Coast to Coast

A two-part summary of my long weekend:

Part 1: On Thursday morning, Stephanie and I had all intentions of dropping the boys off at day-care and spending Thursday and Friday frolicking about Portland, ME, one of our favorite little New England cities. Oh, we made it up there, but not before the following:

a) I accidentally left the sunroof open in Steph’s car Wednesday night, and of course, it poured like mad and the interior of the car was soaked. Like, you know, really wet. Here’s the thing: when I turn off MY car, the sunroof automatically closes, so I’ve just gotten so used to not even thinking about it. Bad move, Copetas. Bad. Baaahhhhhhd. Towels, blankets and whatever else we could throw in there went over everything.

b) I forgot to bring the boys lunch when I dropped them off at day care (only the 2nd time I’ve done that since January – not bad) so Steph had to make an extra trip and bring it over while I went and filled up the car with gas and bought two new trash barrels because…….

c) Our trash barrel filled up with water from rain on Tuesday night and let me tell you something, if you had smelled it, you might have just died.  I, for one, gagged. I can’t remember the last time I’ve gagged from a smell, but I was about as close to puking as you can get. Anyway, because of this, we couldn’t put trash bags in the barrel and we didn’t have time to figure out what to do with the water, so I did what any red-blooded American needed to do: I threw money at the problem and just bought two new barrels. Why was it so important to do this at that time, you ask? Well, because we had to put the trash in our garage on Wednesday night and something got in there (Steph thinks it was a raccoon) and there was trash EVERYWHERE in our garage on Thursday morning.

So, we were off to a great start. But we rallied and got up to Portland about 11am and spent the day walking around that great little town. We bought some yummy stuff at the Stonewall Kitchen retail store, we had a great lunch and then in the afternoon Steph had a facial and a 30-minute massage while I rewarded myself with a 60-minute hot stone massage! Heaven.

That evening, we had one of the best meals we’ve had in recent memory at Fore Street, which is apparently a nationally renowned eating establishment. I had chilled watermelon soup for an app, wood-grilled halibut and marifax beans and then we topped it off with blueberry shortcake, corn ice cream and some chocolate cake/vanilla ice cream. Delicious. I mean……obnoxiously delicious. We topped off the day by……sleeping. You see, this was the first night away from the babies…..ever. So we slept and slept. Hell yeah!

The next day we shuffled off to Marblehead, MA for a quick lunch at another one of our favorite haunts, Foodie’s Feast, where I had a killer tomato/fresh mozz/pesto sandwich. We topped off the afternoon with a visit to the estates de Simplebits, where we got to hold a new, lovely little infant and visit with our good friends.

Upon Steph and I getting to the day care to pick up the babies, who hadn’t seen us in two days, we had a tender little moment with Nathan, who let out a cry when he saw us that initially sounded like a sad cry, but appeared to be one of happiness. At least we like to think so. Seeing them even after one night away was a beautiful thing.

Part 2 will be shorter than Part 1, I promise. Today (Sunday) I spent the day in transit, leaving my house at 8:40am to the heartbreaking sight and sound of my children looking at me leave, crying hysterically. I almost turned tail and went right back into the house, but duty calls. After arriving in Manchester, NH, I proceeded to have a long, long day, as I laid over in Las Vegas on my way to Reno. When I landed in Reno at 7pm eastern time, I had another one hour drive to Squaw Valley, California, where I sit tonight. This is a beautiful part of the country, nestled 6,000+ feet up in the mountains and on Lake Tahoe. I had a feeling it would be purdy, so I brought the good camera. Twice I had to get out of the car on the side of the road to take a picture. Here’s a pic of the area I’m staying, taken by someone from the gondola at the top of the mountain. I am here for work and we will work, but it’s a nice place to do it.

I already miss my family.

