Archive for August, 2008

Minneapolis Staycation Project ’08 – Part IV

[Cross-posted at Killing Batteries.]

At 10:30 the next morning, I was still full. In 38 years of enthusiastic binge-eating, that has never happened. Beware Fogo de Chão.

Despite the absence of the usual morning void in my stomach, I was looking forward to my 11 o’clock brunch date at Cosmos inside the Graves 601 Hotel. I’d already absorbed the online weekend brunch menu and was mentally sick with desire for the three course meal, including a mimosa pick-me-up. At $30 per person, it’s probably not something you want to indulge in every weekend, but occasional brunches like this should be an essential, restorative part of life. Indeed, go ahead and call it a ‘mental health brunch’, that way you can charge it back to your insurance company.

Cosmos is only seven blocks from my building, but the walk was a demoralizing challenge what with acute Paintball-itis radiating out of my quadriceps. I assumed a pitiable stiff-walk the entire way that appeared as if I’d just eaten a handful of laxatives and they were hitting their mark.

Though I was assured over the phone that weekend brunch at Cosmos would be a madhouse and I should make reservations, we when arrived we were only one of about four tables. All the better for us, because we got our mimosas chop-chop and were never left wanting for attention from our doting server.

Though it had been over 14 hours since I’d left my plate at Fogo de Chão, if I closed my eyes tight I could still see red meat and garlic mashed potatoes. My body was crying out for some kind of neutralizer. I started with the fresh berry fruit smoothie, which came in a heaping glass, all purple and chunkily delicious. My companion opted for the fruit plate with a gorgeous variety of vibrant and juicy sliced fruit.

True to form, I chose the fluffy omelet for the main course, filled with salmon, onions, tomatoes and cheddar cheese, and a sprinkling of fried potato chunks on the side. My companion got the picture-perfect eggs benedict. Had I not ingested the equivalent mass of a prize-winning buffalo in the previous 24 hours, I might have questioned the size of the portions, but as it was I viewed these dainty dishes as blessings.

We finished with the precariously rich chocolate gateau. My companion couldn’t finish hers, so I did the gentlemanly thing, to save her honor, and gobbled it down. I’d make the best Secret Service agent ever – for the First Lady of Chocolate Island. We left over two hours later, sated and at peace with the universe.

At this stage, the pace and injuries sustained on my so-called staycation were starting to show. It felt as if I had spent the entire time either wreaking heavy damage or recovering from it. Moderation has always eluded me, but this was getting ridiculous. It was time to consult my staycation schedule and move some stuff around. Things like the wholesome ride I’d planned with my biking-obsessed father had to be nixed entirely since I was too shattered to even lift my bike down from its hook, much less ride it anywhere. Showing organizational efficiency that I only have in my wildest dreams while writing guidebooks, seconds later I had a new schedule that conveniently allowed me to sit on my couch for the remainder of the day.

The next, and last, day of my staycation revolved entirely around a simple event: dinner. I was doing it Southern Euro-style, where one spends half the day puttering from shop to market to shop, with their two-wheeled grocery cart, picking up just the right ingredients, performing exploratory prods and sniffs, resolutely putting back any items that did not meet approval, shooting an accusatory look at the merchant for trying to sell unsatisfactory products… Actually, my shopping was far less exacting and Italian granny-like, but there were indeed precise items to buy at singular shops in anticipation of a glorious dinner that would go down in the pages of history of my condo.

All in due time of course. First there was an omelet to be eaten, TV to be watched and internet to be surfed. Somewhere around the crack of 2pm, I reluctantly put on some clothes and departed for my first objective, Legacy Chocolates in St Paul. I’d been hearing about this place for over a year, and how they were known for an obsessive-compulsive devotion to chocolate that would shame an autistic stamp collector. I’d been putting off a visit here due to my busy schedule, the prohibitive price and the legitimate fear that I’d never be able to eat normal chocolate again. But dammit I was on staycation – my new favorite, exonerating rationale for getting away with decadent behavior – so what better time to spoil myself and risk never again giving my business to Nestlé?

