Skip to content

Where No Geek Has Gone Before…

Sunday 14 March 2021

About a million years ago, or maybe 10 minutes in Covid-lockdown time, there was a show called Star Trek. No “The Original Series”, no “TNG”, no other add-ons to denote a status within a culture; only a few fans wearing costumes and learning to speak Klingon; no theme park rides or virtual experiences. A television show that aired for a few minutes every week for about 79 weeks in all.

I can’t remember seeing it in the original run–I was only about two–but I have to believe I did, probably sitting with Dad (Mom is not so much a science fiction fan).

 

Then…silence across The Federation, as the Gods of Marketing decided that the ad revenues just weren’t up to the cost of the show. It’s always been expensive to do science fiction and fantasy, at least ones that are heavy into special effects and need lots of alien worlds as locations.

 

A decade passed, with fans keeping up the drumbeat to bring it back. Letter-writing campaigns, “The Animated Series“,  and lots and lots of growing enthusiasm for a restart.

 

And then, like the Big Bang, an explosion of the Star Trek franchise happened that continues expanding. First The Motion Picture, which was very very Roddenberry–humans way in the deep end of outer space, wondering at what comes out of the void–to get the gang back together. That begat Star Trek:The Next Generation, which begat Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which begat Star Trek: Voyager, which begat Star Trek: Enterprise, which begat…you get the point. Also about a dozen movies and a whole separate parallel universe of Star Trek (the 2009 “Kelvin” reboot).

From the original 79 episodes, the franchise has now become what Peter Lynch would have called a ten-bagger: there are now over 740 episodes from the different series, plus almost a dozen movies, plus the 22 episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and new shows being made. We’ve seen most of all of it at least once, much of it many times.

 

And we’re going back in.

 

A number of years ago, the dedicated crew at The Star Trek Chronology Project asked a question: is there a way to view all of the episodes and movies in the whole franchise in chronological order as they would have occurred in the universe in which they are set? Not just on a per season ordering, like all of TOS, then the first few movies, then all of TNG, then all of DS9, etc., but on an episode by episode basis?

This is not a simple task. Although Star Trek has its concept of “stardates“, a sort of universal time zone for the whole Federation, a lot of the episodes didn’t have stardates that actually worked correctly based on the actual episodes; for example, uniforms sometimes changed in ways inconsistent with the stardates. Later, during TNG and later series, stardates got a bit more normalized and the concept of canon was more thoroughly observed. Basically, the geeks were running the show, or at least keeping the shuttlecraft on their rails.

To complicate the problem further, there were a number of cross-over episodes with major and minor characters from one series making guest appearances on other contemporaneous series. A few characters even jumped from one series to another for longer stays. And some characters that retired came back (e.g. Picard) for new shows. New shows with wildly different production and storyline values were made (looking at you, Discovery).

 

But they did it anyway.

 

Behold, the complete live-action, Prime Universe Star Trek canon in chronological order: 756 individual episodes and movies, in the order one would experience them had one lived in the Star Trek universe and been able to travel with the various crews in the series.

 

So, someone would have to be an obsessive, completist nut-job to want to watch all of these, right? Surely, at most one might watch one of the themed marathon lists, like “The Worf Saga”.

 

To people who think that, we say Hab SoSlI’ Quch! (you figure it out).

 

A few years ago, we watched all of Babylon 5 in one year by watching three episodes a night, three nights a week. There were some breaks, plus the insertion of the movies, but still, 110 episodes over about twelve weeks. That was good practice for this. Last week, we watched all three seasons of Westworld; we started the afternoon of March 6th and finishing late on the 12th.

 

Which brings us to our latest effort: watching the entire Star Trek Prime Universe in chronological order, start to finish.

 

Starting later this week, we are going to start with Episode 1 of The Chronology, the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Broken Bow”. This is a great episode, symbolically, to start with: it came out on September 26th, 2001. The music and opening titles are all about hope and exploration and looking to the future, and are mostly missing the military overtones of some of the other series. It’s a very Roddenbery-esque, wide-open eyes (at least the first couple of seasons) look at the earliest days of The Federation. We’ll probably do three episodes a night, three times a week. It will take about 84 weeks to watch it all. Twice 42.

 

It’s going to be a long, fun ride. You don’t have to win, you just have to try to keep up.

 

The Big UnEasy

Friday 15 January 2021

So we were in New Orleans for much of Xmas week 2018. Why am I writing about this now? Well, we can’t travel right now, but we can remember what travel was like, and we have friends who might go to N.O., and we like talking about food. No one is making you read this.

While we participated in as much foodieism as possible, Mom was there, and her idea of a big meal is a glass of wine and a crab cake. I think she would have taken all her sustenance from the hotel club, which was very nice as hotel clubs go but we were in N’awlins, dammit, and we were going to eat well!

So:

Friday 21 December:
Because we were starting in PDX and there was no direct flight, we decided to fly through Seattle, because we are developing a fondness for Seattle (Portlanders: don’t judge.). It’s like an East Coast city–the buildings are tall enough to prevent any natural light from reaching the streets, and everyone wears black, all of the time, even at lunch, even at dim sum. We can get a decent NYC fix without enduring a six hour flight and the cab ride from La Guardia, or worse, Newark.

So we get to Seattle. We stayed at the Alexis, which is a nice old-school hotel with big rooms near the Ferry Terminal and Pioneer Square. It’s very handy to the King Street train station as well, so handy for getting from Portland to Seattle. It’s really two buildings that were joined at the lobby, so there are weird ramps in places where no ramp should sanely exist. Note that there has been a major shakeup in ownership among Kimpton, IHG, and Sonesta; the reviews of the Alexis still look good, but we haven’t been back since the changes.

Fortunately, there’s a lovely bar at the low end of one ramp, The Bookstore, which is decorated like a bookstore (always a plus) and serves excellent cocktails and burgers. They probably serve other things, but those are the essential bar foods so that’s what we get. Oaxacan Old Fashioneds [1] and burgers made with way too much of everything good, and we’re done. After dinner or later, a great selection of whiskys and whiskeys. They probably have something else, too, but why bother? So no matter what happens in the rest of your day, as long as you have The Bookstore open when you get back, all can be made right.

Side note: “excellent cocktails” means the highest standard of classic cocktails, like Old Fashioneds, and whisky. Think dark, smoky, leathery. “Fantastic cocktails” are not better or worse, but are in a different category–more fruit, less dark, not necessarily less boozy but different. Porch Swings [2], Mai Tais, classic Hemingway daiquiris. Not better, not worse, just different.

Dinner was at The Butcher’s Table. We went because they were doing cocktail pairings, not wine, with dinners, and that’s a big win for me. The steaks were good, but had sauces, which is a fail to everyone (or should be). Cocktails, mostly Old Fashioneds, were good.

Next was Aquaman at Seattle Cinerama. Don’t judge. Good for an action-heavy superhero flick. The draw is Cinerama itself, a theater so good we would pay to sit in the seats and watch the trailers, as long as they keep us stocked with their fabulous chocolate-covered popcorn. Pro tip: get the 50/50 mix with regular popcorn, the mix of salt and sweet and butter is perfect.

How much do we like Cinerama? We go every year or so (no Covid) to their 70mm film festival. When they fire up their working Cinemascope projectors (think: Death Star for film projection), we are there. We once spent over 20 hours there, no breaks, when The Force Awakens came out. They ran a marathon that started with The Phantom Menace at 1AM, got to Star Wars (none of the “New Hope” crap, please) at 10:45AM, and finished around 10:15PM after the end of The Force Awakens. Only liberal doses of chocolate-covered popcorn, plus a few meals taken between shows, got us through it all. It was EPIC, even if we did have to watch I through III, and VII was essentially a repeat of the original in a lot of ways.

Much, much Bookstore after that last show.

Saturday, 22 December:

On to New Orleans. The Big Easy. The Crescent City. Baghdad On The Bay. Birthplace of Jazz.

Also a city with one of the worst airports in the country. Seriously, baggage claim that makes La Guardia look good. Cramped, low ceilings–like, I can reach up to touch it, hot. No WiFi, bad cell service. Had to go outside to get enough signal to get a Lyft. Maybe it’s better by now. One can hope. Or take Amtrak (not really, not from PDX). It’s really a disservice to its namesake, the incomparable Louis Armstrong.

It was Christmas and we were there with Mom, so we splashed out for club-level rooms at the Windsor Court Hotel. It’s a big hotel; part of the draw is the excellent views from many of the rooms on the side that faces the river. The club level genuinely is very nice, and everything seemed fresh, not as obviously canned/jarred/boxed as many club rooms at large chain hotels. The rooms were nice, reminding me of a good old-school Four Seasons or higher-end Fairmont. Nice lobby, giant Christmas tree. No complaints about any of the service. The mostly-walled courtyard blocks any ground-level view of the neighborhood; it could be 2018 or 1918 for all you can tell from the front door.

