Why Dining at the Bar is Better

As someone averse to planning for upcoming events (It’s our anniversary? Today?) I often find myself at the host stand of fine dining establishments at 8:00 pm on a Saturday night with a big smile and no reservation.   But if I spot a couple of empty stools at the bar, the night is saved. Don’t cry for me Argentinian steakhouse.

Here are three reasons why you’ll have a better time at the bar than those prissy planners in the corner booth.

  1. Better service.  Marooned at a table, your waiter drifts in and out of your orbit at will. Their will, not yours. If you don’t want to send up a flare for a glass of water or wedge of lemon, you just need to wait until “Lance” is done chatting up the pastry chef in the kitchen.   At the bar, your server is rarely more than a few feet from your needy gaze, trapped in a holding pen lined with bottles of booze.   
  1. Better Conversation.  With the ambient noise at popular restaurants reaching the levels of a formula one race, the distance between you and your dining partner across the table can seem yawning. And that’s what you’ll be doing after giving up on shouting your conversation amid the din.  Side by side at the bar, you can be heard with a whisper.  And if the idea is to get closer, well there you are.
  1. Better Company.  This isn’t such a great feature if you’re observing the aforementioned wedding anniversary, but if you’re alone or with a casual friend, the proximity of strangers can be a plus.    Bar eaters are a tribe of  kindred culinary cousins for whom dining is a social ritual. Long before ‘community tables’ the size of a landing strip started appearing in restaurant dining rooms, bar eaters were making friends, exchanging phone numbers and (gasp) trading bites of bacalao for tastes of trout. Try doing that with people at another table and you’ll make an impression, not in a good way. And if you’re the only one at the counter, there’s always the bartender to talk to.  And they’re a captive audience.

There are no small parts. Just small dressing rooms.

How perfect that in my first non-news television role I’m cast as a television news anchor. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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The role came to me through Level Talent Group in Tampa. With barely 24 hours notice, I was told to be in Nashville for my brief (but pivotal!) performance in Nashville: Season 5 Episode 15.  Like any TV production, it’s ‘hurry up and wait’, but I felt very well cared for.

 

After hair and makeup, I had an hour or so to chill in my trailer. That’s right, bitches. My trailer.

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My own private green room on wheels!
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My name on the door.. sort of.
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Fresh waste basket liner. Nice touch!

If I had to do any real acting, I would have been nervous. Instead, I was able to enjoy the experience of watching professional actors, directors, and technical people do their thing. ‘Nashville’ was on ABC for four years before moving to the CMT Network. It’s a huge production that employs hundreds of people and features first rate music that is the hallmark of the city.


This sign on the set door made me chuckle.

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My total time on set was only about a three hours during which I got chummy with a couple full time actors.

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Overall a fantastic experience I hope to repeat.

PORTUGAL: What a concept!

Isn’t it strange that the European country nearest to the United States is Portugal, yet most Americans get to  England, France and Italy long before they ever think to visit this grooviest of countries? It’s all the more puzzling to me after spending eight days in Portugal with my wife Sandy and discovering cuisine, weather, history, natural beauty and hospitality equal or superior to the rest of the continent.

Granted, Portugal has seen a lot of investment since it’s entry to the Eurozone circa 1999. The roads and airports are better.  Tourism is improving. And the economy is no longer in critical condition. Still,  I  have to assume the grilled octopus and Douro Valley wines have been delicious and the people have been attractive and friendly for centuries. And I’ve been missing it. No more.

 

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You can waive it off if you like, but most restaurants put a bread plate down automatically and charge you for it. This one with cheese, tuna spread, sardines, shrimp and olives was exceptionally elaborate and delicious.
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Octopus is great hot or cold.
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Clams with a broth you want to take home with you.

 

Here’s a sample tab (in euros worth about $1.12)  for two bodacious glasses of vino tinto and a garlicky bruschetta in a bustling Porto cafe.IMG_8585

Let’s start with the food. Like Spain and Italy, Portugal has mastered the art of tasty, salty pig parts like chorizo, but seafood is where it’s at.  Stunningly fresh, simply prepared and ubiquitous, the sardines, mackerel, dorado, tuna, clams, octopus, lobster are done perfectly.  The value is stupifying. Lunch for two with wine and a sweet treat and coffee  usually rings up under 20 dollars.  Dinner, not much more.

You could spent months or years studying the varietals and microclimates that make Portugese wine world-class. Or you can just ask for red, white or rose and know you’re going to like it. Standards are high.

