Two Days in the Life – Pittsburgh – April 2012

Well, it’s a bit of a situation when your life interferes with what you truly hold near. I’ve felt a little stripped of my own self because I’ve been so entwined in work and preparing for my upcoming vacation. To catch all of you up, here are a couple of anecdotes from your favorite degenerate:

I like to have a drink after work seemingly every day. But while some of those days are spent solemn, searching for answers in the bottom of a pint glass, some of them are spent in wonderful conversation with lovely people.

The other night, post-Sonoma, I decided to take in a beverage at Vallozzi’s on Fifth Ave. Upon entrance, the two bartenders, both named Melissa, greeted me. I ordered a Woodford Reserve on the rocks, and began taking in, for who knows what reason, the Pirates game. I noticed instantly that I was sitting next to a quite attractive older lady and her husband who were out for a nice evening out of the house. Making friendly conversation with the bartender, we’ll call her Melissa 2 (solely based upon the fact that I met her after the other identically named girl, I began talking about how earlier on in the day); I had sold an outrageously priced bottle of wine. Listening in on the conversation, the gentleman politely includes himself in the discussion. It turns out that he fancies himself to be quite a connoisseur. His name is Doug, and his wife, her name is Michelle. It was refreshing in speaking to the both of them for the first ten minutes or so to learn that everything that I thought that I knew about wine was not total bullshit and that I had picked something up in the last year or so of drinking. Doug and I continue our conversation, touching on hockey and how much the city of Philadelphia is an awesome place with awful people and even worse sports teams, how the Pirates have managed to make a science out of putting a sub-par product on the field and still make money, and some of the best places to eat in Pittsburgh. This was slowly turning into one of the better nights that one could have on a Tuesday, but hey, good conversation is welcome any day of the week. Our back and forth spanned across many topics; I had slipped in that I would be taking a backpacking trip across five countries in Europe, just as he had expounded upon his fondness for a good Czech Pilsner. Things got a bit interesting from there, the conversation moved on to politics, which is never a good subject between people who’ve just met, but things seemed to work smoothly as I told them about my total apathy for the whole process due to the fact that nothing ever changes. Then, this happened.

Michelle: “While you’re in Europe, get stoned.”

Me: “Pardon?”

Michelle: “Smoke, and fuck, and do whatever the hell you wanna do! It’s Europe!”

Me: “I. Um? I just…”

Michelle: You’re trying to tell me a pretty black man with beautiful dreadlocks isn’t going to get fucked up and have sex with European women? Come on, I know how you work.”

 

There are so few things that could render me speechless, but this was one. Shortly after this exchange, her husband escorted her from the bar, to their vehicle and wished me the best. I’m pretty sure the next time I sit at that bar, there will be a total lack of shock and awe, but hell, one must take these experiences as they come.

The next night, I decided to take my father to a baseball game. I had a French final in the morning, but still had time to buy tickets and relax for a good bit of the day. A few days prior to that, I had picked up some mushrooms, but had no idea when I would ever have the time to eat them, so I gave half to someone, and let the other half hang out on my floor. Coming home after my exam, I just wanted to relax for a little bit, maybe play some video games, maybe even take a nap. Of course none of those things happened. It was about 3 when I decided that I was just going to do it. I was going to eat these boomers, and see where my day took me. My dad showed up to my place about an hour later, and I still was feeling pretty normal.

My brother joined the two of us and we headed to the North Side to visit PNC Park. Sitting on the train between downtown and the stadium, for lack of better phrasing, things in my life started to pick up. After grabbing our tickets from the box office, I was full on tripping my face off. I was hallucinating in public, with my father and my brother, trying to concentrate on baseball. I watched as the city skyline in the background altogether blended with the river and the outfield fences of the park. The crack of the bat has never had such satisfying sound. Vendors calling out to fans to buy hot dogs, or $8 beers were lyrical. A gentle drizzle of misty rain even began around the start of the seventh inning. It simply could not get any better than that.

Naturally, it did. Looking down the row in front of us, and about 6 seats over, a plump, rosy-cheeked pre-teen sat down with a jumbo sized Pepsi, and an ice cream cone that encompassed the size of his head in both height and circumference. My eyes widened, tears rolled down, and laughter that could have been heard from ten miles away, bellowed from somewhere deep inside of me, to the tip of my tongue, and out of my mouth.

