Saturday, January 25, 2014

January Sunshine

Florida is a 65+ paradise of 3 PM happy hours, vintage sports cars, and lazy days at the beach. Before returning to my current ice box of a school, I had the fortune of spending a week with my snow bird parents on the Gulf Coast. I feel like Florida is in limbo as the landing point of transient winter visitors, the playground of coastal millionaires, yet there are still visible signs of struggle.  Between oceanfront villas you can also easily find ramshackle and incomplete properties.  At least people are relaxed here; the lack of sunshine or an unplowed driveway are never excuses for a bad day.

Murals on the side of a Baptist church.
If houses had souls.

The El Jobean Depot Cafe was established in 1922, when the community was envisioned to be the next Boston of the south. It was a post office, train station, and prison, but now is a small museum, meeting space, and bar.
Interior views of the depot.
A bar with a LOT of character.
Afternoon beers with my dad!
Right around the corner from those tropical-colored homes, you'd find places like this.

On a boat to visit an island restaurant with my Aunt and Uncle, who migrate south from Ohio.

Searching for shells at Boca Grande Beach, one of the most beautiful in Florida, if not the world.
Sarasota Bay Park

A visit to the Tiki Bar!

Florida isn't quite for me, but it was a glorious week to end my winter break.  I undoubtedly miss the fresh seafood and abundant fruit, though having distinct seasons makes you appreciate warm days all the more!

Listening: "X-Ray" by Xylos

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Spring Semester

At my school, the polar vortex is a daily reality. The North Country is experiencing one of it's harshest winters yet, with averages in the negative 20-30 degrees (F), and a highs barely meeting 0 degrees. We should be breaking into whole digit temperatures this weekend, which is ludicrous but exciting.  There's something to be said for long winters and the ability is has to bond us students together, whether it's the absurdity of having frozen eyelashes in three minutes, the creativity of board game nights when we don't want to leave the house, or the unwavering determination (idiocy) to make it to the bar! It's tough sometimes, but certainly survivable (if you're not slipping on unseen ice); a snow globe campus of endless skies blankets of snow.

Inaugural senior spring dinner with my housemates: lentil soup amped up with fall CSA collard greens, fried rice, and garlic mozzarella bread. Not pictured: the bottle of pink moscato we crushed.
I'm just about through my first full week back for winter/spring semester that is, unbelievably, my last. I'm caught in reminiscing mode quite often, and find myself reflecting on my experiences here over the last four years. However, I still have unfinished business here! I'm taking a Spanish oral expression course, picking up Chinese again (好极了!), finishing my honors thesis, interning with the University Communications department, and interning with RoosterGNN. All the organizational commitments will pick back up soon. There's some hefty decisions looming on the horizon, but more so hypothetical realities I'm not quite ready to rush. At the end of the day, I'm aiming to maximize fun. I mean, obviously I want to finish strong academically and take advantage of the brilliant professors and departments here, but also our free indoor climbing wall; going to Georgia for spring break with the Ruckus Bus; cooking dinner with my best friends; going out for beer on Mondays and Tuesdays because this is likely the last time they will cost $1; and just living these moments with the acceptance that after the end of May, things will never be the same.

As Sam would say, I'm not here for a long time, I'm here for a good time.

Listening: "Pompeii" by Bastille    

Friday, January 17, 2014

Digesting NYC, part II: Falafel

There is no shortage of falafel in New York City, it's simply a matter of finding the good ones.  This is a challenge that could take years, and if I ever take up residency, it is one I shall gladly accept!  Now, the origins falafel-- a fried fritter of mashed chick peas or fava beans with handfuls of parsley, onion, garlic, cumin, cayenne, lemon, tucked into a pita with tahini or cucumber-dill yogurt sauce, tomatoes, and julienned cucumbers-- are contested: it is the national food of Irsael, but claimed by Palestine; perhaps rooted in Egypt, but undoubtedly Arab.  Having never traveled to the Middle East, I haven't tried a native version (yet), but I have indulged on some of the best falafel in Paris, and have some sense of how the ideal pita should taste.  In my 2 days, I had falafel from two establishments: Maoz Vegetarian and Oasis.

