Saturday, March 26, 2011

Putting the O and M in RANDOM

This past weekend, I went on a Living Social-inspired adventure: afternoon tea at the O street Mansion in D.C., then a scavenger hunt through it 100 rooms and 32 secret doors. Not your average D.C. adventure, so of course, I liked the idea.

However, I was a bit skeptical of the description:

Most items are donated from people who visit, just like you, which adds to the joy of looking... It is so much fun searching around for treasures to own -- and having an excuse to get lost! ...You may want to bring your own shopping bags --  as almost everything you see on your hunt is for sale.

It kind of sounded like a hoarder house or an indoor garage sale where we would be served high tea by butlers. Odd.

And indeed it was just that, odd.

There were 4-5 elegant rooms (when you look past the knick knacks on each table) set up for tea and a large room for the buffet. However, you quickly notice how the angel salt and pepper shaker and the inspirational CD laying on your lace tablecloth in an 18th century mansion makes for a off-kilter vibe. The posters of Alice in Wonderland (with crazy-eyed Johnny Depp) were strewn all over the house, making you aware of, if you hadn't already noticed, the connection between yourself and Alice.

Why random, you ask? Let's start with the Buffet. When I think high tea, I think scones, crumpets and other British-sounding bites. Perhaps some cookies. O Street Mansion had scones, true. It also had jelly beans, spicy mexican dip, tiramisu, full-sized hershey bars, twizzlers, whoopie pies, a bowl of sprinkles (I don't know what for), dried fruit, and two massive and messy plates of assorted cheeses, but not of the refined french variety, of the everyday, grocery store kind: Munster, cheddar, swiss.

Another oddity: when I walked in and past the first couple tables, I pushed a mug away from the edge of the table, seeing its precarious position and likely iminent fall. Later, sitting eating my jelly beans and cheese, I noticed that all the mugs were positioned at the edge of the tables, deliberately. Asking a worker about this, she answered that is how the owner/manager has them do it.

Buffet: Normal at first glance
Here are a couple other mental snapshots of the house for you to get a proper picture. On the fourth floor, one of the first rooms you see is a bathroom, and in the bathroom a toilet... with a sombrero on it. Down the hall, a bedroom with high shelves filled with old dolls and stuffed animals, complete with a mighty cruddy looking panda if I do say so. Closets had paintings hung inside them; almost all soap containers were ceramics hands. There was even a self-contained log cabin on one of the floors (wooden beams, animals skin chairs, cowboy hats and an aquarium ... don't know how that last one fits in).

There was also a nod to fake animal hides with another room... ivory sidetables and lamps. An elephant husk table... It was a room that looked like what the wife from the TV show "Married with Children" would decorate.

And true to word, not only was every avilable space taken with some item, everything was on sale: spice dishes, old books, paintings, soap dishes... all adorned with price tags.

The sheer amount of stuff everywhere was enough to give you a headache. But to complciate matters further, there was a part of me that desperately needed to amke sense of this house/business/whatever. Why? Why a log cabin? Why a chess board in a bathroom? Why a lone hat on a hat rack in the middle of the hallway? Some recurring themes that also had me puzzled:

  • The Beatles: a wall dedicated to them in the billiard room and a bedroom/bathroom dedicated to them elsewhere in the house where "Imagine" played from its sound system. 
  • Angels and cherubs: Angles were everywhere: paintings, fixtures, on ceilings, as aforementioned salt and pepper shakers... and perhaps related (or not) the occassional, but fairly obvious mentions of
  • Hell/devils: A doomsday book in a rather angel-centric room, red-snake chair, and a book called BETRAYAL in the bookshelf above the bed in the cabin. 

Perhaps I am reading too much into this last one, with as much junk as there is in that house, the occassional not-so-cheery item is to be expected. It just seemed particularly strangely placed.

I like random, in fact, I kind of live for random. And this experience is definitely one worth having, but leaving the house, I breathed a sigh of relief and inhaled as much fresh air as my lungs could take in... I was out of the rabbit hole.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Washingtalia: Merging homes

The cover of Where magazine this month struck me as poignant: DC hearts Italy, a feeling that resonates for me in my last month in DC before heading off to Italia. 

