Monday, September 26, 2011

The Despedida (Combo Bachelor / Bachelorette Party)

I got back to Spain on Wednesday morning after an interesting trip from California. When I arrived at the San Diego airport on Tuesday morning, the airline didn't have a record of my reservation. I had booked the ticket about two months prior using miles but somehow they had lost the information. The woman at the counter was terrific and was able to bump some unlucky person from my flights from San Diego to Houston and then my flight from Houston to Philadelphia. (Gold status has its perks for sure!) From Philadelphia the plan was to then connect to another airline for the final leg. That airline had my information and reservation so no problem there.

The flights were uneventful other than my layover in Philadelphia only ended up being about 15 minutes long due to a late departure from Houston. As I ran through the Philadelphia airport, stopping just long enough to buy a couple of pretzels (!!!) and a soda, I resigned myself that my luggage probably wouldn't be making my flight with me. No problem, I thought, because I had brought my suit with me in my carry-on and I figured that I still had two days before the wedding to get my stuff.

I arrived into Barcelona as scheduled and I patiently waited for my bags, which I knew weren't coming, in the baggage claim area. After everyone else had retrieved their bags and left I went over to the service counter and filed my claim. Problem was that there was no record of my bags anywhere in the computer system. The agent even asked my when the last time I saw them. :-o Diana met me outside the airport where we got to see each other for the first time in three months and we headed back to our apartment in Vall d'Hebron.

I waited a few hours and called the airline to see what was up but they still didn't know anything. Later that evening I finally got an answer. My bags had taken their own trip back to Spain via Newark, New Jersey. According to the agent, the bar code on my bags had my routing as SAN -> HOU -> PHL -> EWR -> BCN. My ticket and the bag labels mentioned nothing of this side trip but, either way, the bags made it by Thursday evening and all was good.

Later that night (Wednesday evening), after a quick nap and some errands, Diana and I went to a combo Bachelor / Bachelorette party (called a Despedida de Soltero / Soltera in Spanish) at Vladamir's recently remodeled apartment. Diana had already had her party but our friends wanted to do something nice for me (and her) so they put together a fun time for us. One of the activities organized by Pau was a "how-well-do-you-know-each-other" quiz where he asked us about our favorite foods, movies, families, (even some questions about WIDN) and so on and we each had to blindly answer by writing on a small blackboard. Results showed that Diana has a much better memory than I do, which should surprise no one, and now I understand the "forever" part where I'll have plenty of time during the rest of my life to learn (and remember) more about her!

The party was a hit! There was lots of wine and cocktails to loosen us up. We ate a bunch of different tapas and some delish chicken kebabs with a bunch of great friends. In other words, a great time. Thanks to Vladamir for christening the new apartment (and amazing roof-top deck) and everyone else for coming out to wish us mazel tov on the next phase of our lives.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wedding Info

The wedding is this Friday afternoon in Barcelona. Diana and I will be broadcasting it live starting at 5pm local time (11am EST/COT - 8am PST). For those of you who couldn't make it out but who want to be there, you can tune in at:

[link removed]

Not to be too optimistic but we're limited to "only" 50 viewers so tune in early. See you there!

I'm A Drunk!

Today's my last full day back in California and I've been reflecting a lot lately. A LOT! Did you hear me? I'm getting married THIS Friday! REFLECTION CENTRAL here!

So, anyway, one of the things that I've realized during this time is that I've become sort of a lush...maybe even a bit of a drunk. I think that I've had at least one drink everyday since I finished my CELTA class three weeks ago. For example, this past Saturday I had two margaritas for lunch and then most of a bottle of wine with dinner. That was after going to a five-course dinner and wine pairing on Friday night.'s been a lot of alcohol but, for the most part, a LOT of wine.

Wine is good. I first started to like wine when I lived and worked down in Mexico and my friend Eduardo and I would hang out at his folks' house and drink from his dad's collection. Over time my tastes have become more developed (I hope) and I owe it to a handful of different people from a few different countries. My preference has tended towards lighter-bodied red wines that are drier. I have a very nice friend named Paco who lives near Madrid who introduced me to some amazing Spanish Tempranillo wine (as well as Baco, the god of wine!) last year that got me hooked on that. It's basically all I drink now when in Spain.

But here in California, I'm definitely addicted to Pinot Noir. I have an old friend from Japan to thank for that one. The one I've been drinking most for the last few years is one called Caretaker that I buy at Trader Joe's for around $10. It's to die for. You can see it on the right in the photo below. I think I've drank probably a half case of the stuff in the last three weeks! The other bottle in the photo is a new addition to my wine-purchasing list. it's a Trader-Joe's-branded Pinot called Carneros that also costs about $10. In my completely unscientific and untrained opinion, I'd give both of these California Pinots an eight or nine out of a possible ten.