Maoz Vegetarian Times Square on UrbanspoonWhen I arrived at Equity Point hostel in Times Square my first night, I dumped all my bags, changed clothes, then walked one block to Maoz Vegetarian (see, I knew there was a reason I picked this hostel!).  It's a narrow shop with a single counter where you order, stand back, and wait.  There's a slim counter to eat on as well, but this is definitely a grab-and-go establishment.  You can chose between white or wheat pitas, a pita salad (on a bed of spinach), and the full pita with five fritters or a half pita with three pitas.  I went for the full sized on whole wheat, which came to $6.50.  It's also possible to upgrade to a meal with a soft drink and fries.  The best part is the dozen or so toppings on their free-for-all salad bar: marinated chickpeas, roasted cauliflower, pickled cabbage, peppers, tahini, hot sauce, and more.  It was one packed pita, not greasy at all, and fun to eat with all the variety of toppings.  Post-consumption, I investigated a bit more online and as a chain throughout the city, Maoz is actually very reliable and consistent.  That merits a huge thumbs up from me!

Oasis on UrbanspoonNot even 24 hours later, a simple transfer on the subway from Union Square/14th to the (L) line into Brooklyn, and stepping off the first stop at Bedford Avenue, I feasted on falafel yet again at Oasis.  I noticed the restaurant when I exited the subway, but it wasn't until meeting my best friend's boyfriend, Deonza (a Bronx native), did he lead me here.  Ignore the shabby facade; this Middle Eastern deli is cheap, fast, tasty, and super convenient.  The falafel pitas are $3 with fritters much larger than Maoz, as well as hot schwarma kebabs, fries, and other bites to statsify those late-night treks home.  It does not have the same array of offerings as Maoz to fill the pita, but the fritters are so well balanced with the cucumber, it doesn't matter.  You can also order it spicy, which is a nice slather of chili sauce-- just don't forget to ask for a container of yogurt sauce.  I'm a fan!

Deonza, caught in the act of degustation.
So, if you're in Williamsburg or on your way back to Manhattan from Brooklyn, I highly suggest stopping at Oasis because it is outrageously cheap.  You can order three falafels for the price of one drink from the bars in the area!!  However, if you find yourself craving falafel in Midtown or somewhere else unfamiliar in NYC, keep your eyes out for Maoz Vegetarian and know that your chickpea pita is in good hands.  I really enjoy falafel from scratch, but there's nothing like stuffing your face with this fried pocket of worldly delights after the bar at 2 AM.  I can't wait to return to the city and investigate more of the eateries!

Listening: "The Hobo Girl" by the Fruit Bats

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Digesting NYC, part I: Chinese & Thai

New York City is the proverbial global smorgasbord of eating, and an absolute thrill for food geeks like myself.  You can find everything from mobile food carts and trucks, to Michelin-starred restaurants that are booked months in advance.  But let's be real, I came to New York to find a job and I still needed to act on a student budget.  Though I can't stand hot dogs, I am not above hounding $3 falafel from dingy shops outside subways.  To break up the review of where I ate during my 2-3ish days, this concerns the Chinese and Thai restaurants.

I knew I needed to take full advantage of my sole free day in the City.  I had a loose itinerary in mind, yet more than anything, I was desperate for Chinese food!  Once my stomach has decided what it craves and a restaurant is mapped out, there is nothing that can stop me.  I consulted my favorite food blog, Serious Eats, and poked through their NYC guide by neighborhood and discovered the prime restaurants for authentic cuisine in Chinatown.  Granted, anything would have tasted fantastic to me because it’s been months since I was in China, but I wanted to devour some of the best. 
Chinatown is marked by the immediate presence of Mandarin characters on all storefronts and signs, mainly in simplified forms.  The farther you explore the streets, the more locals you encounter that embody so much of the 'Mainland' culture: lingering, gossiping, card-playing, cooking, spitting, haggling, and living street-side.
 The walk was a straight hustle down from Times Square down Broadway, traversing across fourth, and eventually onto the Bowery.  Unsurprisingly, I circled the correct block and passed the hole-in-wall three times before I saw the sign for A-Wah.  Word to the wise: never pass up a Chinese restaurant because of outward appearances, because you may be rejecting one of the most well-valued meals you'll find.

Upon entering, there are glazed pigs and poultry hanging in the window, carved for flavoring and the starring protein of many dishes, three chefs zipping between sizzling woks, bamboo steamers, smoking grills, and boiling pots.  After squeezing by customers placing their orders to go, you can sit at one of the tables in the back.  The waiter (or perhaps laoban boss, I couldn't be sure) brings your chopsticks, a fresh cup of oolong tea, and an overwhelming menu with hundreds of dishes in Chinese and English.  I huddled around my tea cup to warm my hands and glanced over the offerings, but I knew what I had come for: bozaifan 波仔饭 or shaguofan 砂锅饭, known in English as clay pot rice.

When I was in Beijing this summer, during my lunch break at the internship office, my lady co-workers and I would stop eat this clay pot rice at least twice a week for $3 at a Korean restaurant.  Although there are slightly different variations for offerings, the concept is the same: rice is filled in a clay pot, the meat and/or vegetables are set on top, and the bowl is fired on the grill until the crisps and sizzles as you stir everything together.  It's textural madness, especially between the fine grains and soft toppings-- I always burned my tongue because I was so eager to eat!  At A-Wah, the clay pot rice bowls (listed as casseroles) are $7-$12 and I ordered the vegetarian Buddha's Delight.  It arrived too hot to touch, filled with baby corn, snow peas, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and ribbon tofu; basically common vegetables of the Chinese variety, yet I never learned their specific names.  I doused a lot of chili powder (我很喜欢啦味道的菜!), soy sauce, stirred, and went after it.   From other reviews I have since read, it seems that their pork bowls are also delicious, and I would be curious to taste the seafood.

In another decision of nostalgia, I ordered wonton and noodle soup 馄饨面, harking back to my host mom in Shanghai who woo'ed me with her incredible homemade Shanghainese wontons (the noodle is distinctly different from Fuzhou or other wontons... more noodle and larger).  The soup came with six boiled wontons filled with pork and a piece of shrimp, along with ramen noodles and white cabbage.  This was nothing spectacular; the fillings were not bursting with taste and needed lots of chili and vinegar.  Nonetheless, at $4.50 a bowl, I was pleased and finally warmed up.  Between that and the clay pot rice, I looked like a happy Buddha who has just rediscovered her dumplings (oh wait--!).  And yeesh, I couldn't even finish it all!  I had the rest of the rice packed to-go, and devoured it the next day post-interview.  I heard that if you order the clay pot rice to-go initially, they actually send you along with the clay dish!
I miss Chinese food SO MUCH, and this was a divine fix.  They're good at what they do, and they know it!  I had quite a convivial conversation with the waiter/laoban, even in broken Mandarin.
The crispiest rice is stuck to the side of the bowl, so scrape and enjoy!
Wonton soup is the Chinese counterpart to chicken noodle soup: comfort in a bowl.
Basically, do yourself a favor and visit the heart of Chinatown for A-Wah! It's across from the bubble tea shop.
A-Wah on Urbanspoon

For my final night in New York, I met up with my friend Caroline who I met while studying in Shanghai last spring.  She is a beautiful lady inside and out, a women's rights activist, a gifted writer, and was gracious enough to take a train from Jersey to meet me for dinner!  Due to a suggestion from one of her friends, we ate at Pure Thai Cookhouse in Hell's Kitchen, which is the next neighborhood northwest of Times Square.

Pure Thai Cookhouse on UrbanspoonIt took me a few minutes to find PTC because it's wedged between many other eclectic restaurants.  It's only a few meters wide with seating for maximum twenty patrons, yet the ambiance is unbeatable.  The walls are full of festive flowers, instruments, vintage photos of Thai celebrities, while Thai pop music blares in the background.  It's run by a pleasant, efficient staff all wearing floral aprons, including two female chefs in the front soup bar.  Despite the constant line, they were polite enough to allow my friend and I enjoy our drinks during the dinner rush. And most importantly, the food is delicious. It tastes authentically like what I ate in Thailand while vacationing there last year, with it's subtle spices, Thai basil, sweet curries, and punching chili-- you can even order Chang or Singha beer!

