7 Days in Tibet

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Aurua Tibetan Medicine Billboard in Caojiabao Airport in Xining

A hundred people or so mill drowsily about the baggage claim area at the Caojiabao Airport in Xining, China at 9:45 on a Sunday night waiting for the whirl of the conveyer belt to start again signaling the arrival of more baggage.  Mounted on the wall over the snake-like luggage delivery system hangs a dark red billboard touting  Arura Tibetan Medicines in large yellow characters and Latin letters. Arura with its medical college, traditional Tibetan medical hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturing company, chain of drug stores and Tibetan Cultural Museum is a big dollar industry in these parts and sponsor of my trip to the Tibetan Plateau. As I feebly stand with the group of seven other Americans that are with me on this junket, the effects of the 22 hour trip from Charlottesville and several bottles of water to keep hydrated on the plane take hold and I am called to visit the loo. Twenty feet from the Women’s Restroom door the sour smell of a Chinese bathroom assaults my nostrils and I recall the defining factor of travel in Asia – the toilets, or better put, the lack there of.

China and the United States are located on opposite sides of the planet and in many ways are as opposing in cultures.  What often is considered polite behavior in China is considered vulgar in the U.S. and vice verse. Value of space, time, material objects and food is dispersed differently making travel in each other’s country a mind-blowing experience. It is rather like turning one’s brain inside-out.

For all the differences between the United States and what is called mainland China, echoes of the traditional Tibetan nomadic way of life still heavily influence the social mores of the mixed Chinese/Tibetan populations on the Plateau. Xining is a bustling city that looks like Seattle with an Asian flair.  It is the capital and largest city of the the Qinghai province with a population just shy of 2,300,000 the vast majority of whom live inside the urban area. In fact one distinction of Xining is its lack of suburbs. Four minutes drive outside of the high-rises and one is amongst vast scrub covered fields with brownish mountains looming near by. Impressive in size by day, the city is best viewed at night when its heart is lit as brightly as Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World – a beacon in the vastness of the dark Plateau.

The view from my room at the top rated, Qinghai Hotel (thankfully, outfitted with Western style toilets in the posh marble bathroom) confirmed the density of the city. As a thread of cigarette smoke from a neighboring room sneaks in through my open window, I am reminded that the Chinese smoke like its 1965. Wafts of cigarette smoke are everywhere – restaurants, work spaces, even in elevators. But that doesn’t stop the residents of Xining from healthy activities like exercising which they do each morning and evening in public parks. The Qunghai Hotel is located next door to a major city park which stretches along the banks of the Huangshui River.  At seven in the morning music and news are broadcast all over the city via loudspeakers mounted on buildings marking the start of the day in a Communist Country.  People then flood the parks to power walk, jog, dance, practice tai chi and chi gong before heading to work. But the Chinese, unlike Americans, are much less serious about exercise and much more physically conservative. The gestures of the 100 or so participants  in the outdoor Zumba class I joined one evening, were so conservative the group more closely resembled small children learning ballet than grown women performing steamy Latin dance moves.

Due to its altitude (Xining is 7,464) the Tibetan Plateau is arid, low humidity and fairly cool temperatures so that even in July high temperatures hover between the mid-fifties and low-seventies dropping into the low-forties at night. So jackets and the consumption of several cups of Yak butter tea, a murky concoction that tastes like liquified buttered popcorn and is served everywhere in this part of China, are necessary for comfort.  Since very little vegetation grows in the climate the main native food sources are Yak (which tastes like a cross between beef and venison) and sheep. Even the Buddhist Monks eat loads of Yak and drink rivers of Yak butter tea dispelling a preconceived notion that Buddhists are automatically vegetarians. “What else would we eat, if we didn’t eat Yak?,” laughed our tour facilitator, Dr. Kunchok Gyaltsen, a Tibetan  Monk.