Dinner at Brigtsen’s, on Dante Street. It’s near the river, but there’s no view; don’t worry about a window table. It’s a big old house that’s been split up into many dining areas.

This was billed as a réveillon dinner, which is a big traditional feast during the holidays, traditionally served starting around 2AM, right after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It’s now more of a big dinner fixed (or mostly fixed) menu served at “normal” dinner times, but it’s still a feast with several courses. I no longer have the menu, but there was likely a salmon appetizer, then classic gumbo, then duck or maybe a pork chop, and then a dessert, probably pecan pie for me. This was not the fanciest menu we ate in N.O., but it was definitely the best of classic Crescent City dining. I remember being very, very happy afterwards, and not just from the milk punch.

Y’all know about milk punch, right? Depending on how it’s made, it’s an excellent way to get really happy (read: inebriated) quickly, because it’s usually made with brandy or bourbon. The milk mellows the booze so that you don’t notice that you’re getting sozzled until it’s far, far to late. But hey, it’s N’awlins in December!

So Brigtsen’s was fabulous. I do remember the gumbo being spot-on, not gummy or gritty or pasty, just right. I’d definitely go back just to eat way too much gumbo there.

Mom came in late on Amtrak, not her fault, but still, hanging around the train station late is not the best way to spend a Saturday night in N.O. The Amtrak station was far more decorative and pleasant than baggage claim at MSY. Easy to get cabs, even late.

Sunday, 23 December:

Brunch at Commander’s Palace. The Palace is an institution; to call most other restaurants, anywhere, a “grande dame” is a slight to Commander’s Palace, which is the canonical grande dame of restaurants anywhere. We were lucky to be seated upstairs near the windows in the back, overlooking the garden. Here, it’s worth trying to get a window table.

This was a traditional big N.O. Sunday brunch, starting with turtle soup with sherry. Hint: you don’t cook the sherry in, it’s poured in just at the last moment so it blends in but doesn’t disappear. Good stuff.

It’s Sunday, and it’s N.O., so of course there was a roving jazz quartet (or maybe trio) taking requests and playing standards.

Did we have the lacquered quail, or the duck confit? Or maybe the short ribs? Maybe the classic hoppin’ john? Who knows. It was good. Same for the dessert, which I’m sure (for me) was pecan pie. Liberal pours of champagne and milk punch to get the morning going.

After lunch we went back downtown for a jazz cruise on the Steamboat Natchez, the last true steamboat on the Mississippi. Most “steamboats” are really driven by diesel engines. On the Natchez, the paddles are driven by superheated steam that flows from the boiler under high pressure through pistons that drive the paddlewheel. Super authentic! You too can be blown up and drowned just like a on a steamboat in the 1800s! Good thing there’s a bar, because what a sinking steamboat needs is a lot of drunk passengers trying to put on what few life vests haven’t been blown overboard or caught on fire.

I would totally do it again, even if the bar were closed. It was really interesting and entertaining to hear about the gigantic sugar plant and the other oddities along the route. But I’m also the guy who loves the Mark Twain at Disneyland, who gets in line early to be able to stand at the front of one of the balconies on whatever ship or facsimile thereof that I’m on.

We had a little time to walk around downtown before and after the cruise. We wandered along the riverfront to near Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, both of which are major tourist black holes. There was a very moving tribute to the slaves who were sold near Jackson Square along the esplanade.

Dinner! Dinner at Galatoire’s! If brunch at Commander’s Palace is the canonical Sunday brunch in N.O., dinner at Galatoire’s is the canonical dinner. It’s bright, noisy, crowded, and just the most fun you can have while seated and eating with utensils (I don’t want to know…). The waiter and mom had a great time (not really, but it was fun to watch). Food was fabulous, and we had a great time watching the big party in the next room. Fabulous sweetbreads, more great gumbo, and likely a main course involving crab, or maybe etoufée. Hollandaise sauce. So much hollandaise.

Christmas Eve:

Willa Jean.

If you’re in N.O. and you miss Willa Jean, you might as well go home. Where Commander’s Palace is showy and a little formal, and Galatoire’s is raucous and a little more formal, Willa Jean is the diner that strips away all the formal and fancy and makes you want to dig in with your whole face. It’s pimento cheese with ham and pickles, and cornbread with cane syrup. Fried chicken and biscuits, or just honey and biscuits. A bowl full of short ribs and grits and onions and a poached egg. Many, many Bloody Marys or whisky sours.

But seriously, you’re there for the chocolate chip cookies. Don’t lose sight of that; you came to N.O. to eat these cookies. The owner and chef at Willa Jean, Kelly Fields, literally made chocolate chip cookies for two and a half years to get the recipe just right. It’s the perfect nexus of cookie goodness, along with a side of milk (with a good amount of vanilla and sugar), and a beaterful raw dough (it’s safe). You will be happy.

I really don’t remember how we spent the rest of the morning; I was in a chocolate and sugar fog.

We skipped lunch (or maybe had a snack at the club room) because early afternoon was afternoon tea at the hotel. They take over the lobby each midday to serve a traditional afternoon tea. Don’t get me started on “afternoon” vs. “high” tea, but Americans generally get it wrong (but of course we generally make tea wrong). Expect scones, finger sandwiches, lots of cakes and pastries, and decent tea and champagne. It was a good tea, not fabulous; a lot of the attraction is the ambiance of the setting, with the big tree right there and all the holiday decorations.

Jazz! We need more jazz! So next was a show at Preservation Hall. If you’ve never been there, it’s a small room with benches and no chairs, but the performances are generally about an hour. The setting is rustic, and captures what a small jazz hall might have been like in the late 1800s, even though Preservation Hall dates from the 1960s; the building dates from the mid-1800s.

The show was A Creole Christmas, a mix of holiday jazz and blues. It’s worth it to get the front seats, as you’ll be right up at the musicians, and the floor is flat so the view from further back is not as good. Yes, there’s an intermission and a bar 😀

We’ve been ordering candy from Southern Candymakers for probably decades. Their main things are pralines and tortues (turtles). We wandered around downtown after the show and bang! There they were, right on the walk back to the hotel. Moderately crowded for Christmas Eve, but we got some to take with us and ordered more to ship. I recommend the double-dipped turtles, which are a regular turtle with caramel, pecans, and chocolate that is then dipped in another layer of thick chocolate. Just one will probably induce sugar-shock but it’s totally worth it.

Christmas Eve dinner was a big choice. Go traditional reveillon? Maybe dinner at Brennan’s? I wanted to change it up and go modern, so we booked Restaurant R’evolution. It’s all modern takes on classic dishes: wagyu short ribs with lobster; quail three ways; a foie gras parfait. Christmas Eve was a largely set menu, and the cocktails and food were all great. Bring your appetites and your gold cards. The setting in the main dining room is incredibly elegant, especially at the holidays; it’s like something out of pre-revolution Russia: think the ballroom scene in Doctor Zhivago before the shooting starts.

That was a long day.

Christmas Day:

Travel during holidays is something that, while I enjoy it, I struggle with, because it means someone else can’t be with their family all day. We generally avoid traveling at Thanksgiving, except for frequent trips to Vancouver B.C., where U.S. Thanksgiving Day is just Thursday there. Travel, food, and no guilt.

I know from friends that some people like working the holidays: good tips, sometimes better base pay depending on what the job is. Chacun à son goût.

Occasionally we travel at Christmas, usually to the East Coast to some family site, so that meals on the day are a family affair and not catered. That’s fair game; Christmas is supposed to be a family affair.

But sometimes we need to meet somewhere in the middle, on neutral territory, where no one has home-field advantage. Lots of people get stressed during the holidays; sometimes the bigger the family gathering, the more the stress. Sometimes a small holiday with just a few people is more difficult. It’s not physics, or even chemistry; it’s the emotional ice picks that do the most damage: all that force concentrated at a tiny point can crack even a diamond. And people and their emotions aren’t made of diamond.

Broussard’s is one of those big, rambling restaurants in New Orlean’s French Quarter. Large, open rooms with lots of flower arrangements, all the walls painted white and grey, marble floors; it’s quite the sight. The food was good, not at the top of the list for the trip, but very respectable especially for a holiday morning. It would be good to try them for a regular Sunday brunch.

Christmas mid-day is family and reminiscing. We spent it at the hotel, which is a good place to spend a Christmas day.

Mom was feeling a bit tired after the late night before, so she decided to stay in and skip dinner (I suspect she ordered a crab cake from room service–don’t judge.) She sent us on for our reservation at Compère Lapin, another of the trendy modern-but-not restaurants that was tearing up the pages of Eater and Yelp at that time. I get the impression it’s how a restaurant in the early 1800s might have looked: more tavern and bar than formal dining area.

