Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's Next?

It's been a while since I've written something for whereisdarrennow and wanted to get back into the swing of things so here's a little bit of an update...

If you're friends with me on facebook, you've seen how I didn't get to go to Japan after all. I was bummed to say the least as I really was looking forward to experiencing an extended amount of time in such a great place as well as with the friends I have there but it just didn't work out. Hopefully I'll get back there in the future. I'll continue working on learning Japanese in hopes that I will have that chance.

As you may have also seen, I was in Philadelphia for three weeks with my family. I got to spend a lot of quality time hanging out and talking with my dad, which was fun and valuable. I visited with some great old friends and made some amazing new ones. I spent time with my brother and sister and their families. I went to the zoo. I got coffee at Wawa. I tried some new (to me) restaurants. I put over 800 miles on the rental car. I ate water ice and pretzels. Most of all, I got some valuable "me time" reflecting and making new plans.

Where is Darren now? Pues...I'm writing this entry from my new home in Barcelona, España. The timing worked out well that some newish friends that I met had a room open up in their apartment so I jumped at the chance and took it. David and Diana (see below) are great people; they're super clean, fantastic cooks, and they seem to actually like I'll be here for the foreseeable future and will be using it as a base to travel around Europe for a bit. Life's still pretty good, in other words.

So, what about the blog? I started whereisdarrennow as a way to share my travel experiences and what I'm learning while doing it. During a discussion about what to do with my blog, one of my super-so-smart-PhD.-candidate roomies suggested that the name lent itself well to not only physically where I am but also where I am as a person. With that in mind, I'll continue to write about the places I go and the experiences I have but am planning to post some "historical" stories about places I went in the past as well as some stories about "where" I am now. Don't worry though...I don't plan on this becoming some sort of online, self-reflection diary! :-)

I hope you enjoy reading the new-and-improved version of whereisdarrennow. I know that I'll continue to enjoying living it as well as writing about it. Who would have known that I'd actually enjoy writing???

Monday, March 22, 2010

Water Ice

I was driving around Philadelphia today, passed by a Rita's Water Ice shop, and knew that I just had to make a stop. I was able to fight the urge until I got over to my sister's house tonight and offered to take my niece for a treat.

Rita's has become a Philadelphia institution over the past 20 years and now has around 500 locations in several states. They sell a few different summer treats including soft-serve ice cream, frozen-coffee-style drinks, water ice, and (at least in the Philadelphia area) pretzels. You can also get the basics mixed in various ways. The most popular menu item is a water-ice/soft-serve combo that has some silly name.

For me though, the money's still in the plain, old-fashioned water ice. If you haven't had water ice before, it's kinda' like a Slurpee or Icee drink only thicker so it can't be eaten with a straw. It is not like a snow cone, which tends to be made from fairly course (unflavored) ice and flavored syrup poured over it. The flavoring in water ice is actually in the ice and comes in various flavors like cherry, lemon, mint chocolate chip, mango, and others. My favorite, chocolate, has been recently overtaken by my new addiction, Swedish Fish. I've been known to polish off a large along with a pretzel.

As I mentioned, I took my niece over to Rita's tonight. She's a fan of cherry water ice. Here's one happy customer:

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Elfreth's Alley

When I lived in Oceanside, I considered my house to be pretty old, at least by California standards. It was a 1923 Craftsman-style and it was in a neighborhood of homes from the teens to the 1950s. Being originally from Philadelphia though, I know that a house from the 20s really isn't all that old so today, after breakfast with a friend, I visited the oldest, continuously-occupied residential street in the U.S. to check it out.

Elfreth's Alley is located just west of (the) 95 (freeway) and just south of the Ben Franklin Bridge in downtown Philadelphia. It's a small street with about 30 or so homes on it and was first developed in 1702. Here's a shot from the west end of the street that shows how narrow the street really is:

The street was occupied by craftsmen and artisans during the 1700 and 1800s. In the 1900s until about the 1950s, it was mostly run down and almost demolished several times but was saved by local preservation groups. For much of it's history, Elfreth's Alley has been a great example of the melting pot of America. Residents have included pretty much every immigrant group from Europe that sought a better life in the U.S. Nowadays, tour groups walk up and down a street that's priced out of reach of most.

