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And now  that I have that song from Robin William’s brilliant comedic  turn in the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam” relentlessly playing in your head, * I will move to our actual destination: Hoi  An.  We flew from Hanoi into Danang Airport, formerly the US Air Force Airport.   Hoi An was part of the region operated by the US during the American War, (their term for what we call the Vietnam War.  They won:  they can call it whatever they like), and so the area was protected from the heaviest aerial bombardment in US history: almost 7 million tons of ordenance fell on North Vietnam, more than was dropped on Europe in World War II.  They are still “finding”  live bombs in farmer fields.  Hell of a way to lose a cow.  Or a leg.

This small ancient town was a world apart from the frenzy of Hanoi but still we were relieved to be in the sanctuary of our Four Season’s Villa.  (Remember, 60th birthday and my only rule towards spending on hotels is that I had no rules) We could have stayed all 3 days in the villa, which I discovered was like a summer camp for affluent adults:   there were classes on lanternmaking and memorial candle lighting and group activities like sunrise yoga or bonfires on the beach.  Albeit private bonfires for 6 with starched linen napkins, billowing curtains, liveried servants scurrying about serving French champagne.  Definitely not Camp Mini-Ha-Ha in the wilds of Northern Ontario.

But the beauty of Hoi An got us out of our tranquil bubble  for a couple of special events. Yes, there are many tourists, buying bespoke clothes, enjoying the many restaurants, checking out the galleries, but it did not feel as frenetic as Kyoto. (Or San Miguel.)     Perhaps because there are no cars allowed in the confined area of Old Town, and you must have a ticket to enter it. Rules on building heights look to be strictly enforced.  A private cooking class for two with a market tour, an art gallery visit, and a really delicious dinner overlooking the spectacular lights of the beautiful Thu BonRiver. So this is less of a blog and more of a photo essay.  Enjoy.

 

Cooking Class & Market Tour with the charming Chef Instructor Bo.

 

You know when you are taking casual “happy snaps”, and when you get them back to the hotel, you see a photo that is so perfectly composed and lit that you cannot believe that it came from your little iPhone 6?  I think that the photo of the school girls on their graduation day, dressed in the traditional white ao dai, might be the best photo that I have ever taken. Unedited.

* Good Morning Vietnam, 1987, was loosely based  on the real life story of Armed Forces radio disk jockey, Adrian Cronauer.   “Loosely based” since  I gather the dialog consisted mostly of  putting Robin Williams in front of a microphone and letting him go.  “Danang me, Danang me, they ought to take a rope and hang me” has stayed with me for over 30 years – so now over to you.

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Finally, we have returned to our other, and possibly favourite home, in San Miguel de Allende. We were preparing ourselves, mentally (lots of wine in the garage) and physically (lots of de-icer also in the garage) for a winter in Ontario, but fortunately, the good doctor gave us dispensation to travel outside the country, as long as my husband Ben returned  every 21 day for his immune therapy treatments.  Hell yes!

So on our first Saturday afternoon in SMA,  after a late riotous Friday night with many of our friends at The Fat Mermaid, one of our favourite haunts :   the paintings speak for themselves …..

 

So on that Saturday afternoon, we were finally vertical and strolling, shopping bags in hand, heading to the weekly Organic Market, where asking for a plastic bag marks you out as a probable climate change denier.  As three young Mexican men walked past us, drinks from the night before in hand,  their leader said in well articulated and droll English:  “Good Morning, Old People”.  We laughed at the time, still smile when I think of it, and all of our friends that we have told this story to have had a good belly laugh as well. (It’s only a few weeks after Christmas, so there is lots of belly to go around.)

I think we laughed mostly because yes, we are significantly older than those lads, but also humour is best when it cuts closest to the truth.  And yet,  we don’t feel at all old.  Why would we, in this paradise for expats from the United States, Canada and Europe?  I have heard folks describe San Miguel is a Disneyland for adults and some don’t mean that as a compliment.

But in the past week since that Saturday, we have enjoyed 1 original play, an intimate live musical performance at a Canadian crooners home, (we were told that Brian Adams is staying a few doors down, but no sightings as yet),  had a lively book club meeting, graced 2 local bars for nightcaps, dined out 3 times with friends at good restaurants at a fraction of the cost of Toronto, enjoyed a fabulous Golden Globes party, went to colourful flea market (where I scored training shirts for just under $25 for 2), and worked out hard at a well equipped new gym 5 times.  That’s just in 7 days! This week, we will hold a pool party, attend a tapas evening, go to a lecture on Wild Flowers of San Miguel de Allende, dance to a live salsa band,  and oh yes, go to the gym faithfully Monday to Friday.

