Friday, May 12, 2017

Cruising the Caribbean - April 2017

April 2017 – Cruising the Caribbean

Saturday, April 8 – Introduction to San Juan

Everything was set. Erica and I were both flying direct from our home airports—me from Dulles and her from JFK—and the plan was to meet at the airport. Her flight was a little late, but I saw that it had landed while I waited at baggage claim. 15 minutes pass. Then 30. Okay, well we definitely texted this morning saying we were both past security and ready to begin this adventure. Please, God, tell me this girl found her way to the hotel. Of course since I couldn’t get a wifi signal at the airport, I couldn’t check email to see what had happened to her. So I grab a cab and spend the 15-minute ride hoping we can reconnect at the hotel. And like a pro, homegirl’s just sitting on a couch waiting for me so we can check in. Brilliant!

Because we spent enough time trying to find one another (and traveling down to Puerto Rico that morning), our room was ready at the historic Caribe Hilton just outside of Old Town San Juan. We had left cooler weather up north, so both of us wanted to change into shorts/lighter clothes before we wandered downtown. I looked up the name of the restaurant I remember passing the last time I was in San Juan that had a big plaque claiming to be the inventor of the Piña Colada. What I actually did was Google “inventor piña colada san juan,” and two names showed up. The first was the restaurant I was looking for called Barrachina and the second was the one and same hotel in which we were staying. Well okay then, let’s start out here by the pool, grab some lunch, and order…say…a pitcher of Piña Coladas from the outside bar! Because we weren’t acclimated to the 90-degree weather of the Caribbean, we needed something tropical to cool us off. Plus, we were now on vacation!

To accompany our pitcher of Piña Coladas, we also ordered some food to share. One thing we came across was a local favorite, a sandwich called a tripleta, or “triple” for the three types of meats: usually cube steak, ham, and pork (lechon). Our tripleta was fancified with pastrami instead of cube steak (because we were at a Hilton property—we’re not savages)! We also ordered some sort of plantain chip/deep-fried/pork cracklin’ deliciousness, so I feel we got off to a good start with the food situation. Neither of us had eaten much that day, so we most definitely shoved more food than necessary into our faces. The way I look at it, we needed to adjust to “vacation mode” by eating at least twice as much at every meal. After we completed our pitcher, we decided it was time to head downtown

I appreciate that when I travel with a woman most people generally assume we’re together. What threw me for a loop was when the cab driver asked us if we liked to party, like go out and have a good time late at night. The thought I had in my head was, “bitch, it’s an imperative that I have my pants off by 10:00pm!” That being said, it sounds like there are plenty of bars and dancing options for those who care to venture out for that type of frivolity. Erica and I hopped out of the cab right at the edge of Old Town, exactly where I was let loose in Old Town the first time, and picked a direction to wander off. Long story short, we did eventually find the other establishment, the restaurant called Barrachina, that claims to have created the Piña Colada and immediately ordered a couple. I was disheartened because I saw rows of frozen drink “slushy” machines filled with pre-made mixes. While that didn’t make the best first impression, I was more than happy with the end result (read: the bartender poured a crapload of rum into a glass and just dumped the pre-made mix on top).

Erica had heard several people mention the old fort, El Muro, and wanted to see it while we were down in Old Town. The hotel had told us it would be closing soon, but at least we got to the other side of the street from where you hike across the field to gain entrance into the historic site. Erica and I found a bench, because we’re old and it was hot. We sat there panting (really just sweating…a lot) and needed a quick break. Officer McHottie Pants was directing traffic right in front of us, so we just sat there going back and forth on how we could lure said officer of the law into our requisite lairs, so sayeth the spider to the fly.

Because we had eaten so much at our late lunch, there was no need for dinner by the time we got back to the hotel. We knew we needed one last rum drink to close out the evening, so we found the hotel’s central bar and ordered a couple of rum and cokes. Because we had hoofed it through Old Town San Juan that day, we decided tomorrow we should sit by the hotel’s pool and lagoon for the morning and eventually meander to the cruise ship. Sitting by a pool for a couple of hours sounded like a great way to acclimate to vacation mode.

Sunday, April 9 – Cruise Day

Waking up early, we paid of an overpriced breakfast buffet at the hotel, since we gathered we wouldn’t really be paying for a lot of food over the course of the next week. Because then we asked the front desk if we could have a late checkout, we then sauntered over to the pool and lagoon area to find some chairs getting direct sunlight. I could’ve definitely spent more than a couple of days at the Caribe Hilton, though things were extravagantly expensive. I was glad we were only staying in this hotel for only one night, but I’m glad we started our vacation out this way.

We eventually cleaned up, after sipping iced vanilla lattes by the lagoon, and checked out of the hotel. Everything is within 15 minutes of one another on this part of the island, so it was a super quick to arrive to the cruise boat terminal. There was a Disney ship and our ship, the Jewel of the Seas, docked. They were both ridiculously large machines, but I knew they were only one-third the size of the latest super-cruise ships. We were only going to have something like a measly eight bars to choose from while onboard.

The registration process was fairly straightforward, since the cruise company had sent us rather detailed instructions on what to expect beforehand. Once onboard, we decided to explore the ship (with our personal ID cards for the ship, which we had picked up during check-in and includes our unlimited beverage package). We scoped out the multitude of bars onboard and quickly checked out the pool deck. Already crowded, it was clear this area would be the heart of recreation onboard. They often had YouTube-style video clips playing on a projection screen over the pool during the day, maybe a reggae band playing in the late afternoon (or when pulling out of port), and then a kid-friendly movie at night. I remember thinking I’d enjoy watching Storks or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

All was going smoothly until the required muster drill sounded (where you have to go stand at your designated spot in case lifeboats have to be lowered). There was an announcement over the loudspeaker 30 minutes beforehand telling everyone to get ready. During that time, the bars would be closed. Reasonable, I thought, though I still had 30 minutes to worry about this. At that very time I wanted another Patron pineapple margarita, and the bartender said they’d be open again after the drill and closed down in our faces. Oh HELL no—this boy needed cocktails in both hands for this exercise! Alas it wasn’t to be, and Noel and Erica had to go to the muster drill without cocktails.

Although dangerously sober by the end of the lifeboat drill, it was conveniently timed to conclude just as dinner was to be served. As we sat down at our table and was greeted by a handsome Indian waiter, I was disappointed that no one else showed up at our table that evening. We’d be placed with other families on future nights, so it left Erica and me to shovel as many dinner roles as possible before multiple courses started rolling by. The food in the main dining room was excellent every night, though the wine selection was sadly lacking. I asked our waiter for a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon to have with dinner, and his reply back to me was, “is Kendall Jackson okay?” <sigh>

Monday, April 10 – Finding the Jews of St. Thomas

The boat normally left port around five o’clock most days, and by the time we were up and dressed each morning we were docked at the next day’s port of call. The first day was St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Because it was formerly a Danish overseas territory, the street names are in Danish and they drive on the left-hand side of the road (the only American territory that does this). After getting turned around because I thought we’d be docking on the east side of the capital, Erica and I started walking in the general direction of downtown. It surprised me that signs were in miles and gas was measured in gallons (because Puerto Rico had signs in both miles and kilometers, but gas was definitely measured in liters). These bi-cultural islands had me all confused!

Our ultimate goal was to reach the oldest continuously running synagogue under the American flag, which is how the greeter at the temple ultimately framed it. There are older synagogues, but this one dates back to revolutionary times. Well, not exactly. The current building dates back to the 1830s, though there are relics in the building that date back centuries before then. It took us quite a while to actually locate the building, though it afforded us an opportunity to wander in downtown Charlotte Amalie. St. Thomas has a fair bit of high-end shopping, though the island itself is still developing and wasn’t particularly well looked after.

Once we finally found the building, the most noticeable thing about the interior was that sand covered the floor. A woman named Judith quickly greeted us, and we began talking about the history of the building. She explained that this wasn’t the only synagogue that had sand floors, others included synagogues in: Amsterdam, Barbados, Curaçao, and Jamaica. Judith told us the sand symbolized three things central to the Sephardic Jewish tradition: it was to remind the congregation of the River Jordan (this was river sand, which wouldn’t harm the building’s foundations), it harkened back to when Spanish Jews had to practice their faith in hiding during the Inquisition when countless Jews and Muslims were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the country (hence the emigration to what were then colonies more accepting to outsiders), and each grain of sand represented every blessing to the people, which also harkened back to the Sephardic Jewish tradition in their prayers. It was truly a great way to start this Caribbean adventure.

The other spot I wanted to check out while on St. Thomas was Creeque Alley, or better known as Creque’s Alley to the locals. Creeque Alley is the name of one of the 60s group Mamas and the Papas more famous songs, which starts out with “Joan and Mitchie were gettin’ king of itchy to leave the folk music behind…” Apparently they named this song after this area of town, which was originally a collection of alleys that connected the waterfront to the warehouses where goods from all ships (pirates included) were stored. I had just learned this while listening to an oldies station on my Sirius radio less than a week before the trip. So before we got off the boat, I Google mapped from the synagogue to where Google told me Creque’s Alley was. I found the main street, where all the high-end shopping was, and headed away from the dock. I turned uphill at what I thought was about the right spot, and a friendly shopkeeper hollered out to us, “what are you looking for?” I told her the name, but she didn’t recognize it. I told her I thought it was up that way, but she urged us not to continue that way since it got rather sketchy quickly after that. Another local woman saw that we were generally confused leaving the marina where the cruise boat was docked at the beginning of the day and happily pointed out the main road around the corner from where we were. While the people were certainly approachable and friendly enough, I was disappointed at how their capital hadn’t been kept up as much as I would’ve liked. This was also where the boats came into, so I’m sure other parts of the island are different. I heard from other cruisers who took a ferry over to St. Johns that it was lovely.

