We were up on “the island” for a few days over the Fourth of July, where friends of ours got married. Beach time, biking, lots of sun and fun. A really fantastic and memorable trip.
We finally took that trip to Niagara Falls that she’d been wanting to do for so long. “You have never taken me to any American landmarks,” she would remind me. “What about Washington, DC?” I said. “We got an insider’s tour of the Capitol!” “Yes, and then you took me to an awful ‘diner’ for dinner. Some trip!” Well, she was right about that – but I digress.
Off to Canada we went, by way of Buffalo. A friend from the WordPress NYC Meetup gave me some great advice, which we followed exactly. Having landed in the city which gave the name to the famous wings, we got our Zipcar (that was another story – Zipcars aren’t at the airport, but at the University at Buffalo – when we asked the lady at the information booth if there was a bus that went there, she offered to give us a ride herself as it was the end of her shift!) and drove straight to the bar that created them: Anchor Bar in downtown Buffalo, right on Main Street.
The area is gritty but proud, and some of the buildings look historic. They have that solid, old feeling to them. A giant cathedral, the St. Louis Church, is right nearby. Inside the bar, there are license plates all over the walls and full-size motorcycles in the rafters. The place is awesome.
Obviously we were going to order some wings, the only question was how hot and spicy? We opted for the extreme version: “suicidal.” To be honest, though, they weren’t really that hot. I mean, nothing compared to an authentic Sichuan meal. But they were delicious. And the ambiance of the place really added to it. Besides the wings, I remembered what my friend had told me and ordered the “Beef on Weck” – a roast beef sandwich on a kummelweck roll, which was also tasty.
Fully sated, we packed back into the car and drove over the Peace Bridge into Canada. This allowed for a scenic drive up the Niagara Parkway, along the river, rather than taking the expressway. The customs guy was serious but polite. The weather was gray with light rain, but the river was still beautiful, and lined with nice houses where Canadians could look out on America from their front porches – albeit, not much of a view.
We arrived at the Bed & Breakfast my friend had recommended, Ambiance by the Falls. This charming place is run by Scott and Diane Gerrits, a very nice Canadian couple originally from Winnipeg. Scott had emailed me right after I booked online, and he was there to greet us when we arrived. After we settled into our very comfortable room, he gave us the lowdown on Niagara, what there was to do, and how to get around, and we set off to explore.
From Ambiance by the Falls, we walked along River Road, approaching the falls from the north. Passing under the Rainbow Bridge, we first caught sight of the American Falls – as I learned, there are actually two waterfalls that constitute Niagara, and this is the “small” one. We laughed at how this majesty is totally upstaged by the Horseshoe Falls (the classic image of Niagara). Anywhere else it would be considered grand in its own right, but here it will forever play second fiddle.
Continuing on our way, we arrived at the Horseshoe Falls. She got a really good picture of the drop. Just standing there listening to the roar, I was overwhelmed by the power, and hypnotized by the rushing water. The water just kept coming. Where does it come from? When will it stop? How much water just keeps running and falling and crashing down? It was amazing.
Following Scott’s suggestion, we purchased two “Magic Passes”. This is like the all-in-one tourist package, which gets you admission to the Journey Behind the Falls, the Butterfly Conservatory, and The Power of Niagara, as well as a few days’ access to the tourist bus system. We sat at the bar that overlooks the Horseshoe Falls and just took it all in over a drink, then attended The Power of Niagara, which is billed as an interactive experience of the creation of the falls. It was kind of lame, but hey, we were doing our tourist thing. The kids in our showing seemed to enjoy it. Basically you watch a cartoon film that goes over the whole carved-by-glaciers story, to get the background. Then you step into an immersive studio set, with a 360-degree screen and a steel platform that you stand on. There are no seats, but bars to hold onto. The floor moves and shifts, and rainwater and “snow” occasionally fall down upon you (they provide you garbage-bag ponchos), as you watch some kind of Nature-channel scenery of glaciers, earthquakes, roaring rivers, etc. Before you can figure out what it’s all supposed to mean, it’s over. Exit through the gift shop.
