Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas if you celebrate, or happy (fill in the blank) if you don't!

Pay a Visit will be back on Monday, January 3 with a stomach full of cookies, pie and peanut brittle. See you then.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2010 Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Each year I try to take advantage of living in New York City during the holidays.

I've seen the department store window displays. I've watched the Grand Central light show. I took in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Christmas tree.

This year, I nearly did nothing. It was cold; I was lazy.

But I would not be defeated. The Christmas spirit would prevail.

So after work Monday I headed north toward Rockefeller Center expecting the worst. Paul and I visited the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree at night only once before -- our first winter here in 2007. It was a Saturday night, and the crowds were so thick that I could have lifted my feet and still never have touched the ground.

This year wasn't nearly that bad. In fact, I could actually see empty splotches of sidewalk! The only thing to watch out for were other people's cameras -- it was impossible to walk five feet without ruining someone's shot. I'm probably in a lot of vacation photos right now.

Yes, it was cold. And yes, my nose probably resembled Rudolph's. But I got my dose of Christmas cheer for the year. Happy holidays!


Monday, December 20, 2010

Diane's Top Books of 2010

Once again the New York Times has published its best books of the year, and once again I am reminded that I'll never be able to read all of the books I want to read.

But I haven't done so bad. In fact, one of my favorite books of the year is also on the Times' list.

I'm still a few books shy of my annual goal of reading 96 -- that's eight every month -- but I don't think the last three or four will displace any of my own 10 favorite books of the year.

The New York Times' list is limited to books published during the year. I'm not that strict -- I simply had to have read the book in 2010. The year it was published follows in parenthesis.

Without further ado ...

10. "The Spectator Bird" by Wallace Stegner (1976)

I reserve almost all of my library books online and rarely scan the stacks. One of the few times I did browse the library shelves, I came away with this book. As Joe Allston comes to terms with growing older, he reads to his wife his diary of 20 years ago, detailing their trip to Denmark. It's a short book -- only 224 pages -- but beautiful.

9. "Enemies of the People" by Kati Marton (2009)

Richard Holbrooke's death this month reminded me of the book I read earlier this year by his widow, Kati Marton. It's the amazing true story of her life behind the Iron Curtain, with two journalist parents in Budapest after World War II. The book is not so much a memoir, however, as a piece of investigative journalism -- Marton unearths government files and secret documents to reconstruct her parents' life while she was only a child.

8. "How Did You Get This Number" by Sloane Crosley (2010)

Crosley is a young, female David Sedaris, and I mean that as a compliment. The essays that make up this collection are alternately hilarious and touching, and often they're both. I also recommend her earlier book of essays, "I Was Told There'd Be Cake."

7. "The Imperfectionists" by Tom Rachman (2010)

You can take the girl out of the newsroom, but you can't stop her from reading books about the place. This one takes place at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome. Each chapter is a clip in the life of a different character at the paper -- and we all know newspapers have plenty of characters.

6. "Brothers" by Yu Hua (2009 in English)

This Chinese book has a lot of literal toilet humor, but underneath it's a serious tale about how two stepbrothers "weather the changes of the Cultural Revolution, reform and globalization," as Publishers Weekly says. I won't pretend to understand all of the references and metaphors, but I do know I'm still thinking about the book 11 months after I read it.

5. "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen (2010)

I usually steer clear of new books that get this much press -- there's always a long wait to get them at the library, and I don't want people to think I'm reading a book just because Oprah recommended it. I made an exception for "Freedom," and I'm glad I did. The book centers around a Midwestern couple's relationships with each other, their children, their parents and two college friends. At the same time, it tells a larger story about America -- one I'm still trying to unravel.

4. "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson (2003)

Why didn't I read this sooner? That was the first question I asked myself when I finished this nonfiction book about the architecture and wonder of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the murderer who was lurking just beyond its borders. I really wish I would have had a book club to discuss this with!

3. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
This was one of those books that is simultaneous hard to read and hard to put down. Nine-year-old Oskar Schell goes on a treasure hunt around New York City to find out more about a key left behind by his father, who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. It's one of the saddest books I read all year, but it's impossible not to laugh at Oskar's eccentricities.

2. "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell (2004)

I have never read a book like this. It's really six stories. And, relying on Publishers Weekly once again, "Each of the narratives is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book." The effect is amazing.

1. "Tales of the South Pacific" by James A. Michener (1947)

I've long loved the musical "South Pacific," but I decided to read the book of stories on which it was based only after watching the show on Broadway this summer. I was surprised how much it moved me. Of course, I was familiar with several of the characters already, but the book includes so many more. It gave me a closer look at World War II -- and just an inkling about why American boys went off to fight in the first place.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A New City, a New Leaf. Or Not.