At this moment, I knew that the Pirates had won the game, but upon further review, I truly believe that I won the day.

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A Day in Dublin – May 2012

Waking up Thursday, everything still felt completely surreal. I was on the holiday that I had finally wanted. I had left our 16-bed dorm room to go downstairs for the complimentary breakfast the hostel offered daily. (Complimentary for a reason!!!) Upon arriving downstairs, I sat down with my bowl of cereal and a glass of what we’ll call juice -though that might be a bit friendly for whatever that drink was- and made friends with a French traveler named Vava. She was certainly not what you would call traditionally attractive, but there was something that she had that made her mind-blowingly sexy. Between her curves, her thick French accent, and clear-cut sense of who she was, I was hooked. We struck up conversation by the computer about whether or not I knew where to catch a bus to Galway, which I didn’t. After that, I’m not sure of a word that she said. I was so drawn to her that I found it absolutely impossible to focus, which lead to me spilling half of my bowl of cereal directly into my lap. We both had a chuckle at my total lack of poise, and continued on. I learned that she was a complete wandering soul, who only worked when she needed money to travel, and only traveled to keep herself sane, which is a sentiment, looking back on it all that I can one hundred percent acquiesce myself with. After my pants mostly dried, and our conversation dwindled, a couple of new faces walked into the common area, so I felt it was my duty to introduce myself to them. I heard them speaking, and it wasn’t English, so I went with my first guess.

Me: “Hey, are you two German?”

Both: “Uh, no.”

 

Real smooth, Eric.

Mylene: “We’re Canadian, from Quebec.”

Me: “So, I wasn’t even close. I play this game really well, if you couldn’t tell.”

Mylene: “My name is Mylene, and this is my friend Martine.”

Me: “I’m Eric, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

At that point, Pat had walked down the stairs to join for breakfast, only to find that he had missed it. I walked away from the two girls to greet my travel mate and discuss what it was we were going to do for the day.

So we set off to walk about town for a bit, taking in all of the sights that this grand old city held for us. Our first stop was the Christchurch Cathedral, which was a five-minute walk from our hostel. This massive formation was built around the year 1000 and is still in use to this day, outside of it even stood the original chapel, which couldn’t have been any bigger than the tree houses most kids have these days. Every step I took felt comparable to a slight voyage back into history. Next stop was Dublin Castle, which was built in 988. Pat and I wanted to walk around on the inside, but holy tourist hell would that have been a mistake. American tour groups are the worst thing to ever happen to any vacation. Skipping that, we made our way about the perimeter of the castle, checking out all of the different changes in architectural styles due to time and of course, necessary renovations.

Roughly four hours of walking later, we found ourselves settled back into the common area of our hostel with a four-pack of pounders to each of us. Naturally, the next two people to walk into the room are the French-Canadian girls from this morning. Being the perfect gentleman that I am, I offer them each a beer, to which one accepts, but the other is drinking cider, so she declines. We all start chatting about what we want our trips to be, where we plan on going, and what we plan on seeing. Completely oblivious to my surroundings, our table has become full. To my right is a tall, bespectacled guy named Tony. He’s a professor from Australia. Across the table next to Pat is a couple from California, Shane and Miranda. We’ve effortlessly assembled a crew. Becoming aware of the situation, I propose a plan.

Me: “So, tonight there’s that free BBQ, and then we could do the pub crawl after that. Everyone in?”

 

The group unanimously agreed and we went our separate ways to get ready for whatever the evening held for us.