Most Westerners don’t visit Xining when traveling in this part of China usually heading directly to Lhasa but there are a few places that make it a worthwhile destination. One is the Qinghai Tibetan Medicine and Culture Museum which gives the visitor an idea of how the current culture was shaped. The museum houses artifacts like a complete set of Tibetan medical instruments and diorama’s of traditional nomadic life. The most spectacular display however is The Great Thangka, an impossibly long  (618 meter or 2018 feet)  painted history of Tibetan stories, religion, culture, medicine and art. Brilliantly displayed in a winding glass case, this masterpiece took 400 artists 4 years to complete and if one really examined each frame’s intricate details it might take 4 years to view.

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Entrance Hall at the Qinghai Tibetan Medicine and Culture Museum

Another important cultural site is Kumbum Monastery, one of the six most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries located twenty-six kilometers south of Xining. Once housing thousands of Buddhist Monks, Kumbum which means Image of a hundred-thousand Buddhas, is the birthplace of Lhama Tsong-kha-pa (1357 – 1419), the founder of the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect.  Legend has it that a sandalwood tree grew on the spot he was born with an image of the Buddha on each leaf. There is a small temple and incense burning stupa marking the. spot  Squeezing between multiple gaggles of visitors, through the Great Hall of Meditation where silk fabric hangs like Spanish Moss from the cross beams, I think about the 600 monks in current residence and what is must be like to live in such a huge tourist destination. With hundreds of people visiting daily, Kumbum is hardly the isolated, quiet retreat one might envision. In fact most Monks in the crowds surrounding us were quite well connected to the outside world via the magic of iPhones and iPads, the technology of choice due to its Tibetan language option.

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Tibetan Monk, Dr. Kunchok with i Phone at Kumbum

Since most of my time in Xining was spent indoors in meetings with our excellent Arura hosts, it was a wonderful treat to get outside for a lunch in the grasslands and a visit to the Qinghai Lake. On 100 km trip from Xining to “The Blue Lake” we stopped for a traditional Tibetan meal in a yurt-like tent. Tibetans, like many nomadic peoples, are warm, welcoming people who tote little furniture but who love to entertain. We sat on the grass floor of the tent at low tables, the wind flapping the thick canvas walls and were served course after course of Tibetan fare – in this culture more is more when it comes to food. Among the many dishes served up with Yak butter tea were sweet rice, a  rice dish with sugar,  droma (something like bean sized sweet potato) and Yak butter; fruits, vegetables, corn, dumplings with yak meat, lamb dishes and ingredients to make our own tsampa.  Tsampa is a staple of traditional Tibetan diet made from barley flour, yak butter, water or yak butter tea and sugar expertly mixed with the hands into a malleable dough ball and eaten. It is easy to make, portable and durable making it the ideal food for people on the go. Entertainment is an important part of the culture so after lunch we sang (I think there is a version of me trying to teach everyone to sing a round on YouTube somewhere- not worth watching) and learned Tibetan dance moves then took some time just laying in the long soft grass absorbing sunlight as the constant wind blew over our bodies.

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                                On the Tibetan Plateau

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      Making Tsampa at lunch

A short drive to the Blue Lake revealed a huge azure body of water covering over 1700 square miles fed by 23 rivers and streams. Though it was mid July, the water and the air are still too cool for swimming but given the distance of the ocean it is a hot vacation spot.  Though it is not overwhelmingly touristy, there are some hotels and campsites along the water’s edge in places with vendors waiting to take tourists money like any other resort. My favorite were the photo ops with a Yak which sadly I had to forgo in order to get to our farewell dinner back in the city.

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Blue Lake

The next day we began our travel to Lhasa. Many people think that taking the train to Lhasa is a romantic prospect or that a perceived gradual incline of the train route from Xining will help with adjustment to the altitude. Both of these concepts are a myths. For many Westerners who are accustomed to space and privacy, overnight travel on Chinese trains is grueling. Sleeper compartments accommodate six travelers in stacked bunk beds and are open to the hallway (no doors) so that any passer by has access. Toilets, which are thankfully private, are basically steel basins set in the floor that flush onto the train tracks on more modern trains and simply openings in the floor on older ones.  Sinks are in the hallway so that in the morning there is a symphony of loud hocking and spitting, a Chinese ritual for clearing the throat. In terms of altitude adjustment the train moves along at an almost level altitude until about halfway through the journey then makes a rapid ascent to 17,158 feet above sea level at the highest point then lowers to Lhasa (11, 450 feet above sea level) debunking the gradual climb altitude adjustment theory. 