Pinot Noir seems to be all over the board as far as texture, flavor, and relative sweetness. I like both of these because they are light-bodied (watery?) and fairly dry. The cards at Trader Joe's and their bottles say something about red cherries, wood barrels, and other stuff that I'm sure if I understood might make me seem somewhat intelligent if I could string enough of them together. In other words, I really don't know much but I do know that I like 'em dry. My ultimate goal is to be more thirsty when I'm done drinking a wine than when I started!

One other thing that I found out when I was taking the photo for this story was that the label on the bottle of Caretaker uses the wording "freshly laid road tar" to partially describe the flavor! My pallet isn't that trained yet but I have eaten shit more than once back in my bicycle days. I can remember getting road tar pulled out of my face for sure. Maybe that's where my love of this stuff comes from??? Whoda' known?

Like I said, tonight's my last night in town before I head back to Barcelona tomorrow. Wish me (and Diana) luck with the next chapter of my (our) journey. In the mean time, I'm going to go uncork my last bottle of Caretaker. Salud!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Shopping At Trader Joe's

What do Hawaiian shirts, folksy staff, silly brand names, and a ship's bell have to do with food shopping? A whole lot if you're at Trader Joe's!

This story is long overdue. When I first moved over to Barcelona, I wrote a story about me going to the supermarket but I realized a couple of weeks ago that I've never written about one of my favorite stores here in the U.S. Actually, Trader Joe's is probably more accurately described as an "experience" rather than just a store. Since their humble beginnings in 1950s, this Los Angeles area-based chain of grocery stores is now in 29 states and has over 350 locations. This is the one in Escondido, California, right near where I'm staying:

Trader Joe's is unique for a whole bunch of reasons that range from their folksy staff, outstanding customer service, and unique product lines. They've done all kinds of little touches to make the stores fun and interesting places to visit. I like these tiny, kid-sized shopping carts that they have:

Don't let their fun, casual style give you the wrong impression though. They are pros at what they do. The layout of the stores and the product mix are highly engineered to get you to enjoy your shopping experience enough so that you stay for a relatively long time and buy a lot of stuff. One example is when you first walk in the front door, they have fresh flowers for sale, which is an old store-design trick to make you feel like everything there is super fresh. From there you move on to the fresh fruit and veggie section and then onto the awesome cheese-assortment section:

I think that what makes TJ's really successful is that they offer a lot of (mostly) Trader Joe's branded items that just don't exist anywhere else. If you look closely while you shop, you'll notice that the name Trader Joe's is changed depending on the ethnicity of the food being sold. I've seen Trader Giotto's, Trader Ming's, and Trader Jose's among others at one point or another. Some of my favorite items are their salsas and chips, which are great:

Another highlight of Trader's is their wine selection. The chain started out as a specialty wine vendor where you could go to find pretty much every California wine. Over time, they added snacks like cheeses to their wares and it's continued to expand ever since. Below is my local Trader's wine area with a big "Two Buck Chuck" display. Two Buck Chuck is actually a series of wines from the Charles Shaw winery that are sold only in TJ's and cost between $2 and $3 per bottle. The cost doesn't reflect how good these wines are. I have to be honest, though, that my favorites are some of the Pinots that they sell in one of the other aisles.

Finally, my strongest Trader Joe's addiction is for these mini chocolate chip cookies that sell for $4 a tub. I've been known, during my more portly years, to polish off at least half a container in one sitting. I do better now but I still eat too many.

Oh, and the ship's bell. When the lines in the front of the store get too long, one of the Hawaiian-shirt-clad employees rings the bell once to alert one of their coworkers to come running and open a new register.

Like I mentioned, they've spread throughout the U.S. to the point that they're now in Philadelphia too. What makes it super convenient to get my Trader's fix while there eliminated one of the easiest annual Christmas gifts for my family. I'd go and load up a whole box of salsas, cookies, and a bunch of other stuff to give out to my grateful family. Oh well, I guess the trade off is worth it.

See you there!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Great San Diego Blackout Of 2011

Let me set the scene...

It's 3:48pm on a typical Wednesday and you're in San Diego, California minding your own business when the power goes out. Within minutes there's mass chaos and a loss of civility. The news says that power's out in all of San Diego, parts of Orange County, and even into Arizona and Mexico. They don't know what happened yet but the say the lines were "severed". People get scared that this is some pre-September 11th terrorist-related event and start going crazy. Looting and rioting ensue. You see lots of car accidents and dead bodies in the streets. You're worried about your loved ones and you're worried about yourself. You begin to ask yourself why you aren't better prepared for disasters and you consider that this might just be your last day. What will you do?

