March 26, 2011

The Myth of the Wee River Beasties

Twilight on the frozen river

Our pursuit of the elusive rainbow smelt has become somewhat of a winter tradition--a futile one, but a tradition nonetheless. We've changed locations, camps, and rivers; battled snow storms, extreme cold, and unseasonable thaws; and we've gone from cheap cans of beer and failed experiments with Chelada, to a sampling of various New England craft brews. We still haven't enjoyed much success, though it is fishing, after all. Success is relative.

This year, we rented a larger (5-man) smelt shack at a new site: Webb's Store in Randoph, Maine, which was basically a small gas station that sells beer, various kinds of jerky, beer [sic], and those God-awful bloodworms. I think they sell gas, too. It also rents smelt shanties, which are located on the frozen river directly behind the store. According to Paul, we would be fishing "on the Mainstem of the Mighty Kennebec! We will be near the head of tide, or rather just down stream of it, across from Gardiner and the esteemed Cobbosseecontee Stream." I had no idea what this meant, but the Internet told me that Randolph is the smallest town in Maine, geographically speaking (about 2 square miles). Fishing for small fish in the smallest town seemed to make sense.

The intense glare of the smelthunter

We arrived at our hotel in downtown Portland, ME on Friday afternoon, after a quick pitstop at the Portsmouth Brewery, halfway between Boston and Portland, and discovered the 2 “queen-sized” beds were made for hobbit queens, and no one seemed to be able to locate the hotel's roll-away bed(s). There would be 3 of us staying there and our cozy room was not for the mansqueamish.

Sisyphus of fishermen

The next evening, in our smelt shanty on the frozen river behind Webb's Store, we cut up our terrible little blood worms into tiny pieces, baited our tiny hooks, drank beer, listened to Muddy Waters, cooked kielbasa and onions in a cast iron skillet on a kerosene heater, ran out of beer (but made "last call" at the store to replenish our supply), and felt slightly uneasy by the occasional loud cracking sounds that the ice made outside. Alas, we did not catch smelt. Four hours on the ice, the tide came and went, and not one of our 15 lines moved even slightly. Their inexplicable elusiveness over the past few years has made the little buggers almost mythical. We did not catch any centaurs either, by the way.
Bloodworm carnage (and Hugh)

Worn out and slightly drunk from 4 hours on the ice drinking fancy, high alcohol beers, we headed back toward Portland. We lost one member of the group to drunkeness (we're far too old for this kind of reckless behavior) and another to an illness that hit him earlier in the day, however, two of us caught a second wind. We went to have "one more" beer, at Novare Res only to find out that their "3rd Annual BONJOUR--We're really not f@#king around (but we love you and want you to be happy)--FEST" meant that everything on tap was 9% alcohol or higher. This was not the ideal way to end the night.
Hugh poses with his streptococcus

Sunday was a bit hazy. We woke late, and went to breakfast at the usual joint, deciding on the way that we would not be tempted to order their delicious homemade donuts in addition to our breakfast, then ordered them anyway. Who can resist the "Elvis" with peanut butter and banana filling?  We returned home, days passed, and the memory faded, until one day, LSB informed me that there was a surprise for me in the fridge.  Turns out that smelt are not mythical.  They do exist.  They're available at Whole Foods.

January 20, 2011

Pictures from a young, new year...

Hello, 2011.  So glad you're here.  We've been expecting you.  


Carnage from a 4-year-old's birthday party

The Piggly Wiggly (Bloody Marys are better with bacon)

Shucking last year's oysters

January 11, 2011

Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Note: I had planned to write this post a while back, but thought that writing about Turkey (the country) so close to Thanksgiving might tempt me to make a few corny jokes. Sometimes I can't help myself, it's in my blood. So, I waited. Now LSB is pestering me, so it is time...


The final stop on my 4-day, London-Paris-Brussels-Istanbul trip was here, a megacity that straddles East and West. There is a curious geography at play here, as the city itself is subdivided by several bodies of water—the Golden Horn, Bosporus Strait, and Sea of Marmara—and sits on two continents, part in Asia and part in Europe.  I was excited, as I've always wanted to visit Turkey and I really like maps. 

There are also less tangible divisions: religious and secular, traditional and modern, Eastern and Western, beautiful and kind of annoying. It is a city of incredible architecture, delicious food, mosques that used to be churches that used to be mosques, modern, European-style shopping districts, ancient subterranean cisterns, spice markets and bazaars, carpet-sellers, hustlers, and palaces once lived in by sultans (you know, the guys with eunuchs and harems). It's a complicated place.

The section of the city known as Sultanahmet sits on a peninsula--the Golden Horn on one side, the Sea of Marmara on the other, and the pointy part reaching out and touching the beginning/end of the Bosporus. This is the “old town,” and clustered in close proximity are an incredible amount of postcard-worthy sites--you could sit directly in front of the Aya Sophia and look across a small park at the Blue Mosque.  Both are almost indescribably impressive, yet there they are, only a stone's throw away from each other, dueling domes and minarets.   

As this is where most of the tourists congregate (i.e. me), this is also where most of the people who prey on tourists hang out. Wandering from mosque to mosque, there is a continuous flow of approaching hustlers (“hello sir, where you from?”) looking for an easy money-making opportunity from the bewildered guide-book clutching masses (yes, I was one of them). I was offered food, carpets, shoe shines, directions, and tours; and while walking around a quiet corner I was even badgered by a barber who shouted out to me—in the midst of giving someone else a trim—and offered to cut my hair. Okay, I was in need of a haircut, but this seemed to be extreme.


On my second day in town, after my morning coffee, sour cherry juice, and assortment of fresh cheeses, I strolled to a little park on a hill between mosques and sat down on bench to observe The Hustle. I kept my map in my pocket in an effort to blend in as best I could (I wouldn't say that I actually look Turkish, but I wore my best scowl) and sat for several pleasant, hassle-free minutes, watching the hordes of American, British, German, and Spanish victims get picked off like it was some kind of bizarre video game (“I take you to the Blue Mosque, it is much better” “Deutsch? English? American?” “Hello, do you find Istanbul beautiful?” “Please, sir, I show you the best carpets.” “Spice Market? Grand Bazaar? I take you.”).

Contemplating my next move, I discretely (so I thought) slipped the small, folded map out of my pocket and noticed, at the edge of my peripheral vision, a man seated on a nearby bench twitch. I put the map away, stood, walked down the hill and noticed him beginning his gradual and angled approach, matching my stride and not looking at me until he was right beside me: “Excuse me sir, are you looking for the cistern?” 

Once I got used to the hassle of the hustle (to be honest, it was actually kind of entertaining), I found Istanbul enjoyable. I drank raki and enjoyed nargile (apple and mint) with a colleague. I had a proper tea service on a high hill on the tip of the peninsula overlooking the confluence of the three bodies of water. I took a boat trip up the Bosporus and wandered down İstiklâl Caddesi in Beyoğlu —a pedestrian thoroughfare that apparently 3 million people walk down each day. It was crowded and a bit overwhelming, so we enjoyed a Turkish beer from a balcony overlooking the masses below.

At the airport upon my departure, I was serenaded by a full Turkish band in the middle of the terminal.  It was at that moment that I realized that I won the game.  I never did buy a carpet.   

November 16, 2010

In the Good Old Days

Sometimes I like to use the word "Flemish."  I like how it sounds.  "Walloon" is also a good word.  Apparently, Brussels is officially in Flanders (or the Flemish region), but there are a lot of Walloons living there, from Walloonia (which is also pleasing to say).  I was there as well. 

I have no idea what this thing is...

I had about 4 hours to kill in Brussels, so I set out to explore the city on a--you guessed it--cold, gray, and rainy afternoon.  Belgium is known for a few things that I like, most notably: beer, chocolate, waffles, mussles, and cartoons.  The Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs) were Belgian before they were dubbed.  So is Tintin.  I also learned that they have FNAC there, as well as a lot of people with "van der" names.  I heart Belgium. 

On the same wall as this politically-charged graffiti...

My walking tour took me down cobblestone streets, through quant little parks, and past intriguing statues.  I bought chocolates and French music CDs for LSB, and then made my way toward the Grand Place in the center of town, where Grand Places tend to be located.   

...was this. 

I was looking for a specific place (near the Grand one) that a friend recommended, just as the sky opened up.  I ducked into an long, covered alley--a passageway from a former convent, now full of shops--and waited out the downpour.

LSB would absolutely love Le Champagnotheque

The rain let up a bit and I resumed my search for Au Bon Vieux Temps, a old, dark, and smokey little bar hidden down an alley off one of the main streets.  I needed a beer.  I needed the Best Beer in The World

The entrance to Au Bon Vieux Temps

The bar was something special, like stepping back in time: old wood, brick, and stained glass.  They served a variety of Belgian beer, but were known for selling a hard-to-find, and expensive beer called Westvleteren.  According to the bar's proprietor, Westvletern used to be cheaper and easier to get ahold of, until "some Americans" named it The Best Beer in the World, causing both price and demand to increase.  Damn Americans.  Damn capitalistic monks.   

Brussels by twilight

The beer was very good--a perfectly balanced dark beer with just the right amount of sweetness, hops, and malts.  Perhaps it was even the best in the world, though I think I need to drink more beer before I can make that claim.  I learned later, that the beer is supposedly only sold at the monastery (and the bar across from the monastery), so the beer I drank was probably sold to me illegally (or it was The Best Fake Beer in the World). 

Het Spook Whisperer

Later on in the evening, after enjoying the TBBITW, I went in search of moules frites and then returned to my hotel.  Ghost Whisperer was on, but I had already seen the episode, so I turned off the television and  went to sleep.  Sweet dreams of delicious chocolate Schtroumpfs.   

November 12, 2010

Parisian Blur

I feel like I spent more time on the train, stuck on the outskirts of Paris, than I did in city.  After the Eurostar debacle, I arrived in Paris (at the Gare du Nord), raced though the Metro to St. Germain des Pres, checked into my hotel, and headed to my event at Sciences Po.  To save time, I changed into my suit in the loo on the train. 

Later in the evening, I dined on duck foie gras and roast duck breast with Armagnac sauce (yes, I double-ducked) at La Petite Chaise, arguably the oldest restaurant in Paris, depending on who you ask.  Then I went to bed, slept far too little and woke up with just enough time to linger for a few moments at a cafe on the corner and attempt to complete one important errand, a visit to FNAC.  Foiled again: FNAC doesn't open until 10 AM, and I needed to head back to the Gare du Nord to catch another train bound for Belgium.  Merde!

Note: LSB and I love FNAC, sort of a French audio/video/electronic/book superstore (like a French Best Buy and Borders combined, but cooler...because its French and I can't understand most of it--which adds a level of mystery to the shopping experience).