Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year, New Me

It's that time again. The new year, and a new decade, loom ominously on the horizon. Looking back on the Aughts, I can think of a lot of things I should have and could have done better. But it was not all for naught, as I have accomplished many things that your average bear probably hasn't even dreamt up in his hibernation. But enough about the great things I've done, what is more important is the great things I have yet to do.

I've always said, somewhat jokingly but secretly seriously, that my purpose in life is to be remembered. I want to leave my mark on the world. I know I have a niche somewhere, but I am still searching for it. One day, however, I will find a way to leave this mark. Whether there is a building named after me, a street, a foundation, or a small blurb in a history book, I want my life to mean something long after I'm gone. And I want it to mean something to people who never met me and who were not related to me.

How am I going to do that, you ask? I wish I knew. But that is the point of ambition: you pick a goal, and you work hard, and you hit forks in the road, you climb obstacles, but you keep moving, you choose your paths, and eventually you reach your destination, a little battered, a little worn, but extremely accomplished and proud, with a list of achievements in your foot prints.

So as this decade comes to a close, I find myself way behind on my path. I envisioned myself doing much more at this point in my life. So this decade is a new beginning. I have a laundry list of goals, many of which I probably won't meet. But what I want to change about myself is the effort I put towards them. Anyone who knows me as more than a casual acquaintance knows that my life has more or less fallen together despite my lack of involvement in it. It has always been my way to put more effort in to putting less effort, when I should be putting that effort in to actually doing things the right way. But as I get older, I realize I'm only cheating myself. No one else really cares what I learn in class, what sense of accomplishment I feel on the inside. What people want from me is results. It's what we want from all of the company we keep. It's not the nature of people to want to be dragged down by those around them. We want to be achievers, and we want to surround ourselves with people of like minds. I've hidden my underachieving self deep beneath a calm, cool, and collected illusion of who I really want to be.

This year, I become a go-getter.

Gone are the days of taking short cuts and cutting corners.

Here are the days of motivation, aspiration, ambition, and achievement.

I wish you all the best in all of your endeavors, and I encourage you to check in on mine. Hold me to my word. A life like the one I want for myself cannot exist without the support of everyone around me.

So Happy New Year to all, and I look forward to walking down the right path with each of you by my side.

And now, for the fun part, a look back at a decade to remember. Some people weren't around for many of these experiences, but that doesn't matter. In staggered chronological order, the highs and lows of the Aughts, with some purposefully excluded for the sake of myself and others:

It was 2001, and high school graduation seemed like the biggest day of my life. A distant memory, the Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro was packed with a raucous Annapolis High crowd. Three months later, and my new home in Blacksburg, Virginia comes calling. Pritchard Hall, and what would turn out to be "The Worst Roommate Ever." This kid was a nightmare: a cultural abomination, he was born to Koreans, adopted by Jews, educated in the ghetto, and associated with the upper middle class whites. His lack of identity made him stranger than fiction, and his quirks alienated him from the rest of our hall. That, and he made weird noises and stared at me through a conveniently placed mirror while I laid in bed.

Virginia Tech gets credit for my identity. I was an awkward high school kid who never really fit in to any group, but I had plenty of friends. I was athletic, but not a star. I was shy with some kids and a social leader with others. I didn't have a clique, and I was never satisfied with what I was doing. I was smart, but shockingly lazy, which embittered the dumb, hard-working kids and frustrated the smart, hard-working kids. All the while I found myself somewhere in between those genres of people, never sure with whom I belonged. But college was a new beginning and a fresh start. I made friends quickly. I was around people of similar minds, similar intelligence, similar work ethic. I had people to play sports with, people to study with, people to socialize with, others to play video games with. It was a perfect storm of all of my strangely unrelated interests.

And then I joined a fraternity. This opened up the doors. I was on MTV for a show that featured colleges across America (I Bet You Will..., created by Morgan Spurlock of Super-Size Me fame). And then we took the fraternity to new levels. We got it an official house. We established a reputation on campus. I started a charity event that now occurs every year and raises thousands of dollars for various organizations. I found a cultural identity that was missing in the religiously non-diverse schools I had attended in Annapolis, and I quickly decided it was not for me. I got my first job interning with the athletic department. I became a ridiculously passionate VT football and basketball fan. It was my first passion, and it will probably cut years off of my life.

As college drew closer to an end, I made friends that have lasted through the years, and who I expect will still be around until the day I die. I learned to keep in touch with people a little bit better (thank you, Facebook). I moved in to my own house for the first time with a couple other guys. Windswept, on Pheasant Run Ct., will never be forgotten. It is still the greatest estate in AEPi history.

Senior year was a blur. We traveled to all the away football games. And then graduation hit, and I was lost. I had a degree with no direction. I slipped in to the black hole that is the restaurant industry (though I do thank Liz for getting me the job, as I needed an income). I made more friends, but fell further and further from anything resembling pride and self-respect. I knew this was not the place for me.

I started writing sports for the newspaper - another in a long list of accomplishments that fell in to my lap. I worked hard and impressed my bosses, but never gave it the commitment it deserved. It didn't pay well enough to quit the restaurant job. Then Jay comes calling and offers me my first break. Again, a job that didn't require an interview. This is the 6th job of my life now, and still no official interviews. DVSport, Inc. was a great gig. Lots of travel, lots of sports, and a good amount of money. I lived in college football. It was stressful being gone all the time, but I loved what I was doing. I eventually got fed up with upper management, though, and decided my time was coming to an end.

Changes needed to be made. So on a whim, I chose law school and the LSATs. With little effort, I managed to score quite high and began applying to schools all over the country. Unfortunately, my laziness during college held my GPA a bit lower than law school likes, and my LSAT score alone could not get me in to my first choice schools.