Erica and I hadn’t eaten since our gigantic breakfast, so we needed to see if the lunch buffet on the boat changed from yesterday’s assortment. The food choices did not disappoint, and to our delight there was a mini [adult] beverage station setup with wine, bear, and usually a basic rum-based cocktail. After filling ourselves until almost exploding, we wandered over to the pool area to check out what those afternoon activities were like with most guests onboard. I was surprised there weren’t any pool games, like volleyball or even trivia around the pool. Instead a projection TV showed loops of YouTube-like video clips. I guess I’m no longer part of the “in crowd,” as the Mamas and the Papas would put it. Speaking of which, as we were leaving port, a small tanker ship was blasting music. It took me a second to recognize it over (over the roar of our splendid poolside reggae band), but it was definitely the Mamas and the Papas blaring out their well-known hit, Monday Monday. While we weren’t able to revisit Creeque Alley, on a Monday late afternoon we got to enjoy the Mamas and the Papas again from our Caribbean boat neighbor.

Tuesday, April 11 – Visiting Hamilton’s Birthplace

I just assumed that the Alexander Hamilton craze had swooped into everyone’s lives, but our dinner partners the previous night proved me wrong. Three generations of a Birmingham, England family joined us for dinner and asked about our day and what the next day’s plans were. Erica and I were rather excited to take the local ferry over to Nevis, the sister island to St. Kitt’s, and see the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, the founding father that inspired the musical craze. This British family had no idea who we were talking about, so they wished us their best. I hadn’t researched this activity well, though I had found the ferry schedule to confirm we had the time in port to take the boat over. I’ll tell you, though, I was sure to bring my passport with me on this adventure, just in case we missed the boat and had to figure out the next step in our journey. With that said, Erica and I asked the information desk in port at St. Kitt’s how to find the ferry terminal. A short walk away, we found the ticket counter and fortuitously didn’t have to wait long for the next boat to depart. The ferry ride takes about 40 minutes and you pass the whole length of the island, which was larger than I expected since I was told this is the smallest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere.

After getting to port without incident at Nevis, I was surprised when we were accosted by taxi drivers outside the pier asking us if we needed a ride. “A ride to where,” I thought. Turning right outside the harbor area, we quickly hit the edge of town. Turning around and walking to the other side of town, we stumbled across the Museum of Nevis History (and birthplace of Alexander Hamilton). The Jews were spoken of positively here, mainly because they came up from Brazil at one point and modernized the sugarcane processing technology and made the whole industry on the island more efficient and profitable. The best thing about this museum: they had the Hamilton soundtrack playing on a loop. Because I only knew the Hamilton Mix Tape, I was surprised to see how different the actual soundtrack is. Another wild surprise while on this property: Erica and I saw a plaque outside on the gate’s exterior to the courtyard that acknowledged that the same English colonists there were on their way to settle Jamestown, back in 1607, stopped over on Nevis during their trip to the New World. Wow, what a cool little place!

Wednesday, April 12 – Sailed Off to Antigua (it was the third stop on our boat)

Before we talk about Antigua, I think it prudent to discuss the fact that I don’t know my Caribbean geography very well. I knew where a few islands were, but these southern Caribbean islands were rather mysterious to me, both in history and location. With that said, during the night we noticed we were passing just offshore of what I’d soon learn was Guadeloupe, one of the few remaining French overseas territories (the others being, to my knowledge, Martinique and half of St. Martin/Maarten). Antigua has other islands not far from it. It has its own sister island, Barbuda, which I’m told is more of an environmental sanctuary island. Be that as it may, I knew Erica was jones-ing for a beach…get it…Jones Beach? Sorry, it’s a Long Island reference, where Erica’s from. We were at least able to sit near one for a hot (and I do mean HOT) minute, but that was all we were allotted.

Doing our usual stuff-everything-in-your-face routine for breakfast, Erica and I wandered off the boat potentially looking for a guide. We quickly found Ashland LeBlanc, who’d become our tour guide for the day. He wasn’t young, but he still carried a young person’s exuberance in his personality. He spoke of worldly things, of traveling to China, but he was an orator first and foremost. Ashland told us that the name “Antigua” comes from Christopher Columbus’s second voyage, where he viewed the island said it looked old, or antique. I love it. He also told us that it was cheaper for Antigua to import its own food, though it had the fertility and ability to make it a self-sustaining island, if it needed to be one.

I could tell Ashland was proud of his island, and it was easy to see why. Unlike St. Thomas (we
didn’t get to see any part of St. Kitt’s besides the tourist port village), the Antiguans take pride in their buildings. We passed by beautiful dockside villages (reminiscent of something you’d find in upscale California boating communities), but even the more modest houses were well looked after and painted beautiful pastel colors that just worked with the magnificent coastal view wherever you turned. We got into Ashland’s passenger van with two older Canadian ladies, we’ll call them Ethyl and Alice. As we left the main port city, St. Johns, located on the northern side of the island, we took hilly roads across the island to Falmouth Harbor on the south side. One could spend a couple hours walking through the lovely harbor, but Ethyl and Alice were content in seeing things from the inside of a passenger van. I know then Erica and I were concerned about how the rest of the day would go. While we didn’t get to poke around the harbor too much, we did stop at Turner’s Beach on our ride back to the port town. There Erica and I both took our sandals off to put our feet in the pristine and mind-numbingly gorgeous water. Ethyl and Alice stayed in the shade and ate some fries, which made them happy. As we left the beach, Mariah Carey’s Always Be My Baby came on the radio. Yep, I could happily play in Antigua for a while. It was just the right size in that it didn’t take too long to cross from one side to the other, but it was large enough that were dozens of coves to explore.

It’s also worth mentioning that Antigua is within visual distance of Montserrat, a neighboring British overseas territory that had a dormant volcano suddenly shoot up flames in the mid-1990s. More than half of the island continues to be deemed an exclusion zone, so all island residents were ultimately granted UK citizenship, should they choose to leave. Something like 1,200 residents decided to stay behind and rebuild. That’s a story I need to hear more about.

Thursday, April 13 – St. Lucia and Antillean Creole

After getting a taste of a Caribbean beach the previous day, I knew that Erica really needed to get some beach time in soon. We had great luck with our spur-of-the-moment tour the previous day, so I was happy to find a tour that included some sort of island tour and beach time. We ultimately got sucked into a group deal to go to Marigot Bay, which was just up the coast from where we had docked. A small passenger boat took us out of the main harbor, past a Sandals resort, and dropped us off on the shores of a smaller bay. The other passengers on this boat with us were a Hispanic couple that didn’t speak much English and a family with two teenage boys from Raleigh, North Carolina. While we didn’t hang out with them much, I was happy to know we other families with us, just in case we all needed to get back to the ship later on. The driver of the smaller boat dropped us off at the dock, agreed on a time to come pick us up, and quickly left us. Well, okay then!

We quickly found a patch of beach and were just as quickly greeted by a small group of guys ever-so-conveniently renting out lounge chairs for the day. They were actually quite friendly and wandered around most of the time hawking cheap beer and coconut rum. This was actually the pushiest time we had on any island, though other families told us they had it much worse on other islands. As we napped and crept into the water when we were too hot, my favorite thing to do was to listen to the locals speak to each other. I knew that St. Lucia was part of the francophonie, or collective of French-speaking countries. Their French-based creole was just as unintelligible to me as the English-based creole we had heard the day before in Antigua. In fact, I could tell that it was a creole because I’d recognize various words if you listened hard, but they both sounded like the same language to me since they had the same rhythm and intonation. I only caught wind of what was being said when something like, “I don’t give a f*ck!” was added into the conversation. There were definitely times when an English creole was being used, so I found it interesting that both were used somewhat interchangeably. I read that this Antillean creole was mutually comprehensible with Haitian creole. Très intéressant!

Another couple I met on the beach that day told me they had taken a small bus there from our same cruise ship. They said the roads were not only in bad condition, but they were ridiculously winding and generally unsafe given the speed the driver was going. I never felt unsafe on the roads in Antigua, which had some hills to conquer, but St. Lucia was certainly a much more mountainous country. Taking the water taxi over and back from the cruise ship didn’t allow us to see any of the interior of the island, so I’d be happy to go back and actually explore. Plus, Martinique is only a ferry ride away.

One last thing I thought I’d share about our day on St. Lucia: I was awakened from a nap by the sound of “The Wobble” blasting out from a catamaran passing by with a group of people onboard. It looked like a booze cruise, so I couldn’t be too mad at all the people having a good time on a big, beautiful boat. The song reminded me that, while we all come from different places, we’re all very similar when we look at our wants and needs. The more I travel the more I realize how much more similar we all are to one another than different. It was a great way to be reminded.

Friday, April 14 – Good Friday

Now I’ve traveled enough to know that religious holiday weekends, like Easter, aren’t generally the best time to land in a new country. With that said, Barbados was a disappointment because nothing was open in town. This very much should’ve been our beach day, but we had already gotten royally burned the previous day. But I’m getting ahead of myself. By the time we got up each day, we were either already docked or coming into port for the next location. Barbados was rather unique because across the harbor was another ship, a smaller cruise ship called Freewinds. I didn’t recognize the cruise company’s logo, so I Googled it. Holy crap, this is a shipped owned by the Church of Scientology! Like, seriously! It was bought by the church in 1985 and is based out of Curaçao doing Caribbean voyages for the church to this day!

On another surprising note, we stopped in Barbados on Good Friday. Now I’ve been on trips in
Europe during holy weeks, but I was surprised to see how culturally observant the Bajans were to religious holidays. Erica and I had been to Barbados before, but we wanted to replay one wonderful afternoon that involved walking around a shopping center and (more importantly) eating fried fish. We found that shopping area easily enough, but then we were hopelessly lost trying to find the main area of downtown in order to go see another historic synagogue. This one being the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere (built in the mid-17
th century). Similar to other Jewish populations in the Caribbean, this synagogue was founded by Jews being persecuted by the Dutch during the Inquisition. Reference to Brazilian Jews coming up with newer manufacturing methods for sugarcane are also referenced on the synagogue’s website. Unfortunately, though we tried in advance to schedule a tour of the facility, we weren’t able to make that happen. Our cab driver did mention that a recent benefactor has provided $5 million in funding to vastly restore and update the whole complex. While small in stature, the building and surrounding areas looked clean and inviting. We at least were able to find the place (thanks to a local driver), take some pictures, and admire the fact that such a building exists in the southern Caribbean.

