Monday, February 28, 2011

20 Must-Dos in the Panama City area (that don't involve water)

Because I'm a fair guy, to offset the more negative tone of my "20 things to avoid..." blog, and because some of my friends work in marketing departments aimed at actually attracting tourists to our area, I felt it only right to shed light on the more favorable and maybe less seen side of my home in the Florida panhandle. Most people come here for the beach, but that's too easy.

Whether you're a visitor to the city, or a longtime resident, here are 20 must-dos:

1. Toys for Kids Christmas Ball. I wasn't going to put this list in any order, but the annual TFK party is so much fun, I would hate myself if I didn't put this in the number 1 spot. Held every year the week or two before Christmas, it's more like the prom than anything else. Except we're adults, so we're allowed to drink there, rather than in the parkinglot beforehand. Anyone can attend, as the price for admission is an unwrapped toy to be donated to needy area kids. So this is the party where a local dishwasher can be rubbing elbows with politicians, teachers, business owners...everyone, together, having a great time.

2. Order a Hunch Punch at Ms. Newby's. I'm pretty sure a Newby's hunch punch is a permanent fixture on the food pyramid in this town. It tastes like Koolaid, but what's actually in it still might be a mystery. You'll regret the hell out of the following day, but if you're going to do what the locals do...this is it. Get a t-shirt while you're there, as it may be your only surviving memory of actually being there.
3. Attend a Thursday night Summer Concert at the Park. The bands are never really that good, but the atmosphere is. Especially early, or late in the summer when it's not miserably hot and the grass is still cool under your feet. Bring a cooler full of your favorite picnic food and drinks, a lawn chair and some bug spray and you're set.

4. Eat oysters at Hunts. Even if you're not a fan of raw molluscs, Hunts is the perfect stereotypical seafood shack. I always get the 3-cheese baked oysters, but they also have frog legs, if that's more your style. A cold beer and a loud jukebox just adds to the atmosphere. No matter what time of year, there will usually be a line to get in. And that's gotta tell you something.
5. Get a cocktail at No Name. I shouldn't even be mentioning this here because No Name is a last refuge for us locals during tourist season. It's a quiet, comfortable, house-looking bar with a nice back deck overlooking the bay. The drinks here are notoriously strong and there are free snacks. I'm not going to tell you where it is, but if you blink, you might miss it.
6. Order a shotski at Hofbrau. 5 shotglasses glued to a ski. With polka music playing in the background for good measure. Need I say more?

7. Walk around Rosemary Beach and/or Seaside. About a 30 minute drive west of the touristy-chaos that is Panama City Beach, are these two quaint beach towns. Rosemary looks kind of like a little German mountain village and Seaside is where they filmed The Truman Show. Both also have some good restaurants.
8. Get a Snowball at Dave's Snowball on Front Beach Road. Who doesn't like flavored ice in 90 degree heat?
9. See a country music band at Tootsies. The original Tootsies may be in Nashville, but this one has just as much energy. Not to mention, a lot of the acts that perform here come from Nashville. If you like country music, and what's more, like dancing to country music, this is your place.

10. Walk the new City Pier. For two bucks, you can walk along the newly finished, 1500 foot long pier. It's a nice spot to watch the sunset, or catch a glimpse of the marine life below you.
11. Get a Fat Tuesday's frozen drink on the Pineapple Willy's pier. Unlike the last one, this pier doesn't make it out over the gulf. But it's still a great place to relax and get a popular frozen daiquiri. Check out their live beach cam to see what you're missing.
12. Eat breakfast at Andy's Flour Power. Whenever I have someone visiting, or if a tourist asks me about a good place to get breakfast, I always suggest Andy's. The omelets are great and the portions are huge.
13. Have a glass of wine and play board games at the Purple Grape. This wine bar has been around for a couple years, but I think very few people know about it. Which can be a good thing. It's comfortable and dimly lit and they have a huge selection of wines from around the world. You can open a bottle there, or purchase one to take home with you. Sometimes there will be a jazz band playing in the corner, but I like the stack of board games they have. Good for a group of friends, or breaking the ice on a date.
14. Spend the day walking around Pier Park. There are so many shops, restaurants, bars and attractions at Pier Park that you can spend an entire day there and perhaps not see everything. Want to get out of the heat? There's also a massive movie theater.
15. Get on stage at Sweet Dreams. I may have mentioned this place in an earlier blog, but that was in reference to the bathrooms. As far as just hanging out and singing poorly, this tiny, smokey, karaoke bar is perfect.