It was back to another restaurant in the meantime, where once again I got in with a connection and had to do almost nothing to earn the employment. Money was great there, and I maintained my stint with the newspaper. Law school acceptances and rejections came pouring in, and Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law became my new home.

It was another fresh start where I could begin anew. This trend is one that I enjoy, as I get tired of the same thing all the time. I easily slip in to routine ruts.

So here we are, half way through law school. I have quickly risen to the top of a a few student organizations and am leaving my mark there. My goals, if accomplished, will improve the law program at ASU for years and years to come.

This is the decade, in brief, that has passed. I hope to be able to include much, much more in the decade to come. Someone's first job is to name this one. The Tens? The Teens? Both are boring. Find me a catchy name and I'll celebrate it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

I supposed the inevitable result of leaving the comfort of my hometown and my family and loved ones, coupled with my relocation to an area heavily populated with Native Americans has changed my outlook a bit on Thanksgiving. It is a clash of ideals, but I think I've managed to focus on the really important parts.

To start with the bad, I have a friend out here who is particularly sensitive about the plight of the Native American people. Anyone who has spent much time with me knows I am not insensitive to others, but at the same time I am not at all sensitive myself when it comes to touchy subjects. That might not be clear: what I mean is, I'm empathetic to others, but I don't easily get bent out of shape by ignorant or derogatory comments directed at my own heritage, culture, background, etc. But this friend of mine, who is normally extremely easy going and laid back, gets very defensive at even the best-humored jokes about his people. And he hates Thanksgiving. He hates what it stands for, he hates how it came to be, its tradition, its values. He also hates the name, "Redskins," for all the same reason. Nevermind that he's a Giants fan. And I think he has every right to be upset about a holiday that is meant for giving thanks for all the things we are lucky enough to possess, but that is based on an era when we took and took and took and then just slaughtered the hands that fed us. I'm sure the real story is somewhere between what the average American thinks, what we read in text books, and what the Native Americans think happened. No one living at that time was going to write this story without some bias.

But while I understand his displeasure with the theme, I think its meaning and its purpose has made it something different. Some of the best inventions are the result of some of the worst decisions and mistakes in history. Thanksgiving might be one of those mistakes. What was done in that time period was undeniably horrible. But what has come out of it is one of the happiest days of the year for so many Americans. It is a time to embrace your family and your loved ones, to bring people together, to relax, to be carefree, to enjoy the best meal of the year with all the people who are most important to you. It is a vacation from the routine, an excuse to let down your guard, a reason to get in touch with old friends, a relief from the stresses of "the real world." Sure, it still symbolizes the meeting of the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, if that actually happened (again, no one seems to really know what actually happened). The way the story goes, the two peoples came together for a joyous day of feast and festivity. That is the essence of the holiday. What happened before and after that celebration are not really a part of what today is supposed to mean.

So, with as much respect and sympathy and appreciation and recognition as I can give to the Native people (as family lore goes, I may even be part Native myself, a distant descendant of Metacomet, better known as King Philip), when an apology will mean nothing, I still celebrate this holiday as a reason to give thanks for family, for friends, for life, and for the amazing feast we are about to enjoy.

Many thanks to the Haiks for taking us in as a part of their Phoenix valley transplant refugee dinner, bringing us in to the family atmosphere that makes Thanksgiving so special.

Everyone enjoy your dinners and your family time. Appreciate that you are able to take this time out of your life, even if you aren't very close with your family, or if you don't get along with them. It's an important day, and it can create some great memories if you'll let it.

Lastly, congratulations to the Wittings for giving birth to healthy twin boys, Dylan

and Tanner Witting.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Afghanistan Revealed

Not much going on here worth writing about, so I'm expanding my horizons.

Photog. series from Big Picture.

I don't usually get into the world politics mud-slinging that occurs so commonly here, but I feel like this deserves a post.

This is a series of photos from Afghanistan during the recent turmoils there. Some of the best photography I have ever seen. Just wanted to share.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"We Run This Game" - Hokie Nation

A little pet project we put together. Credits are at the end of the 'video.'

Huge thanks to Jeff Thompson, Anunaki Productions for putting this together on such short notice.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Great Unveiling: The Unit

One quick announcement: this is officially post #200 in my blog. I just popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate. I know you're wondering, it's Andre. Only the finest for blog milestones such as this one.

Okay, okay. I slacked off big time. But here are the pictures I've been promising for so long. I'll start with all the move-in pictures so you can see what we were up against. Then we will get to the post-move-in, pre-finished pictures, which is where we currently stand. Or sit, really. I wouldn't write this blog standing up.

Things left to do include:

1. Finishing--more realistically, starting--the guest room/study. We need to find a bed and either one big desk or two small desks to go in there. Right now, it is packed full as our storage room. Outlook appears hopeless. Not pictured below: mess in guest room.

2. Getting all of our art on the walls. Hard to do when you're not sure where all the furniture, etc., is going to end up. But I think we've waited long enough. Main issue: too much wall space, not enough art.

3. Getting either a love seat or a chaise lounge for the living room. One couch just doesn't cut it for the GHS (Gross Household Seating) level when you want to have social events.

4. Getting a TV stand for our newly re-acquired big screen (the original TV from last year's condo is now in our possession, free of charge).

So, without further ado, the pictures!

The living room on moving day.

Dining room on moving day.

The first meal in the house. Picture isn't perfect, but it was phenomenal. We had tomato, fresh mozzarella, basil, and balsamic glaze as an appetizer. For dinner, Melissa made a chicken pasta pesto. A+.

The kitchen on moving day...though it looks much worse now so I won't post current shots. We had a busy weekend.

