Monday, January 30, 2006

Red underwear all year round - Happy Chinese New Year (year of the dog)

One of the things I find most refreshing is how easy mainland Chinese converse with each other, bodily functions and personal annual incomes seem to be very popular topics for a first time 'get to know each other' conversation. For instance, since the sole purpose of this visit was to spend Chinese new year with my grandmother and mother, the topic of the year of the dog was inevitably brought up. What I didn't expect was a conversation with my mother's brand new driver on what color underwear I was (we were) going to wear this upcoming new year. As it turned out, both of us were born in the year of the dog, and the Chinese believe that every 12 years (a complete cycle of the zodiac), when your own sign comes back again, it is advised to either wear a red string around your ankle, or wear red underwear throughout that particular year. So there I was, discussing with a perfect stranger what we were going to wear as our most private and intimate undergarment for the year.

Now, it has been over 24 years since I last spent a lunar new year in Asia, although I have very fond memories of endless sweets and red envelopes stuffed with money, I hadn't the slightest idea what it's like to celebrate this very important holiday in Shanghai. Sure, there were firecrackers and noisy streets, but to what extent the Shanghainese go out of their way to welcome the new year was nothing I had expected.
my mother's dining area

In a very precocious city of growing capitalism, we seldom find stores closed before 10 or 11 at night, not to mention the all day rush hour on the public transportation systems. However, by 6pm on new year's eve (Jan 28, this year), we were pretty much left in a sorry company on the metro, alone with a handful of other foreigners, obviously bewildered at the oddity of stores closing in the next few days, thus carrying bags of groceries home to eat alone. My mother has 'ordered' us to be home by a certain time in order to meet up with several friends of hers and go out to celebrate the true Chinese way: stuff ourselves silly in a restaurant until nobody can move. I was delighted to find the company amusing, a Spanish woman by the name of Ana, who was a designer from a French designer school, currently living in Shanghai, and a customer/friend/neighbor, who rides horses every other week and is a Kendo expert, a very successful young man in his own right, and his cute little 14 year old niece, Fiona, visiting from Taiwan.

We were invited to go and watch the fireworks from Daniel's bachelor pad on the 25th floor. It's true, he does have the best view, there were fireworks throughout the entire city. Among the high rises in the Shanghai version of the Gothem City, exploding rubies, emeralds and gems of all colors flash through at an array of speeds, at times, simultaneously exploding like liquid crystals falling from heaven, and others, one flash of a single color shoots through the musky sky like lightening, with accuracy and elegance. The sound of firecrackers and fireworks also fluctuated accordingly, stereo booming of the 'explosions', at times like thunder, others sounding more like colorful balloons popping in the distance. The funny thing was, when looking down from the balcony that evening, the streets were completely deserted by both people and cars, it was as if some mysterious transformation took place and the citizens of Shanghai had suddenly became shining flashes of colors in the sky, and the loud noises were their adopted new voices celebrating the upcoming year, temporarily holding your breath and attention, even if it was just for a split second, each flash of color was precious, unique, momentary and unsustainable.

fabulous waiting hall in terminal 2 at the CDG airport in Paris

Reese's peanut butter cups

Just as I was contemplating yet again, on which place I was feeling more familiar and/or estranged as we were arriving home from Shanghai to Barcelona this morning, upon arrival, I opened a lovely care package from my dear old friend, Steven. After 20 some odd hours of twilight stupor on the planes and in between planes, I couldn't help but smile as I uncover each item from the package :) There is nothing like the familiarity of foods which brings you straight 'home' :)

Thank you, Steven! You ARE the best :), and I miss you dearly.
I was particularly touched by the thoughtfulness of the items picked :)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Concert in Castellbisbal

acknowledging the orchestra


concert photos by: N. Cabestany

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Concert in Alcoi (Alcoy)

Happy belated birthday to Nabí! I couldn´t be here with him on his birthday, but I played my cadenza with him in mind :)