16. Get a sandwich at Liza's Kitchen. In all honesty, I'm not a big fan of this place. And I am totally alone in that opinion. This is a very popular lunch spot with the locals. I know the husband and wife team who run it and some of the folks who work there and they're all good people. I'm just not very keen on feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and other staples of the hippie diet.
17. Go roller-skating and/or bowling at Rockit Lanes. Sure, you've been bowling recently, but when was the last time you've been on roller-skates? Rockit Lanes is a huge, indoor entertainment complex with a bar in the back for those of us over 21. Outside of the bar, however, it's ok to act like a 12 year old. I probably shouldn't admit this here, but the music they play there is alway great. If you're skating under a disco ball and this begins to play, you can't deny you're having damn near the perfect night.
18. Grab a burger or a drink at the back bar at Schooners. Thanks to over-development with high rise condominiums up and down the beach, there are very few beach-side restaurants, or bars. Schooners, which bills itself as the "Last Local Beach Club," is my hands down favorite. Good food, great atmosphere, the same, salty locals who've been sitting in the same seat at the same bar for 30 years. And not to mention the view. Get there at sunset for the nightly cannon fire, toasting the end to another perfect day on the beach. Until then, check out the cannon sunset cam. (Save this in your favorites so you can look at it at work all day like I do)
19. See the Tyndall Air Show. I'm not a big, ra-ra military guy, but an air show, live and in person, is definitely one of the coolest things I've been to. Held each spring at Tyndall AFB, it's a family-friendly event that will surely keep you busy with plenty to see and do for a weekend.
20. See a Reggae Band on the outside deck at Reggae J's. In a tropical setting, perched along the outside, second-story balcony of an Island-themed restaurant, directly across the street from the Gulf of Mexico, how could you not enjoy Reggae music? This is how I spend a majority of my summer Saturday nights. And you should too.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Trouble in Turkey - eight stories up.

If you haven't seen the movie The Hangover, and don't want it ruined for you, then stop reading now. If you have seen it (4 times in the theater, like me) then, please, continue.

This was my view. The gray sky had turned blue on my second day in Istanbul, so I wanted to get some good pictures from the rooftop terrace of my hostel overlooking the Sea of Marmara, some of the southern Turkish islands and also the Asian side of the city. Eight floors up gave me the perfect vantage point.

I had been up there the day before and there were a couple people on the outside deck. The terrace was laid out in two sections: the inside seating and bar area and a much smaller outside deck area with a couple of chairs and a porch swing. The heavy glass door connecting the two had been propped open then. (See The Hangover connection now?) This day, however, it was still early and the hostel dwellers hadn't made it to the bar just yet. In fact, I think the only person in the entire building may have been the guy manning the front desk, some eight floors below. 

I didn't think it a big deal when the door slammed shut behind me. I took the above picture (and about 20 more just like it) and then turned to walk back downstairs. I can't describe in words the exact feeling I got when I noticed there were no outside handles on the door. I guess it's kind of like that jolt of adrenaline you get when you pass a cop and you know your speeding. Not the good kind of rollercoaster, skydive adrenaline. More of the "oh shit" kind. There was this moment of confusion, followed by a frantic Indiana Jones-type feel around the perimeter of the door, looking for some magical way to push it open. I never panicked. I knew that, eventually, someone would want a drink and make their way upstairs. But even then, that "eventually" could've been hours since this was late morning and the bar didn't open until late afternoon. I just didn't want to waste and entire day of my trip trapped on a hot roof.

I started knocking. Maybe someone in one of the seventh floor rooms would hear it. I knew it was impossible for the front desk guy to hear anything, so this was my only hope. After about 10 minutes, I gave up with that plan. It was time to go with Plan B.

You'll notice in this picture the set up of tables and chairs. Those are, in fact, not a part of the hostel. I took this picture standing up against an iron fence, separating my roof from the roof a posh hotel next door. You can't see it, but just to the left of this picture is the their terrace, leading into the hotel's kitchen. The door was open. All I had to do was make it onto the neighboring rooftop and I'd be home free. I wish this was the point of the story where, in like most action film chase sequences, I get a running start and leap from the edge of my roof, over the busy street below, and land safely onto the other, but truth be told, there was about a 3-inch gap between buildings. I simply just climbed over the fence.

When I walked into the hotel kitchen, I scared the hell out of some poor, old lady in there cooking. She may have thought I was a super hero, flying from building to building. Or, more likely, a burglar, sneaking in to strangle her and the other guests. She started yelling something in Turkish as I tried to explain, with full-on hand gestures, my ordeal. As we kept talking over each other in languages neither of us could understand, I knew I had to get out of there, fast. Still futilely explaining how I got up there, I was frantically looking for a way out, which I'm sure made me that much more suspicious. I noticed a spiral staircase in a hallway and made a run for it as she picked up the phone. This is when the panic set in. I had seen enough movies and heard enough stories about Turkish prisons to know that that isn't how I wanted to spend the rest of my trip (and possibly life) over a simple communication issue. I ran down the eight flights of stairs and right past the desk clerk who stood and yelled something as I flew by. He was on the phone, I assume with the lady upstairs. 