If you were of a different frame of mind, (less eating and drinking specifically)  you could attend any number of yoga classes, (to help access your major Archetypes don’t ya know), take life coaching & spiritual counselling, attend empowerment seminars to help yourself and/or the planet, and conspire with folks who believe that all of the wrongs of the world can be righted by simply ridding the world of capitalism and capitalists.    Mmmh I wonder what deserted island they would banish Ben and I to?

There are over 100 NGO’s here as well, and almost 100% of them are headed by retired Americans of good will, devoted to worthy causes that range from rescuing strays to feeding the hungry  to building homes in the campo for the poor.  That’s an awful lot of energy dedicated to the good people of San Miguel and they are appreciative of it. (Although they don’t really understand it:  if you don’t have to work, why can’t you just relax?)

Ben says that if you retire to SMA, you must have a business card that says either writer or artist.  Or you can challenge your competitive energy into games like bridge or golf or poker.  There is another group that monopolizes the bar stools at their nearest local and rarely sees the sun, tottering out only after happy hour is over.

Certainly there are issues here:  from petty crime and vandalism to  drug related drive by shootings, to the larger social, economic and environmental issues that are present throughout Mexico.  But for the most part, it is a safe, secure, and extremely beautiful place to be.   And did I mention warm?

My point is that here,  you can be what ever you choose, redefine yourself if you want to, and find happiness with friends that will accept you for what you bring to the table now, at this age, despite or in acceptance of your orientation, finances, politics or world view.

Walt had it right: ”Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age and dreams are forever.”

Post-Script:  I have taken on a writing venture, which most of you will already know about, but in the off chance you have not been engaged, I am requesting the participation of women, (40-75) in The Friendship Project.  My intent is to gather input over the next 4 months via a survey, sent by email, and then put the results into some kind of meaningful context and  self publish or take it into social media.Or a combination of all of those.

The purpose is to find stories and anecdotes from women that can help other women deal with the challenges that face us making friends as we move through this stage of our lives.  It sounds sort of sincere and serious, and some of it will be. But I also want us to have some fun with it too. If you want to play, please email me lonsdale.19@hotmail.com.  

 

 

 

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My  first experience of Broadway was the musical Grease, starring an as yet undiscovered John Travolta.  At the intermission,  I confessed to being taken aback by his suggestive and enthusiastic pelvic gyrations.  Vulgar I think was the word I used.   An elegant lady  of a certain age (ironically, likely my age now) looked down her well powdered nose at me and remarked with that distinctive New York  disdain:   “my dear, you are either very young, or  you’re not from New York!”.

Well, she was right on both counts:  I was 15 when I first visited the city of dreams and  it was love at first sight.    Noisy, crowded, polluted, even dangerous, whatever the downsides to this urban environment, New York offered a world of possibilities, experiences, and potential.  Born and raised in small Northern Ontario towns,  I embraced the city, in concept and reality:  years later, when I read that Bangkok was the “the Mount Everest of Cities”,  to be attempted by only the most intrepid of urban adventurers, I extended my stay from 2 days to a week!

So I had spent a week in  Mexico City almost exactly 4 years ago (on my way to San Miguel de Allende and beyond) , but given that I did not speak Spanish, the boutique hotel staff spoke no English to aid me and I had read recent reports about personal crimes (kidnapping & robbery), I scuttled back to the confines of my hotel room every night as the sun was setting. Cowardly I suppose, but considered prudent.   During the day, I went to outstanding museums, enjoyed fabulous lunches, rambled through the parks, took the tourist bus  and vowed to come back to explore this fascinating and vibrant city when I was better prepared or in company.

And so when my friend Raven emailed with the good news that Michael and Valarie Coon, also friends and proprietors of The Inside Route and Casa de Cocinas, were leading one of their well-regarded culinary tours to Mexico City, I was among the first to hit the “yes” button.  The 3 day itinerary hit all of my urban appreciation buttons:  markets, museums and a hi/low mix of restaurants that would give us an overview of the food scene in D.F. (District Federale).  My fellow travellers were an affable, eclectic mix but united in our love of all things food:  conversation during the journey went back and forth between discussing their most recent visit to the famed French Laundry in Napa California to the joys of digging clams out of the beach in Maine. My kind of people.

