Monday, November 29, 2010

Best of London Shopping

Last night, as I drifted to sleep, I kept muttering "I can't wait for Charlie's Angels" which is a family slogan in my household that hails back to the 1970's when my late husband's daughter was a little girl. Now it's come to mean 'I'm excited about anything' and so I could barely sleep for knowing that today we were off to Bicester Village, the outlet mall near Oxford... as well as the adjoining Tesco.

We had a car and driver (Prius is fabulous from the back seat) and passed sheep in snow and frosty fields. The Tesco was not a great store and I was very upset to discover they were totally sold-out of Original Source TeaTree & Mint. I had planned to buy a dozen bottles for the hols and take advantage of the car service to not have to schelp. Ah yes. At least I was outta Tesco quickly and into the village style outlet mall with its big name designer shops and upmarket shoppers in search of discounts on designer goods.

Sarah scored a pair of Tod's for less than their regular USA price...and I bought well at Kenneth Turner, where I have been a sucker for their original scent-- all cinnamon and orange peel. Turner used to have a florist shop on South AUdley Street, near The Dorchester and is still famous for his candles and room scents. Diffusers are still a big deal here in U.K. and our hotel smells so good with our reed diffuser (in the loo) that I went all out with my 22 pounds to bring joy to my home in Paso Robles.

We came back into London via Kensington High Street and realized that a lot of our favorite stores were there, as well as a branch of TKMaxx the U.K. version of T.J. Maxx. Since we had never been to a British version of this off-price store, we felt compelled to shell out 10 pounds in taxi fare (tubes on strike-- traffic horrible) to get back there from our hotel. Afterall, we are working shoppers and the public wants to know.

Indeed, Kensington High Street was better than Oxford Street and far less crowded. This is the location of the Beauty Boots, a one-off Boots branch that is devoted to all sorts of beauty brands and even has a cosmetic dental clinic on premises. They carry Chanel and YSL makeup as well as more commercial brands. I loaded up on their cucumber moistering cream for 1.49 (about $2USD) which is very similar to the brand Say Yes to Cucumbers, which costs $14 USD for a small tube. Sarah and I have both tested the new bargain cukes and adore it. I also bouth some of the famous No. 7 Preserve & Protect, which sounds like something the police force has promised to do-- but it's a wrinkle cream. I bought the new intensive night cream but not the serum that goes underneath-- I was saving for my retirement and couldnt bear to part with yet another twenty pounds.

There's a wonderful branch of Marks & Spencer (with food hall in basement) and a TopShop in this neighborhood, as well as a large UniGlo (as good as Tokyo!)and several other multiples-- American stores as well as British-- and then there's Whole Foods and, across the street, TKMaxx which is so different from the US cousin that you could write your masters' dissertation about the two different versions of the same store. Most of the brands are European; many are names uncommon to the U.S. Prices were not give-away, but were in the fun category-- many stocking stuffers in the under 5 pounds price range.

Since I'd fallen for reed diffusers at Kenneth Turner, I bought more for 10 pounds per-- much less and not from a fancy, statusy brand.There were many big brand items and a number o fno-name items throughout the store, although I did not have the strength to shop every inch of the three floors of goodies.

It was a wonderful day of shopping-in-London, Christmas and Channukah shopping and has put us in a very good mood. Soon we will tackle the traffic and taxi fares to head to Langan's for bangers and mash. And then we will bid a fond farewell to the Queen and fly over the pond and home to our doxy boys.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

For England and for Wills!

Last night saw much earnest debate between Sarah and I-- the perfect Sunday morning venue in London? Columbia Street Flower Market? Camdentown? Shepher'd Bush? Hmmm, not the right Sunday for the big flea market at Chiswick (first Sunday of each month; Margaret Thatcher not included)...a museum? Is Harrod's open on Sunday's (yes; recent change in policy); what time does Peter Jones open on Sunday (11AM)...what do we most need for Born to Shop pages versus the outrageous cost of taxis?

All became moot when we slept til 11AM and missed breakfast then had to get crackin' to check out of one hotel and into the next. We made it to Peter Jones on Sloane Square, noting that the Jo Malone and Patridge's (gourmet grocery) were both gone. Partridge's turned up around the corner in the Duke of York Square.

We went to Peter Jones for the bed linen (doesn't everyone) and found much adore about Cath Kidston bed linen...more Kidston prints in street markets of Hong Kong but still a feast for the eyes. Kings' Road seemed mostly unchanged altho Korres, te Greek bath line, seems to be gone as does Dollargrand, for cheapie handbags. An antiques mews is gone-- now a branch of Anthropologie and Lush has been renovated. They have a totally new line. When I asked after Red Rooster, I was told there was a special web site for retro products. Talk about making me feel old.

We'd had lunch at Wagamama before we starte down Sloane Street and were wowed by the number of young couples with their two perfect children. Each looked like Kate & Wills.

Once we had exhausted ourselves and I was reduced to limping, we checked into The Levin Hotel, next door to Harrod's on Basil Road. Our taxi driver thought we said "Eleven" which has been a common problem when bragging about this hotel. It's a townhouse hotel with only ten rooms; it's stunningly gorgeous. As the General Manager showed us around our suite he explained that there is no mini-bar, just a Champagne bar.

If we'd only bought all the Sunday newspapers we could snuggle down with the bubbly and the papers.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


We have been in fair london town for about 24 hours...most of that time we have been cursing the shoppers who have formed enormous mobs in streets and stores and gloating over our good luck in getting here so easily. Sarah had two upgrade coupons with \united, where she has 1K status, and because we flew on Thanksgiving Day when the plane was not as mobbed as Oxford Street, we both got business class seats with flat sleepers. It was life changing! For the first time since my accident, I have arrived somewhere within miserable pain and suffering or oragami blues.

Checked into The Athenaeum Hotel at Picadilly and Green Park while Sarah headed for Primark on Oxford Street. I got into a taxi and headed to Whitehall to inspect the new Corinthia Hotel, going up along the Thames next to Embankment and one block from Trafalgar-- it's going to be stunning. More on that one soon-- it opens in April, if you happen to be coming here for the Royal Wedding. I felt asleep looking at the moon over Green Park out my window and listening to American Telly on Channel 5 here, which specializes in American dramas and movies.

This is one of my favorite London hotels not only for location and chic ease but because of their famous sticky toffee pudding which I got for breakfast...along with poached eggs, bangers, mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon, etc. Then we flew off to Portobello Road Market. It's easier to take taxis since five lines of the tube are down now and the traffic is horrendous. Even Portobello was too crowded for intrepid shoppers so we headed to Boots and Tesco Metro, the grocery store, Pizza Express and then Liberty of London.If there is a recession in this country, you wouldnt know it by the throngs of shoppers.

Today and tomorrow the streets in major shopping districts are closed to vehicular traffic so you can join the mobs. Prices are so high here and crowds so nerve-racking that I long for a good old fashioned American Black Friday and would kill to shop at 4AM without jetlag. Of course, we have to pray Sarah has more upgrades in her bank for a seamless trip back to SFO on United...otherwise it's Executive Economy and aching bones for days. Oh well.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Carrying On

As the Born to Schlep Lady, I am turning over a new leaf and trying a radical approach to tomorrow's trip to London: carry-on luggage. Since I can barely walk and need a wheelchair to get to the plane, carrying anything is a crazy idea, but for a four night stay it seems a sin to waste time waiting for luggage to arrive.

This past spring I sprang for some lightweight Lipault luggage in Paris and hope to get another piece to the set when I am back in Paris in January. For now, I am terrified that my carry-on is not the legal size and I will be forced to check it and thus screw up the plan for easy sailing. If you don't know the Lipault brand have a look at their web site-- it's soft-sided nylon; I bought chocolate brown but it comes in a variety of fashion colors.

Here's what I have packed: two pairs Eileen Fisher black stretch pants (washable), 5 pairs clean knickers, one cashmere sweater (borrowed from Sarah), one Eileen Fisher dress, on silk scarf, makeup and toiletries and my Aerosoles desert boots in black suede. Oh yes, there's tights and socks and a black t-shirt or two and a nightgown...also some Born to Shop books and a few gift items for business meetings. As well as two empty nylon duffles as we don't have to play this silly game on the return.

My shopping list: Original Source, Cadbury Flake bars, whatever few must-haves I find at Boots and Tesco and a box of Thornton's Original Toffee. Since I can't take my dog Toffee.

Meanwhile, happiest of hols to all.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Watch It

I have driven myself, and all who know me, insane with my desire for two mis-matched purple beaded metallic watches from the Fa Yuen Street Market over the last six months. I did not buy them on two other forays because the vendor would not negotiate on price and was rude, rude, rude.

Today I gave in and bought the watches, blinded by my delight and greed-- two watches for $50. The vendor pulled them off my wrist with a nasty tug (I had planned to wear them) and shoved them into cello wrap.

In the taxi home to the InterConti Hotel, I took out my watches to bask in their glow. Just one problem. One of them does not work -- totally dead.