I made it safely back into the hostel, caught my breath (and wits) and, while telling the story to the guy at the front desk, started laughing about it. The story is almost a year old now, but I was reminded of it earlier this week, during Traveler's Night In (#tni), a weekly Twitter group that posts travel-related questions. One focused on the "biggest travel disaster encountered." I edited this story down to 140 characters (not easy) and then noticed someone else's answer:
There are no disasters. Only adventures.
The perfect response.

Monday, February 21, 2011

20 Places To Avoid In Panama City

Panama City Beach and the surrounding areas are popular destinations for all walks of life. Families, college and high school party-goers, retired seasoned citizens...they all come for different reasons, proof positive that this area literally has something for everyone.

This post isn't about any of that.

I am writing this informative piece as a warning to those who may not be that familiar with the area. Sure, there are plenty of fun events and great things to see and do during your time here and I do plan to touch on that in the future. For now, we'll focus on the things you should avoid. I have made these mistakes, so that you don't have to. You can thank me later, preferably in the comments section below.


1. The ocean when purple warning flags are flying. The purple flag warns of "marine pests" in the water. I don't know what the hell that means, nor do I want to.
2. The bathrooms at Sweet Dreams. You would think that "bathrooms" is a easy, cop-out pick, but the ones in this dingy, but fun, dive karaoke bar have avoided cleaning since the mid 70's.
3. 15th street at 4pm. It's like everyone in the entire city going in both directions got off work at the exact same time and 15th St. is their happy hour.
4. Hooters. Hooters should be avoided in every city, simply based on the low quality, over priced food. Yet, some people still go for the eye candy. So if you do decide to come to our Hooters, allow me to be the first to welcome you to our city and also apologize for your eventual disappointment.
5. Bealls Outlet during Snow Bird season. Have you ever been in a discount outlet store when a tour bus full of old Canadians and Midwesterners unloads? I don't recommend it.
6. Tan Fannies. I'll give you one guess as to what type of establishment this is. Yes, it's a strip club. At least that's what we're told. Rumor has it that they only have one dancer who only has one arm. So she can only spin in one direction on the pole. I can't make this stuff up.
7. Panama City Mall. This is so depressing. Once the hip, new shopping area of Pier Park opened on the beach, the in-town mall began to slowly die, store by store. Now, it's just a pathetic shell of what it once was. There is no need to go there, unless you're shopping for some sort of bling accessory for your cell phone, or those pajama pants that look like jeans.
8. Billfish Tournament. This annual fishing tournament/show-n-tell for yacht owners is like the Alamo (or Holy Grail, depending on how you look at it) for wealthy, pretentious cougars looking for a mate. It is also a popular event for young, trashy gold diggers. The combination of which is akin to crossing the streams for Ghostbusters. If you don't have a nice boat to show off, you're just the Marshmellow Man. And no one likes the Marshmellow Man.
9. Friday Fest. This is actually a decent event, held the first Friday evening of each month throughout the Summer and Fall. What puts this on the list is its popularity among the local, jorts-wearing, rednecks and their litters of unruly children. That's not something I want to deal with after a long work week.
10. Front Beach Rd. during the months of March and April and June and July. This is the main drag along the beach, which passes by a number of bars, clubs and shops. During the spring break and summer crowds, this turns into a cruising strip that doesn't move. For days. Us locals know to get anywhere, you take Back Beach Rd.
11. Parker. Those of us on the beach side know not to cross the bridge into Panama City unless absolutely necessary. Once you do though, the deeper into the city you get, the closer you get to Parker. If you want some old, used tires, or lice, then maybe this is the place for you. Otherwise, avoid at all costs.
12. The pool at LaVela. A night at "the world's largest nightclub" can be a great time. But be sure to follow this one, very important rule: Do Not Touch Anything. And especially don't get in the pool. There isn't enough chlorine in the world to kill the super-virus that may be festering in those waters once the 500,000 drunken college kids have their way with it.
13. Golden Coral during Snow Bird season. (See #5 and add a never-ending food buffet to the mix. Just deadly.)
14. The Outrigger. I've actually had some fun times at this dive bar. Cheap, strong drinks and a good, digital jukebox. Why then, did it make the list? I recently learned that this is the hangout for the local Swinger's club. I no longer go, in fear that they may mistake my presence as an interest.
15. Locos. This is the Walmart of Mexican restaurants. If I am going to have Mexican for dinner, I expect it to be prepared and cooked by real Mexicans. Not some Emo, middle class, white high schooler who can't wait to get back to the Dashboard Confessional on his iPod. This area has some really good Mexican restaurants, where the food is made with love by authentic Mexicans. Locos is Americanized assembly line garbage.
16. The "Kiddie Pool" at St. Andrews State Park. (See #9) Plus, there have been some sightings of hammerhead sharks. The waters are warm, crystal clear and inviting, and truth be told, I'd actually rather swim with sharks than screaming children, but either way, I'm going to avoid it.
17. Dodges Chicken. This is a chicken joint located in a gas station. It's a popular late night spot to get a cheap, greasy meal after leaving The Outrigger, located directly across the street, but c'mon. It's a GAS STATION.
18. No Name on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Located at the foot of the bridge, No Name is one of my favorite hangouts. Good drinks, free popcorn, goldfish and potato chips, and a great outdoor deck overlooking the bay. That said, it's a really small building that can hardly handle the Friday after work crowd. And the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the time when anyone and everyone who ever left this town comes back. And they all know that No Name is the spot for their annual reunion. Do the math.
19. Waffle House. I dig Waffle House, but we have a better alternative here. It's called Corams. So when you're visiting and have a hankerin' for eggs, pancakes and grits at 2am, skip Waffle House and head to a Corams.
20. Super Walmart. The idea of Walmart has always angered me. No,  I'm not a "save the forest," big-business hating, hippie. It's because everyone who ever goes to Walmart always leaves complaining about the crowds. You know there is going to be a crowd there. Be it 2pm, or 2am. And yet you still go. And then I have to listen to you complain about it. Here's a little secret: go to KMart. They still exist, but no one realizes it. You can get the same crap, for the same price and you'll be one of maybe 6 people in the entire store. No KMart in your area? Try Target, Dollar General, or a damn grocery store. We have all of those here in PCB. Same crap, less people. I haven't been inside a Walmart since 2007 and somehow, I've managed to survive. And yes, I'm going to continue to be a pretentious douche about it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Songs Women Like

