grey marble

August 24, 2009

Beijing days

I arrived in good time from Seoul. The flight was half-full and short; it was about an hour and a half. We were up in the air, a meal was served, and we were beginning our descent.

At the airport the health inspection area was as expansive as customs, a marked improvement over the folding tables at Incheon, though somewhat more imposing. The process went more smoothly however. An attendant took my health questionnaire and waved me through.

I took the train into the city. The outskirts zipped by the window. An Ikea passed on the horizon. New apartments rose in rows like corn.

Once in the city I took the subway to Hepingmen station and walked. The streets were familiar from the year before. I had biked down to the area to check out where we had stayed all those years before.

I was surprised to find my parents at the hotel. I had assumed they would be out all day. I suggested we go to Beihai as the sun was shining and the temperatures were moderate. Later, Ed would tell me we were lucky with the weather. The day of our arrivals signaled a break in the hot Beijing summer. He told me the reason so many people were out that Saturday was because it was the first relatively cool day in some time.

I called Ed for a restaurant recommendation and he suggested a Yunnanese place in HoHai. We took a cab to the area and then walked around the lake looking for the No Name restaurant. At a bar with the same lack of a name a girl offered to show us the restaurant. She lead us down a hutong and we were soon eating a tasty Yunnanese meal

Beihai wasn't as crowded as I thought it might be, though the lake itself was covered with boats. We wound our way along the Eastern banks and then around the small island atop which sits a gleaming white stupa.

We wandered south along the edge of the Forbidden Palace and made our way to the National Theater. We inquired about tickets to a Shanghainese opera but my mother decided against it as the prices on the remaining tickets were high.

By this time I was exhausted. We walked back to the hotel. My parents went to eat dinner; I crashed.

The next day we split up. My parents had decided to see some places I'd already been and so I went to visit Ed and his fiancee Tini. I took the subway to their house and was soon seated at their dining room table, offering to stuff wedding invitations into envelopes.

It was great seeing them and we marvelled that a year had already passed since I was last in Beijing. Ww talked about the wedding and all the planning that goes into it. We talked about the clothes they were having made and Ed mentioned that a tailor was coming by that afternoon if I wanted anything made. We talked about logistics and how their guests would get around and we all agreed I would help if they had cell phones so their guests could contact them at any time if need be.

At noon we met up with one of Tini's friends and his mom for dim sum at reportedly the best place in Beijing. They were visiting from San Francisco and Abu Dhabi, respectively. Ed mentioned that the after wedding brunch would be held there. Tini's friend said that they had brought him to the restaurant that was catering the wedding the night before. He would be unable to make the wedding and I joked that he was getting the dry run of everything. He said that he'd have to just remember what each meal was as the time approached.

I tried calling my mom after dim sum but couldn't reach her and so I joined Tini and Ed as they met with their videographer. I still couldn't reach my parents and so I went back to Ed's place and helped him make updates to his wedding website.

Still unable to reach my parents I decided to go back to the hotel to wait for them. It turned out that I had copied their number incorrectly. They had had quite an adventure as they had meant to go to one park and ended up in another. Taking the bus back had taken over an hour and a half and they were exhausted. We had a quiet dinner at the hotel and turned in.

Yesterday we went to the Temple of Heaven after walking through the renovated shopping area by our hotel. Newly built Chinese-style buildings are being erected for the likes of Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo. A fake cable car runs along the pedestrian avenue.

The temple was much as I remembered it though the grounds were far more expansive. We entered through the western gate and ended up seeing the sights in reverse. The temple itself was the main attraction and then there was a smaller building with a rounded wall named the "echo" wall. People screamed into it to see if others could hear, paying scant attention to where people should stand. Messages were hollered and answered with little help from the wall's echo.

We left by the eastern gate and took the subway to Renmingren, a park and gardens built on the ruins of a former palace gardens. We walked along the ponds, covered with lotus leaves. The ruins were swarming with tour groups, megaphones blaring. One pond boasted black swans and I stood enthralled by them as they swam up to the shore to feed.

That night we had roast duck and dumplings in a restaurant located in the renovated shopping area. At night the streets are lit with lamps and the street car groans its way down the avenue. The sounds of construction continue throughout the night. It feels as though the area is behind schedule, already a shadow of what it was imagined to be.

