It was the nice weather this past week in Chicago that, by default, got me thinking of the beach. Last year at around this time I had just left Cambodia’s amazing Siem Reap region replete with World Heritage eye candy- the Angkor Complex of temples. After hanging out a few days in Phnom Phen where I landed, I took a bus north (about 6 hours, bus tickets bought at the hotel), where from which the boy and I had to figure out going back down South to the beach. I have the full horror story on this situation that you can read fully here on Trip Advisor. So getting from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, my advice goes (as always), be careful NOT TO GET RIPPED off. Make sure you plan a day or two ahead to figure out how to get on a sleeper bus back south. If you’re like me and want to squeeze the maximum out of every holiday minute, do your homework, and plan ahead. You can make the trip down to the beach on an overnight sleeper bus for $20 (the max, and no matter what anyone says, you can always haggle this price down). If you snooze on this, you will be sold a sleeper (beds where you can actually lay on overnight), but given a regular coach bus ticket, with no sleeper, and no lavatories even! This bus takes about 12 hours, which is best done overnight.
When you finally make it to the good life of sand and sea, I suggest you stay on the beach. If you want to have your choice of bars, beaches, and food, and are traveling alone and want to meet fellow fun people- it’s the best way to go. I actually stayed at the only gay bar in Sihanoukville, where I was unwittingly suckered into a drag show and pricey drinks at the hotel bar. Not a fun experience unless you are a gay guy looking to play. Not only this, but also, in order to save just one more dollar (regular tuk tuk costs $3 instead of $2 for a motor bike), I almost died- twice. I’m not kidding. One time I jumped on the back of a reluctant motorbike taxi taking $1 instead of $2, who had clearly been drinking. More like pounding em’ down, which at about minute two of riding on his motorbike I realized, when he was swerving into oncoming traffic! This drunk buffoon did it a few more times, while I kept shrieking at him, asking if he was drunk. Silly Addie, what a dumb question, there was no intelligible way the pseudo-taxi driver could have answered that. When finally close enough to the beach, I threw the dollar at him, ran toward the beach, and decided to stop being so tight with my cab fare. Your life should not be decided on the difference of a measly dollar. The main lesson being, avoid all the hoopla and additional costs of local travel expenses by staying right where all the mayhem happens, and you’ll never worry about staying out too late since you can just walk to and from where you spend your day and where you lay your head at night.
Need a high caliber drink to wash down all those bad memories of subpar pseudo lounges springing up around Chicago as of late? An inconspicuous door leads the way. A tried and true Chicago favorite, speakeasy inspired The Violet Hour stands the test of time. Planning on frequenting this place as far back as when I barely become of legal drinking age, on my birthday in February this year, I finally became acquainted with this much talked about sipping joint. These quality drinks are worth the steep price point ($14 bucks a pop) if only to sit back in their uber-muppie high-backed chairs and eyeball the string of punk rockers swigging by the bar.
People watching aside, this is a place I’d definitely come back to, if not for another special occasion, then for an unsuspecting date to impress, or just because I felt like sitting in a dim room, not socializing. It’s another one of those bars that takes itself way too seriously, but where you don’t actually mind that much. They have cute house rules, and plenty of drink choices to make your head spin in anticipation. I liked it so much I came back this month for the boy’s birthday after trying a new River North bar, which didn’t quite do it for us.This time, though, I did a bit more observing than the first time around. Apparently, they have NOTHING in their taste profiles to compile a strictly savory drink. After cake, dessert, and too much food, I merely wanted my staple, a dirty martini, (I know, I know people always make fun of me for drinking like a retired alcoholic in Palm Springs) only to be shot back with a very pretentious “we don’t have anything like that- in fact we have no olives, no olive juice, and just nothing at all like that.” Oh, I respond with a raised eyebrow. After some back-and-forth, I establish they have nothing on the menu for a libation not on the sweet side. We compromised on something like a bloody mary, a creation no longer on the menu, but still available nonetheless. Bummer. I had just started to think this place had it all. Violet hour, yay or nay? Definitely yay- just go knowing you can’t get olives anywhere in the vicinity, and in fact nothing that even resembles its salty savory taste.