I now realize the vendor gave me the jerk off knowing full well that one watch was a dud. I know feel stupid, stupid, stupid because I am as bad and as dumb as every gweilo in history.

Moral of the story: this is China; pay attention!
PS: Update on story:
new watch battery from Sears: $8.99 and special trip to Sears; new crystals for the five that fell out the first day I wore the two watches: $4.99 on sale at Michael's plus a new tube of nail glue; aggravation from my obsession for these watches-- priceless.

Handbag Hunting in Hong Kong

Began the day at in the Peninsula Hotel Basement Level to check out the new digs of Maylin, a trusted source for many years which has just moved to smaller quarters downstairs-- nice but pricey; no cigar.
Then out the back door of The Pen to jaywalk across Nathan Road and dart into Middle Road and head to Far East Mansions and upstairs to the Ashneil nirvana-- as crammed as always with colors and textures and news of what styles are in and out, ie some new Chanel bags no longer have double C hardware on them in the real world. There were assorted clutches, three handle bags, leopard printed Keiselstein-Cord wannabes and the usual flood of beaded evening bags. Anil recently won a lawsuit against Chloe, the firm that said his work was a little too close for comfort. Ashneil regulars, please note: Anil has lost tons of weight and looks great! You will barely recognize him.
Went onward to Kimberley Hotel lobby (up their escalator one flight) to Cosmos, a new resource for us as recommended by Louisa Chan.(Photo above.) They had many of the same bags we'd seen at Maylin, but for less $$$ and equal quality. We went bonkers for beaded and embroidered velvet velour bags; I bought my daughter-in-law a crytsalized lether (new term to me) bag with G's all over it now that she's a Gersh-girl, even if she hasn't changed her last name.
From there it was a taxi yto the Prince Edward entrance of Fa Yuen Street Market-- jam packed on a Saturday. This is the place to buy low-cost dingle dangles for your handbags and totes-- these very much the vogue in Tokyo and here.
Now to pack these treasures.

Friday, November 12, 2010

One Perfect Day in Hong Kong

It has been a perfect day; alas, we spen very little of it actually in Hong Kong or even Kowloon.

Step No. 1= wake up in a Harbour View room in the InterConti Hong Kong, with dawn coming over the harbour and the highrises on Victoria Island;
Step No. 2= buffet breakfast in the Club Lounge, even if the croissants were over-baked;
Step 3= Walk from the hotel a few paces into the TST East train station for a direct train to Lo Wu, PRC;
Step 4= Sail through immigration and customs, out of HKG and into China, change money at depot money exchange at $1 USD for 6.8 yuan and then ride escaltor to shopping Nirvana in Lo Wu Commercial Centre;
Step 5= Eat peking duck at Laurel Restaurant on 5th floor.
#6= shop all of 5th floor, which to me has always been the best-- fabric market, Issey Miyake Pleats Please wannabe store, kite dealer in the hallway and plenty of Harajuku Lovers.
#7= Stop at Starbucks on the New Territories Side of the bridge before getting on train back to Kowloon. Once on train, admire sky, vegetation and Tolo Bay.
#8= return to InterConti in time for scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam for tea and a nap.
#9= Dinner at Nobu in the hotel followed by a foot massage on Nathan Road.
#10= Stare at lights from bed overlooking harbour, note all the lovers who promenade on the walkway, muse over the firepits with braziers glowing, then drift off with Mr. Chow, Chinese expression for dream time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Loose Change

With only hours left to our stay in Tokyo, I was anxious to spend down the extra change in my coin purse-- it's heavy, it's worth a fair amount and I don't see any reason to save it; Japan is not one of my regular runs.

I went to the fancy supermarket next door to the InterContinental ANA Tokyo hotel and bought two bags of thinly sliced garlic (262Y per bag-- one for me and one for my son & daughter-in-law) and a box of Mere Poulard cookies, my favorite French butter cookie. When I paid, from the coin purse, I did not feel relieved enough... so headed next door to Starbucks.

I bought Sarah a small Latte and me a small Mocha for another 700 yen, total. All in all, I spent about 1400 Y (just under $20) that was 'free' because I had the spare change. And they say you can't find anything affordable in Japan!

We had spent the morning at Tokyu Hands in Shibuya-- the flagship store and in my opinion much better than the newer store in Shinjuku at Takashimya Square. They are adding on yet another building, so there is reason to return. Before heading out, we did a search for Freshness Burger, our newest Japanese obsession, and found one 1/2 a block from Tokyu Hands-- how's that for karma? We rpinted out the map before we left the hotel.

For the uninitiated, Tokyu Hands is a type of department store that carries everything -- but specializes in crafts and DIY, and tsotchkes. Because the main store is created from several adjoined buildings, there are half floors, which makes the walk down so much fun. You can take the elevator to the top and then work your way around and down like in a funnel of fun shopping.

I did not buy the Hello Kitty pouch for MP3 player with built in speakers, but did buy up a lot of rabbit stickers for the new year (will be the Year of the Rabbit, duh). Left off the bath salts because I swear they cost less in Hong Kong...although I was wrong about the little camera I almost yesterday. I figured it would cost less on Amazon, but was wrong. Oh well. Much of the merchandise in Japan is imported and therefore outrageously expensive. I've had this theory that even Japanese products will be cheaper elsewhere, although I guessed wrong on the Sony Cypershot.

The taxi from Shibuya back to the hotel in Akasaka was over $25 -- more than lunch for three people. Taxi fares have been the biggest budget killer on this trip. The subway system is excellent, but takes so much energy that I don't like to use it for shopping trips. There's also a fair amount of dfficulty if you are changing lines as the subway lines are owned by different companies and your next ticket may or may not be compatble with the first.

We fly to Hong Kong tonight on Delta; have researched the luggage allowance online and discovered that we get three bags up to 70 pounds each. That way I can pack up all the ramen noodles I brought from the USA and havent touched. I am leaving behind the half bag of marshmellows that we needed for our group's Japanese Game Show simulation.

In fact most of the group has packed up and moed on, returning to the US today. A few will go on to Hong Kong with a day trip tomorrow to Shenzhen, PRC. Then we can talk about prices!

Kyoto Protocols

coming soon

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Back in Tokyo

After three fabulous days (and nights) in Kyoto we are back in Tokyo and I have Internet access again -- off to Hong Kong tomorrow but more infos soon.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tokyo Weekends

Hard to believe we've been in Japan for well over a week -- and my Japanese is not getting any better. Today I had western food for the first time in the entire trip; unless an apple counts. Or a Coke...

The bad weather is over, it's hot (high 60's) and sunny and our group tour began Thursday night and has marched at a rapid pace leaving little time to do anything but collapse come afternoon or evening. Tonight we will all meet in the hotel Club Lounge with a picnic dinner from the food court at Mitsokoshi.

Last night I discovered the two massage chairs hidden in a corner of the Club Lounge and can't wait to return for a kneading. We are re-packing as tomorrow we will go to Kyoto at mid-day and then continue with out Born to Shop tour.

Most of our money has gone for taxis-- yesterday the fare from Ueno to our hotel in Akasaka was $45. We went to the newish Yodabashi store in Akihabara and went wild-- the store carries everything from electronics to makeup, with a huge kids' toy area. We stopped at Love, Merci (once my favorite adult entertainment store) but we were not impressed and left for Yodabashi, passing the girls outside on the curb in their maid outfits handing out brochures. I guess business is bad these days as everyone is cutting back.

We then whizzed one stop on the subway to Ueno for the street market and the 100 yen shop, which everyone loved. Mymotto has always been Ueno is Bueno. When Sarah and I checked it out a few days ago, we were not impressed-- but it was 10AM when we went. For yesterday's visit, at 3PM, things were bustling and it was ever so much fun. We ate chestnuts from a vendor in the street and gawked at the stalls selling Chanel makeup for USA prices-- could it be real?

Tomorrow we go to my favorite 100 yen store, Daiso in Harajuku. The Harajuku flea market has stopped operatingm but we'll be happy with the dollar store...where evrything now costs one dollar twenty.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Moving Day in Tokyo

Dawn again in Tokyo -- i wish I could sleep so this must be jetlag still. Another fabulous breakfast from room service at The Pen-- sublime French toast. We stuffed ourselves and will soon get organized to make our way back to the IC ANA and real life. Soon i must decide if i will dance under the rainforest showerhead in the shower stall, or soak in the giant tub that has TV controls built alongside the wall and a natural stone chimney which is actually the water pipe, delivering water right into te tub with a neat slosh.

The towels here are the largest and deepest pile of any we have tested. In the historical novels I read to learn Japanese culture and history I am learning that the country is famous for small towels. Peninsula has turned the world upside down.

We had a small party last night in our room -- we were expecting ten, but they never showed, so we were four: me and Sarah as well as Simon Johnson and his wife Reiko. Simon is my mentor's son and has lived in Tokyo for 18 years; I was at his wedding reception in Paris some ten years ago -- hard to imagine. It is a wonderful thing when your girlfriends have grown children whom you can enjoy and befriend as well as stare at for genetic similarities.