Late one night, while out at a local bar, my buddy and I tried to piece together the perfect mix-CD that would make women go crazy. Not the Harry Connick Jr, or Michael Buble', type crazy. But the jump on the bar and start singing and dancing kind of crazy. When researching the actions of a creature who responds only to emotion, rather than reason, I knew I couldn't find a scientific answer for a song's likability. Why did one work, but the very next one didn't? Logic wasn't in play here. There had to be something else. It was like certain songs struck deep within a woman's DNA without them even knowing it, causing them to scream loudly the second the first note hit the speakers. So after many nights of heavy research (and with the help of random tweeters) I think I have finally compiled the quintessential, we-just-can't-help-ourselves, crazy female, holler and swaller 2011 Table Top Dance Mix 2.0 Remix Volume 1.

However, one question remains: do the following songs have the same effect on women all over the world based solely on the XX chromosome? Or are these uncontrollable urges only found here, in the southern United States where this research was conducted? I will be accepting grant money to further my completely unbiased studies. Until then, and in the immortal words of Casey Kasem, "let's get back to the countdown."

  1. Sweet Home Alabama. This is easily the top song on this list. By far. Women love it. It is also one of my least favorite songs of all time. Partly because of its overplay, but mostly because it is an homage to the worst, most backwards state in the Union. Lynyrd Skynyrd, I'm a big fan. But why, oh why Alabama? You had 50 states to choose from, why start at the bottom?
  2. Pour Some Sugar On Me. We all know it from the very first lines, before the music even kicks in: "Step inside. Walk this way. You and me babe. HEY HEY." I think men and women agree, this is one of Def Leppard's finest. Next time you're out and see a jukebox, conduct your own drinking game: play this song and then count the number of women who remain seated. Take a drink for each one that gets up. Then take a drink for everyone that does the "take a bottle" and "shake it up" hand motions.   (thanks @llamasforlovers)
  3. I Will Survive. Ah, Gloria Gayner's 1978 scorned woman's anthem that set the scene for many a Dixie Chicks songs for decades to follow. With a fun, disco beat and easy to remember lyrics, what passive-aggressive woman wouldn't want to dance to this with her like-minded girlfriends on Girls Night Out? (thanks @TLC_Designs)
  4. Blister In The Sun. This song is so fun, it even involves clapping! What's sad though, is that a majority of the sorority girls and bridesmades that go crazy when the bass line begins don't even realize that the Violent Femmes has many more, and much better, songs than this one. The Femmes were one of my favorite bands in the early 90s. Check out Out the Window, Kiss Off, and Good Feeling.
  5. Brown Eyed Girl. Ugh. This is depressing. Van Morrison is such a talented artist and this is what he's most known for. It's covered by just about everyone. It gets radio airplay on pretty much every station format. And even girls with blue and green eyes change the words so that it appeals to them. I have nothing more to say about this song.
  6. Livin On a Prayer. This is a classic. Like Pour Some Sugar On Me, this Bon Jovi masterpiece is enough to leave everyone in the bar without a voice the following day. Try to listen to it with your hands in your pockets. I DARE YOU. (thanks @MiddleSeatView)
  7. Crazy Bitch. The women who go wild for this song are the same ones who may very well stab you in the parking lot. If Jack Daniels is involved, tread lightly, friends. (thanks @loljocks_grimey)
  8. Don't Stop Believing . Now this song is amazing enough to even make me jump around the bar like a little girl. A song that knows no gender and was popular long before Glee introduced it to your children. Not my personal favorite Journey song, but still a unarguable classic. When I posted that I was going to write this blog and needed some song suggestions, this song got the most responses, with many people recommending "any Journey song." That says a lot, streetlight people. That says a lot.
  9. Copacabana. The second 1978 song to make the list. In all honesty, I'm still not so sure about this one. It was insisted upon by @WarmothStrat. He lives in Japan, so maybe it's a hit in bars over there. Here, though, I don't think women have danced to this in 30 years. I could be wrong. Discuss.
Runner ups: Devil Went Down To Georgia, Save A Horse Ride a Cowboy, and Baby Got Back.

