Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Vacation do-over

Let’s try this again now, shall we?

After my airline-aborted flight to Italy and then my stay-cation in October, I still hadn’t really felt like I’d scratched the itch. I needed another trip and I almost immediately started running through potential vacation scenarios in my head.

Looking at the coming winter months, along with work, economic and all-around sanity factors, I decided this would have to be a relatively quick trip, maybe 5 nights, so that would call for a direct, short flight somewhere to maximize the time I have. With the pound to dollar exchange rate becoming more favorable for us (falling from 2:1 to 1.47:1 recently), I decided on a trip to London in February. So in mid-November I added London to my fare watch and waited for a blip in the fare to score a deal. In very unfamiliar fashion (you know my luck), the fares continued to drop $10-20 a week until the second week in December, when it was $60 less than when I started watching. It turned out to be for that day, and that day only. So I snagged the fare for $508, all inclusive. The next day the fare started to go back up.

I’m experimenting in the name of research for my readers and taking the day flight out of Boston to London, leaving at 9 a.m. and arriving at 8:30 p.m., rather than taking the overnight flight and sleeping on the plane, arriving bleary eyed and like a zombie for the entire first day. My theory is that even if I only sleep 5 hours or so in a hotel that first night, it will be in a bed, uninterrupted by fellow passengers, food service and turbulence. That has to be good, right?

I’m meeting a cyber-friend there and after much discussion we chose a hotel in Bloomsbury, right across from the British Museum, which is pretty centrally located. Better still, it’s 85 pounds a night, which is nearly half what most other hotels are looking for. This includes VAT and full English breakfast, which makes it an even better deal. Two tube stops on main lines are close by so we should be able to get wherever we need to be easily.

Furthering my better luck, I was browsing London theater events and saw that a British comedic favorite of mine (Rowan Atkinson of Mr. Bean and Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) is starring in Oliver while I’m there. And they happened to still have single seats available on one of the nights I’m there. Score again! Are the travel gods smiling upon me or what?

So fingers crossed that none of this joyous New England winter weather strands me at Logan on the day I leave (I have to have something to worry about in the meantime!) but I really am looking forward to re-visiting London, and am pulling together my “to do” list over the holidays. With an impending U2 tour on the horizon, this may be my only non-U2 related vacation in 2009. We'll see...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Stay-cation -- Museum Marathon

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Thursday found me heading into Boston early to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum before meeting my sister at the MFA. Embarassingly enough, I had never been to the Gardner before, which is an almost criminal admission now that I have seen it. Mrs. Gardner collected art and dictated that upon her death, the collection and the mansion where she kept it would both remain as is, forever, neither adding to or removing from either. All paintings and works of art are left as she wished. This includes the empty frames and wall space that once held the Vermeer, Rembrandt and Degas that were stolen from the museum in 1990. I thoroughly enjoyed the early Italian art (Botticelli, Raphael, Titian) as well as Mrs. Gardner's obvious penchant for chairs. But the true highlight for me was the courtyard, which is fragrant and beautiful beyond imagination.

Museum of Fine Arts
Just across the Fenway from the Gardner is Boston's grand-daddy museum, the Museum of Fine Arts. While a massive construction effort is underway, most of the museum is still open for viewing, including a handful of special temporary exhibitions. My interest today lies in the exhibiton of large-format photgrapher Yousef Karsh. While I am not a fan of photography, I was spurred to see this based on the rave reviews the exhibition has received both in the media and by my mother and sister, who saw the display earlier. This particular exhibit was a biography done by Karsh and was predominantly of popular personalities from the early to mid 1900s. These large format shots showed exquisite detail, from pores on the nose to creases in the forehead to tiny lines around the eyes. Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Hepburn, Keller, Castro...many more...all received unforgettable treatment by Karsh. And Karsh's notes and written summaries of particular photo shoots really brought he pictures alive. My sister wisely held the wall of political portraits until the end of our tour, to best tie in with our next stop, which was an exhibit of Andy Warhol's political works.

Currier Museum
From Boston up route 93 in Manchester, New Hampshire is the Currier Museum. The draw for me here is the exhibit of political works by Andy Warhol. Admittedly I am not a big fan of modern art, but there is something attractive and accessible to me about his work, whether it is how familiar the subject matter is or his bold use of color. We made it to the museum with about an hour before it closed, and this was plenty of time to take in the exhibit as well as its modern and European collections (we missed only the American collection when the museum closed). The Warhol exhibit was small but very easily digestible. Warhol did numerous works on his subjects, including the Kennedys (John, Jackie, Robert and Ted), the Carters (Jimmy, Rosalyn and Lillian), Stalin and Mao Tse Tung.


In front of the museum is this scuplture of a dog, which I stood beneath just to prove I was there.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stay-cation -- Coldplay

Tonight I was off to see Coldplay with Duffy. A somewhat skeptical U2 fan, I was curious to see how legitimate the claim is that Coldplay is the "next U2". I am happy to say that while I enjoyed the show thoroughly, I really failed to see too many similarities. This band aims to please and will bend over backwards to do so. I found a fresh, almost unrehearsed quality to them, perhaps because they are younger and less experienced. But what I found most astounding was that this was an exceptionally well-designed setlist. The flow was near perfect, and if I had more conviction I would try to use it as a spinning ride!

Setlist:
Life In Technicolor
Violet Hill
Clocks
In My Place
Speed Of Sound
Cemeteries Of London
Chinese Sleep Chant
42
Fix You
Strawberry Swing
God Put A Smile Upon Your Face (techno version)
Talk (techno version)
The Hardest Part (piano - Chris)
Postcards From Far Away (piano instrumental)
Viva La Vida
Lost!
The Scientist (acoustic)
Death Will Never Conquer (acoustic - Will singing)
Viva La Vida (remix interlude)
------
Politik
Lovers In Japan
Death And All His Friends
-------
Yellow
The Escapist (outro)

Stay-cation -- Meeting John Kerry

As a chronic 9-5er, it seems that I always miss it when politicians and/or celebrities come through town. I either have meetings I can't change or deadlines I'm trying to hit and can't arrange to make it to see them. it just so happened this week though, that US Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Congressman John Tierney (D-MA) were speaking at the college where my mother works yesterday. So I decided to attend too.

I met Mom there and Kerry spoke for about 45 minutes on the current state of the economy and his thoughts on what went wrong and how to fix it. He actually gave a stimulating, fascinating discussion (oh, if he'd only been this charismatic four years ago....) When it was over and Mom headed back to class, I stuck around to have a chance to speak with him. I did manage a coherent conversation, shook his hand and thanked him for all he'd done for the State and the country. My brush with greatness.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stay-cation -- John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

This morning found me driving down Route 93 to the other side of Boston to visit the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. It seems to me almost sacrilegious that I am a 30-something born and raised Bostonian yet have never visited this before. I've been on the other side of the parking lot several times to do ancestry research at the State Archive, but have never had the time to devote to the library. Today I would.

It is is one of those clear, crisp, almost beach-weather sunny fall days. The blue sky reflected itself on the water and as I got out of my car on the point where the library is, I could smell the salt-fresh air and feel the cool breeze right off the water. The building itself was designed by IM Pei (of Louvre Pyramid fame) and was finished in 1979. It is made of blinding white marble, black piping and glass. Against the deep blue of the sky and the cold indigo ocean behind it, it makes a stunning picture.

Proof that you have paid admission is a sticker that is a replica of a Kennedy campaign pin, the kind that my grandmother had in her jewelry box (albeit for Ike) and the one that has no clasp on the back and could poke you at will. The exhibitions lead the visitor through the basement level, which is set up to showcase the various stages of Kennedy's life, starting with the 1960 Democratic Convention.

If I may digress here, I found it staggering that his acceptance speech at that Convention, if you replace "Catholic" with "African-American" and "Communists" with "Al-Qaeda", would seem perfectly reasonable today if spoken by Barack Obama. This is particularly striking when Kennedy spoke of it being a "new and dangerous risk" to entrust the country to someone of his faith, that Americans must "exercise fair and free judgment" and not waste their vote for him or against him based on his religion. That that was a time for change, not a time to curse the darkness of previous administrations, but to light a candle there. Since I was not yet born in '60, I had no idea of the parallels and I have to wonder if those who remember it, are at all amazed by the similarities.

But back to the exhibits...I saw campaign paraphernalia, tapes of the debate with Nixon, tapes of the Inauguration and speech. There were many letters, photographs, place settings and gifts which dealt with how State dinners were organized and arranged by the First Lady. Jaquelyn Kennedy had most of the control over seating arrangements and guests list, the latter including notables such as John Steinbeck, WH Auden, Pearl Buck, Robert Frost. It seemed that the President and his wife had access to whomever they wanted for entertainment and as guests, and it also appeared that guests were grateful for the time they spent with the first family.

Of course there is a replica of the Oval Office as well as of Bobby Kennedy's office when he served as Attorney General. Smaller exhibits deal with mental retardation, Ireland, the Peace Corps and sailing, all of which are and were dear to the Kennedy family.

While the rest of the basement level is bright and white and well lit, the narrow corridor that deals with the assassination of the president is jet black with a half-dozen black and white televisions spooling news footage of the assassination, Walter Kronkite's poignant declaration that the President was killed, and footage from the funeral. From this hallway, the visitor moves on the legacy of Kennedy and his family.

Most interesting for me, perhaps, because I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, was an actual piece of the wall which the Kennedy family asked for from the German government. I was struck by the size and excellent condition of the piece of wall, which hearkens back to Kennedy's famous "I am a Berliner" speech in Berlin in June of 1963.

