29 March 2010

Korea: Engrish Friendly?

Guest Blogger: Laura Seewoester
At first glance, Seoul appears to be incredibly English friendly with a smorgasbord of American ads and a few English labels slapped on public transportation signs. Scratch the surface a little, though, and you realize it’s just an illusion.

In general the people speak very little English (aside from the students constantly saying “hello” or telling JP he is "very handsome") and you find yourself searching for restaurants that look like the menus sport a lot of pictures. While every child in Korea now, by law, must have at least two years of English taught by a native speaker, the law was only enacted about 10 years ago leaving the tourists and expats biding their time for those English grassroots to sprout.

Why the sudden interest in their country speaking English? I’m sure it’s a combination of things. English is a popular language affording more opportunities to those that speak it. I also have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of it boils down to one thing: money. Korea supports business growth, much like Japan, and English is definitely the global language of business. Just look at Hong Kong, a place where English is almost second nature and business is thriving. One must wonder if Korea has looked at Hong Kong and tried to follow suit.

Regardless of why, English speaking tourists will have a much easier go at it in about 10 years, once the students have grown up and start running things. Until then if you go to Korea, charades will get you by.

Side note: What do the Japanese tourists do to communicate in Korea? The same as all the other tourists: they speak English!

26 March 2010

Warm Welcome to Our Guest Blogger

Currently, I'm on an extended trip abroad. In my absence, Laura Seewoester (photojournalist and my sister) will be giving you a glimpse into her most recent Asian experience – her trip to Korea. Here's just a bit of what's to come:

Korea’s winter dawn creeps in, cold and gray as steel with the stealth of a cat stalking its prey. Morning is already upon you before you even notice it’s there. The people trudge along in their routines, shroud in heavy coats while the women shiver in pantyhose and high heels, no doubt waiting restlessly for their flowery spring to bloom.

As the winter leaves Korea, all things Korean seem to be shroud in contradiction. While I was only there about 10 days, this is an observation I came across in more ways than one, and I’m sure it runs much deeper than a mere traveler can pick up in less than two weeks.

22 March 2010

A Truly Zinful Day

For those willing to venture from the safe confines of the tourist track, hop on the 128 past Calistoga and your venturing will be rewarded. Though the destination is the treat itself, this drive will awe the unsuspecting and suspecting alike. Running only two lanes, CA-128 takes you through some of the best scenery I've seen in Northern California.

Twisting and turning for almost 20 miles, the road is tree-lined the entire way. Hills on one side, grapes on another, and moss eerily drooping down between gnarled branches of the surrounding trees gives a Wizard of Oz-type entrance to Napa's lesser-regarded neighbor. And the road's final destination is truly Zinful. Healdsburg, though a bit less desireable than Napa both in distance and reputation, to me is the crowned jewel of wine country.

With gazebo in town square, boutique shops on the periphery, and cute restaurants speckled in between, shoppers, wanderers, winers, and diners will arrive feeling welcomed and leave feeling satisfied. Unlike Napa, where it can be hard to get away from the beaten track, a quick five-minute drive out of town square takes you to dozens of wineries nestled in the hills.

Old and new vine Zinfandel is what the area is known for, and with the famous Rockpile AVA close by the wines are delectable to say the least. Fruity and big yet not overpowering in tannin, you can't go wrong with Sonoma Valley Zin. My personal favorites: Rosenblum in the square, Sausal for something smaller, and Mauritias for sheer quality. The experience at Jordan can't be beat (check out our picture with the wine maker!). And although Ridge didn't meet my over-hyped expectations, the wines were still good and the view of the vineyard is not to be missed.

An out-of-town guest is a good excuse to go (thanks Suzanne for coming along!). But locals really have not excuse for skipping out. After all, a trip to wine country is not complete without a little Zinning.

19 March 2010

Knowing Napa

People come from far and wide to visit California's most renown wine region. So how long has it been around, what's the big hype, and why has Napa gained the reputation it has?

Like most of the wineries in the United States, Napa's wine industry started in the 1800s. With Charles Krug,
Shramsburg, Chateau Montelena, and Beringer leading the pack, these pioneers helped start a tradition in Napa that still thrives today. Though it wasn't without its setbacks. Prohibition, industry-threatening stalk-root mites, earthquakes, and a less-than-stellar reputation in the eyes of French wine connoisseurs all jeopardized the success of California-based wines.

After surviving legal restrictions, pestilence, and natural disaster, reputation was all that stood in its way. Finally, in
1976 Napa flexed its fruit against the big bad Bordeauxs of France and finally put themselves on the map. In a France vs. California blind taste test (Paris Wine Tasting of 1976), Stag's Leap (Cabernet Sauvignon) and Chateau Montelena (Chardonnay) bested long-time stalwarts know for being top in France. Among the other California wineries appearing in the top ten were: Ridge, Heitz, Clos Du Val, Mayacamas, Freemark Abbey, Chalone, Spring Mountain, Veedercrest, and David Bruce. Since then, tourists and locals have come by car, bus, plane, and train to taste for themselves why Napa is, well, Napa.

But how does Napa get the variety and quality of grapes that it does? Running almost 10-times as long as it is wide, the area we call Napa Valley actually consists of a number of sub-regions (Yountville, St. Helena, Oakville, and Calistoga just to name a few). Each of the sub-regions (and even regions within each sub-region) all have differing climates, differing elevations, and differing soil. In fact, Napa Valley boasts over half of all soil types found in the entire world! Hence, the sheer number of grapes types that can grow here is vast, and even the same varietals yield very different characteristics based on where in Napa they grow.

So you see, like wine connoisseurs themselves who place great value on the balance of complexity in their wines, Napa grapes come from a vast array of complex environmental conditions that make them superior.

15 March 2010

Navigating Napa

I have admittedly and purposely avoided visiting Napa Valley. Perhaps it was the hype, perhaps it was Napa's "connoisseur" reputation, or maybe it was a bit of both. But after standing my ground for nearly a year, and with our recent move that puts me 15 miles closer, I finally paid a visit to California's most renowned wine region.

Having gained worldwide popularity in the 1970s by beating out several French stalwarts in a blind tasting, Napa wines have since been known as the best in the U.S. And for the most part, Napa lived up to its long-held reputation. But a couple words of warning for the newbies who may be navigating through the Napa Valley.

1. Do your research before you go. With limited capacity for true and unbiased tasting (5 wineries in one day is pushing it), you don't want to waste your tastes. Even with recommendations from reliable and well-honed tasters, we still hit a couple of duds. Ask fellow wine tasters for their Napa "no misses," and make sure to let them know your varietal tendencies.

2. Get off the beaten track. While the Silverado Trail is a good bet, boasting more than 40 of the valley's wineries, don't forget the wineries you can't see from the road. Winding roads that climb and traverse the surrounding hills branch out in all directions and offer a quite seclusion that the "over-infrastructured" main thoroughfares cannot.

3. Bigger is not necessarily better. Often, the bigger wineries will sell their distributed wines at inflated costs (check Safeway for the real deals), while the undistributed wines are hardly worth the $75+ price mark. Hit a couple smaller wineries. They most likely don't have distribution contracts, have owners that are motivated by quality over production numbers, and often are run as a hobby funded by fortunes made in other industries.

Don't let the name "Napa" fool you. Ask how much acreage each winery actually has in Napa. As we discovered, many of the wineries buy their grapes from elsewhere or have less acreage in Napa than the winery I work at in Livermore. Putting your winery in Napa does not a Napa wine make.

And finally, our list of enjoyers and avoiders. Don't miss Pina, Fontanella, or O'Brien. And unless you enjoy $35 tasting fees, Opus is worth a pass.

11 March 2010

Cultural Revolution

San Francisco's Chinatown has been a centerpoint for Asian culture since the late 1800s. Only recently surpassed by New York's Chinatown for largest Chinese population outside of Asia, it has maintained its diversity, culture, language, and way of life for a century and a half. So how has Chinatown managed to resist both assimilation by its residents and gentrification by other neighborhoods? History may give us a clue...

The major influx of Chinese immigrants began in 1848. California's gold rush brought
not only pioneers from east to west but enticed folks from the Far East as well. Jobs were thought to be numerous, and many Chinese intended to get rich quick then leave. With plans to return home soon, the attitude, mentality, and need to "fit in" just weren't there.

Well, we all know how this story ends. Few found gold in the rush to get rich. And like the locals, the Chinese immigrants found themselves with empty pockets and homes too far away to afford the return ticket. But the rich Chinese culture stayed as did the resistance to the American culture that surrounded them. And the minute you set foot on
Portsmouth Square, you'll see exactly what I mean.

Benchsitters read Chinese newspapers, groups of men coop together for gambling matches, and English conversation seems a world away. It literally could be a square in Pick-Your-City, China. With firecrackers popping for the Chinese New Year and laundry hanging from windows and balconies, the only clue that you haven't been transported yourself are the financial district buildings peaking in the skyline.