In case you have 45 minutes to kill, and are feeling in a kitschy mood- grab a meal at Hot Doug’s, a true Chicago must-do! I went here a week or so ago, as I retraced my old Chi-Town stomping grounds. What I found a bit out the ways, northwest of the main city strip on N. California and W. Roscoe St, was a line out the door about 8 people long, and an intriguing eatery. Muttering at the annoyance of having to wait in a queue, a hardcore “Hot Douger” standing just in front of me explained to me the ropes. Everyone gets a seat in the restaurant if they want it (hence the annoying line); the line is a necessary evil, but worth it; cash only, so back to basics; and these encased meats are foodie worthy- so shut your pie hole and eat up! Menu items range from foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli to your plain brat, however you want it.
There is a process here, one that must be respected. Doug himself takes your order when you finally make it inside. The sausages are all made in house, and on weekends, the fries are even fried in duck fat! Oh, and let me not forget the funnest part—the walls are entrenched with wiener paraphernalia.
What’s my diagnostic? I was far more intrigued with the décor than the meal (*gasp, I know*), but it’s definitely worth a try- at least once. So perhaps I wasn’t converted into a diehard Hot Douger with the food- but I was converted into an admirer with the creative musings on the wall. Mr. Hot Doug even thought to theme the bathroom doors—cool or what?
Rumor has it that some forever fanatics even have Hot Doug tattoos, and use it as their currency to never have to pay for a hot dog at this joint again! Also, a woman once gave birth in the middle of the restaurant….guess which one I made up? Yes, some people have shown they bleed meat and cheese fries. And no, no children have been birthed at this establishment. If you’re in Chicago and want to give this legend a whirl, make sure to avoid weekends (line can take hours), be sure you bring cash—and know they close at 4pm. Hot Doug’s or Bust. How many food spots can say that?
Although the majestic beauty of world heritage sites in Sri Lanka made my trip here worth it, the choice in tour service almost cancelled out its allure due to an antagonizing and unprofessional car hire. After shopping around for a driver at the B&B, the beach, and even by way of a tuk tuk driver, my guy and I decided to go with a man named Niron to complete the second half of vacationing in Sri Lanka. I primarily based this decision on finances, which later proved to be a disadvantage. The driver seemed reluctant to show us some sites, which I suspect was due to his self-assigned low wage. To close in on the bidding war between him and other contenders, he insisted on matching the price of the lowest price given including “all the entrance fees, room and board, and all meals.” The day we were picked up at the hotel, he wanted to kick off the 4 days and 5 nights at 7am. I compromised and said 8am, which ended up being more around 9am after paying and starting off down the road. What I didn’t know, however, was that a lack of paved roads in Sri Lanka makes it difficult and time consuming to travel around the island. Although a recently constructed highway cuts the driving time from Colombo airport to the beach in half by two hours, going back North for Sri Lanka’s heritage sites takes a lot longer due to the only route being by way of unpaved roads.
Looking back at the 8 days spent in Sri Lanka (4 on the beach and 4 on the road), I recommend starting the trip with the Northern part and making your way down to the beach afterward. Also, after much research, I wish somebody had mentioned on their review of Sri Lanka how long tour trips should take. Before booking 5 days and 4 nights with the driver, I loosely planned seeing the elephant farm on the way to Kandy, Sigiriya (staying two nights in Dambulla), and the heritage sites in Polonnaruwa, but I soon realized Niron had other plans. On the second day after skipping the tooth temple in Kandy, driving instead to an herb garden, which was not what I expected, then straight to the hotel in Dambulla, Niron asked if we could be dropped off a day early in Colombo. This was after the money for the tour had been paid ahead of time and the itinerary left in his hands. Not only did his demeanor make me very uncomfortable, but it also dampened the mood for the duration of the tour. What I think occurred is after realizing that he had to pay the temple and site entrances to each location, at $30 each, the cost of the trip was becoming more a burden than a profitable business for Niron. He also insisted on speeding the entire time and sure enough, was pulled over and issued a speeding ticket at one point. Further, he stopped planning the day and left the responsibility of seeking the sites to us, being very uncooperative about telling us the “must-do’s” of the area, and letting us figure it out for ourselves. What I learned from this experience is to ALWAYS plan ahead, and do research if working with limited time and resources, especially in a very undeveloped area, that hasn’t been tapped yet by the tour powers that be. What should have occurred in a more professional exchange is to gather a rather basic idea of the sites in mind, outline and plan those on a day-to-day basis with a chosen driver, and then approach people asking for quotes. Besides the terrible situation with the driver, what sights I did see in Sri Lanka drove the magnificence and beauty of ancient Sri Lanka home. The itinerary completed on these 5 days, can easily be done in 3 days and 2 nights and should ideally be planned and prepped with the tour provider up front in order to maximize the benefit of private car hire in that time. My travel itinerary is as follows and amended to fit a smaller time frame:
Day 1: Elephant orphanage in Pinnawala; Tooth temple in Kandy; Some notable architecture in Kandy with Portuguese influences in the downtown area; Drive to Dambulla for accommodation.
Day 2: Rock temple in Dambulla, Golden Buddha temple (same location), Sigiriya (a huge ancient rock structure that can be scaled to the top).
Other things to note are that all these sites include a lot of walking and hiking. It’s a nice place to travel for young couples, or energetic friends, but with children not big enough to hike for hours at a time, it may be more difficult to manage Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. Keeping this is mind, make sure to always plan ahead with any tour operators to clearly outline plans. If you have limited time, a 2 day tour can give you my personal must-do’s: Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa.
The Social Commune’s clever drink names and understated décor make for a nice intimate night out with friends, with, as always, those caveats that remind you that after all this is still a restaurant located in China. What I didn’t know before, however, is that this place forms the most recent venture by Jason Atherton, a British celeb chef with similar upscale, yet casual tapas concepts Esquina in Singapore and 22 Ships in Hong Kong. Like the two former, The Social Commune’s menu is designed to share and hence allow for a big group to taste a number of dishes on the menu. The two biggest issues I take with TSC are their no reservations policy, and their less than stellar service. The food, a delicious, creative, and quite varied blend of European, Latin American, and Asian flavors, almost made up for the two former drawbacks, but not quite. I came in on a Wednesday, the usual ladies night with 3 other girlfriends, and we sat at the bar to giggle over cute musings like “Au Pear,” and “Bet on Black;” play-on-words for drink names. The nerd inside always gets the best of me. And we waited 2 hours… I had the paranoid feeling that perhaps people waiting at the lower floor bar were seated first. Surely no one takes over two hours to eat right? And on a Wednesday? Either way, when finally showed our table (which must have been for two people since our plating, food, and drinks didn’t all fit) the ambiance shifted in the open air space, with varied conversations and my favorite chicks settling on some wine and a few dishes. The DIY tuna tartar claimed the spot of my favored dish with some oil, vinegar, and garnishes like chives and sesame to top off some creative fun. The menu did consist of impressive sourcing like bone marrow with onion jam, sourdough, gentleman’s relish butter, and scallop ceviche, yuzu dip, soy, cucumber, apple.