For my meal, I ordered a Coney Island pilsner and the [insert Thai name that I don't recall here] seafood soup with thin rice noodles-- sometime I would like to try their homemade egg noodles.  I wish the broth was a bit spicier (rated 2 out of 3) and saltier, but the fillings were substantial.  I also followed up with a Chang beer.  Everything on the menu costs twice as much as it should, but then again, this is New York.  I felt fortunate to enjoy food at what turned out to be a very popular restaurant in the area!  Between two beers for each of us and an entree, the meal was $52 (tip included).  I highly recommend going their with a friend and enjoying their food because it's worth the whole ambiance.

Apologies for the terrible exposure; iPhone flash.
Dinner with sweet Caroline!  She ordered the spicy, dry curried beef and vegetables, which was a generous serving along with jasmine rice.  You could also order brown jasmine or sticky rice.

If you're looking for a certain taste or food-induced memory in New York, you will surely find it.

Listening: "Lost" by Frank Ocean

Monday, January 13, 2014

Concrete Jungle

At first glance, Boston is like the preppy older brother and New York is the glamorous sister who secretly loves punk rock.  Well honestly, I haven’t seen much beyond that side of Boston and I’m not sure I’m quite into it—the faces of Boston remind me too much of the boarding school “bros” and made up sorority girls that sling Longchamp totes on their arms.  But maybe that’s every upper-middle class of affluent cities?  See, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in medieval French cities, and the hectic development of Chinese ones, but I hardly know about metropolitan U.S. (and anything beyond the east coast, but that’s worthy of another post).

So goes my two day sprint in New York: I rolled in Monday night on a Greyhound bus from Boston.  I stayed at Equity Point Hostel one block from Port Authority bus terminal and right around the corner from Times Square.  The hostel room was modest but a terrific price at $35 a bed per night, right across from the subway and the flashy showcasing of Midtown (known to natives as "the armpit" of New York, but for visitation purposes I wasn't arguing).  Long, dark bus rides make me shaky and hungry, so using my direly helpful Urbanspoon app, I found falafel right around the corner at a tiny vegetarian shop (my next post will cover my eating grounds).  Satiated, I researched companies and places to eat a bit more, then passed out in my horrendously cold room.  The A/C was running, couldn't be shut off, and my toes felt frostbitten under three blankets and my fur-lined eskimo coat.  
After attempting to sleep until 9:30, I prepared myself for the arctic, requested that the heating in my room be checked out (the ended up taking out the entire A/C and cranking the thermostat to 80 degrees F-- that was nice to return to), and ventured into Manhattan!  

For once, living in the North Country paid off because I was prepared to dress for single-digit temperatures: tights under jeans, Smart Wool socks, cowboy boots, a tunic, chunky sweater, a long scarf, elbow gloves, my terrifically orange knit hat, topped off with my navy eskimo coat from Zara.  The way the wind cut between the skyscrapers was no joke, forcing me to take respite every few hours in a café or store, but I trucked on.  The billowing smokestacks, dancing light on the buildings, crystal blue skies, and the fact that there is no choice to but for everyone to keep going invigorated my venture.  Cliche as this sounds, I couldn't help but have Alicia Keys bellowing "New Yorrrrrk, concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there's nothing you can't do!" in the back of my mind as I briskly wandered from one end of Manhattan to the other.  Craning my neck upwards while tugging my pashima scarf over my nose, I was constantly dazzled at the enormity of what we have constructed an the pure energy of people, places, machines, and ideas that throttle the city.    