We had a nice dinner at a place that Scott recommended, the Sandstone. It was kind of a casual but classy joint with a nice ambiance and a guy on the piano, and we had a good time and a good meal, and the owner came by to chat. He’s been running the place for 25 years, took it over from his in-laws, and when we mentioned that Scott had told us to come by, he sent over a free tartufo, which was really nice of him.
The next day we took full advantage of the Magic Pass, but not before being treated to a magnificent breakfast by Scott. We started with yogurt, granola and fresh fruit, with homemade blueberry muffins (we’d brought a bottle of champagne as well). Then, wearing his white chef’s smock, he served us western omelets, mine with cheese and hers without. Beautiful! And with a fresh pot of coffee, too. 🙂
Fully energized, we headed first to Journey Behind the Falls. This involves walking around a series of tunnels that have been dug out of the rock, literally behind the Horseshoe Falls. You can walk right up to several openings where the water is just rushing over in front of you. Of course it’s really loud, too. The best view, though, is one tunnel exit that is off to the side of the falls, giving a close-up view from near where the water lands. It’s quite a powerful sight:
Before you enter the Journey, they snap your picture in front of a green screen, and when you come out they have classic Niagara souvenir photos waiting for you (for an additional fee, naturally). They put you right in front of the falls – as if you were hovering over the water – and even give you both the day and night views. Because it was cold and rainy and I was a bit unprepared for the weather, I was wearing her scarf wrapped around my head when they snapped us, and so our trip will be forever memorialized in this ridiculous fashion:
[Removed out of embarrassment]
The Journey completed, we took the bus to the Butterfly Conservatory. This is a nice little hothouse full of butterflies! They are flitting every which way, all around, and we snapped photos of them and tried to get them to land on our fingers – no luck. They also happened to have a snake exhibit going at the time, and we were treated to an up-close view of a baby python.
We returned to the B&B to get our car and drove up to Niagara-on-the-Lake. We had heard about this quaint little town both from Scott and Diane, and from the nice lady who had given us a ride from the airport. It’s at the mouth of the Niagara River where it meets Lake Ontario, and has the feel of a small artists’ community. There’s a lovely old building called the Prince of Wales Hotel, tiny boutique shops lining the walkable roads, and cute lake houses along the shoreline. We had a heart-stopping moment when I appeared to have locked us out of the Zipcar – somehow all doors were locked but one, crisis averted – and we learned that Wayne Gretzky is now a winemaker. We enjoyed an early dinner of antipasta and pizza, snapped some photos of the lake, and made our way back for one last mesmerizing look at the Horseshoe Falls.
We woke up early on Sunday to the first sunshine of the weekend – of course we were leaving. Another delicious breakfast by Scott, and we were on the road. We went right over the Rainbow Bridge with no line at the border. The guard was gruff: “Nationality? What was the purpose of your trip?” he barked at us. Give us a break, man. Since we’d left early, expecting delays, we stopped over on the American side to see the falls again. That’s when we got all those lovely rainbow shots.
One regret was not being able to take the Maid of the Mist, the boat tour that takes you right out on the river to the falls, as it was still closed for winter. We were literally 3-4 days too early to do this, but hey, it’s a great reason to go back. What I’ll keep with me from this trip is the sheer power of Mother Nature, which was impressed on me most not by the glorious sight of all that water dropping, but by the incredible loudness of the sound it makes. Now I’ve not only checked a world wonder off the bucket list, but I’ve earned some good husband credits, which is always nice. 🙂
Even though Mrs P had returned about once a year, I hadn’t been back to China since we left in August 2007. Upon my return, I immediately regretted not having gone back sooner.
After three months living alone in New York, I boarded the plane for Beijing around 5pm. I had just received, the day before, a Kindle e-reader from Mom as an early birthday present, and I was downloading books and magazines for the flight while putting back beers in the airport bar. What a great device for travel!
Let me tell you: no matter how attractive the price, I will avoid at all costs in the future flying Air China. I have become accustomed to having a personal TV screen in my seat for long-haul flights; not available here. They have a single screen for the whole cabin, the “entertainment” they choose is horrendous, and the screen flickers and distorts the colors to boot. The plane was so old it had ashtrays in the armrests!
