Bern’s Steakhouse–Tampa, FL

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

–Anthony Bourdain

I am here to dispel the myth that work-travel is paid vacation. I often hear from people how great it must be that I get to travel so much (it is, but bear with me). In their mind they have painted a luxurious picture of me lounging in spas getting massages, leisurely visiting museums, and dining at the best locales the city du jour has to offer.

Let me repaint that picture for you based on my most recent work trip to Tampa. My flight was at 6:05am out of Monterey this past Sunday. I woke up at 3:13am despite having set my alarm for 4:24am. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I gave in and got up to cook all the leftover food I had in the refrigerator to take with me. This actually turned out to be a great inclination later on the plane. I left for the airport a little before 5:00am, parked in long term parking, and rolled my bags to the airport check-in counter. I flew to Phoenix where I had a quick cup of coffee before boarding my next flight. If you have ever flown through the Phoenix airport you’ll know that the terminals are quite far apart. While I always welcome a walk, especially when I have planned sitting all day long, what I’m trying to acknowledge is if you have a tight connection, a long walk may increase your stress levels…which may or may not be elevated due to a poor night’s sleep. I made it to Tampa and by the time I had collected my luggage, found a ride, and made it to the hotel, it was 5:00pm. I had intended to go for a walk but it was pouring rain and so settled in and prepared for my next day’s work. Monday we worked all day and, at the insistence of my colleague, we went to a late dinner—not my style—at the place to go in Tampa, Bern’s Steakhouse. We got to the restaurant at 8:00pm.

Bern’s is an institution Tampa, it has been in the same location since 1953, growing with time. It was opened by Bern & Gert Laxer initially as a luncheonette. Today, it has eight dining rooms, is dim-lit—bad for taking photos, sorry—has red velvet walls and gaudy renaissance looking artwork scattered around the place. In addition to the dining rooms, there’s a bar and lounge area, a separate dessert room upstairs (more on that in a moment), a huge kitchen that offers tours, and a huge wine cellar. We didn’t have a reservation so we got in line to put our name down with the hostess. The people in front of us were doing the same thing and after they finished one said to the other, “Where’s Harry?” I couldn’t help myself so I responded, “He’s with Sally.” Harry and his friends got a kick out of it and invited my colleague and I to join them in the lounge while we awaited our table.

Eventually we were seated and I was told to order steak, “this is no time to think about dieting,” chided my colleague. The steak came with French onion soup, a house salad, grilled vegetables from the garden, and a fully-loaded baked potato. The page on the menu for steak was a full sheet—legal-sized—arranged in a table with the rows telling you the cuts of steak and columns explaining the two thicknesses of cuts of each steak, its weight, how many people it serves, and the price. On the following page was another table describing to you how you should order your steak depending on how you like it cooked, according to its thickness, and the cut of meat. I ordered the 7 oz. châteaubriand, rare warm—as opposed to rare cold where the meat on the inside would still be cold. A châteaubriand is a thick cut of tenderloin. I couldn’t finish it or the baked potato. The soup and salad would have made for a lovely meal all alone but not at Bern’s.

After our meal my colleague insisted we take a tour of the kitchen and it was spectacular. We saw cuts of meats with specific instructions on receipt paper tooth-picked to them, sprouted greens for salad garnish, and the “onion ring” station where we were told that Bern’s goes through about 300-500 pounds of onions a night.

The wine cellar was unbelievable: cold, dark, damp, and expansive. We were told that it is the world’s largest privately-owned collection of wine. At any one time there are 100,000 bottles in the cellar…and another 500,000 bottles across the street at their storehouse. The oldest wine by the glass is a Madeira from 1900 and the oldest wine by the bottle is an 1845 vintage Bordeaux.

Next we hiked up the stairs to the dessert room where all the booths are made out of the wood of whiskey casks. In each booth is a land-line telephone where you can direct dial the pianist to request a song. He’s playing somewhere in the dessert room—I never saw him. We ordered a couple desserts to share: a baked Alaska that they flambéed at our table and the King Midas (carrot cake, chocolate ice cream, and fudge sauce). It was an exquisite and excellent experience and totally worth it.

By the time I got back to my hotel room it was after 11:00pm and I needed to pack for our 5:00am departure to the airport for the 6:15am flight to return home the following day, Tuesday. While work-travel is most certainly not a paid vacation it is thrilling if you love what you do, like I do. There is (usually) time to try a great restaurant at the expense of sleep and most of the time it’s worth it, like Bern’s was. As the late Anthony Bourdain said, travel isn’t always pretty or comfortable but in travel you are changed and hopefully leave something good behind. I’d like to think I left something good behind in Tampa or with you all, by sharing my experience and urging you to seek similar, positive experiences in any way you can.

Poor lighting, steak, vegetables, and super thin onion rings
That’s a lot of meat
More meat
Micro-greens, grown in the kitchen for salad garnish
Some of the wine in the 100,000 bottle cellar

The Oasis on Lake Travis — Austin, TX

The day after my cousin’s wedding, a lot of my side of the family decided to go to The Oasis at Lake Travis in Austin, about an hour and fifteen minutes northeast of San Antonio.

It was a long drive and my cousin’s car doesn’t have the most reliable air conditioning (read, it turns off randomly) which made the two hour drive in 102˚F plus 80% humidity less than enjoyable (read, miserable). Ok, I’m being a bit dramatic, my aunt, who is one of the best cooks I know had freshly made shawerma (gyro) sandwiches in her purse (naturally) and I ate one and wrote down the recipe with a blissful heart and belly.

When we arrived, we put our name down for a party of 20 for “first available” but really just wanted to sit inside. We were told it would be a two hour wait so one group of us went and found refuge from the heat and coffee at a nearby shopping center. I guess that’s what people who live in really hot places do, go hang out at Safeway. I’ve actually heard of this phenomenon, Safeways have Starbucks in them and they keep the store really cool so you just bring your laptop or a book and have coffee and sit in the lobby of Safeway, passing the July Saturday. Man are we lucky in Monterey.