In my case, the 23 hour train ride was booked for our group in order to see the grandeur of the great Tibetan Plateau and the budding of the Himalayas on the planes but at the last minute I was culled and sent on a train solo. Since the journey began at 10:00 o’clock at night, I saw only a few hours of stunning terrain in the morning hours before succumbing to altitude sickness which had me flattened on my middle level bunk without a view for the remaining 9 hours of the trip.

Arriving in Lhasa, I met Dolma, my charming Tibetan guide and chauffeured via van to the stunning St. Regis Lhasa Resort where I was greeted by name by every staff member I saw and escorted by Anthony, my St. Regis Butler, to a beautiful suite with a garden view.  The contrast between this sumptuous hotel and the stark utilitarian feel of the train put me in a state of mild awestruck shock. The St. Regis is a stellar example of how modern luxury can intermingle with native architecture and decor to create a tasteful, respectful environment to house sophisticated travelers. The design of the hotel itself is reminiscent of the Potala Palace with white stucco walls and dark tiled pagoda roof lines and there are gorgeous views of the actual Potala from the large picture windows in the lobby. Tibetan artifacts, Buddha sculptures, a mural of Lhasa and contemporary Tibetan themed paintings grace the lobby area lending a museum-like feel to the experience. A bath in the deep freestanding ceramic bathtub followed by a deep sleep snuggled between high count cotton sheets were much needed perks following the train ride and critical elements in perking me up for the following day’s sight seeing.

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Devotee turning prayer wheels at the Potala

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               Suite in the St. Regis in Lhasa

In the morning I walked with Tibetan Buddhist devotees around the parameters of the Potala, which for centuries was the home of the Dalai Lhama but vacated by the 14th Dalai Lhama who was exhiled duing the Tibetan uprising of 1959. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Potala is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists and several hundred circumambulate clockwise around the base of the palace each day often spinning the large brass prayer wheels that line almost half of the parameter as they go. I was too late to get tickets for an interior tour as they sell out fast so I headed to Jokhang Temple, a Buddhist monastery and sacred site that was once a palace built for the two wives of king Songsten Gampo in the 7th century. Jokhang stands out in the old part of Lhasa with its gleaming white walls and golden rooftop statues of deer flanking a Dharma wheel. Once the visitor enters through the courtyard, the temple becomes a dusky incense cured maze of chapels lined with tongkas and glass cased statues of deities illuminated with yak butter candles and lamps. People bring white or gold silk katas, flowers and money as offerings to the various gods to fulfill prayers. My last stop before a sumptuous traditional Tibetan feast in the Si Zi Kang restaurant at the St. Regis for the day is the Tsamkhung nunnery located on a skinny back street in historic Lhasa. Not a major tourist stop, it is a charming place with cheerful nuns working away at making jewelry and other small items to sell in the gift shop their major source of income yet holds the distinction of housing a precious statue of Gampo who died in 650AD. This is where I did the majority of souvenir shopping for folks back home, picking up some beautiful handmade pieces for considerably less than shops that line the streets or the open market place.

Needing a day of rest before the long journey back to the states, I spent the last day of my time in Tibet luxuriating at the St. Regis. And when it comes to luxury, the St. Regis knows how to do it right.  A tour of the property revealed that the property boasts 22 luxury guest rooms, 28 private villas and 2 very impressive apartment-like suites complete with stunning views, outdoor decks, full kitchens and dining areas and lavish master suites. A rare shallow pond graces the interior courtyard, the ions and humidity emitted from it supposedly offer healing properties in the dry climate. The gold-tiled indoor pool located in the full-service Iridium Spa also purportedly offers healing qualities. I enjoyed a private yoga session in the Spa’s yoga studio then an excellent hot-stone massage at the to get the travel kinks out of my system before embarking on the 32 hour journey back to Charlottesville, Virginia the next day. I ended my day in Decanter, the Haut-Brisson designed wine bar. Good wine is rare in China, thus the Decanter is place to begin my transition back to Western life. Sitting outside on the garden deck, I sip an excellent Bordeaux and contemplate the joys and challenges of the last seven days. A giggle emerges as I realize a newfound appreciation for Western plumbing that will carry me cheerfully through the experience of an airplane restroom on a long flight in the coming hours.