I Walked Into The Little Room & Whistled Like A Sigh

I don’t know what it is about hotels that I love so much. I spent a lot of time in hotels as a kid, especially from about age 9-12, tagging along on trips when my sister was a (very) competitive figure skater.  We rarely stayed in fancy places – all the money was going towards the actual figure skating, not the place where the figure skater rested. That said, the places we stayed weren’t holes-in-the-ground, either.  When a place had a pool, I was pumped!

I do have some clear memories of these days – the family all piled into one room in two double beds. The time we drove home from somewhere at night in an absolute monster of a snow storm (we had to pull over a couple of times, if I remember that right). My parents forgetting to bring money to breakfast one morning. The smell of chlorine at hotel pools, that still reminds me to this day of being a youngster and traveling the region for figure skating competitions.

Ever since I graduated college in 1994, though, I’ve pretty much been alone in hotels, for work. And there is something horrendously lonely about always staying in a hotel alone, no matter what city or locale you are in. Nowhere else can you be in such close proximity to so many people and be so isolated at the same time. Hell, even prisons are more social. Walking the halls of a hotel, there’s always such a hushed silence and avoidance of eye contact with anyone else, be it in the hallways or on the elevators. It’s a drone-like atmosphere and a strange dynamic, the way so many different lives all collide in one building, yet we never have any inkling at all who the person is that’s sleeping just 10-12 feet from you.

So why do I love hotels so much? I’m not anti-social, so it’s not that. I’ve gotten to be much better at initiating conversation and other various social graces in the last ten years or so. In examining this, there’s a couple of things that pop into my head.

a) A change of scenery. This is an obvious one. I always enjoy a well-designed hotel. Sometimes you get a winner, sometimes you don’t. I’m staying at the Sheraton Four Points Chelsea in Manhattan right now. Not really a winner. But there’s always something mildly exciting about seeing your hotel room for the first time – how’s it’s designed, what furniture is in the room, bathroom appliances and materials (i.e., granite), blah blah blah.

b) The idea that I don’t have to clean. I’m generally a clean, organized person. So it’s nice to get a respite when I’m on the road and focused on a meeting or whatnot so I don’t have to worry about towels, glasses or whatever. I can’t really explain this either, but coming back after a day out and having the room returned to it’s near-pristine condition without having to lift a finger is awesome. And I do tip generously. It’s hard work.

My best hotel story: I did a 3-day freelance TV gopher gig with the Oprah Winfrey show the day after I graduated college in May 1994. The hotel they put me up in out in Chicago was a killer! I walked in and it had a pre-stocked CD collection, books, a hot tub, a phone in the bathroom (!!!!) and so many other creature comforts. As a 22 year old college grad the day after graduation, I remember thinking how much I was already enjoying the adult life. Then I got back to Kent to gather my stuff, got in my 1986 Subaru and drove home, saying goodbye to a life I had grown to enjoy quite a bit. I had my parents cell phone for the ride and I remember calling this girl I liked as I was leaving Ohio and asking her if I would ever see her again.

Worst hotel story: Pretty recent. Maybe three years ago I was staying at the Roger Williams in Manhattan and I woke up to find a HUGE cockroach in the room. I mean, it was like a small rabbit. Christ! I got the room for free, then vowed to never stay there again. And I haven’t.

So it is just me, or does everybody love hotels?

(major bonus points to anyone who can ID the song in the subject line without Googling)

You Can Blow Out A Candle…..

All it takes is six hours to be in another world! Took a JetBlue flight this morning to Long Beach, CA for work and I guess you can’t really comprehend the fires here until you fly over them. Smoke everywhere. Dust storms. Shit flying around. It looked like armegeddon! From the plane, it looks like huge mushrooms growing out of the ground. From the ground, all you can see around here is a brownish-reddish haze. The weather is clear, but there’s no sun. And outside smells like smoke and fire. Everywhere. Surreal.

