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).

November 10, 2010

Probably The Best Blog Post on The Internet

Covent Garden/Big Ornaments

I started this post at about 4:21 PM on Tuesday morning, wide awake from a brutal combination of jetlag and spicy Indo-Pakistani food from a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant that billed itself as having “Probably the best grilled and cooked items in London.” A bold and somewhat puzzling claim.

Now, as I sit in Coach 4, Seat 15 on the 10:25 AM Eurostar departing London on my way to Paris—riding backwards through the English countryside toward The Chunnel--it seems like a good time to finish in a more coherent state.

Somehow I found myself in this hallway.  I did not linger.

Yesterday, I spent the early afternoon wandering through the cold, rainy streets of London, jumping on and off a double-decker tour bus, and passing by the Tower of London, The Tower Bridge, Leicester Square, Trafalger Square, and Covent Garden.

In search of a cozy pub for lunch, I came across a sign with a photo of a meat pie in front of "The Coal Hole, a potential lunch destination.  The pie had a large bone protruding from it, reminding me of Sweeney Todd. In spite of the awesome pub name, I did not eat there.  I ate here:

Vaguely satisfying fish and chips (with a side
of mashed peas) and a Ghost Ship IPA

Later in the evening, a group of us went to dinner at Raavi Kebab.  A small, simple restaurant down a narrow street near a cluster of South Asian restaurants and markets.  It was recommended by someone at our hotel, who told us that it was real Indian food and not English Indian food.

I took our waiter’s recommendation and ordered something called nihari, an “exceptionally tasteful Indo-Pakistani thick sauce dish” with chunks of lamb, ginger, garlic, spices, etc. It was exceptionally tasteful. It was also exceptionally spiceful.  When we finished and it was time to pay—always an ordeal with 6 people who all need detailed, individual itemized receipts in order to expense their meal—the bill arrived. 

The opposite of itemized.

Now, a bit groggy, but slowly recovering after a CaffĂ© Nero cappuccino, I’m about to head 100 meters below sea level (according to Metropolitan, the Eurostar magazine) under the English Channel.  Wish me luck.

Supermarket window display

Update: This was mostly written on Tuesday morning and I have since passed under the Channel--miraculously leaving cold, gray, and wet England and arriving in cold, gray, and wet France.  At which point our super-fast and super-modern train stopped in the middle of the French countryside (about 45 minutes from the outskirts of Paris) for almost 3 hours.  Sacre Bleu!  Apparently, the TGV ahead of us hit "a metal object" on the tracks.  They ran out of sandwiches and eventually started giving away candy bars.  I feasted on a lunch of Twix, potato chips, and Bordeaux. 

November 07, 2010

November 02, 2010

22 Hours Deep in the Heart

My work takes me to various places.  These trips are often fleeting and sometimes against my will.  Take Houston, Texas for example. 

I've always been sort of reluctant each time I've been sent to this sprawling, characterless city; the home of chain restaurants and hordes of oil industry boogymen.  Still, I like to try to squeeze at least a few hours of interesting experiences out of these brief visits and, this time, the Astros were hosting the Cubs.
After finishing a work event, I caught a cab across town to Minute Maid Park and made it in time for the third inning.  I present to you a few fractured experiences/thoughts--mostly in the order in which they occurred--from my evening with the 'stros:   

On the way to my seat--a Shiner Bock in one hand and a chopped beef sandwich in the other--I had to dodge a pair of tea-baggers with matching "get off our backs" t-shirts (I think they were even worn over buttoned-down collared shirts) and a dragonfly.  I'm unsure of the political views of the dragonfly, as it wasn't wearing a t-shirt and it flew by too fast for me to notice if it had any bumper-stickers. 

There's this weird burm-thing in centerfield that I couldn't quite figure out.  Is it just creative landscaping or is there a purpose behind it?  Do outfielders frequently run up the burm and leap over the wall to catch potential homeruns?  After some post game research, I discovered it is called "Tal's Hill" and apparently has no purpose.

I wonder if Bagwell hit all of those homeruns in the pre-burm era.

"Mild" beat "Hot" in the Taco Bell Saucy Sprint®.  I was disappointed in Hot's performance, though I did enjoy watching two people dressed as giant taco sauce packets race around the field.    

The PA announcer sounded exactly like Will Arnett (as Gob from Arrested Development).  Really, for a little while I thought he might be guest announcing. 

The cheap seats were really cheap seats: $6 (you should be ashamed of yourself, Fenway).  While that was nice, I was disturbed by the rigid class structure of the ball park.  I sat up top with the Latino and African-American families, while the white frat boys and, presumably, tea-baggers sat down behind the dugouts and home plate.  At least at Fenway, no one can afford a ticket...except for Ben Affleck.   

