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An introduction to Peru

Written by Emmy on 6 January 2013

On a Saturday afternoon in December, just as snow was finally making its way toward New York City, my family convened at JFK to fly to summer. With my office closed for nearly two weeks and my sisters off from school for the eternity that is college winter break, we boarded a plane and headed due south. And though the time zone never changed, the scenery looked radically different when we deplaned in Lima, Peru eight hours later.

My family got onto a bit of a South American kick a few years ago with a trip to Argentina, followed by a voyage to Chile last winter. I knew Peru would be very different (particularly from Argentina, which feels more European than anything else), but I was shocked at how stark the differences between the neighboring countries turned out to be. We landed in Lima’s sparkly clean and new-looking international airport, but walked outside and found no highways, streets with limited signage and ramshackle houses underneath the airport billboards. And in lieu of a taxi line, tuk tuks! (But truly. They go by the same name in Peruvian Spanish as they did in Thailand, which I found perplexing and amazing.)

We thankfully got into a vehicle enclosed on all sides and made our way through the city sprawl. Home to nine million, Lima has very few high rises, so the formal boundaries of the city extend far beyond what one can see. We drove about 20 km from the airport to an area known as San Yisidro, primarily home to hotels, embassies and office buildings. We got into bed almost immediately upon arrival to prepare for the adventure of the days to come.

We began Sunday with an interesting breakfast and eye-opener into the country we were about to begin exploring. Over local fruits and very strong coffee, we met with two women from the local UNICEF office, who talked about the wildly fragmented country and the challenges in bridging divides, lingual and cultural, and helping to spur forward movement. The majority of Peruvians do not speak Spanish, but one of a large number of dialects, keeping primarily to their own communities. In one country, there are growing cosmopolitan centers (Lima), ancient tribal communities (throughout the nation), inaccessible jungles (the Amazon, in the east), mountaintop people (high in the Andes, north of 13,000 feet up), along riverbeds and nestled in valleys filled with Incan ruins. In the days ahead, we planned to visit many of these different environments in an attempt to begin to understand the country. Hearing about how dispersed the people and cultures are, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how the whole country can be governed and provided for in a seamless fashion.

With a bit more perspective in hand, we set out to explore the nation’s capital. Despite its political centrality, Lima is regarded by many tourists as a must-miss; most visit by virtue of logistics as it houses the country’s only real international airport. Rather than treat it as a fly-over destination, we spent a day trying to see what there was to see, reputation aside.

IMG_2185Yellow is considered an important color in Peru. I also consider yellow to be an important color

Exploring the historic downtown center of Lima, it was evident in every building that this had once been a shining gem of the Spanish empire. Conquered by the explorers in the 1500s, Peru had made peace with its conquistadors. When the South and Central American colonies began liberating themselves in the mid-1800s, Peru had resisted, hanging onto its connection to the crown longer than its neighbors. But ultimately, the nation was swept up in Simon Bolivar’s continent-wide quest, setting off a century and a half of questionable governance. IMG_2193

But much of the colonial downtown is a shell of its former self. Beautiful mansions in downtown Lima are all behind fairly aggressive fences and walls, leftover from the fear inspired by the terrorism-filled 1980s. Many of the elegant old Spanish buildings, previously home to theaters and banks, are now rented out by foreign companies. Peruvian Spanish is known to be clear and unaccented and so Lima has become a call center haven, a place where Chilean and Argentinian companies can pay lower wages by hiring locals. Many elegant old financial buildings are now filled with cubicles and hard-lined phones. But a few old gems, including the country’s congress building, remain true to form, and other businesses are starting to return to the district, bringing back some of its old vibrancy.

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Venturing into one of the city’s oldest churches, we went down into the catacombs where human skulls were lined up along the walls and bones were sorted into buckets by type. And just as we were starting to get hungry for lunch… On our way out of the cathedral we walked past street vendors cooking up local dishes, and while I’m usually one to partake, we had to resist due to concerns over water (tap water in Peru is not potable; locals boil it and foreigners avoid it) and questionable refrigeration. But we made our way to a restaurant filled with local specialities to have our first real exposure to the local culture.

I sampled the aji de gallina, a local specialty. Aji is a pepper typical to the nation; it comes in a vibrant yellow color, which it maintains when turned into a sauce, but it’s oddly not spicy. Instead, it’s almost more of a nutty flavor. Served over chicken, potatoes and a few vegetables, it’s always plated alongside rice. (Note: Nearly all Peruvian dishes manage to include both rice and potatoes.)

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Other members of the family tried spiced chicken brochettes, served with potatoes, enormous kernels of Peruvian corn and multiple salsas, and lomo saltado, a dish of stir-fried beef and vegetables found in literally every restaurant in Peru.

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After lunch, we met up with Penelope, a local chef, for our afternoon adventure. Penelope is a native limeño, so her culinary palette is all local, but by hilarious coincidence, she also went to college in Providence. She’s spent time living in the U.S., but has returned to her native city to help spread the traditional recipes.

We started our afternoon at her local market, where every stall owner was a good friend of Penelope’s. We stopped to meet them all, wish them a happy holiday and check out the wares of the day. At the fishmonger’s, we took a look at the insides of each potential purchase before settling upon our final choices.

IMG_2271IMG_2273The enormous gills of a fish nearly as tall as me, and the dark side of a multi-colored easily camouflaged creature

We learned about herbs that could cure everything from cramps to cancer, and pawed through shelves of fruits and vegetables totally foreign to our eyes. Some were closer to items I had seen in Thailand than to things I’ve ever seen in my Manhattan supermarket. Something about that subtropical climate… Penelope pulled out her sons’ favorite fruit for us to try, the granadilla. On the outside, it looked like an orange. But inside, it looked kind of creepy.

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Willing to at least give it a try, we slurped up the seeds from the granadilla halves. Despite the odd appearance and consistency, the fruit tastes like the child of a pineapple and an orange with the consistency of pomegranate seeds. It was actually quite good.

We saw more potatoes than one could have ever imagined. Some 400 odd varieties grow across Peru, making it the country’s greatest asset. Despite common misconception, the potato comes from Peru; the Spanish brought it back to Europe as a prize, and it was widely adopted on the old continent. We also saw deep black corn, which is used to make children’s drinks and the native version of beer.

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And of course, we had an introduction to the local peppers. While some crazy hot peppers do grow in Peru, one of the most popular is the bright yellow one that had flavored my lunchtime chicken. We bought several of the yellow aji peppers for use in the cooking exercise ahead.