We were to all eat under the tracks at the famed (and inexpesive) yakatori stalls that few tourists visit, but when the rest of the group didn't show, we went for a more elaborate yakatori eatery in the same area-- although this one required Reiko to translate and query whether we wanted mini-kebabs of chicken hearts, livers and/or gizzards. (No thank you.) We had hot sake, some rice dishes in fish broth-- one with chopped up sour plums and the other with extra seaweed.

I love the somewhat tatty side street along the tracks, the dozens of little cafes and outdoor stalls and the banners and signs and the energy of the streets of Tokyo. I also like that it's all in the shadow of The Peninsula Hotel, so that you can feel and enjoy these contrasts of the town.

We had already planned the after yakatori-dessert party in our room -- Sarah had gone to much trouble as hostess to get goodies from the Pen's bakery and get room service to provide wine glasses. I had bought two bottles of Plum Wine so we could have a Pepsi challenge and blind tasting. Indeed, one more glass and i would have been blind. Plum wine is one of my weaknesses. Choya is my brand.

Without extra guests, it became a family night == we got to dish the elections, the town's architecture and residential 'hoods in Tokyo and then used the Skype phone to call Simon's mother in Paris. We sent the younger generation home with fresh and perfect persimmons (from the hotel General Manager) nand several Peninsula pastries (from Sarah), allgoodies wrapped in their individual cello packs.

They left us wth the glow that part of the wonder of travel is when you know people in a foreign city and they boost you up and stand by with offers to help.

Now we will soon move to the InterConti ANA and be the people our friends know in a strange and wonderful town.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sunny Day in Edo

It was marvelous to fall asleep with eyes half open to the Tokyo skyline, looking much like NYC, to hear election prattle on CNN and to drift asleep in the best of Peninsula's beds with softest duvet. Woke early to order a true breakfast from room service.

Going to the toilet in the middle of the night was tricky, as I forgot that this Toto opens its' lid for you on approach...frightening in middle of night. Alas, it does not flush itself.

We are off to run more practice trials for our tour group -- to Ueno, Akiabara, etc. Tommorrow we'll do Harajuku preview befor heading back to the realities of Akasaka and the InterConti.

Being in The Pen teaches you the value of your big bucks-- there is no way to put a value on the luxury, the glamour of the other guests, the location, the ability of the staff to speak English and to synthesize your questions and respond helpfully. When we checked in, I hobbled on my cane. The bellboy took me to a seat in the check in area than took my place in line so I could sit. When our turn came, he brought me to the desk. Now that's training.

It was worth the price of admission just to stare at the other guests when we arrived-- a young man in early 0's, gai-in, with leather backpack and Don Johnson good looks, a casual elegance of money and style as if he was doing business here and would never go to the real world outside this hotel.

This Tokyo -- near Ginza and Chanel and the heart of the money land-- is so different from other parts of town and yet so exciting and important to see and experience. If you have only one life to live, or only a few nights in Tokyo, this is the place to be. But maybe come next week, when more of the leaves in the trees across the moat will be in fall colors.

It's only 8:30 AM and we have no place to go-- most stores open at 11AM, depatos at 10AM. If you get to Ueno too early, the stores and stalls will be closed. So we will watch Anderson Cooper and the USA election projections and save our strength for a new assault on a new day in Japan. Obiously we must search for a Moshi ice-cream stand-- Moshi is a brand with distribution in the U.S. that sells ice cream donuts (better than bagels for breakfast). They have over a dozen flavors (better than Starbucks)-- you let the frozen ice cream donut thaw for a few seconds, then bite into it. This alone is worth the price of airfare to Tokyo and a few nights in The Pen.


The morning was spent researching Kyoto sights for possible inclusion in our tour (forget the Textile Center-- a major TT) and then we arrived at the station for the extra-fast train (nozumi) back to Tokyo. I cannot be the only person to note that Kyoto and Tokyo are the same letters in different orders and have similar kanji...nonetheless, we were not lost and easily got on the train and then into a taxi to The Peninsula Hotel.

I was concerned about actually getting to the hotel because we do not have a taxi card or an address in Japanese, but the taxi driver understood and knew The Pen. Amen.

A new-build, and open for only about two years, the Pen here is modern and more gorgeous than any art gallery. We just looked at each other and mouthed OMG...we seem to be in a different Tokyo than the one we left behind.

We have a junior suite overlooking the gardens of the Imperial Palace. We are just a few hundred yards from the famed railroad tracks so we had yakatori -- bento boxes on the train were duds-- and then checked out BIC Camera, the local version of Best Buy and then went in search of Frank Lloyd Wright who is, according to WIkipedia, in a museum and not much even in spirit in the famous Imperial Hotel.

The stroll along the tracks between The Pen and The Imperial is a visual and emotional treat. It's really Tokyo in all the contrasts you want to see-- gorgeous chic women and dives for chicken on a stick, banners flapping.

We stopped at 7-Eleven to buy Coke Zero for our room, but returned to find the General Manager had left a bottle of a 2004 Bordeaux in the room. That will take the edge off the travel weariness and go great with the spaghetti from room service. OMG indeed.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Japanese Hotel Dreams

As we finish up one just about perfect day in Kyoto, yet dream of our return to Tokyo tomorrow to test out the newish Peninsula Hotel, we reflect on the good and odd things about the hotels we have already met:
InterConti ANA, Tokyo:
* first stop on the shuttle bus from Narita (like);
* fabulous heated toilets (ditto);
* excellent personel and buffet at Club Lounge (amen);
* smallish rooms;
* nasty check in at front desk on 2F;
* worst exchange rate in world;
* free wifi in Club Floor rooms;
* Starbucks nearby;
* marvelous gourmet supermarket a few doors away.
Okura Kyoto:
* excellent location amidst shopping;
* great shopping in basement 2 level subway station arcade;
* must pay for water in room as well as instant coffee or tea;
* wonderful exchange rate, all things considered;
* walking distance to Starbucks;
* difficult to manipulate TV for English language, moshi-moshi;
* free wifi in room (like)!
* breakfast not included-- no lounge floor or special amenities. Stunning breakfast buffet offered atop hotel with great view of Kyoto at $36 per person, USD. Secret bakery with great croissants in sub-basement 2.

On to The Pen, always our favorite mantra.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunny after Sunday

The rain has stopped
the sun is out;
some autumn leaves,
not many.
the rate of exchange here is 77.

your turn

Money Rates

We arrived in Tokyo on a Friday arround dinner time and barely made it to bed; no banks open then or Saturday. Soooo we were forced to change money in hotels automatic changer machine created to piss off Benjamin Franklin with huge insults (69.3) Yuck-- but we had no other choices.
Arrive hotel in Kyoto on Sunday, had to use their rate too, but yippee, they are sane people here and we got 77. That is a huge difference, as these things so.

Moral of the story, do not change money at 60 if you can get 75.

Even transaction fees on bank cards have to be better than the spread used at the InterConti!

Now we head off into the rain to wet our money on taxi fares. The average taxi price is $15 to a nearby location and $25 to something more elaborate--

Bullet Train to Kyoto

Perhaps I am jaded after ten years of living in France, but the famous Shinkansen, bullet train of Japan, seems no different from the TGV. I must admit that the getting the tickets and onto the train business was shockingly easy.

Things can go wrong any where, of course. I am reminded of a wonderful story about Calvin Klein getting on a train in Germany for Monte Carlo and taking the one marked Monaco which is Munich, or something like that--

Anyway, the taxi took us from the InterConti ANA straight away to Tokyo Station which is under reconstruction and therefore less than charming. We went in via the East (Yaesu) Central Entrance, followed the sign in English for tickets, bought them on the spot from someone who spoke perfect English ($150 per person each way)and allowed ourselves 50 minutes to poke around the station and explore what they call First Avenue, the basement level shopping and easting district.

While there is much going on in and around Tokyo Station, it is too much for any one brain to contemplate--especially on a Sunday. Travellers swarmed around us, so we dove underground to the delightful arcade with shops and munchies, vending machines and wonderful smells of fresh cooked something or another. (Don't ask, don't tell.)

Since gift giving is part of the Japanese culture, there were many gift shops with the usual beautiful boxes of cookies and candies as well as much Hello Kitty merchandise. I found some very cute mice cookies (honest) that I will buy for the man who set the mousetraps at my home in Paso, but for now-- I didn't want the burden of extra weight. Still, it was all great fun, although schlepping even a single rolly was a pain. I had a Harajuku Lovers back-pack as carry-on and Sarah wished she too had a back-pack, I wished I'd had a mule train, but that's just me. The station was incredibly hot, so we also had to carry our coats. And shortly after arrival, I was carrying extra shopping bags.

