Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Let's blow up some stuff

Setting:  Our nation's capital.

Date:  July 4, 2010

Objective:  Celebrate America's birthday.  In the coolest (temperature-wise, not in the "oh, you wish you were cool like me!") way possible.  With minimal stress.

Obligation:  Feel compelled to attend celebration on National Mall with free concert, fantastic view of fireworks, sense of awe and national pride swelling in my heart as the patriotic music crescendos and voices young and old ring out.  After all, bajillions of people are in town right now for this very reason.  Am I missing out if I don't go??

Revision to obligation:  Truly feel no compulsion to leave my delightfully air-conditioned apartment ten hours ahead of time to stake out spot on National Mall, surrounded by heat, humidity, and an undetermined amount of small children who may or may not be well-behaved.  Porta-potties.  Lines.  Sweat.  Bugs.  Crowds.  My patriotic enthusiasm fades by the minute.

Best plan ever:  Travel nowhere, except up three flights of stairs fifteen minutes ahead of time to snag a spot on the roof for fireworks viewing with my mostly well-behaved neighbors.  After all, I have this great D.C. apartment with a roof for a reason, right?

Besides, what is this holiday about, really?  In the truest American sense, we just want to blow up some stuff.  And I can see those exploding fireworks from my roof.  Done.

Southern delights, part E - Savannah finish

Oh, is it the middle of the afternoon?  Must be time for a sweet treat!  You know, this guy really has it made - all he does is bring people joy in the form of free samples of warm pralines.  Buttery, sugary, nutty bliss.  Thank you, River Street Sweets.  YUM.

With a little sugar in our systems to keep us going, we found a good way to spend the cloudy afternoon - taking a horse & carriage tour around historic Savannah.  We met up with Michael and Prince, along with an adorable our-parents'-age couple who joined us on the tour, and set out to explore the streets and squares of Savannah.

Turn that corner, Prince!

We got the background on several of the squares, oodles of churches, plenty of gorgeous Savannah College of Art and Design buildings, and some of Savannah's more well-known residents and their homes (Juliette Gordon Low - founder of the Girl Scouts, Flannery O'Connor's childhood home, plenty of old rich dudes).  You know what one of the nicest things about it was?  Seeing the world at Prince's clip-clop pace.  Maybe it's because I'm writing this final vacation wrap-up two, three weeks after the relaxing vacation and am back to work work work, but it was really pleasant to just wind our way through the squares in the gently (and sometimes not quite so gently) rocking horse-drawn carriage.  Ahhhh.

Kami, always the lover of animals, shares a sweet moment with Prince after our ride.

After the carriage tour we walked back over to Monterey Square to stop in the Mercer-Williams House (that of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame) for a tour.  Can I just say that I love the squares?  Plenty of benches for sitting breaks, they slow down the flow of traffic and the pace of life, and each one has cultural and historical significance.  Plus all that crazy, kinda-creepy moss that just fascinates me.  Love it.

It was interesting going through the Mercer-Williams House - I mean, it's beautiful and holds an enormously eclectic collection of artsy things and has the most adorable (and mossy!) garden patio out back...but we didn't need to know everything about every piece of art.  At least we got some good air-conditioned time out of it.  Plus it has this gorgeous wrought-iron fence all the way around. 

Yes, I've developed a fascination with Spanish moss, wrought iron, and shutters.  Oh dear.  And I already loved magnolia least for dinner we mixed it up and went with something not Southern at all...Italian food at Corleone's.  Although I managed to get some breaded, fried meat in there with my veal parmesan.  Yum.

Besides, we had a pretty serious Southern dining destination in mind for lunch the next day, Mrs. Wilke's, which was recommended by absolutely any and every one who had anything to say about Savannah.  Now, this place means business.  It's lunch only, Monday through Friday, family-style dining at tables for ten.  Which means, yes, you'll be eating with strangers, but by the time you actually make it to your table, odds are you might already be friends with whoever you happen to be sitting with due to...the line.  We got there a little before 11:30 to find the line stretching down the block, and we promptly stuck ourselves at the end (in the shade, thank goodness!)...and made it to our table a little before 1:00.  Yowza.  But hello, would you look at this ridiculous spread of food??

