Chasing Kanji - 感情を追って

An American's travel traumas

Dudes in the Dressing Room  

I arrived in Sofia a couple of weeks ago. Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is the largest city in Bulgaria with 1.3 million people. It's incredibly old going back centuries BC. Some of its history is visible at ground level with exposed stones from the Roman empire and Ottoman ruins. Most of the landscape, though, is modern buildings, euro-style of course, shops, restaurants, subways stops, etc.

Entering the country was refreshingly easy. Because it's part of the EU, and because it's still small compared with other global airports, the customs area was organized and simple. Not to mention, I changed planes from a larger one to a two-by-two before arriving in Sofia, so there were fewer co-passengers to form long lines.

I'm staying relatively near the city center, so everything is convenient to reach both on foot (35-minute walk) or by cab. Having been in a few cabs in NY, I can really appreciate how dirt cheap it is to take a cab here. You can't sit down in a cab for less than $5. But even that being the case, I've never taken one anywhere for less than $30 in Manhattan, or $10 in Brooklyn. Well divide that by 10. The cab fare here is $3 or less for about 2 miles. If you're going further, $10 max will get you there. Tipping cabbies is also very simple. You just round up and add 1. So if the fare was 2.35, you give the driver 4. Simple.

Yesterday, I had the pleasant experience of heading to a mall. I like window shopping, no matter what country I'm in. I was surprised to see that many of the prices were the same or close to American prices. The average income in Bulgaria is much lower than the average income in the States, so I expected the prices of clothes to be lower also in proportion to that. Later, I asked someone about that. She said brands are brands, so they like to keep their prices high, but some more local stores are less expensive.

While shopping, I had to try on a few European styles, of course. I had a couple items and headed to the dressing room. Surprisingly, there was a big dude in the dressing room directing traffic. I've definitely been shopping with Christopher where he was kicked out of the dressing room. So I was not expecting to have such a presence. But after I'd shopped at a few stores, it was clear that they either have a huge shoplifting problem they are trying to stop or they have never had any shoplifters for fear of the angry looking men standing around.

I've had a lot of fun so far, touring the city on foot, dinners out, hanging out. I'm looking forward to whatever comes up next!

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Hurricane Sandy was known as "Frankenstorm" all weekend long prior to her arrival. Pretty much all anyone talked about on Friday at work was how we would be affected come Monday. As it turns out, they had right to be concerned. We, on the other hand, remained aloof on the topic.

Saturday, the grocery store was a zoo. I didn't go, but one of my neighbors told me about it. Later that night, I grabbed a gallon of water to keep in the fridge from one of the corner stores.

Sunday, it was cloudy and drizzling. We learned that MTA decided to shut down all subways and buses. ALL subways and buses. Wow. So clearly, we weren't headed into work the next day.

Monday, the winds started to come as did the rain. Renn and I went out around 2pm to try to get in a potty break before the storm. We were successful, but we came back in relatively drenched. Sometime between lunch and the evening, we decided that we were under-prepared. Although we still weren't convinced anything would be seriously damaged in our neighborhood. So, we went to the store and bought peanut butter, jelly, canned soup, and some bread. (I made spaghetti for dinner and used half of a baguette for garlic bread - delicious!!)

Monday overnight the lights flickered regularly, and we received an courtesy call from the power company that our power might go out. So, we shut down as much as possible and filled the bathtub with water. This, I learned, is so you can still flush the toilet and - in dire cases - boil the water to drink it.

Now it's Tuesday. Still no public transportation, but the worst of the storm is over. We currently have power, although I'm not convinced it still can't go out. So, we are keeping our power use to a minimum. The system is very stressed as there are a lot of people/building without power including much of downtown Manhattan last time I checked.

All in all, our neighborhood was very fortunate compared to those that are under water. And it also seems like we'll have some extra canned soup for later.

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'Ey Mon  

I suppose the lack of posts lately is due to a lack of motivation to find something to say that perhaps you’d like to read. Lots of interesting things have occurred, but maybe nothing that’s super interesting for the blogging we usually try to do. That being said, I’ll give you a little update, and you can decide for yourself.

In August we had our 8th wedding anniversary. Christopher asked me to choose what I wanted to do. In the past, we’d gone out to “special occasion” type restaurants for a nice dinner. But I really just wanted to do an activity that I’d never done before. So I chose for us to go to a Jamaican restaurant in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Coney Island is a neighborhood in southwest Brooklyn that’s on the water and has a Midway and small amusement park along with a stadium and a strip of restaurants. Of course, that includes the hot dog restaurant it’s famous for. I really wasn’t in the mood for a hot dog though. Instead, we went to a cozy (loud) Jamaican restaurant.