Would I be willing to return to the so-called rooftop of the world despite the sketchy restroom situation? Undoubtedly, yes.

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Tibetan artifacts in the lobby at the St. Regis in Lhasa

Earnestly fun!

The Free Dictionary defines Earnest thusly:

ear·nest 1

(ûr′nĭst)

adj.

Showing or expressing sincerity or seriousness:
The paradox of Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest  is that there is nothing serious about it- except that it is earnestly mocking the shallow social morays of  late 19th century England. The play includes all of the entangling issues of two young gentlemen using false names wish to marry different young ladies while questions of origin and unyielding loyalty to a first name keep them from matrimony.
As expected from the white Wilde, hilarity ensues.  As expected from the company at American Shakespeare Center, that hilarity is deftly executed.
The entire cast was great but my favorite performance was Susie Parr’s Cecily Cardew (odd- since I am partial to Gwendolyn Fairfax whom I depicted in a High School production.) Parr’s delightful innocence and naivete served the play perfectly, making her mercurial moods believable as they are silly.
This is a wonderfully simplified version of a great classic that everyone should see.
More info here.

Cultural Assessment for 2015

Hello Culture Nuts!

Yes, it has been a long time since my last post and I am late with my cultural review for 2015 … please forgive me, I offer the lamest of excuses- I have been really busy.  I finished a ghost writing project (only 2.5 years of work), and started writing some content for a local University’s many publications while holding down a few other jobs and being a single mom.

OK. Enough. We are all busy, I know.

Even though I barely blogged a word last year, I did get a handle on a considerable amount of culture and this year is proving to be just as fabulous so far.  So here is the Culture Maven’s summary of cultural experiences based on the ticket stubs I saved last year.  Of course I attended first Fridays ( local gallery walk in Charlottesville) a few times, hung out at some cool events at the IX Art Park and spent many hours at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson which is right by my house and were I work part time as a guide- but none of those things had ticket stubs.

So here it is:

Last year I attended:

1 film premier (Cheatin’)

1 television show premier (Mercy Street)

visited one historic home that was not Monticello (Montpelier)

1 classical concert (Behzod Abduraimov)

4 regular films -in a real movie theater (fav: Me and Earl and The Dying Girl)

1 MET opera -on screen at a local movie theater (Madoma Butterfly)

3 National Theater Performances -on screen at a movie theater (fav: Coriolanus – AMAZING!!!)

6 museum exhibitions (fav: Rodin at VMFA)

17 plays – live (fav: Patrick Earl as Hamlet at American Shakespeare Center)

I have already seen some great exhibits and plays this year including, Bad Jews at Studio Theatre in DC and The Other Place at Live Arts here in Charlottesville so 2016 is looking like an extra culture-full year.

So I am offering up this challenge- arts and culture journalists excluded- see if you can top me this year.

All best and belated Happy New Year!

The Culture Maven

 

 

 

The Don’ts of Writing a Bucket List

Every year around this time, I set aside a day or so to be alone and work on my goals for the year and beyond- a bucket list of sorts. But for me it is important to take this exercise a little further than a simple list. Visuals are important to help make my goals and dreams come true and visuals that I can look at every day are even better. So I make a “visioning book” instead using a small notebook and pictures cut out from magazines or printed off the internet. Using this technique allows me to journal about my bucket list items AND have consistent visuals to help reinforce them in my brain which provides detail which helps keep me focused. The small size of the notebook makes it portable so it can go with me on my travels. I can also easily add things to the notebook and use any extra pages for daily gratitude lists and/or stories about how my dreams actuated.
Weather you decide to create a list, poster or notebook or nothing at all, I hope you have the chance to realize at least one dream in 2015!
Happy New Year!!

