Wednesday, February 27, 2008

London calling

I had a conference in London last week so R decided to join me and we made a little vacation out of it.

When speaking of London these days the one thing that everyone always harps on is how expensive it is. Two US Dollars equals one British Pound. I don't want to dedicate this whole blog to bitching about the cost of living in London, so let me just say it once. LONDON IS SO RIDICULOUSLY F&#ING EXPENSIVE!!!!! There, I've said it, now let's move on with the blog.

R and I have both been to London twice before (once together, once separately) so we didn't have to waste time sight seeing. On this trip, R enjoyed the first couple of days walking around the streets while I was stuck inside at a conference (the good news - it was a great conference and I really enjoyed it).

Here are a couple of notes about London:

1) The food in London is much better than it gets credit for. However, as a side note, this has nothing to do with the British. The first time I went to London, I was all about trying some traditional English food. I had meat pies, fish and chips, bangers and mash, etc. All shit.

The second time I went to London I had what will forever be known as the worst meal in my life. My friends and I went to a soccer match to see the Tottenham Hotspurs play. Before the game, we stopped at a truck outside the stadium and ordered what could be best described as a shit burger. I was so hungry I ordered two. I couldn't even get a quarter of it down. Disgusting. Repulsive. Gag inducing. The story ends 4 days later in my New York apartment with a half bottle of prune juice, an unexpected wake up call at 3:00 AM, and a recreation of the most famous scene from Dumb and Dumber. Good times.

Following these two experiences, R and I choose to stay far away from the traditional English fare and embraced the international cuisine that London offers. We had Moroccan, Thai, Indian (twice) and even Italian. All excellent. The Moroccan place we went to the first night - Pasha - was a place to remember. Excellent atmosphere, great food and two hot belly dancers (and two ugly belly dancers). AS you see in the picture, R even got up and joined the festivities.

2) And that brings me to my next point - the women of London. Much like the food, they are much better looking than I remembered. Actually that's not 100% true. There are still butt loads of ugly girls in London. Crazy ugly. But there are also an awful lot of very, very good looking women. There is no middle ground. All the girls are either insanely beautiful or horribly ugly. Think Elizabeth Hurley vs. Camilla Parker Bowles.

If you are a girl in London right now who is reading this and you aren't sure if you are beautiful or not - I've got some bad news for you - you're probably pretty darn ugly.

3) There are as many Starbucks in London as there are in New York. It shows you that a good cafe mocha latte can overcome the centuries old tradition of High Tea

4) I had dinner with my cousin Melina and her boyfriend Matteo. She's Australian, he's Italian and they live in London. The funny thing is that I didn't even know Melina existed 5 years ago (our grandfathers were brothers; mine moved to Cleveland while his brother moved to Sydney). In the past five years, we've hung out together in New York, Cleveland, Melbourne, Sydney, Monteroso Italy and now London. That has to be some kind of a record. We're trying to get them to come to Prague just so we can keep the list going.

(And Melina, in case you're reading this - you're definitely good looking, so don't worry)

5) Londoners measure distance in miles. I always just assumed that they used kilometers like the rest of Europe. My first night in London, I asked for directions and the person on the street told me it was "about 2 miles in that direction". I was really impressed that this Brit - obviously realizing I was an American - would take the time to tell me the distance in a measurement I could understand. A few days later I found out that they used miles too and I was less impressed. I wish I could take back the overly enthusiastic "thank you" I gave him.

On the last day of our vacation, we decided to take a day trip outside of London. We signed up for one of those bus trips that pick you up at 8:00 AM and drops you off about 11 hours later. You couldn't ask for a more touristy activity. Our goal was to be the only people on the bus who were under 65 and not wearing a fanny pack.

We had three destinations on this journey.

The first stop was Windsor Castle, just outside of London. This is where the Queen weekends. She was actually on the premises while we were there (the special flag was up) but she didn't stop out to say hello or offer us cookies. What kind of Grandmother is that?

Windsor castle was really cool. There is a tony little town that surrounds the castle full of nice shops and such. Inside was your typical castle. Gigantic paintings, long dinner tables that seat 60 comfortably, ornate beds with big canopies, and slimy French tourists trying to sneak photos when the guards aren't looking.

The next stop was the famous Stonehenge - also known as Rocks in a Field. The monument was "built" around 5000 years ago. No one really knows for sure since the old English were really bad at keeping records. But the theory is theory is that it took over 1000 years to build and some of the rocks, which weigh over 5000 pounds, come from over 200 miles away.