Meeting back up an hour later, we all made our way to the Temple Bar area to find Darkey Kelly’s pub. Walking in the front door, there’s absolutely no one in the pub except for two bartenders and three men with varying instruments. So we did what came naturally, ordered pints and hoped for the best. A couple of sips in, we realized there was noise coming from the back door. Opening it up, there were heaps of people outside lined up for free food. The seven of us grabbed the only table left, and it was available for a reason. I’ve seen raving lunatics on the streets of Manhattan off of their medication more stable than this thing. Shane and Miranda hopped into what seemed to be a never-ending line. We were all chatting away about wherever home was to each of us, and all of the empty promises that you make to friends that you meet traveling such as; “I can’t wait to visit you!” or “We’ll go do that together!” we even made real plans for the next day. The two retrieving food made it back about twenty minutes later with some of the most pitiful looking food that I have ever seen. This BBQ was free for a reason. The burger was about the size of a charcoal briquette, and the sausage, well you could make your own small joke on that one. There were no condiments either. (Well, there was ketchup, but it wasn’t Heinz, so that doesn’t count.) We made our way back inside where the gentlemen from earlier had started playing, and they were absolutely amazing. The singer had a booming voice, which carried clearly over his guitar and the accordion, singing proper old Irish tunes that had us clapping, dancing, and smiling from ear to ear. As a group, we paired off, some of us with a person we knew, while the mischievous few of us found older ladies in the bar to lock arms with. The notes were played perfectly as his voice carried effortless through the bar, filling every corner with sound. Two songs in, we checked the time to realize that we had missed the first stop of the pub-crawl. At that point the group decided that we should make our own stops for the evening.

Before departure, I decided to hit the head. I walked in and there were two other gentlemen standing ahead of me. While waiting my turn, these two were conversing in French about the upcoming Euro 2012, and how France should make the final. This made me chuckle out loud as I stepped up to the urinal. Then all of a sudden one of them asks in French:

BathroomFrench: “Do you speak French?”

Me: “Yes, a little bit. Your football is in a bad moment. I don’t see silverware in your future.”

BathroomFrench: “Aren’t you on of the Americans from the hostel? You know about football?”

Me: “Yes and yes. But give me a moment, I’m busy.

BathroomFrench: “Ah yes.”

 

And with that, he tapped me on the shoulders almost to congratulate me on speaking French. The two of them continued their conversation waiting for me to be done. I finished up, washed my hands and there they were, staring at me like I was some sort of anomaly. This encounter broke so many of my bathroom/personal space rules.

We all met out front and made our way headfirst into Temple Bar. We waded deeper and deeper through all of the solicitors, tourists, locals and everything in between. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a voucher for a free beer at The Temple Bar. I walked in ahead of the group, and this place was wall to wall packed. Realizing that I was never going to find a bartender let alone get a beer, I turned to Pat and pointed towards the door. On the way out, I tried to hand my voucher to some guy, which I don’t think went over favorably. This man stared at me with a look on his face like he was going to pop my head off of my body like some sort of doll. Exit, stage left.

Making our way through more bodies, more signage, the group decided on Buskers, which is where Pat and I had been the night before. We walked in to people dancing, and having a grand old time. I was with Shane and Miranda getting drinks, as Pat and Tony went out front to smoke. The two girls from Quebec walked around the bar for a bit before meeting back up with the three of us. Almost immediately after getting my beer, a quite haggard old woman grabs me to dance. I’m talking missing teeth, hair completely disheveled, make up painted on as if she threw it in front of an industrial fan and stood in front of it. Obviously this woman attended and graduated from the highest level of life hitting really hard. The horror within me was palpable, and I’m sure the look on my face gave everyone fair notice of how I was feeling at that moment. After a song or two, I gave the others the signal to bail me out, which they heeded and we walked out to the front to get the additional members of our crew. Between Shane and Miranda hysterically laughing at my misfortune and the full on panic attack that I had from this woman touching me, we almost missed Martine pretending to eat the plant right in front of us. The hilarity of the last ten minutes was a perfect way to end the evening, and we couldn’t think of anything else to do, so we headed back to our hostel to turn in for the night.

But since the BBQ was such a let down, I was starving. So I did what I always do when I get back from a night out.Image

The Large Scale Apple

Wednesday: I don’t really care how many times I visit this city, or if I wind up living there, or whatever my future may hold, I will never get sick of looking to my left before crossing into New York and looking at such an amazing skyline. It’s absolutely astonishing, even at midnight on a Wednesday. Loading off of the bus, I cannot help but look straight up into the Manhattan night and take it all in. I have arrived. I hop on a downtown Q train to Union Square to meet up with my buddy Brandon at a bar called O’Hanlon’s on 10th & 1st. As I walk to the front of the bar, a bear hug and a beer greet me. Light conversation is had as Brandon introduces me to a couple of his workmates Manny and Sam. Of course my favorite way to be introduced to people is a round of shots, and tonight, the drink of choice is Jameson. As the bartender is pouring, Brandon and I are talking about my upcoming trip to Europe, which will include a stop in Ireland.