I was connecting directly to Chengdu and should have landed at 10pm; delays for “weather” meant I didn’t arrive until nearly 3am, with most of that time spent in the Beijing airport. But I arrived!
For the next week, I did little else besides sleep, eat and read. A typical day involved waking up around 7 or 8 (ok, I slept in the first couple of days) and making coffee, then sitting down to read for 3-4 hours. Mom might make me a boiled egg or a bowl of tang yuan, then go to the market. Dad would get out his game board for “Five in a Row” and study a book of strategy, playing practice games against himself. Mrs P might be reading as well, or working on her thesis. When Mom returned home, Dad would start chopping and slicing everything she’d purchased, and she’d cook a big lunch which we’d all sit down to around noon.
These lunches were the highlight of the day. Typically they’d involve six or seven dishes – ribs, duck, fish, and several bowls of greens. Dad and I would drink beer or liquor, and sometimes a family member or friend would show up to share with us. Xiao Niang (Mom’s sister) was a frequent guest. After the meal, we might take a nap, or go for a walk. In the evenings we’d either read or watch TV, or else meet up with a friend of ours (there are a few still around Chengdu). It was most relaxing.
Labor Day weekend we flew out to Shanghai to see the old crew. Party weekend! First, to Brad’s restaurant, where he is no longer working for anyone else but has his own place, and naturally it’s awesome. There is no greater feeling in a restaurant than sitting down and being attentively taken care of without ever looking at a menu. Course after course flowed from that fine kitchen until we had to beg the man to stop; we literally couldn’t eat any more. He came out to see us and said, “You guys are waving the white flag, eh?” We sat there and drank wine the rest of the night, and once the other guests had left, Mallon brought out the guitars.
That was a lead-in for Saturday night, when we officially got the band back together for a rocking gig at YuYinTang. Nearly everyone who ever played with Georgia Sam turned out for a spectacular evening – Eli, Adam, Yam, Fabian – and we had some new dudes who brought it to a whole new level. All due to Nate’s very meticulous organization and motivation skills, we were able to pull off a crazy show that had people going mad. For a small taste, check out this cover of Zep’s No Quarter:
Good times with family, good food, good music, good friends. What more is there in life?
Back in Chengdu, a crew of Mrs P’s friends helped me celebrate my 31st birthday in style, bringing me a cake in the middle of a music club and singing for me. We had such a great time. It was all over too fast. When can we return? As soon as possible, as far as I’m concerned.
Postscript: I did manage one more city on my way out. Since, in my infinite wisdom and prudence, I had booked myself an overnight layover in Beijing on the way home, I was able to hook up with both Sam and Jeff for one last night, drinking beers in a hu tong until the wee hours and stumbling onto the plane at noon, “a little bleary, worse for wear and tear…”
I won’t lie. I miss the hell out of Mrs P.
Luckily I have a lot of good friends, ones that I can hang with in New York, and ones I can reach by phone around the world – and my family makes for pretty good company, too. So it hasn’t been terrible. But without my girl, things aren’t complete. We’re supposed to be together – we’ve got a plan!
Relax, I tell myself. The plan is still in place. It just feels like a giant interruption.
Meanwhile, I have been having quite a lot of fun.
There was the giant Phish festival – SuperBall IX – in Watkins Glen, NY, which is practically a home town for me, with Seneca Lake and Geneva – the birthplace of my grandfather – right there. I’ve been going to Seneca Lake since I was three months old, but I never went to a three-day rock festival at the race track and camped out on the grounds – over Fourth of July weekend. That was awesome.
I even managed to get up to the old lake house and have a swim!
My campgrounds for the weekend were comfortable and pleasant:
Also, I went to Nantucket with the GRP – my old reggae band from college. What a fantastic weekend that was!
My friends took a great shot of me walking on a beautiful beach:
Mrs P has been back in China for a few weeks now, and I’m getting pretty lonely 🙁
But she is having a great time with the family, speaking Sichuan-hua and eating Mom’s food again, and that makes me very happy 🙂
Also, something amazing happened. Listen to what she wrote:
There is something miracle happened to my home. 11 years ago, my mom bought a plant is called Widened Microsorium, it had bloomed once at the time, and then never since. After 10 years, just a few days ago, that plant has blooming again, and the unique color combination and elegant shape caught my parents attention immediately, and they believe is because I’m coming, therefore luck forces rare flowers to bloom.