So ladies, did I miss anything? Get anything wrong? I know there are people from all around the world who read this, so it would be great to get feedback on which American songs are popular in other countries as well. Leave a message in the comments section. What song gets YOU moving?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Connecting At 30,000 Feet

I knew that it was going to be an interesting flight. The line was long and slow moving while waiting to get into the plane. I had spent the previous 30 or so minutes being frisked by a disgruntled Greek security official. I guess the government frowns upon flying one-way into the country via Turkey. So now, I have a nice neon yellow souvenere sticker on the back of my passport, which notified the ticket takers that I was to undergo an in-depth, near strip search in some back room of the Athens International airport. Thanks, hundreds of years of passive aggression!

I never have good luck when it comes to sitting next to someone on an airplane. "Good luck" in the sense of serendipity stepping in and sitting me next to a hot, talkative blond like in the movies. Usually, I get an empty seat next to me, which is kind of nice, actually. It could be a lot worse. I had one friend who was in the early leg of a cross-country flight, quietly reading The Da Vinci Code when her isle-mate quietly asked her if she had been "saved." It turned out, the lady next to her was reading the Bible and felt the need to scorn her for reading such a blasphemous piece of fiction. You think crying babies are bad on flights? There isn't enough Xanax in the word that allow me to put up with a preachy Bible beater with no escape.

But I digress. Back to boarding.

I noticed while waiting in that line that the somewhat attractive girl in front of me was crying. Sobbing, actually. Like the kind of crying that makes your whole body shake. She had her ticket sticking out of her back pocket. I looked at it. Then at mine. Then back to hers. For the next 12+ hours, this was going to be my closest friend and neighbor. Athens straight to New York City is a long flight, so then and there I made it my mission to find out what she was crying about before getting to LaGuadria.

It could have been anything: Saying goodbye to a loved one, saying goodbye to the city, or her time there. Thinking about going home to work, bills and responsibility was nearly enough to make me cry too. Maybe she was just felt up by the same hairy Greek I was and she felt violated. At least now, my mind had been distracted from my own issues. Truth be told, I'm not a good flier. It's easily my biggest fear. In order to go somewhere, my love for the destination has to greatly outweigh my fear of the flight to get there. And I need to be heavily sedated. This time though, thanks to my time spent in the secret pat-down room, I didn't have the time to make friends with the airport Chili's Express bar. All I had left was one, magic pill. Powerful enough to knock me out for a few good hours and help me forget the horrible thoughts that swim around my head about the wings falling off, or the landing gear getting stuck.

We made our way to the 3-seat center isle. I was on the outside, she was in the middle. We gave one of those John Locke to Jack Shepard half smile nods as we took our seats. (Of course, that flight broke up in mid air. I've really got to stop doing that.) Her eyes were still wet. She grabbed a box of generic sleeping pills and said "I'm not a good flyer." This was my in! I pointed to the overhead cabin.
I've got a Xanax up there that may work better for you.
That wasn't a line. It was here that I realized that I was so engrossed with her plight, that I totally forgot about my own. I normally don't take medication of any sort. Not even headache medicine if I can help it. But this was different. I was about to fly over an entire continent and a large body of water. I needed that pill. Yet here I was, offering it to a complete stranger. And that brings me to the point I wanted to make. The people we meet while traveling, especially solo, as was the case with me and her, tend to build more valued, stronger relationships (if only for a few hours) than some of the friends we've had in our lives for years. It's hard to explain, or put into words. But the connections made while on the road (or in the air) are very real and surprisingly meaningful. Maybe it's because you're in the same situation and that creates an immediate common bond. Maybe it's because you know your time together is finite. Maybe it's exactly like a quote I once read: intensifies every interaction. There's more urgency to become close and to create the familiar. This urgency is the most natural, exciting feeling in the world.
The girl in seat D, as she will forever be known, talked for a long while about her home in New York, about the week she had just spent in Israel, about her having to say goodbye to her boyfriend in Athens (ah ha!) Once her sleeping pills kicked in, I put on my headphones and watched 3 episodes of The Office, 4 episodes of 30 Rock, Men Who Stare At Goats, A Serious Man, and Avatar. Yes, I watched one of the top grossing movies of all time on a 4 inch screen on the back of an airplane seat. I'm over it. At one point, there was a tap on my shoulder. The girl in seat D wanted to get my take on A Serious Man, a black and white Coen brothers film dripping in Jewish history and symbolism. I enjoyed it, but was confused by it. So, for the next hour or so, she explained the connection between the movie and the story of Job from....the Bible. Go figure. You can learn a lot when you're stuck in a pressurized aluminum can, miles above the Earth for half a day.

