Boston’s North End for foodies

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Last time I wrote, I claimed that R and I are still tourists in our own city. It gets worse (or better, depending on one’s perspective); we’re still tourists in our own neighborhood.

Thanks to our perpetual state of tourism (and thanks also to some very strategic and thoughtful birthday and Christmas gifts), R and I toured our own neighborhood one Saturday morning with Michele Topor’s North End Market Tours to learn about the culinary and historical aspects of the place where we live.

My new neighborhood is the oldest business and residential neighborhood in Boston, originally established in 1630 by English settlers. The neighborhood changed hands a few times, dominated by waves of new immigrants (Irish in 1845, Polish and Russian Jewish after that, Portuguese in the late 1800s, and then Italian in the 1920s). After our guide, Jim, outlined the history of the North End (much more eloquently than my attempt in the previous sentence) and talked about regions of Italy, we proceeded to our first stop of the tour – Maria’s Pastry Shop.

Maria and her family make delicious pastries that extend the conversation about North End pastries past cannoli and the “Mike’s or Modern” question. Maria even surprised me with a birthday cake! It could have been the cake, but I am now a Maria’s devotee who favors the totos she makes (a little chocolate spice cookie named after a comedian from Naples).

High on cake and surprise (and totos), I drifted along with the group to the best smelling shop in our neighborhood – Polcari’s. We sampled some of the hard-to-find grains the store offers in bulk, and learned about other ingredients. I was hoping I’d smell like coffee and spices when I left, but I think I would have needed to have stayed longer for that.

As R and I continued on, we learned useful details about our new neighborhood – where to get fresh pasta, what to do with fennel, the virtues of tomato paste in a tube, the difference between types of cinnamon, and how to use capers packed in salt (as opposed to the capers packed in water we were used to getting). We also learned about the history of the neighborhood itself – which streets existed early on, and which were a result of infill, what the buildings used to look like, and where people used to go to bathe (which, until 1976, was the communal bath house).

We also learned that, as new residents, we had the right to be boastful. Our neighborhood is the oldest neighborhood in Boston with the first public park in the United States, and the #1 Italian wine shop in the country (which was also the first to receive a liquor license after prohibition had been lifted). Putting aside firsts, we have people who continue to make the neighborhood great by installing public art projects and encouraging business owners and residents to sweep their sidewalks for a few minutes when needed.

I stood at the back of Cirace’s liquor store pondering all of this and sipping at my sample of homemade limoncello. This is a pretty good place to be, and I felt like I had just learned all the secrets that would make living here even better.

If you’re visiting Boston and you like food and (or) history, sign up for a North End Market Tour. Make sure to sign up early, as these tours are small and tend to fill up quickly. This company also offers a tour of Boston’s Chinatown which is on our agenda.


Boston – have you seen this perspective?

R and I are still tourists in our own city, and the best thing to do in this situation might be to hang out (or invite over) other tourists with different perspectives.

Yesterday morning, my sister Maggie and nephew Ian arrived in Boston. Our adventures for the day included riding boats and busses, eating pizza, spotting jellyfish, eating unfathomable amounts of ice cream (as only an aunt could direct), spotting seals, driving Duck Boats, and taking photos. We picked up a disposable camera for Ian, and he was thrilled about taking photos. After a quick lesson on how to operate the camera, he was off to observe what were the most interesting details of the North End, Faneuil Hall, and Financial District. The 27 exposures on the camera lasted a little over one hour, thanks mostly to a break for pizza at Ernesto’s in the North End. After solving for pizza hands, I entrusted my digital camera to Ian, and he continued to observe and click away.

Here are two of my favorite photos so far. I like seeing his perspective which is different (at the very least, from a shorter vantage point) than mine, and I love his enthusiasm about clicking away. Like his aunt, he doesn’t need much encouragement to share his photos.

Man on Salem Street

Ian and downtown Boston

… and one last thing (or ten) about Bangkok

1. People who push the conventional bounds of kindness. People are genuinely nice here.
2. Papaya salad made by street vendors.
3. My new haunts (okay, mostly Cafe Tartine and the croissants they make, which are buttery little works of art)
4. A fantastical introduction to freelance work. So many opportunities have availed themselves, and I’d be a fool not to pursue. More, please.
5. Exploring with R.

1. Other foreigners who walk around pretending like they’re the only ones here.
2. Not being able to play outside.
3. Not being able to drink the water from a faucet without getting sick.
4. The apparent need for extreme refrigeration in the form of air conditioning.
5. Not seeing R as much as I would have liked.