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Since it was a bit too early to begin our cooking exercise immediately upon leaving the market, Penelope took us around her neighborhood. Called Barranco, it’s considered the Brooklyn of Lima. The neighborhood backs right into the Pacific and is filled with tall apartment buildings sitting atop the oceanfront cliffs. Its town center is filled with adorable galleries and artisan shops. We took a quick cruise through the streets, but many things were closed since it was Sunday afternoon. We had a quick coffee at a local shop (the neighborhood’s first Starbucks had opened not far from it, much to the chagrin of the residents) and stopped down by the water as the sun was beginning to dip lower in the sky.

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Back at Penelope’s apartment, it was time to start cooking. We donned aprons, washed our hands and were joined by her eight-year-old son Alonso, who volunteered to help with the cooking (so long as there could be intermittent eating). Penelope made us each a pisco sour, arguing that the drink had actually been born in Peru, not Chile as we had previously been told. And so with drinks in hand, we buckled down to start cooking.

First, we took raw scallops on the shell and turned them into an artistic masterpiece.

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IMG_2336The dish, known as conchitas a la parmesana, is a Peruvian favorite and a headlining item in Penelope’s home. You start with raw scallops, which here in Peru are sold on the shell with their bright red roe. (Penelope noted that during her time in the U.S., she could rarely, if ever, find them that way.)

We started by dapping each scallop with crushed garlic, followed by a healthy swab of paste made from the aji, a swig of pisco (used in cooking here like we use wine in our cooking), salt, pepper and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. I found this peculiar during my time in Chile as well, but I’ve always been taught that seafood and cheese are not meant to be cooked together. However, I am definitely not complaining.

The whole tray of scallops went into the broiler for no more than two minutes. The scallops came out browned from the cheese, but pretty soft and squishy underneath it. (The more squeamish of the group had their scallops returned to the broiler for a bit more fire.) Using a spoon, we peeled the scallops out of their shells and popped them in our mouths in one quick bite. Delicious.

 

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Next we constructed a version of ceviche, essentially the national dish of Peru. While you can make ceviche fancy and dress it up in any number of ways, we stuck by the original recipe. We used trout and shrimp and cut the two into little pieces. While it’s commonly believed that lime is used in order to “cook” the raw fish, that method requires a 12-hour marination and is favored in Mexico. The Peruvians took a note out of the Japan’s book; oftentimes, menus call it sashimi-style to indicate that the fish is raw. We covered the ingredients in a ton of lime, which does change the fish’s color (and add a lot of flavor), but it had about a 15-minute marination period.

We added a ton of julienned red onion, various local peppers, huge corn kernels (because of their size they taste more starchy than sweet) and sliced sweet potato, and put the whole thing atop a few lettuce leaves. It was tangy, a teensy bit spicy and very good.

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Though we were starting to fill up, the main course was still to come. A recipe Penelope inherited from her grandmother, we partook in a fishy stew with langoustines and grouper, served with potatoes and asparagus and (of course) with a side of rice pilaf. The stew had been made with a homemade fish broth and the flavors all came through strongly.

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Over dinner, we talked with Penelope and her husband Mario about how the country was changing. Both had been educated in the U.S. because those who could leave Peru in the 1980s did. They had subsequently lived in the U.S. because of work, but had wanted to come back five or so years ago because they missed their native land and didn’t want to miss out on watching economic development spur before their eyes. The country is in the middle of an evolution; over the last few years, it has seen higher growth than many other countries in the world as the nation begins to really invest in its infrastructure and local economy.

We ended the evening on a sweet note, with a dessert made from local fruits and topped with a fresh meringue. I was almost too full to eat any of it, but of course had to try at least a spoonful.

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Sweden once again

Written by Chaz on 9 August 2012

Nearly three years ago, I was leaving to spend a semester studying abroad in Stockholm. It was awesome. And so about a year ago, I was again leaving for Stockholm to spend a week with my contact family and reacquaint myself with the country I missed so much. I returned from that trip with renewed affection for the place. So it was only logical that, when it came time to plan my first real vacation from work, I decided to return to Stockholm. This time I wasn’t as curious to see whether it would be as wonderful as I remembered it in my head — I was pretty sure it would be — so I was just looking forward to relaxing, seeing my family, enjoying the sun and having time off away from work.

I arrived at the Stockholm airport early on a Saturday morning after an easy flight from Boston through Amsterdam, where immigration and security couldn’t have been more efficient. My Swedish family picked me up and before long we were on the way to their summer house in Lögla. We made a quick stop along the way in Rimbo to pick up some groceries, and after a little breakfast at home during which I remembered how delicious Swedish cheese is, we took a walk by the shore.

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Though I knew I shouldn’t for jet lag’s sake, I was dying to take a nap, so I closed my eyes for a bit. When I woke up, a major blueberry pie operation was underway, so I jumped in to help pick the stems off a ton of freshly picked berries.

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Shortly afterward we sat down to a delicious dinner of salmon, potatoes, and salad, followed up by the blueberry pie, fresh from the oven. Over dessert, we discussed the difference between kanelbullar, the famous Swedish cinnamon rolls, and other kinds of pastry bollar. Boll, which is the word used for such treats as chokladbollar (chocolate balls), translates to ball, but bulle, the root of kanelbulle, doesn’t really have a direct translation. And the large sugar that goes on kanelbullar, known as “pearl sugar” in Swedish, is barely known in America. This led to Nils imitating a Swede trying to buy pearl sugar with half-English in an American grocery store: “I am a foreigner and I need sugar for my balls!”

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After dinner, we took a walk down to the dock to enjoy the late Swedish sun.

IMG_6276IMG_6277IMG_6279Left to right: Torbjörn, Nils, Karin, Anna and Erik.

When we got home, it was time for “Grattis kronprinsessan!“, literally “Congratulations, crown princess!”, a television show that airs every July 14 to celebrate the birthday of Victoria, the crown princess and next queen of Sweden. The show featured performances from several well-known Swedish musicians and raised money for the princess’ fund, which benefits sick children. It was, to say the least, incredibly Swedish.

IMG_0013By the end of the show, I was already falling asleep again, and even though I was in bed by 10, I slept until nearly one the next day. Clearly I was not only jet-lagged but also a bit behind on sleep. After a light breakfast and an afternoon relaxing and reading, we had a dinner of herring and gravlax and packed up to drive into Spånga, outside Stockholm. We stopped along the way to pick up some groceries at Coop, which was an exceptionally Swedish experience. We loaded specially made baskets onto a specially made double-decker cart and proceeded to scan each item we chose with a handheld scanner that automatically totaled our purchase at the register.