The rest of our time on Barbados was traveling around in a small passenger van up the west coast (where most of the developed areas are located, since it’s not the Atlantic-facing—and much windier—side of the island). Our driver wanted to show us the Rodeo Drive of Barbados where several internationally recognized celebrities keep mansions. Anyone from renowned sports celebrities (footballers that I hadn’t heard of) to Ricky Martin to, of course, Rihanna have homes on the island. Interestingly, Rihanna wanted to be at #1 Sandy Lane, which is [still] owned by a Russian Mafioso (or so says our taxi driver), so Rihanna simply built a penthouse on top of the existing building and lives there when she’s on the island.

Saturday, April 15 – Day at Sea

When we booked this cruise, I wished that the day at sea came at the beginning of the trip, just so we’d have that day to explore the boat and check out the activities onboard. With the day at sea at the tail end of the trip, it allowed us a day to truly decompress and try our mightiest not to think that the vacation was almost over and would have to go back to reality in the morning. I couldn’t remember what “hungry” felt like, and I didn’t remember how to buy food or drinks. Readjusting to real life again was going to be hard, but that just meant we had to come up with another adventure.

Speaking of drinks, the wine bar had signed us up for a wine tasting on this day at sea. That was an utter disaster because the presenter, the wine manager onboard the ship, hadn’t put together any kind of presentation and just spoke without much thought on whatever came to mind about the wine. I knew it was going to be bad when his first question was, “who can tell me the three grapes that comprise champagne?” Knowing this answer, I raised my hand and responded proudly, “Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.” To my horror, my “reward” for answering this question right was a full glass of moscato. That taught me to shut my mouth for the rest of the presentation. I tried pawning off this glass on someone, but no one at the table was willing to accept. While the wines were fine examples of their individual wine regions, there wasn’t really anything worth remembering from the whole experience.

Our plan was to check out a late afternoon bingo game (because why not), but the entry price was more than we wanted to spend. So instead Erica and I took a nap on some lounge chairs outside on the lifeboat deck, which was quiet and calming. Just as a Caribbean vacation should be. I wish the boat rocked more, but I do understand why they’d build these giant ships with stabilizers that jut out from the hull while the ship is moving. While our last day was relatively uneventful, that’s exactly how I wanted it to be. I miss the islands already, but there will always be other opportunities to get back.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sojourning Through Central Europe – December 2015

Sojourning Through Central Europe – December 2015

Friday, 25 December 2015 – Arriving to Prague

Every Christmas season I get nostalgic for the Christmas markets of Europe. My absolute favorite thing there is to get a cup of Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and a bratwurst while wandering around the market. While we had to go later in the season than was optimal, the Christmas markets didn’t disappoint. I also was reintroduced to some cities that I had visited last as a young adult, so I learned to appreciate them anew as someone with a “couple” more years under his belt on this trip. Overall, I’d say it was a big success: no one got sick, we experienced no crime, and we only lost each other for brief moments.

Months prior, we had made our travel plans. Since the tickets to Europe were significantly cheaper leaving out of New York rather than Washington, DC (both cities have direct routes to Vienna on Austrian Air), I bused up to the city and met my good friend, Erica, and Erica’s mom Alane right on time inside the terminal near our departure gate. The flight over wasn’t bad at all, and I was sure to take as much opportunity as I could for the complementary red wine offered. Speaking about those who like their booze, we met some new “friends” in Vienna’s central train station (Haubtbahnhof) that had been evidently up all night celebrating Christmas, because they were making all sorts of noises and screaming at one another. My German came back to me rather well when one girl was using every curse word I knew (and many that I didn’t) to call out at one of her party. Luckily security came and asked them to disperse, so we could wait for our train to Prague in relative peace, even if we were all sitting around like zombies getting off a red-eye flight to Europe.

The plan was this: take a direct flight into Vienna, immediately take a train to Prague to really start our adventure there, plane it to Munich (because the train would take too long), train it back to Vienna for New Year’s, and fly out the day after. It actually worked our rather well. Having already bought all the tickets, I knew where and when we needed to be for our travel plans. I figured we’d be wandering around like zombies that first day, so the plan was to get immediately to Prague because I figured nothing would be open Christmas day. As we’re checking into our hotel in Prague, the young guy checking us in told us that the Czechs celebrate on the 24th, so yesterday had really been the holiday. That was good for us, because more things were open (including their Christmas market).

After looking at a map, we generally pointed ourselves toward the two main squares of Prague, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. We found the latter first, which is where a lot of major department stores are located. Even more convenient was the fact that not only was their Glühwein, but it cost something like $2 per glass. I’m going to like this place! We wandered around there a bit, checking out the stalls, but I knew the main action was in Old Town Square. More or less following the flow of people, we made our way to Old Town Square, which was lit beautifully and had a musician on the main stage blasting Christmas carols out to everyone. Not only are Christmas markets great themselves, but when you place them in a setting like Old Town Square, you’re in for a real treat! For some reason I wasn’t super excited to come back to Prague, but almost immediately I fell back in love with the city. I could easily move there and spend the rest of my days getting lost in its labyrinthine streets.

While Czech is obviously the most popular language there, we never once had an issue with anyone not speaking at least a little English. The first time I went to Prague—back in the mid-90s—German was definitely was more useful, but now English was everyone’s preferred backup language. Regardless, we found an outdoor café right on one corner of Old Town Square and ate an awesome meal; I had schnitzel, of course. One of many to come. I mention that it’s an outdoor café because remember, it’s the end of December at this point; it’s supposed to pretty damn cold out! Not so much, at least not at the beginning of our trip. This café had space heaters, so we were perfectly comfortable eating schnitzel outside and watching the people meander around us. What a great way to start this journey.

We obviously slept like babies that first night, since we’d been up for over 24 hours at this point. Our hotel is worth mentioning, because it was a big surprise to us all. Walking in it didn’t look overly fancy, but nice enough that I wouldn’t have to question whether they had actually changed the sheets since the last guest. Our room had a loft with a large bed and second full bathroom upstairs, so that really helped us three adjust to living in relative small quarters, since the girls had their own space upstairs. I got the pullout couch downstairs, and if I could have somehow stolen this couch from the hotel I gladly would have. Instead of you taking the pillows off the couch and pulling the folded mattress out, you pulled forward on the back cushions of the couch, which made the back fold forward onto the couch’s seat. You then continued to pull forward allowing all of those cushions do a summersault onto the floor and magically a bed appears. Not only does this method get rid of that center bar constantly jabbing you in a normal pullout couch, but it’s one easy movement to either stow or unfurl the bed. Pretty neat.

Saturday, 26 December 2015 – Prague Castle

As I mentioned, the hotel we stayed at—a Sheraton property—was pretty decent. Breakfast the next morning formally showed me the caliber of service we were dealing with. Although the breakfast area was smaller than the rush demanded at times, the staff always kept their cool and even smiled at you! It was amusing to hear Erica and Alane’s comments about personal space (people just running into you) and the fact that no one provided American caliber customer service. But that’s not the focus here, back to breakfast. There was a juice and coffee bar, which included a super fancy make-your-own-espresso drink machine that I need in my life. Further back there was a collection of crusty breads, yogurt, sliced cheeses and meats, and an omelet bar. Yeah, I could be happy here. The routine ended up that we’d load up on a big breakfast, usually find a light snack out somewhere, and then find a local restaurant along our journey for dinner. It generally worked out rather well.

Given that I didn’t have a specific game plan in mind for Prague, I asked Erica and Alane what they wanted to do for our sole full day to ourselves in Prague. Erica suggested that we go to the Prague Castle, so that’s where we went. My favorite way to explore a new city is to wander around and generally point to a destination. If your destination is a castle on the top of a hill, it’s rather easy to orient yourself in that direction, even if none of the streets run in a straight line. As we got closer to the Charles Bridge, which we’d have to cross in order to get to the castle, it got as crowded as Times Square. By the end of the day, I was feeling a tad murderous, but for now I was soaking it all in. Really what I was doing was reacquainting myself with an old friend. I had been to Prague multiple times before this trip, and every time I had come I truly fell in love with the city. That was no different this time. In fact, I think I was the saddest leaving Prague than any of the other cities we visited. In other words, Prague’s the kind of city I could see myself moving to and never returning.

Once we hiked up to the castle, it was a big cluster just to find out where we buy tour tickets. We had about an hour before the tour, so I naturally gravitated to the handful of Christmas market stalls right outside the main gate and ordered a Glühwein. Erica suggested we three share a couple of bratwursts, which was a brilliant idea (as brats and wein go well together), but what she returned with surprised me. German bratwursts are a mild pork sausage, something akin to the morning breakfast sausages you’ve probably had at home on the weekends. The sausages that Erica brought back, however, were much more like a Polish kielbasa. It was an interesting regional variation worthy of note. I suppose it’s just a form of Slavic comradery with one’s neighbor. After eating our kielbasa, it was time to go meet our tour guide and get this tour started!

The Prague Castle (or “Prasky hrad” in Czech) is the current home of the country’s president, at least that’s true for the newer side of the complex. The castle wraps itself around a huge cathedral in the middle, the cathedral of St. Vitus, which holds the seat for the Archbishop of Prague (even if something like 80% of the country considers itself atheist). We met our tour guide, Vaslav, and started in the cathedral, which has a great history. I won’t bore you with details here, but it’s interesting to note that the cathedral itself wasn’t completed until the 20th century. One of the more modern additions is a stained glass window painted by an early 20th century artist named Alfons Mucha. After a lap around the church and going down into the crypt, we made our way into the castle itself. Two things stand out during our tour here: 1) a woman asked what the big ceramic boxes were, and I knew right away that they were heaters for the large rooms because my mom had shared this piece of trivia with me the weekend before in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 2) In a smaller room just off of the royal chapel, we saw the window where two Catholic regents were thrown out by means of defenestration that started the Thirty Years War. The view from the window of the city below is quite nice, though I imagine less so if you’re being pushed out from said window.

