03
Apr 17

Los Angeles 2017: Eats and drinks

The only activities that rival visiting museums when I travel is trying new eats and drinks.

Porto’s Bakery and Cafe

On my first day, my brother and I had lunch at this popular Cuban place. And I do mean popular. It was maybe 11:30 when we got there and already a madhouse. However, the line moved quickly.

I had a milanese chicken sandwich, which was very tasty. We also got some pastries and potato balls to go, all of which were awesome.

Grand Central Market

I went to this food court three times. The first was with my brother on a weekday. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as I was expecting. I got a yummy sausage hash from Berlin Currywurst. I didn’t pay attention to the name of the place so I was surprised when the sauce tasted like Japanese curry.

The only thing I didn’t like was the way the guy seemed to try to trick people into getting fries. After I said yes, I realized it was $5 extra and changed my mind. Ditto with the guy behind me.

My brother got pupusas. Again, delicious.

The second time I went to Grand Central Market was with my buds. First we hit G&B Coffee where one friend had a cappuccino, another had a tumeric/ginger macadamia milk, and I had a almond macadamia latte. The milk was tasty but my latte was really good and strong.

Next was Eggslut (which, by the way, arrived in New York just days after we came back). The line was long but not insane. I got the sausage, egg, and cheese, which was amazing, and we shared a delectable biscuit.

My third time at Grand Central Market, we hit G&B Coffee and Eggslut again. I got the same things at both, and this time, since we got there at about 8:30, there was almost no line at Eggslut. My friend got the signature “slut,” a coddled egg on top of what is essentially mashed potatoes. It lived up to the hype.

At home

While eating out is fun, sometimes a home cooked meal hits the spot. So I was really happy when my sister-in-law made a lovely Korean dinner.

Not shown was a flavorful broth, chock full of umami. The next day I scarfed down the rest of the broth, plus most of the salmon.

Salt & Straw

If you’re wondering if I gained weight on this trip, unfortunately I did. Fortunately however I got to try the incredible ice cream from Salt & Straw. I had what they called the cinnamon roll, which pretty much tasted just like one in ice cream form.

Marvin

My mom was kind enough to treat my brother, sister-in-law, and me to a nice dinner. Our choice was this lovely French bistro. For an appetizer we had the jamon tomato toast, and for entrees my brother got the steak while my sister-in-law and I both got the rigatoni with Bolognese sauce. The food was really good but the service was weird. For some reason we had two waitresses. One was nice but the other was snotty. Otherwise, it was a nice dinner.

Normandie Club

After dinner at Marvin, we tried to go to karaoke. But everywhere was too expensive. So we got cocktails at this cool kind of retro bar. I can’t remember exactly what I had, except it had mezcal, tasted good, and got me pretty drunk, especially after the wine at dinner.

Angel City Brewery

While my friends and I were in the Arts District, we stopped here for a beer tasting, but not before trying on some angel wings.

We got a flight, of which I thought I’d have a sip of each, wince, and be done with it. But, surprise, surprise, I liked two of the beers, the ones on the right.

I can’t remember what they were, only that the dark one tasted of coffee and chocolate and the light one was a like a less briny pickle juice. In other words, neither tasted like beer.

Wurstküche

After hitting Angel City and another brewery, we came to this gourmet sausage place. The line went down the street, which told us the place was popular but I was wary about the wait. We took a chance and the line moved pretty quickly. I kept changing my mind. Hot Italian? Filipino maharlika? Straight-up kielbasa? I ended up choosing the chicken sausage with jalapeno and mango, and I didn’t regret it.

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse

The home of the cruffin, part croissant, part muffin. One of my friends said they usually sell out of the cruffins by noon. We were there around 10 and there were cruffins galore! I got three (for myself, my brother, and sister-in-law since I was going to their place later that day) and a couple of donuts. My brother and I split a cruffin. Not only was it all muffiny and croissanty, there was a delicious filling. It reminded of me that amazing blueberry muffin I had in Barcelona at the Catalonian art museum.

Stout

We spent part of a day in Santa Monica, which was fairly easy to get to. We hopped on an express bus that took about an hour and cost only $2.75.

After battling the wind on the beach, we came here for their early bird special: everything on the menu half off between five and six. I got the Stout Burger “skinny style,” meaning no bun, just greens. The burger and toppings were really good, but the greens were drenched in some kind of lemon dressing, which was way too much for my sensitive teeth. If I ever go back, I won’t do the skinny, or will ask for the dressing on the side.

The Misfit Bar

Next was happy hour. At first we decided against this bar because it was so crowded. We walked a little but then realized the other bars were far away. Plus my friend said the Misfit had “the best happy hour in Santa Monica.” When we returned, a few seats had opened up. I had a cocktail called the Jumping Jack Flash (Old Forester bourbon, Cocchi vermouth, ginger, and mint) which got me good and tipsy.

Beards are still apparently a big thing in Santa Monica and L.A.: all the Misfit bartenders had them, as well as random guys in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, back in New York, I feel like they’ve peaked and are fading out.

Nanbankan

For my last night, my brother and sister-in-law took me to this yakitori place. Like everything I ate in L.A., it was delicious. My favorites were the tsukune, or chicken meatballs, the pork sausage, and the okra.

Want more L.A.? Check out my earlier posts on museums and other random activities.


02
Apr 17

Los Angeles 2017: Little Tokyo, Arts District, Griffith Observatory

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I decided to head out to L.A. for a last minute trip and, although it might be hard to believe, didn’t spend all my time at museums.

Hiking

There was a trail not far from my brother and sister-in-law’s place. It felt good to walk, talk, and be close to nature. We also saw some cute ducks.

Little Tokyo

My friend and I stayed in this part of town, in fact right across the street from the ramen place my brother and sister-in-law went to a few years ago. Our hotel was pretty nice. Not too expensive, simple, and clean.

Our other friend, who is an excellent concierge-on-the-go, mapped out several places we could visit, including Fugetsu-Do, a mochi shop which has been open since 1903; a bakery where I picked up a cheese croissant and coffee roll for breakfast; Daiso, a kind of dollar store, where I got a beauty mask for fun; and the supermarket next door, where I got a blueberry cream cheese sesame bun.

The verdict on all those buns? My favorite was the blueberry cream cheese sesame, second the cheese croissant, and last the coffee bun, which was pretty boring.

Arts District

This was a fun part of town with lots of cool graffiti. A few highlights.

Disney Concert Hall

We came here not for a show but to check out the cool architecture as designed by Frank Gehry:

We went inside and there turned out to be a free audio tour, as narrated by John Lithgow. It was pretty interesting. Disney’s widow was very involved with the design. In the rooftop garden is a sculpture inspired by her love of roses and Delftware.

Griffith Observatory

We rushed out here via Uber about an hour before it closed. But that turned out to be plenty of time. We peeked through a couple of telescopes and saw one star which I can’t remember and the a double star in Orion’s belt. We also had a lovely view of the city. Inside a whole mob of people were waiting for the Tesla coil to do its thing. Later my friend explained there’s a scene in La La Land involving that.

Our Uber driver had warned us it would take a year for us to get another Uber out there to take us home so he generously offered to turn off his app and wait. Not too big of a deal since we only took about half an hour. Either way it was wonderful to have a car waiting for us to take us back to our hotel.

Escape room

It was my first time doing this and I had loads of fun with my brother and sister-in-law. At first I was like, “This is so hard!” and couldn’t figure anything out. But the clues helped. Eventually I was able to figure out a couple of things, one of which I kept wondering, “Is this real? Am I making up this pattern?” But when I finished a key fell out of the thing I had been messing with. I was so excited I jumped up and down. In the end we were able to accomplish the goal — in our case, breaking into a safe to steal diamonds — in time.

Next up: eating and drinking my way through L.A.


01
Apr 17

Los Angeles 2017: Museums

Getty Museum

Early last month I decided to take a last minute trip to L.A. One friend was going for business while another was going for fun. Plus my brother said it was good timing for him and his wife. On top of all that, I managed to find a cheap flight.

As on all my trips, I saw a buttload of museums.

The Broad

A newly opened contemporary art museum and already booked months in advance. But my brother knew about its standby line, in which you show up, wait in line, and hope you can get in.

We got there about half an hour before it opened, and the line already went down the block. However, the museum workers did a good job of letting us know how long the wait would be. They said an hour, and that’s exactly what it was. It also helped that it was beautiful out.

The space and art were fun. Lots of Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, and other ones I can’t name. :P I wanted to see the Infinity Mirrored Room, but there was a waiting list. Not only that, there was a line for the list. I would definitely go back.

Japanese American National Museum

I had mentioned wanting to see the George Takei exhibit. Turns out it was walking distance from the Broad so off we went.

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I really enjoyed it. I was surprised to learn it was curated by Jeff Yang. Surprised because you don’t usually see writers curating museum exhibits. That may be part of the reason I liked it. It told a cohesive story, taking highlights from Takei’s life and juxtaposing them against points in American history, from his being interned with his family at age 5, to the racism he faced trying to make it in Hollywood as an Asian American actor, to Star Trek, to coming out, to getting married.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

I always enjoy going to LACMA, especially since my brother is a member and can bring a guest for free. Their special exhibit was Picasso & Rivera, which examines the paintings, etchings, and watercolors from the contemporaries and compared them to the classic works (Greek for Picasso, Mexican for Rivera) that inspired them.

The Getty

My friends and I spent a good three hours here, but I could have stayed for longer. I focused on the special exhibit, Bouchardon, which was fairly interesting, and the garden. I started to look at the Concrete Poetry exhibit, but it wasn’t that exciting to me. Maybe if I had had more time. I felt like looking at some paintings so I went over to that building (which was hard to find for me) and got in some Rembrandt, Dutch still lifes, and French Impressionists.

That’s not all! I did other stuff besides visit museums (if you can believe it). That’s coming up next.


12
Feb 17

AWP 2017, D.C. Style

It’s been a couple of years since I last went to AWP. So I was glad this year to have the opportunity to attend, thanks to one of my freelance clients, and that it was in D.C., a city that’s relatively easy for me to get to and where one of my dear high school friends lives.

Getting there

The day of my departure a snowstorm was scheduled to hit. This got my mother worried, prompting her to call me the night before.

Her: “There’s big snow coming!”
Me: “Yes, but the subway’s only a five minute walk.”
Her: “But you’ll walk in the snow!”
Me: “It’s only five minutes.”
Her: “But you have your suitcase!”
Me: “It’s only five minutes.”
Her: “But! But!”

If I wasn’t worried about traveling in the snow before her call, I certainly was afterward.

But of course getting to the subway in the morning was perfectly fine. I left so early, there was hardly any snow on the ground, and the train wasn’t even delayed. Even lovelier: I had a whole row to myself as I enjoyed my breakfast, worked on my novel, and daydreamed. There was no snow in D.C. although it was quite windy.

The sessions

Since I’ve been to AWP several times, I don’t really get too much out of the sessions. However, there were a few that I liked.

One was about university teachers using multimedia to teach writing while another was about running grassroots literary conferences. There’s one in Lancaster that sounds really cool, but its focus is creative nonfiction while I’m primarily concerned with my novel right now.

The one big session I went to was with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Adichie, as moderated by E. Ethelbert Miller. It was packed. Luckily I got there early. The reading and talk were interesting, especially in this day and age.

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

In between attending sessions and doing work for my client, I had the chance to visit the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which was walking distance to the convention center. (It’s also free so I went twice, catching up on sections I missed the first time.)

Near the front of the National Portrait Gallery is a painting of Donald Trump. It had its own rope and security guard. I asked the guard, “Are you here to make sure no one does anything to that picture?” He just laughed and shook his head like “no comment.” I wanted to take a picture but chickened out.

The portraits part of the museum was a little boring, but upstairs they also had other kinds of American art, including this “Dreamers” exhibit, which was very cool:

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There’s also a beautiful courtyard.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

This museum is attached to the National Portrait Gallery so it was easy to visit (and again, free). It had a wonderful Isamu Noguchi exhibit:

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Where I ate

Needless to say, the convention center food was pretty limited. There were one or two places at the main entrance, and almost always they both had ridiculously long lines. On the convention floor there was a Jamaican stand that had pretty good curry chicken, but at $11, it was overpriced.

Luckily, Chinatown was in walking distance. Twice I ate at ShopHouse (which, sadly, has shuttered its doors). It was Chipotle for southeast Asian food. Literally. It was owned by Chipotle. I thought it was really good. The bowls were tasty and less than $10.

One night I was craving a burger, and got takeout from Fuddruckers. Again, very good. Another night I got delicious koobideh from Grill Kabob. It was overpriced but the place was full of Aghani people so at least it was probably authentic.

Catching up with a friend

My last night I had the chance to have dinner with a good friend from high school. I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I last saw her. I kept thinking five or six years but it’s more like 10! Too long. We had a good long chat over Asian food and then a nice walk back to my hotel.

Next year

AWP 2018 will be taking place in Tampa. Party in my hotel room?


22
Oct 16

A Boston weekend

Now that I’ve moved back to the east coast, visits to my friend Ellen in Boston are  super-easy. With the excuse of seeing her new place, I hopped on a train last Friday after work and headed north.

Myers + Chang

My first night we went to this sort of nouveau Asian place. The executive chef, Ellen told us, was on Top Chef (and looks startlingly like another chef, albeit fictional).

We had the braised pork belly buns, grilled duck kebabs, wok-charred octopus with grilled corn, sweet and sour brussel sprouts, and another dish I can’t remember. It was all very tasty.

I also had a cocktail, the Fire Monkey Mai Tai.

This ham is turkey

The next morning Aki, who was also there for the weekend, was kind enough to make us French toast. I wanted some protein so Aki fried up some leftover ham Ellen had.

It was delicious. So delicious we wanted seconds. Unfortunately Ellen had no more ham, but Aki had brought some from home. As Ellen and I ate our second batch, one of us commented, “This ham seems dry.” Another one of us said, “This ham tastes like turkey.”

“That’s because this ham is turkey,” Aki told us.

Turned out she was using “ham” as a general descriptor for luncheon meat.

Blue Hills Reservation

The next day we headed out to the Blue Hills Reservation for a hike. We were hoping to see some fall foliage, but the leaves were still pretty green.

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It was also quite warm, making our trek a good workout. Luckily we had banh mi sandwiches from Ba Le Restaurant in Dorchester to give us strength.

Short Path Distillery

What better way to cap off a long hike than with a trip to gin and rum distillery?

Short Path Distillery offered a free tour and a free tasting. The tour was more of a talk — about the history of the place and how the gins and rums are made — but it was still interesting.

That is, except for one drunk guy who kept asking the same questions over and over. After a while even his girlfriend and friends were like, “Dude, shut up.”

The tasting was more fun because free booze. My favorites were a gin infused with star anise and this sweet hibiscus-infused rum. Aki got a bottle of that. I should have too.

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka

I always crave something salty after drinking so ramen from one of our favorite go-to Boston places hit the spot.

The ramen was yummy as usual. They’ve expanded their menu since I was last there. Now they have these combo dishes, which I got.

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Ramen with an egg and gyoza. I shared the gyoza.

Already looking forward to my next visit!


25
Sep 16

Paris 2016: Food and drink

Neck and neck with my obsession with museums when I travel is that with food. Maybe especially food at museums.

Museum cafes

It all started with my best high school buddy. We had traveled together in China, but it was in Amsterdam that we started hitting the museum cafe before the actual museum. I remember waiting in line for the Rijksmuseum to open, dying for coffee, and making a beeline for the cafeteria. Soon it became a tradition.

Nowadays the museum cafe isn’t always first, but I usually end up there at some point.

During our first visit to Palais de Tokyo, we just had some drinks. I was craving an apple juice, and struggled with asking for one. Luckily the girl behind the counter spoke a little English and was able to explain that the drink was almond and apple, as well as carbonated.

“Carbonated,” she should have said. It was extremely subtle. The almond was less so but it was delicious all the same.

We returned to Palais de Tokyo because we were in the area and to partake of their photo booth. This time we had lunch. I was looking forward to a jambon beurre (not that I hadn’t had a few already). But they didn’t have any so I settled for tuna.

Which was really good. That and British salt and vinegar chips, and a fantastic vanilla panna cotta made for a quick yet yummy meal.

Next, the Musee D’Orsay. Last time when we went, I didn’t enjoy my sandwich. The bread sucked, surprisingly. This time we had already eaten so I just got a chocolate-caramel brownie. Holy cow. It was almost like flourless chocolate cake. Delicious.

The only museums I didn’t eat at were the Cartier Foundation (I wasn’t hungry for a change) and the  Musée Jacquemart-André. The restaurant was more upscale than I wanted. So instead we went to…

Random places

this place. We had passed it on the way to the museum, and we figured since we might not be getting a lot of fresh vegetables during our stay, it would be a good choice.

And it was! It was a bit like Chop’t only without the chopping. I got an Asian type salad with tuna, which was tasty and filling. My only disappointment was my “dessert.” I got a fromage blanc, which was definitely not dessert-like, at least not to me.

Another sort of random place we ate at was a cafe not far from the Catacombs. A couple of my friend’s friends happened to be in town, and after a visit to the boney undergrounds, we stopped for an impromptu, al fresco lunch.

I had a little arugula salad and the “hamburger,” which came without a bun and lots of fries. So good. Complimentary were little glasses of red wine mixed with soda (at least I think that’s what it was). Delicious all around and lovely to eat outside and enjoy the day.

Soya

One of the few vegetarian places in Paris, Soya is one of our favorite haunts. Vegetarian, you might be thinking? But I’m a total carnivore. That’s true, but my friend isn’t, and the food at Soya is really good.

We were introduced to it by a friend of a friend during our first visit. At that time we had a very angry waitress who practically threw a water bottle at us. Since then the waitstaff has been very nice.

This time I think I might have gotten the same dish as last time. A vegetable masala curry. The sauce was amazing and the vegetables very fresh. it was quite filling. For dessert we got lemon and fig tarts. I wasn’t in the mood for fig, but the lemon was delicious.

Eating our way through the 2nd arrondissement

I had two things I wanted to get: a Paris Starbucks mug (which I got on our first day) and nonnettes au miel. Last year I randomly bought a package, needing a gift for my parents, and they turned out to be amazing. The ones I got were orange flavored, and that combined with the gingery, delicate cake made me want more. The thing is they’re so French you can’t even get them off Amazon.

I thought during my walks I’d discover some little shop with my beloved nonnettes. No such luck. I didn’t think we’d ever find the original store, but of course my friend had noted the name during our last visit. It’s actually a wine and liquor shop with a limited selection of foods. They didn’t have any nonnettes unfortunately, but I picked up some hazelnut and chocolate wafers.

The block was full of little food and beverage stores. While my friend paid for his purchases (all sorts of interesting flavors of tonic waters), I popped into a coffee shop next door — and guess what, they had the nonnettes! I bought two packages, one for my parents and one for myself, along with a pound of Cuban coffee.

For lunch we at at Kapunka, a Thai place. I had a beef curry dish. While the sauce was really good, the meat was a bit tough. Probably should have gone with the chicken.

After that it was dessert at L’Eclair de Genie, which we had seen earlier.

Éclair selfie obligatoire. #éclair #LÉclairDeGenie #selfie #aGaymericanInParis #cremeCenter

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They were smaller than eclairs in America — in other words, the perfect size. I got a super-chocolately one, and it was super-good.

After a bit more walking around, we popped into this cookie shop, Jean Hwang Carrant Simply Extraordinary Cookies. And guess what, Jean Hwang was there and she turned out to be a Chinese American from Kansas! We had a nice little chat with her. I got the last of their best-seller, black sesame, which was very subtly sweet, just the way I like it.

Grand Train

The one Saturday I was there, we had the chance to go with my friend’s friend to this place called Grand Train.

Grand Train is a former railway station with a variety food and drink kiosks and counters. It’s also a place where people, including families with little kids, hang out, talk, and, because this is France, smoke.

It’s very popular and there was a huge line when we got there. Luckily my friend’s friend was already there so we didn’t have to wait long. I didn’t try any food although we did get a bottle of white wine. It was sweet, the way I like it, and I drank too much too quickly. While tipsy, I felt perfectly fine — that is until we were standing in line for my friend’s pizza. Suddenly I felt, let’s just say, unwell. But with some deep breathing and a fruity lozenge, I was okay.

Next up: random sights!


19
Sep 16

Paris 2016: Museums! Museums! Museums!

What’s a trip to Paris without a lot of museums? This year I revisited two favorites, and checked out a few new ones.

Musée Jacquemart-André

I had read online that the Musée Jacquemart-André is a lot like the Frick here in New York, and that it was: a beautiful former home filled with eclectic art. The only thing missing was an indoor garden.

One painting that caught my eye was “Saint Georges and the Dragon” by Paolo Uccello.

saint-georges-terrassant-le-dragon-uccello-c-c-recoura_1

Something new I learned was that Christians took the legend of dragons from the Chinese “to symbolise the deliverance of the church, oppressed by Paganism.” In other words, slaying dragons was about slaying Paganism.

Cartier Foundation

Last year I really enjoyed the Louis Vuitton Foundation so I thought I’d have the same experience with the Cartier Foundation. Not so, I’m afraid. It’s quite small, and all there was when I went was an animal sounds exhibit. Maybe good for kids, but it didn’t interest me. The nicest thing is their outdoor space with lots of trees and plants.

Musee D’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie

The Musee D’Orsay is our favorite museum so of course we had to visit it again. For some reason this time there was zero line. We couldn’t believe it. And it wasn’t too crowded.

Then we realized that might have been because one whole wing was closed. But there was still a lot to see. I got my art nouveau fix, and for the first time we went out to the roof.

My friend’s photo turned out way better than any of mine.

Another day we checked out Musée de l’Orangerie, my second time, my friend’s first. It’s very small but I love it. And if you like impressionist art, you’ll love it too.

Les Arts Decoratifs

This was a first-time visit for the both of us to Les Arts Decoratifs, mainly to see the Barbie exhibit.

It was fun although some of the displays weren’t well-lit. Plus it was really warm. We noticed that about a couple of museums. I’m used to the ones in New York that are freezing.

The exhibit traced the history of Barbie, which has had many variations. Here’s the French Barbie, in honor of our trip:

Oh lala! French Barbie at the Barbie exhibit #barbie #france #paris #museeartsdecoratifs #museum

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Palais de Tokyo

At first I didn’t know what to make of this contemporary art space. The upper floors had some kooky stuff.

Enthusiastic #paris #france #palaisdetokyo #museum #art

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Plus it was too warm AGAIN. Then my friend pointed out their more interesting collection on the bottom floors. That stuff reminded me of the Whitney. Unfortunately I was a bit lazy about taking pictures. But my friend took some great photos and videos.

Next up, my second favorite thing about traveling: food.


13
Sep 16

Paris 2016: Getting there and where we stayed

eiffel_tower_2016

Like last year, I ended the summer with a visit to the City of Lights.

Unlike other trips, my travel buddy and I were flying out together. He had already upgraded to “comfort zone,” and when I checked in, I decided to too since it was a red eye and just $90. It was totally worth it. More leg room, lots of free movies, and, coincidentally, the same row as my bud with no one in the middle. Score!

As is my M.O. I couldn’t really sleep.  Instead I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, which was awesome but for some reason on a higher speed so that the action scenes looked cartoonish, and Spotlight, which I’ll have to watch again since I kept falling asleep.

We landed at about 8:30 in the morning. It took forever to get through customs. In front of us was this batshit lady. I had noticed her at JFK: maybe in her 70s, tons of plastic surgery, too-tight clothes. She kept commenting randomly to people, “This is ridiculous!” Her speech was quite slurred. I don’t know if she had a neurological disorder or was on a lot of drugs, or both. Either way, I tried my damndest to avoid eye contact, and was relieved when she cut into another line.

To get the apartment, we took the RER to the subway. The RER is never speedy, but this time it was ridiculously slow. Apparently there was some “incident.” We were supposed to pick up the keys by noon and were worried that we wouldn’t make it. Luckily we did, with 30 minutes to spare.

As with past trips, my very enterprising friend had arranged a (free) apartment swap. This year we stayed  in the 14th arrondissement, close to Parc Montsouris. The apartment was just lovely. The bedroom and living room each had a door, and the kitchen and bathroom were off a hallway so no going through the living room to get to either. So that meant lots of privacy for both of us.

Next up, what else? Museums!


29
Jan 16

How to Enjoy a Cruise in 6 Easy Steps

Little lighthouse, Nassau, Bahamas

Little lighthouse, Nassau, Bahamas

Until a couple of weeks ago, I would have never called myself a cruise person.

The only one I’ve been on was many years ago with my family when my grandmother treated us to a three-day sail down the Baja coast. Parts of it were fun, like climbing the rock climbing wall, playing Pictionary, and telling funny family stories over dinner, but parts were awful, like the gluttonous buffet, the tiny windowless room my mom and I shared, and the noisy, hard-partying college kids on spring break.

The cruise I went on earlier this month with a group of girlfriends was nothing like that. In fact, I’d say it turned me into a cruise person.

Here’s how non-cruise people can better enjoy cruises.

Splurge on your room

If you’re going on a cruise, it may well be worth it to spend a little more. The room my friend and I shared was really nice with enough space for two small beds (yoga mat-sized, some of the girls called them), a loveseat, coffee table, and desk. It also had a veranda, and let me tell you, being step outside your room and see the ocean makes a huge difference.

Of course the bathroom was teeny-tiny, and the shower didn’t drain so well, but it wasn’t a big deal.

Go beyond the buffet

Another great thing about our packages was they included restaurants beyond the buffet. The one we went to every night for dinner was called Blue. I think the food was supposed to be healthier — either way, it was very good.

My favorites were a risotto (I forgot what was in it), a chicken and pasta, the filet mignon, the short-ribs, all the soups I tried (a corn veloute, a tomato one, and a parsnip one), a blue cheese souffle, the tiramisu, and the chocolate mousse birthday cake we had for the birthday girl. The only thing I didn’t like was the “sugar-free” cannoli which had absolutely no flavor, although I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

Our waiters were also very nice albeit somewhat corny. One apparently resembled the soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Our package also included unlimited drinks that were under $13. Most of us could barely make a dent in our daily beverage allowance. It was especially a waste on an alcohol flush reactioner like me. There were also healthy options at poolside, namely this yummy Greek yogurt chicken salad and these quinoa and lentil salads.

Also, don’t get me wrong: the food at the buffet was good, and we ate there a lot. I gorged myself on full English breakfasts — including blood sausage for the first time — until my body begged me to stop, and then I switched to muesli, which was delish.

Embrace the touristy-ness

One of our port stops was Key West. It was totally touristy, but we were all in an accepting mind-set so it was pretty fun, even with the intermittent rain.

While the girls shopped for various tchotchkes, I didn’t buy much except for some coconut chocolate patties (which totally hit the spot) and a Florida Starbucks mug. I’ve recently started collecting them and have three so far: New York, Montreal, and now Florida.

We stopped for lunch at what seemed like a random hole in the wall. But the food was very good. I had the New England clam chowder, which was chock full of clam and potatoes.

We walked to what we thought was the southernmost point in the U.S. but was actually the southernmost beach. The waves were absolutely insane.

While I was down with Key West, by the time we got to Nassau in the Bahamas, I was less so. My roommate felt the same way, and after stepping off the boat for two seconds, we turned around and got back on. What did we do instead? Lounged by the pool, ate, and hit the sauna and steam room, a pretty nice alternative.

Get moving

A cruise doesn’t have to be all about lounging by the pool and stuffing your face. The one we were on also had a good gym and quite a few fitness classes.

I had big plans to hit the treadmill at least twice, but didn’t at all. Luckily, the enterprising birthday girl signed everyone up for Zumba class while my roommate signed us up for Pilates. I had mentioned wanting to try the bootcamp class, and when we were at the gym, my roomie made sure to point out the sign up list. No backing out now!

Zumba was fun but difficult. I’m not a natural dancer so I had a hard time keeping up with most of the steps. I got a few, but by the time I did, the instructor had moved onto a new routine. But like I said, we all had a good time and got pretty sweaty. The Pilates class was also good although maybe it could have been more difficult.

The bootcamp class however kicked my butt. Squats, burpees, jumping jackets, weights, ab work, and other stuff I can’t even remember. My muscles were burning and I was drenched in sweat by the end, exactly the results I wanted. My hearty breakfast and massage afterwards felt well-deserved.

And it was the class that kept on giving. I took the class on Sunday and I was sore all the way until Wednesday. Like barely-able-to-walk sore, but in a good way. I need to take more classes like that.

Treat yo self

On my last cruise I didn’t even consider trying out the hot tubs or pools. They were totally inundated either with horny 20-somethings or annoying kids. This time was another story.

Because we were traveling at an off time, there weren’t many kids. Plus there was an adults-only section, which had whirlpools and, my absolutel favorite, a thalassotherapy pool — that is, very warm seawater.

Late in 2015 I hurt my back. It was so bad in the beginning, I couldn’t sit at all. Just riding the bus was torture. A few months later it was better, and I haven’t had any other problems — until my plane ride to Ft. Lauderdale. I bent down to touch my toes, and felt that familiar, horrible spasm in my lower back. I was worried my vacation was ruined.

But after a couple of dips in the thalassotherapy pool, it was better. It was probably a combination of that, stretching, trying not to sit too much, and walking more. But I do think the saltwater helped. Plus it felt great on my skin.

We also took advantage of the spa. We all got massages and then another treatment. The massage was SO GOOD. My lady had a firm touch but not painful (although a little pain is good sometimes). The only time I winced was when she went at the balls of my feet. (I had no idea they were so sensitive, and she was surprised too. Guess I need to do something about that.) I wanted the massage to go on forever.

My facial was another story. I had signed up for a deep cleanse, but the woman convinced me to get the “vitamin infusion,” which involved putting a million different things on my face. At the end she showed me my reflection.

“See?” she said. “Isn’t it brighter?”

I saw absolutely no difference. “Sure,” I said. “Nice.”

The sauna and steam rooms — aka the Persian Gardens — were delightful. My friend and I would stay in a room until one of us, usually me, couldn’t stand it anymore, douse ourselves with cold water, and move onto the next one. Hanging out there also gave us lots of time to chat and catch up.

YOLO

If the cruise had a theme, this was it. It encouraged one of the girls to try blood sausage (she didn’t like it, unlike me), and most of the group to stay out martini-ing and dancing the night away (I abstained). I did however practice my own little YOLOs. I stopped and watched the sun set — and saw a pod of dolphins! — and the sun rise.

cruise_sunrise_Jan2016

I stepped out on the deck at night to look at the moon. I lost $20 at the casino. I had two appetizers and dessert every night. I tried the aforementioned blood sausage. I went on this cruise in the first place.


02
Jan 16

A Canadian Christmas

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Christmas isn’t that big of a deal for my parents so for the past several, I’ve had untraditional ones. Last year I went down to Los Angeles to hang out with my brother and his girlfriend, which was great fun, and this year I had the chance to visit Mont Tremblant and Montreal.

Mont Tremblant

A friend from college was kind enough to invite me along on a family ski trip. At first I was hesitant since I don’t ski, but then I saw on the website that there were lots of other activities — hiking, ice climbing, snowshoeing, dogsledding — and though what the heck.

No snow

Unfortunately for all those non-skiing activities you need snow, and when we got up there, there was zero. They did make fake snow for skiing and sledding, but not for anything else.

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Of course I could have gotten out of my comfort zone and gone skiing, but I wasn’t feeling it. However, I did find other stuff to do.

Hiking

Actually, it was more like a walk since it was a paved road. Either way it was lovely.

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I ended up walking up to the casino (I peeked in though didn’t gamble), which felt like a trek but was less than two miles. It probably felt long because I wasn’t sure where I was going and there were few landmarks. It’s not like city walking where suddenly you realize you’ve walked five miles.

Saint-Jovite

From the ski resort there’s a city bus that goes into the little towns between there and Montreal. A nice young woman at the information center recommended either the Old Village, although she said in the winter it was very quiet, or Saint-Jovite, which was more happening. I chose Saint-Jovite.

“Happening” is a relevant term. The town was cute and picturesque, but very small. I stopped in a few shops and walked back and forth a few times, basically killing time until the next bus. Unfortunately I wasn’t hungry, otherwise I would have eaten. The restaurants did look pretty good. But it was nice way to pass the time.

Star sighting

While I was waiting to meet my friend for lunch, I saw this African American woman having her picture taken. She had brightly colored hair — which was what caught my eye — and was just stunning. I thought, That looks like that actress from Law & Order who’s married to Garret Dillahunt. (Don’t ask me how I know this. Okay, I’ll tell you. I have a crush Garret Dillahunt.)

Then I realized it was the actress from Law & Order (and many other things) and I thought, Is Garret here too? As she passed me, I saw that he was (almost unrecognizable in all his ski gear) and like an idiot fan girl, I gave a little gasp. But of course I was too chicken to actually go up to them.

By the way, Garret was also disappointed about the lack of snow.

Getting down to Montreal

I had figured out that I needed take the same city bus I took to Saint-Jovite down to the stop where the Montreal bus picked up. But then my friend was kind enough to give me a ride.

Before we left, we had a chance to grab breakfast with her son, after which he and I pretended to stomp on a miniature village.

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It had started snowing that morning (finally) so I was extra glad to have a ride. We got to the bus stop, which was at a Shell Station, in plenty of time for me to buy my ticket, for everyone to pee, and to get random snacks.

The bus was one of those big comfy ones, and it was packed. I got the very last seat, which was at first occupied by this guy’s giant duffel bag, but then I went to the driver, who asked the guy to move the bag.

While my seatmate came off as jerky at first, he was actually okay. Behind us were two of his friends, and after one got off, he sat with his friend so that for much of the ride I had a row all to myself. Except for the last 45 minutes that is. At that point, this large French Canadian man sat next to me, and was all insulted that I didn’t want to talk to him and wanted to listen to podcasts instead. Tough merde.

It took two and a half hours but felt very quick. Yay for podcasts!

Montreal

In addition to having fun on this trip, I realized that I’m a total city girl and not big on physical activities (unless those activities involve running, hiking, or punching and kicking things). So Montreal was more up my alley.

The hotel

A high school friend and I stayed at the Hotel Omni Mont-Royal. I picked it sort of randomly. The price was right and the ratings were good. Plus it was right in downtown Montreal.

I loved everything about the place and would recommend it. Our room was huge and everything seemed new and clean. Plus the customer service was excellent, from the front desk (who printed my train ticket at no charge) to the concierge to the guy who brought my room service.

Museums

We hit two museums during our stay. On Sunday we visited the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which was free for the holidays. It’s freaking enormous and confusing. I kept getting lost trying to get to the cafeteria to meet my pal.

