Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wordless Wednesday - Bamboo near Kyoto


Friday, December 11, 2009

Melba: The Dame and the Dessert


So this is my first time participating in Postcard Friendship Friday, But I figured it was about time to try it! And speaking of postcards of friendship, I wanted to share one of the amazing postcards I received as a HUGE surprise in my mailbox. The Postcrossing Official Forum hosted a "Random Act of Smileness" drawing to win a set of beautiful Australian maxi cards. Anyone could nominate a person who made them smile, and then a winner was drawn at random. I knew about the contest but had no idea I was nominated, and I was totally shocked when the prize showed up in my mailbox. Hurray! :)

This card shows Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931), an Australian soprano and the first Australian to achieve international fame as a classical musician. Her parents came from Scotland, but Dame Melba was a native Australian and considered it her home throughout her life. She had an astoundingly successful career, with her major success being her appointment as prima donna at Covent Garden for nearly 30 years. Her albums always sold for a higher price than other singers', and before WWI, her performances were always known to be lavish affairs - important social events where women wore their finest jewels.

Dame Melba received that title from the British Empire for her charity work during World War I. She was the first entertainer to receive the title. She was also the first Australian to grace the cover of Time Magazine, and she was chosen to sing the Australian national anthem at the official opening of the Parliament House in Canberra on the day which Canberra became Australia's capital city.

Despite these accolades, Dame Melba was known to be a temperamental diva, and fought tooth and nail to be the center of attention whenever possible. She was generally not well-liked by her colleagues, and the three words "I am Melba" were considered an acceptable explanation for her frequent demands.

The stamp on this lovely card shows a delightful confection named after Dame Melba - the Peach Melba. This dessert was invented around 1892 by the French chef Auguste Escoffier at the Savoy Hotel in London to honor the Dame. In its original incarnation, the decadent dessert was displayed on an ice sculpture of a swan. The swan carried peaches, which rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream, and were topped with spun sugar. In 1900 Escoffier altered the recipe, omitting the ice swan and topping the dessert with fresh raspberry purée, which is how it is still served today.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Legong dancers of Bali, Indonesia


I love learning about traditional dances - they often say so much about the local culture, and they're almost always interesting to watch. And thanks to the marvel of YouTube, I can watch all of them with my own eyes. The girls pictured on the card here are dressed up for the traditional Legong dance of Bali, Indonesia.

The Legong Dance is a reenactment of a period in history of East Java during the 12th and 13th centuries. When on a journey the King of Lasem finds the maiden Rangkesari lost in the forest. He takes her home and locks her in a house of stone. Rangkesari's brother, the Prince of Daha, learns of her captivity and threatens war unless she is released. Rangkesari begs the king to release her to prevent war, but the king refuses. On the way to battle he sees a bird of ill omen that predicts his death, which eventually comes true. In particular, the dance dramatizes the the farewell of the king on his way to battle and the ominous encounter with the bird.

The dance includes three performers - the condong, a female attendant of the court, and two legongs. The girls, who are rarely older than 14, are bound head to toe in gold brocade, with a gold and flower crown and dramatic face make-up. Often the performers are handpicked by the local prince. These girls would have trained in Legong from the age of 4 or younger. The dance is accompanied by the unique instrument, the gamelan, and individual layers of eye, hand, hip, and foot movements are meant to reflect the various percussive layers of the gamelan.

But words never do justice to a beautiful and complicated dance like the Legong. Watch the video below and see for yourself how amazing it is. I especially love the eye movements.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Festival of Postcards - White


Are you ready for the 2010 Winter Olympics? I know I am! I've always been fond of the Winter Olympics - I love the figure skating, the skiing, hockey, and those crazy people who do the skeleton, who must be missing the fear gene. This year the Olympics are going to be held in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, with some events taking place in nearby Whistler, which you see in the postcard to the left. Whistler has the largest single ski area in North America, and it's gorgeous, too!

The logo for the 2010 Olympics depicts Ilanaaq the Inunnguaq. What on earth does that mean? you ask. In the language of a local Native American tribe, the Inuktitut, Ilanaaq means friend, and an Inunnguaq is a stone landmark or cairn, which is what the logo depicts. There is a very similar stone landmark on Whistler Mountain. The mascots for the Olympics are Miga, a mythical sea bear (part orca and part kermode bear), and Quatchi, a sasquatch (also known as Bigfoot).

Vancouver is hosting the Olympics, and what a magnificent setting for these events. Vancouver is known around the world for being beautiful, with a diverse population, a high standard of living, and has been consistently named one of the most livable cities in the world for over a decade. Vancouver is the warmest city ever to host the Winter Olympic games, with an average temperature of 4.8 C (40.6 F) in February. It is the most populous city to ever host the Games (2.1 million metro population), and it is unique in holding its opening ceremonies indoors. It is also one of very few cities to hold several events at sea level.