Isn’t that awesome?
I spent last weekend down in Bethesda with longtime friends who have just had a baby. I’m not in the business of posting pictures of other people’s kids online, so suffice to say that is one cute baby girl. Her name is Genevieve, a wonderfully classic name, and she has a perfect disposition: calm, thoughtful, inquisitive, friendly. Holding her was enough to make me want to have my own kids… someday. Without getting too personal here, after six years of blissful young marriage between Mrs P and I, the elders are starting to get restless, and ask questions…
But another day for that. For now, the main purpose of my visit was to see Phish at Merriweather:
The week before, a strange thing happened to me on the New York sidewalks. I saw a guy I knew at Georgetown who I had not seen in nearly 10 years, since we shared one class together: early 20th-century Russian literature. It was one of my favorite classes, one of the few I can even remember (I elected many poor classes); we read short stories by Chekhov and Babel, among others.
This guy, whose name escapes me, was in the class. There were only six or seven of us, though I don’t remember the others. The teacher was an older Ukrainian woman who had immigrated in the 1980s. So I remember we used to have good discussions there, and this guy was a great contributor, but we ran in different circles. Like I said, I don’t even remember his name.
I’m walking to work one morning and look up and this guy is about to jog right by me. He’s jogging along Fifth Avenue while the rest of the crowd is dressed for work and hustling by. I recognized him instantly, then looked away – then looked back. He saw me and knew me as well. We each said something like, “Hey man…”, “Hey buddy…” and hesitating only slightly, we both decided to keep on moving. We smiled and waved in the passing streams of traffic.
A few seconds later I looked back. He turned around. We both waved again, then turned, and it was over.
Good to see you, old friend.
Lyon I will always remember for the bouchon. X read about a special kind of down-home restaurant that lives only in this city, the gastronomic capital of France, and so we found ourselves one night in a small, red room with a bar and eight little tables. There was no one else there, although it was nearly eight o’clock, surely a reasonable hour for dinner, no? we thought, as the young but solemn waitress seated us in a small table by the end of the bar.
We were surrounded by pigs. Hung from the ceiling and sticking out of the walls were pigs, large and small, in the pictures and on the wallpaper. As I was about to learn, bouchons are all about meat, and not just pork chops – tripe, gizzards, hoofs and cheeks.
If I had done my homework, I would have ordered a communard, a mixture of red wine with blackcurrant liqueur which the guide book spun a romantic tale about, but I hadn’t seen that yet, so we had local red wine, and together with that the girl brought us a basket of breaded, deep-fried pig fat – tablier de sapeur, pork rinds. Oh, stupendous wonder! Wine and salted fat!
We hadn’t ordered a thing besides the wine, but very quickly she came out with another dish, a poached egg floating in a deep red soup which may have been wine and blood for all I know. It was rich and salty; I drank it down and ate more breaded tripe. This is going to be good.
Then, it got better. A dozen boisterous men walked into the place, and they all had the same look on their face, the look of a man who’s about to sit down with 11 of his buddies, eat a good meal, and get hammered. It was on!
The 2 waitresses jumped to life in an effort to mash tables together for these guys, and then they just started bringing out the dishes and bottles, passing everything down the line because there was no room to even walk around their party. The men bellowed a singsong of conversation and laughter at each other and flirted with the waitresses, drinking and clinking and shouting and pointing, not a word of it intelligible to us, but all of it making perfect sense and perfect comedy. We were at a great party!
The chef came out and spoke with us. It turned out that his son lives and works in New York, and he has visited. He gave us a small dish with two meatballs. I wish I had one of those meatballs right now, it was so good. The chef, who spoke fairly good English, did not know the word for what was in the meatball. He struggled. Then, Aha! he reached behind the bar, and pulled out a stuffed pig’s foot, complete with black hair. I couldn’t believe it. Where was the meat on a pig’s foot that could make this much meatball? I never liked pig’s feet in China, but this meatball was something else.