The sheer number of selections was mind-boggling.  And it was all good.  Really, really good.  We had fried chicken and brisket and beef stew and okra gumbo and rice and cornbread dressing and mashed sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas and butter beans and cornbread and biscuits and collard greens and green beans and squash and macaroni & cheese and baked beans and some crazy sausage.  AND dessert.  Cobbler and banana pudding.  And as many gallons of tea as you could drink.  Ridiculous.  There wasn't room on the plate for all that food!

Needless to say, after that Southern gut-bomb, we felt the need to move around a little bit - if we sat down, we were goners.  We made our way out to Forsyth Park, an enormous green space at the end of the squares with a beautiful fountain and plenty of entertaining squirrels.

We also wanted to find the sculpture featured on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - and we did.  And it wasn't worth it at all.  So just keep that in mind if you're ever wandering Savannah in the future.  After that disappointment, we found a little air-conditioned relief inside St. John's for a quick glimpse of the 1873 church, and then stopped by the market near our house for some pick-me-ups (Diet Coke!!!) before crashing at home for a little while.

One last dinner along the riverfront, one last stop for treats, and we're done.  Off to our respective Texas and D.C. homes the next day.  But only after patting Oscar goodbye and thanking him for his Southern hospitality.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Southern delights, part 4 - Savannah start

We made it to Georgia, ya'll! (channel a Paula Deen voice for that one - can't you just hear her welcoming us??)  After dropping loads of suitcases and stuff at our ADORABLE Savannah home (of which I somehow managed to only take one exterior picture, on our very last day - come on, Erin, excessive photography is your thing!), we swung by the grocery store to pick up provisions while we still had wheels at our service.  Cut it a little close on time, and we were NOT going to get zapped with one more day of rental fees on the (overpriced as it was) car, so we made our drop-off and took a quick taxi home to throw groceries in the fridge and chill a bit (us, not the groceries...although the groceries in the fridge were actually chilling...ok...) before heading out to dinner. 

Besides, sitting in the Budget office and waiting on a taxi gave us plenty of time to whip out the magical Google devices provided by Pdub and evaluate our dinner we snagged reservations for that night at the Olde Pink House, which sounds stuffy and conjures up images of floral wallpaper and cranky old ladies (at least to me - I think I fixated on the "pink" and "olde" bit), but isn't like that all.  It's a beautiful old house that, granted, has a pink exterior, but also has a beautifully restored interior and serves a damn fine meal.  This was pretty much celebration night for us (we all made manager at Pdub effective July 1, woot woot!, and you KNOW we needed a good meal and a night of festivities to celebrate this...well...milestone...or whatever it is), so we did it up right.  Yes, I'm going to wax poetic about the food now.

But first, our waiter...absolutely adorable.  We spent 2 1/2 hours or so at this amazing dinner, and it wasn't all because of the food.  Love you, Jeremy.  No, really, love you.  Why haven't you called?  Kidding, kidding.

Of COURSE we would like the amazing bread basket filled with biscuits and cornbread!  Oh, and go ahead and bring out that first bottle of sauvignon blanc, if you don't mind.  We'd love to start with the mac & cheese jalapeño poppers, actually...these sauces are amazing!  And yes, I'd still like to dabble in the soup/salad course - she-crab soup, please.  Creamy deliciousness.  And then I'll have the crab-stuffed grouper with green beans and mashed potatoes.  And yes, I'm full, but we'll go ahead and break out a second bottle of wine AND have dessert...that pecan pie sounds divine, would you mind bringing me a piece?

Absolutely STUFFED.  Delicious and amazing.  Fantastic service, delicious food....great, great dinner.  So...we kept the festivities going and headed downstairs for a drink in the rather charming and classy basement piano bar at Olde Pink House (Charleston = rooftops, Savannah = basements...who knew?)...and then over to the recommended-for-live-music Mercury Lounge for maybe one more drink...and then home to bed because we were exhausted.  Excellent dinner and night out with gals.  I love vacation.