We didn’t care; the food was smashing. Pig ears; deviled eggs with caviar; tuna tartare; bouillabaisse. Curried goat and pasta (not together). Drum fish. Black-eyed peas and bacon. And always, more biscuits. Definitely worth a return trip.

And that takes us to Christmas evening. And here is where it gets weird.

So, we’re on our own on Christmas evening. It’s too early to go back (maybe 7PM). (Stop.) We’re fed, and neither of us are really barflies or clubbers in any way, so that’s out. Movie? Sure, let’s see what’s playing. What did we do before all the current information in the world was available at any moment on a device that can be carried in a pocket and used almost anywhere people live in any numbers? How did we get along at all?

We tend to be non-traditional at holidays. Thanksgiving in Vancouver often means sushi, Italian occasionally, Russian once, but almost never traditional American Thanksgiving. There was a somewhat memorable Thanksgiving dinner in Vancouver involving surprisingly good curried turkey and sides that were recognizable but similarly about fifteen degrees off true course. So, we’re probably not going to listen to carolers, or look at trees, or visit cathedrals. Not our scene.

Movies, movies, movies. If there had been a showing of It’s A Wonderful Life we might have gone for that; we are not completely without sentinment, but we are picky about our how we choose it. Maybe A Christmas Story for a modern/traditional show. Nope.

Wait, what’s this?

Anna and the Apocalypse? A Christmas musical involving zombies? Set in Scotland?

We are so there.

So, about 8PM on Christmas night, we’re outside The Broad Theatre, which looks nice and friendly in the day and turns out is one of the best movie houses in N.O., but a little divey at night (think: unpaved parking lot with bad lighting and not much traffic on the road late on Christmas night).

Absolute perfection (the movie). If you’ve seen it, you know (stop.). If you haven’t, wait until you’re a little bit in your cups (not too much–not that kind of flick), and put it on a big screen and sit right in front. It’s hilarious, until it gets scary and real. Yes, it’s very very very gory and gross in places, but totally worth it.

So that was Christmas. Everyone was fed, sleepy, and happy.

Boxing Day:

Everyone was rested and recovered from the past couple of days, at least mostly.

New Orleans is really a big area. You see pictures of different pieces, but the bubbles are pretty disconnected. The main part of the city is south of the big lake, between The River and The Lake. The parts that flooded are mostly east of downtown, but the levees that broke are north, along the lake. Water flows where physics says it will.

We took a driving tour of New Orleans, in part to see the levees and learn something more about hurricanes, and also to see the one of the cemeteries. Oddly, we started (after pick-up at the hotel) at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which is across the street from Commander’s Palace (no, we didn’t go back to brunch there). Warning: you will learn a lot about how people dispose of bodies in a place where the soil is not suitable for burial. A lot. Like, a possible origin of the saying “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole”. And then, the levees and overflows where they, well, overflowed. Excellent tour; Ashton at La Vie Orleans; highly recommended.

We were going to go to Dooky Chase’s, but our tour ended close to the National WWII Museum where we were headed anyway, so we stopped instead at Cochon, a great little bistro on Tchou-pit-what-the-heck Street. I remember (I think) fried meat, maybe rabbit, and carrots, and deadly mac & cheese. We sat outside; the day was completely lovely.

Mom was again a bit tired, so we got her back to the hotel and we went to the WWII museum.

Funny story. Cochon is about three blocks east of the WWII museum; it’s an easy walk, if, unlike me, you read your phone’s map correctly. I choose to believe that the compass had been detuned at some point. Yeah, that’s the ticket. We wound up at the Convention Center, which is totally one hundred and eighty degrees in the wrong direction. And then had to walk back.

The museum, however, was totally worth the entrance fee and time spent. I wouldn’t bring kids under about 10 to it; the exhibits just aren’t appropriate. But we had a great time. And, at the end, when we were dog tired from wandering around, there was a bar/cafe/diner with great fries and mint juleps (wrong state, I know. Don’t judge.)

Thursday, 27 December:

Mom left on Amtrak early in the morning; I think we saw her off that morning, but maybe the night before.

Lunch: Willa Jean for a rematch. We lost, again, to a menu no mortal can master, and couldn’t have been happier.

Afternoon spent at Michalopoulos, the gallery of an artist by the same name who has been painting N.O. since the early ’80s. Some of his art is pretty friendly; some is straight out of Night Gallery. You can imagine what we gravitate towards.

Recap:

No bad meals; nowhere that we wouldn’t go again. Big wins with Willa Jean, Brigsten’s, and Galatoire’s in particular. We’d go back to R’evolution but insist on the main dining room; the front room by the bar just isn’t all that.

Huge win with Anna on Christmas night.

We didn’t do a lot of touristy things–no St. Louis Cathedral, no wandering around the French Quarter late at night, no beignets. Jazz cruise, check. Sunday Brunch at Commander’s Palace, yes, but that’s good on its own merits, so not entirely a tourist trap. A lot of people go to see St. Paul’s; is that a tourist trap?

We’ll definitely go back, even if we have to bring our own copy of Anna on our phones to watch in the hotel. But we might take Amtrak from Houston or Dallas or Memphis, just to miss the airport. Really.

[1] Note to reader: good Oaxacan Old Fashioneds are made with mole bitters, preferably Bitterman’s. If your bartender tries to fob off Angostura on you, take your business elsewhere.

[2] Cherry infused vodka, cherry bitters, lime juice, topped with ginger beer.

I Am Not Stanley Tucci

Wednesday 30 December 2020

I am not Stanley Tucci.

I write this on the cusp of a numerically-significant birthday during the worldwide clusterf*ck known as Covid-19 (and becoming Covid-21). Almost worldwide, that is; were that we all were in Australia, or another country with a functioning government. But I digress.

So here we are, on the cusp of the New Year, while I zig between Stanley Tucci as Secondo in “Big Night”, and Stanley Tucci as whatever-the-hell-that-was in “Devil Wears Prada”. I can watch “Devil” every few years (or decades) because it has Anne Hathaway and she’s stupidly cute in almost anything she does, in that way that Betty Crocker frosting from the can at the Safeway is chocolatey and good even though you know the cacao came from child labor and the sweetener is probably artificial. But I can watch “Big Night” almost any night of the week, because I can eat buckets of good risotto but only spoonfuls of buttercream. But I digress.

So here I am watching Stan The Man (Musial reference, go Cards!) do his thing opposite Tony Shaloub who is excellent in almost anything because he’s f*cking Tony Shaloub and he can even make the queues in Cars Land enjoyable. Stanley is still overshadowed by Minnie Driver, who has this weird face that is alien but cute at the same time, because I’m old but I’m not dead. The writers, directors, producers, gaffers, even the freaking second best boy did their level best to make Allison Janey the oh-so-cute Midwestern homespun next-gen Judy Garland grown up and running a florist shop, but it just wasn’t her meter. You see where she’s really headed when she’s at the bar in the black dress. Risotto around her neck in the booth shots. But I digress.

Major props to the cameraman and union hands who did that inside-out-looking-in shot with Isabella Rosselini, who still looks like chiseled Italian marble. Paul Reiser did a conscious or unconscious homage to that shot in “Mad About You”, with his “inside looking out looking in” concept, but he never carried it off and “Big Night” did. Result!

But I digress.

We were supposed to be in London. Or L.A. Or Paris. I lose track, in much the same way I lose track of what day it is; there’s a reset every few days when mail that has aged in the small trashcans in the back hall is released. So we get a fresh start every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday with the newly-cleansed mail. Banner day in the Fenwick-Wilson household. I’ll keep working in those movie references; you don’t have to win, you just have to try to (/and) keep up.

What was the point?

Oh yeah, first-world whining (or whinging). Birthdays wrecked, and significantly-numerical ones, so We Have Declared that no events that should have happened this year have happened; they are Deferred until such time as the world can appropriately support them. Vya Con Dios, May Next Year Be Better Than This One.

Mary Ann died of Covid just today. 2020 just keeps taking and taking.

Relatives have died this year, and others are ill; not Covid, just age. But no one can get to their families to comfort and share the pain; if pain cannot be shared, is it concentrated?

We are now at the point of the story where “Mambo Italiano” is playing, and it’s clear that the participants in the impromptu Conga line are really only there because they have nothing better to do. There’s a metaphor there, but after cider, Japanese whisky, and Scotch, it eludes me. Maybe the idea of unappreciative partiers (and I’ve been one, and probably will be again in the future) circling an empty table has some relevance.