Upon leaving the museum, I walked around the back to take in the stunning view of the skyline of Boston from this side of Dorchester Bay. It is indeed impressive and indicative of the type of water-scene evocative of the Kennedys' own Cape Cod, which leads me to believe that that must be why this location was chosen.

Stay-cation 2008

Reporting in from Day Three of the stay-cation. You haven't missed much up until today. I think Days One and Two consisted mainly of about 23 hours of sleep, a spinning class, some laundry, a couple movies (nothing notable) and a dinner out.

Day Three saw the "cation" party of stay-cation kick into gear. Stay tuned for an update.

I have to say though, I could get used to this. Essentially it's a vacation where you: don't go to work but are still paid (obviously), sleep in your own bed, live out of your closet rather than a suitcase, know where you're going, can still see cat/family/friends at will (or not), but dare to try something different at home that you never have before. That's my goal for this week -- to do and see the things I've always meant to at home, but never have.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Looking back at Rome -- Bernini's Angels

Fans of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s art flock to the bridge that spans the Tiber River in Rome, connecting Castel Sant’Angelo with the historic center of the city. This bridge, known as the Ponte Sant’Angelo, or Bridge of Angels, is notable for the ten statues of angels which line either side of the bridge. The angels are thought to be Bernini’s style for certain, but research has shown that the angels are actually “from the studio of Bernini” and probably designed by, but most likely not sculpted by, Bernini himself.

Bernini’s commission called on him to display the angels each holding an item from the passion.

But the savvy travel researcher knows enough to dig just a bit deeper and find the two angel sculptures that probably were (alas, no one is certain) sculpted by Bernini and are housed within a house of worship just steps off the via del Corso. These two angels can be found in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Looking back at Rome -- Ara Pacis

I was making the trek back from the Vatican-side of the Tiber to the historic center, when I noticed on my map that I was within blocks of Ara Pacis. Now you're probably saying to yourself "I know a lot of Rome and have never heard of Ara Pacis, or if I have, I hadn't given it a second though." Well, my friend, my advice to you is to put it on your "to do" list next time you're in Rome.


Ara Pacis is a beautifully restored altar of peace that was built around 13 BC to celebrate Augustus' victories abroad and the peace that followed them. The friezes along the walls show various people (in near-life size) from ancient Rome who are walking toward the west to celebrate the peace. The interior of the altar was used for the sacrifice of cows and other livestock in the name of this new-found peace.


The altar was originally closer to the Field of Mars, further south in the city. It was covered for hundreds of years by floodwaters and mud and was gradually rediscovered and identified by scientists familiar with Augustus' reign. Mussolini moved the altar to its current location, quite nearby the Mausoleum of Augustus, in an attempt to create a theme park of sorts in tribute to Augustus.

Today the altar is housed in an incongruously modern building that fills the interior with natural light and allows visitors on the inside to feel as if the altar is still outside.

Looking back at Rome -- Largo Argentina

It seems that people either seem to recognize this location as famous ruins or a cat sanctuary, when in reality it is very much both. About a 15 minute walk away from the Forum is Largo Argentina, a site of ancient ruins and most notably, the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

I found myself following the "Caesar Assassination walk" last year from the Forum to Largo Argentina. Like many other ruined sites in Rome, Largo Argentina lies in the midst of the bustling, modern city. Trollies, buses, traffic, commercial storefronts, daily 9-5ers all surround the acre or so of land that is set down under street level. What few ruins remain are hardly identifiable as "something" but from the notes on the Assassination walk tour, I noted the tree under which Caesar was supposedly stabbed (see above). There is a fairly good map of the location posted nearby which identifies what you might have seen if you were in the same spot nearly 2000 years ago.

But also under the sidewalk is the Roman Cats Sanctuary, which tends to the hundreds of cats who make their homes amidst the ruins, with the hope that some, if not all, will be eventually adopted. While I love ruined Rome, I love cats more, and I found myself emptying my pockets to support the cats, all the while fighting back tears as I remembered my four footed "son" back at home.

Roman Cats Sanctuary accepts donations and allows you to "adopt" a cat from a distance. After my morning spent visiting its residents, I'm eager to share its good work amidst this historic site with my readers.

Celebrating what almost was -- Rome Trip II

Now that I've almost recovered from the sting of having my airfare unceremoniously canceled (and not rerouted) for my trip to Rome next week, I've decided that leading up to my now-non-Italian vacation, I am going to use the blog to celebrate some of the moments of my trip from last year, highlighting the things that stand out for me a year later and pointing out some of the more interesting, lesser discussed aspects of the city.

It's therapeutic for me, so sit back and enjoy!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Probably one of the best concert moments ever...

Friday night I took my Dad to see Chris Botti play with the Boston Pops and "special guests" for the filming of a PBS special. Dad and I are both Botti fans, which we have proven by the four times we've seen him in the last 16 months. The special guests, however, were just as alluring: Sting, Yo-Yo Ma, John Mayer and Michael Buble. Buble ultimately did not show, but what unfolded otherwise has become what I think is one of those concert moments I'll treasure forever.

The show started at 7:30 and went splendidly for the first 90 minutes or so. We saw Sting, Yo-Yo Ma, Katherine McPhee, some jazzy chick I barely recall, Josh Groban's violinist...all performed duets with Chris Botti and his band with the Pops as the back-up band. Then John Mayer came out and started his song. And all hell broke loose. Seems a guy in the third row chose that moment to have a heart attack. I heard "No Pulse" and saw a flurry of activity both in the area of the now-dead guy and the stage, where all the performers scurried off-stage. A long 12 minutes later, the medics showed and shuffled a newly-defibrillated conscious patient off. As thrilling as it was that he appeared to have been resuscitated, however permanently, the life was sucked out of the room. Understandably. How would the performers come back and finish? I guess that's the same question that was being bandied about back-stage.

Immediately the orchestra came back and the stage hands set four chairs up center stage with mics at each. Chris Botti came out and expressed exactly my sentiments: "what to do?" He put the question to his mentor Sting and Sting told him to "let the music heal". Sting and Chris had faced a similar conundrum as they prepared to film Sting's DVD All This Time in Tuscany on September 11, 2001. Ultimately as a band they decided to continue the taping as a catharsis, as a way not to let the terrorists win, as a way to find something normal in a harried situation. And so they did this on this night as well.

Out came Sting, his guitarist Dominic Miller and Yo-Yo Ma. Each took a seat with Chris at center stage. And they began an impromptu acoustic version of Fragile, which just so happens to be my favorite (solo) Sting song ever. And it was absolutely perfect for this situation, with a room full of 2600 people who'd just seen exactly how fragile we are. But what was amazing was that here were four people who hadn't planned to play this song, three of whom hadn't played it together in years, and indeed I don't think Yo-Yo Ma ever had played it, yet it sounded as though they'd played this song together forever. It was heavenly. It was beautiful. It was cathartic. When it was over, Sting, Ma and Miller quietly left the stage and Chris asked us all to let out a big exhale, which the entire room did. It was just what we needed to let the night continue. I only hope it makes the video of this night.

Not ten minutes later, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith blew the roof off Symphony Hall, a release which I think we needed just as much as we needed the deep sigh. But for me, the night belonged to Fragile.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Update on the knee -- the stages of grief

As I struggle in my exercise of self-restraint (about the only exercise I’m getting these days), I realized that this whole knee thing is more than just getting the knee better but also an illustration of the stages of grief. You see, I’ve realized that I’m mourning the loss of my bike, exercise and feeling good generally. I’ve been off the bike now for over 3 weeks and have done very limited exercise otherwise (upper body, abs and a play around on the elliptical, which probably wasn’t a smart idea). But over the last few weeks I’ve seen myself traipsing through the proverbial phases of grief…case in point:

Denial. Denial abounds with me; those who know me well are not surprised. On the day in question, 15 miles from home I feel tearing pain in my knee, and I continue to ride through it. The next day, with a knee the size of a grapefruit, I teach a class, on the bike. And I teach again the next day too. Surely I wasn’t as injured as someone who needs to not do anything…right? Yes, that worked out not so well for me.

Acceptance. So three weeks of pretending nothing is wrong finds me in the office of my orthopedic surgeon. Things I’m sure he thought but didn’t say are in italics. You have an overuse injury because you were stupid. It’s not going to get better if you keep pushing it because that would be stupid. I’m going to prescribe more drugs which because you are stupid you stopped taking and tell you to ice it aggressively which you also stopped doing because you are foolish. I’m also going to tell you to stay off the bike, not fully bend or extend the knee or do anything that causes pain or swelling for another 2 to 3 weeks because I wouldn’t have to tell an individual with common sense that, but because, well, you’ve demonstrated that you are a bit short on common sense, I have to say these things. So with a $25 co-payment for this office visit, I took the prescribed course of treatment and his reality check and ran. I’d do all he said because now I know what this is and surely it will get better. I’ll be back on the bike in no time.

Bargaining. After five days of the new drugs and ice I did not see an improvement. Even after a week of drugs and ice I still do not see an improvement. So over the weekend (day five and six of drugs and ice), I found myself bargaining with whomever in my head is listening that I would give up candy corn, I would give up my ridiculous crush on you-know-who (which I should do anyway but that’s a story for another blog), I would be a better person, I would be more realistic in my workouts, I would eat better and do all sorts of crazy-but-probably-should-do-anyway things. If you would JUST

Let Me
Back on the bike


Depression. No beans. Another 48 hours and no change. I’m no closer to the bike than I was a week ago. So I wallowed in a one pound bag of candy corn and a bottle of Bedell Cellars Red (I’d recommend a lighter white if you’re thinking of mixing the two…maybe a sauv blanc?) Depression lasted about 2 days as I cried myself through movies that were good but not THAT good and rotated the ice pack from upper to lower knee. And on the odd occasion I'd go into the bike room/litter box room and pat my Specialized on the handlebars and try not to look at the odometer which is calling me to push it over 1000. It's not your fault girl...it's all me.

