Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Suddenly frantic

On Monday, I had a meeting with one of the interviewees in the government job to finalise her interview. I am still waiting on approval for some of the other interviews. Ah well, it will end at some point. Maybe. It might just go on forever. Very energetic authors of the biography and autobiography have both finished new drafts over Easter and Anzac weekends. At least I am only advising on both of these, but there are a lot of words to read and consider. And a job I do need to edit has lobbed, a very large novel which must be done by the start of June. At least it's already been revised according to the publisher's editor's recommendations. I am looking forward to reading it. Yesterday, Frank and I went to the next coffee concert by Musica Viva, a stunning recital by Songmakers Australia. It was a rare chance to sample vocal duets and trios from major composers, plus a new work by Calvin Bowman based on Dorothy Parker poems. A most enjoyable experience, except for the coffee which was, if anything, even worse.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Romantic Russian

Yesterday, after a productive Convent market, P., Frank and I picked up Errol the Wagon (as neither Vincent nor Harley were available) outside the Grace Darling in Smith Street. Off to the mall, then Japanese in Smith Street at Wooden Spoon for lunch. They were very tasty. P. and I had soft-shell crab bentos. In the evening, P. and I went to 'Eugene Onegin' after a cheap and cheerful at the Southbank food hall. The production has supposedly caused controversy because of its 'flashback' insertions, but in fact it was fairly conventional. The only sore point for me was leaving the corpse after the duel onstage for the rest of the opera, not only unfair to the poor tenor but distracting. We did not need reminding that he was dead. A quick removal in a blackout would have done the trick. However, musically and dramatically it was excellent, especially Nicole Car as Tatyana. It missed certain aspects of the script such as the contrast between the country ball and the city ball because of having the same sets and costumes (not to mention a stray corpse on the forestage). A very good showing from AusOpera. Now for a very quiet Sunday after a week of two rock concerts, an early music extravaganza and an opera. This week is a bit quieter.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Something Completely Different - Steve Earle

It's been a very quiet Anzac Day. However, last night, another instalment in a busy week: a Steve Earle concert at one of Melbourne's least comfortable venues, The Forum. Beforehand, P. and I renewed our acquaintance with Yoyogi for a cheap and cheerful Japanese meal. It was quick as usual so we scored a seat at The Forum, albeit near the back. At least we didn't have to stand for three hours plus. The first act was Kasey Chambers. Others will differ (probably many of them) but I find her slightly screechy, raspy, almost offkey, delivery extremely irritating. She was soon over and the main act began. Steve Earle is a real master and his band, including Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and not-enough-vocals, and Chris Masterson on rhythm guitar were standouts. However, maybe I'm grumpy and old, but these icons of rock (see last Monday's concert) seem to not know when to stop. Two hours plus from Steve is, for me, too much. About an hour-and-a-quarter would have done nicely. The Guardian reviewer obviously did not agree nor about Chambers. Oh well! And why, oh why, did he bring back Chambers for a closing vocal duet. Did she whine that much?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lots to do

More bits of the long-lost biography have turned up after the author had a burst of energy over Easter and expects to have even more over the Anzac weekend. Lots of words! Meanwhile, on Tuesday, P. and I had a splendid dinner at Frank's of a tagine with quinces, followed by a quince dessert. You can never have too many quinces. Last night, P., Frank and I went to more of a performance than a concert at the Recital Centre. First we had a good meal at Blondie with P. joining us belatedly from work. The concert was devised by Jordi Savall with Hesperion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya and included a large cast of performers from Israel, Palestine, Armenia, Greece and Turkey. It attempted to cross a couple of centuries or more of the vexed history of Jerusalem via music and spoken word from the participants of the three main religions involved, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was very thought-provoking and moving, but also highlighted, musically, the links between the three which belie the bitter divisions. Deservedly packed out, the virtuoso players and singers received a standing ovation. It was a privilege to be there.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Monday marathon

Most of Easter Monday was very quiet and restful. We had an early dinner of P.'s delicious vera bolognese before heading into town for a concert at Hamer Hall. The first half was Dr John and the Nite Trippers and the second half was Aaron Neville and band. Both hail from New Orleans. Both are excellent performers with very good bands accompanying them. The catch was neither of them knew when to stop and the promoter hadn't edited their playlists (which could easily have been pruned). So each played for over an hour and a half with a thirty-minute interval to do a complete changeover of gear. We left before the last encore(s) at around 10.45pm after a 7pm start. Why do performers who are supposed to be entertainers not know when enough is enough?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sunday, sweet Sunday

Easter Sunday was very quiet. Just doing the Sunday crossword and having a relaxing day. In the early evening, we met up with Michael Podesta, over from Tasmania for a week, and P. and I had dinner with him at Chocolate Buddha. It was good to catch up on goings-on in Taswegia and chat about the state of the world. The meal was good as it consistently is.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Saturday routine