The chef then listed for us, from memory, tonight’s menu. There were about six delicious-sounding choices, and I felt limited to choose just one, but I chose the blood sausage with baked apples, because I’d never had blood sausage before, and X ordered the cheek. Mine was really good, although I could have had less of it (I did eat it all, though!); hers was better.
After we polished those off, they asked if we’d like some cheese. Sure, why not? They bring us a cutting board with five big hunks of different cheeses and some bread, plus a big bowl of fresh cottage cheese! We looked at each other like, Are we supposed to eat all this cheese? Well, we did our best…
There was still room for dessert, of course. X had a pear, drowned in red wine and sugar, and I had a coffee ice cream. And naturally there was espresso to finish. Total perfection.
Another day in Lyon, we went for a long walk to find the cathedral at the top of the hill that overlooked the city. You can see it from anywhere. It’s right near the imitation Eiffel Tower. Walking across the city, to the base of the hill, was no problem. It took about 30 minutes from our hotel. But from there, we had to go nearly straight up. We walked in the sun up a long hill, and some cars and scooters were driving down, at high speeds. It was a tough slog. Along the way, a man was sweeping the street. He tried to say something to us, but we didn’t understand. He repeated himself, but a car drove by in between us, and we couldn’t hear. He crossed the road and spoke to us, but we said we didn’t speak French. He said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I was just asking if you’d like a glass of water.” How nice!
Turned out he was not actually a street-sweeper, but was cleaning up outside the hostel of which he is proprietor. He invited us in and poured two glasses of ice-cold water, much appreciated at the moment, as we had been sweating and climbing up the steep hill of the road. He led us out to the back porch, which overlooked the entire city. We sat and cooled ourselves, enjoying the view, and thought about the kindness that we were experiencing. Then we thanked him again and continued on our way.
At the top of the hill is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière.
Ah, Burgundy, the heart of France. Wine country. The stuff French vacations are made of.
[Note: The trip is now over, and we are safely home. But I’m going to continue the story right where I left off…]
Beaune train station was bereft of cabs, so after a 20-min wait we finally dragged our bags across town to the Hotel Foch, which is basically a pub with some rooms in the back. The guy running the place was really nice, and spoke great English. In fact, in all our travels in France, we never found one rude person. Talk about a stereotype destroyed.
We sat at a cafe in town that afternoon, drinking wine, which was delicious and cheap. We could hear a couple at a nearby table who were American, and whom I guessed were from Texas. They were likely in their 60s. At a certain point, another couple walked up to them from the street, and it became clear that they were all traveling together when the approaching man said:
“Ya’ll look like ya’ll’re havin’ a good time with ya’ll’s selves!”
Hearing this, how could I not have instantly recognized this same Texas guy when we saw him again 5 days later in Marseille, walking along the sidewalk near the Vieux Port?
Our first dinner in Beaune was gorgeous: beef Bourguignon, and an angel hair pasta with veal and liver. So rich! The woman running the restaurant suggested a nice red for us, and we talked with an English guy who was driving his dog, a chocolate lab, across the country.
We wanted to see a vineyard, but instead we decided to go to a cellar. Unfortunately, we didn’t really pick the most tourist-friendly cellar. Rather than walking into any of the numerous places with signs outside welcoming tourists, we went to a place where the book said locals buy wine in bulk. There was nobody near the front door, and no obvious way in once we walked up the driveway. A guy with big boots on pointed down a staircase, and then called to a woman down below who beckoned us to follow her into the basement. She had two clients down there trying wines. We waited until she had finished with them, then absolutely failed to make any meaningful communication with her about trying wines. Although there were tons of barrels down there, and it looked like it could be tapped, we ended up drinking from three bottles, two of which we bought. They were modestly priced. We drank half of one that night in the room, then left it and the full one on the train the next day when we left. Money well spent!
A random stop in Beaune was the Museum of Wine, which was somewhat amusing but sadly did not include a glass of the stuff at the end of the tour!
Another attraction is the Hospices de Beaune, which was founded in 1443 to care for the poor as a free hospital. It has a magnificent great building with a beautiful roof:
But it also has random mannequin nuns, tending the sick and cooking in the kitchen. Strange.