I saw a few random things, including stuff about Napoleon, a couple of contemporary exhibits, some Dutch still lifes (which I’m a sucker for), and Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. I would definitely go back to get a better handle on the place.

The food wasn’t bad either. I had a turkey sandwich, which was basic but hit the spot, and a panna cotta with caramel which was SO GOOD.

The other museum we went to was the Pointe-A-Calliere, also known as the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History. It was pretty good although I liked it less than the art museum. I had read articles touting the underground ruins, but those were just okay. They were no catacombs.

I liked better the Agatha Christie exhibit. While I know Christie for her mysteries, I didn’t know much else about her or that she had such a fascinating life. I think I had heard about her 10-day disappearance, which turned out to be the result of her husband leaving her for a woman named Nancy Neele (Christie checked into a hotel under the name Mrs. Teresa Neele).

But I didn’t know she was an amateur archaeologist (hence, her exhibit at that particular museum), and that during a dig, she met the man who would be her second husband. Max Mallowan was an archaeologist and 14 years her junior. When they married, he was 28 to her 42, which to me is pretty awesome.

We ended up spending about five hours there, two and a half of which was lunch. Service was, shall we say, leisurely. But the food was very good: a nice salad, pasta in a cream sauce with Spanish ham, and for dessert this delicious kind of fruit and nut loaf as well as pannacotta, although this one wasn’t as good as the one at the art museum. All in all, an excellent way to spend a freezing cold day.

Chinatown

While Montreal Chinatown is nothing compared to New York or San Francisco, I still liked it. We didn’t have a sit down meal, but we did have steamed pork buns from Patisserie Harmonie. We had no idea the place was so popular. All we saw that it was cute and on the corner, and the wares in the window looked good.

So good in fact that the next morning, we stopped in again, this time for roast pork buns. Those were tasty too.

And if you’re ever in that area and need a place to pee (and thaw), stop in the pagoda-topped Holiday Inn. There’s a very welcoming lobby on the second floor with a restaurant and fish pond. After using the ladies’, we had our buns in warmth and comfort.

Luminothérapie

Montreal seesaw

Need I say more?

Notre Dame Basilica and Old Montreal

We were lucky in that we got to see the Notre Dame Basilica at night and during the day. Unfortunately, the cold killed my phone battery so I wasn’t able to take any pictures of the beautiful blue-lighted angels. I did get plenty of inside shots however.

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Walking around Old Montreal was fun although it was so damned cold. And it always somehow ended up being dark by the time we hit that part of town — although that’s not difficult when sunset starts at 4:30.

Poutine, bagels, and maple syrup

A trip to Montreal wouldn’t be complete without trying poutine, their bagels, and maple syrup.

The place we got the poutine was a random bar in Old Montreal. We’re guessing the poutine was good — we got it with cut up hot dogs — but we have nothing to compare it to. It wasn’t bad, that’s for sure.

After a whole day out and about in frigid temperatures, my friend was brave enough to go back out one evening for bagels. (I, on the other hand, stayed in and ordered room service.) She was also kind enough to give me one. It was good although sweeter than a New York bagel. Her theory was that they make them with less salt. It was also less dense.

Finally, we both tried something maple syrupy. She had the famed maple taffy, and I had a maple syrup candy. It didn’t suck.

The trip back

Monday night the city was hit with more snow, which got my bud and me both worried about our bus and train, respectively. However, we made it out in time, even if our trips took longer than they were supposed to.

I had gotten to the station pretty early so I managed to get a window seat, which while annoying for peeing, is good for phone charging. The first third of the trip was okay, even though we sat on the tracks for a good 45 minutes waiting for a freight train to pass. I had my podcasts, worked on my writing a little, and ate bad food from the cafe car (another hot dog!).

We got to the border pretty quickly. My seatmate had said that on the way up, they sat at the border for two and a half hours. I was glad she told me so my expectations were set.

While driving through the border was fast, being on a train took longer. The border police came on and checked every single person’s passport and asked a few questions.

Most went off without a hitch — that is, except for a woman in my car. I didn’t know anything was going on until the police made her get up and go either into the next car or the vestibule. She was protesting a lot in French, saying, “Non!” and “Pourquoi?!” At one point she was screaming. Her kids got very upset, crying and such.

Eventually it seemed like the whole family was getting up to leave, but then I think the dad told the kids to stay with the other adult relative who was with them. The kids cried some more, but eventually they calmed down. A border policeman said, “It’ll be okay. Your mom’s just going back to Canada.” They probably thought she was being sent to jail.

I still don’t know why she was kicked off. Maybe her passport was expired or maybe she overstayed her last visit. But Canadians generally don’t need a visa to visit the U.S. Whatever the reason, soon after that we got moving again.

In all we were about an hour and a half late. We were supposed to get in at 8:50 but got in at 10:30. I was going to be frugal and take the subway, but between my luggage and being exhausted, I splurged on a cab and was home before 11.

The verdict?

While I might not go to a ski resort again (since I don’t ski), I would definitely pay another visit to Montreal, especially after the weather warms up.