Forgive a little bit of solipsism, but it is as if Where is helping my transition!

The article discusses the numerous ties that DC has to Italy (for example, did you know that the District of Columbia is named after Christopher Columbus?) and further reveals a number of ways to celebrate Italia in its 150th year of reunification!

Well, I have partaken in many of these Italian-focused events (don’t I always?). Here are some of my thoughts on these experiences:

Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Around DC somewhere, on the Metro, at a bus stop, on various neighborhood bulletins, you have likely seen a poster of a pale faced, pitch black haired, beautiful, young Japanese girl, advertising this heart-wrenching tale of naivete and hope being held up like a precious, fragile glass ball and then dropped from a 20-story building. The glass shattering into a million fragments is the story of Madama Butterfly. Despite the fact that the lead vocalist was neither young, pale, black-haired nor Japanese and that, at least for me, she didn’t seem to capture the essence of a young, innocent, Asian girl neither with her acting nor her looks, the rest of the cast made up for it with strong, melodious voices and with a stage setting that was fascinatingly minimal yet completely effective in transferring you from the Kennedy Center to Nagasaki. And listening to Puccini's Aria, Un Bel Di, will definitely have you celebrating Italia.

The last showing is March 19, but for a taste of this Opera, check out NPR's Introduction to Madame Butterfly.

Pizza Napoletana at 2Amy's

Etna in pizza form
At the risk of being stereotypical, what does pizza invoke if not Italia? Despite my two previous failed attempts to have dinner at 2Amy's, times where shear hunger outweighed the appeal officially certified pizza, I ventured back there for lunch this time, convinced by a DC Native's oath that this pizza would rival those in Italy. A bold claim; I had to try it. Encouraged by a ten minute wait, instead of a 45 minute one, I realized lunch was the way to go with this little restaurant, inconveniently located away from metro stops and most major hang-out areas, yet sought out nonetheless. 

Despite the intriguing and befuddling menu which included everything from donuts to braised fennel, I did not even think of ordering anything but the pizza. I chose the Etna, and an explosion it was: eggplant confit, black olives, oregano and grana; it was a very seriously flavored pizza. To my surprise though, it was the taste of my friend's margherita pizza that convinced me that he was right and that the D.O.C. certification actually means something, i.e. established to protect and promote authentic Neapolitan pizza. Apparently, it is in fact their Margherita and Margherita Extra (tomato, mozzarella di bufala, basil and cherry tomatoes) that are certified. And now I know why. It tasted like Napoli: the crust, basil, cheese and tomatoes all tasting like they magically do in Italia. Impressive. Up to this point, my general rule had been to avoid Pizza Margherita. After seeing a lot of soggy, bare, runny cheese pizzas entitled Margherita, it made me believe that this title was only a poor excuse to be lazy and make a simple pizza. However, as with most things, if it is done right, simplicity is best. 2Amy's Margherita is one of those cases.

L'articolo di un'amica

And if you need one last way to celebrate Italia, plan (or a dream) a vacation there and consider visiting some of Italia's lesser-known, but just as amazing, gems. This USA Today article, written by my good friend Monica, gives you some great ideas in the form of favorites put forth by Frances Mayes (author of Under the Tuscan Sun).

Ancora di PiĆ¹!
Some other ideas from the Where article, (and incidentally also on my list!), are "Roma" paintings at the Phillips Collection, the Franciscan Monastery and the John Paul II Center, among others. Viva Italia!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Strapping on the fanny pack...

In my first ever blog entry, I defended the tourist. Not in the "Fanny packs are OK" vein, but in the "opening your eyes to the ordinary" kind of way.

I grew up outside of Baltimore and had visited Washington D.C. as a tourist many a time before moving here, but, as many locals do, I never bothered doing the MAIN tourist attractions always with the excuse that there would be another time. 32 years later, I figured that was a rotten excuse, and I decided to hit the big dawg tourist sites of D.C.: the White House and the Capitol.

My "some other time" excuse had in recent years been compounded by the added layers of complexity in actually trying to visit these sights. Gone were the days of obtaining tickets on-site on the day of the visit. Like seeing someone off to their airport departure gate, that was a tradition of old. Instead now, you have to contact your Senator, or in the odd case of D.C., the Congresswomen and request a ticket application form.