The Oasis is known as “the sunset capital of Texas” and the building is a multiple level restaurant overlooking Lake Travis. Everywhere you turn there are funky statues and quirky signs. All along the rails throughout the restaurant there are hundreds of locks and it is referred to as “Lovers Lock Lane.” There’s a sign saying:

May your love live forever at the Sunset Capital of Texas.
Lock your love with your soulmate,
family member or friend.
Personalize your love lock and toss
your key into the fountain.

Locks available for purchase in The OASIS Gift Shop.

I think the last line says it all. I also hope your love endures past the Sunset Capital of Texas.

The kids (ages 20-30) were assigned to sit at one end of the table while the adults sat at the other end of the table. We all shared food and drinks and just hung out, it was lovely. We waited for the sun to set and snapped group photos. It was a nice way to spend the last day in Texas and the day after a long weekend of family time and a big wedding. If you find yourself in Austin, and you like quirky places, lakes, and people, head over to The Oasis. In the meantime, enjoy my photos!

 

View of Lake Travis, note all the locks hanging from the fence

My aunt and mom posing with the old lady statue–one of the many quirky statues around the grounds

My dad, my baby cousin, and my dad’s baby brother

Nachos!

Chicken enchiladas

The sun setting over Lake Travis

Me!

Sunsetting over Lake Travis

Boatrides at dusk

The entrance to the Oasis, note the statue

Day around Santa Fe

We headed out in the morning, the plan was to see a few things on our list and then have breakfast.  The cathedral was still closed so we figured we’d come back.  And then the hunger hit.  OK, well let’s just go eat first and then start sightseeing.

We put our name down on the waiting list at the well-renowned and much recommended Cafe Pasqual’s.  What a gem!!!! We split two dishes and a flute of bubbly and had a wonderful time talking and catching up.  “Christina, this table over here keeps looking at us.” I remarked.

“Yea, Sally, we’re kind of loud.”

“Oh, we are?” I said, erupted in laughter, and kept telling my story.

Breakfast at Cafe Pascual’s – Huevos Barbacoa & Huevos Motuleños – not pictured, a flute of Gruet Blanc de Noirs

After breakfast, we wove through the streets of downtown Santa Fe to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. But!! I needed to get on the donkey for a photo op :).

 

Me on a metal donkey in Santa Fe, NM 🙂

At the museum, we paid our admission and checked our coats and bags.  Just as we were going to start exploring, a young guy gave his 2 docent-guided badges back to the woman at the front desk who turned around and said to Christina and me, “there are 2 spaces now open in the docent-guided tour starting right now if you’d like to join, she’s wonderful!”

“Thank you!” We exclaimed and put the laniards around our necks.

Gail, the docent, was a hoot!! She seemed to know everything about Georgia O’Keeffe and the way she led the tour was charming, we went from room to room as though we were traveling through the life of the famous artist.

In the first room, Gail told us about a painting by O’Keeffe, a floral piece titled, the Jimson Weed, she went on to say “well, if you have this flower in your garden, you’d better tear it out because it’s poisonous! If you have a dog or a cat and they eat it, well they’ll just die!”

I leaned into Christina and said, “natural selection.”

She rolled her eyes and elbowed me.  he he he

Gail was so enthusiastic about Georgia O’Keeffe, it is so inspiring to see people passionate about something, anything!  She had these quirky mannerisms, she would say something and then look around, “can you believe that?!”

After our lovely tour at the O’Keeffe Museum, we walked around and checked out what the street vendors were selling in the plaza.  A lot of silver and turquoise jewelry here, copper, too.

Next stop, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, it was so beautiful inside.  It was very well-lit which is a bit unusual for Cathedrals.  I loved the energy inside.  I don’t care if you’re religious or not, there is something beautiful about having faith in something, anything.  And striving to be a good person, do a constant re-check of your life and make sure you’re on the right path.  Be true to yourself, be true to human kind, be kind.

We checked out the Loretto Chapel and miraculous staircase.  If you haven’t heard, this staircase is built without any nails.  Unfortunately, I am too tired now to write about the details but maybe I’ll refresh this post with data at a later date.

Loretto Chapel

Rosaries hanging from a tree at the entrance to the chapel

The miraculous staircase

“I used to be addicted to soap but now I’m clean!”
ha ha ha!

Yes, you are. This sticker was on an electrical box on a random street in Santa Fe

Cute street-side bar on Canyon Road, a street with several art galleries and shops

Christina rocking on the rocking chair

What a lovely idea for a rocking chair. The seats are facing one another. Christina and I sat on this for a while and rocked back and forth, I could do this for hours, all that was missing was a drink

We walked back to the hotel for a rest, then went to the Gruet Tasting Room at the Hotel St. Francis.  We sat in the sunshine and enjoyed a bubbly tasting, it was lovely.  We talked and dreamed of the future and even got philosophical.

Next was dinner at La Choza.  The food was magnificent; we split a meal: green chili stew, a blue corn burrito, and a chicken taco.  It was all lovely but we are beat.  Worn out from touristing.  It’s bath and bed time.

Good night, folks.

No good deed ever goes unrewarded

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The Dead Sea, Jordan side

I woke up as the car rolled to a stop at the parking lot of Mount Nebo…in my half awake state, I thought I had heard somebody say that the site closed at 5pm.  It was 4:55.  Three police officers sat on plastic chairs near the entryway, “Is it open?” I called out to them. “Yes,” the middle one answered lazily, swinging his crossed leg back and forth.  “Do they close at 5?”  I asked, the tinges of irritation creeping into my head.  “Yes,” he responded in the same monotonic tone.  I chuckled away my irritation…he had answered my first question honestly.

