Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

Sunny ol’ England, Part II

We now present the second portion of Amrita’s first visit to the UK.

So, where was I? Ah yes, one more museum.

#6: The British Museum. I’m a huge fan of the atrium Foster did at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, so of course I wanted to see the “original,” so to speak.  Foster’s first attempt at the technique was actually at the British Museum, and on our last day in London, the Brit and I decided to check it out.  Well, we made it over to that part of town around lunch time and were both really hungry.  I was determined to eat fish ‘n’ chips before I left England. We walked up and down three streets, apparently the only streets in London that don’t have a fish ‘n’ chips place or a pub, spent over an hour looking for a place and finally gave up.  We grabbed a quick lunch of baked potato and wandered back to the museum.  Guess what we found on the street right beside Foster’s masterpiece? Yes, a handful of pubs and fish ‘n’ chip joints.  Go figure.

Britmus

The atrium at the British Museum. We checked out the actual exhibits, too. The English stole a lot of really nice ancient artifacts.

#7: Hyde Park. I did mention that it was surprisingly sunny and warm for late September when I visited London, right? The Brit and I went for a leisurely walk through Hyde Park, and as we both have incredibly sweet tooths (sweet teeth?), and it was such a gorgeous day, we nibbled on some ice cream as we made our way around the Serpentine.  Deliciously romantic.  When I told Roomie about it, she proposed a Flight of the Conchords analogy, though I’m not sure who is Bret and who is Jermaine…

Not my photo, but that's the park! Thoughts on Hyde vs. Central?

#8: Friends. I was definitely excited about visiting London, because as a design student visiting a new city is a fun way to add to your visual vocabulary. And, of course, I was excited about seeing the Brit after a five-month separation.  One thing I was slightly nervous about was meeting his friends, as anyone in a budding relationship will know. Especially when he told me I’d be meeting two of his oldest friends! But it all went well, no awkward conversations, a lot of joshing around and, as they say, taking the piss.  I think our two groups would mesh rather nicely, though the opportunity for that is a bit slim, since they’re separated by an ocean (or the Equator, in the case of Queen of the Lab).  There’s more to be said on this subject in the post about the next UK visit, as that was the primary goal of the trip.

#9: Slang. Of course, when you’re friends with or dating someone who speaks another language (yes, American English and UK English are different languages) or is from a different culture, you spend a bit of time discussing the socio-linguistic differences. I spent one incredibly funny evening in London hanging out with the Brit and one of his old friends discussing the actual definition of “douche” and the appropriate time to use the word.  Then I learned all kinds of terrible British slang, some of which should never be repeated (um, “wank tank”?), and some of which might come in handy one day.  For example, who knows what “chuffed” means?  Urban dictionary has it kind of right: to be surprised and happy, as in, “I can’t believe I won the lottery, I’m so chuffed!”

#10: Food. And if you know me well enough, you know I can’t visit a place without talking about their food.  The highlights of cheap London dining are as follows. Sandwich places are delicious, the English have mastered the salad sandwich, i.e. chicken salad, egg salad, tuna salad.  They even have chicken tandoori sandwiches, which just sounds wrong, but tastes sooooo good.  The Brit’s mom made us dinner most nights, and it was nice to have some home-cooking (delicious at that) to break up the daily eating out; she made a variety of things, from this Asian-inspired chicken dish to a casserole-esque dish. I don’t know what they were called, I just know they were yummy.  Oh, and at one point we ate out at this South American restaurant, where for £12 we got the largest meal in the world: a steak with an egg on top, lots of rice, salad, beans.  It was iHop sized. The steak was cooked just right.

Well that’s the round-up of the first London trip.  It was quite whirlwind, we covered a bit of ground (physically and topically) in only 4 days. I was sad to leave, but as soon as I saw the Eiffel tower on my way to the apartment, things started to pick back up.

Next time, on Jumping over the lazy dog: Amrita has her first full week of teaching. Dun dun dun.

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Sunny ol’ England, Part I

I have a theory.  God made England sunny for a September weekend so that when I visited London, I’d find it quite pleasant and want to come back, thus not disappointing the Brit and causing him to spend oodles of his own cash with mandated trips down to Paris because I’m terrified of coming up to face yet another rainstorm. As it turned out, it was the Brit’s trip down to Paris that resulted in a downpour or two, and my last trip back up (just a week ago) was pleasant with only a few drops of rain and gusty winds – yes, even in Scotland!

