Amsterdam in April

OK. I’m taking the liberty to share below travelogue in which I was mentioned. My thourghts about this beautiful European city is brewing. . . . Stay tuned.


Of all the many splendid attractions of Amsterdam, among the most impressive are the youth of the crowds in the narrow streets, staggeringly beautiful museums and speedy trams and the joyousness throughout that ordinarily grey old city. Of course, we were there for the King’s Birthday on 27 April, when the streets, canal sides and bridges were jammed with the frisky young and old dressed in orange, carrying pints of beer and liter bottles of wine and bouncily dancing to loud, metallic music blaring from loudspeakers outside pubs. Many were tourists, of course, but most were undeniably Dutch.

See a few of Karen’s photos, including a view from our airplane of colorful fields of tulips. More photos, still being processed, are to come.

We saw joy in the great Dutch art hung in museums. Subjects smile and outright laugh in the works of Franz Hals, Johannes Vermeer and Jan Steen. Even gloomily lit Rembrandt cracks the occasional smile. They are all having a good time, bolstered by still life representations of lobsters and fat, ripe vegetables.

That tradition of joy remains, as we saw in a less-than-five-days visit to the Dutch capital that sensibly stations its parliamentarians 35 miles away in The Hague. Accompanied by Frank Clark, Karen’s American godfather on his first visit to Europe, we arrived early in the morning of a day that welcomed us as we rode from the airport with a rainbow. Before the end of that first day, we experienced blinding sunshine, pouring rain, rain with sunshine and noisy hail. Our taxi driver from the airport complained that our hotel, the west side inn, in a quiet residential neighborhood split by a canal, was much too far from center city. But we learned soon that the number 2 tram (7.50 euros for a 24-hour ticket) was our lifeline to all that a tourists wanted to see.

And what we most wanted to see was the Van Gogh Museum, where long lines awaited entry. We had booked timed tickets online days before. While hundreds waited, we swept almost immediately on our first morning into a blazingly colorful world created by the abused mind of a genius. See:

We had seen Van Gogh’s work before, even a Sunflowers supposedly worth $39 million in Tokyo. After four hours with Van Gogh’s painting, his family letters carefully posted, absorbing legends about the artist all over the museum, we staggered besotted into the sunshine of the Museumplein, a large, former marsh transformed into a public green ringed by two other great museums, the Rijksmueum and the Stedelijk and the grand concert hall, Concertgebouw.

We recovered quickly and spent the rest of the day serenely sailing along the Amsterdam canal on a hop-on, hop-off tour. We hopped off only once, to pass the Anne Frank House, for which all timed tickets during our Amsterdam visit had been sold. After 3.30 p.m. daily, the doors open for day tickets but, as we discovered, so many people line up, the wait can be two or three hours. We passed on seeing the house although later in our visit was passed along Anne Frank Straat.

Dogged by jet lag, we returned to our hotel, discovering the one place nearby to eat was a Chinese restaurant around the corner. We managed to get our noodles, spring rolls and veggies, although the stocky, very Chinese-looking manager taking our order responded to Karen’s Mandarin by saying, “I don’t understand Chinese.” By then, we were joined by a courageous friend, Leu Siew Ying, who had traveled from Bourdeaux. She is our friend from Guangzhou, where her reporting for the South China Morning Post earned her a $15,000 European Union prize for human rights reporting and helped her to a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard. In Bourdeaux she is taking a wine course for accreditation as a sommelier.

She also joined us the next day — the king’s birthday — for six hours at the Rijksmuseum. See: It is stuffed with the grand masters of Dutch art. See:

The pride of position is Rembrandt’s night watch. but the museum offers so much more of what we were reminded continually throughout our stay was the 17th century golden age of the Netherlands, when it may have been the world’s richest. Six hours of great Dutch art was overwhelming.