The shop was small, manned by a single guy who you could tell at first glance was one of the happiest minimum wage earners since beach trash collectors in Saint Tropez when women started going topless. And for good reason. It smelled like God’s hot chocolate mug in there. Walking in the front door, I had to stifle the impulse to break out in “Ode to Joy”.

I informed the chocolate man that it was my first time at Legacy and the lively lecture began. First you must decide on the flavor of truffle you want, choosing between port, chipotle, champagne, mint, espresso, coconut, bourbon, raspberry, caramel, caramel pecan, almond, double, classic and more. Then you have to choose between four cocoa intensities for each flavor: 41, 68, 85 or 99 percent. Oh the heart-wrenching decisions. I eventually just asked the chocolate man to grab a couple of each and cram them into a 24 count box. While that was going on, I munched on a sample ‘classic’ truffle with a heart-stopping 99% cocoa intensity. It tasted exactly like the kind of overpowering sin that could compel Saint Peter to clothesline Jesus and kick him in the kidneys.

With one last deep snort of chocolate fumes, I left Legacy to catch the bus down Marshal/Lake to get more supplies. Time has never moved as slowly as when I stood at that bus stop, under a brutal sun, waiting for a very overdue bus with $43 worth of exceptionally meltable chocolate in my backpack.

After a quick visit to Cub Foods, I had to walk six blocks, carefully keeping my truffles in the shade provided by my own body to protect them from the sun’s continuing punishment, to my final destination, Coastal Seafoods. Again, everything I knew about Coastal Seafoods was via reverent second-hand stories and write-ups on local Best Of lists. I knew they had the city’s best selection of fresh seafood (which is no small task in Minneapolis) and other dazzling extravagances like Kobe beef. For some reason I got it in my head that it would be like the seafood markets you see in Mediterranean countries: a giant warehouse of tiny stalls, each specializing in a few items, some of them manned by guys that had been fishing since 3am, with rows of crab, shrimp, giant squid, sea monkeys and the odd Coelacanth.

Disappointingly, Coastal Seafoods was just a tiny shop, manned by totally sober guys that never once yelled out their specials or cursed at the soccer game on TV, but all the important stuff was there and I immediately homed in on the tuna steak that I wanted. After a short conversation with the guy behind the counter on preparation and the age-old debate on sauces versus marinades, I was on my way, another four, hurried sun-soaked blocks to the light rail station.

Once home, I checked that all my expensive food had survived the relentless sun. Of course the only way to check that the chocolate was OK was to eat several of them. There are really no words to describe these truffles. While eating them, your shoulders slump, your pupils dilate and dreamy visuals begin to wash over you. With perfect clarity, you see the room full of naked angels, saints and virgins sitting along an assembly line, painstakingly preparing the truffles. After carefully rolling them by hand over their supple breasts and using their bellybuttons to round out the tops, they’re sent to the end of the line where Shawn Johnson lovingly kisses each truffle before individually sealing them. Mmm.

In fact these truffles are only slightly less divinely prepared. Legacy Chocolates slips a manifesto into all its boxes called “The Truth about Real Chocolate” adapted from “Real Chocolate” by Chantal Coady. It goes into great detail about the strict ingredients and how chocolate is actually startlingly healthy for you. Of course, I’m talking about proper chocolate, not the M&Ms and Hershey bars that are half full of vegetable fats, artificial flavorings and earwax.

Chocolate with high cocoa content, like above 50% (though 70% is better), is proven to actually lower blood-cholesterol levels, unlike ‘fast chocolate’ which only has about 5% cocoa and is loaded with nasty trans-fats. It has the naturally occurring antidepressant phenyl ethylamine which boosts energy levels, mental alertness and even relieves pain. Real cocoa butter is rich in antioxidants, which destroy unhealthy free radicals and boosts the immune system, verily preventing cancer! And chocolate can actually help with weight loss and diabetes! Sweet mother of God, you can’t afford to not eat this chocolate. Think about your health, people!

