Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Dave Visits Barcelona

There are days when I look at my Facebook feed and enjoy all the languages. One of the benefits of having lived in so many places is having friends from all over the world, all over the world. On the up side, I'd like to think it means I could find a place to crash within a few hours of almost anywhere on the globe. On the down side, it can make it a bit tough to meet up with some of those friends on a Saturday night or, sometimes, to even just connect.

When it does happen though, it's extra special like when my good friend Dave from California came to Barcelona for a two-week visit:

Dave and I met about ten years ago at work. We hit it off almost immediately partly because we are both originally from Philadelphia and partly because...well, I can't remember. It just kind of happened, I guess. Whatever.

Every time we go back to San Diego, we stay with Dave. This past March, it was for about half the trip. He and his dog Miles are great hosts who live in a great house near the beach. Dave makes it easy as he likes to cook (and is really good at it) and share a good bottle of wine. Diana and I pushed and pushed until he finally committed to coming to Barcelona in the fall.

Waiting for our fish to be prepped over at La Boqueria:

Getting the chance to spend so much one-on-one time with Dave made me both happy and sad. Happy because it was super nice to be able to share my daily life with such a long-time good friend. We went to the Sagrada Familia one day,

which impacted Dave even more than I would have ever imagined.

There were the meals together like at the Colombian place and, my current favorite, tapas at El Xampanet:

We even went shopping together! In other words, boy-bonding at the highest level.

But, all that Dave time also made me sad because, after he left, it occurred to me how much harder it is to make good friends as you get older. Anyone who's over 30 might realize upon reflection that most, if not all, of our good friends are those we made when we were young. (I even came across an article theorizing as much.) Yes, the downside of being a bit nomadic is that some of your best friends might be half way around the world.

But, like I said, it makes getting together that much more special. Looking tough (with Gara) in Barceloneta:

Diana and I really enjoyed having Dave over. He's an easy guest and, best of all, we got to play Parcheesi almost every night! It something he introduced us to when we visited a few years ago and that we enjoy. And, like a good guest, he even let us win a few rounds. So nice.

A lovely afternoon in Sitges:

A couple of days before Dave arrived I found out that I needed to make a quick trip up to Dublin. I was bummed to say the least. After Dave flew almost half way around the world, I would need to be gone for a chunk of time. But a day later I got a crazy idea and sent him a message. Would you be up to going with me? The hotel's paid for and you'd only need to buy a ticket.

Guess where this flight with these two crazies was headed!

Side note: I'd forgotten until writing this that Dave and my first week working together was spent up north of San Francisco on new manufacturing operation I was developing. I remember it ended up being a really fun adventure.

Anyway, Dave got to check out a wee bit of Ireland while I was working and says he had a great time. Unfortunately we didn't get to hang out too much but it was still great to have him along. Oh, and if you find yourself on a Ryanair flight and there's an emergency, make sure to remove your shoes, earrings, glasses, and dentures when evacuating.

I once heard a saying about aging that goes "the days are long but the years are short". I can't believe how fast time flies especially those two weeks Dave was here. Whoosh! Like the wind.

Here's to good friends, whatever language they speak and wherever they happen to be!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Caretaker - Memories In A Bottle

I lived in California for a bit less than twenty years and, since leaving for a "six-month trip" almost six years ago, I've only been back a handful of times. Of course, I have a ton of great memories. During the last trip in March, Diana and I went with Gail and Chuck to visit Gail's long-time friend Trish and her husband, Randy.

Randy's quite the wine connoisseur and was nice enough to lead us through some of his collection. It's not often I've sat down with an expert to talk about and try various wines. One of the things that gave me a charge was how Randy (and Trish) often combine travel with his (their?) love of wine, be it in California, Europe, or some other place. We all talked about some of our favorites and why and I mentioned that one of mine when I lived in San Diego was Caretaker, which comes from Trader Joe's.

Caretaker's a Pinot Noir from California's central coast, which is the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco. From what I understand, it's made for Trader Joe's from multiple growers' grapes. For me, it's a pretty good, easy-to-drink wine.