One thing that's cool that you'll see on houses in downtown Philadelphia, and all along Elfreth's Alley are called Fire Marks. These plaques, issued by insurance companies to be placed on the outside of a building, were originally used in Europe and found their way across the pond. The fire marks would indicate to the fire brigades, which were usually private groups, that the building was insured and by whom and if they should put out the fire. It's small in this photo but you can see one on this house half-way between the second and third floors:

Here's a close up of one fire mark:

...and another one:

Oh yeah, for my friend Ri who always says that my photos are "Here-I-am" shots, here I am at Elfreth's Alley Philadelphia:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Butter Cake

Today's post is a little different in that it was actually the result of a request made by a facebook friend named Regina with whom I went to grade school. She's been following my travels and sent me an email suggesting that I do a story about butter cake. As I am somewhat addicted to the substance, I was more than happy to oblige.

The butter cake I'm going to talk about is made by the Holmesburg Bakery, which is located in the Northeast section of Philadelphia. I don't want to get into some heated discussion about butter cake as (like pretzels or water ice) every person that's ever had one has his or her favorite but, for me, Holmesburg Bakery makes the best.

Going to the Holmesburg Bakery is like taking a step back in time. Open for over 100 years, it's a tiny place filled with oh-so-good, anti-diet items and is probably best known for their cream-filled doughnuts and butter cake.

Butter cake is so simple yet somewhat hard to describe. It starts with a moist-and-dense-pound-cake-crossed-with-a-soft-cookie-texture crust. On top of that is where the evil begins...a gooey, creamy, buttery, granulated-sugary filling that can only be described as heaven. This combo is then baked until there's a very light crust on the top.

Each butter cake that you get has a slightly different texture. I'm guessing that this is due to them being made by an old-time employee/owner/master-crafts person that "just knows" what they're doing. In my opinion, the best butter cakes are the ones that are super gooey and runny. Here's a close up of the good stuff running down over the crust...

Eating butter cake is also a pretty funny thing with my family as it definitely follows a set pattern. Each of us will start out with a piece that is about 2" x 2" or so. That piece goes down pretty easily. After everyone's had their first piece, the sharks start circling again but, each time a person returns, they take a smaller and smaller piece until there's really only one last 2" x 2" piece left in the pan. I'm not sure who ever eats that last piece as I've never seen it done...

Yum! Butter cake!!! Thanks Regina for getting me to revisit one of my favorite places.

The Rocky Statue

While in Center City Philadelphia yesterday with my dad, we briefly stopped out front of the art museum to get some photos of me in front of the Rocky statue.

You may remember the 1976 movie "Rocky" where Sylvester Stallone portrays a little-known fighter that gets his big break and fights the heavy-weight champ Apollo Creed. In the movie, Rocky does a series of epic workouts that include him running through the city's Italian Market, beating up meat, and scaling the now-famous steps in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum. To this day, you can regularly see residents and visitors alike running up the steps and doing the Rocky dance at the top.

For a little while, you could find the statue at the top of the stairs, center front of the museum, but due to it's questionable artistic value, it was moved south to the stadium area. Because many Philadelphians see Rocky as a local hero, the statue has again been relocated, this time to its newish home near the street towards the north side of the museum.

Mütter Museum

Today I had the opportunity to visit the Mütter Museum in Center City Philadelphia with my dad. This medical museum is a well known local hot spot (that most people have never been to - including my dad).

The Mütter is actually a part of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and contains a collection that is, well, as they say, disturbingly informative...

Inside you can find all sorts of real and simulated examples of medical oddities, various (real) fetuses with various defects, disease samples, anatomical samples, antique medical equipment, and my brother's favorite exhibit--the eye disease display. The original purpose of this collection, which was originally donated by Dr. Thomas Mütter, was for medical research and education. Curious, huh?

Well, let me tell won't go more than five minutes without starting to wonder if you'll make it through the whole place without getting ill. I found myself going quickly through a couple of parts of the exhibit.

