Monthly Archives: July 2010

Photo: Girl at Angkor Wat

This little girl was waiting for her mother to finish work and was much more interested in the orange slices than the crumbling history around her.

Photo: Ferris Bueller Reenactment

Taken May 31, 2008

Everyone who was a teenager in America since 1986 knows Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which beyond being an awesome movie involved a lot of shenanigans around the city of Chicago.  One of my favorite scenes from that movie is when Ferris and his friends visit the art museum, which is of course the Art Institute of Chicago and Cameron faces off with A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jette.  After admiring the famous painting for ourselves my brother and I couldn’t help but pay homage to one of our favorite movies.

Ohio Geocaching- From Creeks to Cliffs

Goin’ on a cache hunt (goin’ on a cache hunt)

Gonna get a big one (gonna get a big one)

We’re not afraid… (not yet afraid…)

Up the creek (up the creek!)

I think after this weekend my friend Alison and I can safely say that we have seen a lot of the most extreme terrain North East Ohio has to offer.  See I found a list on the geocaching website on the best caches in the area and two fairly close to each other just southeast of Cleveland caught my attention, so we spent Sunday searching for them.  The first one took us to the inspirationaly named West Creek in Brooklyn Heights Village Park-

Hey, it’s a nice creek.  The thing about this creek is that you need to wade along in it to get to the caches, which considering the humid weather lately was much appreciated!

Showing my strength on top of a granite boulder dubbed “the Canadian” as such boulders in this part of the world were deposited in the past few million years by retreating glaciers from the north.  One of the thoughts that never ceases to amaze me while looking at the Great Lakes is how very fleeting the terrain in this part of the world is because in a blink of an eye on a geologic timescale Lake Erie was mercilessly crushing the terrain under several miles of ice.  Of course such hot days make you wonder when this might happen again, but that’s another story.

We posed at this rock by the way because it turns out the Canadian is a geocache in itself– a special kind known as an earthcache where instead of finding a container you find an interesting geological feature and answer a few simple questions about the science.  They can be pretty fun (and hey, if you ever find yourself at Mosi-oa-Tunya you should do that earthcache as I set it up!), but we ran into an issue here when we read the description and realized the criteria required us to measure the height and circumference of the rock with a tape measure we didn’t have.  Units weren’t specified however, so we ended up doing the old physicist trick of units that suited the problem at hand and thus our answers were “1.5 arms” and “2*pi*arm” respectively, where 1 arm is the length of Alison’s arm from shoulder to fingertips.

Continuing along, we turn into a smaller, narrower creek that was in a rather impressive steep valley for this part of the world.  Alison here is demonstrating that we probably should’ve done the water caches last, as we inevitably got rather wet and soggy for the rest of the day (problem was there was a lot of sediment in the creek and visibility in the water was nil after more than a few inches, so we stepped into the deeper water more than once).  Or at least, you know, considered the possibility that wading up a creek was a good reason to bring an extra pair of shorts.

At the end of the creek in front of (another earthcache) waterfall- the physical cache we came up here to find is nearby, but telling you where it is defeats the purpose of the game right? *wink*

This picture, by the way, resulted from one of the questions for the waterfall earthcache telling us to estimate the depth of the pool and when you’re totally soaked the logical way to find the answer is go wade in and find the deepest spot, right?

Goin’ on a cache hunt (goin’ on a cache hunt)

Gonna get a big one (gonna get a big one)

We’re not afraid (though maybe a little tired…)

Up the cliff (up the… wait, WHAT?!)

I don’t know what’s more strange, the fact that there’s a decent-sized cliff in Parma, Ohio or that if someone posts on a website that I should scale it to find a tupperware container I actually end up doing so.  Hard to get a good picture though of the whole thing through the trees!

Anyway, it turns out to get this cache you have to work your way down the hill, ford the slippery creek, and climb the cliff on the other side up a little.  Most of our energies were devoted just to finding any way up whatsoever, being a cliff and all, until finally finding a mad scramble that one could only get down later by sliding down whilst sitting.  Then you had to search along a ledge area amongst all the rocks for the one with a cache behind it…

Huzzah!  Found it in about the third place I checked while Alison was still scrambling up to the ledge area, which was a nice feeling because it would’ve been depressing to go through all that and not find it I reckon!  Then, of course, it was time to go home and indulge in those showers we’d spent an increasing amount of time fantasizing about (cleanliness is like food- when your lack becomes obvious it begins to dominate the conversation). All in all a successful cache hunt!

