Food, travel

A Tale of Cannolis

When I found out Greg and I would be spending a week in Boston, I started asking friends what should I see, do and eat there. I got a good variety of suggestions, but nearly every single person talked about either the North End’s Italian food scene or lobster and chowder.

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Boxed cannoli from Modern Pastry

For those of you who may not know, Italian food is my favorite. In fact, there is not even a close second. “OK,” I responded to the food suggestions, “what EXACTLY should I try in the North End?” The overwhelming response was, “Get a cannoli!” Then each person offered up a different bakery as the best option. A google search for “best cannoli in Boston” offered up a trio of bakeries, too. Faced with this dilemma, my choice seemed simple: Get a traditional cannoli from each of the top three bakeries and have our own taste test. 

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Bakery boxes are tied with string

Luckily, the day I snagged the cannolis I walked in, walked straight up to the counter at all three places and had cannolis in hand in short order. With my boxed and tied packages, I made my way back to the Convention Center where Greg was attending a conference. 

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Modern Pastry

As fortune continued smiling on me, I arrived during a rare break in his schedule. He was informally meeting with a pair of coworkers in the hotel lobby lounge. I walked up, got hugs from all three gentlemen and, grinning broadly, announced that all three were conscripted into taste-testing service immediately.

Hearing no complaints, I opened all three packages and we passed the cannolis around, taking big, flavor-packed bites of pastry and ricotta cream-filled deliciousness.

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Mike’s Pastry

The results: all three men chose the cannoli from Mike’s Pastry. This is, perhaps, the most famous of the cannoli bakeries and it’s fairly clear why based on the results of my unscientific study. I preferred the cannoli from Modern Pastry. I felt the shell was lighter and crispier. Mike’s, we all agreed, seemed sturdier and thicker. The cannoli from Bova’s Bakery was soggy. I had been warned to always get a freshly filled cannoli for that very reason. I didn’t specifically ask for one, so apparently got a cannoli that had time to lose it’s tasty crunch.

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“Mama’s” homemade cannolis

The following day, I had signed up for a food tour: “Boston’s Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour.” This tour ends at the home of our North-End-native tour guide’s mother’s house. Mama serves up true homemade pasta bolognese. Anthony, aka Flash, announced that “Pops” had whipped up some homemade cannoli filling the day before so we would also be presented with Mama’s cannoli. 

It was no contest. Mama’s was head and shoulders above the bakery versions! 

I believe one of the best ways to truly experience a place is through local food. Boston is no exception. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … taste the flavors as you go.

Uncategorized

Relaxing Isn't Just For Vacation

Sitting in a spa chair with warm water swirling around my tired feet, it occurred to me I don’t relax enough. My mind, like the water, was swirling around the word, “ahhhh.”  This luxurious last-minute diversion in our day, part of a quick three-day break from the daily grind, got me thinking about vacations. After all, they are for relaxation, right? As if we didn’t already know that, even the dictionary agrees: “Vacation – an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling.”

Image result for studio m palm springs pedicure

But what about relaxing when you’re not on vacation? I got my first massage years ago. Eventually I went from about two a year to a massage every three weeks. When I missed one, my shoulders and neck would let me know. They would tighten up and remind me to get my knots worked out.

About a year ago my massage therapist decided he needed to do something different. I was CRUSHED! Just the idea of it sent my muscles into a tightening frenzy. I’ve spent the last year looking for someone to take Mike’s place. I’ve resorted to finding other ways to relax. It’s a lot easier to mentally relax when you’re not driving into an office everyday, so working from home is a big help. I get monthly pedicures — there’s nothing like a really good foot rub! — and Greg and I are a little more conscious about taking weekend getaways. 

What I’m trying to say is this: Even if you’re not sitting on a beach sipping a cocktail with a little umbrella in it, you can and SHOULD take care of yourself all the time. Find ways to relax. Take a staycation and order room service! Shut down your everyday brain and activate your vacation brain (the one that doesn’t spend so much time worrying about work and feeling stress). 

