Monday, December 29, 2014

Paris and London: The Cliffs Notes Version

Life is funny. 
As you are making your way through the world, just trying to get by, you can't believe that life will ever be good and fun, the way you imagined it would be when you were a kid. One day, you stop and take stock of your current situation, and you see that slowly but surely, through sheer force of will and hard work, your life is actually good and fun. It happened! You have a great job, a loving fiancé, fleeting moments of serenity, and you've been on not one, not two, but three great vacations this year. You finally feel like that slippery thing they call "the good life" is in your grasp. Yes, life is funny.
So what about these three vacations? To review, you may remember Brush Creek Ranch back in June, then shortly after that was Sao Paolo and Florianopolis. Then Stephanie mentioned that she would be attending butchery school in the south of France in the fall, and I casually said I might like to join her for a pre-school trip around France. Before I knew it, the ticket was booked and I was on my way to meet her and another friend, Ben, in London where our exploits would begin.
I have to start with a really obnoxious brag, but one I feel is well-deserved considering the amount of budget travel I've done in the last...well, my whole life. I cashed in some United Airlines Frequent Flyer Miles and upgraded myself to Business Class. This one relatively small expense made all the difference in enjoying the first half of my trip without crippling jet lag. I ate dinner, watched a movie, went to sleep, and woke up to morning in London. Tada! No jet lag. I highly recommend it. 
Westmister Abbey--no photographs were allowed inside, but I got this interesting window detail in the halls outside. 
I've seen Big Ben before, but not from this perspective...
 Waiting for dinner at Fergus Henderson's famed St. John restaurant in London.
One chunnel ride later, and we were in Paris! We stayed on Rue Cler, a quintessential Parisian market street...
 ...and breakfasted at L'Eclair.
We walked to the Champs de Mars in the evening and saw the Eiffel Tower in a whole new light (heh heh heh). At the end of the field, the Wall for Peace in inscribed with the word "peace" in 32 languages. Ironically, it's across the street from the military college.
I didn't get to see the tower at night on my last trip to Paris, so I was delighted to find that there is a blinking light show at the top of every hour. 
The view from below.
 Another highlight I missed on my last trip--the Arc du Triomphe. I didn't expect it to be so huge!
 My comrades on the trip--Stephanie and Ben. 
You can get an idea of the size of the arch by noticing the tiny little people at the base. 
 The obligatory "Paris cafe" picture.
 The Eiffel Tower again, with the fall leaves.
Laduree still life.
King Charlemagne at the end of a full day.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Six Things to Know About Visiting Brazil

Six Things to Know About Visiting Brazil
Anson and I visited Sao Paolo and Florianopolis in our time in Brazil, and learned a few things I thought might be helpful if you are planning to visit Brazil someday (as so many of our acquaintances told us they were).

1. Learn some Portuguese or download a Portuguese dictionary. In keeping with our experiences in other major foreign cities (and contrary to what uniformed people who have never been there say), most people do not speak English, or they speak very little. 
Your friends will tell you, "Oh, don't worry, everyone speaks English there." They will tell you this about every place you plan to visit. Do not, under any circumstances, believe they know what they are talking about. This is not true of anywhere except the U.S., and even here it's questionable in some places. 
Portuguese has some words in common with Spanish, but the pronunciation is totally different. Download a dictionary on your smartphone that works offline and gives you pronunciation. I used the one from in the App store and it was quite helpful.
2. Prepare to take a cab everywhere in Sao Paolo. It is a massive city, and unless you want to walk all day, you will need to take some form of motorized transportation. Have your destination written on a piece of paper (unless you've mastered Portuguese), and show it to the cab driver. If you can also point to it on a map, even better.
Though we didn't have any problems, we were warned to be very careful of crime, and we thought it best not to take the subway. So, it was taxis everywhere. 
3. Brazil is home to large communities of people of Japanese, African, Italian, German, Portuguese, and Lebanese descent (not to mention the native Brazilians), and you'll find their influence everywhere. In terms of a multi-cultural experience, Brazil is unrivaled.
4. We were warned by many people we met about the crime in Brazil, so we were careful in restaurants and public to watch our stuff. That being said, don't be so worried about theft that you don't enjoy yourself.
We had an amazing experience at the Sunday market at Praça da Republica. We ordered a couple pork sandwiches and drinks from a vendor, who kindly gave us his chairs to sit on at the nearby table. As we walked away, we heard him arguing with his wife, and he shortly came over to return the money he had accidentally overcharged us with a polite, "Mi desculpe." (I'm sorry.)
5. Sao Paulo is not really a vacation destination, but if you happen to find yourself there, you'll be able to pursue your interests, no matter how specific they are. While we waited for Speranza to open, we accidentally found ourselves at a bar next door that caters to people playing board games. So, if your interest is food, you will have no trouble keeping yourself busy in Sao Paolo. But if you want the legendary parties, beaches, and bikinis, head to a resort on the water.

