Dec 29, 2016

Alpha Minus CIty

I've been to Atlanta a few times now. We've visited downtown, midtown, uptown, lonely and aging suburban districts, little "revitalized" urban centers of former edge towns with new "antique" lamp posts and cute signage, and the sterile but straightforward commercial centers of cheap strip malls with fanciful names floating on seas of asphalt between them all. In short: one of the better cities of our Varying States of America.

It was not so long ago that I was adamant that I would never like or consider living in Atlanta. A city without a past, whose face was a blank mirrored 1980's facade, where the Lords ruling the city were Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines and other Evil, Soulless Corporations.

So what have I learned in the week or so of time I've now spent here?

The sprawl of the city, the asphalt and traffic and rhythm of urban centers and strip malls gives the city the feel of the west: Phoenix and California. Oklahoma. There's not much density in what I have seen so far.

It's got some similarities to Chicago, but I find the feel closer to Saint Louis, but blown completely out of the scale of the latter.

There is a surprisingly robust public transit system. Not the same league as Boston or any of the major northeastern or northwestern metropolises (even Portland had better), but infinitely superior to Houston, Phoenix, Oklahoma City. One could even consider commuting with public transit.

There's a saying about Atlanta, which mostly refers to it's civil rights attitudes in the 1960s: A City Too Busy to Hate. It's a pretty strong backhanded compliment. What would you think of someone who was described like that? "I'd love to go harass some immigrant families, but I've got to finish these reports before the end of the fiscal year."

I enjoy the greenery of Atlanta. Everything from pine to peach to prickly pear.

There's a yuuuuuge Korean and Vietnamese community in the northeastern suburbs of Atlanta. It's the same terrible urban fabric as the rest of the city, but the signage and store contents are in Korean, Chinese, Mexican Spanish, Vietnamese, Thai. Korean bakeries on every corner, across from the Korean churches.

There's a surprising amount of good brutalist architecture. It looks as though Atlanta bought their major public works ten years before Houston, so Atlanta ended up with chunky, modernist concrete, which is holding up much more gracefully than Houston's wacky and garish postmodernism.

It's a pretty cheap city in which to live, with a pretty high average salary for architects, and a very strong economy. There is a system classifying cities in the world in terms of their importance to the global economy, influence, production of ideas and culture, etc.
Alpha ++ NYC, London
Alpha + Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai, Dubai, Sydney, Beijing
Alpha Milan, Toronto, Chicago, Moscow, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Frankfurt, [...]
Alpha - Dublin, ATLATA, Munich, Boston, Barcelona, San Francisco, Prague, Istanbul, [...]

Stuttgart is a Beta city, and Phoenix is a Gamma Plus city, Portland is a Gamma Minus city.


Yesterday was our Atlanta outing day. We caught a ride with Tim into his work and he dropped us off at a MARTA (Atlanta's subway system) station and we caught that into downtown to hit breakfast at Mia's Bluebird. 

Mia's is a small breakfast diner which must have been built in the 1950's, with wood paneling, big windows, and legendary pancakes. Legendary enough to be included in the NY Times "36 Hours in Atlanta" and described as the best pancakes in the world. We got there twenty minutes after it opened and still had to wait about 40 minutes to get seated, and though we had to join the crowd of people waiting outside in the cold, they sent out us out with mugs of hot coffee. Total hipster joint, but everyone wore their nicest knit sweaters and were cheerful and friendly to one another. 

Saori got pancakes topped with caramelized bananas, and I opted for pancakes with Georgian pecans. There were two kinds of bacon on the menu: when Saori asked the waiter about them, he said quite candidly "oh, this kind is local, so you get less of it. Order the normal one." So she did. I took the housemade pepper sausage patty. I have really missed breakfast shops like these. Delicious. Saori's banana pancakes were closer to bananas foster pancakes and my pancakes were also delicious, although I have to say the blueberry pancakes at Winslow's Home in University City, Missouri are better. 

From Mia's we took the metro a few stations to uptown. MARTA seems like a pretty strong backbone for public transportation in Atlanta. It runs fairly often, and spears through the sprawling metropolis north-south, and east-west. Crucially, it runs directly to the airport. It doesn't look like the white population, or white-collar professionals, use the system much. It's easy to buy tickets, simple to understand the system, it's not claustrophobic or crowded, and the trains run frequently. However, with the sprawl of the city, it could use some spurs and light rail branches to really make it effective. Maybe a ring line strung with park and rides to pull more of the suburbs in. The brutalist concrete stations are a little dirty but really not bad. 

The High Museum is right outside of a station. It is an architectural icon of Atlanta- the original Richard Meier 1980's building holding hands with the recently completed Renzo Piano structure. When I was introduced to the building way back in architecture undergrad, the author's position was that it was an early "Bilbao effect." Atlanta, having been razed and salted relatively recently, didn't have so much in the way of art collections, so they built an Icon from a capital A Architect. 

The museum looks like it is trying hard. There are signs encouraging photography, and they just reduced admission prices. The exhibitions are varied and interesting, and I can imagine that the Piano addition was not cheap. 

They did have a Eric Carle exhibition, which was worth the price of admission. Carle is the illustrator/author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and on display was a lot of the original collages from his books. Who hasn't read this book? And then to see the original paper collages which were photographed and put into it was special. He also wrote and illustrated a book about a pretzel baker, and my eye was caught by the distinctive shape of the pretzels. We were stunned to find out that he moved from the US to Stuttgart when he was six years old, and lived there until he was in his twenties, even graduating from the same Akademie where we know people who are teaching. The loneliness, of losing and making new friends, and his experiences hiking in the woods around Stuttgart growing up became strong themes in his books. Stuttgart, for that matter, seems to have forgotten him, although apparently he still returns occasionally. 

After the museum, we made a stop by the post office, where we mailed off some letters and packages. Next, we walked on to a liquor shop (naturally) where I picked up some special beers for the house, before we hit a Publix grocery store and then headed back to Sandy Springs at the far north end of Atlanta to be picked up by Ayumi. 

It's really hard to find camera film here. Supermarkets don't carry it, convenience stores don't carry it, and in the end I had to go to CVS to find a roll, and even there, there were only two types of 400 film. In the past five or six years, which is to say, the last time I was shooting and developing film in the US, film photography seems to have nearly disappeared. Which may explain why development is so expensive. In the US, the normal cost to develop and print a roll of 36 photos is around $18. In Germany, it's around $5. 

Black Rainbows

We arrived in Atlanta without any problems. We were the first off the plane, and then, since we were exiting at Atlanta, we were diverted from the main group of people clearing immigration and followed a long and labyrinthine series of corridors and escalators echoingly empty except for airline employees at turns, who welcomed us to Atlanta as we passed by. 

We must have just missed Joshua and Tim at the welcoming area- we popped out, and then went into the crowd and only then noticed the three year old holding the "welcome home" sign. They drove us to their home in Sandy Springs, outside of the perimeter loop.