I found it by "starting at the bottom", which I've used in both Germany and Spain with good results. Since I already know that price is, for the most part, what someone else thinks something's worth (read: "somewhat arbitrary"), I do a little basic research about local wines then start with the lowest-priced bottle for each grape/type I want to try and begin working my way "up" until I find something I really like. From there, I try a bunch of each of that type of grape/wine until I find a favorite. At that point, I have an intersection of price and (one) wine type from which I'll maybe try something like 50% more expensive - just to see if there's a difference worth the premium. I can then repeat this for each type of wine someone recommends and/or I want to try.

Now, granted, I have to work my way through some crappy wines but I learn a lot about what's grown locally and at low cost. (Don't worry, if the wine's really crap, it gets tossed out.) This is the way I found Spatebergunder while in Germany, Granatxa in Spain, and Caretaker Pinot Noir in California. And, as people who are into wine already know, they have commonalities.

During our visit that evening, someone asked me if I had Caretaker recently and if I still liked it as much now that I've tried so many others. I hadn't but, as you can see, the local Trader Joe's had it in stock so I picked up a bottle to take back to Barcelona.

Vladimir was over one afternoon and we decided to open the bottle to see what we all thought. As I transferred it to the decanter, I immediately had memories pour into my head. The smell alone reminded me of so many good times in California. Sort of like hearing an old song, truly amazing. And surprising. I also remembered that Randy said something similar; about how different wines triggered different memories for him.

So, what's the verdict?

Over the past few years, I've found wines I'm not a fan of and others I've enjoyed a bunch. There are certain characteristics I like more than others. Mostly, I've enjoyed the process and experience. The taste? Yeah, I was a bit surprised, it's still one of my favorites. But, in terms of memories-per-bottle, Caretaker wins hands down!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Saint Augustine Florida

I'm not sure if it's a window into my soul but, for me, life is a series of paths crossing, choices, luck (good and bad), and experiences. Part of my life goal, to learn something new every day, is trying to get to know as many people, places, and cultures as possible and to try to never say no to an opportunity.

Sometimes all of those things happen at the same time in the same place and the results are pretty amazing. For example, you randomly cross paths with a new person (or maybe happen upon a new place, etc.) and getting to know that person changes you and/or makes you learn something new about yourself. These chance encounters are the chips in the chocolate chip cookies of life. Yummy delicious!

On our last full day in Florida, Diana and I, on the recommendation of her friend, drove up to Saint Augustine, which is a small coastal town about two hours or so north of Orlando:

In a sort of life's random-paths-crossing, we were surprised to see the whole town decked out with Spanish flags and red-and-yellow banners. Look again at that photo above. We knew before going that it was founded by the Spanish in the 1500s but, wow, they seem to be a bit Spain addicted or something.

Well, it turns out that Saint Augustine played a major role in the Americas for Spain for hundreds of years. Oh yeah, and the king and queen of Spain happened to visit on the same day we were there. Small details...

Oops. Little did we know when we set out that the whole city was celebrating 500 years since its founding with a big party, which the king and queen would attend. Had we arrived like 20 minutes earlier, we would have seen them on the balcony below. Argh, no wonder there was so much traffic getting into town!

Talk about coincidences. It'd be like you live in the United States and you come to Barcelona randomly one day and the president's there. It made for good photos around town with all the bright colors, cool flags, and all.

A fairly empty, non-peak-season look down Saint George (Sant Jordi, en Catala) Street, which is the main tourist shopping district:

Saint Augustine reminded me, for some reason, of Cape May, New Jersey, which is near Wildwood. Well, and I guess, in a way, La Jolla too. There are lots of cool old buildings, the beach is right there, and it's a lovely place to spend the day.

After some time trying unsuccessfully to meet up with the king and queen and then eating a fabulous southern-style lunch, we walked over to the San Marcos fort. Just two weeks earlier(!!!), we were at the beach in Porto, Portugal, sticking our feet in the other side of the Atlantic!

Yes, (we're aware) life's pretty good for this world-traveling duo! But, after all, that's a part of the goal, right? At least for me it is.  How to learn and squeeze in as much life as possible into our precious-few trips around the sun?