6. The people are really nice! We did not come across a single unfriendly or impolite person in our 10 days in Brazil. They were disarmingly friendly actually. I remember being confused when a nice man in a lanchonete offered me one of his pao de queijo--more than once! He almost insisted. (Taking food from a stranger?? Never!!) I politely declined, but later thought I should have been more open. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Brazil: What To Do and Eat in Florianopolis

After our long week in Sao Paolo, we got on a plane for an hour and landed in Florianopolis, a beachy, laid-back, touristy island known for it's beaches and seafood. 
We picked up our car, and asked the rental agent how to get to our house. We were a little unsure when she said, "Just go this way," and vaguely pointed northwest on the map. "Don't worry, you won't get lost." Turns out, she was right. As in Sao Paolo, the signs pointed the way at every turn. 
We quickly dropped our bags and headed across the street to the beach entrance. This being winter, there were only a handful of people on the beach. The beachside bars were just opening, and we found a couple chairs to finally relax and start our vacation.
A beer with a view.
Do you see the sleeping dragon?
And our home in Floripa for the two days? One of the nicest houses we've rented, directly across from the beach path to Praia Mole. 
The master suite of our 2-bedroom, 2-bath modern beach home. From the back patio, you can see the sleeping dragon and the surfer statue. 
But we couldn't sit on the beach all day, so back to town we went on Avenida Rendeiras, with a parade of hotels, bars and restaurants on our left, and the Lagoa da Conceiçao on our right.  
This is not a Gilligan's Island kind of lagoon, more of an enormous salt-water lake, big enough for white caps and kite surfing. 
At Nosso Bar, we took our waiter's suggestion and enjoyed a full-bodied, unpasteurized pilsner from Brazilian brewery, Coruja, with our lagoon-side view. Brazil has a history of making German-style beer, dating back to the early 1800s when Germans first began to arrive in southern Brazil.
And we had to stop at the market in town for supplies. Yes, we were only there for two days, but browsing grocery stores is one of my favorite activities in foreign countries. Some of my interesting finds: super wavy Ruffles with ridges (ribs); bacon-flavored ramen (lamen) noodles); fiery hot sauce that Anson almost died eating the night before; tiny packs of Nucita, a sweet snack spread; pasta sauce in a bag; bacon flavored microwave popcorn; dark beer; Brazilian wine made from the Tannat grape.
Great mural.

Our new friend, Fernando, who sets up shop each day at the entrance to the beach path and sells jewelry he makes from wire, stones, seeds, and leather. A true free spirit, Fernando, told us how he wasn't interested in money, just living a good life. I wonder if there's enough room for another table there...?
Day Two was Anson's surf day with Ernie from Nexus Surf, who brought us to the best place to catch waves nearby. No lifeguards on duty!
Ernie led us on a narrow path through the thick vegetation, from Praia Mole to the Galheta nature preserve nearby.
No doubt we never would have found this place on our own. 
I beached myself on a well-worn rock while they paddled out.  
Check out the video of Anson's first wave in Brazil.
A triumphant Anson!
Postcard-perfect natural beauty. 
We spotted Books & Beers, a bookstore themed bar (!) and knew there was a seat for us on the patio. 
The menu was literally a novel, with chapters such as "The Compatible Lightness of Being" and "Eat, Harmonise, Love."
We had a drink and watched the town go by from our perch above the boat harbor. 
We said tchau (good bye) to Fernando and boa noite (good night) to The Surfer for the last time, and before we knew it, our vacation was over. Amazing how much we packed into just two days.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Brazil: What To Do and Eat in Sao Paolo