I walked from Midtown through the Flatiron District, through Little Italy, to Chinatown, down Fulton Street into the South Street Seaport, around to the Battery, then back up edging along Soho, Tribeca, and Chelsea (apologies if I listed those neighborhoods incorrectly).  I wanted to see as much of the city from ground-level in the blindingly sunny daylight, and ended up walking over nine miles!  Stops in between included lunch (in my next post), Starbucks (gift card and sketching to warm up), Zara (there was mad sales, and I scored new pants for my interviews~!), then back to my hostel before sunset.  I picked up again and met my best friend's boyfriend from the Bronx out in Williamsburg for dinner and drinks, which was a great way to calm my nerves before the career fair.
*My camera died the first half hour in, so these are all from my iPhone 5.

Dancing light on beautiful skyscrapers and buildings from the Beaux-Arts Classicism styles.
The Flatiron, built in 1902 and remains an iconic landmark of NYC today.
Views of the City Hall form the edge of Chinatown.
Views of Brooklyn from the South Street Seaport.
The belly of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Takeoffs and landings to the Manhattan Bridge (and no, they didn't crap on my face).
"City of New York Parks & Recreation" in the Battery Park.
This is the first time I've set eyes on Lady Liberty!  As seen from The Battery.
Statues, art, and lighting installations in the Lower Manhattan financial district.
Subway culture in New York means you'll encounter entertainers from all walks of life, such as these blue grass men from Virginia, pickin' away on their banjos and fiddles.  I was thrilled!
The following day was spent in a conference center six blocks north my hostel.  Not too much adventure to recount there, though it was nice to run into several classmates from St. Lawrence.  The career fair was better-organized than Boston, yet felt more intense and frantic.  Regardless of the job outcome for me, I'm grateful for this opportunity to practice marketing, networking, and grasping what I need to do to "make it" in the conventional sense (as a side note, I'd like to write a post about unconventional paths of living).

 After the career fair, I was mentally exhausted.  I pulled myself together to meet my incredible friend, Caroline, who I met while studying Shanghai last year.  She rode a train in from New Jersey and we caught up over dinner in Hell's Kitchen (also in the next post), then a cinnamon bun and rushed send-off in Penn Station.  Early the next morning, I checked out, hopped on the subway, and rode to LaGuardia for about $5.  That brings me to here, in Florida.

Two days in New York (and more so one because I spent all of Wednesday’s daylight in the conference center) is hardly anything, but I am crossing my fingers, sending in all the applications, weighing out any offers, and spending all of the saving money to live here more permanently someday soon.
Goood morning, New York!  On my way to the career fair in Times Square.
The subway moves above ground in Astoria, Queens, as seen on my way to LaGuardia Ariport.
Growing up mostly in the middle of nowhere, I have a deep appreciation for the wild solitude of fields and forests.  At the end of the summer and then reaffirmed with this brief trip, I realized that for this next decade of my life, I want to live in cities.  Now is the time (/post-graduation) because I’m in my physical prime and yearning to absorb the pulsating culture and life of metropolitan cores.  Either that, or I want to move abroad again; it comes down to exposing myself to new ways of life.

Building on cliches, I know this sounds like the “small town girl” syndrome-- and perhaps it is.  Yet, ever since I began travelling in high school, my desire to expand the boundaries of what I think I know is insatiable.  I fear stagnation and discontent, and I don’t want to lead a life that I’m constantly seeking to escape; which is entirely different from wanting to take a vacation.  I would be satisfied living and working for a time in mid-sized cities, but I truly want to be thrust into the global crossroads of diversity, disjuncture, and dynamism.  In a city like New York, I know that it’s possible to be consumed and destroyed, but I am confident I can take it on.

Listening: "Fires" by Band of Skulls

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Shipping Off to the East Coast

I'm in the humid, warm respite of Florida!  Until next Thursday, that is, then back to Boston and a long drive to school with my roommate for the final semester.  This past week was hectic but in the best way possible.  I don’t recommend planning Northeastern flights during the darkest winter months because you’ll inevitably fly west just to go east and some blizzard or icy storm will leave you stranded-- which was terrible.  I became another statistic along with all the other reasonably irritated and desperate travelers. I knew I should have taken a train, because the time I spent from Rochester, Detroit, then Boston would have been the same amount of time on the railway!  Lesson learned, I suppose.