We went to Gate 14 about 15 minutes before our train and sat the the Cafe du Gare which made us gleeful, then took the escalator up to the platform and saw that we were exactly at the spot to line up for Car 6. Everything was well-marked and easy as pie. In France, you have to know to use the train chart and must also know the alphabet in order to find where to stand. In Tokyo, it was forthright and easy.

The tickets were printed in English & Japanese therefore easy to read. We took our seats and pulled out our Kindles. Midway, I dared to try the toilet-- quite relieved to be relieved on discovering it was indeed western style, though not from Toto and not heated.

We passed through beautiful countryside and mountains and paddies and even saw the sea once past Yokohama. We got out at Kyoto Station and immediately fell into one of the retail stores in the station -- it was so cute and so crammed with attractive merchandise that we needed and gained a quick fix.

There was no line for a taxi, so we hoped into a cab and I told the driver our hotel in Japanese. He had no idea what I was saying, but understood Sarah's English just fine.

We drove through beautiful downtown Kyoto -- not a Starbucks in sight-- and ended up at the Okura Hotel, in prme location for shopping --although a little too far from the Gion district for walking...especially when it's pissing rain and you are half crippled. Then we saw the bride in her white kimono and peaked headress and knew it was an auspicious day indeed.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dawn in Tokyo

Typhoon blows
winter rain flows
warm toilet seat beckons
bladder quickens
wet is dry

your turn

Friday, October 29, 2010

Something Fishy

I have suffered through my share of life's problems and insults, but today we were arrested by the Fish Police and it's hard to stop laughing. I am reminded of my son, then age five, asking the librarian, if fish fart. I should have asked the officer, just to test his language skills.

We got up at 4AM (thanks to jetlag) and pulled on jeans and down jackets, brought umbrellas (is this a typhoon???) and took a taxi to the market-- although I have been here before, nothing looked familar. There was a long line of people anxious to get tix for the tuna auction, but I knew those were limited...and all I wnated was breakfast.

We wandered around, took some fishy pix and were arrested for fish explotation and being in a forbidden fish zone. I am serious.

We said the only thing we knew how to say in our defense: sushi? We found a working man's diner and grabbed chopped sticks off the wall (Sarah to Suzy: "is that a urinal over there?") and ordered a bowl of rice with something or another -- pretty boring until Sarah discovered the giant pot of pickled ginger...then it was fab. Our idea was to stave off starvation with rich, which would hopefully cut down on how much we spent on sushi once we found the sushi.

Still searching for sushi and totally lost in translation, we evetually found the right alley and marched past the lines of tourists waiting for their turn at some place or another-- who relaly knew? We found an empty and very charming dump and had amazingly fresh and yum sushi. Total price for the two of us, with a total of nine pieces of food, was about $55. No tipping. Amen.

I had used the cash changing machine in the hotel at 4AM although the rate of exchange was posted at 69.7 (ouch) so before dawn, I had spent $100 on a taxi and breakfast. But god, it was fun.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Sooooo, here we are in Tokyo and ready for bed since we didn't sleep on the plane and sheesh, this is exhausting. But since I filled my little notebook with four pagesof notes just while driving on the Friendly Bus from Narita, I figured I might as well share. Sarah is already showered and snuggled down...

Our plane (UA 853)was a half hour late leaving SFO due to a mechanical problem, so we arrived on time a half hour late (huh?) and the lovely geisha with the wheelchair was right there waiting for me. This is, without doubt, the only way to travel long-haul and if I did not have spinal injury, I would invent one or be smart enough to call ahead on a trip and order the service, which gets you and those accompanying you through the lines and check-points in a breeze. And you don't even tip in Japan!

We did not go through the regular enter here line because of the wheelchair, but were delighted with our no-line entry and the cute machine that took a photo of the face and gobbled up your fingerprints all at the same time. There was a video showing how to do it, in case your Japanese isn't fluent. It's a little NEC computer that has a Mt. Fuji screen saver and says things like 'look here' and 'thank you' in animation formats. This is even better than the fancy toilets we have come to expect.

We got to the Friendly bus counter and were told there was a bus to our hotel, the ANA InterConti in Akasaka, in five minutes, so we rolled outta there in a hurry and didn't get to check out the arrivals area of Narita that much. I paid for both our tix with a credit card-- 3,000 yen each, or about $36 to $50 depending on who is giving you the exchange rate. Jean Chatsky says Capital One doesn't charge a transaction fee on international charges, so I wanted to test it out-- I seem to remember that they have changed policy and now charge the same 3% upcharge that everyone else adds to your bill. Stay tuned.

At the bus counter, everything is as up to date as in Kansas City-- in English and digitally arranged and color coded. You get the times of the next two buses and the departure slot on the pavement written in a little circle. Ours was #11, right outside the door. The luggage was on-loaded and we got baggage claims then clamored onboard. Seamless and easy; so far, so good.

A local gentleman in a Friendly jumpsuit paraded down the aisle with a big yellow sign in Japanese and English telling us to fasten our seat belts and off we went, past the airport Hilton and past the First Wood Hotel, which made me wonder if it was one of those Love Hotels you read about in guidebooks. Despite the fact that the Japanese drive on the 'wrong' side of the road, everything was so normal and simple that there was a reassuring air of possibility.

Yes, there are bathrooms on the bus.

If you think this is a horribly foreign place where you cannot adapt, consider these facts:
* you read left to right, like Hebrew;
* you drive on the left side of the road, like London;
* you speak the translitered ts sound in Japanese, like in Russian;
* you can spot the exit signs because the kanji are the same as in Chinese;
* you can tell you are near Akasaka when you spot the Tokyo Tower, a copy of the Eiffel Tower, just like in Paris.

See? It's all very simple if you travel enough.

Disney is to your left as you drive into town; you can't miss it. The traffic didn't build up until we hit our exit, marked toward Ginza, passed the rear of the hotel, saw a view to what looked like the George Washington Bridge and endured a mass of sphaghetti like overlfies of highway and white cars (mostly Toyotas). The ANA InterConti is the first stop; most people got off the bus. I was quietly singing one of the songs from Pacific Overtures -- 'Welcome to Kanagawa'. Although we were not really in Kanagawa; It's still the only welcome to Japan song I know.

At the InterConti ANA, you take the interior escalator up to the 2F to the lobby; you have to bring your own luggage or ask someone to help you-- there were no trolleys or dollies. Yet a non-porter person (a Friendly guy!) was cheerful and willing to help. Check in went smoothoy, although if you think the French are rude, get a load of this team. And don't even look at the hotel's posted rate of exchange at 70 to 1...we will find a bank first thing in the morning and hope for better news. Since the bank rate is beter than 80 to one, this seems criminal.

Our room is on a lounge floor and is lovely, but small --as are most hotel rooms in Tokyo-- the bathroom at least has a heated toilet with self-flush trick, amen. The Club Lounge is stunning and we hope to make dinner out of their snacks in the near future, but we were 15 minutes too late tonight. We tried to find a cute neighborhoody place for a bite, but walked into something so local that no one spoke English and I forgot the Japanese word for water.

In fact, I could only think of it in Swahili, which is not too helpful here. We found Starbucks (across the street) and the subway (next door) as well as Seven-11 and Family Mart(you cannot buy a family there) ...but were unable to buy a SIM card for my unlocked phone. Another task for tomorrow.

We have two deliscious looking double beds in the room and soft down pillows and duvet as well as a buckwheat pillow. There's tons of hot water in the shower and the toilet is always a pleasure.

The best news of the evening was the word that the General Manager of the hotel is a Scotsman. We plan to kidnap him tomorrow and have our way with him. At the very least, perhaps he can make Tokyo seem less foreign. And to think, I've been here many times before and do not intimidate easily. You are surprised I speak your language? Tomorrow will be better, Sarah is mumbling. Right.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bangkok Bangles

Hi Suze,

Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but I doubt that our friend, jewelry designer Matt Laurenza, is pleased. "Inspirations" of his beautiful bracelets are available in markets and malls all over Bangkok.

To be fair, these copies can't begin to compete with the real thing. Upon close examination, most are cheaply made and the stones don't have the bling of the sapphires and precious stones used by Matt.

Take a look at the photos... Bracelet number one, with gold plating, was displayed in the window of a fancy jewelry shop in an upscale mall. It was very expensive (close to $900) and as far as I know, Matt doesn't use gold. I found the second one in a discount clothing store. It was offered to me at a "special discount of 50%", which brought the cash price down to about $58.

I also found very cheap imitations on the 5th floor of the Platinum Fashion Mall (next to Panthip Plaza) for 450 Thai baht, or about $12. When I tried to photograph these beauties, I was asked to put my camera away!

MCL Design jewelry is available at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, and at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman in the US.

with hugs,

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bug Balms in Bangkok

Hey Suze,

I hope your flight from Honkers to San Francisco was, uh, a "breeze" and that you're now safely home in Paso with Tof and Junior. Please give the boys big hugs and tell them that I miss them!