Having exhaustively basked in the glory of being a prudent and wise truffle eater, I began to prepare for dinner. My companion arrived shortly and we (mostly she) prepared a delectable mango chutney for the tuna steaks. A mango marinade or sauce would have been better, but there was no time for that business. I’d built up a hankering for tuna during all that errand running. As is often the case when I’m starving, it was prepare and eat or strip naked and freak. I coated a pan with extra virgin olive oil, heated it up and seared each side of my tuna slab for 60 seconds. That was it. Wine was poured, dinner was served, arias were sung, and for the 3,575th time since I hatched the cockamamie plan to become a travel writer, I toasted my staggering genius.

I belatedly realized what I should have been doing for my entire staycation: buying pricey food, having a kindly friend come over and prepare most of it and then languidly consuming the products of that labor. It was the perfect way to end the weekend and I managed to pull it all off without injuring myself (further) or passing out on the toilet.

The occasional mock-warfare melee notwithstanding, staycationing is about simplicity, leisure and pure joy. There’s no jet lag to endure, impertinent airline employees to rage against, or culture to shock you. The allure of zapping off to Paris will never die, but with only a quarter of the money and one tenth the effort, one can conceivably develop a staycation that will bring about the same, if not more, satisfaction and lasting memories. I don’t care what kind of hijinks you get yourself into in Paris, you’ll never wake up with a 200 mile radius restraining order from Alicia Sacramone’s attorney taped to your door. Priceless.

Staycation | 28.08.2008 16:51 | 1 Comment

Minneapolis Staycation Project ’08 – Part III

[Cross-posted at Killing Batteries]

You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but unicyclists are total badasses. These unassuming people, with careers ranging from engineers, to musicians to kindergarteners, have the athleticism of gymnasts, the fearlessness of suicidal ninjas and the indestructibility of a goat’s colon.

I’ve always wanted to go into a room full of body builders, navy seals, ultimate fighters and unicyclists and ask for immediate volunteers to go over Niagara Falls with no preparation or protection. I’d bet the house on every single unicyclist enthusiastically stepping forward, but only on the condition that they could do it while strapped to their unicycles. They’re a lot of fun – and batshit crazy down to the man.

The juggling and unicycling communities are tight-knit. I’ve known some of these people for over 20 years. So I was quite excited to receive the email invitation to a longtime unicyclist friend’s bachelor outing – until I scrolled down and read the word ‘paintball’. Then I knew I was doomed.

I’d heard many stories about paintball combat over the years. Nearly all of them involved vivid descriptions of premeditated filth, pain and terror. You don’t get to be my age and still looking this good while voluntarily submitting to that kind of masochistic cruelty. I briefly considered faking my death, changing my name and emigrating to Samoa as the fated day approached, but when it became clear that the paintball outing and my staycation weekend would overlap, I stayed true to my entertainer nature and prepared for battle. Because nothing jazzes up a staycation story like the tentative author recounting incapacitating filth, pain and terror in the company of people that barely noticed any of it.

After joining the first group of unicyclists at the predetermined Columbia Heights rendezvous point and merging with yet another group way out at Northside Sports in Ramsey, we were 12 strong and aching to decorate each other with splotches of oily orange paint. We were each issued lovingly abused, semi-automatic rental paint guns, riot masks and sacks of paintballs before being sent out to the field to load and prepare for battle.

It had never occurred to me that there might be people in this world whose lives revolve around paintball. It’s just not the first thing that springs to mind when you consider prospective hobbies. I mean, you’ve got cycling, comic books, wine-making and medieval combat societies where participants fight with foam padded safety equipment made to reflect medieval weaponry, but paintball?

Sure enough, these people, wherever they hide during the week, were out in force on this sunny Saturday afternoon. As we prepared, it was difficult not to stare at the hardcore regulars, decked out in their cammies, utility belts, hunting vests strung with spare paintball canisters and faux-Road Warrior homemade armor and hairstyles. Each of them carried a fully automatic paintball gun, capable of spraying 100 rounds in about 15 seconds. I have never regretted not having my camera with me so much in my life. Meanwhile, our rag-tag group of noobs, with our ripped jeans, non-terrifying shirts and sensible hairstyles – not a one garbed in a cod-piece fashioned from a trashcan lid – looked positively feeble in comparison. The girl in the Lara Croft get-up could have probably wiped us all out single-handedly.