At the front gate, we were told that the entry fee was 1 Jordanian Dinar.  We pulled out our wallets and paid.  “Doesn’t it close at 5?” I asked.  “Yella, 5:30.” (Alright fine, 5:30), the guard responded as if he had just acceded to a pleading toddler.  Still in my sleepy haze, I handed over a 1 JD piece and the guard looked surprised, “Miss, this is no longer used.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said and handed him another. “Where did you find this?”  I explained that I had found them in a box of currency at my parents’ house.  “These are no longer in circulation! Can I look at it?” He stared, inspecting every letter, every crease, starry-eyed at the out-dated currency with that juvenile glow of excitement.  After I paid – with effective currency – I told the guard he could keep the out-of-service piece.  He tucked it delicately into his uniform pocket.  I checked my wallet and found 1/2 and 1 JD notes that were no longer in circulation and took them out and handed them to him. “Here,” I said with a smile, “have these, too.”  “Allah yerda3 3allayki” (may God be kind to you) and he went on…wishing God would have favor on me, thanking me for my kindness.  He waved us through, despite our attempts for the last person in our party to pay, he insisted that it was unnecessary.  I felt like his blessings and well-wishes, although welcomed on my part, were a bit much for me giving him the equivalent of $2.50 in worthless currency.  But like they say, one woman’s trash is another man’s treasure.

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Cross sculpture at Mount Nebo (Moses’ serpent cross)

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Beautiful olive tree

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Mount Nebo, Jordan

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Looking out onto the Promised Land (Jericho is in the far distance and the Dead Sea to the far left)

On our way out, the same guard stopped us and handed each of us a Mount Nebo keychain as a token of his appreciation for our kindness.  I walked to the car with a skip in my step thinking that despite what we may hear, kindness and appreciation are not lost in our world.  As my dad says, “life is a mirror, if reflects back out at you who/what you are.”  So if you want to see more kindness in the world, put some kindness out there.

Around Athens

We set  about to see Athens – there’s a lot to see, even if you stayed an entire month I think you would feel like you didn’t see everything. We first took a small tour of the city center with a guide, Dorothy.  We passed the temple of Olympian Zeus, the first Olympic stadium – the Panathenaic Stadium (which is no longer used for the Olympic Games but is where the Olympic torch is lit and begins its journey at he commencement of every Olympic Games every 2 years), Syntagma (constitution) Square and the Parliament which has a tomb to the unknown soldier, We drove around the city, the guide regurgitating facts about buildings that I wish I could share with y’all, but unfortunately do not recall nor did I take notes.  I guess that means you have to visit Athens, too! 

Panathenaic Stadium – reconstructed from the ruins of the an ancient Greek stadium
 

The Acropolis: we climbed up to the Parthenon and were given a lesson by Dorothy: the marble used to be painted, we are thankful that the Romans copied us because we know what the statues (that the Byzantines took and used for other things) looked like, much of the decoration of the Parthenon is in the British museum or the Louvre in Paris, etc etc. Next we visited the New Museum of the Acropolis (in which photos are prohibited except on the 3rd floor, which is dedicated to the Parthenon). One small detail that caught my eye was that in the entrance of the museum exhibit, there was a clear glass plate in the floor (the entire floor is glass but it is etched, this particular plate was clear and you could see underneath); there was sand and some ancient, very well-preserved pottery. Dorothy explained that this is a Greek tradition, when you start the construction of a building, you always put something close to you, from the kitchen in the foundation. I really liked that tradition – very symbolic.

You may wonder why the museum is the “New” Museum of the Acropolis.”  This is because the Greeks are trying to get back much of the artifacts from Ancient Greece back from the British museum. The British said (probably in more words and much more diplomatically) “well look at your museum, you don’t even have a proper place to store these priceless artifacts.”  So the Greeks built the new, huge, splendid museum and as far as I understand, negotiations are still underway as to the fate of the Ancient Greek artifacts, especially the decoration of the Parthenon because as it stands now, it is a bit bare – the ornamentation being on display at the British Museum. 

Every museum visit must end, begin or have sandwiched within it,  a drink and/or snack at the museum cafe. We sat on the outside veranda which has magnificent views of the Acropolis and enjoyed cappuccinos (mama and me) and a beer (papa b). Refreshed from our break, we continued on to see more!

The Parthenon

Theatre of Dionysus at the Acropolis

Temple of Athena – note the olive tree on the left, this is because Athena’s gift to the people was an Olive Tree (as opposed to Poseidon’s which was the sea of Erekhtheis – Poseidon, God of the Sea struck the Earth with his trident and water sprung forth (sound familiar?) – Athena and Poseidon were in a competition to be the patron of the city which is now called Athens

Ionic Columns – note the capital is characterized by volutes (the ornamentation that looks like a scroll); this is one of the three types of Greek columns, the other two being Doric, very plain, no ornamentation at the capital; and Corinthian, which has much more ornamentation, i.e. leaves, scrolls, great detail, etc.

The Olive Tree near the old Temple of Athena, this is not the tree that Athena offered to the people but this one was planted in 1917 and a fun fact, it was planted on George Washington’s birthday (Dorothy was full of these trivia)

Amazing – life always finds a way

Nuts and seeds for sale in the Plaka

Next stop, tomb of the unknown soldier in front of the parliament building in syntagma square. The 2 guards (Evzones) are dressed in the uniform of the War of Independence (1821); that is, white stockings, a white pleated skirt, and top, a beret and clog-like shoes with a pompom on the toe, the shoes are lined with metal in the bottom, like tap-dancing shoes. Dorothy had told us that each shoe weighs 5 kg! This made the march that the soldiers do all the more impressive – they stand erect (with and expressionless face) and kick each foot up, the leg parallel to the ground, and before lowering the foot back down, they make a circle motion with their foot, like a horse or a bull before charging. They rotate sides periodically and ceremoniously. There’s a third soldier dressed in contemporary uniform who looks after them as they are not allowed to speak or even make eye contact with anybody. About 40-minutes into the hour, they march forward and stand motionless. The modern-dressed soldier examines each one, fixing the tassel that hangs from their hats, their socks and stockings, wipes the swear from their brows and announces to he public, in both English and Greek, “you may take photos with the guards one at a time, please do not try to speak to them, be respectful.”  The change of the guard occurs every hour on the hour but we didn’t want to wait around for 20 minutes so we went off to our next visit, st. George’s church on the top of Lycabettus Hill (the highest point in Athens).