Arriving home, Erik, Karin and I walked to the pendeltåg, the commuter rail, to head downtown and walk around a bit, since we still had a few hours of light. We alighted at Karlberg station and walked down to the path along Karlbergskanalen, strolling down towards Stadshuset, the city hall where the Nobel banquet is held.

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Turning east, we continued onto past the Swedish parliament onto the island of Gamla Stan, up to the picturesque Stortorget at its center.

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Walking down through Slussen, we headed up to Monteliusvägen, a walking path that has incredible views across Lake Mälaren to Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Norrmalm. The city looked radiant in the late evening sun.

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We returned to Spånga via a pendeltåg station on Södermalm that I never knew existed, after a very warm welcome back to Stockholm.

Just shy of another border

Written by Chaz on 28 July 2012

I spent a weekend in early June with my uncle Eric, who lives outside Albuquerque, and his family. I last saw him over Christmas, when we explored local culture and did risky things in the snow. I’ve still been traveling to Texas to work, so I was once again able to tie a visit to a business trip. In fact, I met Eric on a business trip of his own. He had been in Las Cruces, N.M., so I flew into El Paso, Tex., not far away, and he picked me up there. We had planned quite a weekend: a bit of tourism in El Paso, a day in Las Cruces, a night camping in the backcountry of White Sands National Monument, and the rest of the weekend with Eric’s family at his vacation house in Ruidoso, N.M.

We started the weekend immediately upon my Thursday evening arrival with a visit to El Paso’s L & J Cafe, nicknamed “the old place by the graveyard” because it is across the street from the enormous Concordia Cemetery and vaunted by our favorite source as one of the best places in El Paso for Mexican food. (Though I had pressed Eric to take me across the border into Old Mexico, the violence in Juarez now makes this a terrible idea. Not so long ago, I crossed into Juarez with Eric and his family with no concern, but now that would be unthinkable.) Despite being in what looked like a bit of a seedy area of town (after all, next to an enormous graveyard), the streets around L & J were packed with parked cars, as was the restaurant itself.

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My uncle and I started by ordering a pair of margaritas, which my uncle immediately — and I do mean immediately — followed up with a beer order. Inspired by his boldness, I ordered a Mexican beer. The waitress skeptically asked whether we wanted all our drinks together. We said we could tolerate a slight delay on the beer, and put in an order for chile con queso. I was envisioning a beef (like chili) and melted cheese situation, but this was literally just chile con queso: fantastic green chiles in delicious melted cheese. Eric said it was the best he’d had, and I agreed.

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Our main courses were equally fantastic. This wasn’t the Tex-Mex that I’m used to in Dallas, but the real thing. Eric ordered chicken enchiladas with green chile, while I took the Times’ recommendation and went with the caldillo, a Mexican stew of potato and beef with green chile. Simple flavors, simple composition and an ethnic food experience totally new to me.

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Eric insisted that we follow up our main courses with a sopapilla, a puff pastry smothered in sugar and honey. Light and delicious.

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After dinner, we walked across the street and into the cemetery to find the grave of John Wesley Hardin, a Civil War-era cowboy and outlaw eventually shot to death in a saloon in El Paso. The cemetery fit perfectly into the desert landscape: cactuses between graves surrounded by orange dirt. Hardin’s grave was surrounded by a cage to protect him from people like us.

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From the cemetery, we drove across town to the University of Texas at El Paso, where there is a desert garden that was one of the very few tourist sights I could find in El Paso. The Centennial Desert Gardens were actually very nice, with a variety of plants that I don’t see everyday, and Eric rolled his eyes as I walked around taking pictures of things I found interesting and beautiful.

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From the garden, we headed onto the interstate to drive back to Eric’s hotel in Las Cruces, stopping only briefly for a view back toward El Paso through mountains.

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Before long, we had crossed the border into New Mexico, and were soon heading to bed.

The next morning, Eric headed off to work while I opened my computer and made a virtual commute from his hotel. Thanks to the time difference, I was able to start early and finish early, so I was nearly ready for the weekend by the time Eric and I headed to a late lunch at Nellie’s Cafe, a well-known Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces. Even though the restaurant was just barely a storefront, when Eric texted a picture to a friend of his, the friend replied that they must have made improvements. But the little hole-in-the-wall was still sporting pretty legitimate credentials.

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We were seated by Nellie’s exuberant son Danny and began our meal with tortilla chips and salsa. These weren’t your mother’s tortilla chips, though — they were still hot, and more flavorful than any I can recall. Inspired by their quality, we ordered another round accompanied by more chile con queso. For my main course, I ordered the tostadas compuestas, which featured three hard tacos of different compositions: one with red chile, one with green chile and one with avocado. The dichotomy between red and green chiles is a recurring one in the cuisine of New Mexico. As I learned, either color can be hotter in a given restaurant, and either can be tastier. You have to ask at each restaurant and balance your preferences. Eric went with the combo platter, which was roundly recommended. It was immediately apparent from our plates that we were beginning to transition from the Mexican food we had had in El Paso to the unique culinary blend that is New Mexican cuisine.

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Though not quite as flavorful and exciting as L & J Cafe, Nellie’s was much more of a scene. Las Cruces is, of course, a much smaller town that El Paso, and I’m sure that contributed to the sense that everyone in the restaurant knew everyone else. It was a fun dining experience, which you can’t always say.

From Nellie’s, Eric and I drove slightly west, to old Mesilla, a small town near Las Cruces known for its historic square and old-timey feeling. Having not so long ago been to both old Albuquerque and old Santa Fe, I had to comment to Eric that I was starting to get the feeling “seen one old square, seen ’em all.” There was a pretty Catholic church and a nice square whose architecture wouldn’t feel out of place in old Mexico, but that was about it.

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Mesilla, of course, receives a lot less traffic than its historic neighbors to the north, which did give it a bit of a more homely feel. I was able to take one photograph that may be the closest we ever come to the caption: “The checkpoint visits Havana.”

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Having scoped out the scene in Mesilla, Eric and I high-tailed it east out of town and through the mountains toward our next destination.

Ringing in the new year

Written by Chaz on 23 March 2012

After Christmas in New Mexico, I winged over to Washington for New Years with my friends Joanna, Seth, George and Ben. The visit had two culinary highlights, an authentic Szechuan feast and a great brunch, but one of our first activities was a chilly picnic at Gravelly Point Park right next to National Airport.

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Our Szechuan feast was at Sichuan Pavilion in Rockville, Md., though it has apparently since changed its name to Sichuan Jin River. It was unsurprisingly a recommendation from the ever-reliable Tyler Cowen, who started it all. It was my first Szechuan food since our Szechuan meal in Hong Kong, and I was curious to see how the two compared, as our Hong Kong meal was unlike anything I’ve had or seen in the United States. It was much, much spicier and generally more willing to experiment with very strong flavors.

We began the meal with four terrific appetizers: dan dan noodles, which were extremely spicy in an unusual and different way; jelly noodles, also very spicy and of a texture I have never before encountered; dumplings; and Chinese pizza, which was actually delicious even if the scallion pancakes were the most vanilla thing on the table. The two noodle dishes were really the highlight of the visit, though. Both were recommendations from Tyler and he did not mislead us.

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Our entrees were equally impressive. We had a ginger pork with crispy rice cakes that was phenomenal both in its flavor and its textures, a chicken dish that was thankfully not as spicy as the dish it most closely resembled in Hong Kong, an eggplant dish that Emmy would have loved, and and a duck dish that came with these Michelin-man-like puffy buns.

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The food was really fantastic, and I say that as someone who is very disillusioned with eating Chinese food in the U.S. It had distinct flavors, textures and combinations that I’ve never had before at a mainstream Chinese restaurant. This was the real deal, and it was great.

Our brunch was at Kramerbooks, the Dupont Circle institution known for its hybrid excellent bookstore and excellent restaurant. Between us, we had a crab quesadilla (great and surprisingly large), eggs Benedict, a lox and egg scramble, and oatmeal.

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Though not nearly as exciting and adventurous as our trip to Rockville, it was still a great brunch. And, of course, it was great to welcome the new year with my friends in D.C.!

Speaking Valenciana

Written by Emmy on 2 November 2011

On Friday morning we bid farewell to Barcelona and boarded the train to Valencia. The three-hour ride was pleasant and comfortable and our train had assigned seats and in-flight entertainment, more than I can say for Amtrak or Thai Railways. The journey began and ended along the coast, weaving inland between the seaside stops. Just outside Barcelona, the landscape became totally rural, with farmhouses, fields and mountains lined with windmills.

We arrived in Valencia just in time for lunch. After quickly dropping our belongings at the hotel, we headed to Mercat Central, the large food market that claims to be the largest in Western Europe. This is a superlative I’ve heard thrown around a few times before, but Mercat Central was pretty impressive.

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We picked up a lunch picnic to eat on the steps outside the market. Jessica sampled some of the market’s prepared foods, while I went for more of an a la carte antipasto approach, purchasing manchego cheese, hummus, artichokes, sundried tomatoes and peppers.

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Valencia is organized similarly to Barcelona, with a condensed egg-shaped historic center and a more sprawling modern section built along a grid. Though Valencia has an equally large share of Mediterranean coastline, the historic part of the city is a solid 10-minute drive from the water. The old walled city kept its distance, earning Valencia the translated-from-Catalan tagline of “the city with its back to the sea.”

We had plans to explore the old center later in the afternoon, so we decided to be atypical and check out the parts of the city that do touch the sea. The main thoroughfare that begins at the old gates of the city and heads toward the water stops about a kilometer before the Mediterranean. Blocking the major avenue from continuing straight ahead is the neighborhood of Cabanyal, and this is a major source of municipal tension. El Cabanyal is the old fisherman quarters and is filled with charming old townhouses, but it has a bit of seedy reputation these days. Tired of prostitutes and poverty and interested in connecting the water to the old city, local politicians have campaigned to knock down part of the neighborhood in order to build the last kilometer of road. This has incited quite a bit of pushback from locals, who are advocating for restoration of the neighborhood instead. Clearly people are very up in arms about the whole debacle; a woman saw Jessica and I taking photos and began screaming at us in Spanish, assuming we were with the pro-destruction group.

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A mile or so down the water awaits a very different sight. Now a decade old, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias – the City of Arts and Sciences – was Valencia’s attempt to build a major tourist attraction. The architectural fantasy of native son Salvador Calatravas includes an art museum, a science museum, an underwater restaurant and several other attractions. The ticket to enter is pricey though, and really, the exterior is the most exciting part. Most tourists we saw there were doing the same thing as us: wandering the perimeter, taking photos and then leaving. This is problematic for Valencia as the complex was expensive to build, is expensive to maintain and now the responsibility is falling on local citizens. Particularly in the current Spanish economic climate, the Ciudad doesn’t exactly generate goodwill among locals.

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After walking the exterior and frolicking in the sculpture garden, we headed back to the old city to meet up with our tour guides for the afternoon, Toni and Marisa. In my final semester at Brown, I was desperate for one last chance to take a Spanish class. Normally the offerings are limited to centuries-old literature, but there was a one-semester-only course being offered on the topic of communication, with an emphasis on modern-day journalism in Spain. Syllabus unseen, I was prepared to sign up. The class far exceeded my expectations. The professor, Toni Mollà, was visiting from Spain, where he teaches at the University of Valencia and works as a journalist. Our small class formed a strong bond with him, in and outside the classroom, and I had the chance to make tapas with him and his wife Marisa in Providence. When I told them Jessica and I were coming to Valencia, they graciously offered to tour us around and share their infinite knowledge of the city.

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We began our tour in the heart of the old city, the Jewish Quarter, and visited the ancient Universitat de Valencia. The old university was built in the same style as many other European colleges that I have seen: a central open atrium, where students and professors could gather and socialize, surrounded by a ring of classrooms. Classrooms on upper floors could all be entered from a communal balcony so there would be even more space for socialization. In my experience, that’s where students gathered for a quick coffee and cigarette between classes. The old university is only used for municipal ceremonies today; the University of Valencia outgrew its old building and the different departments are now scattered around the city.

IMG_6977We had arrived that morning at the newer and uglier of the city’s two train stations, the Penn Station of Valencia. The older station, Estacion Nord, is an example of the Spanish modernismo style, which is nearly as plentiful in Valencia as it is in Barcelona. The interior of the station is decorated in a tile mosaic style typical to Valencia.