Range rules were hastily explained, sportsmanlike agreements were made – offer the option of surrender to anyone before firing on them any closer than 20 feet, because that hurts like the dickens – and teams were arbitrarily formed based mainly on the colors of our shirts. We were then cut loose in the ‘speedball’ range, which was simply a field strewn with giant inflatable obstacles. I think it’s called the ‘speedball’ range because the battles are over so quickly. The inflatables don’t provide much protection and ricochets zing by from alarming angles.

Familiarizing myself with the gun and how much ammo I could safely unload in one round without going empty took some practice. At first I’d swivel away from safety, wildly squeeze off one or two shots, then twist back and hide while volleys of return fire ‘pwanged’ off the inflatable I was using as cover. It didn’t take long to notice I was trying to conserve too much paint. My gun’s paintball hopper still looked full after each round, while other guys’ were nearly empty. I cut loose thereafter, showering the field using the ultra-fast-twitch finger muscles I’d developed after 26 years of juggling, cheating my aim with the wind, so my paintballs would curve back around just in time to splatter on my target’s eye protection as they peeked around corners.

The pain of the paintball impacts weren’t nearly as bad as I had been expecting. The first direct hit got me right in the chest. It hurt, but only for a split second. The next hit was the same, though this happened on the front of my hip, a little too close to the pills for my liking, making me wish I’d had the foresight to strap on a trashcan lid as well.

The brevity of battles and lack of excitement on the speedball range inspired us to move to the more elaborate ranges, where sniper boxes, building facades, towers and even a half-hearted attempt at a downed helicopter had been constructed out of 2X4s and particle board. There were also bushes, sand dunes and trenches (laden with burrs a few of us discovered the hard way).

As I had sagely predicted, most of the unicyclists were the Rambo types, disregarding danger, self-preservation and common sense to race around the field, dive into ditches, somersault over barriers and walk straight into a hail of fire without a care in the world. Others (read: me), armed with more prudence and less health insurance, used their half-busted hip as an excuse to crouch under cover, popping up at timely intervals to pick off opponents with judicious sniper fire.

When was the last time you ran as fast as you could? I mean flat out raced, with the added knowledge that three sadistic guys were drawing a bead on your narrow and perfect ass with high velocity rubber balls? Apart from joggers and the occasional athlete, the opportunity for full-on sprinting doesn’t come up very often in your adult life, does it? Well, after a long afternoon of panicky, start-stop, up-down screaming pandemonium, my legs were beginning to show their disappointment with me. The added abuse of gradual dehydration out in that glorious sun and the nutrient sapping effects of incessant adrenalin spikes amplified the already severe muscle damage even further. It would be days before I could walk up stairs or sit down without bursting into tears.

The damage from my five hour paintball deflowering would have been bad enough, but our day wasn’t over yet. We staggered back to Columbia Heights, showered and changed, then zoomed downtown for dinner at Fogo de Chão, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian grill. But rather than being forced to struggle to your feet once in a while and waddle to a buffet, servers swoop in every two minutes and tempt you with different kinds of meat. Sausages, rib eye, chicken legs, sirloin (regular and garlic-infused), fillet mignon, beef ribs, pork ribs, pork loin, pork chops, lamb chops, and more. Also, there was a salad bar – for the rubes. We Pettersens are a lot of things, but we are certainly not rubes. I’d come to Fogo for extravagant and well-appointed beef poisoning, not to fill up on cheese and bread. I held my ground while my companions went off to waste precious stomach capacity. Our head server saw me sitting alone at the table and, recognizing that I had resisted their wily attempts at distraction and filler, nodded his head knowingly, clicked his heels and the Protein Parade began. It did not end for almost three hours.