We left the museum in time to walk through one of the many flea markets that characterize the King’s Birthday and along a canal until we came to a thick mass of people blocking a canal bridge by hopping and swirling to music roaring from a pub. I pushed my way through the beer-sotted throng, not realizing how dangerous the crowd was until I reached safety on the other side of a canal bridge.

“I lost frank,” cried Karen. Sure enough, the pulsating crowd had lifted him off his heels and deposited him a 100 yards back on the other side of the bridge. Karen plunged back into the crowd and finally located him safely.

By then, daughter Jenny had arrived by train from Paris to join us at our hotel for the evening. Because many roads had been closed and tram and bus lines diverted because of the king’s birthday, we walked, took two trams and finally a taxi to return to the hotel. We headed off in a rented car with Jenny driving for what we hoped would be a non-Chinese, Dutch-style supper. We got stuck in narrow roads, once by a crowd too thick to pass. Many restaurants were closed. We aimed for a place called George Bistro Bistro but ended up in San Gordo, a Spanish restaurant where we enjoyed a nine-course tapas supper washed down with fruity sangria. Ola!

The next day was Keukenhof, the fantastic tulip garden a half hour from Amsterdam by a rented red Toyota hybrid Yaris.  See:

You can see a couple of Karen’s photos, including the windmill, with a lot more to come. The tulips were as glorious and multi-colored as advertised, supported by daffodils and hyacinth. We did the gardens in four hours, including a snack lunch from stands in the gardens that included, for me and Karen, maatjes herring sandwiches and fresh strawberries that melted in your mouth.

We returned to Amsterdam in time for Jenny to drive us toward the old town. But after an hour or so of driving along the canals and running into detours, jenny the driver gave up, dropped us at Rembrandt Square and headed back to the rail station to return the car and train back to Paris.

From Rembrandt Square, we made our way, at my insistence, to the so-called Red Light District along the canal behind the Ould Kerke, or old church, one of Amsterdam’s oldest house of worship. I told Karen and Frank the visit was necessary because once we got home, everybody would ask if we visited the Red Light District. I had been there more than 15 years ago. Well, the visit, at 6 p.m., was a bust, no pun intended. We passed the coffee shops that offer weed not caffeine, sex shops and the live sex show theaters. But the windows where live hookers sat to entice patrons were either shaded or empty, except for one voluptuous creature. All much tamer than my past visit.

We finally found our Dutch meal in a typical Amsterdam brown bar in an alley close to the dam, the grand central square where Amsterdam supposedly started in the 14th century. Karen asked for any local beer that was not Heinekens or Golsch and got a sweet tasting brew called Witte. I had the pea soup with sausage and veal spare ribs, Karen had the roasted eel and a well-cooked Dutch steak. Frank settled for lasagna that he said was delicious.

To save the energy of the octogenarians in the party, we took the hop-on-hop-off bus tour on our final day, hopping off only to visit the 17th century Rembrandt House and Museum where the old master lived for 19 years before going bankrupt. The museum offers an informative film about Rembrandt narrated by British hstorian Simon Schama, who teaches at Columbia in New York and makes every subject he touches be about him. Karen and Frank walked up the narrow staircase of the old house to the master’s studio while I took the elevator to the workshop he kept for his students on the floor above his studio. No climbing involved. Next to the students’ studio is a lovely collection of Rembrandt engravings.

We lunched decadently in a little waffle shop on chocolate covered waffles with ice cream (strawberry for me).

We ended the day triumphantly. We found George Bistro Bistro, a friendly neighborhood place, for a final Amsterdam supper: grilled lobster for Karen, lobster and corn chowder and lobster roll for me, Dutch steak for Frank.

We’ve returned to Centreville, bellies full, memories overstuffed but willing to return to Amsterdam because there was so much we did not see.


Las Vegas photo album

OK, I finally got my hands on this project. This is an online photo album for the highlight of my first visit to Las Vegas in early October. The main purpose of the trip was to see my dream star Celine Dion on stage for her 1,000th concert.

