Monday, February 28, 2005

My 15 Minutes of Fame

Well, for those of you who don't know, I was recently featured in a story by the Telegraph, my hometown newspaper. Seems someone who has been following my website and blog for a while wrote to them about me since I'm a local boy. They checked out the website and the blog and decided I would make an interesting story topic. It ran in the Sunday edition on February 27; here's the online edition version:

Read the story here

14 minutes and counting...


Friday, February 25, 2005

Have a Good Weekend

Virginia and I are having some friends over for dinner tonight and I'm leaving early to go pick up the wine and a few other things, so no time to blog today.

However, I wanted to post a quick note. Many people on my base are leaving today for a year in Afghanistan. As I drove around earlier, I could see them saying goodbye to their families and my heart just sank. Many people here read my blog occasionally, and so I just want to wish them luck and my best wishes for a safe deployment and a safe return.

Good luck and Godspeed guys. Thanks for your sacrifice and service to our great nation and please come back safe.


Thursday, February 24, 2005

My Music History, Part IV: The Professional Years

I graduated from college in 1993. In early 1994, I landed my first "professional" job as an advertising account executive at WERZ Radio in the seacoast region of New Hampshire. WERZ is one of the big three stations in that area - one is country, one is classic rock and WERZ is a pop/rock/top-40 kinda deal. Working there meant that I was pretty much around pop music all day, 5 days a week, so that's what I mostly listened to. Unfortunately, this was a very dry musical period for me. I really had no definable path when it came to my musical tastes, I was really just all over the map. Little bit of country, little bit of rock, a lot of pop. I started listening to alot of dance music around this time. What's become known as "booty music" was becoming popular around this time and so I listened to alot of that. Some of my favorites were:

Baby Got Back (Sir Mix-a-Lot)
Rump Shaker (Wreckx'n Effect)
Tootsie Roll (69 Boys)
Come Baby Come (K7)
Whoomp! There It Is (Tag Team)

What can I say? I guess I'm a sucker for a danceable beat (and a nice booty!). Also around this time, there appeared a new radio station in Boston; Jammin' 94.5. They played all kinds of rap, hip hop, R&B and such, and it quickly became my station of choice. Gangsta rap still hadn't hit the big time yet, so most of the stuff I listened to was the more mainstream dance/rap/hip hop type stuff. Here are some example to give you an idea:

This is How We Do It (Montell Jordan)
What a Man (Salt n Peppa)
Here Come the Hotstepper (Ini Kamoze)
Sexual Healing (Max-a-Million)
No Diggity (Black Street)
Killing Me Softly (The Fugees)
Freak Me (Silk)

As far as straight pop tunes go, these were some of the songs I was into:

I'd Do Anything For Love (Meatloaf)
Mr. Jones (Counting Crows)
Runaround (Blues Traveler)
Jealousy (Gin Blossoms)
Only Wanna Be With You (Hootie and the Blowfish)

The alternative explosion was getting underway during this time as well, led by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I never really got into it fully. I did really like Pearl Jam's first album and listened to it quite extensively, but I've never much cared for Nirvana. I don't care much for their music and never really understood what the big fuss was about them.

As I mentioned in the last musical history post, country music around this time was getting to be nothing more than pop drivel, so I spent a lot of time during this period discovering much of the older country music. My brother introduced me to Johnny Cash and he became one of my favorites (still is). I also became a David Allen Coe fan. I guess I just prefer the old time, honky tonk, drown-your-sorrows-in-your-whiskey kind of country. I also developed a deeper appreciation for the King himself during this timeframe. That's right, Elvis. See, I took a road trip out to Las Vegas in 1995 with some friends of mine, and among the many places we stopped at was Graceland. I've always liked Elvis, but going to Graceland made me a much bigger fan and I discovered alot more of his music. My favorite Elvis song? Without a doubt, it's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?". It's such a beautiful song.

The only other musical influence of note that started to take hold during this time was hardcore or gangsta rap. For me, it had it's beginnings with songs such as these:

Nuttin' But a G Thang (Dr. Dre)
What's My Name (Snoop Dogg)
Uptown Anthem (Naughty By Nature)
Gangsta's Paradise (Coolio)

I wouldn't get really into it until later on, but it definitely took hold during this time.