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Mateus sparkling rose. Yes, that Mateus.
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Slightly effervescent whites like this one taste good surprisingly early in the morning. Three euros for the bottle!
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Thinking of starting a religion centered around white port.
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Bit of fun outside the venerable port house of Ramos Pinto.
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Offley good port on this street.
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Port tasting rooms give you a tour and several samples for about 10 dollars.
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Sandy of the Cellar.

If the Portugese didn’t have such an illustrious past, they could be forgiven for feeling a little dissed by the world. For centuries before Brittania ruled the waves, Portugal was a mighty empire.  Portugese explorers armed with state of the art navigation skills colonized lands from Macau to Mozambique to Brazil. (I wish Brazil started with an ‘M’).  In 1494, the Pope negotiated a deal that basically divvied up Asia, Africa and the New World between Portugal and Spain.

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Henry the Navigator led many of Portugal’s early expeditions. He’s depicted in this monument to discovery built in 1960 in Lisbon along with missionaries, mathematicians, farmers and other power players of the day. 

 

One could easily spend a full week exploring the amazing history and architecture of Lisbon which kept reminding us of San Francisco at every turn. There’s even a min- Golden Gate Bridge and adorable cable cars.  Lisbon, like SF is built on seven hills. There are also gorgeous beaches to the immediate north and south of the Capital.   The Atlantic water is still chilly in June, but I went swimming anyway while Sandy made sure  my life insurance situation was up to date and went shopping.

 

SNACK BREAK!

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Pasteis de Belem are cinnamon flavored baked custards that make you feel good.
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The recipe from 1837 remains unchanged. This original cafe sells 20,000 a day.

Google Palace de Pena in the town of Sintra for details, but this town and it’s several palaces and forts about 45 minutes outside Lisbon is a mind blower.

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Welcome?
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If you can lean you can clean.
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No homeowners association means using any color you want
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Some serious Game of Thrones shit doing down over there.

From Lisbon, we rented a car and this happened.

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But we made it up to Porto, Portugal’s 2nd city for two nights. Splendid. Then drove east along the Douro River Valley through the country’s fabled wine region.  We stayed at Quinta De Ermida, one of dozens of working wineries that host guests in historic homes and screw up their sense of price/value with amazingly inexpensive and wonderful food, wine and accommodations.

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View across the Douro River
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Our room was on the top floor of this stately 150 year old home.
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Violetta appreciates it if you just make an effort to speak Portugese.
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Train from Porto stops at Quintas all along the river.
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White port in the afternoon.
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This kind of stuff just comes at you the whole time.

Finally a shout out to Francisco Marcos and his wife Beverly who split their time between Portugal and Tampa and treated us like visiting royalty. Francisco and Beverly  live on the coast between Lisbon and Porto and shared their love of the natural and cultural richness of Portugal.

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Me and Francisco
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Beverly and Sandy
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It’s tradition for guests at the Marcos home to sign a Friendship Rock”.

Final notes: There are no direct flights to Lisbon from Tampa yet, but it’s only about 6 hours from Boston or New York. A little longer from Miami.   Most everyone speaks English. Driving is a breeze.  Weather is beautiful except in mid-late summer when it can get very hot.  Didn’t even get to  the Algarve in the south of Portugal. Next time. And there will be a next time.

 

Obrigado!

Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…

..of a three day tour.  I’m getting my land legs back after a trip aboard a 30′ Grady White fishing boat that took us from  Tampa to Ft. Meyers- across the state by way of canals and Lake Okeechobee to Cocoa Beach.  Captain Steve White showed me the ropes of navigation, boating safety and nautical jargon, but I learned much more. For example:

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Reading the paper at 30 knots is hard.

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Countless miles of Florida waterways are low or no wake zones that make long distance boat travel a sometimes frustrating stop-and-go process that adds hours to the trip.  That’s seems a small price to pay for protecting these gentle and sort of mysterious creatures.  Despite the restrictions,  the scars on nearly every manatee we saw show that boat propellers remain the nemesis of the manatee.

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Even a modest sized fishing or pleasure craft is expensive to operate. We got about 1.3 miles per gallon of regular, unleaded gasoline.  And they charge you a dollar more per gallon at the marina than you would pay at the Race Track across the street. That required a roughly $350 dollar fill up  at the end of every day.  I think sailing is more my speed.

