May 14th (Insert Year)

Tonight is the eve of my birthday, and no I’m not telling you my age. I have been thinking of the many spots in Chicago where I have spent my birthday. My earliest birthday destination my have been Showbiz Pizza. Basically Chuck E Cheese, I think they bought out Showbiz. I remember the robotic animals, game tickets and pizza of course. Was there a funny smell?

When I turned 13, I convinced my mother to take me to the Hard Rock Cafe in River North. This was a feat-to ask her, on a weekday after teaching crazy-ass kids all day to take me downtown to eat. I’m actually starting to feel guilty now. And guess what, when we finished eating, she realized she had a flat tire. It got remedied somehow, we were home by 10pm.

I’m sure we hit Pizza Hut a few times, but no specific memories come to mind. I am sure I hit the golden arches before my tastes became too discriminating. Two years, 8 and 10 I had parties at my house, so I may not have had dinner out.

My sweet sixteen was okay. That was not a girly phase for me, although from photos, my friends had a great time at my house. We did go to Lansing to see The Crow, but I can’t remember any meals from that day.

When I was eighteen, I was mad and I ate a hot dog for dinner. I think I had to face the injustice of eating it on bread too. I I could not believe that my mom was putting off a fancy birthday dinner for another day. “My birthday is now and we must celebrate it NOW” is how I felt. I even wore a dress to school, which I never did and my friends forgot it was my birthday. We eventually went to the Medici on 57th.

In my college years, my birthday fell just days after moving out for the Summer. I met up with friends one year at Taza on Wabash and Monroe. It was an “all kind of chicken” kind of place. I was partial to their chicken pesto sandwiches.

When I turned 21, I went out with my brother and cousins to the House of Blues. I had crawfish etouffe, a daquiri and after I got home I threw up. But it was a great night before I high-tailed it to the bathroom. Life lesson-no booze and seafood. I still stick to that today.

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Portugese Panties

The other day, I was looking at my black spring jacket hanging up while I was at the salon. It sharply dawned upon me that the jacket is twelve years old. I shook my head in disbelief-I believe that is the only article of clothing that has withstood twelve years of me. Fashions, as well as my weight changed, but this rather plain but versatile jacket had held on. I should give it some kind of cerificate or something.

The jacket and I were united in March 2003 in San Francisco. It was a Sunday and the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade was being held on Market Street. I had been wearing the shell of my Columbia winter jacket, which did not breathe at all. That must have been the reason for my being ready to ditch it. We were in front of a Ross store-still unknown to the midwest at that time. I picked it out rather quickly and went on my way. I did some mild bragging when I returned home that I got this cool jacket at “some store called Ross in San Francisco”. Little did I know Ross would eventually follow me to Chicago.

A year later it accompanied me to London. It even shows up in a picture at the Tower bridge and a red phonebooth in Oxford. Last year it went to Germany and still carries the remnants of Currywurst sauce on a sleeve.

What I want to impart upon you is to try to pick up a useful, long lasting item or two on your travels. With wearable items, they will surely get noticed and you can proudly inform everyone of the (possibly) far-flung location it was found in. It will also mean more and prove more handy than a t-shirt or knick-knack ever will.

Tell Me What You Really Think Rick

I stumbled across a salon.com interview with travel guru Rick Steves from 2009. It was very insightful and told us more about the happy-go-lucky tour guide people know from watching PBS.

I think I began watching Travels in Europe in high school or college. I was immediately hooked, and stored the knowledge for whenever I would be able to escape to Alsace or the Cinque Terra. He made some good points about customs, Americans and travel vs, tourism. The funniest point he made is that only Westerners sit on their toilets, other cultures are squatters-I had no idea. My trip to Germany last year did reveal that the toilets have shelves in them; supposedly for fecal surveillance. I’ll leave that right there.

Steves also noted that only a third of the world eats with forks and knives. The next third with chopsticks, and the last third with their hands. His point was that Americans who have not had diverse travel experiences believe their way and culture is the “norm”. Everyone else is either deviating or abnormal.

He also believes there is a distinct difference between travel and tourism. He compared tourism to the all-inclusive resort compounds full of other tourists-usually attractive ones. He has faith that savvy, experienced travelers know the difference between a tourist trap and an authentic experience. If you have watched his show as long as I have, that travel savvy will rub off on you.

