Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mercredi (Paris and Versailles)...

Happy Halloween. Awoke to a cotton candy sky...brilliant light blue with lacy pink clouds. A fitting decoration for Halloween...the king of all candy holidays. The weather stayed perfect all day long...Mother Nature's thoughtful birthday present to me on my 40th.

Took the RER C5 train (VICK) to Versailles Rive the right train without any hiccups on this trip. [The RER is a bit counterintuitive, because the trains ride on and arrive on the left-hand side of the tracks, unlike Metro, for example. In the rush of a crowded train station, its easy to go down to the wrong platform.]

Versailles is always our favorite destination in Paris...but this trip was definitely special. Our first trip without cold rain...that was a biggie! Instead, we found a typical October day. It seems that every local and tourist chose today to visit as well...but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The lines to go into the main Chateau were we diverted off to the less visited parts of the grounds.

Winding walks though the gardens with their hidden bosquet and fountains...several of which we had never seen before. A long path along the Grand Canal with silent boaters. All the trees were radiant in yellows and reds. Visited the Grand Trianon...the elaborate retreat built for Louis XIV...some new rooms were open.

Visited Le Domaine de Marie Antoinette. The building and grounds around the Petit Trianon...a retreat bequeathed to Marie Antoinette on her husband's ascending the throne as Louis XVI...have been spruced up with newly opened buildings and better interpretive signs. All to take advantage of the wave of new interest in la Dauphine et la Reine. The most brilliant new sight was the elaborate but small theatre, which has been restored. Marie Antoinette's personal lakeside peasant village (hameau) and farm were bustling with people and animals in the warm afternoon sun. Peacocks, chickens, and rabbits living in the same pen. The white marble Temple of Love shined brightly in the sun.

Another first for us: one of the large fountains near the Chateau was running late in the day. The amazing array of fountains at Versailles all run on an elaborate engineering extensive historic (and revolutionary) gravity-fed plumbing system drawing water from far away sources since Versailles has no water source of its own. Louis XIV...who put absolute in absolute monarch...defied the laws of nature to fit his own desire for a palace and garden befitting his self-proclaimed role as the center of the universe. The fountains only run it is a special treat to see one in action.

The setting sun lit up the Chateau, the Grand Canal in the distance, and the surrounding trees.

Took the train home. Dinner at a cozy restaurant on Ile Saint Louis: Auberge de la Reine Blanche. Traditional French and flavorful. A mouthwatering appetizer to start...ravioles de royan aux champagiones. A wonderful bottle of Côtes du Rhone. Traditional Bouef Bourguignon for me. Coq au Vin for Jeff. Finished with a warm gateau moelleux chocolat and two espressos. Our waiter was charming, and did a masterful job serving all 10-or-so tables at once.

Topped off my birthday watching the Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance marking midnight, followed by quick mojitos and bed. A call home for warm trans-Atlantic birthday hugs. What an amazing (and long) day. (Thank you, sweetie.)

[Halloween report from the nephews and neices: Mia was a pumpkin. Benjamin was a skunk. Natalie was a witch. Keegan was a ninja. Dominick was Captain Hook.]

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dinsdag (Amsterdam to Paris)...

Awoke to a brilliant blue sky accented by puffy cumulus clouds. With about an hour and a half between breakfast our our taxi pickup, we ventured out for one last walk. Of course, not 100 yards from our hotel, a rogue dark cloud swept across our path, unleashing wetness...not rain, but whatever that maximum drizzle is before it becomes rain. We ducked in an antique print shop...and the cloud passed. The stopover was fortuitous for Jeff since he bought an antique 19th century photo postcard of the Heresgracht canal. Crossed the Amstel river, visited the bookstore of the Amsterdam Hermitage (branch location of the Russian Hermitage Museum) of Jeff's favorites...even though he hasn't yet made it to St. Petersburg.

Returned to the hotel and our taxi arrived shortly to whisk us to the train station.

Boarded the 12:56 Thalys train to Paris. Rijtuig 16, Zitplaats 63/64...the worst zitplaats in the entire car. We squatted in zitplaats with windows until we had to move. Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Brussels among the distinctive stops.

Beautiful sun for traveling. Along the way...extensive canals of varying size for transport and irrigation, herons, ducks, alternating fields of leafy green and tilled brown, cows and sheep mingling, a lone alpaca, sleek modern windmills for electricity, quaint old windmills for water (or perhaps nostalgia), two children on a trampoline.