In case you don’t believe me, I thought I’d give you some evidence that England can, in fact, be sunny.  Consider this our first flashback.  All the way back to September, when I left the US (for quasi-good) on a jet plane headed to Gatwick Airport.

I arrived in London at dawn, and after a confusing half-hour stumbling around the airport looking for a coffee shop in the wrong terminal (that’s what happens when you arrive in a country without a cellphone and no calling card), I managed to meet up with the Brit and he shuttled me off to his country estate. Ok, not estate, but rather a nice little house in a charming town called Horsham.  After a recuperative nap and some unpacking, we took a walk around town and through the park, where we ran into the Brit’s paternal unit. A brief chat later, we snagged lunch (a real English sandwich!) and did some more wandering before heading back home to meet the maternal unit and one half of the sibling set.  The meet-the-parents routine went rather well, I think, though I felt bad for bringing a bottle of wine when his mum doesn’t drink (but I’m making amends with my next trip up).

The next three days were devoted to London and trying not to miss our trains. We did a lot of walking, I think I counted 7 miles covered in one day, and saw a lot of the mandated tourist destinations.  I’ve got a couple of images from my own camera, before I discovered the sensor had been splattered with dust, and then a couple from the Brit’s camera that will serve as guides to this exciting narrative.  And just for kicks, I thought we’d go sight by sight, rather than follow a timely chronicle, since I can’t remember what we did first, but I certainly remember what we did.  So here’s the London Top Ten, in no particular order.

#1: The London Eye. You can’t miss it if you go to London, and it’s a great way to orient yourself in the city – kind of what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Structurally I found it quite beautiful, and the view from the top was well worth the price and the wait.  The British certainly like to queue up.  Although I couldn’t help but think of that Doctor Who episode every time I saw this landmark…also, there was some random 4D movie experience, basically an excuse to get misted and have wind blown in our face, with some 3D effects that were better than Disney’s, while watching cool shots of the Eye and some little girl.

eye01
It doesn’t look so big, until you realize each one of those little pill-like cabins contains 15-20 people.
eye02
It’s like a huge, turning, bicycle wheel. But it moves incredibly slowly, so it didn’t seem to activate my fear of hights / motion sickness.
eye03
Better than seeing the Eye from the ground? Seeing sunset over London from the Eye! Who wants to guess the time?
The view from the top.
The view from the top.

#2: Big Ben. If you have to see the Eye, then you can’t help but hear Big Ben. I found its architecture interesting, though I prefer the proportions and detailing of monuments in Paris. When we were at the top of the London Eye, in true British style, a gent asked me for the time. And as a truly ditsy American, I searched my purse for a watch, Big Ben ticking away behind me, while the rest of the cabin laughed.

bigben01
The infamous Big Ben was actually one of the first things we saw. We saw it again and again the next few days, but for some reason I only recall hearing it ring once or twice…
bigben02

Big Ben at night, doesn't he look handsome?

#3: Buckingham Palace. So, we didn’t get to see the changing of the guard, and we didn’t go inside the Palace or the Gardens, but I did get to see a guard and he walked around a bit, so it was almost the same.  It was weird thinking that this essentially huge McMansion belongs to a little old lady that happens to be very rich and the (decorative) head of a small island/important country.  And that Prince Charles grew up there, funny ears and all.

Buckpal

That's the guard! And okay, so he moved a total of 10 feet...but he did change positions!

#4: Piccadilly Circus. The Brit describes this plaza as London’s version of the Big Apple’s Times Square.  I will say, it was cleaner than Times Square.  It was also smaller than Times Square, like waaaaaay smaller. I guess everything is bigger in America. But the tiny size and it’s great aspirations only made it quaintly adorable. Wait a minute, that sounds like an apt way to describe England itself…

piccad

It has a lot of moving images, which are interestingly hard to capture on still digital "film."

#5 Trafalgar Square, National Gallery. The Brit and I made it a tradition to approach relevant bits of public sculpture from the rear, and then forget to see them from the front.  We made an exception for Trafalgar Square, only because walking around the sculpture was key to our getting on our way. The National Gallery itself was beautiful, architecturally, and I was especially fond of its bathrooms – one of my professors always said, you can tell how well a space is designed by how much thought is given to the bathrooms, as they tend to be an afterthought.  The art in the gallery was your usual smattering of stuff, though I particularly enjoyed the Turners on display.

trafsq

From the rear at sunset, as we saw it. Take note of the sliver of moon on the right.

That’s it on London for now.  Look for Part II shortly!

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Across the pond…

Greetings! The recent lull in the blog department corresponds directly to a bit of jet-setting that took me to London for a brief tour and then to Paris to settle into my room chez Mimi (that’s the family friend I’m living with).  And I know the story about the road trip has ended on a cliff-hanger…never fear, the conclusion will be revealed in a later post.

Now, I know you’re all itching to see pictures of London, and hear about my adventures there…but there was a mishap with my camera.  I have somehow, despite all precautions to the contrary, managed to get some more dust in my SLR’s sensor.  So I had to use the English boy’s camera…and the pictures are with him.  But don’t worry, they’ll show up on the blog by the end of the month!

What I do have pictures of, despite the dust embedded in the camera body, is my room! I was a bit antsy about moving in, as I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it’s a beautiful apartment, and my room is just *so* quaint.  I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence, but it’s decked out in reds, yellows and oranges – and as we all know, orange is my favorite color! So it worked out perfectly.

My room with a view.

My room with a view.

I have plenty of room for my clothes in the armoire (the door in the back, far left), a couple of shelves for my books and art supplies, a private shower and sink (the door in the back, far right) and a WC right next door, plus the piano (which Mimi says is a bit out of tune, but that’s better than nothing!).  I get a private entrance through the kitchen as well, and about ten paces out the door I have a view of the Panthéon (I didn’t realize how close it was on the map, not even a minute away!) and in the other direction, a view to the Eiffel Tower.

So far in Paris I’ve been trying to settle in and sort out some paperwork.  I arrived on Sunday via train, took the Eurostar from St. Pancras in London to Gare du Nord in Paris.  I sat next to a really sweet Australian family, and as usual, wound up spending the trip chatting about cultural differences and what not. A lucky thing, too, that I got along with my co-passengers, because they were able to help me lug my two HUGE suitcases from the train to the taxi stand.

After unpacking I met with a couple of other American assistantes.  We had dinner at a small restaurant in the Latin quarter, and I must say, for €12.40, I got a pretty decent 3 course meal and a couple of glasses of wine.  Plus, the view out the window was of an old church, and I entertained myself by watching pigeons squabble.  The rest of the girls seem fantastic, we’ve exchanged email addresses and I’ll be seeing them tomorrow during our orientation.

Monday was a productive day…I discovered that nothing really opens until 9:30 or 10:00 anyway, so I let myself sleep in a bit, then wandered over to Les Halles to purchase a mobile phone.  Now, here’s a bit of a challenge: I got the phone just fine, and it came with €5 of minutes (11 minutes), and I was told I could recharge it online or via the phone itself.  Well, when I try to recharge it online, it won’t accept my American credit card, and when I try to charge it via the phone, it asks for some random password that I wasn’t aware I had! So I’m thinking I’ll need a French CB (carte bancaire) before I can refill it online…but I don’t get a CB until I get a bank account, which won’t happen until after Saturday…which means another trip to the phone store to purchase minutes manually so that I can actually use my phone in October.

While at Les Halles I also grabbed a map of Paris – one of those Paris par arrondissement deals that’s in a little book and doesn’t make you look like a tourist unfolding the largest map in the world while standing on a street corner muttering to yourself, “Where’s the damn Tower again?”

After a break midday for some lunch (un sandwich jambon beurre – how I’ve missed those!) I did some shopping.  No, I didn’t get any cute French clothes…just the essentials.  There’s an Ed supermarché (kind of like Kroger, but different) right down the street and I bought some basic groceries – pasta, sauce, some fruits, cheese, etc.  On the other side of the neighborhood there’s a Monoprix which is kind of like Target or Walmart (but also completely different) and I bought some cute dishes and silverware and the regular assortment of shampoos and soap.  I didn’t think it would be an adventure, but let me tell ya, I have a hard enough time deciding which shampoo is right for me when the descriptions are in English…at least they had Garnier and the color coding made it a bit easier to figure my way through the massive choices! Interestingly, they didn’t have any conditioner, just shampoo…or if they did, I was completely lost as to where I could find some! I’m still on the hunt for some chapstick; oh, and gum here is ridiculously expensive.  No way am I paying €3.50 for only 12 sticks!

Today’s plan had me hunting down the Navigo pass.  Mine’s a bit pricey, because I’m staying in Paris (Zone 1) and working in Roissy-en-Brie (Zone 5), but I’m supposed to get a 40-50% discount from the school.  I also went and scheduled an appointment to set up a bank account.  I’m meeting with a representative from Le Crédit Lyonnais on Saturday, and will be rounding up my paperwork this week.  Still to do: add money to my cellphone, send off some paperwork for immigration, and grab a FUSAC to find some part-time boulot. Allons-y!

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Four score and Eleven Oceans ago…

I infiltrated the Brat Pack. Not really, but that makes for an awesome beginning, dunnit?

After gorging ourselves on seafood, our troupe thought it might be fun to detox by traversing a desert. There’s not much to say about traversing a desert en voiture, except that the trip is much quicker than if one were to attempt it on foot. At first, I found the rolling yellow hills to be mesmerizing.  It’s easy to see what drew Christo and Jeanne-Claude to this landscape.  But then it gets old pretty quick.  Occasionally the barren view is interrupted with a cluster of vegetation, or a passing train (one trailed us for a good hour), but for the most part, it looks like this:

They're so compelling, I had to take a photo.

They're so compelling, I had to take a photo.

Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s some evidence of the trees and trains I mentioned above.

We saw trees, and signs protesting government sanctioned water rationing posted by the tree farmers.

We saw trees, and signs protesting government sanctioned water rationing posted by the tree farmers.

Anybody else start humming songs from Rent whenever 'Santa Fe' is mentioned?

Anybody else start humming songs from Rent whenever 'Santa Fe' is mentioned?

Aaaaand eventually, we made it to our destination: Las Vegas.

Venturi, eat your heart out.

Venturi, eat your heart out.

Dino managed to reserve us a room in The Bellagio. The lobby was incredibly extravagant, and getting a chance to see some more Chihuly sculptures in person was fantastic! We were upgraded to a Strip-facing suite, whose bathroom was equal in size to my bedroom at home. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make use of the enormous bathtub, though we did all take turns wearing the slippers and flicking the electrically-controlled curtains open and closed.

It sure was a nice view, Danny.

It sure was a nice view, Danny.

Chi-who?

Chi-who?

In what turned out to be thematic of our road trip, we arrived at the check-in counter 15 minutes before we were supposed to be seated at Penn & Teller’s show at the Rio. But we hastened.  Having a super-speed elevator up to our room certainly helped, but I’m not sure what exactly got me out of jeans and into a dress, leggings and full make-up in less than 10 minutes. Magic.

Which was what we saw at Penn & Teller’s show.  Wasn’t that a brilliant transition? I’d heard of them before – seen glimpses, even, while flipping channels, but when Dino, Jr. first suggested their show, I had no idea what he was talking about. This is probably due to the way his (adorable) southwest Virginian accent morphs ‘Penn and Teller’ to ‘Pay-en aynd Taylor.’ Luckily, he wasn’t instructing the cab driver, and we got to the show with seconds to spare.

The show itself was a good balance of magic and satire. I’m not going to post any spoilers, but let’s just say you can’t ever really de-mystify magic.

We grabbed dinner at a noodles place in the Bellagio, dropped some dough at the casino, wandered the streets (stomping on scantily clad women – or their images, at least) and ended the night with a celebration in our suite.

Now, I’m a CSI fan (it’s a guilty pleasure that I suppose I have just opened up to public ridicule), so I couldn’t help but compare my experience of the city to the city portrayed on the show.  The tourist portions of Vegas take a smaller role on the set, and I regret not being able to explore the non-gimicky aspects of the city. The glamorous parts of the city, however, are equally flashy in person, if not more so.  Granted, we don’t get the bird’s-eye panoramas that punctuate the episodes on screen, but the worm’s-eye view is quite blinding.

While I have been known to tote the anti-Venturian architectural perspective of Vegas as an abysmal waste of dollars and design intent, there is some value to an opportunity presented in a ‘designer’s playground.’ In some ways, Vegas is America’s Dubai, and perhaps the millions clients are willing to spend can be used to experiment with innovative ‘sustainable’ solutions that are as attractive, or more attractive, than their ‘old school’ counterparts…

Ok, no soap box. All in all, Las Vegas was fun, as it should be.  My favorite new city? Probably not. I’m a Paris girl at heart, and the wannabe Eiffel doesn’t do the real thing justice.

It's too bad the fake tower doesn't have the snazzy flickering light show every night.

It's too bad the fake tower doesn't have the snazzy flickering light show every night.

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Ahoy, matey, thar be seafood aboard.

Ok, so I’m not really a pirate. But wandering down the West Coast has made me a real seafood aficionado (which I kind of was before, but now even more so).

First, the prize-winner for the best fish’n’chips I’ve ever eaten.  Not that it’s saying much, and it’s game to be contested after my trip to London later this month, but here we go.  Drum roll, please…Mo’s Chowder! For the most part, we tried to stay away from chain restaurants during our trip, to get a real flavor for the localities we were ambling through, but we actually ate at the original Mo’s Chowder on the old harbor in Newport, Oregon.  The restaurant appears to be located in a garage: the 10′ door rolls up to open the space to the street front, letting the scent of batter dipped fish and local beer drift enticingly out to pedestrians. The fish’n’chips are fantastic, and they have quite a few choices (in terms of which fruit of the sea you want dipped in batter).  I did, however, get ‘brownied’ as it came to be called: they skimped out when it came to serving me this amazing bread.  How did I know it was amazing, well, the rest of the table got their share and their eyes rolled back into their heads upon consumption.  Interestingly, I didn’t have any of Mo’s chowder…

It's not my picture, but that's the place.

It's not my picture, but that's the place.

Then there’s the prize for the best milkshakes ever. This award goes to….The Crazy Norwegian’s in Port Orford! Not sure how they did it, but it was smooth and frothy, tasty and not too filling, so I could still enjoy my fish’n’chips.  Speaking of, this place gets second place for awesome fish’n’chips: their batter was tempura based, I believe, which put a nice spin on the classic. As an Interior Designer, I, of course, noticed the interior: it’s really cozy, and I’d attribute that to the pine boards that wrap the walls and ceiling.  It’s almost like being on a boat, or in a Scandinavian log cabin…go figure.

Again, not my pic, but you get the idea.

Again, not my pic, but you get the idea.

We stayed on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which is where we found the last restaurant on the ‘West Coast must eats’ list: the Franciscan Crab Restaurant.  The first two dining venues in this post were delicious and cheap.  The Franciscan? Not so much.  Very tasty, but with a price to match.  The four of us dropped a cool $100 on a platter of their ‘World Famous’ Whole Roasted Dungeness Crabs, which were prepared in a ‘Secret Garlic Sauce.’ The crabs were good, don’t get me wrong, and I think the method of preparation was exquisite: savory without obscuring the flavor of the sea, and it allowed the crab meat to be pulled in large chunks (as opposed to the slivers you normally spend 3 hours procuring from one measly limb).  The desserts were also quite delicious – we each ordered one and had a tasting feast. You’re also paying for ambiance in this place – it’s got an art deco twist, with some funky lighting, and on a nice day (which we didn’t have) you would’ve been able to see across the bay.  Oh, and their menu was beautifully designed.

I was apparently incapable of taking photos of restaurants.  But them's the crabs.

I was apparently incapable of taking photos of restaurants. But them's the crabs.

So there you have it, three divine dining experiences on the West Coast portion of our trip.  Next up: Vegas, baby!

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Holy Giant Redwoods, Batman!

After the most beautiful part of our trip, we continued on to the most awe-inspiring part of our journey: a jaunt through Redwood National Park, where we walked amongst the Giants. Now, I’m a pretty tiny person.  I’m 5′-0″, which is short by normal standards, but when placed against a 200′ tall Redwood (or in our case, several Redwoods), I become minuscule. We actually spent the night in a small cabin in the forest itself, where Dino and Saarinen risked getting eaten by bears during a daring night-time hike, and Dino, Jr. and I played it safe by watching Saving Private Ryan and discussing a citizen’s obligation to fight for his country.

Call me a Californ-i-a hippie, but more awe-inspiring than the size of these monstrous flora is the aura infusing the forest. The golden light filtering through the trees lends an eerie calm, and some how calls attention to the forest’s longevity – as though the light you see shows its age, the several light-year journey standing in sharp contrast to our homo sapien youth.

I’m not sure my photographs do this feeling justice.

Look up, way up.

Look up, way up.

Technically, humans aren't supposed to touch the trees. But Saarinen's a monkey, so that's okay.

Technically, humans aren't supposed to touch the trees. But Saarinen's a monkey, so that's okay.

Prehistoric light documented on digital-film, I assure you.

Prehistoric light documented on digital-film, I assure you.

On our way down to San Francisco we stopped by a vineyard in Mendocino county, Jeriko Estates, where Saarinen and I tasted several delicious wines and even purchased a few.  Dino and Dino, Jr. were exempt from the revelry since they were driving.

The wine-tasting room.

The wine-tasting room.

We then stopped by the Charles Schultz museum, whose collection includes artifacts from the cartoonist’s personal affects as well as contemporary art featuring his infamous characters. I particularly enjoyed an exhibit that explored the research Schultz conducted (with respect to music, for example) before penning his strips.  Dino particularly enjoyed kissing Charlie Brown.

Said kissing.

Said kissing.

San Francisco was, unfortunately, a let down. A dense fog had settled over the bay, obscuring the one sight I so longed to lay my eyes upon: the Golden Gate Bridge. It was so foggy I barely caught a glimpse as we drove across the bridge to enter the city.  We did get to see the crookedest street in the world, since Dino, Jr. insisted we check it out.  He actually wanted to drive down the street, but during the last trip to San Francisco Dino’s car got hit by a bus and he’s now reluctant to let his Mercedes anywhere near the local public transport.

There was a crooked man...

There was a crooked man...

Up next: West coast dining, from amazing milkshakes to succulent crabs.

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Gorgeous Gorges and the Great Outdoors.

One last apology before I vow to never apologize for delays in posting again: I’m sorry!! Now on to the much anticipated Road Trip 2009 recounting.

Day one of RT09 had us checking out the waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge.  Tip #1: Do not begin a road trip with a visit to a popular tourist destination on a Saturday afternoon if you expect to find parking for not one, but two cars.

Once we resolved the parking dilemma, we got to see some really beautiful waterfalls! The first one was lovely, the second quite nice, the third took too long to get to, and if Saarinen had made us go to one more waterfall, she wouldn’t have lasted the rest of the trip. And I know you can only see so many waterfall pictures before they get old and start looking like the same thing, but here’s a handful to satisfy your curiosity.  Our visit to the Gorge ended with a stop at Vista House, whose incredibly scenic ‘vista’ was marred only by the dense cloud cover.

The first of the waterfalls, decidedly the most impressive.

The first of the waterfalls, decidedly the most impressive.

Apparently, that rock did some damage at a wedding party.

Apparently, that rock did some damage at a wedding party.

The view from Vista House.

The view from Vista House.

That night we stayed in Coos Bay, Oregon.  The Oregon Coast was by far the best part of the trip as far as I’m concerned.  On our drive from the gorge to Coos Bay we had glimpses of waves smashing against large rocks and sandy shores.  When night fell, we stopped for a moment by the road side to listen to the soft splash of the waves below, a bit afraid to climb down because it was so dark! I think we interrupted a couple in their car…doing what couples in cars do, but it was worth it!

The following morning began with a trip to Shore Acres Park. We finally had a chance to walk around the rocky shore, hike down to a beach and tentatively explore a cave.  Since Dino, Jr. and I didn’t get to see the sea lions at the Sea Lion Cave, we insisted on stopping by a view point that promised the largest group of sea lions on the Oregon Coast.  It was amazing! They were incredibly loud.  And we even got a humpback whale sighting!

Here are some images from the park, I highly recommend a visit to anyone on the West coast!

Beautiful sun, gorgeous water, just divine.

Beautiful sun, gorgeous water, just divine.

The beach where I first dipped my toes into the Pacific.

The beach where I first dipped my toes into the Pacific.

Herman the snail.

Herman the snail.

____ the crab.

____ the crab.

The Cave.

The Cave.

The very loud Sea Lions.  And why I was glad I brought my 70-300mm zoom lens.

The very loud Sea Lions. And why I was glad I brought my 70-300mm zoom lens.

Next time on RT09: Redwoods and San Francisco.  Still to come: West Coast dining!

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Beans, beans, beans!

We all know Seattle has a thing for beans – coffee beans.  But did you also know that Seattle’s starting to fall for the chocolate bean as well? Chocolate bars (pun intended), workshops, tasting tours…we ran into this new craze everywhere during our hunt for food in the city.  It was too much to resist.  So this post features not one, but two of the best chocolate places I’ve visited – and the best part is that you can order their chocolates online!

Let’s start with Chocolate Box.  Right up the street from Pike Place Market, and a few blocks from the major shopping district, it’s a great place to grab a mid-century-modern-inspired seat and savor some gelato or sip on a large bowl of mocha – which is exactly what we did. I had a delicious  scoop of stracciatella and one of those mochas, a combination of temperature extremities that probably did little to help the cold I was starting to catch.  Chocolate Box sells local chocolates and hosts a range of chocolate-themed workshops, so if you’re in town, I’d recommend stopping there first.

A delicate and sophisticated atmosphere at Fran's.  The portrait is actually a photograph of tiled truffles - talk about chocolate art!

A delicate and sophisticated atmosphere at Fran's. The portrait is actually a photograph of tiled truffles - talk about chocolate art!

My favorite chocolate place, though, was definitely Fran’s Chocolates.  It was a chilly morning (well, chilly for me, since I was the only one in shorts) as we made our way to SAM, and nothing in Seattle seemed to open until 10AM.  That is, nothing but Fran’s! There we were, standing outside the museum at 9:40, shivering in our flip flops, desperate for something warm.  A charming floral graphic across the street caught my eye.  I hadn’t actually registered what the graphic was for – I only liked the promising interior, and the designer that I am, I dragged Saarinen and Dinosaur after me.  Open at 9:30 AM, located directly across the street from SAM, Fran’s has the best hot chocolate in the world. I can say this, because I have had hot chocolate from very random places around the world (Paris, which certainly gives Fran’s some competition, and India, which doesn’t, for example), and Fran’s is definitely the best hot chocolate I have ever had.  The barista pulled out a small paper cup, filled it (I kid you not) with dark chocolate chips and topped it with steamed milk – mmmm, delicious.  Fran’s also sells an assortment of chocolate truffles, with the usual flavors…and some unusual ones (chocolate figs anyone?).  These and their hot chocolate mix are available online – I know I’m going to be purchasing some, right now.

Are those diamonds on display or truffles? Either way, a woman's best friend...

Are those diamonds on display or truffles? Either way, a woman's best friend...

Before you get the wrong idea, we did eat some real food while in Seattle.  While at Pike Place Market, we ate at Athenian Inn.  A contender for the best meal of the road trip, it’s also the place where Tom Hanks has a seat in Sleepless in Seattle.  I had the freshest Halibut and green beans I’ve ever tasted, and Saarinen’s seafood alfredo pasta was absolutely divine.

One of Saarinen’s friends recommended Ray’s Boathouse, so we thought we’d check it out.  It’s a bit on the pricey side, and when we got there they said we’d have to wait an hour before we could be seated.  So we opted to eat at Ray’s Café instead – they’re both in the same building, but the view from the deck at Ray’s Café can’t be beat.  As we dined on fresh seafood (everyone had a nibble from another’s dish, of course), we watched the sun drop below the water.  They even provide you with blankets to fend of the chill that sets in at dusk!

The prize for the quickest, cheapest and surprisingly tasty meal goes to Original Deli, one of those last-minute-oh-my-God-I-need-to-eat finds.  Maybe it was because we were so hungry, but their soup and sandwiches were better than Au Bon Pain’s – and I’m a sucker for some Au Bon Pain.

You’d think it would be pretty hard to top our dining experience in Seattle – but there’s a restaurant in Albuquerque that gives the Athenian Inn a run for its money.  And a place in Oregon called the Crazy Norwegian.  Oh yes, just you wait.

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Guess who’s back!

Dear Readers,

I apologize for the radio silence these last few days, but it’s all with good reason, I assure you.  As I mentioned earlier, a few friends and I planned a road trip for the first two weeks of August. Said road trip took place concurrently with the aforementioned radio silence, so there you have it.  But I’m back now, and it’s time to recount the trails we blazed.

The road trip began with an extended stay in Seattle.  Saarinen and I flew out on a Tuesday to meet Dinosaur and my little brother, and were met by Dino, Jr. (for whom we tried out several other nicknames, including Merry Man and Iceberg, but I think Dino, Jr. is going to stick) a few days later.  This first post shall recount our Seattle adventures.

Dinosaur, Saarinen and I at Kelly Park.

Dinosaur, Saarinen and I at Kerry Park.

We kicked off our visit by getting lost.  Actually, we were trying to find Kerry Park, and wound up wandering through an absolutely beautiful neighborhood, albeit in the wrong direction, before being guided to an alley way and winding stone stairs that led us to our intended destination.  Day one concluded with another walk about town, with the obligatory visit to Pike Place Market (our first visit, but certainly not the last).

Yes, I took 'that' picture.

Yes, I took 'that' picture.

The next day we dipped our feet in history by taking the Seattle Underground Tour, with an incredibly chipper tour guide (think the girl from the Progressive commercials, but even more enthusiastic).  It was a bit creepy, but mostly cool (a bit chilly, as well).  I would be curious to know if it’s possible to build a wine bar down there – the right temperature conditions and a “shabby chic” factor – could be quite the spot.  We then took a long, long, long walk from Pioneer Square to the Experience Music Project and the Sci-Fi museum.  In true Gehry style, the museum is quite compelling from the exterior, if only because it makes no sense.  I was digging the bright red and bronze finishes, but the light blue portions paled in comparison to the uncharacteristically sunny Seattle sky.  Dinosaur, Lil Bro and I wrapped up the night by attending the Barcelona-Seattle soccer match (which ended 4-0, the poor things), and Saarinen met up with a friend to visit the Space Needle.

It's really tall.

It's really tall.

We began First Thursday with a visit to SAM.  An interesting collection, for sure, though the museum building itself is composed of the cliché “empty white square” architecture.  I was particularly attracted to the Cai Guo-Quiang sculptures in the lobby.  That we followed by a walk through the Seattle Central Library, which was incredible to see in person.  The interior spaces are bright with daylight even with a cloudy sky, and the pop of neon colors really does make the circulation legible from a distance.  We then wandered through the art district, popping into the galleries that were open and gaping at the exorbitant prices.

The "Living Room" of the Seattle Central Library.

The "Living Room" of the Seattle Central Library.

On Friday we took a day trip to the Cascades (the ones in Washington State, not the ones near Blacksburg, Virginia).  The hike was beautiful – but the waterfall itself was not that impressive.  I imagine, though, had we come a bit earlier we might have seen more rushing water.  The river we drove along was much more beautiful than the falls we drove to see.  The mountains’ steep climb, the winding road and the turquoise blue water set my soul at ease.  I think I like these mountains better than the ones out East.

The beautiful view at the trailhead.

The beautiful view at the trail head.

If you’ll notice, I haven’t made a mention about food.  Well, that’s because our dining experience deserves a post of its own.  So come back tomorrow for a mouth-watering menu for your next trip to Seattle!

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Go West, young [wo]man…

No, I’m not here to debate the origin of this quotation, but rather to start a new list! For a few weeks now I’ve been talking to my friend (here come a slew of nicknames), Dinosaur, about joining him on an epic roadtrip across the US.  He’s actually already completed two cross-country roadtrips, but this is the first trip where I will be accompanying him.  We will be joined by my very good friend Eero (who is, in fact, neither Finnish nor male) and possibly Dino, Jr. (aka Dinosaur’s brother, who I do not know very well and so will most likely get a more appropriate nickname post-roadtrip).

Look at that natural light!

Look at that natural light!

We’re starting in Seattle, since that’s where Dinosaur is working this summer.  What makes this even more fantastic is that my brother is currently in Seattle, also working for the summer, so I’m going to be arriving a few days early to hang out with the little guy (not so litte – he’s taller than me, though that’s not saying much, since I’m only five-oh) and to, get this, see a Barcelona game!  And I’m sure I’ll also be visiting sights around the city, including the Seattle Public Library (which sounds like a strange place to visit until I tell you I have a thing for REM Koolhaas and used SPL as a case study in my thesis…) and the usual Pike Place Market/Starbucks-y stuff before we head back  home.

Dinosaur suggested a trip down through California and across Nevada, hitting up places in the SW, which I’m very excited about because the furthest west I’ve been is Chicago, and that was when I was probably eight or nine. I’ve booked my ticket and we (Eero and I) leave Roanoke at the break of day on August 4th.  Here’s a running list of cool things I’d like to see on our roadtrip back to Blacksburg.  They’re a bit scattered, and I doubt we’ll be able to hit all of them, but even a handful would make my week!  And feel free to leave suggestions, we’re happy to take them!

  1. Seattle
  2. Sequoia National Forest
  3. San Francisco
  4. Sonoma Valley
  5. Las Vegas
  6. Sedona
  7. Grand Canyon National Park + Skywalk
  8. The Thing
  9. Santa Fe
  10. The Alamo
  11. Austin
  12. New Orleans
  13. The World’s Largest Chair
  14. A Bunch of Small Buildings
  15. A Really Big Peanut
  16. Savannah
  17. Biltmore Estates

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