WNRN Culture Connection for October 6 – 12

You can indulge in a fantastic wine dinner for the arts, a play about a different kind of love triangle and celebrate Columbus Day by decorating cookies or zip-lining this week in Central Virginia.  To get the skinny on these events, click on the links below the event titles or you can listen to this week’s Culture Connection by clicking the features bar at wnrn.org and searching Culture Connection.

Noel Coward’s Design for Living at RTP:

http://www.rtriangle.org

Columbus Day Celebrations at Wintergreen:

http://www.wintergreenresort.com/Columbus-Day/

New City Arts Wine Diner at Blenheim:

http://www.newcityarts.org/the-event/new-city-arts-farm-to-table-dinner/

The Cast of Design for Living at Richmond Triangle Players

The Cast of Design for Living at Richmond Triangle Players

Have a fantastic week and get out there do some hiking, pick some apples and get some culture.

Best,

Mary

The Culture Maven

WNRN logo

A New Year of Art and Culture

2014 is upon us!  And a happy new year for me already as a dream has already come true.  2013 was a year for planting seeds, for preparing.  I brought in the year with a silent retreat at Yogaville, all introspective and transformational and rung it out with a fine dinner at a friend’s then a play at Live Arts.  Yes, I went to see THE PHILADELPHIA STORY on New Year’s Eve and though the play turned out to be a confusing scriptural muddle, I enjoyed the company and the party afterwards where we brought in 2014 with a traditional champagne toast and a little dancing.

The following days had me putting the finishing touches on my first radio show, a 3o minute broadcast I am co-producing with Matthew Slaats from The Bridge here in Charlottesville, examining how Virginia artists are influenced and influence the world at large.  The show aired on WNRN on Sunday at 11:00am as part of an extended Culture Connection in conjunction with 30 Minute Throwdown, a radio show produced by students from the Tandem Friends School in collaboration with the Music Resource Center and WNRN. This is a dream come true for me and I am really proud of our premier effort which I listened to today.

Other than that, I road tripped up to DC to see THE ART OF TRANSFORMATION an exhibit of art related to yoga at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian on Friday.  If you are a yogi/yogini it is a must see but hurry because it leaves in two weeks.  Tip:  Use the magnifying glasses provided to get a better look at the minute details in the drawings and paintings.

On the television front, I finished BREAKING BAD this weekend and honestly was happy for it to end.  I had grown weary of Jessie’s whimpering, Todd’s effortless evil and if I had to see Schyler’s deer-in-the-headlights look one more time… Agggghhh!  But loose ends were wrapped up nicely and I enjoyed seeing Badger and Skinny Pete one last time.  At this writing, I await the season premier of DOWNTON ABBEY with tingles of excited anticipation.

ART NOTE:  If you like museums but dislike crowds January and February are THE best months to hit the galleries.  DC and New York are practically empty and you can get great deals on hotel rooms too.

Have a great week and get out there and get cultured.

The Culture Maven

Illness and a few holiday events

In the last post, I mentioned had been/was sick.  Well, I felt better, ran around doing holiday business and work and landed right back in bed for four more days missing a few holiday parties and emerging on Saturday the 21st for a visit to Jefferson Vineyards with my dear friend Jacquie O’Connor and road tripping to Staunton with Jacquie and 7 other good pals to see THE SANTALAND DIARIES at American Shakespeare Center. It was, as usual, great fun.  I adore David Sedaris and have laughed at this monolog countless times.  After the show we all went to dinner at Emilio’s in Staunton and other than the arrangement of a private room (which, as wine was consumed and the group became quite loud, was a godsend), I cannot recommend it.  In fact at least two people in our party felt quite ill later in the evening but we had a great time anyway and next time I will make sure to get a reservation at Zynodoa, Aoli or the Mill well in advance (they were booked that night and it was inconvenient trying to find a better place to eat with a group of nine to herd).