The guest bathroom on moving day. You can barely catch a hint of the horrendous shower curtain that was included with the condo. Quickly removed.

The guest bathroom currently. With our own southwest-themed curtain, etc.

Not naming names, but one of us tuckered out a little early on Day 1.

Master bathroom on moving day.

Master bedroom on moving day. The balcony outside the door connects the guest room to the master.

Master bedroom, looking at entrance and 'hallway' with closets on either side leading to master bath.

The master bedroom, as it currently stands. The end table on my side of the bed is missing due to pseudo-man cave construction, to be pictured shortly.

And now for the downstairs in its current state.

The living room, as viewed from the stairs just inside the front door (front door would be immediately to the left as you descend the stairs).

The pseudo-man cave. I say 'pseudo' because it's really not a cave, but a real live living room. And basically the only room in the house, since it's all opened up. But this was my college football Saturday set up. Sadly, our Hokies couldn't pull out the big win against Alabama. We couldn't even look good trying. But the gurus seem optimistic about the season still, so I will hold my tongue.

The dining room, complete with a Melissa doing homework.

Looking from the dining room into the living room/fireplace area.

The last thing to include is maybe the greatest part of the house. At least it will be once the weather improves in a few months. Our 'waterfront' back patio.

Deacon followed me around helping with the photos.

This is our living, breathing, fruit-bearing lime tree.

Looking the other way, back into the house.

The tree-obstructed, road-leaping waterfront vista.

Well, that's all she wrote. Welcome to our home. If you want a better look at it, you'll have to come visit and see for yourself. There is a chance we will be doing guided tours via webcam by appointment only.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New House, New Classes, Same Sam

So it's been awhile. I've made some promises. Regrettably, I didn't keep any of them. I said I'd bring you pictures of the new place. But it's not finished yet. I said I'd blog about Beach Week 09 and Nantucket. I didn't. My procrastination is at an all time high right now with all the things going on. That is not to say I'm not getting things done, because that would be a lie. It just means that I am not necessarily getting all the right things done.

To start with, this summer was probably one of the greatest summers I've had. Maybe ever. It was too good. I don't know how to be a student again. Or still. A month in Italy, topped off with a week of partying in Ocean City with the McDaniel clan, then a perfectly relaxing week in Nantucket/Boston, is probably the best vacation lineup a guy could ask for.

Beach Week 09 was highlighted by Doug's and my (how in the world do you properly write a double possessive like that?) Beach Week 2009 Cornhole Championship with a spotless 8-0 run to seal the title. Tim and I won the BW09 NCAA Basketball Championship playing the 1 and 2 for Virginia Tech (non-basketball fans, the 1 and 2 are the starting guards on a basketball team, with the 1 playing the point--the floor general and the team's best ball handler--and the 2 playing the role of shooting guard--generally a team's best outside shooter). We cut down the nets after a tight battle with UNC, leaving Tyler Hansbrough without his much-coveted trophy. Sucker. Other than that, we set sail with Jerry, rode the high seas with the Captain, and as always, Dumsers was nearby and plentiful.

Nantucket was probably just shy of the polar opposite of Ocean City. Instead of a week long party, this beautiful island was the perfect quiet getaway to finish up a fun but exhausting summer. Much appreciation to my mother and grandmother for bringing us out to visit them at their summer retreat (really, it's more of a secluded cottage in the 'woods' of Nantucket). Melissa's first trip to the Cape started with an easy flight into ACK, Nantucket's newly expanded airport. We rode bikes to Quidnet Beach and Seshachacha Pond (about a mile or two each way) and strolled along the beach there. Melissa and I cooked dinner each night, giving my Mom a much deserved respite from her duties. The produce on the island is unparalleled, the seafood as fresh as can be. The salty, humid air awakens a hunger, literally, that you have never known. We enjoyed sandwiches on the island's renowned Portuguese bread, tasted one of the dessert world's best kept secrets in Indian Corn Pudding, grilled fresh Tilapia from the seafood market, sampled all the brews from the Cisco Brewery located on Nantucket - all delicious. I took Melissa to all my childhood haunts, save for Pocomo, which we did not have time for. We hit Dionis Beach but had to weather a light rain, went to Miacomet but fought the cold winds, walked the Moors but were enveloped in fog, rode bikes to Siasconset (to the locals, it is just 'Sconset, as no one pronounces the "Sia") to show Melissa one of my favorite towns in the world. We wandered the streets of downtown Nantucket, a larger, more glorified and historic version of downtown Annapolis. We both had our first Nantucket bar experience where we met a quasi-celebrity in Rick Pitino's son. He was a very cool guy, and we enjoyed hanging out with him and his wife and their friends. My one complaint about the Nantucket trip is that it was too short. I could have stayed there two more weeks and still felt that way, though. C'est la vie.

On our way back home, we sidetracked through Plymouth, riding the Steamship Authority's Ivanhoe fast ferry to Hyannis, where Darrell and Erin picked us up for a Boston adventure. Plymouth is the site of my ancestry, where my family allegedly arrived on the Mayflower. I saw a replica of the Mayflower, the Mayflower II, stood over Plymouth Rock, stood before a statue in homage to another potential ancestor of mine, Massassoit--the famous Wampanoag chief that created the first Thanksgiving. We ate a delicious seafood lunch on the water in Plymouth before driving to Quincy, where Darrell and Erin live. We took a quick breather at their apartment before heading in to Boston, where neither Melissa nor I had ever been.

We stopped at Government Center to get the notorious scorpion bowls, which as far as I can tell is just a huge bowl full of various types of alcohol. They are meant to be enjoyed by groups of people. We did two people to a bowl. It was a great start to the day. They are only found at Chinese restaurants, and this particular one had all appetizers at about $3 each, so we feasted on some steak on a stick, crab puffs, chicken wings, and other goodies.