Back in our Saturday routine, we picked up Harley (long time no see) and went to Victoria Gardens for the mall shopping, then had a very nice brunch at Backstreet Eating. They have some new menu items: Frank and I tried the very tasty gnocchi with peas and ham, while P. tried the pine mushrooms with eggs and enough garlic to keep armies of vampires at bay. At 6pm, P. and I went to the Salon at the Recital Centre to see the Streeton Trio (with a guest cellist, William Ewer) perform a very satisfying program of Mozart's piano trio no. 6 in G major, Melbourne composer Andrew Anderson's 'The Heart', commissioned for the trio, and Brahms' magnificent piano trio no. 2 in C major. An excellent way to finish the day, then home for oysters and garlic prawns.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Bach and Hindemith

Last night, P. and I went to the Australian National Academy of Music (old South Melbourne Town Hall) for a concert of two Bach Brandenburgs (1 and 2) and two Hindemith Kammermusik (3 and 4). Beforehand, we had a quick meal at the nearby Thai, very good quality and cheap. Our usual, Wasabi, is closed for holidays. The concert got off to a slightly wobbly start with the first Brandenburg, but then picked up to become an absorbing concert, with an especially good and bravura performance by soloist Emily Sheppard in Kammermusik no.4.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Getting back to normal

As part of getting back to normal, Frank came for a roast lamb dinner on Tuesday. On Wednesday I had a meeting with one of the contributors to the government job, to amend and approve her contribution (yes, it's still going). But the big news is that I went back to Doctor Richard today after the second week on a different kind of anti-infection ear drops which elicited very little improvement. However, he had the results of the swab he took at the last visit, and it seems I'm not making this up, you know. In fact, I've got a triple whammy. First, there is the infection, which seems now to have cleared up, but there is as well some residual fungus (!). And as well there seems to be an inner ear problem as well which I have a spray for. There seems to be a response after one application, so with any luck we're on the way to normality. As well, he said if it gets worse, the best thing to do is to go to the Eye and Ear Hospital emergency (which was the advice of Maria from the milk bar as well). I can also take up my appointment due at the ENT at the Royal Melbourne (The Club), which is now annual, but could be brought forward. We'll see how it goes but at least we're on the way.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Normal transmission

Unfortunately, Blogger won't let me post pictures so I'll have to find another way to post (maybe via Facebook). Meanwhile, P. and I have been visiting the Health Centre with our various ailments plus attending with Sally in various combinations the offerings of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's modern music series, Metropolis. It has been excellent (at least the two concerts I've seen), conducted by Finn, Olli Mustonen, with soloists Kristian Winther (violin) and Marko Ylonen (cello). As well as Mustonen's own works, I particularly liked the work of Russian Rodion Schedrin (born 1923 and still going). He gave Stalin the last laugh. We are very lucky to have this series. It's a breath of fresh air (from the mainly 20th century, not so new) and we need it. As well, yesterday was P.'s birthday, so after the mall shopping, Frank, P. and I joined Lorraine Ellis at Charcoal Lane for a pleasant lunch. They've increased their portion sizes, which seems strange to complain about, but beforehand they were perfect. Now I seemed to get half an emu on my plate. Very tasty, but too much.

Our hutong home

Thanks to Ingrid, our travel agent at Intrepid, for picking the Shichahai Sandalwood Boutique Hotel in the Xicheng district. It is one of two in the area of narrow little streets (hutongs) behind old fronts. This one is reconstructed ersatz little houses as the hotel rooms around a central courtyard. It is really a bit phoney, but it is also cute and comfortable (the bathrooms were ballrooms). On arrival, we sussed out the local area, had dinner locally then went to the 'other hotel' round the corner which had a charming shadow puppet performance including Monkey, Tripitaka and the Journey to the West. Next morning, we did a tour of the hutongs, including a visit to a display interior with a token old granny cutting up greens. Our nearest eating area was Lake Quan Hai, a popular recreation spot near central Beijing, so we ate there. On Monday, 31 March, we ventured on the subway (again fairly easy to navigate) to the National Art Museum of China for a fascinating display of work since 1950, plus some older work. It was interesting to see the ideological twists and turns (including Nixon in China in a vast painting). The next day, we visited the nearby Prince Gong's palace and garden which, while not nearly as grand as the Forbidden City, had a sense of being better loved and cared for. We also went to the nearby Drum Tower and Bell Tower which used to keep time in old Beijing. Again, these were being renovated and vamped up for tourism. In the evening of 1 April, we went for dinner at Capital M, the eatery owned by Australian woman, Michelle Garnaut, which has a partner in Shanghai, M on the Bund. Overlooking Tianamen Square we had an anniversary dinner (37 I think) which I finished with a dessert of pavlova, very good and abundant, but not as good as my sister's. A fitting finish to our brief sojourn in China. The next day, we had a restful morning then were picked up for the airport and flights to Hongkong, thence to Melbourne. We arrived a bit the worse for wear (not Cathay Pacific's fault) but with ailments inherited from China or the airplane. Peter had a flu/cold and I have an apparent ear infection. I'm on my second week of antibiotics but there is little improvement.

