An Italian afternoon in Annandale

This past Sunday, I surprised Jeff with a four hour cooking class at Cucina Italiana, where we would learn how to make pasta, risotto, chicken scallopini, and coffee semifreddo.

I’d no idea what the structure of the class would be really, imagining that we might have our own stations and be in charge of whipping up our own three course meals from start to finish. But because ours was quite a sizable class of 18 or so people spread out all over owner Luciana’s kitchen, we really only got our hands dirty making the dough for the pasta, then turning it through the pasta machine to make tagliatelle and ravioli. Luciana demonstrated the techniques and process for the rest of the steps.

While we would have loved to have been more hands-on, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time soaking in Luciana’s tips, tricks, and nuggets about traditional Italian cooking. Her demeanor and humor also reminded us of those nostalgic evenings in Bill St John’s cellar, learning about all things wine.

We got to feast on our creations in Luciana’s long dining room with its elaborate ceiling mouldings. Between the decor, traditional Italian food, and copious amounts of Italian wine, we felt transported back to Italy. What bliss.

Afterwards, we went away with our own pasta maker, and a box of risotto. Monday evening, before our Game of Thrones night with C, we whipped out a batch of dough from Sunday’s class and rolled our some tagliatelle. Yum.

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Exploring the Red Woods in Rotorua

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I last visited Rotorua many, many years ago, and my enduring memories of it was the stench of sulphur when we first stepped off the plane and the Maori living village amidst the thermal springs.

These memories came flooding back to me as we drove into the edge of the city from Waitomo. But we quickly realized there was more – quite a bit more – to Rotorua.

It’s such a beautiful place, and just teeming with all sorts of adventures to be had. We had signed up for what seemed to be a promising evening of kayaking to a hot springs to soak in, followed by a BBQ dinner, then, as the sun dipped below the horizon, a peddle through the canyons that housed millions of glow worms. Alas, it was shoulder season, and the drizzly weather meant that the tour didn’t have the requisite numbers signed up for a go ahead. Instead, we decided to check out the patch of redwoods just a few minutes’ drive from the city centre.

The redwoods, originally from California, were planted in 1901, and they have since thrived. It was a most enchanting experience to skip on the soft bed of fallen needles between these tall and regal trees. As the clouds gradually cleared, golden shafts of light filtered through from above, lending a magical glow to the atmosphere. We wished we could have spent more time in those woods. As it was, we lingered till last light.

Where are you from?

So beautiful. So eloquent. So right:
Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m a local”

What if we asked, instead of “Where are you from?” –“Where are you a local?” This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are. Tell me you’re from France, and I see what, a set of clichés? Adichie’s dangerous single story, the myth of the nation of France?Tell me you’re a local of Fez and Paris, better yet, Goutte d’Or, and I see a set of experiences. Our experience is where we’re from.

The difference between “Where are you from?” and “Where are you a local?” isn’t the specificity of the answer; it’s the intention of the question. Replacing the language of nationality with the language of locality asks us to shift our focus to where real life occurs.

And what are we really seeing when we hear an answer? Here’s one possibility: basically, countries represent power. “Where are you from?” Mexico. Poland. Bangladesh. Less power. America. Germany. Japan. More power. China. Russia. Ambiguous. It’s possible that without realizing it, we’re playing a power game, especially in the context of multi-ethnic countries. As any recent immigrant knows, the question “Where are you from?” or “Where are you really from?” is often code for “Why are you here?”

Perhaps my biggest problem with coming from countries is the myth of going back to them. I’m often asked if I plan to “go back” to Ghana. I go to Accra every year, but I can’t “go back” to Ghana. It’s not because I wasn’t born there.My father can’t go back, either. The country in which he was born, that country no longer exists. We can never go back to a place and find it exactly where we left it.Something, somewhere will always have changed, most of all, ourselves. People.

Comfort food – hot toddy and beef stew noodles

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We’ve both been battling this cold for ten days now. Didn’t help that instead of staying in to rest this weekend, we went for a two hour paddle down in Cronulla. Oh but the water was so clear, and the sky too blue to stay indoors.

Needless to say, by the time we got home, we were both feeling quite out of it. Nothing like some warm comfort food to sooth the throat and stomach though. Hot Toddy with lemon, honey, ginger tea, cut chillies and a generous shot or two of Laphroaig. Beef stew noodles with beef balls.

Ahhh. Well rain in the forecast tomorrow = R&R at home.

