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East Asian Immersion: Beijing part II


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On Saturday morning we visited the tiny market in front of our apartment building. In China things get going pretty early, so it was remarkable that the last two mornings we had left the house before the market opened. Despite the small size we were able to put together a good breakfast of bread, bananas, tomatoes, and cucumbers. It was also my first time since we arrived that I saw our lovely apartment building by the light of day.
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We had two more markets to see that morning, both in the far north of Beijing outside of the fifth ring road. This is the outermost of the four concentric main roads that surround the center of Beijing (the original first ring road has been consumed by redevelopment). Although we weren't staying in a touristy area, here we might as well have been in China a century ago in terms of how many Westerners were present. Even so far from the center it was amazing how many enormous complexes of towering apartment buildings were present. I calculated that each building could hold close to a thousand people, and they often appeared in groups of ten or more. It seemed I could see enough housing for a hundred thousand people just from where I was standing, and I wondered how Beijing could be populated by only ten million people if the outskirts of the city were this densely populated.
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The Beiyuan market wasn't particularly remarkable, given that it was already the fifth market we had visited in Beijing. Even so, the sights and sounds and smells of a produce market are a great way to begin a day of travel. We also got to watch the process of making green onion pancakes at a popular food stall in the market.
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Taxis were hard to come by at Beiyuan market but we did come across a lady with a three-wheeled vehicle. Our next destination wasn't terribly far away so all five of us squeezed in and held on for dear life as the rickety transport careened through the busy avenues. The driver abruptly stopped well short of our destination, claiming she wasn't allowed to cross the bridge ahead. Mei Ling argued and docked the fare, but we had no choice but to cross the Lishui Bridge over the Qinghe River on foot. I put Spenser on my back for the long walk to Lishuiqiao seafood market, but the older kids weren't too happy about the trek.

Fortunately the seafood market was a good experience, thanks to a restaurant right next to the tanks that specialized in cooking their customers' fresh purchases. One of our favorite things about China is that in the markets we aren't limited to looking at the food and thinking how great it would taste on the plate. Most of the time we can buy what interests us the most and find someone to cook it for us. We bought clams and crabs and had our best meal in China up to that point.
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In the afternoon we met up with Cleo's online music teacher near our Airbnb. Cleo has been taking lessons for several months on Skype with an instructor who lives in Beijing, and she was very excited to meet him in person. Our destination was Ghost Street, one of Beijing's most famous food streets which was just a five minute walk from our Airbnb. Despite the spooky name, there's nothing scary about Ghost Street unless the sight of enormous piles of crawfish fills you with trepidation. Many of the restaurants are open 24 hours and display a festive mix of neon and traditional Chinese ornamentation.
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From Ghost Street we took a detour down an interesting alley and found ourselves in an area of peaceful hutongs and siheyuan walled courtyards. This style of housing was typical of Chinese cities for thousands of years but has been in drastic decline since the Communist revolution in the mid 20th century. Only recently has the government taken an interest in preserving the remaining courtyards. We were fortunate to stumble across one with open doors and were greeted cordially by one of the residents, who turned out to be the owner of the courtyard. The owner told Mei Ling the value of the property was a billion yuan, or about 140 million US dollars. I had some trouble believing that this pleasant but fairly plain courtyard on the ground level close to a busy commercial area could command a higher price than the most desirable New York City skyscraper penthouses, but Mei Ling insisted that the real estate market in Beijing had indeed ascended to such lofty levels.
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Dinner was most memorable for some of the interesting translations on the English version of the menu. I didn't have the courage to try either of these dishes.
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Afterwards we took the metro to another food street called Niujie, which proved to be a disappointment. Once again this was just a street with several restaurants, rather than actual street food. Many of the restaurants were closed, and a local advised us that this was more of a day time experience. Niujie is known for Uighur Muslim specialties, which usually means lamb skewers. Indeed, the large restaurant we eventually ate at offered a proliferation of skewers. I'm not particularly a fan of the lamb used to make these, which generally consists of tiny scraps of fatty and gristly meat. Furthermore, skewers have become so popular around Beijing that it's easy to find them anywhere so the long trek to Niujie had largely been a waste of time.

On the last morning of our first stay in Beijing we met up with another of Mei Ling's friends at a mall in the eastern suburb of Tong Zhou. It was a fairly typical mall except for the workers making sweet cakes inside a Plexiglas enclosure. We let the kids entertain themselves in the play zone while we explored the mall. Afterwards we had lunch at a restaurant where the kids could pull their own noodles from strips of dough and cook them in the hot pot.
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After a few hours more of letting our kids and Mei Ling's friend's kids play together at her apartment, we took a long metro ride back to the center of Beijing. The kids hadn't slept and both Spenser and Ian conked out on the first train. I was able to carry Spenser in the mei tai but Mei Ling had to carry Ian in her arms through two metro changes which was very painful. At least it was the final aftereffect of the jetlag that we had to deal with on the trip. We eventually surfaced in central Beijing adjacent to Beihai Park, one of the places I had enjoyed most in my previous visit to Beijing. Unfortunately once we arrived the sun was setting rapidly and it was clear we weren't going to be able to enjoy the park. The lakes north of Beihai Park and the surrounding neighborhoods are known as Shichahai, an area filled with restaurants and nightlife. We walked along the west side of Qianhai Lake, looking for a restaurant with an appetizing menu and a view of the lake. We didn't find what we were looking for by the water, but the brightly lit restaurants and their lakeside reflections were beautiful. We came across a street vendor who was making candy animals out of blown sugar and he let the kids help construct their own purchases.

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We walked as far as the bridge that crosses the narrow strait where Qianhai Lake joins Houhai Lake. On the eastern bank of the lake we finally found a place to eat and then loaded our exhausted family into a taxi for our last night in Dongzhimen. In the morning we caught the Airport Express from Dongzhimen which took us right to our departure terminal. We got a great spot in the front with a view of the track ahead. It was almost like riding through a forest except for the high-rises behind the trees. Our departure from Beijing was uneventful except for the unfortunate restroom signage at our gate.

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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:21 Archived in China Tagged travel china blog tony beihai_park shichahai friedman beiyuan lishuiqiao guijie niujie Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part I


View China/Japan 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Every country we visit has its own unique attributes that make it virtually impossible to say that any one is intrinsically better than all the others. However, there's one country we have a special relationship with because it's Mei Ling's birthplace and the place she lived until her early twenties. Traveling to China is like going back home for her and has begun to feel that way for me as well. There's no other country where we can communicate and interact with the local population and integrate into the native culture as easily as we can in China. China is also the country most like the United States in terms of size and diversity, perhaps even more so. China's regions and large cities each have their own individual qualities that make every visit different. This was my ninth visit to China and I've realized that I would probably need fifty trips to begin to feel like I'd seen everything a traveler needed to in the country. For these reasons Mei Ling and I are on the same page when it comes to China - the only thing that stops us from going more is the number of other places we still haven't visited at all.

Mei Ling and I have traveled together to her hometown region of Heilongjiang and to Shanghai several times as well as Guangdong province. However, while I've visited Beijing on my own before and Mei Ling lived there for two years, we've never experienced that amazing and crucially important city together. That made it a natural choice for the location to base ourselves in for this six week exploration of the central eastern coastal area of China and the Kansai region of Japan. We decided that to reduce the stress of migrating around with all our belongings and three small kids to manage, we would base ourselves in Beijing and take a three shorter trips to different areas of interest. We changed our plans somewhat along the way in order to see more cities and spend less time sweltering in a Beijing heat wave.
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The worst thing about the flight from the US to Beijing was that there weren't any good red eye options so the kids were awake most of the way. That meant incessant requests of assistance with headphones, changing movies, drinks and snacks, and bathroom trips. Normally even though I almost never sleep on flights I get at least a couple of hours of being zoned out but that wasn't the case this time. When we finally arrived in Beijing in the early afternoon my brain felt like it had been pickled in brine, and it was another two hours before we finally arrived at our Airbnb. The Airbnb was a basic apartment on the 13th floor of a nondescript apartment building in the Dongzhimen area of central Beijing, not far from the Sanlitun embassy area popular with expats.
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It was still afternoon and going to sleep right away would have been a disaster with respect to getting on the right day/night schedule. Instead we took a five minute walk to a busy restaurant block where we had a huge hotpot meal. This was enough of an accomplishment that we didn't feel we had wasted the day completely and burned a couple of hours. At home we wearily unpacked and crashed into bed around seven.
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I have no doubt that I would have slept through until morning and been perfectly on schedule by day two. I was in the Marianas Trench of deep sleep when forty pounds of affection dropped onto my back. I probably would have had a heart attack if it hadn't happened countless times before. Cleo had woken up and decided she wanted to cuddle. I grasped as tightly as I could to whatever wisps of slumber hadn't floated away and prayed that she would fall back asleep, but within a minute a full-blown wrestling match was taking place on my back. Ian had woken up as well and was trying to share the real estate. After a few minutes of this I knew they were awake for real and my only chance at peace was the iPads. My phone informed me it wasn't even one in the morning. I tossed them their tablets and spent the next couple of hours in a semi-conscious fugue state trying to block out the alternating giggling and squabbling from the other half of the bed. At one point, Mei Ling opened our door and tossed in Spenser who was similarly wide awake and I gave up my attempts to catch up on REM. It's funny how all our kids of different ages, all sleeping different amounts on the plane, all woke up at the same excruciating moment in the middle of the night while the adults were on their way to complete recovery.
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In the end it worked out fine because China starts at five in the morning and we were ready for it bright and early. Our first stop was Chaowai morning market in the central neighborhood of Chaoyang, a short cab ride from our Airbnb. Within seconds of entering the market we were reminded of why the brutal flight and all the other inconveniences of traveling to China are more than worthwhile. The very first stall had an enormous heap of yang mei, one of my favorite fruits which is virtually unobtainable outside of China. Most Westerners are completely unfamiliar with it and the fruit doesn't even have a generally accepted English name, although it is sometimes called Chinese bayberry or yumberry. It is about the size of a small plum with a pit in the middle, but otherwise it is completely unlike any other fruit in taste and texture. The surface is rough and a little rubbery, kind of like a Koosh ball. The meat varies from sour to sweet depending on the ripeness of the fruit and possesses a faint fermented taste which strengthens as the fruit ripens. One of the reasons that yang mei is rarely exported is its extreme perishability. The fermented taste of the fruit becomes stronger over the course of the day after it is bought, and that process is accelerated dramatically if it is handled roughly. Just putting a bag of yang mei down on a table is enough to bruise the fruit. That's usually not a problem as I would have a hard time letting yang mei get through a day without being eaten. It was gratifying to see our kids all enjoyed the yang mei as much as I did, although Cleo seemed to be the one with the most passion for them.
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After buying our yang mei we slowly perused the rest of the market, which was dominated by fruits and vegetables. We also bought some amazingly huge and sweet mulberries which stained all our fingers purple. At the back of the market we found the food court where savory tripe and noodle soups were being served at very basic stalls. We all ate ravenously in this most local and authentic of all the places we could have chosen for breakfast.
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We took another cab to Shengfu Xiaoguan Market, a more upscale but no less authentic produce market to the northeast of our Airbnb. This market was inside an enormous warehouse and had a large meat and seafood area as well as fruits and vegetables. Here we bought cherries and several varieties of grapes, some of them as large and shiny as plums. I took the kids by the seafood stalls where live shrimp would frantically launch themselves out of their bins onto the floor of the market. We would probably have hunted for another food court but I could tell the kids were starting to sag. Cabs were completely unavailable at this point due to the morning rush hour but we were able to figure out which bus would get us close to our Airbnb. All three kids were asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillows. It was still just nine in the morning.
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We let the kids sleep until late afternoon while we worked on logistics, which was probably a mistake. We went straight from the Airbnb to dinner in Sanlitun, which has historically been a popular locale for Western expats. I had been in Sanlitun on my previous visit to Beijing in 2008 and I didn't recognize the environs at all. Previously it had been a collection of high end bars and clubs mixed with numerous less salutary establishments, but now the area was filled with skyscrapers and high end malls. Mei Ling had found a promotion for a seafood restaurant which allowed us to feast on an enormous platter of fruit and shellfish for a surprisingly affordable price. Afterwards we followed a narrow waterfall down the center of a staircase which turned into a stream that coursed along the lower level of the outdoor mall. Despite the late hour we could see a lot of people sweating furiously in a high impact aerobics studio with glass walls. Those less fitness-inclined had a wide selection of restaurants and cafes they could patronize. I realized that a lot had changed in Beijing in just a short time, and Mei Ling confirmed that the government was actively modernizing and gentrifying the larger cities. Cleaning out the cheap entertainment and the street markets was one prong of a larger effort to reduce the migration of Chinese from rural areas to the major cities, which were becoming unsustainably overpopulated. While there were certainly benefits to this approach, we would find that some of the changes were destroying what made Beijing so unique and interesting. The new Sanlitun was certainly a pleasant place to eat and shop, but it was now much like any high end shopping neighborhood in Korea or Taiwan.
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The kids hadn't make much progress on their jetlag, thanks to sleeping most of the previous day, so we had another early arousal the following morning. That allowed us to hit two more morning markets. Xinmin vegetable market is located just north of the second ring road, adjacent to one of Beijing's many canals. I'm always amazed by the sheer size of the stacks of fruits and vegetables in Chinese markets. The kids had fun getting splashed by the frantic carp in the live fish tanks.
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Back near Dongzhimen, Sanyuanli Market has a reputation for produce that is so high in quality that restaurant chefs shop there. We didn't have the facilities or the energy to cook our own meals at home, but we saw some of the most beautiful and colorful seafood that we've ever come across in a market.
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In the afternoon some local friends of Mei Ling's Chinese friends in Miami took us out to a Beijing duck restaurant near the historic center of the city. Apparently it was a very famous restaurant but I was so exhausted from dealing with the kids since three in the morning that I can barely remember the meal. Fortunately it seems I took a couple of pictures.
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After a long afternoon nap it was time to go out on the town again. Beijing may have lost their street markets, but they still have several somewhat pedestrianized areas that they call food streets. Nanluoguxiang is a narrow road in an area of the city center which has preserved its old-fashioned character. Most of these small streets, or hutongs, have disappeared during the modernization of Beijing and the remaining ones have subsequently become something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Nanluoguxiang has been developed into a combined shopping street and food street, but the street food was limited to a couple of stinky tofu and skewer vendors. Most of the shops lining the streets were selling souvenirs, clothes, and contemporary fast food. The scene definitely didn't lessen my nostalgia for the clamorous Beijing street markets that had all disappeared.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:55 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony sanlitun friedman dongzhimen nanluoguxiang sanyuanli Comments (0)

Cajun Circuit: New Orleans part II


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When we travel to larger American cities, we're always keen to check out their farmers market game. So far the best we've encountered have been in Portland, Oregon and in Los Angeles. On Saturday morning we headed to the Crescent City Farmers Market, which operates in different parts of the city on different days of the week. Saturday's edition was held in a parking lot in the Central Business District, not far from the Auction House Market where we'd had brunch the previous day. The vibe was good and we picked up a basket of plump strawberries, but we were a little disappointed at the size of the market and the lack of unusual products. We might have been better off at the market across the river in Gretna, but we only had time for one that morning.
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Our final food hall was also in the Central Business District. Pythian Market opened in the ground floor of the historic Pythian Building in 2018. The food selection was diverse with a number of traditional New Orleans outlets as well as cuisine from far-flung locations. We focused on the Colombian and Vietnamese kiosks and ate quite well. There was a jazz trio livening up the atmosphere in front of an incongruous Christmas tree with Mardi Gras decorations.
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I'd found a couple of special events in New Orleans that weekend. On the last Saturday of every month, the New Orleans Arts Market is held in Palmer Park in the western part of the city. This turned out to be an impressively large exhibition of artwork, photography and crafts close to the park's playground, which gave us an opportunity to peruse some of the stalls more intently without having to constantly make sure the kids weren't about to knock over the displays. We saw a lot of original and creative work in a pleasant outdoor environment.
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Our next event was the Congo Square Rhythms Festival in Louis Armstrong Park just north of the French Quarter. This annual celebration of African and soul music takes place in the part of the park that was a traditional meeting place for slaves and free blacks in the 19th century. It's a beautiful park with duck ponds and fountains that shoot water straight up into the air. Around the stage numerous kiosks were set up to sell clothes and crafts along with refreshments.
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After the festival we got back in the car and drove around the French Quarter, admiring the wrought-iron balconies and colorful shutters of the many Creole townhouses in the neighborhood. As we grew closer to the river, the traffic became more congested and we realized we had reached the inland side of Jackson Square. We had done pretty well avoiding the touristy aspects of New Orleans so far but there's no other spot as emblematic of the city and the energy felt good, so we found a rather miraculous parking spot and ventured forth on foot. It seemed like at least half the people visiting the city must have been crammed into the few blocks around Jackson Square. The crowds were dense and the smell from the carriage horses was overwhelming, but it was all worth it once we got a view of the immaculate St. Louis Cathedral. In the grassy square in front of the cathedral is the iconic bronze statue of Andrew Jackson on his rearing horse and some beautiful multi-trunked Mediterranean fan palms.
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On the pedestrian street between the cathedral and the park were an array of artists, caricaturists, and fortune tellers. A crowd was gathered around a breakdancing crew and we watched them joke around and perform athletic feats for a while.

That evening we ate at Restaurant Rebirth in the Warehouse District. It was a little more interesting than GW Fins had been the previous night but still unfortunately not the awesome dining experience we had hoped for. It was surprising we hadn't done so well with the restaurants as on our last trip to New Orleans in 2011 we'd had four amazing dinners in four nights. In a way, that was our first family trip ever as Mei Ling was unknowingly almost a month pregnant with Cleo. As the pictures show, a lot has changed since then. Three kids, about twenty-five amazing trips, and much better iPhone cameras. It had been great to return to New Orleans and relive those amazing memories from when we were still a young freewheeling couple with the world at our doorstep, but there's no way on Earth I would trade it for what we have now.

2019

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2011

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On our last morning we all woke up shivering. I thought someone had turned on the AC in the middle of the night, but when I looked outside the skies were grey and a steady drizzle was pattering against the windows. Outside, we realized the temperature had plunged into the 50's from the high 70's the previous day. This didn't trouble us one bit since our only remaining task was to get to the airport and get on our plane back to Miami. I couldn't help but feel a bit of traveler's schadenfreude knowing that if the weather had gone sour a day earlier our visit to New Orleans would have been ruined. We'd gambled on cutting this segment back to two days in order to see Mississippi and we'd gotten lucky. Any residual grudge I had against the gods of travel over the episode with Spenser was now forgiven.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:14 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Cajun Circuit: New Orleans part I


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The drive from Jackson to New Orleans was the most boring episode of the trip. We cruised the whole way down the interstate without making a single stop. I'd already canceled that night's dinner reservation, which was kind of a bummer. I'd eaten with my parents at Upperline the year it opened in 1984 and I was looking forward to having another meal there thirty-four years later, but it wasn't going to happen. Once we got to New Orleans we had to focus on getting Spenser's prescriptions filled, and we were still too rattled from his health scare to enjoy an upscale dinner anyway.

Things started looking up once we reached the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. The 24 mile-long structure is the longest continuous bridge over water in the world, and driving across it literally felt like driving over an ocean. For most of the length of the bridge there was no land whatsoever in sight except for the bridge itself. Towards the southern end of the causeway, the New Orleans skyline came into view and we had great views of the shoreline when the road rose upwards at the crossovers.

Our Airbnb in the downscale Gentilly neighborhood, well north of the French Quarter, was our only disappointment of the trip in terms of accommodation. It was a shotgun style house that was cramped and completely devoid of character both outside and in. We did save a lot of money staying there as Airbnb's were brutally expensive in New Orleans, but if I had to do it over again I probably would have spent a little more.
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Filling Spenser's prescriptions turned out to be quite a saga as well. Once I sorted through the papers they had given Mei Ling at discharge, I discovered that they had never given her the actual prescriptions although there was a list of the medicines in the discharge instructions. I took everything to CVS and although they didn't accept the discharge paperwork in lieu of the prescriptions, they did allow me to write new prescriptions even though I'm only licensed in Florida. They didn't have the steroid inhaler so they called it in to another CVS which I then had to drive to. That inhaler turned out to cost $200, which of course was an out of pocket expense since we have a high deductible. Once I got back home I discovered that the steroid dose actually had to be sucked out of the inhaler, which Spenser couldn't understand. He kept trying to blow into it. When I looked up the medicine online, I found the minimum age for it was six. Why would an experienced pediatrician at a children's hospital prescribe a brutally expensive medicine for a kid who was too young to use it? As a doctor, I knew the answer was that we make mistakes like this all the time. Some of us try and check ourselves and keep up to date on new developments in our fields, and some of us just embrace mediocrity. I resolved to keep this episode in mind any time I prescribed a medication that I wasn't intimately familiar with. The $200 inhaler turned out to be an expensive paperweight.

At least canceling our dinner reservation meant we could visit another food hall. New Orleans now has three of them, and the closest one to our Airbnb was the most historic. St. Roch Market has existed in the same location just north of the Marigny area since 1875. The most recent renovation came in 2014, a decade after it was gutted following damage from Hurricane Katrina. The St. Roch Market was also the inspiration behind a namesake food hall from the same developers in our home city of Miami.

We arrived more than a half hour before the 10 PM closing time, but the only patrons left were at the Mayhaw cocktail bar and most of the restaurants looked to be on the verge of shutting down. We were just in time to wangle a few dishes out of the open kiosks and had an eclectic dinner of ceviche, gyros, and grilled fish. Overall we were somewhat underwhelmed but we had to give St. Roch a pass since we'd arrived so late. Next time in New Orleans we'll have to go during peak dining hours.
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Friday morning we had breakfast at Auction House Market, in the Warehouse District. This food hall had a high-energy vibe largely due to the early lunchtime crowds. There were Asian and Latin options along with the ubiquitous Cajun and coastal offerings. In the center of the market was a huge marble bar underneath an expansive skylight. Hanging from the ceiling under the skylight was an array of glass shelves filled with beautiful green vines and house plants. It was an amazing look that we took careful note of for the new house we'll be moving into in May.
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Mardi Gras World on the banks of the Mississippi is the warehouse and workshop of Kern Studios, one of the pre-eminent designers and builders of Mardi Gras floats for almost a hundred years. The Kern family opened Mardi Gras World thirty-five years ago to allow visitors to observe the process of float construction year-round. It's expensive and touristy, but it's pretty much the only way to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans outside of the week that the wild celebration takes place. There wasn't much going on in the way of construction when we were there, but the kids were impressed by the colorful and remarkably lifelike styrofoam figures. Much of the styrofoam carving is now completed by an enormous robot working off a computerized template. Behind the studio is a patio that overlooks the Mississippi and the Crescent City Connection bridge to the West Bank.
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We remembered New Orleans' residential charm from our last visit seven years previously so we took a drive around the Garden District, upriver from the French Quarter and the city center. Soon enough Mei Ling's sharp eye spotted a crawfish truck that was in a symbiotic relationship with a local beer joint. The boys were sleeping by this point and I felt I'd had enough crawfish for a year, so Mei Ling and Cleo had a girls' lunch while we stayed in the car.
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Once the boys woke up we joined them and got a closer look at the crawfish operation, which consisted of two guys engaged in a continuous cycle of unloading, uncrating, spicing, shaking, and boiling crustaceans. They seemed to be enjoying themselves but I didn't envy them their backbreaking job.
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The immediate vicinity seemed particularly inviting so we took a stroll around a couple of blocks, admiring the colorful paint schemes and wrought-iron balconies of the neighborhood mansions. By then it was already time to return to the Airbnb and drop Spenser off with his Grandma. It was time to experience one of New Orleans' ultimate pleasures, a gourmet restaurant.
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Choosing just two or three restaurants out of the myriad of options that New Orleans provides is a daunting task. There's simply no way to do justice to one of the most renowned culinary cities in the United States in such a short period of time. I had pored over various lists and reviews and eventually selected GW Fins and Restaurant Rebirth, along with the aforementioned Upperline. GW Fins has been a fixture in the French Quarter since 2001 and has earned a reputation as possibly New Orleans' top spot for fresh and innovative seafood dishes. The traffic was gnarly on a Friday night and we needed every minute of the extra time we'd allotted ourselves to arrive on time for our reservation.

Despite our eager anticipation, dinner was anticlimactic. We scratched our heads when we perused the entrees. The choices were an array of the most typical fish one might see on a menu at any seafood restaurant in the country. Tuna, halibut, swordfish, snapper. The preparation and sides seemed fairly mundane as well. We ordered the one unusual fish we saw, sheepshead, despite misgivings about a parmesan crust and ultimately found our misgivings to be justified. In the end the meal wasn't bad, but I'm pretty sure we hadn't been served anywhere near the best food New Orleans had to offer. The brightest light was the Chocolate Mousse Bombe we had for dessert.
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We hadn't planned on visiting Bourbon Street, but as we stepped out of the restaurant we found the weekend procession in full swing. Although Mardi Gras only lasts a couple of weeks each year, the game of tossing beads from balconies in return for the flashing of breasts persists to some degree year-round. The kids thankfully focused on the bead-tossing and were completely oblivious to the flashing. They caught a few small chains and couldn't understand why the men on the balconies wouldn't throw them the big beads. I tried to explain to Cleo that it would be a few years before she would be able to earn those. The kids had a blast walking up and down the street and interacting with various hawkers and street performers. Dressed up as they were for our dinner out, they added a little color to the Bourbon Street scene themselves.

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Posted by zzlangerhans 19:16 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Cajun Circuit: Mississippi


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Mississippi route

If you ask most Americans, especially those from large cities, what they know about Mississippi you would probably hear a lot of unfortunate misconceptions about poverty, lack of education, and racism. As is so often true when traveling in places that carry that kind of baggage, none of those qualities were apparent to us during our two days in the state. What we saw was a great deal of natural beauty, harmonious living, and people who were as kind and friendly as anyone else we've encountered on our travels around the world.

Natchez is a small town in the southwestern corner of Mississippi that hugs the outside of a curve of the mighty Mississippi River. As we drove into town we were welcomed by a shack offering bags of cracklins, deep fried strips of pig skin. They seemed fairly expensive at six bucks for a small bag but it was a good chance to compare the Southern version of the delicacy with the Cuban variety we're accustomed to at home in Miami. They were crunchy and tasty, and much greasier than the kind you might find in a snack food bag. We started out thinking we would eat the whole bag and then put it in the glove compartment before it was halfway empty.
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Our Airbnb in Natchez was a sprawling house with a seemingly endless selection of bedrooms. In the back was a brick patio and a garden with a whimsical array of lawn furniture and pottery. A large stack of firewood and a tapestry of wisteria consummated the rustic atmosphere.
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Dinner was at a cavernous family restaurant on the highway outside of town. The absence of boiled crawfish on the menu confirmed that we had left Cajun country behind us. We still had oysters on the half shell, but by now we were a little tired of sacrificing brininess for size and texture.
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Aside from being an attractive Southern town, Natchez doesn't have a lot of specific attractions. We parked close to the river and found that the town was perched on a steep embankment. There were some buildings on the Louisiana side of the river across from us but nothing at all on our side. We didn't get the feeling that we were looking at the longest and most historic river in North America.
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On the periphery of Natchez is the site of Longwood, a 19th century mansion whose construction was halted abruptly by the outbreak of the Civil War. Its owner died several years later and the upper floors were never completed. The mansion is notable for its unusual octagonal shape and brick-red cupola, features of the Moorish Revival architectural style that was popular at the time. We'd only planned on looking at the building from the outside, but the current operators have craftily set up an admission booth at the beginning of the road that leads to the estate. Once we'd paid the hefty admission price, we decided we might as well take the tour which proved to be exceptionally dry. The kids barely lasted ten minutes and I was glad for the excuse to take them out into the fresh air. Mei Ling was determined to get her money's worth and pressed on to the unfinished main floor upstairs.
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By this point we had gone more than twenty-four hours without boiled crawfish and we were starting to miss the little mudbugs. An online search indicated they could be found across the bridge from Natchez in the tiny Louisiana town of Vidalia. We ended up at a shack on the side of the highway that had about as little atmosphere as any place I've ever eaten at. The crawfish boil was especially salty and the bugs were much smaller than they had been in Cajun country. Getting through the dozens of small, hard shells cut my fingertips repeatedly and the brine worked its way into the wounds mercilessly. That five pound portion cured me of my cravings for crawfish for the rest of the trip. Behind the shack a new shipment was being unloaded in huge plastic net sacks and the kids got a close-up look at the operation.
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The Vidalia side of the river was more satisfying experience than we'd had in Natchez. The kids were able to get right to the shoreline and dip their hands in the water as I explained the critical role the Mississippi played in the growth of our country. Just downstream were the gleaming steel trusses of the twin Natchez-Vidalia bridges.
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On the way out of Natchez we stopped at the Old South Winery to try some muscadine wines. Muscadines are a thick-skinned variety of grape that grow across the southeastern United States, and can be bronze or dark purple when ripe. Both varieties can be used to make sweet wine. We tasted each variety and bought a couple of bottles of the Natchez Rouge, a full-bodied specimen with medium sweetness. Sadly, both bottles had disappeared from the trunk by the end of the trip. Had we accidentally offloaded them into an Airbnb and forgotten them? Or did I somehow confabulate the memory of putting them in the trunk in the first place? We'll never get to enjoy muscadine wine from Mississippi now, as the winery isn't permitted to ship to Florida.
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En route to Jackson we passed up the highway in favor of the Natchez Trace Parkway. The route closely follows the historic Natchez Trace, which was originally forged by bison traveling north in search of salt licks. Native Americans expanded and marked the trail following which it came into use by European-American traders and migrants. The Parkway was more attractive than the highway thanks to the lack of vehicles and proximity of the trees but otherwise the section we traveled on was nondescript. We passed several of the well-known stopping points on the Parkway but everyone was sleeping by this point and none of the sights seemed compelling enough to disturb the peace.

