Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Monday, March 27, 2006
Iron Sudoku is something I should not be interested in considering the sheer amount of paper Sudokus that I still need to solve, but I'm diggin' the interface.
Coolest. Blog name. Ever. JunkyardBlog.
Uh, today is a nice day in Chicago so I'm going to spend it buying new shoes and looking for a new router for home. Sounds fun, eh?
Saturday, March 25, 2006
One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits of recent (as in, the past few years) features Tracy Morgan as "Astronaut Jones," a smooth Frank Sinatra-type character starring in a 1950's-ish sci-fi show. He's an astronaut, he's taking a rocket to the moon (and other locales), and he's got one of the best one-liners in SNL history.
Here's a link to a video clip of one of the skits, or you can stream two of them here.
It's a little raunchy, so be forewarned...
How's everybody else doing?
Friday, March 24, 2006
I’m over the Atlantic Ocean right now flying home from Amsterdam. I figured that I had some time to get some thoughts down on paper, as I really didn’t do a bang-up job on covering my trip as I went along. I really thought I would have by bringing my laptop along, but it just never happened. It was vacation first for me…
Since I left you on our trip, we finished up seeing the music festival and sought after some much-needed comfort food after our relative failure to find suitable cuisine in Paris. We found the latter by hitting The Pancake Corner right near the Melkweg, the venue housing Jam in the ‘Dam 2006. It was funny how unimpressed we were with Dutch pancakes the second time around, and yet none of us really wanted to admit that. We told ourselves that the pancakes just tasted different this time, but the truth is, after our first successful, warm, and hugely comforting pancake lunch, I just don’t think that the second time around could ever be that good.
After our day of shopping in the Jordan neighborhood, we spent the next day shopping and sightseeing when we hit the Waterloopein Flea Market, a bustling, vibrant flea market that had some really good stuff. Katie ended up picking up a very-cool antique toy bicycle designed in the same Amsterdam bike style that you can see most everyone traveling on anytime of year in their happy, little bike lanes. Our joke was that it always seemed that everyone was so happy in Amsterdam.
All in all, hugely successful shopping was easy in Amsterdam. Hell, you can pretty much buy whatever you want there. Case in point: the Red Light district. After the festival ended, we only had one day left to take in the sights and streets of Amsterdam, so we chose to spend it walking through the Red Light district to a Buddhist temple that we hoped to look around at.
We had no problem locating the Red Light district from Rick Steves’ guide to Amsterdam, but it’s amazing how quickly the Red Light district found us. As you walk towards it, you see coffeeshop, porn, souveneirs, porn, coffeeshop, souveneirs, live sex show storefront, and then BAM!, there are prostitutes half-naked in the storefronts at eye level. Want to walk down a nearby alleyway, not off the canal that we followed towards the action? You’ll see women lined up in stalls—STALLS!—with nothing but a window, a sheet covering the window (to be pulled back when the woman is present), and a doorknob to enter from the street. Cattle is the first word that came to all of us…
We were actually looking for what we pictured in our head: elevated storefronts showing womanly silhouettes with red lights, signs proclaiming “prostitutes are here →,” good-looking women maybe, “professionals” per se, as the state of Amsterdam allows them to be licensed.
Yeah, it wasn’t anything like that…
I have the worst picture in my mind of a prostitute, probably the same French prostitute named Chloe with webbed-feet that spawned Dr. Evil, actually knocking on her glass door towards me. “Who, me?” I think jokingly and then I turn to see who’s knocking. Oh, the humanity. “The goggles…they do nothing!” – McBain
Seriously though, it was gross. This can’t be good for society. How could anyone let stalls of human flesh to be sold in the same style as the Waterloopein flea market we had recently visited? It stings the brain to think of how, why, if, to what capacity, and everything else on the legalized prostitution in Holland. It was quite a sight, certainly entertaining and disgustingly vile at the same time.