After saying "fly safe" to you at HKG, I boarded a quick AirAsia flight to Bangkok and arrived at the Peninsula Hotel mid-afternoon. My dinner date with Chef Philip and Kunchalee was set for 7:30 at the Pen's riverside Thiptara, so I had time for a quick trip to Watsons (the Hong Kong chain of chemists). I was on a mission - to find mosquito repellent.

Do you remember the outdoor dinner we had in Chiang Mai a couple of years ago? The one where we feasted on Thai curry while the mosquitos munched on our legs? Hoping to avoid a similar situation without being obvious, I bought two anti-bite products. I knew the black rubber bracelet would look chic with my Matt Laurenza bracelet, and the green skin patches would be hidden by my dress.

Little did I know how potent these products were... When I got into the elevator on the 32nd floor to go down to dinner, the other occupants gave me dirty looks and started sneezing! By the time I arrived at the table, I was tipsy from the smell and my arm was starting to itch, so I ripped the bracelet off and placed it discreetly on the ground.

As it turned out, there was no need for precaution. There are (scent free!) anti-mosquito devices hidden in the folliage around the restaurant. Our Thai dinner was fabulous and bug-free.

More soon,

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Stanley Revisited

Old China Hands will remember when the fishing village of Stanley was fun to shop and actually had bargains. It's so touristy now that Haagen Dazs ice cream cones cost $5 USD for one scoop and the international tongues we overheard went from French to German to Hebrew in a matter of seconds.

Things are cleaner and brighter and wider and more costly than ever before; weekend crowds are hard to bear. IT was interesting to see how many families were out and what fun teenagers seemed to be having. They were not born to shop and will have to be taught.

Our favorite store there is still Sun-Moon, a jobber where we always buy Tommy Bahama overruns-- a men's silk sirt costs $15. The taxi there was another $15 each way and the ice cream was $5 each so the shirt really cost $50, just about what it would cost at a real Tommy Bahama store.

Wan Chai

Tragedy in the Lanes

We returned to Hong Kong after a delay in Manila but an easy-breezy flight on Philippine Air in a big 747. Manil really is the perfect weekend getaway from Hong Kong, although our stay was us a final weekend in Honkers.

The Conrad Hotel was waiting, a luxury reminder of why we love this brand and how good it is to have a view of the harbour from this side of Hong Kong and still be perched on top of a shopping mall (Pacific Place).

The glories of shopping Central beckoned our notebooks, so we set off for Shanghai Tang and Blanc de Chine on Pedder Street (both still great) and then headed to The Lanes to checkout Sam Wo, a handbag broker (so to speak). Alas, Sam has moved from his basement shop up to the 6th floor (room 601) of the building above and frankly, he should have waste his, or our, time. It was pathetic. Old fans of this store may consider a good weep.

Further down the Lane used to be a shop called Ribbon Company that sold junky Chinese souvenirs at everyday low prices. They have either changed their name or been bought out by Elegant Tang, but the stores are in the same locations and much the same.

The Lanes are much changed over the past years (as is all of HKG) and have little charm left.

Lunch in the Time of Peninsula

For our final lunch in Manila, we decided to return to Spices retaurant at the Peninsula Hotel in Makati City where pan-Asian food is served and where we had our first meal in Manila and were knocked out by the glamour and the flavors.

We still haven't learned too much about the local dishes, but we are very happy with Thai and Viet Nam dishes that we already know and love and which are available on many cartes in assorted restaurants around town-- Spices in jsut one of the it is built in the round with a koi pond surrounding the glassed-in pagoda eatery and a view outwards to the plush landscape.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

RIIR and the New Creativity

Perhaps the most amazing thing about shopping in Manila is the out-there all price ranges. Accessories are especially works of art, but the growing fashion business here is using local materials and going every which way, especially in the fiber arts.

One of my favorite new discoveries is a brand called RIIR, meaning r to r or rags to riches. This lind of accessories is made by street people and sold for their benefit. I loaded up on several different sizes of zip pouches made from potholder worms for $5-10 each. I bought in solid colors, but there were some multi-color combos, just like the potholders we made when we were ten years old.

I then bought some hemp pouches in the market at the Mall at Green Hills, for about $2 each-- these in plaids that would co-ordiante with the potholder weaves to make charming gift sets.

Memo to Mrs. Marcos

Dear Imelda

Perhaps you do not remember me, it was about thirty years ago that we met and you knew me as Suzy Kalter when you tried to bribe me. Well, perhaps bribe is too strong a word. It was 1980 when you offered me a first class ticket to come to Manila to judge a fashion show. I know, I know, it wasn't me, it was the fact that I worked at People Magazine and you thought you could buy a little extra favor or status for your usband's regime and your fashion shows. Alas, I was not tempted then and it took me this long to realize I needed to come shopping in Manila.

In doing so, I have new empathy for you and am so sorry at the way the world has treated you and sneered at your shoe collection. Having been here for three days and been to countless stores and malls, I understand that Philippines has amazing accessories and that you were probably just doing your patriotic duty to buy from everyone.

Surely I have never seen so many shoes and bags. In fact, there's a Shoe Mall. There are cheapie brands; there are3 expensive brands. There are handbags that are so important you want to salute. This is a ocuntry made for accessories and history has misunderstood you, old friend.

I do wonder how many handbags you had in those famous closets; frankly, I find the handbags totally irresitable. One store in Greenbelt 5, Celestina, has the most incredible croc, shagreen and antique bags, clutches and purses that you could weep from their spector. Or pray. Yeah, that's your mottot, eat, pray, shop...I get it!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dinner in the Bag

Having moved to the InterConti Hotle in Philippines, we are now in a more commercial district of Makati City, the high end enclave of Manila. Down the carpark from our hotel sits an arcade of local fast food eateries. When we passed by yesterday, enroute to Rustan's the Saks Fifth Avenue of Manila, we looked into the windows and got greedy with desire. For dinner last night, Sarah headed out to the Noodle Shop North Park for take-out. You can also dial 73737 for delivery.

When Sarah returned to the room, she was carrying a flat box so I thought she had decided on pizza instead of noodles. Nope! The noodles are sold dry and laid out flat in a logo-encrusted pizza box. You crumble them up, or pour over, the sauce and then add an assortment of spices to taste. Here in our swanky hotel, we did not have the dishes for serving, so Sarah drumbled and dunked.

I spent the meal digging my chopsticks into a tub of garlic rice, my new favorite dish here in Manila. The garlic rice at The Pen was the best ever, but this was OK. Dinner cost about $18 and consisted of noodles and sauce, rice, a tub of spare ribs and a tub of sesame garlic fried chicken parts.

There were many items on the menu that we did not recognize; Tagalog not being one of my ten languages. Alas, we have no idea what Bola Bola Siopao is or even ried Savory Taho Squares.

Although I do take Ambien to sleep when I am on the road, I clearly remember getting up in the middle of the night to finish the rice.

Hallelujah! Glorietta!

We've had to give up our beloved Peninsula Hotel int he name of our work but tumbled into the just as beloved InterContinental, also in Makati City. Across the street, we have all five of the Glorietta Malls, including a Krsipy Kreme, Auntie Anne's, Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, several local department stores, and the local version of Borders, called National Book City ...and so much more.

The gem of the area is the department store Rustan's, which I would liken to Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus or maybe Barney's. Especially important is the 4th floor with its home style as well as its corner nook for local fashions, most of them made from the national fibers and many looking as if they were created by the Issey Miyake line Pleats, Please.

Greenbelt in Shopping

We have explored Makati City's Greenbelt series of shopping malls and find ourselves blown away. Very often women tell me they have earned a black belt in shopping; none has ever mentioned a green belt.

The Green Belt of Makati City is an artificial park laid through the center and surrounded by small fancy malls, each with a number. Greenbelt 5 is the most chic, but Greenbelt 4 houses Hermes and plenty of big name designers, so it is right up there in the fancy-smancy department. The attitude seems to start as you get into the higher numbers, Greenbelt 1 is actually the beginning of the complex and consists of the five-part Glorietta Mall. This is decidedly real-people with a branch of Marks & Spencer and Krispy Kreme.

The InterContinental Hotel-- the first hotel built in Makati City -- is located across the street from the Glorietta buildings as well as the famous Rustan department store and its separate Fresh! Supermarket. There's also a National Book Store in the area, various fast food joints (as mentioned in another blog entry), the SM department store (Attention Walmart Shoppers) and a bevy of the exact same stores you will find in Greenbelt 5. The difference, besides a few miles, is that Greenbelt 5 is extremely fancy. Even the M&S there seems like a different store from the branch at Glorietta.

Greenbelt 5 is closer to The Peninsula end of the Makati City area and also close to the Shangri-La, another luxury 5-star hotel. Most of the hotels have free shuttle buses that make the circuit. Shoppers note: shuttles usually begin at 10:30 AM and run every two hours. Stores do not open until 11AM in most cases.

The Green Belt itself is a meandering park with its own chapel and various art works. Cafes edge the park and sidle up to the malls; there's not only Starbucks for coffee drinkers, but several local coffee brews.

