Friday, August 15, 2008

Italy in August

The story starts in the summer of 1991 when I moved with my family to Naples, Italy for the sake of my father's job. We spent three years there and in the process I made a lot of great friends, most of whom I unfortunately lost contact with after moving back to the States. Only in the past few years with the help of MySpace and Facebook have I been able to reconnect with these folks. One of those I reconnected with was Veronica, a beautiful Italian girl who had moved to Alexandria, Virginia where I met up with her in the summer of 2006 shortly after I myself moved to nearby Arlington. Earlier this year she sent me an email with a whopper of a news item: she was getting married and would I be interested in attending the wedding? I immediately jumped at the opportunity.

With maps printed, itineraries checked and travel books in hand, Sabrina and I took off on a direct flight from Dulles to Fiumcino-Rome airport on August 6th. The plan was to pick up a rental car when we arrived, drive to Naples and spend the next three days there. After having attended the wedding and seen some of my old haunts, we would drive back to the Fiumcino-Rome airport, drop the car off and take the train into Rome, approximately 30 minutes from the airport.

You know what they say about the best laid plans. Veronica's wedding was spectacular and her and her new husband, Salvatore, were such wonderful hosts that we ended up staying another day. In addition I met up with an old classmate of mine from Naples, Deanna, who was one of Veronica's bridesmaids. Over the course of just a few days our tight-knit group of 10 people hit up some of the best that Naples had to offer including Solfatara, the Anfiteatro Flavio and Capri. These highlights in addition to the wonderful Neopolitan shellfish-based dishes that seemed to be offered at every restaurant in the area made for an amazing time.

Much later in the evening on the 10th of August than intended, Sabrina and I hopped in the rental car and headed to Rome. Tired from a full day of activities on the island of Capri, we nonetheless resolved to be in warm comfortable beds that night. We reached Fiumcino-Rome airport near midnight and found nearly all the nearby gas stations closed. The few that were open did not have diesel save for one, a Q8 station which did not like American credit cards. As a result, we burned through all our remaining Euros and still had only filled the tank to ¾ capacity. Rather than continue racing through traffic circles looking for open stations with diesel, we resigned ourselves to having to pay the rental car company to refill the tank completely and dropped off the car.

Unfortunately by this time the train to Rome had stopped service meaning we had to get a cab which was estimated to be about 50 Euros. Yet we had spent all our Euros on the gas and none of the ATMs in the airport were accepting my debit card. I then happened upon a car service which though they did not take credit cards would be willing to stop by an ATM in Rome to get the cash out. Naturally it would cost a bit more but their English was good (my attempt at speaking Italian had reverted to little more than gutteral sounds by this point due to frustration and general exhaustion) and it would be in style: a Mercedes-Benz. Our driver, sensing our mounting frustration, raced into the city at over 160 km/h. We had to make several stops before finally finding an ATM that would spit out cash. So we eventually did end up in warm comfortable beds as we resolved to do but a hundred Euros shorter than expected.

Our time in Rome, though longer than what we spent in Naples, seemed somehow shorter. By the end of the first day we'd seen nearly everything. The Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Colosseum were our first conquests. Our remaining days saw us going to the Vatican, the Palatine hill and even the Jewish Ghetto. Throwing away our Washington, D.C.-tuned sense of direction, we did as Romans did and picked a place and walked towards it, climbing over or going around whatever ancient ruins lay in our way. If a tiny alleyway branched off our current route that seemed to be better pointed in the direction we wanted, then we'd go down that, making sure to avoid the mopeds racing through it. And if we saw a gelateria with flavors we liked, then we'd stop and get some ice cream. What with its creamy texture and amazing flavor, Italian gelato is far superior to anything that can be found Stateside.

After having visited what seemed like every spot on our maps, the day arrived when we were to head back to the States. An early wake-up along with a quick breakfast saw us out the door and at the nearby Termini train station by 7am. The Leonardi da Vinci Express had us to the Fiumcino-Rome airport by 8am and our flight took off with just a slight delay. I'm writing this as we fly over the Atlantic and I can't help but think that we'll both miss Italy, especially Naples. Despite the inconvenience of having to search for an ATM that will take your card or the horridly high prices thanks to the state the dollar is currently in, it was an awesome trip and one that neither of us will soon forget.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

San Diego, New York and back to DC

Originally planned as a week long trip between Washington, D.C. and San Diego to see friends and family, my vacation was unexpectedly extended when my friend Adam from Melbourne informed me that he'd be in New York for a week. At first I was hesitant to give up what was essentially a free ticket bought with miles but after figuring that I would probably revisit San Diego later in the year anyways, I canceled my reservations and booked two one-way flights on different carriers. However I still had the issue of how to get from New York back to Washington, D.C., thus completing my isosceles triangle of travel. For that I turned to Amtrak, whose Carolinian service I am currently on as I write this blog entry.

Rising early on the morning of March 19th, I made my way down to the lobby of my apartment complex to wait for a cab. Normally I would take the Metro seeing as I live so close to Reagan National but due to the absurdly early departure time of 5:45am, there simply wouldn't be enough time given Metro's opening hour of 5:00am. With a single stop in Charlotte, my flight was uneventful and even arrived about 25 minutes early in San Diego. A short drive later courtesy of my dad and I was back in Carlsbad.

The time spent in my hometown was both enjoyable and relaxing. Hanging out with my friends Greg, Jeff and Nicole was a blast and I spent my evenings at watering holes both new and old. My main reason for returning was to attend an Eagle Scout ceremony but that was canceled. I did however attend the locally famous Troop 748 Pancake Breakfast. Fellow scouts that I hadn't seen in years were there and indeed, some had changed beyond initial recognition. Besides Scouting events, spending time with family at Easter was also a reason for visiting and my relatives did not disappoint. Throw in Dad's incredible smoked lamb and you had an Easter worthy of legend.

Tuesday came sooner than I thought it would but with only a four and a half hour flight separating me from the Big Apple, I was eagerly anticipating my travels. The flight was uneventful and taking advantage of the AirTrain service from JFK to Jamaica Station, I then boarded a LIRR train for Penn Station. I had originally planned on taking the E train but several web sources recommended the LIRR as it was faster and more convenient. I ended up booking my hotel stay in a recently remodeled room of the Ramada New Yorker located at 34th and 8th. If all you're looking for is a bed with attached bathroom, versus a communal bathroom, then this is a great choice. A sub $200 room in the heart of the city can't be beat.

During my time in Melbourne, I had the great fortune of befriending a very talented group of people who worked and volunteered at the local community theater known as the Henegar. In the course of the previous two years, several of them had managed to find their way to New York to pursue careers on the stage. One in particular, Vinny, was playing at a cabaret called Don't Tell Mama near 46th and 8th. A small yet cozy club, the show itself was a showcase of six different performers with each doing two songs of choice. Vinny's rendition of "The Best is Yet to Come" was in my mind the best performance that night but then I do admit to a bit of bias.

The next day found me in line early along with Adam at TKTS hoping to score tickets to a matinee show for a reduced price. As it was, tickets for Young Frankenstein were available so we scooped those up and then made our way up to Central Park where we spent a few hours rehashing old times. On our way back down to the Theater District we stopped off at Carnegie Deli so I could finally get that New York-style kosher tongue sandwich I'd been jonesing for. I was not disappointed. I think it's the idea of eating tongue that turns people off to the idea more than anything. But in fact, it tastes and looks similar to pastrami save of course for the still visible taste buds.

Showing at the Hilton Theater, Young Frankenstein absolutely floored both Adam and myself. Based on Mel Brooks' movie of the same name, it follows the comical adventures of a young Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced steen) upon his return to Transylvania. Played by Roger Bart, the part required energy and timing befitting such an amazing actor. Yet I think many in the audience would agree that the character of Igor is what really shone through. With his randomly appearing hump, witty lines and amazing voice, Christopher Fitzgerald, who played the role, stole the show. Despite the harsh critiques the show has received, I highly recommend this to both fans and non-fans alike.

Unexpectedly, Adam's friend Johnny managed to score us free tickets to an evening showing of Legally Blonde playing at the Palace Theater. Not being a show that I would ever buy tickets to, I went with an open mind hoping for the best but expecting anything. To say the least, I was throughly impressed. I had seen the movie once before but didn't have any particular attachment to it. The musical though brought an energy and audience rapport that simply doesn't translate to the silver screen. Armed with song, dance and love, the leading lady, Elle Woods, gains matriculation at Harvard Law to win back the affections of her now ex-boyfriend Warner. She soon realizes though that she will never be back together with him and dives into her studies for their own sake. Fending off unwanted advances from her professor, she strikes her own path and uses her Harvard-trained mind in tandem with her Malibu-honed social skills to win her client's trust and freedom. When the curtains came down, the audience was in rapturous applause giving the cast a standing ovation for some minutes. This is another show I would highly recommend.

Having made my goodbyes to Adam, I decided to make a stop before going back to my hotel. Junior's, famous for its cheesecakes, operates a restaurant at 45th and 7th in the heart of Times Square. Sidling up to the bar, I ordered an orange liquer and coffee concoction along with a lox and bagel sandwich. I topped it off with a chocolate swirl cheesecake, the same that I've enjoyed for years thanks to freeze-dried packaging and overnight shipping. Satiated beyond measure, I made my way back to the hotel and hit the sack. If there were a theme to this vacation, it would be friends and family both of whom I appreciate more and more in my life as I get older.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Best SciFi on Television

Having spent my formative years during a time when Star Trek had multiple shows running, my view of scifi was significantly influenced by it. For me, the future was supposed to be filled with humans and aliens working side by side while computers would take care of all the mundane paperwork. In fact, I can't recall seeing a single sheet of paper in any of the post Star Trek: TNG shows.

Standing in stark contrast is the future painted by the television show Battlestar Galactica. The Cylons, a race of humanoid robots created by Man, are the arch-nemesis of humanity and given the nature of their creation have a knack for messing with computer systems. Thus, paper abounds and even the most basic computer systems are treated with suspicion.