Thanks to a total stranger, I can appreciate this movie. Rent it.

The last time I saw her was in the line at customs. We waved goodbye from across the room as she went to collect her bags and catch a train, while I hurried to make my connecting flight to Orlando. It was nothing more than a good conversation with an interesting person. Yet I regret not asking her for her contact information. Facebook, email...something. When traveling, and staying in hostels as I have, it's funny how many new Facebook friends you can get over a week in a new city. I don't communicate with them regularly, but they're there. And who knows...they're great connections to have in case I ever make it to their city for whatever reason. As for the girl in seat D, I probably wouldn't even recognize her if we passed on the street. But for 12 hours, we diverted each others attention long enough to make it an enjoyable flight, without the usual fear and anxiety.

I never did end up taking that Xanax. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

San Francisco - 43 years too late.

My 2nd day in San Francisco happened to be Halloween. I remember changing my Facebook status update to a very sociological inquiry:
"Do people in San Francisco always dress like this, or is it just because it's Halloween?"
Within 90 seconds, I had about 45 responses, all of which said pretty much the same thing:
"To the people of San Francisco, Halloween is amateur hour."
The city is easy to poke fun at because of its obvious differences with the rest of the country and the strong liberal undertones (overtones?) of its citizens. But I think that's what makes it so likable. There is no norm there. No specific fashion, or attitude. Without these typical characteristics in place, it allows the city to open up and accept anyone. (Including the naked dude sporting only a sock sitting outside one of the BART stations.) San Francisco, it turns out, is a microcosm of the United States: a melting pot of people from all over the world whose only commonality is how different we are from each other. Once we can admit and accept that, the more welcoming of these differences we become. And few cities are as welcoming and, in turn, friendly as San Fran.
Obligatory icon shot.

For a few hours, on the night of November 1st, 2010, I became an adopted citizen of this great city. It was impossible not to. This native Floridian was fortunate enough to be there the night the Giants won the World Series. Their first in 53 years. One of the items of my bucket list was to be in a city when they won a major sporting championship and party in the streets with the celebratory locals. This bucket list item was a long time in the making. Let's look at some of my near misses:

  • In Gainesville when my Tampa Bay Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2002.
  • In Miami, Birmingham and Panama City Beach when my Gators won the NCAA Championships in 1997, 2007 and 2009.
  • In Orlando (and too young) when my Cincinnati Reds won the Series in 1990.
  • Still waiting on my Orlando Magic to take the NBA title...
I'm not a Giants fan, but this was my chance. And the city was more than accommodating. We watched the game at a bar just outside of AT&T Park, anticipating that would be the rally point. (Sadly, the game was being played in Texas, but that didn't kill the buzz.) We hurried to the stadium after the last pitch. Because we were so close, we were lucky enough to be among the first group there. But the crowd quickly grew, as pretty much the entire city showed up to celebrate. I had never given out so many high-fives to complete strangers as I did that night. It was loud. It was crazy. It was fun. It was controlled pandemonium. It was San Francisco.

The rest of the trip was a bit more subdued. There was a lot to see, do and experience. What's great about a big city like San Fran is how it is divided into different neighborhoods, or districts, each with a personality all its own. China Town, Haight Ashbury, Little Italy, the Castro (Gay district), the Mission (Latin district), Japan Town, etc... We also drove outside of the city to tour California wine country, which was a surprisingly different, and educational, experience. 
Me, enjoying wine country with both hands.

All in all, I was very impressed with both the city and the people of San Francisco. The only downfall would by that it is probably the most un-walkable city on the planet, thanks to its VERY seep hills. Fortunately, it has a very reliable public transportation system made up of the BART light rail, buses and historic street cars that can help get you to some of the important philosophical cornerstones that molded the progressive mindset of this country. This is where the Beatnik generation was born. Where the Summer of Love movement began. Individuality and nonchalant freedom are very attractive characteristics to me. San Fran more than personifies those traits. It defines them.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Three Great European Hostels

I mentioned in an earlier blog why I liked staying in hostels over hotels when traveling. In short, it's because they are great ways to meet people from all over the word who are in your exact same situation. This makes the connections, not only easier, but more meaningful.