Evzones – Presidential Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside of the Parliament building in Syntagma Square

magnificent Evzones

We walked alongside the parliament and then up through Kolonaki, a very nice neighborhood in Athens. Kolonaki is on a steep slope and we walked up the hill passing through restaurants, that had sidewalk seating. About halfway up the hill the road turned into stairs and we were walking up stairwells between residential buildings. The road was lined with lush, green trees; that is one thing (of many) that keeps amazing me, the fertility of the land here. There is allegedly a water shortage but there are foliage and plants everywhere! Eventually we made it to our destination, a funicular station that would take us up to St. George’s church. The funicular was small and cramped and a wave of claustrophobia came over me as we ascended the hill in a dark tunnel; at one point there was a disco ball flashing lights from the walls of the tunnel…seriously, guys? There is the most adorable white church on the top of the hill, a bell tower and a restaurant. We visited the church which fits about 12 people. There was a priest chanting and later incensing and an elderly nun praying. We lit candles and said a small prayer and were off. The view from St. George’s church is incredible, you can see all Of Athens – whose population is 4 million (of the 11 million of all of Greece). 

St. George’s Church on the top of Lycabettus Hill

Bell tower at St. George’s church, overlooking the whole city of Athens

the back of St. George’s Church

 

Islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina

We took a 1-day cruise through the Saronic Gulf to the islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina. The day started beautifully, we sat on the deck of a big boat with warm sun, good music and a freddo (Greek iced coffee). A tall, young, beautiful, Greek dancer, Michaelus came and gave us a dance lesson – a little difficult to maintain balance  on a rocking boat, but it made for an interesting experience.  
sailing throuh the Aegean Sea

Our first stop was at the Island of Hydra, a small island with the population of 3000 people and where cars and motorized vehicles are not permitted – people get around by walking or donkey.  We got off the boat and walked along the shorefront and through the white-washed allies. Life here seems really simple, there is no vehicular traffic to cause noise or stress and so it seems to me that people live tranquilly.  As we were leaving a short, older gentleman with the skin the color of tan-leather and a head full of silver hair stopped me and asked if I cared for a ride on the donkey.  I thanked him but said I had no time.  “Ok. Ok. You is beautiful lady,” he said through a toothless smile as he walked away.  “Efharistó!” (thank you), I called after him and hopped along my way to catch the boat.

mama and me 🙂

Island of Hydra

white crooked, perfectly imperfect alley-ways of Hydra

squishy!

precious donkey blocking the road in Hydra

Back on the boat, we had a buffet lunch of Greek food –  dolma, beet salad, tomato salad, a variety of rices, fish, olives, cheese, chicken, pork, and (my favorite) honey-walnut cake.  The cake was a dense yellow-sponge cake speckled with walnuts and soaked in a honey syrup.  Yum! 

We made our way to the Island of Poros – an island with a population of 7000 and here, there are cars. We walked along the dock and watched a little boy, maybe 7 years old learning how to fish with his grandfather.  In between casting the line and catching the fish, grandpa was feeding the little boy bites of his sandwich. The boy ate willingly because if he ate, he got to fish more.

Church as we approach the Island of Poros, maximum capacity 21.5

boats lining the Island of Porous

Next stop, Aegina, the largest of the 3 Saronic Islands which we visited. This island is famous for its pistachio groves, the monastery of St. Nectarios and has a very rich history (of which I will only share with you what I recall). The very first coin minted in the world was from the Island of Aegina in about 700 BC and had a sea turtle on it.

The 20 remaining (of 365) churches built by the Aegeans as protection from pirates

Bougenvillia in front of the Monastery of St. Nectarios

hallway in the Monastery of St. Nectarios

Kalistera…

After touring the Island of Aegina and eating pistachios roasted with lemon, we boarded the cruise ship for the last time and watched a show of Greek folk dancers.  The two men performed traditional dances from various parts of Greece.  Of course there’s the Zorba but my favorite was a dance from Macedonia which depicts the wheat harvest by dance.  It is a one-person show and the dancer dances the first part with a sickle, as if harvesting the wheat; the sickle is spun around and around the dancer’s body.  Next he uses a sifter, a round, tray looking device lined on the bottom with a mesh strain and dances with that.  The last part was incredible, he held the sifter upright and balanced a glass of wine on the rim and did a little number with it, he twisted it left and right and then he began to furiously spin the sifter around and over his head.  The crowd all watched, awe-struck clapping and yelling “oppa!”

Land of milk and honey

We had breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel, with a view of the acropolis and ruins of the Temple of Zeus. The planter boxes that lined the outdoor terrace were filled with rosemary, oregano, geranium, among other fragrant herbs. A small olive tree grew to my right, with black olives hanging ripe on it. It’s incredible how lush the land is and consequently extremely fertile, explains a lot of the richness of the cuisine and the ancient tradition of food production,  preparation, preservation.  

We took a bus to the Cape of Sounion today, about 75 km SE of Greece. We wound along the Aegean Sea passing gorgeous homes, fuchsia bougenvilia, white and purple oleander, olive trees, caper trees, and more oregano than meets the eye. There’s something about the Mediterranean – the sun glistens off the water differently here, it seems shinier than elsewhere, maybe from all the blood spilled in ancient battles or all the passionate love stories that were made here or maybe there’s just something magical about the Mediterranean. There definitely is. We stopped on the side of the road for a view of the temple of Poseidon (Greek God of the Sea), and continued on our way to the topf of the hill where the Temple is located.  The Temple was built by the Greeks in the 5th Century BC. Apparently the temple was destroyed by the Persians in the 4th Century and rebuilt by the Greeks in the 5th.  It is a 4-sided building, with the traditional Greek columns, 42 originally of which 15 stand today. 
 
Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion, Greece

View from the top of Cape Sounion

Remains of the Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion, Greece

Beautiful – I don’t know what tree this is but it wasn’t an olive tree

Partridge!

These flowers were growing up between rocks in seemingly unlivable conditions

Mama and me at the Temple of Poseidon

Enjoying an afternoon freddo cappuccino – a very commmon Greek drink, espresso over ice with really thick foamed milk on top.

The colors at sunset here are incredible. A golden sun set in a clear sky that’s changing colors by he minute, pinks and oranges, soft purples and blues. The closer the sun gets to the horizon, the more yellow it appears and the more pink the sky becomes. Now more purple skies – no wonder people stop what they’re doing at sunset and allow themselves to be mesmorized by the beauty of it.


excuse the quality of the photo, it was taken from the bus but this is the sunset over the Aegean Sea

In the evening, we wound through the old allies of the Plaka to a Tavern recommended to us by the concierge.  It was a bit off the beaten path, nestled in a hill right next to an Orthodox Church. We sat at the top of the hill and let the waiter (who I named Georgous because that seems to be every other man’s name here) choose our meal for us.  We started with a Greek salad, cucumbers, tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, capers, olives and feta cheese, that Georgous dressed for us with olive oil, apple cider vinegar and salt.  Georgous was a very animated man, “you must eat Greek salad with a lot of olive oil otherwise it’s not Greek salad,” he proclaimed as he threw his hands up in the air. For the next course, mama and papa b had grouper with spinach and monkfish with mushrooms, respectively.  I had lamb cooked in foil with potatoes and cheese – another waiter removed the contents of the foil onto my plate at the side of the table. The food was delicious, tender and flavourful.  One of the times Georgous came to check on us he insisted I try a caper with a chunk of potato and a piece of meat, which I did.  I ate it and smiled and he said “you see, The Greeks, we know how enjoy the food!”  We had this with a jug of house red wine that was spectacular and believe it or not, we did not have dessert!  

Kalispera, Atena (good evening, Athens)

The sky was a pink, orange haze – that old world haze that’s characteristic of these ancient countries.  As we descended over Athens, you could see the beachfront houses in neat little rows – they looked as of they were glued together and I imagined Greek neighbors yelling from one house to the other: the latest gossip, the price of tomatoes, politicking. It made me think of the conversation I had had with the young Argentinian lawyer next to me, he was asking about the social life in the US, is it really as fast-paced as they say? Are people very solitary and don’t go out? I explained that it depends but it’s easier to be less social when our houses are so spread apart (as opposed to the “flat-style” buildings so characteristic of the majority of the world.  The way of life makes it easier to drive home after work and stay home in front of the TV, maybe that’s also a cultural difference – it is a less social culture and people don’t feel the need to socialize and are fulfilled by being in front of the TV. (Or, maybe that’s part of what’s wrong with our culture, a lot of our depression problems may be because of a lack of social life…?)

The cab driver put our bags in the trunk without even making eye contact with us, I could tell this irked my dad – he really likes to make friends.  We got in and drove off, the warm Mediterranean air blowing through the open windows, the breeze was welcome after being in/on an airport/airplane (read: hot, sweaty, stuffy, recycled air) for 20+ hours.  The radio hummed zorba-esque music in the background and I was taken back to one hot summer in Damascus – we were eating dinner in the open-aired courtyard of an old house converted to a restaurant in the old city. There was a big Greek group dining and the guitar player welcomed them with the zorba, we were invited to join and we spent the evening dancing around the fountain in the center of the restaurant – starting slow and speeding up the tempo, as the zorba goes. I smiled at the memory and knew that before we leave this country, we would dance the zorba again. 
The cab wove through the streets – in that  “ordered chaos” characteristic of old-world-country-driving. Lanes are ambiguous and personal space, non-existent; pedestrians may or may not walk into traffic causing a fit of rage for drivers; motorbikes and vespas take advantage of their size and weave around cars.  The driver wasn’t shy to lay on the horn if traffic was taking longer to clear for him than he would like. He sat on a mat of wooden beads – for the heat and a wooden cross hung from the rear view mirror. 
The street signs made me think of my college physics and calculus classes, alphas and betas and thetas. What a beautiful alphabet, not to mention old…
Mama exclaimed that she had spotted the Acropolis! Although it was dark, we could see the Acropolis through the trees as we made our way to our hotel. As we pulled up to the lobby, mama handed the driver his fare and said “efharisto (thank you) so much.”

Time to explore! We left our hotel, and were almost run over by motorcyclists who seem to flirt with the cross walk line, anticipating the green light. We wandering around the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zues and Hadrian’s Arch – the columns mightily standing the test of time. This time when we crossed the street, we took extra caution – drivers here are reckless!  In the Plaka, we heard a man softly playing guitar and singing a ballad into a microphone; restaurant owners invited us to have a seat and eat at their restaurant, each claiming theirs to be the best one around. A man sat behind a cart selling roasted chestnuts and corn on the cob; another older gentleman had a compartamentalized cart of nuts “prova!” he proclaimed as we approached. We tasted various nuts, macademia, almonds, cashews and decided on roasted, salted almonds for an evening stroll snack. Men were selling these contraptions that light up as they soar through the air; another couple of young guys were playing with fire – the more daring of the two taking sips of gas and roaring out fire to please the crowds dining in the Plaka. We walked slowly through the olive tree lined allies stopping in each shop to admire the souvenirs, or sample candied fruit.

Ruins of Temple of Zeus in Athens, Greece

More Ruins of the Temple of Zeus

kids messing around near the guys playing with fire in the Plaka, Athens, Greece

Greek yogurt + Greek honey = yummy

various yogurts

Multi-use  hollowed out log, planter

the Acropolis at night

 

Valparaiso & Viña del Mar

I think I’m more of a Thank God it’s Saturday kind of girl.  I was happy to have a day with no schedules to keep and no sitting for hours on end after a long, long week of work. 

