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Virgin Atlantic

From the creative safety video to the actually yummy food, Virgin Atlantic was a joy to fly. I don’t know how I’ll manage with lesser airlines. The crew was genuinely polite and at the end of the flight they thanked us for letting them take care of us.

Amazing. I’ve never felt that American crews enjoyed that. I’ve felt that they put up with the passengers and I cringe when they sharply direct non-English speakers to “Stow your bags!” They don’t seem to realize the problem might be that they use uncommon words like “stow.”

The entertainment selection was vast and there was something for everyone to enjoy. The food, especially the mini strawberry popsicles were tasty.

I definitely aim to be a regular on Virgin.

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Grand Concourse

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The Steppenwolf’s Grand Concourse was so promising. Set in a soup kitchen, the play opens with Shelley, a middle=aged nun, who’s been doling out soup probably for decades gives Emma, a 19 year old volunteer, a run down on survival techniques: never give any of the guests money, don’t let the guests — especially Frog — into the kitchen, wash your hands a million times and remember anyone out there in the dining hall could snap at any time. Little does she know that Emma’s the one she should be warning people about. Despite her fragile looks, Emma’s the one who’s more disturbed and more in need than anyone at the soup kitchen. She’s the one not worthy of trust. That’s a lesson, Shelley, Frog and Oscar, a down-to-earth employee take too long to learn. Frog’s looniness is quirky and appealing. Oscar’s dependability and reactions to the other characters make him easy to connect with.

The acting, dialog and set design were top notch, I liked all the characters except Emma, who turns out to be psychotic midway through the show. However. the plot, especially the ending had problems. The young playwright doesn’t seem to understand how people generally change with age so the way Shelley reacts are more in keeping with a 30-something than someone who’s in her 50s. At the end of the play the plot jumps ahead several months, some characters have made big changes in their lives, but it was hard to buy that they really would have changed as they did.

I came away thinking that the writer knew a little about the world of soup kitchens and Catholics, but not all that much. If she’d spent more time investigating these realms, we’d have a better play, a play I could recommend people flock to.

New Restaurant

Perhaps you remember that one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, The Red Door Restaurant, was demolished a year ago. It was sad to watch it get knocked down day by day.

I’d hoped that they’d build a new restaurant, a bigger one on that spot, but alas they didn’t. The neighborhood got a cheap love hotel instead.

Well, last week I was walking home and bumped into the woman who seemed to manage The Red Door. Through pantomime I got her to write down her new place’s address and phone number. I got someone in our Foreign Affairs office to find its location on the Internet. On Saturday I convinced three Australian teachers to give the place a try.

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I’d been told that the place was about a 20 minute walk and I only had a vague idea of where it was so I thought taking a taxi there wo uld be best. Good luck finding one. We waited by school and then by Di Kou Lu and after an hour were still waiting. (It’s always been hard to get a cab at dinner time.) We wound up walking. We zigzagged through the neighborhood right to the west of school, where parts are rather squalid. One friend kept asking whether I knew where I was going. She wasn’t used to the drab, old, concrete buildings in the little hutongs.

We eventually found the new restaurant, with the help of some Chinese people who lived in its neighborhood and had yet to try it.

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We got the famed feng wei qiezi, a dish I’d hoped was spicy chicken with bread pockets, a spicy tofu dish my friends like and broccoli with garlic. The chicken was the only disappointment. I hope I just ordered wrong. My favorite version had pieces of cut chicken without bones. This not only had lots of little bones to be careful of there were chicken feet in it too. Everything else was as good as I remembered.

The familiar employees weren’t on duty that night, but someone must have called the owners because the woman and her not-so-little-anymore girl came to say hello. I’m sure this was the first time foreigners had crossed the threshold of this out of the way eatery.

I had my camera, but forgot to use it till midway through the meal. I do have to go back and see whether I can get the ‘right’ chicken with bread pockets and a few other old favorites. The street is far, but they seem to have a few good restaurants that might be worth a walk.

Review: Westin Miyako

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Zen Garden at Westin

One of the best choices for this trip was to stay for a couple days at the Westin Miyako Hotel in Kyoto in one of their traditional Japanese rooms. Now not everyone wold want to take this step, but I’ve slept on Japanese futons before and know what to expect from a Japanese bathroom.