The main thoroughfare of the old city that begins at the station is punctuated by several squares. The first is Plaça del Ajuntamento, home to Valencia’s city hall. Like Barcelona, Valencia is the capital of its autonomous community, so the city is filled with government buildings from the various federalist levels. Valencia’s community is conveniently called Valencia. Bordering Catalunya, Valencia is part of the ancient group of Catalan speakers. The language is still spoken there today, but it is called Valenciana, and don’t you dare insinuate it is the same as Catalan. (But really, it is. It would be like saying the languages spoken in Boston and New York are different.)

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The next two squares are Plaça de la Reina and Plaça de la Virgen, which house the cathedral and basilica, respectively. Every Spanish city has its big cathedral and the one in Valencia was built over the span of several centuries. The thee entrances represent the three different styles used and are arranged in chronological order: Romanic, Gothic and Baroque.

IMG_6992Behind the cathedral, we found we had looped back to the Mercat, which looked even prettier at night.

Just beside the Mercat was the Lonja, an open forum where silk manufacturers once gathered to trade their wares. Today the space is used for conferences and city events, but every Sunday, stamp and coin collectors gather in the traditional fashion to make sales and trades.

By this point, we had completed our historic walking tour, but no self-respecting Spaniard dines out before 9 p.m. We planned to eat in Carmen, a trendy neighborhood within the old city walls, and so decided to get a drink first. In an almost comical fashion, our table of four began to expand as we saw people Toni and Marisa knew and we suddenly found ourselves at a table of twelve, which included Valencia’s most famous journalist and a prominent local photographer. Several jokes were made comparing Carmen to the Village in New York.

After bidding our new friends farewell, the four of us walked into Can Bermell, a restaurant in Carmen that Toni and Marisa have been visiting since they were in their 20s. They reportedly were eating lunch there the day their daughter Marina, who is my age, was born.

We offered a few suggestions forth based upon the menu, but took a very backseat approach and let the locals do all the decision making. The dishes were much larger than tapas, but everything was placed in the middle to be shared.

The food was pretty similar to what I’ve had in Barcelona, though with perhaps a bit more emphasis on seafood. I thought everything we ordered was positively delicious. The dishes came out of the kitchen individually, which made it easier to enjoy and appreciate the flavors of one dish at  a time. The first was esgarrat, a typical Valencian dish. Composed of dried, salted cod, red peppers and oil, the name translates to mean “broken” because of the aggressive manner in which the ingredients are mixed together. We were instructed to eat our food with fresh bread and learned that an upside-down roll is bad luck.

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The next dish was the house salad, a composed tower of tomato, fresh cheese, homemade croutons and basil, doused with balsamic vinegar. The delightful salad was followed by fresh mussels cooked with olive oil, which we fully demolished before I remembered to take a picture. Butter is an unheard-of ingredient in Spanish cooking; olive oil is considered king. Following my semester in Barcelona, I adopted a similarly firm stance and only cook with olive oil. (It’s a good thing I don’t bake that often; the result could be kind of gross.)

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We also enjoyed a salad of mushrooms topped with grated truffles, which one of our new journalist friends had recommended. The final dish, which was probably my favorite, was chipirones con ajos tiernos. It translates to squid with garlic, but the dish was cooked with a kind of garlic I’ve never seen before. Toni and Marisa explained it as the stem of the garlic bulb; it was green and flavorful, but not in quite the same biting way as a garlic clove.

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I was personally a bit full for dessert, but the waiter told Toni and Marisa he had a pumpkin in the oven and that was something we needed to see. Apparently in the fall, one of the most popular things to do is slice a pumpkin in half and pop it in the oven. No sugar, no cinnamon, no nothing. You just let the pumpkin roast for about an hour and then eat it as is. It was hard for me to conceptualize, but really, it would be just like eating roasted butternut squash for dessert. Pumpkin is eaten at all times of day and is very healthy. To balance out the healthy nature of the pumpkin, we also had a slice of chocolate almond cake.

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Spanish dining practices place far more value on personal pleasure than communal table manners and so there is no inhibition about just sticking your fork in the central plate. It creates an element of community and sharing to the meal and we caught on quickly. Our dinner was overall phenomenal and it was so great to see Marisa and Toni again. We picked their brains for advance on Valencian activities and made plans to meet up again on Sunday.

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Bon dia, Barcelona

Written by Emmy on 19 October 2011

Landing in Barcelona makes for a picturesque descent. Because of the city’s delicate location between the mountains and the Mediterranean, planes circle the city before touching down right next to the water. After our marathon flight to Asia, no plane ride will ever feel long to me again, but as I watched the Barcelona skyline fill my little window early Monday morning, I could not wait to be on the ground.

Once I made it downtown, it was time to get down to business. No Spaniard’s day begins without coffee, a philosophy I subscribe to wholeheartedly. I headed to a bar that serves coffee and breakfast by day and tapas by night and sat down among the regulars, enjoying their espresso and newspapers. Typical Spanish breakfast includes a flauta, a tiny sandwich made of bread rubbed with tomato and the filling of your choice. I ordered a flauta de queso and a cortado. Ordering simply cafe yields a shot of espresso, which is a little intense for my tastes, but a cafe con leche is too milky. A cortado is the perfect solution. Translated to mean “cut,” the espresso is cut by a little bit of warm milk. I thoroughly enjoyed my flauta and cortado, and because I believe in fighting jet lag with caffeine, I had a second cortado for good measure.

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Feeling rejuvenated, I set off to meet my sister Jessica, who flew in with friends from Rome the day before, so we could begin our exploration of Barcelona’s old city center. Built nearly 2,000 years ago, historic Barcelona is shaped a little bit like an egg standing upright on the shores of the Mediterranean. The district is characterized by intertwined streets and gothic architecture, giving it the name Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter. The neighborhood is bisected by one major thoroughfare, Las Ramblas. An iconic symbol of Barcelona, Las Ramblas is actually comprised of several different streets, beginning at Plaça Catalunya — Barcelona’s version of Times Square — and ending at the water.

Las Ramblas has a large pedestrian path down its middle, which is often filled to the brim with tourists. Mimes dress in elaborate costumes and pose for tips, calling out to passers-by. Frequent stalls sell typical souvenir goods and are punctuated by many booths vending flowers and, oddly, birds.

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About halfway down Las Ramblas, a quick turn to the right leads into one of the city’s great gems: La Boqueria. Barcelona is filled with fresh food markets, of which the Boqueria is king. The market is pure insanity, a place where meats, fishes, vegetables, tapas and brightly colored candies are vended under one roof. Stall owners call out to shoppers, hawking their products, while the aisles are packed full of people. I rarely did my grocery shopping at the Boqueria while I was in Barcelona — it was too far and too crazy — but it was always one of my favorite places to visit.