You know, I think it was in our favor that the next morning dawned a little on the dark-cloudy-rainy side of things.  Although if it was dark-cloudy-rainy, then did it really dawn at all?  For another time...  I slept in more than I'd been sleeping in, and we curled up on the couch, had a late breakfast, and worked our way through a few episodes of "Sex and the City," which just never gets old.  When hunger for something beyond Honey Nut Cheerios and berry salad finally drove us from the house, we made our way down to the riverfront along Bay Street and managed to duck into Vic's on the River for some much-needed sustenance and a view of the river boats (and cloudy, dreary much for the oppressive sunshine, but we'll definitely take these cooler temperatures).  More Savannah adventures to come...hopefully without raindrops...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Southern delights, part iii - assorted small bits of South Carolina and road trippin'

That air-conditioned bliss of a rental car I mentioned last time?  In order to obtain it, we had to make our past quite possibly the loneliest/chattiest rental car desk attendant in all of America.  He attempted to regale us with story after story, much of them focused on the mess that is South Carolina politics (and admittedly, they do have a lot of good story material), but finally we hopped in the car and went to the first place any sane person in the Charleston area would think of if they had wheels - the beach!

We did a little exploring on Sullivan's Island, winding our way out to Fort Moultrie on the tip of the island and admiring the houses along the way, dreaming of renting out beachfront homes for a week and not doing a darn thing but relaxing.  Ahhhhh.  Cue the sound of ocean waves...and a blue, blue sky with a loooong stretch of beach just inviting us to come play.

Kami made the insightful observation that all of our summer trips have put us on a beach somewhere - Stinson Beach north of San Francisco in 2007...

...the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago in 2008...

...biking along the beach in Provincetown last year...

...and a little more Atlantic Ocean action this year.  I think there's just something about getting sand between your toes.  You may not think the beach is the best place for me, what with (1) my Casper-like skin and its remarkable ability to not tan at all but rather freckle and fry, (2) a childhood spent nowhere near water of any kind (Lake Meredith does NOT count), and therefore no nostalgic memories of the family lake house or trips with beach floaties in tow, or (3) a small-ish fear of what could be lurking in the water, but...I love it.  I love the sand and the waves and the smell of salt in the air and the way it all whips your hair into a frizzy mess.  A happy, frizzy, sticky mess.  Thank you, beach.

This time around, we took plenty of time to do sand-art with our toes, poke at the strange creatures that floated onshore (ok, so that was just me, acting like a little kid...poking things with a stick, really?), gaze in awe at the crazy wind-surfers, admire the beach homes, and generally chill out to the sound of the waves.  It was lovely.

Of course, that ocean air makes you hungry (who am I kidding...I'm always hungry), so we headed into the cutesiness that is a beach town and parked ourselves on the front deck at Poe's Tavern for the night.  Their burgers came highly recommended from our Magnolia's waiter, and while burgers might not exactly sound like a light and healthy option, they did provide a categorical break from the world of FRIED chicken and FRIED green tomatoes that we'd been living in for a couple days.  Not that I need a break from fried deliciousness, and I realize that switching from fried to burger is not a healthy switch in any way...oh, fine, yes, I put pimento cheese on top AND had fries on the side.  Let the gut bombs continue!!

In their defense, Kami and Carolyn started with side salads and skipped the fries.  I'm just a glutton for punishment.  I'm sorry, heart and assorted internal organs - I'll get right on that workout program, promise.

Ok...and then we stopped for a Frosty at Wendy's.  And possibly some treats from Piggly Wiggly (BEST grocery store name EVER).  Couldn't help myself.  Yum.  Always room for sweet treats!

The next morning we set out to wind our way down to Savannah, and I can't even begin to tell you how many people suggested we stop in Beaufort along the way for lunch and a stroll through the historic area.  So...we did!  It is a cutesy little town, and we had a tasty lunch, some more time in giant swings along the waterfront...