In to Boston, we met up with some friends of our hosts who were very welcoming. We hung out at their house, where I fought a constant onslaught of molesting mini-dogs. Then, I got in touch with the younger Rick and met him and his wife at a charity concert in the VIP room at the House of Blues, directly across from Fenway Park. No game there this day, unfortunately. We also stopped at Church, a bar with a homemade 'tequila inferno' shot that is made by infusing gold tequila with habanero peppers. It burned.

We are already trying to find a time to return to Boston for a longer trip. Less than 24 hours in any spot is not enough to really enjoy what it has to offer. Maybe next summer.

I don't have the patience to upload any photos at the moment. All the pictures from the aforementioned trips are on Facebook, so feel free to browse them there if you want to. If you're not my friend on Facebook and are dying to see these pictures, we can probably arrange something.

Pictures of the condo will be up at the end of this weekend, when we finally get everything set up. It has been a slow-going work in progress.

To set the mood, I'll describe it. Then you can see if my description gives you a strong enough mental image that the pictures seem familiar when I post them.

We are on the first floor, and to enter our condo, you have to duck under a low growing tree trunk that snakes up over our walkway. We are on the right hand side as you walk up. The door opens inward to pergo flooring throughout the lower level. Immediately to your right, a floor lamp rises above your head with a horizontal mirror with coat/key/hat hooks affixed to the wall (courtesy of yours truly). On the floor is a wrought iron end table with a glass top for Melissa's purse and things. Just beyond the table on the right hand side is a carpeted stairway that leads to...yup, you guessed it...the second floor. More on that in a minute.

Directly ahead as you close the door behind you, you will see a glimpse into our kitchen. As your view spans to the left, you will see a very open living room with a large, full wall sliding glass door/window hybrid that is entirely covered by those cheap white blinds/slats that hang vertically. If you trace the back wall, the one that the door sits in, you will hit a bookshelf, our entertainment center, another bookshelf, and then our fireplace and mantle, before finally reaching the future dog corner where Deacon will live, and then the wall. Turn that corner and you will reach our dining room, which completes the short end of an L. We have our pub height round table set up against the wall with one side flipped down so that it is flush with the wall. Four chairs - two matching wood and two metal afterthoughts - sit around the table. Underneath is an Ikea rug with three bands running longways - dark brown, light beige, and dark brown again. Turn to your right again and you hit the kitchen. As you step into the kitchen, you have counter tops on either side of you. To the left, you have a microwave, a dish drainer, then the double sink, then some open counter, then our older-than-dirt refrigerator. A small gap after the fridge leads to two sliding/folding doors that open to our in-house laundry room (just a nook with a washer and dryer and a shelf above them). As you stand in front of them, look to your right and you will see down the hallway to our front door again, which has a narrow vertical window with more of those blind/slats covering it. On the opposite counter, beginning from the dining room end again, you hit the coffee maker, our toaster, our oven/stove, and then lots of open counter space. Next to the laundry room is a deep pantry, past that a coat closet. Once in front of the coat closet, you are again in the living room. To your right, sitting against the wall that is shared by the kitchen and living room, is our couch. We have two black Ikea Lack series end tables and a large black Lack series coffee table. If you sit on the couch, you will be treated to my 32" LCD HDTV and my brand new LG 5.1 surround sound (partially thanks to birthday money from Mom). An area rug sits under the coffee table with leafy patterns set in various earthy colors--dark and light browns, reddish hues, and some brown-green shades.

Stand up from the couch and take a hard left towards the stairs. Ascend, and at the top you will be looking directly into the study/guest room/Liz and Mom's room. To your right is a full bath, decorated in southwestern themes with mostly browns, reds, and oranges. Kokopellis enjoy the room here. And the air is filled with a pumpkin spice scent, courtesy of the Leo's reed diffuser birthday present to Melissa.

To the left, a midget full-length mirror is attached to the wall at the end of the short hallway. The study is not at all set up yet, so there is not much point in a description. But in the room, directly to the right is relatively deep closet. Directly ahead is another sliding glass door/window hybrid with the same white slats hanging. Beyond the sliding door is a small balcony that is shared by the master bedroom to the left. Walk back out of this room and take a quick right and another quick right and you'll be in the master suite. Directly in front of you is our oscillating tower fan, a matching floor lamp to the one downstairs, and a red Ikea dresser. There is an identical sliding door/window set up against the far wall that leads to the balcony. Melissa set up our festive white light string around that door. The bed sits against the left wall, with the non-existent head board against the wall and the bed stretching out into the middle of the floor. Matching black Ikea Lack end tables sit on either side of the bed - his and hers.

To the left, you will have a narrow 'hallway' that is about as long as it is wide...which is to say "not very." On either side are small closets. Beyond the closets is the master bathroom. It does not have much decoration in it yet, as it has a sliding door and does not require a shower curtain. We haven't picked a color scheme for it yet. For some reason, both bathrooms have the same pergo flooring, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

So, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed the tour. Pictures will be coming shortly, as officially promised in writing here. Hopefully I'll be a little more consistent with the blog from now on.

Tonight, we are going to the Cardinals v. Packers preseason game with the Gulleys. Can't wait!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Wrapping Up Italy - Birthday Weekend

The days got away from me for a bit there. Sorry I haven't written in so long. Things got busy and exhausting. Since my last post was almost a full week ago, I'll just give a quick rundown of the things we've been doing. For picture references, refer to my Facebook page (for people pictures) and Flickr for landscapes, etc.