Photo: The View on Santorini

Hot here today, almost as hot as the visit to Santorini!  These churches and houses are basically perched on the edge of a giant volcanic caldera that last erupted a few thousand years ago, which is a blink of an eye in geologic terms.  In fact, there is archeological evidence that that the fabled lost city of Atlantis was on Santorini pre-explosion- lots of beautiful artifacts in the museum here- which would have wiped everybody out in a giant tsunami.  They’re still excavating the site several decades after discovering it though, but I’m hoping someday I can return to this island and to see the ancient Greek version of Pompeii!

Photo: Japanese Bicycle and Cat

Taken January 18, 2009

This picture was taken on my first full day on my round the world trip in Tokyo, Japan.  I still have to wonder- how does this guy convince his cat not to jump out?!

Pennsylvania Geocaching

If you hang out with me long enough, particularly in a somewhat exotic location, eventually you’re going to hear about geocaching.  I started doing it some months ago when I was bored in Cleveland and have had a lot of fun with it- in short there are over a million hidden containers on all seven continents (like the one above), and you use GPS to find them.  Definitely a great way to get you out and about, and I love it because I love an excuse to wander and find all sorts of places I’d never have known about otherwise.

I’m not joking about the all over the world aspect by the way.  I shot this picture looking from a cache just a few meters away from the entrance to the Louvre museum, one of the busiest museums in the world!  Thinking back on my round the world trip, it sure would have been fun to get into the hobby then… Anyway, because I unfortunately don’t travel too far from home these days you’ll have to make do with me going over an adventure in Pennsylvania to get a feel for it-

To start with, we go to a park.  It’s kind of amazing how many parks seem to have caches these days to the point where I can’t think of any near me that don’t!  The one pictured here is Hartwood Acres north of Pittsburgh and not far from the house I grew up in there, which is so big it has several caches in the woods.  You select a cache from your trusty GPS (there’s a geocaching app for the iPhone but it’s not terribly accurate in the woods!), which will bring up a compass showing how far away you are and off you go!

An interesting tree I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of while on the hunt.  The guardian of the forest perhaps?

Anyway, eventually a BEEP! from the GPS lets us know we’re close to the cache site so it’s time to start looking for what’s out of place- sometimes the cache comes with a hint but that’s not something you can rely on!  The ends of tree logs are a pretty common hiding spot in the woods however, and such a search comes up with the log pretty quick-

You can spot the lid of this cache off on the right side of the picture, which is being guarded on the left by a GIANT SCARY SPIDER.  I’d argue that my time in South East Asia killed off any squealing I might have possessed regarding creepy-crawly things especially when they can’t kill you (and Africa was a refresher course in that), and I’m pretty sure one is safe in the woods of southwestern Pennsylvania.  Plus who would get pissed off at a spider for building his web in the woods at the end of a hollow log anyway?  After a gentle shake or two of the piece of wood in front he scampered, so I could finally get out the cache.

Finally woohoo, the contents of the cache!  Other than the logbook where you can sign your name and leave comments there are little trinkets in bigger caches that are up for trade.  One of the things people make a big deal about when they’re starting out is how caches contain swag items that you can trade for, but unfortunately they’re usually not that interesting as over time they end up being cheap little toys for kids and the like as few seem to strictly follow the “trade for something equal or better” mantra.  So I’ve only traded for a few things- a small water pistol, a watermelon chapstick still in its packaging, and a rubber duckie dressed as an astronaut come to mind- preferring instead to move along Travel Bugs whenever I come across one.

Travel bugs are little items that move from cache to cache and have a tracking number on the back so users can record each move.  The four above are ones I sent off into the wild a month ago actually with missions that they should travel to four of my favorite countries- left to right Thailand, New Zealand, Hungary, and South Africa– and no word on if or when they’ll make it but I’m optimistic!  Plus hey they’ve been out a month and while two are in Ohio the penguin’s made it to Maryland and the monkey was last spotted in Florida, and I’m optimistic about what sort of adventures they’ll have without me!

