Friday, November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving from London!

Every year on the fourth Thursday of November, we Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, an annual tradition of eating and drinking, and of course to be thankful for life's many blessings. While this American holiday has been celebrated since 1863, Thanksgiving did not become a federal holiday until 1941. Americans get not one, but two days off; one day to devour delicious Thanksgiving food and the next day to recover from the aftermath i.e. food/wine coma, or indulge in some retail therapy on Black Friday. Thanksgiving...bring it on!

My first (and Keenan's second) Thanksgiving in London was lovely. We hosted Thanksgiving dinner for 9 people at our flat and had a wonderful time with our London-based friends! I took half-day off to roast the turkey and make the trimmings for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Oh the joys of cooking -- I love it!

The Host at Work:

Keenan made one and half dozen deviled eggs and a killer (artery-clogging) mashed potatoes. Our friends brought yummy desserts, appetizers, and lots of wine (and Estonian banana liqueur) to round out the menu. I'll just let the pictures speak for itself.

Hope everyone had a fantastic Thanksgiving! Be thankful everyday...

~L + K


The Kitchen as the buffet area

Veggie Platter | Charcuterie of Cured Meats & Cheese | Deviled Eggs | Mushroom Soup | Spinach and Beet Root Salad | Turkey with Herb Butter | Sausage, Mushroom, and Chestnut Stuffing | Roasted Green Beans and Carrots | Classic Mashed Potato w/ Gravy | Cauliflower Gratin | Brussels Sprout | Apple – Orange Cranberry Sauce

Desserts: Cheesecake | Apple Tart | Pumpkin Pie -- made with love by M.P., L.G., and F.A-W (respectively)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Night at the Opera: A New Take on Puccini's Turandot

I first saw Puccini’s Turandot years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, so when I heard that a production was coming to the English National Opera in London, I had to secure tickets.

The best part of our night at the opera was our seats. We were in the front row stalls, center stage, seated directly behind the Conductor. You couldn’t have had better seats than these. The music was superb with Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones as “the unknown prince” and German soprano Kirsten Blanck as the “ice princess” headlining the performance. Jones’ rendition of “Nessun Dorma” was amazing, reminiscent of Pavarotti, and I have no complaints on the music whatsoever.

However, this particular production of Turandot was a bit too quirky for me to give it a fully positive review. As you can see from the production photos, the costumes were a bit over-the-top on the scale of randomness, ranging from Elvis impersonators, pregnant mothers-to-be, retro golfers and tennis players, and goth and punk youngsters. While I appreciate what director Rupert Goold was probably trying to achieve in “individualizing” the members of the chorus, I found that this tactic created a constant annoyance to me, distracting me from the superb vocal and orchestral performances and cheapening the overall production. The English National Opera is known for putting a contemporary spin on classic operas, but this went beyond presenting a darkly modern interpretation of the original and at certain points even inserted obvious, but silent side storylines that were never written by Puccini. I didn’t understand the purpose of this as it added no visual or musical value to the experience. The stage sets were fantastic, no complaints there.

We watched Rupert Goold’s production of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” last December and to date it has been my favorite show in the West End, so I was a bit surprised to see this eclectic and sometimes nonsensical interpretation of one of the greatest operas of all time. Apparently the gentleman seated beside me was a bit thwarted as well. At various points throughout the performance he would shake his in disagreement with what he saw on stage and at one point dramatically dropped his head in his hands, gasping, and averting his eyes from the performance altogether. Next time I think I’ll avoid the English National Opera altogether and stick to the traditional Royal Opera House.

Overall, it was a great performance by all musicians and a terrific night at the opera, but I could have done without the arbitrary and outlandish costumes which at times made me feel like I had accidentally wound up at a night at the circus instead.

