Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Our long weekend vacation at home in NYC

Two weekends ago, Therese and I took off half of Friday and all of Monday and had ourselves a vacation at home (not to be confused with a stay-cation - more on that below).

Friday morning, Therese went to her office for a few hours, and I did some computer work at home. I met her at lunchtime at the Metropolitan Museum to begin our fun weekend. She treated me to lunch at the Petrie Court cafe: I had a Jerusalem-artichoke salad (don't usually like frisee, but lightly sauteed, it was quite pleasant) and herb-roasted chicken salad, while Therese had the Wild Mushroom Bisque. We paired them with the suggested beverages - an Ommegang Hennepin beer for me and some sort of white wine for Therese (not realizing that doing so saved each of us $2 over just ordering from their beverage list. Another pleasant surprise was the size of the portions - I remember Petrie as giving very small portions, but these were huge - I would've been stuffed just from the chicken salad alone...

So no better way to work off a big lunch than to walk around and see some incredible art. Our focus was on seeing the new Islamic Wing: It was fabulous. Therese liked the room full of Arabic rugs, while my favorite was the blue ceramic Mihrabs. I also liked the section on Andalucia, the section of Spain that was ruled by the Moors for over 6 centuries. It reminded me of the Alcazar in Sevilla, the Alhambra and so many other breathtaking Arabic architectural ornaments you can find in Spain.

After leaving the museum, we discovered we could take the bus to get pretty close to our next destination, the Church of Holy Innocents near Penn Station: The first Friday of every month, there is a special all-night vigil that begins with a 6pm Mass for the Sacred Heart. My friend Charlie Weaver leads the chant choir, and that gives me a chance to sing traditional Gregorian chants. This was the first time Therese has gotten to hear me sing chant, and she was delighted.

Friday evening was a quiet one for us - we wanted to be home early so we could get a good night's sleep and prepare for Saturday.

The main activity for Saturday was attending the Live in HD broadcast of Wagner's "Siegfried" put on by the Metropolitan Opera. But we went to the Brooklyn Academy's Rose Theater to attend a pre-opera lecture given by opera and Wagner aficionado Fred Plotkin, followed by watching and listening to the opera.

There were two 30-minute intermissions, and we were ready - we had brought a kind of picnic lunch, made up mostly of goodies I bought from the Fairway Supermarket on Broadway and 74th Street: We ate Pinot Grigiot-infused sausage and cheese on French bread, seedless grapes, Pate de Champagne, washed down with Snapple iced teas. Mmmm, yummy. The music was amazing, the intermission interviews somewhat less so (Renee Fleming is not so good at interviewing people...). The new tenor who sang Siegfried was quite good, the singers were excellent all-around. Now if they could just figure out what to do with that dragon...

Saturday night we were wiped out a bit, so we stayed in and ate leftovers of our wonderful picnic food. I made us up a couple of huge charcuterie plates, we watched some Food Network shows, and we were good to go.

Sunday morning was another early one - we had to make a sign to root on Therese's cousin ken who was running in the NYC Marathon. We had figured out how to negotiate around the transit alterations to get pretty close to the mile 17 marker, 1st avenue and 77th street. And we had calculated when Ken and his girlfriend Karen would be passing by. Miracle of miracles, we saw Ken - or rather he saw us and ran over to wave at us! We missed Karen, though. It was fun rooting on the runners - our first time ever doing that.

Well, after rooting on runners, we found we had worked up an appetite - you know, taking turns holding the sign over our heads for minutes at a time was tiring! So on our way back to the bus, we stopped in for brunch at Per Lei: We started with glasses of Prosecco, followed by an ink squid linguini Fruiti di Mare for me and some wonderful stuffed crepes with a scrumptious tomato sauce for Therese. A nice little romantic bistro - good food and good atmosphere.

A New York thing to do on Sunday is read the mammoth Sunday NY Times, and we decided we would spend the afternoon doing just that, accompanied by a lovely bottle of red Spanish wine, Protocolo, that I bought Therese for her birthday a few weeks ago: She tackled the Travel and Arts and Leisure sections and the Magazine, while I went straight for the crossword puzzle.

We finished up Sunday watching two of our favorite tv shows, "The Next Iron Chef" and "Pan Am":

Monday we slept in and then both spent a good deal of time doing admin catch-up (I know, not very vacation-like). Then I made us lunch (sorry, I don't remember what that was!), and in the afternoon we went to Trader Joe's to do a grocery run and stock up on lots of our favorite frozen prepared foods:

We finished up Monday, and our long weekend, with dinner with Therese's work colleague Ken at Park Avenue Autumn, the seasonally themed restaurant on Park and 63rd: The food was very good, and the atmosphere was better, and the hospitality hostess gave us free glasses of dessert wine to apologize for a door that kept hitting Therese's chair. A great housewine, and the company was the best thing of all. We can't wait to go back for the winter version of the restaurant in December!

So there you have it! We live here in NYC, and it is so easy with our busy lives to miss out on so many of the great events and things there are to do here. So for one weekend at least, we acted like tourists and did a whole bunch of those things. Very different from a stay-cation, I think (except for Monday when we did our admin...), where you take time off to put in new drapes or whatever. And delightful! We are already planning when our next vacation weekend in NYC is going to be!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Upstate New York at the Renaissance Faire and environs

TripAdvisor suggested writing a review of an offbeat or quirky US vacation rental, so I thought before I made such a review, I would tell you about my offbeat, quirky, perhaps slightly bizarre experience from the summer of 2009.

I had made plans with my friends from Tampa, FL Steve and Vanessa to attend two weekends of the Sterling Renaissance Faire in upstate New York. In between, we would spend the week exploring whatever there might be to do in the vicinity.

The previous summer, we had attended one weekend, and Steve had found us a couple cabins in Sunset RV Park, outside Oswego, and just a short ride to the Sterling Fairegrounds. We loved that so much that we decided to do it again in August of 2009, but in more elaborate fashion.

Once again, Steve booked us cabins at Sunset RV Park. But this time, I got a bigger cabin (although it had no bathroom), and Steve and Vanessa stayed in a cabin with two bedrooms and a kitchenette. And they rented a third large cabin like theirs, to be used by other Tampa friends Chris and Ken for most of the time, and by another Tampa friend Sarah for the second weekend.

Now, let me say first of all that we all had a great time, at the renaissance faire and during the week (did a road trip to Niagara Falls, etc.). The weather was great, Lake Ontario is right across the street from the RV Park, Steve and Ken went fishing and caught salmon that we grilled a couple nights that was amazing, and we all got along for the most part.

And secondly, I should add that I consider myself pretty flexible when it comes to adapting to unusual situations. I am often comfortable in offbeat situations. I have waited in line overnight for Grateful Dead tickets, in the process sleeping on the concrete sidewalk on just a thin blanket. I have gone canoeing in the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey at the peak of the summer, with air so close you felt the universe was ready to fold in on itself any second. I have been hiking in the Catskills in the middle of winter, where if something bad were to happen, they would not find me until the spring thaw six months later. I am willing to go along with any number of crazy or improbable schemes, if only to be able to say that I did it and that it was fun.

So here I am in my cabin with no bathroom for I guess it was 10 nights. No big deal: across the way, about 50 feet from the back door of my cabin, was the building with the communal toilet and shower rooms. Well, I don't know if it was that I was drinking a lot of beer the whole time we were there, or that I was drinking lots of water to make sure the beer was not leaving me dehydrated; but either way, I was getting up at least once a night to scamper across the grass in my bare feet to the toilet and do my thing. It started getting comical, because more than once I woke up having to go and didn't really know where I was, and I barely made it out the door and across the grass before my bladder burst.

I know, tmi. But that wasn't the bizarre thing, really. Of course, out in the woodsy parts, in the summer, with a Great Lake across the street from us, we were bound to have lots of bugs. I was careful to keep my cabin screen door and window screens intact so nothing got in that would make it impossible for me to sleep. But early in the week, I found I had a nasty bug bite on my calf. Ken said he had also gotten bit, so I didn't think anything of it. Then, fairly late in the week, I woke up in the middle of the night with a bunch of bites on my feet and ankles. Luckily, the cabin had a sink in it, so I blasted my feet with icecold water for a couple minutes, and that took the edge off the itching.

Unfortunately, the bites started multiplying, and the itching started to get out of control. I figured it had to be fleas. I Googled fleas on my Blackberry, and everything I read completely matched what I was going through. I thought I should inform the owners, and see if they could move me to another cabin. Well, the owner I spoke to (they're a couple and this was the guy) was basically in denial. He said there had been no pets in that cabin in a long time, so there was nothing to bring in fleas. I said you don't need an animal to bring them in, and this is definitely fleas. He said there were no empty cabins for me to stay in, and he would check it out after I left. I should've demanded that he refund part of my money or something for my discomfort, but I just figured I would make the best of the situation.

The flea dirt I found was at the base of the bed I slept in, so I slept sideways so that no part of me would be within biting distance. And what do you know? It helped. The last couple days, the bites I had started to heal, and no new ones appeared.

So, in the final analysis, I would say that, if you can help it, avoid the Sunset RV Park. The first time we stayed there, Vanessa and Steve's cabin got sprayed by a skunk, and then there was my flea problem. The place sells out that time of the year, so they don't seem to care if people have problems. And if you want to stay in the vicinity, you don't have a lot of other options, and the options there are sell out like a year in advance. Soooo, maybe the best advice is to not visit Oswego, NY. Or something. I leave it up to you to decide. As for me, I am happy attending Renaissance Faires in other places where flea-bitten RV parks don't figure in the equation.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fall Foliage versus Old Man Winter - who will win?

I have very little experience with seeking out Fall Foliage. But I know that here in the Northeast U.S., it is a big activity every Autumn. They even have a term (which I didn't know) for those who search for fall foliage - they call it "leaf-peeping" and those who do it "leaf-peepers." It seems like a stupid term to me, but hey, what do I know? I only work here.

So Therese expressed interest in doing a little leaf-peeping, so I started looking into what might be fun and also fit into our budget. The NYTimes actually had a few articles in their Travel section one Sunday with some ideas, so I started from there.

Very quickly, I saw that there were logistical challenges to doing some leaf-peeping. We would have to match up our own availability over the coming weeks, and the availability of whatever tour or whatever we wanted to book, with the progression of the leaves changing their colors. Luckily, there is a website that shows you this progression, On the Foliage Network, they get reports every few days of where the leaves are changing, etc., and they post this information.

Unfortunately, while they show you where things are today - let's say, there is peak color in such and such counties, while other counties are past their peak, and then some more southerly counties have not yet reached the peak - they don't give you any prediction on how quickly this change might progress in the weeks to come. So I had to guess based on seeing how quickly things had changed, how much they might continue to change.

Putting it all together, and looking through all the possible things we might do, I came up with the idea to take a Fall Foliage Brunch Cruise from SailNYC which leaves form Chelsea Piers on the westside of Manhattan, travels up the Hudson River to the Palisades and back. And I thought if we waited and did this on October 29th, by then hopefully things would have gotten chilly enough for some leaves to turn a little bit north of New York City, and we'd get some nice colorful leaf-peeping in!

So we ordered our tickets, and waited for the day of our foliage brunch cruise, keeping an eye on the Foliage Network to see if there might be some good viewing coming our way. Unfortunately, the weather around New York City remained fairly warm, but we heard there was a storm coming our way... in fact, as a friend informed me the day before our cruise, there was a snowstorm in the forecast, even for New York City! In October!

So we bundled up on the morning of the 29th and got to Chelsea Piers early as we were encouraged to do, with a steady rain already falling, wondering how much we were going to be able to see! Standing under an awning, we watched children in gymnastics classes being led through all their paces in tumbling and such. And at 10:25, we and the crowd that had gathered to surround us were asked to board our yacht.

The yacht, built to resemble a 1920s yacht, was quite beautiful, all new looking with lots of clean varnished wood. They led us to our table, and the first mate introduced us to the rest of the crew and gave us some idea of how the trip would happen, and gave us some pointers on how to walk on the boat when it was moving - basically, drink in one hand, other hand free to grab a pole or table.

So to eliminate any suspense, I will tell you that we didn't see much. One woman opened a window near the back, I guess so she could see better, but there was fog outside as well as condensation on the inside of the windows. Right around the time we passed the George Washington Bridge, it cleared for a few moments, and people took pictures but the leaves were still pretty much all green. And not long after that, maybe an hour into our cruise (or one-third of the way through), it started snowing!

As we gave up on the idea of seeing orange and yellow and brown leaves, we were able to focus on the other pleasures of the excursion, which were many. First of all, just being out on a day when we would normally be huddling in our warm apartment, but still protected from the elements and having fun, was a major element of the adventure. Second, the food was pretty good, especially the fruit plate that went along with the desserts - strawberries, pineapple, canteloupe and honeydew the like of which I've rarely tasted during any season in any place. The crew was very nice, and we were together, relaxed, and having fun.

Not long before the cruise ended, I talked with a man who was part of a large group at a table not far from us. He told me that all his family members, who are dispersed all over the country in places like South Carolina and Boston, had come to New York City for a family gathering. The cruise was the last activity of their vacation together, before they would all head off to airports and train stations and so forth. And they were having a great time - the cruise was apparently a perfect ending to a very enjoyable family trip in New York City.

As for Therese and I, we climbed down the snowy gangway, luckily got a cab after just a few minutes, and were back in our apartment taking off our wet clothes lickity split, with half the day still in front of us to snuggle in our warmed up livingroom, gazing at the snowflakes still falling outside our window, and saying to each other now and then, "gee, wasn't it great that we went on that cruise?"

Hey, what's on tv?

Growing up in the 1970s, I was a big television watcher. As an adult, my philosophy has been to focus on making my own life rich and keeping myself interested in going further in that direction, rather than investing too much time in following the lives of people, fictional or real, on tv.

But there are still things on tv that capture my imagination. These days, that is mostly programs about traveling and about food.

For example, I have become a big fan of "Iron Chef America" shown on the Food Network. These year's competition to crown "The Next Iron Chef" really has me rapt with anticipation. In the week or so leading up to the first episode, which was shown last Sunday (Oct. 30), they have been showing episodes from previous competitions. I watched a few of the old ones, to get an idea of what the competition might be like.

I have already seen how on some competition shows, like Top Chef, the contestants are flown to exotic locations to compete, so that the challenge is as much adapting to a new location and conditions as it is doing whatever is asked of you. In "The Next Iron Chef" that seems to be pushed further even than usual.

For example, on last year's competition, the contestants were told to show up at the airport, without knowing where they were going. The attendant at the counter informed them there were tickets in their name on Lufthansa to Munich. When they arrived in Munich, they were directed to an enormous airplane hanger where they found Lufthansa's newest largest luxury airplane and were given their challenge: to create amazing airplane food.

I'm looking forward to all the twist and turns of cooking settings on this year's competition. And I can't wait for each new episode, partly because this year is a "super chefs" competition, full of chefs who have lots of experience on tv and therefore many of them are well known to me.

So if you're trying to get in touch with me on a Sunday night and I seem to be unreachable, you will know where I am and what I'm doing. Yes, in spite of my efforts to make my own achievements and activities the center of my life, I still am drawn just a tiny bit to living vicariously through the talented and charismatic folks on tv.