Well, we did lose power here in San Diego yesterday but it didn't end up being that bad. I happened to be over in Oceanside when the lights went out but I really didn't think much of it as rolling black outs periodically occur. I got into the car and headed back out to Escondido to hit the gym. Traffic on the 78 freeway was much heavier than usual but, again, I didn't really think anything of it because I was talking to my dad during the drive. It wasn't until I hung up with him and put on the radio that I found out that all of San Diego had no power. Traffic was busy because almost every business in the county shut down at the same time and people were going home. What is usually a 15 minute drive at that time of the day ended up taking me about 1.5 hours.

It's funny that I didn't notice that almost all of the radio stations were off the air until after I found one that was broadcasting information about what was going on. I went all the way to the gym, which had a "Closed" sign on the door before the full impact of what was going on hit me. I headed back to San Marcos where I'm staying via surface streets, which were also pretty tough. Almost all of the traffic lights were out so every corner was a backed up four-way stop.

Once I got home, I did what any other red-blooded American would do and fired up the grill to cook a couple of steaks that I figured would go bad if the power stayed off for a while, which the local utility was saying could take over a day to come back up. My biggest concern at that point was that I didn't have any more wine! Dinner ended up a family affair as Jim and Maria along with my other two roommates hung out in the back yard all eating a potluck-style dinner together. It was very nice. After dinner we took a walk around the neighborhood and I was amazed at how many people were sitting out front of their houses. I've been here for almost two months and I've seen maybe one or two folks outside their houses at night.

All in all, I know that the economy of San Diego probably suffered a bunch but the five hours without power ended up being a good experience (for me). Most people I saw were relatively polite and well behaved. Once everyone got home, there was nowhere for anyone to go and nothing for them to do. Families and friends were enjoying time together without the usual distractions like television, the internet, or whatever. There was no mass chaos. No rioting. No need to break into the local convenience store to get beef jerky to stay alive. Nope. Just a nice night to hang outside and relax.

Did I mention how pretty all the stars are?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

MINI Cooper Club Run

One of the things that I was looking forward to doing while back in California this summer was going with the members of my local MINI club for a run through east county San Diego. This past Sunday was finally the day that I got to meet up with the group for the first time in almost two years. We ended up with at least twenty-two MINI's worth of folks and had a nice fun drive for about four hours. Here are some of the cars and peeps at our first rest stop:

Like I mentioned, this was the first run with West Coast MINI (WCM) that I had done in almost two years (since I left San Diego). I really enjoy the runs because I love to drive and also because the folks in the club are a great bunch. We started out on Sunday at about 9am and headed east to drive through the twisty roads and mountains that ring the east side of San Diego county. It ended up being one of the hottest days of the year, getting up to, at one point, 114 degrees F (45.5 C)!!! I missed getting a picture of the thermometer in my car but I did manage to record it reading 113 was hottt!!!

The runs, which our fearless leader Steve plans, take us on some beautiful and not-so-crowded roads that are a blast to drive. Steve's become an expert in every fun-to-drive road in San Diego county. Other clubs and organizations like local car dealerships sometimes ask him to plan their route sheets when they hold driving events and rallies. One of the many nice things that he does is to have us take breaks along the way usually at some interesting places. Our second stop of the day this past Sunday was at the Dudley's Bakery in Santa Ysabel. This bakery is located about 1 hour east of Escondido (just before you arrive into Julian) and is famous for its bread. It's always funny to see people's faces when a couple of dozen MINIs show up somewhere:

I bought my MINI new in December of 2006 and was invited to join the club by Wendy and her husband Mike, who I met on a online MINI forum, before I even owned the MINI. Since then, I've made a lot of great friends and had some amazing adventures with the club. Each year, in addition to the near-monthly half-day runs, there are a small-handful of multi-day trips that members of WCM go on. One is in the spring when many folks head up to Las Vegas for A MINI Vacation In Vegas (AMVIV) and spend a few days in Sin City. The other trip is a four-day deal when we drive up to Monterrey, California together. The club also does a few charity and community-service-type events during the year, which are always fun. The trips, charity events, and frequent runs through east county allow everyone to really get to know each other. It's a pretty tight-knit group of fairly-diverse people who all share a love of a funny little British car.

I miss the runs when I'm gone. There's just something about "driving the twisties" of San Diego following another MINI (or twenty) for a morning that just makes me happy.

This particular run was bittersweet because I'm in the process of selling my MINI and it will be my last as a MINI owner. It just doesn't make sense to continue to pay for storage, maintenance, registration, and insurance on a car that sits for something like 48 weeks of the year. I still plan on riding shotgun on some of the runs when I come back to town but I'll definitely miss everyone. I'll also miss the revvy-whiney sound that the MINI's supercharger makes when I'm following Steve through the turns. Thanks for all the great times West Coast MINI! I miss you guys already.