Greenbelt 5 hosts an entire floor (2F) of local designers; jsut go from store to store to see the most amazing fashion and accessories at everyday low prices. Sarah and I each bought handbags for under $100 a piece-- very chic handbags. Mine is glazed golden linen with embroidered beads and Sarah's is navy rattan with navy leather trim.

If you feel you cannot walk between the various malls, you can take a taxi from any of the luxury hotels here, it costs about $1 to be dropped at the Greenbelt of your choice. You just have to make sure you know how to get there. Our last taxi driver said he knew where the Greenbelt was, but not where the various numbers began or ended. Sheesh!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Manila Vanilla

I went to Douglas MacArthur High School in San Antonio, Texas...this is perhaps the only explanation I have for making a trip to Manila. I am not returned; I am a first-timer, so read my lips: OMG.

Arrived late last night and fell into our beds at The Pen, what a crazy travel day from Shenzhen to Hong Kong and then to Manila. Woke up with the notion of heading to one of the fancy districts for shopping but suddenly got the inspiration to go to the Green Hills Mall, about 30 minutes from the swank of Makati Ctiy (where The Pen and all other luxury hotels are located) and past much urban sprawl, beyond the second largest mall in Asia (that's for tomorrow) and right into a most amazing shopping destination.

After a quick tour of the shoe portion of the mall (after all, this is Manila) we headed into the main hall which is half junky fakes' dealers and half jewelry mart with an emphasis on South Sea Pearls. Sarah went mad with yearning for pearls, while I turned my attention to jewel encrusted headbands for $5 each...I hope I didn't overpay!

There was more Harajuku Lovers merchandise, just as in Shenzhen, but some of it in different patterns. I couldn't live without one more addition to my collection but endured serious and rugged bargaining to get the price from $15 to $10.

Most of the fakes looked, uh, fake, but the jewelery was sensational. Behind these alleys of shopping strips, there was a local handicrafts market, a department of Our Lady religious souvenirs (this appears to be a very religious country) and then an electronics and appliances showroom, for washer-dryer, fridge, large screen TV, etc. Surely there were people selling DVDs, but I never heard them singing.

But then, it's only lunch time.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

On the Go with Van Gogh

Although I kept saying we were off to Darfur, what I really meant was Dafen, the village of artists that is so famous that television series have been filmed to document the phenom and I have been dreaming of my own version of the Mona Lisa with my face painted into it. Hey, don't laugh, you can be in the Last Supper, you can have your dog in a Warhol pose, or perhaps even Lichenstein with cartoon bubble speak.

Dafen (say Dah-fen) is a suburb of Shenzhen, not a quaint little Chinese fishing village filled with thatched huts or anything else dreamy that you are imagining. You get there on highways; you pass a few greenbelts, but mostly there is urban sprawl -- the New China. Now here's the really cute part: our driver mistakenly took us to the wrong part and so we ended up with some insider wholesale places before he came running after us, waving arms and barking in Chinese, tugging at our arms to retreat to his waiting taxi. We thought perhaps he had run into a 'cousin' with a great deal for us, but in fact, he took us to what was, we immediately realized, the village we were seeking.

Dafen art village is behind a Checkpoint Charlie kind of barrier, but its arm is a hand holding a paint brush. The village is very Greenwich Village 1970's and cute, with Chinese high rises towering behind. There are coffee houses and bistrots and little lanes, all chockablock with stalls and shops selling orginal art, resin sculptures, calligraphy, antiquities as if from Xi'an, painted koi in ponds on oil and more Van Gogh that even a madman would imagine. The only thing missing is Elvis on velvet.

This Band of USB

We have been to the electronics malls in Shenzhen before, so we were looking forward to another visit with much anticipation. My son Aaron needed a Christmas gift, and maybe a birthday gift as well, and I always like to see what's ticking, even if I can't figure out how it works...or what to press.

Low Down on Lo Wu

To many foreign visitors to Hong Kong, Shezhen means Lowu Commercial Center, a mall of elaborate stalls selling fake everything. While Sarah and I have learned there is a lot more to Shenzhen than the Lowu border crossing and this tacky mall, we still have to pay our respects.

We now cross into China at Lok Ma Chau, a gorgeous new border crossing and taxi to our hotel. We began this journey at the Ritz-Carlton in Futian Fiancial District. After unloading in our gorgeous suite, we fled luxury for the down and dirty. We've learned to make many visits to Lowu rather than try to tackle it in one day, so we headed out for Visit Number One, with our Parisian bought fabrics in hand to find our regular tailor and see what was new in the world of copyright infringement.

Tomorrow we will head back, but our number one taught us this much:
* Cath Kidston is the new Louis Vuitton;
* Harajuku Lovers is hotter than chili powder;
* Chanel resin watches are hidden in the ceiling and cost $20 each. Who cares if they keep time?


OK, so we're upgraded to a suite in the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, and there,on the desk, is this little card that says that people who book suites get three free hours in the hotel's new Mini Cooper Stretch to go shopping. Did someone say shopping?

The Pen, of course, is famous for their Rolls Royce fleet, painted a deep hunter green that is now known as Peninsula Green. The custom minis are the same green,fitted inside and out with custom details and Rolls cognac leather interiors and a stretched frame to fit you and your shopping and a friend or two.

Along with the car, comes the use of an iPhone which is already programmed to the driver, the hotel and the hotel concierge. You jsut push or slide the button bar and voila, someone is there to help you. Our driver, Philip, waited for us and even walked us up hills and around Central and Hollywood Road as we did the town and the tunnels up proud. We asked him to drive us to Paris, but alas...

The minis were unveiled in Honkers this year and will soon launch in the US as well as other Asian cities. While the luxury group will open a hotel in Paris in 2012, the driver still couldnt figure out how to get us there from here. Oh well.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sarah hits the Streets of Honkers

Born to Shop Editorial Director Sarah Lahey got to Hong Kong several days ahead of me, having not injured her L4-5 vertabrae in the process. She tested new hotels, went to some outlets and had a wild time in the name of a serious research trip, leaving me this note on the pillow when I arrived, three days later:

Welcome Home to Honkers, Suze

What a trip so far! As you know, one of my travel tricks when flying home from Bangkok (always on that 6am United flight through Tokyo) is to book my final night at the BKK Novotel Hotel. It's five minutes from the terminal and has a frequent shuttle right to United's check-in counter. It's also a fab 4star hotel, with secret ties to the Peninsula Group.

Since you weren't meeting me for a couple days, I decided to give the Novotel Citygate hotel in HKG a try, this one five minutes from the international arrivals gate at HKG. Not only was it covenient to Hong Kong's airport, but the Citygate outlet mall, (Hong Kong's only outlet center) begins just off the Novotel lobby. My flight arrived in the evening, so I hobbled off the plane, onto the hotel shuttle bus and was in my bed, dreaming of the next days' outlet adventures within an hour of touchdown.

After a great sleep and even better buffet breakfast, I headed straight to the shops. It was late Sunday morning and the mall was in full swing. Little did I know that this outlet center is a weekend destination for Hong Kong's young trendy fashionistas and families. It was mobbed! I began to weave through the shoppers, and decided that while there were bargains to be found, Sunday wasn't the day to do it.

Most of the clothing was small; US sizes 0, 2 and 4 were the norm, but I did find larger sizes in the two Max Mara outlets. The Aerosoles shoe store had current styles for about the same price as in the US.

The problem was that all the shops were crowded and jetlag was making me grouchy, so I had no patience for waiting around for a fitting room, or standing in a queue of 10 or so people to pay. Exhausted, I headed to the lower level to Taste, the big upmarket and of-the-moment-chic supermarket. This was where I bought my Sunday dinner - sliced roast duck, French cheese, fruit and a baguette - all for about US$13.

I went back to the hotel, packed up my bag and picnic and transfered to the Novotel Nathan Road in glorious downtown Mong Kok, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. It's a boutique hotel, much smaller than the large stay-and-fly hotels, and the location is perfect for shopping Kowloon. It's a five minute walk to the Jade Market, five minutes to the Temple Street Market, and five minutes to the Jordan MTR.

Now that I was in the Heart of Hong, I had the brilliant idea to leave town. That's right, I decided to hop on the MTR to return to the Citygate outlets on Monday morning. I felt I hadn't given it a fair shot on my first visit, as the crowds and jetlag made me crazy. I'm so glad I did. Weekdays are the way to do this mall.

My second visit to the mall was fun, successful and easy;it was a 25 minute ride from the Jordan station on the MTR to Citygate station which is located right in the middle of the outlet center.

The Citygate complex –more than 90 shops in all-- is the first and only outlet mall in Hong Kong, where most shops offer discounts of 30 – 70%. The mix includes international big names such as Burberry, Escada, DVF, Kate Spade and Bally. There's Mango and Pedder Warehouse, a local firm that sells mostly catch me if you can shoes and bags. I found great prices on last years' bags at Lancel.