It turned out to be really fun. We sat at a booth almost on top of two other couples in booths on either side of us. One of the couple’s started a conversation with us. As it turns out, the wife was Jamaican herself and the husband was a Dallas Cowboys fan. She assured us that we’d picked a good restaurant to try authentic Jamaican food. Christopher had jerk chicken, and I had curry chicken with fried plantains. She also taught us a little Jamaican history including the fact that it was Jamaican Independence weekend. Add to that the Olympics were on the television and everyone in the restaurant was rooting for the female Jamaican short distance runner. So the atmosphere was really great.

After dinner, we took a walk on the Midway. The people-watching was fantastic. The types of people there included big families, teens loitering around, and couples. There was also some sort of old car show. I couldn’t tell if it was an organized event or if people just came and parked their cars there on Friday nights in order to show them off. It must have been organized in some way, since parking there otherwise would have been illegal. We didn’t play any Midway games or ride any rides. I didn’t really feel the need to spend two dollars to get a chance to knock over cans and win a goldfish.

On the way back home, we both agreed that it was a really fun night – but now that we’d been there, we could cross it off the list and not need to return. Not unless we were taking someone new there or going with a big group.

The rest of August was spent extremely busy with work for the both of us. Plus, I caught a cold that had me at work but probably only mentally actually in the game about 50% for about a week. I’m very glad I got over that through liberally consuming vitamin C and zinc.

Somewhere in there, we also went for a mid-morning Saturday walk with some co-workers through the Financial District and across the Brooklyn Bridge. The weather was great that day, and the walk was a lot of fun with good photo-ops.

Now, it’s September, and we have some more fun things coming up soon.

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Lazy Summer  

This summer is going by so quickly – our recent trip to France was now over 6 weeks ago. Our flights to and from were pretty eventful due to the strike in Portugal. But the week we were there was relaxing, if a bit jam-packed. From there, Christopher flew immediately to a business trip in Japan. And I came back home to return to normal office work. Now he’s back, and we’re nearly half-way through July!

The weather is finally hot in New York. It’s not the same kind of Texas hot. I prefer Texas hot. New York hot includes humid subway platforms and no-central air apartment buildings and shops (larger office building and department stores have central air). In Texas summers, I can leave a building and sit in the car without turning it on (I know, I’m weird), and breathe in the heat. And with newer construction, I don’t really have to worry about the electricity bill being outrageous at the fact that we’d all like to avoid heat stroke. In New York, I try not to breathe in too deeply on public transportation, and the window A/C units aren’t exactly air tight. That being said, summer is still my favorite season; so I’m not letting the disadvantages get to me too much.

For a new summer activity, and all around new hobby, I bought a pet trimmer. Pet grooming can be costly. It’s $50 minimum for each grooming appointment. And the pet trimmer was $80. So, by the time I use it twice instead of taking Renn to the groomer, it will have paid for itself. And after that, it’s all money saved. Renn was a pretty good client and was relatively patient with my unskilled hand. I watched the DVD first that came with the trimmer. It was more or less unhelpful. It demonstrated three types of doggie haircuts in rapid succession, none of which I particularly wanted on Renn.

Before getting to work, I gave Renn and bath and got the folding table out with a towel down on top of it. After Renn was dry, I got to work. Cutting the hair on his back and sides was easy. His face wasn’t too bad, but his ears, neck, chest, and legs were quite different. His fur there (ears being the exception) is really curly and would catch on the trimmer. As a result, I had to leave those areas much longer than his back. So, when I was all done, the shape of the cut was more like a Schnauzer than a Poodle or any other cut. I was very glad not to have given him razor burn or nicked him anywhere. I was concerned that my zeal would result in injury.

I think I’ll get better the more I groom him. Even though he’s a bit uneven in places, the parents of his neighborhood doggie friends have noticed and said he looked good.

In other lazy-summer news, Christopher finally got me to watch the series Lost. It gave me something to do while he was on his business trip. I think if I had been watching it as it aired, I wouldn’t have made it through the first two seasons, which I did not like very much. I did like seasons 3, 5 and 6. We also watched the season/series finale of Awake, which I found to be very disappointing.

Hopefully soon, I’ll get some of Christopher’s Japan pictures and be able to share those.

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The Help  

We’re not wealthy enough to afford a butler, personal shopper, assistant, and maid. But I don’t like domestic activities enough to continue to do them myself if we were. I’d gladly give over dish-washing, vacuuming, and lunch-making responsibility. I might keep cooking every other night – or something – since I enjoy that. In the city, I get to pretend to be that wealthy in some respects.

As you may know, it’s crowded here. Parking is a huge hassle; space in stores is very limited. When I take Renn to the local doggie supply store, all the goods are crammed in two aisles spilling onto every shelf and even the floor. Renn and I can fit down the aisles, but not if there is someone else already there. The smaller corner markets are the same, just no dogs. And the larger grocery store (about a block-ish away) would be roomier if not for all the shoppers with carts.