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Common knowledge is that prices are best at the center of the market, so we headed to the middle. Juice is a very popular product at the Boqueria, made from every fruit imaginable. I’ve never been a juice person, but when other people start making pineapple raspberry, I may convert. We also bought a paper cone of manchego cheese to nibble on while we walked.

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From the Boqueria, we continued into the heart of the Gothic Quarter, veering off of Las Ramblas and onto quieter side streets. Continuing on our preliminary culinary tour, we made another pit stop. When I was 15, Jessica and I came to Spain with our parents and she hated the food. But I was convinced that if we made different choices this time around, she too would see the wonders of a Spanish diet.

For example, many Spaniards take a mid-morning snack of hot chocolate. But Spanish hot chocolate is not watered down like the drink we know. Here it is pure dark chocolate, melted and warm, but so thick it can barely be stirred. It is typically served with churros, sticks of fried dough dotted with sugar and cinnamon, for dipping, but Jessica just took hers straight up. After a few sips she had to add a little milk, though; it was too much for even the most intense chocolate lover.

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Following family tradition, our next stop was to the old Jewish ghetto. Spain has always had a bit of a tenuous relationship with the Jews, who inhabited Barcelona from its earliest days. They lived primarily within the confines of a small neighborhood, known as El Call, where they built a small synagogue. For centuries, the community was left largely to itself. But discontent began to grow in the 1300s, and then the Bubonic Plague struck. Barcelona was hit hard as the disease came in through the port and killed the population in droves. Because of religious rituals, Jews wash their hands daily, and the hygienic practice spared most Jewish families their lives. However, it cost them their citizenship. Blamed for the epidemic, the Jews were expelled from the city, given a choice of conversion or exile. (The rest of Spain followed suit during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s.)

Two brothers stayed, converted to Catholicism and bought the old synagogue for their textile dyeing business. They installed dye vats in the front room, but prayer secretly continued in the back. The synagogue fell in and out of use over the subsequent centuries. It was nearly forgotten because of how small and tucked away it was, but historians were able to trace it and about a decade ago, it was opened as a museum. Today, the Synagogue Major is recognized as the oldest synagogue in Western Europe.

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There are currently about 1,000 Jewish families in Barcelona and four active synagogues, one of which I had the opportunity to visit while I was abroad.

Our walking tour led next to Plaça de Jaume, home to the Ajuntamento de Barcelona, city hall, and the Generalitat de Catalunya. Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. (More on this later!)

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On the outer edge of the Barri Gotic lies the city’s cathedral, Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia, or as it is more commonly known, La Seu. The cathedral is currently undergoing a renovation of sorts, which I found rather amusing. My friends and I used to joke about the ubiquitous presence of scaffoldings and cranes; Barcelona always seems to be building or rehabilitating something. Street art is also fairly ubiquitous in Barcelona and though most of it is probably painted against the city’s wishes, the square surrounding the cathedral features street art of a higher caliber: biblical images drawn by Barcelona native, Pablo Picasso.

Having done a pretty solid loop of the Barri Gotic, we were about ready for lunch. Lunch in Barcelona usually comes in one of two forms: a pris fixe menu del dia or an all-you-can-eat buffet libre. We opted for the latter and headed to a branch of the very popular Fresc Co, a salad chain found all across the city.

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After lunch we took a brief stroll through El Raval, one of the city’s more up-and-coming neighborhoods. Because most shops observe the time-honored Spanish tradition of siesta, nearly everything was closed. A bit tired and hot ourselves — normally mild Barcelona set records every day in October with temperatures well into the 90s — we decided to partake in our own siesta.

A bit later, we were feeling refreshed and took in the views and slight breeze from the rooftop terrace of our hotel. We were staying in L’Eixample, which I once thought was pronounced “le example,” but is in fact said “le-shamp-ull” and translates to mean “the expansion.” In the mid-1800s, Barcelona had begun to expand beyond the walled barriers of the Gothic Quarter. The city held a competition to decide how to build outward. The winning design came from Ildefons Cerda, who proposed a grid-like structure that would surround the egg shape of the Barri Gotic. The avenues would be wide and filled with trees, and the corners would be rounded to allow traffic to easily pass through. The grid would be bisected by several diagonal avenues, cutting across the entire city.

Cerda’s design still functions beautifully today, although the rounded corners can make crossing the street a bit of a pain.

IMG_6435Painted onto many of the city’s busy intersections, the text translates to read, “In Barcelona, 1 in 3 traffic deaths is a pedestrian. Attention! We are all responsible.”

L’Eixample is home to one of my favorite restaurants, Cerveceria Catalana. A widely popular and very authentic tapas bar, it always has a long wait and is always well worth it. When I first came to Barcelona, one of my teachers told us that if we wanted to eat real tapas like the people of Barcelona, this was where we should come.

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Jessica’s friend Anthony joined us for dinner, which meant we could up our tapas count. The general rule is two-per-person and so we were able order a parade: pan con tomate, bread literally rubbed with tomato; manchego cheese; pimientos de padron, green peppers (though they look it, they’re not spicy) blistered in oil and salt; escalivada, a tower of grilled eggplant, peppers and onions topped with cheese; pimiento de bacalao, a roasted red pepper stuffed with cod; and sauteed mushrooms.

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Normally I advocate filling up on tapas and skipping dessert, but not at Cerveceria Catalana. I had been thinking about the torta Santiago for quite some time. Almond cake doesn’t sound like much and I too was skeptical at first, but this innocent looking slice is powerfully flavorful. The cake is served with a shot glass of port and my friends and I could never figure out whether we were supposed to drink it or douse the cake with it. I prefer to go for a combo.

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Full and happy, we headed to bed after dinner. It felt good to be back.

In which we meet Dorothy and our adventures begin

Written by Emmy on 25 September 2011

On Wednesday (September 7th — it’s been a while), we began our west coast adventure road trip. The day began early in each of our hometowns, as Chaz boarded a plane before 7 a.m. and I boarded one just afterward. Several hours and plane rides later, we reunited in the Salt Lake City airport. We nearly missed our last flight and had to be paged to the gate, though we’re not really sure how that happened because we were waiting at the gate. Mishap was avoided and we took the short flight to Fresno, Calif.

