Let’s Hear It For Number One!

Just flipping through New Products Magazine at work when I came across an article about appetizer trends in restaurants.  Like a lot of categories, the appetizer portion of the menu is getting more varied and exotic, with egg rolls getting filled with beans and chipotles, Asian-style lettuce wraps showing up in strongly American chains, and specialties like quesadillas and bruschetta becoming more common. 

However, in the middle of the article is a chart from Mintel Menu Insights 2007 ranking the Top 15 Appetizers, ranked by the number of menu items that appear on chain restaurant menus in the second quarter of 2007.  At the top, with 122 menu items…  Buffalo Wings!   It has a pretty good lead over the second place item, which is an "appetizer sampler" with 100 menu items and a very good lead over the #3 spot, mozzarella sticks.  The hot n’ saucy contingency makes another appearance at #15, with boneless buffalo wings with 24 menu items.

Keep on keepin’ it hot! 

Just Call Me Mr. Lugnut

I should have written this a long time ago.  I’ve already posted a review on Amazon.com a while ago.  I’ve been telling everyone about the game for well over a year now. 

Quelf came into our lives through a little bit of marketing when a magnet and sample card was included in an Amazon.com order that was shipped to my house.  I actually had already thrown it away when I said "wait, did that say ‘Ninja Monkey’ on there?" and took it back out of the trash.  Checking out the game on Amazon.com, it seemed perfect for my girlfriend’s family who loves board games, and in particular, Cranium.  Right from the first time we played the game, it was the craziest, funniest thing I have ever seen.   At that point I was just starting to become a true regular with Meghan’s family, but I quickly found myself trying to build a snorkel out of household items, and had to wear it the whole game.  Other people were sitting on their hands and saying strange things.

The next time I wound up with the box stuck up my shirt for most of the game.  Other things that have happened have included someone having to keep their elbow on the game board the entire game, rolling over and wailing like they were dying every time someone rolled a five and someone else having to rub her knees and say "there’s a storm a-comin’" every time someone moved backwards. 

You get the idea – this isn’t for the shy, but even if you are, you shouldn’t be worried: everyone will be acting like a fool, so you’ll fit right in.

We’re not alone in our love for the game.  A quick search on YouTube quickly reveals several results including some of people completing the cards like this and this

So It’s True – They DON’T Care!

Reading this article on Reveries.com this morning, I felt a sense of calm coming over me.  Finally, an article that tells the truth: airlines really DON’T care about treating you all that well.  Yeah, they know they have to fix some personal interactions and flight delays, but dammit, they don’t care about giving you anything once you’re in that metal flying tube. 

Its an interesting result of travel aggregate sites like Orbitz, Travelocity, and Kayak: by making it easier to search for the lowest price, the airlines need to compete on price, and often, on price alone.

My only beef with the cattle article is that it ignores those of us who fly regularly enough to care about service and amenities – not always shopping on price, but on schedules and getting mileage points – but not so regularly that we get consistent free upgrades and travel in business or first class all the time.  I have a decent number of frequent flyer points – enough for some free tickets and upgrades – but not enough to throw them around willy-nilly.  So I actually am loyal to those airlines that I have the most points with (US Air and Delta) and will fly with them so that I can use them for leisure purposes.

I also avoid those airlines that I don’t like.  I really hate Continental.  Every time I’ve taken a Continental flight, its been late, and if you look at this chart at SeatGuru.com, you’ll see that while Continental doesn’t have the SMALLEST seat pitch, it probably has the smallest on average, with other airlines having at least a few planes that go past 32 inches.  When you’re 6′ 2", those things count.

While I understand that travel web sites have changed how airlines compete, it is too bad that they are abandoning service and quality because of it. 

Reflections on Europe

So after 11 days of sightseeing and traveling in two of the greatest capitol cities in the world, we came home and eventually returned to our usual routine.  We were smart enough to come back on a Thursday, take Friday off from work and catch up on email and voice mail then.  Monday was like returning after a long weekend.

People ask what was the highlight of the trip.  We went there for Jono’s Ordination as a Deacon, so that was a highlight.  And we got engaged under the Eiffel tower at night – that is another natural highlight.  Other highlights were seeing the Colleseum, St. Peter’s Basillica, the Arc de Triumph, and the Eiffel tower.   

Another question is which city I liked better.  I really enjoyed Paris, but wouldn’t return again without taking some French lessons.  Rome was much more English-friendly, with nearly every restaurant offering menus in English as well as Italian.  Paris had a more contemporary feel, like a modern city that was still changing and growing.  Rome is more like a city-sized museum, but I don’t view that as a negative.  It is a great city and an amazing place to visit.  If I were to head back to Italy, I would probably explore other parts of the country, not just Rome.  Paris though, I could easily spend another week in, especially if I knew more French.

As for the food, we definitely had more consistently good food in Rome than in Paris, but that may have also been a function of the English-friendliness of Rome: we were simply more capable of ordering what we wanted and knowing what we were ordering.

However, more than the food or specific things we saw or did, what really made a difference was just the cultural learning and expanding my mind.  To see how another culture lives; the cars they drive, the food they eat, where and how they shop, where they live, how they live.  To see the places they worship and where they commit their sins… 

Memories to last a lifetime, though I hope I do make it back someday.  I feel that in some small way I am a better person for having gone overseas; not better than everyone else, but just better for having a greater understanding of how other cultures live.  And isn’t that what travel is supposed to be all about?

Paris, Day Quatre et Cinq

We slept in again on Wednesday, and went to our favorite little crepe place down the street from the hotel.  We then walked along the Seine to make our way to the nearest tour bus stop on our way to the Louvre.  Along the way, we stopped at Shakespeare & Company, which was unfortunately closed for inventory. 

We caught the bus to take us the rest of the way to the Louvre, but we got off far enough so that we could walk through the gardens.   

Tackling the Vatican Museum AND the the Louvre in the same trip, less than a week apart, is a daunting task and will sap the fortitude of even the strongest museum-goer.  We did the highlights tour of the Louvre: Venus Di Milo, Mona Lisa, Marley Horses, Dying Slave, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, Napoleon’s Apartment, the Virgin on the Rocks… and more.  Much more.  We were ready to move on.

We stopped for lunch at Starbucks (clearly we were ready to head back home) and hit the museum gift store.  Afterward, we found our way to Libraries Gourmand, a bookstore dedicated to only cookbooks.   It took a long walk, but it is a great little store where we found the perfect Parisian cookbook in English to take home as a memento of our trip.

We wound our way back to the Île de la Cité area and found the Magic Museum.  Like the Crypta Balbi, this was an out-of-the way tourist attraction that had no line to get in and was a quick, manageable visit.  My only wish is that the exhibit descriptions would have been in English as well as in French, but we got to see a magic show, so I guess we can’t complain.  We saw a variety of illusion devices and magic tricks, as well as memorabilia from famous magicians like Houdini.  And the whole thing is in the basement of a house where the Marquis de Sade lived.

We took a slow walk back to the hotel, taking in what would be some of the last sights we saw in Paris and our entire trip.  We got back to the hotel, checked out email and meet another couple who had just come from Spain and were heading to Rome next.  We chatted for a bit and they ended up being the first people we told that we were engaged.  They were a really interesting couple, spending a few weeks in Europe while she was there for work (she teaches hydro geology).  They were having a dinner of red wine, a baguette and Roquefort cheese, which I tried for the first time.  Paris is a pretty good place to try Roquefort cheese for the first time.

We packed up our suitcases and then headed to the L’Authre Bistro next to our hotel.  Our meal that night was good, though not quite as good as our first meal there (the onion soup was beef broth with basically fresh onions chopped and thrown in the soup), but we had crepes and red wine, so not too bad. 

We went back to the hotel, finished packing and fell asleep for the last time in Europe.

The next morning, we got up, took showers, hauled our luggage down the umpteen flights of stairs and then went to the corner to catch a cab.  It took us a while to get one, and we were starting to get nervous about the timing.  It was a Thursday morning and we were basically heading to the airport at the tail end of rush hour.  A cab driver took pity on us and ended his break early and got us on the road.  There was a LOT of traffic but we got to the airport on time. 

The flight back was less crowded than our flight going to Europe, but we had a British family behind us who were the last people to get on the plane and had three small children that they brought NO toys or games to keep them occupied for the 8 hour flight.  Meghan spent most the flight with one of the kids kicking her in the back and shoving his feet in between the seat bottom and seat back.  The real ugly highlight was when getting off the plane and realizing that one of the kids had crapped in their diaper and it smelled – no, REEKED – of baby poop in only the horrifying way that baby poop can smell. 

With that, we landed back in the states, back on home soil, now officially a world traveler, engaged, and glad to be back, though already missing Europe.  After nearly two weeks of traveling in Europe, I had to think about how to say "thank you" in English and we immediately jumped into the planning of a wedding.   

Paris, Day Trois

After a busy day and eventful evening in Paris, we slept in until 10 a.m. on Tuesday, finally feeling like we’re on vacation!  After waking, we stopped by our local crepe stand for crepes avec sucre and took the tour bus to the Arc de Triomphe.  Seeing this up close was a personal highlight of the trip.  I’m French by heritage and the Arc is such a symbol of the culture, I was in awe of seeing it up close and personal.  I had read that the view from the top is spectacular, so we got in line to get tickets and then saw the sign: "There are 284 steps to the top.  There is no elevator."  This being our eleventh day of this trip and basically our 10th day of walking around major cities, we bailed.  If it had been a week earlier we probably would have gone for it, but at that point, we just couldn’t muster up the strength.

Instead, we headed to another landmark that DID have an elevator (thank goodness!), the Eiffel Tower.  We got off at the Trocadero where we searched for something for lunch.  We were reaching the end of our trip and we – me in particular – were getting near the end of our rope of dealing with foreign languages while eating and we opted for some sidewalk food, a hot dog in a baguette.  It was good, though not as good as the hot dog panini in Rome.  We followed it up with a much more Parisian dessert: crepes with meil (honey) and chocolate.

The trip up the Eiffel tower was another highlight.  We decided to go all the way to the third level platform, which costs more.  I’m glad that we went up to the top just to say we did it, but wouldn’t do it again.  The view from the top isn’t any better than the one from the second platform and you have to deal with more fog, clouds and smog the further up you get, and everything gets so small you really can’t see too much detail.  But the view is phenomenal regardless – the grey-blue roofs of Paris and the Seine river passing through it all is a great memory to have.

We then got back onto our tour bus and took it to Montmarte, to see Sacre Coeur.  This is the area that holds the Moulin Rouge, which turns out to be quite the seedy "red light" district.  Lots of adult toy and video stores line the streets, and my favorite, the "gadgetierre," a French word that I’m not exactly sure of the meaning of, but pretty sure I have a good idea.

Sacre Coeur was like Notre Dame in that it was a holy place marked by a number of non-sacred features: a book store right in the church, a souvenir coin maker in the back of the church and several street performers on the front stairs of the church. We did get a chance to see some great soccer ball jugglers though.

The tour bus route ended and we took a subway back to our hotel and got ready to go out to dinner and our show at Moulin Rouge.  We had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, fulfilling our obligation to visit there.  We then got to the Moulin Rouge about 20 minutes before show time.  It was raining that night and we figured that 20 minutes before would be good timing to get in and get our seats.  Unfortunately, apparently, the shows start late and we found ourselves standing in the rain for nearly 40 minutes.  We did have a great little show in front of us though: this couple from Minnesota were fondling and making out with each other to the point of coitus.  His hand was grabbing the underside of her ass, starting to "reach around" and they were hiding behind an umbrella, making audible sucking noises as they made out.  Then we realized that her left hand was no where to be seen and his pants were bunched oddly.  Like there was… a… hand… down… the… front… 

Anyway – after that graphic show, we were finally ushered into the Moulin Rouge.  I wish I could tell you how they figure out how to seat everyone, but I’m clueless.  We showed our Internet reservation, and told us to follow them.  We wound our way through all these close-set tables, reminiscent of the nightclub scene in Good Fellas, to a table on the far side of the club, close to the stage. 

One of my favorite memories came next: the sound of champagne corks popping throughout the club.  You get a bottle of champagne for every couple, so there were hundreds of corks being expertly popped by the busy waiters, who carried small penlights between their teeth once the lights went down. 

The Moulin Rouge show itself was far more spectacular than I thought it would be.  We could only understand about half the show, since it was split between French and English, but it was all enjoyable.  There were a few juggling/magic skits and many singing/dancing numbers.  The stage sets would changes so fast and seamlessly that you wouldn’t even notice that they had gone from a Middle-Eastern set to a Latin American set.  One of the highlights was when a large water tank rose out of the stage – about 10 feet wide and 20 feet long – with three boa constrictors in it.  A topless dancer (oh yeah – most of them are topless and it must be VERY COLD back stage) jumped in and danced and writhed with the snakes for 5 minutes.

After the show, we tried to catch a cab across town.  One cab driver wanted 35 Euro for the ride, but another took us for 15.

Another busy and long day… but only one more day in Paris left!

Paris, Day Deux

Monday morning we got up at a reasonable time – around 9 a.m. or so, and had breakfast from a sidewalk crêpe shop down the street from the hotel.  This brought back fond memories of childhood, as it happened to be Columbus Day back in the states and I had a crêpe filled with raspberry preserves (after it took me about 5 minutes of struggling to remember that raspberry in French was "framboise"), something that I hadn’t had since our local French club served crêpes at the local Autumnfest, and I always had them with raspberry.  The little old woman who served us made the crêpes on the large flat pan with grace and ease. 

We walked over to Notre Dame cathedral, which was a great starting point for our Parisian trip, as it provided a point of reference in comparison to the many churches we saw in Rome.  While the Roman churches were ostentatious and bold, Notre Dame was dark and reserved.  The tourists were also different, as they were less respectful of the church as a holy place than the tourists in Rome were.  Of course, the Churches are a bit more sanctimonious as well, with all the Parisian churches we visited offering gift shops and book stores right in the churches, and most of them offering souvenir coins made out of a penny that dropped into the machine and then you turn the crank.  Hardly all basins of holy water and crucifixes.

We walked from Notre Dame to Île de la Cité, then tried to get into St. Chappell, but we weren’t able to figure out if were in the line for that or the courthouse, and bailed.  We found ourselves near the Pompidou Center, so we spent some time in that area, admiring the contrast of modern and classic architecture.  After that we had lunch at a classic-looking bistro where we enjoyed excellent French onion soup.

From there, we headed to an area that I was anxious to explore – Place de la Madeleine.  It is well known for its many gourmet stores, including a Maille store, a boutique store of Maille brand mustards.  This was a really unique experience, where buying mustards was like buying jewelry: you picked what you wanted from the glass cases and then the clerk pulled it out of the drawers, wrapped it in custom printed black and gold paper with a seal and then put it a beautiful heavy bag.  They also sell ceramic jars of various sizes that you can bring in to be refilled from the draught pumps on the sales counter.  Even the sampling method was impressive, with small dabs of mustard served on small rounds of paper.  We bought a sample pack, a jar of peach-chili mustard and some of their ancienne style chardonnay grainy mustard.

We also visited a tea store, a honey store (over 200 types of honey), and Marquise De Sevigne chocolates (try the apple filled chocolates if you get a chance.  very, very good).  We also had a little taste of home by resting our feet in a Starbucks and enjoying the chocolates we had just purchased.

We were now near the Opera House, which would be a must-see for me on a second trip to Paris.  We then bought some touristy open-air double decker bus tickets for the next two days since were getting sick of walking everywhere after a week of walking everywhere in Rome and all day in Paris thus far.  We rode around the city for a while, seeing the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower.  Things were getting a bit chilly by that point, so we took a subway to the hotel where we got ready for dinner.  We tried going to Brasserie Lipp, but unlike Rome, not all restaurants are all English friendly.   We chickened out of that and a few other places before settling on another place, Brasserie Saint Benoit, which offered up a decent, if not fantastic meal.

We left there and headed over to the Trocadero, where we stopped for a glass of champagne, mainly to use the bathroom at L’Ancien Trocadero.  Unfortunately, the glass of champagne was definitely the better of the deal, since the bathroom was pretty nasty.

We walked over to the area overlooking the Eiffel tower, admiring the beautiful sight.  It was a sight that sent chills up and down my spine, as it is an icon that I wasn’t sure I would ever see.  Even with a giant rugby ball in the middle (did I mention that it was the World Rugby Cup while were were in Paris?  No?  It was hard to miss… there was rugby everywhere), it was gorgeous.  I took some photos and then as we started to walk down towards the tower, it began to glitter and sparkle.  It is something that started back in 2000, for the new millennium, and happens each night.  I asked as we walked towards it, "how long do you think it lasts, a half hour or so?" to which Meghan said incredulously "I don’t think so babe… probably a few minutes." 

As we got closer, she kept offering to stop so I could take a photo, and I kept saying "no, let’s get closer" which she found strange.  Once we were right underneath the tower, with it still glittering and sparkling, I started fumbling around in my camera bag, saying that I wanted to try something new with the camera.  Instead of a new lens or filter though, I explained I had something else that sparkles and got down on one knee…  it was a bit of planned spontaneity and one that took my now fiance quite by surprise, since she never would have thought I had managed to pull it off. 

Now you know what I’ll probably be writing about in the next year: being engaged, getting married and planning a wedding.  I already have at least five blog entries worth of material and its only been about a month….

Anyway – we still had two more days in Paris.  After our very eventful night and a late night cab ride back to the hotel, we rested up in preparation of our first day in Paris as a newly engaged couple.

Here Oui Are In Paris!

I’m approaching blogging critical mass, so please excuse the bad pun of a title.

We left Rome on October 7, heading to London to catch our connecting flight.  We had heard horror stories about Heathrow and were concerned that nearly 3 hours wouldn’t be enough to catch our connecting flight.  Clearly a lot of people don’t know how to handle airports, since we found it easy to navigate and got there with plenty of time.  We were starving by the time we got there and grabbed lunch at the first place we found in our terminal, which turned out to be an Italian place.  Of course, we found an English style pub at the other end of the terminal later on, but it was too late at that point.

Once on our flight to Paris, we grabbed a cab to our hotel.  On the ride into the city, the differences between Rome and Paris were apparent.  The increased number of tall buildings and modern architecture was obvious.

We stayed at Hotel du Commerce, another recommendation based on Meghan’s past travels.  It offers basic accommodations, but clean rooms and bathrooms with a good location.  Unfortunately, we were on the fifth floor and there’s no elevator.  We left some of our luggage in the storage room, since it was bad enough hauling two weeks’ worth of luggage – including formal wear for all the masses and dinners we had in Rome – up five flights of very narrow and curvy stairs.

After the climb we had a late dinner at the bistro next to the hotel, L’Authre Bistro.  I had steak au poivre while Meghan had a great hamburger.  And yes, the french fries were great!  This meal gave our first lesson in Paris: cocktails are EXPENSIVE.  Usually we’ll have a gin & tonic and vodka & tonic before dinner, but hadn’t the whole time in Rome.  We ordered drinks and were shocked first by the way it was served: all the liquor in the glass with a bottle of tonic on the side with a glowing straw in the glass.  Then when we got the bill, we were shocked by the price: twelve Euro for a drink!

After a long day of traveling, we were ready for bed, so we rested up for our first full day in Paris.

Rome… on the Seventh Day, We Rested

So we began our last full day in Rome by having breakfast with Jono.  I had my first chocolate-filled cornetto, which depressed me a little bit, since I clearly should have been having this every morning.  I also love the light fruit juices that they have in the bars.  We walked off the breakfast with a trip to Palatine Hill, which offers beautiful views over the city, the Roman Forum and Circus Maximus

Then we went to Crypta Balbi, a museum that had been listed in a tour guide book as a great place to go to escape the crowd.  Why there isn’t a crowd there is beyond me (other than the fact that it isn’t very well marked).  The museum is basically an enclosed archaeological dig showcasing how the layers of Rome have been built over each other through the centuries.  You can see where the ancient wagon wheels created ruts in ancient roads and how a theater and houses were built on top of that. 

We stopped at the Church of the Gesù so that Jono could pray, but it was a great stop for that, allowing us to see a beautiful church with an amazing ceiling featuring the Triumph of the Name of Jesus.

We had lunch at the same place we had the first day in Rome, having some more excellent pizza, and then went back to our hotel to start packing.  Our last night in Rome concluded with a Mass closing out the ordination week.  It was beautiful even though the newly ordained deacon who gave the sermon was a bit long.  He gave what could have been three good sermons….

Dinner was back at Sor’eva where I had a phenomenal shrimp risotto with lots of Parmesan cheese, and then we retired back to the NAC for drinks and Cuban cigars on the rooftop.  It had rained a bit earlier in the day, and while the rain had cleared out over Rome, there was still lightning in the clouds around the city.  We sat there overlooking the lit city of Rome and lightning all around us, drinking our wine and prosesco and smoking our cigars.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect week in Rome.

We went to bed, reluctantly knowing that it was our last night in Rome.  We awoke the next day to a light rain, providing a sadly romantic ending to the Rome leg of our trip.  Unbelievably we still had a whole other city to go!!