Staying at the Westin was so convenient. They have a shuttle two blocks from where the airport shuttle stops. I did have to ask the Kyoto Station information desk exactly where the Westin shuttle came, but they spoke very good English and knew that it was close to their office. Since I like to walk, I found the hotel location great as I could walk to several temples, shrines and museums from the hotel.

My room had a genkan, or entry way where people remove their shoes. Inside thDSCN9236

Here was a room with the closet and mini bar, a main room which had a low table and chairs and an alcove (tokonoma) with an ink painting and simple floral arrangement which was changed daily. The floor had tatami mats which smell wonderful and are the reason for “no shoes.” There was a little desk, modern TV, and wifi.

The bathroom was typical for Japan. In one part is the toilet which was heated and had bidet functions. It was chilly in the room in the morning and night as Most Japanese buildings don’t have insulation. The heater was in the main room so it didn’t do much for the bathroom. Then there was the area with the sink, which seemed like it was two feet high. That I could see changing. On the right was the bathroom, which had a wooden tub so small I couldn’t sit “Indian style” let alone stretch out my feet. The main part of the bathroom is for showering. You’ve got a little stool you can sit on, a faucet and shower head. The main rule is NO SOAP in the tub! In Japan you clean yourself outside the tub and by clean yourself, I mean, so that every particle of dirt is off you. A good rule of thumb is that a non-Japanese person should scrub twice as long as they normally would. Then you get in the tub just to soak, to get some serenity.

At night the maids come and set up your futons and pillows. I found the futon comparable to a mattress, not the new fangled Western beads that have toppers and are extra comfy, a mattress that’s a bit old school. It was just fine.

The wing with the traditional room, is by the bird-watching trail and fox shrine so in the morning I woke up to the sounds of birds singing each morning. Also, it’s got a zen garden out front and the trail is a nice short hike.

On Sunday I had their high tea. Great food, great tea. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, but are at a temple in the afternoon, stop by for great pastries, a scone or quiche, and little sandwiches.

The concierges and staff were so efficient.  I got good help with figuring out why my emails to a Japanese friend I had dinner plans with kept bouncing and with figuring out what to do on a rainy day. I’d never have discovered the Chishakuin Temple, which has remarkable paintings in one of its halls.

When I return to Kyoto, I’d definitely stay at the Westin again and I’d book a traditional room for two nights and a regular room for a third night to take a Western style bath.

Hotel Nikko, Review

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I arrived in Japan tonight! My vacation has begun. For my first night I decided to stay by the airport at the Hotel Nikko. The service was so efficient at check in (and through the customs process) that I was in my room 45 minutes after the plane touched down.

While the room isn’t decorated with much flair, it’s nice and modern enough. I just wanted to spend a quiet night and be able to grab a decent meal rather than traveling for almost two hours and then scrounging for food.

After China, where there are no baths, only showers, in bathrooms unless you get a suite, taking a bath was a luxury. I was slightly disappointed, as I always am that there are no little toiletries to take away. They’ve got nice shampoo and body soap, but they’re in big bottles to stay in the room.

I’m happy that I get to watch Dateline London and other BBC news, but that’s the only English language channel. That’s an area where Japanese hotels lag behind.

Peninsula Hotel, Beijing

I know I have more photos . . .

I know I have more photos . . .

For years, since it opened actually, I’ve wanted to stay at the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing. This five star hotel group is outside my price range in the US, Europe or Hong Kong. I’ve considered booking a room in the past, but the rate was usually around $300 and that was just too rich for my blood.

Through Hotels.com I noticed a discount rate of $147 and that I could manage. I stayed there a couple weeks ago. I stayed in the “Deluxe” room for $158 thinking for a little more I could get even more luxury.

Fitness Center

Fitness Center

The room was fine, on par with a Sheraton or Intercontinental hotel. I was satisfied, but also glad I hadn’t paid $300. The decor is sleek and you get cable and a DVD player. There’s free wifi and a good fitness room. The Peninsula offers turn down service though I’m old fashioned and longed for a mint or some sweet on the pillow. The staff was courteous and I had no problems at check in or checking out.

I walked around the hotel and hoped to find a bakery so I could get some scones since the Peninsula Hong Kong’s scones are the best I’ve ever had. They didn’t have such a shop.

I ordered room service, duck confit and key lime pie. The duck disappointed as it was rather salty and dry. The pie was good and all the food was well presented. I guess other duck in China has been much better.