Puccini's Turandot Production Photos (Courtesy of C. Ashmore):

Act 1: Liu - the Slave Girl and The Prince

Act 1: Ice Princess -- Princess Turandot

Act 3: "Nessun Dorma" (No One Shall Sleep)

Act 3: Liu would not reveal the Prince's name

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Autumn Weekend on Lake Geneva

When people ask what's the best part of living in London, my reply is one of two things 1) London is an exhilarating city and/or 2) travel -- it's quick, easy, and affordable. One of our goals while living in London is to travel as much as our wallets can stretch. With some advanced planning, you can easily book RT airfare for approximately 45GBP to 75GBP depending on the destination and flight times. We try to get out of the U.K. at least once a month, so this weekend Keenan and I found ourselves in Switzerland -- the land of fondue, fine chocolates, and exquisite watches.

When I booked our trip to Switzerland a few months back, Keenan reminded me of a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of his favorite HBO shows, and it goes as follows from Season 2, Episode 7:

Larry David: "This is called a Swiss Army Knife. Do you know what Switzerland is?"
Tara Michaelson (the producer's young daughter): "No, what's that?"
Larry David: "Switzerland is a place where they don't like to fight, so they get people to do their fighting for them while they ski and eat chocolate."

Ha! I couldn't stop laughing -- I am sure there is more to Switzerland than skiing and chocolates!

We based ourselves in Geneva, the home of 250+ top NGOs including the European headquarters of the United Nation, International Red Cross, and the WHO, and explored area around Lac Léman -- or to us Americans, Lake Geneva.

The French-speaking city of Geneva straddles between Rhône Valley and the southwestern tip of Lake Geneva, which also happens to be one largest fresh water lake in western Europe. With so many international visitors and diplomats coming through each year, it is easy to find a wide range of cuisine. We opt for a light lunch of Middle Eastern kebabs before starting our walking tour of the lake and Old Town Geneva. Oh, I forgot to mention that Switzerland is insanely expensive. Although the CH Franc and the USD is nearly 1 to 1, prices are high in Switzerland. Take for example, a regular cup of coffee is 3.50 CHF -- that's 3.50USD for a cup of joe! Coming on the British pound, prices is more or less equivalent to London.

Armed with our brollies (British abbreviation for umbrella), we walked along Lake Geneva towards Jet d'Eau, the iconic water jet to the Flower Clock in the Jardin Angalis, and then meandered around the narrow cobble-stone streets of Old Town. With its close proximity to the French border, much of its architecture such as the grey-tone building and iron wrought windows reminded me of France.

Dinner was at Les Armures on Rue du Puits-St-Pierre in Old Town, somewhat of a Genevois institution. Bill and Hillary Clinton ate here in 1994 and they proudly display President Clinton's letter thanking the restaurant for hosting them during a visit to Geneva. We stuffed ourselves silly with delicious fondue and local Swiss wine.

Wine? Who would have guessed Switzerland produced wine, but they do, just outside of Geneva too. Apparently, Switzerland does not export any of their wines; probably the reason why we never heard of Swiss wine back in California. Their main production is Chasselas, a white wine produced in Alsace and parts of Germany.

The next day we took an excursion to Lausanne, home of the International Olympic Committee, and the start of wine country. Lausanne is a delightful little Swiss city built around three hills. It flourished during the Age of Enlightenment where both Rosseau and Voltaire spent some time here. Keenan and I hiked up hill to see Cathedrale de Lausanne which overlooks the city and Lake Geneva.

We took a lovely 5K walk on the edge of Lake Geneva from Lausanne-Ouchy to the town of Lutry in Lavaux wine country. This is such a picturesque region with gentle rolling hills of vineyard against the backdrop of the gorgeous lake. We wanted to drop in a few tastings but virtually everything shuts down in continental Europe on Sundays, especially small towns such as Lutry. We stopped by a little cafe for crepes and bottle of locally produced white wine. Not bad for a Sunday afternoon.

Overall, it was a nice getaway in the land of Swiss cheese! These weekend trips gets exhausting so we're taking a hiatus until Christmas while our passports are being held up at the Russian embassy. More on that later.

Au Revoir, Lily

Monday, November 09, 2009

Under the Tuscan Sun: Firenze

We headed to Florence for the next part of our Italian adventure. I’ve been to different regions of Italy in the past including Lake Como, Veneto, and Rome but never to Tuscany which is such a shame! It's so beautiful here. Of course five years ago, I didn’t know much about wine or have an appreciation for the arts, but that has all changed!

