Category Archives: experiences

Mountains and Moors

Fortune recently sent me on two fantastic outings, tied together by the common themes of natural beauty, good meals and great friends.

Last Thursday saw me driving west for a couple of hours into the Berkshires where I met up with Priya, who I’ve known since my Singapore American School days, and her friend Christian. The two are on the Appalachian Trail, having started south from Maine in July and scheduled to complete the entire thing some time in December. You can follow their progress at their Appalachian Trail blog and support a cause that Priya is championing at her website.

Determined to give them a memorable meal, I picked up a few orders of gourmet pasta from Glastonbury’s Max Amore and a bottle of wine, having carefully packed three wine glasses for an added treat (Priya and Christian drink water out of their bottles and heated beverages straight out of the pot; they carry no cups). Parking by Guilder Pond in the Mt. Everett State Reservation, I was faced with trail in two directions and promptly chose the wrong one, resulting in a beautiful but hardly necessary hike to the top of Mt. Everett with backpack, sleeping bag and food in hand. Retracing my steps, I finally reached The Hemlocks lean-to and reunited with the two hikers. In hindsight, I really should have brought twice as much pasta (hiking the AT burns a lot calories), but Priya and Christian appreciated the gesture.

They also suffered my ignorant questions and told me many interesting tidbits about logistics, etiquette and trail lore. I got to learn their trail names (Lefty and Homefries) and get a sense of their routine. Christian’s impressive fire-building skills were also on display, though he was quick to give credit to the extremely flammable birch bark. After dinner, a pot of hot chocolate was set upon the fire and quickly boiled. The wine glasses became vessels for perhaps the best hot chocolate I have ever had. Priya gently mocked this observation of mine, but with the nighttime chill setting in, the clean forest air in my nose and the unusually high chocolate-powder-to-water ratio, it was an honest assessment.

The stars were magnificent, thicker and sharper than any I’ve seen since I went sailing in the Caribbean. We settled into our sleeping bags around 9:30 PM (considerably later than the hikers usually stay up) and slept until morning. I accompanied Priya and Christian along the trail as far as my car, wished them well and drove straight to work smelling like a campfire while they continued their journey. The curious can check out some pictures of the evening.

After a short day in the office, I was on the road again, this time heading up to Loon Mountain, New Hampshire with Dan and Marta for the annual Scottish Highland Games. From what I knew about the Scots, I was expecting heavy athletics, plenty of bagpipes and no small amount of beer. I was not disappointed.

Traffic was bad going up but a stop at The Common Man, featuring a rum-infused apple cider and complimentary white chocolate, revitalized our spirits. We rolled up at the Days Inn around 9 on Friday night and decided to check out a neighborhood watering hole. After failing to find it on foot, we hopped in the car and located the establishment. Marta in particular was fascinated by the local color (firefighters, townies, Jägermeister girls), but after a some cards and a few beers we called it a night.

Breakfast was complimentary, as was an ebullient matron who had a word for everyone, whether they liked it or not. The Belgian waffles, blueberry muffins and cups of coffee went down easily, and we spiked a few of the latter with Kahlua to supplement the warmth offered by our many layers of clothing. A crowded bus ride later, we emerged at Loon Mountain and joined the throngs milling around and taking in the scene to a constant soundtrack of bagpipes. Marta’s cousins were also attending, and we met up with them briefly before heading to the heavy athletics field to watch a bit of the inventively named Weight Over Bar. We grabbed a few Scottish-style beers and cheered as burly men struggled to toss a 50lb ball over a bar that started at 13 feet and was eventually raised up to 18 feet.

Soon it was time for the opening ceremonies, where about 10 different pipe and drum bands played about 10 “different” traditional Scottish marches as they entered a large plaza. It would take someone more Scottish than me to tell the songs apart, but it was fun to see and hear. We peeked in the music tent after the ceremonies to witness an intense performance by… you guessed it: a pipe and drum band. They seemed to have brought their own cadre of screaming girls in the front row, which whipped up both the band and the crowd. The air was hot and the music was loud. It was very Scottish.

Breakfast had long since worn off, so we made our way to the food tent. Dan and I plumped for haggis and thumps (potatoes), which was far more palatable than I was led to believe. It was probably even better than the chips and gravy I had when I went to England earlier this year. Situated on the hillside with our food and beer, we sat back and enjoyed the caber toss, the heavy stone throw and the heavy stone carry. Eventually, we took the ski lift halfway up the mountain for a stroll, then the gondola to the peak in order to check out the view and the bar up there. Both were very agreeable, and we spent a good while looking around and admiring the late summer vistas of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

At the base of Loon Mountain, the festivities were winding down and the crowd had largely gone. Those left were to be found wetting their whistles at the lodge, and so we joined in. While sampling various ales, we were treated to the entrance of and impromptu concert by winners of the festival’s pipe and drum competition. In the close quarters of the bar and the the brogue-laced air swirling in and out of the open windows, we happily sipped our libations and basked in the glow of the finest bagpipe playing in New England.

Eventually it was time to leave. We soon learned that the buses were no longer running back to the hotel, so we set off on foot, taking a path that ran along the road. It was a long walk, and our thoughts were turning toward cabs or hitchhiking when the well-lit hulk of The Common Man loomed up beside us. Our second visit was as good as the first, and we enjoyed beer, a meal and a whiskey flight from a comfortable couch and arm chairs. The rest of the walk wasn’t difficult after that, and our arrival at the hotel marked the end of a fantastic day. There were plenty of good times to remember on the drive home and I could only wish that every weekend could be as fun as this one.

Want more? Check out my other pictures from the Scottish Highland Games.

Trip to Montreal

I left my car at work around 3:30 PM and Brian Canzanella (who I’ll call “Canz” henceforth), drove us to pick up his girlfriend, Kristina (who I’ll refer to as “K”). We headed north through some pretty heavy traffic around Springfield, but after that made good time. Notable stops included one of the nicest rest areas I’ve ever been to, complete with WiFi, the first memorial in the US to Vietnam War veterans and toilets that flushed with reclaimed waste water that had been filtered by plants. We grabbed subs at a small outpost in Vermont, and only waited in line for about 15 minutes before crossing the border into Canada near 9 PM.

