Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Visit to Moscow

One of the best things about my job is that it allows me to visit places I might never see otherwise. Even better, I often see them with friends who’ve gotten to know the places and have grown to love them.

A few weeks ago, just as the Olympics were drawing to a close, I went to Moscow to help a friend with workshop and seized the opportunity of any free time to explore the city. I had been prepared for typical Russian winter weather, but was pleasantly surprised that they were having an unusually warm spell at the same time we were experiencing unusual cold and snow.

As you might expect, food was an important aspect of my visit. My friend being a vegetarian, Russian food does not provide a lot of options. Fortunately, Moscow offers a variety of cuisines. For starters, we ate at an excellent Uzbek restaurant where I saw some definite crossover with Turkish food. It’s fascinating to think about how cuisines have influenced each other over the centuries—I’m sure someone has written a dissertation on this, especially along the Silk Road. Another evening we had excellent Mediterranean/continental food in a restaurant in an old chocolate factory on the river.

Cat Circus poster
On our second evening we attended the amazing Cat Circus—the cats appeared happy and well-loved and most of their tricks were natural cat behavior like walking across a narrow surface or winding between someone’s feet or sitting around looking pleased with themselves. The theme was the Olympics and the performance, which was mainly for children and families, included some very professional (mostly non-creepy) clowns. For dinner we had Georgian food and I learned about the oh-so-satisfying Khachapuri (a round of bread stuffed with tangy, melted cheese).

Looking down the banya hallway
Over the weekend, we visited the banya. A group of us rented a private space at the bathhouse that included a hot tub, cold pool, sauna, shower, changing rooms, and lounge area where you could order yummy Georgian food! This time I tried the Khachapuri with egg on top (also delicious). It was a fun, social time and I even experienced having my back beaten with oak leaves in the sauna before plunging into the cold pool. That night, we had excellent Chinese food for dinner.

One evening we visited a historic house outside of town where a very knowledgeable guide highlighted the artwork and artifacts before we had a huuuuge multi-course dinner of mid-19th-century Russian cuisine. The dinner was created by a food historian who reconstructed the dishes from primary sources.

They served duck soup; barley soup; lots of pork; turnips; pickles made from apples, cabbage, cucumbers, and garlic; salmon and potato pierogis; fishcakes with a garlic sauce; cauliflower with a wonderful green sauce; a huge pie of beef tongue, pork, mushrooms, and bouillon (of which I tried a bite of the crust); and finally apple cake and blini for dessert. Amazing!

I didn’t totally neglect the historic culture of the city itself. I took a walking tour of Red Square and had lunch at a little restaurant set up like a Soviet-era cafeteria (in one of the fancy malls). I wandered through St. Basil’s and visited a couple of other Orthodox churches. When we went out to the see the monumental Bolshoi Theater, there was a commemoration in the city square just opposite for Defender of the Fatherland, or Men’s, Day—It featured bombastic music and a lot of red banners, just what we might have pictured as a Russian celebration during my childhood. On a more modern note, we saw a ballet at the Bolshoi whose acts were centered upon common household objects. The first of many brief movements was entitled “Bidet”.

For such a short visit, it was jammed with experiences and I’m so grateful to have had this chance!

A Morning at the Museum

Mindy and Lachlan arrived for their visit Monday evening. (Yea!) At Richard’s suggestion, we’d asked the folks at the Smithsonian if we might see the banjo of our great great uncle, Wade Ward. He was a well-known old-time music banjo and fiddle player from Independence, Virginia, the area of Southwest VA where our dad is from.

Not only did they agree to pull out his banjo, but they also brought out his hat and some photos, too! When we arrived (stepping out of the deluge that swamped the city on Tuesday), we were greeted and led through the maze of back hallways of the National Museum of American History to a room where the articles were laid out on a table. We were surprised to see that the neck of the banjo had been painted in different colors and even more surprised when our host allowed us (with gloves on) to reverently pick it up.

We peppered him with questions about how the museum stores instruments, whether they ever are played—there’s a whole chamber ensemble that plays the classical instruments—how they restore them, whether they have luthiers on staff—they usually call an expert in—etc. all of which he graciously answered.

Recognizing our enthusiasm for primary sources in general and for the “Fun and Games Department" a.k.a. the Division of Culture and the Arts, specifically, he took us even further behind the scenes to a storage area where they keep everything from sports equipment to dolls. There he showed us the childhood skateboard of Tony Hawk (whose image I’d recently seen at the “American Cool” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery :) ), the feathered and sequined cape of pro wrestler “Nature Boy”, and (causing a sense of near-religious ecstasy) actual Muppets, including the original Kermit the Frog!