Perhaps it's camaraderie. Perhaps it's population density (10-times San Francisco's average). Regardless, Chinatown's population has managed to maintain reminders of home. Wet markets with cheap produce and fresh fish line the sides of Stockton Street. Dim Sum and tea are the consumables of choice. And in true Chinese entrepreneurial style, the San Francisco-born tradition of Fortune Cookies (that's right, they're American-made) can be purchased and photographed for nominal fees.

Despite its proximity to San Francisco's
commercial and financial centers, Chinatown's cultural revolution has managed to hold its ground for over 150 years.

08 March 2010

Shopping for the Exotic

If you are like me, any visit to a semi-exotic place includes an obligatory visit to the local market. From live squirmy things that we don't even keep as pets, to beautifully rich and colorful vegetation, to local tchotchkes taunting tourists to purchase, markets are often where we go for a bite-size glimpse into a foreign culture and land.

But as I headed out today to run my own local errands, it occurred to me just how exotic the unexotic may seem. For many, farmer's markets are summertime novelties, and visiting them is considered an "outing" rather than an errand. In Northern California, however, marketing is a way of life for both the farmers and consumers.

Northern California's climate is not just desirable for its residents, but its resident vegetation as well. And the variety of local produce and numerous farmer's markets attest to this. Offering both fresher products, a more eco-friendly infrastructure (it is "local" after all), and more reasonable prices than the grocery store, it's not a surprise how many Bay Area residents rely on them and their products. With our own WindMill Farms closed only from mid-December to mid-February, fresh, local, and organic products of top-notch quality are available practically year-round.

And even though our local market doesn't sell
tchotchkes, I'm sure any foreign visitor would find a bit of the exotic right here in California.

04 March 2010

Testimonial of a Californian

Yes...it is official. After my uneventful visit to the DMV (shouldn't there have been some sort of ceremony as I changed ranks), I am now a bona fide, legally bound Californian. Though I'm not yet sure exactly what that means, I do know it comes with certain, eh hem, entitlements:
  1. Our housing prices make two-income households struggle.
  2. The state government is entitled to 10% of my income.
  3. What the government does with that money is beyond me.
  4. Among other educational cutbacks, highschool extracurricular sporting activities are down by half from last year (I wonder what students do in their spare time now).
  5. Our governor (or should I say governator) is a former actor.
  6. Our future governor could quite possible be a dot-commer-turned-millionaire (or is it billionaire now; how well is eBay doing these days?).
  7. Gas prices make me think twice about driving down the street, much less driving across town. We have one of the highest averages in the nation!
  8. I am now a drop in the population bucket, joining the 10% of the country's total who live here.
But despite all the drawbacks that come with residing in the Golden State, there is one good thing I still can say (and I say it with my utmost humbleness): I now live where others vacation!

01 March 2010

The Dreaded DMV

One of my most dreaded tasks as a new-state transplant is visiting the DMV. Transferring car titles, driver's licenses, and registrations never seems to go as smoothly as planned. So armed with car insurance, SMOG test results, and of course my checkbook, I prepared for the worst.

As I approached California's DMV, I had vivid flashbacks of long lines, rude employees, and inefficient procedures at the Chicago's Drivers Facility eight years previously. There, I spent 3 hours in line for about 3 minutes of service (pose, snap, and pay). And I got off easy. There was a woman from Poland being berated by a state employee while trying to take the driving test in English (why they don't have Polish driving tests in the city with the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw is beyond me).

From the driver's license line, I moved to another line for title and registration transfer (another 2 hour wait). I guess multi-tasking
is not status quo for the State of Illinois. There I met yet another poor soul being yelled at about problems with his title. Being from South America and speaking limited English, I asked the man in Spanish what seemed to be the problem and helped as I could. After 5 long hours of waiting and watching other's being verbally abused, I was free to drive legally (and park illegally) in Illinois.

Seeing as my past experience was a bit traumatic, I approached California's DMV with apprehension (and praying no one yelled at me). With cuts in government spending, which meant cuts in DMV hours, I'd been warned of lines circling the building and astronomical wait times. And with employee hours cut, they most certainly wouldn't be in good moods! Boy was I in for a surprise...

The non-descript architecture, tiled floors, and subdued atmosphere were the worst things I would see that morning. The process itself was efficient, with a "front man" making sure I had what I needed before I faced the wait-time. Once inside, there were chairs (not lines) to comfortably await my turn, and in less than 30 minutes I was face-to-face with a pleasant DMV employee. Name change, written test, license, vehicle inspection, payment receipts, and title and registration were all processed in less than 2 hours. Considering I was getting "the works," this was darn fast by my standards.

So for all those Californians who complain about the DMV, count yourselves lucky. You could be driving in Illinois!