So I don't know about you, but I'm definitely going to tune in! The Olympics will be held February 12-28, 2010.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sachertorte, an Austrian temptation


I always enjoy doing blog posts about food, so here's an especially yummy, sweet, chocolate-y one for you. This postcard, a special surprise sent from Austria, shows a dessert called Sachertorte, named after its creator Franz Sacher. This confection is traditionally composed of two layers of dense, mildly sweet chocolate sponge cake with a layer of apricot jam in the middle. The cake is covered on the top and sides with a dark chocolate icing and traditionally served with unsweetened whipped cream.

Franz Sacher concocted this recipe in 1832 for politician Klemens Wenzel von Metternich in Vienna, Austria. True Sachertorte can only be found in Vienna and Salzburg, Austria, as the closely-guarded recipe was trademarked by the Hotel Sacher in 1876. The Sachertorte is considered one of Vienna's most famous culinary specialties.

Although the recipe is secret even today, many people have come close to replicating it. You can find a possible recipe below.

6 oz (175 g) dark chocolate (50-55% cocoa)
1/2 c (110 g) soft butter
1/2 c (110 g) golden caster sugar
4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
5 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) vanilla
1/2 c (110 g) plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
For the icing:
6 oz (175 g) dark chocolate (50-55% cocoa)
5 fl oz (150 ml) double cream
2 teaspoons glycerine
2 teaspoons smooth apricot jam
Preheat oven to 300 F (150 C).

1. Start off by melting the chocolate for the cake. Break it up into a heatproof bowl, then place the bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water and leave it to melt slowly, being careful not to let the bottom of the bowl touch the water or the chocolate will overheat. While that’s happening, using an electric hand whisk, cream the butter and sugar until very pale and fluffy. Now beat in the egg yolks, a little at a time, whisking well after each addition.
2. Then, when the chocolate has cooled slightly, fold it gradually into the creamed butter mixture and then add the vanilla extract. Next, sift the flour and baking powder together into a bowl, then put it all back into the sieve and sift it into the mixture a little at a time, carefully folding it in with a large metal spoon. When all the flour is incorporated, wash the whisks in warm, soapy water and dry them thoroughly.
3. Next, in a large, clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to the stiff-peak stage, which will take 3-4 minutes, and then carefully fold them into the mixture, bit by bit, still using a metal spoon. Now pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin, level the top and bake it on the middle shelf of the oven for about 1 hour, or until firm and well risen. When it’s cooked, allow the cake to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning it out on to a cooling rack. Then leave it to get quite cold.
4. Now warm the apricot jam and brush the cake all over with it. Next, to make the icing, melt the chocolate with the cream, again in a bowl over simmering water. Then remove the bowl from the heat, and stir in the glycerine, to give a coating consistency. Pour the icing over the whole cake, making sure it covers the top and the sides completely. Then leave it to set, which will take 2-3 hours.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Who is Oscar Niemeyer?


The name sounded familiar, but I wasn't really sure who Oscar Niemeyer was. After receiving three postcards from Brazil with his architecture on them, I decided it was time to do a little research.

Oscar Niemeyer is a Brazilian architect born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907. Before he was 30 he was an architect of some renown, designing the Brazilian pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939. Over the course of his career Niemeyer designed many famous buildings, including the United Nations headquarters in New York, the public buildings of Brasilia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Brazil, shown below.

Niemeyer was also a famous communist. He grew up during the time of the Russian Revolution
and joined the Brazilian Communist Party in 1945. When the Brazilian government was overthrown in a military coup in 1964, Niemeyer's leftist political leanings made him a target of the new dictatorship. In 1966 pressure from the government led Niemeyer to move to Paris, where he began a new phase of his career and also began designing furniture.

Niemeyer did not return to Brazil until 1985, when the government reverted to democracy. He continued his prolific career there, and at the ripe old age of 101, his works are still under construction around the world. Niemeyer's architecture is best described as graceful, elegant, and harmonious; his style combines Brazilian baroque and modernist features to create light, curved forms. He pioneered the use of reinforced concrete to form unusual curves or shells, a common feature in many of his works.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Krasnoyarsk, Russia - a Siberian adventure


Truthfully, I think this may be the only postcard I've ever received from Russia that was not from St. Petersburg or Moscow. I received it quite a while ago, and it has only now occurred to me that maybe it would be nice to learn a little more about Russia outside of its two major cities. This map shows the Russian krai (province) Krasnoyarsk, and let me tell you, it's a lot bigger than you think it is. It's located in Central Siberia, and it is the second largest Russian krai, comprising 13% of the country's total landmass - that makes it 3 1/2 times the size of Texas, or about the size of the North African nation of Algeria. The administrative center of the krai is Krasnoyarsk (city), located in the extreme south of the province.

