It was Heath who selected Boston and its neighbors to the north for our annual pilgrimage to Anywhere But Texas. A student of history and obsessive collector of revolutionary facts, New England — what with its statues of white men in tricorne hats, and old buildings in which to congregate those very same tricorne hat-wearing white men–seemed the ideal destination for scratching that colonial itch. (Fun fact: colonial itch was the term of endearment Ben Franklin gave to his STD).
Allow me to pontificate on the three important lessons learned from this jingoistic jaunt.
Boston’s Freedom Trail is maybe 90% cool and 10% tacky.
The Freedom trail is a walking tour of some of the can’t miss historical sites prominently featured in American history. It mostly encompasses places where our revolutionary heroes either died or thought about dying. I’m talking of course about massacre sites and churches. But all-in-all it’s an enjoyable way to spend the morning. And thanks to the National Park Service (a government agency so fine, even Ron Swanson can support it) you can get a docent-guided tour for free every hour on the hour. Highlights include: park rangers sneering at freedom trail buskers, lots and lots and lots of facts about Paul Revere, and the realization that the Declaration of Independence is one of the most tedious break up letters ever written.
New England’s seafood game is on point.
“Oh you’re going to New England, huh? Are you excited about the lobster?” I was a little surprised that question — or a variation of it — was the most consistent reaction I got upon telling people about our summer plans. But I get it now. New England is all about seafood, and maybe its because the memory is as fresh as the lobsters we cooked up at our campsite, but the seafood offerings here far surpass those of other coastal food hubs (I’m looking at you Seattle). And I’m not talking simply about your high-quality seafood restaurants here. Whether we were throwing back raw oysters at chic oyster bars, nomming on buttery fish and chips at English pubs, or drooling over foot-long lobster rolls at harbor-side restaurants, we were bowled over by the the most intensely flavorful and perfectly prepared seafood we’ve ever tasted.
If Ken Burns doesn’t feel stupid for omitting Acadia from his national parks documentary, he probably should.
Have you seen the documentary? The one where Peter Coyote waxes poetic about Yosemite and Yellowstone and Join Muir for 12 hours but doesn’t give Acadia a courtesy nod? It’s a conspiracy is what it is. Acadia is the oldest national park East of the Mississippi, and it may easily be the most beautiful. The sun supposedly rises first on Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain before anywhere else in America, and it has one of the largest expanses of naturally dark sky in the Eastern U.S.–meaning whether you’re an early bird or a stargazing night owl, this park is for you. It’s also a phenomenal place for cyclists thanks to our pal John D. Rockefeller who, in the early 20th century, had some 50 miles of carriage roads thoughtfully designed to weave about the park. We’re more of a hiking/camping duo ourselves, so we stuck to the trails that meander through the trees and along granite rock slabs that plunge into the ocean. Acadia is located on Mount Desert Island, which also plays home to the Bar Harbor, a charming resort town. But despite it’s proximity to this popular tourist destination, the park was relatively uncrowded, even during its peak season. While campsites require a reservation and fill up quickly, we very infrequently passed others on our many hiking excursions. Perhaps it’s because Acadia is not an easy park to get to, or perhaps it’s because few have ever heard of it before. If the latter, sorry Ken Burns. Looks like you did me a solid. My bad, I hope we’re square now.
All in all, New England is an invigorating region. The colonial callbacks that pepper Boston’s streets and sidewalks, while perhaps expected, are nonetheless deeply inspiring. They serve as reminders of the courage and ambition that motivated our nation’s founders to create a new society–one that would encourage self-determination and put mechanisms in place to secure unalienable human rights. Meanwhile, in Acadia, the salty aroma of the Atlantic permeates the air as waves unceasingly claw at the granite cliffs it may, one day, turn into sand. We came to New England to study its history and revel in its natural beauty. We left, whether by forces of man or nature, rejuvenated.
