Friday, May 17, 2013

Buenos Aires impressions

The dogs are very friendly, both rhe strays and ones with owners, many of which walk off the leash. The strays are smart about crossing streets, even busy ones. We watched one dog pace at the side of a busy street and finally go when there was a break in traffic. Apparently there are no rules about picking up the poop, or else they're not enforced. We both stepped in piles.

The sidewalks are universally in bad shape, a mishmash of different types of tiles and concrete, much of which is coming apart. I'm certainly glad I didn't bother bringing anything besides comfy walking shoes. It would be very slow going in heels.

My Mary Jane flats are more than sufficient anyway, even at night. We had heard that due to the European influence, Buenos Aires is a city where one dresses a bit nicer for dinner. The first night I wore a dress with leggings and was massively over dressed. Jeans and a nice top is ideal.

They eat crazy late here. Many restaurants here open at 8pm and going before 9 is like going at 6 at home. 11pm is when a place would be jumping. Clubs open at 1am or later. A friend who has lived here a while told us that when he used to go clubbing they'd arrive at 2 and wonder if the place was going to be dead all night long. Eventually around 3 people would start showing up. Where they would be before that is a mystery to me. One bar had a sign that happy hour is from 8-9pm.

The street art is amazing. Unfortunately, much of it that I'm seeing is from a speeding taxi.

Empanadas are delicious, as long as they are not bought from a woman selling them cold out of a basket on the street. Choripan is a sort of chorizo on bread and it's yummy. Fernet is an herby, spicy bitter that Jeff tried on a dare knowing full well it would be disgusting. (It was.) Coke and Pepsi not made with high fructose corn syrup are so good! Although I'm glad we can't get it at home since that makes it easier for me to avoid. Dulce de leche is of course popular. We've had it in filled cookies and pastries, as a condiment with bread at breakfast, as an ice cream flavor and as an ice cream topping. There were 5 varieties of dulce de leche flavors at an ice cream stand but we couldn't make out the differences.

A bottle of Argentinian wine costs less than two glasses of macro brewed beers.

There are no stop signs, only lights at some corners and speed bumps at the rest. The cars manage to artfully ease into the intersection and not hit each other and a couple cars from one direction go and then the other.

No one wears bicycle helmets. Traffic lanes are a mere suggestion. A street named Thames is pronounced Thomas.

Domestic flights are quite expensive, so a slew of bus companies offer luxury overnight trips with fully reclining seats. Without very good knowledge of Spanish, the gargantuan Buenos Aires bus terminal can be a nightmare. Our bus was delayed and no info about it was displayed on the monitor. We spent a harrowing 15 minutes running around trying to find people to ask who would actually know what was going on.

We spent the first two days seeking Yerba Mate, the local caffeine-free tea. We'd see people drinking it out of the traditional gourds as they strolled, but none for sale to sample. On the evening of our second night we met up with a friend of a friend who initiated us in the ways of mate. We liked it a lot so we bought a bag of the loose tea and two gourds (one traditional and one modern). We only need one since the way it's drunk is shared between people, but apparently locals collect different cups for it anyway.

We are tired of steak.

Monday, April 8, 2013

College admission


I chose to attend the college I attended because the editor of the school paper was hot and smart. (He reminded me of Ezra Pound.) There are probably worse reasons to attend a particular school. Because of him, I did wind up getting involved with the paper and perhaps not too surprisingly, my senior year, after he had graduated, I did not work on the paper. Had I finally decided to concentrate on my studies? Yes, that is likely. But without Jens to gaze upon, perhaps my desire to work on the paper waned a bit.

I once borrowed Steve's car so that I could drive Jens to Albany so that he could interview Governor Pataki at a press briefing. I took photos of Pataki. That was ostensibly my role, but in reality my role was not so subtle stalker. He slept the whole way there and the whole way back, presumably to avoid talking to me. My desire for him was so intense and my ability to woo someone I admired and feared was nil. Consequently, whenever I was presented with the opportunity to have a conversation with him, I blew it. In my mind, Jens only enjoyed discussing the politics of the Russian revolution or something and so any effort on my part to be interesting was going to fall vastly short. Of course I did not believe in what I had to offer and was certain that the only way to his heart was the Russian revolution or whatever. Being myself, whatever that meant, was surely not the way.

And so, nothing ever transpired between Jens and me. Because many people who go to college in upstate New York wind up in New York City, it seemed fair to assume that I would see him walking down the street one day. After a while I stopped seeing him in crowds on 7th Avenue and would just think of him a few times a year, no longer angry at him for not acknowledging me beyond stern reminders to get my stories in on time.

It's still a ridiculous reason to have chosen a college, but it also fit all my other criteria: no Greek system, far from home, good English program, not too large. Thank you, Jens, for unwittingly luring me to my college. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Better late than never: Alsace

How do you not OD on cheese in France? We have OD'd on cheese, but we are pressing on and not giving it up now. We did have a couple of cheese mishaps but if we didn't accidentally order the wrong thing in France at least once, what would the fun be?

The cheese of Alsace is Munster, which is not quite as boring in France as it is at home, but still tends toward the milder. So, when in a cheese shop, we asked for a cheese that was "plus fort," and we were offered the strongest Munster. The thing stank up our fridge and then when the door was opened the whole apartment began to stink as well. I began to think we had gone a bit too far. We both tasted it and agreed it didn't taste nearly as bad as it smelled, but we couldn't figure out how to keep it without stinking up the place. So out it went. Cheese 1, us 0 for that round. But we have had many others that have been divine, so we think we still win.

I had heard (and the internet backs me up) that doggy bags are more common in France now. But that's definitely not true everywhere. I asked for my leftovers last night and the waitress said she'd check on that. She came back stammering something about sanitation and security. Oh well.

At the same meal we had French onion soup. Come to find out there was no cheese in it, you crumble your own toast into it, it includes a dollop of creme fraiche and it's more brothy than ours at home. Definitely different from what we're used to, but we liked it.

A common bar snack is a salami on a board with a serrated knife. Pay 3-5 euros for this and get a quality salami for which you'd easily pay twice that in a grocery store at home.

French people ride their bikes on the sidewalk and tend to not wear helmets. Pedestrians who get in the way get dirty looks. However, I saw plenty of French getting dirty looks, not just us.

The way it seems to work is the American tries to speak coherently in French and the French person plays along until the American begins to make no sense and then the French person switches to English. Since I always begin in French I have never experienced a French person pretending to not understand English as some Americans say. But maybe that's because I always try in French first.

Written on November 24, 2012

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A life list item I wasn't counting on

Well now I can check off my life list “being in an operating room,” not that that's probably on too many people's life lists. It wasn't on mine. But if it were: check!

After not going to the dermatologist in five years, despite being rather moley (that's a technical term), I learned that a smallish and very dark brown one on my upper arm was very irregular and needed to go. Instead of just zapping it off and giving me a single stitch there in his office, my doc sent me to NYU medical hospital. I have a good friend who went to medical school there when we were in our early 20s, so I have plenty of memories of roaming around that building in the wee hours of the morning after carousing around Murray Hill. But I had never actually been there as a patient.

Upon arrival I was repeatedly asked the following: who is picking me up after my surgery and does anyone at home hurt me. The answer to both was no one, of course. I gather that both questions are standard, but still, a bit alarming. I hope that the repeated questions about domestic abuse might help someone out there who is afraid to report a bad situation but happens to find herself getting a mole cut out of her arm.

I changed into a paper gown as instructed and put all my belongings, including my glasses, into a locker. I then waited in a small changing room with just a People magazine and no Chapstick for I have no idea how long. The more I thought about not having access to Chapstick, the more dry my lips became.

The awesome thing about this gown, however, was that it had a port for injecting hot air with a vacuum hose! So I read People magazine right in front of my face, with chapped lips, and while wearing a gown puffed up with hot air.

Finally a nurse came for me. She asked if I needed a wheel chair. I said I certainly did not, aside from not being able to see that great and possibly bumping into and knocking over an IV stand. She laughed and said she'd guide me. Apparently the nurses at NYU are prepared for bad jokes. They also took it in stride when they asked me if I have any metal in my body. “No,” I replied, “but I'm not certain the aliens didn't implant me with any when they abducted me.” There was a pause and then the nurse laughed and said, “ha okay, good. And I'll make a note to give you a referral to a psychiatrist as well.” Hmm, I'm pretty sure she was joking back.

Anyway, I followed the nice nurse through a maze of hallways to the operating room. I told her on the way that I felt ridiculous taking up everyone's time for such a minor procedure. She said not to worry, every procedure is important. Aww. A point for her.

When I arrived at the room, all the nurses and my surgeon were wearing masks. The nurse who had walked me there asked me to introduce myself to everyone else, which I did. They all said, “hi, Craige,” like it was my first day of kindergarten.

I had been told that I could leave my underpants on, but as I was climbing on the table, the nice nurse said, “sometimes the elastic in underpants has a small amount of metal, so maybe you should take yours off, just in case.” FYI, when getting a mole less than the width of a pencil eraser removed from your arm, you may want to ensure you are not wearing ancient pink and white striped underpants. It's just not one of those things one considers. So off they went and into the hand of the nice nurse. CRINGE. In an attempt to reassure me, the nice nurse said, “it's just that an electrical current will be coursing through your body, so you wouldn't want to get burned.” No indeed. My surgeon said, “don't tell her that!” Ha.

So there I was, completely naked for the removal of a very small mole, electricity coursing through my body for some reason, a paper tent covering my face so that I could not see what was going on (dammit!). I would much prefer the option to look away if it's too much. My surgeon asked over and over how I was doing. I guess he wanted to ensure I hadn't passed out or something, who knows. That was disconcerting. “I'm fine!” I said in a weirdly high voice each time. I felt pretty calm overall, I think, although at one point, the nice nurse put her hand on my other forearm and said soothingly, “I'm right here.” Maybe I had seemed stressed? I realized I had been fiddling with the pulse monitor on my finger.

The whole thing was over pretty fast. When I sat up, my upper arm was covered in a bandage and I couldn't see the wound at all. Annoying! I want to see! I could make out a pile of bloody gauze in a bucket on the floor, but without my glasses I couldn't tell specifics. I was bummed that I couldn't see more.

So that was my Wednesday morning. By the late afternoon I was noticing bright red just under my skin around the outside of the bandage, which freaked me out. My friend, Schuyler, who is a doctor (ref: friend who went to NYU med) kindly reviewed many texts from me as the area got redder and redder. It seems I'm just a champion bruiser and now it's turning a lovely shade of snot yellow.

I felt something under my shirt that seemed odd that afternoon and thought oh my god, they forgot one of those ECG stickers on me. I went to the bathroom and peeled it off. That night at home I found TWO MORE.

Anyway, operating room visit: check. On Monday I get the stitches out and I get to see the damage. It looks like there might actually be three holes, two alongside the original mole area.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My so-called new year's resolution

I'm not big on new year's resolutions and never have been. However, I have nothing against deciding to try to do something fun and/or creative every day for a year. I took a photo almost every day in 2010 (350 out of 365 days) and found it to be great for my creativity. In 2011, I tried doing a video a day, but I had bitten off more than I could chew with that one and I gave it up after two months. I started 2012 by taking four photos a day and putting them into a grid, but that also became more work than enjoyment, so I decided to let that go and just take a lot of photos and post them on instagram. Around that time I was also losing interest in flickr and instagram was really tickling my fancy. (I'm morsels on instagram, by the way.)

This year I'm doing something different. I'm attempting to write every day. I use an app called Day One that allows me to post from my phone or my laptop. I have a couple of book plans in the works, but I haven't been able to get it up for them lately. For the past couple weeks, I've just been trying to journal privately every day. I haven't been very successful (doing it about 5 days out of 7), but it's been a good exercise. Initially I had planned to work on the book/s every day, not just write about my day. But since I had not been feeling the love for those book ideas, I figured journaling was the only way I was going to get any writing done. As the days passed I was feeling this real urge to do some creative writing. But about what? Coming up with story ideas every day is not going to happen, I know that. And then I had an ah-ha moment.

What I've been doing for the past couple days is what I'm calling free writing. I imagine a character in a simple situation. Or I see someone on the street doing something as routine as unlocking the gate to a store. And I just start writing about him. I don't worry about where it's going. I just write. So far it's been hugely enjoyable! I have no idea if this is "a thing" that other writers do. I'm sure it is not something I invented. Who knows, maybe one of these characters will turn into something more. I won't worry about that right now, though. For now, I'm just saving each one in a folder in Evernote.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Zurich surprised me

Within an hour of arriving, I saw horse meat for sale. It was one of many offerings on a wall of cured meats, mostly containing beef and pork and also chicken bites (that looked the least appetizing).

The yogurt selection is amazing, naturally. I can't wait to stock up when I know for certain that we have a fridge in our room and have located a spoon. For the time being, I settled for a raspberry lassi, partly because no spoon is required and also because lassis are delicious. This one did not disappoint. And I picked up a bag of gingerbread flavored potato chips because how could I not?

When there is an up escalator vs a stair case, just as many people walk up the stairs, even carrying rolly bags.

I will never, ever fully comprehend why Europeans choose a standing table over a sitting table when there is no price difference. And please don't tell me that it's a cultural thing. I'm aware of that. What I'm saying is that I will never understand it.

Zurich has really surprised me with how cute it is. The old city is vast and there are plenty of other areas that are full of winding cobblestone streets, too. I always thought it was just a business center with a fancy shopping area. We happened upon the shopping area, which is basically a Rodeo drive but in much older buildings. And then we delved back into the little winding streets.

I do love a country in which various types of cheese are considered dinner entrees. We had fondue one night and raclette the next. And the day before I left home I put away an entire container of chèvre because I was afraid it would not keep until we return. In googling to find out what the people at the table next to ours were doing when they dipped their bread into a small glass before dipping it into the fondue, I learned that it is kirsch (as we guessed) and there is a reason they were drinking black tea along with their white wine. Oops... a little late for us...

Fondue is not just for tourists in Switzerland. At the cheese store, there are several varieties of grated and mixed cheese. I do love a country that takes cheese seriously.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Traveling abroad with an iphone or ipad

It took me years -- seriously YEARS -- to figure out how not to pay an arm and a leg to use my iPhone when traveling out of the US. It can cost a lot of money if you don't prepare your phone and your plan properly, so I'm going to share with you what I have learned.

First of all, if you have an iPhone, you cannot live without your iPhone, so the concept of only using wifi while you're traveling is ridiculous. So, don't listen to those fools who say "simply turn off all data roaming unless you have access to wifi!" Those people probably have Blackberries. (Obviously, do your best to find a hotel that has free wifi so that you can surf like mad when you're in your hotel.)

You can use data, but it will cost you a small amount of money (and come on, you have an iPhone already; you can afford to spend $30-$60) and you will need to ration that data. It's really hard, I grant you, to not check Facebook, CNN, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and whatever else you're addicted to every 5 minutes. But I have found -- and I know this is going to sound crazy! -- that not being able to check my phone more than a couple times a day is actually conducive to enjoying my vacation more.

Step 1: Add international features

I don't know how it works on Verizon's website, but on AT&T's, under the Wireless dropdown, there is an option to Add or Change Services. Click on that.






Scroll down to International Features and then scroll to the bottom of that section until you see the international roaming data info. I find that 120 MB is doable for a week if you ration.

Also in that International Features section you can add on international roaming messaging (not international long distance -- that's for sending from the US to other countries), but, if you are lucky, all your friends and family also have iPhones and so you can text them for free from anywhere in the world. If you text other poor souls a lot, you might want to add on that feature for $10/month. Here's more info on the cost of those plans and what it costs to text and send photos via text when abroad.

As for voice plans, I'm not an expert on that since I rarely use my phone for actual phone calls when I'm traveling except maybe to make a dinner reservation or two, so I always just pay for the cost of the call. There is a bunch of info on voice plans, here, though, if you need it.

Step 2: Ensure the international plan covers the whole pay period

This is the tricky part and where I have gotten stumped many a time. When you sign up for 300 MB of international data, to get the whole 300 MB, you will need to apply the plan to your whole pay period. So, if your pay period starts on the first of the month and you add on the plan on the 10th and then you go away from the 15th to the 30th, and you don't backdate the international plan, you will only get 20-ish days of the data plan, ie, 2/3 of the 300 MB that you signed up for. This can work to your advantage at times, but for this, it does not because you want the whole 300 MB. So, you must ensure that the international plan is applied to the whole pay period.

You can ensure that by signing up for the int'l plan in advance of the billing cycle during which you will be traveling. Add on the int'l plan during the pay period prior to your trip and you will be able to select the following pay period when you go to add on the int'l plan. Or, you can call 800-331-0500 and simply ask the customer service agent to backdate the plan for you. I'm not sure what the cut-off date is, but early on in the billing cycle you can backdate the plan yourself. I'm 2 weeks into my cycle right now and I am unable to backdate it on the site. I'll check back periodically and update this if I find out more details on that.

Step 3: Calculate how much data you are using

Just before you turn off your phone when you are on the plane on your way to your fabulous foreign destination, go to Settings -- General -- Usage -- Cellular Usage. Click Reset Statistics. While you are on your trip, check this screen frequently to keep track of how much data you are sending and receiving. It's pretty reliable.

Step 4: Turn off all unnecessary data suckers

Under Settings -- General -- Cellular, turn off Data Roaming. On this same screen you may want to also turn off the other items that are using cellular data, such as iCloud docs, iTunes, etc. (Note: you may need to turn this on again periodically if you need to look something up, but it's best to keep it off when you aren't using it.)

Under Settings -- Mail, Contacts, Calendar, click on Fetch New Data and switch Push to OFF. Then change the Fetch option to Manually so that you have to manually pull in new emails. You can then wait to do that when you are in a location with wifi. And if you need to look something up in an email that you already downloaded, you can open up the email app and look at the email without all your new emails downloading automatically.

Turn off all alerts or at least most of them. I don't want to miss out on the CNN breaking news alerts, for example, so I keep those on, but I turn off notifications that it's my turn in Words With Friends. Go to Settings -- Notifications. Click on the items listed in Notification Center and change to Off.

If you really want to conserve data, you can turn off Location Services located in Settings -- Privacy. Or, instead of turning off the data for all the apps, you can just turn it off for the ones you don't use often and leave it on for the camera, Yelp, and maps, for example. According to the interwebs, the location services itself doesn't use a ton of data, but why not turn it off anyway? That's my philosophy.

That's it! Have a fabulous trip! And relish the fact that you can't disappear into your tiny pocket computer during every moment of downtime. You may even find it to be a wonderfully novel experience reminding you of the good ol' days and you may think you will surely keep this up at home. (You won't, but that's okay. That's part of why we travel.)

Just one more thing. Not to confuse you, but I did mention above that sometimes you don't want to backdate a plan add-on. For example, you may want to add on a mobile hot spot for an hour. You certainly don't want to pay for a whole month's worth of hot spot use. It requires some math or if you're not a fan of math (like me) then you can just turn it off again a couple days later and assume that was plenty of time to include the amount of megabytes you used.