I´m in the midst of a project where there is a series of concerts around this part of Spain. Yesterday we started the first. The ride down from Barcelona to Alacant (Alicante in Spanish) was absolutely stunning. If anyone ever plans to travel around Spain, I would highly recommend this stretch of travel to be taken on the train. The ocean accompanies you all the way down to Alacant, and because we left early, the sun made the sparkles on the Mediterranean Sea dance, absolutely mesmerizing. The train journey was about 4 to 5 hours, due to a very organized director and manager of the project, we were immediately picked by a bus and taken to our hotel by the port in Alacant, once again, the rooms were accompanied by the sparkles on the water :)

The busdriver has failed to look up the places where we were supposed to play, so we drove around the wrong town for a while, and arrived half an hour before the hall opened, very little sound check, and absolutely no run-through or warm-up of any sort. We played the 3rd, 4th and the 5th Brandenburg concerto, and we were lucky to have a full house with very enthusiastic feedbacks from the audience. On the way back, the busdriver managed to back into a tree...(sigh), and we arrived back to our hotel around 1:30am.

This morning, all of us dutifully got up at 7:30 and met downstairs at 8. While I was on my best behavior when it comes to organization, always the first to be downstairs, always ready to help, after the busdriver has closed the luggage compartment, I quietly jumped off the bus and went back to the lobby to pick up the only thing I had to keep track, since I didn´t have to transport my own instrument...

I had managed to leave my one and only tiny little suitcase in the lobby (Amanda, if you read need to comment on the music incidences before concerts, please), although I tried to keep it discreet, but I was applauded by the whole bus upon my return...

a very brief sound check

ceiling in the performance hall

view from the hotel lobby (Hotel Porta Maris in Alicante)

my trustworthy pageturner-violist, Diana

views from my hotel room in Alacant (Alicante)

Friday, January 06, 2006

Bones Festes!! Happy 2006!!!

cool street holiday lights

Hospital de Sant Pau

rainy view from MNAC, where we saw an awesome Caravaggio exhibition

back to Barcelona


Gaudí house in Parc Güell

gate to the Gaudí house in Parc Güell


view of BCN from Parc Güell

sunset in Valldoreix

Back to Barcelona, being tourist at home!!

Monday, January 02, 2006

Christmas in Jerusalem

Unconventionally, I have always associated Christmas with my Jewish friends from Israel. Years ago, when I used to live in Arizona, a place devoid of anything cold, snowy or Santa-like, my best friends and I used to celebrate Christmases together. I still remember introducing the whole 'fun' side of Christmas to them, gifts, tree, driving around and looking at people's decorations, and having an absolute ball doing it. Fond memories still remain and I miss them greatly. So, when the opportunity arose, that they were going to Israel for Christmas this year, and I, wanting to go to Israel for years, jumped at the chance despite sleighful of holiday family guilt from both Barcelona and Shanghai.

Kim and Boaz

Santa has borrowed my clothes
Upon my arrival at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, I immediately knew that, at least the beginning of my journey would be challenged. I spent 2 hours in the airport trying to find my lost bag (one and only) and failing at that, stood in line and filled out the dreadful and seemingly useless form. Iberia (disguised as El Al Airlines) has miraculously managed to lose my bag on a direct flight from Barcelona to Tel Aviv. This is my second time flying Iberia this year, and consequently, the second time losing my bag on an Iberia flight. That's two out of two, 100 per cent inaccuracy in luggage handling, way to go, Iberia!

Convinced to have a great time no matter what came my way, I strode out of the airport empty handed, with just a backpack on my back. Now, being a somewhat seasoned traveller, I did a little research on my destination before I left for Spain. Dutifully, I read the Let's Go version on Israel, and asked my Israeli friends about the safety of streets in Tel Aviv. A bit perturbed about a warning on the street crimes, I thought I would verify it with my friend, Talia. So I rang her from Barcelona before she left Arizona to meet me in Tel Aviv.
H: so, is it safe for me to walk around by myself in Tel Aviv alone?
T: SURE! no problem, nothing to worry about, if you see a backpack unattended, or hear ticking noises, just walk the other way
H: (waiting for a smile or a punchline)
T: (no reaction)
H: hmm, I meant things like pickpocketing and stuff
T: oh, THAT, no problem with that at all!
That being said, I felt sort of safe, if not a bit unsettled by the sight of young men and women carrying automatic rifles on the train from the airport to the center, hoping that if I heard any type of ticking or saw any bags unattended, there would be people with more training to deal with it than me, even if they are younger than 20.