Thanks to everyone who I've met along the route. Yes, the places are great. The food and wine are good too. But, really, at the end of the day, it's the people who make it. Thanks sharing the ride!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Kennedy Space Center

Diana and I are very fortunate that we have friends from all over the world and seem to make more all the time. It can make coordinating Saturday-night pintxos gatherings tough but it sure does make traveling fun. We laugh out loud every time someone tells us that we should come visit them because, inevitably, we end up darkening their doorstep. So, take that as a warning if you ever offer.

After my family left Disney World to go back to Philadelphia, Diana and I went to stay with a friend of hers from growing up in Colombia. We saw the friend last time we were in Bogota just as she was getting ready to move to the United States with her new husband. She casually mentioned, probably without much thought, that we should come stay with her if we're ever in central Florida...

Ha! Guess whose lovely backyard view this is!

Staying with Diana's friend was especially fun for me because I got to watch Diana's take on suburban-American life with a family who's is not my own. Everything from the big-to-Diana house, the pick-up in the driveway, to having to drive every time we left the house (it took probably almost five minutes just to drive out of the massive development). We even went one night for, surprise, water ice!

Their house provided a great base to check out two relatively nearby places. The first is the topic of this story, the Kennedy Space Center:

I really can't remember if I've ever been to Kennedy before. I think I may have gone the last time I was at Disney World years ago but I'm still not sure. Anyway, it doesn't matter because it was all new to me.

The Kennedy Space Center's Rocket Garden:

We were both very impressed with the Center. We had only planned on spending a couple of hours there but basically ran out of time after about five. First off, it's really big, with multiple museum-style buildings and launch facilities spread out over probably thousands of coastal central-Florida acres.

Kennedy's old Launch Control Center where the missions were managed until the craft left the launch pad at which time control transferred to Houston:

It's all pretty impressive when you think about it. The amount of work and coordination involved in, for example, getting people to the moon and back. I know how hard it can be to get teams I work with to agree on processes to do their jobs much less have some guy survive in a tin can for weeks or months at a time. After all, in this case, it may not be brain surgery but it's definitely rocket science!

Like I said, we could have easily spent more time at Kennedy. There are multiple options and tours to choose from. We stayed at the main visitor center for a couple of hours before taking a bus tour, which goes past things like the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building below, out to the Apollo/Saturn V Center:

Oh, and a pro tip, sit on the right side of the tour bus, which we didn't do. The route is such that most of the things you'll see are on that side.

The scale of everything on the tour is hard to comprehend. The Mobile Launcher Platform below is a good example. This giant Sand-Crawler-like platform carried the Space Shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building out to the launch platform. If you look towards the bottom right of the platform, just above and to the right of the tank tread, you'll see the driver's booth!

It's funny, but there's space-launch-related stuff laying everywhere you go on the bus tour. If you look at the photo above again, you'll see some examples just behind the fence. I'd imagine everything related to the space program has got to cost a fortune and to see it spread around makes me laugh. Not very 5S NASA!

The bus tour also goes by the SpaceX building and launch pad. SpaceX, if you're not familiar, is the Google of the space industry where companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are considered old school. It was started by the Iron-Man-like Elon Musk who also started some other unknown companies like PayPal and Tesla. Yeah, I'd imagine it'd be an amazing place to play work.

Over at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the scale of what they're sending up to space is astonishing. If you think of traveling in an airplane as "flying through the air at 550 miles per hour in a hollow metal tube", going to space in one of these things must be like sitting on top of the world's largest bottle rocket!

The one thing we saw that really makes me think I've been to the Kennedy Space Center before is a display where you are able to touch a rock that came from the moon during one of the Apollo Missions. Hmm... Who knows, right?

I think for both of us the highlight of the visit was the Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit. The four surviving shuttles are now on display around the country and Kennedy has one of them. I remember watching on the internet the day they flew the Endeavor around California and the very cool images of it winding its way through the streets of Los Angeles. I couldn't wait to finally get to see one in person. (By the way, you really should check out those videos!)