The flight? Horrific. Probably the worst flight I’ve ever been on. The middle of the country is awash in rain right now and it provided for some roller coaster moments from hours 2-4 of the flight. Of course, with the Santa Ana winds swirling and the fires feeding it (and vice versa) here in Southern Cal, flying into Long Beach was rather nauseating. Some serious turbulence.

Sometimes I really do just take a huge sigh of relief and gratefulness when my feet hit that pavement.

Update: they’re actually putting up evacuees from San Diego and North Los Angeles here at the hotel. Problem is they’ve sold out all the rooms, so there’s people sleeping in the lobby, etc.

Random & Final Thoughts On Europe…….

Other various notables from the Europe trip:

  • It is amazing how quickly I’ve taken the indoor smoking ban for granted here. Those laws have not been enacted in London, Brighton or Paris as of yet. What a difference. Some of the establishments are better than others in making non-smokers as comfortable as possible, but some pubs and restaurants were absolutely untenable. I am not even being melodramatic when I say that it took me 30 seconds after I walked into one pub in particular before I literally felt ill. I’m also glad that I don’t have to deal with my clothes reeking of smoke anymore, too. The good news is that London’s smoking ban goes into law next spring.
  • Another obvious difference: the complete lack of SUV’s and battleship-style automobiles in both cities. It took mere hours for both Steph and I to notice this. I am pretty sure the horrific gas prices in both London and France (equivilent to about $5-6 U.S. per gallon) play a big role in this, but narrow streets must also factor in somehow. I mean, some of the streets in London and the English countryside – no way you can pilot an SUV through those! In fact, what amused us to no end was just how small some of the cars were! I mean, looking at some of them, I honestly felt like I could pick them up and throw them. Which isn’t to say we saw no SUV’s, though – there were some and a Boston Globe article I read last Sunday indicates that SUV sales are on the rise in England.

In trying to decide what book to bring along for the trip, it was a decision between the 700+ page Neil Young biography which has been looming over me for a year now, or the shorter Nickel and Dimed. Overwhelmed yet again by the prospect of a 700+ page book, I opted for Nickel and Dimed, where the author investigates the life of minimum wage workers in America by “going undercover” and taking various jobs (waitress, maid and Wal-Mart employee) in three different U.S. locales. The book ended up being the correct choice.

There is nothing better to humble the privledge of being able to travel the world than to get a better understanding of how the minimum wage worker lives their life – and it is not a pretty scenario at all. In fact, check out this story from the New York Times that ran on Monday – incredibly sad. I try my very best to never take for granted what I have and I’ve been so lucky (seemingly to the point of ridiculousness at times) during the last 5 years working for This book provided the perfect companion as we ate and traveled our way through two very expensive cities.

The book was a quick and terribly interesting read, with the most thought-provoking piece coming at the end, with the author’s overall summary. The summary looks at how welfare reform may be one of the causes in the growing class of minimum wage earners, otherwise known as the working poor. Minimum wage is clearly not enough to sustain a single parent who have children living with them and it’s even arguable that it’s enough to sustain just one person, as the author found out in her experiments. Those points can be debated for eons, really, and it’s a subject I don’t want to touch here.

Where the book really hit home for me, however, is the last two paragraphs, where the author briefly ponders how we, the upper and middle class, feel about these human beings. How are we supposed to feel and/or interact with the people who clean our hotel rooms and serve us food? Why is it that many people can’t even look maids in the eye or even speak to them as they’re cleaning our homes? I’ve seen first hand on my endless string of business trips how some other business travelers treat them and it is dispicable. While I certainly cannot make the claim that I walk up to waitresses or hotel maids and hug them and thank them for their service, I certainly do make it a point to say hello and ask how they’re doing and I thank them properly.

The author provides a different and somewhat eye-opening way to look at it:

Guilt, you may be thinking warily. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to feel? But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame – shame at our own dependancy, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on – when for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently – than she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health and her life. The “working poor” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect….to be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor to everyone else.