Our 3 day trip could realistically only be an overview:  would you presume to know all the culinary and cultural  landscape of New York or London or Paris in just a few days, or even in a few visits?  Mexico City is the biggest city in the world, but as you stroll from café to boutique shop to museum in the desirable residential neighbourhoods of Polanco, Condessa, or Zona Rosa, it feels approachable and surprisingly human scale.  There are over 160 museums, one for every niche, including the new Mucho Mundo Chocolate Museum which naturally was on our agenda! And from taco stand to trendy bistro, the food is spectacular:

If anywhere could make the Paris and New York food scenes look stagnant, it’s Mexico City.  The nation’s cuisine has even been awarded Unesco World Heritage status – a global first.  July 13 BA High Life 

Here are a few of my  highlights.

MeroTero  Amsterdam 204. Colonia Condessa.  It ranked #26 out of  Latin America’s Top 50 Best Restaurants, and is one of only 5 Mexico City restaurants on that list.   The braised pork cheek with lentils was succulent and full of deep Unami flavour:  the warm almond cake was the best of three excellent desserts and will live in my gustatory memory for a long time.

Gabriela Cámara, the star restaurateur behind Mexico’s impossibly hip seafood shack Contramar, is tackling a new protein. Its name derived from the Spanish words for fish and bull, MeroToro is the Slow Food queen’s take on surf and turf. Still, expect a similar combination of refined food in an informal  setting. Cámara’s executive chef, Jair Téllez, combines the flavours of Baja with the best possible ingredients—admirer José Manuel describes the restaurant’s short seasonal menu as “Mexican cuisine in a Mediterranean style” (entrée, $15-$26)  Conde Nast Traveler

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El Huequito.  Bolivar 58

On an episode of “No Reservations”,  Anthony Bourdain  judged them “shockingly good” and “head & shoulders” above other tacos al pastor he has tasted.  Now all of us in the group, having read  at least “Kitchen Confidential”, conceded that while his arrogance is  palpable, his palate cannot be doubted.  The shaved pork was tender and succulent not greasy at all, the sauces were smartly tangy  and I pretty much ate everything on my plate. Yes, that entire plate.

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Maximo Bistrot Local. Tonala 133, Colonia Roma,  http://maximobistrot.cm.mx

The chef is Eduardo Garcia, formerly of the esteemed Pujol, and  he spent a stage at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin.  I have been to Le Bernardin for lunch and it was one of the finest meals that I have ever enjoyed anywhere.  I can still remember swooning over the personal box of macaroons. A very popular and busy bistro, Maximo experienced some infamy as a result of the spoiled daughter of a very senior bureaucrat  throwing a tantrum when denied her desired table. Her threats to have “my daddy close you down for health violations” were recorded on the smartphones of  disapproving dinners, and the aforementioned bureaucrat lost his job. Class tinged scandals aside, the food is sublime:   the asparagus with hollandaise, a poached egg and truffle was textbook in execution and exquisite in taste.  It is a classic bistro that really delivers on the promise of fresh food, sourced from the markets daily and prepared simply and carefully and perfectly.  Of all the places we dined at, this one is on “my must return to” list.

Aqua y Sal Cebicheria:  Compos Eliseos, 199-A Polanco.

So much of what passes for ceviche in Mexico is just cooked seafood in a sweet tomato sauce, which very likely started life as ketchup.   This popular restaurant offered a dizzying array of ceviche choices, from the Pacific coast to the Veracruz to the Yucatan, all with distinct and sophisticated flavours.  Ok, I’ll go back to this one too.

Cebiche Brunch

Cebiche Brunch

Markets:

We strolled throughout the Mercado San Juan, the so called “Chef’s Market” where we oohed and ahhed over the fresh earthy morels, caressed the baby vegetables (before we were gently told not to), and happily grazed on  plentiful free samples of aged manchego and Iberico ham.

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Our last 2 markets were my favourites:  first up, the fabulous Jamaica de Mercado  where I bought an armful of fragrant Casablanca lilies, 20 lavender tinged  roses and 2 bunches of astalomeria, all  for less than 20$. We marvelled at the range and quantity of flowers, the imaginative and massive arrangements, and wondered where they were going, who was buying them, and how did they move all of this product every day so it was fresh and fabulous every morning?  I could have stayed for another hour but I was filling up the back of the bus already. Flowers, like food, a personal weakness.

