Jan 23, 2016

Acheivement Unlocked

I was thrown slightly for a loop when I realized this week that I had achieved Silver Medallian status with Delta. It's not such a big deal- you get to board early and you have the possibility to get bumped up to business class sometimes, but Silver Medallian was something that my dad had when he was flying all over the world and we were living internationally. It also means that I've spent a very lot of money on airfare. Considering my current position, it makes me feel like I've sorely neglected some of not many parts of my life.

Another trapping of "successful 30's" is today we bought our first Le Creuset. Ayumi and Tim gifted us two small casseroles from Le Creuset, but today out shopping we picked up two mugs on deep discount.

Friday night, I met a bunch of ex-colleagues for an after-work beer at Milliways, a 'pop-up' bar loosely based on the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Thematically, it is a bit disappointing. It's got an astronaut theme sort of crossed with a retro-space age theme. The only other reference is in the drinks menu, the really hard alcohols are classified as the German translation of "Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters" which is just enough of a touch to convince you that, unfortunately, the bar really is trying to be about the books. The fact is that most of the bars patrons have never heard of Arthur Dent, Volgons, or the significance of 42. In some ways, the alienation of Arthur Dent in the universe mirrors your own if you are familiar with the books.

The snowfall that buried the city last weekend melted this morning with the above freezing temperatures, so it's wet and gray out. This week is supposed to warm up a lot. I will actually miss the really cold weather- everything is crisp and white.

Also this week, Germany was rated #1 as the best country in the world by US News and World Report, with the US in #4 position. While ranking low in categories of fun, culture, and adventure, the economic strength, quality of life, and political power all added up to the top slot.

It's hard to imagine what the future of Germany will bring. On the one hand, it has reached within the last decade the strongest political and economic power of Europe, and has lead the European project. I wouldn't say that the EU is failing, yet, but is certainly being shaken. Migrants, Greece, Brexit, the wide rise of nationalist European governments, and Putin's Russia are putting on a lot of pressure. And the typical German approach is conservative, and wait and see, which is at odds currently with Frau Merkel.

Jan 19, 2016

New year

We arrived back in Stuttgart late Wednesday night. Had to clear passport control and customs, which was odd, coming in from France. I can't remember if we did that the last time we flew in from another European city. After slogging through immigration, my bag didn't show up. Saori's did, but not mine. I sighed inwardly and scouted around to find the mostly abandoned airport to find the baggage claim people and file the missing bag report. It happens about every tenth flight for me. Cab ride home and we only had to lug one fifty pound suitcase up the stairs.

Almost all the plants survived. Succulents are the way to go for travelers. Even the kitchen herbs quickly revived although our banana tree was in a sad shape and is still recovering. 

We had Thursday through Sunday to recover and damn did we need it. 

Monday was the first day back at the office and it was the start of a serious slog of a week where I worked late nearly every day but Friday. We are in a serious, serious time crunch with the psychiatric clinic. Lots of stress, and the managers are not happy. 

Also last week I tried the whole week to register for German classes again but the phone lines were always jammed. I ended up going and standing in line outside of the office while the classes started to secure my spot. Helps that I'm a longtime repeat student there. My new teacher is a strange old hippie. Brown as a nut, long gray hair, soul patch, a weathered dude with twinkly eyes who is somewhere between Dumbledore and Keith Richards. He thinks big airports are terrible because of the noise, but he seems to know his German grammar pretty well. 

I have actually gained a lot of respect for language teachers of all languages. It's one thing to slap on a backpack and "teach English," in south korea and another entirely to be able to talk about technical grammar and declinations.

It's been a long weekend for catching up with people and talking about life, careers, and trajectories. Been writing a lot of emails to a lot of friends. We met up with Paola for Vietnamese food Thursday, hosted Lina on Saturday, and Saori's coworker Michael and his wife and two little girls Sunday. I made posole and quesadillas for them and Saori made the salad. The first thing the girls did was to spill apple juice all over the tablecloth that Saori just finished laundering and ironing. Later, they blew out a light bulb. Actually, it was a lot of fun and for all that they are quite charming and sociable girls. Saori set up a drawing station and later a living room fort while the adults talked about taxes, tradeoffs, children, and jobs.

The weather plunged at the weekend and we awoke to lovely snow over the weekend and brutal cold (-12c) Monday. Actually the bitter cold and snow and ice is a nice change from the dreary drissly gray days so common here in January. Wearing my long underwear constantly and many days I tromp to work in my wonderful insulated and waterproof boots. 

Monday after my Germans course, I met up at the bar with Rocio and Cesar who are also taking classes and we had a beer. 