Photo album with Chinese caption:

If you want to read an account about my trip, here is the travelogue:

A little preview, I’ll revisit Las Vegas next Feb for a trip to Grand Canyon. Wow, I’m so psyched about it!  More to come. . .

A Lake Gazer

You may have heard about the Great Lakes in North America. Well, not far away from the Five Great Lakes—Lake Ontario and Lake Erie to be exact—lies a pattern of beautiful smaller lakes in the west-central section of New York State in America. The total of eleven pristine lakes spread like fingers across the region, thus, they are known as the Finger Lakes.

As an old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the gazer. I dare to say everyone who has visited the Finger Lakes will marvel at their tranquility and grace. I am one of these lake gazers. My recent visit to the Finger Lakes deepens my love for this fertile land, which nourishes acres of farmland, and mile after mile of vineyards. Centuries ago, Native Americans settled around these lakes. Their legend is echoed in the names of these fresh water lakes: Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneka, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles, and Otisco.

I spent two days exploring the biggest Finger Lakes—Cayuga Lake and Seneka Lake. The Indian name Cayuga means “Boat Landing”, and Seneka means “Place of the Stone” or “Stoney Place”. These two big lakes are also the most visited ones. Tens of thousands of tourists and summer residents flood in the lake region starting from the Memorial Day weekend, which falls on the last Monday of each May. In May, the lake region is blanketed with lush greenery. From endless fields to rolling hills, from grape vines that are at a teenager’s height in orderly rows to the dense towering trees that canopy the mountain range, each and every perspective offers varied shades of green. The flickering leaves in the sun and the dancing branches in the breeze, together with a palette of flowers, really infatuate me.

Just when I am bathing in the sea of green and colors, a silver belt in between two mountain ranges shines in front of me. The silver belt is the sparkling water in the lakes. The closer I approach it, the more it enthralls me. From the map you will see both Cayuga Lake (to the east) and Seneka Lake (to the west) are long and thin and next to one another. There is a canal in the north tip connecting both lakes. The Cayuga Seneca Canal connects these two lakes to the Erie Canal which runs through the Finger Lakes to the north. Each lake is connected by rivers ultimately leading into Lake Ontario that borders between Canada and the United States.

Well, in reality, the silver belt of water can be either Cayuga Lake or the Seneka Lake as both of them lie between two evenly moderate high grounds. However, the statistics show with 40 miles in length and 96 miles of shoreline, Cayuga is the longest of the Finger Lakes and the lowest to sea level; whereas Seneka is the deepest of the Finger Lakes at the maximum depth of 618 feet. Image that a 62-floor tall building could stand underwater!

To visit Cayuga Lake, you won’t miss its largest city—Ithaca, which is home of one of the Ivy League schools—Cornell University. Do you know Connell’s campus overlooks Cayuga Lake? As its Alma Mater sings, “Far above Cayuga’s waters, with its waves of blue, stands our noble Alma Mater, glorious to view. Lift the chorus, speed it onward, loud her praises tell. Hail to thee, our Alma Mater! Hail, all hail, Cornell!” On this trip I happen to see the proud Cornell graduates in their red-and-black caps and gowns, welcomed by joyous families and friends with bouquets in hand.

The Finger Lakes area is New York State’s largest wine producing region. In fact, the area’s wine trails are very popular. These trails showcase local wineries and tastings are often not limited to just wine—beer, juices, ciders and mead can be sipped throughout the region. It is interesting to know that Seneca Lake seldom freezes in winter. Therefore, there are more wineries along Seneca Lake than any other Finger Lake. And if you need a break from numerous water sports in the lakes—fishing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, you name it—the Wine Trail, Cheese Trail and Brew Trail may satisfy your sense of taste.

I conclude my lake ride along the Y-shape Keuka Lake. Keuka Lake is the only Finger Lake with an outlet into another Finger Lake—Seneca Lake. Gazing at the crystal clear water and hearing the rhythmic waves rocking against the stony beach, I feel as placid and reflective as the lake. Lake-effect weather is well known in the Finger Lakes area. Perhaps these lakes are as influential to the atmosphere as to humans. This lake gazer is truly hooked.

