Memories of a Geisha

The following are some pictures taken from a recent trip to Kyoto of the traditional Gion district. Looking at these pictures now, it feels like it was all a hazy dream from long long time ago....


The Point of No Return

In the television show prior to Anthony Bourdain's 100th episode of 'No Reservations,' his homage to food and travel, he said this -

"We all grow up somewhere. It isn't so much the place we were born as the place we come of age. The place where our strengths and weaknesses are first exposed, our interests and prejudices get discovered and developed...."

For him that place was New Jersey. While I don't have any particular affection for NJ, his comment resonated powerfully with me. There is a city that I have lived in, that somehow unbeknownst to me at the time, seeped under my skin and took hold and I was never quite the same afterward. I had always chalked it up to the people I had met, the special experiences I have had, but now I realize it was something more profound. This was the city where I came of age. For most people I assume this process occurs as they transition from their teen years into adulthood. But for me, it happened in my early thirties because that is when I lived in New York City.

I so often get asked, "Sooo...where are you from? No, where are you really from...?" (I guess they didn't like my answer). But now I am thinking the more pertinent and insightful question might be "where did you come of age?"

So, where did you?

Salvador Dali's Baby Map of the World


Now I Finally See...I too heart Vancouver

For years I have read and reviewed the "Most Livable City", "Best Quality of Life City" rankings by the UN, the Economist, by Monocle, etc. with a degree of skepticism. I even blogged about it disdainfully when I wrote who really cares about these lists. I've lived in some incredible cities, but they were never included.

Boy, do I feel stupid now. For years, the city of Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada has sat comfortably on top in the UN, Economist, Mercer Consulting, Monocle's rankings of the world's most livable cities. And after my first and recent trip to Vancouver, I now see why.
Produce from Granville Market

Firstly, it is an incredibly beautiful city. It is not architecturally interesting but the abundance of nature that surrounds it and weaves through it more than overcompensates for the lack of human-designed beauty. Vancouver is encased by mountains and water. It is easy when you are biking or hiking through Stanley Park to forget that you are in an urban metropolis. The city is a joy to walk, bike, drive through. Kudos to the urban planners! Its urban scale is designed to make all forms of travel pleasurable - unlike Los Angeles, my present home which is designed purely for cars; or New York City, my prior home, where it is often easier and quicker to navigate on foot than in a car or subway.
Beaver Lake full of lotus flowers and lily pads in Stanley Park

Vancouver is an cosmopolitan city, where from my brief superficial experience, cultures seem to intermingle comfortably. Often, I felt that diversity and cultures were celebrated. This is evident in the museums and in the cultural and theatrical offerings. But it was perhaps most prominent in the food, the markets and restaurants. Vancouver is a foodie's dream - and the city is not that big. We enjoyed an incredible diversity of food while we were there. (My mouth is starting to salivate again as I reminisce about our meals). Ranging from small local eateries to the restaurants of celebrity chefs like Daniel Boulud, Jean-George Vongerichten the quality of food is exceptional. My fish and chips from Go Fish! was worth every second of the 35 minute wait in line just to order, and was better than any order of fish and chips I have had in England. Sacre bleu! The C$30 three course Sunday brunch at Jean-George's Market was mind blowing. The food at the Japanese Izakaya Guu, brought my entire family back to the days we lived in Tokyo. Service more often than not was also exceptional. In addition to my satiated belly, I also appreciated that so many of these restaurants and eateries made serious attempts to locally source their food, or use organic fruits, vegetables and meats, or offer only sustainable fish. This clearly demonstrates a society that not only cares about their own health but also the environment they inhabit.

Black truffle pizza from Market - I wish you could inhale the aroma

And the people! I'm in love with Vancouverites. In no other city in the world, including service oriented Tokyo, have I walked into a 7-11 or drug store and received such a warm greeting and welcome. While strolling around, if I hesitated for a minute as to which direction to go, which street to take, I had immediate offers for help and assistance. Not normally a chatty person, I found myself engaging in conversations with limitless strangers. Taxi drivers called my husband sir and me ma'am. I even started to wonder whether living in Vancouver would make me a more personable and amicable individual.
Now I know that the few days I spent in Vancouver does not equal the experience of living and working in a city. But I can tell you this, I wouldn't mind finding out.