A bomb alert stalled us for about 15 minutes in Rysjwick outside Der Haag. Oddly, they have gentle, pre-recorded messages to apologize for bomb alerts.

Slipped from the Netherlands to Belgium and finally to France. Dinsdag became Mardi.

Lost our 'squatters seats' in Brussels. Between Brussels and Paris, much of the countryside disappeared as the train reached high-speed tracks isolated by high grassy berms and concrete walls. What we did see was lit by the warm late afternoon sun.

Arrived at Gare du Nord in Paris...about 40 minutes late due to the bomb threat slowdown. A long taxi line, but moved nicely. Lots of evening traffic.

On to the Ile Saint Louis where Christophe and Phillippe welcomed us back with big smiles and hardy handshakes. (We had used their Guest Apartment services on our previous trip...highly recommended...thank you again Brooks!) A different apartment on this visit...this one on Quai d'Anjou...a cozy apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Seine. The beautiful building was built circa 1640 as the mansion of Merginy who created the Machine de Marly which supplied water to the fountains in Marly and Versailles (a wonder of engineering at the time).

Paris feels about 5 degrees warmer than Amsterdam, which felt about 5 degrees warmer than Mainz. Took a leisurely evening walk to the Place de Voges and quiet surrounding streets. Still some bicycles here, but many more motorscooters. After a long day, craved something known and ate at Cafe Vito in the Marais...yummy pizzas plus a fantastic Chianti Classico. Barely recognized Cafe Vito, because it got a radical facelift since we last visited in February...discarding its faux Italian interior for a cleaner modern look...but keeping the same reliable food. The crowded tables seemed to agree with the changes.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Maandag (Amsterdam)...

The steady overnight drizzle had subsided, but rain stubbornly clung to the clouds, threatening to pour if we ventured out unprepared. So, with good foresight, today became a museum day. Two of the best museums in the city lay within blocks of our hotel: the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

A nice day to catch both.

We started at the Van Gogh Museum...which as you might expect, houses the most complete collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world, plus works by his influential artists and contemporaries.. The Van Gogh floor is arranged chronologically, which allows the uninitiated to watch Van Gogh evolve. Van Gogh made a deliberate decision to become a painter...and was largely self taught. He went from novice to master in about ten years (!!!) before he shot himself in 1890. In the short period, he made over 800 paintings and over 1000 drawings.

Ate a quick lunch in the museum cafe. Did some window shopping on cute Spiegalstraat.

On to the Rijksmuseum, which is only partially open due to renovations. Still, the condensed sample of the collection is impressive (and plenty for an afternoon). Selections of art reflect Dutch history specifically during the period of the country's golden age (the 1600s) when it was a maritime and economic super power. Primary focus is on the Dutch Masters...Rembrandt, Vermeer, Steen. The most popular highlight is Rembrant's famous Nightwatch.

When we emerged from the Rijksmusem, the sun was just past setting, leaving behind pink-tinged clouds against a pale blue-ish sky. Inspired, we took a long evening walk through the nearby Vondel Park. As the sunlight quickly faded, a moist fog formed...blending the park's dense mix of paths, trees, grass, and duck ponds. The park was silent except for the whiz of bike tires on the wet paths, and the crunch of joggers' footsteps. We stumbled onto a twisting knot garden in the low mist.

Amsterdam seems to crave (or think its international visitors crave) Argentinian steakhouses...they are can't throw a wooden shoe without hitting one. So we caved and chose one that looked tiny and friendly... the simply named 'Ocho'. Beef raised on las Pampas.

Drinks after dinner. Ironically, just before midnight, Jeff's favorite song mix played...Rhianna's 'Umbrella'...wrapping up a day that threatened rain, but never committed to it.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Zondag (Amsterdam)...

The time changed today in Europe, so we got to fall back with a welcome bonus hour. After another simple breakfast, we decided to take advantage of a hint of blue through the persistent clouds...I swear, I saw shadows for a minute. The Sunday morning streets were nearly vacant, which added to an already pleasant walk. The quiet streets also lulled us into believing that the line at the Anne Frank House would be was twice as long as before. Sigh...look at the pretty trees :)

Instead, we veered south to see the famous flower market, which was more bulbs than flowers at this time of year. Every tulip known to man, and even some "starter cannibus"...only in Amsterdam. From there, we found the nearby Willet-Holthuysen Museum...a historic 17th century Amsterdam canal house. This a small, easy museum, but its restored rooms are beautiful.

Grabbed a quick bite of so-so Mediterranean food at the Cafe Noona...and then on to the train station to book our Tuesday tickets to Paris. Along the way, merged into a throng of protesters marching loudly for something...not sure what, but we quickly separated ways. The train station was packed, but we figured out the system and made reservations on the Thalys train with the help of the kind woman at Desk #13.

More lovely canals, but any hint of sun or blue skies was gone for the day...rain was on the could smell it.

One more try for good ole Anne Frank...success...only a 15min wait. We toured this famous and touching landmark...the hidden rooms where Anne Frank, her parents and sister, and the Pels family of four lived in total secrecy for over two years beginning in 1942. The rooms were cramped and warm...surely the claustrophobic feel they gave to their residents. The Frank and Pels families were eventually betrayed and deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz, where Anne Frank died shortly before the camp was liberated. In all, the tour was a sobering experience narrated by the words of a child's diary.

On our way back to the hotel, shopped at several Royal Delft stores. Delft is that classic blue and white ceramic...immediately identifiable, and quintessentially Dutch. We picked up a couple of handpainted examples...including a Christmas tree ornament and beautiful vase.

A light drizzle joined us on our walk.

Dinner was the very popular Ristorante Saturnino, which we had passed each night...always with a long waiting list. Figuring that consistent crowds can't be wrong, we had made a reservation earlier in the day. Definitely worth the trip...our pasta dishes were right out of Italy. Two excellent Italian restaurants in a row...literally too, since Saturnino and Romana (from last night) are next door to each other.

By the end of dinner, the drizzle was a bit more persistent. After drinks, the drizzle was heavy. Reluctantly, the umbrella came out.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Zatendag (Amsterdam)...

A comfy bed and tightly drawn shades conspired to create a late rise. Our only true motivation this morning was not missing our complimentary continental breakfast. I had extra oranges ( favorite) and OJ to try and ward off an oncoming, achy cold. At least the cappuccino perked up my mood.

A pleasant mid-fifties today, but we wisely decided to start the day with a quick stop at the Berghen boutique across the street, where Jeff picked me out a colorful striped scarf...perfect to keep the occasional chilly breezes off my neck.

Today was a walking day. We wove in and out of narrow streets and canal-ways...vaguely making our way towards Dam Square. The square isn't notable really...lots of people and a couple of gray landmark-ish buildings...but really just a stop on the way to somewhere else.

We grabbed lunch at a minuscule eatery--'t Stuisje--with 6 tables. Portions were also tiny...but good quality. We agreed that my "authentic Dutch meatball" was worth seeking out again.

Wandered towards the Anne Frank House. Even at 4pm, the lines were way too we wandered off into the nearby Jordaan neighborhood...chock full of charming buildings and canals. Passed by the yummy Rainarai restaurant, with fresh, doughy pizza-like dishes in the window. Sat outside by a canal eating spicy slices of tuna+olive and mushroom+tomato.

Returned to the Anne Frank House. Seems that everyone tried the "lets come back later" trick. We left again to return on a non-weekend day.

The late afternoon sun actually peeked through for the first time in several days. Gave the yellow-leafed trees along the canals a slight, but dramatic boost.

A quick pause at the hotel to freshen and kick our feet up. With dusk upon us, we decided to take a longer-than-expected walk to the infamous Red Light District for a peek. The area is MUCH larger than we expected, with dozens of streets and alleys crawling with customers and curious tourists...and what an odd tourist trap indeed. So odd to walk by window upon window where women thump on the glass to get attention, like puppies in a pound vying for adoption. Our conclusion: somewhere between bizarre and sad, with a tinge of ick. (Yes...we left the Red Light District for dinner...somehow the falafel stands don't have as much appeal with live shows going on next door...double ick.)

Dinner was hearty Italian at the simply named Ristorante Romana. The food was early tip-off was the heavyset Italian patriarch and his two sons working the kitchen. Jeff had a wonderful tagalini bolognese, and I had an oven-baked tortellini bolognese al forno. Finished the meal with espresso on the house, and a cheery arivaderci.

After dinner drinks with a pre-Halloween flair. A quiet walk home. A hot shower to ease tired muscles. An Advil and Airborne for the lingering cold symptoms.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Freitag (Mainz to Amsterdam)...

We said our morning goodbyes to Keegan, Mia and Adam until we return next weekend. Julie drove us into Mainz to catch our 11:02am Die Bahn train from the central station (Mainz Hbf). Grabbed two cheesy bread treats from the station for a snack: Jeff's in pizza form, mine resembling a pig-in-a-blaket. Thirty minutes via regional train to Frankfurt Flughafen, where we had a rushed ten minutes to locate the long distance trains. At Gleis Fern 6, boarded a sleek high-speed ICE train to Amsterdam Centraal. In between, we stopped in Köln (with its famous cathedral), Düsseldorf, Arnhem (our first stop in the Netherlands) and Utrecht. Dry bacon and egg sandwiches on the train. The conductor in our car had spikey bleached blond hair tipped in cotton candy blue.

Spotted our first windmill as we crossed the border into the Netherlands. Freitag became Vrijdag. Buildings and billboards switched their Internet addresses from .DE to .NL in the blink of an eye...the modern border crossing.

Arrived into Amsterdam Centraal in late afternoon. Two taxi drivers staged a colorful battle of words over us. The victorious alpha cabbie zipped skilfully through the narrow streets...dodging bicycles, street cars, and throngs of rush-hour pedestrians.

Checked into Hotel Patou, a hip boutique hotel on trendy P.C. Hoofsraat. Sleek minimalist styling with two large windows overlooking old-world rooftops. The hotel just opened recently, with a few kinks to work out...Jeff fixed the bathroom window shade...maybe we'll get a discount.

Before dinner, we took a short "orientation walk"...taking random turns down "oh, that looks nice" streets. Nearly run down by silent bicycles coming at you from every direction. The only warning is a deceptively innocent bell signaling imminent collision. Still, the Dutch dedication to bikes is clear and admirable...I had heard about the prevalence of bicycles, but I really had no idea. Forty percent of travel in central Amsterdam is by bike!

Dinner was at a random restaurant--named "the 5th"--that lured us in with its scrumptious dishes, modern-meets-old-world decor...and vodka menu. Jeff ordered a truffle, mushroom, and artichoke risotto. I had a perfectly cooked French-style steak with a rich Hollandaise sauce. Cappucinos substituted for desert.

We closed our long day with 2-for-1 Heinekens at SOHO...a happening bar with pulsing dance music in a pub setting. The walk home was serene...calm canals, the constant whir of bicycles, and the inevitable 'ching ching' when what you thought was a quiet sidewalk turns out to be yet another bike lane.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Donnerstag (along the Mosel)...

Arose early today...our last full day in Germany. The skies were even more densely overcast, but no rain developed...just an occasional patch of fog in the passing valleys.

Our first stop...and castle du jour...was the enchanting Burg Eltz...tucked away in a hidden valley formed by a small tributary (the Eltz) of the Mosel River near the town of Moselkern. Burg Eltz is an iconic castle painted white and red, perched on a gray rocky formation in the center of the forested valley. The Eltz family began building on the site over 1000 years ago, and the family still owns and occupies the castle as they have for over 33 generations.

The castle was constructed beginning in 1157, and is actually three adjoining homes within the castle walls. The structures seem to climb on top of each room connecting to another like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. Another all-German tour, and lot of fellow the interiors felt cramped. Still, the well-preserved features and several-hundred-year old furnishings make this is a gem...and worth the twisting, often confusing drive and the steep walk from the parking lot. (With a hungry Keegan and heavy Mia in tow...we elected to pay for a return shuttle.)

After all the walking, lunch was an urgent must, lest we have a Keegan meltdown on our hands. We headed for the quintessential medieval town of Cochem on the Mosel River, a central point for visitors to the Mosel Valley. We unknowingly entered enticing Zom Stueffje right at 2pm and had to rush to order before the kitchen shut down. Wonderful schnitzels for all.

After lunch, we wandered through the twisting streets and spotted swans along the Mosel. Keegan spotted a riverside playground to burn off a burst of excess lunchtime energy.

By 4pm, it was time to start the winding road home. We passed through several scenic towns, and stopped for a quick walk through the tiny gem of Beilstein, with ubiquitous grapevine-covered buildings and simple church perched with a sweeping view of the Valley.

The drive home was fairly uneventful with a few missed turns and a construction-caused stau. As pilot and navigator, Julie and Jeff ribbed each other in true sister-and-brother fashion with each bump or u-turn. At one point, Keegan trumped the comical banter with the deadpan "Momma, how about you just pay attention to driving." Quite the sarcastic zinger from a five-year-old. :)

Brother-in-law Adam was finally able to join us for dinner tonight at one of their Argentinian steakhouse (Maredo) in central Mainz. We walked off grilled meats and apfelstrudel with nighttime views of the huge cathedral...Dom su Mainz...and peeks into the dimly lit windows of the Guttenberg Museum.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mittwoch (down the Rhine again)

Today we formally anointed Keegan as Günter von Keeganstein, and headed out down the Rhine Valley once again...this time on the opposite side as Monday's drive. We exited the autobahn at Rüdensheim...just missing a nasty traffic jam ahead. (Julie tells us they are called 'stau'...likely preceded by a colorful explicative.)

In spite of heavy overcast skies today, the drive was lovely. A leisurely winding road dotted with postcard towns with their signature castles and/or churches. It was fun to spot our Tuesday stops from across the river.

Lunch was in beautiful Braubach...also the site of our afternoon castle. We stumbled upon a tiny hotel, tucked away in a picturesque courtyard of old buildings. The Hotel Schwanen with its charming Brasserie Brentano served up authentic German fare...a medium rare Rumpsteak for me, a rich Schweinenschnitzel Zigeuner topped with bright-red tomatoes and peppers for Jeff, and a meat-and-potatoes sampler Mühlenpfännchen for Julie. All exceptionally prepared in an intimate, old-world setting. Quite a lucky find.

After lunch, we drove up the hill to the Marksburg Castle...lived in continuously for over 700 years. The castle is built into a rocky hill, with buildings and courtyards interconnected by rough stone walkways. Waiting for the guided tour to begin, we were entertained by a pair of curious mountain goats. Our tour was in German, so we hung to the back with our English leaflet...nodding in agreement and wonder whenever the guide spoke in our direction. The castle's claim to fame is that it is "the only hill castle on the Rhine that has never been destroyed" it is chock full of authentic detail. Keegan lit up when the tourguide placed a real knight's helmet over his head...visibly heavy on his tiny frame. (Earlier, Keegan had confused the tourguide by asking for "the ratholes"...the comical name Jeff and Keegan had given to dark castle tunnels.) Before leaving, we couldn't resist buying a children's knight helmet and matching shield. Keegan was extremely pleased with his gift and modeled for several pictures.

We continued down the Rhine, through a few more towns, and then crossed to the western side of the river near Koblenz for our return drive south. Stopped in the town of Boppard for a quiet stroll along the river...snapping a whimsical photo of Hotel Gunther...and along a few shop-lined streets. Germans don't seem to enjoy knick-knack shops like the French or Italians...or the Americans, but Jeff was able to find a nice print shop where he picked up an 1840 print of St. Goar and the castles above. Just before 6pm, a trumpeter played from a balcony in the town square, followed by the adjoining church bells.

We drove on to St. Goar for dinner. We found the Hotel am Makt, where I tried my first German sausage and sauerkraut (Pfälzer Saumagen)...Jeff kept up our string of schnitzels. Illuminated castles seemed to hover in the dark sky as we left the restaurant and drove home along the Rhine.

Once home, Keegan and Jeff channelled memories of the day to build a castle from Legos...they named it Castle Keegenstein.

[Note: The observant reader might wonder where young Mia is during all of these adventures. Well, rest assured, she is in nearly every a car seat, stroller, or pouch. Normally a quiet participant...her role is not the most blog-worthy. At any given moment, simply picture her sleeping, staring, eating, or pooping...but rarely crying.]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dienstag (to Trier and back)...

Another relatively early start on another mostly sunny day. We headed west towards the Mosel Valley. Along the way, rolling hills covered with hardwood trees in full autumn regalia. Most every open field or narrow valley had at least one giant, three-blade windmill, slowly and silently turning in the cool wind. These white sculptures stood out dramatically...and beautifully...against the sky.

We made it to the picturesque town of Idar-Oberstein by lunch time. Lunch at the Cafe Ratsstübchen...more schnitzel please :) Afterwards, a brisk walk to catch a glance at the town's main landmark...a steepled church built into the hillside (sideways!) high above the town.