“Big Night” is PG food porn on a high level; it does not go above the point that anyone can view it and appreciate the work that goes into the food, because it stays with classic dishes that would have been in a home during a feast.

Ian Holm.

Where was I going with this? Have I set up the mise en place sufficiently to proceed to the cooking? I think you will have to cook and serve; the chef has left the restaurant.

“Big Night” occupies a window in moviemaking between crazy serious films like “The Godfather”, steeped in the old-school East Coast Mob, and shows like “The Sopranos” that showed off the ugly underbelly of the Mob. Seriously, who thought trying to normalize the Mob was a good idea? Modern Puritans complain about video games and music; it’s the normalization of criminality that’s the problem. At least “Goodfellas” made no pretensions about the mobsters being asocial and amoral.

But anyway.

Maybe there is no point. Maybe we really all are just simulations in some alien video game, or (maybe worse) a simulation 5 or 35 or 355 levels down, simulations all the way down.

Who cares? We are truth, and we are beauty, and that is all you know, and all you need know.

Happy (almost) New Year. Stay well.

So, Easter.

Sunday 12 April 2020

File the following in that list of things you didn’t really want or need to know: we are inveterate nerds (like you didn’t already know that). In high school, a big form of teenage rebellion might have been working on Art class homework and blowing off Latin homework. A bigger one might have been going to a gaming convention for a long weekend in another state without letting my parents know it was in another state, but I also didn’t realize at the time that it was in another state and I was under 18, so technically kidnapping by the adults in the party, maybe. But that’s another story.

So anyway, one regular form of minor rebellion is that we rarely eat anything traditional at holidays. I’m not sure this even counts as rebellion, as we do it not at all to tick off our tradition-keeping relatives but because we generally don’t like traditional holiday foods, with a few exceptions. I think I’ve written in the past about some of our non-traditional holiday dining, starting with Chinese food at college one holiday (which holiday neither of us can recall) and continuing through the decades, often involving non-traditional dining in Vancouver, B.C. One might even say that we started our own tradition of non-traditional dining in Vancouver at Thanksgiving, thus establishing our own tradition and negating any rebelliousness.

Whatever.

So, Easter. We are staying-at-home-and-staying-well this Easter, which, honestly, has never been a big food occasion for us–neither of us is big on ham, Martha dislikes lamb, and we both can get our own chocolate which is usually of a better quality than most Easter candy.

We did get takeout Saturday from a local restaurant (Thai Pepper) that does a very nice lamb (Indonesian lamb chops with a tangy sauce) and, most weeknights during normal service and on advance notice otherwise, a very nice Hong Kong-style crispy noodles with shrimp or chicken. This was A Big Deal because it’s the first takeout we’ve had since All of This really started here in earnest; our last dining out prior to this was at Morning Glory, a normal lunch on March 13th). The handling of anything that comes into the house these days is very much like the scene from of The Andromeda Strain where the scientists are bringing the infected sample into the underground base, with extra-special handling for foodstuffs.

Martha really likes duck. She goes into great detail about how the duck breast, in particular, needs to be just the right shade of pink doneness inside, but shatteringly crispy on the outside. It’s really hard to do both of those right, and losing either factor usally is marked as a fail against the offending restaurant, so I’m always happy when we can find it. Luckily, the very excellent chef at Coquina, which is only a few blocks from us here in Ashland, knows the alchemy needed to make this happen. So that’s good.

But Coquina is closed for Covid. “Covid” is now an event, like Easter or Passover, observed by the scientifically-literate who understand that viruses ignore religiousity and personal bravery. It lasts as long as needed until a vaccine is developed. Will it be a one-off or an annual event? TBD.

So I spent a number of hours Thursday trying to figure out how to get a duck breast to our new sous-vide rig in Ashland by Sunday. Between the sous-vide and the flagrant use of butter basting afterwards, I was feeling pretty confident about getting a good duck breast onto the table on Sunday.

Turns out that the Instacart-enabled stores in the area do have duck, but only as an ingredient in dog and cat food. Going out to a grocery just to get duck (Market of Choice would probably have it) was not going to happen; our whole-body decontamination chamber is on the fritz, and the necessary expenditure of rationed bleach to cover such an outing was not in the cards.

So we discussed what we would have for Easter dinner Friday night. We have some nice steaks (Costco, but also a local rancher called Salant Family Ranch), but steak and potatoes seemed un-festive. Lots of boneless-skinless chicken breasts, but we’ve been eating a lot of those lately.

So we talked about options, including duck, just in case it was worth braving the zombie hordes (what I call the people who don’t observe Covid) for some (likely frozen) duck breast.

Turns out Martha doesn’t like duck that much. Not just “no zombie hordes” doesn’t like, but before-and-after-Covid doesn’t like. She enjoys it once in a great while as a novelty, but in general would prefer a good steak.

Huh.

But there are tasty comestibles she does like better than steak. We’ll get to that.

There’s a really quirky cookbook from the Eastern Shore area of Maryland that has a number of recipes I like, a few Martha likes, and a few we both tolerate or ignore. One of them is a dish called Lout’s Sprouts, which is a very simple dish of sauteed onions, brussels sprouts, and red bell peppers. It’s quite fresh and appropriate for spring or summer (sure, frozen sprouts), but it uses red wine vinegar which is too astringent. Some people apparently like it what way.

It turns out that replacing the red wine vinegar with rice vinegar gets rid of the nastiness but keeps a little sharpness. Important safety tip.

I happen to like a different dish that is tomato-based, but it’s not one of Martha’s favorites, and it would have eaten into our stash of canned tomatoes, and we are out of white bread, an essential ingredient, so that was out. But we have a five-pound bag of frozen corn and many cans of canned corn, and some nice sundried tomatoes to add a little color, so sauteed corn with sundried tomatoes was definitely an option.

There is something Martha likes more than duck, or steak, or steak-on-duck, and that’s garlic. And one of her favorite things with garlic is the Vietnamese chicken wings from Pok Pok in Portland. They are drenched in garlic sauce and encrusted with tiny bits of fried garlic. This would work.

Now, Pok Pok is also closed in observance of Covid, so even a long takeout drive was not an option. But we (ok, Martha) had cleverly given me a copy of the Pok Pok cookbook for Christmas a couple of years ago, and had more cleverly included some organic raw chicken wings on a recent Costco order.

Huh.

I casually and quietly added some fish sauce to the as-yet-to-be-delivered Instacart order. A bit of panic over the lack of gluten-free rice flour (not sweet rice flour, per the very direct recipe), so I added almond flour instead–it would be an experiment.

After a very normal Sunday brunch–waffles, bacon, scramled eggs, and hashbrowns–I set out on the Quest for Wings.

Now Martha does not catch on to surprises too quickly. Did I not mention that the wings were a surprise? Yes. Yes they were. I printed out the recipe–easier to manage in a small kitchen than Ricker’s massive ode to Thai street food–so as to further conceal my plans.

All would have been well except that when I was getting Easter candy out of its hiding place this morning (we are non-traditional, but that doesn’t mean we wear virtuial sackcloth), I apparently threw out my back to some degree. Tylenol helps, but it’s a pharmacological crutch, not a cure, so I would need some help.

Did I forget to mention Easter candy? A local confectioner, Lillie Belle Farms, is also observing Covid this year, with the cutest little whistle-past-the-graveyard bunnies:

Covid Bunnies

There was also candy from Bissinger’s, which holds a special place for both of us.

That was pre-brunch.

Then there was the aforementioned brunch, which included the aforementioned waffles, eggs, potatoes, and bacon. Costco bacon, at least what we get locally, is surprisingly good. Thick, fries up shatteringly crisp, and well-seasoned.

So here we are, me with a compromised skeletal system, and Martha not knowing the score, in post-brunch stupor–did you notice that brunch was a complete carb-fest? Stupor.

But I need to get wings (which Martha had been helping to thaw) into marinade into the refrigerator into the frying oil into us. So I get Martha to start prepping the garlic, which is mostly her thing so I don’t feel to bad about asking her to do it. She also chopped the onions for the sprouts and corn.

So she’s chopping the garlic, and then using the teeny tiny Cuisinart chopper thing to really chop it (which is way, way easier than manually chopping it), and she stops chopping the garlic, while still holding the knife, and says “Hey!”

Now, someone holding a knife gets my attention. I went off “paying attention while ignoring you” mode and into “really paying attention, no, really” mode, because my “don’t get eaten by the tiger” senses demanded that.

“Huh?”

“Huh?” is a good non-committal, de-escalational response that one can use when switching between modes of (non-) engagement to avoid hazardous, um, results. People who observe Covid know that it’s extra-important to avoid non-essential injuries during Covid, because first-responders and medical professionals are all crazy busy during Covid. They don’t need the extra work of sewing up casual flesh wounds inflicted by hungry and possibly cranky household members. At this point, I don’t know if it’s hungry, cranky, both, neither, or other.