For the first few days, I stayed with my friends Kim and Boaz in the heart of Jaffa, where no non-muslims would go unless absolutely necessary. Kim and Boaz, are probably some of the most adventurous people I know, and thus picked a fabulous and stunning loft in the center of a high crime area. The apartment had a fantastic view.

view from inside Kim and Boaz's apartment

When I was picked up by my other friends to go to their house for the second part of my stay in Israel, we decided to stop by an infamous ice cream shop in Jaffa, after carefully selecting our individual flavors, we came out to a police car (more like a tank), surrounded by full armored police men and about 15 young neighborhood youngsters. My friend Baruch pulled me aside, while holding onto his ice cream and said, 'ok, let's try not to get shot'. While his more brave younger brother Shimoni, fearlessly opened our car, which was right next to the police 'tank'. He later informed us, (since he was the more brave one and overheard part of the conversation) that apparently some guy was under house arrest, and probably decided to get out for some ice cream...nonetheless, in a nearby street, just last week, two people were murdered.

Prior to my visit to Israel, I always thought the Chinese and Spanish/Catalans ate a lot. In all honesty, Americans really don't eat half as much as any of the cultures mentioned above. Lucky for me, Kim and Boaz are not only great cooks, but also know all the great places to dine. The most wonderful thing about food in Israel is that due to the rich mixture of backgrounds and ethinicities, the complexities and depths of 'local' gastronomy simply cannot be defined properly, nor should it be tried. I was introduced to authentic Yemenite food first in the Yemenite area in Tel Aviv, then later at Baruch's mother's house, who is Yemenite: Ftut (a brothy soup usually based with parts of beef), lahuh, (a type of spongy homemade crepe bread), Yemeni hilbeh (fenugreek dip/jelly), and my favorite, plain Jihnun (a warm roll of buttery puff pastry). One memorable excitement in the midst of our meal was a lovely sight of a white truck stopping by our dinning table (we ate outside due to the warm weather in the middle of December), the truck stopped on a narrow one-way street. The driver got out and opened the back of the truck, we saw what the yummy pieces of beef in our soup looked like before it got to the butchers. Inside the truck, halves of cow carcasses were hung on hooks, he carried them down on his shoulder and disappeared into an unmarked doorway, after a few cows have been unloaded, he got back into the truck and drove away. We watched as we continued to chew tender pieces of beef from our soup.

Knafe, a sweet cheese dessert in the old city, Jerusalem

happy Boaz about to eat the knafe

Most of the produce in Israel is grown locally, all the vegetables have amazing flavors and look like they came directly from the Garden of Eden. Watching people squeeze fresh pomagranite juice from fruits the size of a small melon and drinking the deep red nectar is an unforgetable experience.

I am also very nostalgic about the Jerusalem bagels, which do not look anything like the small round donuts we eat in the states. The Jerusalem bagel is long and oval, nowadays dotted with plentiful of yummy sesame seeds, about the size of a large oval plate with a large whole in the middle. It is eaten dipped in a dry spice mix called Zahtar, and eaten on the streets, torn apart ravenously and shared between good friends.

There is a market for everything, and as usual, I tried to visit as many as possible. The food market has the locally grown vegetables and spices. The arts and crafts market has unique jewelry and crafts made by local artists, and in Jaffa and old city in Jerusalem, the markets run by Arabs have EVERYTHING you ever dreamt of and more, from the famous Armenian blue ceramics, to the pretty blue glassware made by Palestinians, to Persian carpets and rugs and many special imports from eastern Europe and Russia. The one thing that made me spend so much more money than I really had was the fact that everything is still made or grown locally, and if the prices must be a little higher, so be it. At one point, I was brought to a very special kibbutz store, where they make jewelry from the left over roman glass found in the soil in Israel, the craftsmanship was so stunning and the 'recycling' concept so far fetched, I brought back a beautiful set of earrings and a necklace :)