Our last stop was the  sprawling Nueva Viga Fish Market, the second largest in the world after Tokyo.  The variety was  overwhelming but on Michael’s advice, we stayed in one long aisle and went down to the end, taking note of products and prices before making our purchases on the way back.  For me,  2 kilos of fresh  head-on gigantic shrimp and 2 dozen small clams found their way into the ice packed coolers that the Coons thoughtfully provided.  3 hours later back in San Miguel, the clams were sweet and briny in a delicious  pasta al vongole.    The next day, the shrimps were marinated in a bath of olive oil, a little anise liquor, white wine, lots of garlic, lemon juice, coarse salt and a pinch each of sweet smoked Spanish paprika and red chilli flakes.  A couple of minutes on the plancha on each side and these beauties were bronzed and on the plate. I would have taken a photo but by the time we looked up from eating,  there was nothing but shells left 😉

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Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

My ability to take photos with my iPhone is pretty limited, so I enclose a photo gallery taken by my talented new friend Nancy Gardner.  Enjoy! And book a trip to DF!

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One does not readily equate a large, resolutely commercial city like Beijing with tranquility and natural beauty. But that is what you find easily within the numerous parks which punctuate the urban core. Many of the parks were the work of long dead emperors and are laid out in patterns which follow the ritual processions for sacrifice and worship of long forgotten gods. That form results in long winding pathways, and streams and fish ponds wreathed with willows. Formal flower beds are carefully planted and assiduously attended by large busy teams of gardeners. The largest and most elaborate is of course the Summer Palace, which I spoke about in an earlier post. These photos of flowers and kite flyers were taken in Ritan Park. Ritan Park is the oldest park in Beijing and its name means “sun altar” or temple. If you are so inclined, you can join local people at 6 am here, practicing the martial arts of Wushu: you would be familiar with its most common form, Tai-Chi.

Spring in northern China brings peonies and wisteria blossoms, both fragrant and extravagant harbingers of summer roses to come. The peony is one of the most iconic flowers in Chinese art (the other, and more prized historically has been the chrysanthemum, a symbol of long life). The peony is the symbol for nobility, female beauty and fertility, quite fitting to this season of renewal and rebirth.

Of course, I speak of food as well as flowers!

After a visit yesterday to a very good local market, I prepared the evening meal focusing on the first of the season, locally grown produce. Waxy new potatoes tossed with the most pungent mint and rich Irish butter, firm fleshy stalks of asparagus gilded with just a hint of that butter and lemon, and a salad of mixed baby greens with sweet cherry tomatoes. There was some protein in there too; medallions of pork tenderloin in a mustard sauce. And the fridge is full of containers of large juicy strawberries picked by my hosts over the weekend. I can honestly say, my cooking talents aside, that the asparagus was the best example of that grassy, succulent vegetable I have every enjoyed. Fingers crossed for a few more weeks of harvest!

You will note that I said that in Beijing one can find natural beauty: I did not say nature. One of the pronounced cultural differences between us is the almost incalculable value we in the West place on the experience of nature. We seek out nature when we need to be revived, energized or renewed, depending upon our urban malady of moment. For some, we feel closest to the transcendent, a sense of something larger than ourselves, however we define it, only in the presence of nature.

In China, not so much. Nature is that which needs to be, and indeed, must be, controlled, harnessed and mastered. It is emphatically not better left untouched. Better to be bent to one’s will. As I understand it, native Chinese here do not take a walk in the woods, hike in the hills, camp under the stars, or even dine alfresco. In such an ancient civilization, there has been a lot of mastering of nature over the centuries. Given the drive and ambitions of this country to be once again a dominant world power, there will be a lot more. It is not simply a need for ever more resources and power to fuel its exponential growth, although that is an imperative: it is also part of an aesthetic that prefers the tamed to the wild. Yet, there have been parts of China preserved as wildlife sanctuaries or protected zones for species unique or at risk. So perhaps there is a shifting of sentiment, but I do not believe that underlying difference in our perspective with respect to the intrinsic value of nature for its own sake has changed.

The title of this post deals with Roses, although I have not mentioned them yet or included pictures. Roses are the next wave of flowers to bloom here – and I expect a truly breathtaking display. Multiple rose buds on small, large and climbing plants are appearing everywhere – in parks, beside the roadways, ringing public buildings. Roses from China were introduced to Europe in the late 18thC, and they are said to have revolutionized the world of roses. Almost all of what we love about roses: richness in colour, unfurling shape, repeat blooming, and intensity and range of fragrance, we owe to the China genes. I am giddy with anticipation.

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