Anger. So now here I am. I haven’t had a meaningful workout in 4 weeks. I haven’t had any outlet to burn off stress. I’m tired of sleeping with it on a pillow, tired of having freezer burn from “aggressive icing”, tired of thinking about how to take stairs and not twist the wrong way. Tired of coaching off the bike (as cool as it is and as much as my members actually like it) to rides I’d much rather be riding myself. Frankly, this bites. I’m fed up and angry. I’m LOSING weight, which I’m assuming is muscle mass, which could be a good thing because apparently I've proven that consuming a one pound bag of candy corn in less than 4 hours has no ill effect when you have no life at the gym anymore.

Blame. All this because I am stupid. I've got no one to blame but myself and my own foolishness.

I’m not sure what phase is next, but this is getting old. Granted, this is a mere speck on the radar compared to where I was about a year ago this month, so I know I should be thankful that this is not dire or actually life-threatening. And I am, believe me. But I just want that piece of my life back. I want the joy back in my legs and the opportunity to enjoy the crisp fall weather outside. I want to be able to ride that one really good new hill song I added to my repertoire for class. And I just want to walk more than 10 minutes without swelling and pain.

But I’ll shut up now and wait it out. Maybe two to three more weeks of self-restraint will make a difference.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Mom Told Me the Bike Would Do Me In

A few weeks ago I was playing with the interview feature on Facebook (a new-to-me, ridiculous, immature but utterly addictive online toy) and one of the questions was: what is your last thought as you fall over the edge of a cliff?

Without a thought, I wrote: “Mom told me the bike would do me in.”

And it has.

Except this “doing in” was all my own doing. It was not some unfortunate, near fatal cycling disaster, like swerving dangerously in front of a car, being rear-ended by a garbage truck, or a perilous interlocking of derailleur and front-tire of the person behind me, as my mother has vocally feared. No, this was all me. And my tendency to do what feels good -- a lot. To excess. To the point where it hurts.

You see, to celebrate the end of the summer and burn some vacation days in the fine month of August rather than the boring home-bound month of December, I took last Friday off to ride my bike. “A quick 20 (miles) this morning”, I thought, knowing I’d be doing a longer ride with my uncle the next day. So out I went. And I encountered various road closures, downed wires and other obstacles that had me rerouting on streets unknown to me. I just don’t ever encounter those things on weekends, since I am normally working and not riding on weekdays, at least not during business hours. Rather than back-tracking, I kept taking detours and yes, I ended up lost. The first milestone I recognized an hour into my ride was 25 miles from home. Ooops. So a quick 20 became a not so quick 34 up and down the hills of Topsfield (think Tuscany for those of you who have ridden there). And so it was. The ride meant to warm up my legs became a pretty serious workout. But still, it felt good.

The next day was Saturday and I journeyed up to Portsmouth, NH to ride with my uncle. We did a nice, easy, flatter-than-flat 32 mile ride along the beaches of Rye and Portsmouth. It was delicious, heavenly, perfect beach/riding weather and it felt like I hardly worked at all. Hell, I didn’t even stretch afterward.

So of course, on Sunday, I felt great, as if I could conquer the world on this bike of mine. My friend Brian joined me as he does most Sundays. And as I’d been slowly adding miles to our weekly voyage, I had planned an almost 40 mile ride for that morning, which would bring me to 100 miles for the weekend. As a Type A obsessive who needs numbers to feel accomplished, 100 was big for me. I know many of you may not understand that, and most everyone would look at me quizzically when I told them the next day. But I wanted that 100. I know some riders do this in a day, but for me, a weekend warrior with a 3 month old bike, this was big.

So off we went. And the first 10 miles or so felt like I was riding with lead in my legs. I could not shake them or wake them, but I attributed that to not stretching with my uncle and a little too much wine the night before. As Brian led for the first part of the ride, I was determined to keep his pace and eventually the legs did start to feel normal again. But somewhere around the 20 mile mark, I made him stop for water and said “I don’t think it’ll be 40 today,” and I pointed to my left knee. Nothing specific had happened, no steep hills or awkward twists. I’d just felt a twinge deep under my knee cap and didn’t think we should push it, even to accomplish my meaningless goal for the day. So we started the 15 mile ride back to where we started. And with every pedal stroke thereon, the pain got worse until it became a searing tear. It was almost as if once I admitted it to myself that it hurt, it was going to beat me.

I didn’t hide it as well as I should have because Brian commented that I didn’t look like I was having fun. And I wasn’t. I love this bike and I love being on the road and I really look forward to getting out with friends and doing this. But at this point I just wanted it to end. I wanted to be in the driveway and getting off that bike.

When we did get back home, the first thing I noticed is that it didn’t hurt when I walk. That was good. Right? So I stretched for a while and noticed it did hurt when I bent it a certain way. And you know, the right knee was feeling a little twitchy then too.

So long story short…I spent the week with a painfully swollen and angry knee and its companion isn’t too happy either. I’ve been on an anti-inflammatory (which I ordinarily never take), rest and ice regimen for the week. Adding insult to injury, literally, I iced it so much Sunday that I gave myself frostbite (not kidding). I taught my spinning classes as scheduled, but without exerting myself or my knees at all, walking the room or teaching off the bike for the entire profile. Finally today, five days later, I am over half-way through the workday and for the first time all week there’s almost no swelling and very little pain, which I think is positive progress. But I have committed to myself that there will be no bike for me this weekend. The love affair with my aluminum/carbon baby is temporarily on hold. But it’s this “rest” thing that gets to me. I’ll take all the pills in the world, ice it whenever you want me to, but slow down and stop is not something I can abide by easily. I’ve already booked up the days with dinners with friends, beach with my DS and books, magazines, movies…whatever I can think of to prevent me from looking at that bike until next week.

The lesson I need to take from this can be summed up in three words: overexertion, moderation, common sense. Ok, that was four. But I need to listen to the knees and let them have their rest. Hopefully I haven’t been clueless enough to do permanent damage. Because truly, I don’t want it to be the bike that did me in.

PS -- I ended up with 95, in case you were wondering…

Friday, August 8, 2008

Opportunities lost

In a very rare public confession, I'll share with you that I only recently started to drink wine. I'd never liked it, or, shall we say "acquired a taste for it". I drank it more or less by force in Rome last year, when I dined with the incomparable Tony and Bill at Dino and Tony's, a local restaurant near the Vatican recommended to us by our guide after the Vatican Museum tour where we all met.

The only thing to drink at this restaurant was vino. A red vino on tap, no less, and when you asked what grape or vintage you were drinking, the waiter said only "nuovo". I'm not yet fluent in Italian, but knowing enough to be the interpreter for the group, I knew that meant it's "new" and we loved it. Over the course of our nearly four hour meal, we loved it enough to forget that water, Diet Coke or Orangina even existed. And loved it enough to kiss our bald waiter on the way out of the restaurant, European style, once on each cheek. (Ok, that was me, not Bill or Tony, but I digress)

So since last November, I've dappled more and more in wines, sticking closer to the reds because "that's what I know...and like". And as time has passed, I've wanted to learn more and know more. In Paris I even branched out into whites, loving the Sancerre I had at one restaurant and the red of unknown origin at another. But I resolved to learn more so that I'd know what TO order and how to order it. So now I'm taking a wine class. And now I know what I've been missing.

You see, in over 20 trips to Europe, do you have any idea what I've passed up in the way of wine? I had not one, not two, but THREE private tastings on my bike tour in Tuscany. I had a lunch on the porch of a private home where they served wine the owners had made themselves. I visited at least three chateaus in the Loire Valley with my mother where she bought cases of the wine made there as I laughed. Wine as a carry-on (pre-9/11)? Surely you jest! And not once did I partake. In fact, on the bike tour, I was more likely to be found at the local gelateria enjoying 2 euro shots of Bailey's Irish cream and a gelato than sniffing and tasting wine.

So now I feel like I did when I "discovered" that I like Caravaggio and Rembrandt paintings. I remember all those museums I've already been to in amazing cities around the world, and never gave them a glance. I feel like I need to go back and make up for my short shrifting of them. And likewise with the wine. Oh, to have that sample at the chateaus.

I guess a little re-tracing of steps is in order then. Or I just make certain to make the most out of the experiences going forward and not let opportunity slip away again.

Tunes on the road

As much as the food, the sights and the people, the music I hear on vacation is often trapped in my subconscious and surfaces when I least expect it. I was thinking of this recently as a vacation moment popped back into my head, triggered by a song that I was playing for my spinning class.

My sister and I hopped into a taxi in Paris late one night, trying to return to our hotel on the other side of the city. As the taxi whisked its way up the Champs Elysees and we were admiring this impromptu tour of the city at night, the radio from the front was loud enough that we could both hear the French-language singer against a strong rhythmic drum and pulsing bassline. We looked at each other simultaneously and said “what is this?” Right then, we knew it was one of “those” moments on the trip. One that would remind us of that floodlit trip up the grandest avenue of France, if not the world. It would harken back to that frightful pass where 12 avenues meet in an eight lane traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe. We had to have this song in our iTunes libraries. So with the strongest, clearest French I could conjure up, I asked the taxi driver, “La chanteuse, qui est?” “The singer,” I said, “who is it?” Or at least that’s what I must have said because the taxi driver replied “Zazie”. And I quickly scribbled the name in the notebook in my purse. My French was not good enough to ask “What is the title of this song?” or “What album is this from?” So from that point on, we were on our own to find this song.