Take a mental vacation and dream about all the places you want to go on an actual vacation and create a plan to make that happen. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored; you’ll have more fun if you’re relaxed while you’re away!

Uncategorized

The All-American Family

Greg and I spent a couple of days recently in Basking Ridge, New Jersey to celebrate the astounding life of his Aunt Jean. She was loved and respected by a stunning number of people and her three children gathered family and friends together to share stories and laughter as we all remembered her life and times.  Families have these celebrations all the time when loved ones pass away. But for me, this gathering was very different. This was not a memorial … it was more like a family reunion. It had most of the classic elements: several generations of family, plenty of food, memories and laughter, and music. But this was different than family reunions I have attended. 

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Jean Poucher Loizeaux

This family has deep roots and close relationships. Cousins and siblings grew up together, sharing summers with grandparents, making memories that have stood the test of time. Their love and mutual admiration was obvious; the storytelling constant. 

At some point during the evening I realized this was truly the all-American family  we all see in movies. It was so sincere and honest and friendly. Aunt Jean was one of four daughters in a family with strong American roots, but it wasn’t just family. She dedicated her life to others as a school teacher (MATH!) retiring at the ripe young age of 88, and as a church volunteer, among others. The community that turned out to remember her so fondly also shared how much she will be missed. 

Five years ago, I had the good fortune to meet her early in my relationship with Greg. At the time, she was the oldest living sister of the family and we gathered in Cape May, New Jersey to celebrate her 90th birthday. She woke each morning and meticulously dressed for her morning walk on the beach. Her hair was coiffed to perfection and withstood the morning ocean breezes without a single hair daring to blow out of place. Greg’s mom was there and as the sisters shared memories and playfully sparred, the rest of us listened and prodded for story after story throughout the day before she excused herself to dress for dinner. 

Only two of the sisters are still alive. They speak daily on the phone sharing family updates and just checking in on each other. This all-American family is slowly passing its legacy on to the next generation and I am thrilled to be a part of it. 

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Make some memories with your entire family while you can!  

Rest In Peace, Aunt Jean!

The World A to Z, travel

Q is for Queen of European Rivers … Part 2

The boat … or is it a ship? 

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The S.S. Maria Theresa docked on the Danube.

The boat … or is it a ship? 

Arriving at the quay to board the S.S. Maria Theresa, a couple of things become quickly apparent… most river boats (or ships) on the Danube look a lot alike on the outside: long, low and almost sinister looking with two rows of darkened glass, usually broken by the maw of an entrance approximately amidships. We quickly learn there are highly practical reasons for this look. One, there are A LOT of river boats on the Danube, which means they must often “raft” (tie-up alongside each other) at the quays, such that the passengers on the outside ship must also disembark through the other ship. Having entrances in the same place makes this easier.

The deck of the S.S. Maria Theresa as we approached a low bridge.

They are low because many just clear some of the bridges that cross the river. When on deck, crew will often lower sun awnings and implore you not to stand, lest you lose your head in a most unpleasant fashion. Even the pilothouse from which the boat is steered raises and lowers!

The common spaces were completely uncommon, with marble floors and walls, rich carpets and drapes. I’ll come back to those in a minute.

The marble bathroom has heated floors for warmth.

The over-the-top luxury continued in our stateroom. While not large by any means, the accommodations were sumptuous … Even the bath was all marble with top-of-the-line fixtures and floor heating. The darkened window opened electrically, letting in fresh air (our weather was unseasonably warm for October). Other staterooms featured French balconies that let the passengers sit outside on a tiny deck; friends we would meet later on the cruise opted for the suite, which offered a larger sitting area and bath, along with round-the-clock butler service.

Inside, however each cruise line brings its own flavor to interior decorating. Uniworld ships are among the most luxurious with a gilt-edged baroque style befitting the Austro-Hungarian Empress for which our ship is named.