A paddle by Tunks Park

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I’ve strolled out to the Waverton Peninsula plenty of times before, but never at sunrise. Finally made it out this morning. It’s been a hazy few days, so the colors seemed kind of washed out. Nonetheless, the weather was mild, the air smelled crisp enough. Perfect morning for a paddle as well.

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Which is what we did. Although we’ve gone out to play kayak netball a few times, it’s been a fair few weeks since we launched our kayaks out for a spin. Went out to Tunks Park in Middle Harbour today. Can’t get over how serene the waterways here is.

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And look, moon jellyfish season! There were thousands and thousands of these cute little buggers at various points along our paddle. Happily, these are the harmless variety.

Easter Weekend in Singapore

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View of home from my brother’s drone

 

On a whim, we bought tickets back to Singapore over Easter. The plan was to surprise my parents. But surprise! They went traveling in Europe instead. ;/

That said, we had a really short but lovely time in Singapore. Hung out with my brother and his fiancé – and I have to say, I’ve not really spent much time with them before. But we had some good times: late night supper of fishball noodles right after we got off the plane; dinner with them and my grandparents on Saturday; we flew my brother’s new drone on Sunday morning, then met up again in the afternoon to visit the National Art Gallery.

It’s always lovely too to catch up with old friends. Though we no longer have the luxury of endless hours to lounge around and laugh over anything and everything, I’m always grateful for the snatches of time afforded.

A week in Hokkaido

This was one of our most spontaneous trips yet. Apart from buying our air tickets, we hadn’t really given the trip much thought. Jeff had booked a week of hotel stay in Sapporo a couple months before, so we would not be scrambling to find a place to stay at, but it was literally only as we headed to the airport that we realized he had also made reservations mid-week at a nearby ski resort in Rusutsu.

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It all worked out in the end though. We managed to shorten our hotel reservations in Sapporo, and spent the couple days in the city wandering around, and mostly stuffing our faces. It may have been the mostly grey skies, but the architecture in Sapporo looks drab and indistinct to us. The super fresh seafood however was such a delight. Our favorite meal of the trip (went again right before we headed back to the airport) was in a little restaurant above the central seafood market North West of the city. There, we feasted on salmon roe so large and juicy that a bite into each burst forth cool savory flavours of the ocean. Uni freshly carved from their spiky shells and so unbelievingly sweet and creamy. Hairy crab cooked in sweet miso broth. Scallop sashimi that melted in our mouths. And sake. Glass after glass of that clear, refreshing off-sweet liquid that cleansed the palate.

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Then there were all the other tantalizing restaurants down the main drag of Susukino, the entertainment centre of the city, the equivalent of Orchard Road in Singapore I suppose, minus the dodgy girly bars. We popped into the narrow Ramen Alley for piping hot broth and chewy noodles three times, stopped by the takopaci stand for a late snack after a filling dinner, and picked up some steamy Chinese buns from a street vendor twice.

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Then it was off to the ski resort. Rusutsu Resort, South West of Hokkaido, doesn’t see as much traffic as Nieseko, which has been described as an Australian enclave, for better or worse. The village of Rusutsu however, is primarily made up of the Rusutsu Resort and the newly rebranded Westin tower, plus a four or five small restaurants set together by the side of the road right outside the main resort area. Besides skiing and eating, there is absolutely nothing else to do.

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Happily for us, that’s what we were there to do. We chose to go in March, which is right at the tail end of the ski season, so conditions were variable. It’d snowed the week before we arrived, and was forecast to snow after we left, but nothing at all the three days we were there. Couldn’t complain though. The temperatures were relatively balmy, about 5 – 8 degrees C, which meant for the most part soft creamy conditions. It felt really good to be back on the slopes again, feeling the burn in our thighs as we cut our way down hill. Missed our usual gang of ski buddies though!

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I’m glad we got three solid days of work out, because otherwise we were literally eating our way through Hokkaido. After leaving Rusutsu, we visited the town of Otaru for a day trip. The highlights of that town are the Russian inspired architecture, and the main historic Street crammed full of seafood restaurants, glass shops, and dessert confectioneries. By gosh, one of my absolute highlights of the entire trip was the camembert cream puffs of Kitakiro Patisserie. Heck, it’s the best cream puff I’ve ever had, and I think my mum’s durian cream puffs are the dream. Just thinking of that hit of gooey camembert mixed in with the smooth egg custard cream just makes my mouth water all over again and my knees go weak. Aaaahhhhhh. It’s utter bliss.

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But yes, for every four shops we walked past in Otaru, we stopped in one for a snack.