If there is one thing Berlin has plenty of, it’s patios. I like this. I don’t think there is any scenario in which I take umbrage with there being unlimited options for outside dining and wine drinking. It’s how I would spend all day every day if I had my druthers. And Graffiti. They like their chaotic street art in Berlin. Patios and graffiti. Oh, and their bicycles. Patios, graffiti and bicycles. And depressing, grandiose memorials. I should start over….
Truthfully, I was taken aback by Berlin’s laissez-faire attitude. Particularly as it is located in a country who’s people are stereotyped as being strict and rigid and preoccupied with maintaining order. As evidence of its go-with-the-flow personality, I submit to you their aforementioned lax policy on building defacement, as well as the fact that in Berlin, it’s perfectly acceptable to stroll down the street with a beer in hand–in glass bottles no less! Definitely a no-no stateside. Further, during an afternoon outing to one of the city’s community pools, we witnessed no fewer than 3924761432342 children sliding down a water slide at once. And running on wet cement–an activity the American lifeguard community views as being on par with smoking a cigarette indoors—is not only not reprimanded, it seemed downright encouraged. Then, there’s the part where before Heath jumped off the diving board, he politely asked the pool’s only lifeguard whether doing flips was permissible. He was met with a befuddled response: Of course this is fine. Why would it not be? Perhaps I’m applying the community pool’s gentle policies a little to liberally to the entire city, but still, Berlin as a whole seems content to let its people be. It’s likely the result of a long and tragic history marked by a series of oppressive and totalitarian regimes. But Berlin seems to have learned a thing or two from its past, and today enjoys a vibrant and resilient atmosphere.
But I say all this before arriving at the crux of my argument. Berlin–like every place–is made more special by the people you experience it with. Our German vacation was made what it was by the company we kept. As I’m inclined to list off all the things that make Berlin unique, I’m also inclined to include Nick and Melissa on that list—two people who were pivotal to the good times had.
Tell someone you’re planning to vacation in Venice, Italy, and they “ooh” and “awe” and get all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed over it. Tell them you’re going to Mexico City and they scratch their head, puzzled, and manage only to sputter, “why?”
Why? Because it’s a city where, even in the thick of summer, the high temperature doesn’t scoot an inch above 77 degrees, and where if it doesn’t rain for an hour every afternoon, people are apt to call it a dry season. In Ciudad de Mexico, a 2-hour lunch break is considered customary and you can drizzle hot sauce and lime juice over everything. You can marvel at the intricate detail of architecture created in the 1500s or try and count the number of floors on a marble, state-of-the-art sky scrapper that’s younger than you are. Mexico City is a wonder.
Claro, the splendor of Mexico’s capital was practically a mystery to we Texans prior to our arrival. We had heard legendary stories of Tenochtitlan, been vaguely versed as undergrads in the history of the Mexican Revolution, and were fairly confident in the fact that it might be the dwelling place of
my our Mexican movie star boyfriend, Gael Garcia Bernal. And yes, for you mothers of the world, we had heard a note or two about some kind of drug war, which we didn’t take too much to heart. For the most part, except for a few trivial factoids, we went to Mexico City as infants.
The purpose of our journey was two-fold. First, we wanted to celebrate two years of liking being married to each other with an exotic vacation (exotic in the sense that you could eat bizarre foods but not spend $1000 on a plane ticket). Second, we wanted to visit newlyweds Alex and Santi* who relocated there a few months earlier. But, for the non-anniversary-celebrating/friend-visiting traveler, why Mexico City?
Promptly upon arriving in Mexico City, before even stepping out of the airport, we were handed a cup of Mango (purchased on the street, no less) sprinkled with chili powder and spritzed with lime juice. Bienvenidos indeed. But the incredibly irresistible combination of lime juice and chili powder (which comes on, if not next to, practically everything you order in the District Federal) is merely a starting point. Throughout the week we ate street tacos for 20 pesos and extravagant ceviche for considerably more—both tasted like meals intended for kings. We savored Oaxaca cheese, nibbled on cups of roasted corn, and delighted in ordering a laundry list of local staples: gorditas, gunabana, flautas, quesadillas, bistek, consommé. It’s rare, state side, to find any meal that can rival the freshness or flavor of the street food in Mexico City; in fact, I think certain FDA requirements make it impossible. And you can’t touch the price. It’s unlikely, too, to be able to find truly enjoyable menudo (cow intestine), grasshopper guacamole, corn fungus or cucaracha (an entire shrimp deep fried in spicy tempura batter). We found, and happily devoured, each. Journey to Mexico City and you will eat like royalty if not like a god.