Ayumi made a good dinner of daikon and pork belly in the pressure cooker. and we fought through jet lag to crash into bed at 10pm. The next day was mostly resting and playing with Joshua and Penney. Joshua is three and a half now and happily chatters away both in English and Japanese. Ever since watching Pixar's Lava short, he's been fascinated with volcanoes and rainbows. Although apparently volcanoes are not mountains but gendered flaming creatures. It also clarifies why his rainbows are all black: the "rainbows" come out of the volcano. When I showed him some photos of actual rainbows, I found myself a bit stuck explaining what they are. How do you explain optical diffraction and the visible light spectrum to a three year old? I explained that rainbows are the sun shining through the rain, which is pretty close to the truth, but he still pointed to a person in the background of the photo and said they were looking at the back of the rainbow.

Tim took Saori, Joshua, and I out the next afternoon, and we went to Sublime Donuts out by the fake brick plastered Georgia Tech. Sublime is just that: the salt and balsamic vinegar doughnut could be the best doughnut I've ever had. Thoroughly good. Not some tarted-up gourmet muffin masquerading as a doughnut, but a doughnut which is true to the tradition of doughnuts, deep to the roots, and still transcendent with the hint of saltiness and vinegar. People who care too much about doughnuts in Atlanta are divided into the Sublime and Revolution camps. After trying both, I have to go with Sublime. Revolution is just a bit too second-wave doughnut for me. They also had a really killer peach fritter, and good coffee.

After doughnuts, we went to the central library, which is a remarkable brutalist concrete building by German architect Marcel Breuer. We parked in the garage next door and went in to take photos. The building was completed in the early 1980s and features some staggering half inch thick single pane windows the size of Apple store windows. It's a lovely building and I'm sad to read it's now under threat of demolition. 

That night, we went out for Japanese food at a restaurant modeled after a typical Japanese pub, Shoya Izakaya. Dark wood paneling everywhere, but the food was pretty authentic. Saori told me that it was pretty close to the price and quality to a comparable pub in Japan. We split a bunch of sushi and I got a bowl of ramen which was fantastic. Penny and Joshua came along too, and Ayumi in the center spent most of her time tending to one or the other, getting a bit frazzled in the process. I don't think they eat out much unless they have company. 

Dec 26, 2016

Magical Medallions

It was an incredibly frustrating experience lining up the holidays. On the one hand, we are both given a lot of time off, (and in my case, I have no choice but to take the days off), so we have the time, but not so much the money. Germans plan their vacations at least a year in advance, so it’s difficult to get deals until you are working either really far ahead or just to the last minute. We liked the idea of going someplace in Europe, say a week in Budapest, for example, getting out to explore someplace we’ve never been before, especially when it’s so close. But 1) when we factor in the cost of dining and hotels for a week, the costs can quickly add up, 2) not seeing family around the holidays is tough, especially for Saori, and 3) travel is often its own kind of stress, and Saori in particular needs some good down time. So all things considered, finding a not-too-expensive flight to the US was the best solution for us.

As a desperate idiot, I used a third-party travel booking website for the tickets to Atlanta because it was a really good deal. Direct Stuttgart to Atlanta flight. Sane departure time, sane arrival time, 800 round trip. I booked the tickets and then there was this stupid dance this third party site made me do including faxing them a copy of my passport and a signed note saying that I approved of them charging my credit card to pay for the tickets. It felt shady and so I looked them up and got page after page of people complaining mostly in German. But the consensus was that this was a legitimate third party travel agency, but they were just incompetent, rude, difficult to work with, and unprofessional. Not that it was a scam. So I sweated a bit until I got confirmation codes from the airline, and then then I sweated a bit more until we actually got our boarding passes. I did get to use my Delta Silver Medallion status to use the SkyPriority line to get our passes, and then to actually board in the first zone. We got our seats in the back, two aisles as it turned out. Oh well. Only ten hours to Atlanta. At least they were side by side.

They were halfway through the boarding process when two stewardess came back to where Saori and I were sitting across from each other on an aisle:
“Mr. Perkins, we have some different seats for you, if you would like to come this way...” Saori thought they were going to put us next to each other, in the two middle seats of a four-seat row, and was going to protest, but I immediately thought “Upgrade.” We were happy to fight our way up the current of passengers back to the second and third row, where we were asked if we would enjoy a glass of Champagne or Orange Juice, sir, and we said that sounds pretty good to us. I don’t think I gave enough money to Delta this year (we flew Turkish for the wedding) so I think I’ll be losing my status soon, but I am really enjoying this instant upgrade business.
When was the last time I few anything other than economy? We got upgraded on a flight once when I was a teenager, and that between two American cities, never international.

TUMI branded travel kits, fully reclining seats, smoked tuna, Stracciatella Fagotto Pasta with sage pumpkin sauce, caramelized squash and balsamic onions. Gingerbread and butter pudding with blackcurrants and topped with ice cream. Warm cookie?

So what do we do? We ate a lot. They keep you busy the first hour or two just with drinks and wine and food. Saori napped a bit. Then she found a documentary about Spock and we both watched it. I wrote this blog and the one before, detailing what we have been up to since my last day at the office. How easy it is to write away the hours.

Christmas Traditions

Thursday, December 22 was the first day our winter holiday. We got out early and hit the city hard for the last few things from the Christmas markets, a bit of shopping more for travel, runs to the post office to mail packages, coffee to beat back the fatigue.

The city was busy, but hardly in a frenzy. We noticed grimly the new concrete roadblocks that had been erected overnight, the increase in the number of police and police vehicles, and how many of them now carried rifles. This was, of course, a reaction to the tragedy in Berlin, where an asylum-seeking terrorist hijacked a truck and rammed it into a christmas market, killing a dozen people and injuring many more.

It’s a difficult time. With the rising tide of populist, isolationist nationalism, I am seeing more and more hostility against immigrants in Germany. In September, the far-right party Alternative fur Deutschland will run against Merkel and it is expected they will do well enough to claim some powers in the national government. From what I understand, their positions are much more reactionary than Trump’s. Stuttgart remains fairly open-minded, but then it has not [yet] been hit by terrorism, and it is a region which was largely built and prospered on the industry of immigrants working for German industrialists. Merkel gets a lot of criticism for what her critics say was the “throwing open the doors” of Germany, and wolves came in with the sheep.

It is difficult to imagine the mindset of these migrants. On the one hand, they are so desperate to flee they will play Russian roulette with the crossing, to throw one’s live and the lives of the family to mercy of the seas and steppes, to smugglers and bandits. What wouldn’t one do afterwards, once one has put that gun to the head and pulled the trigger? When Finland decided to start advertising that refugees would not be welcomed, it was almost a black joke: Finland takes out an “unwelcome” ad while in Greece refugees sewed their own mouths shut in protest just against conditions in the holding camps.

And many refugees voluntarily go back to the war-and-poverty-destroyed homes from which they came. They are willing to risk death and to lose everything they have and then they end up in some progressive, secular, educated European nation where nothing makes sense and they feel as alienated and lost as if they were still at sea. So they return, even to Syria, because they can at least live their identity there.

There was a case here of an asylum seeker who threw his children out through the window of their state-provided housing (they survived) because he was angry and upset that his wife was taking the attitudes and customs of the German women. There are cultural adjustment classes all over Germany for refugees, but old habits die hard, especially when they are tied to the way religions are interpreted. But who knows, maybe he was just an unusually terrible person and we have those everywhere.

