Riding the River in Beijing

Saturday, 30 April 2011 08:02 PM Written by


"The best way to see Beijing is on a bike," someone once told me.  Whoever it was, I thought he was quite wise, so I took the advice.  It seemed like the proper thing to do, Beijing having such wide bike lanes and such slow car traffic, slow enough that both bike and car have similar average speeds. 


People in China can and do pile everything they have onto bikes.  Piles of wood, of tools, of metal bed-frames, of kids using metal bars as seats or baskets as cradles, of cardboard boxes that tower over bikers’ heads, or piles of bags filled with foods, clothes, antiques to sell at market, of counterfeit CDs and DVDs, of cell phones and mattresses.  To me, the most interesting bikers are those whose entire day consists of selling things from their bikes.  They sell notebooks, computer programs, and newspapers, but my favorite is the food.

bj_blog_andy_bike_food_guy-1_small_irfamStreet food vendors bike to the gate outside of my dorm every day to sell their sushi, fried chicken sandwiches, and sautéed noodles out of metal woks blackened by years of heat and grease.  I once saw them biking away from the police, shish kabobs still smoking over the hot coals, and all I could think about was grabbing one of the sticks of smoking, juicy goodness.  Apparently it's illegal to sell without a license, but they do it anyway, every single day. 

The roads in Beijing are like rivers.  Bikes and cars swerve and merge fluidly, as though all can feel the movement around them.  The bikes, the small fish, move in a school; it is almost like we have a heightened consciousness, reacting to the big fish in a synchronized retreat, keeping close, not needing to turn our heads. 

Cars are slow but take every measure to get ahead, beeping, inching, almost hitting the bikes and mopeds and scooters, but never quite doing so.   The bus drivers politely stretch out a single hand of warning, telling bikers to make way or get smooshed.   To an outsider, it looks like a constant state of frustration, with all the noise and warning and nudging, but, from the bike, I see it all as a concerned correction to the proper flow, a constant recognition of co-existence, a frequent hello said loudly by horn or squealing brake.  Bikers, the small fish, are noticed but mostly ignored.  They seem content, swimming on with the current, even knowing that they could be eaten alive.


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Lunch with a Chinese Family

Friday, 29 April 2011 09:43 PM Written by


“My mother is so excited to cook lunch for you at our home. She has never had to cook for foreigners before, so she is a bit nervous,” said my Chinese friend, Mark, as we waited in the taxi. “I’ve told her so much about you both,” he said. I was a bit nervous.

After paying the driver nearly 100 Yuan, we stepped out of the taxi into a residential complex with multiple identical, red and white buildings. Clothes hang from lines that extended between the buildings. Children chased each other in the gated playground. A man fixing a broken vehicle was star-struck when he saw a Chinese man, a black man, and white woman walking together in this complex just outside of 5th Ring Road.

We arrived at the front door and the smell of food immediately overtook my nose. “Ni hao!” said a woman in her late 40’s, with a few wrinkles on her face. She had big, curly hair that contained a few streaks of gray. “Ni hao,” Colleen and I responded simultaneously, as we each nervously shook her hand. She proceeded to speak Chinese, as she guided us to the couch. “My mother said to get comfortable,” Mark translated. The coffee table contained four different kinds of nuts and 20 kinds of candy.

Mark’s mother quickly ran to and from the kitchen, bringing multiple plates to the kitchen table. At one point, she started laughing hysterically, as she spoke Chinese. Mark started laughing too. “What’s so funny?” I asked. “My mother said that she never expected to bring out the silverware. My sister brought them to our home a few years ago, and they have been collecting dust in the cabinet since then.”

On the table were  plates of  mutton, fried cabbage, purple sausage, vegetables, white rice, and fruit-flavored milk. “Are you sure that you told your mother that only two guests were coming? Are your siblings coming? This is A LOT of food,” I said. He smiled and nodded. She continued to bring more dishes until food filled most of the table, barely leaving any room for our plates.

bj_blog_corey_1_med_irfamMark pointed at a dish that contained fried bacon and potatoes. “Hong Shao Rou,” he said.  “This was Chairman Mao’s favorite dish. He didn’t have it very frequently during the difficult period in China when there was a famine, so it’s special. My mother prepared it because you are a rare guest.”