Canz and K generously agreed to drop me at my youth hostel in Montreal’s Latin Quarter before continuing on their way just outside of town to stay at a hotel near K’s family. After several confusing roads (Sherbrooke Est vs Sherbrooke Owest), we finally found the place, Le Gite du Plateau Mont-Royal, shortly after 11 PM. I grabbed my backpack and hopped out, agreeing to stay in touch via email to meet up tomorrow.

Once inside, I got my keys, sheets and map, giving the guy behind the desk my passport in lieu of payment (as I had no Canadian cash), and headed upstairs to get a look at my home base for Montreal. Four bunk beds were wedged into room 207, and all four lower bunks were claimed by sleeping bodies. There was another person asleep in one of the upper bunks, while a further top bunk bore the blankets and belongings of someone who was apparently out somewhere. I took the top bunk in the furthest corner from the door, so that there would be less traffic walking past me. Dropping my backpack and slinging my camera over my shoulder, I set out to soak up a bit of the city before retiring for the night.

According to Kristina, Montreal is the party capital of Canada. I can confirm that, having seen a mixture of well-coiffed revelers in their late teens and early 20s drinking, dancing, stuffing their faces with souvlaki and vomiting on the sidewalk. Americans, Quebecois and other Canadians all seemed to be represented. I took in the pleasant air enjoying snatches of conversation in different languages during a lovely stroll. Making my way back to the hostel, I gazed more than a little jealously at the small groups clustered on glowing balconies and wide stoops, goblets of wine in hand and French on their tongues.
Saturday morning, I woke up at 7:30 determined to get an early start and make the most of my visit. The first order of business was finding an ATM and paying my hostel bill so I could reclaim my passport. Finding the ATM wasn’t hard; using it was. My initial attempt at withdrawing funds met with a “Transaction Unable to Be Completed” message. I’d been down this road before.

Previously, I’d traveling to Italy, where my attempts to use an ATM failed and I had to call them to straighten it out. Fast-forward a few months and I planned a trip to England and France. This time, I called beforehand. Nevertheless, Bank of America blocked my card, stranding me overseas without access to money. I barely had enough US cash to exchange and take the tube to my hotel in London, where again I had to call them to straighten it out.

Though I once again called Bank of America before leaving for Canada and informed them of the dates and locations of my travel, I foolishly thought that would be sufficient. Once again, I was stranded abroad without access to my bank account. Furious, I took my phone out of “Airplane Mode” and called the number and navigated to the “having a problem with your card” area. I went through an automated series of questions, where I provided various information, including parts of my social security number. After confirming my most recent withdrawals as being legitimate, I was given my balance and thanked by the robot voice. I tried my card again. Nothing.

Again I called, this time getting an operator, who asked me more questions. I gave my social security number, and was asked if there might be other names on my account. While with Bank of America, family members have been attached to my account, so I said yes, possibly my brother. At this point, I was informed that “one or more of the answers provided were incorrect,” and I would have to either visit a BOA banking center or fax a copy of my driver’s license and signature to Bank of America. I was then informed that there were NO BOA banking centers in Canada. I don’t get angry often. I was now angry.

Do people even have fax machines any more? If I couldn’t take money out, exactly how was I supposed to pay for a fax? Why did I waste 30 minutes informing Bank of America that I would be traveling to Canada? I hung up and called again, hoping for someone a little more reasonable. No, I still had to fax a copy of my driver’s license and signature. Apparently knowing my social security number, balance, last deposit amount, city where I opened my account, card number, PIN number and birthday was insufficient. I hung up again and emailed Canz, briefly explaining the situation and asking him if I could possibly borrow enough to pay for the hostel. Then I went for a walk.

I walked a few miles and headed back to my lodgings, where I saw Canz and K. They’d actually gone inside and tried to pay for me, but needed Canadian currency. We all found a bank where Canz lent me enough to cover my room, plus some spending money besides. Thanking my lucky stars for such generous friends, I paid my hostel bill and reclaimed my passport. After such a trying morning, the best balm we could think of was a crepe.

Coming into town the previous night, we’d seen Le Triskell – La Creperie Bretonne, an authentic-looking creperie specializing in food from Brittany, where Kristina’s ancestors hailed from. We stepped into the wood-and-plaster interior and sat happily down at a small table with a red and white plaid tablecloth. The house white wine was cool and refreshing, while my jambon et béchamel (ham and béchamel sauce) crepe was as delicious as it was mysterious.

After lunch, we strolled down Rue St-Denis through the Latin Quarter, the Village and into Old Montreal. We saw neat little shops, street performers, cyclists, hookah bars and cafes. We passed the Molson Brewery (no tours on Saturday!?), walked through Chinatown and stopped for frozen treats along the Vieux Port Montreal. Lingering in the shade of the park for a while, we next walked in no particular direction, eventually making our way to Notre-Dame, an impressive cathedral downtown. Kristina arranged for us to have dinner with her family at her grandfather’s favorite restaurant, so we killed a couple of hours by finding a cafe and enjoying an apéritif while watching the cars, bicycles and pedestrians pass by. The excellent meal of ossobuco and wine, plus the considerable amount of walking had made us rather tired, so we called it an early night.

I was up again early the next morning to take a shower, after which I strolled through several small parks and grabbed an English-language newspaper with a cappuccino and “panini matin” at a nearby cafe. In the course of my wanderings, I happened by the restaurant where we’d eaten the night before and snapped a quick picture.  As I did so, I was approached by a woman.

“Do you know this area well?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, for reasons I didn’t fully understand.

“Can you tell me where I can find a hair salon?”

“Certainly, if you continue down this street two blocks, there are several salons on both sides of the street. It’s early, so they may not be open yet, but there are quite a few.”

Giddy with my new role as knowledgeable local, I set off again on foot, eventually finding a grocer, where I picked up a wrap for lunch and some Nutella to take home with me. I also stopped at a patisserie and picked out a decadent brick of pastry called a mille-feuille (lit. thousand sheets). Planning to take my lunch in the Mont Royal park, it was an easy matter to keep walking uphill until I found myself at the base of Montreal’s namesake. Finding a shady bench was easy, and I polished off my wrap and dessert with gusto, drawing more than one bitter look from joggers who happened by.