Rather than deal with the crowds, we use Fresh Direct. Fresh Direct is a grocery service that delivers to your door when you want them to! It’s pretty great. They charge a $5 delivery fee (or $60 for 6 months of no individual delivery fees). I went with the $60 for 6 months, and I get stuff delivered pretty much every week. Their selection is good for the foods that we buy. I find their prices on organic apples and grapes to be high. But their prices on organic everything else is the same as any major grocer. I’ve recommended the service to co-workers who don’t already know about it.

We have in-building laundry and at least 4 laundromats nearby. But as I discovered, I don’t need to spend all morning on one of my in-short-supply weekend days sitting and waiting for cycles to finish, collecting quarters, and carrying detergent around. Instead, I can drop off our laundry in the morning and pick it up in the afternoon all washed and folded for me. It’s not as expensive as you might think, they charge by the pound (so the bill goes up in the winter due to the sweaters and whatnot). And, they don’t discriminate; they’ll do sheets and towels as easily as jeans and shirts.

Finally, why cook all the time? Ok – I admit, I like cooking and I generally prefer to eat something I’ve made over something a restaurant has made. But we eat out regularly too. When we want to order in, we use Seamless has a bank of restaurants with minimum order amounts and delivery estimate times. The restaurant menus are available for perusal with descriptions of menu items. Once you’ve decided what you want and from where, you order it directly from the website. It’s so much more convenient than keeping a bunch of restaurant menus around and calling in an order.

I do feel like convenience is a high priority on any service-oriented place I’ve been to around here.

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TAP: Is anyone there?  

Having never flown TAP Portugal before, I expected relatively little. I figured it would be better than EasyJet (which I took once on a flight from France to Scotland), but not as good as any business or first class seat one could possibly imagine. Turns out, I should have thought less about the comfort of the plane and more about if I'd actually have a seat on the plane and reach my destination. We booked flights to France back in December (or sometime last year) as we wanted to attend a wedding (that we had been invited to, of course). We chose TAP Portugal because it was cheap. Their tickets cost half of every other airline. So basically, it was a two-for-one flight. Once we had the confirmation, I stopped really thinking about it. The day before our flight, we checked in online and had the boarding information sent to our cell phones. The day of the flight, Christopher received an email letting him know that the flight from Lisbon to France had been "cancelled/delayed." And it also stated that TAP Portugal was sorry our plans "suffered" this change. It then listed the times for our new flights. The email was not very clear about which flight was which, and it looked like it had moved us back a week. I immediately got on the phone to talk to someone about it thinking the worst - that we'd have to go sit at the airport waiting on standby for something to open so that we could go on time. The representative was actually very helpful - a point in TAP Portugal's favor - and he explained clearly what the email vaguely described. Our flights were all in tact, the only change was in the connecting flight. Rather than a 5-hour layover, we now had a 4-hour layover. This was all due to an air traffic controllers' strike. They were protesting something (I never found out what) between 2pm and 4pm Lisbon time on the four days that impacted us. So, we boarded our flight in the US at the normal time. The TAP Portugal plane was a something-330. It didn't have personal TVs or plugs for recharging phones, kindles, etc. Because we wanted to sleep anyway, the lack of entertainment didn't really bother us. Unfortunately, neither of us was able to sleep really at all. We maybe 'slept' poorly for four hours. The meal was a bit lack luster. Plane food generally is, but international flights tend to be a bit better than domestic ones (in my opinion). They offered "fish or meat." They weren't able to offer any more details than that. It came with an odd spreadable Brie and a cold-ish wheat roll. Anyway, I've definitely had better. Upon landing, we sat in the food court for hours waiting for the next flight. We all boarded the tiny plane (two seats on each side of the aisle), and then waited. Our flight had been moved up an hour to try to get in the air prior to the beginning of the strike. Our plane didn't seem to have any air conditioning, so one of the flight attendants opened the emergency exit door to let in air while we waited to see if we could take off. As it turns out, we weren't fast enough. We all had to deplane and return to the airport to wait another 2 and half hours for the strike to be over. We returned to the food court to wait with the rest of the airport. It was a bit more than crowded. Finally, we re-boarded the small, hot plane and were able to take off. The flight itself was fine minus the fact that we had to sweat the whole way - gross. Due to that experience, I'm not sure that I'd book TAP again. The representatives handled the situation well, I thought. But if we can't predict a strike - or if we're not offered fresh air - I think we might be better off booking with a different airline.

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Moved. Again!  

With a dearth of bunnies, what’s a little dog to do? Stalk pigeons of course! We’ve been in New York a month now, and the city is Renn’s frenemy. This is definitely the first time I’ve ever used this word to describe something that related to my life in any way. But it’s simply true. Renn loves and fears New York.

He’s always been a very friendly, relatively skiddish pup, fearing manhole covers and stairs. But now, I have to add to that loud trucks, that seem to honk at just the worst moment to startle him, and litter. Wow, there’s a lot of litter. Denizens can’t really be to blame (well they can actually). Trash pickup occurs on the sidewalk each week and public trash bins don’t have lids. There are a lot of smokers. They don’t have a catchy and slightly threatening tag line, such as “Don’t mess with Texas.” This city is windy. The combination of these circumstances means that Renn is constantly dodging flying plastic bags, possessed empty food cartons, and random pamphlets and flyers. On one windy night, we were walking our usual a path and a large, scary pizza box flipped up on its side and landed square on Renn’s back. It was not a good moment.

Other moments are great, and Renn loves New York. There are two parks within easy walking distance for us. The smaller park comes complete with tall, uncut grass (great for smelling) and a couple park benches that line the path where people always want to pet him. The larger park comes complete with many other dogs to greet and gray squirrels to chase. In addition, New Yorkers are the friendliest people when you’re walking a dog. We are regularly talked to, and one of us is petted (thankfully, that’s not me). They make cooing noises and tell Renn how cute his is.

For us, adjusting hasn’t been too bad. It was annoying to wait for our stuff to arrive. Unpacking wasn’t awful. I built 7 items of furniture and only irreparably put one piece in backwards (a can of white paint pretty much fixed it). Seeing as how it’s build-by-picture and I spent more than a couple years in college, I would have felt better not having put any pieces in backwards. But I can deal with 1.

Work keeps both of us incredibly busy, but for the most part I can still get out on time and make it home pretty easily. Our train doesn’t have a schedule. It says it does, but it’s lying. So we generally wait anywhere between 3 and 16 minutes for the train to arrive to take us home. From there, relaxing at home, walking around the neighborhood, and trying out local restaurants has kept us occupied and happy.

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Rice One Time  

So you are already aware of the international culture and feel of Hong Kong. I described (at length) the types of non-Asian foods I ate and how I wanted to never eat the same thing twice. Well, I didn't manage never to eat the same thing twice. But, in fairness, I was asked to do side-by-side comparisons of items I had eaten from one restaurant to another. So, it wasn't really my choice. My choice was to try as many different foods as possible.

I'm not one to try a food just because it's weird. I like to try things that people actually enjoy. So, whenever something was proposed, I asked if the speaker actually liked this or that food item before accepting the invitation. I found myself trying every type (or pretty much every type) of Asian food available.

I had Malaysian food at a restaurant in the Wan Chai district. Of all the restaurants I went to, this one was my favorite. Malaysian food involves a lot of spices and is a mixture of Indian and Chinese. They have a lot of curries. At this Malaysian restaurant, we sampled a traditional drink called Chandor. It's a sweet drink with grass jelly and coconut milk topped with some sort of brownish syrup. Don't ask me for further details. I don't know them. But wikipedia may if you're interested. We also shared two appetizers, two entrees, and one dessert (three people). If I wasn't implementing such a strict do-not-eat-twice rule, I would have gone there again.

I had Vietnamese twice. This was one of the times when I was asked to do a side-by-side comparison of the plain jane beef pho I ordered. Both places were good. But I like the first one better, making the fact that I went to a separate restaurant to order the same thing a little disappointing.

I also had Thai, Japanese (black squid ink ramen), Fresh seafood (as in we chose the crab, scallops, mantis shrimp, and razor clams we wanted from the live tanks), and Hong Kong steet food (fried fish balls, stinky tofu, dessert waffle, and bubble tea).

Then there were the different styles of Chinese and Hong Kong-Chinese restaurants where I sampled traditional dishes. I went to two Dim Sum restaurants. Dim Sum style encourages ordering lots of small plate appetizers shared by the table. I love Shanghai dumplings, which I thought were beef - but turned out to be pork. They are little sachets of meatball with broth. I also enjoyed turnip cake, Chinese broccoli, this weird eggy cake ball, red rice sweet soup, and fried octopus.

The list of things I did not enjoy is much shorter. I did not enjoy iced plum green tea or cashew chicken. And, I may not have liked chicken feet. But I wouldn't know. After it was ordered, I chickened out. Frankly, they made me a little sad.

In all this eating and trying and ordering and eating - I only had rice one time. That was at the Thai restaurant, and it came with my garlic eggplant.

For my last dinner in the city, we went to a rather fancy traditional restaurant where I got to try Peking duck. Not really at all what I expected, but delicious.

Now I get to go home and lose the travel weight. :)

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