Mark’s mother finally sat down and awkwardly held her silverware. She was breathless, yet smiling. “Xie xie,” I said, and the lunch began. Because of the language barrier, we initially sat in silence. Mark became the designated translator, as he translated the many questions that we asked and comments that we made – and refused to translate many others.  

“What are you studying? Do you like China? Colleen you should eat these vegetables. They’re good for your skin.” And there was an awkward silence when she asked, “What do your parents do? Do you have husbands and wives?  Does everyone in America have maids to clean their houses?” Mark did not want to translate.

The phone rang, and Mark’s mother apologized as she left the table. Mark said, “Listen, I’m sorry but my mother has a tendency to want to get into everyone’s business. She wanted to know these personal things to compare your lives to our family’s – and then to mine – and gossip to all her nosey friends. It’s what middle-aged Chinese women do.”

Colleen and I laughed at his seriousness. He did not want to give the wrong impression of his family. Mark’s mother called him into the living room – this time, her voice was in a higher pitch. He looked worried, and he excused himself.

“I cannot believe he died so young,” Mark said, “He just fell over. My mother’s good friend had a heart attack.” I looked into the living room to see his mother frantically running her hands through her hair, as she talked on the phone, gazing out of the window.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you and your mother are ok,” I said. “Yes my mother is going to visit the hospital and give 500 yuan to his family as a traditional gesture of respect – but later today, because you are her guests now.” “We can go now if she needs time to…,” I said. “No” was his immediate response.

Mark’s mother returned to the table with a smile, and the table was silent – again. “Corey, have some wine,” Mark translated, as she grabbed the bottle of wine. “Xie xie.” She repeatedly left the table and went into the kitchen, bringing more soda, and more fruit flavored milk, and more ice cream, and more vegetables—vegetables, she said, good for Colleen’s skin.

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Friday, 29 April 2011 07:41 PM Written by


Let’s face it. Dumplings are delicious. And when you find a delicious food in a foreign, unfamiliar country, you’re willing to do a little work to get it. When we first arrived in Beijing, Elliott (our guide) responded to our questions about using the buses alone with, “Psshh, good luck!” But, he responded to Cait’s question about finding the best food with, “My favorite dumpling place is a bus ride away.” 

After saying goodbye to our Chinese friend, Erin (who was too hungry to wait a bus ride before eating),  Cait and I set off by ourselves to the bus station. We had no name for the restaurant, just her memory of the pagoda building that housed it. We decided to get at least a name for the destination bus stop from Elliott before starting the adventure.  Two texts later, we had miniature solid black squares on Cait’s screen – her phone did not allow Chinese characters. While she decided how to ask again, I crossed the street, heading to the bus station.

“How do you spell incompetent?!” Cait yelled across the street. The irony of her statement was lost on the crowd of Mandarin-speaking Chinese around me. No one even looked around. After getting the pinyin from Elliott, we got on the 701 bus. Now everyone was looking around – at us. Open-mouthed and wide-eyed, even people on the sidewalk turned and stared at the two blond girls travelling together on public transportation.  When the scrolling LED lights finally matched Cait’s phone, we got off the bus.

I agreed to go to “the dumpling place” for two reasons – I like dumplings, and Cait told me she remembered what the building looked like. However, as we faced the row of shops across from the bus stop, Cait showed no signs of recognition whatsoever.

“Is this right?” I asked.

“It must be,” she replied.  Deciding to go left toward the bright lights, we ran across traffic. Five minutes later, we passed another bus stop, one that connected with the 118 bus – a good sign, as Elliott had said an alternative to the 701 was the 118. But, after two more blocks of no dumpling restaurant, we decided to turn around and try the other direction.

Barely a minute after passing the initial 701 stop in the other direction, another 118 stop appeared, closely followed by the real dumpling restaurant. Entering under the pagoda, we seat ourselves and are handed illustrated menus. I point out the dumpling platter and a promising noodle dish to the fúwùyuán before she leaves the table to serve her other costumers. The bottle of Sprite she drops off at the neighboring table looks too good to pass up, so Cait orders one for our table.