I woke up this morning, well before the alarm I had set on the off chance I sleep in.  It was still dark out but there was no chance of my falling back asleep.  I got up and went to the breakfast room, I had a long day planned; I was going to visit Ramon and Ana in Vina del Mar.  I met Ramon and Ana on a tour in San Pedro de Atacama, we had gone to see flamingos, salt flats and lagoons up in the Andes.  Ramon told me all about Chile’s history and I picked his brain about Chilean culture.  I told him I would be in Santiago for a couple weeks for work and he invited me to Vina del Mar, which is on the coast of Chile and one of Chile’s largest wine producing regions.  He gave me instructions on which bus to take and assured me that he would be waiting for me at the bus station upon my arrival and I could spend the weekend with his family.  

Sunrise over the Andes
pretty flowers and looking down from the hotel

I stopped at the supermarket to pick up a bottle of wine and discovered, much to my disappointment, that in Chile you can’t purchase alcohol before 9 am.  So I walked to the metro station – everyone was super bundled up; it rained yesterday and the temperature drops drastically after a rainfall. I watched a girl pet a stray dog on the street, he got up, wagged his tail and followed her for as long as I could see.  I arrived at the metro station at 9:02 am, there’s a Lider Express (Walmart!) right above the Manquehue metro station.  I ran in, bought a bottle of wine and headed to the metro.

It was a long ride to Pajaritos metro station which is also a bus station but I had fun people watching.  A group of students from the US came on at one point and were loudly taking pictures of just about everything.  A couple stood nearby, infectuously in love.  A little girl sat next to her mom, with headphones that were way too big for her head and swung her feet jerkily back and forth off the metro seat.
I purchased my ticket at 9:49 for a bus departing at 9:50.  The attendant who sold me the ticket said vete al tiro  (go immediately! al tiro is a Chilenismo which David (the driver for the organization I’m working with), explained is a military term, tiro means bullet and so when someone says “go al tiro it means like at bullet-speed.  You will often hear Chileans say “I’ll bring you the check al tiro” so it means immediately, right away, etc.) The bus driver asked me if I was going to Vina, I said yes and he walked with me to the bus.  I found my way to my assigned seat and the woman sitting next to me was eating potato chips and sucking down ketchup from those little packets that you get at fast food places in between each bite.  She said you got here just in time!  I called Ramon to let him know I was on the bus and he told me he would be waiting for me upon my arrival. 
There’s this alert on the Chilean buses that beeps if the driver goes more than 100 km/h.  It’s fine if you have a bus driver who doesn’t speed, otherwise it’s obnoxious…
Santiago is about 520 m above sea level and we were heading down to sea level.  Heading down the mountain we went through the cloud line, it was so enchanting.  The highway is lined with green trees, evergreens I suppose and there are eucalyptus speckled here and there. 

from the bus, look at the clouds!!!

We passed TerraSanta, an olive oil factory, I didn’t know before this trip that Chile produced olive oil.  And good olive oil at that, I have been having it with my bread at lunch and it’s quite excellent. 

We drove through what seemed like a toll road and a cute girl got on the bus with a basket of sweets.  She walked up and down the aisle calling out what she had in her basket, alfajores, calugas de manjar…I bought a pack of calugas de manjar con nueces (a carmel that has the consistency of fudge, with walnuts) and wrapped them up to take back home. 

Ramon was calling me as I stepped off the bus, I picked up but nothing.  I hung up and went in the bus station to wait.  I figured we were running on Chilean time so I ordered a café con leche, took a seat under circling flies and called him back.  Si, Sally! Estas? (Sally! Are you here?) I told him I was and he said that he was running an errand at the pharmacy and would be at the bus station immediately after.  I people watched the people watching the futbol game on the TV in the bus station and sipped my coffee.  I finished my coffee and people watched more, security guards stood chatting to one another and a clearly not Chilean girl ran around frantically looking for a bathroom before catching her bus.  (Oh, how I can relate).  I decided to go look for a bathroom myself while I waited for Ramon.  At the end of the bus station my phone rang, Ola, Ramon.   

Sally, estoy en el terminal pero no te veo (I’m at the bus station but I don’t see you) I turned around and there was a man in the middle of the station on his cell phone.   

Ah, si, llevas un abrigo Moreno? (are you wearing a brown jacket).   

The man lifted his left arm and looked down at it, bueno, es de color café (it’s more coffee colored).  I told him to turn around, we made eye contact and hung up.  He gave me a beso and a big hug.  Ramon is a high strung man who speaks very fast, he’s full of anecdotes, stories, political commentary, you name it.  I trailed behind him, trying to keep up as we wove through people and stray dogs over to the mall where he was parked.  We ended up in a Chilean Home Depot when he remembered he needed to go to the ATM, he turned quickly to the security guard, stopping in mid-sentence and asked where he could find an ATM.   We ran up the stairs, again weaving through people and waited in line for the ATM.  A lady came up and got in front of us in line, Ramon moved forward, senorita.. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said but I imagine it to be something along the lines of there’s a line or we were waiting and he stepped in front of her.  Eventually we made it to his car and headed out.  He told me we were going to drive around Valparaiso in the morning and in the afternoon we would do Viña del Mar. 

café con leche

We drove along the Pacific Coast admiring the houses and he stopped along the way telling me stories, that building used to be a prison, over there you see was a coal refinery, the ocean at that point is 50 meters deep, there are these trees that grow here, that irritate some people’s skin, lots of stray dogs – can’t you see.  He is a talker and I enjoyed every minute of it.  We drove by his elementary school and he pointed to the second story and told me that when it rained he and his classmates used to open the windows so that they would collect water and when someone walked by underneath, they would close the window so that all the water would fall on their head.  (You know, the windows that open from the bottom at an angle).