Space Shuttle external fuel tank and booster rockets, which are actually replicas, outside the Atlantis Exhibit building:

The exhibit starts with two videos each in its own theater. As the second video ends, the wall along the left side appears to light up with an image of a Shuttle with the Earth behind. It's only when a dark-out curtain rises, which you can see below, that you realize you're looking at the actual shuttle on display in the museum. Whoever came up with this one deserves a bonus!

The Shuttle itself is both bigger and smaller than I expected. Smaller in the sense that, like when I first saw the pyramids in Egypt, it could never match the size I had in my mind. But bigger than you think is possible to send up into space. Think something bigger than a boxcar!

The Atlantis is far enough away where its just out of arm's reach but close enough where you can see that every single heat-shield tile is individually numbered and that Shuttle's skin isn't (as I expected) smooth but rather like it's covered with fabric, which it might be.

Getting to see a Space Shuttle up close was definitely an experience I won't forget. The size, history, and the work it represents is truly awe inspiring. I can't recommend enough going to see one when you get the chance.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Walt Disney World Family Vacation - PhotoPass

This post is Part 3 of our family's trip to Disney World. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

As a brief recap, my dad's crazy generous and my sister has organizational OCD.

And, with a couple of more details, my dad decided about a year ago to take the whole family to Disney World for a family vacation. He asked my sister to look into what that would involve and gave her free rein to set everything up, which she did - down to the very last detail. But, the combination made for a truly amazing trip.

Anyway, as part of the planning, my sister bought a whole-family PhotoPass package, which includes all-you-can-eat-style photos anywhere there's a photographer throughout Disney's property. It's something I would have never chosen if I were planning the trip but it ended up being a great extra.

Our first (and arguably one of the best) PhotoPass family photo right after we entered the Magic Kingdom on our first day:

The deal is that you pay one all-inclusive fee and there are photographers spread out at scenic locations throughout the parks as well at character meet and greets. It also includes those photos they take when you're on the rides.

Entering Epcot Center on our second day:

Whenever you see a Disney photographer anywhere, you can ask them to take your photo. They then scan your Disney MagicBand (or photo card). A little while later, you can see the photos on the Disney app on your phone (yes, they've got it all pretty much covered) and it's all downloadable when you get home.

With all the family photos, individual-ish photos, and ride photos, we ended up with over 350 between us. Even though the crappy web interface (not everything Disney does is perfect) made me spend a few hours downloading (three times!), unzipping, and comparing everything before realizing I had three (ugh!!!, differently named) sets of the same photos, it was still worth it.

Epcot Center character meet and greet:

Speaking of the Disney MagicBand (yes, Disney really likes CamelCase), when you stay at a Disney property, they give you a radio-frequency bracelet to wear. This bracelet gives you an easy way to open your hotel room, use FastPass (see - more CamelCase), pay for your purchases, and use PhotoPass (argh...maybe it should be called WaltDisneyWorld?). And, in addition to making your visit easier, it gives Disney's database geeks a treasure-trove of data to play with!

Seriously though, I really liked the convenience. Paying for everything was as easy as touching your bracelet to a terminal and entering a PIN. FastPass was simple. And no hotel key to keep track of! Actually, it's just like how people were paying for things in Japan when I lived there FIVE YEARS AGO! If you can't tell, I'm very much waiting for Apple and Android Pay to be widely accepted enough that I can get rid of my wallet for good... Helllllo! What's taking sooooo long???

Day three at Animal Kingdom:

...and day four at Hollywood Studios:

So, anyway, time for me to share a few selected-by-me favorites. Dad and Ginny... brother's family... sister's family...

...and, finally, Diana and me:

I know I already mentioned this in both of the other two posts but I'll say it again. We had a great time. It was a lot of fun to be able to stay and hang out together for such an extended period.

Thanks to my sister for planning everything and a giant thanks to my dad for making it all possible! We should do it again soon... :)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Walt Disney World Family Vacation - Part 2

This is part two of our family vacation in Walt Disney World. For part one, go here.