Jan 11, 2016

Houston new

New Year’s Day we took it easy at home. I was a little queasy in the morning, predictably, and I wasn’t quite sure I was going to make it brunch, but I managed to pull through and join everyone at the table. I’m glad I did. Nearly every breakfast and meal was a feast, served up with meticulously measured and prepared coffee. Dad doesn’t use a thermometer to make sure that the water hits the right temperature, but maybe next time we’re in Houston.

In the afternoon, I joined Tay on the couch to watch back to back episodes of “Jeopardy” which is always a lazy good time. Alex Trebek’s loathing for the contestants and his own existence is palpable, and it’s fun to test each other’s trivial knowledge.

That night, we took two ubers to dinner at Caracol, a “gulf Mexican” restaurant by the same owners as Hugo’s. We were clearly with a new uber driver because he got lost finding us, and then talked nervously about his 21 year old daughter having problems in university. Anyway, we got there with everyone working together. We were all dressed up for the evening, both brothers in bow ties, Tay in his velvet jacket, and Saori in a silky gold blouse. The food was excellent. I liked my bacon wrapped shrimp, but grandma Loretta won with a simple grilled fish with salsa and grilled mexican vegetables, if memory serves. Saori got a mixed seafood plate which was also great.

It was chilly and damp in Houston that night, and we huddled in the foyer of the restaurant while the uber XL drove over to pick up our entire group of six. Dad recorded the new “Sherlock” episode while we were at dinner for us, and when we got back to the house, Tay stayed up to watch it with Saori and I, even though he had to be out the door early the next day for his flight home.

I told Tay I would catch him before he took off the next morning, but I was so exhausted I missed my alarm by about 45 minutes, and they were gone. I felt really terrible because I never gave him a last hug before I went to bed.

Exhaustion and anxiety were constant undercurrents this trip- with the jolt of being back with family and the time away from our daily lives in Stuttgart, we both were anxious about the finances and planning for the wedding and even more broadly, our lives after the wedding.

One of those nights for dinner, dad and Neri made a mexican chicken soup, and I played condiment director, giving direction about what goes on top and how to serve it. That was really nice, a lighter soup.

Sunday morning dad fixed us some pretty spectacular french toast, with a challah roll base, Grand Marinier, and grated orange. It’s about the most decadent french toast you can image short of stuffing it with whipped cream cheese. It was a beautiful sunday so we took a stroll through the Houston Art Museum sculpture garden by Noguchi, and a short walk across the street to the small contemporary gallery. Afterwards, we stopped in at Brenner’s on the Bayou for cocktails and some snacks on the terrace overlooking the bayou. Apparently, with the recent flooding, the water level came up to the level of the terrace, which is astounding.

Monday, we went booze shopping. Spec’s is a chain of liquor stores which has several thousand in Houston alone. The mascot is a rabbit with eyeglasses, and we hit a few smaller stores before we hit the big one, which has a the mascot out front rendered into a topiary. This Spec’s is one of my favorite stores in Houston. If you know the store Fry’s Electronics, this is basically that, but for alcohol. For starters, it’s huge, the size of a regular supermarket. There is an entire aisle stocked with varieties of tequila and mezcal. Beers broken down by local, regional, and national breweries. Wines from around the world. Specialty barware. They sell gourmet teas and small gourmet menu items in case you were stopping by on the way to a dinner party, and there is even a small bakery and deli. The atmosphere is really fun- there is none of the quiet grit and desperation of convenience store liquor sections, nor the stuffiness of wine shops. The handwritten signage, bright sale logos, and staff handing out samples and recommendations give everything a nice air.

I grabbed the third to last bottle of Yellow Rose IPA, one of my favorite beers, went back and discovered that the other two had also been grabbed- by dad. It’s a really popular local beer, and they had actually that morning just received their stock of it. Grandma Loretta picked up the tab for our tequila and beer as part of our Christmas gifts. When her neighbors ask about what she got her grandkids for Christmas, she’ll be able to tell them “hard liquor.”

After the booze run, we got dropped off at the Menil collection since it is an unmissible architectural destination for Houston. Saori was really impressed and I enjoyed the chance to wander through again. It’s the right serving size of art for me as well. Afterwards, we walked next door the Rothko chapel and mused the massive black paintings in the warm and contemplative silence of the chapel.

That night, Saori and I walked out to see the bats. Not far from where dad lives is an overpass over Memorial which is home to a massive colony of bats, which emerge around sunset in a spectacular cloud. Or so they say. That night was chilly, and even though a sizable group of about 50 people gathered, the bats decided to stay in and order takeout. So we walked back along the bayou, and got back just as dad was bringing the massive steaks out to the grill. (We split them, they were fantastic).