When I told people I was going to Brazil, without exception, they had one response: a breathless, "Really?!? I've always wanted to go there!"  
Brazil? Really? Brazil was not anywhere near the top of my list of places I planned to visit someday, really not even in the top twenty. So I felt a little ungrateful that I was not as excited as everyone else.
But, as so many of these adventures do, Brazil just landed in my lap. I was invited to help with Anson's trade show in Sao Paolo, and hey, I've never been to Brazil before. Why not? 
So we flew and flew, past Central America, over the equator, through the Amazon rain forest, all the way down to Sao Paulo, the second largest city in the western hemisphere. (A very close second to Mexico City and only slightly ahead of New York City.) We woke up on the other side of the world. What a miracle flight is.
We stood at the window of our wonderful hotel, Luz Plaza, and looked out at Sao Paulo, which stretches as far as you can see. Sao Paulo is HUGE. A few facts: there are 20 million people in the greater Sao Paulo area, which initially flourished in the late 1800s with the growth of the coffee trade, then with industry and construction in the 20th century, and has since become the economic and cultural center of Brazil. Here we were, in the middle of the hive.
After an afternoon of lunch at the trendy and delicious Ramona, and a nap to shake off our jet lag at our hotel in the aptly name Bom Retiro ("good rest") neighborhood, we were ready to explore our neighborhood on foot and grab a snack. There was a friendly little lanchonete a few blocks away where we tried our first Brazilian snack food. There are a few lanchonetes on every block, serving bread filled with meat or cheese, kibe, hamburgers, juice, soda, beer, wine, etc. Think of it as the equivalent of an American fast-food restaurant. You can grab some ready-made food and go, or sit at the counter and chat with the owner, who you invariably know because you buy cigarettes/soda/breakfast from him every day.
The next day we got a cab to Praça da Republica in central Sao Paulo, for the weekend arts and crafts market. Apparently, the park is usually kinda sketchy, but on the weekend artists, craft vendors, and food purveyors fill the park and the city comes out to see it. The police also come out to patrol and make sure that the street people don't overrun the potential customers. Maybe a little too much. We witnessed a customer giving his extra food to a homeless guy walking through the food area, and a couple of policeman, not realizing the situation, were on top of him immediately, shooing him off.
The market is organized by category--coins, clothing, jewelry, books, paintings, etc. The vendors were helpful, but not overly aggressive, and their wares seemed fairly priced.
We found this focus on order repeated throughout our experience in Brazil. Like most Southern Californians, the majority of my south-of-the-border experiences were with Mexico, and I expected that same sort of laissez-faire, inscrutable, abstract bureaucracy from Brazil. Not so at all. In fact, our experience of Brazil was very organized, very ordered, very orderly. I loved it.
That's not to say that Sao Paulo was not a big, dirty, crowded metropolis. It was all those things. But I've been to cities in Europe that were much less friendly and completely unfathomable. If you want to do something or get somewhere, Sao Paulo will help you. There will be a sign. 
If you take some time to walk around the park you'll find a few huge banyan trees, which remind you that you are in a city that was once a rainforest. For scale, compare it to the man sitting on the sidewalk.
Later that day, after a failed attempt to visit an artisanal beer bar in the fancy Jardins neighborhood, we set off on foot towards the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo, and whaddya know, came across another artisanal beer bar.
We spent a few hours at Aconchego Carioca, tasting Brazilian beers we've never had before, and will likely never have again, such as a collaboration with Brazilian brewery Bodebrown and our own Southern California brewery, Stone Brewing Company, called Cacau IPA. We both agreed this $12 bottle of beer was among the best we've ever had. We brought the bottle back and had it made into a glass.
Our path to the museum also brought us through the Parque Siqueira Campos, a large park surrounded by the skyscrapers of the Paulista district that is designed to recreate the Atlantic rainforest it replaced.
Continuing north through the park to Avenida Paulista we found ourselves in the middle of another craft market, where we picked up a hand-woven rug, a beautiful necklace, and a hand-carved wooden spoon, all for less than $20. Across the street is the imposing Museum of Art of Sao Paulo. Underneath that was a hundred or so antique vendors selling, well, antiques. 
Our goal for the day was to eventually end up at Speranza, a famous pizzeria in the old Italian neighborhood. We had to try their house specialty, the pao de linguica, soft bread baked with thinly slice sausage and chunks of cheese, which would have been a perfect meal in itself. We followed with Spaghetti Bolognese for me (of course), and a very convoluted pizza for Anson, which I can't even remember. We were stuffed and exhausted.
It was pricey for an Italian meal, but the service was really great--they are very attentive, pouring your wine, and plating your pasta and pizza for you--and it was quite an experience. We had a great time at our window seat, watching the characters on the street outside, the cars buzzing by on the freeway ramp, the streams of people heading to nearby restaurants.
It's interesting that Sao Paulo has the largest population of Italians outside of Italy, so you'll find a lot of great Italian food. (There is also the largest population of Japanese and Lebanese immigrants.)
As fun as Speranza was, nothing could top Figueira Rubaiyat. This is a restaurant like no other I've been to and probably ranks among my Top 5 restaurant experiences. 
The photo above shows the namesake 150-year-old fig tree, whose branches reach all the way across the street and form the architecture of the dining room.
From inside, an elaborate glass roof encases the branches, which step their way from the base of the tree up through the openings in the glass, to the sky. This is one of those places you can't help but gaze all around you and point like a common tourist the whole time. But don't worry, you won't be the only one pointing, and who cares anyway?
Another perspective on the fig tree's branches and supports they rest on.