Christmas Eve found me at Pearl’s bake shoppe picking up a gorgeous chocolate/mocha bouche de Noel for an afternoon tea party at some good friend’s in Richmond then off I went with my daughter in tow to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art to see the Hollywood Costume Exhibit.  I bought her a membership to the VMFA for part of her Christmas present (the student membership cost the same as her admission to the exhibit) which turned out to be a brilliant idea.  She felt very grown up having her own membership and she actually squealed with glee at some of the costumes she saw worn by a few of her idols like Edward Norton and Robert De Niro (she has strange taste for a 13 year old) plus she discovered some new films and actors.  She thanked me profusely for taking her to the exhibit as we enjoyed a coffee and a ginger ale in the Best Cafe. My favorite costume was one worn by Ginger Rogers, a sequined number with mink on the back of the skirt.  The exhibit leaves in early February (I think) so get there soon- this is the only east coast stop. After tea and carol singing at my friend’s, Sam (my daughter) and I went to my favorite Indian restaurant, Lehja for Christmas Eve dinner.  As usual, Sunny and his staff offered up good service and good food warming us on a chilly night and fortifying us for the drive back to Cville to feed our cat, Norton (yes, named ofter Edward Norton- told you my daughter is a fan) and wait for Santa. I had the corn soup for a starter and we split the Saag Paneer for our entree.  Lehja simply has the best Saag Paneer I have ever tasted, a spinach and cheese dish that means Indian comfort food to me.

We spent Christmas at Keswick Hall where we dined with several members of my extended family.  Talk about decking the Halls, Keswick is especially festive at Christmas with loads of garland, several decorated trees and a buffet lunch with items to satisfy everyone in your party.  I particularly enjoyed the prime rib and the duck salad. I just adore Keswick Hall as a place to take visitors and simple to feel like I am in that certain part of Charlottesville that is gracious, beautiful and embodies the mood that Ralph Lauren strives for in his preppy collection.  I just always feel so at home in the lounge seated next to the blazing fire and just enjoying the sumptuous country life to which Jefferson prescribed.

Friday night found me at The Livery Stable, a new restaurant/pub on the west end of Charlottesville’s downtown mall. There is a drink featured there named something like A Russian Mule, vodka, ginger beer and something else served in a special copper mug. It is my new favorite cocktail.  I also indulged in a pot roast slider (without the bread, of course) which was so delicious I was sorry to have only one order.  Chef Felix has plans to bump up the menu in 2014 possibly including adding Korean bbq. YUM!

Saturday was a day of shopping the sales with my Mum at Short Pump- part of my Christmas present.  We shopped for hours and enjoyed a nice lunch at the Cafe in Nordtrom.  My Tuscan Salmon was pretty good and would have been better had it been served a bit warmer but overall a lovely lunch.

Sam is gone and I am basically basking in the stillness and quiet but if I do go somewhere you will learn about it next week.

Happy New Year!

Mary

The Culture Maven

PS: WNRN Culture Connect, the extended version with me and Matt Slaats, premiers on Sunday January 5th at 11:00am on WNRN. Go to worn.org to stream it.

Short but Sweet Culture Week

images-1Cold weather just makes me want to sleep or move to the South Pacific so my Cultural life was slow but good this week.

One of the best parts of the week was Tuesday night’s San Fermin concert at The Southern in Charlottesville.  The eight piece band, headed by Yaley, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a genius composer who writes all the music for the band, is totally something new.  They are smart.  They are trained really good musicians.  They are nice.  They are my new fav up-and -coming band.  Check  them out http://sanferminband.com. I drank Va Cider and stayed out too late for a Tuesday and suffered for the next couple of days just being plain tired but it was worth it.

I was lucky enough to have 2 lunches out this week.  One at Tara Thai and the other at Taste of India on the downtown mall in Cville.  Tara Thai is a chain but good.  Taste of India was lacking in spice thus disappointing to me but my lunch company, Hawes Spencer, was delightful as always and had me laughing from Masala to my scoop of fennel and candy bits.