We arrived in Florence via train around 1:30PM and made a beeline towards Trattoria Mario near Mercato Centrale, a lively restaurant recommended by all our friends who been to Florence. The queue was long, and by the time we got seated around 3:00PM, we were too hungry to decipher the Italian-only menu. Luckily, there was a group of 20-something Italian ladies who were in town for little reunion helped us translate the menu. Grazie bella!

After a late lunch, we dropped off our bags at our B&B which happens to be located across from Dante’s house (Dante’s Divine Comedy). Florence itself is a compact city – you can walk to all the sights in less than twenty minutes. It’s a city made for walking and please don’t bother with a car while in Florence -- the narrow one-way streets alone will give you a massive headache.

My friend and I took an evening stroll along the river starting from Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s famous bridge, to Uffizi, and then we stopped at Piazza della Signora to marvel at the Renaissance sculptures. After a light dinner, a glass of wine, and toasted to Halloween, we hit the pillow dreaming of David…

Speaking of David, he was first on our itinerary for Sunday – a trip to the Accademia for a face-to-face encounter with Michelangelo’s David. He is sheer perfection; the size, proportion, and the level of detail is just brilliant! The Accademia is a small museum and has an interesting exhibition on the history of music. Oh, by the way, if you think you can snap a few photos of David, think again, photography is strictly forbidden.

Next on our itinerary: the beautiful Duomo. It is Florence’s iconic landmark and literally sits in the centre of town. If you get lost, just look for the dome of the Duomo to reorient yourself.

Of course, we need a gelato break -- yummers. You can't come all the way to Italy and not have gelato!

I'm a sucker for panoramic views, so we made our way up to Piazza Michelangelo for sunset views of Florence. What a view! Here, there is also a replica of David. Nope it doesn’t remotely compare to the original David, but you can snap a few photos.

Siena & The Chianti Region:
The next day we set out to explore Siena and the Chianti region by car. I haven’t driven since I moved to U.K. but driving in Italy was a breeze even with a stick-shift. We had a hard time getting out of Florence, again due to the one-way roads, roundabouts, and poor signs, but once on the freeway, it was easy. Our first stop: Siena.

Siena reminded me of Toledo in Spain, a fortress city built upon a hill. We visited the Duomo and then to the Campo. Everyone who has visited Siena loves this nicely preserved medieval town and I can see why.

After a quick bite, we made our way back to Florence via SS222, also known as Chiantigana, the scenic road through the wine country. Amazing! I thought Napa/Sonoma was beautiful, just wait until you see Chianti and the Tuscany region, plus it’s less commercial. Our original plan was to stop in the towns of Castellina, Panzano, and Greve to taste the best that Chianti Classico has to offer. Unfortunately, our tour through Chianti was cut short for two reasons: it started raining (!) and the odometers stopped working so we had no idea how much gas was in the tank! We did stop in the town of Greve for winetasting at La Cantina in Greve. Oh, I should also thank the kind person who left me with the €10 wine-tasting credit.

After dropping off the car, we headed to dinner at Osteria del Congrego. It’s a little hidden gem near Mercato Centrale serving some nice vegetarian risottos, rivolis, and pastas.

I originally booked my flight leaving on Tuesday at 7:55AM from Florence so I can head straight to work from London Gatwick. However, my flight got canceled and Meridana put me on a later flight leaving a 6:10PM. My friend had already booked her 12:00PM outbound train ticket to Rome so I had an extra 1/2 day to roam around Florence by myself. I waved goodbye to my friend from the platform wishing her a very good trip to Rome and Barcelona, and then made my way to Giardino di Boboli, Florence's famous garden behind the Pitti Palace. It was a gorgeous, I mean gorgeous fall day.

I have yet to see Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast but from what I can see, Tuscany may be my favorite region of Italy. What a fantastic holiday and even better was the wonderful company of a dear friend from home. Next time, we're heading to the Greek Isles lady!