But again when I went up to use the bathroom a huge stack of dirty plating offended my vision and sat right outside the bathroom window. Throughout the whole time I watched it, and even on the way out when I went to check if the wait staff had tended to it, got annoyed when it still sat there. All in all, the place is chic, delicious and trendy. People will go here to see and be seen, but the kitchen and managers should really rethink the no reservations policy. Do you really want pissy people to sit around and wait to taste your food? Not strategic marketing if you ask me. And secondly, train your staff. Seriously, dirty plating has no room to sit around at a restaurant that otherwise does very well in décor and the type of clientele it attracts. Final diagnostic? Kudos to Rashid Ghuloom with the drink menu (the bar being the best part of my night)! Not only are the cocktails delish creations, but the creative nomenclatures forms an indispensable detail I continue to tell people about when mentioning The Social Commune.
You know you got a good thing going when someone asks you to work on a Sunday at 9am and you exclaim, “Yes!” I’ve recently scored an awesome internship at the biggest mainland China based modeling company, where to put it politely, they don’t pay me diddly squat. Okay maybe diddly, but for sure not squat. And yet, coming in and being bossed around by booking agents, working in sometimes less than ideal, and bordering on the chaotic (often downright cray cray) circumstances, I still beam like the sun when someone applauds me for my work. Sure, I’ll admit, it’s not as impressive or humbling as inoculating orphans in Somalia, or discovering a cure for cancer, BUT.I.LOVE.IT! It’s not permanent or anything, and sho’ nuff, I’ll be growing in different directions, but I’m learning so damn much, and not just about managing foreign models in mainland China either. I mean I have front row center seats to the ins and outs of a newly thriving fashion world, only recently discovered. And the work your willing to do for near to nothing, just because you enjoy it, well I’d say that’s a calling.
This weekend recently tested my strengths on levels I didn’t even know existed. I began my day at 8:45 am on a Saturday at my first fashion show, a foreign client peddling Paris designs in Shanghai. The show– immaculate, professional, and above all things beautiful–provided a pretty misleading backdrop for how the rest of the weekend would proceed.
I would not make it home until 11pm Sunday, the next day after rehearsal and another show in Changshu. Even if my function was not entirely clear, from helping the models in their preparations, to watching the rehearsal and the models get made up, I enjoyed every minute of it. Last week I assisted in a catalog photo shoot for Hermes. Nothing major, just some shots for a look book or online shopping, but being around the process of creation inspires me. And I definitely love feeling inspired. My day to day tasks aren’t exciting, what with creating presentations for clients, organizing model information, and scheduling and executing castings, but being constantly in the vicinity of industry professionals and beautiful people has its perks.
For one I am meeting a lot of interesting people in the Shanghai fashion world. These people are artists. They think, eat, breath creation and even in its most frivolous form, it’s a refreshing break from academia with the whole “holy is me” attitude and outlook on pretty much the rest of the world. Walking in like soldiers on a do-or-die mission, make-up artists, photographers, and creative directors run the show, take themselves VERY seriously, and can often be very difficult to work with, which brings me back to this past weekend. Before the show even began in the morning part of my Saturday workday, I had to rush over to a meeting point to take a bus full of models out of town for evening rehearsal for another fashion show the very next day. On more than several occasions I seriously considered packing all my things and getting the hell out of China-STAT! But let me skip to what I learned so as to not dull you with the dirty details. I can do a quick superficial snapshot by telling you that I now seriously understand Micky D’s will always be part of my diet, sleeping is for lazy people, and even if it’s not true, the client is always right (I do mean ALWAYS)…Working with people you sometimes can’t stand isn’t all bad. After all, pushing your limits is uncomfortable because discomfort indicates stretching your threshold in tolerance. And pushing your threshold to its limits, and then past means growing stronger and learning about what you can withstand in the process. That is exactly what learning is; discomfort and growing through that discomfort into a more experienced and resilient individual. The fiber of my whole being was definitely pushed to parameters of myself I didn’t even know were alive and kicking. Being on the outside, that is not Chinese like the other booking agents, so Western, but not the service provider like the Western models, gave me quite the vantage point. As Fitzgerald famously quotes, “I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Being on the edge of the edge makes you not just see all sides at once, but simultaneously embody its demands. Trippy experience, don’t I know it, but invaluable in this line of work. See, sometimes perspective is all you need to in order to understand a situation very differently. And my ever-constant shifting perspective, not to mention my natural tendency to want to please everybody, guided me in extremely difficult situations. Yes, sometimes I will work with clients who rub me the wrong way, or whose methods I don’t agree with, but after all, they are the client, and professionalism demands I try to please them without too much condescension.