The interview shows a strong desire from Steves that Americans see the world. He sees travel as an educational tool that exposes us all to the fact that most people want the same out of life-health, happiness and happy children, but politics and extremism sometimes get in the way of how outsiders see these desires. His persona on his show is more friendly towards this issue, but the article shows a deeper and more passionate argument for international travel and a more connected world.

Here is a link to the article:

http://www.salon.com/2009/03/20/rick_steves/

January’s Travel and Adventure

Last month, I paid a visit for the second year in a row to the Travel and Adventure Show in Rosemont, just next to O’Hare airport. I decided to focus on more domestic and regional, ie. affordable destinations. Maybe next year I’ll pick up brochures for Macau, maybe I’ll run into James Bond when I go.

The big name, international destinations like London or New York were not marketed here, but there were resorts, cities and adventures that appealed to all kinds of people. However, I would say the show was resort-heavy, but appealed to singles, couples and families. Last year I went overboard with cruises-as if I were headed out on one anytime soon. It was tough walking past the tables for Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and the like, but those books are heavy and I have a bad shoulder already.

I was hoping the Greenbrier in West Virginia would be there, but they weren’t. It was only for a fresh brochure-I’m still dragging around my 2014 book. If you aren’t familiar, the Greenbrier houses a cold war-era bunker for the President, Congress and the Senate. An addition was built to the visible areas of the resort to mask the construction of the bunker. In the 90’s someone leaked its existence and it has been decommissioned, but is now open for tours, Yay!

Back to the show, While it may not have consisted of the big name world-wide cities, you could see they were not necessary to draw a huge crowd, especially if you are into the “adventure” portion of the show. There were several African Safari operators, Tours through China, VIking River Cruises-if you watch PBS here in Chicago, you should know about them. I stopped by the White Wilderness Resort’s booth. They are way up yonder in Minnesota. I don’t think they’ve made my bucket list, but they brought the sled dogs to the show. Last year’s dogs were friendlier and more relaxed, but I can’t blame the two from this year for being uncomfortable. If your habitat was a snowy forest away from too many humans and you were in a hot exhibit hall with tons of humans, then you wouldn’t be too happy. Long story short, I didn’t put my hands anywhere near their mouths.

The surprise for me was Palm Springs. I didn’t think it needed marketing, but maybe it does because perhaps my perception of it is not unique to just myself. Saying Palm Springs brings up images of Johnny Carson, Bob hope and gangsters (thanks Ray Donovan). Apparently it is a big draw for the LGBT community, has a huge mall a few miles away from Palm Springs proper, and the region has some history with the African American community as well. Being an architecture buff, the place is big on mid-century modern architecture when it comes to residences and some commercial and public buildings as well. I researched flights at one point that looked pricey, but the chain hotels seemed pretty affordable. I can say Palm Springs is now a destination for me.

The show is a must for anyone who likes travel, and gives you something to look forward to after all that holiday madness is over. Just keep an eye out in January and the earlier you get tickets, the cheaper they will be Ciao!

Ja! Frankfurt!

So it was around the holidays last year when I found out I would be traveling to Germany in the coming Spring. Now Spring is four months away again, and I have finally gotten around to documenting the final leg of the trip to Frankfurt. We left Cologne by train on a Friday, where I immediately went to sleep. Luckily, I did not miss the whole journey, I saw terraced hills along the Rhine and little towns along the way as well. The weather was pleasant and sunny-perhaps that kept me awake.

Frankfurt’s Hauptbanhof is rather large as Frankfurt is a major European business and banking center. My dad and I emerged from the station, grabbing a taxi rather quickly to get to our hotel. My first sights of Frankfurt did not impress me-I suppose you could equate it to Times Square from 1982. Too many grimy buildings on narrow streets and too many electronics stores; even the bright sunshine could not shake the skeevy feelings I had. On the bright side, as we got closet to our hotel, I felt MUCH better. The buildings got taller, cleaner and newer, and my blood pressure returned to a normal reading.

Frankfurt's rail station
Frankfurt’s rail station

The hotel was nice, although I ranked it last among the hotels I stayed at during the trip in another post. It was clean and convenient, but having watched multiple seasons of Hotel Impossible, my hospitality spidey-senses have been cranked up to OCD levels.