To catch you up, my dad decided to take the whole family to Florida - all FOURTEEN of us. We stayed in a giant apartment at the Boardwalk Resort just outside Epcot Center that's probably ten-plus-times larger than our apartment in Barcelona. It was big. And it was on a lake. With boats. Crazy.

Goofy with Ginny, Diana, dad, and some random Disney character:

It's been a few years since I was last at Disney World. I'm not 100% sure when it was but, like with lots of experiences in life, I remember the first time. I was 13 when my dad's mom took me. Back then, it was pretty much just the Magic Kingdom and Epcot so I think we spent a day or two at each park.

I remember the Magic Kingdom being fun but what really sticks with me is going to Epcot. The whole future thing and then all the countries you could visit. They all seemed so exotic and strange. Well, if you've been reading this blog at all, you'll know that I've been fortunate enough to see first-hand all but one (!!!) of the countries in the Epcot World Showcase. It's a bit crazy, I know. I didn't even realize it until we were walking around the park.

So, the first half of this story is dedicated to my parents who've given me the opportunity to have this oh-so-crazy trip around the sun we call life. In clockwise order on the map above...

There's Mexico, where I lived for two years:

...with Mariachis, of course! (Well, I didn't actually live with Mariachis but they were at the house...)

Then there's Norway, which Diana and I visited when we went to see Lena and Tony in Sweden a couple of years ago.

A little bit farther around the World Showcase, one of my favorites, China seen here with Epcot's version of Beijing's Temple of Heaven:

Next up? Germany. Surprise of surprises. We loved living in Germany and miss our friends there very much. The Disney version could be any one of a hundred small towns littering southern Germany:

Just about half way around, you come to the land of pizza, pasta, and faulty engineering, Italy. Diana hanging out with some Italian guys who, she assures me, are just friends:

At the half way point, the United States makes its appearance. Really, it seems a bit redundant as Disney's is as "American" as they come. There's no photo from the U.S. area but I'll throw in this one of me with a Mickey-shaped ice-cream sandwich. American or what?

Japan is next up in the World Showcase after the U.S. Can I just say again how much I love and miss Japan. And not only the food! I learned so much there.

Continuing along, Morocco, which is the ONLY country of the lot I haven't been to. Actually, we're just waiting on our friends Natalia and Adil to get married in his hometown of Fez so we can tag alone for the big party!

Next, France, followed by the United Kingdom and, last, but not least, our crazy poutine-eating cousins to the north, Canada (sorry, no links). Yeah, Epcot's pretty cool and it brings back a ton of memories!

The rest of this post is made up of random items from the trip. In the past, it would have been a separate post but I'm getting lazy in my old age.

I normally only get to see my family in small bursts during holiday visits. This trip was great because we got to spend a surprising amount of time together as one big group.

It also provided lots of one-on-one time that I was craving!

My next post will be about photo ops, characters, and Disney's photo package. But, one character stands out from the whole trip. Pocahontas. Yep. One of Disney's brown princesses.

We spent our third day at Disney World visiting Disney's Animal Kingdom, which is part zoo, part amusement park. It's full of zoo-type animals, log-flume rides, counter-service food places (if you've been to Disney, you'll know), and, on occasion, character meet-and-greets.

Because my sister had booked Disney's all-you-can-eat-style PhotoPass (more on this in the next story), we made sure to try to get as many character pictures as possible. Now, many of the meet-the-character locations are along major paths through the park or near entrances or exits to shops or attractions...except for poor Pocahontas. You can't actually see Disney's brown princess. She only gets this little sign, which you can see behind another brown princess.

Unlike all her character brothers and sisters, she's hidden down some narrow path and behind some bushes. Hey Disney, how about an upgrade for Pocahontas?

It isn't all back-alley though, so don't worry. The big name celebs get air-conditioned buildings:

All in all, an amazing time. Even with a daily bit of rain, the whole family was all smiles...

Thanks again for the amazing trip dad! You outdid yourself this time.

I'll leave this story with a composite of two photos taken on the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios that pretty much sums up how we felt during the whole trip.