The Lives of Others

One of the things Mary enjoyed most after moving to our village from more rural Wendell was that she gets to look out the window and watch people walking by.  There was nothing to see out those country windows except rushing cars, here we watch our neighbor’s kids on their playset, the bachelors next door clearing their driveway of snow, and the passing parade of walkers who stroll down Mountain Road.

I also sometimes chat with Andrew, who lives at the head of the street and is often out mowing his lawn,  clipping his manicured hedges, or picking up that last leaf in the yard. Though he’s been retired for decades, he still dons his work clothes for his busy days working in his yard and on his well kept house.  I’ve enjoyed our short chats and I noticed that he wasn’t around as much over the past few months.  Then I saw a familiar vehicle, owned by Larry Wrisley, of the Wrisley funeral home, and my heart sank.  Did we lose him?

Today I was running and I spotted Larry, so I hailed him and he rolled down his window.  He explained that Andrew, who is 91, had fallen and broken his hip, and that his wife Phyllis who is 83, is his aunt.  So every day he stops by their house with the Springfield Republican for them, and to check up to see how they’re doing.

I am so pleased that Andrew did not need the services of the local funeral home yet.  As an avid obituary reader, the lives of others has always fascinated me.  I was pleased to figure out just what had been keeping Andrew from his appointed yard work rounds, and that it wasn’t the grim reaper.

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Helsinki’s Restaurant Week: 3000 Pop-up Eateries For Just One Day

On Restaurant Day in Helsinki, thousands of ordinary people are allowed to open their own pop-up restaurants and sell dinners to their neighbors!

On Restaurant Day in Helsinki, thousands of ordinary people are allowed to open their own pop-up restaurants and sell dinners to their neighbors!

Paul Shoul and I are planning a May trip to Helsinki, Finland.  Fortunately, we’ll be there right in time for Restaurant Week. This is a really great idea, considering how many people I’ve met in my life who harbor hopes as budding restauranteurs or food truck operators.  From the Helsinki tourism website, here is what will be happening.  I wonder if we could ever do this in Northampton–have a one-day pop up restaurant festival with ordinary people manning their grills and their camping stoves!

” Four times a year local residents in Helsinki get together to have fun with food. Next Restaurant Day is celebrated on 15 February 2015.

Restaurant Day lets anyone become their own restaurateur for a day. Hundreds of popup restaurants appear throughout Helsinki – and dozens of other cities in Finland and abroad. All you have to do is sign up on the Restaurant Day website and get cooking – it’s that easy!

Timo Santala, one of the founders of the event, cannot get over the enthusiasm that Restaurant Day has generated.

“One guy took a week off work in order to fish for pike and serve fresh fish & chips on Restaurant Day. Participants really put a lot of effort into their restaurants,” Timo says.

The great thing about Restaurant Day is that once you hear about the basic idea – to establish a restaurant for a day – you immediately start coming up with ideas. And when you see all the amazing restaurants set up by others, you get even more inspiration.

“People really let their imaginations go wild, creating something that has never been tried before in terms of the food or the concept. The dedication and joy of the participants is wonderful, as is the way in which people get involved and get to know each other around the table.”

A legend is born

Helsinki Restaurant week brings out the Ordinary Joe's who open their own pop-up restaurants all over the city for one day.

Helsinki Restaurant week brings out the Ordinary Joe’s who open their own pop-up restaurants all over the city for one day.

The idea behind Restaurant Day arose from frustration over all the bureaucracy involved in running a restaurant. Wouldn’t it be great if for just one day anyone could operate their own restaurant with no bureaucracy whatsoever? Three friends, Antti Tuomola, Olli Sirén and Timo Santala, came up with the solution.

“We brainstormed the idea and thought of everything Restaurant Day could be. Antti and I set up a bike bar to sell drinks and tapas, and at the same time we encouraged others to join us,” Timo Santala remembers.

The first Restaurant Day was held on 21 May 2011 and featured 45 popup restaurants in 13 locations around Finland. The second Restaurant Day was held the following August and featured around 200 popup restaurants in four different countries. Over 38,000 restaurateurs have operated the popup restaurants, and they have served an estimated 1,000,000 customers. Restaurant Day is certainly helping to boost the images of Helsinki and many other cities four times a year.