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I didn’t take this picture, but I saw an Agama Lizard in Jensen Beach.  They’re a non-native species from Africa that got a claw-hold in Florida in the 1970’s.  Crazy beautiful.

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As you already knew, on land or on the water- don’t forget to floss.

Elvis Presley Had a Twin Brother

That’s one of the takeaways from my pilgrimage to Graceland, the home of superstar recording artist, Elvis Presley bought for $100,000 dollars in 1957.

I use the term ‘pilgrimage’ advisedly.  Staying at the Graceland RV park right next door to the mansion, I walked over, paid my $45 bucks and joined the queue of pilgrims (all white, in contrast to the staff who were almost all black) and rode the shuttle bus to the mansion, which by today’s standards would barely qualify as a McMansion.  It took 55 minutes to do the whole tour- the same duration as a typical Catholic mass. And though I haven’t been at Incarnation Church for a loooong time, I walked out with the same mild elation of the absolved I used to feel on Sunday mornings after church.

 

The tour narrated by John Stamos on a tablet computer was great. Really. Sanitized for sure. No mention of Colonel Parker or drugs or dying on the toilet, but the house is so authentically preserved from the era that I felt like I was in the home of a fancy relative or rich neighbor from my childhood. Low ceilings, pool table, cheesy vinyl bar, TV’s everywhere. Tacky? Sure. But if you were to be invited to a party there in 1962, you would have thought it was pretty awesome.

I was a sentient being when Elvis was on radio, TV and movies, and though I was much more captivated by Johnny Cash, Glenn Campbell and Roy Clark than Elvis, there’s no denying that we were all inhaling the peanut butter and ‘naner scented air, the kid from Tupelo was pumping into the zeitgeist. And regardless of one’s personal affinity, or lack thereof, Elvis Presley may have been singularly famous in a way no one else has ever been before or since.

Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’ twin was stillborn. Elvis made sure a grave marker for him was put alongside his own and his parents. Not at all tacky.

Irrational Park Tour 2016

“I’ve been everywhere, man
Crossed the deserts bare, man
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man
Travel, I’ve had my share, man
I’ve been everywhere.”

-Johnny Cash

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With the Man in Black as my inspiration, I head out for a road trip that will take me to no fewer than 5 national parks and countless Wawa’s, Citgo’s and 7-11’s. My chariot is a 1994 Pleasure Way Dodge Camper Van (laughingly called the ‘shaggin’ wagon’)  purchased on Craigslist for $13,000 non refundable dollars.

Though it required  some major engine repairs, all the toys- refrigerator, water heater, air conditioning, stove, sink, shower, toilet, generator work just fine.  I will literally be living in a van down by the river.  Check back for regular dispatches from:

Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota,
Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota,
Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma,
Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma,
Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo,
Tocapillo, Baranquilla, and Perdilla, I’m a killer.
Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana,
Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana,
Monterey, Faraday, Santa Fe, Tallapoosa,
Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa,
Tennessee to Tennesse Chicopee, Spirit Lake,
Grand Lake, Devils Lake, Crater Lake, for Pete’s sake.
Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Ombabika,
Schefferville, Jacksonville, Waterville, Costa Rica,
Pittsfield, Springfield, Bakersfield, Shreveport,
Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond du Lac, Davenport,
Idaho, Jellico, Argentina, Diamantina,
Pasadena, Catalina,
Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado,
Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, Eldorado,
Larimore, Atmore, Haverstraw, Chatanika,
Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelika,
Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City,
Sioux City, Cedar City, Dodge City

 

Doing Good on the Go

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I’m no Don Germaise – digging irrigation ditches in Haiti on my vacation, but I believe every tourist has a chance to help people in the places we visit (or at least hurt them less).  It comes down to  little decisions.

As soon as I got out of my car in the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, I was set upon by a scrawny 10 year old boy grimacing with hunger, rubbing his belly and saying “Papa! Hungry!”   This is a scenario that distinguishes the U.S. from the third world. We have plenty of panhandlers, but ours are usually adults.

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What to do?  Since I was fresh off the bus in an unfamiliar place, I did nothing- hurrying into my hotel to check in. Later that night, strolling down a touristy street of bars and restaurants, I stopped to read the menu at O’Shea’s Irish Pub.  The menu featured the usual pub grub, but what struck me was this amazing message on the back page.  Take a minute to open the photo and read:

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The gist of this message is that the child beggars in Grenada, which few exceptions,  are neither homeless nor hungry.  Kids are cadging money to buy the fast food burgers and hot dogs they see the tourists eating rather than eat the rice, beans, meat and vegetables they’re likely getting at home.  Some skip school, or worse yet, turn over their gains to a “Fagan” like adult,

Bottom line, your ‘generosity’ is contributing to truancy, runaways, drug abuse and sexual exploitation. It was a wake up call I did not expect to find on an an Irish Pub menu. The message goes on to list local shelters and food banks that really do need your dollars.