Monday, dad went back to work and Neri arranged to ride with teammates to tennis so I could use the car. I am a really uncomfortable driver. I was really uncomfortable at 16, I overcame it when I drove every day in the US, but now I'm uncomfortable again. Something about being in the largest killer of my generation. And driving my dad's BMW in Houston. Anyway, there were things to get done, so I simply kept music off and forbade Saori from talking while I was driving and we did just fine. We ran a few errands for grandma Loretta, and then went to see Hateful Eight again in the 70mm release because Saori had missed it the first time and I knew she would really like it.

After we came home, we packed and did a few last things and dad treated us to a goodbye dinner at a really good Thai restaurant in midtown. Really good cocktails too.

Tuesday arrived and we took Grandma Loretta to the airport, and I carried her bags to check in. Southwest has taken the kiosk check in to the logical extreme: you print your own luggage sticky tags now and it's just a final ID check and weigh-in to drop your bag.

Went back and did the final packing for us, making sure we were under the limit. (Or only a few pounds over). Dad and Neri drove us to the airport and dropped us off, and it was sad to see them off too, although we will be seeing them, and many others, before too long.

Also before our flight, I got a message that our flight from Amsterdam to Stuttgart was cancelled. An hour later they notified us of our new flights, Amsterdam to Paris to Stuttgart, with a four hour layover in Amsterdam and seven in Paris. We convinced the ticket agent to at least put us on the direct to Paris flight with the hopes that in Paris, we could find a flight to Stuttgart that left in the 14 hours we were going to be laid over there. As it turned out, we had not so much luck in that regard, but the Force was strong with us.

Houston's Intercontinental Airport, for being dressed up with high falootin’ adjectives, has a terrible international terminal. Astoundingly bad, actually. Small, hokey, cramped, dingy, even duty free was off-putting. Not so many gates, one cafe. We stocked up on last minute beef jerky. I should have bought more starbursts.

Flight was uneventful and easy. We had a pair with a widow and an aisle, and I surprisingly slept a lot. Any more, the flight itself is the least stressful or boring part of international travel. Once we landed at Paris CDG, though, I had to pull out my handy guidebook. Perhaps you've heard of it?

Jan 10, 2016

Houston to the end

We were in Houston for about a week, but the time flew by. Dad picked us up at the airport and we dropped by the house where we picked a bedroom and greeted Neri. We all headed out again to have lunch at Underbelly, a “New Creole” restaurant which served up gormet takes on classic American fare. I got a “Juicy Lucy” burger, small but juicy, which Tay described as one of the best burgers he’s had. What was really good and surprising was the crispy broccoli, which at first glance looked like a bowl of steamed broccoli. Until you took a bite and realized it was as crunchy as salty and savory as popcorn. They cranked up a fryer and flash fried the broccoli before tossing it around in a pan with some melted brown sugar and vietnamese fish sauce.

The rest of the afternoon, we stopped into Central Market to stock up on groceries, and then dad ran out to snag Tay from the airport. We ate dinner that night at Hugo’s, which is a tradition now whenever one or more sons comes to visit. I got a barbacoa and a paloma. I had really missed Mexican food.

We watched Gravity together one of those nights, and the latest Sherlock episode on the other. The next day Saori and I walked over to take care of some errands, and then we all went together to watch The Big Short at Sundance. For dinner that night, we had moulles marinaire with some crusty bread.

The next day, we all went to go meet grandma Loretta at the airport. The rest of the day, we spent wrapping a last few gifts and setting them out by the tree. We had spagetti bolognase for dinner, and afterwards, we handed out presents to one another. I got more kitchen gadgets, including “the best garlic press there is.” beer stein patterned socks, and foldin’ money. Grandma Loretta also made sure that we would all be appropriately attired for the upcoming OU-Clemson football game (QUARTERFINALS!) so I got a big red tee shirt.

One morning, Saori joined Neri for yoga, and they went out shopping and had a nice lunch together. In the meantime, Dad, Tay, and I went to go see The Hateful Eight in the roadshow format, which meant it was screened in 70mm format celluloid and included an intermission (welcome), an original Morricone overture (not so welcome), and a big glossy pamphlet.

New Years Eve, we stayed in and watched OU lose to Clemson. It was a good first half, but it quickly became apparent that our hopes were for naught. So that was not so festive. After dinner, Tay, Saori and I caught an uber into town for some new years festivities. Originally, we had talked about hitting three bars, but decided that since Saori and I were already practially falling asleep where we stood, we should limit our foray to bars in the same area, and see where we were after the first one.

We decided to avoid the big public display with live music and closed off streets. The headlners were the B-52’s, and I had to talk Tay out of trying for the bragging rights of hearing “The Love Shack” live.

We fought our way through the big crowds outside of the big clubs and found the nearly inconspicuous entrance to Pastry War, a tequila and mezcal bar with really good fermented agave juice cocktails. It was surprisingly uncrowded at 11:00, we saw open tables, and settled ourselves at the bar. The clientelle did pick up a bit although most people were at least a little drunk and many looked like this was the bar they ended up at because the cool clubs were already full.