Further, models love to get a kick out of you. I mean not on purpose, but just because sometimes they simply can’t help themselves (and I’m speaking generalities of course). I, on more than one occasion, had to dodge very shameless flirt tactics in order to stay on this side of what I was doing. I do not work for the model 100%, but 50% and so had to keep my eye on that number. After all, how easy is it to want to answer to the demands of some charming individuals who’ve internalized the notion that their most valuable operational asset is what they can do with their looks? And so it went this weekend, straddling the line of trying to stay objective to two distinct parties, one who I genuinely enjoyed working with, the other who I could really care less to please, but had to, even if I believed their demands to be incredibly outrageous. This is work, what it means: to do what you sometimes don’t want to do because it’s what the task demands. And to do it well, without losing sight of your function as facilitator, that takes patience, emotional energy, and a lot of teeth clenching to boot. So let’s just say that even through all this fog of work, I emerged a stronger more enlightened individual, and hopefully one that on the second go can better deal with the diva demands of some unbelievably imperceptive clients and some hard-to-say-no-to (or counteract) oober attractive personalities.
Part escapism, part aspiration-ism(patent-pending on this –ism), part full on glory of transformation with a single article of material existence, I’d call myself a fashion aficionado. Freud once said, “All women are clothes fetishes,” and although this determinist view might not apply to everyone, it surely applies to me. On this recent trip back home, (having been back only 1 day) I took advantage of my location stateside, with its smiling sales people and approachable price points, to hit up some of my favorite clothes shops in Chicago. Much to my surprise, upon walking down Wabash near Erie, I realized one of my favorite boutiques had recently closed due to flooding! A sign on the door indicated an email to contact for a temporary location and styling appointment. Keen on snagging a comfy pair of “all purpose” summer wedges, I contacted Sarca’s owner via the email noted, who impressively remembered a shoe I mentioned and bought there last summer!
At this point you might be tempted to think, this Addie chick might have a slight shopping problem for the shopkeeper to remember such an intricate detail, and maybe, yes that’s half the truth. But in all fairness, I pick and very carefully choose (laboriously so) what I purchase. In fact, it was probably this fussy shopping approach that Sarca’s staff remembered more. And even though the days of conspicuous consumption are passé in a post- Occupy Wall Street era of limited job opportunity and strained economy, there are still some things that never go out of style. Like what, you ask? Well, like excellent customer care, and this is exactly where Sarca Chicago happens to excel. The emails back and forth ended in a client appointment in the owner’s storeroom, which she currently runs out of her own home. I even invited an old friend to join me, do some shopping, and catch up.
The owner and stylist Alexis and another stylist named Katelyn accommodated our every shopping whim and offered excellent suggestions and advice. Graciously, they selected jewelry and shoes they thought would fit my needs, and worked patiently with my difficult and indecisive demands. An afternoon of trying on clothes, jewelry, and shoes, with suggestions from both stylists, resulted in my newfound love for local jewelry designer Damen and Division.