...a little antiquing, a little wandering, a minor fascination (at least on my part) with the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, and of course a stop for dessert on our way out of town at an adorable little cafe.  Look out, Georgia, here we come! 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Southern delights, part b - a lil' mo' Charleston

We love our afternoon sweet treats.  A lot.  Firmly believe in embracing that vacation spirit and indulging in treats we might otherwise attempt to resist.  So after some relaxing porch swing time, we stopped at the oh-so-convenient Charleston Candy Kitchen for REAL Coke in glass bottles (there's really nothing quite like it) and chocolate refreshers.  Oh, and free candy corn and free spiced pecans.  They sure know how to suck you in with those samplers.  At any rate, we needed to chocolate up before...our big sailing adventure!  Another great way to beat the heat = put yourself on a boat, get out in the harbor, and let the cooling breezes do their thing.  Don't mind if I do.

Knowing how ridiculously hot the afternoon would be, we'd made reservations for the 3:00 sailing of the Schooner Pride.  Thank goodness we had that chocolate stop to provide us with a burst of energy, because it was a little bit tricky to figure out where the ship was docked...oh, oppressive heat, quit mocking us as we walk back past the aquarium...must...reach...boat.  Oh, good, we're there!  After a few painful minutes of sitting docked in the sun, taking in the required safety spiel, we were off.  Given an infinite supply of sunscreen and beverages, I'd like nothing more than spending endless afternoons on a sailboat (you know, with someone else doing all the work).  Just look how refreshed Carolyn is after some sea breezes, out there on the open water!

We SAW A DOLPHIN (who knew those hung out in Charleston's harbor??  Thank goodness for Kami, who with her laser eyes and complete animal awareness was the first to pick out the ocean creature), sailed between Fort Sumter (first shots of the Civil War!) and Fort Moultrie, admired some beautiful beach homes, and made passes by the USS Yorktown and Charleston's fancy new-ish bridge.  It was so great to spend a couple of hours out on the water, soaking in the sun and enjoying the breeze.  Those quiet, relaxing vacation moments were exactly what we needed.  No need to go go go all the time.

After our delightful sail, we muscled our way home in the heat with a quick stop at Harris Teeter to pick up wine and know, because every pre-dinner "shower, change, relax a bit" break should involve wine and cheese.  At least it does for us.  Although when you go somewhere as tasty as Magnolia's for dinner, I wished for a little more room in my tummy that was occupied by aforementioned cheese.  Caesar salad, and then the amazingness that was blackened catfish over Carolina dirty rice with fried green tomatoes, habañero chutney, and tomato butter, followed by a slice of pecan pie with bourben-caramel sauce and vanilla bean ice cream.  God, I love food.  After dinner we were craving some rooftop time, so we made our way to the Pavilion Bar and enjoyed the city and harbor views with a few beverages...even if we did have to brave a few raindrops.

You know what a good way to start the day is?  Breakfast on the rooftop terrace at your hotel.  You know what a nice follow-up to that is?  Leisurely getting ready to face the day, walking a few blocks, and putting yourselves in line for what promised to be an amazing lunch at Jestine's Kitchen.  Food followed by kind of day.  Yes, a bit of a wait, but I didn't mind at all when the iced tea and cornbread with honey butter and fried green tomatoes and fried chicken and okra gumbo and broccoli casserole and macaroni & cheese and peanut butter sandwich (Carolyn looooves peanut butter - good to be true to yourself and answer your cravings) graced the table.  Freakin' yum.  And as if that wasn't enough, we polished everything off with some tooth-achingly sweet Coke cake and meringue-topped banana pudding.  I'm not sure how we managed to walk after that.

Ok, yes, a heavy lunch...but it was sooo gooood....

Somehow we did summon the strength to walk, back down Rainbow Row and along the Battery to the Edmondson-Alston House for an informative tour from sweet old Fred.  The home was built in 1825, has great views of the harbor from the side porches and balconies built to catch the sea breezes, and was really pretty interesting to walk through (plus...air conditioning!  glad they've made that upgrade, even if it wasn't around in 1825).  We were also introduced to the jogging board - a long wooden plank anchored at each end on rockers, supposedly first thought up so that some old woman could bounce around on it and pretend she was riding a horse.  If this is their idea of exercise, sign me up.