One of the great things about moving to another city is that everything you have becomes new again.

That coat you've been wearing for the last three winters? No one here has seen it before. The funny story about how you got out of a speeding ticket? No one here has heard it before. Your go-to cookies for potlucks and parties? No one here has tasted them before.

Of course, all of this unfamiliarity can become exhausting as well. After all, when you're in a new city, it's just as true that no one knows your favorite drink, your greatest annoyance, or even your birthday.

In any case, Paul and I aren't new anymore. We've lived in Brooklyn a little more than three years; this is our fourth holiday season in New York. Everyone's seen my coat, heard my stories and tasted my cookies.

Moving to a new city -- much like going away to college -- is the opportune time to reinvent yourself. You're surrounded by people you don't know, who don't know you. But mostly I've found that I don't really want to change all that much.

I'm well aware that I'm far from perfect. I can think of half a dozen things off the top of my head that I could do (or stop doing) to make myself a better person. But in the fundamentals, I'm pretty OK with who I am.

Even though I haven't much changed on the inside, it's time for everything on the outside to change a bit. Those shirts that were three years old when we moved to New York are now three years old in New York time. Even now, several boxes sit wrapped beneath by parents' Christmas tree, filled with shirts, a purse, slippers -- items I chose with my mom during our annual holiday shopping expedition when I visited home in September. I haven't changed, and neither have my parents -- always too generous, always willing to overlook my flaws.

Perhaps it took moving 500 miles away to see myself and my family in a clearer light. Or maybe I'm just getting sappy as the holidays approach and another new year begins. Probably a little of both. Either way, I'm a lucky girl.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Holidays in Union Square

The Union Square Holiday Market has become an annual can't-miss event each Christmas season, for me if not for Paul.

Each year we bundle up, battle the crowds and browse the 100+ booths of food and gifts. We rarely walk away with much, if anything. The first year, I bought a purse. This year, I actually did buy a Christmas present.

Every year, however, I catch the holiday bug watching others, whether they're warming their hands with a cup of hot cider, picking out the perfect present, or playfully trying on alpaca hats.

Paul patiently waits as I glance at jewelry we both know I'll never buy. When we split up for a moment, finding him again is a little like playing "Where's Waldo?" My nose is red and my fingers are cold. But the holiday season has begun.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Peter Luger Steak & Breslin Blood Sausage

Paul's Peter Luger steak

Paul celebrated his 32nd birthday with meat.

His birthday was Tuesday, and we marked the occasion on both Saturdays surrounding it. The Saturday before his birthday, we ate at The Breslin. This past Saturday we had reservations at the steakhouse Peter Luger.

First, The Breslin. In keeping with our tradition of choosing a restaurant for our birthday about which the other is forbidden to complain, Paul chose The Breslin, a British gastropub on 29th Street. To give you a sense of the menu, I need only say this: He was looking forward to trying the tongue but ended up getting the blood sausage instead. Needless to say, there wasn't much for me on the menu. Nevertheless, I was actually looking forward to giving it a try -- any restaurant that's received a Michelin star can't be too bad, right?

And I did find one thing on the menu for me: the lamb burger. Perfectly moist, topped with feta cheese, it was among the best burgers I've tasted. Even better, it came with a side of thrice cooked fries. Nothing like frying a potato three times to make it extraordinarily crunchy.

The Breslin would have been a perfectly lovely experience had it not been for the wait. The Breslin doesn't take reservations, so we arrived at 7 p.m. We were told we'd be seated in about an hour. Really it was about 90 minutes. (And we were lucky -- as we were waiting, guests who arrived after us were told they'd be seated in two or two and a half hours.) Our food didn't arrive for another 45 minutes or an hour. Still, we did get to see an entire pig on a platter being served to a large party near the kitchen. It was like dinner and a show.

Our 7:45 p.m. reservation at Peter Luger this past Saturday was my birthday present to Paul. Getting in -- and at a reasonable hour for dinner -- was a bit of a coup. I called on October 15, the first day reservations were open for the evening I'd chosen for his birthday meal.

Despite what you may think, this really was a present totally for Paul and not for me. I'm just a little bit on the other side of indifference when it comes to steak. I don't really like it, but I'll eat it if I have no other options. I'm a cheap date.

While Paul happily downed his steak, I was perfectly content with my salad and the various sides we chose: creamed spinach, french fries, and two thick slices of bacon that could have been the bulk of about three meals by themselves. And since it was a special occasion, we topped it all off with a big chocolate sundae.