Here's an interior shot of the museum's main room (Note that I had to keep my photo taking on the DL so I used my trusty Palm Pre without flash. Some are a little blurry but you'll get the idea.):

There are several "dried" samples of various bodies and body parts that are available for learning about anatomy. Here's an arm:

There's also some items of significant historical value. They have some samples from Abraham Lincoln's assassination including Lincoln's death mask:

No respectable museum of this type would be complete without an exhibit of the results of sexually-transmitted infections. I particularly enjoyed the syphilitic skulls:

One very interesting display is of a body that is called "The Soap Woman". This unfortunate soul died in the 19th century and was buried in soil that allowed her body to be converted to what is essentially soap. She's not looking too good but as Yoda says...when 100 "years you reach, look as good, you will not":

There is a room upstairs that has a couple of rotating/seasonal/temporary exhibits. We were lucky enough to come across a nice collection of south American shrunken heads. These were super cool...

And, of course, the highlight (to me at least) is the REAL super-big human colon display. This five-foot-long colon was removed from the body of a guy who died about 100 years ago. They were able to recover about 40 pounds of, ummm, fecal matter from it. Enjoy!

If you get a chance to visit Philadelphia, and haven't eaten in a couple of hours, I think you'll enjoy a visit. Well, actually, I left the museum hungry and my dad took me to one of his favs...John's Roast Pork in south Philadelphia. Yum! Body parts and pork...a classic Philadelphia combination!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Butter Krak

Every place in the world has its local food specialties; San Diego = fish tacos, Guadalajara = birria, San Francisco = sour dough bread, and Philadelphia is no exception. While I'm here, you'll probably see several food stories. Today's is about something that I've enjoyed since childhood.

As the leftover Valentine's Day candy starts to disappear from the counters of stores in the Philadelphia area, you begin to find chocolate-covered Easter eggs in its place. One of my favorites is called a Butter Krak egg and it's made by a company called Zitners. Here's a shot of a couple of their products on the counter at Wawa:

S. Zitner is a Philadelphia company that's been around since the 1930s and sells mostly chocolate-covered Easter eggs filled with stuff like marshmallow, peanut butter, coconut, and butter cream. They do the majority of their business at this time of the year and the product is still made mostly by hand with natural ingredients, in other words, like a mom-and-pop type of place. Even the packaging is "classically" styled...note the pinstripe-clad rabbit on the package:

As I mentioned, Butter Krak is really my favorite. It's got a butter cream and coconut center and is dipped in dark chocolate that contains toasted coconut. They're not the prettiest thing around and, actually, look like something you could throw in a swimming pool to clear it out (ala BabyRuth candy bar)...

I struggled to take the last two photos in this post as I wanted to finish the egg off quickly. Here's the last second of this one's life:

You can order them online if you want to try them. If you're going to place an order, I'd recommend getting a few different flavors especially the Butter Cream and Peanut Butter ones.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Think about 7-Eleven, ampm (no capital letters, hyphens, slashes or spaces - I didn't know), Circle K, Oxxo, Family Mart, Daily Yamazaki, or any of the other convenience stores that you know about. Now think of them as very clean with really good coffee and food. That's Wawa.

Wawa is a chain of about 540 stores in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. They're literally all over the place in the Philadelphia area. Every time I come in I have to hit up Wawa for coffee and sandwiches like I did today for lunch.

From the outside, Wawa could be almost any (nice) convenience store:

It's what's inside that counts. Here's a shot of the coffee area. They have regular, unleaded, flavored, and usually one "exotic" coffee like Kona or Peruvian or something like that.

From here, you take your coffee to the "fixins" area where they have Half-n-Half, milk, cream, powdered, flavored, sugar, fake sugar, Splenda, lids, stirrers, cup insulators, and about 450 other options and accessories. It's a little silly but fun. They even have their signature blend available in bags above all the other stuff. I usually just do some Half-n-Half with a couple of Splendas.