Anyway, more security at the Christmas markets.
Thursday evening, Saori and I made more springerle, which, if I had a cooking blog, would be our Baking Fad of the Moment. Springerle are a kind of stamped cookie, lightly flavored with whole anis seed, and in my experience, incredibly hard and durable. In fact, recipes call for an aging in a cool, outside humidity environment for a week or two to “mature” after baking, at which point it has a shelf life of years. People make them into tree ornaments. Saori took an interest to the stamps last year but this was her first year to try them and she was over the moon with the results. They can taste good, and Saori’s do, but the main point of these cookies are the impressions from the stamps, which are incredibly detailed. These show traditional christmas scenes like the three kings or the manger scene, birds and animals, winter scenes like snowmen, wreaths and roses, and old domestic scenes like women baking or knitting. The detail is very fine- the “woman knitting stamp is perhaps two inches by two inches and one sees definitely the woman’s tiny nose, the hair’s width yarn line, and even the building outside of the window. Breaking one of these cookies apart feels slightly like destroying old bas-reliefs. It makes me want to make an edible Parthenon with the Elgen Marbles rendered in flour and powdered sugar.

The recipe is very basic- egg and flour and powdered sugar, but it takes extremes of time: you have to beat the dough for 30 minutes, and then it has to rest for 30 minutes, and then after you stamp the cookies, it has to sit out and rest for 24 hours. It’s about the slowest of slow foods.
Friday morning we invited our friend Dennis over for breakfast. Dennis is Saori’s coworker and team leader, and she described him to me once as her big brother at the office- at times appearing to be infuriatingly and obstinately oblivious, and other times absolutely brilliant and an effective mediator and cushion between Saori and her psychopath project leader. He took a job in Munich, (good for him, his first time working away from his home area), but Saori is really bummed to be losing him from the office. I cooked us up a rasher of bacon and fried eggs and he brought some fresh fruits and croissants, and Saori made some toffee nut coffee (from America, of course, nobody else on earth flavors their coffee like that).

His family had invited us over to spend Christmas eve and stay over a night, but it was changed to Christmas day dinner when his father wasn’t feeling well, and Dennis decided to just spend Christmas eve day with us. We chatted well until lunchtime and then parted ways. We spent the afternoon cleaning and I brined the turkey. That night, Saori and I curled up on the couch and watched The Snowman, which is one of our christmastime traditions, and YouTubed old Russian stop motion kid’s shows like Cheburashka and Hedgehog in the Fog. We also discovered a delightful 1980s Muppet christmas special which centered on the running gag of more and more guests showing up at Fozzie Bear’s mom’s house for Christmas, including the entire ensemble of Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. Bert and Ernie were the highlight in this crossing, although the generosity and sweetness of Big Bird dissuades the Swedish chef from making him the main course.

Saturday was Christmas eve day, and I jumped out in the morning to pick up a few last minute things from the grocery stores, which were open until the early afternoon. I started soaking some beans for Christmas day, cleaned the oven, made STP, and Saori wrapped some last presents.
Dennis came over around four and I popped the turkey in the oven. I popped open a bottle of German bubbly and we toasted each other. We chatted and cooked and YouTubed until the turkey was ready and the three of us sat down to feast at a table decked with candles and lights and evergreen tree branches. A small feast, at any rate. Saori made cranberry sauce, I made the roasted turkey drums, Saori made the salad from the ingredients Dennis had brought, and then there was STP for dessert.

Dennis also brought us Christmas presents to unwrap since in Gemany, most people open presents Christmas eve. So we plunked down in front of the tree and received from him a tasting set of local spirits for me, Saori got some L’Occitane hand creams, and for both of us a book Krabat a 1971 young adult fantasy (in German) based on a very old traditional story from Germanic Slavs, which is one of his favorite books.

Saori had prepared a bag of springerle for his family and I selected one of the bottles of wine to give to Dennis in return, but he protested we had already given him so much in terms of dinners.
After presents we returned to the table, broke out the liquor, delta blues, and playing cards. We taught Dennis daihinmen because neither Saori nor I could remember the rules to Durak, and Dennis caught on quick. We played late into the night until we decided to break for a movie. I proposed “Aliens” probably because it had been rolling around in the back of my head for awhile to watch it again, and both Saori and Dennis thought, why not, sounds like fun. So we settled on the sofa to watch Ridley Scott’s timeless Christmas classic about overcoming hardships, unlikely friendships, crashed spaceships, and motherhood. My heart nearly burst out of my chest.

It was half five AM when we waved Dennis out and went to bed ourselves.

Christmas morning I woke up just before the dawning of eleven and assessed myself for how badly hungover I was. It was a Christmas miracle: a couple cookies, a couple aspirin, a cup of coffee, and I was back on my feet and ready to open presents with my beloved.

Saori gave me a wireless LED lamp from local lighting manufacturer Nimbus, as well as a promise to buy me a new chair once we are back in the US for good. I got her leg warmers. Well, not just leg warmers. Theres a few more things waiting in the US, but you need to open something on Christmas.

After present opening, I fixed us a light breakfast (we were still stuffed from Christmas) and started packing and cleaning and texting family and friends, generally getting ready for our trip to the US. We took a break a little after three to go on a short hike. Many of the Germans I talked to about their Christmas plans, most of them mentioned hiking with family in a way which was somewhere between eye-rolling and excitement. I liked the idea of a Christmas hike. A bit of fresh air, a breather in the woods, a bit of excercise to “bajar la comida” after so much eating.

So we threw on something warm and put on our hiking boots and went out to visit the population of wild boars. About a half hour hike in from the last subway stop, the state fenced off a football field or two of forest for wild boars to roam around. It’s a popular spot because the wild boars are used to seeing people and will come up to the fence to crunch away on pasta, fruits, and veg. Last year before christmas there was a new litter(?) and over the year it’s been fun to come back and see the tiny watermelon striped piglets mature into roughhousing juveniles running around everywhere and now they’re almost full grown, much more sedate.

After the hike, I finished cooking the beans in the pressure cooker since the slow cooker was a bit too slow and that finished everything really nice. So we ate a cup or two, cleaned, and packed the rest of the evening before turning in late.

Christmas traditions:

  • Hike on Christmas Day - KEEP
  • Family Sharing - CONDITIONAL
  • Watching The Snowman - KEEP
  • Watching Aliens - MAYBE. We’ll see about next year. Might be alternate years
  • Roasted turkey dinner - See Aliens
  • Hangover - TOSS
  • Overplaying “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” - TOSS
  • Facetime / Google Talk to family - KEEP
  • Gathering with friends and family - KEEP
  • Champagne - KEEP
  • Sticky Toffee Pudding - KEEP
  • Evergreen branches on dining table - KEEP

Dec 22, 2016

Time Travelers

I've been on a bit of a time travel kick for awhile. I guess it started with reading The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, but it extended to stupid plotlines for good StarTrek episodes and movies, and then I found myself reading The Lathe of Heaven and The End of Eternity, both 60s and 70s time travel science fiction.

The accouterments of our lifestyles here are distinctly anachronistic. We have no microwave, no dishwasher, no laundry dryer, no television. I take public transportation to work from our apartment built in 1900, and on the weekends, we buy vegetables from the green grocer stand on the church plaza square, and everyone pays cash. Many of the grocery stores no longer have plastic bags available, so you automatically carry cotton totes with you. The bread comes from the bakery, the fish from the fishmonger, the hammer from the hardware store on the corner. We take photos on cameras older than our parents.