“Fúwùyuán, yī píng xuĕ bì!” The waitress was halfway across the restaurant by now, but Cait’s yell (loud bordering on obnoxious by American standards) drew far less attention than our blonde hair had on the bus.

bj_blog_sarah_dumplings_med_irfamElliott’s favorite dumpling restaurant quickly became my favorite dumpling restaurant. Soy sauce and sweet and sour sauce are the salt and pepper waiting in the middle of the table. Bright red table clothes embroidered with gold thread at the edges keep drips from reaching the dark wooden tables, which are each surrounded by four chairs whose seat covers are made of the same material. Dangling from the ceiling above each table, connected vertically by invisible thread, three white balls bounce light around the room. It glints off the gold embroidery and matching gold detail on the chopsticks, making the whole place sparkle. The servers, whose black uniforms stand out boldly from the red and gold, carry steaming silver trays of dumplings above their heads.

Our dumpling tray is lowered onto the table, a fresh cloud of steam revealing a spiral of beef/cabbage and pork/carrot dumplings. What we originally thought was a noodle dish is set beside it. Brown squiggles resembling baby seahorses are the closest thing to a noodle. Whatever it was, it was delicious. The Sprite we ordered turns out to be a can rather than a bottle, but both of us are too full to want more after everything was finished.

“Fúwùyuán, mǎi dān!” Cait’s call for the check was answered instantly. The restaurant had been slowly closing around us for the last five minutes; the last of the sparkling tablecloths were being folded neatly and carried away as we left through the pagoda. Feeling the impending food coma begin, we reached the bus stop just as the 701 did. There were fewer stares than the first ride of the night, maybe the bus was just emptier, or maybe I was too.


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'In Beijing'

Wednesday, 27 April 2011 11:31 AM Written by

“In Beijing”

(After Kristin Naca, “In Mexico City”)
A group poem
PittMAP, Spring 2011

City of noodles.
City of duck.
City of Rings, each one wider than the last.
City of red and blue stairmasters in the streets.
City where ‘hang loose’ means six.
City of smog and cough and spit
   of dirty street food addictions that can’t be kicked.

City of posing for pictures, peace sign held up on both hands.
City of Spring blossoms: peach, plum, apricot, clove, crabapple.
   waxy white magnolia
City where harmony is crucial to a harmonious society.
City of emerald-green glazed roof tiles.
City of Beijing hen hao.
City of everything is an emergency -- how else do we get home but with our emergency card?
City of “this is delicious but what is it?"
City of “as a doctor I say that the street food may not be safe, but as a person
   -- who can resist it?"

City of pushy, crowded streets next to silent, tranquil temples.
City of lady, lady;  do you like? what do you want?
City of impenetrable culture.
City where I am illiterate and mute.
City of endless packets of Pocky, Pretz, and Pejoy.
City of KTV, running out before eight to avoid paying for a room.
City of dumpling houses that close in the night.
City of dumpling houses we’ll do anything to find.
City of temple and chant:
Where, on a Sunday, outdoors, at Guangji, on a lotus pad, head to the ground,
   I didn’t -- but thought, instead, of my Mom in church, at her pew, 
   at St. Paul’s, in Akron.
City of therapeutic bubbling brown broths sealed in clear plastic bags.
City of, People of, Food of, Parks of, Buildings of Balance and Feng Shui.
City where a Mao keychain is a lucky charm.
City of flower petals, floating delicately and infecting hot water with their aroma.
City of scrunch, push, smoosh, always room for one more.
City of strokes, characters, tones, and disinterested cab drivers.
City of infants wrapped up in bright outfits and cradled on backs.
City where mothers shove their children in my arms declaring, “Picture!"
City where they won’t let me take pictures.

City of walkway overpasses lit by LEDs.
City of drab and grey. Of red and gold.
City of hutong, from the Mongolian, path or well, in English, an alley, a maze,
   amazing, of families and children and food stalls and bikes, built up, built over,
   built out, built down.
City of bright streets with shopping malls, of children squatting on bridges to pee.
City of face- -giving face, saving face.
City of light Tsingtao beer and hard baijiu liquor.
City where I learned to navigate, but forgot how to use a fork.