We touched down in the small airport just after noon and made our way to baggage claim. In celebration of what the region is most known for, the airport was filled with giant redwood trees (truly — they were poking out of the ceiling). We simultaneously addressed two hurdles: the baggage and the rental car. We had reserved a car as part of a great Hertz deal: rent in California and return in Arizona in exchange for a great rate. (They need more cars down south for winter vacation.) This deal guaranteed us a small car and we were prepared to take what we could get. When we reached the counter, the woman explained that due to a series of regulations, there were only two cars available to us: a Chevy Aveo, which would barely have fit the two of us, let alone our luggage, and a Dodge Grand Caravan. We weren’t thrilled about the minivan, but said we’d take it, especially since we didn’t have to pay extra since it was their mistake. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had basically won the rental car lottery.

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Our baggage made up the vast majority of what had been on our little plane and we loaded it into the minivan, which we formally named Dorothy. For the record, we’re really not sure how we would have fit into a smaller car; we left the airport with three suitcases, a cooler, a huge box of camping supplies, two backpacks and two additional carry on bags. We then went to Trader Joe’s and loaded the car up even further with food. After making our way toward Yosemite, we bought more supplies at a second supermarket stop. Less than two hours in and Dorothy was reaching capacity.

After about 90 minutes on Highway 41, we reached the outer perimeter of Yosemite. Yosemite is a large park — larger than little old Rhode Island — and there are campgrounds throughout. We headed toward Wawona Campground for our first night, which is conveniently close to the entrance nearest to Fresno.

We set up camp and began preparing dinner after a quick appetizer of guacamole, chips and mango salsa. Camping really challenged my culinary abilities, but we persevered in an effort to eat and create beautiful food. The first night’s menu featured turkey burgers and so we tried to use charcoal, but those coals took a while longer to heat up than we might have hoped. We were aiming to eat in enough time to be able to watch sunset from Glacier Point, about a 30-minute drive from Wawona, but the burgers just weren’t cooking. So in a moment of desperation, we put them in a pan, popped them on top of the propane stove, aggressively cooked them and then ate them while en route with muenster and avocado atop honeywheat buns. Though we faced some technical difficulties, dinner could at least be classified as gourmet to go.

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Chaz navigated the winding roads of the park while I handled the car-based cuisine, a common theme throughout our trip. We got to Glacier Point, one of the best (and most accessible) overlooks in the car just as the sun was setting.

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From Glacier Point, we could see all of Yosemite Valley stretched out in front of us, waiting to be explored.

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After watching the sun dip below the mountains (and taking the obligatory 20+ sunset photos) we headed back to our tent and quickly fell asleep, tired from our day of travel and ready to wake up bright and early for adventures in the park!

Put a bird on it

Written by Chaz on 6 September 2011

After leaving Joanna in Los Angeles, I headed up to Portland to visit my friend Sophia, who was interning for the summer at the Oregonian, the city’s newspaper. I’d heard a lot about how wonderful Portland is, and I was very interested to see it for myself — especially after watching Portlandia, a niche TV comedy about the city, when it ran earlier this year. Portland certainly lived up to its reputation.

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I spent my first day in Portland exploring the downtown area. The city has no major tourist sights to speak of, but I didn’t mind that. I was mostly interested in walking around and getting a feel for the city’s famous coffee-sipping, skateboard-riding vibe.

IMG_4077The Portlandia statue, a symbol of the city and the TV show’s namesake.

But one major landmark and highlight was Powell’s Books, a bookstore the size of a city block. I spent at least two hours there, combing every section. The selection was incredible. Frankly, I wouldn’t have thought there was a single bookstore in the country in which I could compare ten different Swedish grammar books.

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As I walked around, a few things really stuck out. First, of course, the streetcars, for which Portland is well-known. I was able to take a few steps out of the airport and hop right on a light rail train that took me right into the heart of the city, and they’re equally useful for getting around downtown and to a number of suburbs. To top it all off, they’re free in the central area.

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Another was the parks, which are everywhere and beautifully kept. My personal favorite was Tanner Springs Park, which is a reclaimed wetland nestled into an extremely urban setting. It’s in the Pearl District, a trendy neighborhood just above downtown.

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Sophia and I had dinner on my first night in Portland at a place that could not have epitomized Portland better: a worker-owned vegan cafe. It was actually pretty good, too. We had a bunch of different veggie-based dishes that were inexpensive and, I’m sure, nutritious. Sophia is a vegetarian, and we spent most of dinner talking about how difficult being vegan would be.

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Afterwards, we explored another scene that Portland is known for, its craft beers. We checked out two places that were near dinner. One had a wide selection of local beers and the other made its own line of sour beers, which were sour like sour candy. Not my preference, but an interesting idea, I guess.

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Sophia and I went hiking in three great parks just outside the city center: Forest Park, a huge park that extends from downtown out to the northwest; Council Crest City Park, which had gorgeous views out of the city; and my personal favorite, Tryon Creek State Park, a lush oasis of green still within the city limits. Here’s Sophia, doing what she does best and reporting live from the scene.

We also took a longer expedition down to Oregon’s wine country, where we visited a few vineyards before stopping for a delicious dinner at Cana’s Feast Winery in Carlton. The view from our table, out over the rolling fields into the mountains, was spectacular, and dinner was very good too. Wonderful, fresh produce.

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The next morning, we had breakfast at Bijou Cafe, which all the guidebooks called a must. It was very FLOSS — a Portland term that means “fresh, local, organic, seasonal and sustainable.” I had a (vegetarian-fed) beef hash and Sophia had a beautiful omelet.

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Because the news never stops, not even when I’m in town, Sophia had to work the last afternoon of my visit. I took the opportunity to get a little closer to Mt. Hood. I took a short hike out to Mirror Lake, which reflects the mountain in its waters.

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I drove back through the beautiful Columbia River gorge, stopping at the incredible Multnomah Falls. As I approached Portland, the sun was setting, and the colors of the sky were amazing.

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I got up early the next morning and headed back to the airport and Philadelphia. Portland seemed similar to Philadelphia in only one way: a perfectly nice place to visit, but a fantastic place to live. I definitely understood why people love it.

IMG_4154Taken at a vineyard by a random person; highly suitable for wedding invitations.

Another city of angels

Written by Chaz on 6 September 2011

My visits to Sweden and Long Island were followed by another long flight over to our friend Joanna in Los Angeles. I was there for four days, and we packed a lot in.

We relaxed on the beach after a long bike ride.

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We witnessed Carmageddon. In fact, I arrived in the middle of it.

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Actually, that picture is totally misleading. Media reports that Carmageddon was a total non-issue were completely right. People really did stay off the roads, and there wasn’t any traffic at all.