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Great trip in all, particularly for one in which we kind of made up as we went along.:)

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Two tales of Les Pêcheurs de Perles

Finally caught the Metropolitan Opera’s Met Live in HD presentation of Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers). More than a month after it was streamed live at the Met, we could catch it at our local cinemas here in Australia.

I think it’s a good thing. For one, that meant that I was able to first enjoy the production at the Sydney Opera House on February 15 without being too prejudiced. For another, TPR was back in town visiting this weekend, and I was able to strongly convince her cast aside her reservations about watching an opera on the big screen and to catch it with me.

It was better than we had anticipated. Way, way, way, way better. I’d enjoyed the presentation at the Sydney Opera House, simply because of the beautiful melodies and the fact that I’d never seen it before. But I’d found the set a bit simple (the backdrop was essentially blank colored canvases depicting the time of day), and the staging a bit problematic (especially the scene where Leila essentially burst in upon Zurga rolling about the ground in agony over his decision to sentence her and his childhood friend Nadir to death). The Sydney Opera cast was competent, but it was tough to beat the dream team cast of Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien.

That cast put on a phenomenal performance, against a sumptuous backdrop of a set designed by Dick Bird and directed by Penny Woolcock. With such brilliant set and video design, and with casts of similarly stellar singers, I can’t imagine the Pearl Fishers to disappear from the Met’s stage for another 100 years. And I CANNOT WAIT to get my hands on the DVD when it is finally released. So good.

Here’s Anthony Tommasini of the NYTIMES review:

Review: A Precious Harvest in ‘The Pearl Fishers’ at the Met
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI JAN. 1, 2016

When word gets around, the sleeper hit of the Metropolitan Opera season could be the new production of Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”) that opened on Thursday night, a New Year’s Eve gala event. When a major house presents a new staging of a repertory staple, like Verdi’s “Otello” or, for that matter, Bizet’s “Carmen,” the creative team is under pressure to come up with something fresh, to make a statement that stands out. With a lesser-known work like “The Pearl Fishers,” generally deemed an appealing but flawed opera (patches of soaring music, a justly famous duet, colorful choral writing, but an uneven score with a stilted libretto), the challenge is different and more liberating: The production must make a case for the overlooked opera, must bring out its riches without refashioning its essence.

The British director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock, working with a dream cast (featuring the soprano Diana Damrau, the tenor Matthew Polenzani and the baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), the great Met chorus and the formidable conductor Gianandrea Noseda, delivers in this sensitive and insightful production, originally created by the English National Opera in London, where it was first presented in 2010. The only previous performances of the opera at the Met were a century ago, in 1916.

Bizet was 25 in 1863 when the manager of the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris offered him a libretto for “The Pearl Fishers,” a makeshift effort with a plot steeped in Orientalist exotica and propped up by a couple of implausible coincidences. Set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka, today) in ancient times, the story tells of the fishermen Nadir and Zurga, who have been friends since childhood. We soon find out that, as young men, they both fell for an unattainable woman, Leila, a priestess of the Hindu god of creation, Brahma. Rather than compete for her, they pledged to forget her and affirm their lasting friendship. When the opera opens, years have gone by. Nadir arrives unexpectedly, to the delight of Zurga.

In a bold stroke, Ms. Woolcock, who made her Met debut in 2008 directing John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic,” opens this production by bringing the title of the opera to life with theatrical magic that transforms the stage into a murky expanse beneath the sea. Behind a scrim with video projections (by 59 Productions) and lighting effects (by Jen Schriever), three actors dangling from unseen wires (costumed by Kevin Pollard as traditional pearl fishers), swim and dart about in the waters searching for oysters in the sea bed.

Ms. Woolcock’s updating of “The Pearl Fishers” works beautifully. She places the story in an unspecified Asian locale during modern times. When the scrim lifts, we see a coastal shantytown with multilevel, rickety wood platforms and a low dock with lapping water at the shoreline. (Dick Bird designed the sets.) The choristers portray the villagers, wearing a mix of traditional and modern clothing, some in saris and sandals, some in trousers and T-shirts, all in shades of earth and rust. There are people reading newspapers or fiddling with electric lights. But others are occupied with activities that have gone on unchanged for centuries: Women weave flowers into garlands; men burn incense; fishermen mend their nets. This could be a village in Bangladesh or Indonesia today.