The next day found us at the Virgin Megastore back on the Champs Elysees, where we took a stack of Zazie discs (who knew she was so prolific?) and stood at a listening station, swiping the bar code on each disc and skipping through tracks until we heard the drumline again. Thankfully, we started with her most recent release, figuring that had to be what would be getting air time so late into the Parisian night. And we were correct. It was “Je suis un homme,” and playing it in the dimly lit studio of my spinning class the other night for a focused hill climb, it brought me right back to that rotary around the Arc.

Likewise, I have seemingly endless examples of songs that bring me back to Ireland every time I hear them. On one of my very early trips to Ireland, young and head-over-heels smitten with a dark-haired Irishman, I found that every time we were out and about in Dublin City and the radio was on, the kitschy “Love is All Around” from the movie "Four Weddings and a Funeral" was playing. It is truly an awful song with a painfully catchy chorus (I dare you not to sing it) but on the very rare occasion that I hear it today (and admittedly, that’s only when I choose to play it myself) I can time travel right back to 1994 and my time there in Dublin. Young and in love and with painfully horrific taste in sappy tunes, apparently.

Having traveled extensively to follow U2, you’d think that there’d be plenty of U2-music-related memories that warm the cockles of my wanderlust-ful heart. But alas, there are almost none. Probably because I see that band enough stateside as well. But in terms of opening acts and intro music, there are plenty of memories. On my first trip to Ireland, I was with two fellow female U2 fans. We were new to general admission stadium shows and had camped out all day to be within the arm's length of the railing for U2 some 10 hours later. One of the first opening acts that night was Scary Eire, an alternative (I guess) local band with some rather polaring lyrics. At one point, as the lead singer had the crowd chanting “F*ck Columbus”, my friend Robin turned to me and said “Doesn’t this seem sort of sacrilegious, yelling this about the guy who discovered our country?” Perhaps it was, but 15 years later, I still remember those lyrics clear as day, as well as what I was wearing, who I was with at that moment, what we went through that day to hold our spot, what we ate to sustain us as the sun went down over the stadium (brown sugar and cinnamon PopTarts, smuggled from home) and especially the people we were to meet later that night.

And in 1997, I can recall when and where I first heard The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, which would be at Lansdowne Road stadium. I was sitting in soggy jeans with Martin and his friends a few hours after it had finally stopped pouring rain, and after we’d already been home twice to change out of wet clothes. The vibe in the stadium felt heavy and damp, much like the weather. People were cranky and tired of waiting, or maybe still feeling the affects of the wedding they'd been to the night before (I think that might have just been us). As we were waiting for U2 to take the stage, this song played over the PA. The song was amazingly cool then, before it was obscenely overplayed here in the US. The same, repetitive 12 notes just kept plodding along, accompanying us as we killed time sitting on trash bags on metal bleachers as we tried to keep dry a third time. And I can remember the five guys I was with singing along to every word of the chorus, long before those words were permanently ingrained in my head. Even last weekend when I heard the song on the radio, before I cringed away and changed the channel, I remembered that afternoon and how at one time, that song was pretty good.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

And I'm adding Bologna why?

Call me crazy, but I have to get myself to Bologna. Yes, I've already booked my hotels in Milan and Rome. But follow me here...

I'm taking a intro to wine course here in Boston with an old friend from Bologna. This week, we studied Italian wines. As the instructor/friend uncorked the lambrusco rosso, he was reminiscing about "la grassa" that his grandmother always made for him when he visited. In short, it's a dense, compact English muffin-like bread that is served warm and spread with fat (yes, just plain old lard) that has been cut with garlic, basil and some olive oil. On the warm bread, it quickly turned to a puddle of butter-like bliss. Right then and there, dreams of la grassa began to dance in my head. As I mopped up what was left of my lambrusco tasting with a dry cracker and cheese, I thought to myself, "Sign me up, I need to find me some la grassa to go with this wine!"

Forget that it took me 4 months to lose the 8 pounds I gained in Rome last year. I'm justifying this stopover in the culinary capital of Italy to celebrate its food and some local wine. Call it research, call it crazy, call it flight of fancy. I think I'm scratching a night from Rome and heading north one day earlier. There's a humongous trade show on and hotels are really tight, but I have to get there. Fast.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Does travel make me whole?

I’m sure you’re aware from my recent inconsistent attitude that I haven’t had a trip in the pipeline. I was edgy, irritable and not really coping well with the day to day. New challenges at work, unpredictable encounters with certain of the male species, crappy summer weather and my recently vamped up exercise schedule were, well, let’s be honest, running me down. So yesterday, I solved that problem. I found a killer airfare (albeit on a “new Private Italian Airline”) to Milan and Rome so I booked it. In 12 weeks I leave for a week in Italy.

And last night, I slept soundly, calmly and restfully for the first time in a while. Today I woke up able to face the world with a smile and not wanting to run down everyone in my path.

So then, the question arises: Does travel make me whole?

What is it about getting on a plane and going somewhere, anywhere, that’s not here? And what is it about Italy in particular that just draws me in? My poor family can attest to the recent crises of decision-making I had, kicking around Napa, D.C., Peru and Greece before finally saying “Oh screw it, I don’t care if I was just there last year…” and packing up to go to Italy. As I told them and anyone else who would listen, a year without Italy is just, well, a year.

Why does the world look differently today (read: better) now that I have this trip in the pipeline? Why do I feel joy in the expectation?

So raise your espresso cup and toast trip number seven to Bella Italia. At least this time I will be more fully versed in wines (thank you Jon T!) and I will have already covered most of the usual tourist ground in Rome so I can spend more time sitting in cafes sipping said wine or maybe even an espresso and read, absorb and write about the atmosphere. Hopefully I’ll get something publishable out of this trip, but that’s not my objective. I live to travel, clearly. And it’s just a bit more of that kind of living that I need right about now.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Top Ten Sights

It’s a beach day and I’m cooped up inside, which means there’s no better time than now to recap my…

Top Ten Sights I Have Seen, and Why

1) Michelangelo’s David -- also known as my new boyfriend. Seriously, he is beautiful. Michelangelo truly created the “perfect man” at least in a physical form. Both times I have seen him, as I have rounded the corner into the long hallway leading to him, I have had my breath taken away by his profound beauty. That's the only word for him. And twice, I have been rendered teary once I am up close. He looks so alive that I honestly believe he is about to lean down and whisper “just what exactly are you looking at?” As if he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

2) Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel -- I have had the great fortune to visit this twice. Once when it was jam-packed like a sardine can and once when I was one of 16 people in the chapel. Believe me when I say, you have never seen color like this before. Even from two stories below, these colors just sing out to you. And “hidden messages to the Pope” or not, the themselves images are just breathtaking.

3) Keukenhof Gardens, The Netherlands -- again with the colors. This is where I fell in love with the color orange because in its Dutch flower form, it made such a profound, lasting impression on me. Here you will see reds, oranges, yellows like you have never seen before, so rich and vibrant that you almost smell the flowers before you are close enough. The gardens are immaculately kept, the flowers are always perfectly in bloom (thanks to their full-time gardening/rotation of the crops); this is flower heaven, even for people lacking that green thumb gene.

4) Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland -- There are no words for this other than “hmmmm”. Essentially what this is is thousands upon thousands of octagonal columns of rock, on which you can step from one to the other for miles along the northern coast of Northern Ireland. Legend says these were steps that were built to help a giant walk from England to Ireland; perhaps that’s a Guinness-induced legend, I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I was there on a dark summer afternoon as a thunderstorm passed off the coast and it was eerie and beautiful and a complete wonder of nature. Each clap of thunder could easily have been one more nearing step of the giant himself. All I could do was hop among them and wonder why.

5) Pike’s Peak, Colorado -- Now admittedly I have not traveled in the US as much as I probably should. On one of my few trips westward rather than eastward, I had the chance to ride the tram up Pike’s Peak. It was about 3/4 of the way up, above the tree line, that I looked out and saw what had to be the inspiration for the verse “purple mountains majesty” because good lord, was that a tremendous view of purplish-blue mountains capped with a whipped-cream-like dab of snow. Oxygen deprivation and all, for the first time I fully appreciated the beauty that exists in my very own country.

6) Roman Forum/Palatine Hill/Colosseum, Rome, Italy -- Back to Italy I go to point out the obvious: Roman ruins are fascinating, phenomenal and addictive sights. Granted, I’d read about Ancient Rome up the wazoo before I visited them, so for me, it was more than a pile of rocks or one pillar of 28 still standing 3000 years later. I also took a tour with a specialist in Ancient Rome that really made this all speak to me. But I was still drawn, again and again, under different lighting conditions and at times of day, to just stand and stare, soaking in the history, remembering the men (and women -- can’t forget the Vestal Virgins) who walked these same paths. Most of what you think you know about the Colosseum is false, but it doesn’t make that building any less impressive.

7) Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain -- From a distance, and even close up, this looks like the kind of sand castle I used to make by dripping really wet sand between my fingers across the top of my sand pail stack, leaving precariously tall pointy triangular columns of drizzle to dry in the sun. But the thing is, this cathedral is cement and it’s still not finished. 100 years or so after Gaudi’s tragic death by streetcar, construction workers sign up to work on this project, considering it an honor to do so. The exterior appears to be complete, with various biblical scenes played out over doorways and on the spires. The inside appears as a war zone, with fencing keeping you out of holes, stacks of concrete and construction machinery. When it’s complete, if ever, I’m sure it will be extraordinary, but even today, I still found it gorgeous.

8) The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France -- As cliché as it may seem, I am smitten by this structure. The fact that it looks like a large hand has just plopped it in the middle of a residential neighborhood makes it just seem all the more surprising. My two favorite views of it, from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and from Trocadero, really highlight this aspect of it. Nothing nearby is more than a couple stories tall, so it makes the tower seem that much larger. It’s actually painted a beautiful brown/bronze and is just a feat of engineering, if you think about it. It is the seminal image of Paris in my mind and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s one of the few sights that takes my breath away every single time I return to Paris.

9) Cliffs of Moher and Dun Aengus, Ireland -- I’m a water sign and probably unnaturally drawn to water scenes. That said, both the Cliffs of Moher and nearby Dun Aengus (on Inishmore) are amazing experiences. When I was there several years ago, neither location had fences that kept you from blowing over the 800+ foot cliff face. I’ve heard that has changed. But in any event, the miles of coastline that you can walk and admire the massive cliffs beneath you is just stunning.

10) (tie) Duomo (Cathedral), Siena, Italy and Florence, Italy -- What is most striking about Siena’s cathedral is its massive size wedged into a tiny neighborhood and its glorious black and white striped marble façade and interior. It is the one cathedral I think that I have returned to over and over without fail with the exception of the cathedral in Florence, which is equally as ornate with its pastel pink and green marble exterior (the interior isn’t nearly as satisfying). I think because we are so brick and mortar with our churches in Boston, these two churches really stand out for me. I see them as Italy’s way of honoring and celebrating its religion through beauty. And that type of celebration, I can never tire of.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Postcards from Paris (and Vienna) v. 4

Maybe I identified with Theo van Gogh more than I knew. Theo fueled his younger brother Vincent's dreams with cash, moral support and encouragement for years. His only pay-off would have been to see Vincent's eventual success, but it was not to be. Theo himself died a mere 6 months after Vincent committed suicide, a fact I became aware of as I stood in front of a wall-sized image of their side-by-side graves in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last year. There, I myself was side-by-side with my younger sibling, fueling the first of her many travel dreams.

And it was with this first excursion abroad with my sister that my inadvertent appreciation for van Gogh began. Oddly enough, we'd read a book of letters between the brothers van Gogh years ago and joked that I was Theo to my sister's Vincent. I was the one with the risk-free job that paid more than the bills, while she was the one chasing her dreams with her abilities, at the cost of financial independence. At one time, such a trip might have been impossible for her, but her desire to see Dutch art, and van Goghs in particular, coupled with my penchant for travel for what would become our first and second art-packed trips to Europe.

And the things I have done to see van Gogh's art. They go above and beyond just crossing the pond in a Boeing. I've been to Auvers-sur-Oise (via two trains) and walked miles in a blanket of rain and dreary grayness as we followed a trail of paintings on a map and matched them to their real life landscapes. I've taken two trains to a bus to a 20 minute walk to a 10 minute bike ride to a museum in the middle of Dutch no where to see the largest collection of Van Gogh's work anywhere. Yes, it has even more than the museums in the center of Amsterdam proper.

I've stood at the graveside of Vincent and Theo a year after seeing that same wall-sized image in Amsterdam. On that overcast and damp April morning, I noted solemnly that their graves were much more ordinary than that image. They themselves were resting among the common folk of Auvers rather than the rock stars, poets, artists and writers in Pere Lachaise or Montmartre. That man to their left could very well have been a cook, a gardener or a normal joe. The woman on the right a nurse or a maid. In death they all became equals, the difference being the mass of ivy over the van Gogh plot and the random paintbrush or solitary flower laid on Vincent's side in his honor.

I wish now I'd left something for Theo. Because after 34 years of being an older sibling, the "responsible one" encouraging the dreams of the younger, I believe credit is due for him as well. Unfortunate as it is that neither lived to enjoy the many fruits of Vincent's success and Theo's many sacrifices, I've been blessed to see many, many more van Goghs than the average non-fan. From New York to Paris to Amsterdam and Vienna, this is one of the many benefits of believing in my sister's dream.

Postcards from Paris (and Vienna) v. 3

My last time in Vienna found me running from a homeless man on the city's tram. I forget exactly what said homeless guy did other than keep moving closer to me seat by seat. So at the next tram stop, I fled. And in my wake I accidentally abandoned one of my favorite black fleece gloves and some of the pride that a novice solo traveler works hard to accumulate. This time, I vowed that it would not happen again. I would take on Vienna, and win.

Sitting in the U-Bahn waiting for a train, I perused my multicolored street map of the city and found myself face to face with a homeless gent who was forcing his face between mine and my map. Girding myself, I snapped the map shut and held my ground. He wandered off as if I had rapped him like a puppy on his snout and I felt defiant. Vienna wouldn't beat me this time.

Postcards from Paris (and Vienna) v. 2

For me, Vienna is about two things: the coffee and pastry stops and the wienerschnitzel. I am genetically programmed to appreciate good (not necessarily foodie good, just good) food and I certainly enjoy the hell out of eating. So returning to Vienna, I focused on the positive and remembered the pastries and liquored-up hot chocolates that I loved 5 years ago. And then I was back there.

The cafe culture in Vienna is such that you pay for your coffee and pastry and then you can linger as long as you want...forever if you wish. On my last visit, I had decided that Cafe Demel was my favorite so I was anxious to introduce my dear sister to the Big Three (Demel, Sacher and Central) and see if first my opinion remained the same and second if she fell for the cafe culture as well. In less than 24 hours we had to try all three. And we did.

Our first stop was the luxurious Cafe Sacher, home of the sacher torte, which we both ordered and devoured after a day full of Klimts. The coffee here was delectable as well, quite unlike my Starbucks brews at home and just divine, so I bought a pound of ground beans to take home (which I am still nursing 3 months later!) We loved the atmosphere and the elegance of it all and I think appreciated that we were just across the street at the Albertina when a thunderstorm broke out. We smartly escaped the torrents by huddling over our snack at the Sacher.

Later that same day (remember we only had 20 hours in Vienna) we went to Cafe Central for a late night snack before bed. Again, we ran in from the rain, tucked our umbrellas under the table and sat for over an hour listening to the resident piano player as he tore through an extensive collection of global favorites in the cavernous baroque setting. My amaretto hot chocolate and apfelstruedel was just enough sustenance to get me back to the hotel and safely tucked in bed. In retrospect, I would say this became my favorite of the three, if only because we enjoyed the pastries as much as the music.

After a second day of marathon museum-going, we stopped at the Cafe Demel, which sits within spitting distance of the Hofburg Palace. At this point, we had less than an hour before we had to be at the airport to check in for our flight, but we wanted one last Viennese pastry to send us on our way. Here, we had to queue for a table for about 10 minutes because the notoriety of the cafe really packs the crowds in. Once seated, the waitress apologized but said she had it reserved for someone in 45 minutes. We let her know this worked out well for us too, and this symbiosis immediately improved the rapport between us. She told us to go look at the pastries and let the clerk at the pastry table know what we wanted and it would be brought to us. As we pondered over the glass cases, a stranger pointed to the chocolate truffle cake dusted in a thick layer of cocoa powder and says "that is heavenly." If only all international relations were so positive and helpful. I believe my sister followed that advice with aplomb and delight, but I settled on a Bailey's coffee and cheese streudel, both of which were disappointing when compared to what I remembered. And this is what I was leaving with as my "last pastry in Vienna"?

Almost, yes. That is until somewhere between Cafe Demel and the U-Bahn stop to get back to our hotel, we lingered at a local bakery tucked on a side street and so dark and empty inside that it appeared that it might not even be open. But the pastries in the window held us captive. Especially the soft-looking cushion of a donut split open with a heavy cream that looked like frosting.

"Try the creams there," says a local voice in heavily accented English. Following her finger, I notice she is talking about what we are ogling. After my disappointment at not following sage advice at Demel, I didn't need to be told twice this time. I walked in, was greeted in German, I ordered "zwei" and pointed to what I wanted. The woman carefully wrapped our creams and we just as carefully (and quite skillfully, I might add) transported them to the airport for our flight back to Vienna. Afraid they might not make it through security's evil eye, we devoured them after check-in. I was not disappointed. It was the last, and best, thing we ate in Vienna.

Postcards from Paris v. 1

Catching up on things I owe the blog...here we go

There are some things you only do once in life because you have to, and ascending the Eiffel Tower is one of them. I think first-time visitors to Paris fall for it because they are awe-fully starstruck by all the big names in Paris: Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Invalides, Sacre Coeur -- all of which they can see from still another angle from the biggest name of them all: le Tour Eiffel itself.

What they are not aware of, and what return travelers painfully remember, is the nearly 90 minute wait to buy tickets, the elevator up to the second level and all of its sardine-packed pandemonium, where you wait another 30-45 minutes to be crammed into a still smaller sardine can to be pushed to the top of the tower, where you can barely move for want of space. And honestly, while it is mildly entertaining to experience vertigo at 980 feet of open air (didn't know I had that problem!) and see miniature versions of your favorite monument from that high up, I suggest you buy your favorite in faux-brass miniature version from the "bling bling" illegal vendors at the base of the tower and invest this time somewhere else in the city. Or walk around the neighborhoods near le Tour and catch it peeking at you through gardens, between apartments and over brasseries.