That night, after we had walked what felt like for eons, we wanted to grab dinner close to the hotel. Yelp worked just fine for us, and we found a local restaurant just around the corner. The menus were in Czech, German, Russian, and English. Nonetheless, I was able to use one of my handful of Czech words: “pivo” (beer). Instead of a fried pork chop like the previous night, I had a grilled pork chop smothered in a creamy green pepper sauce. God I love Central European food! More interestingly, though, was what the family next to us ordered. It was a couple, one of their mothers, and their younger child. Everyone except the kid had beers in front of them, and the family ordered what looked like the entire bone-in shoulder of a pig. They collectively and happily ate off of this giant hunk of animal. That was something to see.

Sunday, 27 December 2015 – Terezin/Theresienstadt

One of the suggestions my mom had made before going on this trip was to go see Theresienstadt, or Terezin as it’s known in Czech. Named after Maria Theresa (because it was originally built during her reign), it originally was a rather expansive fortress that cut off the one valley that the Prussians could have used to infiltrate into Austro-Hungarian lands. This was at a time when the Protestant Czechs had been rebelling against the very Catholic Austro-Hungarian rulers in Vienna, and I believe our tour guide also mentioned that Bavaria had temporarily succeeded from the empire at about this same time too. So Maria Theresa was keen on holding onto any and all land claims at that point and needed to “protect” them from outside invaders. But that’s not why Erica, Alane, and I wanted to tour Terezin. During World War II, Terezin was turned into a sort of concentration camp for Czech Jews.

To be clear, when I say concentration camp, I don’t necessarily mean extermination camp. And that’s the first surprise I had once we got to the compound. Our tour guide for the day, Pavel (another great Slavic name), dropped us off at a sort of art museum that greeted us with children’s drawings from those who were living in the camp. While there were scenes of ugliness, the pictures generally showed a society working. The Nazis weren’t explicitly killing the Jews here—at least not at the beginning—but were rounding them up to remove them from Czech society. Pavel started our tour by painting the picture, since it was a question of identity. What I’m asking is: what does it mean to be a Jew in Czechoslovakia during the time leading up to WWII? The society itself wasn’t very areligious, just like the Jews. According to Pavel, the Jews were more integrated into society than most other countries in Europe at that time, so it was even harder to remove them and send them away.

In Terezin, there was a functioning Jewish government led by upper class Jews, professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and professors. There were research health clinics and significant arts projects going on all the time. That’s not to say the Jews were free to move about and do as they please. Terezin was a kind of social experiment to see how the Jews would react to certain stimuli. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for instance, came by at one point for an inspection. As you’d imagine, everything was planned out to the smallest detail to make it look like the Nazis were, in fact, treating the Jews within these confines respectfully. One way or another, the ICRC bought it. Walking around the town now it’s eerily quiet, only because the few local residents are living in government housing.

The other side of Terezin, the side that scholars have historically called a political prisoner camp, is much more dreadful. That’s where the incinerators are, for instance. We walked around a small prison with a couple dozen bunk rooms where political prisoners were held. While traditionally it was thought that this population never comingled with the Jewish population, according to Pavel a handful of Jews would be sent over for “entertainment” purposes for the Nazi officers running both installations. An example of this would be to hold a Jew at one end of a long-ish courtyard. Along the side of the courtyard Nazis would be setup with their rifles. The Jew would be told that if he could run the length of the courtyard and survive, he’d be allowed to go back to his family in the village. Few survived the gauntlet, but if they did they were beaten to death, either by Nazis or the prisoners of the camp while the Nazis looked on. Other examples of this could be shared, but suffice it to say we left our tour of Terezin on a more somber note than we had coming into the experience.

Since it was our last night in Prague, Alane wanted to get some night pictures of the Christmas market in Old Town Square. We wandered along until we found an Italian restaurant right in the middle of the tourist section of the city, but we welcomed it after eating fried pork chops steadily for multiple days now. Things were surprisingly cheap in Prague. Glühwein, for example, was less than half of what it was going to be in the other cities we visited. Our collective bill for dinner was something like $30 for the three of us, except we had a problem. The restaurant didn’t accept credit cards, and we didn’t have enough koruna to pay the bill. Not a problem for our server, however! We paid what we could in koruna and then threw in the rest in euro and were set! Not only did the server do the math in his head, but his English was rather good. In fact, I was surprised at how much English was spoken throughout our time in Prague. There was only one time when we stopped for a bathroom break did the bathroom attendant, who was of an older generation, prefer German to English to communicate with foreigners.

Monday, 28 December 2015 – Hofbräuhaus

I was sad to leave Prague. I wasn’t very excited to go back there at the beginning of this trip for some reason, but after walking across the Charles Bridge I was hooked again. You could leave me there for the rest of my days without a bit of remorse on my part. The streets wind in all sorts of directions, and I like that Czech uses the Roman alphabet so I can randomly pick up words from signs. With that said, though, we had an adventure to continue! Flying from Prague to Munich, we heard all sorts of languages on the train and in the airport. We had a hotel car, an E class Mercedes, take us to the airport—“the only cab I’m ever going to ride in from now on” Erica told me.

Once we arrived to our hotel, about a block away from Munich’s main train station, we wandered our way to Marienplatz, the main square of Munich. This has been the main square of Munich since the 12th century, and just like then a lot of commerce happens there. As luck would have it, the Hofbräuhaus, one of Munich’s best known beer halls, was just on the other side of the plaza. We found a communal table in the back, ordered some beer and some snacks, and enjoyed taking it all in. One of the things that Munich is known for is Weißwurst, or white bratwursts. They come to you in a clear broth in a white and blue ceramic bowl. We had to have some of those, and we had to order a giant pretzel from the pretzel lady. While the beer and food were good, I couldn’t help feeling like this was a tourist trap. I thought to myself that we’d need to ask the hotel’s concierge for a more “authentic” dining experience for tomorrow. We had a couple days here, so I wasn’t too worried.

After getting back to the hotel, we decided to grab a drink at the hotel’s bar. Checking in I already knew that the caliber of service at this hotel was going to be phenomenal, so when Erica ordered a Pinot Grigio, I asked our server whether Germany grew any Pinot Grigio. Without skipping a beat, she said yes, but explained that it had a different name in German—Grauburgunder. I later learned that “grigio” means grey, which is the hue the grape takes on as it ripens, and that it’s a mutant variety of Pinot Noir, which is where the Burgundy reference comes into play. Having worked at a winery in Northern Virginia for 2½ years, I thought I knew my stuff. But really there are whole other wine worlds out there that I have barely the faintest knowledge about. Is that the universe telling me that I should be drinking wine professionally? But how? Or maybe it was just the booze talking.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015 – City Tour of Munich

Since neither Erica nor Alane had been to Munich before, I suggested that we play tourist for the day and buy one of those day passes where you can hop on and off a sightseeing bus that goes around the city. We found the closest bus stop easy enough and loaded onto our double-decker. After passing by the museum district on the western side of the city (with enough museums to rival the Smithsonian collection in Washington, DC), we decided to hop off at the Residenzmuseum (residence of the Duke/King of Bavaria during Hapsburg rule). It’s a palace smack dab in the middle of the city, so we could hit anything else we liked afterward. The best thing I got out of this experience is the resilience of the German people. Whole wings of this palace had been bombed during WWII, but nevertheless the Germans recreated the interiors. This is what, I believe, art historians would call restoration rather than preservation. It allowed the observer to note how these rooms were decorated and adorned at that time, rather than trying to preserve what was left of the building after the bombings. There was one noted exception, however, in one of chapels/concert halls. They hadn’t stucco-ed the walls, leaving the brick exposed, and you could easily note where the original brick ended and restored brick began. It was a neat effect that showed the multiple iterations this building had gone through.

After the Residenzmuseum we were close to the English Gardens, the largest outdoor park in the city. It was a nice enough day for a stroll, but moving with any kind of speed proved to be too much for us, so we cut that outing short. Erica suggested that we find a café to sit and rest for a while, but the closest café to our bus stop was completely overrun inside and out, so we hopped on our bus again and returned to the main train station where we started. Erica and Alane were taking the street car (S-Bahn) out to Dachau the next morning, so we bought them train tickets and showed them where the track was so that they’d be able to find it the next morning. Easy enough, but we were all beat. It was mid/late afternoon by this point, so we walked the block or two back to the hotel. We left Alane in the hotel room for a while, and Erica and I [naturally] headed to the hotel’s bar for a drink or two before dinner.

There, after making a toast with our newly acquired drinks, Erica and a made a friend that called himself Steffan. Steffan was doing business in town, but he was from the town of Bitburg (home of Bitburger beer). His English was about as good as my German, so we muddled through using both in a vain attempt to chat. It apparently worked well enough that he offered to do a shot with us. He asked the bartender to pour three shots of something he called Borgman. After taking the shot, I’d describe it as something akin to a high-end Jägermeister. It was good, so I asked my new friend where I could find it. Apparently it’s a highly exclusive item that’s allegedly only available at very exclusive hotels. It’s a shame we’re not still in Prague because we had all sorts of liquor stores not far from our hotel that I’d be happy to scour to see if I could find something similar.

Alane found us, so we headed out to dinner. The hotel’s concierge had reserved a spot for us at local German restaurant where all the patrons sit at communal tables. We even got a bite of the freshly fried doughy dessert from the table next to us! Alane and I ordered—are you ready for this—some sort of pork chop that came with sauerkraut and a potato dumpling, while Erica got a roast beef-type dish that was equally amazing. I don’t know if it was the liter of beer I had or the shot of schnapps we sipped afterward, but I highly enjoyed my meal that evening. Our walk took us back to the hotel took us through Marienplatz again, which held several street musicians and all sorts of people just milling about. A lot of the shops were surprisingly still open, so we lost Erica in a multiple story bookstore at one point. No one necessarily bought anything, but we had the time to mill about and enjoy ourselves before calling it a day. Yeah, I was really enjoying Munich too.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015 – BMW World

The next morning we got up and had our delicious continental breakfast once again, but then Erica and Alane departed for their day trip. I was in no rush, but I eventually headed out to what I thought was the correct subway stop. Unfortunately, the line that I thought I could take directly to BMW World didn’t seem to go through the main train station. I looked up another line that appeared to connect to a third line that would work, but by the time I got to the connecting station, it was evident that connecting line only ran on certain days. Great. Amazingly enough, though, my Verizon cell phone allowed me to use GPS on it, even though it wasn’t connected to any data network. I had downloaded a city map of Munich on my phone back at the hotel, so I could easily look up a destination on the saved Google map and figure out how to get there. I had about 2km to get to my destination, which didn’t faze me one bit because I had my headphones and a map that would get me there. It worked like a charm.

Two kilometers later, I made it to BMW World. That requires a little bit of explaining. Bavaria’s Motor Works (BMW) is headquartered in Munich, and not only is there a factory at the headquarters, but also a museum and that newest addition to the collection: BMW World. If you buy a BMW stateside and arrange to have it picked up at the factory, you’d come to this very architecturally interesting showroom. Unfortunately there’s not much for the everyday person to see, so I headed over to the museum to check that out. While the museum was rather interesting with the information it shared, I feel the way it was presented had a lot to be desired. For one, the path that the visitor takes can potentially send you in circles, if you decide to vary from the standard path they’ve lined up for you. Another thing, and this is inexcusable in my book, is that all displays were presented in German and English. That sounds great, except the English captions were printed in white lettering on a light grey background with powerful lights shown directly on it. In other words, it was exceedingly difficult to read any of the signage in English. Not the smartest move from a German car company that prides itself on thinking of every minute detail.

After the museum experience, I hopped on the original subway line I thought I’d be taking and headed back downtown, this time heading for one of the three original gates to the city walls. I remember seeing on our bus tour the other day a victuals market (Viktuellsmarkt) nearby that sounded interesting. As our tour guide had stated, the English word “victuals” means everyday grocery items, which is what this market appeared to be. Apparently the original wording described raw ingredients for beer production, which I suppose was an everyday foodstuff in Europe many years ago. Interestingly, once I got to the market, there was a large May pole that included the word “Reinheitsgebot,” which is the original German beer purity law stating that only barley, hops, and water. This law dates back to 1516, right around the time the North American continent was being discovered and explored. Since I already had my music blaring, I just wandered around to see what types of goods were being sold. Beyond farmer’s market-type goods, there was the requisite Glühwein stall, but I settled for the beer stall that was selling ½-liters of Löwenbräu for something like €3.50. Add a Weißwurst to the mix and my lunch cost me something like €5, adult beverage included! It was difficult to gather whether or not the foodstuffs at the market were a good deal because weights were measured in kilos, so everything appeared to be priced twice as much as I’d expect. Regardless, it was a neat experience to actually experience the market where beer was decreed into being and whatnot. On the way back to the hotel for meet Erica and Alane after their trek out yonder, I stopped off in the German equivalent to Macy’s, called Kaufhof. I remembered these stores from when my family and I lived in Germany some twenty years before this, so it was neat to see they were still around. Clothes and shoes seemed expensive, but housewares were rather reasonable. I bought some souvenirs and a 2016 calendar just because I could.

Since we had such a good time at German restaurant the night before, we asked our concierge to setup another reservation for a local favorite, and he did not disappoint! This time we went to a veritable German beer hall called the Augustiner Keller (cellar of the Augustine monks). Let’s just start with the fact that the logo of this beer hall states that it had been founded in 1328. The staff were surprisingly bubbly, even though things were always hectic in there. We nevertheless found a table and quickly had beers in hand. Schnitzel was on taps for us (clearly), and the service was quick and friendly. The only hiccup we had was when the table had been cleared and we asked for the check. Our server was clearly busy with other tables, but finally she came over, dropped off a tray of empty Biersteins, and pulled our tab out of her bra. Once we had settled up, Erica told me that it had been worth the wait just to experience that moment. Priceless.

Thursday, 31 December 2015 – The Hills Are Alive With…ABBA

One of my favorite things in Europe is their rail system. The first day we got here we took a train to Prague, but we all slept as best we could on the train, so I don’t really count that experience as anything more than getting from Point A to B. Leaving Munich, sadly, we walked the block or two to the train station, easily found our train, and got situated for the 4-ish hours it takes to get to Vienna. While I should have probably guessed, this train line goes through Salzburg and ultimately ends in Budapest. Salzburg was discussed when we first started planning this trip, but something had to get cut to make the whole thing manageable. I told Erica we’d just have to come back so we could skip through the fields belting out “The hills are aliiiiiiiiiiiive!” Traveling through the countryside made me feel at home, since as a child we took so many road trips. I loved seeing the small villages (always with a church steeple) whiz by with their terracotta roofs a stucco/plaster buildings. That hadn’t changed since before I was born, but one thing that did pop out as relatively new were the number of solar panels on most buildings. I wish these panels were as prevalent in the United States, especially in the southwest.

We easily grabbed a taxi from the Vienna main train station, where we had started this whole adventure a week before. Unbeknownst to us, our hotel was located a few blocks away from the Wiener Riesenrod, the wildly popular Ferris wheel I had seen as a child after taking my first overnight train to Vienna from Würzburg. The subway stop is called the Prater Stern, which used to be a rather Jewish neighborhood before WWII. (The Ferris wheel, incidentally, was designed and build for Franz Joseph I’s golden jubilee in 1897.) While our hotel wasn’t anything to write home about, it did give us easy access to downtown via two different subway lines that went through that station. We didn’t stay long in the neighborhood because, for one, not many things were open on account of it being New Year’s Eve, and also because we knew we only had a limited time in Vienna so we got downtown as quickly as possible. And boy, were we happy to check out the New Year’s festivities!

You could hear the music pumping from the subway station as walked out onto Ratzkellerplatz. This is the site of the biggest Christmas market (which was still going on) in Vienna, so we quickly found some Glühwein and Kartoffelnpuffen (potato pancakes) to tide us over until dinner. Aside from the castle-like façade of the city hall and the air filled with magic because of the holiday and the fact the Christmas markets were still open, the best thing about this whole scenario is the fact that an ABBA cover band has been playing on the main stage this whole time! Yes of “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia” fame. Of COURSE we’re going to celebrate New Year’s in Europe with an ABBA cover band! The whole stage was sponsored by a local radio station, so I enjoyed hearing the announcements and commercials. Again, you could’ve left me in any of these cities. Have I mentioned that yet? After ABBA finished, we walked around the market. We stuck around to hear the start of a Stevie Wonder cover band, but the lead singer obviously couldn’t cut it in the States and is trying his luck in Europe. So we decided to wander nearby to see about some dinner.

After several nights of fried pork chops, I think we all could take a break to something else we all like: pasta. The quality of pasta in Europe, at least in the cities we hit, was phenomenal. This restaurant, in particular, had a great staff that was remarkably friendly with excellent English. In fact, we asked one of our servers about the pig-shaped ceramic mug in which we had received our Glühwein, and he matter-of-factly responded (as any good Austrian would), “Why, it’s the pig that’s rooting around in the Earth to find you good luck for the coming year!” and left it at that. Alrighty, well there you go. Now one of the four mugs I had collected from various Christmas markets is now shaped like a pig. That’s actually pretty cool, if you nerd it up for booze like I do!

The rest of the night was rather uneventful, except for all the people setting off fireworks outside our hotel window all night long. Let me take a step back: we were getting pretty damn cold out there listening to mediocre Stevie, so we took the subway back to the hotel. I figured we’d get either an MTV or a CNN that would have some sort of New Year’s program, but not so much. We found a TV channel that was airing an Aerosmith concert…and that was about it. Aerosmith it is. While Steve Tyler looks awful and scary, he can still belt out some music for the fans! After Aerosmith we saw some Katy Perry concert, and let me just say homegirl cannot perform live. She sounded awful! So after an hour of Katy, we had had enough. Luckily was almost midnight, so what did we do? We found some local, German language countdown show (Lederhosen included) and counted down with the live studio audience. It was a strange situation, but we celebrated with some bubbles I had bought at Kaufhof a couple days ago just for this moment. Here’s to 2016!

Friday, 1 January 2016 – Last Day in Country

With only one full day left on the European continent, we wanted to make the most of it. Except we hadn’t factored in one small detail: a lot of things were closed because it was New Year’s Day. Ironic how we thought we’d have that problem at the beginning with no such issue, while it wasn’t planned for at the end, and that’s when we wanted to really maximize our time in Vienna. Oh well, rolling with the punches is one of the first lessons you’ve got to learn while traveling. So we did some online research (thanks to all of these hotels having wifi) and realized that two major points of interest were open that day, the Schönbrunn Palace and Mozart’s house. Away we went!

We had tried to gather some information about tour times and the costs of admission on the Schönbrunn’s website, but that wasn’t very helpful. We arrived in the late morning thinking that there’s most likely be a tour at the noon or early afternoon hour. Nope! Not until 3:30 that day, so we did our own self-guided tour with handheld audio devices. While the information for each room was good, the tour was setup in a way that seemed haphazard. First you’d walk into the private study of Franz Joseph, then there’d be an impossibly-too-ornate-to-describe room that Maria Theresa had created as homage to her parents, then there’d be a room where some feeble heir died. They were all named Franz-Karl or Max-Anton, so who could keep up? I think my exacerbation with the tour came up because there was nothing at the beginning to put all of this into perspective. I’m sure it’s me as the lazy, fat tourist expecting this, but with such a magnificent home and a building so crucial to centuries of history, it would’ve helped me understand what we were looking at. I guess I’ll just have to go buy a book.

After successfully navigating out to Schönbrunn, we were equally successful directing ourselves to Mozart’s house. It was situated in the oldest part of town, right near the city’s main cathedral. This area would’ve been a joy to wander around for a day or two, if any of the shops or cafés were open. Oh well, we found our street and museum without much of an issue. Mozart lived in this house for only a few years, right at the height of his success, mostly due to the fact that he liked to bop around Europe moving every few years. I can appreciate that, since I like to bop around every few years too! In this house, Mozart created scores most notably for The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute, though I believe it was the former that received a much greater reception when it debuted in Prague than in Vienna. This was a good reminder to illustrate that Prague and Vienna have been so closely linked for centuries. The apartment itself wasn’t too flashy. It was located in a building with multiple similar apartments on each floor, which have now been turned into a museum explaining the life and times of Mozart. What I liked about seeing the actual space was what it would’ve looked like in Mozart’s time, particularly the views out to the city surrounding the building. I liked that those views hadn’t changed much.

With not much else on our docket, Erica wanted to go back to the Christmas market we had seen the night before for one last time around (read: we needed more Glühwein). Actually, in all seriousness, I think Alane wanted one of our pig mugs, so her daughter was nice enough to oblige and have another drink just so mom could get her mug. The toils of being the daughter! Right near the subway stop stood a cute little café. What sealed the deal for me is that they were advertising Schnitzel on the chalkboard outside, so I suggested we check it out for our last dinner in Vienna. While Alane ordered goulash (something that was featured just about everywhere), Erica and I had to have our Wiener Schnitzel, and boy howdy was it good! What struck me about this experience was the general pleasantness of our server. She was a happy, quick-on-her-feet kind of lady, and I would’ve happily chatted with her about what she’s seen working right next to City Hall for God knows how long. A great meal to finish off the adventure. Vienna, you represented yourself well on this trip.

Saturday, 2 January 2016 – An Epic Trip Back (and Epilogue)

Although I got an email from the travel agency that had booked our plane tickets that the plane had been delayed, we taxied to the airport and found that everything was on time. The flight was back was surprisingly easy, though they’ve implanted this new electronic customs questionnaire procedure at JFK that made things unnecessarily chaotic. I’m not exactly the quickest on my feet, both literally and figuratively, after sitting in a tin can for ten hours. After gathering our bags and getting through customs, it was time for the Nadels and Noel to part ways. I was concerned about making my bus connection down to Virginia, so I scurried onto the New York subway to get into the city. Of course I boarded a local train (not an express), but I [barely] made it onto my bus before it left. Another 4 ½ hours of sitting in a tin can! Yay! That part of the journey was rather unpleasant, mostly due to the fact that the woman sitting next to me crammed me up next to the freezing window the entire journey back. But we made it home as planned, and I passed out immediately on my bed.

Ultimately I’d say this was a rather successful adventure. My friends got to experience that part of Europe for the first time, and I rediscovered my love of German culture. While it may be a while before I go back again to that part of the world, I know I’ll be back because it’s so wonderful. Erica really wants to hit Neuschwanstein, and I suggested that we tack on a trip to Prosecco while we’re playing in the Alps. I imagine a trip like that could be planned rather easily. But really, and I’ve said this all along, I could’ve spent weeks/months/years in any of these cities. Not only are they all great walking cities, but they all have such wonderful day or weekend trips from the city center that you could do to explore the greater areas surrounding them. What I also appreciated on this trip was the shared history that all of these cities had with one another. The Hapsburg Empire ruled for centuries and really brought together quite disparate groups of people under one crown. That Maria Theresa knew what she was doing. Now that this trip is over, it means I need to start planning the next one.

Navigating Napa - May 2015

Navigating Napa - May 2015

5/23/15 – Trekking Up Knob Hill

Some time ago my friends Lauren, Jesse, and I decided to maximize the opportunity and spend some time in the San Francisco Bay Area on account of Jesse having a conference in the city for work. Jesse, a newly minted Physician’s Assistant (PA), had a work conference in downtown San Francisco for a number of days. While he, his wife Lauren, and myself had all been to San Francisco before, Lauren’s mom Diane had not. We all thought it’d be a great opportunity to take this motley crew the West Coast for a week or so. Man did we have a good time!

I arrived without incident to the San Francisco International Airport a couple hours after my friends. Once I threw my luggage in our hotel room just off of Union Square, Jesse and I decided to take a walk and let the girls take a nap. We ended up hiking up Knob Hill, smack dab in the middle of the city. This gave Jesse and me opportunity to reorient ourselves in a city we both have grown to love. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped as at a neighborhood crêperie for a snack. While enjoying the afternoon sun and sipping on a beer, I heard a distinctive, “Noel?” Oh hell, who knows me in this city? It turned out to be my weekend job’s (I work at a winery in Northern Virginia on the weekends) general manager/winemaker’s step-son, who evidently moved out to San Francisco six months ago to study at a local film school. What a crazy reaffirmation that it’s a small world!

While walking downhill to the hotel, Jesse offered up another positive reaffirmation to me: “this is exactly what I wanted to do this afternoon,” he says. What a great way to start a vacation. That night, the four of us ventured out into the Mission, which is San Francisco’s hipster/trendy neighborhood. My crew and I were in search of a restaurant called Gracias Madre (the madre, in this instance, isn’t the woman that birthed you, but rather Mother Earth). This is a vegan, Mexican restaurant. While I thought the food visually was appealing, my black beans were a little flat (on account of no fat back). With that said, it astonished me to see the variance in restaurant patrons: you have the local hipster neighborhood kid (more likely to be gay than not), men in formal business attire, as well as families with children that happily eat vegan food. I don’t know a better way to sum up San Francisco than that!

5/24/15 – Chinatown

The next morning, the girls and I decided to go on a walking tour of nearby downtown. We wanted to take Lauren’s mom, Diane, through Chinatown. While Diane’s familiar with the sizeable Chinatown in Philadelphia, the Chinatown in San Francisco is its own experience. I remember once, after eating at a great little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, my server kindly informed me that they only accepted cash. I figured I could find my way to an ATM pretty easily, but after realizing that no one on the street spoke English, I found a U.S. Post Office building (thinking that federal employees must speak English, right?) Apparently not. After wandering around for multiple blocks, I did find a cash machine and made it back to the restaurant. That story illustrates the cultural homogeneity of the neighborhood.

So Lauren and I take Diane through Chinatown. We all found some amusing souvenirs at various shops, but the fun began when we decided to stop and grab a snack. We stood in line for a local bakery, but then we discover they don’t have one of the specific things we’re looking for, so I’m sent into the restaurant next door to find some steamed bao (vegetable or meat-filled buns). I found my favorite, a shredded port-filled balloon of dough, and happily bought it for less than $1. I got outside to share in my trove of goodies, and so I reached inside the bag for my pork bao. Evidently, the shop keeper asking me if I wanted the bun “cold” should’ve translated to “uncooked.” I was holding a ball of raw dough, probably some not-quite-cooked pork, all on top of a banana leaf ready to share. Yeah, that didn’t turn out quite as expected.

We did have some delightful sesame-coated bread balls, so not all was lost. We met Jesse at the Ferry Building, a short walk through the center of town from Chinatown. The Ferry Building, interestingly enough, is where you can pick up multiple ferry lines that take you throughout the greater San Francisco Bay. Our destination is the coastal town of Sausalito, in Marin County, on the north end of the bay. Before going there, however, a note about the Ferry Building itself is in order. My first encounter with the Ferry Building was in the summer when there are farmers’ markets that wrap around the entire building. Picture an old-school train station complete with art nouveau architectural elements throughout. The building faces out into the bay with the Port of Oakland facing back at you. To the north along the water are various warehouses, and you can eventually get to Pier 39/Fisherman’s Wharf after a bit. Equally distant to the south of the building is the righteously impressive Bay Bridge. This whole area in downtown San Francisco is known as the Embarcadero.

From the Ferry Building, we took a 20-minute or so boat ride over to North Bay and disembarked in the town of Sausalito. My first impression was that it’s rather crowded, since a lot of people are trying to fit into not a lot of sidewalk space. We found a higher-end restaurant that served generally American food, though with well-timed and informative service by the restaurant staff. I was craving a burger and a beer, though in retrospect I probably should have chosen something more like Diane’s Coq au Vin, which she shared later that it was her favorite meal of our trip. The couple square blocks of Sausalito are unremarkable in that there’s not much going on, and beyond the touristy shops and handful of cafés and restaurants, the only remarkable thing about the area is the fact that hundreds of beautiful homes dot the hills that soar upward from the coast.

The ferry ride back to San Francisco was relaxing, though cold. The waves roll you back and forth, and if you stand outside you can smell the rather frigid Pacific Ocean on just the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. The boat stops at Fisherman’s Wharf for passengers to get out, but we stayed on the boat to return to the Ferry Building, since our hotel was [relatively speaking] within walking distance of that stop. That night we hit up a hole-in-the-wall noodle house where everyone could get a plate of noodles of their choice. It was rather cheap, quick, and a perfect way to end an eventful day in San Francisco. I knew we had another day planned for tomorrow, which excited me because I’d get to see some good friends out in East Bay.

5/25/15 – East Bay Mexican Food

While in the city, I had a couple of friends who lived in the area that I wanted to see. One couple, Brian and Meghan, live in Walnut Creek. Brian went to Berkeley for undergrad, so I figured we could generally meet around there and wander around campus. It was decided that I’d meet them in Walnut Creek for lunch, and then later we’d head over to campus to walk around. I was hoping that some of my travel buddies would want to join along, but this was the day they decided to take Diane to Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park. Since I had no need to be there, it made the most sense that we could all just meet up for dinner later in the day. As luck would have it, a friend from grad school, Maggie Peters, was willing to drive up the two hours from Monterey and meet us in Berkeley for our wander around campus.

Before that trek, however, a note should be thrown out there about Mexican food. I’m a big fan, and as I’ve shared this with Brian and Meghan on past visits, Washington, DC doesn’t generally have good Mexican food. Brian remembered this and decided to take me to one of their favorite local Mexican places not far from Walnut Creek. I’m especially a fan of Californian Mexican food (think Tex-Mex, except Cali-Mex) after having visited my aunt and uncle years ago in the San Diego area. We went to their neighborhood Mexican place for dinner one night, AND IT WAS THE BEST MEXICAN FOOD I HAD EVER EATEN…including what I’ve had in Mexico! Anyway, lunch was good, but the trek around Berkeley was fantastic.

Brian, Meghan, and I met up with my friend Maggie in downtown Berkeley right near campus. After wandering a couple blocks into the main drag where all the college stores are (used CD stores—yes they still exist—college gear store, etc.), we went through campus to essentially make our way to the other BART station in Berkeley, since that’s where a lot of the nicer bars and restaurants are. On our way through campus, two things of note come to mind: 1) walking through a eucalyptus grove with Maggie at my side (having this girl next to me while inhaling the heavenly aroma of these old trees was amazing), and 2) getting an opportunity to check out the view from the top of the Campanili. Modeled after a similar structure in Venice, Berkeley’s Campanili was a gift to the university by a female benefactor at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, it was 1915, because they were celebrating their 100th year while we were on campus. I liken the experience of seeing out of the top of the Campanili to that of going up to the top of the Washington Monument—it really allows you to get a bearing of your environment and see what’s around. One thing I need to do on my next trip to the Bay Area to go wander around commercial downtown Berkeley, it looked like a decent place to check out.

Since the 25th happened to be Memorial Day, the final adventure for the day was the most fitting. My travel buddies and I decided to meet up in the Castro, which is the gayborhood of San Francisco. I had a fantastic time walking around getting to the Castro from East Bay, which included learning of a restaurant called the Meat Factory. After mentioning this to Diane, Jesse, and Lauren, we decided to have dinner there. On our way down the main drag (pun intended), I started hearing Aretha Franklin playing: “we’re goin’ ridin’ on FREEEEWAY of love in my pink Cadillac…!” While I fully support the playing of Aretha at any time, I was wondering where the music was coming from. Not long after did we see a guy dressed in a proper Army uniform dancing on a corner with his boom box blaring the Queen of Soul. I’d call him a street performer, but really he was just dancing at an intersection, and happily danced with anyone who would come over to celebrate Memorial Day with him. After wandering through the Castro a bit, this made me fall in love with San Francisco all over again. That was, in fact, also the moment when Diane discovered her love for San Francisco, The way she put it, Union Square is like downtown Philadelphia: there’s an abundance of homeless people and the city isn’t particularly clean. Walking from Golden Gate Park (via the Haight) to the Castro, Diane discovered the real personality of San Francisco.

5/26/15 – The Golden Gate Bridge

Few things are more iconic than the Golden Gate Bridge. Beyond something like the Statue of Liberty, nothing signifies a city more than this magnificent structure. After playing in the city for a few days, it was time to start our journey up to wine country (hallelujah!) Needless to say, Diane and I were excited to get up there and check out some amazing wine, but before that there were plans to stop off in an equally amazing place called Muir Woods (named after John Muir, the naturalist and explorer who essentially created the National Parks system). I had been here before, but this time it was like coming back to an old friend that was just as loveable and radiant as ever. I was concerned, given the current long-term drought that’s hitting California, that Muir Woods wouldn’t be as spectacular. But really it was just as amazing, and I discovered new trails I hadn’t been on before during this trip.

I have to come clean: the real reason we came to Muir Woods wasn’t to show anyone the spectacle that it is, though that was a nice side-effect. The real reason we showed up here is because Tyler Florence, a well-known celebrity chef on the Food Network, had shared that his favorite grilled cheese of all time was at their small restaurant. We all bought the Tyler Florence combo, which included a sandwich, cup of tomato basil soup, and a drink. They make the sandwiches to order, and I must say that my sandwich was pretty damn good! What made it special for me was the fact that they had hunks of a Brie-like cheese added in for the gooiness factor, and then the [sourdough] bread had roosted pumpkin seeds in it, which gave the whole thing an added crunchy texture that wasn’t expected. Ultimately, I’d say our trip to Muir Woods was successful, though I’d love to hear Diane’s thoughts of the place—was it as spectacular as it was for me my first time there?

Getting to Santa Rosa, the county seat for Sonoma County, we decided to explore “downtown” Santa Rosa (as it is), for a bite to eat. We landed on a Chinese restaurant, which didn’t have a soul in its dining room when we entered. This is a tell-tale sign, though this experience taught me that nothing is for certain; a restaurant with an empty dining room can still produce some stellar entrées. Diane and I both had stellar meat-based Chinese dishes, whereas Jesse had a plate of greens (and sautéed garlic) and Lauren had a fried tofu dish that was divine. Jesse and Lauren left us to visit the used bookstore across the street, so Diane and I ordered another carafe of wine to start our adventure in Sonoma. That night we played Cards Against Humanity (Diane’s first time) and drank more. Traveling is fun, especially when you can let loose with your traveling companions. I think we all needed a breather to enjoy the next day’s adventure.

5/27/15 – Crossing Into Napa

Our first real wine exploration day is here! After stopping by Target and acquiring far too much wine already, it was time to show these folks the beauty that is Napa. The first place I wanted to hit was the Mumm tasting room, which I had taken my parents to years before. Mumm is just down the road from St. Helena, which is centrally located in the valley both north-to-south and east-to-west. To get there we had to travel on a two-lane road over the hills that separate Napa and Sonoma Counties, which dropped us on the northern end of the county near Calistoga. Pretty immediately you’re then driving through rolling hills of vineyards with the sun shining brightly down. Yeah, it’s a good way to start.

To actually get to the Mumm tasting room, you have to go through their retail space, which just puts you in the right mood (having to wade through cases of sparkling wine to then drink the stuff, I’m okay with that). The tasting room itself is outside, and a server comes over to explain the procedure. Like any fine dining restaurant, there’s a great utilization of timing to have the guests get situated in their space and take in the awesome view of the valley before anything begins. Our server had been there for over ten years, and in fact she was a grape grower herself (syrah and chardonnay). In fact, that was the most popular question I got, “oh, what do you grow?” when I mentioned that I too worked in the industry. But back to the bubbles. We all selected a premier flight, because that’s how you do it, and sat back for the wine to begin flowing. While the wine was superb, after four half-flutes of incredibly delicious sparkling, I was feeling a little peckish, and luckily I knew the perfect place to hit after our first stop.

Before going out to wine country this time, I did a little online sleuthing. Rather than searching for “best wineries in Napa” knowing that there are too many to count, I localized a few searches to towns that I knew we’d be traveling through. And as luck would have it, one of the wineries on my list from these searches was also recommended to me by Meghan (of Brian and Meghan that I met up with in Berkeley a couple days before). V. Sattui Winery is actually one that their friends had gotten married at, and there was a huge selection of hot deli items once we arrived. With the knowledge that food was close-by, Diane and I decided to do a tasting at V. Sattui to see if there was a bottle or two we wanted to buy to have with lunch. We had a great server who kept pouring things off the menu (it didn’t hurt that I let her know I also worked at a winery and was passively interested in their club). I ended up joining the club, which worked out when we wanted to buy more wine at the end of our stay in their tasting room—it was the one winery on the trip that wouldn’t comp me something as being part of the industry. “We only comp California wine industry,” the cashier replied when I asked. But being a newly minted member gave us a discount on the half-case that we were shipping back.

After lunch (and after a  couple more glasses of wine), we started our journey back toward Sonoma because we eventually had dinner plans with our friends whose dad’s house we were staying while on this leg of the journey. Before dinner, however, we still had some time to hit another winery or so. Lauren had once worked in the restaurant industry, and she recognized a higher-end winery from those days, so we stopped. Like V. Sattui, Markham Winery can trace its story back to the 1880s with a Frenchman originally from Bordeaux coming over and planting the first vines on the property. Not only were their wines superb (you know it’s good when you don’t want to finish the last sip in your glass because you’re enjoying the bouquet from the wine too much!), but one of the regions in Napa where they source their grapes is a place called Oak Knoll. I asked to see a map to confirm that I heard our server correctly, and sure enough Oak Knoll exists! I laughed and told him my name is Noel Oakes, so obviously that’s where I need to live out the rest of my days! Needless to say, I joined another club.

After unsuccessfully trying to find a wine shop that I had visited on my last trip out to Napa (the wine garage is sadly permanently closed), we headed back to Santa Rosa for dinner with our friends. Since they don’t get out much on account of them having two small children, we let them choose a place. Sushi was the final decision, which worked totally fine for our group. After dinner we went next door to an ice cream shop that’s run by magicians and hosts magic shows from time to time. The space itself looked like a gutted theater, so I imagine there’s ample space in the back for performances. As we were enjoying our ice cream, one of the employees came around and performed a couple magic tricks for our group. While we spent most of the day doing adult things like day drinking, having a magician come around and entertain us for a moment reminded me that: a) California is a weird and wonderful place, and b) there’s joy wherever you go—you just have to seek it out and live in the moment.

5/28/15 – Le Méthode Champagnoise

Because it worked for us so well the previous day, we decided to start the day off with some bubbles again! This time we were playing in Sonoma all day, so we headed over to Korbel. Yes, that Korbel, the one you find at 7-11 for cheap. I heard their tour was rather informative, since they highlight for you the story of the winery’s founding and the traditional methods they use for making sparkling wine. Their address is on River Road, which is a road that tracks the Russian River, one of the preeminent regions within Sonoma County. The ride there was gorgeous, mostly with winding roads through forests. While I knew there was a lot of wine around us, you couldn’t see a lot of it from the road. Once we got to the Korbel Winery, however, vast tracks of vines were evident. The tour guide did a really good job of telling the fascinating history of the Korbel brothers coming over from what was then Czechoslovakia and following the gold rush craze to California. The demonstration of their old equipment and bottling practices was rather awesome. I decided that if I were Oprah, my theater room would have walls lined with sparkling wine that you could pull at any time to simply open.

Here’s something I learned on this trip concerning the terms “sparkling wine” and “champagne.” According to our tour guide, the trade agreement we signed with France that prohibited our use of the term champagne for any sparkling wine that was made in the United States was signed during prohibition. If there were any wineries open during prohibition that were making sparkling wine, they would be grandfathered into this agreement and could continue using the term champagne. As luck would have it, Korbel was one of just a handful of wineries that were legally able to stay open during prohibition, making wine for sacramental and medicinal reasons. So Korbel, to this day, calls their wine California Champagne.

We lunched in the charming town of Healdsburg, which is right near Dry Creek Valley, another well-known region within Sonoma County. We had some great Californian fare at a place simply called The Shed, though it was heaven for us foodies. With lunch a had a glass of wine from a local winery, and it impressed me so much I suggested we go visit it, since it too was in Dry Creek Valley. Having to get to this winery, we drove all through Dry Creek Valley. I saw some 100+ year old Zinfandel vines that were gnarly, old bush-like things with leaves and branches growing in every possible direction from these trunks that looked like arthritic trees. These bushes-o-Zinfandel weren’t trellised at all, yet they were strong enough to support their ancient grapes (that turns into some inky goodness)! It gets hot in these areas, and there’s a whole lot of sunlight beating down on those grapes.

Preston Family Vineyards was our destination, and it was great to see what this established winery was doing with biodynamics. We headed into Dry Creek Valley and continued on one of the major thoroughfares until the very end, and that’s where our winery was. We pulled up to this large-ish, old farm building and wandered around. The first thing I noticed is that it’s significantly warmer up here than it was in Healdsburg. We saw signs for produce, and invariably there were animals milling about. What a great and unexpected destination! The woman pouring our wines inside told us that they’re certified biodynamic, which is a whole level above being certified organic. Not only is there no use of unnatural chemicals to care for their crops, there’s a whole self-sufficient ethic that goes along with the movement. What I mean is there’s ideally no outside influences (beyond weather) to a biodynamic farm—the cows produce natural fertilizer, which can be used in the fields, and the plants and vines are grown in a responsible way allowing for years and years of cultivation. Some of these vineyards have been doing it for years.

After wining for most of the day, we had to get going in order to make our dinner reservation down in the very other end of the county. The Girl and the Fig is a well-known restaurant in the town of Sonoma, and Lauren had requested that we check it out since she and Jesse had had such a good experience there the last time. I had heard about it through the food writing I’ve read, so I was more than fine with the decision. The restaurant is on the edge of a cute little town square in an old hotel. What used to be the lobby is now the bar/waiting area, but we had a reservation so we were whisked away to our table immediately. The service was slow, but the food was divine! We started out sharing a plate of mussels only because the table next to us had gotten them and they looked so good. We all then went our separate ways into our own food interests. I did some sort of fig and arugula salad for my next course and then for my entrée I had a home-made pasta dish with micro greens and sweet peas. Fantastic! We all knew this would be our last big hurrah together, so we made it count.

5/29/15 – Solo Travel

I had to get up early the next morning to get on a commuter-type bus shuttle to head down toward the city and find my flight back at SFO. The ride down from Sonoma into Marin and then across the Golden Gate Bridge was rather pleasant in that everyone generally kept to themselves and zoned out. I started gathering my thoughts about the next chapter of this adventure, but really, I was sad to be leaving California again. I had rediscovered my love for the place, and I have always felt comfortable there. My next big move may be to go back out west, because I really do enjoy it so much. I mean, hell, there’s an Oak Knoll out there. If that’s not a sign from God that I should be living in the middle of California wine country, I don’t know what is!

Not knowing what to expect for a Delta flight, I downloaded a movie to watch on my Kindle. That turned out to be unnecessary since every seat had its own infotainment center. While I poked around on it a bit, I was more than content to watch my movie, listen to music, or read a book during the relatively short flight to Detroit. While Delta had the normal infotainment system that I’d expect on a transcontinental flight like this, I was surprised at how United had addressed the issue on the way out here. Instead of spending the money to put LCD screens in for each seat, they moved the compartment where you normally would keep the magazines on the back of the seat in front of you up to the head rest. This allowed for a good couple more inches of legroom in coach, which is always appreciated. While the infotainment system wasn’t available, United apparently has created an app you can download that allows you to stream video through the plane’s wifi system. A pretty impressive solution, I thought! Unfortunately, I have an old Kindle that wouldn’t allow me to download the app.

Traveling alone doesn’t bother me. In fact, after the rat race that had been the last week I welcomed some decompression time. I knew I’d have to be charming and on my best behavior once I got to my next destination, so heading back east without anyone else to have to account for was perfectly acceptable. I had a layover in Detroit for a couple of hours, so once I got to the airport I wandered around a bit. Luckily my heavy bag (the one packed with a half-case of wine) was checked, so it wasn’t too much of an issue to get around the airport with my multiple carry-ons. The main concourse at the Detroit airport is one massive hallway that stretches out about five city blocks. There are news kiosks, stores, and restaurants clustered throughout the concourse, so you never have to walk far to find just about anything. I knew I should grab a bite to eat during this layover, so I was generally on the search for food. I came across a Longhorn Steakhouse—a far cry from my dinner the night before—and saddled up to the bar. Having the ability to read my book, sip on a beer, and generally not worry about the trip was heavenly.

Although it’d ultimately take longer for me to travel from my point-of-origin to my destination, stopping over in Detroit’s airport allowed me to do two things: 1) it broke up a longer flights into two completely manageable legs, which ultimately made the whole travel experience more enjoyable, and 2) it allowed me to check out another airport. I’m sure I’ve flown through Detroit before, but it had been years since the last time I had been there. The main concourse was fairly mundane, in terms of shops and food selection, but I definitely enjoyed the opportunity for people watching and generally wandering about that my couple hours there afforded me. On top of all this, a ticket with a layover is usually cheaper than a non-stop flight. I may have to rethink the way I travel.

5/30/15 – Wedding Day

I arrived to the Pittsburgh airport without incident. My friend Richelle, whose sister was getting married this weekend, came and picked me up right on time. The morning of the actual wedding, her mother had already left the house by the time I woke up, so Richelle, her dad, and I went out to their local town (about an hour north of Pittsburgh) for breakfast at the local diner. I liked how Richelle’s dad, Rich, knew the server from high school and greeted a group of older ladies who I’m sure had been coming to this place for years. This was definition small town Americana at its finest. After breakfast it was back to the house to get ready for the big event. While I wasn’t in the wedding (I hadn’t even met the couple getting married), I was in this nebulous place of being a so-called date for a member of the wedding party. It was an odd role to play, but that’s why I’m invited to such things!

Richelle left early to help her sister, Lauren, get ready for her big day. A little while later, her Dad and I drove to the chapel for the big event. Amusingly enough her Dad was [understandably] nervous as hell, so we talked about what we saw driving by: the difference between what corn and bean sprouts look like when they’re first coming out of the ground (this is rural Pennsylvania after all), growing up on a farm, all of that fun stuff. We made it to the wedding chapel in time for me to meet the groom and groomsmen (henceforth referred to as “Hans and the boys”). They were discussing the proper method waterproofing fancy cowboy boots, since that was the dress code for Hans and the boys. I didn’t have much to contribute to this conversation, though it was an amusing learning experience about what rural life in Northwestern Pennsylvania considers “fancy.”

The wedding was pleasant enough—short and sweet—and as the guests were leaving the chapel we stopped by the new bride and groom to offer our congratulations. This was the first time I met Lauren, so shaking her hand (or giving her a hug) I’m sure I said something along the lines of, “Congratulations! By the way, I’m Noel.” Awkward. But it was just fine. The wedding party (and dates of said wedding party) all piled onto a rented passenger bus, which was already stocked with large amounts of really cheap beer. Oh dear, I thought, since I generally don’t drink crap beer. When in Rome…so we all were triple-fisting Bud Lights for a good long while, playing drinking games on the bus, and stopping at Hans’s father’s house for pictures of the bride and groom in a horse pasture while the two held hunting rifles. An odd choice indeed, but it made sense to them. The boys (of Hans and the boys) and I generally sat around drinking beer and belching in each other’s faces. A good time was had by all.

The reception for this wedding—for which we were rather late—was held in a small country club and fed us well. The most intriguing thing about the guests is that we had a couple Amish families in attendance, since Hans employs a couple Amish guys on his construction projects. I was afraid I was going to get belligerently drunk and start screaming random modern German words at them, but they generally kept to themselves. Interestingly, one of the younger guys would walk up to the bar, order a beer, take a sip out of the bottle, and nonchalantly slip the open bottle into an inside vest pocket. He kept this up all night. So when it was time to leave he was bloated with open beers, and you could hear him very clearly clinking as he waddled out to his presumed horse and carriage. My understanding is homeboy was going to drive back home while enjoying the multitudes of free beers before he got back. As long as he can keep himself from falling off the buggy, I say more power to him.


Richelle and I left on the earlier side the next morning, mostly because she had been home for more than a couple of days and wanted to get the hell out of there. I was more than happy with that, though I was ready to not be traveling anymore. Along the way we stopped at a highway rest stop called Breezewood, where the Pennsylvania turnpike intersects Interstate 70 (in west-central PA). Richelle was all excited to stop, which I didn’t get because to me it looked like a collection of truck stops put together. Then I remembered my love for South of the Border on the NC/SC line, so I had to give her some leeway in what random things she loved along the way home from DC, or vice versa. The whole trip itself worked out well. I loved seeing Diane discover the greatness of San Francisco, and I LOVED playing in wine country for a few days. I’m pretty sure one of these days Noel Oakes will be living in Oak Knoll, CA.