City of traffic.
City of dogs with short legs and smashed faces.
City of the dancing noodle.
City of diglets.
City where biking is the anarchist’s harmony of 12 lane roads, gridlocked traffic,
   where cars and buses cut you off, playing chicken.
City of wigs, Annie Cornelius, and Lulu.
City of “Is that a chickenhead in my soup?"
City of “Yea, I think I’ll eat the eyes."
City of stubborn taxi drivers
   who turn off their light as they drive the empty cab past a foreigner.

City of waking up late--the classroom’s only an elevator ride away.
City of starring in random tourists’ pictures.
City of walking--not running--on treadmills.
City where chopsticks wrestle with knots of noodles.
City of “I give you good price:” 2,000 RMB for a teapot.
City of “You’re killing me lady!!!"
City of VPNs, bypassing the Great FireWall of China.
City of Chinese friends, baozi, kros nest, and beer with 2.5% alcohol.
City of mastering, after a series of trials and errors, a squat toilet.
City of xiao gou at the fruit stand.
City of choiceness raw materials at the wu mart.
City of the art of haggling with giant grey calculators.
City of one more bus ride and I’m going to crack.
City of homesick.
City of spice, numb, dip, cautious, sip, pull, fold, and fry.
City of pastel petals unfurling gradually, warily
   as chilled days become warm and warmer
   under a sun shining through the gritty haze of a
City on the move.

City of hotpot so hot it hurts.
City of stared, stares, staring, keeps staring, is still staring.
City of green lights: start driving, halt for cross traffic, drivers ignoring their red,
   stopping sometime soon, speeding up.
City of Soldier Liu’s noodles, in Shitou hutong, near the used bookstore,
   around the corner from the guy cooking lamb, you’ll find it, sooner or later,
   among the lanes that lattice the heart of Beijing.
City of shopping as a sport not meant for the weak.
City of living in the future of friends and family at home.
City where RMB=yuan=kuai, and jiao=mao.

City of cherry blossoms, dogwoods, bamboo, chrysanthemums, azaleas,  
    beautiful but muted by the all-day rush hour.
City of Joyce cleaning up the broken glass art exhibit.
City of forbidden city for 6 bucks.
City of me me, mi fei, mi mi, wait--how do you say rice?
City of I can’t feel my lips, what kind of peanuts are these?
City of low hanging wires, temples, and flocks of birds doing laps.
City of blank stares, charades, and I need to learn how to say “I don’t speak Chinese."
City of hour-long subway rides.
City of can you help me practice my English?

City where Peter’s bicycle was relocated.
City of butterfly loving flower square.
City of 13th floor miracles.
City of jianbing, of noodles and dumplings and fish head, of pig guts
   and duck tongue and donkey and dog, where we never had a bad meal,
   but often a bad stomach.
City of Christmas
   of glowing constellations of electric lights, of red and green neon, of Chairman Mao-Clause
   of gifts given even after the most pleasant of robberies, of tea scam.
City of smoking, choking, and the Beijing cough.

City of fragments. Of writing.
Because professional. So wonderful. A5. TonLiL.
City of movie nights, five of us cuddled onto one bed; city where we all needed contact.
City of a thousand gardens wedged between high-rises.
City where majestic buildings are concealed by dense smog.
City of steam and sizzle rising from grilling skewers.
City of roasting yams pulled by bicycles
   parked amongst the pay phones with their round red shells
   like ladybugs about to take flight.
City where potatoes gather together.
City of “Beijing has EVERY-thing.

Oh, Tiananmen Square, dim and gloomy with your uncanny music,
Full of people patriotically searching for something as we search for anything
Confused, wandering, lost, and mute
Suffocated repeatedly by “Have you been to the Great Wall?"

Yes, we have been to the Great Wall of China
Where we turned twenty, huddled for warmth, and sang from your watch towers
We slithered down your giant slide and channeled the Qi.

Oh International House of Students!
Oh PittMAP Spring 2011!
Oh Elliott, Jane, and David!
Oh Nancy! Oh Vanessa!
Xie xie!

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Bag it and Lose the Plastic

Wednesday, 27 April 2011 12:20 AM Written by

jeb_bagit_moviecropLast week I caught the movie "Bag It" on PBS. At first I thought it was going to be the normal "You must not use plastic bags to save the world" type of movie but was I surprised. It was actually quite funny while not insulting any one's intelligence and giving you some good information, some of which will really surprise you and not pleasantly.