Saturday afternoon it was back to The Southern for a WNRN Member event featuring Ha Ha Tonka, five scruffy bluegrass based rock musicians who played a nice set of tunes to perk up a cold late autumn day. Then home to cook dinner for my daughter and prepare for a Richmond road trip to see the very gay holiday play, IT’S A FABULOUS LIFE at Richmond Triangle Players.  Yes, it is a take on the Capra Classic, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but this version is complete with drag queens, hot men in thongs and two of my favorite people/actors, that ADORABLE Chris Hester and Charlottesville powerhouse, Doug Schneider. I went with my friend, Deb, and ate beforehand at Con Su Bucco(is that correct?).  I feel totally stupid that I can’t remember the name exactly but it is in that goofy triangle in the middle of the Boulevard in the building that used to be a porno shop near the old Bill’s Barbecue.  Anyway… It is fabulous and I ate three tacos, chorizo, fish and pulled pork plus quac and loads of chips.  I ate way too much and the chips are from flour tortillas so I felt horrible at the show but it was so fun I forgot about it most of the time.

Ice squelched any desire I had to do anything on Sunday so I cooked, baked and ate a lot of really good food including an almond cake that lasted about an hour between my teenager and myself.

Stay safe and warm until next week!

And remember, Hamaganza – the final show ever- is next weekend in Richmond.  come Saturday night to Lulu’s for the best version.

M

The Culture Maven

Thankfully Stuffing My Face

I really like food.  I adore really good food.  Since the last couple of weeks has been about good food and some of Charlottesville’s rather Anglophile traditions I have been fatly happy.

It all began on Friday the 22nd with a business dinner at Fleurie, one of Charlottesville’s finest restaurants and a particular favorite of mine because the owner/very talented chef, Brian Helleburg, is one of the first friends I made after moving here about 2.5 years ago while working on a story for VIRGiNIA LIVING. Brian cooked up some Chinese Mystery snails for a story I wrote on invasive species and I knew right then that a guy who could make those things taste good was someone worthy of pal-dom.

Anyway…

The crab appetizer was divine.  Served on an elegant skinny rectangular plate, substantial chunks of sweet blue crab meat swam in a shallow pool of some yummy sauce.  I followed up with the venison, two tender, juicy medallions that melted in my mouth served over thinly sliced potatoes au gratin (because I don’t eat spatzel which I love but contains gluten). It is a rare meal that is prepared with such perfection and really I would marry Brian if I could eat like that everyday but I’m afraid his girlfriend might not like that.

Saturday found me at a tourist standard, Michie Tavern, on 53 on the way to Monticello.  It was my sister’s birthday celebration and she wanted to eat there (she is from out of town) and visit Carter Mountain Orchard.  Michie Tavern serves plain old Southern fare, like spoon bread, fried chicken and green beans boiled with ham for flavoring.  I grew up on this type of food so it is hardly a delicacy for me but I can see the appeal to foreigners and the nostalgia this type of cooking holds for my sister.  We sat at a long wooden table in front of a roaring fire, the perfect place to be on a chilly autumn day while being served by a woman in colonial garb.  It is all quite charming.

Following the obligatory cider purchase at Carter Mountain and sufficiently celebrating my sister, I dropped my daughter off at her friend’s house to watch the season opener of DR. WHO and went for a short hike.  Evening plans included dinner next to a roaring fire, this time in the bar at Keswick Hall.  I adore this particular venue for cold weather dinners because one may choose from the bar menu (which offers the best truffle oil fries I have ever tasted) or the dinner menu from Fosset’s, Keswick’s more formal dining area.  The bar is intimate and cozy and there is a lovely fire place to make it even cozier.  I dined on muscles in tomato broth and seared brussel sprouts which were so good – just tender on the inside and slightly crunchy on the outside- that my escort, who is not particularly a veggie fan, devoured at least half of the ample serving. After dinner we sauntered across the street to the Keswick Hunt Club (my friend is a member) for the tail end of a clam bake and dance party.  We danced to about 7 songs before the party shut down and it was time to head home.