At one point during the middle innings, the Jumbotron flashed images of people in the crowd playing air bongos, with cartoon image of bongos superimposed on the screen.  Sometimes it looked as though the people were actually playing the bongos, though most of the time they were just awkwardly flailing about, occasionally looking up and into the distance to see if they were on the screen.  

The leftfielder for the Astros was named Jason Bourgeois.  I wonder how many intellectual baseball conversations among fans include comments like: "We don't have a chance at the penant this year--our outfield is so bourgeois."   

During the 7th inning stretch, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was immediately followed, with slightly more enthusiasm, by, "Deep In the Heart of Texas."

The day after the game, in a SuperShuttle on the way to the airport, we passed a car with a large "Don't Tread on Me" flag flapping in the wind, several purveyors of "pit trucks" and smokers,  and La Luz del Mundo--a huge, and hugely out-of-place looking church by the highway.  Turns out it may be a scary place as well.   

At IAH, I said farewell to a jaunty George HW Bush in bronze.  I wonder who he was rooting for in the Taco Bell Saucy Sprint®. 

October 08, 2010

A Hike To The End of the World

The signs posted on the wall of our cabin and throughout Camp Westwind made it clear that in the event of a tsunami warning, we were to follow the blue route, up the hill--past cabins, outhouses, and tent platforms--to the high meadow. Safe from the wall of water. Alternatively, if there were a fire, we were directed to follow the red route, down the hill to the beach. Someone asked the inevitable question: what do we do if there's both a fire and a tsunami? The response: the tsunami would put out the fire. The ying and yang of natural disasters, I guess.

The day after M+S’s wedding, LSB and I decided to take a hike, following the tsunami evacuation route to the high meadow. It was a beautiful day, and the path led us through a lush, Jurassic Park-like forest (LSB kept a sharp eye out for velociraptors) and past “Lost Lake,” an eerily silent and secluded pond surrounded by dark green, jungle-like brush. When things got too quiet we trudged a little louder and talked a bit more to avoid stumbling upon a startled Oregon critter.

The trail continued past a strange box, that apparently contained a camera used to monitor the movement of wildlife (and hikers, I guess), and then over/under a gate, before ending at a clearing at the top of the hill. The High Meadow, I presume.

We found a nice spot under a tree at the edge of the meadow, where we could sit and look at the coastline to the right and the left, or straight out at the Pacific, curving downward toward Asia. We sat under the late afternoon sun with a bottle of wine and our binoculars (a well-timed birthday gift from LSB), looking for seals and sea otters, and, unexpectedly, seeing a small pod of Gray whales.  They would periodically surface near a large rock, spout, then dive again. Leah spotted a head, and we think we saw a tail, but no dramatic breaches.

After watching the whales for a half hour or so, we decided to attempt the narrow path that led to a point jutting out from the high meadow and separating the two beaches. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to attempt to walk a treacherous path after a few glasses of wine, but the wine certainly helped suppress my fear of heights.  LSB reminded me of the time when I slipped and fell while hiking on our honeymoon in Kaua'i and "almost died." 

We stayed out on the edge of the world until the sun got low in the sky, then left the whales behind and headed back down the quickly darkening trail.

September 23, 2010

My Name is Special Ed and I'm a Super-Duper Star

The Magnificent

I'm your idol the highest title numero uno
I'm not a Puerto Rican but I'm speakin so that you know
and understand I got the gift of speech
and it's a blessin so listen to the lesson I preach

The program for the 25th Anniversary Stoweflake Hot Air Balloon Festival clearly indicated that Special Ed would be performing at 5:00 PM, a couple of hours before the balloons were scheduled to launch.

I talk sense condensed into the form of a poem
full of knowledge from my toes to the top of my dome
I'm kinda young but my tongue speaks maturity
I'm not a child I don't need nothin for security


As a fan of Special Ed from way back--during a brief late-80's-to-early-90's Yo! MTV Raps obsession--I was quite excited about this.  I was also intrigued and slightly concerned that Special Ed was now performing at family-oriented balloon festivals in Vermont.  What happened, Special Ed?  You used to be my idol, the highest title, numero uno

I'm outspoken--my language is broken into a slang
but it's just a dialect that I select when I hang
I play it cool--cuz coolin is all that I'm about
just foolin wit tha girlies, yes I'm bustin it out

We arrived after 5 PM and heard music playing from inside the beer and music that was decidedly not Special Ed.  The opener perhaps? 

My name is Special Ed and I'm a super-duper star
every other week I get a brand new car
Got twenty, that's plenty yet I still want more
kinda fond of honda scooters--got seventy-four

Upon closer inspection, we realized that this was an entirely different Special Ed altogether--a local band that played lame covers.  In other words, not special at all.  