Friday, June 26
My birthday unofficially started on Friday. The French girls made us dinner - quiche and pizza - and then we went to Meccano, one of the many clubs in the 'disco region' (my name for it) for the night. We walked there, which took almost an hour. There is an exponential decrease in rate of travel as the number of group members increases. Maybe one of the pour souls fighting through calculus this summer can write up a formula for that?

The club was lots of fun. The French are a great group. We also had Israelis and and Australian with us, if I remember correctly. The walk home took about 30 minutes as well. There's not much else to report for Friday.

Saturday, June 27
Birthday! We woke up, don't remember what time, and went to the Pitti Palace to do some museum browsing. Pitti is impressive. There are hundreds of rooms, one after the other, all full of paintings and sculptures. The ceiling frescoes are so detailed and ornate, it's amazing to think how annoyed we, Americans, get when we have to paint roll the ceiling white. "It's too hard!" Cameras were not allowed to be used inside the museums, but I managed to steal one picture (on Flickr) of a particularly interesting room. In my rush to snap the shot, I didn't get a great photo, though. The alarms in there are extremely sensitive, on another note. I walked over to a closed window in a niche to check out the view of the Boboli Gardens and set an alarm off trying to look through. Johnny was walking up close to a painting to see how it looked from up close as opposed to far away (Van Gogh style painting) and set another alarm off. That time a woman came into the room quickly to check things out. I looked at her and shrugged. She said "Too close," and we were on our way.

We had plans to meet a ton of people out for dinner at an apperitivo (if you're not keeping track, those are the all you can eat buffets with drinks), so we couldn't take too much time at Pitti. But I definitely recommend going to see it if you are ever in Florence. There are two tickets that you can buy for the palace, one takes you inside, and the other lets you into the Boboli Gardens, among other places. We didn't do the Gardens today (12 Euro for inside, 10 Euro for gardens).

To back things up a little, Memento-style, as I remember more, we made a fantastic discovery on our way out to Pitti. We had recently discovered a bakery directly across the street from our apartment that has amazing bagels (we've been getting them with lox regularly now). We wanted to get food there before heading out, but as we walked up they were closing the gate. The owner turned out to be American, and he informed us of Notte Bianco, or "White Night." It was going on tonight, and it is an all night street festival, where the lights of all the shops light up the night white. There would be bands and live music everywhere, street vendors with food and drinks, bars and shops would be open really late. He said an estimated 60,000 people would be wandering the streets.

So, we came home, got showered up and left to meet the group at Piazza del Signoria. We walked to Piazza della Repubblica by accident, which is about five minutes further, and had to double back. This made us late for the first time all trip. The French are habitually late. They say that is the custom in France, but I'm not buying it. If you tell them 8, they see it as rude to show up before 8:30, apparently. But, it is my birthday, so they can't get mad. We start the long walk around the city looking for a good place to eat. The one they were hoping to go to had just been shut down for drug deals, so that was out. We ended up going to a place called La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life), which happens to be about two blocks from our apartment. After 45 minutes of walking, that is where we ended up. As we ate--and the food was good, but a little lacking in selection--we saw the streets begin to fill up with tents and booths and people. Notte Bianco was getting in to full swing.

We wandered around the Piazza del Carmine for a bit, browsing a big street market that had been erected, then headed to Piazza di Santi Spirito for a live band. On the way, we came across a spontaneous salsa dance lesson in the middle of the road. Onward, we discovered (and ate) crepes. All the food at all the stands looked amazing. I wish we could have eaten some of everything. Throughout the course of the night, we (meaning at least someone in the group, and I tried it) got some French fries, crepes, a pork panino, a panino with some delicious cheese and spicy sausage-like meat, and...that might be it. But it was all fantastic. The band was playing a very good set (according to Johnny, who is much more in to music than the average bear).

The rest of the group began to trickle off. Some of the French and one of the Israelis were going to Cinque Terre in the morning so they didn't want to stay out late. When it was down to just Johnny and myself, we started to wander. We ended up finding a DJ in the middle of the street blasting dance music with a huge group of people dancing around him. His turntables were hooked up to a generator for power. Across the Ponte Vecchio, we found the lucky boar that everyone touches (pictures on Facebook). Here, Johnny got hit on by an Italian guy and was not happy about it when the guy pinched his cheek.

Back south to the Arno - we ran into Jean and his girlfriend, Claire, who was visiting for the weekend. We sat on the river with them for awhile before heading back to Santo Spirito to eat (some of the food mentioned above had not happened at this point). I have no concept of time while I'm out here because there are no clocks anywhere, so I don't know how late we were there. I haven't carried a cell phone since I got to Florence, and it is extremely liberating. I may start leaving it at home in Annapolis sometimes. This trip was a great exercise in learning to detach from technology (though I've been sadly attached to the computer more than I should be - I blame my efforts at keeping all of you informed and entertained).

Futbol! Johnny and I met Jean at Salamanca, the Mexican bar, to watch USA v. Brazil in the Confederations Cup Championship. We got there around 7 for an 8:30 start so that we could eat. And eat we did. We started with nachos, then moved on to split chicken flautas and a steak dish. All of it was magical. Jean arrived just before the game started. The US jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first half, only to have it erased by three unanswered in the second half by the Brazilians. The US goals were not flukes, but to win the game might have been. Brazil dominated almost every aspect of the game throughout (60% possession), taking something like 4-5 times the number of shots we took. Tim Howard had a great game in the goal, but there is only so much you can do against a team like Brazil when they are knocking hard at your door all night long. The final score, 3-2, was very respectable, and this looks like good things to come for next year's World Cup. Our server was, coincidentally, Brazilian, and we had a good time joking around with him (his English was pretty decent).