Overall, this was a bad time for me musically. Although I was continuing my pattern of branching out and listening to different stuff, there isn't anything remarkable that defines this period for me. It was mostly the same ole same ole. The funny thing is that there was a lot of great music produced during this time that I got into, but I didn't discover it until the next phase; to read about it, you'll just have to wait for the next installment, which promises to be more interesting.

Stay Tuned for Part V...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Travel Tuesday - Driving in Europe

First of all, yes I know it's Wednesday. Yesterday was just too busy, so I'm writing the travel entry this morning before it gets too hectic. With that said, let's get started...

When people in the US think of driving in Europe, they usually think about one thing - the Autobahn. And when they think about the Autobahn, they think about going very very fast. I'm here to tell you that it's not all it's cracked up to be. First of all, you can indeed go a hell of alot faster on the autobahn than you can on any highway in the US. There are speed limit signs posted, but it's actually what they call a "recommended speed". Which means whether or not you choose to follow it is really up to you. My first experience on the autobahn was in a military HUMVEE which was pretty intimidating. For the most part, the average German doesn't drive too fast on the autobahn, which can sometimes be frustrating for those of us who want to drive like a bat outta hell. The rule in Germany (as in all of Western Europe) is that you're supposed to drive in the right lane and use the left lane for passing only. You're not supposed to cruise in the left lane, but so many people in the right lane hover around 100 - 120 kph (60-70 mph) that the people who want to drive alot faster end up just staying in the left lane. I myself am a stranger to the right lane. As far as road etiquette, there are a few unwritten rules that you're expected to follow. For one thing, you are NEVER supposed to pass anyone in the right lane. I see people do it occasionally, but it's frowned upon considerably. I've had to do it too as sometimes you get some idiot who's inexplicably hanging out in the left lane going slow and refuses to move over so you can pass. So you zip around him on the right - and you always get the dirtiest looks from people. A rule I wish more people on the autobahn would follow is when you see someone rapidly approaching you in your rearview mirror, move over quickly. Many drivers will flash their headlights at you to let you know that they're coming up quickly and you'd better move over ASAP, even though it's considered rude. Overall, the Germans are very safe drivers.
In Italy, we have the autobahn, but it's called the "autostrada". I prefer driving on the autostrada to the autobahn any day of the week. Italian drivers have a reputation as extremely crazy and I can tell you first hand that it's no exaggeration. And it gets worse the further south you go. Naples is the absolute worst and scariest place I've ever driven. There are no discernible lanes. It's basically every man for himself. Although it's against the law, a popular pastime in Italy is to talk on your cell phone while driving at an accelerated rate. If I had to compare the Germans to the Italians, I would put it like this - In Germany, they drive fast. In Italy, they drive fast and crazy. The worst thing about driving on the autostrada is the tolls (it is Italy after all). You grab a ticket when you get on and when you get off, you give it to the toll cashier and pay whatever the fare is. To give you an example, Venice is only about 30K (20miles) on the autostrada and the toll is 3 euros (about 4 bucks). That's alot of Euro for such a short distance. By contrast, driving on the autobahn in Germany is FREE (isn't that the best word in the English language?!). There have been - and continue to be - attempts to institute some kind of toll system there, but the Germans have killed it each time so far. Knowing Germany, I'm sure it'll pass eventually.

So what does it cost to drive in Europe? Well, here are some examples; note that the only apply to highway driving...

In Austria, you have to buy a verkhauf, which is a toll sticker you have to display in your windshield. It costs about 7 euros for a 10 day ticket. You can buy them for longer, but I have no idea how much the price increases.

In Switzerland, you must also buy a toll sticker for your windshield. As I recall, you don't have an option for length of time, you have to buy one that's good for a year. I think it costs the equivalent of about 30 bucks or so.