Keuka 1 Keuka 4 Seneka 1 Seneka 2 Seneka 3 Seneka 7 Seneka 8 Taughanock Falls 2 Cayuga 2 Enfield Glen 6 green 1

My First Europe Trip

What you are going to read is overdue. My first trip to Europe, to be exact, to Paris and London, happened a month ago. Yes, I spent the American traditional holiday Thanksgiving in Europe. I was lucky to stay in Paris with my extended family who also prepared Thanksgiving feast one day earlier than the actual holiday. That was because on Thanksgiving Day I had to hit the road for London by EuroStar.

When in Paris, how can you skip its cuisine? Just comment on its taste, color, texture, aroma and the overall presentation, I’m already on cloud nine. I was well fed even just en route to Paris up in the air. My first experience with Air France didn’t disappoint me. I’d say Air France is another airline that left an impressive dent in my pea brain next to Singapore Airline. The crew kept my mouth busy in my seven hours flight by offering delicacies from cashews and chocolate cakes to chicken pasta and Haagen Dazs ice cream, not to mention filling up my cup with peach juice, water, coffee, tea and a sample bottle of white wine. The in-flight entertainment was not bad either. I watched a couple of movies back to back despite my bloodshot eyes. (You see I got up quite early to work and I caught the flight on the same day after work.)

Upon arrival, our host prepared French lunch with fresh produce bought right from the outdoor Saturday farmers’ market. By the way, I love shopping at the farmers’ market in Paris. If only there was one such market near Centreville. The French culinary preparation is too famous to reiterate. Our hosts Stephane and Jenny offered us juicy duck, rice salad, roasted chicken legs, baked whole fish, pork stew and daily bread. 🙂 Again, my mouth was busy with joy and contentment. I conjured up a weird thought–Is eating the key of mastering the tough French pronunciation? I’ve been told I need flexible jaw muscles to speak like a native French speaker. The reason that I find it so hard to say the French words with letter “R” is my tongue doesn’t move quick enough. Perhaps I should keep eating more French cuisine to strengthen my jaw muscles.

My mom used to say you may complain about hunger but if you are full, never complain about it. I didn’t complain at all even though I had a seemingly always full belly while I was in Paris. Almost every morning I began my day with coffee and croissants. I learned from my lesson. In Paris, if you don’t make it clear that you want café au lait when you order coffee, you’re guaranteed to be given the tiny cup of bitter espresso. In my only one visit at a McDonald’s in Paris, the waiter even asked me with hand gesture, “Do you want your coffee espresso or the large one with milk?” Good catch! He must have known “a coffee” means something else for foreigners like me.

My last comment on French food is on my first trip to Paris, I realized my dream to taste the snails, the duck and the croissants. They more than hit the spot. The taste just lingered in my mouth for quite some time. This compliment doesn’t apply to the croissants, though. Believe it or not, the best croissants I ever had was in an inn run by French Cajuns in New Orleans. Crispy, big and warm. . . until today I’m still mouth-watering for it.

As for the itinerary, I’ve covered most of the ground in Paris and London that a first-time visitor would and should. In fact, on this trip to Paris, I even had a chance to experience activities which ordinary Parisians do. Attending a Sunday mass in the French language,  for instance. In Paris, I did visit quite a few churches, from Notre Dame to La Sainte-Chapelle, from Montmatre Sacré-Cœur basilica to the Catholic church around the corner near my host’s family. In London, I visited the Westminster Abby and the chapel inside the Tower of London. My soul and mind must have been cleansed after paying visits to all these churches, large or small, old or new, world-famous or unknown. I felt in love instantly with the Gothic architectural style of Notre Dame and Westminster Abby. I felt mournful when hearing the solemn music from the church pipe organs. I recalled the church visits in Macau, saying prayers for my dying mother. The ample space in the high-ceiling church calmed the frightened and stimulated a dialog with one’s true self. Or in a worshiper’s eye, a dialog with his/her god.