Now, about those common spaces, there was a small gym and a place to grab coffee at any time on the lower level…you could even book a massage down the hall! Upstairs there was a large dining room and two bars (our kind of place!). The main bar was staffed most of the day and featured entertainment nightly. The smaller bar at the stern had more of a reading room feel to it, offering board games and books in a free lending library. Next to the bar was a small pool that unfortunately, was a bit too cold for our liking.

Let’s face it, one of the most important aspects of any cruise – river or ocean – is the food. Uniworld and the crew of the Maria Theresa did not disappoint!

Even the appetizers at dinner were spectacular.

Breakfast offered any number of American and Continental fare, including omelets made to order and a great selection of fresh fruit. For lunch, there was always a choice of at least two great soups, a wide variety of hot and cold dishes (with new varieties each day) served right – the pasta was perfectly al dente and meats were moist and perfectly done. And bread … there’s nothing in the world quite like European bread with real European butter!

Dinner … well, let’s just say don’t eat too much at lunch. Every night we were offered a chef’s choice of four courses, or you could order a la carte from an offering of meat, fish or vegetarian selections. Wines from the particular region we were sailing through were featured, described aptly each evening by the sommelier. Moreover, deserts were NOT to be missed!

When dinner was over, most of us retreated to the lounge to chat with friends, enjoy an aperitif, and listen to the excellent entertainment. Then, to bed, where the gentle lap of the water against the hull lulled us into a deep, restful sleep each night.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it … from a bed with a view on the water!

Distractions, Diversion, Musings, The World A to Z, travel

Meandering … and Impatience

EDITOR’s NOTE: I wrote this several months ago, but recently realized it was never posted. The thoughts are still relevant, however. As they say …  better late than never.

I have come to appreciate meandering. For most of my life, nearly everything I did was rush, rush, rush. About the same time Greg and I got together, I learned how to slow down. Along the way, we created road trip “diversions.” As a reader of this blog, you’ve seen us write about these stops that are not on our plan, but rather something that caught our eye and intrigued us enough to check it out.  

The rush of my youth was great for me. I’ve never really had any patience and hurrying here and there is perfect for someone who just can’t seem to find a way to wait for anything. Yet, somehow, here I am appreciating wandering, lollygagging, dilly-dallying. 

Often, when we land after a long flight, we make our way to a favorite restaurant for a bite to eat on the way home. The fridge is not stocked; we are craving a little nosh; and friends beckon. 

Today, though, I find myself wanting to get home. My impatient inner-child longs to rush through the next few weeks as we make final preparations for our permanent move out west. I want to go home, get packed and move sooner. I’m anxious to start the next chapter of life in a new home, in a new world (the desert southwest), with new friends. I know the benefits of taking our time to get through this next phase. We will be more careful, forget less, be more attentive to the details of a cross-country move, but I am still anxious and excited. 

I like to think of it as youthful – a sort of childlike fascination with what’s around the corner – the same kind of sleepless excitement that you get on Christmas Eve when you know you will awaken to the thrill of gifts, laughter and joy. 

I laugh a little as I think of the memes about deciding not to adult – “I’ll be in my blanket fort with cookies and milk” or “I’ll be outside running through the sprinkler.” Waiting, planning, packing, counting the days – adulting is hard! The benefit is, when you’re an adult you know the reward at the other end with be worth it and the waiting and working for it make it all that much sweeter.

EPILOGUE: We have now completed the move and are living in our new home full time. The anticipation was, indeed, worth it. Everything I had hoped for is coming true and I find myself relaxing and enjoying a slower-paced lifestyle. Of course, I am also constantly looking forward to my next trip. After all … there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored!

Musings

Writing – It’s In My DNA

I’ve been reading a series of books by the same author for almost two years. I am so obsessed by the ongoing stories of the heroine that I have eschewed other authors as I dove into and through every one of the books published to-date in the series to catch up to the present. The next book isn’t due out for 6 weeks, so I returned the previous series I was reading to catch up on the five books that came out during my obsession.

