascinated by the newness of everything.

Not much has changed since we were away. The gas price has risen, the commute hour traffic is worse, tenant parking in our apartment building is more chaotic, and more people quitting at work and more new faces, too.

Life goes on. I remembered the time when I left for my Ecuador trip in the spring of 2002. I was very closely monitoring the development in Middle East; so not being able to know the daily development of the peace process was making me anxious. Then I met Caroline who had been traveling in South America for eight months. I asked her, did it bother you not being able to monitor the world news closely? She shrugged, not really because usually the news remained the same really. I didn’t believe her at first, but soon I realized she was right. Nothing really changed. Three weeks later after I got back from Ecuador, the Middle East situation remained surprisingly similar to what had been.

Nothing has changed much this time, either. People are still asking the same question they had asked when I was leaving, “Why Turkey?”

I still couldn’t really answer it.

Probably the reasoning for me was half romance, half curiosity –romantic because Istanbul sounds so exotic, curious because I had never been to a Muslim country.

I’m glad that I went. I’m also growing wary that as one travels to more and more places, one’s future travel choices grew smaller and smaller.

“The essence of travel is to slow the passage of time.” Robert Kaplan said.

Yet, everywhere I went, I felt the futility of traveler’s attempt. The old town of each glorious city was like the small grain of sand that was left in one’s palm. The rest flew out like sand in water.

The passage of time stops for no one. The entire world is hurrying off to catch up with the developed world, to become one big happy shopping mall…

That, was how I felt on my first day in Istanbul…

From Istanbul…

(For some reason, all of the us mail servers are not accessable from our hotel’s computer: gmail, yahoo, and hotmail… Luckily, my website remains accessable.)

Our trip is coming to an end. Tomorrow we are going to take a cruise up the Bospherus straight, to admire the beautiful skyline of Istanbul that we have seen so many times from movies and tv clips. Monday is reserved for maybe some last minute shopping or maybe check out more neighborhood of this incredibly large city. Tuesday, homeward! 🙂

During our short stay in this amazingly calm and relaxed ancient city, we have made a few friends. One of them, Siam, had taken us on a tour of the city last night, after he got off work. We got to see the entire Golden Horn from the top of the hill at Pierre Loti cafe, as a golden moon slowly rising next to the shinny outlights of many mosque of the city from across the water. The panaromic view from the cafe reminded me of Montmartre of Paris. Next to us is the most holy Mosque outside of Meca, Medena (sp.?), and Jerusalum: Eyup. Then the sprawling tombs of the ancient reminded me of the cemetary in Montmartre’s hills, too. There is something entirely moving and tranquil when one is sitting at a place like this, having the view of endless city lights, the night air was crisp, the breeze off the water was cool, Turkish tea in hand, it was warm and bitter sweet, and the night was young…All these seemed so new, yet, so familiar, as if a life i had had, a place i had been…

(to be continued… someone is waiting to use the terminal again. 🙁 )