More colorful vistas on the way to our destination...Trier on the Mosel River with its extensive Roman structures. At over 2000 years old, Trier is Germany's oldest city. First stop, the Porta Nigra (the Black Gate) imposing gate from the Roman city's wall dating from the 2nd century. Next, on to two brilliant adjoining structures...the enormous Romanesque Cathedral (11th century) and the smaller French Gothic Church of our Lady (13th century). Next on the list, the Basillica built by Roman Emperor Constantius Chlorus in the 2nd century to house the Roman throne. The Basillica was greatly damaged by WWII bombings...and the restored interior is purposefully stark and thoughtful. Adjacent to the Basilica--and in dramatic contrast--is the Baroque Electors Palace (17th century), done up in pink with brilliant white carvings. Finally, we circled the iconic arches and ruins of the expansive Roman Imperial Baths (3rd century).

After a long, dark drive back to Dexheim, we had a late dinner in nearby Mainz-Kastel. The traditional Brauhaus Castel is a local favorite that serves home brews and perfect schnitzel champignon...our favorite schnitzel yet. Don't forget your warm Apfelstrudel mit Vanilleeis.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Montag (along the Rhine)...

We awoke to blue skies and trees in brilliant yellow and orange. The warm, low sun created deep, long shadows all day, typical of the short autumn days in Northern Europe.

Today was a scenic drive along the Rhine. First stop was for pastries in Bingen at a tiny bäckerei. Keegan had a berliner.

Our first castle of the day: Burg Rheinstein, high above the river. Parts of this magnificently restored castle date back to 900 when it was a customs house for river transport.

We stopped for lunch at the Guesthaus Weisses Ross in the small town of Trechtingshaus. Tried our first schnitzels...tender pork cutlets with wonderful rich flavors. Jeff's schnitzel had ham and cheese. Mine had a creamy mushroom sauce.

Second castle of the day: the expansive ruins of the enormous Burg Rheinfels in St. Goar. The castle was begun 1245 and grew into one of the largest fortifications on the Rhine. Keegan was fascinated by the myriad of dark tunnels, twisting staircases, and level-upon-level of walkways.

Stopped briefly in St. Goar for some local wines...and met super-friendly shopkeeper Stefan, who won us over with free tastings for us and free chocolates in colorful wrappers for Keegan. Bought a couple of bottles of Eiswine...the local specialty..."the queen of German wine"...made from grapes harvested frozen on the vine. We also bought some blackberry- and peach-flavored brandys.

We stopped for a short stroll in tiny Oberwesel, and then dinner in picturesque Bacharach. We ate at Weinhaus Altes Haus (the Old House) built in 1568. Tall Weissbiers, steaming soups, saucy meat dishes, and warm apple strudel stoked our fires for the mid-30s evening temps outdoors.

Keegan and Mia slept on the way home along the Autobahn.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Saturday/Sunday (SFO to Frankfurt)...

We're officially spoiled forever. Our business class upgrades came through, and Seats 15A and B cradled us on our bumpy ride to Europe. The latest Harry Potter film, and half of Mr. Bean entertained until sleep took over. Jeff's slick new iPod Touch kept him happily occupied with episodes of Windsor Castle.

An evening departure from SFO meant an afternoon arrival into Frankfurt. Even with chilly, overcast skies and a light drizzle, we arrived almost 45min early! This airport showcases German efficiency. No arrival forms to fill out. A brisk line at Passport Control. And our luggage was already spinning the carousel when we arrived at baggage claim. Bravo.

Jeff's sister Julie, 5-year-old nephew Keegan, and 2-month-old neice Mia met us with a colorful, hand drawn sign and warm hugs. Keegan launched into stories that lasted through some quick errands and all the way to their apartment in Dexheim...where brother-in-law Adam met us.

A slew of catch-up stories, a couple of bowls of homemade spicy chili, a Haunted Mansion movie with Keegan, and we were ready for bed by 8pm. Perfect sleeping temps and the calming white-noise hiss of passing car tires on the wet road.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Farewell to the boat...

This week, Jeff said a bittersweet farewell to his Taurus, which he had been driving for a decade. Although he ADORES his new Audi--the turning radius alone was worth the switch--Jeff still waxes poetically about his days at Ford and his cross-country drive in the Taurus.

This explains a lot...

After all these years, The Far Side still makes me chuckle. When I saw this one this week, I immediately thought of United's customer service department...I suspect its a similar scene.

I bet they cut out the tiny bag of pretzels in Hell as well :)

Thursday, October 18, 2007


After failing to dampen my spirits Friday night, Mother Nature conceded defeat and banished the rain from LA and welcomed back the sun...and some friendly fluffy white clouds for character.