Bartender: “Oh, well you’ll love the Jameson over there! I pretty much live there when I’m not here and what we have here is shite.”

            Me: “Yeah, I’m sure.”

Brandon can feel the judgment in my eyes boring holes through this girl. I look at him, and he cannot help but crack a smile because he knows exactly what I’m thinking. Funny, I didn’t remember ordering my shots with a back of pretentious and pointless second-guessing.

Well, I’ve had all that I can take of this place, and it is roughly 3AM, so it’s about time to head home. We have a six or seven block walk to the subway station, and I didn’t have the forethought to use the restroom before leaving the bar. Halfway through our walk, I cannot hold it any longer and if you were walking by you would have sworn a fire hose had been in use on the side of this building. (Sorry, Duane Reade!)

            Thursday – I wake up in Brandon’s apartment in which he shares with his girlfriend Halley in Prospect Park. I greet the two of them with a 10AM packed bowl before discussing our plans for the day. Brandon and Halley are both phenomenal chefs, so naturally the plan is to seek out some of the finest faire that New York has to offer. The two of them decide to take me to a restaurant in the Momofuku family that Brandon works for called Ma Peche. Upon walking into the restaurant, lit for some type of ambience, but I’m not sure what, Brandon heads down to the kitchen to drop off beer for everyone working. Apparently, that’s how they show appreciation. Personally, I just like dropping a fat tip on someone, but to each his own. We’re guided to our seats and are placed right next to two people, an older man and a younger woman. For the life of us for the first half hour of our meal, we were trying to figure out if she was his daughter or his girlfriend. Or both? Weird things happens in New York.

Our first course arrives, which is a double order of their Oxtail Buns, which were delicately braised and came on bread as soft as clouds. It was one of the most splendid things I’ve eaten to date. Immediately after this is sent out, we’re sent a complimentary second course of Trout Roe with a Coconut Cream, and Foie Gras with toasted Brioche and Malt. This too, was something I could eat over and over again. Much to the chagrin of our neighboring dining partners, we’ve gotten two courses to their one. She calls over the waitress.

            Girl: “Um, excuse me, but we’ve been here longer than they have, AND have gotten more food than we have.”

            Waitress: “I can assure you that all of your food will be coming out in a timely manner.”

            Girl: “But I don’t understand why their food is arriving and ours is not.”

            Waitress: “Let me go check on that for you.”

             Which was actually the most polite blowing off of a person I’ve ever witnessed in service.

The man sat there, stoic, the entire time, only speaking when the girl addressed him in French. Through my limited understanding of the language, I gathered that he was annoyed, but that he understands how restaurants work and that she should calm down.

Upon arrival, our third course of Beef Tartare and Broccoli Salad was immediately consumed, leaving behind no doubt of our fondness of the cuisine. Quickly followed by the Bahn Mi Maison, and the Pork Belly Hero, which were hastily dispatched of as well. Last but not least came our Lamb Ramen, which was accompanied by a complimentary Pork Shank dish that we all were salivating over. I don’t think that lunch could have gone any better.

At this point, I’m full, I’m happy, and I’m ready for whatever else this city has to throw at me. But of course, lunch gets better. As the pair next to us departs, both Brandon and Halley’s eyes are the size of golf balls. Perplexed:

Me: “What?”

            Halley: “We just ate lunch next to Joel Robuchon.”

            Brandon: “Like Chef of the Century, Joel Robuchon.”

            Me: “You’re telling me, that without effort. Not even a tinge of effort, in my first 24 hours in this city that we have pissed off someone very well known and respected?

            Halley: “Pretty much.”

            Me: “Well, this is a fucking great trip already.”

             Upon walking past us, our server Logan has heard what we were talking about and stands next to our table with this creepy grin on his face. In fact, he was just creepy in general. Also, I would retell the conversation we had if I wasn’t so busy being freaked out by this nearly robotic man. The gist of the conversation was that he was name-dropping people that no one gave a shit about, to try to get us to go to restaurants that I would prefer to lick dirt than eat at.