After delays, too many Delta flight respondents that had no clue what was happening, and finally squeezing onto a flight to Boston, I arrived 15 hours later, hopped on a bus to Newburyport on the Massachusetts North Shore.  Kat, my partner in crime, picked me up as my host for the weekend.  We’ve been close friends for about a year now—from dancing through the clubs of Shanghai, to swimming in the Gulf of Thailand, to combatting patriarchy and researching women’s issues.  She’s studying abroad in Kenya this coming semester, and leaving in less than a week, so I enjoyed being acquainted with her hometown while reminiscing of our crazy adventures.  

Chasing light in the dining nook of Kat's kitchen.
The partially-frozen Merrimack River in Amesbury.
Everything in New England is so historic and quaint, almost delicately so, yet has proved its resilience against centuries of harsh northeastern weather.  Kat and I spent a lot of time catching up over tea and hot cocoa, watching The Carrie Diaries on Hulu (come on, Anna Sophia Rob, you can do better than that), and visiting sights around Amesbury.  Newburyport is a five minute drive away, known for its clipper ships and 18th century admiral homes.  The downtown village was revitalized a few decades ago and now thrives with local restaurants, artisans, and small businesses.  We even had dinner and drinks in, what we didn't realize at first, the local dive bar (ha, oops).  At least the clam chowder was delicious!  We had brunch mimosas and Bloody Marys with Kat's mom, then drove to the preserved Plum Island community.  The coastline is gorgeous but unfortunately, powerful storms and sand erosion have washed away historical homes and pose a risk to many others.

On the coast of Plum Island with Kat and her wonderful mom, Meg.

A beautiful snowy owl perched on this abandoned house drew crowds of people along the road!
Kat’s house also served as a launching point into Boston for a career fair.  I'm not sure how I feel about the suburbs (all that sprawl makes it a bit too middle-of-the-road for me), but the perks of living near a major metropolis means an efficient public transportation network... sort of.  The trains into Boston were running late, subsequently overfilled, and led to more stress and crowds in the subway (called the T)!  Nonetheless, I made it to the conference center near Copley Square, and spent the morning and early afternoon trying to market myself in the most appealing way possible.  Along with several dozens of other 19-22 year old students in ill-adjusted suits.  It's a hilarious and bizarre sight because we're all cracked out on nerves and caffeine, handing out resumes from our leather portfolios like free candy, though I at least am not looking for a job that demands head-to-toe suits everyday! 

Copley Square with its namesake man eternalized in bronze, along with Trinity Church and the John Hancock Tower in the background.
Super-artsy iPhone shot of the JH Tower. Just emphasize it's veritable blade-like appearance against the rest of the skyline.
By the time my interviews wrapped up, it was 2:30 PM and I was famished.  Across the street, I found Blue Glass Cafe in the bottom of the John Hancock Tower and indulged.  It's divided between the cafe with drinks and pastries on one side, then a buffet-like restaurant on the other.  It's very similar to the self-service food bars in Wegmans and grocery stores: conventional bagged snacks and bottled drinks, plus a deli bar, daily sushi, soup, hot dishes, and the 'health bar.'  This section is a glorified salad bar with organic toppings, homemade dressings, and sides such as sesame-marinated tofu, wheatberry salad, spiced butternut squash, and fresh goat cheese.  You can fill a take-out box or porcelain plate and it's priced according to weight at $8-9 per pound.  I was stoked on eating a loaded salad with quinoa after only having a Cliff bar and a piece of coffee cake.  My only complaint was the layout of the restaurant, with the majority of tables and sitting room on a second floor, but that's probably the result of moving into the John Hancock Tower after something else.  Otherwise, I completely recommend Blue Glass Cafe for a convenient and health-conscious meal!

Blue Glass Cafe on Urbanspoon

I'll continue on about my East Coast sprint in my next post.  Hope you're all staying warm!
Listening: The Tallest Man on Earth's album, "Shallow Grave" (2008)