One of the biggest benefits of Restaurant Day is how it nurtures a “yes we can” feeling, which is vital for urban culture.

“Absolutely anybody can participate. Restaurant Day is a group effort. We take the city into our own hands and make it a dream place in which to live,” Timo Santala says.

Restaurant Day has inspired many other events, and the team spirit has helped nurture an environment in which everything is possible.

“Our role has been to light the fire, to provide the initial spark. The true heroes of this event are those who have helped set up around 3000 popup restaurants to date.”

The founders of Restaurant Day picked up the Finland Prize from Minister of Education and Culture Paavo Arhinmäki in December 2011, and on the first anniversary of the event all the people who had set up popup restaurants were likewise rewarded.

“It’s amazing that this important artistic recognition was awarded to a loose group of people who haven’t created art but a somewhat cultural food event instead,” Timo Santala remarks.

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The Roller Coaster Goes Up…and then Down

Do you go from despair to delight, back and forth up and down and sideways?  I am startled this week by how great I feel, how optimistic and positive I feel.  This contrasts mightily with two weeks ago when I was fretting about the weather, felt down and depressed about business, and was flitting back and forth with anxiety.  We spent a restorative week, Mary and I, in beautiful central California, and it began perking up my spirits.

I tumble back and forth from the dark to the light, some times in one day I can wake up positive and ready to embrace life and then I can at 2 pm if all alone, fall into sadness.

One thing I’ve realized is that we all do this–these cycles of joy, and despair and back to joy are part of the rhythm of life. We just hope that we can tilt toward the happy dances more frequently. I think I do know what helps to tilt it the good way though–for me it has to do with feeling solid about business, planning upcoming trips, and not letting myself get caught up worrying about health.

Health is the one thing that we all have in common. I often think about how quickly people’s fates change, and how even the most powerful people are powerless about their health.  If you have good health, you can skip and dance, and it’s better than if you had no money.  But there are plenty of people with lots of money who would trade it all to a pauper on the street with good health.  For some reason that still surprises me, but get a scary diagnosis or feel a lump and you might sing the same song.

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North Amherst’s Newest Restaurant, Bread & Butter, Is Open

The sunny Bread and Butter Restaurant is the second business to open at the former Cowls Lumber sawmill complex in North Amherst.

The sunny Bread and Butter Restaurant is the second business to open at the former Cowls Lumber sawmill complex in North Amherst.

When I met Cinda Jones at a party on New Year’s Eve, she was very happy to talk about her nascent Mill District and the new businesses that would be opening up there in 2015. Today we ate at the new restaurant that occupies the second half of the Trolley Barn, called Bread and Butter.  So far The Lift, a hair salon, has opened, and plans call for the opening of Atkins North, a branch of the famous South Amherst grocery emporium to be opened in a nearby building this year as well.

Bread and Butter is one of the sunniest restaurants I’ve ever enjoyed a meal in, with huge plate glass south-facing walls that make the hardwood floors and chairs sparkle.

There had just been three large parties before us, and our waitress was happy when we said we were kidding about bringing in another party of ten. No, today it would be just my regular lunch companion Ed Valerio and me.

The menu for this first day of business was simple. They were only offering breakfast items for this shakedown cruise. I asked about the house specialty and heard it was duck confit.  So I ordered the duck confit hash with eggs.

Ed ordered the eggs Benedict, one of a trio of menu items that includes regular Benedict plus Florentine (with spinach) and Pork Belly Benny.   Our decaf and regular coffees were strong and hot, and the service was good.  They had run out of all the bread except a very delicious cranberry walnut loaf, and I’d say this is indeed the highlight–the bread was outstanding!

A cheery vibe permeated the place, since so many people are rooting for them, and for the larger Mill District to succeed.  While today the lunch menu wasn’t available, it will be offered soon.  Breakfast includes pancakes, (gluten free ones too!) omelettes, a tofu scramble and granola parfaits.

Lunch is mostly sandwiches, salads and that famous pork belly that is on the breakfast and lunch menus. I was a bit disappointed that the duck confit was just a little bit of duck mixed in with the homefries, but overall we were both happy with our meals and excited for this new establishment to work out its kinks and welcome the community. It fills a big void in this vibrant and soon to be bustling Mill District.