View of Valparaiso

houses in Valparaiso

looking down a look out.  The building in the bottom center of the photo, with a big chimney used to be a garbage crematory
Our first stop, besides lookouts, was La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s house (the famous Chillean poet).  It’s a 5 story house that has been converted into a museum and still has the layout that décor that Neruda had when he lived there.  The view was spectacular and so was the layout of the house, it was like a boat with narrow stairwells and round windows like those on a boat. 
La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s house overlooking the sea

Neruda and me, deep in conversation

Next we drove up to the highest point in Valparaiso (well almost, the last bit wasn’t paved and the road was really bad). We drove up at about a 60 degree angle and I told Ramon that it reminded me of San Francisco.  The car was in 2nd gear and started to slow down about halfway up the hill, he put it in first and the car gave a little jerk as we plowed up the rest of the way.  We pulled over and took photos; we could smell empanadas baking in someone’s oven, yum… As we got back in the car Ramon told me that the women of Valparaiso are known for having strong legs from walking up the hills.  Makes sense.  He then told me about a bike race they have every year that is just downhill, (crazy) cyclists take their bikes up to the top of the hill (which would be akin to Nob Hill in SF) and soar down, whoever gets down first wins.  The difference between Valparaiso and SF is that it’s not a straight shot down to the water, it winds and turns.  Oh and to make it more fun, they set up ramps and do tricks.  Haha!
Looking out over Valparaiso from the tip-top of the city

The road leading up to the lookout.  This is where the bicyclists do their race. 
We drove down to Valparaiso proper, Ramon narrating.  We passed hole-in-the-wall markets with signs outside that read hay pan (literally, “there’s bread”).  We found a great parking spot and walked down to an Anglican Church – pretty green and Ramon commented that they have a fantastic organ inside. 
Cemetery in Valparaiso

Anglican Church in Valparaiso

Jasmine growing on a pretty hostal in Valparaiso

The houses were all bright colors and there were artists out painting and selling their work.  It reminded me of Montmartre in Paris.  As we walked, Ramon commented that they walk a lot in Valparaiso, hay mucho obesidad en los estados unidos (there’s a lot of obesity in the US).  I agreed.  He said the fall of the Roman Empire was sex and orgies, the fall of the US will be the hamburger,  with a chuckle.  He started singing a song about Valparaiso, a ballad I guess you could say.  Ramon is a porteño (a native of Valparaiso) and there are many songs written about the beautiful port city – of the nostalgic variety. 
Colorful houses, Valparaiso

poor kitty!!!

There was the “El Murcurio” building (The Valparaiso Mercury, newspaper) and the clock tower, Turri.  Across the street from the Turri clocktower, we took an “elevator” (more of a funicular) up to another paseo where we found more artists, handicrafts, stray dogs and pretty patios.  Eventually we made it back to the car and headed to his house for lunch.
Funicular

Patios

Steep streets

Pelicans!

Lookout over Viña del Mar and Valparaiso, a few blocks from Ramon’s house
Entra entra, hace mucho frio! (Come in come in, it’s so cold!) Ana called and she let out a squeal as she gave me a kiss and a big hug. I went in their house,  dodging the two dogs in the front yard.  There was an old lady sitting on the couch and Ramon introduced her as his mom.  I bent down to give her a kiss and she said “I’m Mercedes but they call me Merche”  

Encantada! Soy Sally. (Pleasure to meet you, I’m Sally) We sat down to lunch, beautifully arranged salads of lettuce, beets and olives were set on the table.  There were cut up lemons, various oils and salt to dress the salads to one’s own liking.  Merche asked me for the 6th time if I had siblings.  Ana had explained after the 4th time that her mother-in-law is 92 and forgets things. It’s the human condition (one of which, anyhow).  We went on to the next course, a chicken soup.  Ramon added merkén to his and invited me to, too.  Merkénis ground, dried, smoked ají peppers and a typical spice of Chile.  I happily added some to my soup.  Next course was turkey breast with herbs and mashed potatoes.  We sat and talked about all sorts of things, politics, Chile’s history, my life, my family, their children and grandchildren.  The table was cleared and a fruit platter emerged.  We ate fruit and then had herbal tea and kucken (cake, but it’s a German word!) that Ana had made.  I wrote down recipes in my journal as Ramon played Chilean folk music in the background.  Ramon and Ana’s nephew showed up with his son and had tea with us, they live just a few blocks up the road.  Ramon played more music for me and explained the lyrics, they were beautiful.  He got emotional listening to one that reminded him of his childhood.

Eventually we bundled up, Ramon, Ana, Merche and me and headed down to the beach at Viña del Mar; the sun was just about to set and the sky was changing color by the minute. 
Pacific Ocean, Vina del Mar

Vina del Mar

Pelicans!

Almost sunset

sun setting over Viña del Mar

different angle of the beach, I couldn’t help but take so many pictures

Incredible

The flower clock of Viña del Mar
We drove along the coast and I got more stories and anecdotes.  This time Ramon had brought a CD in the car and was playing folk music from Valparaiso, all three of them sang along, even Merche! 

I kept hearing them talking about tomar la once (literally translates to “having the 11”) and I kept thinking in my head what they were talking about?  Tomar, the verb, is usually used for eating or drinking something and 11 I thought could be elevensies but it was 7pm.  Finally I asked what tomar la once meant.  They laughed and said it was the afternoon tea or coffee.  Ramon explained why it was called eleven; during colonial times, in the afternoon the people wanted to have a drink (liquor = aguardiente) but they didn’t want their superiors know so they would say we’re going to “have the eleven” because there are eleven letters in aguardiente (aguardiente is the alcohol distilled from grapes).  Ana said in Uruguay they call it merienda, which is also what they call it in Spain.  So we went back home and tomamos la once (we had the eleven); we had tea with fresh bread and cheese and more kuchen. They recommended places to eat in Santiago, music to listen to, drinks to try and insisted I come back to visit if I am ever back in Chile.  I invited them to California and they said they would come for my wedding.  Merche asked me for the 8th time if I had a boyfriend and Ramon answered for me, no mama, ya te lo dijo varias veces (no, mom, she’s already told you that several times).  We kissed good bye and Merche kissed me three times, held both my hands and gave me blessings, saying soft prayers to my forehead. 

Eventually Ramon took me back to the bus station; we talked politics and human rights for the whole ride.  He pulled over in front of the station and got out to give me a hug and a kiss and told me to take care.

Coastal Drive – along Chile´s Hwy 1

San Pedro de Atacama is sort of out in the middle of nowhere in Chile´s Atacama desert.  We were trying to get there from Iquique and let me tell you it´s a process.  We woke up in the morning and caught a cab to the market where we had bought bus tickets the prior day and been told that that was where the bus would be leaving from.  As we climb out of the cab, I pull out the tickets, date – check, departure time – with half an hour to spare, bus terminal – Terminal de Autobuses, Esmerelda.  Um, we´re at the Mercado Central. We asked a girl at a different bus company´s ticket counter and were told that indeed, we were at the wrong place to catch our bus and needed to take a cab to get there.  So we go to find a taxi.  There are two men leaning against the first of 3 yellow sedans.  A third man stood facing them.  I asked about a ride to Esmerelda.  One told me 30 Lucas (sort of like saying “bucks” but here it’s 30 THOUSAND pesos (which would be 60 dollars).  I stared blankly back and he winked and erupted in laughter.  We start to walk away, he calls after us, “no, no 2 lucas,” but I’ve already shut down.  We hailed a cab that had a woman sitting in the passenger’s seat.  I asked the driver if he would take us to Esmerelda but he said he wasn’t going that direction. As we shut the door he says “oye” (listen), we open the door again and he gave us directions to the street where we could catch a cab going in the right direction to take us to Esmerelda.  We hail another cab a block up, as directed.  “Buenos dias” we say as we climb in.  The cab driver didn’t recognize the name but the passenger (who must have bathed in cologne and not rinsed) in the front seat did.  We drove along, the cab driver not slowing down for barking dogs, or anything, for that matter.  The car pulled over to let our Mr. Cologne – I called ciao after him and he said hasta luego (see you later) as he slammed the door.  We pulled up to the bus station and a proper bus station it was – high ceilings, long parking spaces for buses, a cafe, ticket counter, etc. 

We buy breakfast, warm chaparritas, similar to empanada but with a flaky dough and filled with cheese, ham and tomato – the tomato has that soft acidic taste it gets from being cooked.  I ordered a coffee, too.  We sat at the bus station and had our breakfast.  Before boarding the bus we paid 300 Chilean pesos (60 US cents) to get a token to use the bathroom. 

Chaparrita

Ham, cheese and tomato chaparrita
 

As the bus backs out of the station, the second driver stood in the aisle, collecting tickets, noting phone numbers (emergency), ID #s (passports, in our case), and names.  I looked out the window at the Pacific Ocean methodically crashing its blue-grey waves on the shore.  This scene isn´t unfamiliar to me – driving south along a Pacific West Coast.  The sky is grey, fog still thick in the air.  It´s only 8:30 am.  There are tents set up on the beach, fishermen layng out the morning´s catch; the birds, gote, cormorrants, seagulls – the fishermen´s shadow, wait for a chance to steal a snack.  We drive along, the cormorants are perched on the tall white street lamps that line the boardwalk.  Every now and again the red head of a vulture appears, lifting itself from under his/her black wing.  There are more clam and mussel shells than there is sand on the beach.   It´s incredible, absolutely beautiful!  We pass the camelid pen: guanaco, and llamas hudled together, munching on hay.  They are perfectly groomed, unlike the ones you see out in the wild.  Their colors are magnificent, a soft cream color and another is deep chocolate brown.  On my right is the ocean and to my left the mountaneous desert. 

fishing boats, right outside of Iquique, heading south along the Pacific Coast

Pacific Ocean, view from bus, south of Iquique, Chile
more pretty ocean

A couple hours into the drive we stop at customs, we are heading south, deeper into Chile and I guess this is standard procedure.  We lined up with our luggage on a table and a custom´s officer, when she gets to me asks that I open my pack.  I unzip my beat up backpack and she lifts the top flap to reveal a plastic ziploc bag of electronics over my clothes.  “Gracias, mi amor,” as she squeezes my arm.  That was quick, I think to myself.  We are instructed to wait until the bus moves forward – the bus pulls up 10 meters, we board and are on our way.  Seemingly useless but whatever. 

We drop people off at Tocapilla, a coastal town in northern Chile and a woman climbs on the bus selling sandwiches.  “Palta, pollo, mayonesa” (avocado, chicken, mayonaise) she calls, “bebidas” (drinks).  The sandwiches are individually wrapped in celofan wrap and stacked neatly in a tupperware.  She sells them for 1000 Chilean pesos (2 US dollars).  A man in a butcher’s coat gets on the bus.  He had wavy salt and pepper hair that was combed back nicely, like Elvis’ but without the hair grease.  He had a huge underbite and his tongue peeked through a gap in his two front teeth.  He was carrying a weathered styrofoam box and was calling “empanadas al horno. pollo, carne, queso, pollo y queso” (oven fired empanadas. chicken, meat, cheese, chicken and cheese).  Also going for 1000 Chilean pesos.  He stayed on the bus when the bus finally took off and got off several blocks later at his bakery, this must be a routine.  

 
Los Andes

Eventually we make it to San Pedro de Atacama, a small town of about 5000 people.  It’s red adobe and just gorgeous.  It’s located in the Antafogasta region of Chile and is part of the Atacama desert.  San Pedro is known for desert sports like sand boarding and is a common jumping off point to other places around the desert like the Geysers de Tatio, Valle de la Luna, and Lagunas Altiplanicas.  More to come about San Pedro…

cute town of San Pedro de Atacama

adobe wall, with dried sticks and twigs built into the wall to keep people out of one’s yard

coppersmith’s shop, built around a tree 🙂

hello mountain, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

sunset in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

men having a beer at a restaurant in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile