Sunday, November 30, 2008

Portugual

R and I made a trip to Portugal over the long Thanksgiving weekend. R got a consulting job for a week in southern Portugal, so we decided to go a few days early and see the sites.

The first stop on our trip was Lisbon. I didn't know much about Lisbon heading into this trip. I knew it was the capital of Portugal.. and that was pretty much it. I had heard from friends that it was unlike most of the other major cities in Europe. And, it turns out that they were correct. It's different for two reasons.

First, it doesn't "feel" like a big city. The roads are small, there are very few buildings more than a few stories high, and you can tell everything is connected to the ocean. In fact, it feels like a small fishing village. When I was walking around different parts of town I felt like I was in Dubrovnik, Croatia or a little town in Sicily. The main difference is that Lisbon covers a MUCH larger geographic landscape.



Secondly, the city was made up of a culturally diverse set of people. Much more so than most Western European cities. Not everyone looked the same and you could see the diversity by looking in the faces of the people. But, the good news is that the true Portuguese people were definitely better looking than average.

As you know from reading this blog, whenever we travel to a different city, the food is always one of the highlights. And Lisbon was no exception. In particular, I fell in love with the breakfast snacks at the local pastellerias. There were three things I loved:

1) Empanada de Carne. Or, in English, meat pies. I've had many meat pies before, but these were the best

2) Pasteis de Nata. The store called them custard cream tarts, but I considered them to be the breakfast version of a creme brulee. Delicious!

3) Pao de Qeijo. It's like a cross between bread, cheese and cookie dough. It's hard to describe, but whatever it is, it's heaven.





(On a side note, I did a quick Google search on "Portuguese Breakfast" and found out the term has an entry in the Urban Dictionary. The Urban Dictionary describes something that I certainly did NOT have in Portugal. I honestly had no idea this slang term existed and now regret that I set my Facebook status to "Nino loves Portuguese Breakfast". But seriously, Portuguese Breakfast - the real kind - is absolutely excellent. I can not and will not make any claims about the slang kind of Portuguese Breakfast)


After Breakfast, we went to see a few of the famous landmarks on the Lisbon coast. The first one we saw - and the one I initially thought was the coolest - was the Monument of the Discoveries. It is a very impressive statue (monument?) that has 33 very large men looking out to sea. Each figure represents a famous navigator or intellectual in Portuguese history. They are arranged so the whole monument looks like a bow of a ship.



Pretty cool, right? That's what I thought - until I was walking away and saw a sign that indicated the monument was less than 50 years old. That spoiled everything. After living in Europe for nearly two years - I like my landmarks to be historic. Anything less than 300 years old and it's barely worth getting out of bed for.

That's why we walked about 1 kilometer down the coast to the Tower of Belem. We had already read in the guide books that this tower was over 500 years old; so my first criteria was met. The Tower of Belem was originally part of the Portuguese defense system but it has had many uses over the years. No matter what it was used for - the architecture was stunning. For a small fee we were able to explore the entire Tower. It was a great day for photos so R took plenty of shots. I won't bore you with our family slides, but there are a few pics of the Tower below






It happened to rain on our second day in Lisbon, so we decided to go to the Aquarium. I know this sound slike a pretty lame way to spend a day in Europe - but the Aquarium was incredible. It was ranked #2 in the world and - unlike the artifical ranking of the Prague zoo - I feel like this was quite justified.

The center of the aquarium hasn an ENORMOUS tank (4 million liters) filled with all kinds of sea life. They had about a half-dozen sharks, some manta rays, sting rays, eels, tuna, barracuda, scores of tropical fish and one sun fish (which is one huge, ugly mofo).







The layout and architecture of the building was spectacular as well. The main tank served as the trunk of the building and you constantly walked around it - on multiple floors - to see side exhibits. This included some pretty close encounters with penguins and sea otters. If you ever find yourself in Lisbon and have a few hours to kill - I highly recommend the aquarium.




Our next stop was a 2.5 hour train ride south of Lisbon to a part of the country known as the Algarve region. The train took us through the mountains of Portugaul and it was a pretty bumpy ride. It proved too much for R's stomach. She ended up leaving her Portuguese Breakfast somewhere on the tracks about 30 minutes north of our destination.