If you like American style malls, this one won't disappoint. Having just traveled to Europe to visit the stunning Chic Shopping Outlet villages in Barcelona, Brussels and Paris, it was difficult and unfair to compare the two styles of shopping.. I was disappointed that I didn't find more clothing in larger sizes (for big gals, like me)at Citygate, but afterall, this is an Asian market. All said, however, I'd go back to Citygate. Combined with a convenient first or last night at the airport Novotel, it's a good bet.

Head to the E-spa and meet me for tea in the lobby of The Pen,
love, Sarah

First Class Flyer

So here we are in our suite of the glorious Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, watching the sun dance like diamonds across the Harbour and desperately trying to figure out how to pack for todays adventure into the PRC-- four nights in Shenzhen followed by four more nights in Manila.

I'm not at all certain how I got here. Something about taking the bus to SFO, asking for an upgrade to business class, being laughed at and settling into my extended economy seat 22K with the good luck of an empty seat next to me. I attempted to inflate my brand new First Class Sleeper device, but failed miserably -- perhaps Vicodin takes your breathe away. Found a giant hunk of football player sized guy in the row ahead of me, dreamed of an episode of House wherein the germs are passed by him blowing on my gasket and asked him for a blow job, so to speak.

I told him not to go all the way, but he did anyway and the giant life raft of a contraption could not fit into the seat along with a perosn, or even a mouse. I let out some air (hey that' wasn't me!) and tried again-- still too bulky. After take off and a few magazine and clicks of the Kindle, i wedged the First Class Sleeper into the space between my body and the window (I always book a window seat for long haul) and slept blissfully for ten hours. The gizzie worked as a shelf for my head and kept me level and comfy. It was worth the $29 after all; bought on with free delivery to my home (not the airport).

Was meet at the gate in Honkers by my wheelchair attendant as well as a golf cart from the Peninsula Hotel. They didn't even know I was wounded, they do this for all their guests! Went through a separate, private line at immigration, a red coat got my bags and I was rolled into my waiting Rolls. Pas mal, as we say at home. Now that's first class.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Shadow of Your Souris

There's no doubt in my mind: I saw the mouse exit the box on Day Two of my move into this house in Paso Robles, California. Considering that the furniture and boxes had been warehoused in Marseille, Anvers, Oakland and San Jose, there is no way of really knowing if this was an American mouse or an EU mouse.

I thought I saw him make a dash for the open door that allows the air conditioning and the dogs to escape. And the mice. In subsequent days, I thought I saw a shadow, but he was a quick one and I decided I was nuts.

Until last night. He seems to live in my bedroom now and likes to dart behind the desk, the bookcase and out into the hall. Back and forth. He's brown; he's sorta cute. He seems a little disoriented. Maybe it's cultural.

The dogs have not seemed to care. Toffee looked up at the movement once, slowly jumped off the bed, yawned and trotted over to his dog bed near the desk where the mouse lives. Junior Mint farted with boredom.

I have no picture to post. I cannot name the mouse Ratatouille, because that would be Rat for short. Besides, I was born in the Year of the Rat (like Shakespeare).

I am somewhat concerned about Bubonic Plague. I know that mice carry fleas and fleas are the vector for Plague. At first I thought maybe that was the same as free Botox, but then I realized I had Botulism mixed up with Bubonic. Now I need to find a bulging can of contaminated food, feed it to the mouse who can transmit it to the fleas who can...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Moveable Feast

My international shippers, who have mostly been terrific through this ordeal, and my friends at, have asked for the whole story on the move from France to California, so here it is -- with info that may help others through such a move!

I sold my house in Provence last December to some friends who happened to see that I noted on my web site ( that I was going to put the house up for sale. It never went up for sale. They bought it. The euro-dollar exchange was $1.47.

But this is not a story about fluctuating currencies, the bank that lost my money for six weeks while the euro fell further (final transaction $1.32), or even about doing business with friends. We all know about that one, anyway.

This story is about what happens when you decide to ship some things from France – be it a few pieces of furniture or a household worth of goods.

My side of this story has a catch to it that may not apply to the average shopper or shipper: most of my goods were shipped into France ten years ago from my home in Westport, Ct. They are classified as “Returned American Goods”. The few pieces of French furniture that I would send, or had previously sent, were antiques over 100 years old – this is also an important consideration per U.S. duties and taxes.

Three years ago, I sent some of my things from Paris to San Antonio, having interviewed many shippers in Paris. I chose the firm with the handsome ad in FUSAC, the UK headquarters and the American spokesman. What a relief it was to negotiate in English.

Although they packed my goods; most of the dishes arrived in smithereens. The groupage was delayed three times and in the end, it took six months to see my shards again. I would certainly never use them again. I still wince when I think of my destroyed dishes.

The next move, two years ago, I used Schmidt & Kahlert, a French firm recommended by my friend Sally. I got estimates from five other movers for the shipping of five cubic meters (mostly furniture). I had devis from all the big names, such as Grospiron (who had done my local moves within Paris and is an excellent firm) and anyone else I found in FUSAC or online. S&K came in with the lowest estimate. The shipment was sent and received; the hand-painted buttery yellow armoire dated 1836 on the back came through without a scratch and was rebuilt without a word or a gripe. The experience was thrilling.

After agreeing to the sale of the house before Christmas last year, my first notion was to bring only my family pieces – a few valuable antiques. The purchasers made it clear they didn’t want my other furniture and didn’t even seem to appreciate it when I agreed to leave some of the beds. They were anxious to paint the walls white and play house, so I was left with the 30 year old Le Crueset. I began the shipping dance with a new group of carriers, including Schmidt & Kahlert.
I soon learned:

• Whether you bring 5m3 or 15m3, the price is more or less the same – it’s the one time charges that are a bitch;
• It cost less (significantly less) to send the furniture from France to California than to Texas (go figure);
• S&K was again the least expensive and my contact there spoke and wrote fluent English.

Although some moving companies charge more for high season, S&K would not add on an upcharge since I was a repeat customer. So I signed the bon du commande and booked my move; booked it three months in advance as I had to have a very specific day of the week due to Market Day in my village in Provence.

The contract read that I would pack and unpack the non-fragile items (books; bed linen) and they would pack (and unpack) everything else. This would become a crucial issue later on.

When I have serious French-American cultural questions in Provence, I have always turned to my resident guru Walter Wells, who has lived in France for about 30 years.

Over coffee at the Universal Café on my town square, Walter and I discussed the intricacies of the French end of an international move. I explained that I had a wine cellar filled with bottles that could not be sent to America (requires a special license to import alcohol) as well as many bottles of high quality brand name booze, most of them un-opened. Estimated value of this stash was about 500 euros.

Walter and I agreed that if I gave the movers the wine and booze as their tip, I did not need to add a cash tip—they would happily resell it and make some profit. So that was the plan…until my crew showed up, turned out to be Germans who spoke flawless English and were delighted with the liquid, but also required a 50 euro cash tip.

It was an easy enough moving day for me – I had done all my packing ahead of time, scrounging up free boxes from my local Point P hardware store and the city dump. The Guys – two young men in their mid-twenties—arrived on schedule and cheerfully and carefully packed my precious breakables.

They loaded the truck with the finesse of an MIT engineer. While I sweated the facts, they kept assuring me that it was all going to fit and that I was within my size limit. I began to have horrible fantasies that I had exceeded my ‘survey’ and would have a buffet or two left behind on the docks.

During the survey, the visiting agent told me I had between 15 and 18 cubic meters; the final devis said I was being charged for 20, so I could make one last “free” trip to Isle sur Sorgue. In the end, it cost more or less the same thing to bring a little, or bring a lot. I brought a lot.

The S&K people were 100% efficient and consistent. I received an email telling me the day my goods were loaded onto the ship. I received another email telling me when my ship sailed and when it would arrive in Oakland.

Even the immediate part after arrival in Oakland was fairly smooth and professional. I was selected for a random Homeland Security X-ray for which I had to pay $67. I was very grateful that the US government saw fit to protect itself from my 20 year old bed linens and 150 year old spinning wheel.

The same freight forwarding agents that handled one of my previous shipments was again in charge and was informative and helpful. After the X-ray, the world came apart.

Despite the fact that I am a three hour drive from the port of Oakland, I was put into a holding period for delivery and told this was the busiest time of year; to be patient. I was told I’d have my goods within another two weeks or so. God created the world in seven days, a transatlantic crossing is six days and trucking fewer than 200 miles would take two weeks.

I had scheduled houseguests without understanding that this was going to be an extended piece of torture. I was living in an almost empty house, again, without understanding the extended times involved. My ship came to port on June 17. For some silly reason, I thought I’d have delivery a week later. Silly moi.


International shipping is a miracle. That anyone gets anything is totally amazing. My furniture left my house in Provence and went to Marseille. From there it went to the port of Anvers and traveled through The Panama Canal to Oakland. From Oakland it went through US Customs and Homeland Security and then went to a warehouse in San Jose. It came to my house over three months after it left my house in France. God only knows how many people handled the shipment.