People assume that it was used as some sort of sun dial/sacrificial alter. But in reality, they haven't got a clue. It could be a pre-historic Jungle Gym built by some really ambitious parents. My theory is that the Aliens did it just to mess with us.

All-in-all, I give Stonehenge the thumbs up. There is not much to see other than some rocks, but they are really cool rocks. It's one of those things on life's "to do" list that we can cross off.

The final stop on the journey was the town of Bath. We were really surprised at how much we liked this town. Bath is built in a valley, so when you are riding into town, you look down on it as you reach the peak of the hill. And, when we could finally make out the town, I think the entire bus said "Oh wow". As in, "I wasn't expecting much but that's some really beautiful architecture"

The entire town was built in a relatively short period of time during the Georgian era (which, I just learned, was called that because all the kings were named George). Architecture is tough to describe in words, so I won't even bother.

The next time you are in London, I definitely recommend the Windsor, Stonehenge, Bath trifecta.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Radio Free Europe

Many people have asked me about the exact mission of Radio Free Europe. I have tried answering that question with varying degrees of success.

If you want to hear a better answer than I can provide, check out this video.

The president of my company - Jeff Gedmin - gave a speech in Washington a couple of weeks ago and I think he did a pretty eloquent job of describing the work that we do. He certainly is capable of answering the question better than I am. That's why he gets paid the big bucks.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Map of Our Travels

I've updated the map that shows places we've traveled to this year. A Blue balloon means we've already been there, done that - a pink balloon means that we're eyeing the trip in the near future.

It's interesting to see that much of this past year we stayed pretty close to home. Many of our trips were either trains, car rides or short flights.

In 2008, we have many more outliers. It starts tomorrow when we head to London. I have a conference to attend while R has some window shopping to do. We also have trips planned much further east (Turkey, Russia and Greece), south (Egypt) and North (R wants to visit the Ice Hotel)

View Larger Map

P.S. I've added a smaller version of this map in a permanent location on the right side of this page

Friday, February 08, 2008

Bored in Prague

I am bored tonight in Prague. I'm not bored all that often, but right now I'm really bored.

R's cooking. I was thinking about helping her cook, but that doesn't seem like a good alternative. I don't feel like reading. I've been on the Internet all day at work so I don't feel like surfing right now.

The only thing on TV is the Animal Planet. Animal Planet is one of the few English language TV stations we get here. Any time the TV is on when I come home, the Animal Planet channel is on. I fucking hate the Animal Planet.

You would think that a channel devoted to animals would be generally positive. But it is the most disturbing programming you could ever watch. Every friggin story is about some abused dog, cat or horse. And every day the animal warden has to go rescue these dogs, cats and horses, take them to the vet, clean them up, etc.. That's all fine and good - but half the time they realize that the animal is in such bad shape that they have to put them to sleep. Why would I want to watch this? Who puts this shit on TV!?!? Is it really a form of entertainment to get emotionally attached to a dog for 30 minutes and then realize that death is a better alternative than the life he has been living for the past 5 years.

I'm not going to watch Animal Planet. I'm still bored.

Dinner won't be ready for another 15 minutes. I probably won't be bored while I'm actually eating - but I'm not sure how I'll feel after I'm done consuming. What will probably happen is that I'll finish eating before R and I'll have to sit there and feign interest while she is still eating. Good God - that's going to be so boring. As bored as I am right now, I'm dreading how bored I will be in 25 minutes.

Maybe I'll go see a movie tonight. That won't be so boring. I'm going to look at what films are playing tonight in Prague. Good Bye.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

St Anton - Skiing in the Alps

I've decided that skiing is my absolute favorite activity. I like it more than golfing, more than running, more than cycling, and a hell of a lot more than working out. It beats watching football, it's certainly better than work and I prefer a good day skiing over a night on the town. At one point I may have liked sex better - but now I'm married and it’s not even a contest. Right now, I can't think of a single thing I would rather do other than ski.

This may seem odd for those of you who know me because I don't come across as the typical ski bum. I only ski an average of 4 days per year. You would think that if I liked skiing as much as I claim to, I would go more often. You're probably right. But ever since I first went skiing out west I became a ski snob. I don't consider East Coast skiing to be the same sport as West Coast skiing. I can't bring myself to ski on a shitty mountain and, therefore, I only end up skiing during my annual ski trip. The fact that I only ski a few days a year makes these trips all the more enjoyable.

