Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Grounded

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to various newscasters mention the impending shuttering of the NASA shuttle program.  After 30-some years of space exploration, the program is being disbanded, and surprisingly, I care.

I am not a science buff.  I care very little about space exploration, rockets, moon dust, and the like.  It is all so far away, so abstract, and has so little bearing on my daily life.  Other than the disasters, all of our space exploration has captured very little of my attention.  Nevertheless, the romance of it resonates with me.

I can imagine the 1960s.  I can picture the race with Russia.  I can understand the sense of incredible national accomplishment of Neil Armstrong’s small step that was for our country a giant leap.  And I can understand how the realization of President Kennedy’s dream fostered pride in Americans and a drive to keep striving for more.

My life has never existed without NASA buzzing about somewhere in the background; shuttles preparing to launch; satellite photos showing up in National Geographic and Time magazines.  I was born into the country that won the space race and wore that badge proudly.  As a product of the seventies I have never seen America’s superiority legitimately challenged, and there’s a certain level of braggadocio that can develop as a result.

But now we’re sitting down for a few years.  We’re going to have to hitch rides on a Russian shuttle while our own program is in time out.  Granted, there is a new program on the horizon, but it will be several years before the Constellation program is actively launching anything.  And there’s something about this that makes me a little bit sad.  It’s reassuring to know that your country’s best and brightest are behind the wheel, doing things that you will never be smart or brave enough to do yourself.  

When I say it like this it feels silly.  Much as the shuttle program didn’t affect my daily life during its lifespan, its ending likely won’t either.  And if I gleaned any sense of security from our space exploration it was probably unfounded.  I suspect that subconsciously I liked to believe that if we had the time and money to be bouncing around space, then things here on the ground must be in pretty good shape.  But I don’t have to read too many headlines to know that’s not true. 

I guess what it boils down to is that there is something romantic and powerful about space travel.  And walking away from it – even if temporarily – feels like we’re taking a step backward.  Once the newness of this change has worn off the topic of our space exploration program will probably return to the outer recesses of my mind.  But when it comes back, I’ll be cheering for it to be better than ever before.

Hot Cross Buns

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

As I mentioned yesterday, I am newly obsessed with The Pioneer Woman’s blog.  Yesterday when I pulled up her site I was delighted to see that her latest recipe was for Hot Cross Buns.  My mother made Hot Cross Buns on every Good Friday of my childhood.  And while I have lovely memories of coming home from school to find a fresh batch on the kitchen counter (sometimes with extra frosting left in the bowl!) my favorite Hot Cross Bun memory comes from my adulthood, and from China.  This story is not meant to be thought-provoking or challenging in any way.  Rather it is a cherished moment of my life that I felt inspired to share. 

If you’re not familiar with Hot Cross Buns, you can learn a quick bit about them here.

I was 26 years old.  I was less than a month away from my wedding.  I was in Shanghai in the middle of a two-week business trip to my company’s Japan and China offices.  So things in my life were pretty calm at the time.  Right.

I’d spent the first week of the trip in Japan.  Sushi, tempura, industry trade show – all the usual suspects.  The second week took us to Shanghai for a 5-day training session with our Pac Rim distributors.  We were staying at the St. Regis hotel which was then, and is still, the most mind-bogglingly luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  I had a personal butler assigned to me at check-in.  The room was huge and stunning; the bathroom even more so.  Every time I left my room – even if it was just to run down to the hotel gym for a quick workout – someone came in and refolded the towels, tidied my toiletries, smoothed the duvet, and tucked under the corners of the toilet paper.  And every afternoon around 2:00 a snack was delivered to my room on a silver tray.  It was usually a pastry of some kind.  Something delectable that made me slide to the floor and want to never return home.  (What wedding?  GAP once lived in China.  Surely I could find a back-up version of him running around somewhere, right?)

I spent each day in a hotel ballroom, giving presentations on the key selling points of my company’s products, changes to the competitive landscape, and pricing and discount structures.  I’d eaten all of the local fare that had been served and had, for the most part, been delighted by how much I loved it.  Cuttlefish, jellyfish, whole roasted fish, seaweed salad, etc.  Business dinners each evening featured dishes that rotated among the traditional menus of our distributors’ home countries – Thai, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.  I was lost in an international smorgasbord.   

I’d gone sight-seeing with a colleague one afternoon and eaten dumplings purchased from a street vendor that have never been matched by any I’ve eaten since.  The bread was fried crisp on the outside and chewy underneath.  The broth inside was rich, salty, and surprisingly hot.  It dripped all the way down my forearms and I actually licked some of it off.  The bite of pork in the middle was tender and fatty and melted on my tongue.  I was in a food nirvana.   

I was also reaching a saturation point of visual stimulation.  Ancient gardens, Confucian temples, giant Buddhas everywhere.  My colleague and I had a personal local tour guide for two days who took us into nooks and crannies of her city that we’d never have found (or braved) on our own.  I was absorbing the culture around me like a parched sponge.  I had moments of homesickness, but for the most part I’d been able to separate myself from the impending wedding and gotten lost in the world around me.  And so it was that when Good Friday rolled around at the end of my trip I was barely aware of it.

That day our business agenda reached its scheduled afternoon break.  I returned to my room upstairs where I looked forward to slipping out of my heels, collapsing onto the fluffy bed, and delicately tearing into whatever scone, éclair, or other confection might be awaiting me.  I opened the door, walked into that now-familiar and serene retreat of a room, and stopped cold.  There, on the silver tray, was a porcelain plate with two Hot Cross Buns. 

They were beautiful.  Golden dough glazed with egg whites and studded with raisins.  Iced by hand with careful, but not perfect, crosses.  I was so touched by the gesture that I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat them.  But I did.  They lacked the delicate crumb and subtle sweetness of my mother’s, but it was irrelevant.  I was as far away from home – geographically, culturally, metaphorically – as I’d ever been.  And yet a hallmark of my childhood sat before me on a silver tray.

I still don’t know the answers to all the questions that spun through my head as I ate my Hot Cross Buns.  How did they know these tiny details of Christian culinary heritage?  Did they know I was a Christian?  Did everyone in the hotel get Hot Cross Buns for their snack that day?  Or was it just for the Westerners whom they thought might enjoy a taste of home.  Did they have any idea how their thoughtfulness would strike deep to the heart of me?

Since I’d left home after college I’d never made Hot Cross Buns of my own.  I guess I didn’t realize what meaning they held for me.  But in that moment I became keenly aware of their significance; significance to which I’d been heretofore oblivious.  The next year I made my first batch of Hot Cross Buns.  They too didn’t measure up to my mother’s, but they were good.  And they were mine.  And it felt good to take my traditions into my own hands.  I have plenty of time to perfect my technique.

I haven’t made them every year.  But I will make them this year.  I think IEP would like them very much.  And I want his memories of them to be as ingrained as my own.