Beijing: day 12

After checking into our hotel and showering, the party headed to Tianamen Square, a vast area with NO seats. Impressed, sort of, by Mao's mausoleum, the Great Hall of the People, we then went into the Forbidden City, which IS impressive indeed, though looking much in need of a lick of paint here and there and a bit more TLC. The last three days of the tour included the trifecta: Warriors, Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and they did their stuff very well, just by being there. Next day, Friday 28 March, we bussed to the Great Wall where we breakfasted on very tasty and cheap pancakes, banana or egg and chives, or anything really. Peter and I caught the chairlift to the Wall to save our legs and marvelled at the sheer audacity of it, stretching to the horizon. In the evening, we had our final group dinner, including Peking Duck. Peter accused me of being a Melbourne food nazi for saying that the Flower Drum Peking Duck was better. Michael then took us to a night market with various oddities including insects for eating. I chose not to. So we farewelled our tour group and headed to our new hotel.

Xian the old spice road

After the overnight train, we checked into our hotel, the Tang Dynasty, which had a peculiar arrangement. A curtain concealed a glass wall to the bathroom and toilet. Why? Nearly everywhere in China, the hotels were of two types: modern, spare wood-floored rooms, quite comfortable, and old-fashioned pseudo-antique, also quite comfortable. But the transparent bathroom was something again. Perhaps it had something to do with getting cards in nearly every hotel under the door offering 'services' which were very clear. Peter then joined the rest of the party in a walk around the old Xian wall and a Muslim quarter lunch. I opted for a shorter walk to the nearest bit of wall and a look around the neighbourhood where I found a good bakery with Portuguese custard tarts! In the evening we went to a dumpling banquet (18 types) and a 'sample' opera and dance performance, which was very garish and kitsch. Next day, we bussed to the the Terracotta Warriors, first having another good 'farmer's' lunch with people displaced by the warriors who seem to have done rather well out of it. The warriors were magnificent. The sheer size and variety of the collection, still in process of being uncovered, is breathtaking. We were lucky the day was not hugely busy so we got a good look. That evening, we caught another 'hard sleeper' to Beijing.

The song of the Yangstze boatmen

The next day, Friday, 21 March, day 6 of our tour, we bussed from Yangshuo back to Guilin where we caught a plane to Chongqing, where we were to board our Yangtsze boat. We spent a bit of time in Chongqing, a large town which seems intent on pulling down any vestige of its past. We had a very enjoyable hotpot lunch, a local speciality, but the town failed to impress. Like most large Chinese cities, it has a central mall containing delights like Vuitton, Dolce & Gabana, Starbucks, Norgenvasz etc. at outrageous prices. The city seemed unplanned, chaotic and dirty. As I said to Alicia, the English librarian, 'This is the future and I don't like it.' Having stocked up on nibblies and drinks for the boat trip (three nights), we boarded the boat for our trip along the three gorges, now a little diminished by the presence of the dam. In spite of dire prior warnings, the boat was, well not luxury, but quite comfy with excellent and varied food, rather too much of it, breakfast, lunch and dinner somewhat relentlessly. Though the weather was a bit overcast, we had good views of the gorges and the river which seems to be having a bit of a tourist makeover. We went through the giant locks at night but still got an idea of their grandeur. We disembarked at Xiyiang on Monday 24 March (day 9)and resumed familiarity with a Walmart visit and lunch in a mall. Then we had our first overnight 'hard sleeper' experience on the way to Xian. This consists of a corridor with two foldup seats and a table, facing an open cubicle containing six bunks. Our party kindly gave Peter and I the ground level bunks. Because there were ten of us, on each journey, we had a stranger in both parties. The locals were none too pleased at being mixed with so many foreigners. The end result is surprisingly comfortable (remember, we were on the bottom). We arrived in Xian, not exactly rested and refreshed, but feeling okay.