Some great places are worthy of multiple visits. On this trip, I visited the Louvre twice–the first time was with the family touring the highlights inside the palace; the second time was on the following day roaming the square where stand three glass pyramids in different sizes. I also visited the British Museum twice–the first time was seeing the special exhibition of China’s Ming Dynasty; the second time was seeing a Chinese porcelain collection by Sir Percival David at Room 95. Each visit to both museums was as short as lightening–probably a bit exaggerated–but precious and memorable. If time allows, I’ll certainly devote the major chunk of my travel time at the museums. 

But Paris is a museum by itself. No matter when you are in a gallery,  on the streets, by the Seine or under the Eiffel Tower, there is history about the place you are standing. What makes the first visit so precious is that the contrasts between the new and the old, the known and the unknown, the familiar and the unfamiliar. The contrasts accompanied me throughout the trip.

For instance, I’ve heard so much about the Eiffel Tower. I’ve even been to a miniature Eiffel Tower at a theme park in China. The basic shape of a tower was embedded in my mind. I know it is made of steel. I know it is wide at the base and narrow up in the body. I know it has a steeple top. But I had never realized the tower is so big and striking that when I stood in front of it I was so petite! I had never seen the ironwork on the tower so complex until I was literally walking down the tower step by step from the first level to the ground level. All the crisscrosses, angles, juxtaposition, regular or irregular shapes, they just riveted me. Today we have computers to help configuration and design, back then architects had to rely on their detailed drawings to turn the iconic structures like the Eiffel Tower into reality. There’re too many examples like this in Paris. I marveled at the luxurious ceilings of the Lourve, of the Palace of  Versailles. I was stunned by the architectural complication of Notre Dame, both interior and exterior.

The Eiffel Tower is so big. If you are in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, you won’t miss the giant tower standing across the Seine in the opposite neighborhood. Suffering from jet lag, I had a surge of adrenaline when our shuttle van from the airport passed by this colossal icon of Paris. At that moment, it was the living proof of the old saying–to see is to believe. The contrast of the low rise buildings around the Eiffel Tower is pronounced. On a cloudy day, I hiked up to the top of the tower and saw only clouds. I wasn’t disappointed at all. On the contrary, I must have been on cloud nine, wasn’t I? As I walked in the clouds, everything was so celestial and light. I could only make out the snow-white top of the vehicles 276 meters (906 ft) down beneath my feet. My world was completely enveloped in milky clouds. The bird’s-eye-view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower reminded me a lot of the cityscape of Quebec City from the Observatoire de la Capitale. The only difference was the seasonal distinction: I was in Quebec City in deep winter but was in Paris in deep autumn. On the second level of the tower, I saw Paris in patchy autumnal colors–yellow, gold, orange, green, white, red beneath a veil of haze.

Paris indeed is temperamental. I learned that at Luxembourg Gardens, on the cruise along the Seine, at the bus stop near the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and not to mention from the bedroom window at our host’s apartment. Every evening, I could appreciate the 5-minute sparkling light show that falls on the hour of the Eiffel Tower. The reflection in the pond at Luxembourg Gardens changed its face as the clouds traveled above it. Notre Dame was radiant in gold as the autumn sun was descending at three pm. The lawn looked greener under the overcast sky. In one minute the tip of the Eiffel Tower was disguised in the clouds; in the following minute when the sky opened, the full contour of the tower revealed again its sensual appeal.

So much for Paris. I know the city is overly written. However, no one is tired of writing and reading about it. A three-hour train ride took me to the other side of the English Channel. Like I always exclaim in the U.S. that I can’t believe I am in America. When I arrived in London, I also exclaimed silently: I can’t believe I am in London! I know little about London as a city. But I’m certainly fascinated by the British literature and accents. As a matter of fact, in my early days of learning English I did once speak British English and write it in British spellings. Not surprising that my attempt of speaking like a Briton when I was in London was unceasing. I knew no one would laugh (lah-f) at me if I got (gau-t) a chance (chahn-ss) to show off my faux Britishness. Kudo to my bravery!