We went for a beautiful hike in Temescal Canyon, overlooking central Los Angeles, the shoreline and the Pacific Ocean.

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We visited the amazing Getty Museum. Joanna and I took an art history class together in the spring, so we’re sort of experts in the field, and the museum was really neat. Our visit to the “free” museum began with a $15 parking fee and a tram ride up a steep hill to the beautiful campus.

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The museum is spread through a few buildings, and the setting and architecture are as notable as the collections. The museum is wrapped around a large garden that is itself an art installation.

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Of course, the food tour continued, too. We sampled the local cuisine at one of Joanna’s favorite Mexican restaurants.

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And the other, equally important local cuisine, too.

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Most notably, though, I made my triumphant return to eating Asian food in the U.S., with visits to a great Thai place and a Korean barbecue. Los Angeles was a great place to restart my ethnic eating. The city actually has the largest Thai population outside of Thailand in its Thai Town neighborhood. We ventured in past signs written in a familiar but incomprehensible language to Sanamluang Cafe, whose namesake I guess I visited, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

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We started with a papaya salad, which was one of my favorites in Thailand but only thanks to Emmy’s affinity for it. In fact, I’m not sure I had ever had it in the States. And while this papaya salad was delicious, retaining the tangy spice of the original, it definitely wasn’t quite as good as the real thing. We also had crab rangoons, which were very good, though I’m always skeptical of how amazing something deep-friend can be.

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My yellow curry, though, definitely matched the best curries we had in Thailand, and its spice had me sweating. Joanna’s pad see ew was also state of the art. I guess both dishes are relatively easy to export, since they’re not too complicated.

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We left Sanamluang very satisfied, and I was particular reassured about my culinary future in America. Even after being in Southeast Asia, I’m still perfectly happy to eat what’s available right here.

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The Korean barbecue was not only also a great eating experience but also a new adventure of sorts. I had never had Korean barbecue before, and the restaurant we went to — Hae Jang Chon, in the heart of Koreatown — was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

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Hae Jang Chon serves all-you-can-eat barbecue that you cook at your table on a little stove. We chose four meats to start from the list of nineteen choices, and though that was more than enough food for the two of us, a larger group could easily have kept ordering.

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They started us off with a couple little appetizers and a whole host of sauces and other accompaniments for our meats. Of course, we immediately had to ask for a tutorial, and our main course — the one we were supposed to cook ourselves — hadn’t even arrived. The young Korean couple seated nearby looked on with glee.

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Once our meats arrived, we got to it. We ordered beef brisket, short rib, barbecue beef, and chicken. At first, we didn’t really know what we were doing, but we figured it out before too long. It didn’t hurt that really all you had to do was keep checking the meat to see if it was done.

IMG_4032The two in the background were putting us to shame with their barbecue skills.

The meats were delicious, and the only thing I regretted was that we were only two people. The entertainment aspect of the experience would have lasted much longer if we had had a larger group and thus, the stomach capacity required for more courses. But the meats we did have were very interesting, and very different from anything I had had before. Like steaks in the U.S., everything about these meats was designed for them to be eaten alone, and yet the flavor was as full as anything you would find in a more composed food. The flavors themselves were very different than I’ve tasted in other Asian food, too.

After our meats, and after our waiter teased us for not ordering a second course at an all-you-can-eat restaurant, he prepared fried rice for us right on our little personal stove. It was delicious, though at this point, I really couldn’t eat much more.

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Los Angeles was a great reintroduction into ethnic eating in America after my time abroad, and a wonderful place to visit too. Thanks, Joanna!

A short time on Long Island

Written by Emmy on 5 September 2011

After only a few weeks apart, it was about time for Team Absurdity Checkpoint to reunite.

When Chaz was finally able to board a plane headed for the U.S., don’t be fooled into thinking he was going home. Due to the restrictions that come with flying using frequent flyer miles, Chaz had to fly into New York — which gave us the perfect excuse for a weekend of fun and sun on Long Island.

Because of Chaz’s delayed take-off from Stockholm, he arrived into JFK a bit later than planned. While this would normally have been no issue at all, his arrival happened to coincide with the release of the final Harry Potter movie. As this was an event I had been preparing myself for for years, it could not be missed. So with my friend Ian in tow, we picked Chaz up at the airport and made off like bandits for the movie theater, where my friend Danielle was waiting for us with tickets. (Appropriately, we saw the movie at the Roosevelt Raceway movie theater, completing the trifecta of Roosevelt sites in the area. On previous visits, Chaz and I have seen Teddy’s birthplace in Lower Manhattan and his country estate in my hometown of Oyster Bay.)

The theater was sheer mayhem and filled with costumed viewers. I wore my Brown sweatshirt in support of Emma Watson, while Ian joked that in his black hoodie, he was dressed as Voldemort. After three action-packed hours (plus the hour we spent saving our seats), we headed home and put Chaz to bed.

The next morning, we began a day of adventure. Chaz had requested a full-out triathlon following his week-long eatathon in Sweden. The weather was beautiful, and so we kayaked in Oyster Bay (the body of water for which the town is named) and swam in my backyard.

IMG_3787The view, several hours later

We had lunch on the water, and though the restaurant served mostly local seafood, we obviously both gravitated toward the most Asian item on the menu, seared sesame tuna over salad.

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After lunch we went on a tour of Oyster Bay’s finest supermarkets in preparation for the evening’s event. I got to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of hosting what was effectively our own mini frat party. Ian came back (sans the Voldemort costume), our friend Ben took the train out from his new digs in Brooklyn and our friend Max joined us fresh from Teach For America’s training institute in Queens.

It was great to have so many people we like in one place and to catch up on everyone’s action-packed summers. We relaxed in the backyard over a lovely spread of chips, salsa and a long-perfected guacamole recipe and watched the sun set over the bay. For dinner, we dug in to homemade burgers and turkey burgers, salad and coleslaw. The men handled the grilling, while I took on the token girl role of salad making.

For dessert, my parents brought home ices from the famous Long Island institution, Ralph’s, but we were all almost too full to partake. Almost.

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We took the next day a little easier, luxuriating over morning coffee and then moving onto a picnic lunch gathered together by my parents. Once everyone was totally full with all of the Island’s best offerings, we dropped Max and Ben at the train. (Fun fact: the Long Island Rail Road stop we took them to, Syosset, has the largest gap between the platform and the train in the whole system.) After a short time back at my house, it was time for Chaz to jet back off again. I dropped him at LaGuardia Airport, where he set off on the next of his summer adventures.

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