My cavalier, mock-objective of Death by Beef faded as the meal came to a close. I felt seriously impaired. Apparently you really can get drunk on beef or so it seemed after I got to my feet and various muscles and brain functions failed to engage. There was also the small matter of the bill. Our group of 11 had somehow masticated $850 in food and drink. In addition to paying for my plate ($46.50), I was cajoled into buying a ‘Brazilian Cocktail’ ($10), which I supplemented with a glass of Chilean merlot ($13). After tax, 18% mandatory gratuity and donating toward the lucky bachelor’s meal, my final total was the second most expensive meal I have ever had. Great time, once, but I’ll probably stick to a single, non-lethal piece of extraordinary Kobe beef in the future given the choice.

As we made our way to the street, it became clear that I’d overextended myself. Three hours of shoveling red meat down the hatch had given my legs time to quietly plot rebellion to protest the sprinting, crouching and cowering during paintball. I had the gait of a well-fed duck. Though I had only just put down my napkin, the ludicrous, sickening, dangerous amounts of beef that I’d ingested were starting to do odd things to my gastrointestinal tract. The others in the group, in typical, deathproof unicyclist fashion, seemed completely unfazed by any of it and were finalizing plans to retreat to a nearby apartment with a case of beer to keep the party going. Feeling the looming approach of a protracted bathroom visit in my immediate future, I chose to wobble back to my condo alone and let nature take it course. Several times.

[End Part III]

Staycation | 26.08.2008 10:49 | 4 Comments

Minneapolis Staycation Project ’08 – Part II

[Cross-posted at Killing Batteries.]

I woke up Friday morning, the first full day of my staycation, 10 minutes before the nice lady arrived to measure my windows for new blinds. Misinterpreting my raging cider hangover as naivety and my unconscious humming of Sha Na Na tunes as mild brain damage, the lady cunningly tried to up-sell me to, judging by price, the blinds used on International Space Station. Insulating against heat, cold, day, night, zero gravity, UV rays, solar flares and meteors, and presumably installed by off-duty Russian Cosmonauts, they were only $2,600 – for two windows. After pausing for a moment to slowly exhale and calculate how many bottles of Vernaccia di San Gimignano I could buy for that sum, I smiled sweetly and invited her to get the hell out of my condo. That ugliness dealt with, I staggered off to a hard-earned Everything Omelet at Keys Café, with extra Tabasco and a side order of window treatment bitterness.

I get slightly crabby when I’m hungover. Little things like seeing eight frat boys parading by, all wearing hats on backwards like glassy-eyed cult members on furlough from the Brothers of Our Savior Saint Douchebag compound in White Bear Lake, make me wish mercy killings were legal. Feeling that ungraceful mood setting in, and being without my euthanasia dart gun and bandolier, I retreated back to my condo to convalesce, indefinitely delaying plans to visit Surdyk’s and buy irresponsible quantities of wine with the money I saved by not being duped into getting space-age blinds. The combination of the hangover and Everything Omelet Coma made me too groggy to even page through my pile of unread Vanity Fairs, looking for pictures of Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly. I eventually allowed myself to nod off for a brutally brief 30 minutes.

I woke up with a start, the Madonna issue of VF sliding off my still distended stomach, groggier than ever. As I reached for my Blackberry to share this development with the world via Twitter, I realized that I had only about 15 minutes to catch the bus for my massage.

CenterPoint Massage & Shiatsu Therapy School & Clinic in Dinkytown’s old, labyrinth-y, Marshall University High School building, offers massages for $35 per hour. Students give the massages, occasionally with an instructor present, but I had arrived on the last day of their summer session, so the students were far enough along in their training to go solo. After reading, filling out and signing questionnaires, disclaimers and a client bill of rights more thorough than a US citizenship application, I was led into the Room.

For $35 an hour, one shouldn’t expect their massage to include 78 kinds of aromatic oils, faux-waterfalls and a Bose sound system playing Tibetan monk throat chants and sitar solos, but I must admit that I was a bit put off by the warehouse-style massage room. The wide open space was partitioned into about eight sections by flimsy curtains that almost, but not quite provided enough privacy to get undressed, mount a massage table and wriggle under a sheet while keeping one’s dignity. The very wide gaps between the curtains and walls were even more conspicuous when I became aware that the smokin’ hot, blond, U of M athlete that I’d seen in the waiting area had entered the neighboring section and was disrobing inches from me. If had leaned back just a little bit, I would have seen that firm, round bootie in all its glory, but I was already down to my candy cane boxer shorts by that stage, so I thought better of it.

Though I was invited to go commando, which is my favored military euphemism under any circumstances, since I was making a special request for my young, sweet, possibly still innocent masseuse to rub and pile-drive my gimpy hip, I opted not to traumatize her with the sight of my bare, cream cheese white fanny. The candy cane boxers were a regrettable choice in retrospect.

To my pleasant surprise, my massage student was incredibly gifted. She worked wonders on the minefield that is my back, smoothed my arms and legs to the consistency of licorice whips, worked on my poor hip with Nobel Prize-winning fervor and never once commented on my off-season boxers. Unfortunately, her heroics on my hip had little effect, apparently proving beyond a doubt that whatever the crap is wrong down there cannot be corrected by massage.

The excellent value and agreeable people at CenterPoint aside, I was negligently allowed to lurch out of the massage clinic a little too soon after my massage. Not only was I hungover, but now I was also in a physiologically altered state from the toxic gunk released into my system by 55 minutes of burrowing knuckles and elbows. I dreamily wandered the building searching for the bathroom, gurgling like an infant and amiably doffing my imaginary pirate’s hat at passing unicorns, Smurfs and wayward yellow submarines.

Approximately three years later, after letting fly with a healthy Number One and helping to free Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the evil clutches of the Blue Meanies, I finally located and exited the front door. Although by my estimate, I was now running two years, 11 months, 29 days, 23 hours and 59 minutes late, not even a minute later my lovely and forgiving dinner companion Alexis, of local relationship and sex advice fame, pulled up and we were off to impregnate our pores with garlic while consuming the so-called ‘Afghani Spinach Football Pizza’ the at Crescent Moon Bakery. Having just been regaled by a fellow traveler on the stomach-turning failings of Pakistani pizza (served in Pakistan) a few weeks earlier, I was a smidge concerned about how edible the Afghani version would be. But, of course, Crescent Moon’s acclaimed pizza was amazingly tasty and filling, without a hint of the rumored ‘fermented camel tongue’. We ate heartily while musing on Afghani music videos, the art of embroidered, mini-wall rugs and to what degree paddling during foreplay can impact one’s sex life.

Immediately after, Alexis kindly transported me to a party, where, had I been even remotely cogent, I could have finally thrust myself into the local media’s social bubble, but my sleep debt, various ailments and chemical imbalances forced me to cut the evening short.

I limped home, carefully cradling my leftover pizza, and prepared for bed quickly. It was critical that I get as much rest as possible for the following day, when I’d hunt and be hunted by the greatest game of all: beered-up unicyclists.

[End Part II]

Staycation | 22.08.2008 12:03 | Comments Off on Minneapolis Staycation Project ’08 – Part II

Minneapolis Staycation Project ’08 – Part I

[Cross-posted at KillingBatteries.com]

I view international travel as one of life’s greatest pleasures. I’ve visited over 40 countries, I’ve lived abroad, I speak Spanish, Romanian and Italian, and my epic passport was just commissioned to be re-printed as a coffee table book, with forwards written by Nelson Mandela and Bono.

Just a few years ago, the mere mention of a so-called ‘staycation’ (a.k.a. stay-at-home vacation) would have caused me such stuttering indignation that I’d have to be shot with a tranq-gun, intubated and be forced to compose the remainder of my admonishing with my left eyelid (maybe then I’d get a fricking book deal). Seriously, what kind of psychotic loser vacations at home? Is that supposed to be some kind of joke? All right, I’ll play along. While we’re at it, why don’t we put ketchup on our lobster ravioli and only use the bathroom at the gas station?