I parted from those two after lunch to meet up with an old friend, Claire, who is now living in the city. I know Claire from Charlotte, and if we could honestly stay in the same city for more than a couple of weeks at a time, we would be (if possible) better friends than we are now. I arrive at a destination selected by her, Taproom No. 307, which certainly lives up to its name. I order the house lager, which I later find out is made by a brewery in Pennsylvania called Lion’s Head. My friends and I used to drink this beer in high school. We felt classy because it came in bottles, but the price tag was a wonderful $10 a case. She arrives after she gets off of work. We immediately begin chatting, drinking and reminiscing. We hung out for a few hours watching the Penguins beat the Rangers, to the dismay of everyone else around us, as I was the lone Pens supporter in a sea of Ranger blue. The thing that kept us (me) there more so than the beer, or the game was our hilarious, foul-mouthed, and incredibly attractive bartender Danielle. I have never heard a girl say “cunt” more often than this girl, and I could not help but be completely enamored with her “I don’t give a shit” attitude. After a few rounds, and the ending of the game, Claire and I ventured further into Manhattan to an Irish pub named Paddy Reilly’s, where they feature live, native Irish music every night of the week. Not to mention that this bar is the only one in the world that strictly serves Guinness on draught. We make friends with a gentleman who sits down next to us, who is from Manchester, UK. He chats us up as we enjoy our pints, going on about subjects from his favorite bars in the world, to us rapping a few bars from the song “It Was Supposed To Be So Easy” by The Streets.

Good to the last drop, we finish our beers, say our parting words, and head our separate ways. The peaceful stumble to the train and the gentle vibrations of the Q back to Brooklyn synced perfectly to the rest of “A Grand Don’t Come for Free”, and as I stepped into the front door of Brandon and Halley’s apartment, I fell immediately asleep as my head met the couch cushions.

How fantastic.

Barcelona, 7pm

IMG_1531Barcelona, 7pm

Around the corner from our temporary residence at the Albareda Youth Hostel, Justin and I found a rather picturesque and quiet park where we could smoke. The view once we climbed to the top of the crumbling stone steps was astonishing. With the port illuminated and water glistening, stoned or not, this was a sight that made me happy that I don’t care about anything but seeing as much as I can with these eyes.

Amsterdam, sunrise.

Amsterdam, sunrise.

First night in Amsterdam, my friend and ex-pat Nikki and her Dutch beau Varen took me and my travel mate Pat in and gave us a place to stay. What they also offered was a wealth of knowledge on how to have a great time in this beautiful city of canals, cobblestone, and bridges. After a full day of sightseeing and exploring, we all felt the need to lay low until we went out that evening. Nikki told us that she’d see us around midnight and to be ready at the latest by one.

Leaving for a night out on the town at 12AM definitely took some getting used to the first couple of nights that we were afforded to go out. It was even stranger for us to be the early birds on the evening. Getting to the Leidseplein and having no idea where I was or what to do with myself was an endless thrill.

I made my way from my friends, to strangers who looked enough like they would want to socialize with me. People all around, grabbing my arms, and hands, pulling me to dance with them, to talk to them. Strangers quickly disappeared and were replaced by friendly faces with names, and stories. Someone from one side tapping me on my shoulder, asking to touch my hair. Inviting me to their circles to go smoke, or partake in any other festivities the evening may have brought our way. I was fucking free.

My friends decided to turn in around 4 that night, and I took it upon myself to get the most out of the night that I could. I stuck around with a mixed group of Spanish and Australian kids as we proceeded to drink, smoke, dance, and laugh our way to 5:30 AM.

As things started to slow down, we began to head our separate ways. The need to exchange information was never pressing, as in situations like this, you meet people that you enjoy and hope that if you were meant to be in that person’s life, you would find a way to cross paths on your travels. Maybe in that same city, maybe across the world at a different time. So, on my own, I made my way back towards Oud-West and the comforts of an air mattress and a blacked out basement in a friend’s house. I only knew a few streets and a few landmarks, so the way that I got there was certain not to be the way I took back. The sun was up, and my eyes were strained by the incoming light, but I found the peace of a silent street lined with bicycles and scooters.