On this visit to LA, Jeff and I tried a new hotel...Le Montrose...a small, hip design hotel tucked away in a residential section of West Hollywood. This proved to be the ideal location for short walks for coffee and an early Saturday breakfast at the Abbey.

Saturday was a busy day. We drove down scenic Sunset Blvd from WeHo through Beverly Hills, Bel Aire, and Brentwood to reach Pacific Palisades and Malibu...and our midday destination, the Getty Villa. This popular museum specializes in Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities housed in a villa inspired by a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy.

Saturday evening was an early birthday present from my dear friend Chris. We started with dinner at Pete's Bar and Grill in booming downtown LA...I ordered the perfect strip steak. We followed dinner with the LA production of Avenue Q at the LA Music door to the iconic Disney Concert Hall. Avenue Q is the hysterical tale of puppets trying to make ends meet in New York City. Think Sesame Street peppered with salty language, racy songs, and, felty...puppet sex.

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU Chris for a perfect birthday present :)

We finished the evening with the best mojitos and the best music at the Abbey.

After drinks and music till 2am, we took Sunday morning a bit slower. We enjoyed a decadent Champagne brunch at The Peninsula Beverly Hills with Chris and Sherry. Everything was divine. On the way to the restaurant, we bought a Map to the Stars. Below, you can see the front gate of the MTV-made-famous Osbourne home, and the supposed front gate of Phil Collins' Beverly Hills home.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The perfect storm (with a side of bacon)...

There are a few recurring themes in my blog: flying is unpredictable, there are way too many people in the world, and rain. This past Friday was the trifecta...all three converged to TRY and ruin my evening. Instead they just made for a tale to remember.

On Friday, we flew down to Los Angeles so that I could catch Genesis at the Hollywood Bowl--the band's second-to-last concert on the Turn It On Again reunion tour. I had caught them earlier in the week in San Jose with Jeff, and we had a blast...but this LA show was destined to be extra special.

I could recount the endless stream of roadblocks that day: the heavy rains in San Francisco, the flooding on the elevated freeway in SF, our delayed flight from SFO, the slow luggage and car rental at BUR, and of course LA traffic at the Bowl causing me to miss the beginning of the concert. And then there was the rain that moved south, dousing the stage and ending the concert early.

But that's not what I remember about Friday evening. My memories?

My first concert at the Hollywood Bowl. How the constant rain...from drizzle to fine mist to downpour...melded with the pulsing lights in and around the Bowl to created a magical glow. The band's unscripted reactions to the weather...Phil Collins' quips and gestures, the failing equipment, the errant fireworks into the audience. The extra energy generated by both band and audience to combat the elements. The drugged-out bleached blond crying and screaming "it never f***ing rains here"..."why why why". The amazing hot dog wrapped with bacon from the street vendor on my long, wet walk back to the hotel.

This was a concert you tell stories about. This was a show to remember. (And yes...these are the CRAPPY images you get with a camera phone in the dark.)

A few thoughts on the concerts themselves...

I have to say that my emotions and expectations were high for these shows. Genesis is one of those bands that I loved in the 80s and FAVORITE band...but I only saw them once in concert...a memorable show at RFK Stadium in Washington. Genesis hasn't toured or put out new music (with Phil Collins) since that show over 13 years ago.

But I think the lack of new music was a benefit on this tour. Genesis was able to tell a story versus sell a new release. They played songs from the 70s, 80s, and 90s...and the fans responded to their favorite era.

For me, the appeal of Genesis is their ability to merge a top-40 sound and energy with the long-form, art-rock style. On this tour, the band created seamless extended mixes of songs...with pulsing instrumental sections that had their middle-aged fans standing, cheering, and playing air drums.

I'm glad that I got to see them twice on this tour, which may very well be their last. I was thrilled to share my passion for Genesis with Jeff, in San Jose...where we got to see the entire show, including the encore. And I was thankful to catch a unique show in LA...a show that has all the fans talking.

For my own records, I looked up the song list from the two shows...identical sets except for the final two songs, which are from the encore that was rained out in LA:

- Behind the Lines / Duke’s End / Turn It On Again
- No Son Of Mine
- Land of Confusion
- In The Cage / The Cinema Show / Duke’s Travels / Afterglow
- Hold on My Heart
- Home by the Sea / Second Home By The Sea
- Follow You Follow Me
- Firth of Fifth / I Know What I Like
- Mama
- Ripples
- Throwing It All Away
- Domino
- Drum Duet / Los Endos
- Tonight, Tonight, Tonight / Invisible Touch
- I Can’t Dance
- Carpet Crawlers

Friday, October 12, 2007


The skies opened up this morning in a heavy, cold rain. As you might expect, the first couple of storms of the season always throw people off...the driver above is no exception.

We were making our way to work, and we noticed this car in front of us driving with the door slightly ajar and with an umbrella sticking out. No, not a parked car...a moving car.

Either the car door wouldn't shut, and the driver decided to drive with an umbrella for protection...or the umbrella wouldn't shut and the driver was determined to hang on tight.

Either way...this person is an idiot.

Of course, I looked like an idiot scrambling to find my camera in my bag...praying that the light wouldn't change...cursing at the light for changing too soon...cursing that I couldn't grab an in-focus shot.

I suppose the rain affects us all in different ways :)

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Eating your cake too...

This quote from today's SF Chronicle was supposed to reflect the City's growing frustration with our homeless problem. I just found it amusing how easy it is for San Franciscan's to work a George Bush dig into just about any issue...even an issue he has no relation to: "People have realized they can still hate George Bush, but not want people crapping in their doorway."

You just KNOW that you're unpopular when you are compared with poop on the porch!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A full Sunday...

We started off our Sunday with brunch at a new restaurant in our neighborhood. Le P'tit Laurent is a tiny French bistro, which opened a few months ago in a space formerly occupied by a bar. The restaurant hasn't even finished painting its exterior, but there is always a line out the door for dinner. Fortunately, we awoke early this morning, and beat the brunch crowd by just a hair.

The food was wonderful. I had a Croque Monsieur , and Jeff had a ham and Gruyere omelette. We will definitely try this spot for dinner. Its a welcome addition to our neighborhood.

This afternoon, after we had finished a ton of little errands, we hopped across the hill to wander through the Castro Street Fair. This street fair has all the arts and crafts of a typical SF festival, but with all the color and pulsing music you would expect from the Castro.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


I'm really drawn to this simple image I shot somewhere along my trips this week. Its similar to other shots I've done with this same theme...the hectic blur that is life.

A bit of LA art...

When I visit the LA civic center Federal Building, I always park across the street at the Los Angeles Mall, a lonely, isolated shopping center from the early 1970s.

During my numerous visits, I've noticed the odd art sculpture at the street-level of the mall. I've never stopped to examine the structure...only rushed past it to get to a meeting or grab a quick bite in the sad food court.

But on this visit, I circled the structure, and tried to figure its purpose. There is no explanation of its odd concrete and glass form...just a small metal plaque at its base with the name "Triforium".

So, I looked up an article on the Triforium, and its creator Joseph Young. The sculpture was dedicated in 1975, and is noted as "the world's first public sculpture to integrate light and sound by use of a computer". It is also widely ridiculed for its nearly $1 million price-tag, its frequent technical failures, and its leaking pools...which have been turned into flower beds (the lavender in my photo above). Its planned lasers and motion sensors were never realized due to cost overruns.

Still, this quirky feature of the mall is by far its most interesting. Its a reminder of the vision of a lively after-hours Civic Center, which has become overrun by cheap stores and vagrancy.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Emily returns from rehab...

The good folks at Garmin decided to replace our faulty GPS unit, and just in the nick of time. I really tested Emily on my trip to LA this week. In fact, as I sat on I-5 (pictured above), Emily's lilting British voice was welcome company. (Jeff has dubbed her "the new Emily", quoting from The Devil Wears Prada.)

It was Emily's job to route me from Bob Hope Airport, to the LA civic center, to the Santa Ana civic center, and finally to John Wayne Airport. Along the way, I ignored her to take short cuts, inserted intermediate food stops, and took several wrong turns. Emily kept with me...patiently "recalculating" at every turn.

The one upside to my "traffic time" was catching a few odd building signs along the way. You can vote for your favorite:
  1. First (and my personal favorite) was the permanent sign for a Swap Meet, with a temporary sign underneath announcing a weekend tribute to Ozzy Osbourne. (This reminded me of a classic scene from Spinal Tap..."I’ve told them a hundred times: put ‘Spinal Tap’ first and ‘Puppet Show’ last.")
  2. Then, there was the sign for the "Taco Bell Discovery Science Center". That's just must be where they invent new combinations of meat + cheese + tortillas.
  3. Lastly, a rather sketchy sign for surgical supplies. Its more about the quality of the sign and I actually snapped a shot of the sign (below).