Now where did I leave those Vancouver job listings....
Nitobe Memorial Garden

A little urban oasis and landscaping


The Alluring Journey to the Butterfly Mosque

I turned the last page of G. Willow Wilson's memoir, the butterfly Mosque and read the last paragraph. The last few sentences were extra powerful, lyrical and dense with emotion. As I closed the book, which has been my bed-time companion for the past week, I felt a twinge of sadness. I felt I was leaving a friend. A friend who through her journey of trying to live in, around and in between cultures gave me company through my own struggles.

The Butterfly Mosque commences with Willow as a college student at Boston University deep in the midst of spiritual conflict. Raised by atheist parents in Colorado, she is on the cusp of converting to Islam - which she fears will trouble many in her family and close circle of friends. Upon graduation, she is offered a teaching position in a school in Cairo - and so the story begins.

Shortly after her arrival she is introduced through a friend to Omar, who has offered up his time to help Willow and her friend/roommate learn to navigate through the chaotic streets of Cairo. Omar and Willow however, shortly soon after fall in love and Wilson's stay in Cairo becomes much more indefinite and her exchanges with Egyptian families much more intimate. This book is part memoir, part travelogue, part romance.

Many of the write-ups I have read on this book focus plenty attention on her conversion to Islam. The subtitle of the book is after all "A young American Woman's Journey to Love and Islam." However, I do not feel that the book focuses all that much on her exploration and daily practice of the religion. While she challenges commonly portrayed violent stereotypes of Islam through her random conversations with Omar, her interactions with Omar's family and through her interviews with two prominent religious figures in Egypt, she does not ever give a clear explanation of what brought her to this path. Throughout the book I kept wondering, what inspired Willow, a white American raised in an atheist household in Boulder, Colorado (where she no doubt did not interact with many Muslims)to embrace what has become one of the most controversial and maligned religions in the west.

When Willow moves to Cairo, she also chooses over time to alienate herself from other expatriates, delving deeply and completely into the daily life and culture of middle class Egypt. She forsakes her old American ways of being and as best as she can, and assimilates herself into Cairene culture. She is cautious and careful to shake the hand of any man not Omar. She lowers her gaze when meeting another man. Given the huge chasm between her initial descriptions of her life in America and her life as a protected woman in Egypt - I had trouble understanding how her shift in mindset came about but was in awe that it did.

So many couples that are multi-cultural struggle to find that balance to accommodate each other's cultural practices and needs. This story never quite comes to terms with that. Wilson completely envelops herself in Egyptian life and culture and although she repeatedly states how much her life has been enriched, she lacks in all semblances of her life in America. But that extreme sacrifice would seem to me unsustainable over time. This becomes evident as her longing to return home to America grows stronger over time. Finding that intermediary, that balance, is critical and the only way to live between and with both cultures. Her search with Omar for that balance, for a comforting sense of a new normal, not all foreign but not quite home, starts as the book concludes.

What I enjoyed most about the book however, was the journey she takes the reader. We essentially discover Cairo, Cairene society and culture with her. She presented a Cairo, I would never see or experience as a tourist or even as a temporary resident. I was moved with the gentleness and restraint of her love story with Omar - the subtlety with which they court and fall in love. I also relished the rich descriptions of her interactions with Omar's family and how they unequivocally embrace her as their own. And how over time, even the vendors at the local market start to view and protect this foreign American woman as they would any familiar local Egyptian woman.

The butterfly Mosque for me is a book of infinite hope and optimism. It trounces on the theory of the clash of civilizations and celebrates our common humanity above all.


I'd Rather Be Anthony Bourdain

Years ago when I sat in the cubicle of my mind-numbing job and I fantasized about whose job I would like, who I would like to emulate - my thoughts would veer towards the extremely respectable, very erudite Fareed Zakaria. I thought I would take great world events and analyze them for the public, providing profound insight and knowledge. But now years later, a little more weary, tempered by life and after tonight, I have no doubt - I would rather be Anthony Bourdain.
I have literally just returned from seeing his show in Los Angeles - part of his "No Reservations" 2010 tour and I think I laughed more and harder than I have at any comedy show. How did the guy become so witty? A regular viewer of his No Reservations show on the Travel channel and having read a few of his books - I had assumed that much of his witty repartee came from great ideas and careful editing. But no! He writes exactly as he speaks. After an hour of hilarious commentary that started with filleting the majority of stars on the Food Network, to his time on Top Chef, to his concerns about this nation's food supplies to lessons on how to travel, the second half of the evening was spent on Q&A. Granted none of the questions were too provocative - he nevertheless answered each with tremendous animation, vivid descriptions and that dry sarcasm that his fans have come to crave and expect.

He started the evening sharing his ceasefire with Rachel Ray. He then continued with his most horrifying life experience yet - a run in with Andrew Cuomo, NY State Attorney General and his girlfriend, Sandra Lee - another celebrity on the Food Network who he claims "does to food what Hitler did to Poland" with her show Semi-Homemade. He pays his respects to Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse; throws a few gentle jabs at Bobby Flay, who after all, he argues, is still a real chef and acknowledges the fine cooking skills of Giada de Laurentiis (and her unusually large head) and Ina Garten (and her uncomfortable obsession with Jeffrey, her husband). He also talked about how he preferred Iron Chef Japan to Iron Chef America due to the lackluster judges. You have superior chefs doing incredible work and then you have "mind douche Cris Angel as a judge!"

What I appreciated most about his talk however, were his comments on travel and on how to travel. "If you are lucky enough to travel, make the most of it." Don't be wasting your time in a Starbucks or at Planet Hollywood. "Have an adventure. Have a story to tell.... Don't worry about dirt. Eat like the locals eat." And follow local customs as best you can. That comment was followed with how much he dreaded Russia. There he said, we have to do a lot of "professional drinking...and we're not alcoholics." The day starts with 3 shots of vodka for breakfast, and ends with 14 to 17 shots for dinner. Every day. It's not about whether you will vomit, its when.

Food is as personal a form of expression and communication as it gets, Bourdain continues, and when you travel and if you are offered something that might rub uncomfortably, even harshly against your personal sensibilities and principles - being polite trumps everything. He likens the experience to what he calls "Grandma's Rule." You may go to grandma's house for Thanksgiving, and the food may be terrible but you will eat it all and ask for seconds and thank her profusely in the end - because it is the right and decent thing to do. Cooking, he said, is about control. Eating is about total submission.

During the Q&A when he was questioned about his life choices he said, "I'm having a really good time. I don't have any regrets. Life has been really good.... This celebrity chef thing is sweet." His comments reminded me of a interview I did with writer Pico Iyer who said, if he won the lottery today, tomorrow, he would still wake up and do exactly what he has done everyday which is sit at his desk and write. I have no idea how much money either of these people have in the bank but as far as I am concerned they are some of the richest people I know.

Some final thoughts based on questions asked Bourdain:
  • The only airline whose food he will eat: Singapore Airlines
  • If he was sentenced to a penal code where he could only eat one kind of food for the rest of his life: It would be Japanese
  • Four places we must visit: San Sebastian in Spain; Bahia in Brazil; Anywhere in Vietnam; Columbia.
  • How to get the best information on where to eat locally: read local bloggers; drink with strangers; visit the early morning markets.


Sex and No City

It's been about two weeks since Sex and the City 2 premiered. Despite my initial excitement and anticipation about its release, being a big fan of the series and the first movie, the barrage of dismal reviews made me rather hesitant to cough up my $10 to see the movie in the theater. (Hey, it is a down economy). My curiosity however, eventually got the better of me. I had read a few reviews on the orientalist portrayal of Arabs, but given that I research and write a fair bit on the United Arab Emirates and Arab architecture and culture, I wanted to see for myself how Sex and the City, the series that made us fall in love with New York, depicted Abu Dhabi the city, the people and culture.

