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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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94102, San Francisco

Drag show at Aunt Charlie's Lounge

Dear ——–,

In keeping with our new Thanksgiving tradition, we spent the holiday with Geoff and Steven in San Francisco. As soon as we got in the door, we started chopping herbs for a truffle mac & cheese. It was ready in time to accompany the 18-pound heritage turkey with Pilgrim-era DNA. (I liked the gamey-ness of the heritage turkey, though the dark meat was maybe too gamey.) To make sure we didn’t get too complacent this weekend, Geoff took us to Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, a dive bar on the fringes of the Tenderloin, to see the oldest living drag queen in America. And 76-year-old Vicki Marlane was pretty good — with a kind of shabby Sunset Boulevard charisma. The emcee informed us that she got her start as a sideshow act known as the Alligator Lady by pouring glue on her skin and letting it crack. But here, she was the Girl with the Liquid Spine, gesturing with her fingers just so during plaintive Celine Dione numbers. I felt an appreciation for how long she had been doing this, though there was also a sense that the world had moved on without her.

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94109, San Francisco

Loads o' beef in the aptly-named Tenderloin!

Dear ——–,

Geoff suggested we go to dinner at a Vietnamese place called Pagolac in the Tenderloin. He took me on a particularly seedy walk to get there, but maybe that was part of the experience. Steven and I shared the specialty, 7 Flavors of Beef. Even though I’m not into raw meat, I thought the first course carpaccio was quite delicious. I pigged out on the next two courses, which required cooking thin slices of beef at the table (first in an onion broth, second on a cone-shaped grill). We rolled them into softened rice paper with lettuce, coriander, mint and assorted vegetables. I was full by the time the skewers and sausages showed up. But stomach space finally cleared and I gobbled down the last bowl of deep, savory beef porridge. (Why can I only account for six kinds of beef?) As we talked about advertising and newspapers, Geoff and Steven marveled at how the timbre of my voice cut through the background noise. I told them Bryan, ever the music engineer, likes to say that I have a lot of  3 kilohertz in my voice. That’s apparently the frequency that human ears are most sensitive to.


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94103, San Francisco

Earth and planetary scientists descend on the Moscone Center

Dear ——–,

Sixteen thousand earth and planetary scientists descended on San Francisco, as they do every December, for the fall conference of the American Geophysical Union. This is one of the few conferences where they serve beer free, every day at 3:30 p.m. I showed up at the Moscone Center on Thursday to talk up the Cassini mission to Saturn and the outer solar system. At least I came armed with an image release about the first flash of sunlight ever seen on another world besides Earth. I expected a lot more reporters, but I think the economic woes befalling newspapers and other media outlets have hit science reporting particularly hard. Maybe it’s a luxury they decide they can’t afford any more. (Health and medicine will probably be fine because those are clear pieces of news you can use. But Saturn might be a harder sell.) I was nervous introducing myself around the press room, but I did my best to highlight what was cool about Saturn’s moons. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that some of the reporters will follow up!


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94117, San Francisco

San Francisco's Holiday Wreath

Dear ——–,

As if one Thanksgiving dinner weren’t enough, we had two this past weekend. But all of it was good eating. On Thursday, Geoff and Steven got us an invitation to Becky and Dave’s Russian Hill apartment with a glittery view of Coit Tower. Becky and I discussed life after journalism as she served silky cheese from Cowgirl Creamery and roasted pears and cranberries on a cookie sheet. We started Saturday with lip-smacking pastries from Tartine and then got to cooking. Bryan and I decided to make truffle mac and cheese with parmesan and gruyere. We also wrapped basil leaves and prosciutto around dates. A swarm of other friends tended the turkey, braised brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes and tossed salad. We laughed a lot, drained several bottles of wine, and worked off maybe 1% of the calories by playing Wii at the end of the night. When we left, we were feeling thankful for good friends, good cheer and a good holiday.


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94117, San Francisco

A glittery hula hoop meet-up at the Embarcadero

A glittery hula hoop meet-up at the Embarcadero

Dear ——–,

We spent a lovely weekend among nude bicyclists and (clothed) hula-hoopers. San Francisco just can’t help being itself. On Saturday, Geoff and Steven took us to browse modern art at the De Young Museum. I wondered whether anyone outside of the 1990s could appreciate those brash Dale Chihuly explosions of glass, but the Andy Goldsworthy faultlines to the front door were pretty inspired. After a lot of walking, we treated ourselves to salted caramel ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery, which was worth standing in line for. On Sunday, we were disappointed to find grandpa’s favorite Lichee Garden had stopped serving dimsum. So we got our xiao long bao at the very satisfactory City View instead. Carla showed us the art of hooping to dance music at the Embarcadero and we finished off the trip with the most perfect latte I’ve ever had at Blue Bottle Coffee in the Ferry Building.