But you won't follow that tip, I know you, newbie in Paris. I know, because on your first trip to Paris you just have to do it, and that's ok because I did too. And because I am in Paris with a newbie visitor, I have to do it again, so I do. Going against my gut instinct, we are there an hour after opening, so we end up investing 3 1/2 hours in the process of waiting, ascending, photographing for mere minutes at the top, and descending. But by the second level of the descent, we are both so fed up with waiting and crowds that we take the stairs - 760 of them - to the ground, which only takes 10 minutes, earning us back time better used elsewhere, like over a croque monsieur and grand creme up the street.

That said, we did it and Abby loved the view (but not the crowds) and I suffered vertigo for the first time, nearly dropping my Nikon from 1000 feet up. So I leave here with the knowledge that hopefully, I will not have to ascend that beautiful tower again.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

RIP Tim Russert

Over the past three election cycles, I came to appreciate, trust and respect the political analysis of Tim Russert. What I didn't realize is how shocked, stunned and gutted I'd feel if he were suddenly gone.

Sunday morning coffee and bagels won't be the same again, for sure. Let's hope we all find the strength and the talent to help us get us through to November. We've spent the last couple elections thinking "if Tim didn't say it, it's not true". So who will we lean on now?

Somewhere upstairs, Tim will be watching this election with all of his boy-hearted excitement. But for now, we'll all have to get used to the silence from his moderator's chair.

God bless and rest in peace, Tim. We'll certainly miss you.

Admiring R.E.M. as a fan of that other band

Friday night I had the distinct pleasure to accompany one of the biggest fans of R.E.M. to their only New England gig (so far) on their current tour. I've had the same pleasure a few times before, including a front-row situation the first time in 1994. As a music fan and one that grew up listening to R.E.M. with the same interest and appreciation as I did my own "favorite" act of U2, I am always pleased, excited and honored to see R.E.M. This night though would be no different, but with a notable take-away.

The parallels between R.E.M. and my own U2 are striking. Both started out as small "college" bands and have evolved into bands with worldwide reknown and 14+ albums and counting. But where I have always come away from U2 shows aghast at their rigidity in setlist and attempts to cater to long-time diehard fans, I have come to realize and appreciate that R.E.M. breaks through that rigidity with ease and aplomb. For that, I applaud them with a whole-hearted standing O.

Imagine if you will, these two sisters making the 2 hour plus drive to Mansfield for this show, listening to the iPod the whole way. Dear Sister (the huge R.E.M. fan) starts ticking through our own playlist saying "won't play that, won't play that, might play that". Imagine again then, her utter ecstasy when those three songs are indeed played that night. Imagine. And my surprise when I come home and start paging through the setlists of the last dozen shows, and I see that every setlist is different. Every night. Fans never know what the show will start with, what's coming next, how it'll end.

This band went back to their first three albums and dug deep. They didn't just play those one or two hits you heard on college radio back in the early 80s. They played that song that was buried mid-way on side two of that piece of vinyl. That was a song you thought you'd never hear again unless you navigated that far through your iPod directory tree. And here it was, dusted off, polished up and played as if they'd never stopped playing it. And for the stodgy veteran fan standing next to me, it was a mind-altering cross-constellation experience. Imagine that.

I could go on and on about how happy the band appears, settled in after losing their drummer and any number of personal hurdles and displeasure with their last three albums. It was a phenomenal concert experience, for sure.

But turning to a subject near and dear to my die-hard heart...let's just send this vibe out to U2 as they prepare for a tour next year (hopefully). Boys from the Northside of Dublin, you can learn from this band. You can spoon-feed the newer fans and first-timers with a dusting of radio-friendly sing-alongs. But you can also give your loyal, fans-through-the-decades something from the deep anals of the past. No, that doesn't mean "Gloria" after an absence of two tours.

I don't understand your unwillingness to have a flexible playlist and need to stay tied to the same 22 songs in the same order...night after bloody night. Particularly in markets like Boston (and New York, and Chicago, and London, and LA) where you play 4+ nights in a week, knowing full well that a large percentage of those fans are paying to see you multiple times that week. It is so painfully predictable with U2 that in order for me to be "surprised" at a show, I have to enforce a complete news blackout once U2 starts touring, so that at that first show I see, and ONLY that first show I see, I actually have no idea what they'll play. But what I do know is that for the next 2, 4, 8, 11 shows I see on that tour, it'll be 99% the same setlist. Geesh.

So if it's that you don't remember they lyrics, take a page from Michael Stipe and use a music stand and lyric sheets (Bono, we caught you already using a teleprompter, you can't fool us). If it's that you're tied to a light show to go with the rigid setlist, then talk to R.E.M. on that too, they seem to have it figured out. And if it's that you need some help culling through 14 albums of material, give me a shout, I have a few dozen playlists ready to go.

Whatever your reasons: age, ability, laziness, PLEASE SHAKE IT OFF. I saw what this type of setlist does to a loyal fan and I'm jealous, ragingly jealous. Give that to me in 2009 and I'll never complain again.

Really. Imagine that.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Let's talk foot-long eclair, shall we?

If there is heaven for travel-loving, chocoholic, pastry-fanatics, the keeper of the gate would welcome us with an eclair from Bonbonniere De Buci on rue de Buci in Paris.

We first heard about what we now lovingly call "the Buci" from my fellow traveler/blogger Beth, who sent us the Breakfasts in Paris blog while we were researching our trip. On that blog, the blogger declared this to be the home of the foot-long eclair. Not shy about our pastry eating abilities, Dear Sister and I put it on the list of things to accomplish. And off we went.

I believe it was on Day Two of our trip that we made the 15-minute walk from our hotel in Latin Quarter, down Boulevard St. Germain to rue de Buci. We would come to know this walk well and learn that once we pass the post office on the right side of Boulevard St. Germain, heaven was only a couple of short blocks beyond.

Now let me explain to you this thing about patisseries (pastry shops) and boulangeries (bakeries for bread only) in Paris. The goods are fresh. I'm not just talking "made within the last 48 hours", I'm talking "made within the last couple hours and won't last the overnight". Since everything is indeed baked fresh and usually right there on the premises, there are no preservatives added, no "sell by" dates, nothing is even remotely stale. If you're eating it on Friday, which we were, it was made that Friday, and probably within a matter of mere hours of your consuming it. And nothing is held overnight, nor should it be. Indeed, we tried that once before in Germany and found that the German equivalent of a jelly donut had become an effective doorstop overnight. As a consequence, every time you eat bread or pastry in Paris, it's as fresh as the day is long, most likely. And it's not uncommon to see restaurant and hotel workers running out of their places of business to grab another bag of croissants or a 3-foot long, narrow loaf of bread, carrying it by a napkin wrapped around the center. This is not the land of Atkins, friends. Bread, and bread products, reign supreme.

On that first morning post-jetlag, we walked into Bonbonniere de Buci and were spoiled for choice. There were tarts, meringues, masses of chocolate-frosted somethings with crunchy coatings, pies, things called Paris Brests, mille feuille. But we were here for one thing and one thing only: the eclair. That particular day, there were no foot-longs in the display case, so we dismissed the foot-long eclair as an urban legend, a blogger's fanciful myth. Instead, we ordered up two chocolate eclairs "to go". The nice woman manning the counter suffered through my French and gently took two eclairs (the 6-inch variety) out of the case, put them on a small paper tray and proceeded to wrap them up tent-style with white wrapping paper and pink ribbon. My sister and I looked at each other in mock dismay, for our intentions were that these eclairs were not going to make it 10 feet past the doorstep of the shop. Our only hopes were not to have to use our orthodontically-corrected teeth to bust through the ribbon since any thoughts of actually having a Swiss Army knife to do such deeds were gone with 9/11.

So with a "merci beaucoup", we stepped outside with our delicately wrapped package. Dear Sister took a picture of me holding the package as if I had a combination of the Hope diamond and a time bomb in there. I gently unwrapped our gift (alright, it cost us 4.60 euro but still felt like a gift!) and revealed two exquisite eclairs (I believe there's a picture of this as well). I won't speak for Dear Sister, but mine was gone in three bites. It was almost too much to handle. For Bostonians who are used to the Boston-cream filling we are forced to endure in our eclairs here, you should be ashamed of yourselves if you allow yourself to be served one of those ever again! No Boston-plastic-like-cream in Paris, not at the Buci!

Follow me here:
Because it's so fresh, the pastry was tender with the slightest bit of crust on the outside, but almost fluffy inside. The "custard" on the inside was more like a thick, richer pudding that matched the flavor of the frosting on top. That's right, chocolate. This bullet of perfection was gone so quickly that it was almost unfair. But it was only Day Two of Seven in Paris, and we would be back.

And we were.


Day Three found us cutting back (slightly) on our hotel breakfast to leave room for patisserie heaven and hoofing it back down Boulevard St. Germain once again, banging that right on rue de Seine and then first left on to rue de Buci. And today not only did we have to decide whether or not to have the chocolate or coffee flavored eclair, but it was there, the foot-long eclair.

And with God (and Dear Sister) as my witness, my first words were "Oh my God, we CAN'T do that!" Now, I like my pastries, and we both already discovered that we love "the Buci" eclairs. But this was the grand-daddy of any eclair I've ever seen. In fact, I think it's actually false advertising on the blog we'd seen before our trip because the ones we saw, in person, were bigger. They are the adult version of the eclair we'd eaten the day before, not only about a foot long but also about six inches wide!

