Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dear Santa

This is a fairy mom with a butterfly on her head. This morning we wrote to Santa. My oldest daughter sealed the envelope and we stuck it in the mailbox. Phew, only six more days til Christmas. Well, that was before I discovered my girls' card to Santa on the kitchen counter. We sent an empty envelope. Back to the drawing board.

This year we are writing to the Canadian guy, because he does reply. Last year, he even replied right on Christmas day which was a fantastically unbelievable good timing. The Finnish guy was pretty good too but his reply reached us in April and by then our heads were full of eggs and chocolate bunnies. The Swedish Tomte would have been very authentic had his letter not been returned to me for "invalid address" reasons. Heartbreaking. We wrote to the French Pere Noel but alas he forgot to reply to us therefore we're not writing again this year.

Next year I want to try a Dutch Sinterklaas and why not an Australian Santa surfing on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

'Twas the Night Before Christmas Puppet Show

Opening Act
Kudos to my mother for spending countless hours on her sewing machine last year with needle and thread. This year was the second year I was performing Clement Moore's poem "Twas the night before Christmas" with hand puppets at Big City Montessori School and the children loved it.

Picture this. One hundred children seated neatly in rows, bursting in laughter when a cat appears on stage instead of a mouse. "That's not a mouse!" they all shout. Of course, "not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse" doesn't work with a cat. But that's the point. The cat comes back three times and the more he shows up the louder the laughter. Ah, then and only then does the mouse appear. "Watch out! The cat is chasing you!" yell the children. Good chasing scene (narrow escape for the mouse) and then we proceed with the narrative.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.

Our puppet children of course were wide awake, kicking and jumping on each other. Another roar of laughter in the crowd. They find this hilarious, particularly the giggling little sister in blue. The narrator (my friend Lisa) asks to the children if they shouldn't go to bed but they won't do it. So a deep voice comes from behind the stage.
"Off to bed children!"
The children's dad appears and the children go to bed. We could not resist another hide-and-seek scene so the dad went looking for Santa Claus three times in odd places (the cellar, the kitchen and finally his shoes) while Santa Claus and a string of tiny presents danced through the air.

'There's Santa! There's Santa!" yell the children again.
Sleepy after a long day, the dad tries to go to sleep but the naughty cat trakes away his pillow three times. Big success the pillow scene!

Second Act
The scene opens up with the dad still looking for Santa. Fortunately the cat helps out and suggests to the crowd that they should sing a song starting by "meow meow meow". The children picked up on it right away and before we could ask them to sing, they were all singing in unison "Jingle Bells". I was blown away. What an audience!

The lovely part in this scene was playing the Nutcracker's Flower Waltz while having Santa and Rudolph deliver the presents at the foot of the tree. This being San Francisco and there being a candle holder on the fireplace of the set, some children exclaimed
"There's a menorah!"
Yes, everybody here has a menorah AND a Christmas tree. PC baby.

Third Act
Once we lifted the curtain on a snowy city landscape, the children started "oohing" and "aahing" and some started clapping, others said that these were wonderful gingerbread houses and finally all the childen were clapping just in appreciation of the set. Wow. My mother better be proud of herself.

At that point, the fun part of the act was the dad discovering the presents and an odd looking creature on stage: a musical Tyrolean marmot! Yes, to the children's excitement, the marmot starts yodeling and swaying after you push a button in her left foot. That's what you get for attending a retail client event at the Bier Fest in Munich.

It was time for us to close the act and do our goodbye dance. We started playing "Feliz Navidad" and before we knew it, all the children joined in the singing. All my puppets came on stage for a final bow and so did I.
Puppets work like crazy with children. I still can't get over it and I'm thrilled beyond belief. I've asked a marine scene set to my mother. My next goal is an underwater "The three little clams and the big bad shark".

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz Carlton

A Teddy Bear Tea is not a tea where you have to bring your teddy bear. It is not a tea where you make a teddy bear. The San Francisco Ritz-Carlton's Teddy Bear Tea is a holiday extravaganza complete with Binky the Elf singing pop songs and directing an impromptu orchestra of children, a human-size teddy bear walking around to hug boys and girls, a pianist accompanying all the songs and of course, high tea (or hot chocolate depending on your size).