The good news is that Europe is littered with a bunch of great ski resorts. Ever since I arrived a year ago, I've been counting the days until I can ski the Alps. (I didn't go last year because I was busy getting accustomed to Prague and it was a bad snow year).

R did a crap load of research on where we should go skiing this year. She narrowed down the choices to resorts in Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria. We eventually settled on St. Anton am Alberg in Austria due to the overwhelmingly positive reviews. It is only a 6 hour drive from Prague so I rented a car last Friday and R and I made our way down after work.

There were heavy snowfalls on the mountain the week before we arrived so all runs were open and there was great snow coverage. It actually didn't snow the whole time we were there, so we had no fresh snow to ski on. But the weather was beautiful for 3 of the 4 days. It was 45 degrees and sunny on the mountain. We even got great tans. Of course we would have liked more snow and probably could have enjoyed the skiing more, but we still had a great time.

I'm not going to go on and on about our ski trip. We skied during the day, ate great food at lunch, skied some more in the afternoon, went to the suana/pool/hottub, went out for a great dinner and then went to sleep ridiculously early. Perfect days, if you ask me.

I am, however, going to give you my completely biased answer to a question I've had for years: What's better, skiing in the Rockies or the Alps?

A quick disclaimer first. I've been to Park City, Tahoe, Vail, Breckenridge and Keystone in the Rockies. I've only been to St. Anton in the Alps. This is not nearly a large enough sample size to grade two of the worlds largest mountain chains. But, fuck it, it's my blog and I feel like doing it.

The Mountain

Nothing beats the site of a snow covered mountain with a blue sky behind it. The Rockies are an absolutely gorgeous sight to behold. The Alps are typically amazing. It's like comparing between a Ferrari or a Lamborghini... there is no right answer. I'm going to take the easy route and call this a tie.

Edge: Even

The Skiing

This is also a very hard question to answer because it all depends on which exact mountain you go to and the weather conditions. But I'm going to make the decision easy.

My favorite type of skiing is tree skiing. I love going in the woods and carving out paths. Many people think this is insane, but I love it (I wear a helmet and go rather slow to avoid a Sony Bono moment). When we're going down the slopes in the Rockies, my cousins and I (my typical skiing entourage) are constantly on the lookout for side paths to take and random jumps on the side of the trail. Some of the best trails I have ever skied on at Vail/Breck we're deep in the woods that were officially off the map.

The mountains in the Rockies suits this type of skiing very well. You have a variety of slopes: big open slopes, runs through the trees, moguls, the back bowls at Vail, snowboard parks, etc. It’s all great.

In the Alps, there wasn't nearly as much variety. There are no trees on the mountain so it is just a lot of wide open skiing. Some people absolutely love this. It's just you and the mountains with nothing in your way. There is white snow for as far as the eye can see.

Some people may enjoy this type of skiing more, but I'm taking the Rockies for the diversity.

Edge: Rockies

The Food

This is a tough call. I love a big helping of chili in a bread bowl with cheese on top. You can get this at nearly every ski slope in North America and it is all fantastic.

In the Alps, we ate at some fantastic restaurants on the side of the mountain. The menu was much more diverse than what you would find in North America. We had chicken, sausages, schnitzels, pasta, eggs, etc. All delicious. If you throw in the European beer, it’s a no-brainer.

Edge: Alps

The Cost

Skiing is a very expensive sport no matter where you go. In the States, every time you pay for something there it’s like a little kick in the gut. In Europe, it’s more like kick-you-in-the-balls expensive. The price of lift tickets is actually a bit cheaper in Europe than it is in the states (about 35 Euros per day compared to $78 at Vail). But that’s about it. Renting skis was insane (about $500 total for the two of us). Food was ridiculously pricey ($18 each for a basic lunch). Let’s not even talk about the $85 tank of gas. Bernake – help!

Edge: Rockies

Overall – it’s a very close Matchup. There are great things about the Rockies and there are great things about the Alps. But, when you go on a ski vacation, the most important quality you look for is the skiing. And, therefore, I’m going to say that the Rockies are better than the Alps.

I think next year we are going to rent a house for the month of February in one of these resort towns. I'm hoping for Italy so I can work on my Italian. If you are interested in trying to answer the Alps vs. Rockies question for yourself, keep next February open...