A single chapter in and I am struck by the extreme differences in writing styles of these two best-selling authors. One is complex, even a bit cerebral, and challenges my academic sense while appealing to my dream of a world-class, jet-setting life. The other is more common and allows me to relate to the more realistic life of the heroine and her job while feeding those dreams of wealth and jet-set life the lead character finds herself in after a surprisingly fortuitous and deliciously passionate marriage. Despite the disparate styles of these authors, reading their novels compels me to write; to put pen to paper and give ink to the thoughts that occupy my waking moments. They inspire me .. and they help me realize that my style is yet a third style of writing for future readers to enjoy.

Inspiration — incentive — perhaps even a new-found enthusiasm for writing that seems to have evaded me for almost 10 years. Determination to re-find my muse and restart a process I had essentially abandoned.

Stay tuned — a novel is in the works.

Food, travel, Wine/Cocktails

A Group Tour that Won’t Leave You Whining

Long-time readers know I’m not generally a fan of group tours, but exceptions can and should be made when traveling with friends or those with a common interest. Here’s what I mean:

USC DC-area Alums
USC Alumni Associated members at Gray Ghost Winery

Recently, the USC alumni association in the DC area (Greg is a member) put together its annual group winery tour in Northern Virginia. We’d been on one of these winery tours with this group and enjoyed it enough to actually sign up and do it again We even traveled back to the Nation’s Capital in order to participate!) Group tours of wineries, it turns out, aren’t like “tours” of cities or travel destinations.

This event gets you a designated driver (in a mini-bus) so you can sample the wines without fear of going too far. It gets you behind-the-scenes tours at wineries. It gets you discounted tastings and bottles. It lets you hang out with a small group of fun people who all have something in common – a connection to Southern California.

Gray Ghost Winery
Gray Ghost Winery’s owner shows us the vineyard

In short – it was amazing and fun!

The day started with a stop at Gray Ghost Vineyards. From the moment we arrived we felt like VIPs. The owner took us to the vineyards and shared stories of how the winery got started. 

Gray Ghost Library
The wine library at Gray Ghost Winery

We went through the wine-making process within arms reach of casks and steel tanks where wine was being aged. He took us down a small slope and into a door where we entered a grotto-like, dark, cool space. He turned on the lights and the entire group gasped — he smiled and welcomed us to “The Library.” It was an underground room stocked with hundreds of bottles on beautiful wooden racks. 

Narmada Tasting
Tasting glasses and wine descriptions are lined up for our group.

From there we moved on to Narmada Winery. As a reader of this blog, you probably already know Greg and I are members of Narmada’s wine club. We’ve eaten wine dinners in the barrel room. We’ve chatted and become friendly with the owner. On this particular sunny Virginia day, we followed our guides down the stairs to a back patio space to sample wines in the breeze and shade. 

Our final stop is a perennial favorite of wine tours. Barrel Oak Winery is popular among locals and tourists. 

Pizza at Barrel Oak Winery
Fresh from the oven pizza makes for a great afternoon nosh

It’s proximity to DC, expansive views, and picnic-like setting are family (and dog) friendly and festive. Barrel Oak offers stone-fired pizza in the summer. Our visit was perfectly timed for an afternoon nosh.

You’ve seen that Greg and I are wine lovers. We make it a point to stop and try wines almost everywhere we go. We’ve even sampled wines in an old converted church in Oklahoma off Route 66. Wineries can be small, newly-opened, quaint and cozy or huge, professionally-designed and award-winning. You can visit as a couple, with a small group of friends or on a tour. If you keep an open mind, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself. It’s a fool-proof way to have a fun day. 

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored .., grab a glass of wine and toast it with friends.

Here's to wine tastings
Tour members toast the afternoon.