Being a fan of scifi television I'd heard many things about the show and had even tried watching a few episodes, albeit without any knowledge of the characters or their back story. It never caught my interest. But after starting work at Revolution, I quickly discovered that many of my geek colleagues were not only fans of the show, but downright passionate about it with some even downloading it to their iPods and watching it during their daily Metro commute.

On a leap of faith, I asked for season one on DVD for Christmas and by the time New Years rolled around I had finished it. This was an addiction I was not prepared for. Season two followed a few weeks later and then season three and finally Razor. In just a little over a month, season four will finally be debuting and I for one can hardly wait.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A trip to New York with the Brazilians

Early last week I received an urgent message from my Brazilian buddy Tony imploring me to come to New York for the weekend to hang out with him and his brother Beto who had been working there for the previous six months and wanted to spend his remaining weekend there partying. At first I protested but by Wednesday I'd gone ahead and purchased a ticket for myself on the very convenient Chinatown bus.

As 2 o'clock on Friday afternoon approached, I quickly gathered my belongings for the short one block trip to where the bus would pick me up. A quick scan of the printout with my reservation number by the bus driver and I was in a comfortable chair awaiting the four hour journey to The Big Apple. Traffic coming out of Washington, D.C. was light and within the hour we were through the Fort McHenry tunnel near Baltimore, M.D.

Drifting in and out of sleep while reading the latest issue of the New Scientist, I awoke with a start to see the Empire State Building far off in the distance. Yet my excitement was quickly tamped down by the reality awaiting us outside the Lincoln Tunnel: traffic the likes of which I hadn't seen in some time. After nearly an hour of crawling through a jungle of blaring horns and red taillights, we emerged onto Manhattan and made our way to 34th and 8th near Penn Station to be dropped off. A short subway ride later to the 50th St. stop and I was standing outside Beto's corporate apartment.

Relatively speaking, my first night in New York was calm. We started off the evening at a nearby street vendor to savor what Beto called the best gyro in the city. Indeed, to judge by the line which stretched half a city block, this particular vendor had good reviews. I myself was quite impressed with the mixed combination gyro and the accompanying yogurt sauce. Eventually we made our way to East Village and after wandering through several bars in the area, we settled on a honky tonk joint called the Mason Dixon. After an hour or so there, we caught a cab back to Midtown and stopped in for a night cap at a place called Vintage not too far from Beto's pad.

The next day started around 1pm at a place called Nero's in the Meatpacking District. Barbara, a neighbor of my friends from back in Brazil and who was now working in New York, met us there along with her boyfriend Adriano. The brunch advertised was two hours of all you can drink with a choice of meal included for $20. Not bad for Manhattan prices. Well over two hours later, heads buzzing from copious amounts of champagne, we wandered out of the restaurant and into the nearby multi-story Apple store in Chelsea before finally making our way back north to the apartment where I enjoyed a much deserved nap.

That evening Tony insisted that we head to Central Park so we could ice skate on Donald Trump's famous Wollman Rink. Admittedly I was a bit hesitant to engage in an activity which a decade previous had left me with a slight case of amnesia after taking a fall and hitting my head. But I nevertheless took those tentative first few steps back onto the ice and was surprised at both the natural sense of balance I enjoyed and the speed with which my long-dormant skills returned. Within ten minutes I was racing around the rink relishing the feel of the cold air on my face.

Alas, after only an hour or so Tony and I were both tired and so we journeyed back to Beto's apartment for some rest before getting ready to go out again, this time to a place called Katra on the Lower East Side. A Middle Eastern-themed 'lounge', it was extremely crowded which made getting to the bar difficult at best. But seeing as I'd been drinking for the better part of the day, I wasn't interested in getting drunk. So after a few hours of that, we made the journey once more to Midtown.

Sleep came just before dawn but I wasn't asleep for long as we had made plans to head to Connecticut that day. My hosts, Brazilian to the core, were family friends of another Brazilian nicknamed Toninho (Little Tony) who lived in Westport about an hour north of the city. Dragging ourselves out of bed and down to Grand Central, we rushed to buy our tickets and hopped on the 12:07pm heading to New Haven. The commuter train itself was quite nice and proved a smooth enough ride for me to nap for a spell.

Shortly after arriving in Westport, Toninho was there to pick us up and take us to his exquisite house just a few miles from the station. In many ways, it reminded me of visiting my Brazilian friends' family back in Sete Lagos what with the chattering in Portuguese, the Samba music in the background and of course the feijoada. Brazilian beer in the form of Skol was also there in addition to several types of cacha├ža. Despite how wonderful it all was we couldn't stay there forever so when evening rolled around we hopped back on the train for the hour-long ride back to New York.

Our last night in New York was a poignant one and we spent it at an Irish bar just a few blocks away. Guinness and old stories were what was imbibed and we enjoyed each to the last drop. I called it early so as to avoid missing my bus the next morning and as I walked back by myself I couldn't help but think how much I loved this city, despite the 2°F wind chill. And I know that someday, hopefully when it's warmer, I will come back.