I don’t think it a stretch to say the promise of collecting a truckload of inexpensive goods at market is a significant, if not the primary, draw for many Americans visiting Mexico’s urban cities. As a collective, the markets were hit or miss. The misses were cheap stands covered in rain drenched tarps and splayed with plastic cell phone cases made in China or bootleg DVDs of bad made-for-tv movies. You are sternly beckoned from the street to take an interest in the tackiest of paraphernalia, and you feel compelled to keep your purse plastered to your side as if it were as dear to you as an arm or other apendage. But the good markets, the hits, are worth risking the misses. There you browse at your leisure through mazes of crisp produce, artisan crafts or festive clothing, and the vendors are friendly rather than forceful. The prices are fair and people watching sublime.
Every nation has its story, but tales of the people that lived and the events that unfolded in Mexico City seem to be exceptionally compelling. There are the familiar, but still intriguing, tales of dictators erecting ornate monuments in their own honor, destructive and widespread colonization, and brave native heroes. And then there are the slightly more unique bits of Mexican folklore. Indigenous lords sacrificed losers of sporting events to the gods; leader Porfirio Diaz had a quirky affinity for painting himself white; Frida Kahlo showed a bizarre talent for depicting pain; and jilted presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador led a 3-month civil resistance campaign in Zócalo—the heart of Mexico City—after losing an election by half a percent. The stories are wild, and with more museums to its name than any other destination on the planet, you can fill up on them in Mexico City.
Many of the city’s historic buildings and plazas were designed and modeled after some of the greatest cities in Europe, which gives many facades an intricate, ornate and Gothic texture. Simultaneously, there are are an abundance of structures that take on very modern characteristics. Clean lines, flat surfaces and exceptional use of light give many spaces an airy and minimalistic quality. The Santa Fe neighborhood boasts sky scrappers of marble, geometric in design. Some structures there more closely resemble futuristic washing machines than a usable public space. And intermingled with them all are mansions made of mosaic tile and modest clay dwellings painted like Easter eggs. The city is wildly eclectic and homes and buildings vary in style from house-to-house, neighborhood-to-neighborhood. No matter your personal preference in architectural styles, there’s something to love on the skyline.
The culture of Mexico City is baroque through and through. The food is made more flavorful with liberal use of citrus and pepper. The colors on the streets and in the people’s art are explosive, and the history is gruesome and romantic, tragic and complex. But all of those elements are so because of the people who created them. There is no other country where I have been received so warmly as in Mexico. Strangers kiss you on the cheek on first introductions and mariachis serenade you on the streets and in bars. Mexicans will debate you when they disagree and praise you when they are in good company. They are bound to their indigenous roots while welcoming foreign ideas. They value loyalty and family and friendship and are the reason why this city is so enchanting.
Our week-long adventure in the city was more gratifying than I could have imagined. Of course, the city is not without it’s flaws. The lack of access to safe drinking water took its toll on us after we made our 2438243 purchase of bottled water, and the people’s wild driving habits were chaotic if not comical. From above, I imagine the city’s traffic patterns more closely resemble ants running frantically from a squashed mound than an organized system of transit in one of the world’s largest urban centers. Here, lanes–where they exist–are viewed more as arbitrary suggestions than actual guidelines. There were some public areas which charged for use of their restrooms (a practice that, to me, seemed simultaneously criminal but genius), and sometimes when walking the city’s cobblestone streets you can get whiffs of some offensive odor in the right wind, which urged Alex to tell us that Mexico City seems to always smell like either lime or garbage. Some areas are plagued with devastating poverty and parts of the political system are horrendously corrupt. It’s not a perfect city and there is room for much improvement.