In those ten minutes of tranquility, I couldn’t have been any happier with the decisions that had led me to being in this position.

The Eternal City, 6:46 pm.

The Eternal City, 6:46 pm.

You can get so lost in Rome, very quickly. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as that’s how I stumbled upon this. But getting lost there, in most cases, can turn into a wonderful adventure that takes that average traveler off of their itinerary and allow them to see the real beauty of a city. That’s something a museum or a tour can’t give you.

Home as a Relative Thing.

I remember getting off of the 28X at the airport in January, my friend Justin and I were taking a flight to New York City to stay with his brother and girlfriend for a night before heading off on our 4-week European excursion. I stepped out into the chill of the Pittsburgh winter and before the wind could hit my face and cause tears to fall, I couldn’t help but think; “I’m going to be cold anyway, I might as well do it on the other side of the world.” Fast forward to security and having to rearrange all of those troublesome 1 oz. into a clear plastic bag, and being asked if I was really taking a Primanti’s sandwich with me.

 

Fast forward to take off. Goodbye Heinz Field, goodbye Pittsburgh, hope there’s hockey when I come back. Everything from landing at JFK on the 15th to landing in Berlin on the 17th was an absolute blur. My first foray into the German winter was nothing but grey and white, snow blowing sideways and shadows forming behind each wall of passing flakes. The blustery walk from airport to bus was something out of a movie with hats blowing and tumbling over frost covered sidewalks and the owners comically behind them, arms outstretched with hands grasping, but not quite reaching. The bus was crowded with tourists and locals alike. Those of us that did not call Berlin home were easily identifiable by bulky luggage or sprawling maps or armfuls of postcards and gifts for loved ones back home. Moving through the city and taking notice of buildings and landmarks that for awhile I was certain I would only see on television or in books took me for a bit of a loop. A perpetual smile was beaming from my face and my head was planted firmly in the clouds. Our stopped arrived quickly and we disembarked, luggage and all into a new adventure.

 

Our hostel was at right off of the U-bahn at the Warschauer Strasse stop at 6 Warschauer Platz. I took a couple of context clues from the addresses around me and directed us to the right. We stopped into the first restaurant that we saw and sat down. It was a quaint pasta restaurant run by two brothers, decorated with painted tiles, a fireplace, and a bookshelf of classics. The countertop was littered with amazing old wine bottles from labels synonymous with fantastic French and Spanish wine. The stark contrast of everything in this eatery made the whole experience somewhat laughable, but I would not have wanted any other introduction to Berlin.  Our conversation started in English with small talk of where we were all from, where they informed us that they were of Moroccan descent. I then switched to what French I knew, which led them to asking how I even began speaking French as an American. My response was that I am from Pittsburgh and before I could get the rest of it out, they both gave a hearty laugh before screaming “BLACK AND YELLOW BLACK AND YELLOW SIX RINGS!” to which we could only shake our heads and laugh to ourselves. The conversation continued as they delivered our meals, and we were able to eat it without having to utter a word, as they wanted to impress us with their Steelers knowledge. From the Immaculate Reception, the two most recent super bowls, the two of us were dumbfounded by these two foreigners passion for Pittsburgh. Our meal had a home feel to it, good beer, football talk and people who loved our city as much as we did. Justin asked if they had ever been to which they responded to in the negative. We told them that if they ever had a chance to make it over that they would have a place to stay.  As we stood up to pay the brothers rounded the counter to meet us and shook our hands. They told us that we were home and that there was no charge for our meal. The hometown discount without even being in our hometown.

 

Walking out, I had forgotten where I was after such a warm encounter. Justin and I continued on taking in everything that this neat neighborhood in Berlin had to offer. We walked over a bridge and through an underpass before finding the hostel that we were staying in. Standing on the curb in front of this massive building made us feel validated. Looking to the left was everything that we felt was behind us for the time being. To the right, though it was history, was the Berlin wall and everything we felt was ahead. In addition to all of that, it now seemed that no matter where we went we would find someone to identify with, and that the long reach of the Steel City knew no bounds.

 

I remember stepping off of that curb to take the first real step of our trip, and dropped right into puddle of frosted, semi-frozen water and saying to myself; “I can’t believe I flew halfway across the world to be this cold.”