Post-trip, Dear Sister and I actually had the following discussion:

Me: "My only trip regret is that I didn't try the foot-long eclair."
DS: "Mine too. You know, if we tried to cut it in half and maybe did it that way, because cutting it in half would've been about three regular ones each..."
Me: "Yes, yes, I could do three."

Ah yes, the logic of the non-jetlagged sees the light, too late. OF COURSE we should have skipped breakfast at the hotel and cut one in half. But we didn't. But now we know that when we return to Paris we 1) must stay somewhere near rue de Buci and 2) plan ahead for the Big Buci.

So back to Day Three, where we once again had just one (each) of the chocolate "regular sized" eclairs, chickening out from the formidable challenge of the foot-long eclair. And once again, we were not disappointed. What a wonderful way to start our day! If only EVERY day started like this at home, we'd all be permanently happy (and 4 pounds or more heavier, but I digress...)

Day Four, with much regret, we left Paris for Auvers-Sur-Oise too early to make the trek to the Buci first. We did, however try an eclair at a small patisserie in Auvers and I even ventured to try the coffee-flavored one. Hmmm...interesting, with the coffee frosting on top and cream inside. I wasn't disappointed, but this didn't have the same softness and loveliness of the Buci. It was clear we were already waxing nostalgic for the Buci.

Day Five, our last day staying in the Latin Quarter, we were fully prepared for this to be our last day at the Buci. We walked in and a gentleman was just bringing a fresh tray of eclairs out from the back. We indulged in another decadent chocolate eclair and wistfully walked away, not knowing if our hotel near the Eiffel after we returned from Vienna would allow us the luxury of walking here again.

Before we left Paris, we had a type of eclair at Angelina's (the mecca of all things pastry and hot chocolate) and were slightly disappointed. And the morning we left Paris, we tried an eclair on rue Cler and were intensely disappointed (so much so that we had to have a crepe chaser to leave a good taste (literally) in our mouths!). So perhaps the Buci has ruined us on eclairs. I dare say that we won't ever eat another eclair around here, at least not without remembering the pastry perfection we found on rue de Buci.

Friday, May 2, 2008

I've been published!

As an aspiring travel writer, I think I've just inadvertently achieved my first milestone: I've been published. You see, I post frequently to Fodors' Travel Talk forums (my trip reports are linked here below right). They have apparently chosen to quote some of my Amsterdam-related comments for their 2008 hard copy Amsterdam guide. Once I get my complimentary copy or make it to a Borders store to check it out, I'll report back on what made it in.

Yay! Doin' the dance of joy!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Trip Report: Paris and Vienna -- April 2008

For those of you who like detail...

Background: This was my 5th trip to Paris and 2nd to Vienna, my Dear Sister’s first time in both. We are still on our quest to see all the Vermeers in the world (see last year’s trip to Amsterdam trip report), so we were off to see 2 in Paris and 1 in Vienna.

Flights: We flew IcelandAir again Bos to CDG and return. Got a fare of $578 (total) Christmas week. Flew AirBerlin (which was actually a codeshare with Air Niki) between Paris and Vienna for 9 euro plus taxes of 60 euro. I remain a big fan of IcelandAir. We flew their new 757 with seatback screens (and USB port for the iPod recharge!) going over. Not coming home though. Air NIKI was fine (Airbus 320 or 319) except for the crappy and remote terminals at both Vienna and CDG.

Shuttles: I’ve decided on this trip shuttles just aren’t worth it unless you are arriving during rush hour and might get stuck with a meter running. I’m a typical girl and don’t like to schlep my own luggage, so trains are out for me. We arrived at 1 p.m. on Thursday and the shuttle driver for Paris Shuttle (who I used successfully before) took us directly through a large demonstration near Place de la Republique, which resulted 2 ½ hours stuck in traffic. I heard on the radio in the van that there were large backups, but the driver wouldn’t divert because he had to drop a party off there first. On our return to Paris from Vienna, Airport Shuttle told me when I called at 9:15 p.m. to call back at 9:45 and see where the driver was, leaving us in nearly empty Terminal 3 at CDG for over an hour total. I canceled that transfer and the return shuttle on the spot and had a full refund on my card when I got home. Taxis both from and to the airport were cheaper than the shuttle anyway due to the time of day we were in transport.

Hotels: We spent our first 5 nights at the Hotel College de France in the 5th. This is about an 8 min walk to Notre Dame and there are TONS of restaurants around. Our twin room was large, clean and nice. The bathroom was really big for Paris. We slept with the window open as the room was a bit stuffy and there was no street noise whatsoever that woke us. Breakfast was 9 euro and pretty extensive. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful. I’ve stayed only on the Right Bank on my previous visits, and I loved this arrondissement for its location and accessibility and because it had a lot to do/eat nearby.

In Vienna we stayed at the Hotel Savoy in the Museum Quarter just off Mariahilferstrasse. I’d read on Trip Advisor that there was major construction across the street, but figured that we’d be out of the room most of the day so it wouldn’t matter. Except they start work at 6 a.m., which means they’re out there chatting and yelling and setting up at 5:30. Yikes. The room was very large and there was a split shower/sink and toilet situation (two separate rooms). This would have been a great place to stay in terms of location and comfort. The staff weren’t exactly warm but I expect that in Vienna after my last stay here. I’d stay here again if I knew the construction was complete. Thankfully we were only here one night. Breakfast was included and was standard buffet fare.

On our return to Paris from Vienna, we stayed two nights at the Hotel Muguet in the 7th for a change in scenery. It was about 2 min on foot to rue Cler, which we only went to the morning we left to buy cheese (I’d been before) and about 10 min on foot to the Eiffel Tower. I hesitate to recommend this location to first time visitors because I think it is out of the way for “everything else” (other than the tower) and I think you can do better in terms of accessibility on the metro and to restaurants that are easy to walk to. I also didn’t think highly of the staff as the bathroom looked as if a landmine hit it after it was cleaned – our belongings on the counters and in the shower were all over the place. And the next day there was hair (not mine or DS’s, as we are both blond) in my razor. Ugh. We had a triple room which was two twins and a sectional sofa. Bathroom was good sized and clean. Breakfast was 13 euro and had the fewest offerings on the trip. I would not return here due to location/accessibility to everything I’d be interested in and the problem with our bathroom cleaning.

Weather: It ran high 50s to low 60s most of the week. Every day had some rain. It is deceiving because it may not look like it in the morning, but within a matter of minutes, literally, it could be raining. Not heavily, but enough to be a pest, and usually only for 15-20 minutes or so. We learned to always take an umbrella, or be stuck buying one at any point.

Restaurants: I became a huge fan of Pudlo’s guide on this trip. Four of them below are from Pudlo. I will never travel to Paris without it if they all end up this good.

Gosselins – not in Pudlo, but it’s a deli/café walking between Orsay and Rodin. Toasted four cheese panini, easily weighed 3 pounds. It was a massive sandwich but fabulous.

Le Christine – 1 rue Christine in the 6th, Metro Odeon. Dark paneled floors, white stucco walls, beamed ceilings. White table cloths and white shirted/black pants waitstaff who were extremely attentive. BEST meal of the trip, nothing stood a chance after it. Started with kir royal, then a tomato mousse amuse bouche. Appetizer was Serrano ham over ricotta/pesto tart – delectable. Chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce. Molten chocolate cake. Bottle of red wine, forget what kind. All this for 150E.

Le Louis Vin – 9 rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, Metro Maubert Mutualite. Brighter and more modern. Everyone there is really young, including the owners who look like they’re 25. 27 euro fixed price menu got us an appetizer of Lyonnais sausage and lentils. We chose the entrecote of beef with camembert sauce and a terrine of chocolate crème anglais. Half bottle of bourdeaux for 25E more, so all under 100E. Really tasty but a bit rushed by young staff.

L’Epi Dupin – 11 rue Dupin (behind Bon Marche department store), Metro Sevres Babylon. My aunt had been here in the fall and highly recommended it and it’s in Pudlo and on Fodors recommendations. We weren’t disappointed. Needed reservations though. Very rustic interior and very nice/attentive waitstaff. A step down from Le Christine in curb appeal. Had kir royal (our nightly thing) and a carmelized endive and goat cheese tart (I liked, but DS though it would’ve been better with onions instead) then the scallops over orange infused risotto. We finished with their signature molten chocolate cake. Set menu was 34E but our alcohol (half bottle of sancerre) and a cheese course brought it to 120E total.

Au Pied du Cochon – 6 rue Coquilliere, Metro Chatelet-Les Halles. This place is known mostly for its pig products, but on Fodors and in Pudlo I read they have phenomenal onion soup. They do and we’ll never be able to eat it again without longing for this. HUGE bowl, perfect combination of bread and creamy cheeses on top. Over-inundated with large healthy chunks/strips of onions. So good we couldn’t eat anything else. They are used to people popping in just for the soup, so it’s not a strange thing to not have some form of pig when you’re there.

Au Lys d’Argent – not in Pudlo, on rue St. Louis behind Notre Dame. We ate here the first night for fast and simple. We both had four cheese and tomato whole wheat crepes and onion soup. I think this was the only meal under 50E the whole week but the crepes were really tasty.

La Bonbonniere De Buci -- 12 rue de Buci, not in Pudlo. We walked from Hotel College de France three, four times? The eclairs are sinful. Absolutely to die for. We’d read about this on the parisbreakfasts.blogspot.com (thank you Beth!!!) and this was the hit of the week, I think. If you are anywhere nearby, or even if you’re not, try to stop in for an éclair. We did not find a better one all week, as much as we tried.

Angelina’s – I brought DS here specifically for the hot chocolate and was pretty disappointed at how bitter-tasting (and lukewarm) the hot chocolate has become since I was last there. We had two wonderful pastries (a Lucas and a Trois Carats) but I’d opt for coffee next time.

In Vienna, we ate our two main meals of the two days we were there at Figlmuller’s both times. The wienerschnitzel, potato salad and grape juice are not to be missed!

Sights: We covered all the usual suspects for a first-time visitor (Orsay, Louvre (twice), Rodin, Notre Dame, Ste. Chapelle, Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre, Cluny, Picasso Museum, Eiffel Tower) We bought the 4 day museum pass for 45 euro and got 61 euro worth of visits out of it. So that was a bargain for us.

I’ll only mention here things I hadn’t specifically written about in prior trip reports:

I finally got lucky and visited L’Orangerie after 4 missed attempts (last time by 6 days!). It was WELL worth the wait, as I love Monet and had only been able to read about these beautiful canvases as long as I’ve been traveling to Europe. We went on a Friday around 5:30 – 6:00 p.m. and were there with only a handful of other people. Just heavenly…I could see Giverny just sitting there. What a thrill!

We followed a walk of Montmartre in one of our guidebooks and were thrilled with the Montmarte Cemetary. It’s a smaller, manageable version of Pere Lachaise, and allows you to take a break from the city while hunting for some of the more popular inhabitants (Degas, Najinsky, Foucault). The walk also takes you through a park with an interesting and rare view of the rear of Sacre Coeur, which was kind of neat. My sister enjoyed the Dali museum which is not my thing but she said it was the largest collection she’d ever seen (she hasn’t been to Spain).

We took a day trip to Auvers-sur-Oise as DS is a huge Van Gogh fan. We caught the direct train from Gare du Nord at 9:56 a.m. on Sunday and got there in about 30 mins. The only direct return train wasn’t until 6 p.m. so we had to go further away from Paris to catch a connection back to Paris, which took about an hour and a half. Auvers is a pretty little town and they have really done well in showing tourists pertinent Van Gogh sites. We toured the auberge where he lived and died, seeing the actual room where he stayed. We also followed a trail of sorts where they post copies of his paintings at the location where he painted them, so you can see the wheatfields, the church, Gachet’s house, etc. And we went to his grave, which was very moving if you know anything about his story and his relationship with his brother (who is also buried there). We had to stop following the trail when rain set in in earnest…the second half of the path is pretty far from the first part and we didn’t want to risk being caught in a deluge. But it was an interesting excursion nonetheless.

Jacquemart Andre Museum – a wonderful house/mansion museum with an eclectic and interesting collection of art, including three Rembrandts. I enjoyed this as a nice quiet break from the crowded larger museums.

There is an interesting view of Place de la Concorde and Invalides from the steps of La Madeleine and even more so with deep dark storm clouds behind it. We stopped here one day when we were “just walking” around near the designer shops and sat on the steps and watched the clouds roll in.

I liken climbing the Eiffel Tower to childbirth: once it’s over you forget how miserable and painful an experience it is without the use of serious painkilling meds. I’d done it back in ‘99 and had no recollection of how long the wait was and how miserable it is to be mashed into elevators and the observation decks with that many people. But with a newbie to Paris, it just had to be done. I estimated a three hour investment first thing in the morning, and I was right…but we took the stairs down from the second level just to “get the hell out of Dodge” and not wait in lines to get out too. Now we can both say “never again”! But the day we did it was our last full day in Paris and it was the only bright blue sky and sunny day we had all week, so at least it was nice to be outside.

In Vienna, the Belvedere Palace and the art collection there is wonderful. We were there at opening and headed right to the Klimts (DS is a fan…I guess she’s a fan of any art!) where we had The Kiss to ourselves for about 10 minutes. I liked the layout and presentation of the museum as well as how “manageable” it felt…not like you were inundated with art you wouldn’t remember later. I still can see its beautiful Monet in my head…

But we did delve into more, taking in a Monet to Picasso exhibit at the Albertina (wonderful!), the Secession Museum for Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, the Vienna City Museum (more Klimts) and the Leopold Museum where I finally reached my fill of secession art. But DS could check off just about every Klimt in Vienna at that point.

I missed the Vermeer at the Kunsthistorisches Museum 4 years ago when I was there and it was on loan to Tokyo. So, we’d written twice this year and confirmed it would be there on the 22nd and thankfully it was. And for both of us, it was the most beautiful of the 19 we’ve seen so far (out of 35 total). It is much larger than his others and makes use of his trademark blue and yellow paints. But there is something so captivating and lifelike about it that we were both smitten almost immediately. I sought out the Caravaggios as I’d taken a liking to him in Rome last year and they were nice, except one was a copy of one in the Borghese. I also came to appreciate how altarpieces are better appreciated in a church than in a museum, as there is one there that was meant to be in a church and was similar to those I’d seen in Rome churches.

We spent a nice evening drinking coffee and eating pastries at Café Central and also enjoyed Sacher torte and coffee at the Café Sacher once.

We spent our last night in Paris actually taking night photographs of the tower, so the hotel location was good for us. I think Paris may have a new fan in my sister, but both of us are content in saying we’ve been to Vienna, seen the Vermeer and every Klimt we could get our hands on, and don’t have to return.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

About me and Vienna...

I've received some questions with respect to my lack-of-love affair with Vienna and why it is that I'm returning. And why it also is that I am sort of half denying that I'm returning. So here are the facts.

Back in 2004, I went on my first solo journey. The destinations were Prague for 4 days and nearby Vienna for 4 days. I had a delightful time in glorious Prague. The people were friendly, the food and weather were good, the music was amazing and cheap. Then I moved on to Vienna.

Vienna was cold, dark and rainy in October. I was constantly cold. Ok, that wasn't Vienna's fault. But it sets the mood for numerous encounters to follow. To wit:

-- I went for the infamous wienerschnitzel at Figlmuller. For those who aren't aware, the wienerschnitzel is as big as the Sit and Spin you had when you were ten years old. It easily overhangs the plate, if not the table the plate is on. I ate maybe 3/4 of it, it was delectable. When the waiter came to clear my plate he says "You not eat anymore" to which I replied, "No, I'm full but it was wonderful." Then he says "You take it with you?" to which I replied "No, I'm off to my hotel to sleep now." And the he proceeded to get all huffy and mean-spirited because I would neither finish nor take the remainder of my wienerschnitzel. Ugh.

-- I took the tram around city and got chased off it by a homeless drunk at one stop, at which time I also dropped/lost one of my favorite gloves. I'll be on the lookout for said glove on my return. You never know. But it's the only time I've run from a homeless person in all my travels.

-- I got hoodwinked by Mozart. Everything in Vienna is about Mozart. There are Mozart stores where they sell all sorts of kitsch with his name and face on it. I will admit to enjoying the Mozart chocolate liquers however. But on the street are the costumed Mozart dopplegangers who convince you to attend a concert of fine Mozart music. After three wonderful nights of (free) classical music in Prague in delightful churches or music halls full of locals, I was hungry to continue the streak of good luck. I ended up sitting in the middle of a Japanese tour group watching performers even more kitschy than the Mozart souvenirs themselves. I could swear I heard them saying "They all paid WHAT for this?" and secretly smiling off-stage. It was just so inauthentic. What a waste.

-- The Vermeer was on loan. I schlepped my butt all over the Kunsthistorisches Museum to see the Vermeer. This was before the Sisterly Quest for Vermeer on which we have currently embarked, but even then I knew it was something that had to be seen. And I got to the wall space where it should be, only to be greeted by the little white "on loan to Tokyo" card. Score another one for Team Vienna. I was down 4-0 now.

It wasn't all bad...Schonbrunn Palace was amazing, Stephansdom is impressive, the liquored hot chocolate and numerous pastries I drowned my sorrows in were delectable. But other than the Vermeer, I had no compelling reason to return, and hadn't planned to. As in, ever again.

So for the Vermeer and to work toward our Quest, DS and I are off to Vienna for two days during our trip to Paris. We have two email confirmations that the Vermeer will be on display next week, so if DS can't shed new light on Vienna, I will truly not have to return. Fingers crossed, either way.

We're goin' to Paris (and Vienna)

Well, the day before is finally here. I have one more sleep before I hit the City of Lights with Dear Sister.

My packing is about done, except for stuff that wrinkles. I have an 8x8x4 space left in my suitcase, which is oddly disconcerting. What have I forgotten? Or better yet, what can I buy to fit in there on the way home?

I was sick most of the last week and went through a bit of "I don't want to leave home" over the weekend, but now with the cold behind me (mostly) and the lure of high 60s and croissants just ahead of me, I'm raring to go.

There is a bit of regret though that the trip is actually here because I really do live to plan and anticipate trips. I have that feeling that in 2 weeks, I'll be sitting back here at my desk at work, with no countdown in my head, no destination in my future, no stacks of guidebooks beckoning me to come hither. But I guess that's when I just put my head down and hit the grindstone....in the quest to pick the next destination.

So let's raise our Starbucks cups this morning in a toast to Dear Sister, who is boldly taking on her personal demons and whisking her way across The Pond once again. It'll be worth it, DS, when you lay eyes on our Vermeers, Vincent's final resting place, and that foot long eclair!