One of the first stops in town was a pub near the hotel. It was not crowded, and many folks had not left work for the day yet. I was satisfied with my burger, although it bordered on meatloaf-y texture wise. Another stop was the old town, or Alstadt near the banks of the Main River (pronounced “mine”). We took a street-car/trolley there, back through the skeevy part of town. Much to my happiness, the skeeviness was temporary. We went past Willy Brandt plaza, the site of the Euro headquarters. Basically, it’s that tall building with the antenna you are likely to see in a picture or postcard of Frankfurt. A few minutes later we arrived at the Alstadt, which was in full prep-mode for some type of festival. The plaza is paved in bricks with replicas of medieval buildings that were bombed during World War II.

Condos on the Main

The buildings housed countless cafes and souvenir shops. There was construction happening in the plaza on an old church. My father and I were surprised that it was after 5pm on a Friday and the crew was still working. We chalked it up a superior German work ethic, but who knows it could have been emergency work or a big bonus was waiting if they came in ahead of schedule. We walked over to the riverbank which was impressive.

Main River and Euro Headquarters. Old Town in the foreground.

The footbridge spanning it is outfitted in locks left by lovers signifying the strength and unity of their relationship. Later during the day, I found an ice cream stand, or Eis. I got a chocolate and vanilla sundae with whipped cream and a large wafer cookie. I am happy to say it met my standards for a great dessert. We returned to the bridge on Saturday for a river cruise which I could have stayed on for the whole day. The weather was dismal that day, and hanging out on a warm, dry boat would have suited me fine. Plus jet lag was kicking my butt at that point. I suggest when travelling to Europe to get up early and hit the sites hard, and just chill out for the rest of the evening. I could not explain why I would be excited to go somewhere, then forty-five minutes later I would be exhausted and crabby.

Back to Saturday on the bridge. On the other bank of the Main was a lively street market. We’ll call it “Euro-Maxwell Street”. A six-foot wide grill was serving up bratwurst and pork, and vendors with their goods on the ground or tables were ready to sell. I came across 8-track cassettes, shoes, books, toys, vhs tapes, toothpaste and what appeared to be dental tools. I was happy to have stumbled across the market, since I missed out on the ones in London from my visit ten years before. We made one more stop before retiring for the evening and packing up for our flight the next day.

The Skyline Mall was an impressive place to me. Getting there however was not very fun. It was raining and I had lost another hat. The part of town where the mall was located was in the midst of a massive transformation. Looking at Google Maps when I returned to Chicago, I saw the area was for conventions and trade shows. Between the trolley stop and the mall was perhaps a three-block long no-man’s land of dirt sand and construction materials. I mentioned in other posts that pets are allowed in many buildings; I spotted one person with a dog at the mall. Two stores here in the U.S were there; Zara and H & M. The mall had a Zara Home store, which I have not seen back home. Other clothing stores there and throughout the country were C & A (“say und ahh”) and Peek and Cloppenberg. There is also a Best-Buy type store called Saturn (S makes the Z sound).

The food court was impressive, though it wasn’t court-like. It was more of a corridor going though the middle of the shopping center. There was also another food corridor on the next floor up as well. The seating was comfortable and not of the cheap, American variety. It was a nice place to people watch. It feels hard to people watch in your own country, but somewhere else, you can see how people act and if they will do what you assume they will do or surprise you. One thing I saw was a small bachelorette group complete with sashes and tiaras. So the girl’s-night-out get up crossed the ocean, but why were they at the mall? Let’s hope that wasn’t the final destination. Maybe they were there for booze and condoms or something.

Because of the jet lag, I think I spent more time on my behind than my feet. I did buy functional souvenirs though. It’s nice to get clothes or accessories when traveling. That way you can always tell people about that jacket from San Francisco, or in this trip’s case, that tank top and David Beckham hat from Germany. As much as I would have liked to explore more of Frankfurt, I was SO ready to go home the next day. We stayed in for dinner at the hotel that night, and did a great job of squishing everything into my suitcase.