Although the journey there was far from luxurious - the end result was absolutely worth it. We pulled up to a fabulous 5-star resort and spa that would be R's office for the next week - The Villa Vita. I was forunate to get a couple of free nights at the hotel while she worked. It's about time I got to mooch off of her for once!

The hotel was incredible. It covered something like 100 acres and it was situated right on huge cliffs that overlooked the ocean. The only bad part is that it wasn't beach season. So, although we didn't get to enjoy the ocean, we did take full advantage of the other parts of the hotel.






While R toiled away at work on Saturday, I thought it was a good opportunity to go golfing. The region is a tourist mecca for English speaking golfers (the place is full of Brits in khakis and golf shirts). And, rightfully so. They have some beautiful courses there.

I got a tee time on a course called the 'Ocean Course'. My rule of the thumb is that if you are given the option to choose from dozens of golf courses, always choose the course with "ocean" in the title.

This rule of thumb turned out to be the correct move. It was the nicest golf course I have ever played. Four of the holes were right along the ocean and you could see the waves crashing against the beach as you walked the greens. It was also pretty cool because the course holds rather important tournaments on a regular basis. Therefore, they have bleachers set up surrounding the 18th green. I did my best Carl Spackler impersonation and pretended I was finishing off a tournament at Augusta. (in case you are wondering, I three-putted 18)

Unfortunately, not only was this the nicest course I have ever played, but also the most expensive. Here's a quick tale to you explain just how expensive it was. I had to rent a car to drive from the hotel to the golf course. It was about 45 minutes away and too far for a taxi. Well, my golf cart (or, buggy as they call it in Europe) was twice as much as my rental car!

All-in-all, our trip to Portugal was another great European experience. We saw lots of sites, ate great food, met interesting people and I even got a round of golf in. What else can you ask for?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Doggie Duty

I am not afraid to admit that my best friend in Prague is my dog Bauer. And this is not just in a dog-is-a-mans-best-friend kind of way. I mean it. He really is my best friend. We hang out a lot. When I'm looking for something to do, he usually is option numero uno. We play sports together. We watch football together. We eat together. When we go to the park, I act as his wing man and try to get the bitches to notice him. When he gets rejected, I point at him and laugh. These are all things that you do with your best friend.










(There are two disclaimers that I need to make here. First, although much of the above can be said about R, we can't count her because she is my wife. And your wife can't be your best friend. That's not only cheating, it's also pathetic. For every wife who is reading this and has received a card on Valentine's Day that says something like 'To my best friend..' please know that your husband was lying to you. You are not his best friend and never will be.

Secondly, Bauer is only my best friend in Prague. When I get back to New York, I have several friends that are much cooler than Bauer. Truth be told, Bauer is a bit of a douchebag at times. He is very needy, self-centered and has been known to eat shit. The act is getting a little old. Don't get my wrong, we'll still hang out in New York. I'll just drop the 'BFF' label when I have some better options. I need my space)

Anyway, the last few weeks Bauer and I have been spending more time together than usual. R has been away a lot recently for work and for trips to New York - so Bauer and I have been able to share some quality time together. We go for walks every morning and night and I have been taking him on special field trips on the weekend. This past weekend we went hiking in Cesky Raj.




Last Sunday, I took Bauer to the zoo. Remember, Prague is the most dog friendly city in the world. Everyone has a dog and you bring your dog wherever you go. This includes the zoo. Which provides a fascinating social experiment as the animals can interact. It should also be noted that this is not a little rinky dink zoo - the Prague zoo is rated as the fifth best zoo in the world. At least, one of the billboards in the Prague zoo says that the Prague zoo is the 5th best zoo in the world. You would be wise to question such a ranking. It's about as official a ranking as the time I gave R a Valentine's Day card that said "To the World's Best Wife"


Anyway, once we got to the zoo, I was very curious to see (a) which animal would freak out the most at seeing Bauer and (b) which animal would freak Bauer the most.

The surprising winners of Part A were the Penguins. I never would have guessed this. When they saw Bauer coming, they would all swim up and press their beaks to glass and just stare at him. They were absolutely fascinated. They couldn't give a shit about me, just the dog. Interestingly enough, Bauer didn't take much interest in them. Maybe becasue they were behind glass he thought it was just a big TV screen. Stupid dog.