Sunday I attended the final performance of BYE BYE BIRDIE at Tandem Friends School. The play was performed solely by TFS eighth graders offering a variety of skill and enthusiasm levels making the show a total hoot to watch.  Director and Middle School drama teacher, Lydia Horan, is brilliantly talented and somehow is able to get these young teens to put together a pretty good show.

The next event on my calendar was Love Cannon at the Jefferson Theatre on Wednesday the 27th.  I took my daughter and we delighted in the catchy, kitchy-ness of ’80’s pop tunes orchestrated to blue grass instruments.  It is just such happy music one MUST move to it.

Thursday morning I experienced another horsey tradition, the Blessing of the Hounds at Grace Church in Keswick before the annual Thanksgiving Fox Hunt.  People gather in front of the adorable stone church as mounted riders are blessed along with the hounds.  There is a ten minute ceremony then the riders, all dolled up in their English hunting costumes, head across rt.22 to a large field, give out some awards, then when the hunt master gives the signal, begin their ride. Apparently they actually hunt wild foxes. What happens to the fox or foxes once they are caught is unknown to me and I thought it impolite to ask at the time.  The event is pretty and pastoral and it is my dream to go out with them one year.

Thanksgiving dinner in Richmond at my sisters. Yum. Then on Friday, dinner of peanut soup (a personal favorite dish) and salad at TJ’s at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond before celebrating Chanukah at Virginia Rep’s production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. This was my friend, Christina’s first visit to the Jefferson (she lives in Charlottesville and her daughter, Mila shares the part of one of the daughters in the show) so I was reminded through her eyes of the splendor of the place.

It was fun to see FIDDLER during Chanukah.  It just added extra meaning to the story. Va Rep even had a menorah displayed in the theatre lobby which I found quite touching and thoughtful. I enjoyed the show, particularly David Benoit’s embodiment of Tevya, the choreography and the dancing. Everyone on stage looked like they were having fun.  At the end of the show, I chatted with WCVE theatre critic, the formidable John Porter, who said this was the best production of FIDDLER he had ever seen.

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I laid low the remainder of the weekend, hiding from the shopping crowds venturing out (other than for long walks) only for groceries on Sunday and to be interviewed about Radio Resource (a partnership between Music Resource Center and WNRN designed to give MRC members and other high school aged kids the opportunity to generate a half-hour radio program featuring music created by local teens) before the premier of the 30 Minute Throwdown on WNRN. Damani Harrison of MRC was supposed to be on the show but he was caught up in holiday travels making it impossible for him to be there so as a coordinator of the project, I filled in. 30 Minute Throwdown is full of youthful energy and showcases some amazing young local artists. You can learn more by going to the 30 Minute Throwdown FB page.  By the way, Trader Joe’s has outdone themselves with holiday treats this year, especially the caramels- go for them.

So until next week…be safe, be healthy and have fun.

Gratefully,

Mary

The Culture Maven

WNRN Culture Connection for October 28th – November 3rd (November! Who said it could be November already? Sheesh!)

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This week’s Culture Connection is an exploration in roots- the creepier side of history in Richmond, Virginia’s equine tradition in Orange and roots music in Lynchburg.

For a Halloween you’ll always remember join Eeerie Night’s Ghost Tours for a walk through Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom on Thursday. Follow your “ghoul guides”, to get the haunted scoop from ghosts at some famously haunted spots in Richmond,one the Nation’s most haunted cities.

Then on Saturday enjoy one of Virginia’s fine equine traditions at the Montpelier Races, a day of steeplechase racing and social schmoozing to benefit the nonprofit Montpelier Steeple Chase Foundation and the nonprofit Montpelier Foundation.

On Saturday night, Fast-rising roots rock singer Nikki Hill brings her gritty, raw vocal style and her driving rhythm section to The Ellington in Lynchburg.

If you know of a cool event coming up in the next month shoot me an email at mary@wnrn.org and help me help you to make a wnrn Culture Connection.

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