Saori's coworkers caught up with us on a recent trip. They can't believe we want to go back to the US. Indicating the roasted venison and potato dumpling lunch we were enjoying, they asked, do you know how much this would cost in Boston?

Strolling today in the double sunlight from massive glass storefront windows reflecting onto immaculately clean, large paved sidewalks, there are moments where Germany feels like the future arrived too early. A world largely without poverty, with universal health care, incredibly low unemployment and a strong GDP, where mothers and fathers are given paid months and months off to raise new children, where you can get a doctor to prescribe you two weeks vacation because you are too stressed by your job. A modern transit system to whisk you almost anywhere in the country. An emphasis and respect for handcraft, and living in balance with the environment.

But the rest of the world does not live in that world, and this is coming to be a problem.

It feels like we are caught in an alternative dimension. We didn't derail our lives coming to Germany, but we are on a strange sidling, coasting while time barrels by.

End of the Year: Parties

There is a very old saying in Japanese "at the end of the year, even the Master must run," conjuring up images of grave and solemn kimonoed Samurai and lords of large estates who have so much to do in terms of preparing for festivities as the year winds to a close they even they gotta fly through their paper castles.

Cesar, one of my former coworkers at WA, invited a big group out to Milliways, a bar in Stuttgart, which also happens to be the Restaurant at the end of the Universe. It was a big party, Cesar was popular and he made a lot of friends so I saw most people from the old office plus many others I had come to know over the years here. I also ended up drinking too much. Even staying away from beer, which normally works well, failed me here, and I ended up ill until about 5pm the following day. Maybe I should see a doctor- it strikes me odd that I should get so sick for so long after one beer and three gin and tonics.

My office shuts its doors from the 22nd of December and doesn't reopen them until January 9th. It's nice to have such a long time off, but I wish I could choose to work more in order to pick and save my time off. We get such a chunk of vacation time, but so much of it burns with with Yule log.

The office end of year party was at the the old restaurant I've been working on intermittently for renovations. It was the first time most of the people in the office had seen it, and it was the first time the new bathroom areas I designed were in operation. It was kind of a kick, to excuse myself from an office party to go use a bathroom I had a hand in designing. This is, of course, the same restaurant that J bought (out of bankruptcy), turned into a LLC, and now runs as the joint owner. I was joking to Rafa on the way home that for many reasons, we should start calling him Don J.

Anyway, the restaurant is actually quite good and fairly expensive, so the Don treated us to a very nice evening. We were nearly twenty at the big table in the middle of the room. J had also invited the two elderly couples from the village who do the cleaning and odd jobs, so I sat between Rafa and our Putzfrau.

The cream of pumpkin soup was the best I'd ever had. The crispy duck not bad, but not as remarkable as the mountain of rotkraut (a kind of lightly pickled and savory red cabbage) or the apple and potato dumplings that came with it. Dessert was mousse. And never ending drinks. We started, naturally, with a rose bubbly (some local Sekt) and then I stuck to a big red wine for the rest of the evening, taking it very slowly since I'd only recovered from Cesar's party about 24 hours before.

We chatted and drank and ate at the restaurant for a full six hours, occasionally joined by the head chef/owner who had some wine with the Don. I had a long chat with Herr L, the other partner in the architecture office, who strongly commended my work and praised me as a "secret champion" of the office. It was a pointed compliment which he elaborated on as saying I was too quiet about myself and my work, and I needed a little "blood transfusion" from the table-thumping, attention-grabbing architects. In short, I need some swagger.

The office paid for taxis for everyone back home, and then again for taxis in the morning to take us back to the office. This was really nice.

Every year, Saori's office brings everyone from all three offices to Stuttgart to celebrate, from the Senior Partner in Munich to the intern from Boston, and they use the opportunity to share ideas, reconnect, there's a day of presentations, a day of architecture tours of old projects, and then a big party. This year the office rented out Bix, the most famous jazz bar in Stuttgart, for a 1920s themed dinner and party, and everyone decked themselves out for the occasion. (Spouses are not invited). It sounded pretty fantastic- the party lasted until about two or three in the morning, and it was still going strong when Saori headed home.

Yesterday was the last workday for Saori and me. I spent the day working on a few details and killing some time thinking of paint schemes for the Neonatology clinic I'm designing. Also lots of cleaning, filing, and an hour in the stuffed material samples library tossing catalogs and samples. At lunch, I stopped by the winery next door and picked up two bottles because they have really nice wines (one of the top 100 winerys in Germany). The last hour or so, we were called into the conference room for a few glasses more of bubbly, and then came presents. The office gave us three bottles of wine (from the same winery), and J passed out all the gifts the office had received from clients and customers. I ended up bringing home from this assortment:

  • Bottle of Slovakian wine
  • Bottle of German Wine
  • Jar of gourmet hot dogs
  • Jar of gourmet mustard
  • Lunchbox
  • Two cans of prepared Wurst
  • Two bags of Christmas cookies
  • electronic portable luggage scale
It was quite a haul. Cotton bags were provided for portage. I am glad Rafa and I decided to share a taxi back to Stuttgart instead of taking the bus and S-bahn. 

Dec 10, 2016

The Castle

Burg Hohenzollern is a royal castle which tops a large hill in the Swabian Alps not far from Stuttgart. It is the last major holding of the Hohenzollern family, which rose to power in the village nearby nearly 1000 years ago and produced many leaders of monarchy and power including a Holy Roman Emperor. It was also the destination for a small hiking trip we took with some of Saoris coworkers last weekend. 

Daphne and Georg invited us out and drove us up to park on a nearby peak, the idea being we hike down across a picturesque valley and back up to the castle where there was an ongoing Christmas market in the castle courtyard. At the peak, the fog had frozen to the trees, coating everything in white frost. It was really beautiful, and we hiked down and across over about an hour and a half to the castle.

The castle itself is quite dramatic, but not so old, a little over 150 years, the third or fourth castle to be built on that peak, with the chapel dating back several hundred years. It was packed with visitors and the guards yelled at us for arriving via the car road and not the pedestrian path. He was shocked, shocked, we had taken something other than the normal way there.

We got some really good oven-roasted flatbreads, drank some mead and mulled wine, and checked out the few stalls in the cramped courtyard. It was later than we anticipated when we headed out again. In this part of Germany, this time of the year, it gets starts to get dark around 5pm, and it was already late afternoon when when we started hiking back. 

Georg decided to take us a different way back from the way we came (we were navigating with phones and google maps since we all had good cell phone connections) but the problem was we lost the daylight, nobody had flashlights, and people's iPhones all started to die. Germans log their forest and parks, felling selected trees and liming others, and we were confused by the forest tracks left by the recent logging in the area. We knew where we were, but the path we thought we were on ended abruptly, and rather than try to scale a massive rock formation, we turned back and took a different route to try to get around to where we wanted to be. At this point, the path was very rough and it was fully night, and the other member of our group, Tali, grew more and more panicked. The signs warning of witches did not help. 