I got the riches--to fulfill my needs
got land in the sand of the West Indies
even got a little island of my very own--
I gotta frog--a dog with a solid gold bone

Well, at least the balloons lived up to their billing in the program and, in spite of the initial disappointment, LSB and I had a enjoyable evening with the M's of VT. 

Though, as evening approached and we watched the beautiful balloons rise and fall, I couldn't help thinking that they would have gone a little higher and their colors would have looked a bit brighter if the scene were set to the soundtrack of my poser, hip hop childhood...

I'm kinda spoiled
cuz everything I want I got made
I wanted gear--got everything from cotton to suede
I wanted lead--I didn't beg I just got laid
My hair was growin too long, so I got me a fade
and when my dishes got dirty, I got Cascade
when the weather was hot, I got a spot in the shade
I'm wise because I rise to the top of my grade
wanted peace on Earth, so to God I prayed
Some kids across town thought I was afraid
they couldn't harm me--
I got the army brigade
I'm not a trader
if what you got is greater I'll trade
but maybe later cuz my waiter made potato -n- alligator souflee--

I got it made

September 02, 2010

Mark Valley, On The Wrong Side of History (or War is Heck)


The city of Ogdensburg in Northern New York (simply referred to as "the city" in these parts, or "New York's Best Kept Secret!") sits on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.  Once a vital port in the early American (and Canadian) fur trade and the site of important battles in the French and Indian War, American Revolution, and the War of 1812--it is now a bit rough around the edges...and, as I understand it, some places in the middle.  

French reinforcements

It was home to a French fort--known as Fort de La PrĂ©sentation--before the British came and destroyed it; then it was home to a British fort (Fort Oswegatchie).  A century or so later, it was the birthplace and childhood home of television star Mark Valley.  Recently, it hosted an historical reenactment of the famous battle in the French and Indian War, starring Mark Valley!  Which brings me to today's post.

Faux indians

I'm not a fan of war, but masses of people dressed in historical garb pretending to kill each other seemed like a perfect summer excursion in the North Country.  Also, there was quite a bit of hoopla in the NoCo leading up to the weekend, as Our Hero appeared on a national late night talk show and mistakenly referred to it as a War of 1812 reenactment.  Outrage!

The water battle

So, we headed North from Potsdam and arrived a bit late for the water battle, an impressive spectacle of replica boats firing blank rounds at each other from cannons and muskets.  After a few minutes of action we received word that the land battle was set to begin. 

 Modern day NoCo punks take pot-shots at the French

We stood with the other spectators and watched from behind the French (and Indian) troops with their floppy red hats (and mohawks and war paint), who did not yet know that they were badly outnumbered by the approaching, more sharply dressed, British.  Well, at least the reenactors were acting like they didn't know that they were overmatched, but I'm sure they were informed of the impending final outcome through their pre-reenactment rehearsals or personal research on Wikipedia. 

Victory/defeat is nigh

Watching the ill-fated French reenactors brought to mind the Washington Generals, the team that is repeatedly (and, presumably, knowingly) embarrased by the Harlam Globe Trotters in every "game."  What type of person volunteers to join the pre-destined losing team?  I mean, I'm sure that they're in it for the thrill of the battle and all the historical trappings, but I wonder whether they ever consider throwing the reenactment--not falling to the ground in pretend agony at the appointed time and, instead, fighting on in an endless fake war.  A rogue reenactor--that would be something to see. 

 Mark Valley, a friend to the wounded

The land battle had a narrator--a man in historical dress who tried to explain what was happening, outlining the strategies employed by each side while making the occasional corny joke.  Through the PA system, he told us about how the British were outflanking the French (Team Valley) and that this was bad news for Les Bleus.  

How do you say "outflanked" in French?  They must have a word for it.

The battle went on for 15-30 minutes and many shots were fired by both sides before anyone fake-died.  Our narrator explained that this was due to the inaccuracy of the firearms at that point in history, but I suspect an alternative explanation related to more modern times.  If you signed up to be a reenactor, bought (or rented?) the proper historical clothing, practiced your role, traveled from Ohio, Tennesee, or Quebec; and gave up your weekend for the battle; would you want to die within the first 15 minutes?  I imagine that there must be some sort of unwritten rule of historical reenactments that states that the first 30 minutes is a safe period where the fake bullets all miraculously miss their targets.

Our hero (in bleu) readying his digital camera

Eventually, the bodies started to pile up and the French were retreating with the afternoon sun.  When the battle had ended, Mark Valley took up position in the French camp, signing autographs for a small line of fans and/or Francophiles. 


War is hell.  Fake war is kind of fun. 

Unwinding from the battle in the British camp