After this, we walked around a bit, then met up with two French girls for a couple minutes to say bye to one of them, who was just in Florence visiting and not studying. She left early the following morning. On our way home, we ran into two Israeli friends of ours and walked with them to Lion's Fountain (remember - American Irish bar). Class at 9:30 kept us honest, and we retired relatively early to our apartment.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Calamity in the Cuisine: Culinary Catastrophe!

It all started one rainy morning, when gray, dreary skies kept us indoors with our meager kitchen stock at our disposal. Breakfast was coming, but in what form?

Eggs? Check.
Meat? Check, question mark.
Vegetables? Check, check, and check.
Milk? Check.

I was going to make a big, sloppy, U.S. Egg-style skillet dish with all of the above ingredients. I diced up some red and yellow bell peppers, some onion, and some tomato.

I pulled out the ground beef leftover from our spaghetti masterpiece. First question of the day: is it still good? Just a small aside, this entry is not for either the faint of heart, overly-worrisome people, or chefs, so please pardon our ignorance when applicable. We have no saran wrap or tin foil or anything of that sort to store things in. We keep forgetting to pick it up at the store. So the meat was in the 'freezer' of our mini fridge, which is hardly a freezer, until yesterday afternoon when I pulled it out to thaw for dinner last night. We didn't end up cooking, though. I'll admit, it had changed colors slightly since the last time I saw it. But it smelled like raw beef, so I assumed it was just a bit of harmless oxygenation. In hindsight, eating meat rust is probably not the brightest idea. But as I said, it didn't smell bad, and my motto with food is that if it smells okay, it probably is okay, unless it's chicken, in which case it may still not be okay, even if it smells like chicken.

So I cooked the ground beef and set it aside to wait until the other ingredients were ready. I rinsed the pan and threw in the peppers, onion, and tomato and let them sautee for a little while. Threw the toast in the toaster so that everything would be ready at the same time.

Then, I cracked four eggs into a bowl and whisked them (with a fork). Eggs come in half-dozen cartons here (that would be six if you're counting at home). Yet another sign manifested itself when one of the eggs was stuck to the carton. Eggs are not sold in a container that allows you to check them before you buy here. My Mom's words resonated deep down in the recesses of my memory banks, "Never use eggs that are stuck to the container, it means they cracked open and they might be spoiled." Smell test: check. Normally, I crack them straight into the pan, but I had so many things going on I wanted to make sure I had time to stir them around before they cooked too much. The fact that I was (quasi)-inexplicably changing my routine should have been yet another sign that all was not right with our breakfast.

I poured the eggs in, quickly sprinkled salt, pepper, and our spicy powder on them, then grabbed the milk out of the fridge. I dumped the beef back in with the rest of the ingredients in the pan. Expiration date on the milk is June 30th. Good by a long shot. It is my usual custom to smell milk every time I open it because, of all the things that can go bad, milk and eggs are the most potent and the most odorous when spoiled. For those of you who do not include milk in your scrambled eggs, I highly recommend it. It gives the eggs a perfect amount of fluffiness (I believe this is a trick from my Dad, although I could be wrong).

I only pour a splash of milk in, so it is a slow, careful practice not to overload the eggs with milk. In this instance, two things happened. One, I caught a slight whiff of something unholy. Two, I saw chunks of curdled milk plopping into my eggs. I instantly stopped pouring, my reflexes a fine-tuned machine when it comes to rescuing food. But it was too late. In the middle of our eggs was a small pile of milk lumps looking up at me with a scowling smile.

I cursed. I told Johnny what happened, but he had no immediate reaction. I thought to myself, the meat should have been my sign. The cracked egg should have been my sign. The change in routine should have been my sign. Someone didn't want us to have a delicious breakfast today. On the day before my birthday, of all times.

I grabbed a spoon and started scooping out the chunks. But with each successful extraction, I also succeeded in spreading the milk around, forcing it deeper into the non-navigable depths of our uncooked eggs. When I got what I felt was about all of the milk out, I made Johnny come look at it. We debated for a good five minutes. I cooked while we weighed our pros and cons.

Johnny hopped on the computer and Googled, "is it okay to cook with spoiled milk?"

Google's response was a resounding, no-questions asked, are you f'ing nuts, "No."

We questioned it. What's the worst that could happen? Stomach ache for a couple hours? Maybe throw up and get it out of our systems quickly enough to avoid any lingering effects?

Not on my birthday, not on abroad in Florence. The eggs were a wash. We had to give in to reason. It was just not meant to be.

The toast burned, by the way. I slathered peanut butter on the two pieces and poured the last little bit of jelly on top so that we could at least have an open-faced peanut butter and jelly. Of course the jelly would be running so low that I had to scrape the jar to get a satisfactory amount on to the bread.

We will probably go to a restaurant in a little while and wallow in a slight bit of misery at the thoughts of what could have been. But we will take a little spending and peace of mind over violent bodily rejection of our breakfast.

Also, on a totally unrelated note, what is with the celebrity deaths all around us? Ed McMahon was a fixture on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, widely considered Hollywood's greatest sidekick. Farrah Fawcett was an international sex symbol and a fashion icon in her day; she remained beautiful until the day she lost a three year battle with cancer.

But Michael Jackson: how do you pay homage to one of the world's greatest entertainers, and the butt of more jokes as a result of his transformation from child star to the King of Pop, and then freakish regression to asexual man-child who found himself constantly surrounded by criticism, controversy, and legal battles? I recognize, appreciate, even celebrate what he has done for music and culture, and he will no doubt be remembered for generations to come. But what he became was far from a role model worthy of our praises. Watching his downward spiral was both comedy gold and tragedy, woven together into an unfortunate string of bad luck, bad decisions, and bad jokes. The hard part is figuring out whether to be sad for him or relieved that he doesn't have to live in a world that hasn't accepted him since the early 90's. I don't think I care as much as I should, but I just thought I'd write something down about it. It's always a good way to figure out how you feel about something. Share your thoughts on here if you have any. I'm curious to hear how other people feel.