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August 21, 2009

Dark night of the Seoul

It's a dark night in Seoul. The sun won't be up for hours. I'm in the airport on a five hour layover and there's no one around. 

The airport is a ghost town. There's even the odd bit of trash strewn across the main halls. A small group of people by the duty free collection windows offered the only activity I saw. They were tossing clear plastic bags into piles. They could have been organizing or they could have been taking out the trash.

The flight was long but the seats were relatively spacious. A Korean school group was on the flight and as they boarded they screamed to each other across the aisles. The petulant girl sandwiched between a poor Korean woman and I was all elbows. I was always barely asleep when she'd start writing notes with her heart-shaped pen to pass across me to her friends, or would readjust her position in her chair. When we arrived she was oddly silent and still.

A line formed just off the plane. Attendants were collecting health forms that asked if we had had any symptoms of H1N1. After asking as to our final destinations they applied an oblong plastic device behind our ear to take our temperature. The device beeped. The attendant thanked us and welcomed us to Korea.


Before leaving for Seoul I attended a concert by the Mark Morris Dance Group. He spoke before the performance, taking command of a question and answer session with Joan Accocella, dance critic for the New Yorker. She could barely keep up. Morris was erudite and charming when he wasn't withering when fielding half-formed questions. He told us he made dances so he could watch something beautiful that he loved. He talked of his love of music and demand for live music in performance. Someone asked if the latter proved expensive. Morris returned, "Tonight it is!" (Emmanuel Ax and Yo Yo Ma were two of the featured musicians.) He spoke of his love of Merce Cunningham and a new work he is re-choreographing. Although he began work on the dance before Cunningham's death, his presence is felt all over the work.

The performance began with two New York premieres, both of which were commissioned this year. The first harkened to the Morris with which I was familiar from his Mozart dances. Throughout, Ma seemed to have his eyes on the dancers, barely glancing at his music. The latter was reminiscent of work I had seen by Cunningham. A slip of paper in the program dedicated the evening to Merce.

After an intermission the company performed V, an amazingly choreographed dance. As I watched the first act unfold I understood Morris' description of perfect music and perfect motifs. The first movement was a genius formalist display. As the work unfolded I was enraptures and seeing that earlier work helped me gain eben greater appreciation for the new works that had come bofore.

All too soon it was over. The dancers took their bows. The musicians took their bows. Mark Morris took his bows. I gathered my bags from the checkroom and hailed a cab. My friend joined me for the ride as the cab made its way east, out of Manhattan and over the 59th Street Bridge with its amazing views of the city and to the airport. Then, unbounded by oceans and continents I bid adieu to the cab and farewell to my friend. I boarded a plane to continue my way to the east, with hours to go before it I shall reach.

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August 10, 2009

A whirlwind week of weddings

I have attended three weddings in the past week. On Saturday I stood in a Victorian-style garden in Queens as a family friend said her vows. Sunday, I watched as a fog rolled in over a Newport, Rhode Island hotel lawn as my cousin said her vows. Friday, the evening was clear and cool as one of my oldest friends in the world repeated his vows on an estate overlooking the Connecticut River. Saturday afternoon, one week after my first wedding in August, I slept. I woke to eat dinner, read a few pages in a book I've been trying to finish, then slept again until the next morning.

Saturday, August 1st, was a warm day. The sun shone, humidity was high. I took the subway to the last stop on the 7 line and soon found myself in the middle of Flushing. I took a bus to the Queens Botanic Gardens, worried I'd be late for Jenny's wedding as we inched our way through the weekend traffic.

A wedding party was leaving the Gardens as I arrived, and although I was still 15 minutes early, I wondered if I had misread the invitation. A park attendant stood in front of the Wedding garden and I asked him about the JL wedding. He checked his clipboard and told me I was on time. I asked him how many weddings were planned for that day. He said three actual weddings, but five additional couples had reserved time just for photographs.

There were only a few families in the garden when I arrived. I recognized one set of parents from my childhood and we caught each other up. They introduced me to their daughter Emily who had just graduated from college; I didn't remember her.

