A Pair of Birthday Girls!

April has been a very busy month, what with work, income taxes, getting used to a new season and a new schedule. Fortunately, there were other, more pleasant reasons for this busy-ness–namely, two birthday celebrations I had the honor of attending just over a week ago, in Palo Alto.

LongevityFan2The first honoree–an old friend of the family, especially of my mother who has known her from more than 50 years–was observing her 99th birthday, a watershed marked by the Longevity fan on prominent display at both parties. The matriarch of a large, far-flung family, she has lived a rich, full life, is still as sharp as a needle, and was apparently pleased and excited to see so many friends and relatives in attendance at her party.

RedEggs2By contrast, the second honoree–great-granddaughter of the first–has just turned one, an occasion marked in Chinese tradition by a “Red Egg Celebration” (where hard-boiled eggs, colored pink by red calligraphy paper, are served to the guests as symbols of a fresh start and new beginning). All things are still to come for her (including her first set of teeth), but she too was majorly stoked about her birthday party, if for a slightly different reason. As her fond mother reported with pride, “This girl loves to eat!”

Which turned out to be a very good thing, as both birthday dinners were Chinese banquets featuring a multitude of dishes and courses. My advice to anyone who happens to attend such a dinner: Pace yourself.  In between the cold meats and salads that began both meals to the noodle dishes (for longevity) that ended them, there was soup, Peking duck, Chinese-style fried chicken, rice-stuffed chicken, Mongolian beef, beef with broccoli, sweet and sour pork, shrimp with glazed walnuts, and steamed fish (the last carefully deboned at the table by the waiter). It’s possible to sample everything, but, depending on your capacity, keeping your servings small to moderate is generally a good idea! I managed by restricting myself to single servings on most dishes (with a couple of exceptions–could never resist Peking duck!), and bypassing a few others (like the jellyfish–it’s the texture, not the taste, that puts me off!). Dessert on both occasions was thoroughly Western birthday cake: strawberries and cream the first night, chocolate and raspberry the second.

(Strangely enough, the red eggs never did get eaten, possibly because they were eclipsed by everything else on the table. But they were carefully packed away in styrofoam cartons for another occasion. I overheard someone murmur something about “egg salad” the next day.)

My mother (left), with the first birthday girl
My mother (left), with the first birthday girl

A very happy birthday to both honorees! Thank you for inviting us, and we were glad to be there, celebrating with you.

 

Stepping into the Past: The Lure of a Historic Hotel

I have a thing for historic hotels–the Empress in Victoria, B.C.; the Coronado del Mar in San Diego; the Savoy in London. But, as I have neither the occasion nor the wherewithal to stay in any of them, my interest has remained purely academic. (Although I have at least visited the first two, and taken copious photographs!)

That changed last week during a brief visit to Northern California to celebrate the birthday of an old family friend–details to come in a later blog post. My traveling companion wanted to be as close to the restaurant as possible, so after some searching, I secured us a room at the historic  “art-deco” Cardinal Hotel in downtown Palo Alto, less than three blocks away. My initial goal had simply been to find clean, affordable accommodations for a couple of nights–and while that goal was satisfactorily met, the charming detour into the past was an unexpected bonus.

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Walking into the lobby of the Cardinal was like walking into a more elegant, leisurely era, or so it seems to the harried, 21st century traveler. Tiled floors, wrought iron chandeliers shaped like acorns, a Batchelder fireplace flanked by a pair of tall wrought-iron torchieres that haven’t been moved from their original placement since the hotel was first built in 1924.

Other furniture included well-padded leather sofas and upholstered armchairs, gilt-edged mirrors that made the room appear even larger; an antique piano by the fireplace; a disabled telephone switchboard in one corner and two wooden phone booths at the far end of the lobby; and even a pair of octagonal game tables complete with old chess and checkers sets to occupy guests in the evenings or while they waited for the dining room to open. GameTables

The Cardinal also once boasted a restaurant called Wilson’s, and according to a posted menu from the 1920s, the price of a lavish meal there could be reckoned in cents, not dollars! Alas, that was one custom that did not survive the passage of time! Still, complimentary coffee, tea, and hot chocolate were available at all times in the lobby, which was a nice courtesy, especially in the morning.

Upstairs–reached via an old-fashioned elevator with an outer door you had to open manually before entering–the decor was much more modern. No air conditioning, but a large ceiling fan revolved almost soundlessly and kept things nicely cool. The plumbing was (mercifully) up to date, and there was a large color TV and wireless internet access. Some bedrooms shared a hallway bathroom and shower–a practice in some European hotels, while others had private baths. (We opted for the latter–in this case, convenience trumped style!)

Not everything about the Cardinal was perfect. There’s no on-site parking, for example, and you have to stow your vehicle on the streets, the public lots, or the parking structure across the way.  The good news is that on weekends–after 5 PM Friday until 8 AM on Monday–you can park pretty much wherever you want for as long as you want. This was just about about ideal for us, as we checked in Friday afternoon and stayed until Sunday morning. But the staff was unfailingly helpful and courteous, the amenities provided were of good quality, and the period ambiance irresistible. For a few days, the Cardinal Hotel provided us with the perfect escape.

“E” is for “Entry”

To a different world, and a different culture.

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Last week was an experience for me. But not just because Waltz with a Stranger was finally released. On December 5, I was one of a small party that attended a reception in honor of the King of Thailand’s birthday, held at a local country club. (A relative teaches the general consul’s son, and unexpectedly received an invitation. The rest of us came along as moral support.)

So there we were, all dressed up for the evening–can’t go wrong with a little black dress and a sparkly necklace!–and getting an on-the-fly lesson in Thailand’s political history, an eyeful of Thai traditions, and later on, generous servings of Thai food (tasty, but definitely on the “hot” side. I regretted the apparent absence of Thai iced tea to cool things down, afterwards.) There was a great deal to see, hear, and absorb–much of which I’m still reflecting on–but here are some thoughts/discoveries to start with.

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Massaman Curry, photo by Ernesto Andrade

Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, has ruled Thailand for 65 years, and is still a popular, much revered figure in his country. As a citizen of a nation in which we “fire” our head of government every four years if we’re dissatisfied with his policies and see a changing of the guard every eight years whatever the outcome, I found myself amazed by the thought of any one person being in power for six and a half decades. And then remembered Queen Victoria and her own 64 years on the English throne, and the reverence she most often inspired in her subjects, even those who were critical of her. The British and the Thais were both fortunate to have monarchs who appeared to have their country’s best interests at heart.

It was intriguing to hear how invested the Thais were in the outcome of our own recent election. One of the speakers of the evening proposed a toast to President Obama, in honor of his second term, and mentioned that the president had made a recent visit to Thailand after winning reelection. He voiced the hope that Thailand and the U.S. would continue their friendly relationship of many years.

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Meeting of President Obama and Rama IX, 11/18/12

Back in the club, monitors showed news footage of Bhumibol’s past visits to the United States. A placard displayed an excerpt of a speech he gave on one such visit.

On lighter subjects: Thai national dress is stunningly beautiful. We saw a number of Thai women, many exquisitely gowned in silks and satins, lovely sheeny fabrics heavy with embroidery or crusted with gems.

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Thai girls in traditional costume. Photo: Yashi Wong

Thai culture seems to place a high value on beauty in general. On the terrace where the reception was held, there were corners in which guests could see popular Thai pastimes at work: garland-making–jasmine is a staple, because of its perfume; fruit and vegetable carving, into beautiful, elaborate shapes; and calligraphy (I now have a bookmark with my name written in Thai).

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Carved carrot and cucumber. Photo: Mattes

Throughout the evening, we glimpsed some traditional Thai dances–“glimpsed” because the terrace was very crowded and visibility at something of a premium. I marveled at the sight of the dancers in their elaborate headdresses, which I hoped were lighter than they appeared. And a small group of musicians played throughout the evening. I noticed a cello, a hammer dulcimer, something that looked like a large xylophone, and a thoroughly modern electronic keyboard! Or perhaps it was a synthesizer–I never plucked up the nerve to ask.

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Khon Dancers in Performance

But, in the midst of all this fascinating history and culture, perhaps the most novel experience of the evening for me . . . was finding myself, at a mere 5′ 4″, among the taller people at the party. An evening to remember indeed!