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It’s Always Good to Be Back Home

To me there’s nothing better than getting back home to my very comfortable and familiar routine.  No matter how much fun I have on a trip and no matter how relieved I might have been to bask in the balmy temperatures of California, just waking up at my usual time 7 am, and coming down and making coffee, reading the Recorder and getting ready to go for a run all makes me very happy.

My dad taught me about how much fun a regular routine is. To know what to expect, to sleep in a very familiar bed with a familiar cat by your side, to wake up and converse with a partner you know well. It’s all safe, and what you expect, and just what I need to hit the ground running after our week touring the Central Coast.

Outside, the temp of 19 seems balmy. And while it might cool down again tonight, we’ll fill up the wood box make the blaze that keeps the cold outside.  I have a long list that I’ll write out on a yellow notepad today, and one by one I’ll check off what I have to do.

Yes, it’s great to be back to my cozy home, with my fulfilled and busy life, and the many relatives and friends who all have a part in it.  Good to be back home.

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Chinatown’s Secrets Revealed with Dorothy of Wok Wiz Tours

Dorothy Quong explains some of Chinatown's history during the Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour.

Dorothy Quong explains some of Chinatown’s history during the Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour.

If you’ve ever wandered through San Francisco’s Chinatown, you probably did what we did last time. We had no idea where to go, what to see, and ended up in a souvenir shop with no clue about what to see or do.

We wanted to know more about the history and to find more out about the 15,000 people who live in this 24-block neighborhood. So we joined Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours’ most experienced tour guide, Dorothy Quong, and got the scoop.

Quong is small of stature but a big personality–she is outspoken about her strong beliefs against discrimination, and feels deeply about how her relatives have been treated over the years since she was born in Chinatown 81 years ago.  In her bright red headband she led us first to what she called the Chinatown Living Room–Portsmouth Square Park.

The park was dotted with groups of older men, intently watching games of Russian poker being played on park benches.  Dorothy said that later on in the day, we’d see more women of the same

Luo Wen Jing shows us his caligraphy skills.

Luo Wen Jing shows us his calligraphy skills.

age here.  Many of these men live in tiny rooms, some doubling up, and this park is where they go to relax and enjoy time with their friends.  She added that eight out of 10 Chinese immigrants here came over from Guang Dong, known as Canton province in the west.  The language they speak here is not the more common Mandarin but Cantonese.

Chinatown is full of alleys, and our tour took us through many of them. Because last night was Chinese New Years, the rapid loud blasts of firecrackers could be heard going off outside many shops around the neighborhood. “Happy New Year” was a common greeting we heard; in one tea shop a women was dropping off gifts of fruit and a card to celebrate. Some of the shops were closed for the holiday.

We stopped by many typical businesses here…at a stationery shop, we met a woman who is trained in the ancient art of weaving bamboo threads together into tiny baskets. Li Da Ying’s shop, called Impressions, on Grant Ave is the place to find lovely paintings and these tiny baskets. Across the street, her husband Luo Wen Jing showed us calligraphy, deftly creating a work of art out of someone’s name and birth year, complete with his special red stamp marking it as his own.

We sampled teas from around China at Red Blossom Tea Co.

We sampled teas from around China at Red Blossom Tea Co.

The tour moved on to various shops–The East West bank built to look like a Chinese pagoda, The Red Blossom Tea Co where we sampled green tea and learned about the tea trade, fish alley where once a big fish market was located, and Ross Alley, the home of the Chinese Free Mason’s society. Here we could hear mah jong tiles cracking as games were played in the apartments inside, hidden from view.

We visited a tofu and bean sprout shop, a purveyor of carved jade, and we topped it all off with a dim sum lunch at the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city.

You know it’s going to be good when it’s on the second floor, I’ve always believed.  At the circular table a big lazy susan allowed us to partake of the delicious savory dumplings, beef chow fun noodles, bean curd rolls with pork and wonton soup.

Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours is a great way to discover a neighborhood that most people who visit San Francisco know nothing about. $50 per person including lunch.  Get tickets at, 650-355-9857. Ask for Dorothy Quong to be your guide!

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