More people arrived, but the designated hour for the ceremony came and went without any sign of the wedding party (or the majority of the guests). Another hour lapsed, and I turned to one of the guests to ask if there had been a secret e-mail list that offered a true schedule for the wedding. He laughed and said if there was, he wasn't on it either.

News of traffic congestion soon arrived with a few of the late guests. Everyone was having trouble arriving, including the wedding party. We settled in to wait. Finally, the musicians who had been amongst the first to arrive unpacked their instruments began to warm up. The garden began to fill. Groomsmen gathered and then bade everyone to take their seats. The ceremony began.

The wedding itself was quick. Before I knew it the couple had said their vows and had begun their processional. Guests tried to blow bubbles from a small gift vial of soapy solution with little success (later Emily (a science teacher) and I tried to figure out why. I surmised that the ratio of soap to water was too low; she concurred). They then turned around to return to the garden for photos.

Soon, the park attendant appeared amongst the guests. Holding his clipboard, he signaled to all assembled that the garden needed to be cleared for the next event. We hurried to the exit to see two other wedding parties approach. One veered off into another garden while the other headed straight towards us. The parties congratulated each other as they passed.

The reception was held on the other side of Flushing Meadows park in a large concrete structure suspended on four square columns. The driver of a bus charted from Connecticut for the event told me it had once been a helicopter airport.

We rode elevators to one of the eight ballrooms above. The view was spectacular. From the floor to ceiling windows we could see Shea Stadium, the Unisphere, and other remnants of the World's Fair. The rooms were large and airy, and reminiscent of palace drawing rooms.

I grabbed a drink and chatted with Emily as everyone assembled. We were among the first to arrive and we gamely sampled every h'ors d'oeurves that pased our way.

Dinner was served buffet-style. Dancing followed, though the reception was an oddly stop-start affair. Later, someone told me that all Chinese weddings done in Flushing follow the same schedule, with the same group dances and wedding bridge under which the couple walk. I was confused after the first set of dance music ended; I thought the wedding was over, but a little later the music started again and dancing commenced anew.

After the wedding I piled into the chartered bus to head to Connecticut. I would stay at my parents house and then drive with them to Rhode Island the next morning. We hit traffic coming out of the city and didn't make it back home until two thirty in the morning.

Sunday I was up at eight. I ate breakfast with my family and a family friend who was staying with us for the week (she attended the Saturday wedding and was to attend the Friday wedding as well) before packing up the car and driving east. We arrived at the hotel near one to be told that we couldn't check in until three. We ate a quick lunch and then drove to another hotel where some of our extended family were staying. Their children were in the wedding as flower girls and ring bearers and we watched as they scrambled to get them ready.

Back at our hotel, a mass of guests had formed by reception. At three, the receptionist began to assign rooms, and one by one groups dispersed. My aunt went to her room to find it occupied. An uncle one bed in his room where two were necessary. It took another half hour to sort out everyone's room assignments, and then it was time to go.

The wedding venue was right by the water. We drove the long way around to get there, passing Newport mansions and winding our way around Ocean Avenue along the edge of the promontory to get to the site. A heavy fog was forming over the ocean, and the venue had set up chairs for an indoor wedding in the event of rain. The room was large and wooded, with great bay windows overlooking the lawn and bay. As we arrived they were hurredly setting up chairs outdoors as well. Guests arrived in groups, and I wandered the hall looking for my cousins.

The wedding began promptly. I stood behind everyone to take photos, but shot few. Other guests buzzed around the ceremony like flies, stepping in front of seated guests to set up their equipment and then take it down to move a foot this way or that. It made me consider banning people from taking photos during the ceremony if I were ever to get married.

Readings were read; a brother played a song on guitar. The bay became white with fog, and the ceremony progressed against this thick white wall.

After the ceremony, families gathered for pictures. Just as we were to begin, two of my cousins appeared. One had lost her way en route to the venue and had just arrived. Another had flown in from Frankfurt; she had been bumped from her previous flight and it wasn't until a German speaker from her program intervened that she managed to board the next flight to Boston. They had been held up in traffic and had also just arrived, in time for the family photographs.