We ate a nice, Italian-Turkish dinner and kept refusing to admit that it was our last night in Amsterdam, straight down to the whiskey night-cap we had before bed. Needless to say, my stomach was mad at the decision my brain made, and I’m running on four hours of sleep less than I would normally hope for. I’m sure it’ll catch up to me later once we land with seven extra hours under our belt (kinda), but I’m pleased to be heading home. My vacation, both extremely literal and not so much literal (as I can describe the latter literal soon), is over.
It’s hard trying to wrap up two weeks of vacation, with nearly 2,000 photos to process, organize, and upload and two weeks worth of thinking to get processed. The vacation was a huge culmination of time I needed off, away from Chicago, away from work and the blog, away from the thoughts that tend to bog down our typically day-to-day, and for that, I’m grateful that I’m smart enough to recognize the need for a good vacation every once in a while.
I definitely expect to put more of this down on paper, at the very least just to make sure I have some of our better stories documented, so you might get to read some of that soon. That’s exciting, isn’t it?
Time to finish watching the Dutch-subtitled version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while listening to Conspirator…
Thursday, March 23, 2006
I'll have some more updates on the trip posted soon. I tried to get some thoughts down while I was on the plane, but then I lost interest and my mind wandered. I'll get back to it, though. Two weeks of vacation is a lot to process. Plus 2,000 photos...
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Yesterday was a day for us to relax up after Jam in the 'Dam (Night One), so we decided to get out and take a nice walk in the unusually sunny Amsterdam afternoon...
We headed over towards the Jordan neighborhood, a very friendly shopping area anchored on one street featuring various shops, mostly toys and books, though. We missed the open-air market that they ususally have on such Mondays, although I'm suspecting that the markets do a lot better in the summer months as opposed to mid-March.
We walked by the Anne Frank House, clearly a pilgrimage for anyone that read Anne Frank's Diary back when they were in middle school. I was not one of them, though, so we opted to skip paying "to see a small room" and instead we went onto to the Dam Square for some genuine, Netherlands people-watching. The line out-front was out to the street, so that helped the decision further. Plus, I did have some plans to be back at our room for an important call that I had to make.
We finished our shopping and people-watching in perfect time to catch a tram right back to our neighborhood, and Mark and Katie played cards while I tried to navigate through international calling on a prepaid, Dutch cellphone. I got flat-out dropped after minutes and minutes of trying to connect, so that was pretty frustrating but well worth-it in the end. Yehaw!
We got to night two of the Jam in the 'Dam music festival and were treated to an amazing array and assortment of great music. Umphrey's McGee > Benevento/Russo Duo insane jazz-fusion jam > Taking a seat waiting for... > Disco Biscuits > STS9 > 11 euro taxi ride to Plantage Kerklaan > home. Wow. Whatta night...
I'm finally at that point in my vacation where I'm perfectly content, ready to return home with a renewed vigour and all that jazz. I'm glad we planned this vacation, I'm glad we're spending oodles of money on it, and I'm glad that I'll have memories of my first trip to Europe for the rest of my life. Good stuff.
Monday, March 20, 2006
After my blog post yesterday, Mark, Katie and I got out in the slightly warmer fresh air to head over to the Heineken museum, or the Heineken Experience as they like to call it. While it served as an almost lame way to pay 10 euro to get marketed to, room #9 was worth the price of admission alone. Seriously, take this tour if you have the chance. Room #9. I'm tellin' you...
We spent some time doing that and went out for the best pancakes ever made. I ordered pancakes with bacon, and much to my pure delight, they actually built the pancake around the bacon, thereby creating some powerful half pancake/bacon lunch that didn't stand a chance of surviving.
We obviously wanted to relax before the show, so we watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ("You call him Dr. Jones, DOLL!") and tried to figure out the night bus. We got our bearings, grabbed a tram over to the Melkweg, and got our tickets for the first night of Jam in the 'Dam 2006. This was all while navigating around a terrible stomach ache I had developed, maybe from all the cheesy pastas I've been enjoying. I'll tell you what, though, I wasn't going to let it get me down.
The music was fantabulous and we made it home on the night bus with no problems. Chalk it up to another successful day in Amsterdam, as those seem to come a lot easier than we expected. I think we're planning on hitting the Jordaan neighborhood for some shopping, so more updates to come later...