Kermit the Frog made from Jim Henson's mother's coat
It was an amazing experience in family, and American, history and we loved every minute of it!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


I’ve been talking about the culture of “making” lately for work. It’s something I find really exciting. I think the elements of this culture have naturally grown from the passion that makers put into creating. More and more teachers, librarians, parents, and others have realized that we all can encourage the development of these attributes, by supporting makerspaces and maker activities.

I like to emphasize these elements:
  • Hands-on experimentation, learning by doing, experiential learning, fun
  • Collaboration, mentoring
  • Creating across disciplines, inspiring new ideas
  • Entrepreneurship, providing a safe place to make mistakes and go back to the drawing board, encouraging stick-to-itiveness
I especially, like to talk about stick-to-itiveness or what psychology professor Angela Duckworth has termed “grit”. She popped up twice on my Facebook feed recently—once via an interview on NPR and once as part of a curated TED Talk list on working happier. Her research, and that of others, has shown that having grit is as much a key to success as being intelligent. In her NPR interview, she said that grit “is a very American idea in some ways…really pursuing something against all odds.”

On that same note, I ran across a Smithsonian story on Carl Sagan, written around the premiere of the new “Cosmos” series. The article mentions his papers, now at the Library of Congress, which revealed this insight into the importance of grit to his success.
The adult Sagan always sounded like the smartest person in the room, but in the papers we encounter this interesting note in a 1981 file, right after “Cosmos” hit it big: “I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding.”
He saw that having to struggle with a puzzle was a good thing. When we work hard at a lesson we retain it better and can share the steps of the process with others. If Carl Sagan had to apply himself, surely, it’s the least the rest of us can do.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Visit to Fort Lauderdale

Last week we held a workshop in Fort Lauderdale. It was a great chance to meet some of my colleagues and partners for the first time. Things have been busy at the mother ship and it’s been impossible for me to travel, so this was a welcome opportunity to meet in the middle.

We spent one of the days visiting the fabulous Broward County Library and learning about their creative outreach programs for teens. It’s wonderful to be back in the U.S. and to get to see how public libraries are continuing to evolve to remain vibrant places, responsive to their communities. Yea, libraries!

I had a cold and some family health issues to deal with from afar, but it turned out all right. I’m so grateful for cell phones and supportive sisters. It was an exercise in flexibility for me and my awesome training buddies, but the workshop turned out well.

Fortunately, the spring days in Fort Lauderdale are long, so there was still plenty of sun at the end of our workdays to visit the beach and dip a toe or two in the water. I also had some excellent Italian (Franco and Vinny’s) and Cuban (Don Arturo) food at some old school restaurants.

I now understand why so many people get away to Florida. Noted for next winter…

Monday, April 14, 2014

Kitty Love

A cat who lives in a mostly vegetarian household may be forgiven for taking on a more worshipful attitude in the presence of real chicken. Bianca gets canned and dry cat food plus evening Greenies, but rarely gets any meat. I occasionally boil chicken to freeze and keep for my salads at lunch. When I do, I reserve a bite or two for the kitty. Having just portioned it out this morning, I pulled some apart for Bianca. She gobbled it down and with slightly dilated pupils politely, but firmly, asked for more.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sawatdee Pii Mai: Happy Thai New Year

Chuck and I went to the Wat Thai DC to celebrate Thai New Year today with Molly. We met up with Boaz, too. It was the warmest day yet. In fact, we got a little too much sun. It was in the low 80s and we weren't quite up to that kind of weather yet.

Naturally, the food was fabulous. Boaz arrived earlier and made the long wait in line for the best mango and sticky rice. So, that's how we started the visit. Man, how I love mango and sticky rice! Later I had an omelette with mussels, topped with Golden Mountain or a similar spicy, sweet sauce. It was crisp (was their some rice batter in there?) and savory with tang and spice and served over big bean sprouts. Sooo satisfying. I also had the sweet doughy balls stuffed with (and rolled in) coconut. Sweet and delicious.

Chuck bought some som tam, salad rolls, battered and fried plantain with sesame seeds, taro chips, and a small crate of mangoes. Thai shakes, here we come!

People were friendly and welcoming. The PA system was cranked up high, very Thai, and we had a fun time. We arrived around 10:30 and there were already crowds. We'll have to get there earlier next year.

Happy new year! 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

January Reading 2014 II

I have gotten behind on my chronicling lately. Here's a review I missed in January...