Feeling guilty about my calorific indulgence, it was an easy decision to climb the mountain. There was plenty going on in the park surrounding it, with music, dancing, hacky sack, a craft fair and some sort of medieval skirmishing group. I watched the latter for quite a while and took several pictures before heading further up the hill. There was an easy, gradual, wide gravel path that wrapped around Mont Royal, suitable for bicycles and runners. I chose to scramble up the much steeper, rocky trails, my flipflops drawing pointing and what I assume were amused comments in French by the older adventurous folk I passed on the trail. A smile and shrug was all it took to pretend I understood. I gained the top quickly in a fine sweat and took some pictures of the surrounding city.

Going down was even more challenging, and I had many a sturdy tree to thank for my safe passage. Since it’s nearly autumn, I thought I might be able to find a mooncake in Chinatown, so I took a walk through. Sadly, none of the bakeries or confectioners seemed to have them. I made my way back to Quartier latin, searching for a terrace where I could enjoy a beer and watch the crowd. 3 Brasseurs had everything I was looking for, so I settled in with a litre of amber ale and a crossword. Some more walking brought me round to Rue St-Denis, where I saw Canz and K. We walked a big loop around Le Plateau Mont-Royal and finally settled on a vegetarian Thai restaurant for dinner. I was quite taken with our waitress, whose fuzzy brown hair, long eyelashes and intoxicating French earned her the secret moniker, “Montreal Wife.”

After we ate, we decided to check out a happening hookah bar down Rue St-Denis, where we waited outside for a bit before scoring a small table in the corner. The place was low on staff and high on customers (many of whom were perhaps high on something), and our drinks came slowly while we talked about which flavor of smoke to enjoy. Strawberry being out, we settled on melon, which was quite tasty. We chatted, gawked at the art students at the next table and failed to blow smoke rings before hotfooting it out so Canz and K could catch the last train out to the suburbs.

At 1 AM, it was a late night, but I was up again at 8 AM for a shower, walk, newspaper, cappuccino and breakfast croissant at Cafe Vienne. The light filtering through the large windows fronting the street was soft and warm, while a tiny bird hopped around the floor snapping up fallen flakes of croissant. I left the cafe in a delightful mood and set off to check out a vintage clothing store I’d seen closed the night before. Sadly, it was still shut, so I returned to the Square St-Louis to read by a fountain until I was due to meet Canz and K at noon. They picked me up in Canz’s car, and we drove over to the Biodôme. We spent a couple of hours walking through the different habitats. My favorites were the lynx, puffins, penguins and a porcupine that waddled over and munched heartily on an apple right in front of us.

A gondola ride up to the top of the Olympic stadium tower gave us a fine view of the city in all directions, much of which I felt like I covered on foot during my stay.

As it was mid-afternoon, we decided to head back to Connecticut to get home at a reasonable hour. We crossed the border into New York after a longer wait, but no trouble, stopped for sandwiches and passed the rest of the ride home discussing teleportation, evolution and history. Overall, it was an excellent trip. Montreal occupies a unique cultural space between North American and European, which was interesting and satisfying. It’s still the liverwurst to Paris’ foie gras, but it’ll tide me over until I can get over to France.

I need to once again thank Canz and Kristina for the huge amount of help after my banking fiasco. Beyond that, they were excellent traveling companions, easy-going, adventurous and fun. I definitely had a better time hanging out with them for part of the trip than I would have during a weekend entirely by myself. Thanks guys!

You can find more pictures from Montreal here.

Bonnaroo 2009 Recap

I am now a Bonnaroo alumnus. My first music festival was a rip-roaring success, fueled by the sights, sounds and smells that can only mingle in a farm field full of hippies, hipsters, frat brothers and music fans of all stripes.

My list of acts I wanted to see was, in retrospect, naively ambitious. Stretched out supine on my floor with Dinky perched on my back, I envisioned myself skipping merrily from tent to tent, Pabst in hand and music in ears. As it happened, standing for hours on end hurt my back about as much as a 20lb cat sitting on it. But I say this: it was well worth it.

A short day at work was required before heading down to Cheshire, CT to meet up with Bruce, Ali and Johnny, my companions for the trip. We loaded up Bruce’s Chevy Tahoe and hit the road around 4 PM on Wednesday, June 10. Lots of driving, fast food and shallow napping later, we pulled in to the RV rental place in Lebanon, TN around 9:30 AM on Thursday. Two hours and a driving rainstorm later, we were finally hooked up to our R-Pod, which we took to Walmart for a few last minute provisions (beer, galoshes).

An hour and a half later and we were finally in Manchester, TN and found the entrance to the Bonnaroo grounds without too much difficulty. Unbelievably, the line was short and it only took about 45 minutes to navigate ourselves to our spot in Camp Marsellus Wallace. We set ourselves up, organized our provisions and cracked open a beer. We’d finally arrived.

There were a few shows that Thursday, and Johnny went with me to White Rabbits, who played a decent set at This Stage. The power went out during their best song, “While We Go Dancing”, but they managed to finish it, much to the delight of the crowd. After some wandering around and dinner, we decided to take a nap at 10 PM before Passion Pit at 11:30 PM. Needless to say, we didn’t get up until the next morning, so Ali and Bruce went by themselves. This was one of the few disappointments of the trip.

Friday, I awoke much refreshed. I managed to read a bit and take a few pictures before Johnny and I went to see Gomez at Which Stage shortly after noon. Next up was a fantastic show by the Dirty Projectors and a few tasty microbrews at the Brooer’s Fest, also known as “the beer tent.” I saw a terrific set by Grizzly Bear by myself, featuring a transcendent version of “Knife”, then headed back to camp for some tasty steak prepared by Ali. We all hung out and worked ourselves up for the night’s shows, with the Beastie Boys, David Byrne, Phish and Phoenix on the schedule. The highlight of the Beastie Boys show was a green Kevlar balloon that captured the imagination of the huge crowd. As the rogue balloon rose higher and higher, it was more than a little amusing to see everyone crane their necks to catch a glimpse, completely ignoring the less interesting spectacle on the stage.