Sunday, March 19, 2006
(Justin & scraggly beard saying "yeah!" -- Katie disapproves -- Mark says "ahhhhhhhhhh, Guinness)
O'Briens Pub in Paris was our go-to oasis for good 'ol American music and beer--glorious, glorious beer. We tried to find it our third night there and I got lost, but we ended up finding it on night four and night five of our trip.
Instantly, I felt like I was back at home. English-speaking bartenders that actually seemed interested in being polite, Guinness on tap, nice wooden card-friendly booths, and exactly what we needed while we were there--it was what the doctor ordered.
The music ranged from Snoop Dogg, Madonna, and my personal favorite, the party scene song from the movie Trading Places.
O'Briens Pub, near the Eiffel Tower, is a must-stop if you're in the area and in need of some from-home delights...
I've been trying like crazy to get photos uploaded and to try and keep this space as current as I can regarding our vacation. At the same time, using a wireless connection can be spotty sometimes and I haven't had the energy to sit and wait for the photos to get uploaded. Hopefully, this post will wrap up a bunch of stuff that hasn't been finalized yet.
Obviously, you know that we're in Amsterdam after a brief (yet long-enough) tour of Paris, and it's pretty obvious that we're burnt on sightseeing (and walking without proper shoes). Once we were on the train to Amsterdam, I felt so much relief, nearly instantly actually. Paris was so much more appreciated once we were leaving.
We got to Amsterdam on Thursday evening and opted to grab a taxi to find our hotel. While it didn't actually work out as planned (the driver didn't really know his way and ended up dropping us off about a mile away even though he said it was close), we got to our B&B and immediately hit the streets to grab a nice dinner.
The restaurant we went to was upscale, more so than what we're used to, and the menu was in Dutch. I was kinda thinking, "uh oh, here we go again...Justin's going to get culture-shocked," but much to my surprise, our meal was excellent. In hindsight, I should not have ordered the vegetarian dish, but again, I don't really know Dutch and our waitress did her best to translate the menu before I took a leap. Everyone seemed friendly. The beer was cheap. Mark and Katie's meals were really good, and I got to share a little off of their's to fill me up. All in all, a completely and easily successful first night in Amsterdam.
It helps to be staying at the nicest B&B in the world with the nicest, Dutch host you'll ever meet. When I first got here, I immediately realized that there's no way I'm going to overpublish the name of this place. It's going to remain my little secret, but let me just say, if you're planning a trip to Amsterdam and you're looking for a priced-appropriately, pamper fest with your own cappuccino machine in the room, send me an email and I'll tell you who to call.
Friday was finally a day where we could completely relax. We've got a decent idea of the all the sightseeing we want to do while we're here, and it's will keep us busy here about a tenth of the time. We chose Friday as a complete "nothing" day. However, we did have a small to-do list that had a couple key items on there: new shoes, souveniers, and cough drops (for Katie's semi sore throat).
Starting early on in Paris, my left achilles tendon started to actually hurt. I'm not sure why, maybe it was the insane amount of walking and stair-climbing that we were doing--in-and-out from the Metro and the museums--I think this was just the wrong pair of shoes. This is quite strange to me, though, because I brought the most broken-in pair of running shoes that I had. It seemed to make sense that broken-in running shoes were probably my best bet for walking to, fro, and between every sight we had picked out, but let me tell you, it was completely stupid to do that. Maybe I needed a new pair of shoes before I left, but I only assumed that would lead to more blisters.
Hence, the need for a new pair of shoes. We went to the shopping district near the Mint Tower, which might as well have been called the "shoe" district. I had millions of choices and settled on a great pair of Euro Adidas, but truth be told, they're only helping so much. You've seen the damage that I've inflicted on my ankle, and it's enough motivation for me to make sure I drop the "Blogger Fifteen" that I've gained over the past three months spent working on the Live Music Blog.