“I think I know what you’re making!”

Ah, that’s ok. “What?”

“The Pok Pok book, the wings; are you making wings?”

This is good. Now I get the benefit of the thoughtful surprise, and the helpfulness of a willing participant in a culinary experiment. Win win win win win.

So, that’s what we did for our non-traditional Easter feast this year: Pok Pok wings, sauteed corn with sundried tomatoes, Lout’s-almost-sprouts. The wings were fabulous; we will probably have to make them again, frequently. And I get bonus points for the main element being a surprise. It was just lucky that Martha had gotten me that cookbook a while ago. And ordered wings last week. And extra cooking oil. And garlic.

Hey, wait…

 

What We’re Really Watching…

Thursday 26 March 2020

You know how people tell pollsters what they think they’re supposed to say? Yeah, that’s sort of what the last post was.

What we are really watching is probably a lot less…vaunted…than most of what I listed there.

  • Valerie’s Home Cooking Look, she’s still really cute, and she cooks well, and the inclusion of her friends and family make this one of the more interesting cooking shows to binge. Since we’re doing a lot more cooking these days, it’s also practical!
  • Below Deck I mentioned this one before. The passengers are generally jerks. It’s amazing how many of the crew also turn out to be less-than-ideal specimens.
  • Property Brothers These twin brothers have been buying, selling, and remodeling their clients’ homes for over a decade. As with many of the better property-related shows, the cast leads are Canadian, so they have that helpful demeanor down pat. It seems really, really hard to get under their skin in a way that actual angers them (but watch the episode where one client wants a wet bar).
  • Worst Cooks in America Adding Alton Brown as one of the judges to this franchise was a great move, although I think Tyler Florence was actually more supportive as a coach. It’s still a hoot’n-a-half watching people who really terrible cooks try to make anything.
  • Any of the Mike Holmes’ shows: Mike Holmes is an epic force in the modern Canadian building industry. His shows are driven by the theme that a lot of contractors do work wrong, and he is there to set it right. A lot of his clients have substantial personal and financial problems that caused them to go with cut-rate contractors in the first place. We started watching him on CTV when on vacation in Canada years ago; he’s on HGTV adn DIY lately.
  • Love It or List It Another Canadian cast show, but here the agent and the remodeler are competing to see if the clients will keep the remodeled house, or sell it to buy one of the houses that the agent has found. Some hints that the show is a little more scripted than others, but it’s still a lot of fun. The agent and remodeler are like an old married couple (but they’re not).
  • Restaurant: Impossible Ah, Robert Irvine. Such a complex, contemplative, restrained soul…Are you kidding me? The guy loves nothing more than to swing a sledgehammer through a wall! Ashland may hold a record in R:I history, having hosted R:I to rescue the only restuarant to have failed completely before the episode aired. It’s not high drama, and it’s moving more towards the Fox version of Kitchen Nightmares in terms of personal drama, but it’s still more fun.
  • Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares  Before Fox, Ramsay actually tried to help struggling restaurant owners and chefs in a serious, thoughtful way. Still a ton of F-bombs, but clearly different from the more inflammatory and contentious Fox product. Definitely worth watching.

Do you see a trend here?

Stay well, and stop touching your face!

 

What We’re Watching While We’re Waiting

Friday 13 March 2020

So I have a bunch of free time on my hands (that’s a completely different conversation), and we are spending a lot more time at home but not in the company of others (We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?)

So instead of actually showing movies in our garage theater, I thought I’d talk about what we might have shown, and what we may or may not be binging on while we wait for the outside world to stop wobbling and settle back down.

1. Max von Sydow film fest:

Max von Sydow passed away recently, something which would normally have gotten higher billing but was justifiably pushed lower by everything else that’s going on. Were we still showing movies, we would definitely be showing a whole series of his films. Here’s what we’d likely show:

  • The Seventh Seal (1957) Ingmar Bergman’s classic about life, death, and plague. Von Sydow plays chess against Death to delay his own (and everyone else’s) demise. This was the film that made Bergman’s reputation and brought von Sydow to the attention of the cinema world.
  • The Exorcist (1973) It’s not the case that von Sydow didn’t work between 1957 and 1973, but much of it was either in Swedish or relatively obscure (e.g. the rather good Hour of the Wolf, also a Bergman film). In The Exorcist, von Sydow plays the role of one of the priests who rid Regan of the demon that has possessed her. It’s a crushingly hard movie to watch, so good but so disturbing on so many levels.
  • Flash Gordon (1980) The epic Dino de Laurentiis treatment of the Flash Gordon mythos–yeah, I really applied “mythos” to a 1930’s serial–with music by Queen and special effects by LSD. Von Sydow plays a top-of-the-heap Ming the Merciless in a film in which all the characters are all way over-the-top. It’s a complete hoot, tons of fun, and crazy to look at.
  • Dreamscape (1984) This movie is kind of a dark, modern version of The Manchurian Candidate; he plays the evil scientist taking over people’s dreams, with the goal of influencing the U.S. President. Very disturbing stuff.
  • Never Say Never Again (1983) Von Sydow is cast as Ernst Blofeld, the evil master of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., in the only feature James Bond film not produced by the Broccoli/Saltzman/Wilson trio. It’s mainly a Connery vehicle, but von Sydow brings a certain sauveness to the Blofeld role that is a step up from the usual Bond villains.
  • Dune (1984) Ah, Dune. That crazy, mixed-up brainchild of David Lynch and the De Laurentiis family. Von Sydow’s role is relatively minor, but it’s one of the best in the film, and the rest of the movie is so … unusual … that it’s definitely worth watching. Oddly, the “director’s cut” is the shorter 137 minute version; Lynch had his name pulled off the longer TV version.
  • Minority Report (2002) Von Sydow is back as The Villain; this time as the corrupt director of a government agency that prosecutes people for crimes they probably will commit in the near future. This is mostly a Tom Cruise vehicle in the same way that Never Say Never Again is a Connery vehicle, but von Sydow is clearly the better actor whenever he’s on screen.

There are a ton more films and TV shows; he has 163 credits over a 60 year career. It’s definitely worth checking out some of the more obscure and less type-cast roles (the 2005 Heidi, for example, in which von Sydow plays the grandfather).

2. Call the Midwife

You think you have problems? Try being a nurse midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s and 60s. Poverty, disease, and unexploded bombs are just some of the hurdles that the staff of plucky nurses and nuns must overcome in the normal course of their duties as midwives at a nursing convent in one of the poorest districts of London. The show deals with a lot of social issues of the actual era of the show; from the Wikipedia entry:

[…] nationalised healthcare, barrenness, teen pregnancy, adoption, local community, miscarriage and stillbirths, abortion and unwanted pregnancies, birth defects, poverty, illness and disease epidemics, prostitution, incest, religion and faith, racism and prejudice, same-sex attraction, female genital mutilation, and maternal, paternal, fraternal and romantic love.

With 70 regular episodes and eight Christmas specials, this is binge-worthy viewing that will get you through whole series of good old fashioned lie-ins.

3. Below Deck

There are some shows that you want to watch in a group. There are some shows that you only want to watch alone, sheets pulled over your head, in the dark. Below Deck and its companion shows Below Deck Mediterranean and Below Deck Sailing Yacht are closer to the latter than the former. They are “reality” shows about the crew of luxury yachts and their interactions among each other and their guests.

I have no idea if the show realistically depicts typical luxury yacht guests; many of the guests seem to have the worldliness of 14th century villagers who have never gotten beyond the next hill over.  The crews are a mix of normal and crazy and crazier. Some of the crew you will think should be arrested or at least fired…and then they show up again next season.

Below Deck is a completely guilty pleasure. Get out the fudge ripple ice cream and a big spoon, and settle in for some crazy whackiness.