My girls were mesmerized. Actually, first they were starving because the tea started at 1 pm and I didn't want them to snort over their plate of bite-size sandwiches and cookies. Therefore light lunch. Therefore big appetite at the table. They both exclaimed "Oh, vitamins!" when they saw the gummy bears on their plate and devoured them, without even glancing at the teddy bear cookie or miniature cupcakes. My plate was more sophisticated but not quite up to the quality of the Fairmont Hotel where I'd been the previous month.
Say, I could have used some Devon cream with my scones instead of whipped cream. I love Devon cream with my scones. Never mind the cream. The real crime was offering me Breakfast Tea at 1 pm. I'm a die-hard tea fan and I don't understand how a five-star hotel cannot offer better than mint tea, chamomile tea or breakfast tea at 1 pm when the bill comes up to a hefty $75 per head. Now the entertainment part.

This being San Francisco, Binky the Elf was a Tim Curry in green pants and pointy shoes. Honestly, what elf sings "The Age of Aquarius" from the soundtrack of Hair with more gusto? As he changed props for each new song, Binky the Elf donned pink wigs, sunglasses, platinum blonde long hair, curly hair and would have put to shame any good old drag queen show in the Castro. My daughter was a bit confused but I was in tears. He was so funny and talented. His impersonation of Hairspray songs or Dream Girls songs were hilarious. I understand why my 4-year-old was puzzled but I loved it. My 2-year-old on the other hand was throwin a major tantrum and herself on the floor. Tea is not a toddler's favorite past time. Never mind. Now I'd actually like to try out other holiday teas. It's fun!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Filoli Holiday Dinner

Filoli stands for "Fight, Love and Life", the key words of the credo of Mr. Bourn, prominent San Franciscan and owner of the Empire Mine. Built in 1917 as a palladian mansion, the estate called Filoli is now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and it hosts one of my favorite gardens in the whole Bay Area. The house usually closes right after their Autumn Days for the duration of the winter. Only during the week after Thanksgiving does Filoli repoen its doors for a week-long series of holiday festivities. Children's parties, brunch buffets, day and night shopping events, you name it. My favorite though is the evening dinner gala. It's now my fourth and it's as enjoyable as ever.

First, you get to dress up. When I say dress up, it's not just casual cocktail dresses. No, no. This year had its fair share of sequined platinum blondes, gold satin gowns and shiny tops. I was wearing a long dress, as was my friend Inga and our boys were in tuxedos (Lisa went for a see-through black and white blouse with black pants ). We are usually the babies of the evening as Filoli tends to attract grey heads rather than young party animals. Granted, the whole thing is a bit cheesy. There's a jazz/swing orchestra in the ballroom, the (fabulous) Mountain View college choir at the intermission, a sit-down dinner, players on the grand piano in the entrance, fabulous Christmas trees throughout the house, items for sale everywhere and champagne flowing like crazy. That being said, if you bring enough friends to have your own table and if you like to dance, this is ideal.

Going through the rooms, I couldn't help but admire the decoration and objects that my girls would have loved. Candles shaped like pyramids of Victorian cakes, S'mores-shaped lollipops, fake birds tree ornaments of all colors and the dining room set as a Victorian train room with baby doll in a cradle. If only for that sight and the trains going around the tracks on the parquet, I should bring my girls to the children's parties next year.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Bacon & Potatoes Galette

I found this recipe in the French Elle A Table magazine and couldn't resist it. It's just too good not to share. Definitely not for the calorie-obsessed but I know our friend Jason, a great amateur of good food, would rave about it. Our girls both asked for seconds. The secret I believe is using very lean and high quality bacon. I got mine at Berkeley Bowl. Here goes.
Ingredients: - 3 lbs firm flesh potatoes (pealed and cut in 1/8 in slices)
- 1 quart milk
- 8 fl oz heavy cream
- 25 slices bacon
- 1 cup shredded cheese (I used comte but any alpine-type cheese would do)
- 1 tsp pepper, 1 tsp thyme
Bring milk with potatoes and thyme to a boil and simmer during 10 minutes. Drain. Arrange bacon slices in overlapping sunflower pattern in a round baking dish (half of the slices must be sticking out so you'll be able to fold them on top). Preheat oven at 375 F. Alternate layers of potatoes and cheese on the bacon, while milling pepper generously on each layer. Pour liquid cream on top of potato mixture. Bring back bacon slices on top of potatoes. Bake 30 minutes. Enjoy!

Black Friday at the Westfield Centre

Black Friday. The Day after Thanksgiving. The biggest sale day of the year or the "No-buy" day, depending how you see it. We had the day off. We needed to get a new pair of glasses for Cedric and hand cream for me. Seeing the new Disney animated/live action feature "Enchanted" was also on our list. When we saw the movie was only playing at four theatres in town (not even the multiplex Metreon), we aimed at spending the day around Union Square. We'd try the brand new Century Theatres on Mission in the Bloomingdale's building. Eating lunch around Union Square has always been a difficult one. There isn't much between the hot dogs on the street or the combo Cheesecake Factory on Macy's top floor or Neiman Marcus' Rotunda and the latter are always super busy. Instead, we stopped in the Mission district in our favorite taqueria to have super quesadillas con carnitas (for the grown-ups) and meat tacos (for the girls) at Pancho Villa. As good as ever and at 11.30am we beat the crowds.
All abord bus 14 along Mission. Sat next to a drunkard who kept offering a can of beer to Cedric. Made it to Mission & 5th. We spotted the entrance to the Century Theatres on the back of the Bloomingdale's/Westfield shopping center. Up five floors, roll down the red carpet. What a nice place this is.
I had no idea the new shopping center included a new set of silver screens and what's not to like about this one? No crowds, clean spacious lobby, new comfy seats with cup holders (and retractable armrests, yes!), direct entrance to Westfield on top floor if you've got time to kill before the trailers. That's the option we chose. We had 40 minutes to go before movie time. We found Cedric's sun glasses in 20 minutes while the girls twirled in the glasses shop taking advantage of the shiny slippery floor.
"Enchanted" was a very pleasant surprise. A self-deprecatory modern fairy tale, the movie has Prince Edward and the lovely Giselle maiden fall in love at first sight after one song and decide to "get married before noon." Shall we? No no no, the evil queen gets in their way and propels the candid Giselle to modern day New York. The entire movie is an ode to Disney's Snow White in many ways and the song/dance numbers make it delicious and refreshing. These workers in blue overalls dancing in Central Park are hot cakes!
Speaking of which, it was time for a cup of hot tea after the movie. Cocola Bakery was a welcome haven after walking down many floors to find L'Occitane on the first floor and a hair salon tucked in a corner next to the Muni entrance at the concourse level. Small tables, long bakery counter, good choice of pastries and baked goods, hot drinks, just what we needed. My oh my the size of the cups of chocolate! When I saw them arrive on the tray, I never thought my girls would get through half of one. Fortunately, they scored pretty high in my girls opinion and they both sipped them without a wink. And that was the end of our day.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Jingle Bells!

For our annual Christmas party and with the help of a few friends passionate about music, I am planning a fun musical program this year. Now that the children are older, they can handle playing a small musical part or acting a small piece if instructed properly.
At the SFMOMA, I found this wonderful set of musical hand bells. They cover an octave from low C to high C and each bell is a different note and color. I set up the children in a straight line and gave them each a bell. Then with a fairy wand, I had them ring their bell each in turn.
First we tried the C major scale, just to make sure they understood that when they shook the bell, they got a sound out of it. Then we started. Alex's favorite color is yellow and yellow happens to be the E in this set, a most important note if you are going to play "Jingle Bells". So we started. E E E, E E E, E G C D E. See how many Es there are? The children were amazed when they realized after a few notes that they were playing "Jingle Bells". It could work with just about any song that has no sharps and no flats. It's great. As Ruby (age 3.5) said at the end of the skit: "Let's do it again!"

We'll definitely do a few easy songs at the party so that every kid gets a turn. I got the idea at the show Siam Niramit in Bangkok. It's a live performing arts show about the traditions and culture of the ancient Siam. At the intermission, a funny guy steps on stage with seven people. He asks a volunteer from the audience. They each get a bamboo instrument that when shaken, produces a different note. Then, under direction of the funny guy, they proceed to play the song "Happy Birthday" and sure enough, it's the volunteer's birthday.

After the bells, we will enact a child-friendly version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas", replacing verses like the "partridge in a pear tree" with something slightly more familiar to children's ears (teddy bears in a tree or spoons on the moon). With props, each child will have to step forward when the item is called for. Lisa is working on the lyrics. I'll post them as soon as they are finalized.
Next will be my favorite discovery of this year, a real pirate song dating back to the 16th century. It's "The Coasts of High Barbary" and Lisa and I found it in a music book of Victorian songs at the main library, my favorite hangout. For some reason (the Christmas pudding and the brandy butter might be to blame), Lisa and I just burst out laughing at the last verses when all the pirates drown and the sea becomes their coffin. I know, it's not funny. Actually, Sue did not think it was funny. But as Cath says, we think of pirates as cool people today but they were just blood-thirsty murderers. So no wonder pirate songs are on the darker side.

The last piece de resistance will be a Czech dance folk song that describes peasant dancers turning and whirling 'round when the snow is on the ground. There's even a quirky bit about "the gipsy weak and worn to whom we gave a coat all torn" (that's how you tell a genuine Czech folk song). Notwithstanding the gipsy bit, this song is lovely and, as instructed in the book "should be sung with dash and abandon" which we did. The children can then dance in a circle like "Ring around the rosie". With my friend Cath's extraordinary pianistic skills, it was quite a blast.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Winter Day at Yerba Buena Gardens

On a Sunday afternoon, when the whole city is shrouded in a blanket of thick surreal fog, there's nothing like a hike to the Yerba Buena Gardens. Why?

First the cultural aspects. Just across from the gardens, you can start by visiting all the floors at the SFMOMA. Currently on show are two particularly fun exhibitions. The fifth floor gets the choice award if you're going with the playground crowd. Olafur Eliasson is a Danish artist whose installations play with light, color and movement, a sure-pleaser for little ones.
Ours were thrilled when they started jumping on a wooden floor and saw the resulting movement waves reproduced on a big screen on the wall. The next room was dark and empty and tall but a fine curtain of mist trickled down from the ceiling. Irresistible for a 4-year-old, who started going through it while giggling. The mirror corridor was also a fun one, perched high above the entrance hall, with its colored diamond-cut mirrors that change color depending on your position in the corridor.
My next favorite exhibit included the odddly Victorian curiosity boxes of American artist Joseph Cornell. As much as my girls did not care much for the hidden Dada meaning of dancing lobsters in a box, I loved the Romantic feel of the tiny manors with mirrored windows in glittery frames, the "scientific experiment" boxes with tiny bottles filled with stuff or the"naturalist" box with a stuffed bird in a burrow. Actually, I am intending to make a box of my own for my girls' Christmas as a present from Santa. We'll see.

Now we get to the gastronomic part of the pilgrimage. After the museum of modern art, a hop to the Yerba Buena Gardens and on the upper terrace, you can take a well-deserved rest in a very civilized tea lounge. Ever since I learned that Samovar Tea had opened a lounge in the Yerba Buena Gardens, I was looking for a good excuse to try it out. There it was.
It's different from their store on 18th and Sanchez, not quite as intimate I'd say. I miss the big end table where you can sit down on the floor. It was a good hangout place with small kids. But this location is one of the rare upscale tea experiences in SOMA so I not going to be too grouchy.
We settled for a high table with high stools which our girls enjoyed a lot. As usual, the pastries were scrumptious and the (small) selection of teas delicious. As I went for a bottomless cup of Russian tea, my hubby chose an earthy Pu-Ehr. Unfortunately, Samovar does not offer any child-friendly drinks, not even a cup of milk or a nice hot chocolate. So my girls each drank a glass of water instead. But when the sweets landed on our table, it totally made up for the absence of hot chocolate. My girls tasted it all: the Cardamom rice pudding, the brownie with green tea mousse and shavings of dark chocolate, the fruity bread pudding on honey, the tea cookies. They were a happy bunch.

Good things never last and around 5pm it was meltdown time. We headed home. I insisted on walking in front of the ice-skating rink next to the ZEUM. It was a big comfort (to me) to see how few ice skaters seem to come from Sweden. No, not every skater is born with blades as an extension of their feet. Phew, I'll probably give it a try this winter.

Tree Lighting Ceremony at Pier 39

Santa's Elves were there. Well, at least four of them. They were loud. So loud that a few babies started crying right away. In front of the stage set at Pier 39 was a roped in green carpeted area to allow children to sit down. A few dozen children from infants all the way up to tweens were nicely seated in chaotic rows.
After a few jazzy Holiday songs (Boogie Woogie Satana, Santa Baby, Rudolph), the loud Elves with curly boots got on stage to start the count down to the tree lighting.

Nope, false alert. Shannon, a weather forecaster of some TV station got a note from Santa that she'd start the countdown. If Santa had forecasted she'd have a cold and difficulties to speak up, maybe he would have changed his mind. As it was, Shannon and the four Elves counted from 10 to 0 and Bam! The tree lit up in the darkening afternoon at 5.30pm. It was a pretty sight and the children were in awe, looking up with huge eyes.

It's too bad the Elves sang their "Santa Claus is coming to town" and "Rudoplh the red-nosed reindeer" with a boom box when they had a full jazz band bored on stage, but it was fun nonetheless. Shortly after people started retreating and so did we. Next year's objective: the Hyatt Regency's tree lighting ceremony.

Painting In The Rain

My luck. Or poor weather forecasting skills. It hadn't rained in such a long time. I had come to think it would never rain again. I got optimistic about the sun. Overly so perhaps, given the heavy fog of the past few days. Anyway. Bought a picnic table with benches. Got some varnish to protect the wood. Started painting with a nice brush this morning. Then a few darker spots on the wood. More in my neck. It was raining. Got sprinkled on but finished painting. How does varnish dry up in the rain? I wonder.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Loy Krathong

Next week I'm doing a presentation on Loy Krathong at my girls' school. Loy Krathong is the loveliest Thai festival, the festival of floating candle lights. It's a magical night where canal waters see hundreds of little krathongs (round floating vessels made out of banana tree trunk slices or styrofoam, and decorated with natural flowers or paper pedtals) float down with the current towards the ocean to wash away people's sins for the past year and honor the rivers. Every year, Loy Krathong takes place on the full moon of November and this year, it's the Saturday following Thanksgiving, November 24, 2007.

It used to be my favorite holiday growing up in Bangkok. We usually decorated our krathong at home during the afternoon, then stepped outside to float our krathongs on the canal flowing by our house. All Thai children make their krathongs at school in their early years. Loy Krathong is an occasion for Krathong contests and I've seen pictures of very elaborate and beautiful ones in the ancient city of Sukkhothai or Chiang Mai.
In adition to the floating krathongs, people organize beauty pageants and light up lanterns in the night sky in the northern provinces. It is a very pretty sight to see all these white lanterns (they are human size) fly up in the sky against a backdrop of firworks.
The beauty pageants are called "Noppamas Queen Contests", honoring Queen Noppamas who, according to the legend, started the festival. It seems that she brought back the tradition of floating a small vessel with a candle from India and she was the daughter of a Brahmin priest.
We can't really launch our krathongs at the beach as the beaches are closed because of the oil spill and our krathongs will be made of styrofoam. I yet have to find a place in California to buy slices of bananas trees or equivalent to make eco-friendly krathongs outside of Thailand. Our bath tub will do just fine. We won't forget, according to the tradition, to send away all our sins with the krathong and wish happy things for the year to come.

This is what I'll bring to school to speak about the festival:
- Supplies to make krathongs (styrofoam rounds, paper petals, glitter, candles and incense)
- a CD with the song Loy Krathong
- printouts of web pages showing kindergarten children making krathongs and pictures of Loy Krathong events and festivities in Sukkhothai and Samut Prakan.
Email me for Loy Krathong related craft activity. It's a one-pager.

Floods in Dry Season

Never a dull day with two preschoolers. Yesterday we were at a friend's house for a play date. I was changing #2's diaper in the restroom when I heard a knock on the door. #1 comes in slightly distressed. "Maman, there's a mess." A mess? "There's a mess on the floor in the restroom downstairs." My friend asked me if there was a problem so I translated that I thought the toilet was clogged downstairs.

Oh Lord. I'd never seen that much water in a bathroom. Actually, I did not even know that a toilet could overflow that well. Wow. It was a clear water pond in the basement and the carpet was soaking it in at high speed velocity. My first reaction was to yell at my four-year-old, which in hindsight, was not very nice. But hey! You bring your child to someone's house and they flood the basement by clogging the toilet with too much TP? Thank God it was not diarrhea day. I was mortified enough.

So my friend spent the rest of dinnertime vacuuming her restroom while I was giving dessert to the little girls and then I sang songs to her 4-month old when she started crying because Mamma was outta sight. What an evening!

Now #1 has learned her lesson. This morning I heard a loud "Maman I used very little paper!" after she flushed.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Halloween Fairy and the Sugar Plum Fairy

The Halloween Fairy came by today. Yes I know. She was kinda late. Usually she comes right after Halloween. This year, the week before Thanksgiving she finally decides to take away my girls' candy. Phew, about time would have said our dentist. My 4-year-old was not very happy about her candy disappearing, regardless of the high quality of the thief.
"I'll tell that to the Sugar Plum Fairy" she said. Sure I replied, please report the theft to the Sugar Plum Fairy. Go figure what she'll do.

Fortunately, the Halloween Fairy left a note behind in my girls' bedroom. It's a blue thank you note. No thrills, a short page. It reads. "Dear Louise & Iris, Thank you for the candies. They are very yummy. I went out to look for a thank you gift for you girls. I'll come back at night. The Halloween Fairy"
Now that I think of it, it was a dumb movement. Since when do fairies have to apologize for taking candy away? Should have thought about it before. Anyway. Now the Halloween Fairy is going to have to come back tonight when my girls are asleep. Suspense.

Holiday Classic Movies in the Bay Area

I just went online to look for movie theatres that would show classic holiday movies. Not that I won't see Fred Claus, Enchanted or Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, but there's a reason why classics are classics. Sadly enough, no movie theatre shows Miracle on 34th Street or White Christmas or even A Charlie Brown Christmas, but there's good news. The Lafayette's Town Hall Theatre presents a stage version of Miracle on 34th Street and The Orpheum in Oakland presents a stage version of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. I'll be on the lookout for other live holiday shows. In the list of other classic movies (not necessarily holiday-related), I've found: - The Wizard of Oz (1939) at the Parkway Speakeasy Theatre on December 6 at 9.15 pm (what an oddly late start time for such a long family movie) - Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971 Gene Wilder film) at El Cerrito Speakeasy Theatre on December 16 at 2pm - Charlie Chaplin movies and shorts at the Castro Theatre (dates and times vary) - Labyrinth at the Red Vic Movie House and at the Parkway Speakeasy Theatre

Toddler Attack

She's done it again. My sweet two-year-old pushed a class mate at school this morning. She probably did it with a smile, knowing her. How can these little angels be so devilish at times? We've talked about it. No pushing, no poking, no shirt pulling, no hair pulling. I guess being nice is not part of her genetic map these days. I hate going to her preschool and learning about her "incidents", or how badly she behaved today. Bribery does not work, we've tried that. Her sweet tooth is not that extravagant. Threats work only occasionally, particularly if TV is involved. Time outs, unfortunately, are always reasons to have a good laugh since it's the only effect they have on her. I understand that she's not 2.5 yet, that she's got to measure up to her big sister, that her molars are coming through, that she's struggling with understanding English but come on. Systematically poking a girl twice her age and her size? In the eye, what's more? Why oh why? as Charlie Brown would say. I hope that at least she finds some relief in doing it because now that her behavior has been discussed at school, she knows she'll get both a lecture and lose a privilege at home.