As I tried on neck-piece after neck-piece, I looked out the window past Lakeshore drive to all the sparkly white boats waiting afloat Lake Michigan for the summer months to indulge in a true Chicago pastime, and I savored that tiny moment. Gorgeous statement pieces completed my seasonal wardrobe, and I walked into the sunny sidewalk on Lakeshore drive reveling in that fact that I was able to take a piece of Chicago back to Shanghai with me. Man-oh-man was I going to miss summer in this city that I call home…What I appreciate most of Sarca Chicago is that you can find hard to track and even only faintly known designers and pieces by sourcing directly with those creative up-and-comers. For the trendsetter fashionista out there, you can bank on pinpointing the next new wave or incredibly unique patterns from Austrailia, Japan, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Unheard of these days, especially at this price point (on average, an item around $150), Sarca Chicago provides a shopping experience like no other, which makes me excited to say that I had the chance to shop here this time around whilst back home. As soon as they set up shop in their new location, they’ll hit the ground running, as these très chic ladies truly understand how to take the shopping experience to the next level. All class and no sass at Sarca Chicago makes it one of my favorite city shopping venues. This place and its cool and incredibly knowledgeable stylists poignantly demonstrate those ‘Midwest values’ Chi-town is so accurately known for.
Most anyone (even locals) can agree that it feels good to get out of Shanghai. Admittedly, I don’t do it often enough. Having just come back from Chicago, I can’t really complain, but before I left, well uuuggghh. Especially at that moment with work, play, and the impending deadline of defending my masters dissertation in front of an academic board looming over my head, the nightlights seemed to have been suffocating me in a claustrophobic cloud. A bit back, on the off chance of a sunny day, I had the chance to visit the water town of Zhujiajiao, only 45 minutes and 14 RMB(~$2) away on a direct bus near people’s square. It makes a perfect day trip if you just need to get away from the hustle and bustle of those god awful honks and horns of our lovely city. It’s a quaint town with small shops and artsy finds. I bought a red plastic rose ring for 5RMB, discounted on account that the shopkeeper found me to be “hen piaoliang.” Yes, this detail must be mentioned, mostly for self-affirmation…
What you’ll find here is a nice break to collect your thoughts and breath fresher air for the day. Take advantage of going here with a group of fresh new faces to meet some different and interesting people, hopefully even have an extraordinary conversation. I went with a group of friends, researchers at Fudan University, and the mix was a good one. We talked politics, religion, science, art, photography, etc. With the scenery of a bright day, it made the whole trip worth it, and upon crossing a bridge even lucky. Women selling goldfish said that throwing them back into the water from the height of the bridge would bring good fortune. I just couldn’t believe my luck! As superstitious as I tend to be, as soon as someone offered, I quickly grabbed a bag and tossed some in. You can also take a short 10-minute boat ride and see the city from a different angle. Not anything out of this world at the water town, but that’s the point. It’s a relaxed divorced state from your day-to-day life in Shanghai, and sometimes, that’s just exactly what the doctor ordered.
In part, I’ve learned to like Shanghai for its contradictions. On the one hand you can witness the hyper elite business obsessed masses like in any other metropolis, but on the other hand, an untamed counterculture of art types and transients plague the scene. You can easily see huge concrete structures at every turn, and in progress, right next to old land houses, surely due to be plowed somewhere in the near future. In the chaos of the big city, I’ve found a sanctuary in the small boutique shops of the French concession that equally embody this contradiction. Scaled down to size, the confusing yet intriguing inherent paradoxes seem more manageable when applied to play (and in the day). Around line 1’s Shaanxi Nan Lu stop, you can hop off and just waste a Saturday window-shopping, imagining, and clearing your mind of the hectic week. Anything from an extremely indiscernible knock-off Hervé Leger dress (at a steep price of 980RMB no less), probably only suitable for a playboy mansion party, to quirky one-of-a-kind finds, you can discover here. Prices range from the oober cheap, to the out-of-anyone’s-price-point. Playing dress-up can be a relaxing and fun way to get away, without having to leave the city in this hip cool area. Pieces vary from something Madonna might have worn in the 80’s, to the recently trending massive metallic bangles and necklaces. An afternoon in Shanghai’s French concession can also serve to practice your Chinese speaking and listening skills, or feed your ego by way of shopkeepers complementing your looks or language level. Ah yes, boutique window shopping here will be sure to get you out of your lonesome Shanghai funk, and put a little more pep in your step for the new week to come. And who knows? You may just find something you actually want to take home!