Ibis Hotel, Harbin China

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With a great location that’s walking distance to St. Sophia’s Russian Orthodox Church, Zhaop Park and Zhangyang Street with all its European style architecture, Ibis Hotel is a good choice in Harbin. For about $30 a night I got a spic and span room with wifi and a TV (not many Western channels though). I could easily get from the airport bus stop to the hotel following the well marked streets and my Lonely Planet map.

The room’s are basic, but that’s all I wanted. They offer breakfast, but no other meals. I opted for a nearby Starbucks as I wanted the music and a place to work in the morning on my homework before I did my afternoon sightseeing.

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If you insist on kind, polite staff, this isn’t the hotel for you. In fact, the Harbin-ites I encountered just didn’t smile. At the hotel and elsewhere staff was gruff and unhappy about doing more than the minimum. Maybe they wanted people to feel they really were in Russia ;-). They do their job and they fixed my problem and put me in a non-smoking room when the first room was for smokers, but they’re not able to be cheerful.

Since the hostel just had a 57% satisfaction rate, I’m glad I opted for Ibis.

The Ballad of Narayama

narayamaThis 1955 movie was a hard one to watch. It’s about an old woman of 70 who’s intent upon following her region’s tradition of going up the mountain to die. Spry and sharp, you’d think she’d resist like another man in her village, but no. While her son is heartbroken about having to carry his mother up the mountain to leave her to starve, her insolent grandson, who’s newly married keeps taunting her with songs about her good teeth. Repeatedly, the overgrown brat, who does no work and contributes zilch to the family, unlike his grandmother, sings about his grandmother’s “devil teeth.”

Though well done, I found myself stopping the DVD often. I watched in short spurts hoping the woman could stay with her family. But no, it would be too much of a disgrace to be alive after a great grandchild was born. The whole village would gossip.

I like to be culturally sensitive, but this test I couldn’t pass. The director clearly wanted to show how horrid it was to abandon the old in this ritualized way. How despicable the neighbor who threw his father out refusing him food since he didn’t want to go up the mountain to a slow death. Granted food was scarce and Japan was a poor country until it industrialized, but societies are judge by how they treat their weakest members. While I watched I thought of the short comings of our own system. Still this seemed so cruel. Seventy seems far too young.

Thoughts on Season 5 of Downton Abbey, The Finale

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After being presented, Rose dances with the Prince of Wales

Hmmm. I so love Downton Abbey, that it’s hard for me to criticize it. Even when it’s not at its best, it beats a lot of the fare on TV (e.g. Selfridge or almost anything on the “big” networks). This was a low ebb for Downton though. I think a lot of opportunities were missed and the main story, Anna’s rape, while true to life, was so hard to take.

When the first episodes aired, I thought Julian Fellowes was lining up his characters to present great stories. Of course, it would take time for the audience to know the new lady’s maid or Rose, to give characters like Cora or Bates a new problem, mission or angle. I was disappointed that we never got to know what secret binds the new maid to Thomas. (The fact that I don’t know the new maid’s name suggests her character remained one dimensional.) Rose has been a flibbertigibbet and that’s fine. Some people were and are airheads, but though she had the romance with the jazz singer and a bit of intrigue with the Prince of Wales (no romance, but a slight drama), it all amounted to so little because this flibbertigibbet sort of dwells in her own orbit. She hasn’t been integrated into the family so we have little idea of how she gets on with them. That’s where drama lies — in the relationships between family members or colleagues, be they friend or foe.

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I did wish Edith could have a career-related season, instead of this sad pregnancy cum lost love story. That could be season 5.

That’s the problem I have with Cora when her relatives appear. She’s barely in a scene with them. They are her family! She doesn’t have any business with them. Clearly, they come to see her, Mary and Edith. The mother has enough money for a hotel in London, where they’d have more fun. Yes, it’s dramatic, potentially for Cora’s mother and Violet to exchange barbs, but how about some sparks or something between Cora and her mother. Cora’s American-ness would probably surface with the Brits and her adopted British ways would chafe the Yanks, who knew her when. Cora has gotten so little story-wise since season one when she helped move the Turk’s corpse from Mary’s bedroom and when due to Sullivan’s machinations she lost the baby. Yes, have Cora host a luncheon or social event, but also give her some real problems. Make her more integral.