The movie got me thinking about how much plastic I have hanging around the house ... starting with plastic bags with all those lovely logos; great branding for some, forever trash for the rest of us. I figured that could be where I start to "de-plasticize" my life. 

Earth Day was Saturday and I felt that declaring my independence from the plastic bag would be a good way to honor the occasion. Saturday is also my day for shopping, errands and such, from Market District to the Strip District. I collected my canvas bags, Trader Joe cooler bags and an old market sack I had from my days in Spain and was off. What happened over the course of the day was interesting and in many cases not what I expected.

I was okay through most of the day and most of the stores. Of course Ikea was a given as they no longer hand out plastic bags, you have to bring your own or you better be prepared to juggle.

The only strange occurrence was at a clothing retail store (which will remain nameless). I had a return to make and when I asked for my old bag back the cashier seemed a bit confused. I told her I wanted to reuse it to which her reply was, "They will give you a new one when you check out."

I'm not sure what the problem was but she really didn't want to give me back my old bag, no way. And to make matters worse I watched her dumped my old bag into the trash. What a waste and not the best way to promote a brand in these days of green.

The highlight of my day came at the grocery store. I was buying everything for Easter which meant little red potatoes, green beans, all sorts of fruit for fruit salad and other food stuff that you would usually dump into one of those hard to open bags that come off a roll and are impossible to open. This part took strategy on my part and a bit of patience on the cashier's part.

I actually felt a bit bad for the cashier but he seemed to take it in his stride as one after another red potatoes rolled along the belt at checkout. The green beans were a bit messier I must admit. I can see an investment in canvas veggie bags coming my way.

At the end of the day I came home with my groceries and but no plastic bags and I felt good about that. To commit to this means making an effort but it's worth the effort. I did one little thing but just think if we all did just one little thing every day.

Check out the trailer for "Bag It."

Tomorrow: Becoming a bagless town ... what do you think?

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Socialist Chic

Saturday, 23 April 2011 08:33 PM Written by


The international residence hall at Capital Normal University in Beijing is a world of its own. Two restaurants, a café, a bookstore, a convenient store, a gym, and a pool/sauna are all within the immediate building. Classes are located in the academic building, which is connected to the residence hall, so we do not have to go outside to get to class.  We could live all five weeks without ever leaving our residence hall. 

Nancy Condee described the residence hall as “Socialist Chic.” The rooms are basically hotel rooms and the only thing that distinguishes them from an American hotel room is that the beds are rock solid, the showers leak and leave pools of water on the bathroom floor, and if you flush toilet paper the toilet will clog. There is also the fact that the government turned off the heat, so we are always uncomfortably cold.   For several days, we went without hot water. We have a television that is never turned on, a desktop computer circa 1990, and a mini fridge that stores diet coke, Heineken, and left over Cat’s Eye pizza.


At night, the lobby is one of the best party scenes town.   Ashtrays are located under the no smoking signs and the convenient store sells Chinese beer for 2 kwai.  Each beer has a fraction of the alcohol content of an American or European beer, so an average guy could drink a dozen Tsingtao and still be thirsty. This results in an absurd amount of empty beer cans and Bacardi breezers littering the lounge area.  On any given night you will find large groups of students smoking, drinking, laughing, singing, dancing, eating kebobs, and socializing. The lobby in the morning looks like a war zone or a frat house. 

Before our group of arrived, there were nine Americans living in the residence hall. We managed to meet all nine of them within the first two days. The rest of the building, which easily houses five hundred people, is filled with nationalities from all over the globe. The first Russian I met stumbled into the lobby wearing a bright red track jacket with RUSSIA written across the chest in bright white letters and a black hat that reminded me of something a 1930s mobster would wear.  He greeted some of our new American friends with a big sloppy hug and then took a swig of the bottle of Jack Daniels.

I meet a Korean girl in the elevator who apologizes to me at least five times before we reach the ninth floor. I talk to an Irish man on Saint Patrick’s Day who tells me his passport is more valid patriotism than wearing green.  While arguing with Will over the pronunciation of the company, Kinder, that makes the best (and most expensive) candy bars, a man in the elevator defends my pronunciation.   As Will attempts a rebuttal, the man interrupts, “I’m Italian, trust me”.    Will did not buy it:   “He was just flirting with you, that’s all.”  A British man tells me he knows everyone in the building and that he’s “kind of a big deal.”