In Ms. Woolcock’s reading of the opera, the sea is a major character. Though the fishermen depend upon it for their livelihoods, they fall victim to its power. In the opening chorus, the people voice their fears of the sea while singing rituals to chase away evil spirits. A priestess comes among them to pray for good fortune. That young woman is (you guessed it) Leila.

Zurga prods his townspeople into urgent business: A new village headman must be chosen. Mr. Kwiecien is an ideal Zurga. Singing with burnished sound and lyrical richness, he looks like a natural leader, handsome, confident and something of an operator. Many people hold up ready-made photos of Zurga, which suggests a stealth campaign has been underway. Chosen by acclamation, Zurga makes clear what this means in a few phrases Mr. Kwiecien delivers with cagey intensity. “So, you are giving me complete authority?” he asks. Yes, the villagers assure him.

Mr. Polenzani makes a poignantly believable Nadir, who arrives soon after the election of his old friend. Nadir has secretly followed Leila to the village. First, though, he reunites with Zurga during the great duet of friendship, “Au fond du temple saint.”

In this piece, the men reaffirm their promise to avoid Leila. To young men like Nadir and Zurga, a bond of friendship would have been a life-defining attachment. Yet, from the way this well-known duet is staged here, the strains of such a pledge are made apparent.

At first the men sing from separate sides of the stage, each lost in memories of the alluring Leila. But as they turn toward each other, they join together. Their ardent, soaring performance, supported by the glowing playing Mr. Noseda drew from the orchestra, brought fresh urgency to the familiar music.

A scene from “The Pearl Fishers.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Later in this act, when Nadir is alone, he confronts the truth in the enraptured aria “Je crois entendre encore.” Despite his pledge, Nadir did for a time have an illicit romance with Leila; he still yearns for her. Mr. Polenzani sang this haunting aria of remembrance with wondrous lyrical tenderness while conveying the music’s gently swaying gait. And if you think it’s impossible for a tenor to cap phrases of a dreamy aria with melting, pianissimo high notes, report to the Met to hear Mr. Polenzani demonstrate how this is done superlatively.

Ms. Damrau brings brilliant coloratura agility, radiant sound and charisma galore to the role of Leila. Her intensity comes with risks, since Leila is a virgin priestess who must keep her vows on pain of death, an edict enforced by the high priest Nourabad (Nicolas Testé, a fine bass-baritone), who accompanies her. In Act II, when Leila and Nadir, having reunited, sing an impassioned, fraught duet, Ms. Damrau’s body twitches with spasms as her character’s suppressed longings burst out. At times her gestures were a little histrionic. Still, Ms. Woolcock makes explicit what’s taking place by having Nadir unwrap the layers of saris and skirts that Leila wears. And Ms. Damrau sang dazzlingly.

The lovers are discovered and condemned to death. At the end of the act, a violent storm breaks out, sending the villagers into peals of anguished singing. Video images suggest a tsunami-like deluge, a vivid reminder of the 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that caused tens of thousands of deaths in, among other countries, Sri Lanka.

In Act III, Zurga, who has the authority to stop the death sentence, confronts his conflicted feelings in an intense aria that provides Mr. Kwiecien one of his finest moments at the Met to date. Drenched by the storm, Zurga hides out in his office with reams of documents stacked up along an entire wall. He grabs a beer from a refrigerator and broods as he realizes that neither Nadir nor Leila truly love him. That’s what he craves from both.

Mr. Noseda conducts this often-criticized score as if every moment of the music matters deeply. The production, using a scholarly edition, hews to the original ending. After Zurga distracts the avenging villagers by setting their houses afire, he allows Leila and Nadir to flee. Alone, he awaits his fate — his people will soon realize what he has done. Bizet was not convinced that this ending was effective. If only he could have seen this production.

Sunrise paddle with Chris

Chris and I tried bringing our own kayaks out last Friday. But even as we were building the kayaks, we could hear the wind howling and gusting about us. We decided to give it a shot anyway, and launched the kayaks in the jetty.

But boy oh boy, even though the waves weren’t that big, the winds were some of the strongest I’d experienced on the water yet. After a half hour of just battling to get out of the cove we were in, I decided it might be more prudent to call it quits.

Happily, Chris had so much fun exploring the city, she extended her stay in Sydney by a few days, so we were able to try catching the sun rise over the Opera House again this morning, this time with Laura’s Sydney by Kayak outfit.

Excellent conditions this morning.😀 Haha and Chris sure got her fill of the view of Sydney Harbor Bridge, given that we were just at Lavender Bay a mere 12 hours before too, playing kayak netball.

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