In a straight path from our digs to the shopping area, we were pleased to notice that there are many, many excellent restaurants in our area. We haven't had a bad meal here YET! I've never been so happy to be served hot, cheesy, spinachy lasanga with meat sauce with 1.50 euro Heinekens. It's beyond joyous for me, especially considering how sick of crepes we got in Paris.
Friday was a day of restaurant and city discovery, so it was only fitting that we saw the Van Gogh museum that night before dinner. It was much smaller than we had anticipated, but it still featured an amazing amount of Van Gogh's work and it was presented chronologically following his career as an artist. Starting with optimism and showing his first feature piece, "The Potato Eaters," all the way through his lamented, depressed, and debatable last work, "Wheat Field with Crows," the art and story was gripping and impressive to me. Van Gogh went nuts, with no specific mention of his affinity towards Absinthe (which we have in our room and I've yet to try) but more focusing on his self-deprecating nature towards the end of his life. He went nuts because he was a true artist, and he started to feel that his work was suffering because of his illness, a form of epilepsy not properly diagnosed in his day. He truly felt that he was a failure in the end, and he chose to end his own life prematurely.
Yet another reason never to doubt yourself and who you're supposed to be--you might just be the next Van Gogh and there's no one stopping you from that but yourself. Interesting, powerful stuff to me, and truly inspirational in its own right...
Saturday came and it was clear from the photos I took of my ankle that I had inflicted some deep, yellowish bruising around my tendons. Both of them hurt now. I iced them down all morning, took some ibuprofen, and we got walking to a nearby Mexican restaurant. On the way back and nearby our B&B, there is a year-round botanical garden. Per our host, it's actually one of the oldest in Europe, and it was beautiful in their three, warm greenhouses functioning as tropical forest, tropical rainforest, and desert greenhouse. Three distinct greenhouses with walkways, paths, trees, flowers, fauna, flora, everywhere! What a nice little zen area to relax and get out from the chilly, Amsterdam winter. A clear choice for an off-the-beaten-path sight that you'd want to see while in Amsterdam, I highly recommend it.
Last night, we got some good pizza for dinner and turned in. My "dogs" are hurting and we've got to get ready to see three nights of raging music--I've already overextended my achilles enough and tonight should only mean more. That's okay, though. Heineken brewery tour today (maybe) and music later. The Red Light District will probably be our last day, so I'm sure the really good photos won't be up until then.
Saturday, March 18, 2006
Friday, March 17, 2006
Really though, the trip was something I knew I need to gain some much-needed perspective on the world I live in. The country I live in. The President that makes us look bad to the rest of the world and is completely unapologetic about it. I've grown up completely sheltered to a lot of the world's ongoing existence, and yet I think I know so much about how the world works, how money travels from the US to India and to China and to Europe and then back to us, how the Dutch wear wooden shoes, how the French like cheese--I thought I had it down.
We finished up in Paris by taking a trek through the underground catacombs, and it easily became one of my trip highlights so far. From there, we went to the Musée d'Orsay, definitely an architectural delight. An old-train-station-turned-museum, we got in on our museum pass which we thought was expired and quickly got through some of the best of Monet, Manet and plenty of other names that I would have learned had I taken art history in college. None of it mattered, because the Van Gogh's completely blew me away. Our trip to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam is sure to be one of my highlights...
So much to say, and yet it's so hard to wrap my brain around this experience. I've got days in Amsterdam to relax, reflect, and eat pancakes. Mmmmmm, pancakes.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
We are still in Paris and trying to rest after a nice, exhausting trek to the Arc de Triomphe and a stroll down the Champs-Elysees this afternoon. We're having tons of fun, albeit strained at times due to my own Americanism creeping through, but it has still been a once in a lifetime experience so far and it's only a third over.
We've been tooling around and catching all the major sightseeing attractions and everything else we can soak up, and unfortunately, it has been unbelievably difficult for me. Like...really, really hard. Somewhat embarassingly, actually, and all told, this is one vacation where my emotions have been sent up and down wildly and unpredictably and yet we're still having fun. Whatever...
I want to address the negative; I need to get it off my chest.
Let's put it this way...I ate McDonald's today.
We've been sort of stuck on the idea that the cafes are the only spots to get lunch, they're all exactly the same, and they're completely lacking any hospitality towards Americans. I shouldn't overgeneralize on that, because I really do know that there are some great cafes that we never made it to, and I'm sure all of those were the good ones. However, we've experienced getting laughed at while ordering, 4.3 euros for a Pepsi that tasted like crap, the worst steaks I've ever had in my life (which is really one of the only choices on the cafe menus that makes any sense), and an overall sense of overwhelmedness while trying to make sense out of what is actually going to end up on the table while we wait in hunger.
I never realized how warp-minded, self-centered and picky my taste in food has become in my old age. I can't disconnect my brain from the fact that I'm not in Chicago.
Part of what I wanted to get out of this vacation was an appreciation for the French culture and cuisine, and I don't think it's too early to call on the fact that I have failed miserably at doing so. FAILED. It's okay, though, I'm man enough to admit that.
My name is Justin, and I'm an ugly American...I wouldn't say all of it has been bad, but it's certainly 75/25 in favor of complete garbage that I've eaten versus what I've enjoyed.
(okay, I feel better now)
The sightseeing here is beyond pheonomonal, and it's definitely what we came here for.
We've done the Lourve, which was overpacked to the gills with tourists from all over the world. We saw the "Mona Lisa." We saw the "Venus de Milo." We saw great Egyptian artificats, some great paintings, and you know, art and stuff. The building itself is stunning to behold and I easily enjoyed it despite the crazy crowds. That's about all you could enjoy, though, unless you wanted to stand in a 1,000 person line to pay for an audio headset to take with you. We passed on that.
We've done the Eiffel Tower in a couple different capacities. First, we looked at it when we got here. A day or so later, we went to the top. I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Me. A slow elevator with all glass windows leads you 1,000 feet into the sky with a deck on top, enclosed (thank you), with a skydeck one floor up with open air views of the world. I was scared out of my mind going up the elevator, and the second we got to the top I had to sit down. I really thought I was going to pass out. Katie and Mark were cool to pander to my phobia and help me get to the top, and I was able to get up and walk around a little bit after ten minutes or so of deep-breathing. I was glad I did it, and I was glad that they helped. Then, we went back the next time to catch the super crazy light show that they have every night after sunset. Super crazy light show might not really describe the seemingly easy pattern of flashing lights that accentuate the lighted beams already, but it was still cool to catch it.
The Picasso Museum was shut down to a "social movement" nearby staged by the students in France protesting a possible bill granting more employer rights to those hiring people under the age of 26. Okay then, thanks...
Notre Dame was flat-out amazing. The architecture alone is worth the trip to Paris. There were a billion people inside, and yet it was still very peaceful and calming inside. A great highlight of my trip so far...
Everything we've seen has been very, very enjoyable and that much has been great. We've had some slight Metro hiccups, but nothing serious other than our intense concentration and studying when trying to figure out where the hell we are. There are magazine covers on the bus stops that feature topless women. That's cool, right?
It's hard to digest it all, but I can say that we found an Irish pub where the bartenders willingly speak English. We're going there again tonight. =]
Hopefully, I'll have another update before we leave, but the internet connection I'm poaching from the hotel across the street isn't as reliable as I'd like. Oh well...I'll make sure I at least write something to keep my thoughts a little straighter. There's so much going on here that it's really even overwhelming to think of everything we've done already. I'm proud of that. Europe is hard but it's something I knew I needed.
Saturday, March 11, 2006
It's nearly 5:00pm Paris time and we just got back from the Rodin Museum. We're going to relax a little bit before we head out, so I figured I could get something posted in short order...
We arrived in Paris yesterday morning with minimal flight turbulence and a couple hours sleep under our belt. It was amazing how helpful that sleep actually was, because flying West > East is definitely enough to take six or seven hours out of your life. I've been to Hawaii and experienced some bad, bad jetlag coming back so I tried to avoid that here at all costs. Luckily, I didn't have to sacrifice much.