The Airbnb in Jackson was another winner with multiple bedrooms and a pleasant character. One thing about traveling in rural America is that there's no shortage of great family-size Airbnb's. Dinner was an easy choice as Jackson had its very own brand new food hall, and we never pass up a food hall. Cultivation Food Hall still looked as though it had just opened and it was sparsely patronized on a Tuesday evening. The food selection was decent with an emphasis on Southern and Creole cooking, naturally enough. One highlight was the excellent beignets, which I've loved since I was a kid. I'd been looking forward to introducing the kids to beignets on this trip and as I expected they fought over them vigorously.
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Once we were back at the Airbnb a significant problem presented itself. Spenser's cough had clearly progressed to a full blown asthma exacerbation. I'd listened to his breathing earlier and hadn't detected any wheezing, but now he was wheezing and showing signs of struggling to breathe. Even worse, he wasn't his usual rambunctious self at all and was ignoring the games his older siblings were playing. He gets these attacks so infrequently that we don't lug a nebulizer and medication with us when we travel, a decision that I was greatly regretting at that moment. I took off his shirt and watched the skin between and under his ribs pull in as he breathed. It was clear that he needed breathing treatments quickly. I was either going to have to go to the pharmacy and get a nebulizer and albuterol, or we'd have to take him to an emergency room. I weighed the options and eventually decided I couldn't feel confident he was going to be safe if we tried treating him at the house. He seemed to be getting sicker and weaker every minute. Fortunately we were just a few blocks from Batson Children's Hospital at the University of Mississippi and we made the responsible decision to take him there.

The lobby of the emergency room was fairly full and I started to worry we were in for a long wait before getting triaged, but they brought us back quickly and got Spenser's vitals. I was shocked to see his oxygen saturation was dipping as low as 88% and his heart rate was over 150. We had definitely made the right decision in coming to the hospital. They got him right back to a room and began nebulizer treatments. Seeing Spenser's poor vital signs had really freaked me out and I couldn't stay in the room while Mei Ling and the respiratory therapist worked on keeping him from pulling off his mask. The combination of stress and possibly the afternoon crawfish was playing tricks on my digestion and I kept taking walks outside to get fresh air and dry the sweat on my face. It's not the first time I've seen the ER as a family member instead of a physician, but if anything being a physician makes the experience worse. I couldn't believe I hadn't recognized how sick Spenser was and wondered what could have happened if I'd gone with my original impulse to take care of him in the house.

Eventually it became clear Spenser wasn't going to turn around quickly enough to come home that night. I went back to the Airbnb and got some bedding and supplies for Mei Ling, who was going to stay in Spenser's hospital room. I still had the other two kids to deal with the next morning and I needed to get some sleep. We were really lucky we had taken Mei Ling's mother with us on the trip. The only reason we'd done it was to be able to eat at decent restaurants in New Orleans, but tonight it meant that the mishap with Spenser hadn't affected the other two kids at all. Having them both at the hospital with us along with Spenser would have been a nightmare.

In the morning I checked in with Mei Ling and she reassured me that Spenser was breathing better and getting back to his old self, but it didn't seem like he'd be getting out before the afternoon. I took Ian and Cleo and Mei Ling's Mom back to the food hall but the food didn't seem as good as it had been the previous night. My stomach had settled down but I still didn't have much of an appetite. There wasn't any reason not to go ahead with the activities I'd planned for Jackson ahead of time so I drove everyone to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. This was a small but very kid-oriented science museum with some impressive skeletons of extinct mammals and entertaining interactive exhibits. Behind the museum were a number of nature trails of different lengths. We chose the shortest which was mainly along a boardwalk in the forest.
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Half an hour northwest of Jackson is the Mississippi Petrified Forest. Petrified forest is probably a bit of a stretch for this small wooded area, given that the scattered fossilized tree trunks were either lying on the ground or half-buried. It didn't particularly matter as my kids were pretty foggy on the whole concept of petrification. They were more interested in following the sequence of numbers on the trail and puttering around in the gift shop.
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Around the time we were ready to leave I got a call from Mei Ling that she and Spenser were ready to be picked up. It was great to see Spenser back to his old exuberant self and have the whole family reunited again. As we drove away from the hospital, I beseeched the travel gods to keep Spenser in good health for at least the three hours it was going to take us to get to New Orleans.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:30 Archived in USA Tagged travel mississippi blog tony jackson natchez friedman natchez_trace Comments (0)

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