Yes, yes, yes, the movie is chalked full of orientalist images. I wonder if Michael Patrick King who wrote the script even visited any Gulf countries in doing his research for the film or did he merely reference old Hollywood movies in all their orientalist splendor. There were plenty of references to magic carpets, camels (which are damn hard to find in Abu Dhabi), crazy oppressive Arab men, oppressed Arab women, kitschy 'Arabic' music...and so on. But none of those portrayals really bothered me because everyone in this movie was a mono-dimensional stereotype. The four women, the main stars of the show, who originally for all their occasional shallowness and materialism were generally strong independent women whose love and support of each other, and brutal honesty made the show groundbreaking and a proponent of feminism, in this movie have become pathetic whiny caricatures of women themselves. (Such a shame! As a woman, their portrayal made me shift uncomfortably in my seat). Not only were they poor reflections of women, they also epitomized the ugly American. The ignorant traveler, who rudely disregards local customs and culture and superimposes their own.
No, what really bothered me was the depiction of Abu Dhabi. Perhaps that is the architect in me speaking. I knew from the start that the movie was actually filmed in Morocco and not Abu Dhabi or Dubai as the film makers had initially wished. The script offended the leaders of both emirates and their request was denied. So filming was moved to Morocco - although they still continued with the premise that four friends were living in the lap of luxury in Abu Dhabi. I wondered why King didn't just rewrite the script to be set in Marrakesh given that is where the Amanjena Hotel and Djemaa El Fna, where they filmed the hotel suite and souk scenes respectively are located. It would have made much more sense. But apparently, even though they allowed filming within the country, Moroccan officials also did not want their country mentioned in the film. So instead of creating a some random Arab Gulf city, or moving the movie elsewhere to a city that might be more accommodating - they stuck with Abu Dhabi - but made absolutely no attempt to liken their portrayal of the city to the actual one. Despite the fact that two thirds of the movie is set in this Emirate.

Abu Dhabi is a very young city. The medieval souk they had Miranda and Carrie wander through does not exist in Abu Dhabi. If they were really in Abu Dhabi and they wanted to go shopping they would have gone to a mall. And when they were inside the mall they would have discovered that the majority (over 80%) of Abu Dhabi's population is made up of expatriates. In these young Emirate city-states, you are really hard pressed to find yourself ever surrounded by a huge group of Arab men. If they did venture to the few souks in Abu Dhabi, they would have realized that the structures are a few decades old (if that) and not as ancient and historic as the Djemma El Fna, Marrakesh's main square, where they filmed. Real icons of Abu Dhabi skyline like the newly completed F1 Race track were also obviously missing from the movie as was the Emirates Palace Hotel (where the four friends are supposedly staying).

But why does Abu Dhabi's disingenuous portrayal bother me so much? After all it's Hollywood and it's all make believe. Well, because the series and the movies were and are called Sex and the City. The city for the most part has been New York City. The fifth character of the show. Part of the allure of the show has been how they depicted the glamor, the grit, the rich and diverse character and offerings of New York City. Living in New York when the series was airing, I would tune in - in large part to see the locations they went, the restaurants and bars they frequented. Even when Carrie moved to Paris temporarily in the final season, they visually captured the the grandeur and moods of Paris beautifully. It made me want to hop on a plane and go there.

Abu Dhabi is not merely a blip in this movie, it is the setting for the majority of this two and a half hour long movie. If you are going to insist to set the story in a real city, be honest about its depiction. Or at least try to. Instead Abu Dhabi, like much else in the movie, became a parody - and the movie and the brand are the lesser for it.


Chumash Powwow - A Celebration of Earth, Spirituality and Contradtion

I was lying on my stomach, with muscles like jello, in heavenly bliss, when my favorite massage therapist and I started talking about Native American Powwows. I don't quite remember how we got on the topic, but she was telling me how she attended one years ago and that there are plenty such gatherings in Southern California. Now always having a penchant for Native American culture and spirituality but yet at the same time, still rather ignorant on the topic, I promptly searched online after I loosely glided home from the spa.

That is how I found myself yesterday at the 12th Annual Chumash Day Inter-Tribal Powwow in Malibu. After surveying the abundance of trinkets on sale with little interest, I seated myself on the periphery of a large circle with a fire pit in the center, which from what I have read represents the circle of life. These circles are blessed for the duration of the Powwow, and are considered sacred ground. The Powwow (or Pauwau as they are originally known before the term was mispronounced by European explorers in the 1800s) was initially a gathering for medicine men and spiritual leaders, or a ceremony to celebrate (eg. a victory in war, a successful hunt or a cure of a disease). More recently, the powwow, I think, serves more as gathering to socialize, for the tribes to get together and share songs and to keep their respective tribal history, heritage and cultures alive.
Saginaw Grant leading the Gourd Dance

This Powwow started with a prayer given by 74 year old Saginaw Grant (head Gourd dancer, an actor, veteran from the Korean war and member of the Sac-n-Fox Nation). He then led the Gourd Dance (practiced by tribes in Oklahoma), shaking his gourd-like instrument to the drumming and songs of gratitude and the warrior that come from the Comanche and Cheyenne tribes. In the moments of silence between the various events, the MC informed the audience that while the Powwow has been around since the 1800s, for years the U.S. government did not allow Native Americans to practice their culture and religion and it was not until the 1950s that this practice was openly revived.

Tribe members in line for the Grand Entry

This was then followed by an offering to Mother Earth which led to the very 'Grand Entry,' where all the various members of the tribes dressed in all their extraordinary regalia entered the circle led by the bearers of the Chumash and the American flags to the hard rhythms and chanting of the flag song, which was explained to be much like a national anthem. In one breath, in one beat they commemorated their heritage and the lands that were taken away from them and the ancestors that fought against this country and yet at the same time, proudly waving the American flag they also sang of the country with which they now belong and have fought for as veterans of the U.S. military. Repeatedly they blessed the soldiers presently fighting America's two wars; in part because so many of them are veterans themselves from the Vietnam and Korean wars and can appreciate the trials and sacrifices of these soldiers. It did cross my mind however, that these Native Americans were a part of the same American army, that hundreds of years ago were in charge of violently removing them from their lands. How time and necessity changes perspectives! In their chants and drum beats, they demonstrated to me how nothing in this world is clear cut, that we all live in shades of gray.

After the 'Grand Entry,' a victory song was sung and the warrior dance ensued. I watched it all while devouring a piece of freshly made piping hot, crispy fry bread with a little honey, cinnamon and powdered sugar.

After a couple more dances, I left the Powwow still in full swing, grateful for another new experience and exposure to a fascinating heritage.


The Hidden Oasis at Lake Shrine

For those of us who live near the ocean in Los Angeles, we already feel incredibly blessed and spoiled by nature. No matter how many times you see it, the grandeur of the ocean always takes your breath away - with all its various shades, moods and light - it is never looks the same. So yesterday, I felt like a kid in a candy store, when I discovered a wonderful oasis less than a quarter of a mile from the ocean in the Pacific Palisades. Now while this is a new discovery for me, this place has been here for sixty years. The Lake Shrine was the brainchild of Paramahansa Yogananda - who was also responsible for introducing Eastern Mysticism and yoga to the west. Originally, a Hollywood movie set, this ten acre site was converted into gardens that promoted peace and meditation, and respectful co-mingling of all religions. The spring-fed lake in the heart of the park is framed by hillsides and flanked by two waterfalls. An old Dutch windmill and a boat house sits on the site, no doubt remnants of the old set.
Scattered throughout the park are the statues of Krishna, Christ, the Madonna and child, and the Buddha. The Courtyard of Religions, near the entrance pays homage to the five principle religions of the world - Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism. The park also holds some of Mahatma Gandhi's cremated remains in thousand year old Chinese sarcophagus.
Also inhabiting this park, along side the incredibly rich flora and other vegetation are swans, ducks, a crane, turtles that dive and swim in unison with the koi. Throughout this park's windy paths are also quiet nooks with benches for visitors to contemplate, meditate or just read a book. I went during the busier weekend, and in spite of the crowds, I still left Lake Shrine feeling calmer and rejuvenated. I can't wait to go back on a quieter weekday with my book, to meditate and do a little reading in the company of those peacefully gliding swans and turtles as the sweet aroma of the roses waft by in those gentle ocean breezes.


Boutique Hotel Design goes Egalitarian

I almost fell off my bed yesterday, when last night, I was flipping through March's issue of Travel and Leisure magazine and came upon their winners for the 2010 Design Awards. The article itself is not what surprised me. Many of their winners like the Santiago Calatrava's train station in Liege, the renovation and restoration of La Mamounia in Marrakesh, the Mondrian's Spa Miami's South Beach or the design of the Nomiya Restaurant in Paris (see left) seemed like obvious choices. What threw me was the winner of design for the best large hotel...are you ready?...extended drum roll...


I know! I was floored too! So I had to do some digging this morning.

Motel 6, the 1960's American icon under the direction of European hotel company Accor is getting a major makeover known as the "Phoenix" prototype (as in the bird that symbolizes rebirth and renewal). The London design firm Priestmangoode is responsible for the hip, bright, utility driven new look. Instead of dated carpeting and furniture and old dizzying bedspreads there is now faux-wood floors (made from un-used industry scraps - very environmentally friendly), sleek furniture, 32 inch flat screen televisions and multi-media panels for ipods and laptops. The bathrooms have granite counters and round bowl-like sinks. While I have stayed in other boutique-like budget priced hotels in Europe - I haven't come across such a thing in the U.S.
After remodel

While the price today isn't quite the $6 it was when it first opened in Santa Barbara, it is by comparison still very reasonable. Just goes to show that good design doesn't have to be expansive or exclusive to the wealthy. It used to be when I went on road trips - I would drive right by a Motel 6 when looking for a place to stay. But now while they are slowly roll out this make-over, my curiosity is going to purposefully bring me to a city that has a newly redone Motel 6. As an architect and a travel junkie, this I have to check out. Road trip anyone?

For those who never stayed in a Model 6 before the remodel
- this is what it looked like.
Say Bye-Bye to depressing.


Reminder to Self: It's the Journey NOT the Outcome

I woke up this morning to a call from my doctor's office. Before I even had a chance to wipe the sleep from my eyes, I realized that the next thing I would have to do this morning was call my medical insurance company. For everyone living in the United States, you know trying to get information from your medical insurance company about whether they cover a treatment or medicine you need is pure, unadulterated torture. Especially since every year you pay more and more and they cover less and less. After hanging up the phone with the doctor's office, I collapsed back onto my pillow - wondering if and how I could wake up to an alternate universe.

What I missed and completely did not appreciate of course since I was too busy sinking myself into a deep dark abyss, was that the sun was shining brilliantly; the birds were practicing their morning song with extra relish and joy; and my smooth velvety piping hot cafe latte made by my husband was waiting for me in the kitchen.

After breakfast, I trudged back up stairs and sat in front of my computer to check emails, updates, the news..... And since I was already in a lousy mood, I decided to pay some bills. However, the one smart thing I decided to do while trying to pay my bills was watch business school professor and life coach Srikumar Rao give his talk on how we actually teach ourselves to be unhappy but are actually hard-wired to be happy. In our results oriented society - we often forget that the quality of our lives is really based on our journey and not the various outcomes. By the end of his talk, I was still paying my bills, but this time, all I heard were the birds harmonizing their concerto and all I was thinking about was how good the rays of the sun felt as they warmed my study after the early morning chill.

So I am attaching this video clip below. Hopefully, if your day isn't going quite right, it will do the same for you.


Star Gazing at El Matador Beach

It's my favorite beach in Malibu. The sand is smooth...the rocks are worn and arranged like a sculpture museum...it's beautiful...keeps a low profile and nourishes your soul. I've gone there a handful of times. Once for a birthday picnic. We lay there on our picnic blanket, listened to the waves and watched the sunset with no one around us. I went again most recently with my sister who was visiting and we saw for the first time, this beach blanketed with some rather debaucherous starfish enjoying the rays of the sun.

It was a good day.
Sharing information on living the good life anywhere...