Tea and slightly faded glory

Next morning, we left the hotel in Hangzhou early to minibus off to the Dragonwell Tea area, reputed to be the best tea in the world. We inspected one of the hillside tea plantations then had a convivial lunch provided by one of the plantation owners. We dutifully all bought some tea (not the premium which we couldn't afford) without any great confidence that our customs officers would let it back in (they did). After lunch we went back to the West Lake, where we all went off walking around the famous lake, which is rather beautiful, but also a bit faded, like many Chinese attractions, not helped by numerous vendors of icecreams, drinks, boat-trips etc. Then we headed for the airport at Hangzhou, and an evening flight to Guilin where we caught another mini-bus along dark and muddy roads to Yangshuo. Gradually out of the mist emerged the famous 'karsts' of the area, minimountains of limestone, looming beside the road. We arrived in Yangshuo around 3am and bundled into our hotel after being astounded at seeing eateries still open on the main drag. No problem getting a feed here. We also realised that our guide, Michael, wasn't referring to our various drivers as 'Trevor', which we thought, but rather just as 'driver' as he organised their daily tip. Our first morning in Yangshuo included an optional cooking class, so most of us were collected to be taken to the local market, full of exotic produce (frogs, dogs and mysterious vegetables), then off to a village in the countryside where we were taught about five dishes, sold a cookbook and had a very good time. We spent the afternoon around Yangshuo, looking after our washing and viewing the picturesque Li River, nestled among the karsts. The next morning, most of the party went off on a bike ride in the countryside. We opted for the motorised version and saw old bridges and villages in various states of repair and disrepair, but actually looking fairly prosperous. We settled in for our third night in Yangshuo, well-pleased with this relic of the hippie trail.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Shanghai and tour beginning (sort of)

At 6pm, on Sunday 16 March, we met our tour group in an imposing boardroom in the hotel (just off the Shanghai main shopping drag). They were Matthias and Hendrik (travelling together) and Birte and Tina, also together, all from Germany. There was a mother, Alicia, and her daughter, Rebecca, from North London and Linda from Dublin, and, of course, Peter and I. Our tour guide, Michael Zheng was full of energy and information. We had our first meal at a local eatery, the first of many well-stage-managed by Michael of good, non-threatening food at a very good prices. We then went for a short walk along The Bund. The next day, the group was doing things we had already done (Yuyuan Gardens, Museum), so Peter and I went to the Shanghai International Finance Centre to zoom 100 stories above Shanghai. It was slightly hazy but you could still see lots. Next door, the building is already being outdone by the Shanghai World Trade Centre or somesuch, nearly complete. In the afternoon, we had a leisurely boat trip along the Huangpo River, viewing the waterfront of Shanghai. In the evening, we headed for the station and caught a fast train to Hangzhou, where we bussed to our hotel near the famous West Lake. More of that anon.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Shanghai solo

Our transfer from the airport to our hotel warned that our hotel area was 'too noisy'. In fact, it was perfect for landing in Shanghai, near a bustling (mainly domestic) tourist market and loads of eateries. There were lots of local tourists and touts for watches, women etc. but it was lively. Our hotel, the Ibis, was very good, though its bar was another story (no ice, no gin, warm wine etc.) It was also close to the Yuyuan Gardens, a tourist drawcard of somewhat concrete proportions. We had dinner at the nearby (you could see it from our hotel window, as you could an old neon-lit temple)Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant which became our 'local'. Next day, we headed for the Shanghai Museum where we spend most of the day. It has a magnificent collection of Chinese artefacts including porcelain, sculpture and calligraphy (a bit gnomic). We dined at a local restaurant where we had to insist on being moved from near the clattering kitchen. We were less than impressed. Into the subway next day, which was amazingly easy to navigate, and off for an hour to the 'burbs, where we lunched at a fish restaurant with Ouyang Yu called the Aquatic! It was a spicy lunch, good to catch up with him, see the 'burbs which went on forever. He put us in the direction of the Ming Gardens and the Square Pagoda, two local attractions. Back to Din Tai Fung for a reliable dinner. Next morning, we went to the Yuyuan Gardens. By now, we are getting used to slightly tawdry, not quite renovated, Chinese relics, but interesting nonetheless. We had a pleasant local lunch with Lingyun, whom I'd worked with in Beijing on the Chinese operas, then went in search of the contemporary art museum which turned out to have huge queues, so we retreated to the People's Park, where a Wedding Market was in progress, where parents tout their progeny (not in person)) as desirable matches. We moved to our next hotel for the tour and in the evening met up with out tour group. More soon.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Just landed

We're back after a hiatus in the mysterious East. Over the next week or so, I'll post highlights, of which there were many. I've always laughed at Asians holidaying here who do 'highlights of Australia', i.e. Uluru, Kakadu, Great Barrier Reef, Opera House. We did 'Highlights of China'. In the last three days of our tour, we saw the Terracotta Warriors, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Luckily, we had four more days in Beijing humming 'in our hutong home' to recover. Sadly, I seem to have been left with an ear infection, but as I recover the further adventures of China will appear, starting in Shanghai, which, incidentally, has a population larger than all of Australia.