Well, I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong (read: never). In truth, a lot has changed since that time. Fuel prices are astounding. Airlines are chronically tardy, toying with the idea of charging for water and less inclined to deliver your luggage to the continent of your choice. Tighter and arbitrarily enforced airport security measures are maddening and the thought of frittering away two precious days of one’s fleeting vacation simply in transit is sobering. Don’t get me wrong, nothing will ever beat the thrilling, mind-bending, culture-shocking hijinks of international travel, but I’ve come to appreciate the beauty and irresistible simplicity of a staycation – especially here in the Twin Cities, one of my favorite destinations on the planet.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the next person that, upon learning that I’m a travel writer, snidely comments “Oh, so basically you get paid to take vacations?” will lose at least one eyebrow in the ensuing violence. Professional travel writing may be one of the greatest jobs since Playboy model recruiter, but despite appearances the sick reality is that it’s not remotely like being paid to take vacations. You often only have 5-7 days to capture the essence of a destination, take tours, visit/assess/review several hotels/restaurants and submit to a compulsory, rapid succession of physically grueling activities like jumping out of an airplane after breakfast, climbing a glacier for a picnic lunch and finishing the day with a five mile hike in 95 degree jungle heat. Then you have exactly 12 minutes to clean up before dinner with a high-ranking tourism representative and the town mayor, where you’re expected to have a lucid, formal and stone-sober conversation about the destination, occasionally not in your native language. But even that’s not quite as bad as being regally ferried to a three hour, seven course, surf and turf dinner – to be eaten forlornly and wretchedly alone.

Truth be told, after three frantic, uninterrupted years of this singular profession, the idea of a staycation sounded like the greatest thing since, well, since professional travel writing.

As I let the concept of my impending staycation settle on my mind, it occurred to me that since I wasn’t paying for plane tickets, a rental car or hotel rooms, I could apply that part of my budget elsewhere – extravagantly so. I could eat steaks at Murray’s every night for a week and still not exceed plane fare to Paris. I could spend a day drinking Dom Perignon for breakfast, lunch and dinner for less than a weekend in a cramped, musty hotel room in London. I could make a chicken pot pie – with real pot! It was like an instant pile of free money!

That delicious reverie didn’t last long. I come from a storied lineage of dangerously sensible, frugal and drug-free Norwegians – and the other sick reality of travel writing is that it pays only slightly better than a cashier at Walmart – so my budget would have to remain reasonable. Simple pleasures like ice cream and a lake stroll would have to fill the considerable void between prospective crab cakes and vertical Brunello wine tastings.

Like a normal vacation, staycations can be substantially enriched if they are done with one’s beloved, so I kicked off my staycation in the company of my devoted, loving, non-judgmental 4-pack of Strongbow.

You always hear people reminiscing about how they started each day of their vacation with a cold drink. Maybe a beer or a mimosa or even a gin and tonic if they’re English. I had every intention of waking up Friday morning and popping open a Strongbow to nurse while I agonized over going out for an Everything Omelet breakfast or going out for an Everything Omelet lunch. But a teensy weensy snag occurred when I drank all the Strongbow in the house the night before.

I’m not proud of this, mind you. Binge drinking at home alone, even when carefully paced over six hours of first-rate, high definition Olympic coverage featuring your new girlfriend Alicia Sacramone, is bad form, no matter how much you deserve it – or if you’re trying to drink away the sorrows of your new girlfriend’s tragic double-biffing during the team finals. The first two ciders were my reward for having worked until 8pm and completed what I set out to do that day. The next two ciders were consumed with dinner. The next two (oh, I forgot to mention that I had two 4-packs of Strongbow) were the ‘f*ck it, I’m on staycation’ ciders. The next one was for the road. The last one was because what kind of mental defective leaves one cider in their fridge?