Why Mexico City? It’s a city of beauty, one that feels like it was built inside a garden. In engaging with its citizens, dining on its cuisine and absorbing the beauty of its environment we were filled with wonder and curiosity and life.
*It is imperative we note how influential Alex, Santi and his sister Maria Ines were during our Mexico City tenure. This remarkable trio listened with patience to our insufferable Spanish, provided thoughtful responses and insight to our endless barrage of questions about Mexican culture and showed us an intimate view of the city. Without their thoughtful guidance and kind hearted nature, we would not have experienced the city with nearly the same gusto.
Mom to me: So in between all of this traveling back and forth to Denton for wedding responsibilities and working on house projects, when are you finding time to have fun and do your own thing?
Good point, Mom. It is high time I started being way more selfish and irresponsible.(What? That’s not what you meant? Well, that’s how I’m taking it.) I mean, when your own mother points out the fact that you are kind of being a lame 20-something-year-old, you really owe it to yourself to pick up the partying pace. Don’t mind if I do take a weekend off from painting and pruning to indulge in some merriment.
The first non-home-improvement related activity of the weekend: backyard party and musical extravaganza.
Our friends Tristan (musician) and Monte (intellectual) hosted a backyard shindig to celebrate the former’s birthday. Among other things, their late-night get-together featured a keg-loving kitty and live performances by Your Friendly Ghost. We’ve experienced a healthy variety of interesting party panoramas (including a cheap beer taste test and drinking among living manikins at The Gap to name only two), and this one lacked the grandeur of some of our other weekend romps in terms of food or fanfare, but was nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable evening (completely free of drying Spackle or matching paint colors). After all, it’s not every day you’re granted front-row seats to an exclusive musical performance from one of Austin’s most talented up-and-coming bands. Point, Robinsons.
For day 2 of our vacation from renovation we went to the Live Oak Brewing Company on the East side for the local microbrewery’s 15th anniversary celebration. I attended an eerily similar event last year which I blogged about here. The biggest difference between that event and this one is mostly (and by mostly, I mean totally) in the numbers (14 years vs.15 years). The party was pretty much identical to the previous celebration…from the music talent, to the weird school bus themed bounce house, to the tortilla wrapped bratwurst. But it was free beer (the best in Austin), free food and perfect weather…so not at all something at which to turn up your nose.
From there we wandered to campus to hear Minus the Bear play at 40 Acres Fest. The annual concert is free for all, and in the past has hosted much bigger players like Little Richard and The Roots. This year’s show was much more scaled down than others I had experienced, and probably drew about 1/4 of the crowd, though even then, I’d venture to guess there were 400 or so MTB fans in attendance… mostly (as to be expected) students. Heath and I felt like old codgers in our folding lawn chairs off to the side of most of the concert action, but still had to hand it to ourselves for making it out after several hours of day drinking.
Lucky for us, sound was still pitch perfect from our side seating…AND we got to see the most ridiculously huge Texas flag hanging from the main building and acting as a backdrop to the emo/rock music. So, no curtain hanging this weekend, but definite flag hanging for sure…in fact, I’m fairly certain I’ve met my Texas flag quota for the year.
On Sunday we finally broke. We had to stop at Home Depot to get a few knick knacks for some side projects we have planned for later in the week. After all, we’re only human and can’t be expected to stay away from our calling for long. So I guess the weekend wasn’t COMPLETELY without thought of home improvement projects.
To make amends for our infidelity, we opted to spend the later morning/early afternoon taking in Sunday brunch and cocktails at Nomad. The neighborhood bar has time and time again won awards from The Austin Chronicle for having the best bar staff and being one of the best neighborhood bars, and it’s my prediction it won’t be too long before it gets a nod for its brunch. The brunch, by Mark Rivas Catering, is $13 for all you can eat brunchy goodness that includes a waffle bar, omelet bar, fruit bar and 23480234234 other options that get me in a tizzy. Admittedly, I probably love it so much because it’s walking distance from the house and has an option for bottomless mimosas, but since moving to the new casa, it’s been tough to abstain from brunch binges at Nomad.
And just like that, our weekend was done. We tended to the chickens and watched the latest episode of Mad Men, but other than that the house was unchanged. On Monday morning, the old house looked just as she did on Friday afternoon.
I know when my mother said we should take time for ourselves, she didn’t so much mean “take time to party, and sleep in, and be lazy.” She meant take time to travel and explore and experience new things, which is still on the docket for a weekend in the very near future; but heavens, I did enjoy my weekend of reckless disregard for my status as “homeowner” and drinking adult beverages with child carelessness. Still, I might be a little excited about returning to my rightful role of diligent caretaker to the doodle manor in the coming days.
Every year on their wedding anniversary, my parents take a trip together. Sometimes it’s to the mountains and sometimes it’s to the beach, sometimes to a rural cabin in the wilderness and sometimes to a major city with thousands of things to do and see… but no matter the destination they make a point to run off somewhere together and celebrate the fact that they made it through another year of marital bliss.
I like this idea.
So following in their footsteps, Heath and I made a pact to take a regular anniversary trip of our own…a recurring honeymoon. Last year it was to San Francisco, but this year we opted to get a bit more adventurous and take a trip outside the country. Last night we clicked the “purchase” button for two tickets to Mexico City!
It might not be one of the first cities that comes to mind when you think “romantic getaway,” but as two kids who dorked out over stories of the Aztec pyramids and love eating tacos on the street…it’s sort of the perfect destination. Plus we will be rendezvousing with a dear friend and Mexico native upon arrival who can show us the town and help us do Mexico City like royalty.
I’m not a skier.
My friends and skiing compadres told me that when I was 15 just after I mistakenly darted through a half-pipe at 90 miles an hour, narrowly missing my fellow terrain park ski bums. That was fine with me. As far as I was concerned I could go the rest of my life without setting foot or ski on another slope. Texas has a shortage of snow-capped mountain peaks anyway, so what did I need to know how to ski for?
As it turns out, when your buds Maranjanark offer up their family’s condo in Vail for a long weekend of gratis mountaineering, you don’t exactly turn them down. So, away we went with a few other snow-loving Austinites for a post-Christmas friend trip to the great state of Colorado.
I’d had one other brush with Vail before taking off. A summer Vail vacation with my family when I was 13 was pretty enjoyable until a 40-year-old naked male sunbather opted to position himself right outside our condo window. Heath knew only that Vail was “where rich people go to ski.” So that’s what we were working with. Vail: a destination for the wealthy and naked.
The trip to Vail proved neither pricey nor scantily clad. The little mountain town does rob you blind with $100-a-day lift tickets, but that was about as bold as we got when it came to emptying our wallets. We saved a chunk of change by cooking at home rather than shelling out dollar after dollar at over-priced downtown restaurants. (Like seriously over-priced, we’re talking the neighborhood of $9 for a warm Bud Light…cruise ship expensive.) So rather than wine and dine in town, we munched on breakfast tacos by Nick, Mark’s meatloaf and Jaime’s Oreo cookie balls. At nights we drank boxed wine on the couch and enjoyed locally brewed beer over riotous games of Things. Perhaps it’s not how the rich and famous (and naked) do Vail, but it is how we rolled on this particular MLK weekend.
We did live it up too, of course. There was mountain skiing (no half-pipes this time), ice skating, gondola riding, snow tubing, city walking, photography jaunting (I feel like Vail is a place people “jaunt”), snow ball throwing, salad bar cruising, brewery touring, Australian tourist meeting and even heated pool swimming.
We packed a lot of living into 3 days of vacation, but as all trips by privileged 20-somethings go, it was the company and conversation, not the location, that made the weekend getaway one for the