The winner of option B was not surprising at all - it was the elephant. Can you just imagine living a life thinking that the only things that exist in this world are humans, dogs, birds, cats, squirrels and ducks. Those are pretty much the only living things that Bauer has ever interacted with. Then one day, out of the blue, along comes a big ass elephant.

What would you do? I would fucking freak out. At that is pretty much what Bauer did. But he didn't freak out in "Get me the hell out of here" kind of way. Instead, he freaked out in a "oh my god I have to sniff that things ass to find out more about it" kind of way. Fortunately for Bauer, I didn't let him get any closer.

(Editor's Note: I spent a solid 30 minutes trying to come up with an adequate analogy for a dog seeing an elephant for the first time. I had about five really good ones - but they were too risque for even me to post in my blog. And only three of these made not-so-subtle references to my penis. In the end, the best "acceptable" analogy that I could come up with was: It would be like taking an 18 year old Mormon to a Las Vegas Strip Club for the first time. However, I'm not very pleased with this joke and think I can do better if given more time. If you have a better one, post it in the comments.)

The other animal that took an interest in Bauer was the lion. I picked Bauer up so he could have a good look and he was pretty damn curious about that big cat across the moat. And the lion noticed Bauer too - but he did it in a pretty cool way. He had this laid back look in his eye that said... "I notice you looking at me. And I'm not going to waste my time getting all excited about you. We both know that I could tear you in half with one bite. So you just stay on that side of the moat and keep your calm. If you try anything funny, you know how this is going to end".

At least I imagined that whole conversation in my head. I guess these are the kind of things you think about when your best friend is a dog. Damn - I need to get back to New York and start hanging out with humans again.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Back in the USA

R and I spent the last ten days in the States. I came back on Monday in time for work. R decided to stay an extra week just because she could.

We started off the trip in Cleveland. If you read my most recent blog, you know that trip started off bad. Our flight was delayed and we missed our connection from Atlanta to Cleveland. Very rarely does this happen to me - mostly because I hardly ever take connecting flights. I've decided that is one of the most underrated things about living in New York: you have to direct flights to 95% of the places you want to go to. Everyone flies straight to New York. And, if they don't? You probably don't want to hang out in those places anyway.

Cleveland was as good as always. Running around from house to house, visiting every part of the family. And, most importantly, stuffing our face of home cooked food at every stop along the way.

The highlight of the trip - other than seeing my lovely family of course - was playing with my dad's new toys. My dad has become something of a racecar fan in the last couple of years. He has bought a couple of vintage Porsche's and has been working on restoring the engines. Whenever he gets the chance, he races them on the weekend. I believe one in 1968 912 and the other a 1972 911. I got to drive them along the shores of Lake Erie last week. How did I do? Let's just say that Leonard Hamilton has no need to start looking over his shoulder any time soon.

The lowlight of the trip brings us back to the airport. We had a flight Tuesday night out of the local Canton - Akron airport and were headed to New York. We got in to the airport just in time to find out that the flight was canceled. Perfect. Our best option was to take the 6:30 AM flight the next day. That left us with the alternative of taking a ride back to my sister's house 25 minutes away, sleeping on a bed built for a 7 year old, getting up at 4:30 in the morning and taking a $50 cab ride back to airport. I couldn't think of many worse ways to spend a night - so I ponied up $100 and got a room at a local airport hotel.

OK. I realize that this blog post is getting long and is not that funny. I guess that is because traveling back to the States is not as eventful as traveling around Europe. I've been in Cleveland and New York a million times. Nothing is going to surprise me. And, I'm not talented enough to keep you interested while writing about the banality of everyday life.

So just assume that New York was fun. Saw friends, met with old colleagues, partied, ate great food, watched movies, got propositioned by a transvestite on Christopher St, watched a friend get 2nd degree burns on his hand during a magic trick gone wrong, etc. All normal, daily activities. Nothing spectacular or out of the ordinary.

Come back for the next blog post when I actually travel to some place I have never lived before. The next trip planned is for Portugal over Thanksgiving. I promise to write a thoughtful and entertaining blog about those crazy and wacky Europeans. We can all read it and laugh together at their expense.

Until then - all I can say is that it is a great day to be an American. Very happy about the election results.