When you’ve had eight ciders, weird things occur. You wake up in the bathtub wearing your swimsuit with your family’s genealogy book in your lap. Or you realize what you thought was a VH1 special is actually a three hour infomercial for the Top 100 Hits of the 50s, hosted by Bowser from Sha Na Na.

I got into bed at 3am(ish).

[End Part I]

Staycation | 20.08.2008 17:37 | 2 Comments

My summer in Romania and Moldova

If you were curious about where I’ve been for half the summer, here’s a snappy slide show of photos from my trips to Romania and Moldova (and a few from my collection).

Background music by Zdob si Zdub.

Cross-posted at Killing Batteries.

Off-topic | 11.08.2008 22:05 | 2 Comments

Minneapolis culture shock

Why do people always bemoan culture shock when they go abroad? If you don’t like culture shock, why ever leave your neighborhood? Isn’t experiencing the cornucopia of differences and peculiarities of a new place the main point? Hell, apart from topless beaches and wine, culture shock is the primary reason that I travel! If I don’t get culture shock I feel like I got ripped off and someone owes me a replacement trip (I’m talking about you Brussels). They should rename it ‘Culture You Asked For It’, because you did ask for it when you bought the plane ticket, dummy.

What truly sucks is reverse culture shock. When you finally get home and the stuff that’s been around you for a lifetime suddenly confuses or scares you shitless – that’s the part I hate. It’s embarrassing and far less likely to induce compassion from those around you. If you have to use a squat-toilet outhouse in the jungles of Malaysian Borneo with toilet paper ostensibly made out of fiberglass people are like “Oh. My. God. You poor thing!” But you get no sympathy when you faint after one look at the 76 different kinds of chips at Rainbow.

That’s only the beginning. I’ve had to fight to stay conscious and maintain urethra control while:

  •  Crossing Hiawatha Ave. at 46th street during rush hour.
  • Staring at a TV screen mounted two inches in front of my face at the urinal in the bathroom at Solera playing bright, strobe-y, fast-edit commercials – I abhor frivolous lawsuits, but the first time someone’s advertising campaign causes me to have a public seizure with my pants around my ankles, I’m gonna ruin the bastards.
  •  Struggling to consume an entire hamburger at Old Chicago with a shrunken Asian stomach capacity.
  •  Not staring at the shocking overabundance of morbidly obese people.
  •  Making a split-second decision on how much to tip a pizza delivery guy/taxi driver/bad server.
  • Watching drivers kindly waving pedestrians by so they can safely cross the street instead of flying into a rage over the minor inconvenience and leaning on the horn for 10 seconds.
  • Overhearing conversations and actually being able to understand them (and then wishing I hadn’t).
  • Being able make lunch plans without having to wonder if the restaurant will be closed due to day of the week, summer holidays, siesta or major soccer matches.
  • Driving a car for the first time in a year (to Pinedas Tacos) and having to get right on Hiawatha Ave, which felt like the highway battle scene in “The Matrix II” after five months in Southeast Asia.
  • Emailing someone at a government office and a) not having the email bounce with a ‘user has exceeded their disk quota’ error and b) receiving a reply.
  • Having the server leave the bill on the table after only two forkfuls of my meal, rather than having to sit for 30 minutes after the dishes have been cleared and beg for the bill so I can get on with my life.
  • Having to park my car in a carefully marked, designate spot (and pay for it!), rather than just abandoning it on the sidewalk like Buddha intended.

I’ve gotten significantly better at transitioning between home and abroad now that I actually live here, but it was a rough ride during the years that I was a homeless wanderer, only coming home once a year or so for 3-4 week visits. I still get a little light headed every time walk into a Super Target or go to the post office and find people actually working.

I often day dream about writing the Euro-version of the scene in “Pulp Fiction” where gangsters in Italy are discussing the little differences about America:

Gangster Number 1: “And they serve the Bolognese over spaghettini instead of spaghetti!”

Gangster Number 2: [pukes] “Ugh. You asshole! Why do you always tell me these things right after lunch?”

Uncategorizable | 6.08.2008 12:40 | 8 Comments