Biting and thought-provoking words indeed, although I cannot bring myself to entirely get behind the whole “major philanthropists” thing. While the statement is undoubtedly true for a great number of humans who work these jobs, I’d hesitate myself to blanket all of them with such unbridled sympathy and praise for giving up everything to please the classes above them. Some, hopefully most, are certainly working hard and doing their best, some simply have no other choice and others, and this is a sad truth, are probably capable of much more, but lack the drive or ethic to make something of themselves.

An interesting and recommended read.

Dirty Old River, Must You Keep Rolling…

Parliament and Big Ben
Originally uploaded by rustedrobot.

There exist very few cities in our world within a two-hour train ride of each other that are so distinctly and blantanly different. London and Paris are both obviously rich in history, but the similarities more or less cease there.

I’ve been trying to figure out how it is that so many Parisians appear not to be working. The cafes we stopped into each day for lunch while in Paris were almost always quite full, and not with just tourists. It’s true that France’s unemployment rate is roughly double that of the United States, but the amount of residents walking the streets in the middle of the day was still an oddity that I haven’t quite figured out yet. London, on the other hand, appeared to me to be more of a bustling, workforce-laden group, much like New York City or Chicago.

One thing that has always attracted me to large cities is the architecture. Here, Paris simply smokes London, although it’s not London’s fault that portions of its old-world charm were rendered to dust by the Germans during the bombing of Britain in the Second World War. Incidentally, Paris may have also suffered a similar fate had Dietrich von Choltitz obeyed Hitler’s order to destroy as much of Paris as he could upon exiting the country. He disobeyed the order – perhaps he felt the same way I did when I saw how beautiful that city was. Either way, I’m glad for the defiance on von Choltitz’s part, as I’m sure many others are.

Regardless, what has resulted in London is a very odd mix of beautifully constructed buildings from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, flanked here and there by some rather horrific and questionable post-war era buildings, which may have appeared modern and flashy when first built, but are now quite inexplicable (that picture is their City Hall).

We weren’t able to spend as much time in London as we did in Paris, but we did manage to see just about all of the important tourist attractions that London has to offer, complete with a ride around the city on a double decker bus, which would have been made all the sweeter had I not been rendered mildly motion-sick from sitting on the top. I didn’t get physically ill from it, but couldn’t spend much time up there.

In reading what I’ve written so far, one might think I wasn’t crazy about London – that couldn’t be further from the truth. In some ways, I find London to be a far more inviting city to return to. For a person who’s tuned into the entertainment world (music, film, theatre, etc), London is as good as they come, if not the best.

Strangely enough, in looking back at our travels, I found the food in London to be first rate – and then some. Where Paris excels significantly in quick-bite items like crepes, pastries and various bakery items, London’s restaurants provided us with what I consider to be first-rate full dinners. In all fairness, you wouldn’t have ANY problems whatsoever eating in either city, but I guess I was more surprised by London because of its reputation for bad food, a tag which is clearly undeserving.

While portions of London were irreparably and unfortunately harmed by the war (whenever I was on the subway, I kept imagining London’s residents sleeping down there during the Blitz), it has maintained some visually stunning buildings. The Tower of London, an old castle (turrets and all! check out that pic!) which has served many purposes for hundreds and hundreds of years, was incredibly interesting and Parliament/Big Ben (pictured above), as many times as you’ve seen pictures, can only be truly taken in by seeing it firsthand. Same goes for Westminster Abbey, an absolutely breathtaking piece of architecture, rife with amazing, ornate, beautiful carvings.

The trickiest thing about London is getting used to looking in the correct direction when crossing the street. In my mind, I told myself this wouldn’t be a problem – it was. You become aware very quickly of the instincts drilled into your brain about what direction to look in when crossing a one way street, of which there are many in London. I found myself in a couple of close situations, nothing crazy, but as time went on, I found myself looking in any and all directions multiple times before the crossing the street. We didn’t drive anywhere during our trip, so I can’t comment on what it’s like to drive there. More on the traffic, cars, etc in Europe late this week – it bears it’s own post.

I wanted to be able to stuff some music tourism into our trip (Abbey Road, Muswell Hill, etc), but time prevented us from doing so. Next time. As we wandered around, though, I couldn’t help humming tunes from some of my favorite London-based bands – you can’t help it, really, when you see things like Waterloo Station and Hammersmith .

With that, I figure I’ll leave you with one of my favorite songs from my favorite English band, The Kinks. “Two Sisters” was a song I found myself humming over and over again. It’s the story of a woman looking at her own life and being envious of her more stylish sister’s existence. In the end, the grass isn’t actually greener, though. I do honestly believe that this is one of Ray Davies best songs.

Davies voice is also deceptively brilliant in this song. When Davies sings about the drudgery of being a housewife serving bacon and eggs each morning, you almost forget that the song has been written by a man. Then that same voice turns uplifting and exciting in the very next line when describing the housewife’s sister and her “luxury flat.” You actually get a true sense of that bitter jealousy in those three lines alone. It is one of Davies’s shining moments, both as a lyricist and as a singer.

I’ve said time-and-time again that I believe Davies to be of equal, and in some cases better, songwriting talent than Lennon & McCartney. Ray Davies, without argument, has a leg or two up on the Beatles duo when it comes to writing about the struggles of London’s post-war middle class. It’s really a shame (and one of music’s great mysteries) why The Kinks aren’t held up to the same pedestals that The Beatles or The Rolling Stones maintain to this day.

Listen here. To download, right-click and choose “save as.” Enjoy.

Two Sisters
Sylvilla looked into her mirror
Percilla looked into the washing machine
And the drudgery of being wed
She was so jealous of her sister
And her liberty, and her smart young friends
She was so jealous of her sister

Sylvilla looked into the wardrobe
Percilla looked into the frying pan
And the bacon and eggs
And the breakfast is served
She was so jealous of her sister
And her way of life, and her luxury flat
She was so jealous of her sister

She threw away her dirty dishes…just to be free again
Her women’s weekly magazines…just to be free again
And put the children in the nursery… just to be free again
Percilla saw her little children
And then decided she was better off
Than the wayward lass that her sister had been
No longer jealous of her sister
So she ran ’round the house with her curlers on
No longer jealous of her sister

The Jeff De Triomphe

The Arc De Triomphe
Originally uploaded by rustedrobot.

Until last week, I had never been outside of North America – just the U.S. and Canada, in fact. Although my travel experience has been what I consider fairly extensive, it’s largely been limited to business travel with the occasional family trip when I was younger, mostly to driveable locations. There is the one glaring exception, that being the drive around the perimeter of the United States with a college friend in 1995, which was glorious fun and certainly educational enough to the point where I often find myself believing that it ought to be considered a requirement by law for anyone in their 20s to make the trip and perhaps again in retirement for purposes of comparison.

So the prospect of finally being able to flee the continent in my 34th year was both one of extreme anticipation and also a touch of apprehension. Would I hate the food? Or the people? Would they hate me? I imagined, or actually refused to imagine, what a rude French waiter who hated Americans might do to our food. Or maybe I’d be one of those people who came back pounding my chest and claiming the U.S. was the greatest country in the world? I hoped not, but the thought itself of international travel weighed heavy in the days leading up. You just never know. The anticipation was clearly the dominant emotion, though – I was totally psyched.

The trip was split up into 3 legs, really: three days on the south coast of England in Brighton (visiting some friends), three days in Paris and three days in London.

In today’s post, I’ll focus on the three days we spent in Paris. Oh, how I wish it were 30 days, because Paris is probably the best city I’ve ever visited. It’s sheer beauty and stunning old-world architecture probably would have been enough to claim that status in my book, but it was so much more than that. There is simply a different air there, a vibe that I’ve not experienced anywhere else.

Being a history buff (amatuer at best, btw), it was overwhelming to see things like the Arc De Triomphe in person. To take a cursory look at the monument is one thing – it certainly is unique and quite beautiful in and of itself, but to picture the significance of what’s happened there is really the treat.

Originally conceived as a tribute to one of Napoleon’s largest victories and, when finished after his death, celebrated for something else entirely, the Arc represents many watershed moments not just in French history, but in world history. You can almost picture the Germans rhythmic march down the Champs-Elysees after the occupation of France in 1940 and the subsequent flying the Swaztika flag at the Arc, certainly one of France’s darkest moments and marked brilliantly by this award-winning photograph. You just can’t write it off as a nicely- carved cinder block structure. The significance is just so….heavy.

That’s just one of Paris’s landmarks, of course. The most obvious one is the one that I never thought would take my breath away the way it did. Steph and I were told to get off at the Trocedero stop on the Paris Metro, then snatch a view of the Eiffel Tower from one of the higher points. It was, in a word, stunning. We turned the corner in near-perfect twilight after getting off the Metro and there we were, face-to-face with one of the most iconic structures in the world – and it caught me off guard. I didn’t think I’d be so….overwhelmed. It was just so completely stunning that we stood there for a few minutes like it wasn’t even real. I think the picture we took (click that link) captures that. Our look is one of triumph in that we had conquered a famous spot in the world and… of humbleness, I suppose.

I could go on and on – being inside the famous Notre Dame cathedral, built one thousand years ago, was an exercise in the realization that our lives are just a small part of such a larger world. The beautiful Seine River has seen it all.

Seeing the Mona Lisa and the Venus De Milo at the hopelessly large Louvre was great. They say it would take the equivilent of seven full days to walk the entire Louvre, but it’s little sister, the Musee D’Orsay was smaller and equally enthralling, as it has the definitive collection of impressionist paintings by the likes of Van Gogh, Renoir and many others. I’m not a huge fan of art persay, but when you’re standing there staring at history like this, well, it’s hard not to become more of an art fan when you’re in one of the cultural capitals of the world.

Speaking of culture, the warning from many people was that the French were rude. We did not experience this. We had one waiter who was clearly non-plussed by our presence, but certainly not rude by any stretch. All others were friendly and quite accomodating. The language barrier was evident, but manageable, as most Parisans seem to know some English (the whole thing made me feel slighly ignorant for only knowing one language) The food? Awesome. Each morning, as if it were required by law, we’d hit the corner bakery and get fresh croissants to start the day. The best I’ve ever had. The crepes? Delicious, both the sweet and the savory. I’m on the lookout for a good crepe cookbook.

The neighborhoods we walked through were completely charming and gorgeous. If you’re ever there, make sure you take a stroll down the Ille St. Louie, a narrow little strip of old school cheese shops, boutiques and pastry joints located behind the Notre Dame that drops you back into the 1930s. I couldn’t get enough of this place. Given a good opportunity, I’d live in Paris.

Funny story to sum up – I did mention the language barrier and I should pass on a rather amusing story of my own ignorance. While strolling through BHV, a ridiculously large department store, I decided to take a seat for a few minutes while Steph shopped. I’m still not entirely sure why, but no less than five people approached me, presumably to ask me questions about something in the store, I of course didn’t have a prayer of understanding a word of what they were asking me. Despite by coat being on and a few shopping bags at my feet, they apparantly thought I worked there. My response to all of them: “no parlez vous francias,” which I believed to mean “I don’t speak French.” Steph later informed me that I was actually saying to them “you don’t speak French.” So they were asking me a question about something in the store and I was telling them they don’t speak French! Classic.

Update: upon looking this up on the AltaVista translator, “no parlez vous francias” is translated to “No speak French.” I’m not really sure if it’s correct as I’ve seen some suspicious translations on AltaVista before. I’d like to think I was telling them they don’t speak French, if only for the pure comedy of it.