The food? It was great. My dinner companions all had steak, which they agreed was exceptional. I had an Amazon lake fish with grilled hearts of palm, also great. Above is the plate of appetizers each table starts with--sausage, thinly sliced zucchini with parmesan, olives, chopped crudités-type thing, and little pao de queijo (cheese bread rolls).
You will pay a lot for dinner at Figueira Rubaiyat, but it is worth the splurge. Your food will be delicious, and all the little details of fine dining (like the trio of copper pans with different sauces that they deliver with your entree), make it a complete dining experience.
The most entertaining part, outside of the restaurant itself, was when I turned around and the waiter had zip-tied my purse to the chair. I guess even a restaurant in the best part of Sao Paulo has to be aware of reality. 
Our last great dinner was at another famous Italian restaurant, Pizzaria Famiglia Mancini, which one of our cab drivers recommended. There are exactly five restaurants by the Mancini family on possibly the most charming street in all of Sao Paulo, Rua Avanhandava, which is only about three blocks long, strung across with lights, and is comprised of beautiful brick streets, sidewalk bistros, and a few specialty shops. I got the impression you can't go wrong with any of their restaurants.  
To get to your table, you'll walk past the valet, up the stairs to the host stand, up another short flight of stairs past the bakery while peeking into adjacent dining rooms, around a corner, past the wood-fired pizza ovens, past the live band, then out to the enclosed patio dining room. Again, your head will be on a swivel, trying to take in all that's going on around you. 
We opted for a smaller meal this night, after the excesses of the previous days--a mixed green salad, a pizza with prosciutto and goat cheese, and a creamy ham & pea pasta to split between the four of us. Just right.
So, the whole purpose of the trip was a trade show for Anson's company, and I soon learned that trade shows in Sao Paulo are waaaaaay better than those in America. For instance, you'll get a caipirinha at the end of the day! Actually, these were compliments of the German pavilion, in which we were exhibiting. 
But really, the food is quite surprising. First of all, this is the "concession stand" at the Expo Center Norte. To eat, you'll sit down at a table and a waiter (who you'll get to know over the course of your four days) will take your order and bring your food and anything else you need. Again, even at a trade show, the service is without equal in Brazil. Each day we had the same thing--a juicy sauteed chicken breast with rice and french fries and an orange Fanta. Now, I'm not a big soda drinker, but the Fanta in Brazil is made with orange juice and sugar (rather than high fructose corn syrup) and it's delicious! Be aware, you won't get an American-style coffee there. It's espresso or nothing.
As interesting as Sao Paulo was, after a week in the big city, we were ready for a slower pace and some crashing waves, so it was on to Florianopolis.