With much pressure and a fair amount of begging, the relocation firm in San Jose made a date for delivery. Indeed, the freight forwarder in San Diego turned me over to a relocation firm in San Jose. So many cooks, so little broth.

Two tall, good-looking guys arrived with a giant truck and began to unload while I checked off the numbers on each piece. Items without numbers (there were about a dozen of these) went into a special part of my garage to be inventoried when the truck was empty.

I baked home -made chocolate chip cookies for these guys; I fed them cold soft drinks, gave them a bottle of local wine with a lesson on area specialties and added in a $100 cash tip. In exchange, one of them gave me a lot of attitude…and left me high and dry and up Shit Creek without a mattress.

Let me make a tangential aside at this point. My beds were two matching Sealy Posturpedic mattresses which were made up in my Provencale guest room as a king-size bed, using American sheets.

French beds, for those who don’t have a clue, are not the same size as US beds and therefore take different sheets. My beds came from America and were of a quality superior to any French bed. A set of twins is made up of four pieces: two boxsprings and two mattresses.

When we went through the entire inventory, I knew immediately that I was missing a mattress and had three out of four parts to a bed. The remaining mattress was not only useless, but in a replacement situation, I would need to find an identical twin for king-making purposes or buy two new mattresses.

Meanwhile, back at the tract house, I had been told by the freight forwarders that the relocation firm’s movers would unpack all fragile items and put them on a flat surface, but not put them away in shelves. I was told to check china bins for damage and report damage or loss immediately on the paperwork.

Instead, the movers never brought all of the boxes into the house. They left tall towers of boxes of fragile goods stacked in the garage, at a height impossible to reach by any mere mortal. Of the things I did unpack, there were a few broken dishes, including my most valuable piece of ceramic – a Bjorn Winblad tulipiere that had belonged to my mother and was her most prized possession.

When the Handsome Hunks decided they were finished, they presented me with a sheaf of paperwork, including a waiver saying that they had unpacked the dishes.
“Why should I sign this?”
“Because this is America and we never do everything we say we will because we’re on a schedule.”

So I signed. Spare me from attitude like that.

I was immediately sorry that I signed and didn’t make them perform their contractual duties, the smart alecky SOBs. I was also tired and resentful and pissed off.

When I tried to register the missing and broken pieces of furniture, as instructed by the freight forwarder, I was told that I could only do so with the shipping numbers. These numbers were located on the wrapping paper which has been removed and destroyed.

The final straw was the tirade on why these guys would not even attempt to rebuild my French furniture (“The day doesn’t have enough hours, lady.”) So they left and I cried.

Bill and Tom are in my bedroom as I write, they are wearing helmets with lights, like coal miners. Their ponytails are secure, to keep hair away from their eyes as they peer into the depths of my walnut armoire and build it, and then re-build it when they discover the sides are upside down.

These are the Pros from Dover, sent by my international shipping agents S&K, in what is called a Third Party Procedure. Most of my French farm furniture is a few hundred years old and impossible to assemble unless you are French, or have put together several hundred of these babies, as have Bill and Tom, who have been antiques experts for over 30 years. Vive la difference.

Moving Made Easy is yet another firm contracted in this international move – S&K has been able to send these guys over here, putting the number of sub-contractors at five. They drove 60 minutes from Santa Maria, California to get here to rescue me – that was the closest town that had the experts guaranteed to be able to remontez this sucker. God bless S&K..and do they know where my missing mattress is?

Having antique furniture brought to America can be a problem because older pieces, especially rustic and farm pieces, use a series of pegs and dowels, but no metal hooks or hinges. These items are easily demontez in France, where boys probably stand at the knee of pere/ papa or learn these tasks by osmosis. Rebuilding them, however, takes more than the vision of understanding where the parts line up. Seeing how it works and getting the monster built are two different tasks.

Each time I have an elaborate piece of furniture deconstructed, I jokingly ask the moving team if they will be coming to America with me to re-build the furniture. This usually gets a good laugh and some willing volunteers. This move, the German team scoffed at my suggestion, saying ‘Aw shucks, you don’t need us, the moving company will send someone who knows exactly how to do this. They will take good care of you.”

It took careful research through my contract and old emails to remind S&K the services that I paid for. Once reminded, they were fabulous and contracted their agents in New Jersey who run a network of handymen and antiques dealers. Bill and Tom specialize in the German shrunk, an armoire similar to the French style, which can be totally knocked down for travel and is the basis of the IKEA concept. Because there are a number of military bases in this area, they have a business doing shrunks and all sorts of restorations, even china. Hmmmm, is it time to show them the Winblad?

There were three items that were demontee in France, so basically I was entitled to have them rebuilt in the US. The baby crib, I did not need and will wait for a grandchild before I bring out of the garage. But I wanted the berceau, a wrought iron cradle from the 1930’s. The bassinette did not have its screws attached, unusual as it is the custom with movers to carefully attach all parts and findings. Bill and Tom had to scramble thru my stuff and their truck, trying to find an acorn nut bolt that would do the trick.
No such luck, so they called HQ and actually got authorization to do the job right. They headed off to hardware store in search of the metric acorn and then returned to build the bassinette. They have spent three hours with me and shake hands goodbye like proper Frenchmen.
Lafayette, I am built.
When I am finally alone, I can drape the nets and tissues indiennes on the bassinette and fill the shelves with sweaters and towels.
Now I can sit back and try to figure out what I will be reimbursed for the missing mattress, the also-gone antique bamboo end table and all the broken dishes. At least I’m not dealing with British Petroleum…and I have pictures.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Moving Experience

My furniture has arrived from France and I, for one, am very happy to see it. Except for the part I can't see, like the missing antique bamboo table (valuable) and the missing mattress that is part of my guest room set-- two boxsprings, but only one mattress. Mon dieu!

For the Consumer Gotcha report on what can go wrong (and right) on an international move, I will soon post the saga.

Dog Days of Summer

Toffee, my five year old, loves ice cubes. Junior, my senior doxie, does not. So it is for Toffee that I tell you now about one of the most outrageous products I have found for this summer-- doggy popsicles!

Wormy Shoes

Scene / seen at my local WalMart: it's the wormy shoes for cleaning, in green or in hot pink -- i wonder if the pink ones are left over from Breast Cancer Awareness Month? It's the Slipper Genie!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I'll Bring Dessert

Some day, I vow, I will write a cookbook called 'I'll Bring Dessert' since that seems to be my specialty in the world of revolving dinner parties and hostess contributions. Until then, I will have to keep up my repetoire by coming up with interesting desserts to take along.

Tomorrow night I am going to a picnic in the park to listen to an outdoor concert and enjoy our dinner before bugs arrive. I'm bringing dessert, natch.

My first thought was to create something yummy from the chocolate angel food cake I found at the Safeway. I had never eaten -- or even seen-- a chocolate angel food cake, so I thought this could be the basis for something with fresh fruit and cream or custard or something gooey.

This morning, I watched Martha Stewart whip up a fresh caramel sauce and knew that would be my choice -- chocolate cake with custard and caramel sauce. I decided I better taste the cake before I moved forward with the individualized plastic containers I would need to prepare. Yuck! A very chemically chocolate taste. Not a serious yuck, but not a yum either.

I decided the ingredients in caramel sauce were too precious to risk them on an iffy project and began to look elsewhere for inspiration. That's when I realized that Sarah had brought enormous bags of fresh cherries from the farm stands in Gilroy and I still had enough for a calfoutis. That was the good news. The bad news was the realization that a clafoutis, as delish as it can be and as perfect a summer dish as ever existed, is not the right kind of thing to eat on a picnic, especially a picnic on the grass. Clafoutis is usually of pudding consistency and I felt that I wanted something in attractive, individual serving sizes.

That's when I remembered my stash of Shopping Detective finds.

I had recently purchased a few different packs of something called a Cupcake Creations TM mold -- described as 'elegant bakery quality baking cups' on the colorful package.

They are made in Sweden, which means you have a genuine Swedish dish on your hands!

The basic concept is that these wraps or cooking containers are a cross between the kind of paper we are used to baking with and the new resin molds, strong enough to stand on their own in the oven and in servings so that you do not need a muffin tin or separate pastry pan.

Part of the appeal is the wide range of shapes, sizes and colors available.

I bought some blue and white cupcake molds and some fluted white and gold tubs that would be right for a lemon square or a small eclair. You place the liners on a cookie sheet and bake. They do not affect the taste of your foods and they are made of natural paper, so you aren't cooking with odd chemicals.

You can toss the container after eating the pastry inside. Then you have to buy more. Both of my packs had 32 units in each;

I have decided to make my clafoutis recipe with an extra dash of flour to make it a little more cake-y and to bake up a few dozen in these beautiful papers. They will be the perfect picnic accessory and a good excuse to go wild with the butter and brown sugar.