When looking for a hostel, I follow these guidelines (in order):
  • Is it social? (If it has a pub, game, or movie room, chances are, it will be)
  • Is it within close walking distance to the areas I want to see? (Historical sites and/or nightlife)
  • Is it in a decent area of town? 
  • Is the price worth the distance from the areas I want to see? (I'll gladly pay a little more for convenience)
  • Is there free internet access? (This isn't a deal breaker, but it's a nice perk)
  • Is there a free breakfast/lunch? (See above)
Of course, I scour message and review boards to read the opinions of other travelers. You can't put too much stock, however, into what others say. One person may hate a noisy room, while another may be specifically looking for one. What's "clean" to you will have a completely different meaning to me. So you have to play the averages. Did a majority of the people seem to like the hostel? Does it fit my criteria? If so, it gets bookmarked.

I'll admit, I've heard first-hand horror stories from other backpackers. And my few times in and around Europe, it seems I've been very fortunate. That said, I wanted to give credit where credit is due. Here is my list of three great European hostels.

Hands down, this is my all-time favorite. It met every one of my criteria perfectly. The friendly staff, communal rooms and rooftop bar provide the perfect social atmosphere to meet other travelers. The location couldn't have been better. The view couldn't have been better. Although I didn't take advantage of any of them, the hostel puts together organized day trips throughout Greece and offers a free, basic breakfast every morning. My only complaint would be the very, very small bathrooms and showers. But the overall atmosphere more than made up for it. I can't wait to go back.
You really can't beat that view.

If you're looking for a social hostel, this is the place.

Nathan's Villa in Krakow made my trip there perfect. I still talk to some of the great people during my stay there. I went during Easter weekend, which, surprisingly, was a slow time for the hostel. I managed to land a 6-person room all to myself. The rooms were large and comfortable, but what really made this a great hostel were the common rooms. Nathan's has a basement pub, game room, TV room and movie room, full of DVDs. The pub is full of different beers and liquors from around the world (although I suggest you stick to the local Polish spirits.) There is also a large deck filled with picnick tables, pingpong and a grill which was used every night to make a $3US dinner of chicken, kielbasas and hasbrowns. The staff of Americans, Poles and Ozzies were friendly as hell. If I ever make it back to Poland, I will definitely stay again.
The Nathan's staff seen in their natural habitat (behind the bar)

View from the back deck.

Looking into the pub from outside the movie room.

One of the bright spots during my Istanbul trip was the Big Apple. The staff was friendly and helpful, the rooms were large and clean and the bathrooms were the nicest hostel bathrooms I've ever seen (glass doors as opposed to the usual, dingy cloth or latex curtain.) Located in the heart of the old city, just behind the Blue Mosque, the rooftop bar at Big Apple was warm and comfortable, with amazing views over the Sea of Marmara and into the Asian side of the city. There was also a free breakfast of fruit, chesses and breads, which was nice. They also had a communal guitar which helped break the ice and just add to the typical backpacker atmosphere.
View from the rooftop.

The comfortable inside bar area.

Warm. Relaxing. Turkish.

So what are some of the best hostels you've stayed in? What is the criteria you look at when searching for one? And of you're the hotel type, what are your reasons behind it?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

50 things that make me happy

As much as I'd like to, I cannot take credit for this idea. It actually came from fellow blogger, Kevin (@jlandkev) who made his own list. Its timing was perfect, however, since many people have been telling me I have become too negative in my recent diatribes on Facebook. Using Kevin's lead, I wanted to test my overly-cynical view on life to see if it was possible to come up with 50 things that made me happy. What follows is an honest list, easier to create than I had originally thought. It is in no particular order, as I simply typed whatever came to mind.
This was today's moment of Zen. I encourage each of you to make your own list. (If you check the links, and I suggest you do, be sure to right-click and open them in a new window)

1. My independence. Not being tied to anything or anyone.

2. Football season.

3. New Orleans.

4. Mexican food.

5. When you have a head cold and one side of your nose is plugged up and the "plug" begins to switch sides. The feeling you get when, for about 20 seconds, you have totally unimpaired breathing through both nostrils. 

6. My dog, Cole.

7. Strange coincidences. 

8. Knowing that I can travel to other countries by myself and make it back alive with amazing stories to tell and a strong desire to do it all over again.

9. Waking up from a deep sleep thinking it's almost time for your alarm to go off and then seeing that you've only been asleep for 3 hours and have 5 more to go.