Wawa has an in-house deli that sells lunch meats and some other stuff but they also make a variety of sandwiches that are good. You order your sandwich at a touch-screen interface that's impersonal at worst and error-free at best. Here's the deli in action:

I ordered a fairly vanilla sandwich today. Just some turkey and American cheese on a roll with bacon, mayo, hot peppers (not very spicy), tomato, lettuce, and pickles. As with most photos of food, this doesn't look that appetizing but is really good...

If you find yourself in the mid-Atlantic region and "gottahava" (Wawa's slogan) sandwich and/or coffee, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Oh yeah, they also have a full convenience store with all the other stuff you'd expect; sodas, candy, snacks, and so on. It's good. Trust me!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

2700 Miles

I spent the last few days in my beloved Oceanside California with my great friends Chuck and Gail. Last night we went to happy hour at the Oceanside Harbor with Gail's dad, mom-in-law, and Chuck's daughter Christy. It was very nice drinking cheap happy-hour drinks, eating the local deep-fried specialties, and hanging outside watching the seals swim by. The weather was an almost-perfect 62 degrees and sunny.

Here are the happy campers just before sunset and a couple of drinks in:

I left via Carlsbad airport about an hour or so later and headed to Philadelphia to play my semi-annual role as the prodigal son. Each time I come back and enter the room for the first time, my sister yells out "kill the fatted calf, the prodigal son has returned". It's a role that I enjoy playing over and over. It never really gets old being the center of attention, does it?

The weather is a little different 2700 miles away from Oceanside. As I write this, it's currently 39 degrees, overcast with some light showers, and there's some snow left over from a past storm. Needless to say, I'm guessing that all the drinking's going to take place indoors...

Here's a shot down the street that my dad lives on:

Oh yeah, to the doubts of a certain Philadelphia-area-based friend, I will continue the travel blog while visiting the City of Brotherly Love. I do believe there are quite a bit of cool things that I can write about. If you have any ideas, drop me a line.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Three Cities, Three Parks, and Venn Diagrams

While in Peru this last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Parque Del Amor (Love Park). This park is located in the Miraflores area of Lima right on the ocean. It was designed with a focus on a central sculpture and had a winding, tile-covered bench around the edge. I couldn't help but think of two other parks that I've been to that had similarities. Here's an overview shot of Parque Del Amor:

If you notice in the photo above, there's a huge sculpture of a couple making out. You can question the artistic value but it is the focus. In center city Philadelphia, there is a place called JFK Plaza, which locals call Love Park. Here's a photo of JFK Plaza I took a few years ago on my brother's wedding day:

You can see the world-famous LOVE sculpture and the reason for the commonly-used Love Park name. Now, as I mentioned, the Parque Del Amor has a winding, tile-covered bench that was designed in the style of the one at Gaudi's Park Guell in Barcelona. Here's a shot of the bench in Lima:

...and the one in Barcelona that wraps around the edge of the plaza (sorry about the odd angle-it's the best overview shot I have):

I found it interesting how these three parks all had common, overlapping features. Leave it to the engineer in me to view the common love theme in terms of a Venn Diagram.

Inca Kola

I'm the type of person to try pretty much anything once especially when it comes to food. Someone once said to me that if they were in a place with cannibals that they'd eat right along with the group. I'm probably somewhere in that league.

Here in Peru, the most popular soda isn't Coke or Pepsi, it's Inca Kola. Its looks are a lot like the bright colors of Mountain Dew or even the antifreeze that you use in your car. How could I not try it?

Now part of the national identity/pride, Inca Kola was actually created by an English immigrant to Peru about 100 years ago. I read that it was originally flavored with lemon verbena but I doubt that they use verbena to flavor it today. Actually, it tastes a lot like old-fashioned bubble gum. It's a bit sweet but I guess I expect that in all sodas. I really, really like the flavor and would probably drink it regularly if I could find easily it in the U.S.

Inca Kola also comes in a diet, or Light, version too. It's not quite as sweet tasting but otherwise they've got the flavor right on. I actually prefer the diet version to the regular because of it being less sweet.

Yum. I like this Inca Kola stuff. Now to go find some new and exotic food to match it with!