Old Man and the Sea

The wave, silent and brooding appeared at the edge of the horizon after a long lull. When it reached me, the  force propelled my board beachward with startling speed… like an amphibious Tesla racing a marlin. I stood up in a crouch and caught the break to the left which put the wall of water at my back.  In the next moment, I was racing through a glittering emerald tunnel, the foamy curl of the break guiding me to what? Sunlight? Freedom? Destiny?

This would have been a highlight of my week of surfing in Nicaragua if it happened. But it didn’t. Instead I spent most of my time in the water struggling to paddle past the inner breaks, the board repeatedly pulled from my grasp bobbling  away  and straining at my ankle leash as if by its own will, saying “get me away from this gringo spaz”.

The decision to try my hand (feet?) at surfing was a last minute addition to my sabbatical to-do list.  Growing up along the Northern California Coast, I spent many hours body surfing in the cold and powerful surf of Stinson Beach, Aptos, Capitola and Santa Cruz. But I had never used a board. How hard could it be? Very, it turns out.

The following observations will be tedious to genuine surfers and of little interest to determined non-surfers, but for those of you who might one day  entertain the prospect, I pray you might profit from my hard won education. (Sorry about that sentence. I’m reading Jane Austen.)

You don’t have to be in great shape to surf, but it really helps to be in good shape while learning to surf. Even though I’m a twice weekly lap swimmer, paddling that board was exhausting. Just maintaining balance sitting on the board waiting for a wave takes energy.  Even though I was wearing a shirt, the chafing made me more aware of having nipples than a man should ever be.  The instruction at this surf “camp” was perfunctory at best. Though I was his only student, ‘Pablo’ was distracted and seemed a little burned out on his job. (Boy could I relate.)

The real secret to surfing is the ‘pop-up’- where you go from lying on the board to standing in a single, fluid motion.  I could actually pull it off fairly elegantly on land, but in the water, the instability of the board turned my arms and legs to jelly.  It was really just a psychological barrier. Like baseball, 90 percent of surfing is half mental.

It was on the fifth and final day that I managed to stay on my feet for the duration of a small, mushy wave.  A local family on the beach having witnessed my struggles gave up a hearty cheer.  I walked directly to the bar for a celebratory cerveza, resolved to pick up where I left off in Cocoa Beach this winter when the surf picks up.

Surfing aside, Nicaragua is poor, beautiful and clinging to a Sandanista revolution that has fallen short of its promises.  More on this amazing country next post, but I conclude this one with some pictures of the non-surfing fun to be had on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua.

Rhodie to the Max

IMG_0868How lovely and weird, I thought, for the National Park Service to plant tasteful groupings of rhododendron along the hiking trails of North Carolina.  Aren’t there already enough plants in the G.D. forest?  Turns out these showy blooms grow wild in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Thank you, Creator man or lady.

 

But if you’re a park service employee in need of a swift right jab to the throat, do this:  Ask me if I have a senior discount card for my camping fee. They did it to me every time. No, I’m not old enough for your ‘golden years penny saver plan’.  And thank you for guessing my age wrong by four years in the wrong direction.

Then I took this picture.

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And before I forget, God Bless public radio.  WNCW in Asheville has a signal that never quits and provided the most awesome folk, rock, blues, Americana sound track to my Blue Ridge Mountain trip ever.

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Next stop: Tennessee.

Blowing Rock N.C. doesn’t blow at all. It’s really cool.

Legend has it an Indian brave despondent over a young maiden threw himself off this craggy ledge only to be blown back to safety by a strong updraft of wind.  True or not, it’s a terrific vantage point from which to  view the Blue Ridge Mountains. And nothing makes you feel more alive than rock climbing in flip flops!

Finnegan meanwhile has been a real champ. Keeping an eye on me,  but obviously delirious over exotic odors of bear poop and  marmot vomit (which oddly smells of pesto).  He got a little spooked by the cooler in his cargo space. It rolled into him a couple times before I tied it down.  But now we’ve achieved a nice configuration for him… what you might call good Finn Shue.