One more quick shout to USA soccer, who stunned the world the other day in upsetting #1 Spain in the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup. Our goals may have been lucky, and the win may be written off as a fluke, but you don't shut out one of the best offensive teams to play the sport in a long time with luck alone. Spain's 35-game unbeaten streak in international play came to a crushing end with the loss.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Homemade Italian Feast

Bored of our plain spaghetti with red sauce, we decided to get a little fancy with the Italian staple. We went out for a stroll on Monday to go to the Uffizi Gallery, only to find out it was closed. It was also raining a little bit, but not so much that it was a hindrance.

Since the gallery was closed, we took the opportunity to just wander the town. We did a little window browsing looking for souvenirs (still a fruitless endeavor) and a tee-shirt for me (also unsuccessful). We gave up eventually and got hungry, so we went to the market on the way home.

1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1 tomato
1 jar of pomodoro sauce (pure red tomato sauce)
1 package of ground beef
1 package of italian sausage

Preparation and Cooking:
Johnny diced up the veggies (add in some onion that we already had in the house) while I set some water to boil (with a little salt and oil) and cooked the meats. For those of you at home, ground beef cooks slightly quicker than sausage (which I had also cut up), so keep that in mind if you are ever combining them. I sprinkled some of our spicy pepper powder on them as they cooked. I tried to slightly undercook so that when I combined all the parts of the sauce later, they could cook a little more in the pan without being overdone.

Once the meat was satisfactory, I drained the grease and put it on a plate to hang out while everything else was prepared. I rinsed the pan (we don't have a lot of pans here) and put a little peanut oil in the bottom, then threw the diced peppers and onions on to sautee. Meanwhile, the water was boiling, so I threw in a healthy handful of spaghetti noodles (I break them in half to make serving and eating easier).

Next, I poured the tomato sauce over the veggies and let that start to bubble a little. I turned the heat down so the sauce would have a little time to absorb the flavoring from the veggies. Sprinkled salt, pepper, spicy powder, and chili flakes into the sauce.

Then I threw all the meat back in with the sauce and the vegetables, and I threw the diced tomatoes in as well.

We made toast (plain old white bread and butter). Poured some cheap white wine. Serve and enjoy!

This picture doesn't look too appetizing, but I assure you this was delicious.

Monday, June 22, 2009

European Adventure: Cinque Terre

Hands down, the greatest hike a person can ever take. This, while not for the faint of heart, is a beautiful trek through the coastal hills of the Liguria region of northern(ish) Italy. If you take the low road, which we did, the entire journey is about 11 kilometers, or just under 7 miles. Don't let the relatively short distance fool you, though. There is an elevation difference of about 500 meters, or about 1,640 feet, between the lowest and highest points of the trail. And let me assure you, you don't just go up and down once. But I don't want to give anything away. Let's start from the beginning.

Sentioro Azzuro
The famous trail along the coast, sometimes called Sentioro No. 2, literally means, I think, Sky Trail, or Blue Trail, or something like that. It passes through the Five Lands of the region, so we'll take them in order.


The first stretch of the hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola is affectionately referred to as Via dell'Amore, or Lover's Walk. There is a spot along the way with a kissing bench and a gorgeous backdrop of the deep blue Mediterranean. Behind the bench, which actually has a rudimentary carving of two people kissing as its back, is the deep blue of the Mediterranean. People put locks anywhere they can with their names written on them as symbols of their eternal love. Very romantic, but Johnny and I decided that was not really necessary for our trip.

This stretch was mostly paved, but the views (below) were astounding.


Our first sign that Manarola was close, unfortunately, was the train station. We came across it after coming around a bend in the cliff line. Our path took us up and around it, though, so at least we didn't have to trudge along the tracks.

Then, we caught a view of the city, high atop a craggy jutting rock. These towns were founded by Dark Age colonists who wanted to protect themselves from marauding pirates, so they are in very strategic places with good vantage points and sheltered harbor. Manarola's 'harbor' isn't really a harbor in the true sense of the word, though, as it would be hard to navigate much more than a dingy into the town itself, as you can see for yourself below. The two non-landscape pictures are of the central 'square' in the town and a strange carving in a little fountain just below it.

This is the Manarola harbor in all its glory.

On our way out Manarola, we got--of course--some amazing views again. I should probably stop saying that. From now on, when you see "we did x," assume the view was indescribably spectacular. The water along the coast is a blue that Crayola could never dream of capturing. There is a hint of green reflecting from the lush hillsides. Try imagining the deepest blue sky at high noon, and make that the color of the water. As we climbed and descended amongst vineyards and olive gardens, that was the glory we were treated to. There were locals living on the hills in practical little houses, fully self-sufficient, never having to leave their land for anything. The prospect of living that sort of lifestyle is intriguing, if not a little claustrophobic.

The next town is the only one not directly on the water. Corgnilia sits high up in the rocks, overlooking the rest of the lands. You can't actually see any of these towns from any of the other ones, but for some reason they have always been linked as the Five Lands of the Italian Riviera. We didn't stop here for whatever reason. It seemed like we just passed the outer edge of the town as we followed the Sentioro.

This was the town as we left on our way to Vernazza. In a blunt bit of foreshadowing, it turns out Johnny is not nearly as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Throughout the hike, I either saw him stumble or heard him stumble countless times. Twice he just missed smashing his camera on the rocks. Keep that in mind. And before you clever kids try to guess what happened: no, his camera was not damaged.

As we made the descent to Vernazza, the fourth town, it began to drizzle. We were both hiking shirtless so it got a bit chilly. We put shirts on before arriving in town after making the decision to stop here for food since it was starting to rain.