If you ask me about the highlights of my whirlwind three-day tour in London, there’re actually countless. To name a few delectable moments: Scuffling my lead feet at St Pancras station upon arrival, I was warmly welcome by a gigantic statue of a hugging couple. The bronze man and the bronze woman were looking at each other so deeply as if that very moment was frozen and all sounds around them were silenced. For the people who arrive, the statue signifies reunion. But for the people who depart, it may connote the imminent separation. Later I learned the statue’s name is The Meeting Place by Paul Day.

When in London, how could a first-time traveler not mention about Big Ben, the clock tower of the British Parliament. Londoners must be fascinated by clocks as I could find time easily outside old buildings. But this very clock as part of the British Parliament is much more glamorous than its other antique clock siblings. I’ve taken dozens of photos of Big Ben at different time of the day, with me or without me in the photos. I’ve even had a chance (chahn-ss) to hear its sound when it struck right on the hour. Big Ben is far from being stupid despite its literal translation in Chinese as the “big stupid clock”.

The tour of Westminster Abby drew me inches closer to the Greats of centuries, from the British kings and queens to the literary giants like Chaucer and Hardy. Standing in front of the tile of my beloved Charles Dickens, I wept a little, prayed a little and retrospected a great deal about the influence of his works on me. The impact will need another entry to “expound” as the Britons say. I said to myself quietly: I cannot believe I am here in London. It’s even beyond my expectation that I am visiting Dickens’ grave.

Riding on the London Eye, I saw Big Ben from a different perspective. The cityscape of London is a jumble of new and old. Unlike Paris where buildings are consistent in style despite their founding ages, arousing a sense of nostalgia, you’ll found St. Paul Cathedral is surrounded with modern buildings in London. Skyscrapers shoot up among the Victorian buildings. Among my hundreds of snapshots, I had a good one of this contrast–the Tower of London stood in front of the Shard–the second tallest buildings in the U.K.. Reflected from the bright sunlight, the former was eclipsed by the glaring glass building in the backdrop.

The sunset in winter came too early in London. My two-time visits at the British Museum happened just when the night was descending. Well, I should have a good understanding about the premise of the latest movie “Night at the Museum” which is set in the British Museum. The daylight coming through the ceiling around the large rotunda at the museum varies as the day moves on. Thanks to the museum’s Friday extended hours, I could see a temporary exhibition at night! Of course I could have stayed at the British Museum for days if time allowed. The British Museum offers as much to see as the Lourve.

Last but not least, the Tower of London has haunted me in a good sense since my visit. Again, restrained by time I didn’t follow the guide for a thorough guided tour. But that might be advantage as I could use my immagination and knowlege to comprehend this historic site and roam at my own pace. I came across rare good weather on that day with golden afternoon sunlight. Everything on the site was dressed in gold, reflecting its aged complexion. With the help of such superb nature light, it was the best time to photograph. So I did, shooting images like crazy. The Tower Bridge was breathtaking against the deep blue sky and under the winter sun.

I left London with a unfinished business as AZ lost his card case which contains credit cards and identification on the Tube on the last evening in London. He is lucky, though. Among the two lost and found incidents that I was also in the picture, the outcome tends to be optimistic, leaning toward the FOUND rather than the LOST. After we reached the States, London public transportation office contacted AZ and the card case is scheduled to be mailed back to his hand in the new year.

Thank you for your patience if you have read this far. I can’t say if this trip is Paris and London did me or I did both of them. But I have no shame to say that I am both Anglophile and Francophile. Look, I’m picking up the self-taught French  lessons again and I’m so drawn by the British history and French literature. All changes happen after this one-of-a-kind first trip to both cities. Bonjour, mon ami!!!