And that’s my little summary about my latest hobby.  You should try it as it’s quite fun- there’s an app for smartphones these days in case you don’t have a GPS already, or if I’m local just ask to go on a cache run as I’m usually up for one.  Just be sure to watch out for the spiders!

A Pittsburgh Pirates Game- Play Ball!

I was in Pittsburgh this past weekend hanging out with my brother Patrick and his friend from high school, Teddy, doing all sorts of Pittsburgh-y things.  Very fun but very exhausting!  But for starters, here’s the story of our adventures Saturday night at the old ball game-

The Pittsburgh Pirates take on the Houston Astros!  I know, I can hear your excitement too- the Pirates? The only thing we hold a record for is the most number of years of never going to the playoffs- 17 so far, and well on our way to #18.  Seeing as I’m 24 years old this is a fancy way of saying I just plain can’t remember a time when they were good, which is a shame because Pittsburgh is such a big sports town that we’d undoubtedly support our baseball team quite a bit if they had a chance of being good. (To be fair though they did win this game against Houston 12-6, so I guess I should be nice to them as they average 2 runs a game so they spent six games worth of runs on us.) Unfortunately the terrible management of the team combined with the way salaries aren’t capped in baseball are just too much for us- for example, the New York Yankees pay more on average to one player on their team than Pittsburgh pays to the entire team!

The crazy thing though is if you look at the picture the stadium is full despite the odds being less than 50% of seeing a win at home in PNC Park.  So why do Pittsburghers sell out the stadium even if the Buccos suck?  For the experience, of course, and to explain let’s start at the beginning by the river walk-

Here’s a little secret about Pittsburgh everyone who’s been knows and everyone who hasn’t is amazed at upon visiting- it’s actually insanely pretty.  Geography plays a huge role in it- downtown is built on a point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers combine to start the Ohio so downtown is as compact as a much larger city (most non-constrained cities sprawl so it’s not as dramatic- think Cleveland), surrounded by more bridges than Venice and surrounding hillsides.  I know many people think of the terrible pollution from the steel mills when they think of Pittsburgh, but the fact of the matter is they’ve been gone several decades now and I’ve only known my hometown as a place that often makes lists for the best skylines in the world.  And I might be biased, but after 35 countries I am convinced Pittsburgh is one of the prettiest ones.

Anyway, above are a few shots on the way to the stadiums along the river walk (we’re on the Allegheny shore here), where a lot of other people are enjoying the day along with us.  My only complaint is the beautiful large fountain at the point wasn’t running and Teddy told us it was because of budget cuts, and the thought that the city decided to get rid of such an icon was quite saddening.

Anyway, we’ve finally wandered over to the stadium and there’s a band outside playing Italian songs- it turns out it’s Italian Appreciation Night, which appears to be a fancy excuse for playing Italian-ish songs between innings that croon “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza-pie…”  And here we touch on why the Pirates are a successful business model: it’s not about the game!  Rather it’s about the experience of having stuff like random Italian songs and fireworks and, I do not make this up, people running races in giant pirogi costumes.  Certainly an experience one can have fun with, and incidentally there’s a baseball game going on almost as background noise.

Once we find our seats in the park the stadium does reams to help the experience go on too!  PNC Park is the best ballpark in America- I’ve never heard someone with expertise say otherwise- starting with the awesome view of the city of course.  But then they have details like an awesome playground for little kids by the water and bars and other details like that so everyone’s guaranteed to have a good time even if we only sat in our seats for maybe half the innings!

Finally the piece de resistance at the end of the game, the fireworks!  There are several fireworks nights throughout the year (because odds are you’re not going to have a win, remember) that are a sight to behold and put the other fireworks shows I’ve seen this year to shame.  Most are shot off from the water but a few also go off the skyscrapers in the background, which all in all is an amazing sight.

The Cendes twins strike a pose at the end of the night, very happy.  And hey why shouldn’t we be?  We’re young, in a beautiful city, just had a great time at the ballgame and are about to head over to the new casino to watch the spectacle others parting with hundreds of dollars. (I love to watch roulette but can’t bring myself to play!) On a summer night with friends and family and the ever-beautiful skyline behind us, it’s hard not to love Pittsburgh.

A Pittsburgh Weekend (and Winery)

Going to Pittsburgh this weekend, the town I grew up in.  Always fun to visit of course but one of my favorite things this time of year is how green it is- our house is in a very leafy suburb, so not unusual to see sights like wild turkeys running across the lawn.

Plan is my brother will finish driving from North Carolina and we’ll have a dinner at a local winery of all things, called the Narcisi Winery about a 15 minute drive from our house.  I know what you’re thinking and I agree- a winery in Pittsburgh?!– but all the grapes are from Pennsylvania and the wine is passable.  And when you’re with good friends and there is good wine and food who cares where it’s from right?

From the front, with an obligatory Italian flag!

My sister Linda and her best friend from high school, Jackie, when we visited last month.

Anyway, have a good weekend guys and when I return I will have stories of things like Kennywood and the Pittsburgh Pirates- I’m told tomorrow is “Italian appreciation night” at the latter and when I asked who we’d be playing my brother responded “does it really matter? We’re going to lose anyway.” Gulp!

Sampling French Food in Paris

I read a book once in which the main character had a French mother who would cook up a storm whenever she and her husband visited.  The girl would always say about all the meats and cremes and everything “mother, you’ll be the death of us,” to which the mother retorted “can you imagine a better way to die?”  Indeed.

It’s hard not to love France because good food is everywhere, even in a tiny convenience store.  See this sheep cheese?  I bought it in a tiny convenience store that had a better selection than a gourmet shop in the USA would for cheaper than it would be here!  It’s just so much easier to eat well in Europe honestly… and yep before anyone asks, the cheese was delicious.

But of course the food only gets better from there.  For starters, who can resist a crepe in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower?  Banana and chocolate in my case, cooked while I waited so there was the additional benefit of a piping hot snack on a cold day.

Another great street food on a cold day- this is one of many, many roasted chestnut vendors in Paris.  It is a great sadness that the concept of roasted chestnuts is nonexistent in the USA because they are absolutely delicious so whenever I see a seller abroad I can’t resist buying some, served straight from the fire in a sheaf of old rolled newspaper.

Ok, off the street and into the cafes!  Things get interesting because as a traveler you should always go into places that only have menus written in the local language, and even if my name implies I should I don’t speak French.  The thing is by this point I can read it and all the other romance languages pretty well due to a combination of a year of French in 6th grade, several more later of Latin, and the simple fact that we know most international foods by their names anyway.  So when a waiter slaps down the daily specials board next to you clearly expecting you to know what the hell is going on you pick one that sounds like you have a chance of knowing what you’ll get because whoever heard of bad food in a French cafe anyway?

The above result is what happened when I saw the word “pesto” and figured I should go for it- the pasta was tossed with pine nuts, prosciutto ham, and cheese that melted as you ate it.  Tres bien!

A side note by the way- see the Kindle on the left?  I got one for Christmas this year and brought it to Europe with me to see how it would fare while traveling, and in short I recommend it because in addition to the weight factor you get free wifi everywhere!  So it was great for quick email checks during the day and looking up details plus had the additional factor that every French waiter got really excited and struck up a conversation as I guess they’re not sold there yet.  It probably won’t last long, but even the most huffy waiter seemed to melt at the prospect of inspecting new technology.

Lots more delicious meals along the way but I’ll just stick ahead towards the last night where I treated myself to a beefsteak, aka steak tartare.  It’s definitely one of those foods that you either love or are horrified by- raw beef?!– but I honestly don’t see how people can embrace sushi and not this stuff.  Plus trust me, it’s delicious!

So what we have here is a “before” and “after” picture of the tartare I got in a swanky Parisian cafe-bar because there’s definitely a do it yourself quality to the meal. (Yep, they just crack an egg on top of the raw meat and give you various things like onions and spices to mix in.) The strangest thing to me was how this giant plate arrived without the traditional toast or in fact any other starch product to spread the meat on, as whoever heard of just eating this stuff by itself?  That might make you sick actually… Anyway I made my complaints to the waiter known, and after being a little confused he brought out a few slices for me.  Sooooo good…Last but not least, the chocolate mousse.  I’m not sure why but I’m not much of a dessert person- I guess my sweet tooth just isn’t terribly developed- but one huge exception to this rule is chocolate mousse.  How can you resist?  Particularly when you still have some French red wine left and happen to know that chocolate and red wine are superb together?