Tali was of the opinion that we should call the police while we still had cell phone power and await rescue. As a group, we tried to reassure her that the biggest dangers we faced in this small patch of woods was tripping over people drunk on Gluhwein from the nearby winter festivities. We convinced her that the police would simply locate us and direct us to the nearest road to meet them, which is logical considering we were seeing people's backyards and the twinkling of village lights in the distance below. The other new route we attempted also ended in a mysterious path ending, so we threw up our hands and backtracked all the way to the route we had originally taken, extending our hike by several hours. In the end, it was quite special. The castle, almost always visible in the distance, lit up the mist around the mountain with what looked like bonfires, and the sound of music could be heard. When we emerged back onto the open fields on the ridge-line, the sky was clear and full of stars, and we could see the milky way arching over us.

We had also evidently just missed some kind of party since we found and collected a dozen glow sticks which were left behind, and we took them with us to better keep track of one another. When we finally reached the car at the mountain inn, we stopped for a enervating cup of coffee and water, and drove back to Stuttgart. 

I felt kind of stupid for not bringing any kind of emergency kit for this hike, and as soon as I got home, started assembling a simple kit which will include the following:
  • compass
  • hand crank flashlight
  • power bank for recharging cell phones
  • emergency heat blanket
  • whistle
And I think we'll leave Tali at home next time.

Speaking German

Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, wrote a translation of the bible from Latin into the German spoken at the time, around the 1500's. It was one of the first complete translations of the bible from Latin into the "vulgar" but it was also a defining moment in the history of the German language because in writing this translation, Luther codified and standardized German which varied widely across the German-speaking world. To most Germans, Martin Luther is also the father of "Hochdeutsch" (High German).

Actually, this language has changed so little that I was surprised how easy it was to read the first chapter of Genesis (Moses in the German). It is a strange feeling to read and understand the directly written words of a 1500's monk who lived in the middle of Germany (although I have read it before, many times, in English, so that helped a bit with the comprehension and overall structure).

The downside of all this, of course, is that now I also mostly grasp the terrible puns and jokes in the German language, mostly in advertising, which still operates at a 1970's level compared to the US.

Nov 19, 2016

Light Therapy Treatment Blog: Week 1

I ordered a light therapy lamp online and had it delivered to my office this week. Every spring, it's like a massive weight is lifted off my mind and its shocking to recognize how depressed I was in the wintertime. So I plunked down my european coinage and bought myself a portable 10,000 lux lamp.

I feel better already: it's been good comedy fodder. From Saori's wry comment about "isn't there an app for that?" to the fact that it LOOKS like a tablet down to a felt slip case. One of my coworkers thought it was a drawing tablet, and I almost give to him to see if he could get my new "tablet" to work. It is bright, and I've just started using it so we shall see if I notice any difference.

It was a long week with too little sleep. We watched Das Boot over two nights, both of which ended up being late, and then there was no hot water for the next two days. Why does that keep me up? The hot water in my apartment building comes from a boiler in the basement, and the management had two different engineering firms come out and take a look at it. From the Hausmeister downstairs, it didn't sound like we were going to have more hot water, so Saori asked a colleague if we could use his shower. He lives around the block, so we loaded up a bag with bath stuff and headed over. Along with a bottle of wine as a gift.

He lives alone and was happy to recieve us that late, and so he felt compelled to open the bottle and it turned out be a nice Chianti so we took turns showering and drinking wine and chatting. So that also became a very late night by the time we came back home.

Thursday the hot water was back on, and I was so exhausted (they say Kaputt in German, i.e. broken) I was actually ill, with headache and nausea, and I was in bed before nine. Felt back to normal after a good nights sleep.

Friday night, we went to go see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at the English language movie in Vaihingen. It was a fun movie. Not sure I would recommend the 3D version but then I'm all about the visuals, and 3D I find to be too distracting. OK plot, really immaculate and fun set design and costuming.

It's saturday. We are way behind on everything, so today I'm trying to line up christmas tickets to the US this weekend. Gray, gray days.

Nov 13, 2016

Sixty great things

Mom turned 60 this week, and I've been thinking about her this whole month. To celebrate with her, especially since I can't be there with her and my brother in person, I'm listing 60 great things and memories I have of her. Obviously, this list is in no way comprehensive, but just some of the first sixty of the innumerable.