A few weeks later, while I was fooling around on Google Maps, I found a shopping area in Frankfurt not far from the Old Town we were in. I was disappointed that I did not even know it was there during the trip, but our stay was mostly a day and a half. It would have been crazy to do that much in such short time. I would recommend a return trip there, and there are direct flights from Chicago which is a plus, and my preference would be to stay in an American-brand hotel.

Cologne? They Should Rename it Chocolate…

After three and a half days in Berlin, I was off to Cologne, which my father enjoyed pronouncing in German (“kern”-or something like that). He was also pretty excited about the train we would take there. I believe it was the bullet-style train that is popular in Europe and Asia. We departed from Berlin’s Hauptbanhof after having coffee with an American friend of my father’s who is living in Berlin. The station was immense and modern, housing clothing stores, convenience stores and restaurants. Our train was comfortable, that’s pretty much all I can remember as I went to sleep not long after we left Berlin. Napping became a familiar theme on this trip, but my poor, overworked body needed the rest. The ride was restful and uneventful, though I’m sure my dad would have enjoyed some conversation-but maybe he fell asleep too. We arrived in Cologne, to a smaller, but just as modern station as Berlin’s. Cologne’s Dom (cathedral) greeted me as we emerged from the station. It shares a large plaza with the train station and several hotels. Cathedrals are my bread and butter. I’m not crazy about castles, but Gothic architecture makes me swoon. We settled into our hotel, which was my favorite of the three we stayed in over 8 days. Clean and modern is the way to make me happy, although I have decided on my next visit to stick with the American hotels. I need predictability in where I bed down. The hotel had a nice bar where I had a Jack and Coke. Our hotel in Berlin didn’t even have a bar, which dashed my hopes of chatting with guests. Our first tourist activity was a bus tour. Jet lag had me tightly in its grip; walking the equivalent of a few Chicago-style blocks had me beat. We saw the original roman walls of Cologne, busy boulevards lined with shops and restaurants, which included a Mexican restaurant. That’s one thing I would not try in Germany, Mexican food. It couldn’t possibly taste good, could it? The cathedral was open to everyone and it is IMMENSE. It masters the darkness and gloominess of Gothic times perfectly. So much so, it made the light if a cloudy day as intense of direct sunlight. I explored some nooks and crannies and donated two American dollars to light a candle in the memory of some loved ones.

The Cathedral just after a little rain.
The Cathedral just after a little rain.

Off we went to lunch, and afterwards, the highlight of Cologne, the Chocolate Museum, or the Schokoladen Museum. The museum appeared to be built on some fortress-looking barge on the Rhine, accessible by a small footbridge. We walked on a scenic path between the Alstadt (old-town) and the Rhine. It is safe to say that most Alstadts in Germany and Europe are replicas, the originals having been bombed during World War II. The museum’s architecture was quite schizophrenic; consisting of a small, yellow-brick structure that must have been a castle or fortress in a past life, attached to an all-glass portion. Upon entering, you receive a piece of Lindt chocolate with a line drawing of the cathedral on the wrapper. I was impressed with the detail of the exhibits.The exhibit begins with the cocoa plant and its cultivation. Exhibits show where the plant is found around the world and its place as a commodity. Room after room told the story of how civilizations used the plant and its products, as well as the vessels used to consume it from. Europeans drank chocolate from fine, decorated china while central and south American tribes consumed theirs from pottery made from readily available clay. Shall I call it the money shot? Yeah, why not. As you walk into the glass-walled part of the museum, you pass a glass-enclosed assembly line. The chocolate you received at the door is made in-house. But centered at the end of the room, overlooking the Rhine is an over-sized replica of a cocoa plant. Underneath it is bowl of silky, melted chocolate. An employee dips wafers into it and passes them out to visitors. I made three trips, perfecting my “danke” pronunciation.

Warm, molten chocolate is waiting...
Warm, molten chocolate is waiting…

I would highly recommend Cologne, and I need to make another trip there as well. My visit was fairly short and I did not see the the main shopping area or sample any memorable cuisine. I did eat Italian, but I don’t have a clue if it was pasta or a panini. Another reason to get over to Cologne, especially if you are a Chicagoan, is that you can take a direct flight from Chicago to Dusseldorf, which is only thirty minutes away. Berlin was quite awesome, but you have to get there by way of Newark, Madrid, London or Istanbul.