We landed and took a awesome bus ride to the other terminal to meet Mark. The driver was very pro-American; "Hey hey, USA USA!" he exclaims with his right hand giving a nice thumbs-up. That's definitely comforting when entering a foreign land of which I know NOTHING of the language.
Once we got to our hotel, via public transportation mind you, it only took us ten minutes to open our hotel room with the old-fashioned key. It worked and we've got it down now, finally.
We went for a stroll around our neighborhood, the Rue Cler, and ended up finding a nice little cafe where we all ordered the same thing: a tallboy of Leffe (a nice Belgium blond ale) and a hot ham and cheese sandwiich. Immediately before that, we went to grab a look at the Eiffel Tower and got rained out of getting any closer than the shot you see above.
We decided to cure our jetlag with beer and wine, which only made getting to sleep later that much more difficult (for other reasons also). We started our buzz off early with lunch and continued to stroll the neighborhood. We bought some very cheap but excellent wine in a small shop on the Rue Cler walk and kept drinking.
We strolled over to the Eiffel Tower again once the weather was nice, but we decided not to try and get to the top considering the threatening clouds. The weather really changes fast here.
We ducked into a cafe where I watched young, French students drinking espresso and gabbing on and on while watching a TRL clone. Interestingly enough, these youngsters drank espresso and smoked cigarettes and it looked so cool to me. Like, wow, they're French. It was exciting to me until I realized that I did the exact thing for a lot of my high school years, and the realization that we're all the same in our own different ways was refreshing and reassuring. I know about two whole words in French, so I've been dealing with information overload here and it was nice to see our worlds come together.We grabbed some nasty pizza for dinner and drank some wine and played some cards well into the morning. We slept and got comfortable in our tiny-ass hotel room. By tiny-ass, I mean cozy. I really do.
This morning was rough and turned into afternoon pretty quickly before we decided to get moving. Mark and I ran out to grab some croissants and crepes (which they served cold for some odd reason) for brunch and we high-tailed it over to the Rodin Museum.
The museum was packed and there was still plenty of room to move around and see the sculptures and exhibits. We got a couple shots of "The Thinker", his most famous work, and we came away with a strong appreciation for Rodin's scultures as well as miscellaneous butts and junk-piles. Oui oui!
So, here we are, relaxing in our hotel room, trying to decide on something neutral for dinner and something to do in a city where we know only what Rick Steves has told us. For as much as I feel out-of-my-element, the thrill, history, culture, espresso, style, and wine is enough to make me realize that this trip is one of a kind and I'm glad we chose Paris to start.
We're going to hit the Centre Pompidou this evening after getting some dinner, so hopefully I'll have more to report tomorrow once we get through The Lourve. I'm sure we'll have a billion photos from there, and I'll try and get some uploaded in the interim. I'm also going to try and contact a second-cousin of mine that lives in Paris and works as a fashion designer. I bet he has some great ideas for nightlife and stuff to do this weekend, but I haven't had luck getting in touch with him yet.
More to follow...
Thursday, March 09, 2006
I'm just tying up some loose ends and some whatnots to get ready for my first, international experience: two weeks in Europe.
We're planning on spending nearly a week in Paris and nearly a week in Amsterdam, all culiminating with an insane three-day music festival called Jam in the 'Dam. All in all, it should be one great time to be had by all, and I'm psyched that I get to share this experience with my wife and brother-in-law.
Anyone have any trip suggestions?
Photo © link
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
You have now been made aware of this.
Saturday, March 04, 2006
Friday, March 03, 2006
Blogging Live Music
The succinctly named Live Music Blog is the web baby of northside Chicagoan Justin Ward. A venue (ha!) for his widely varying tastes in music, the blog is one part podcast, one part news thread and one part discussion group. The topics range from guesstimates on upcoming festival lineups, to music you should be listening to, to the news of a newly re-re-named local venue. (First titled the "World Music Center", then "Tweeter Center" now you can call it the First Midwest Bank Amphitheater. Whatever you call it, you still have to drive out to Tinley Park.) [Thanks, Dan!]
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
In a good way.