This was on the way.

This is the approach to Vernazza. Next to Monterosso, this was the most beautiful town on the itinerary.

And the view as we left. Towards the right hand side of the picture below the food, if you look where that little cluster of blue and yellow umbrellas is, is the spot where we ate lunch. Just outside of the built up part of the city next to the coral colored buildings. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but it was good. We got a couple beers with names we couldn't pronounce. As an appetizer, we ordered bruschetta with pomodoro (tomato) e (and) pesto (pesto). For the entree, we each got pizzas. Johnny's was a frutti di mare (literally, I think 'fruit of the sea' or 'food of the sea') that came with octopus, mussels (in the shell), prawns (in the shell, with heads) and cheese and tomato sauce. Mine was mozzarella with ham, artichoke, and something else I don't remember. I had them hold the olives. Very good pizzas, and just the right amount of carbs (and the wrong amount of beer) to get us going on the next stretch.

Forgot to mention, the red pepper flakes you see in the pizza picture were taken from the apartment as well. Again, sorry girls if you read this. We were being economical, and those things are impossible to find in Florence. We view them as an absolute necessity to most meals.

Little did we know that we were in for the hardest stretch of them all. I didn't count, but I would estimate that we went up and down at least 1,000 steps throughout the city and the trails.

As I said, this was the hardest stretch. We went straight up, straight down, hugged cliff sides on walkways that were no more than a foot or two wide. We had to pass people coming the other direction, which was tricky. But the place looks like a fairy tale. We went deep into the forest, crossed bubbling creeks, ran into countless stray cats. At one point, we actually found a cat neighborhood, I kid you not. There were little pet tents scattered around a rock grotto, and several cats were lounging on the rocks and in the dirt. We saw farmers at work, hikers from all over the world, lizards, birds: nature at its most purest. No one had strewn empty bottles on the side of the paths. No one had defaced the purest parts of the coastline with graffiti or office buildings or anything remotely human.

And this was all before Monterosso was in sight. That changed everything. The beauty of Monterosso is unparalleled. After climbing stairs until our legs burned, resting, and then descending more stairs until the other side of our legs burned, we were greeted with a voyeuristic preview of what was to come.

Monterosso is known for its beaches. Many would argue that Vernazza is actually the most picturesque of the five towns. It would be a tough argument to win, though. This place is incredible.

At this point, as we walked into Monterosso, where our day had started, we were beyond exhausted. To bring my foreshadowing full circle, just as we approached the final guard station checking our Cinque Terre cards to ensure we had paid our fee to hike the trail, Johnny yelps. There was a small, sharp rock jutting out of the dirt that he managed to kick head on with his big toe. At first, we thought nothing of it, but when I looked down, his toe was split open and oozing blood. He got the picture on his camera, so I can't post it here. Fortunately, we were literally five feet away from the guard post and a first aid kit when it happened. It was gross, but he soldiered on.

We went straight to the beach and laid down in the rocks around 3:30 or 4pm. Didn't even lay out towels. We just passed out laying in the rocky sand, listening to the waves gently crash, kids laughing and playing, and a soft breeze across the water. Cue music.

We took turns swimming in the Mediterranean, washing off the day's toils from our skin, while the other person stayed ashore to watch our bags.

Around 5:30, we got up to find food and a train schedule and ran into one of the Australian kids from our class. We knew he was going to be there at some point, but we never got in touch. They were on their way out, so we just walked around a bit and sad our goodbyes so that Johnny and I could find dinner.

We settled on a place called Barabba's in White. It was just after 6 when we got there and their kitchen didn't open until 7. We waited at a table and got a bottle of wine that turned out to be Prosecco. It was called Spumante Monterosso, but it was actually made further up in northern Italy, despite the name. Prosecco is, as far as I can understand, the Italian version of Champagne. Our server, with whom Johnny fell in love instantly, brought us some snacks (no charge) while we waited. It was a big panino with ham and mozzarella that she had cut into bite-size niblets. In front of us, a small, net-enclosed soccer field was full of kids playing the world's most famous game. To our right, the water. To the left, the town. Behind us, the bar in the restaurant. We just relaxed. Enjoyed the wine. When 7 o'clock rolled around, we ordered sort of tapas style. We split a pasta dish that was called, I think, Cacio e Pepe, which was a Roman-style (spaghetti) noodle in some oily sauce with pepper. We ordered calamari fritti with tempura vegetables and some french fries (strangely, we were both craving french fries when we, surprisingly, saw them on the menu) to share as well. The food was delicious. We took our time getting finished up, then paid and headed to the train station.

The train schedule to get home was nothing short of a nightmare. We had tickets already to get back to Spezia, so we did that. Upon our arrival there, we were lost as to how we returned to Florence. The ticket window was closed, as was the information desk. There was one operational machine to self-serve tickets (biglietta: "bee-lee-YETT-ah"). There was a long line full of impatient people behind some non-Italians struggling with the machine.

We commissioned a particularly fed up Italian woman to press all the buttons for us so that we would not delay people. She was more than happy to oblige. We had to take one train to Viareggio, then switch onto the train to Santa Maria Novella, our stop in Florence. The timing was absolutely perfect. We waited about 5 minutes for the train to Viareggio. When we arrived there, our train was scheduled to leave in 5 minutes. We got on, and it was delayed about 2 or 3 minutes, but left relatively promptly.

Three hours later from when we left Spezia, we were walking home in Florence, where the temperature had dropped considerably.

My hands are tired of typing, so this will do it for the details of our journey. More internet problems when we got home, but I have finally figured out the problem. Now it's just a matter of avoiding it. I will discuss that later.