Next we hit up the David Byrne show, which was great. While men and women in pink tutus ran to and fro across the stage, the crowd joyfully danced to “Burning Down the House” in the warm night air. We went back to the main stage for Phish, picking an open spot in the grass and planting ourselves for a while. I stayed through the first song, then hoofed it over to the That Stage for Phoenix. Since none of my fellow Bonnarooers were interested, I danced along with thousands of strangers to the irresistible French rock outfit that hit the highlights from their stunning recent album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and previous It’s Never Been Like That. After a terrific show, it was back over to the What Stage for the rest of Phish, where standout numbers included “You Enjoy Myself”. The night was young, so Johnny and I took in a solid Crystal Castles show, after which Ali joined us for Girl Talk at 2:15 AM. Though “not a DJ,” the show was an extended collection of samples from all sorts of musical genres mashed together in novel and mostly melodic ways. The crowd was really into it, with glowsticks flying, couples fornicating in the middle of the throng and Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) repeatedly having to plug the cord to his computer back in, as the dancing coeds on stage kept tripping over it and pulling it out.

By 4:30 the show was over, and we toyed with the idea of hitting up the Silent Disco (where everyone dances in silence to music piped through headphones given out upon entry). However, the line was huge and we decided to head back to the RV. Cracking open a beer and watching the sunrise marked the end of the best day of Bonnaroo 2009.

On Saturday, I awoke around 10:30 AM and did a bit of reading before the day’s festivities kicked off. I made my way over to This Tent for Elvis Perkins shortly after noon and got a good spot for a fantastic show. A combination of slow folk ballads and delightful folk jams made this show my joint favorite with the Phoenix show of the night before. The afternoon was spent mostly wandering around, relaxing and snacking. In the evening, I caught the end of Wilco and the Decemberists, then headed over to the main stage for Danielle’s favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen.

I wish I could say I loved it, but I’m still not really a fan. Mitigating circumstances include me being about half a mile from the stage, “Bruce” coming on 30 minutes late, and being tired from a few full days. I’m willing to give him another shot, but this show didn’t do it for me. I headed back to camp before venturing out later for a semi-interesting circus performance and a pointless Nine Inch Nails show. I lasted two songs and made my way back to the RV to go to bed, to exhausted to even stay up for MGMT.

Refreshed and ready to go on Sunday, I saw an excellent AA Bondy show at The Other Tent and got some lunch back at the RV. Ali went to see an abbreviated performance from Elvis Perkins and Dearland at the more intimate Sonic Stage, where members of the band came down into the crowd for the trombonealicious start of “Doomsday”. I returned the favor by going with her to see Erykah Badu, but only managed to catch one song due to her coming out 45 minutes late. Striking off by myself again, I stood through most of Andrew Bird’s show, which I thought I’d enjoy more. By this point, a deep-rooted fatigue had set in, and I wandered back over to the Sonic Stage, where I saw AA Bondy perform for the second time that day. Lying on the ground looking up at the sky, I closed my eyes and enjoyed some peaceful Americana and a brief escape from the crowds.

With no interest in seeing Phish again, that was the end of my concert-going at Bonnaroo. I helped Ali and Johnny pack up our stuff and we went to bed early to get a few winks before Bruce came back from the show. He came running shortly after midnight and we quickly harnessed up the RV and took off for Lebannon, beating the rush of traffic and parking at the Walmart down the road from the RV rental place. After a few more hours of sleep, we got up at 8 AM, returned our R-Pod, got some breakfast at Sonic and headed north. In between sleeping, chatting, eating and listening to music, we finally pulled in to Cheshire at 2:30 AM. Another hour or so in the car saw me home, snuggled up in bed after an exhausting but wonderful weekend.

Here’s how I’d rate the shows I saw, with an MP3 link to my favorite song that they played.

THURSDAY
White Rabbits :: B+ :: While We Go Dancing

FRIDAY
The Dirty Projectors :: A- :: Temecula Sunrise
Grizzly Bear :: A :: Knife
Beastie Boys :: C :: Sure Shot
David Byrne :: A- :: Burning Down the House
Phish :: B+ :: You Enjoy Myself
Phoenix :: A+ :: Listzomania
Crystal Castles :: B :: Courtship Dating
Girl Talk :: B+

SATURDAY
Elvis Perkins in Dearland :: A+ :: Doomsday
Rodrigo y Gabriela :: B-
Wilco :: B+ :: Hummingbird
The Decemberists :: B+ :: The Rake’s Song
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band :: B :: Born to Run

SUNDAY
AA Bondy :: A- :: Vice Rag
Elvis Perkins :: A :: (Sonic Stage Show)
Erykah Badu :: B+ :: The Healer
Andrew Bird :: B+ :: Anonanimal
AA Bondy :: A- :: (Sonic Stage Show)

Thinking Back to the Boatyard

Recent conversations and memory vacations have had me thinking a lot about the month following my graduation from the University of Connecticut in May 2004. That month was spent with my brother, Aaron, living on our newly purchased 40-foot Valiant sailboat in a Fort Pierce, FL. That description is, of course, misleading. Instead of rocking gently in warm Floridian waters to the mellow tones of Jimmy Buffett, we were holed up fifteen feet above the ground in a boatyard, buffetted by the hot, dusty wind that whistled through frayed rigging and swept between neglected hulls.

Mornings and afternoons saw us engaged in labor-intensive boat repairs about which we were almost wholly ignorant. In between blindingly expensive trips to West Marine, we ground into the hull of our boat with a variety of power tools whose instructions we’d just read and slathered on noxious chemicals with paint brushes, trying to ignore the burning gel that dripped through the tears in our cheap latex gloves and into our microscopic fiberglass lacerations.

In the late afternoon, we quit work and passed zen-like in the mode of bums. We found a motel with an outdoor ice machine and filled our cooler. We gathered a $3 Walmart dinner of canned beans garnished with hot dogs. We bathed in the ocean surf and rinsed off under outdoor beach showers.

As night fell, we savored the taste of cold root beer trickling between our stolen ice cubes, listened to the radio, chatted, read, wrote and climbed down the ladder one more time to use the bathroom before bed.

Despite the comforts, mental work and comparatively vibrant social life I now enjoy, I grow occassionally wistful for a time when I strengthened my home with my hands every day, and slept under the stars each night.