 We play a game now where we guess the nationality of people in the lobby. The Russian girls never smile, so they are easy. The Russian boys are always yelling. The Koreans giggle a lot. But, of course, the Americans are the easiest to spot.

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International Culture Plaza

Saturday, 23 April 2011 08:12 PM Written by


Our dorm, the International Culture Plaza of Capital Normal University in Beijing, houses around 500 students from all corners of the globe.  In the last five weeks, I have had the privilege of meeting students my age from Russia, Azerbaijan, Suriname, Italy, England, Thailand, Libya, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Ukraine, and, of course, China. 

It is fascinating to see that a large majority speak English in this dormitory.  The only way for two students to communicate who don’t share the same primary language is through English or, if their proficiency allows, Chinese.  While I am happy to be fluent in the most widely used language in the world, I am considerably more regretful of my reluctance to ever learn another language.  Serge, a Russian friend I met during my stay in Beijing, speaks four languages.  Ruairi, a self-proclaimed Irishmen currently studying at Leeds University in England, speaks six. 

Serge is originally from a small town outside of St. Petersburg, Russia.  Growing up with no heating or electricity, studying in China seemed to be a good option. He is twenty-three years old and has been studying in China for nearly four years.  He has a certain glare and a way of carrying himself that can make first impressions daunting.  He smiles, which is more than I can say for other Russians I have met, but from what I have seen, he has never laughed.    His roommate, Clyde, is from Suriname, a South American country on the northern border of the continent—a country I was unaware existed before meeting him.  He speaks flawless English and, evidently high on the natural wonders life brings, he is always giggling. 

The roommates make quite an interesting dynamic duo.  Both are club promoters for a new club close to the dormitory, Dao. The owner of Dao is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and also owns two other well-known clubs in Beijing: Vics and Mics.    Because they have been here for so long, they know virtually everyone in the dormitory.  It is hard to have a conversation go uninterrupted before one of the two is approached, greeted, or given a kiss on the cheek.  

The dormitory is often too comfortable and provides an interesting display of culture in  itself.   Equipped with two restaurants, a general store where all of life’s necessities (and much more) are sold, a smoke filled (and Kazak filled) café selling coffee, booze and tuna-sandwiches,  a soccer field made of turf, the kind one could find at a cheap miniature golf course on Harrisburg’s City Island, a basketball court where Chinese students shoot the ball (only to miss the wrought-iron all together), a weight lifting room where the perimeter walls are dressed head-to-toe with posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilders, and a swimming pool for all those daring enough to endure the highly iodized water, the International Culture Plaza has a way of generating the self-invoking question: “Why leave this building?” 

“Because you’re in China,”

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I'm back and Being Green

Friday, 22 April 2011 12:28 AM Written by


First, I want to wish you all the best of Earth Day.

Let's remember the beginning, why all this started and how far we have come. Back in 1962, Senator Gaylord Nelson started with an idea that he would nurture for seven years. Then in the spring of 1970, his vision came to fruition; Earth Day was born on April 22, 1970.

I know we have so much more to do but think about how far we have come since that spring all those years ago. Today we hold recycling events on a regular basis, the word "Green" is a part of our everyday vocabulary and sustainability is spreading throughout our land, our world.

So celebrate the day by doing something good for the earth which in turn will good for us all.


Now, back to me and "Being Green." We're back in business and looking for your events, classes and great green information.

When I started thinking about this blog the one thing that I kept coming back to was how many things we had going in the region and how often I missed an event or lecture or whatever because I didn't check out a certain site or had missed an eblast. So my mission with this blog is to gather everything I can about what is going on in the green world of the 'Burgh!

But to do this I need your help. If you have an event, email it to us. Does your group have a Google calendar ... let us know so we can synch it up to our calendar. Starting a community garden and need some help, email me with the info and let's see what we can do to get the word out. You found a great new tool or kitchen composter pot, drop a line. Want to do a guest spot, give us a shout.

This should be our blog, alive and kicking once again. Being Green wants to be your green scene clearinghouse so check back for events, photos and videos to come.

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