Speaking of exercise...we've been doing a lot of walking.  A lot of walking in the oppressive heat.  What say we head on over to Budget, pick up our rental car, and go to the beach in air-conditioned comfort on wheels?  Yippee!!  The next installment of vacation recap features wind surfers...get ready for it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Southern delights, part I - Charleston

Last week I spent a glorious, although occasionally sweltering, six-ish days exploring Charleston and Savannah's offerings for three gals desperately in need of a summer vacation and some girl time.  Have I ever mentioned that I infinitely prefer taking vacation days to working for them?  You can rest assured that I will never, never max out my vacation time.  I'd much rather run low on free days available, because that means I'm actually escaping my cubicle and doing important things like digging my toes in the sand (see photographic evidence accompanying this paragraph), sipping wine (or frozen daiquiris or frosty beers or tasty cocktails...ok, and lots of water and iced tea in there, too, I promise) and kicking back with my girls, and exploring new places.  Let the recap commence!

Instead of battling the BW Parkway like last year to get to BWI, this year I put public transportation to use and Metro'd myself over to Union Station to catch Amtrak to the airport - yes, some waiting involved, but a pleasant experience that doesn't care at all what traffic is doing.  How refreshing.  AND Union Station has Starbucks to help you pass the wait AND I met Carolyn there!  It was nice having a mini-reunion and some airport company on this first leg of the journey - thanks for having extended family in the area, ctg.  A shuttle bus, two plane rides (one of which was on a tiny and slightly scary plane, I might add...some stomach-on-roller-coaster moments on that jump from Charlotte to Charleston, and flying doesn't usually faze me), and a taxi later...Kami reunion!!  Site of the reunion - we had one of the rather lovely townhouse suites at the Andrew Pinckney Inn, and other than the somewhat puzzling attitudes behind the front desk at times (we are in the land of Southern hospitality and charm, right?) it was a perfectly lovely homebase for our Charleston adventures.

We threw down our stuff and immediately set out on a walking exploration of the Charleston historic district, which is filled with adorableness and old stuff - cobblestone streets, bajillions of churches, beautiful old homes - and an abundance of greenery in the form of palm trees and pretty flowering things like crepe myrtle and magnolias (I simply CAN'T get enough of magnolias!).

On this particular June day it was also filled with blazing sunshine, excessive humidity, and a heat index of approximately 103 degrees (I mean, we knew this going in, but still), so of course we had to seek refuge at the waterfront park for some cooling breezes and harbor views...

...but that really wasn't enough, so we followed it up with additional cooling in the form of frozen daiquiris at the air-conditioned haven known as Wet Willie's.  Ahhhh, now that's refreshing.  Back to the hotel for a mandatory rest, refresh, and clothes change break, then out into the somewhat cooler evening hours to the Vendue Inn for a pre-dinner rooftop drink, lovely sunset, and foray into Southern culinary curiosities - pimento cheese, YUM.  I have memories of a tub of this stuff hanging out in the fridge and Dad making sandwiches out of it while the girls all made "ewww, really?" faces...but it's pretty dang tasty to me now.  Some refined palate, huh?  It goes quite nicely with a dark and stormy, although I'm guessing a lot of things go quite nicely with a dark and stormy.  After our rooftop time (did you know Charleston is remarkably short?  no tall buildings!  but many, many cute rooftops for the very purpose of eating and drinking - gets my stamp of approval), we walked over to Hyman's Seafood for dinner, where I enjoyed about twenty kinds of shrimp (ok, three) and we all had our first taste of boiled peanuts.  Now, I have to admit that it doesn't exactly sound that appealing (at least to me it doesn't), but these things are TASTY.  I think I would have been happy with a large bowl of these and only one kind of shrimp.  A little more rooftop time at Henry's on the way home, and count day one a success.