The fog soon gave way to rain and everyone ducked into the hall for cocktail hour. We ate our h'ors d'oeurves and sipped our wine and spirits. I caught up with cousins I hadn't yet had a chance to see or talk to, and we all found our seating assignments. Everyone soon moved to the foyer of the building, as the doors had been left open and a breeze passed through the room.

We were soon seated for dinner. The first round of toasts began, but our table was without champagne. One of my cousins at an adjoining table rectified the situation, and we soon found ourselves with glasses half full. She smiled at me as she took a sip of her full glass.

As dinner wound down, the DJ began playing music, interrupting each song to announce the next; he seemed to lack the ability to mix songs, and used the interruptions as a means to queue up the next song. He played songs in theme blocks, but it didn't matter. People danced, and various groups appeared and then dispersed from the dance floor as the music shifted. Towards the end of the evening, the dance floor was sparsely occupied, but some danced through to the last song of the night.

Back at the hotel I asked a few cousins if they wanted to go to IHOP. My cousin Becca chicken had fallen asleep on a couch at the reception. She was suffering jetlag and so I decided to leave her alone. I went to bed.

The next morning my family and I followed the same path to the wedding venue. The day was clear and blue. We drove past the mansions and then the sea, stopping at a small park to admire the view. The day before, the skies above the park had been full of kites; the day we stopped there was but one person with a kite, and he had not yet succeeded in sending it aloft.

We drove back through the center of Newport, down the single lane one-way streets back towards our hotel. An all-you-can eat after wedding brunch was scheduled at the Batik garden, and we were ready to eat again.

We were among the last to leave. A number of people were driving back to Boston, but most of my extended family was heading to Connecticut. My cousin Alice was hosting her brothers and their families at her house, and everyone was invited to a barbecue they were having that night (another would follow for even more guests the following night). I drove my parents and a set of cousins. En route, we stopped for ice cream at Newport Creamery.

Back in Connecticut, we stopped at my parents' house before continuing on to Alice's. Two of their four grills were already hard at work. Three pots of water were simmering on the stove. Her parents and one of her two brothers were shucking corn on the patio. Beyond their bay windows and small yard, Long Island Sound stretched towards the horizon. A few sailboats dotted the horizon.

Dinner was delicious. We ate on her deck and talked about the wedding and each other's lives. Soon it was time to catch the train back to Manhattan. My cousin Dan and I both had to work on Tuesday. Alice drove us to the station and we bought our tickets home.

Wednesday night after work I once again boarded a train back to Connecticut. My friend David was to be married on Friday, and I was in the wedding party. On Thursday we had to pick up tuxes and attend rehearsal and the ensuing dinner. I arrived home near 11 and went to bed.

The next morning I hung out wth my parents. David arrived at 3 to pick me up and take us to the tuxedo rental place, about an hour and a half away. There, we tried on our tuxes. David asked them to take in the jacket so it wasn't so boxy. I did the same. His cousin wavered and then asked the same as well. He said it didn't matter how he looked as long as David looked good. I said we had to look good to make him shine.

The rehearsal was quick. The minister lined us up on the lawn in front of his church and told us our tasks. He said that the next day it would all be the same; the scenery would just be much improved.

Dinner was served across the street at 2 Hopewell. Before the first course, David stood up and gave a speech welcoming his guests and thanking them for their efforts. He paused a number of times to collect himself. He praised the bridesmaids and spoke of their devotion to his fiancee and of all the things they did for her. Of his groomsmen he spared few words. We needled him about it afterwards. After the wedding, he told me his wife told him that her bridesmaids were nowhere to be found on the wedding day, whereas his groomsmen were all attentive to his needs and ran his every errand; if he were giving the speech then, his words would have been reversed.

The following day David once again picked me up at my parents' house. His cousin was to follow us along with his sister. As we passed them, they did not follow; his cousin's car would not start. They called my father who gave him a jump, and we told them to meet us at the hotel while we went to pick up the tuxedos.

At the hotel we changed. David doesn't drink and so I had brought a bottle of Martinelli's to celebrate his impending nuptuals. The photographers arrived and they posed us for photos in the hotel lobby. Then we settled down to wait.