27 January 2014
AwayAway by Amy Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book back in January and loved flow of it. The main character, Lillian, flees Russia in the early 20th century to make her way in New York. When she learns that her daughter might still be alive, she moves heaven and earth to find her, eventually making her way across the country to Alaska. I loved how, before leaving the story of the people who helped or hampered Lillian along her journey, the author gave us a glimpse into the long view of each of their futures. How she did that in such a short novel--it's 240 pages in my version--is like magic.

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Favorite Pizza in Clarendon & DC

Last night Chuck and I both worked late, so we were starving by the time we got out around 7:30. I suggested we eat out, my main condition being that we eat somewhere where I could order a glass of wine. We decided to ride the Orange Line to Clarendon and go to Faccia Luna.

I love their Trenton Tomato Pie with its chewy provolone and tangy sauce cooked on top of the cheese. The crust is just right, too. Mmmmmm. So, we ordered a 12" and a big salad with their champagne vinaigrette and a glass or two of Malbec. So satisfying!

My other favorite pizza in town is quite different. It's the Vongole at 2Amys. There is no sauce, it's topped with deliciously salty grana, garlic, capers (there's my tang!), hot pepper flakes, cockles (I call them clams), and a sprinkling of parsley that adds some nice visual variation. The combination of spicy, savory, garlicky, clammy goodness, all on top of that fabulous crust--oh man, that bubbly crust!--it's perfection.

The only problem is that we love 2Amys' cheese plate, especially that gorgonzola with honey and the fresh sheep cheese with chives...and their's way too easy to over order.

8:30AM isn't too early for a slice of Trenton pie, is it?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Culinary Discoveries in Penn Quarter

Friday night, Chuck and I walked over to Penn Quarter after work to meet friend B. for dinner. We were a bit early, but not enough to check our bags and browse the “American Cool” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.

First we thought we might stop at Cowgirl Creamery for their Friday tastings only to find they had closed in December. This leaves their only outlets in Northern California, unfortunately. So, we strolled toward the restaurant thinking we might go to their bar for a drink.

As we passed Red Velvet Cupcakery, we noticed a sign in the window touting a featured cupcake in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day (one with a tasteless name for a delicious cupcake). We had been introduced to a cupcake of the same name in Abu Dhabi last year. The recipe involves a chocolate batter with Guinness, filled with a chocolate ganache with whisky, and topped with a butter cream with Irish cream.

So, we bought one to share. The frosting was a little too buttery (if that’s possible), but the cake was nice and moist and not too sweet. It was good for a commercial cupcake, but we preferred the small batch version made with love...and twice the liquor.

Onward, we made our way the last couple of blocks to Rasika and found a seat at the bar. I ordered a pomegranate pisco sour which was pretty good, although the cinnamon on top was a little distracting to whiff every time I took a sip. We ordered pappadam which was served as a bowl of small crackers in a variety of shapes. It wasn’t what we expected, but was just right for dipping in the delicious mint sauce and sweet chutney (what is that, mango?)

B. arrived and we sat down and ordered a bunch of small vegetarian dishes to share. Everything was excellent! We had a spinach dish in which the spinach was light and crispy; a korma with mushrooms; a fabulous wild mushroom uttapam (my favorite); eggplant for the guys (I’m allergic); paneer in a red sauce; cauliflower in a dry preparation; raita, naan, and rice.

I love tang, and these dishes were tangy! Some had a nice peppery edge, some, a little chili, some were deliciously creamy… It was a feast of textures and flavors. I highly recommend it and can’t wait to go again!

Monday, February 17, 2014

An Afternoon in Washington

It was a sunny Presidents' Day today, so Chuck and I took advantage and walked through Georgetown down to the Mall. After stopping at Shophouse for lunch, we headed past the White House and some kind of small demonstration, where we stopped to take this pic with the Park Police on horseback, and on to the Mall. Before ending up at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, I took this shot of Chuck with Smithsonian Castle in the background.

Walking around the Air and Space exhibits, I found myself much more intrigued by the social and cultural aspects of it all than by the large pieces of machinery. The personalities of the first flyers, the historical advent of "stewards"--drawn from the naval tradition--and "stewardesses"--at first, nurses, to quiet travelers' fears--and the plum satin ensemble of an early woman pilot grabbed me more than the intricate workings of an engine.

We walked through the bathing, exercise, and dining compartment of America's first space station, Skylab (a backup model that hadn't been in space). That caught my attention. I can't imagine being sent into space in the 1970s. It seems so long ago when our technology was much less advanced. I wonder how much the facilities differ now. I bet the food is better....

Thoroughly worn out, but wanting to come back to the exhibits on time and navigation and the Wright Brothers', we headed to the Metro and home.