R coming from work.

Next topic: Boston.

Making a run for it…

Thanks to a hastily scheduled interview and a planned weekend adventure in Chiang Mai, a Friday quickly became my last day in Bangkok. On Thursday night I made a list of all the stuff I wanted to do. Most things involved drooling on fabric and buying gifts (mostly for myself). Friday was my day to make a run for it.

STOP ONE: Jim Thompson House. Learning about CIA agent turned silk entrepreneur turned disappearing act was a good use of an hour and 100 Baht (at ~32 Baht to the US dollar). Walking the grounds of his compound, it occurred to me that this must be the nicest bachelor pad ever. I fell in love with his art collection, and gave some thought to hiring ninjas to help appropriate some of my favorite pieces. I enjoyed the docent’s explanations of the quirky things about the house. “See these lamps? What is special about them? They are upside-down drums. How innovative!” I started thinking about how the docent might explain the innovations in my apartment. “See this cereal box? It holds plastic bags so that they can be reused. How innovative! See that milk crate…”

On the grounds of the Jim Thompson House, best bachelor pad ever. To see photos from my last day in BKK, click here.

SECOND STOP: MBK (gargantuan shopping mall) in search of a few “fell off the truck” cosmetics for the Benefit lovers in my family. I wish I could have teleported a beauty expert to my side for that trip, but I was successful in my own, kind of limited way. A delicious plate of papaya salad added to the success.

First and last papaya salad for this trip.

THIRD STOP: Final suit fitting at the Cotton House. I waited for the river shuttle and imagined how sweet it would be to wear my new suit to the interview. I hoped that I’d be lucky enough to be able to take the suit with me. Success. I tried the suit on and it looked great after a few minor adjustments.

River shuttle to the Cotton House.

FOURTH STOP: Beads on Silom Road. Off to find the beads that caught my eye the last time I walked down Silom Road. Yes! I found them. They’re beautiful, polished, spherical agates that look like little globes. Amazing.

To refuel, a McDonald’s vanilla ice cream cone for 7 Baht. Yes, that’s right. This is an awesome and inexpensive way to cool off.

LAST STOP: Foot massage with my friend, Lyle. All in all, a good last day in Bangkok.

I noticed a gradual increase in military presence as I traveled throughout the city that day. Walking home from my foot massage, I came across the strangest thing – karaoke being used to establish military presence. I’ve got a video to share, but am having trouble uploading it on wordpress. Stay tuned.

The evening was no less full of activity. We got together with R’s coworkers for drinks and dinner at our favorite fish place near Lumpini park.

Dinner with R’s coworkers.

R even had a lesson in driving a tuk tuk, and we took one last swim in the hotel pool. Altogether a great last day in Bangkok.

Temples and trails in Chiang Mai

Check out photos of temples here.

On my last weekend in Thailand, R and I traveled to Chiang Mai to explore temples and mountains. The bright and colorful tissue paper flags left over from Songkran festivals floated in a light wind on a sunny day. This was ideal temple exploring weather. In the afternoon, we stumbled on the Monk Chat program where a few monks sat at outdoor tables waiting for visitors to stop by. At first, R and I were planning on passing by the big billboard advertising the Monk Chat program, but in the end we decided to stop in for awhile. The monk with whom we chatted was anxious to practice his English with us, and gladly told us about his studies and daily life.

The next day, we explored Doi Inthanon, the largest mountain in Thailand. Our guides, Suphon and Sam, gave us some great history about the old city of Chiang Mai that is half-buried and in a state of constant excavation and discovery. The temples from the day before were beautiful and ornate, and we could only imagine how grand this old city had been.

As we headed out of town toward Doi Inthanon national park, Suphon suggested we stop at a market. Suphon asked if we had tried durian fruit. When he learned that I had not yet tried it, he informed us that durian was in season and that we should have some. He bought some from a nearby vendor, tore into the air tight plasting wrapping, and we all gave it a try. The taste wasn’t that bad, but the smell was atrocious. Sam insisted we rinse our fingers and drink water before getting back into the car.

Doi Inthanon is 2565 meters high and connects with the Himalayas. The land was made into a national park 37 years ago, and Karen hill tribes still live there. We stopped at Wachirathan waterfall, and had lunch at a place nearby. After lunch, we took a walk through a jungly part of the forest, and then through the hillside. We walked along a beautiful stream that took us through lush green areas and then past hillsides terraced with rice paddies and dotted with water buffalo.

Eventually, we made our way up a hill to a Karen village where a wedding celebration was taking place. The Karen people invited us in, first to share their raw ground water buffalo (which Suphon advised against) and then to share their homemade whiskey (which was declared safe for consumption). The ceremony was underway, and R and I settled back, basked in our luck of good timing, took photos, and observed.

Check out photos from our walk here.

Clashes (and fire) in Bangkok

Photo from Reuters -
Photo from Reuters: “A statue of Buddha and a torn Thai national flag remain in front of Bangkok’s Central World shopping mall, which was gutted by fire after army soldiers advanced towards an encampment of thousands of anti-government “red shirt” protesters, May 19, 2010.”

It’s amazing and sad to think that the streets R and I were wandering not two weeks ago are now taken over by deadly fighting, barbed wire, and burning buildings, tires, and trash. It appears that R’s Bangkok colleagues are smart enough to have gotten out of downtown Bangkok for a few days, and I’m glad for that.

On Wednesday, Thai military troops invaded camps of anti-government red shirt protesters in an effort to disburse the red shirts from key areas in downtown Bangkok. The military bulldozed many of the piles of tires and bamboo sticks that made up the red shirt barricades. The red shirts responded by setting fire to those materials and to nearby banks and shopping malls. My account (from half a world away) doesn’t address any of the live gun and grenade fire that has killed 43 people and hundreds injured so far in this standoff. For more information about that, check out the news sources below, who are following more closely (and are actually in Bangkok).

When we were in Bangkok and watching this conflict grow day by day, I kept an eye on newspapers and CNN but made sure to check the Bangkok twitter feed I created before leaving the house. Then, the information I got from twitter helped me avoid things like traffic snarls. Now, these sources (all of them, but especially twitter) are providing updates by the minute, which seem more real and less biased than the summaries I’ll read this afternoon.

Here are a few sources I’m using to follow what’s going on in Bangkok right now:

Reuters – Live mix of Reuters and twitter feeds
BBC – Live coverage
Bangkok Post – Breaking news ticker
CNN – CNN is incorporating their iReport feed into its coverage
The Nation (in Thailand) – Which seems to be down right now, but may work when you try it
The Guardian

My Bangkok twitter feed – a list made up mostly of journalists and pundits in Bangkok

Koh Kood – a worthy outpost

More photos of Koh Kood here.

Until Friday morning at 6am, I have only a vague idea of where we are going to be spending the next three days. R has been working nonstop during the past week, and has taken a brief break to forward a cryptic itinerary to me. Our travel includes a five hour van ride and a one hour speedboat ride to an island in the Gulf of Thailand. The itinerary outlines the program for a company retreat – presentations will be made and team building activities will be enjoyed. I will be gracefully ducking out of most of this itinerary in order to let R and his team, well, build. This leaves me time to explore the island where we are staying – whose name I’ll soon discover.

During the van ride, I learn a little bit more about where we are headed. Koh Kood is located in a small cluster of islands in the Gulf of Thailand. The island has been featured earlier this year in a New York Times article, “The 31 Places to Go in 2010.” Wow, I’m going to one of those places. Usually, I look at that list every January and debate about whether those places should make my list, too. Honestly, I don’t know if Koh Kood would have made my list. I’m not one for relaxing on a beach, or at least that’s what I had thought prior to arriving here.

We arrive to the resort on Friday a little after noon and I set out to explore our little island as soon as presentations and team building activities commence. The resort and island seem very secluded; I see few signs of other resorts from my (‘my’) stretch of the island. No interference needed – everything we need is right here. The resort has plenty of nooks and shady crannies in which to relax and read, and I immediately find one and curl up with a New Yorker. Occasionally, I look out across the water to another part of the island where shrieks and laughter emanate – R and his colleagues have come to the team building part of the itinerary.

Apart from secluded nooks and crannies with beautiful views of the Gulf of Thailand, the resort also offers abundant spreads of Thai food, cold coconut water in the afternoons, a masseuse, sturdily built huts with leaf-framed water views, and two affable island dogs. The staff are friendly, and juggle fire in the evenings for our entertainment. Orchids and bromeliads hang down from trees to create a lush forest, and geckos chirp at us. This definitely feels like an alternate universe.

One early evening, a thunderstorm drove R and me into our hut to stare at the thatched ceiling, listen to the rain, and talk. Even taking all else into account, I think this is my favorite part of the trip.