Because the Krasnoyarsk krai is so big, it displays a wide assortment of geographical features, which this map so kindly lays out for me. :) The white area of the map refers to the tundra area of Krasnoyarsk, tundra referring to a region where the subsoil never thaws and only very hardy shrubs, grasses, mosses, and lichens can grow. The dark green area of the map is taiga - also a harsh climate, but with a long enough warm season to provide nutrients for hardy coniferous trees, as well as some birch, aspen, and other sturdy trees. There are more animals in this region, especially plant-eaters, rodents, and other small mammals. The light green section of the map shows the area dominated by the beautiful Sayan Mountain Range and Putoran Plateau. Running the length of the krai is the mighty Yenisey River, the world's fifth largest by length and volume.

In 1908 a nuclear-sized explosion occurred 3-6 miles over the surface of the earth in present-day Tunguska Nature Reserve in Krasnoyarsk krai. The area is so remote that reports of the explosion only trickled into towns from the talk of the native people of Siberia. Although still a great mystery, scientists now hypothesize that the explosion was caused by a large meteroid or comet fragment. The explosion flattened over 500,000 acres (2,000 square kilometers) of pine forest.

Krasnoyarsk city in the southern part of the province is most often visited as a stop along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The city is situated along the Yenisey River, with picturesque views of the river, the Sayan Mountains, and the taiga forest. Krasnoyarsk is rich with history, founded in 1628 by Russian Cossacks as a border fort. The most popular visitor spot around Krasnoyarsk is Stolby nature reserve, home to unusual rock formations popular with extreme rock climbers, and currently under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Veluwe, Dutch wilderness


This postcard, which I received in the mail a few days ago, really showcases why I love Postcrossing so much. First of all, you may or may not know that I am particularly fond of postcards showing native bird species - my family is full of serious birdwatchers, and though I would only call it a casual hobby myself, I do love birds. This card displays the Common Kingfisher, a very handsome fellow that can be found all over Europe, South Asia, and North Africa.

I don't speak Dutch (I only know a few words here and there that my Dutch friends have taught me), so I wanted to know what De Veluwe meant - I thought maybe it was some sort of greeting I didn't know. To my surprise, De Veluwe is not a greeting, but a place - one of the prettiest and most beloved natural habitats in the Netherlands. I try not to jump to conclusions about any place, but I have always envisioned Holland as a very flat, open place, with not a lot trees, certainly no big forests. But apparently, that is precisely what De Veluwe is.

Wikipedia describes De Veluwe as a forest-rich ridge of hills (Hills? In Holland?) in the province
of Gelderland (Central-Eastern Netherlands). The landscape includes forest, heath, lakes, and sand drifts, deposited by glaciers some 200,000 years ago. It is one of the best places in the Netherlands to see wildlife, with some 500 species of plants and a diverse collection of animal life. De Veluwe has suffered in the past from human development, especially Dutch farming and irrigation, which has altered the water level of the area. Plans are underway to restore wetlands surrounding the forest, and there have also been attempts to reconnect sections of the park by building wildlife corridors that overpass roads, returning farmland to nature, and removing obsolete fences. Once the proper adjustments have been made to connect the separate sections of this natural area, it will be designated a national park.

All this great information, and a new place I want to visit, all from one little postcard, sitting innocently in my mailbox.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

La Rioja, Wine Aplenty


This is one my favorite received postcards. The grapes are a stunning, deep purple, just begging to be eaten - although my understanding is that wine grapes are usually not very tasty to eat. I also love this card because I always buy Rioja wine when making sangria - it's a nice, dry Spanish wine that works perfectly for sangria. It's not too sweet, so when you drink the punch, you don't forget that it's a wine punch you're drinking.

I've been wanting to post about this postcard for a while, but I've been unsure how to post it in an interesting way. Today I was struck by inspiration, but let me tell you a little bit about Rioja wines in general. First, to be considered a rioja, the wine must be produced in the region of La Rioja, or small sections of Navarre and Álava. All three are in northern Spain. Rioja wines have been produced, starting in monasteries, since at least 873 AD, and probably earlier with the Phoenicians and Celtiberians. The climate of the region is considered continental; that is to
say, cold winters, warm summers, and moderate precipitation year round. Rioja wines can come in red, white, or rosé varieties, and all are oak-aged.

All in all, it sounds like a great place to visit. The Cantabrian Mountains are nearby, and the Elbe River flows through the region. The wine is world-famous, so you could probably tour wineries and sample wines all day long. But the real reason I want to visit? The Batalla de Vino, or Battle of the Wines, in Haro, La Rioja. Check it out.

Yes, those people are soaked with wine. Haro is famous for its annual wine fight, where jugs, squirt guns, bottles, and every available container is filled with wine and used in a huge, citywide wine fight. I'm totally there.

Monday, August 24, 2009

SiteSee Pittsburgh


Hello, my faithful friends. :) I want to let you all know that I have started a new blog - SiteSee Pittsburgh - that will follow my exploration of Pittsburgh's 205 sites on the National Register of Historic Places. I wanted a fun and different way to explore the overwhelming city of Pittsburgh, and a great way to organize it so I could share it on the web. I will visit places all over the city, learn the history and the stories, take photos, and share it all on my new blog over at Wordpress. I hope you'll stop by!

SiteSee Pittsburgh "Welcome to the beginning of my new blog. I love blogging, and many of you may already be aware that I have two themed blogs – one that chronicles my self-improvement project, 101 Things in 1001 Days, and another that explores the four corners of the world through my postcard collection. I still exchange postcards through the website Postcrossing.com, and I have often lamented the fact that I have no easy place to direct my international friends to learn more about the beautiful city where I live – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. ..."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Gauchos, Argentina's Cowboys


Argentina has always held a special fascination for me - members of my family have visited on more than one occasion, and often list it as one of their favorite places in the world. It's home to the bustling metropolis of Buenos Aires, but it also features the desolate terrain of the pampas, or South American grasslands, as well Patagonia, a very rugged region in southernmost South America, where the Andes end and the land stretches out towards Antarctica. It seems like a fascinating and hauntingly beautiful place, and I was really excited to receive this postcard showing the traditions of the gauchos of Argentina.

Gauchos can be compared in many ways to the more well-known cowboy figure of the American West. Like the cowboy, gauchos are more a fixture of the 19th century than today, yet they represent their national spirit even today, just like the American cowboy. Gauchos are traditionally viewed as strong, honest, silent types, but proud and capable of violence when provoked. Also like cowboys, gauchos were nomadic cow herders, and made up the majority of
the population in the rural southern areas of Argentina and the "southern cone" of South America. Gauchos were also known as great horseriders, and his horse often constituted most of what he owned in the world. During the wars of the Southern Cone in the 19th century, almost the entire cavalry on both sides were composed of gauchos.

Gauchos ate almost entirely beef while out on the range, supplemented by yerba mate, an herbal tea-like drink rich in caffeine and nutrients. Gaucho dress was considerably different than that of the North American cowboy, consisting of a poncho (which doubled as a saddle blanket and sleeping gear), loose-fitting trousers called bombachas, which were belted with a tirador. They carried a facón (large knife), a rebenque (leather whip), a lariat (aka lasso) and sometimes bolas, three leather-bound rocks tied together with three-feet-long leather straps.

Take a look at this short two-minute video to catch a glimpse of the lifestyle.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Vilnius, Lithuania


I love this unusual, spooky card from Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania. It's hard to tell, but these women are actually statues on the marquee of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. The theatre was opened in 1940 and has staged over 200 performances since it opened. It is currently directed by Rimas Tuminas and performances range from classics by Shakespeare and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to modern plays written by up-and-coming Lithuanian playwrights. In fact, every noteworthy Lithuanian playwright has worked on the stage at the National Theatre. In 2001, the theatre became a member of the European Theatre Convention, a very prestigious organization. The current acting company is composed of 35 actors with 20 performances in its repertoire. The theatre is located in the heart of Vilnius Old Town, a dramatically beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bizarre, beautiful and bewitching, Lithuania's capital seduces visitors with its astonishing Old Town charm. Its chocolate-box baroque skyline littered with the spires of Orthodox and Catholic churches are intoxicating, decadent and fragile - so much so that Unesco has declared this, Europe's largest baroque old town, a World Heritage site. But there's more to this devilishly attractive capital than meets the eye. There is an underlying oddness that creates its soul.Where else could there be the world's only statue of psychedelic musician and composer Frank Zappa? Or a self-proclaimed, unofficial, independent republic inhabited by artists and dreaming bohemians? Where else is there the spirit of freedom and resistance that existed during Soviet occupation? There are reminders of loss and pain everywhere, from the horror of the KGB's torture cells to the ghetto in the centre of all this beauty where the Jewish community lived before their mass wartime slaughter.Strange bars glow inside dark courtyards and medieval archways frame the life of the narrow, cobbled streets through which change has swept with panache. Using foreign cash and local vision, this stylish little city has big plans. But new business and infrastructure - even a skyscraper skyline - won't disguise the curious charm of eccentric, soulful Vilnius. (Source: Lonely Planet)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Moomins


Before joining Postcrossing, I had never heard of the Moomins (Swedish Mumintroll, Finnish Muumi) before. But they are beloved around the world, and postcards depicting them are highly coveted by many members of the Postcrossing community. So what are they? The Moomins are a set of characters created by Finnish novelist, painter, illustrator, and comic strip author Tove Jansson. Tove was born and raised in Helsinki, Finland in a family of artists belonging to the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. She wrote her first Moomin book in 1945 during World War II, and proceeded to publish eight more during her life.

The Moomins are a family of trolls who are white, round and furry in appearance, with large snouts that make them resemble hippopotamuses. They live in their house in Moominvalley, in the forests of Finland, but they have variously taken up residence in both a lighthouse and a theatre as well. The central family consists of three main characters: Moominpappa (above left), Moominmamma, and Moomintroll. Other characters occasionally attach themselves to the family throughout the series, including Hemulen, Sniff, the Snork maiden, Snufkin, and Little My (below in yellow).

In addition to writing children's books, Tove Jansson was a satirist and a political cartoon artist, so it's not surprising that her more "adult" messages sometimes make it into her work for children.

"One can never be entirely free, if one admires someone else too much." -Snufkin

"Possession means worries and luggage bags one has to drag along." -Little My

Particularly in Sweden and Finland, the Moomins have become a cultural icon. Although Jansson died in 2001, the Moomins continue to be memorialized in television series, music, films, and even a Moomin theme park in Finland. This is because the series was resurrected by Lars Jansson (Tove's younger brother) and Dennis Livson - these men produced a 104-part animation series in Japan named Tales from Moominvalley, which has led to an international boom in popularity for the series, particularly in Japan. Many people, especially those who were fans of the Moomins before they gained wide international fame, think this commercialization of the franchise has cheapened the philosophical world of the Moomins created by Tove Jansson.

The Moomins' rights are still owned by the Jansson family, who have turned down offers to sell the rights to the Walt Disney Company.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Kalashi of Pakistan


Kalash: ever heard of them? I know I hadn't! Thanks to this fantastic postcard from Salman in Pakistan, my mind is a little more enlightened now. The Kalashi people, with a population of no more than 6,000, live in the district of Chitral in the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan, in the Hindu Kush mountains. Popular legend claims that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great's entourage in the region, and some genetic research has supported this. Hypotheses exist that link the Kalash to South Asia (their legends and folklore talk of a homeland called 'Tsiyam') or to the Middle East. Although not particularly common, blue eyes and blonde hair are not out of the ordinary.

The Kalash have many interesting customs. They have their own unique language, which is now spoken by only 5000 people in the world. The Kalash religion is also dying out - 98% of Kalash now practice Islam. The original Kalash religion strongly resembles Hinduism, with nature playing a significant spiritual role in their daily life. The Kalash have three important festivals in late spring, autumn, and winter, all offering thanks to the Kalashi gods, and generally related to cycles in the harvest - the Kalash are traditionally goat herders and subsistence farmers. Goat sacrifices are common, and sites for these sacrifices are scattered all throughout the region.

The Kalash have other interesting traditions. Men and women are generally not segregrated, but menstruating girls and women are sent to live in the "bashaleni," the village menstruation building, until they "regain their purity." Babies are also birthed in this building. Women are married early in life, and men must pay a dowry. Elopement is common, and is actually considered one of the "great traditions," along with the three festivals. If another man becomes interested in a woman who is already married, she must write him a letter informing him of her previous bride price (i.e. "one cow") and he must then pay twice what the first husband paid ("two cows"). There are occasionally disputes about these matters. The costume consists of, for women, a long black robe, often embroidered with cowrie shells. Men have adopted the Pakistani shalwar kameez, or loose tunic and pants.

Nowadays tourism is a mainstay of the economy for people in this region. In increasing numbers, people are coming to see and learn more about this enigmatic people in the mountains of Pakistan. The Pakistani government collects a toll from people who enter the region, and this money goes toward the preservation and care of the Kalash people and culture.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Åland, the curious little place in the sea


Ever since I heard about it - and I never had, ever, before Postcrossing, and that only because there are so many Finnish postcrossers - I have been very curious about this place. Åland (pronounced Oh-lahnd) is definitely an unusual place. It is a group of islands and big rocks (80 inhabited islands, over 6000 total in the island group) located at a strategic position in the Baltic Sea, at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. To get to Stockholm, Sweden or Turku and Oulu, Finland, you have to pass by Åland. In the past, Sweden and Finland have fought over who gets the rights to this important little place, and in 1921 the now-defunct League of Nations decided that Finland gets it technically, but for all intents and purposes, Åland is an autonomous entity. Åland has its own national flag, its own police force, prints its own stamps, issues its own Åland Euro, and is exempt from Finnish military service. And most importantly, people of Åland do not consider themselves Finns, at all. In fact, travel websites encourage you not to mention their connection with Finland at all. They are very nationalistic. And in fact, why wouldn't they be? They are geographically isolated, they speak exclusively Swedish, and they govern themselves.

It seems to me that Åland has a very striking landscape. Take a look at the map below, and check out how many islands belong to this place:

Åland is a very popular vacation destination for Scandinavians in the summer, and tourism is one of its major industries. However, because of its strategic locations, shipping is its main industry, making up a considerable 40% of the entire economy.

I think the best part of Åland are the sights, so I'm going to leave you with a nice slideshow of photos from around the archipelago. Enjoy sightseeing around this cool little place with its very own unique identity!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Made in Taiwan


I remember, when I was a child, I thought that every single one of my toys was made in Taiwan. And up until just a few years ago, that was all I knew about Taiwan - they manufactured A LOT of stuff. And indeed, they do - there is a phenomenon in recent history that is referred to as no less than the Taiwan Miracle. The economy of Taiwan grew so rapidly following World War II that it's almost unfathomable. It has risen to prominence and is now one of the Four Asian Tigers (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan), four nations in Southeast Asia with a particularly skilled workforce and exceptional economic success. In addition to Taiwan's manufacturing prowess, it is also a leader in technology - it is well-known for its developments in biotechnology, laptops and Smartphones, and semiconductor devices.

Taiwan also has a unique history. Today many people know Taiwan only as its current incarnation, which is the Republic of China. I'll get back to that in a minute, though; let's start at the beginning. Taiwan's aborigines are genetically related to both the Malay and Polynesian people, but their populations (like so many other places) have been depleted so that only about 450,000 remain, or about 2% of Taiwan's population. In 1544 Taiwan was discovered by the West, and the Portuguese named it Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Isle. (So that's why so many Taiwanese postcards say Formosa!) The real European influence on Taiwan, however, was with the Dutch, who colonized the island for about 40 years, and who brought workers from mainland China (Fujian and Penghu), many of whom settled there. The Dutch were expelled by conquerors from mainland China, who ruled the island for over 200 years. The Japanese defeated China in Taiwan and began governing the island in 1895. Although the Japanese were only on the island for 50 years, they had a profound effect. They began the process of industrializing the island by expanding the infrastructure, installing a sanitation system, and reforming the education system. According to Wikipedia, Japanese culture is still extremely popular with the Taiwanese.

After World War II, during which Japan used Taiwan as a strategic naval base, Japan was expelled from Taiwan and a period of martial law began under the Chinese government. When the Chinese Civil War took place in 1949, the Republic of China government fled Nanjing in mainland China and took refuge on the island of Taiwan, while continuing to claim sovereignty over all of China. Some 2 million people fled mainland China for Taiwan, taking with them many of the important businessmen, intellectuals, and national treasures from the Forbidden Palace. Up to the 1970s, most nations continued to recognize the Taiwan (Republic of China) government as the legitimate government of China.

Taiwan became democratized during the 1980s and elected its first ethnically Taiwanese leader (approximately 88% of the population is ethnically Taiwanese - a mixture of aborigines, descendants of the Chinese workers brought by the Dutch, and a handful of Japanese). In 2007 Taiwan adopted a resolution asserting a separate indentity from China.

An exciting and fascinating history! And what about Taiwan's culture? I think it's most important to note that one of my favorite beverages in the world, bubble drinks (aka milk tea) come from Taiwan - thanks Taiwan! On a more serious note, Taiwan's National Palace Museum is home to over 650,000 jade, bronze, calligraphy, painting, and porcelain items taken from
China's Forbidden Palace during the exodus - so much that they can only display 1% at any given time. Of course, Taipei is also home to the world's tallest building, the Taipei 101, which is on approximately 75% of the postcards I've received from Taiwan. :) Baseball is a very popular spectator sport in Taiwan. And apparently, one can find quite a lot of motor scooters and 24-hour convenience stores in Taiwan as well.

Lastly, it's important to note that Taiwan has a breathtaking natural landscape. The island is mountainous due to its location along a major fault line (sadly, resulting in frequent earthquakes), and it is also tropical. Most of its natural resources have been long since exhausted, but its natural beauty remains in many places.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The American Southwest


I'm always surprised at how fun it is to write a post about my own country. I thought today I would write about the American Southwest, which has its own very unique culture and mindset, because I wanted to learn more about why that region is the way it is. The Southwestern US is generally thought to comprise Arizona and New Mexico as the core states, with parts of California, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Oklahoma also containing elements of the Southwest culture, depending upon their proximity to the core. There are four factors, I think, that have had the largest role in shaping the Southwest culture of the United States: Native American influences, Spanish immigrant/Mexican influences, Anglo American influences, and the unusual climate of the region.

No other region of the United States has a climate like the Southwest. The region is extremely dry and hot, routinely reporting the highest temperatures anywhere in the US, with Death Valley, California averaging 98 degrees F (36.7 C) in summer. This results in wide swaths of desert and arid landscape, and many cacti and other heat-tolerant plantlife. Mesas, dry plains, and caves systems dot the lower part of the region, and mountains with forests at higher elevations can be found in the upper area of the Southwest. This hot, dry climate has shaped the culture of this region immeasurably - what should a people do to survive in a desert-like climate, where nothing will grow and you bake to death in the hot sun? 

Several Native American groups survived very successfully in this region, namely the Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Apache, and other lesser-known groups. Some of these native groups built beautiful, terraced pueblo homes out of adobe, a type of clay. Through intricate irrigation systems, they were able to raise maize (corn), squash, melons, beans, and cotton, and also raise livestock such as sheep. A unique culture arose among these groups. Even today, the small remaining populations, mostly living on reservations, craft some of the finest silver and turquoise jewelry in the world, and weave gorgeous wool and cotton blankets and clothing. One smaller tribe, the Pima, wove such wonderful cotton items that you can still see their name at many stores on the packages for high-quality sheets and blankets. Although the Native influence isn't as strong as it once was, this region still has one of the nation's largest Native populations and it affects the culture more strongly than anywhere else in the US.

Of course, the Spanish were the first to settle this region, and held the territory until the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. Only 150 years have passed since the Southwest was part of Latin America, and that culture strongly influences the region - probably even more so, due to its proximity to the Mexico border and the large number of immigrants from that country. One of the most
notable influences Latin-American culture has had on the Southwest is in the realm of cuisine. An entire category of cuisine, Tex-Mex, originates from the Southwest. According to Wikipedia, it is similar to Mexican cuisine, but uses larger cuts of meat, and uses less of tripe and brain (considered undesirable to the more finicky Americans). Like Mexican food, it's known for its use of spices (especially the chile pepper) and accompaniment with beans. Chili con carne, fajitas, and chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles) are well-known Tex-Mex dishes. Latin-American culture also affects the language - many people in the region speak a unique dialect of Spanish. "Because of the historical isolation...from other speakers of the Spanish language, the local dialect preserves some late medieval Castilian vocabulary considered archaic elsewhere, adopts numerous Native American words for local features, and contains much Anglicized vocabulary for American concepts and modern inventions." (source: Wikipedia) Cool, huh?

And of course, there is the the modern influence of the Anglos, who presently make up the majority of the population and who have dominated the culture since the mid-1800s. It is a pleasure, though, to see the strong remnants of the other cultures which have survived in the Southwest and mingled in such a unique, positive way. Thanks to all the great Postcrossers who sent me the beautiful cards from this region. Every image you see in this post shows postcards I have received in the mail. Thanks!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Traditions of the Black Forest


Behold, one of the most beautiful postcards I've received so far - this scan doesn't really show the beautiful, deep colors on the card. I love these beautiful farmhouses of the Black Forest, or Schwarzwald, which were traditionally built with very steep roofs to prevent snow from accumulating on the house and making the interior cold. These houses also have an insulating corridor, which wraps around the entire house, between the exterior wall and the living area - this also helps keep the living area warm. The Black Forest had very difficult, snowy winters, which is why it was populated much later in human history. It is still much less densely populated than northern Germany. The particular house shown in this photo is called the Lorenzenhof, built in 1608, and part of the Black Forest Open Air Museum, which features many traditional German farmhomes, mills, storehouses, gardens, and chapels. You can take a very lovely virtual tour by clicking on this link