Once her office responds to you with said form, then you give all your personal identifiable information and you are investigated by some federal body to ensure that you are clean. The Capitol is not quite as strict; background checks are not run (I think). Regardless, you need to be approved, tickets need to be sent to your inbox and you need to show up at a specific hour and place with proof that you are who you say you are.

Oh and one more thing: don't even think about showing up with a fanny pack (I hope you wouldn't), but in that respect this blog post is misleading. No bags of any kind are allowed into the White House. A purse? Nope. A CVS bag? Nope. A camera bag? Nope. (And a big NO to cameras too BTW). So if you intend on doing sightseeing for the rest of the day, tough. There are no lockers and the offense of having a camera or bag will have you turned away at the gate.

I read all these provisions beforehand and was prepared, though VERY grumpy about the thought of leaving my camera behind for a day. We brought a car to stash our personals as a compromise, paying the city 6 dollars in parking for that right.

The White House
It's nice. Of course it's nice. It is even homey. A friend of mine commented that this was his favorite aspect of the White House, that it felt like a home and wasn't some ostentatious residence that was intended to awe and belittle guests. Through this perspective, I agree that this a unique characteristic of a Presidential domicile.

My favorite parts, more than the five or six rooms we were allowed to see, were the photographs (of course) of the various presidents with guests or pets, formal or informal, in the garden or in the Oval Office. Those seemed to give life to the house, moreso than the empty rooms and antique furniture.

Overall, it was neat to be inside a house so often mentioned and featured on the News, in movies, television series etc etc. I would have preferred of course to have seen the President inside his residence, but meeting Mr. Obama doesn't seem a likely goal for my quickly vanishing year in D.C.

The Capitol
Also nice. Sorry for the lackluster adjectives. I suppose for me these places felt a little empty without seeing them in context: a congressional hearing, a White House party etc. The buildings are ultimately functional but without seeing their function, the tours were a little flat. The Capitol did have a lovely dome and beautiful Roman columns. The room below was my favorite. Again though, we saw about half a dozen rooms and only encountered other guided tours... no law-making hoopla.

For an American History buff though, I am sure that more could have been gained from these visits, acknowledging the different paintings and statues featured. I, on the other hand, probably came from some type of sociological standpoint and found odd things interesting like the fact that a statue of the inventor of the television was featured in the Capitol. Fairly telling of society I would say. I also remarked how close of a semblance the statue of Reagan had to his real person, and found it disconcerting that I am at an age where I remember the living days of people who are now being commemorated by statues: Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan... I suppose that is a trend I should get used to.

Senate Bean Soup
My one mission in which I failed on this visit to the Capitol was to try the only food that I have come up with as native to D.C., Senate Bean Soup. I hoped that the cafeteria would have it so that I could sample a bowl, but alas, no. Granted, unlike Maryland crab cakes or Philly cheese steaks, Senate Bean Soup is barely known outside of (or inside of) the District, but I make it a point to try "local" food traditions, and that is the only one anyone has been able to tell me about for D.C. But I found the recipe, so perhaps that could serve the same purpose... and would allow me to remove "ham hocks" from the mix. I don't know what that is, but as a vegetarian, I waive my right to know. However, on that topic, check out this blog post with other "Iconic Local American Foods."

The Famous Senate Restaurant Bean Soup Recipe
2 pounds dried navy beans
four quarts hot water
1 1/2 pounds smoked ham hocks
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the navy beans and run hot water through them until they are slightly whitened. Place beans into pot with hot water. Add ham hocks and simmer approximately three hours in a covered pot, stirring occasionally. Remove ham hocks and set aside to cool. Dice meat and return to soup. Lightly brown the onion in butter. Add to soup. Before serving, bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper. Serves 8.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Guate! Guate! Guate!

As a recurring theme of this blog and of my own musings, I have been thinking a lot about the concept of "home" as I am just about to pack up and deconstruct another one of mine, but as I mentioned in my last blog post, there are certain places that feel like home even if you have no obvious connection to it. On the flip side are places that are "home" but don't quite fit, and then there are places that you would be quite content to make your home because they do just that: fit.

Antigua, Guatemala has entered into that last category for me. The combination of ever-sunny weather, brightly colored buildings and clothing, warm and welcoming people, breathtaking views of volcanoes, and fascinatingly exotic fruit made me feel like I wanted to stay for 4 years and not 4 days. And the big BONUS:  no mosquitoes!! Perhaps it was because I visited in the dry season; however, it is still remarkable. I dare say this is the first warm-climate country (perhaps the first country period) where I haven't gotten bitten by even one mosquito. Usually, I step of the plane and get my first bite between the gate and the baggage claim. It grows to be the size of a tennis ball by the time I am at the hotel, and then I get two more in the hotel room. But in Antigua, not one! Not from sitting outside, not from hiking, not from being near a lake. It is incredible!

Even silly things like the gym, a Spanish-style, interior courtyard type building with machines around the perimeter of the courtyard and the open space in the middle for yoga or aerobics, would be what I would have chosen a gym to look like! What's more is that they blasted techno through the loud speakers. Again, that's what I would do! I don't know why such a silly thing made me so happy, but it did. Most gyms I have been to play a random U.S. radio station that is usually 80% commercials,19% annoying music, and 1% good songs. I think I bought an Ipod to drown out the radio. But in Antigua, as I turned off my Ipod to hear their music, I thought, "This fits. I could live here."

This was of course one of many moments. Two things about me: I am a vegetarian, and I am easily amused. So a walk through Antigua's mercado was like my Disneyland.

Just the sight of an utterly foreign-to-me fruit, a jocote, kept me entertained for hours. Even more so when I learned that it is where cashews come from!! I had no idea. Sadly, I think my choice of fruit was poor and the smell was to pungent for me to muster the courage to eat it, but I was enthralled nonetheless.

So it is easy to see that when even the little things like fruit, lack of mosquitoes, and techno music made me love the city, the big things we did, like climb an active volcano, visit a working coffee farm, drive to a volcanic crater lake were not just the cherry on top, but the sundae on top of  another sundae.

The Hike up Pacaya: An Active Volcano 

And what a hike it was! I have never been on such a strenuous hike... and hadn't really intended on it for this trip, assuming pumas, jeans and a light long-sleeve would be appropriate gear. Imagine the Sahara desert being at a 60 degree angle and you can get a sense of what it was like. The angle was brutal and the ash/loose dirt did nothing for traction. I was convinced it was a scheme to take us up the "hard way" so that the men following with horses (for rent of course) could say "Taxi, Taxi!" every five minutes and eventually wear us down. I am exceedingly stubborn though and despite the 3 inches of dirt inside my shoes and being wet through, I summited the mountain on foot.

Volcan Pacaya
I had prepared myself to see flowing lava, as my boyfriend had made clear that this was the point of climbing an active volcano, but alas, no lava. It was however hot enough to provide a nice cavern for a sauna-type experience and to provide areas for roasting marshmallows! Good enough.

La Finta Azotea: The Coffee Farm

Visiting the coffee farm (la finta) Azotea, I felt the weight of my addiction. It was like a pothead walking into a field of marijuana plants. Don't worry, I didn't throw myself on the beans and starting shoving them into my mouth or anything... instead I just took pictures of almost every item in the museum. The tour was run by a patient and clear-speaking (which I appreciated as it was in Spanish) Guatemalan native, and both the museum and the tour were extremely well-organized, exceedingly educational, and exceptionally impressive. The tour went through the history of coffee, whose origin is Ethiopian through to the phases of the coffee bean (cherry, pergamino, oro and tostado) all the way to the health effects of coffee, the history of the farm, and the types of coffee machines used over the years and from country to country. And we even saw the field of beans being toasted by the sun. I honestly think this was one of the best tours I have ever taken of anything. If you go to Antigua, visit Azotea. (And their "Coffee is great too!", proclaims the addict. You can order some here.)

Lago Atitlan

There are 33 volcanoes in Guatemala, three of which are active, and three of which surround Lake Atitlan (none of which are active now... I think). It is also the deepest lake in Central America, and has been referred to as "Eden on earth." I don't think I would argue that point.

So all of that, plus an lovely stay at Hotel Casa Noble, good food and fun nights out in the city made for a lovely vacation and for another dream of home.


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