Now with that you’ll have to excuse me, as reliving all these delicious meals has made me extremely hungry.  Time for dinner!

Versailles Palace and Gardens

Continuing my Spring Break in France series of posts…

There’s something to be said for being a French monarch.  Sure you’re the last one holding the debt your head gets chopped off, but on the bright side you get to live here!

I came out to Versailles on the train from Paris that swiftly takes you out of the city and deposits you a five minute walk away from the palace, which is just enough space for touts to warn you that you should sign up for their tours to avoid the lines.  They do this all over Europe at the main sites (such as the Vatican Museum) but I knew from my prior European romps to not pay attention in March- I’m sure it’s terrible in summertime, but how many people do you see around me in this picture?  That’s right, enough to sort out tickets and the audio guides in five minutes!

The thing about Versailles is it has played such a huge role in the history of the world that it’s hard to say something incredibly unique.  After all, it’s big.  It’s ostentatious.  It’s a place filled with so many details both in decor and history that you get overwhelmed trying to take it all in.

Take this room, the famous Hall of Mirrors, which was originally a ballroom but then took on a scattering of functions such as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  Not only are we talking about a room literally fit for kings, we’re talking about the one where World War II and the fate of the world was set in motion!

The view from the second floor of the king’s private chapel, which only he and his family would use.  If you were lucky and a favored courtier you might be permitted to hide up here on a second floor side balcony.

What I really liked about this chapel was a picture of a photo exhibit currently going on at Versailles which was showing important moments since the palace has been a museum. (Which, it’s curious to think, it has been much longer than it was ever a palace.) This picture took place towards the end of World War II and showed American G.I. soldiers who had liberated the palace.  What I loved about it so much was the expressions on their faces that was a mixture of amazement and awe, as the bunch of boys off the farm clearly hadn’t even considered that there might be places in the world such as this.  But there are, and the amazement of the modern age is we are all allowed to see them.  As long as you have about 20 Euro that is.

Now I may get carried away by history sometimes, but forgive me as it’s kind of hard.  For example, can you imagine the absolute horror of Marie-Antoinette if someone had told her that in the future thousands of commoners would be filing into her royal bedchamber and it would be exposed for all the world to see?  And about half of them would have nothing more interesting to say then “hey Annette, look at that fancy wallpaper!  Doesn’t it look like that stuff your great and Gertrude wanted to hang in her second bathroom?” The horror!

Plus really now, the wallpaper isn’t the most interesting thing in this room anyway.  You know what is?  It’s that little door in the lower left of the jewel cabinet that looks completely hidden when closed: Marie-Antoinette escaped from the Parisian mob calling for her blood through the secret passageway it connects to during the French Revolution of 1789.

It took a few hours to get through everything in the palace, but I headed out afterwards into the garden to explore a little.  The grounds of Versailles are huge- it would take more than one hour to walk from one side to the other easily- and they’re also free so the locals make good use of what is essentially a giant park as well.  Makes me wish I had the former grounds of a palace to go biking and jogging in!

Also, it should be noted that the trivia fact of the day is the reason aristocracy trimmed their bushes so precisely like in the picture above is because it was supposed to symbolize their triumph over nature.  Something to think about next time you trim the hedgerow!  No word on how that triumph over nature thing worked out when it came to the physics of sharp slicing blades though.

There’s a fair bit of the grounds itself to see- I ended up doing a bit of geocaching as it was a perfect for it- but the best thing about the grounds of Versailles this time of year were the snowdrops.  Thousands upon thousands of snowdrops blanketing the ground and covering everything in sight.  I was in love, and can’t imagine the forests are half as pretty in summertime!

After that, footsore but happy about how the day was turning out, I headed back to the station for the ride back to Paris.  Feeling plenty hungry too, and sat down for a dinner which I’ll detail later!