The Black Forest is a major tourist attraction in Germany. Beautiful natural landscapes abound; including some of the most beautiful lakes in the world (Lake Titisee on the right), rolling hills, and gently curving rivers. It's a great place for hiking and boating and exploring nature. The people of the region serve very hearty, delicious meals and some of Germany's best beer is produced in this region as well. Some very famous foods originated here, including kirsch, a cherry liqueur, as well as Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, a.k.a. Black Forest Cake, which nowadays you can get in many restaurants all over the world. It's a delicious chocolate cake with layers of whipped cream and cherries, and I definitely recommend you try the incredible recipe I've included at the closing of this post. :)

An entry about the Black Forest wouldn't be complete without a mention of the cuckoo clocks that have helped make this region famous. Although the idea didn't originate in this area (most historians believe it arrived from Bohemia), the clockmakers of the Black Forest are responsible for turning cuckoo clocks into a valued art form, and have been doing so since the 1700s. I had no idea how much these clocks were associated with this region until I started doing some internet research on the Black Forest - imagine my surprise when I searched for "Black Forest" and every search result brought me something about cuckoo clocks! The Black Forest also has several clock- and jewelry-making museums which are highly recommended.

Here is the promised Black Forest Cake recipe. Enjoy!

Black Forest Cake
2 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups white sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 (20 ounce) cans pitted sour cherries
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup confectioners' sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour two 9 inch, round, cake pans; cover bottoms with waxed paper.

2. In a large bowl, combine flour, 2 cups sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add eggs, milk, oil, and 1 tablespoon vanilla; beat until well blended. Pour batter into prepared pans.

3. Bake for 35 minutes, or until wooden toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean. Cool layers in pans on wire racks 10 minutes. Loosen edges, and remove to racks to cool completely.

4. Drain cherries, reserving 1/2 cup juice. Combine reserved juice, cherries, 1 cup sugar and cornstarch in a 2 quart saucepan. Cook over low heat until thickened, stirring constantly. Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla. Cool before using.

5. Combine whipping cream and confectioner's sugar in a chilled medium bowl. Beat with an electric mixer at high speed until stiff peaks form.

6. With long serrated knife, split each cake layer horizontally in half. Tear one split layer into crumbs; set aside. Reserve 1 1/2 cups Frosting for decorating cake; set aside. Gently brush loose crumbs off top and side of each cake layer with pasty brush or hands. To assemble, place one cake layer on cake plate. Spread with 1 cup frosting; top with 3/4 cup cherry topping. Top with second cake layer; repeat layers of frosting and cherry topping. Top with third cake layer. Frost side of cake. Pat reserved crumbs onto frosting on side of cake. Spoon reserved frosting into pastry bag fitted with star decorator tip. Pipe around top and bottom edges of cake. Spoon remaining cherry topping onto top of cake.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Egypt, Past and Present


This card shows one of the jewels in my growing collection, the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun in Egypt, which I received in a swap with lovely Salma. I was browsing through my cards, deciding which one to blog about today, and as is often the case, I realized that I know very little about Egypt. I know a little of the ancient history, but what is Egypt like today? I want to know.

But first, let me tell you about King Tut. He is famous today, but not because he was a special king, only because his tomb is the most complete Egyptian burial tomb ever discovered. Usually, the burial tombs of Egyptian kings were plundered and stripped of their valuables over the thousands of years they've existed, but this tomb remained undiscovered until 1922, when Howard Carter and his archaeological team unearthed the tomb. And what of King Tut? Not much is known - he was nine years old when he became king, and died ten years later. His rule began in approximately 1332 BC, and no one is very sure who his parents were - possibly Akhenaten, the only monotheistic king Ancient Egypt ever had. King Tut didn't have enough time to have a profound effect while he was alive, but today he's been able to teach us a lot about ancient Egypt.

Nowadays, Egypt is the most populous nation of the Middle East, home to 83 million people. Although Egypt is a fairly large country, most of the land is desert, and nearly all people live along the Nile River - 99% of the population lives on only 5.5% of the country's land area. So Egypt is crowded. There is also a lot of uniformity, from what I can gather. Ninety-nine percent of the population is ethnic Egyptian, and 90% of the population is Sunni Muslim. The remaining minority is almost entirely Coptic Christian, the name given to Egyptian Orthodoxy. The government is nominally a semi-presidential republic with an elected president, but the current president, Hosni Mubarak, has served five terms and is often accused of election rigging. Egypt has also been criticized for frequent human rights violations, including the use of torture and the mistreatment of women. 

But I don't want to bash Egypt. It is one of the most stable, successful countries in the region, with a strong economy and (mostly) peaceful diplomatic relations. Present-day Egyptian culture has some great high notes, including world-famous festivals and a thriving pop music industry, as well as some very highly-regarded soccer teams. 

This video gives a photographic tour of Egypt that shows some of the modern culture as well as the ancient history available to see in Egypt.

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