I enjoyed it immensely, actually, I liked the decor, the drinks, and the strung lights over the pool table. We racked it up and played a game through midnight, when the bartender brought around a tray of mezcal for everyone to toast in the new year. Saori and I shot against Tay. Tay won, but it could well have been because I potted one of his balls for him and set him up to clean the table.

After midnight, we crossed the square and went to Carafe, which was surprisingly quiet. The upstairs bar and terrace was closed to our surprise, so we just sat at the bar and drank a beer, while Saori fell asleep on my shoulder. We caught a really expensive Uber ride home, although the driver was really professional and gave us all bottled water to drink on the way. Back at the house, we drank liters more of water and called it a night.

Jan 8, 2016

Blazing Sun Travel Guides: 12 Hours in Paris CDG

Right after the new year is one of the best times to hit Paris: the holiday crowds are gone, the shops begin fantastic sales for last season's lines, you've been on the road at least 16 hours, and your flight home was cancelled. Let's go!

A definite must for all visitors is the Terminal 2 Immigration Hall- a very popular attraction, be prepared to wait up to an hour in line to see the famed border police. Be sure to get your passport stamped as a reminder of your trip.

TIP To get a local's view, you need to familiarize yourself with the mass transit- from the airside shuttles between 2L, 2M, and 2F to the inter-terminal bus and the CDGVAL, it's easy AND free.

The heart of Paris CDG is truly Terminal 2. Be European, and stroll along these famous concourses, lined with all the powerhouses of the modern cosmopolitain airport. Stop into one of the famous black and gold Paul cafes, for croissants so fresh, they taste like they were only made yesterday.

You've cleared customs and integration, and worked out where you are, so it's time to visit one of the famed Parisian cafes: collapse in an exhausted heap in the Sheraton Bar (terminal 2). Order the "Cafe et 2 Pastries" (coffee plus two pastries) as you brush elbows with the business elite of world: you may even overhear quiet presentation rehearsals or pre-meeting discussions!

Marvel regretfully at the futuristic TGV station inside the terminal, and the bullet trains of Europe that link the cities together at nearly three times the time and expense of air travel. Catch a glimpse of the RER trains- placing the heart of Paris at your fingertips if you could drag yourself there and had the energy or cash to do anything more than listlessly stumble through the rainy streets and worry about missing your flight.

And what is Paris CDG without the shopping? Linger in the glittering duty free boutiques, filled with fine French chocolates, perfumes, van Gogh decorated bottles of absynth, Moulin Rouge tee shirts, and miniature glass Eiffel towers filled with cheap brandy.

If architecture is your thing, then look no further than Terminal 1. Take the CDGVAL to the end of the line. A brutalist icon from the 1960's, the radial terminal resembles a concrete stadium, with an open core criss crossed by covered escalator tubes. Groovy!

Many travelers pass through Terminal 3-Roissypole because it is an important transit link, but the building itself is an overlooked gem. A modern hippostyle hall with graceful board-formed concrete columns and glass all around, it is a quiet and light place to get away from the hustle and bustle of central Paris Charles De Gaulle.

You have a few hours, so stretch out away from the usual touristy terminals to get a feeling for the ile de France region. Take a trip off the beaten path to Aèroville, the fifth largest shopping center in France. Take the traditional bus from the passenger drop outside of terminal 3 straight to the mall after a short stop at the Novotel Convention Center. Inside the reflective glass walls, immerse yourself in the fabulous world of French fashion at boutiques such as Hennes & Mauritz, Zara, l'Occitane, and Lacoste. Sample the cuisine of the world at the hands of renowned French chefs at Mc Donalds, Pret a Menger, Dim Sum, Namaste, and Starbucks. 

Aèroville is also home to the venerable bastion of le cinéma Français, EuropaCorp Cinemas, where you can take in some culture with a screening of the latest critical hit in Paris, such as StarWars: Le réveil de la Force. 

End your stay with a trip to the Paris CDG of yesteryear. With a little effort, you can still experience the quaint and rustique past at Terminal 2G. Take a direct bus from 2E far from the bustling center and return to the 1980's small town airport.  Just twelve gates, tiny city hopper jets, and an old man in a traditional uniform named Jaque who will feel inside your waistband and wand you at the security checkpoint.

TRAVELLING WITH LUGGAGE: many people have expressed concern about bringing their luggage to Paris CDG, but the airport is quite luggage-friendly, with many fun luggage activities and itineraries. You can take your luggage almost everywhere- it's a common sight to even see people with luggage in bars! In fact, be warned that your luggage may enjoy the trip more than you, so much so they might extend their stay an extra day or two!

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende