Ostensibly we went to the Huntington Library as part of a one-day writing retreat. But I knew in my heart that wasn't going to happen, not for me. Whenever I visit the botanical gardens and museum displays complex, all I want to do is run around and take pictures. Don't get me wrong, I do write—just not what I'm supposed to.
Today was no different. As soon as I saw the red lanterns swaying from the trees—
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we could go to Pasadena, we made a quick stop at Alicia's for breakfast.
We only ever seem to visit this little cafe/ gift shop on our way to Huntington Library. Partially because the hours are so sporadic. Sunday through Tuesday the restaurant is closed and certain items—like scones—are only served on Fridays and Saturdays.
And I had to have my scone. Warm and crumbly, when I split it down the middle, steam wafted out. Honestly, though, it's not the scone I crave—it's the Devonshire cream. Specks of vanilla bean float in the thick eggshell-white cream. It spread smooth as margarine and tasted sweeter than butter. A dab of red jam added the final note. I bit in and the sugar that crusted the outside of the scone crunched in my teeth.
Alicia's is also a good place to make a pit stop. Sample lotions line the top shelf of the bathroom. This trip, I chose to slather Vanilla Quince on my hands.
Blossoms and Herbs
The sun blazed hot by the time we reached the Huntington Library. It was the kind of blue-sky, short-sleeved January day that made SoCal the envy of those back east buried under snow drifts. I was in the mood to admire nature, so I strolled down a grove where the camellias were blooming.
I'd first noticed camellias in Japan. The gaudy red flower was the only splash of color in the grim landscape of the Nagoya winter. There, camellias grew on bushes. Here in California, they grew on trees: red ones, white one, candy-striped pink ones. My aunt said camellias remind her of roses, but without the thorns. Also, without the smells. I pressed my nose to one, but caught not a whiff of any scent.
Still, I followed the camellia trees to a group of Greco-Roman statues, and I enjoyed taking pictures of them--the uglier the better. A couple of gray squirrels with auburn tails led me to the seasonal garden. Dusky rouge daylilies, purple flecked foxglove, and Mona Lisa blue anemones graced my path.
I progressed to the rose garden, but found no roses--just a couple Magnolia trees scattering large pink petals on the stone benches. The air smelled fragrant. Georgetown Lemon White Tea read a sign--and I decided then and there that’s exactly what the air smelled like that.
I got lost on my way to Somewhere but found a severely under-appreciated herb garden. The lady there explained to me that hops, one of the principle ingredients in beer, grew on vine that looked rather like wisteria, and that Listerine contained eucalyptus and thyme. I rubbed the silver leaves of a velvety plant and the scent of Sage rubbed off. Plants that looked like wild purple lettuce bore names better suited for fantasy books: "Dragon’s Tongue" and "Bloody Dock." And each plant had some use—whether culinary, medicinal, or cosmetic. It was really quite fascinating.
Vermillion Paper Lanterns
Normally at about this time my tourism urge would burn itself out, and I’d settle back to the Chinese tea house for some chilled jasmine tea and wok-fried chicken. Sitting in a glass menagerie overlooking a pond, I’d finally take out my ipad and begin to type.
Not this time.
Blame the vermillion paper lanterns. They led me back to my place of refuge, but did not lead me to rest, for here was the main distraction. Chinese artisans set up stalls to display local crafts and make sales. A woman embroidered a gold dragon on a loom. A man made clay figurines. But I found myself obsessed with the chicken blood stone carving booth.
Sadly, the craft did not involve using the known corrosive properties of chicken blood to bend a slab of stone to the artisan’s will, but instead employed regular carving techniques on a soft stone similar to jade but colored a dull red: chicken blood stone. Little squares containing with the faint outlines of horses—the Zodiac animal of 2014—and dignified men sat on the table. I wanted to take a photo of them, but I—forgive me—chickened out.
Still, I might have ignored these displays and carried on, but for the performance. A show of dancers and singers began at three on the outdoor stage nearby, so I plopped on the grass next to a girl in a red Chinese dress and watched. Also took photos. And tried to take notes.
Young women in beaded red outfits—I thought they looked like prom dresses, but realizes later they were pants—swung crinkled scarlet scarves in unison. Young men with gold, lion-headed vests jumped in unison. The song had the soft rock rhythm of any normal American pop song, but with Chinese vocals and the occasional twinge of a foreign instruments.
The host—who sported a Mohawk—explained that everyone came all the way from China. He introduced the two singers, a man and a woman who looked to be middle aged. The host said they sang Chinese pop songs. If that was pop, then pop in China must be about 40 years behind. For some reason, the woman’s song reminded me of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Don’t get me wrong, they had strong voices and I enjoyed their performance. It just wasn’t what I’d call pop.
My favorite performance was the mock Chinese wedding—which was the only one accompanied by what we’d call traditional music. It was boisterous. A man in salt and pepper wig and a bright pink jump suit played the comical matchmaker. While the dances weaved through the audience bringing in canopies and decorations, the matchmaker grabbed a man from the audience for the Chinese wife. They bowed three times and it was done.
By now, it was 3:30, the day was over, and the only writing I’d accomplished was half-formed thoughts scribbled in my notebook. Which would later grow up to be a blog entry. Which you have now finished reading.
Happy Chinese New Year!