Toward the end of the meal, Paul wondered how he was going to top this gift when my birthday rolls around next July. Honestly, I thought his last birthday present to me of two tickets to see South Pacific on Broadway was much better. After nearly 10 years, I guess we know each other pretty well.

Friday, December 10, 2010

15 Things I Learned in Buenos Aires

I haven't been to many countries, but I've been to enough to learn that there are always things you don't expect. For my final blog post about our vacation to Buenos Aires, I've compiled a few of the things I learned in Argentina, along with a few photos that didn't fit anywhere else.

The Bathroom

1. I knew toilets in the Southern Hemisphere swirled in the opposite direction. The surprise? It was difficult to see because the bottom of the bowls are more rectangular than circular.

2. Toilet paper often goes in the trash can and not the toilet. I'm not sure if this is always the case. If I saw a sign, I put it in the trash. No sign, the toilet. Sometimes it went in the toilet even if there was a sign -- old habits die hard. If you hear about a rash of plumbing problems in Buenos Aires, it's probably because of me.

3. If a restroom has toilet paper, soap, good lighting *and* a toilet that flushes, you must immediately mark it on a map and visit it repeatedly. I did not do this but should have. Instead, I had a variety of not-so-fun bathroom experiences -- the worst being no toilet paper (I always carried some in my purse, however), no flush, bad lighting and no (or a small, heavily used bar of) soap.

Monumento a los Españoles

The Street

4. Some intersections have no stop signs or lights, and cars don't take turns.

5. You can't stroll 10 steps without encountering loose tiles or a broken sidewalk. Walk at your own risk.

The Food & Drink

6. Restaurants are the best places to break $100 peso bills. Everyone else gives you the look of death if you try to use them.

7. Coffee shops give you a tiny glass of seltzer water with your order.

8. Drinking fountains don't seem to exist. The only one I saw was in the airport.

9. Residents of Buenos Aires eat late. Really late. Restaurants are just starting to fill up at 8 p.m. They're hopping at midnight.

10. An order of empanadas sometimes comes with a guide similar to what you get here with a box of chocolates. Different crimps indicate different fillings.

11. Buenos Aires loves Stella Artois.

12. But not draft beer.

The Odds & Ends

13. Buenos Aires has palm trees!

14. But no definitive skyline.

View from our apartment.

15. And the biggest lesson: I should always take a winter vacation in a summer destination.

Jardín Japonés

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tigre & an Estancia: Buenos Aires Day Trips

Our vacation to Buenos Aires was easy to plan because we basically stayed put. We booked accommodations in only one city, and we had no planes or trains to catch mid-week. It was relaxing.

I did, however, plan three day trips that took us out of the city limits. Uruguay was one. The other two: Tigre and San Antonio de Areco.

Saying we had no trains to catch was just a tiny white lie. In fact, we had to catch a commuter train to get to Tigre, a delta town about an hour outside the city. But round trip tickets were only a couple of pesos apiece, and there were several trains an hour going back and forth. Extremely low-stress.

Tigre is known as a good day trip from Buenos Aires because of its delta and scenic waterways. We took a one hour tour on a boat crammed with about 60 tourists. Although the commentary was in Spanish, the tour was worth it. The delta was a maze with branches in every direction, beach houses lining the shore. Each house had its own deck and stairs leading into the water -- some nicely maintained with benches and hammocks, others in various states of disrepair. Quite a few people were on the decks, watching, chatting, fishing, eating. Each deck and house also had a name -- a point of pride, I imagine -- and many had boats.

After the tour we walked along the river and eventually made our way to a market called the Puerto de Frutos. Although this was only the third day of vacation, this was already our fourth market, so we explored only a fraction before we were hot, tired and marketed out.

We sat along the river before we made our way back to the train station and back to Buenos Aires. Total time, including the train trips: about 7 hours.

The next day we were off to La Cinacina, an estancia (or ranch) just outside of San Antonio de Areco. San Antonio de Areco is a rural city of about 20,000 residents a couple of hours outside Buenos Aires, in the Pampas. Paul called it the Defiance of Argentina.

Paul and I booked transportation to La Cinacina, and a tour bus carried us and a couple of other dozen people to the estancia. It was every bit as touristy as I expected, but it was fun and we both left with full stomachs. It was impossible not to. We were greeted with empanadas, and about an hour later had an appetizer of half a sausage in a roll. Then the bell for lunch was rung.

The guests -- maybe about a hundred of us -- sat along tables filled with salad, french fries and bottles of wine, water and pop. Then they served the meat. Every five minutes or so they placed another piece on our plates -- short ribs, sirloin, strip steak, chicken, roast beef and maybe another cut or two. Then dessert (ice cream), and a jelly-filled pastry and mate right before we left.

The day wasn't just about food (although truth be told, it mostly was). We had a little free time before the meal to look around and take a short horseback ride. During the meal we were treated to traditional songs and dances, and afterward a show of horsemanship. Total time, including bus rides: about 7 hours.

The bus ride, too, was interesting, if only for its familiarity. It was much like rural Ohio -- lots of fields. It was odd seeing corn nearly knee-high in November. The guide on the bus told us that Argentina is a top producers of soybeans but eats almost none. About 80 percent is exported, mostly to China and India. Because of the high prices soybeans yield, farmers have turned away from raising cattle, leading to a meat shortage. Now meat prices are rising and no beef is being exported.

Needless to say, we saw no shortage of beef in our one week in Argentina.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Day Tripping to Colonia, Uruguay

While family and friends at home were gorging on turkey and pumpkin pie, Paul and I spent our Thanksgiving in the small Uruguayan town of Colonia del Sacramento.

I awoke shortly after 5 a.m. Thanksgiving morning so we could catch a taxi at 6 to be at the Colonia Express ferry terminal at 7 for our departure at 8. Our passports were stamped at the ferry terminal -- cheating, I think, since we were still in Argentina.

Colonia is a popular daytrip from Buenos Aires, only an hour ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata. Our $50 (US) ferry ticket included an hour tour of the town, which was more than enough time to get acquainted with the old town, with a diameter of just a few blocks, surrounded by water on three sides. We learned about Colonia's joint Spanish and Portuguese history, but Paul and I both decided independently not to visit the city's several tiny museums.

We did, however, climb about 120 steps up and down the winding staircase of a working lighthouse. We walked along the river. We browsed the many shops. We ate empanadas. We loitered at a waterfront restaurant with a glass of beer and a piece of chocolate mousse pie. We took it easy.

My only souvenirs of the day are a Uruguayan bill and a single coin. Every place accepted and gave change in Argentinian pesos. At the last minute, we stopped at a gas station convenience store so we could buy a bottle of water in Argentinian pesos and get change in Uruguayan pesos.

Visitors to Colonia can just barely make out the skyline of Buenos Aires across the river on clear days. It was a clear, hot day when we were there, and an easy, scenic way to get a page full of stamps on my passport.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Buenos Aires: The Sights & Sounds

We visited Buenos Aires to see the sights. Some of the best views, however, were from the place we stayed.

Instead of getting a hotel room, we opted to rent an apartment for the week. With a bit of research, we found the perfect apartment -- a studio on the 19th floor of a year-old high-rise apartment building in a vibrant neighborhood, with a private balcony, fully-stocked kitchen and a heated outdoor pool on the ground floor.

Like almost everything in Argentina, the price was the icing on the cake -- about $75 per night.

The view was amazing, and we spent several mornings eating breakfast or reading magazines on the balcony. One of my most pleasant memories of the week is ending one evening with a bottle of wine out there, watching the twinkling lights.

The view:

Paul swimming in the pool, 19 stories below our balcony

You can see more pictures of the apartment from our rental company.

We didn't spend the entire time on the balcony. In fact, a couple of the most memorable sights came on our first full day and last full day in Buenos Aires.

At the beginning of the trip, we explored La Boca and San Telmo, two neighborhoods just south of the city center that are experiencing a kind of revitalization. La Boca is known for its bright buildings with corrugated roofs -- particularly the short street of Caminito, an area crowded with tourists, tango dancers and souvenir shops.

On the last day we made a point to walk by the Palacio del Congreso, which my guidebook says was inspired by the United States Capitol. It's easy to see the resemblance but difficult to decide which is more impressive.

We saw one of our favorite sights of the entire trip, however, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon: the Floralis Genérica, a giant flower sculpture made of steel and aluminum. The petals open and close with the sun, and red lights illuminate the interior at night. The sun was high and hot when we were there, though, and I took photos from every angle.

The sounds of Buenos Aires were almost as interesting as the sights. This was my first visit to a Spanish-speaking country, and I was curious about how well my four years of high school Spanish would hold up. Well enough, especially with Paul along.

Paul lived in Mexico for 10 weeks in college, but that was nine years ago. He was understandably nervous about his ability to communicate in Spanish, but he had no problems. OK, so he wasn't about to discuss the literary themes of "War and Peace," but his language skills were more than adequate to joke around with the security guard at the apartment building, ask our waitress questions about how much food came with a certain meal (too much!) and speak to our taxi driver.

The pronunciation is different than that in Mexico -- and for that matter, what most Americans learn in high school. I could pick up words and phrases, and by the end of the week I could understand at least half of what our waiters and waitresses were saying. Even easier, though, was reading. And this was my favorite sign:

Every cat needs a video on YouTube.


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