4. Every Pixar Movie Ever

Except for Toy Story 4, which could have been retitled Chucky Meets Woody, all of the Pixar features are almost universally feel-good films with just a touch of scariness in the middle to keep the action moving, and with plots that are far more for adults than children than most Disney Studios films. Let’s take a look:

  • Toy Story Fun, wholesome, very PG. First of the Woody films in Pixar’s Nostalgia library.
  • A Bug’s Life Bugs! Bugs, Mr. Rico … no wait, that’s something else. Happy, helpful bugs living under and over the ground. A Canadian actor as lead. How could it not be fun and happy?
  • Toy Story 2 More Woody! And Jessie! And Wheezy sings!
  • Monsters, Inc. A little girl, who was supposed to be scared in order to power the Monster world (it’s a thing) gets lost. Aww… She has a blast, the monsters who are trying to rescue her (really) lose their minds trying to keep up with her.
  • Finding Nemo A small fish gets separated from his family and wanders around lost, until he’s not lost any more. A different fish, named Dory, steals most of the scenes she’s in.
  • The Incredibles Pixar takes on the entire rest of the super hero movie world, and generally kicks their tushes (hey, it’s still a Disney list). It’s like every 1960s superhero TV show or movie, just better.
  • Cars While part of Pixar was working on super heroes, another part was going after the NASCAR market. Cars is the result, and the movie and response was so strong that Disney built a whole huge section of a theme park around the concept. The scenery is amazing, taken from all over the American Southwest and Northwest.
  • Ratatouille It’s a rat! No, it’s a stew! No, it’s a send-up of every post-war romance set in Paris, with a strong dash of Victor Hugo thrown in.
  • WALL-E So this is the point where big polluters probably said to themselves “Uh oh, Disney is against us. We’re cooked.” The cute-but-scruffy robot meets the beautiful science probe; classic boy-meets-girl-with-ecological-awareness.
  • Up The first Pixar film, and maybe any animated feature, that actually deals with aging and being old in years but not in spirit as a major theme. Squirrel!
  • Toy Story 3 Rejection (not really), separation, reunification. Ken and Barbie!
  • Cars 2 The necessary bridge between Cars and Cars 3. Lots of cool action and locations.
  • Brave Pixar takes on historical (sort of) fantasy, and produces one of the first modern animated films with a strong girl as the lead character. Seriously, she’s an archer. “Oh, she’s from the other studio”.
  • Monsters University Prequel/origin story to Monsters, Inc. Mike and Sully meet at college, in a sort of animated Revenge of the Nerds, but Disney-fied.
  • Inside Out Wow, this one spoke to me on so many levels. First thoughtful treatment in any feature about how the mind really seems to work. I can’t imagine how it appeals to children, but totally killer for middle-aged adults.
  • The Good Dinosaur I have no idea. Haven’t seen it. Pixar’s only box-office bomb. More Disney-like than Pixar-like, according to reviews.
  • Finding Dory Dory was such a crowd-pleaser in Finding Nemo that they gave her her own film. More zany than many Pixar films, but the story is great and the giant winch that Pixar attaches to your heart-strings can’t be ignored.
  • Cars 3 Every story has an arc; this is the logical end of the Cars arc. It’s a happy ending, at least for the heroes.
  • Coco If Up, Inside Out, or Finding Dory didn’t get you, Coco will. Old family intrigue, a mysterious break-up, aged grandmother, and a quest for redemption are the key themes. Heroic animal sidekicks, a notorious villan, and lots of plot tension keep it going. The animation is spectacular and well-worth seeing in 3D.
  • Incredibles 2 Separated in release dates by 15 years and in story arc by about one frame, this picks up literally where The Incredibles left off. The story is fantastic, centered on the characterizations of Elastigirl and Violet, and the explosive Jack-Jack.
  • Toy Story 4 Chucky meets Woody! Not really, but kind of. It gets super creepy in the middle, but then levels out and gives a soft Pixar landing for the series.

That’s it!

Well, I would add Wreck-It Ralph and Ralph Breaks the Internet to these, as they feel like Pixar films in story complexity and adult-friendliness.

Why am I not recommending other Disney Studio films? Some of those things are creepy. The dead moms littering the landscapes, kidnappings, child slavery, and other unsavorinesses are really, really dark. It doesn’t lighten up until The Little Mermaid (ok, Jungle Book and a couple of others, but still…). But, you do you; if the Disney Studio flicks are what float your boat (and you’re not swallowed by a huge whale) go for it!

5. The Great British Bake-Off

The GBBO (or Great British Baking Show, damn you, Pillsbury!) is the quintessential British cooking (baking) competition. Unlike most American competitions, it’s amazingly cooperative and friendly: no one revels in the losses of their other competitors; bakers actually help each other when possible; there is no apron taken back when someone is eliminated; and all of those eliminated come back to the final to cheer on the finalists.

We tend only to watch the BBC episodes, of which there are seven series. Bake!

 

Finally…

6. Kitten Rescuers

I kid you not, a show (from the Beeb, of course) about RSPCA volunteers and staff who rescue adorable kittens from horrible situations. Some of the footage is rather gory or odious; many scenes from operating theatres.

The bulk of the footage is stupidly cute; save this for when you are your most blue, as there are only eight 42-minute episodes, and no more coming.

 

So we started with The Seventh Seal and wound up at Kitten Rescuers! Now it’s up to you; send your comfort-watch lists, we will all need more to watch before this is all over.

 

Up, Up, and An Aquarium

Friday 1 July 2016

So now we are back in YVR (Vancouver B.C.’s airport) to catch our flight to LHR (that’s Heathrow).

If you’ve visited Vancouver and you came from the U.S., you landed at the U.S. part of the airport. YVR is one of those airports where you actually clear U.S. Immigration and Customs before you board; handy when you arrive wherever you’re going, but definitely adds a few minutes to the security process. On the way in to Canada, you get to pass through the rather grand International Arrivals Hall, which has a great native totem at one end. It’s huge! And far more interesting than, say, the arrivals hall at ORD.

But it’s when you head out of Canada to another country that’s not the U.S. that you get a special treat. In this case, you will be passing through the International Departures Hall, which takes all the good stuff from the arrivals hall and amplifies it by about a factor of five. It’s a big mall, with aircraft gates, surrounding these big water features:

IMG_4849

IMG_4852

Seriously, there’s a HUGE aquarium in the middle of the airport, with yet another of those cool native-themed carvings above it. This is definitely the airport for that longish layover.

Important safety tip (for your luggage): if you have a long layover, check in with the airline agents at least 90 minutes ahead of departure. We happened to stop at BA’s desk on our way back in, and were cautioned that had we just gone straight to the gate, they might have unloaded our checked luggage, and then when we arrived at the gate, might not have had time to reload it. They won’t take a chance on carrying luggage without the passenger to whom it belongs.

So here’s the plane:

IMG_4855

That’s one freakishly big plane. In case the size isn’t apparent, the A380-800 is 238′ long with a wingspan of 261′. To put that in context, from the middle of the aircraft to the tip of one wing is longer than a whole 737. The top of the vertical stabilizer (the tail) is 79′ above the ground. In BA’s 4-class arrngement, it carries 469 passengers; it is certified to carry up to 853 passengers.

As you can see, it is boarded from two separate skyways, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. The classes are split between the decks: First in the nose on the main deck; Biz at the front of the upper deck and aft of First on the main deck; Premium Econ on both decks behind those, and regular Econ at the aft of each deck. The bathrooms at the very front of the upper deck (reserved for Biz use) are HUGE, like 5’x8′.

Here’s a shot of the upper deck in Biz:

IMG_4859

You can see how the pods face each other in a staggered array; it’s 2-3-2 on the upper deck and 2-4-2 on the lower. Econ is 3-4-3 on the main deck, just for comparison.

The seat area is reasonably roomy, but not huge. The footrest at the end folds down to form part of the “bed”; the tray table is the metal panel to the left, with the IFE screen above it. There’s also a little drawer down at my feet.

IMG_4865

Problems with this seat are covered better elsewhere, but the main ones are: it’s narrow; solo travelers inevitably wind up facing a stranger for potentially long periods across the lowered partition; half the passengers have to step over the legs of the other half to get in and out of the seats; the storage is poor, except in the upper deck windows where there are small bays under the windows; there is a USB charging port and power ports, but no place to stash the device being charged.

But, it still beats the heck out of any Econ service.

This is a cool set of photos. Aside from the time of day, and assuming the aircraft is level in each, what’s the difference?

IMG_4860 IMG_4880

It’s the wingtips. The wings flex as much as 4m (that’s over 13′) at take-off. By all measures, this is a crazy big aircraft.

So what else? Not much. We ate (very good food, even by ground restaurant standards), wine, teas (of course), and snacks for the taking all night. Martha’s seat almost wouldn’t go flat, and then almost wouldn’t go back to the required takeoff and landing position. The staff were very friendly. The plane is very quiet at night, especially the upper deck. The flight was very smooth. The IFE was pretty good, with a decent selection of movies.

At the end, sometime before landing, one of the cabin crew introduced herself and asked us a number of questions about how we found the trip, the aircraft, and BA Biz class. I think they are doing this with first-time Biz passengers, as (spoiler alert!) they didn’t do this on the trip back. It was a little odd, being approached that way when most of the passengers were not, but in hindsight it did seem that they were genuinely interested in how we did (or didn’t) enjoy the flight.

Immigration and Customs at Heathrow were uneventful. We disembarked at T3, which is an older terminal; it gave us our first taste of “oh yeah, Europeans don’t believe in lots of air conditioning”. We would get lots more of that in the following weeks. Biz class usually gets you priority lanes through Immigration and Customs, which helps. Baggage retrieval and meeting our driver were uneventful. View of the parking garage:

IMG_4895

Takeaways from this part of the trip:

  • YVR is a great place for a layover, long or short.
  • BA Biz class is ok but not great, especially if you’re paying cash (we weren’t)
  • Confirm that you’re checked in when you return to the airport. Treat every long connection as a fresh flight.
  • Definitely get a car with driver from Heathrow, especially if you have any amount of large luggage. JustAirports.com has been good for us. If you are traveling light, us the Heathrow Express train from T5 to Paddington Station.

London! will have to wait until next time.

But First, A Word From Our Layover

Monday 27 June 2016

Did I mention that we had a really long layover in Vancouver? Yes? Ok, here’s how that went down.

As I had mentioned, we switched our outbound flights from PDX-DFW-LHR (in First, dammit!) to PDX-YVR-LHR (in Biz). This was a big change, first because we went from BA First (which is generally regarded as Super Nice) to BA Biz (which beats a kick in the head, but is nowhere near as nice). We also changed from a 747-400 to an A380-800, either of which would be a first for both of us (I know, really?) For BA, even in Biz on either you at least get a lie-flat seat that really does go fully flat, but the last two feet or so is a big footrest that goes flat and makes up the support under your calves. Also, the seats flip in orientation across the row, so you always are facing someone else through a partition that has to be down for takeoff, landing, and any service, and you usually will have to step over someone else’s legs to get to the aisle if you don’t have an aisle seat, or someone else will be stepping over your legs if you are in the aisle. Naturally, all these have won BA endless accolades for their Biz seating (not.)

The second reason is that, until this trip, Martha was of the opinion that Vancouver wanted us dead.

We had been to Vancouver many times before that, most more or less successfully. Our first trip to Vancouver was, I think, in 1992, the first year we went to Ashland and the year we bought our first house. Alaska Airlines was having a sale on flights to Vancouver that Thanksgiving, so off we went. The dollar was strong, conference organizers and the film industry had not really found Vancouver yet, so even great hotels were very cheap. We ate well, bought stuff at great exchange rates (including the Burberry trench coat that I took on this trip, and a Harris tweed that I didn’t), and generally had a good time. We went back many times, including for the non-apocalyptic 1999 New Year’s Eve, when the hotel gave us a list of all of the backup procedures they had in place and what to do in case of various emergencies (fire, power outage, water outage; no zombies). We went back a couple of more times, always over Thanksgiving, but then slowly fell away from it as the US dollar fell in power against the Canadian dollar.

And then I heard about the fireworks.

Folks, those crazy Canucks are serious about their fireworks. In the middle of summer for the past 26 years, when sane people are headed for the beach or the aircon, something like 300,000 Canadians and visitors come to English Bay on three separate nights for some of the best fireworks you will see anywhere. Three international high-end fireworks teams (this year’s USA team is Disney) light up the water (you thought I would write “light up the skies”, right? Lame) off Vancouver with amazing works of pyrotechnic and musical prowess.

I am, of course, a fireworks junkie. Blame my parents; they have been dragging me (once; then I dragged them) to any and every fireworks display I could find. The Bicentennial under the Gateway Arch; fife and drums and fireworks in Colonial Williamsburg; and of course, many Fourths of July on grass of the Capitol, long before PBS borged that event.

So we went to Vancouver.

It was not our most successful trip. The fireworks were amazing; no letdown there. We made a couple of mistakes; we booked a dinner table during the fireworks for one of the evenings (bad mistake; view partially blocked by a really ugly fence), and we had tickets for Bard on the Beach on another night, which did provide a good but very distant view of the fireworks that night. The performers at the Bard production of Twelfth Night were excellent; they had to deal with an airshow behind them (scheduled for the same time) and a big rock concert nearby; they managed to ad-lib a bit to deflect the disturbances. It was also hot (duh) and humid (duh), which was a shock compared to Vancouver in Thanksgiving, when the atmospheric humidity is usually present as rain. It’s not hot and humid like St. Louis or D.C., but we have lost our tolerance from too many years in the Mediterranean-like West Coast, so it was hot and humid to us.

But we tried again the next year. This time was worse; I had a cold on the flight up, got worse while we were there, and we decide to bail half-way through. Bad idea; two flights in a row burst an eardrum so I couldn’t fly again for a couple of months. We got to one of the fireworks events (USA! USA!), and, being veterans, knew just where to go, so we had a fabulous view and food. But it convinced Martha that Vancouver Wanted Us Dead, so that about wrapped it up for Vancouver.

And then, we were faced with the prospect of a layover in DFW, with only one flight in and one out, and the prospect of coach for nine hours if we missed it. Vancouver, with many flights in, two out, and a long layover to let luggage catch up with us, wasn’t looking so malicious. Nice Vancouver! Sit! Stay! Roll over!

So I rebooked the flights, and we were off to London via Vancouver, in Biz not First, but that was ok.

A nine-hour layover in Vancouver screams for a day-trip into the city. It’s 40 minutes or so on the excellent Canada Line train, easy to get to from the airport and with many stations downtown. Since this was just a layover and not a longer stay, we decided not to push the envelope and to stay with restaurants and activities that would allow time to get around, be pleasant but not too challenging, and generally let us enjoy the city between flights.

Before you set off from the airport, drop off your carry-on bags at the very excellent CDS Baggage service in the airport. We stored two or three bags and the aforementioned trench coat with them for about USD $10.

IMG_4833

For lunch, we chose Homer Street Cafe and Bar in the Yaletown neighborhood of Vancouver. They have excellent roasted chicken, very flavorful and moist, and, as important or more, chicken skin chips, rendered and flattened and allowed to fry in their own fat. Mmm…

IMG_4846

For dinner, we knew we had to be back at the airport by about 7PM, so we planned a very civilized afternoon tea at Urban Tea Merchant. While it’s technically a French-oriented tea shop, they do excellent British-like afternoon tea, with many proper small sandwiches, buttery soft scones, and an assortment of marvelous pastries. If you’re so inclined, they also serve Pacific Northwest and Japanese-inspired dishes, including a very nice miso black cod (butter of the sea!) and of course a HUGE assortment of teas, mostly IWG. Important safety tip: “afternoon tea” is the fancy ladies-with-gloves tea, and “high tea” is the more substantial workingman’s tea. We knew this from the many prior trips to Vancouver.

So that would give us a few hours to wander around, see the city, and generally relax.

Nah!

Remember that I plan obsessively and continuously (really–I dream trip plans). So while Martha was tucked all snug in her bed (I had made the Homer Street and Urban Tea reservation in March), I was scouring the Vancouver event pages for something to occupy that long three hours between lunch and the rather late tea.

And because I also still get emailed notices from Arts Club, Vancouver’s main live theatre production company, on May 18th, 4 days before we left, I got a notice containing this video:

Billy Elliot, which had just closed in London’s West End on April 6th after 4,600 performances (no, really), had just opened in Vancouver (not the same company, but still). And despite sold-out audiences, there were two seats third row center for the matinée of the Sunday of our layover.

Fate. Kismet. Whatever you call it, we had our afternoon.

IMG_4847 (1)

I will spare you the further details of the train to town (quick and painless), our lunch (excellent, especially the roast chicken and chicken skin), getting around Vancouver (cabs plentiful, but keep the app Curb handy on your iPhone), or tea (mobbed by Asian birthday parties just leaving, but still excellent).

But if Billy Elliot is performed anywhere near you, or if you can get to somewhere it is being performed, go. I have rarely seen such an excellent combination of social commentary and musical artistry. Definitely a must-see.

Back to the airport, and off to London…

…next time.

 

Planning an Invasion

Sunday 26 June 2016

One of our favorite series of travel guides, The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland, likens planning a trip to Disney as planning an amphibious invasion. I took that to heart many years ago, and because I’m an OCD engineer, of course I was going to plan a long trip to Europe as though we were personally going to re-enact the entire Allied European campaign from Operation Mincemeat through the Liberation of Paris on our own. There would be flights, trains, buses, subways, possibly ferries, certainly taxis as our transport; hotels and maybe apartments; cafés, bistros, tea shops, diners, grand restaurants; and every manner of entertainment for all the hours not spent sleeping, eating, or travelling.

In the original concept for September 2015, we would spend three weeks abroad: start in London and recover our jet lag there (and take in a few sights), take the train to Paris, stash some luggage, then to Vienna, see that, then to Switzerland for a few days, then train to Rome, see that, then back to Paris, then to London, then back home. There was a strategy here; the concept was that we could ditch luggage for each place at a local left luggage company, pick it up as needed, and so have fresh duds no matter where we were, while minimizing how much actual luggage we needed to tote in each location, especially the train over the Swiss Alps.

Please stop laughing.

The plan was solid, from a logistics standpoint, assuming that we wanted to avoid doing bathroom laundry (a requirement for me) and the need to use hotel laundry services. I had wound up doing laundry (coin-op) on prior trips and it was a pain in the a** to have to find the laundry in some foreign city, go there, waste time waiting for the laundry to be done, and go back to the hotel to fold etc. Even laundries with drop-off/pick-up service felt like an intrusion, a loss of time better spent on other activities. I’d also had less than stellar experiences with hotel laundries in the US, who had failed to remove simple spots from shirts. So “no laundry” was high on my list. We already had several large pieces of luggage, and were traveling mostly business class, so checked luggage limits weren’t a huge consideration.

Stop laughing.

Martha was big on hotels and not so much on apartments, AirBnB, VRBO, and other non-traditional housing. London would be our first stop for several days so that we would have time in a country where we mostly understand the language while we un-jet lagged. Sounded like a good plan. After many revisions, the plan was set: fly to London, several days there, Eurostar to Paris, ditch luggage at CDG, fly to Vienna, a few days there, train to Switzerland, then train across the Alps and down to Rome, several days there, fly to Paris, retrieve luggage, a week in Paris, train back to London, a few days there, then fly back to the States. Only the luggage needed for each forward stage would be carried forward, so we would have less and less as we went towards Paris (from Rome) and then start collecting it back up for the return trip.

Stop. F*cking. Laughing.

As I mentioned, real life intruded, so we pushed the trip first to all of May of 2016 (where the trip expanded again a bit; I’ll skip that) and then to three weeks from late May through mid-June. In the process, the available flights (using frequent flyer miles on Alaska Airlines, partnering with British Airways) prevented a clean round-trip through London, and we cut the itinerary to London, Paris, and Rome, so we ditched the store-the-luggage concept and went to the more conventional steamer-trunks-and-sherpas plan (i.e. bring it all and let bellmen and taxi drivers schlep the luggage). This was better and worse all at once.

So now we have a plan: three weeks, nine days in London, 4 in Rome, 7 in Paris. No trains, just flights.

Since this was Martha’s first trip to Europe, I wanted everything to be extra comfortable, so I booked a large suite with an excellent view in London, both for the wow factor of the view and to have an additional retreat in case of jet lag sleeplessness. In Rome (stop two), I went with TripAdvisor and Booking.com ratings and picked a nice-looking place sort of between the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain. For Paris, we found a little hotel in St. Germain near Notre Dame. So that was set.

The change in lodging from September to May/June was not painless; we had a reservation for September through VRBO with what looked like a great apartment in Paris. However, when we tried to cancel (“fully cancellable 30 days in advance”), VRBO completely took a powder on supporting us, claiming that only the owner had the ability to refund the substantial deposit; the owner claimed that she could not figure out the VRBO website and/or that we needed to have VRBO make the refund. After much back-and-forth, I sent a very well-documented claim to my credit card company, who quite promptly refunded the deposit. So we don’t do VRBO (or HomeAway, their parent company) any more.

However.

As the trip got closer, I felt underwhelmed by the Paris hotel. It’s nice, very nice in fact, but I wasn’t feeling the wow factor. So I went online again and looked for apartments, and hit pay dirt.

Back up.

Part of my “image” of being in Paris was finding a small café on Île Saint-Louis, reading a good book and sipping tea (not a coffee drinker) and eating macarons while Martha went to all the perfume shops she could stand. While it wasn’t strictly necessary to stay on Île Saint-Louis, certainly there was an attraction to being there. While looking at the various hotels, I came across a listing for Guest Apartment Services, a rental agency that focuses on apartments on Île Saint-Louis. They are a little spendy, but they have some amazing properties under management, and had great responsiveness during the online (mostly email) reservation process. So we picked a place with a killer location and views. More on that later.

Let’s talk flights. I have been accumulating frequent flyer miles on Alaska Airlines for decades, both through flights and through charges on our Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa card. Alaska partners with British Airways, American Airlines, KLM, and Air France among others. I had been saving them for a cruise, but that’s a different story.

Because we were re-booking well after the 12-month opening of flights (we cancelled September’s trip in June), everything in First was booked, and Biz class was getting harder to find (first world problems, don’t judge, you would do it, too). I found a routing PDX-DFW-LHR and a return CDG-LHR-SEA-PDX, in first on the way out and biz on the way back, so that was good.

Except that Martha was worried about the 3-hour layover at DFW; Alaska has like one flight a day PDX-DFW, so if there were a problem we might be able to get to LHR, but probably in coach, That would not make for a Happy Martha. Back to the computers.

After a few weeks, a couple of tickets in biz PDX-YVR-LHR opened up, same day. Couple of things about this: one, the layover was like 9 hours; two, Martha had been convinced, based on a couple of bad experiences, that Vancouver Wanted Us Dead.

She had a point about VWUD. We had been there many times over (US) Thanksgiving and had a good time, but we had been more recently tried going in summer and it had not gone well. Like, mild pneumonia and a burst eardrum that kept me from flying for a couple of months. Plus generally hot and humid weather, and we have lost all our Midwest-ingrained tolerance for heat and humidity. So getting her to go through YVR was a challenge. However, the long layover (an advantage for getting checked bags correctly transferred), multiple additional chances to get there if our first (early) flight went inop, and removal of the short layover in DFW won her over.

So we had flights (AS/BA PDX-YVR-LHR outbound, BA LHR-FCO, AF FCO-CDG, and AS/BA ORY-LHR-SEA-PDX), lodging, a bunch of restaurant reservations, a few events (Great Dixter, Chelsea Flower Show, a couple of tours in Rome), and a few days off planned. We had test-packed the clothes (two large bags, two roll-aboards, on-board “accessory” bags with iPads, phones, Kindles, etc.) and everything fit. We felt ready to go.

So the post-mortem on the planning stage:

The trip itself–itinerary, flights, hotels, event–was not over-planned. What was over-planned was the luggage and clothing; we found that we could get into the best restaurants (3 Michelin star) anywhere in London, Paris, or Rome with a jacket, smart trousers, and maybe a tie (although I skipped the tie). The hotel laundries (and apartment laundry in Paris) were efficient and not as expensive as even one large piece of luggage (very good hotels, YMMV). We didn’t pack enough spare luggage for souvenirs, which was a problem later. The big camera that I thought I would want for certain situations (better optical zoom) was not as useful as hoped. I would skip the iPads next time, and lean on Kindles (smaller, lighter) and phones. I didn’t use my big trench coat once, and the two suits were almost a total waste of space. Next time, we will bring  less gadgetry and clothes, and rely more heavily on our phones and hotel and apartment laundries.

I think we are both more comfortable with apartment rentals at this point, so we will probably use those more often. We really liked the ability to spread out in a private space. I would (again) read reviews closely and stay away from anyplace that seems even a little shady. It’s likely more expensive that way, but still miles cheaper than equivalent hotels, and no one wants to dread going back to their lodging. We had travel insurance for the Paris apartment, so we felt reasonably comfortable that we could bail on it and not be out everything if the apartment was bad.

That’s it for this post. More to follow.

Update:

I just found this photo, taken at MFR on our way to PDX (we stage long trips out of PDX; it’s just easier). A double rainbow, often believed to be a good omen. Works for me.

IMG_4822

Martha & Steve’s Big Adventure

Saturday 25 June 2016

Paddington bearLast year had numerically-significant birthdays for both of us. Martha, never having been out of North America and being both a gardening and perfuming fanatic, got interested in the idea of going to th UK (for Great Dixter) and Paris (for perfume, duh).

We had planned to go in September 2015, after most of the (other) tourists had gone home and the weather would have cooled a bit. As it turned out, we pushed the trip first to early May of 2016, and then to mid-May through mid-June. Turns out that this was lucky in more than one way, but I’ll get to that later.

Most people (who blog; not really most people) would have written about their trip during the trip, so that the recollections would be fresh. I didn’t want to do it that way: one, because I’m a contrarian; two, because neither of us wanted to take hours (or even minutes) a day to do this. If we weren’t out doing something, we wanted to be recovering from what we had been doing, or planning events for later in the trip (yes, I didn’t plan it all to the minute this time).

So I’m writing this as a kind of expedition post-mortem; with the perfect hindsight of the entire trip, it’s easier to gain perspective on what did and didn’t work, and what we would and wouldn’t do again. Minor spoiler: yes, we would do it again.

I’ll start with the pre-trip planning (which started in September 2014) and continue through the trip proper in subsequent posts. Feel free to skip sections that don’t draw you in; the detail will likely be overwhelming in places.