Thanksgiving in Nebraska

I recently discovered that I’ve visited more foreign countries than U.S. states. And so it was with much interest that I accepted the invitation from my brother, Aaron, and his fiancée, Megan, to join them for Thanksgiving in Nebraska. While I considering geography an area of my expertise, I must confess I placed Nebraska far too south in my brain. It shares a border with South Dakota and Omaha is about as far north as Chicago. Now you know, too.

The trip started off with a ride to the airport from good pal, Marta. My flight to Chicago was smooth and I even had time to stop off for a pint before catching my connection to Omaha. Once there, I was met by Megan, who showed me all the sites of Omaha and took me to get some coffee while we waited for my brother’s flight to land in an hour. After all of that, we still had the better part of 45 minutes to kill, so we drove around, picked up a bag of sugar for Thanksgiving and stopped by the site of their impending wedding. Finally, Aaron arrived and they drove to Shelton, NE while I slept in the back of the car.

Thanksgiving was a fun day. I met Megan’s family, all of whom were delightful and accomodating. Aaron and I tossed around the football and chatted with the future in-laws before sitting down to an excellent feast of the usual suspects: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn casserole, green bean casserole, squash and gravy. Megan Grammie took us out for a tour of Greater Shelton afterward, pointing out their family corn fields and the grave of a pioneer woman who was rumored to be poisoned by Indians. Good stuff.

The evening was spent playing parlor games, including Werewolf. After several false starts, everyone got the hang of it and reveled in the lying, backstabbing and indignance that make it such a great family game.

Friday was spent attending the Nebraska v Colorado football game in Lincoln, which apparently becomes the 3rd largest city in the state during game days. For sure, Nebraskans love their college football team, particularly their defense, which they’ve dubbed “The Blackshirts”. The carnival atmosphere was shattered when Colorado scored a touchdown on their second play 54 seconds into the game. They added another two plays later to make it 14-0, before Nebraska decided not to disappoint the 85,000 rabid fans. Back and forth the game went, until Nebraska’s kicked hit a 57-yard field goal with about a minute left and won the game. It was a great day out and a real slice of Americana.

Saturday allowed us the opportunity to check out the inside of a Nebraskan movie theater, which was virtually indistinguishable from those in Connecticut. Megan, Aaron and I took in the latest James Bond flick, which I’d give a solid B+. Aaron reinforced his credentials as the family curmudgeon with a less-than-glowing review, but I enjoyed it. We stopped at a Nebraska souvernir store and then at Cabela’s, where our fancy city dress made us more of a spectacle than the stuffed antelope, industrial meat grinders and camo pajamas for sale.

One of the highlights of the trip was Saturday night at the Sportsman, a serious meat-eating establishment in Gibbon, Nebraska that compares favorably to the legendary Silver Swan in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. For until $10, patrons can get a “Man’s Cut” of delicious prime rib, a trip to the salad bar and a complimentary mini-bottle of White Zinfandel. I’m proud to say that I downed the Man’s Cut in one sitting, and didn’t have to eat again for at least another 24 hours.

Sunday was meant to be a traveling day, first driving from Shelton to Omaha, then flying home. Everything went to plan early on, as we made it back to Omaha with time to grab a burger at a local brewery and some freshly made ice cream before heading to the airport. I checked in, bade farewell to Aaron and Megan, and made my way to the terminal. That’s when the fun started.

Because of the East Coast weather, my 4:10 PM flight to Newark, NJ was delayed 2 hours. Then two more hours. Finally, we left a little after 9 PM, landing around 1 AM. There were quite a few people still milling around, having missed their connections and had their outbound flights delayed. With the Continental customer service line about 200 people long, I washed up a bit, got some water, stood in line for a bit and then decided to lie down for some sleep and get my boarding pass for Hartford in a few hours. I found an unoccupied spot in the terminal, fluffed my hoodie into a pillow and lay down for a nap at about 3 AM.

At 3:45 AM, a woman went around waking everyone up, telling them they had to leave the terminal and re-enter. This was apparently due to “security regulations.” Since I was awake and the new Continental line was relatively short, I figured I might as well sort out my boarding pass. An hour later, it was taken care of, and I wandered over to the proper terminal, stopping in a coffee shop for a mocha and finding my gate a couple of hours before my 8:30 AM flight.

I finally landed in Hartford at 9:30 AM on 45 minutes of sleep. I was 90% sure my bag wouldn’t make it, and debated whether I should even check the luggage belt or just go straight to the customer service office. Miraculously, it was there and I sensed things were finally going my way. My colleague, Ali, had agreed to pick me up and I went straight to work. After a full day, I returned home, exhausted, at 7 PM, made a simple meal, and went to sleep, putting an end to a memorable and enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend.

You can see a few more pictures of the weekend on Flickr.

Fresh Fall Links

The past few days and months have been a whirlwind of activity. I prefer understatement, so I’ll just provide some links that you absolutely shouldn’t miss, and you click on them. Deal?

– My friend Dan wrote a terrific article about canvassing in New Hampshire.

Dinky won a Fat Cat photo contest, giving me an excuse to meet some interesting people who know a lot about Springfield and Hartford politics.

– I’ve been taking a lot of pictures.

– I’ve gone sailing in Newport.

– I’ve joined a stock club.

– I tried my hand at knitting in Connecticut.

– I’ve been reading a bunch of books.

– I’ve become a regular at my local Manchester pub.

– I’ve been writing in my Field Notes.

– I’ve been meeting a lot of new people and realizing how much all of my older friends mean to me.

Thoughts on the DMV

The Department of Motor Vehicles is better known by its fear-inducing abbreviation: DMV. Just the mention of it conjures up visions of long waits, frumpy employees, miles of red tape and the queerest cross-section of society you can find in one place. It’s a place everyone avoids for as long as they can, but eventually nearly everyone has to go. The same, of course, can be said of death. Unfortunately, my need for a real car was dire with my beloved 1990 Celebrity Eurowagon, Big Red, threatening to crap out on me with every turn of the engine.  Therefore, I identified a suitable replacement, agreed a fee, gathered the paperwork and braced myself for my own purgatory at the DMV.

DMV

I firmly believe in being pleasant and polite with people who are doing their jobs, particularly in service industries. Judging by the scenes at the DMV, many people don’t share that belief. Still, I like to think that such a positive outlook makes experiences like a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles far more tolerable for everyone involved. It was with that frame of mind that I went to take care of business, and despite having to wait for 3 hours in line and being told that a $32 property tax from two years ago prevented me from registering my new car, I tried to stay upbeat. Of course, I couldn’t drive home then, as was my plan, and everyone who could give me a lift was otherwise occupied. So then there was a 2 hour wait in the parking lot. I won’t say I was in the best of humor, but everything got sorted out the following day, leaving me to muse about possible ways to improve the DMV. Here’s what I came up with:

Let the employees take turns picking the music that plays over the loudspeakers. Facing up to combative people all day must take a toll on them, and hearing their favorite song come on would certainly lift their spirits a bit. I don’t think anyone likes the Muzak that plays there now, so anything would be a step up.

Put a big sign outside with the line numbers counting down. There are picnic tables, a river and a park by the Wethersfield DMV, and other DMVs have or should have similar attractions adjacent to them. Why force everyone to sit in a room for fear of missing their number? Let them go outside, soak up some sun, play with their kids and pets, whatever. Anything is better than sitting in a stuffy room glaring at the employees behind the counter.

Give the idlers sitting in the room something productive to do. I was lucky to find a crossword puzzle, but most of the hundreds of people in the room just sat and stared ahead with their eyes glazed over. Let them pedal some stationary bikes and provide power for the building, or having a knitting instructor teach them how to make clothes for the homeless. Let them paint a mural or learn algebra. Just harness the free time of thousands of people each day in a positive way.

Finally, make as much as possible web-based. Documents that require signatures and ID are obviously difficult to process online, but cutting down on the number of people forced to physically go to the DMV will save the time and resources of the state and its citizens.

That’s my take on what could be improved. If you’ve got other ideas, leave a comment and be heard!

Awesome Travel Tip #714

It happens to everyone. You’re down in Florida, living in a hot, dusty boatyard through the scorching summer months. You don’t have a refrigerator and all you want after a sweaty day of work is a nice cold beverage. Oh yeah, and you’re too cheap to pay for one. What do you do?

Find a motel. 

Sneak up on the ice machine, slowly, slowly...

Your average Day’s Inn or Hi Ho is an open-air structure, at least on the ground floor. Just park your car, grab a trash bag, and make your way to the unguarded ice machine. If you want to do it right, make a note of a room number or two while you’re walking in, so that you won’t be caught cold if challenged by a motel employee. Once you’ve filled a few sacks with ice, you’ve got enough cooling power for a chilled brewski in the evening and good milk for cereal in the morning.

Of course, this technique works for more than just boatyard-dwellers. Here are some other opportunities to put it into action:

  • A trip down to the beach. Got a cooler? Don’t want to shell out for bags of ice? Problem solved.
  • A keg party. Your freezer isn’t big enough, and you didn’t plan ahead.
  • A severed finger. You’ve already had your finger severed. You don’t want to pay $5 for a bag of ice, too.
  • A camping excursion. There’s no ice in the woods. Ever.

Do you have any sweet travel tips? Do share!

It’s Been a Long, Strange Trip

I’ve had my share of difficult travels. I’ve crashed a dinghy and lost an outboard motor in a stalagmite-studded New Zealand tidal cave. I’ve battled legions of leeches in a Tasmanian swamp. I’ve simultaneously vomited and experienced diarrhea in the mountains of Nepal. But before last week, I had never seen the world beat such a cadence of misfortune against my plans.

A very tough trip

Though I already intended to travel to Georgia so I could see my parents and pick up their car, my father’s traffic accident in the same car threw the trip in doubt. Fortunately, he escaped with relatively minor injuries. I decided to buy a return plane ticket and make the most of the situation. A cold virus was the first plague to befall me, and it’s proven to be the worst such sickness I’ve ever had. It’s fair to say that a permanently clogged head magnified my injustice at the events that transpired.

Before leaving on Friday, I consulted the web for information about parking at White Plains Airport. The Westchester government website helpfully lays out the situation:

Flying out of Westchester County Airport? Thinking of driving there? Think again. With more flights to popular destinations than ever before there are simply not enough parking spaces for everyone.”

Heeding their advice, I opted to park my car at the Mount Kisco Metro North Station and take the train down to the airport. Unfortunately, all parking was of the “2-hour” or “Permit Only” variety. I resolved to risk a parking ticket and leave my car, which I’ve dubbed “Big Red”, in a remote corner of a distant parking lot about 1/4 mile away. I grabbed my suitcase and trudged through the freezing rain to the station, only to rethink my decision, return to Big Red, head south and try to find parking at the airport. A call to my father confirmed the wisdom of this decision. And indeed, parking was plentiful despite what I’d read. I happily parked in a long-term lot and headed into the terminal.

My flight was canceled. Two hours from home, I had the option of going back and returning early the next morning, or driving an hour to Laguardia on Long Island, where there was a flight due to leave that evening. I opted for the latter, paid $2.80 for my 10 minutes in the long-term lot, and headed south through the frozen hellscape of New York. Arriving at my second airport of the day, I once again found a long-term lot, parked Big Red and gathered my bags. That’s when the next shoe dropped.

But instead of a shoe, it was the rear, right side of my car, due to the flat tire spread luxuriously across the pavement in the cold rain. It’s unclear how long it had been flat, and a bit worrying to realize that I may have been driving 70 mph with it that way for a quite a while. With the bad weather and my impending flight, I had no choice but to leave it as it was and worry about changing it upon my return.

Big Red is probably the least desirable car in the eyes of an American car thief, with the passenger side door almost impossible to open and the fact that the windows don’t work. The flat tire was a further anti-theft device, but my six months worth of empty beer and soda bottles in the back seat would be a veritable gold mine for any itinerant bum that happened to wander through Laguardia’s Long Term Parking Lot 3. For that reason, I chose to lock the doors, perhaps for the first time ever.

As it turned out, I had plenty of time since my new flight was delayed for two hours. I treated myself to some Au Bon Pain chicken noodle soup and read most of my 4-4-2 magazine at the gate, periodically hooking down cold medication. Two more delays pushed the flight back even further, but we finally got to leave. Aside from the obligatory fat man sitting next to me and helping himself to our mutual armrest, the flight was memorable only for my throbbing head and aching jaw, which I had to work furiously to keep my ears clear for the duration of the flight. It was past midnight when we landed and my head hurt like hell, but it was great to see my parents and get a little sympathy for my troubles.

An excellent visit included dinner out at Murphys, where my limited taste didn’t prevent me from enjoying seared salmon, a tasty pinot and some decadent dessert. I also got to see the Patriots choke in the Super Bowl, eat a deliciously inventive birthday cake, hike at Kennesaw Mountain and enjoy a lovely dinner out on the deck in 70 degree weather. If only I didn’t have to travel again.

Checking the flight status repeatedly during the day on Monday, we saw a variety of predictions. On time, then delayed an hour, then delayed two hours, then delayed one hour, and finally delayed two hours again. I showed up at the airport an hour and a half before the latest predicted time and almost couldn’t check my bag. I got some Serious Attitude from the AirTran man for checking in less than an hour before the scheduled time of the flight

“It’s delayed two hours,” I said.

“But it’s scheduled to leave in 30 minutes,” he said.

“But it’s delayed two hours,” I said. Clearly, he was irate that I didn’t want to show up three hours before the flight was actually going to leave. He slapped some “Nick of Time Check-In!” tags on my bags and let me pass. Naturally, the flight was delayed a few more times. As I told my parents, the only thing worse than changing a tire at 9:30 PM is changing a tire at 12:30 AM.

When we finally got in the air, the flight was about empty and I thought my luck was finally changing. I opted to fill myself with caffeine instead of taking a nap, due to the long night ahead of me. Upon landing, I headed for the bathroom and changed into some warm clothes. True to form, it was 34 degrees and raining in New York. At the baggage claim, there were only a couple of people left. I grabbed one of my bags and waited for the other. And waited. And watched the carousel stop.

Of course, my other bag, full of wine and my more-than-3-ounces-of-liquids overnight bag was MIA. The bag I did have contained nothing but my parents’ TV and a Muslim prayer rug that I acquired in Malaysia, two fine items but not much help in taking out my contact lenses or making me smell better.

The baggage claim woman was actually helpful, and suggested I wait an hour for the next Atlanta flight, which was sure to be carrying my bag. Since I still had a tire to change, that sounded reasonable, so I headed for the parking lot. The nice crisp air, gentle rain and manual labor were actually enjoyable and I changed the tire without trouble. I took Big Red for a few laps around the parking lot. She didn’t seem to mind the prosthetic appendage, so I walked back to the baggage claim. Needless to say, I hung around for an extra 45 minutes and my bag didn’t come on the next flight.

Amazingly, when I walked into the baggage claim service room, there it was! But it wasn’t. It was someone else’s bag that, against the odds, looked exactly like mine. They’d taken mine to Brooklyn and left theirs. What does this oh-so-common bag look like? It’s so common that I couldn’t even find the brand (Fifth Avenue) despite all of my Google chops. I filed the necessary paper work and was told it was arrive on Thursday.

It was 12:45 AM when I paid $80 for my great parking experience and headed for Connecticut. There were no road signs to speak of at the airport exit, so I quickly got lost and called my girlfriend, who got me back on track. And so began the slow crawl northward, going 55 mph in my shattered car. There was nothing to do but turn on the radio and ride it out.

There is a stereotype that New York drivers are assholes. I’d like to add my voice to that school of thought. I was only just over the Tribero Bridge when the car in front of me took a curve too fast and spun out, ending up sideways across the road. Fortunately, my slow pace left me plenty of time to stop and watch with disgust as this particular asshole turned himself around and sped off again at 90 mph.

My progress was steady, my fatigue was manageable and I was optimistic. Then I looked down at the gas gauge: EMPTY.

With a sinking heart, I took the first exit, searched frantically for a gas station, and found one that was closed. I tried the illuminated pump, but it was stopped for the night. My choices were to ride around the ghost town at 1:30 AM looking for gas or head back to the highway and pray that an exit with a gas station wasn’t too far. I chose the latter.

Back on I-95, I soon saw a sign: “Connecticut Welcomes You! Tourism Center, Gas & Food: 9 miles”. Clearly, I didn’t have nine miles worth of fuel left. I needed a miracle. I got it. An exit with a fuel sign loomed in the distance. Gingerly, I guided Big Red onto the exit ramp. As I rounded the curve, she sputtered and bucked. As I came to a stop at the light, she died. Desperately, I put her in park and turned the key. She roared to life. The sign indicated a Shell station to the right and a Mobile station to the left, but didn’t bother to give distances. Blindly, I turned right, and there it was. Yelling with glee, I coasted in on fumes and slaked the thirst of my brave vehicle.

The rest of the trip passed slowly but pleasantly. Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven drifted by. With a string of classic music from the ’90s, I passed Cromwell, Wethersfield and Hartford. I finally pulled into my parking lot at 3:45 AM on Tuesday morning, for once celebrating my good fortune with a safe arrival. I was going to work in four hours, but so what? I was home.

Have a terrible travel story of your own? Want to tell me to stop being a baby? Share it in the comments.

My Top 5 For 2007

After seeing numerous end-of-year lists around the web, I thought it fitting to sum up my Top 5 in each category of The Cookblog. And so, without further ado, here they are:

The Cookblog's Best of 2007

Art

These are the best web sites and artists that I discovered during the past year.

  1. Edward Gorey – I’ve posted about him before, but the maestro of macabre was my #1 artistic discovery of the past year. Meticulous pen sketches combined with a wickedly dark sense of humor make him my favorite by a country mile.
  2. Rockwell Kent – Moby Dick is a terrific book (at least the first few chapters), and these illustrations are great. They capture the majesty of the ocean, the madness of Captain Ahab and the calm of an evening anchorage in attractive woodcut style.
  3. Chema Madoz – There’s something about black& white photography that is just cool. The pictures on these sites juxtapose and re-imagine common elements in interesting ways, like a match set against a plank so that the grain of the wood looks like smoke. Check it out.
  4. BibliOdyssey – A really fascinating site packed with high-res illustrations of esoteric old books. The quality of the images and care with which they’re chosen really sets the site apart.
  5. OldBookIllustrations – I love old books and I love the types of illustrations on this site. On top of that, most are in the public domain, so I definitely plan on returning if I need fodder for any graphic design projects.

Food & Drink

These rate as the best beers I’ve discovered during 2007.

  1. 840 IPA – An absolute classic, this well-balanced but beautifully-hopped India Pale Ale is the standard by which I now measure all others.
  2. Ten Penny Ale – The perfect counterpoint to the hoppiness of an IPA, the malty, smoky Ten Penny is made in East Hartford and finds its way into the refrigerator more than any other beer.
  3. Chocolate Stout – A great beer for a change of pace, this goes particularly well mixed with Saranac’s Carmel Lager or Guinness.
  4. Racer 5 IPA – A tasty brew offered on tap at The Library, a bar near my brother’s apartment in Los Angeles. Nice and floral.
  5. Southampton IPA – A random discovery at the local package store, this IPA with an orange label is thoroughly drinkable and always welcome.

Games

I’ve played a lot of games this year, but only a few stack up against my high standards. They are:

  1. Carcassonne – Board games don’t get more classic than this. Every game is different and the social aspect makes it perfect for beginners
  2. Tichu – A favorite at work and probably the best card game in the world, combining bluffing, anticipation and cooperation. It’s only $7. Get it.
  3. Caylus – The opposite of Carcassonne, involving almost zero luck and total diplomacy, Caylus would be the chess of board games if chess wasn’t a board game.
  4. Foosball – The only non-board game here, there have been some epic shots and games over the past few months with my work colleagues. The laws of physics bow down before our deft control and puma-like reflexes, but we’re still easily beaten by the slow roller.
  5. Ticket to Ride: Europe – The chosen game at home, it’s good for two players and conjures up images of actually riding a train from Edinburgh to Athena. Also, my girlfriend and I can usual overcome our rage at losing after only a few minutes.

Literature

I haven’t had a chance to read as much as I would have liked, but these are the books that I enjoyed at least part of this past year.

  1. Morbo – Phil Ball has a wonderful turn of phrase and the intensely interesting subject of Spanish soccer comes alive with his words.
  2. Selected Verses of Ogden Nash – Perfect for reading to that special someone, the quirk and wit of Ogden Nash never fails to bring a smile to my face.
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – That’s right, I’m a Harry Potter fan.
  4. The Stories of Paul Bowles – Imagine my delight when I found one of my favorite books at a library book sale for 1/4 cover price.
  5. The Devil Drives – A biography of Sir Richard Burton, it’s a gripping account of a man who lived in constant adventure, from India to Mecca to Ethiopia.

Music

There was some great music this year, and though I usually prefer individual tracks to full albums, these were great the whole way through.

  1. Radiohead – In Rainbows – One again, Radiohead has delivered a phenomenal album packed with electronic hooks and human feeling. By far the most played this year.
    Reckoner
  2. Feist – The Reminder – A great discovery, Feist has since come to prominence for her role in an iPod commercial, but the rest of the songs on her album are equally bouncy and catchy.
    I Feel It All
  3. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Vintage Spoon and no complaints from me. This is piano rock at its best.
    The Ghost of You Lingers
  4. The National – Boxer – One of the most genuine bands around today, The National’s “Fake Empire” is one of the songs of the year.
    Fake Empire
  5. Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block – According to the Wikipedia, this was a 2006 album, but Rolling Stone put it in their best of 2007 list, so I am, too.
    Up Against the Wall

Soccer

I like to think I have a talent for spotting quality when it comes to soccer players, not that it’s difficult to tell that these five footballers are several cuts above the rest.

  1. Kaka – The Brazilian is the Zidane of this generation. His seemingly-effortless skill has been winning match after match for AC Milan, including the World Club Cup and the Champions League trophy
  2. Lionel Messi – The only player that can rival Kaka, Messi has been carrying one of the biggest and proudest clubs in the world on his shoulders. That he’s already made Ronaldinho dispensable is an indication of his importance to Barcelona.
  3. Christiano Ronaldo – Like the two players above him, he has dragged his team to victory even when they haven’t deserved it. If he can deliver European success to Manchester United, he’ll move higher up the list.
  4. Didier Drogba – His questionable temperament doesn’t take away from his qualities as a player. Powerful and intelligent on the field, he takes his team into a different class when he plays and is worth far more to Chelsea than the rubles they paid for him.
  5. Daniel Alves – A marauding right fullback who has been the impetus behind Sevilla’s recent success, Alves will surely earn a move to a major club soon, where he should establish himself as the best wingback in the world.

Travel

I haven’t taken too many exotic trips this year, but these places have been welcome breaks from the usual routine at home.

  1. Boston – An awesome trip up to watch the Red Sox earn a spot in the World Series still rates as one of the best days this year.
  2. Los Angeles, CA – A great visit with the family for Thanksgiving was the perfect way to spend those vacation days.
  3. Onset – Having returned there for every year since I was born, it’s impossible to underestimate its importance in my life.
  4. Danbury – Always a relaxing and comfortable place to visit, you never know who or what you’ll find at the casa de Angela, Kathleen and Connor, but it’s always a good time.
  5. New York – A weekend in NYC with John, Georgia and Co. was a ton of fun. My only regret is that it was the only one.

Web

I’ve seen a lot of websites in my 25 years on this planet, but these deserve special mention.

  1. Slightly Shady SEO – The best blog about SEO in my opinion. Gives away secrets that are worth plenty, which makes me wonder how much more he knows.
  2. Asobrain Games – A great place to play Carcassonne with no frills, no fuss and no fees.
  3. Strange Maps – Since maps are something of a hobby for me, this site is always full of interesting things.
  4. Coudal Partners – I’m still not sure what they do there, but their features, including Photoshop Layer Tennis and the Museum of Online Museums are worth regularly checking out.
  5. Smashing Magazine – With their fingers firmly on the pulse of web design, this site displays great examples for study and inspiration.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my picks and I hope that 2008 has as much good material to see, read, hear and blog about. If you’ve got something to say about any of my choices, go for it!