Soon it was time to head to St. Clement's Castle, where the wedding would be held. We piled into a limo and calmly rode to the castle. It was my first time in a limo. We joked about how staid we were. When we left the car it was as if no one had been inside. David imagined that after the girls were done there'd be much more to clean up.

The grounds of the castle were magnificent. A beautifully manicured lawn sloped towards the Connecticut River, ending at a wooden landing that overlooked the scene. Boats cruised the river; mansions dotted the shore. Inside, the building reminded me of a hunting lodge, but with two grand ballrooms. The reception was to be held in the smaller ballroom, with windows on two sides opening out towards the lawn. The florist had arrived and was busy arranging flowers. The table settings were in various stages of completion. There were still a few hours to go.

As the hour drew near, we were moved towards the lawn. Chairs had been set up facing the river. An arch had been set up under which the couple would stand. Guests filed to their seats, and the minister arranged the groomsmen in the order we would stand.

At a sign from the minister we took our places by the arch. The musicians began the processional music and slowly the bridesmaids emerged from the castle and walked down the lawn towards us. The flowergirls followed, then the ringbearer, and then the bride.

The ceremony was a blur. There were readings in English and Chinese, tears were shed, candles lit. Rings were exchanged, as were hugs, and then there was a kiss. Applause erupted and we were soon walking back up the lawn towards the castle. Servers greeted us with champagne and soon it was on to another cocktail hour with plates after plates of h'ors d'oeurves and glasses of wine. A man played the saxophone to accompany our mingling and eating.

As we lined up to be announced before dinner, one of the bridesmaids assigned us dance moves by which to enter the ballroom. The parents were announced and seated and then the DJ queued up "Crazy in Love." We were the second couple and I danced for the both of us, as the woman I escorted was six months pregnant. She smiled and looked at me askance.

David had planned a special entrance with his wife, Kim, but the music changed and they walked into the room to a classic tune, then began their first dance. They sang to each other as they moved across the floor. We stood behind them and swayed to the music.

Once all the guests were seated, the speeches began. The best was by David's father as he attempted to squeeze his 40 years of experience into two minutes. The words were heartfelt and heavy with the weight of his wisdom. And then the dancing began with Marty Q and his five piece band.

A few hours later, one of my friends turned to me and said dinner was really fast. I told her it was already 10 pm, and she looked at me with shock on her face. The entire evening seemed to be passing too fast. Dinner was cleared and a dessert bar was set up by the dining room. David's sister had been dieting for the past three months to get into her dress. The night before, she had tasted the groom's cake; it was her first bite of carbs in all that time. I joined her at the dessert bar. I went back once, twice. I ate a slice of cake and then the wedding cake arrived and I ate another. Afterwards, we collected cupcakes as favors.

I took a bus back to the hotel along with a sizeable number of guests. At each wedding, Chris Brown's "Forever" had made an appearance during the reception. On the bus, the best man brought out his iPhone and began to play the on the tinny speakers. In teh back, a few voices picked up the tune and sang it all the way back to the hotel.

The party slowly subsided. We retired to the bar, which closed, and then some continued on to a bridesmaid's room. I was exhausted and crashed in the best man's room at 2:30.

The next morning I was up at 7:30. I showered and collected some tuxedos. I bought water from a nearby pharmacy, and bananas from a fruit market. I read the paper and then at around 10 went back to the room to wake everyone up and dispense my wares. Six wedding parties had reserved blocks of rooms in the hotel and as I made my way I passed by two brides, one en route ot her limo and one still in hair and makeup.

I left the hotel with the best man to return tuxedos and then drove to New London for another all-you-can-eat post-wedding buffet. I ate and then ate some more. People were still excited from the night before. David's mother looked particularly happy. She had danced with the other aunts and uncles all night. My mother had danced with them, and I saw my father dance with my mother for the first time in a long time.

As the brunch wound down, we all said our goodbyes. People departed for various states; some were returning to David's parents' house in preparation for further festivities that night. I drove my parents home. I went to lay down and fell asleep for the afternoon. At around five I woke up to have dinner with my parents. By 8:30 I was back in bed. I slept until the hours flipped back around again.

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