  1. Mom taught us the importance of taking part of the communities we were living in. She dragged Tay and I to the schools and churches to go vote with her. She voted in this election, expects us to vote, and raised to take our civic duties responsibly.
  2. Mom's recipe for lunchtime snack: Slice a hot dog in half, lay in a string cheese, roll it all up in a flour tortilla and microwave for a minute.
  3. Going with her to see Carmen and signing themes all the way back to the car
  4. She put me in a commercial for PetsMart
  5. She ventured out of her home state and took the leap to travel first to Mexico, then South Africa, and Japan, and then farther and farther afield, with an explorer's spirit.
  6. "experience junkie"
  7. Keeps calm, cool, and collected in pressure situations.
  8. Supported our family move to Singapore from a world we had grown up in, which infected all of us with a love for travel and vastly widened worldview.
  9. She bribed Tay with a Nintendo Gameboy to move. It was a great example of soft power and negotiation. 
  10. She organized the kind of dream rehearsal dinner for our wedding, where she made happen what we would have wished if money and connections were no problem.
  11. Even though she gave up sugar* she bakes for her office and for her children. I'm still delighted by her Rolo cookies and her mummy cookies still make me laugh
  12. *Scones are categorically excluded, as is gelato when you are on vacation. The lesson for me is don't be so extreme that you miss out the great things in life.
  13. She gives to her children, not with the expectation that they will give back to her, but that we will pay it forward to OUR children.
  14. She plays a mean game of Kings and Losers, keeping Tay, Saori, and I, no poor players ourselves, always on our toes.
  15. Ditto for Bananagrams
  16. She faces radical changes and challenges in her life with incredible grace, resilience, and determination
  17. She sent me to Junior Cotillion where you learn to ask girls to dance and then to actually dance with them when I was in elementary school. It was horrifyingly awkward and I hated it, but it impressed upon me that A) there is a social code that people actually follow, and B) it gave me a step into dancing, which did actually does thread into and out of my life.
  18. More soft power parenting techniques: "Whose Day is it?"
  19. The difference and importance of distinguishing between "who's" and "whose"
  20. Relentlessly encouraging and pushing me to finish what I started in the BoyScouts to become an Eagle scout. 
  21. She is killing it as a lawyer, working for the state
  22. She has a really clear view of what she wants, and the patience and persistence to work for it.
  23. She made a ton of friends in law school across a huge range of ages because she really is that friendly, sincere, and smart that everyone wants to know her.
  24. I lived with her and her current husband for about four months while I was between countries and jobs. She told me once when I was in high school that she would charge me rent to live with them after I graduated, but the only thing she requested from me in this time period was that I cook dinner once a week, which I did, with pleasure. 
  25. She once said she was sad that Tay and I didn't enjoy cooking because she thought we were too much influenced by her attitude towards cooking, but I am happy to remind her that I am now totally into cooking. 
  26. Cold cucumber soup. I hated it when she made it growing up, but it was still food she cooked for us and put on the table every day, and better or worse, we ate a wide variety of meals. 
  27. We had a fantastic trip to Peru and Machu picchu together
  28. When we all lived in Phoenix as adults, going to mom's house for dinner and game night on Fridays.
  29. Napkin ring obsession
  30. She believes jewelry should be worn because it looks great and you love wearing it, and should not just sit hiding as a small investment in a box.
  31. Rule number one at the pool: No Splashing The Mom. 
  32. Parade of Sausages in Munich
  33. The way she welcomes warmly and with open arms all of the friends I made, and that people who are special to me, are special to her.
  34. AJ's pasta night with extra garlic
  35. Lounging and drinking coffee in the modernist glass cube on top of the Capitoline museum in Rome, overlooking that historic city like a group of cinematographers
  36. Paris in freezing temperatures, Musee d'Orsay and a tiny hotel in St. Germain
  37. Paris in the summer, Eurodisney, and the sewer tour. And the Musee d'Orsay because it's fantastic.
  38. "Everyone Gets a Day" method of group travel, where each member gets to propose the day's dining and sightseeing. I never regretted a single day proposed by anyone, it was always interesting and different
  39. Suffered through my endless track and field meets (where I came in last, except one time when I came in second from last) and cross country races (where I did a little better) to support and encourage me.
  40. Insisted that I participate in some form of sports as both a means of keeping me in good physical shape and to spark some form of social skills. Finally clicked with cross country late in high school, but she pushed through all the other sport and social misadventures
  41. It makes me happy to know she enjoys the simple pleasure of drinking coffee in the morning outdoors and looking at the desert mountains. 
  42. Sneaky parent dinner strategy: "asparagus is too good for children."
  43. Less effective strategy: "it could be your new favorite thing!"
  44. One of her big self-criticisms is that she has no "crafty" talent or hand-eye coordination, but she started in visual design (print media layouts) where she found a lot of success, (or so it seems to me), to the Crafting = Fabric Pinecones, to painting, to giving up painting, and finally once again finding a lot of enjoyment and pleasure in landscape design and interior design.
  45. Helping me rescue Saori from Homeland Security goons in DC by faxing them Saori's birth certificate from our apartment in Phoenix
  46. Gives great advice, whenever I had the humility and presence of mind to ask it
  47. Gives great advice, without being asked for it
  48. Once resisted calling me in the middle of the night to make sure I knew how to escape from a rip tide current
  49. Filled my childhood with love and delight and, along with my father and brother, taught me most of the important things about being a human being. 
  50. Family Christmas poetry slam.
  51. She is a devoted daughter and sister, and inspires me as an example of how great family can be.
  52. "Alec, where are you going.... Upstairs to take a bath, bath, bath, bath"
  53. She is a PADI certified diver, and I remember the amazing time we went scuba diving in the Maldives and watching a (monstrosity? flock? alley?) of manta rays feeding off the reef, and then they were going to eat Tay since he was floating off the reef.
  54. She is an incredibly gracious host who reminds her children that the main point of being a host is to make guests as comfortable as possible
  55. 1990's fun car: Mazda 240-SX, 2000's fun car: Mustang convertible, 2010's fun car: Mazda Miata. Loves cars that get progressively smaller, to the point that in 2020 she will be driving the equivalent of a cat carrier on an motorized skateboard
  56. She swam with stingrays, had a black tie dinner on the Great Wall of China, rode in an guarded convoy across the wastelands of Egypt, went on an African safari, mingled with the elites of Mexico City, let her kids take a taste of the beer at the Tsingdao Factory in China, and more willingly let us try the chocolate at the Red October Chocolate Factory in Moscow, watched the national independence parades in Cuzco, Peru, and took a hot air balloon ride over the Arizona desert.
  57. She takes her health seriously enough to exercise regularly, goes to the gym, radically changed her diet and stuck with it.
  58. "Never say never"
  59. No longer tells the story about the time I abandoned my seven year old brother in Singapore.
  60. Totally swinging on a star, carrying moonbeams home in a jar.

Oct 23, 2016

stories about wives

I started taking German courses again after getting some comments from my bosses that I needed to accelerate my language acquisition. I've lost my hatred of the German language- what remains is an indolent, simmering resentment of the difficulty it takes to master it.

I enrolled once more at IFA, one of the better language schools in town. Or at least, I tried to enroll. I filled out the online form and submitted it, and then waited to get the email with the bill and bank payment information. It never came. I tried calling, but the lines are always busy and the system dumps you out if the line is busy after three rings. Because I work for a living, I can't spend my day repeat dialing the same number over and over again. But I did it anyway for about half an hour.

I did finally get through. They told me that I had registered for the classes I wanted but that they had sent me an email with the payment instructions, and when I had failed to pay, booted me from the class and now all the classes I wanted were full. I explained that I had failed to pay because they had never sent me the bill. I know my inbox. I have a gmail account. IFA has it. They have successfully sent me things in the past. They just screwed up and then refused to acknowledge their mistake. So registered for the weekend course, which is Friday nights and Saturday mornings.

Saori's office is paying an IFA instructor to give once a week lessons at her office. Saori talked to her on my behalf, and magically, there was space available in the class I wanted to take. What a coincidence. Goes to show you no matter where you go in the world, some things stay absolutely the same. It also helps that Saori is gifted with a magical ability that people just instantly like her and want to help her.

My new instructor is actually a quite old instructor. Saori was in his classes for a long time, which is how I got to know him, and we both recognized each other when I arrived to class. A elderly Yugoslavian immigrant, philosophy enthusiast, with three children and several ex-wives, one of whom was Japanese. You don't learn all these things on the first day with him, of course. He talks a lot. On the first day of class we took some wide detours covering the importance of hand washing and the difference between the cold and flu, female genital mutilation, and Alfred Hitchcock horror movies.

Actually, the best thing about Deutschkurs is the other students. It feels a bit like a casting call round table for a new StarTrek TV series. Bright and mostly enthusiastic people from all over the world, eager to make German theirs to command and make the most of the European powerhouse. Actually, intimidatingly bright. One of my classmates is a Greek PhD student in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at the Max Planck institute. Another one of them told us this story:

J was from Romania, where she worked in a travel agency. She took a trip to Germany to visit a friend, but she took the wrong train somewhere in Germany and unable to speak German, mildly panicked. At the station where she disembarked, she sought the help of the DeutscheBahn assistance kiosk, and the man there was able to work out what her problem was, get her in touch with her friend and line up the trains she needed to take. He got her email, and then later they began a correspondence with the limited language they shared. He wrote to her one day that he wanted to come visit her, and did, and she later came to Germany to see him again, and one thing lead to another and they got married, and she now works as a sales clerk in Stuttgart, but also struggles with the language.

There is another story, a sadder one. My coworker, Schmid, always struck me as particularly harried, even for a specification writer. What I never understood was that his wife was in the hospital, and had been for a year, with a brain tumor. She died about two weeks ago, a few days after her 44th birthday, leaving behind her husband and three children.

The office went to the funeral, in a small town in the foothills of the Bavarian alps. Most people wore black, which is not surprising, but actually down to black button down shirts, which was. Like most funerals in the US, there was a short service in a small church, which unlike the US, included a terrible song about goodbyes from the 1980s sung in German and played through a CD player by the female minister. The casket was already at the graveyard, and we gathered once more there where I was surprised by a 15 person band in traditional Schwabish Alb costume and hats. They played some gloomy marches and then we all filed past the coffin held over the grave, and tossed some flowers on top before giving a consoling handshake or hug to Schmid. Afterwards, all the guests were invited to cake and coffee hosted one of the local traditional guesthouses.

Sep 26, 2016

German stereotypes

After several years of living in Germany, I have finally found the perfect stereotype for Germans.

From the outside: Vulcan

Relating to outsiders, you, me, the rest of the world, Germans from different villages, the stereotypical German is by-the-book, supremely logical no matter how strange the outcome is. If you can show a logical chain of reasoning, you can convince them of nearly anything. Coming from a shockingly violent past, they are rooted to an ideal of universal peace and keeping their emotions deeply in check. Attire must be clean, subdued, sensible. They know most humans do not understand them, but they are patient and paternalistic with the knowledge that with the aid of science, and a calm and quiet optimism, humankind can be guided to a better future.

To each other: Hobbit

Among friends and neighbors, and when they look in the mirror, Germans are complete Hobbits for the best and worst. When you are one of the Kumpels (drinking buddies), life is revealed to be a simple thing: build a cute and comfortable little house in the village and keep it tidy, don't take big risks, enjoy the sunshine and the forests, and never shy away from festivals where you can dress nice with lots of drinking, feasting, singing, and dancing. Don't trust outsiders, but make sure they're treated fairly and politely. Predictability and Tradition, taking time daily for coffee and cake, no work on Friday, no disturbing noises on Sunday. Politics is local- don't go off on any crazy adventures, but if you happen to go, pack appropriate weather gear.

Sep 7, 2016

thirty two

Friday morning I had a thoroughly normal day at the office. A one-day week, and then it was the weekend. Why just come into work on a friday? Everyone left Rome Thursday morning, and every day I can save on vacation time is another day I can use.

Friday night, Saori invited her yoga instructors over for drinks and to hang out on the roof. O, an American-Turkish woman with a German upbringing founded the yoga studio in Stuttgart after getting burning out working in the financial sector in New York. P is O’s squeeze, a meek Italian guy from Milan who tolerates being the butt of jokes he recieves from the other instructors. E, a dude my age from Connecticut is a permenant teacher (co-owner?). A is the newest instructor, a rail-thin eastern European woman who started learning yoga the same time as Saori. For people who do professional yoga, they do seem to take the six flights of stairs a lot harder than we do- maybe we’re just used to them.

Saori mixed up a mean cocktail for them- a spicy grapefruit margarita. A mixture of lime juice, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, a surprisingly lot of tequila, agave syrup, and fresh sliced jalapeno rounds. It’s a slow drink with a double burn: stronger than you think, and the longer the jalapeno infuses into the tequila-citrus mixture, the spicier the margarita. They brought guacamole and tortilla chips and we basically just hung out on the roof, snacked, talked, and listened to bad rap music (according to Kanye, the only word that rhymes with “asshole” is “asshole”) until it was very late.

Saturday we slept in and had a late breakfast. We did a bit of housecleaning and went for a stroll around Stadtmitte before meeting up with Saori’s coworker Daphne and her husband Georg downtown. Daphne is Taiwanese, and hasn’t worked at Behnisch that long, but she and Saori quickly became friends. We actually had them over first a few weeks ago, and they were happy to have some company out in Zuffenhausen.

Georg grilled up a fish and Daphne made some good fried pork rice and it was all pretty tasty. After dinner, we borrowed a headlamp and followed them into some pitch black woods to look for local deer and other critters of the night. We spotted some small deer, but they bounded into the brush before we could really get a good look. At any rate, it was nice to get out in the woods at night. The most dangerous thing out there is that you could slip on a waylaid beer bottle.

They walked us back to the metro station and we took a train full of drunks home, also late.

Sunday morning, Saori made me quark and blueberry pancakes. Quark is a German dairy product somewhere between sour cream and buttermilk. It’s about as thick as sour cream, although much more mild in flavor. It gave us really thick pancakes.

Then Saori immediately got busy again with my birthday cake. Last year she went on a sugar scavanger hunt through Stuttgart, hunting down exotica like treacle and dates to make me some STP. This year, I felt like something a little lighter, so I requested a matcha roll cake with white chocolate cream filling. The ingrediants were actually all on hand, so she got to work and despite some setbacks (like the roll cake turning accidently into a layer cake) she and I ended up laughing quite a lot. She brought it out to me with three tiny sheep on a green field, with a lit cactus candle on top. It was great but really really rich since we managed to basically whip the white chocolate cream into butter.

I lounged around the house most of the afternoon since the weather was rainy, and given the weather, I decided we should go see a movie. StarTrek was still out, so we trekked ourselves out to the original language cinema close to the American army base. Even though the screen was smaller than most movie theaters, it still beat a laptop screen.

After the movie, we took a metro over to Bonnie & Clyde, ostensibly a typical corner bar of the type seen all over Germany, but actually well known for and specializing in their hamburgers and fish and chips. Too many German burger joints are all about the accessories. Actually, there are some very fancy burger restaurants around, but if your cheddar, egg, avocado slices, and grilled onions are resting on a quarter-inch of hackfleish than you are kind of missing the meat. This burger we ordered was good, a solid and delicious burger with eat-them-all fries, and washed down with a beer.

I’m 32 years old. I’m married, living in Stuttgart, Germany. I had a 20 minute phone conversation with a structural engineer in German last week, and this week, both of my bosses approached me separately that I need to improve my German. This is an order. Something also needs to change here since we have some choices to make.

I bought a box of Dunkin’ Donuts for the office which was greatly appreciated and a welcome surprise. In a land of corner bakeries, DD still delivers a sweet surprise (considering there’s only one or two in Stuttgart).

Sep 3, 2016

Eating on the Piazza

Waking up was hard. I was tired and sore from the crappy bed. But I hauled myself up, repacked, checked out, and got a coffee and a sweet croissant at the cafe outside before slowly working my way over to the less seedy side of Termini to meet mom, Tay, and Larry.

The hotel Ivanhoe (I’m 70% confident Sir Walter Scott resided in Rome, possibly even writing the book there) is in a surprising pleasant neighborhood, a kind of trendy place based on the number of filament bulb lit boutiques and vegan gelato offerings. I was at the hotel first, and met their transfer when it pulled up. Everyone looked excited but exhausted from the long flights.

We checked in and reconvened downstairs. We started on a walking tour towards the Pantheon, which is actually quite a long way from the hotel, and when we got there, it was still closed for church services. So we wandered over to Piazza Navona where the group decided they needed some rest and coffee. We knew it was going to be all tourist traps ON the plaza but we pulled the trigger anyway. It was a typical application of “eat when you are tired” rule, but I may have to add the Piazza Exclusion (Don’t eat on the plaza) on top of the Gothic Caveat (Don’t eat at the first place you see). We got four coffees, two croissants, and a small pizza. Based on our bill, I can only assume that the coffee was sourced from passed beans of extinct mammals, the croissants were sculpted by Bernini, and pizza was baked by his Holiness.

After our snack, we wandered back through the various alleyways, as I tried to find a restaurant/store/point of interest I’d marked on my Google Map of Rome. Unsuccessful we headed back to the Pantheon, which was surprisingly open, and surprisingly, we were able to shuffle our way inside. It was crowded but not insanely so. I guess most people come to the Pantheon, gawk at the occulus, check off that box, and move on to the next thing.

Our next thing was the Trevi fountain, where mom dug out some coins and we fought our way past the selfie-stick armed hordes to toss in a coin over our shoulders. We were the only coin tossers at that particular moment, although based on the coins lining the bottom, the custom has not totally died out.

We called it an afternoon and headed back to the hotel. I wanted to pick up a few more things at Muji so I invited Tay out with me and we took the metro to the shopping streets around the Spanish Steps (closed for August) and I hit Muji again and we poked our heads into a few other stores before heading back to the hotel.

Dinner was nearby at an ok place, although the wine was pretty good. Tay had a gelato place picked out for dessert, close to Trevi fountain, but the only catch was we had to walk about 200 meters through a traffic tunnel under the Quirnal Palace to get back to the picturesque city. The number of gelato stands in Rome is its own hyperbole, but surely one of the best has to be Gelato Valentino. I ordered two scoops of dark chocolate and pineapple, and the pineapple, which I expected to be a just quiet and refreshing foil to the chocolate turned out to be fresh and zingy. The chocolate, which was tar black and about as thick and rich was like eating cold, creamy fondant- in the end, much too rich.

Mom bought a paper woven hat from a street vendor who was happy to negotiate with her. Actually, he got so excited his partner got in on it too and Tay and I played backup, disparaging the quality and suggesting repeatedly that the price was too high and we should just walk. Mom negotiated them down from $15 or something wildly audacious to $6 which was merely overpriced. We walked back over the hill, passing a surprising number of restaurants offering gluten free pasta dishes before we arrived back at the hotel.

Rome is really a lovely city to stroll in the summer evenings, ideally between the verge of sunset and 9pm. A city of little lights and intricate surfaces. A few mosquitoes nibbled on my exposed ankles, but really that was all.

Back at the hotel, we got four cold cans of peroni and took them up to the roof terrace where we sat chatting and drinking a bit. I was quite surprised that my jet lagged family was able to stay upright past 9pm, let alone nurse a beer on the first day across the Atlantic.

Sep 1, 2016

The Eternal Return City

August is the best time to visit Rome. While the city is sweltering hot and muggy, perhaps there are more tourists in the city than residents, it may be true that half of the businesses close up shop and go on vacation, but August is when my mom and her husband and my brother came to Rome, which makes it really superior to any other time to visit.

They flew in bright and early sunday morning, so to meet them when they arrived, I had to take a flight the day before they arrived, which is not so bad since Rome is a fantastic city. What is not so fantastic is that it meant I had to find accommodation for a night. Like a cheap ass, I booked a hostel at the Yellow, which is one of the more prominent backpacker hostels in Rome.

Saturday morning I made breakfast with Saori and then jumped on the metro to the airport. With my boarding card on my phone, and nothing but hand luggage, I breeze straight through security to my gate, without even an ID check along the way. The flight is Germanwings, basically Ryanair but with less active hate towards passengers. It’s delayed half an hour getting out. I feel bad since it looks like I am the only one who doesn’t get a cheese sandwich, but then I remember that I’m saving $20 on the fare for this. The flight is a little over an hour, direct to Rome. It’s as sunny and warm as I had hoped.

This is technically my fourth trip to Rome, although the first time to fly in. My first trip was a few hours as an excursion from a Mediterranean cruise and I was sick the entire time. So it really doesn't count that much. And I was only eleven or twelve at the time. Second trip was a week with Chase about 11 years ago, and then I was here again about five years ago as my own side trip from an architecture studio trip for grad school with Saori. Only in Rome for two nights that time.

Mom booked a transfer to meet her at the airport but I decided to try the typical bus. It’s slightly complicated. You need to go to a ticket counter first outside of the terminal to buy the ticket, but then they tell you where to find the bus. It’s a quick-moving line and I find the bus easily. My seatmate is Chinese: he plays a game on his phone the entire 45 minute drive into Rome. The comic-sans sign at the front of the bus tells me I’m not allowed to eat anything on the bus, and gives me the password to a wifi connection that does not connect to the actual Internet.

I enjoy the ride in actually. We pass EUR, notable for its chunky cube Colosseum erected under Mussolini, and then we drive through the city, passing aqueducts, the circus maximus, the white Egyptian pyramid, and even the Colosseum as a kind of preview tour before dumping us all out at Termini. 

I cross through this massive train/metro/bus terminal and find my hostel. I’m pleasantly surprised. They have expanded across the street and recently renovated an old building to create a modern, warm, and fresh feeling reception and communal spaces, a far cry from the dinginess I remember five years ago. I check in and cross the street back to the other side to my dorm, where I rediscover the exact same dinginess. 

Leaving my bag behind, I head out into Rome. I stop and buy a big wedge of fresh watermelon from a street vendor and it’s fantastic. With sticky hands I purchase a 72 hour metro ticket and take the metro out towards the Holy See, where there is a Italian store I wanted to check out. It’s in a market and the market is closed. It’s a pattern which would repeat itself over and over again. I decide to walk over to my other shopping destinations- I heading back to the ancient city, I cross the Tiber and after a long walk find myself in the Piazza di Popolo. There I find another closed store. But the cobblestone streets radiating out of it are filled with shops ranging from Italian fashion powerhouses to more commercial stationary stores. It’s a nice area and I wander through almost to the Spanish Steps. There, I finally find one of my stores open: a specialty cookware store. I look but nothing jumps out at me. Around the corner, I buy a cellophane box of freshly made pasta alla’amatricia from a take-away pasta place. Failing to look both casual and local, I wolf it down mostly standing as I lean on a barrier around a nearby church. The pasta noodles are great, the sauce is so-so. I continue on my shopping quest to my favorite Italian store: Muji where I pick up a few things. I swing back by the hostel to drop off my purchases. Despite the fact that it’s around 7pm, there is already someone sleeping in the room. He smells terrible.

I head back to the metro station make my way towards the Pigneto, a bit farther from the tourist zones but a fairly local neighborhood rising in popularity as it’s relaxed working class charm gets it’s bars and restaurants a spot on various “X Hours in Rome” travel sections. It’s a lot of walking since I don’t realize until too late that the B line and the C line of Rome’s metro system are “connected” by a 30 minute walk on the surface streets between stations. Part of the way, I walk through a long park which runs along a crumbling city wall or aqueduct. People are out in the late golden light, walking dogs, playing with their children, jogging. There are dozens of jet black cats lounging in the base of the ruined wall. In Pigneto, I cross a small pedestrian zone filled with cheap Aperatifo bars and get to Birra Piu, a craft beer bar and store. Of the nine taps, only one pulls American. I try two beers, and stand outside, watching the night fall and young people meeting up for the Saturday night.

I find the tram, old and rickety, and ride back from the stop under the freeway underpass back to Termini and from there a walk back to the hostel, which is absolutely hopping. The hostel has a big bar which spills into the street, and it is filled to capacity, as is the communal spaces inside. I can understand it now, but when I was backpacker, it seemed such a waste to travel so far to spend your time drinking with other backpackers.

Anyway, had a pretty bad night at the hostel with the constant interruptions and noise in the room the entire night, but from the sound of things, I probably had better nights than most of the rest of the room.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to, a more writing-centric website.