We spent the next morning exploring the city market (worth a walk through, but a little underwhelming and a whole lot touristy), making our way down Rainbow Row (longest cluster of intact Georgian rowhouses in the U.S., painted purdy pastel colors in the 1930s and 40s while being restored)...

...walking through the Battery (place for artillery in the Civil War and now a public park with pretty views of the harbor and massive, beautiful homes)...

...and sweating our way to a deli on Broad Street for lunch before we dropped from heat exhaustion and hunger.

Refreshed and supplied with iced tea, we walked back over to the waterfront park for a great vacation moment - an hour or so relaxing on a massive covered porch swing, watching the waves and the world go by, catching up on life and catching harbor breezes.  It's good to chill.

This could get a little lengthy, so I'm going to chop it up a bit for your reading comfort.  For alllllll the pictures, complete with semi-informative and occasionally pithy comments, check out the Picasa album, which includes multiple shots of the South Carolina's kinda purdy.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

I might need a few more shelves

I'm the kind of gal who leaves extra room in my suitcase to bring back books.  On trips to Dallas.  You see, Half Price Books holds a special place in my heart, especially the one on Northwest Highway that is freakin' ginormous and holds every type of book imaginable.  I brought back nine books the last time I went.  Nine.  For a mere twenty-five-ish dollars!  That, to me, is joy.

Bookstores are a magical, wonderful place.  I could spend hours wandering the aisles, picking up bound copies that intrigue me with their cover art or clever titles or an author's name (I usually stop and see what Bryan books are there - you know, just to know who I'll be sharing a shelf with when I slip a fake copy of my "book" next to them pen the great American novel and/or compile a witty collection of short stories).  I love the smell of books.  You might think it's musty or gross, but it smells like history and adventure to me.

I remember how crazy-happy I was when my dad took my sister and I to the Amarillo Public Library one summer day to meet John Erickson and have him sign one of my Hank the Cowdog books (which I hope is hiding in one of the storage containers in my closet at home in A-town - cherished childhood memories all boxed up for future waves of nostalgia).  And I love buying books when I travel places - I have a Dumas from Shakespeare and Company in Paris and a Kafka from Prague and a wine-from-vine-to-table-journey book from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.  The only reason I didn't pick up a cookbook on the recently-returned-from journey to Charleston and Savannah (postings to come!) was because the sheer amount of butter and deep frying scared me...I mean, I would actually do those things and then promptly fall over from clogged arteries at the ripe old age of 28.  Back to the books...I loved going to the National Book Festival last year, and I've gotten in the habit of throwing whatever paperback I'm reading in my bag on weekends so I can just stop, sit, and read for a while if it's so hot outside that all I can think about is ducking into air conditioning for a brief reprieve I feel like it.

Here in D.C., there's nothing quite along the lines of the awesomeness that is Half Price Books.  However, in pretty much the most non-descript storefront you'll find...

...there hides a small treasure trove of used books.  Books for America is a touch on the small side when compared with the behemoth I'm accustomed to, but a lot bigger when it comes to philanthropic endeavors - it's a non-profit enterprise that donates books to area schools and uses proceeds from its used book sales to fund literacy programs.  So now, as the proud owner of the following...

...I played a small role in helping someone else get a book or two.  Worth it for a 1978 edition of the Joy of Cooking (which I'm sure has many fabulous ideas for themed dinner parties), one of the few David Sedaris books I didn't already own, my first foray into Michael Chabon, and a Jodi Picoult that I'm sure I'll blast through in three days or so.

While it's not nearly as massive as Half Price, I know I can find something every time I come in here.  Thank you, Yelp, for pointing me in the direction of this great store.  I was also going to stop by Second Story, which is just a few blocks away, but I was already loaded down with this stack of paper AND sweating profusely due to the oppressive D.C. heat that I didn't think would set in for another few weeks.  Sometimes I miss shuttling myself from place to place in the air-conditioned comfort of my vehicle instead of hoofing it around.

I have books piled on my nightstand and filling multiple bookcases and stacked on top of my printer.  I love them.

Rows and rows of books just really make me a happy person.