Now Edith did get a lot too deal with this season. I was surprised to jump from her being barely pregnant to having given birth and returned from Switzerland. I suppose that was plausible and for that era a good solution. I do think she’s made a big mistake bringing the baby back to England, but that is drama — making the audience tense when a bad decision has been made. I do think the Gregson storyline is hard to buy. His disappearance seems poorly planned. The explanation that Nazi’s beat him up seemed tacked on and implausible. Even in the ’20s I’d believe that the British were keeping tabs on the Brown Shirts and other beatings and disappearances would have been noted. It seemed contrived.

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Yes, Mary the stories could be better

Now Bates must have killed the rapist. No one can take the stand to say he’s innocent. As horrible as rape is, we now see that Bates doesn’t trust the justice system and it makes me think he’s a thug when push comes to shove. I also now think he probably would kill his first wife. I’d have preferred Anna finally summoning the courage to report the crime and seeing how the legal channels and family would have dealt with it. Certainly, such trials were rare and the outcome probably unjust, but it would have been highly dramatic.

The story about the Prince of Wales’ scandalous letter getting stolen by the card sharp and Lord Grantham, Rose, Mary and Bates feeling responsible for stealing it back was too far fetched for me. Mary got it right when she speculated that it’s the Prince’s character and his own doing that caused the trouble and that in the end would cause him more trouble. This plotline bordered on farce.

I like that Tom fits in better at Downton and is starting to reignite his interest in politics. Early on his moping about not fitting in seemed overdone. Do something, Man! People have a lot worse problems over on the Emerald Isle. (By the way isn’t it a pity no one will invite his relatives to see their grandchild. Does he get an allowance for spending?) Yet Thomas’ storyline did improve by the end of the season.

I have still loved the clothes and am glad Fellowes didn’t immediately give Mary a suitor. I prefer Blake, the man who helped her save the pigs, but the sudden discovery that he’s rich and aristocratic again, seems contrived. Fellows seems to have lost his touch. I hope he regains it for season 5.

American Eras Primary Sources

I had to review a resource for my Reference class and chose this great new discovery, American Eras Primary Sources. I could spend hours pouring over it. There are three volumes for the eras prior to the 20th century. Then for the 20th century there’s American Decades Primary Sources, another gem.

American Eras Primary Sources fills a niche that encyclopedias, almanacs, books, and articles can’t. This multi-volume set “reproduces full text or excerpts of primary sources that illuminate a particular trend, event, or personality important to [the] understanding of the time period. Each volume includes about one hundred entries organized into topical chapters” (Parks, 2013). By examining one volume in the electronic version covering the Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877, I will describe and evaluate the series.

From a Handbook on the Art of Dancing

From a Handbook on the Art of Dancing

The volume begins with section called “Using Primary Sources” which includes an explanation of what a primary source is and advises readers on how to approach the use of such sources to avoid faulty reasoning. Next there’s an eclectic chronology of world events, which provides an interesting perspective that a history book may not. For example, this chronology lists major natural disasters, military battles, treaties (e.g. the First Geneva Convention protecting the rights of war prisoners), fashion trends and firsts such as the first indoor ice hockey game, which was played in 1875 in Canada.

anti slave alpha bet

The heart of American Eras Primary Sources is the primary sources organized in categories such as the arts, business, government and politics, communications, law, fashion, science, medicine, social trends, and education. Each category begins with an overview and chronology to provide context. Each entry lists basic information on the creator of the primary source, introduces the item. This volume includes and describes Currier and Ives prints, recipes, patents, illustrations, poetry, photos of Grand Central Station, text from the children’s book The Anti-Slave Alphabet, sheet music, military orders and more. After each entry there is a short passage describing its significance and a list of further resources including websites with click-able links.

The end of the volume contains a general index and primary source type index. Entries may be viewed as text or PDF. Users may easily email or download entries for further examination.

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American Eras Primary Sources contains a wide variety of sources that illuminate disparate aspects of American society thereby expanding users’ understanding of the era. Given that an electronic version doesn’t take up shelf space, I would have liked more entries particularly sources from lower level Civil War officers and representatives of minorities other than women and African Americans who are included, but mainly in the conventional ways, i.e. as housewives, suffragettes or slaves. Including sources written in languages other than English with translations would make this important resource even more comprehensive. Still history buffs, students and researchers will find this book highly valuable.

Verdict: American Eras Primary Sources offers a unique perspective on history and should be a part of any public, secondary school or university library collection.

Check this out at your public library if you like history at all!

Works Cited

American Eras Primary Sources. Ed. Rebecca Parks. Vol. 2: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877. Detroit: Gale, 2013. [0]. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

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