10. Brian's essay at the end of The Breakfast Club

11. Knowing I can die having seen Pink Floyd in concert.

12. Using Facebook as a medium to make people think.

13. Asians who record themselves covering hip hop songs and posting them on Youtube.

14. Grilling out in the winter.

15. Grilling out in the summer.

16. Top 10 lists at the end of every year.

17. Las Vegas.

18. NBC's Thursday night lineup featuring 30Rock, The Office and Community

19. March Madness.

20. Derek Waters' Drunk History videos.

21. Waking up on a Saturday, knowing you have absolutely nothing you have to do.

22. The feeling of a new pair of socks.

23. Drinks and burgers on a warm day at Schooners.

24. The sound and feel of the engine after an oil change.

25. Red meat.

26. OK Go music videos.

27. Watching someone's face light up when I'm about to give them a hi-five since I normally don't give hi-fives.

28. The feel of the golf club when you know you've just hit the perfect drive.

29. Learning new things.

30. Canadian whiskey. 

31. Jimmy V's speech at the 1993 ESPYs.

32. Stick shift.

33. Educating people with my opinion.

34. George Cloony's character in Up in the Air

35. Spinning a basketball on my finger.

36. Eggs, grits, sausage and toast at a diner at 2am.

37. Finding a moment of Zen, or catharsis each day.

38. Matt Damon's NSA monologue from Good Will Hunting. Complete brilliance.

39. Purposely getting lost in a new city for the first time.

40. Telling stories that make people laugh.

41. The word "epic."

42. LOST.

43. Crossing an item off your bucket list.

44. Adding an item to your bucket list.

45. McDonald's fries.

46. Stand up comedy. 

47. Diced tomatoes and/or onions.

48. Having an "I told you so" moment and the person agreeing. Sweet, sweet victory.

49. The Blue Man Group.

50. Writing.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy 4709!

My Chinese New Year resolution is to eat more Chinese food. I can't get enough of the stuff. Actually, maybe it should be to eat real Chinese food. Not the Americanized knock offs. My guess is that bourbon chicken tastes different in Tianjin than it does at the end of a toothpick in the mall food court.
So today is the Chinese New Year. 4709. Or 2011, according to the Western calendar. It's the year of the Rabbit. My Chinese birth sign is the snake. Like the dragon, or the ox, the snake seems a lot more fierce than a rabbit. If you were born in 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987 or 1999, you, too, are a rabbit. 

According to the Chinese horoscope, the rabbit has some very positive character traits:
They're said to be calm and gentle, but persistent. Quietly charismatic and thoughtful. Rabbits are admired for their tactful and considerate dealings with all who know them. No surprise then, they are the most often depended upon for their wise counsel, or as someone in which to put trust in a personal friendship or business dealing.

Think this is all astrological nonsense? Check out the characteristics of the snake. Specifically the fire snake representing the years 1917 and 1977 (my birth year):

Fire Snakes can be a bit loud, speaking their minds and smothering you with their opinions. This does add a twist to his dynamic and vibrant character, as he is quite the extrovert. These Snakes have a great wisdom. They are intriguing communicators who leave you breathless after a conversation. Fire Snakes can change even the most obstinate mind with their powers of persuasion, convincing you their opinions or ideas are better than yours. This does make them a little self-centered, but you can’t say they aren’t driven for success.

Bullseye. In the words of the Monkeys (another Chinese astrological sign) "I'm a believer."

Did you know that both Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are rabbits? So were Frank Sinatra and Albert Einstein. So is Tiger (another Chinese astrological sign) Woods. Eh, ok, maybe not the best example. So let's take a look at other famous rabbits:

The most famous rabbit (bunny) on the list, Bugs has always been a personal cartoon hero of mine. Dry, sarcastic and able to defeat his enemies with sharp wit. He's a creative instigator and an admitted stinker. We differ with his love of carrots.

The most annoying rabbit (bunny) on the list, by far. The Energizer Bunny started going and going during the 1988 World Series in battery advertisements and has been unfunny ever since.

Real vampires don't sparkle. They hop. Bunnicula was my favorite literary rabbit as a kid.

Of all the characters in Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood, only two are meant to be real animals, not the stuffed variety. Instead of having names, both go by the types of animals they are. One is Rabbit. Can you name the other? Rabbit prides himself on the fact that he, unlike all the others has "brains instead of fluff." Although Pooh's Zen-like philosophy on life makes him my favorite character in the story, Rabbit's "brains" makes him a close second.

Lewis Caroll's White Rabbit. I dig this one because of all he represents. According to the popular metaphor, chasing the White Rabbit is what "wakes you up." The thing that allows you to see what reality, and truth, really is. In Wonderland, he was everything Alice was not, yet she still chased him, leading to her famous adventure. She shouldn't have. But she did. And Alice, and all of us, are better off for it. What's your White Rabbit? Where did it take you? Have you chased one yet? Don't you think it's time to do so? Go on, you're late.

The March Hare. Another one of Lewis Caroll's creations. According to Alice, "The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won't be raving mad--at least not so mad as it was in March." You can't blame him, really. His characteristics are evolutionary. Biological. Rabbits mate like crazy in the spring. In one story, the Hare is cast as a prosecutor who, in his madness, addresses the court with his opening statement that pretty much vindicates the accused. He then turns his accusing eye on the court itself, questioning why they didn't serve tea with the tarts, which were evidence. How can you not like this guy?

The most hilarious bunny on the list. Also, "the most foul, cruel and bad-tempered rodent you've ever set eyes on." It's the killer rabbit from Monty Python's Holy Grail. Run away! Run away! Run away!

Jessica, wife of Roger. You knew this was coming.

Where there any I missed? 
Post your favorites in the comments. And, have a hoppy, er, Happy New Year.