spice man

olive man on cell phone


Boaz picking pomelos

over view of the entrance to the market in the Muslim quarter in Old City, Jerusalem

a stall in the above market where Baruch bought carpet

Jerusalem on Christmas Day
I went to Jerusalem twice while in Israel, once with Kim and Boaz, and a second time with Baruch and Talia. I enjoyed both times thoroughly. With K and B, I had the best hummus in Israel, thus I presume, in the whole world, and a sweet orangy cheese dessert, which I failed to remember the name. The old city is divided into four distinct quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian. We spent most of it wondering and eating in the Muslim quarter.
Jewish Quarter

The Jewish quarter can be distinguished by all the artsy glitter and well-lit stores, while the Muslim markets are filled with dark and rich mysteries and tapestries. I saw the church where Jesus Christ was buried, and the Dome or Rock, the second holiest place for Muslims aside from Mecca.
What I found particularly endearing is, with all the press coversage on the violence in the middle east, when you are actually there, it is amazing the common curtesy people extend to each other on a daily level. Perhaps due to so many centuries of cohabiting in a small space, sure, there are extremists among all of us, and there, they really 'speak' their minds, but on a day to day basis, people are respectful and cordial, a lot more so than some other places where I have frequented. It is a such a beautiful place filled with amazing history, sights and personal stories.

beautiful Armenian crosses in the Christian cemetary where Oskar Schindler was buried

Schindler's grave

the wailing wall (western wall)
where I put my wish in between rocks, they told me it was a 'direct line' to God...hope it comes true, if not in my life time

Dome of the Rock

mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus Christ was buried

Chava, Hanna and Tikva
I had met Chava many years ago when she came to visit Baruch while both of us still lived in Arizona. Chava is Baruch's mother, and she's an amazing artist. Everything in her house is made by her. She is known as a painter, but has worked with metal, ceramic, and everything else which can be made into an object of beauty.

Talia and Chava's Yemenite paintings

They have a vineyard and produce lovely wines and grapes. Chava has two other sisters, among many more brothers, and they are of Yemenite descendent, thus very beautiful.

I was having lunch one day, when the door bell rang, and a group of 8 people filed into Chava's small livingroom. Normally, we would get up and introduce everybody formally, since I thought I was meeting everyone for the first time, but nobody paid me much attention, but smiled and said 'hey Heidi', 'Heidi! nice to see you!' and one by one came in and walked by me. At first, I was puzzled, then felt accepted, then finally, very much at ease, so I sat down and continued to finish my lunch. It's as if they have known me all my life, and are seeing me as a part of the family gathering. One of the things I noticed living in the Mediterraneans is that people all talk at once, and here, it's very much the same. All of a sudden, the house was filled with laughters, excited voices and more food. All of Baruch girl cousins and aunts have come, and apparently, I have met two of them many years ago, shamefully, they remembered me and I failed to recognize them.

Being an only child, a big, happy family is something I have always dreamt of. And this was a dream coming true. A large family where people got along and are truly happy to be in each other's company.

Chava and her sisters, Hanna and Tikva, get together every Tuesday morning to eat, talk and just be with each other for a few hours. It is a tradition they started while their mother was alive, and decided to continue after she passed away. My last day in Israel was a Tuesday, so I got to be a part of the 'girl's day' with them. Hanna has three beautiful daughters, and Tikva, is a fortune teller. She read everybody's tarot cards and palms and told us all good things about our futures :) We laughed, ate and shared stories. It was truly a special time. I was only sorry that I never had sisters like them. You can literally feel the love and mutual admiration between them.

"Hannah and Her Sisters": Hannah, Chava and Tikva

Afterthoughts - virtual visual memories of a wonderful experience: scenes from the streets of Tel Aviv
dog art on door

another door

view of Tel Aviv from Jaffa on a misty day

first candle of Hanuhkah - Baruch is blessing
this year I will be having three new years, Hanuhkah in Israel, Occidental in Barcelona, and Chinese lunar in Shanghai, may it be a year of peace, light and love to all