France is the absolute worst. They also have a toll system, but it's not like Italy where you get a ticket when you get on and pay when you get off. No, France could not do something so simple. Instead, they have several toll booths, sometimes as little as 1 or 2 kilometers apart! If you've ever driven through New Jersey, you'll understand. I hate driving through France for this reason. You pay a toll of maybe 1 euro, drive a few kilometers, stop and pay another 1 euro, then drive 50 kilometers, stop and pay 10 euros, then drive another kilometer, stop and pay 80's maddening. And believe me, it adds up. The French think they're fooling you by making you pay a little at a time, but I'm wise to their tricks...

Portugal's system is similar to Italy (ticket). know, I drove all the way through Spain last summer and I can't seem to remember how their system worked. I do remember it being cheaper than France though. If anyone from Spain reads this, please post a comment and remind me.

Personally, driving around Europe is one of my favorite things. I've made the drive to Germany many many times - you drive right through the Alps and it's indescribable. The European road trip is a thing of beauty.

One last story I will share as a warning. Germany is technically the only country where you can legally drive as fast as you want. A few years ago, I was returning from a trip to Germany. I was approaching Innsbruck doing about 149kph in a 100kph zone and sure enough, I get stopped. I had neglected to buy a verkhauf sticker and had forgotten my Italian drivers license at home (I was in a rental). Here's how the fine broke down:

$100 for speeding.
$200 for not having a verkhauf.
$200 for not having my license.

That's right, FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS total. The policeman looked at my military ID and said (in a Schwarzenegger accent), "Yesterday vas your birs-day?" I replied that yes, yesterday was indeed my birthday and he thinks for a second and says "Vell...I vill not charge you for not having your license. Zis is a - how you say - birs-day present from me to you". Best present I ever got! But I still had to pay 3 hundred bucks. I told him I only had 10 deutschmarks on me and he asked if I had a credit card. I said yes and he whips out the credit card machine from his van and swipes my card right there on the side of the highway.

The lesson learned is to always buy a toll sticker. And in Europe, if you do get pulled over, it's a common thing in many countries to pay it right on the spot. I certainly learned my lesson.

Monday, February 21, 2005

My Music History, Part III: The College Years

My musical tastes took quite a detour during my college years ('89-'93). I started out listening to alot of different stuff. Everything from Frank Sinatra to Iggy Pop. And you could not go to a party without hearing Steve Miller's Greatest Hits and Meatloaf's "Bat Out of Hell" (although the only two songs anybody ever played were "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" and "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad").

Then halfway through my freshman year, I moved into a different dorm room with my friend Jon Mercer and another guy I had recently met and gotten to be friends with - Wayne Boyette. Wayne was a black guy from the inner city who was there on a basketball scholarship. We would end up living together the remaining 4 years and so I was exposed to rap, R&B and hip hop constantly. I ended up listening to quite a bit of hip hop. Many was the time Wayne would come in and say "check out this new one", and I would get hooked. This was a few years before gangsta rap, so it was mostly hip hop. I'm not really sure why I took to it so easily but I think it was mostly the beats and the flow of the music. I listened to a band called the Brand Nubians and liked them alot. I remember Wayne playing the song "OPP" several months before anyone else had even heard of it. I'd have to say the biggest rap/hip hop influence I enjoyed during this time was Public Enemy. They're unabashedly "black power", so I didn't always identify with their lyrics, but their music was fantastic. The song that got me hooked was "Fight the Power", which I first heard in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing". I bought their tape "Fear of a Black Planet" and fell in love with the whole thing. It's still one of my favorites to this day. The energy on that album is fantastic. You just have to get past the "kill Whitey" attitude contained in some of the tracks. Another early rap album I discovered my freshman year of college was the Beastie Boys' "License to Ill". It had come out my senior year of high school, but I didn't discover it until a year later. I listened to this one constantly as well. Who could forget classic songs like "No Sleep til Brooklyn" and "She's Crafty"?!
After completing my freshman year of college, I departed the civilian world for 8 weeks of basic training with the US Army at Ft. Dix, New Jersey. I did this because I had joined the Army Reserves to help pay for college. Those 8 weeks ignited an unlikely musical spark in me; country music. You see, growing up near Boston, I'd never been exposed to it before. It just didn't exist in my area. But anyone who has been in the military knows that there is a large percentage of people from the South. And what do they listen to? Country music of course. We weren't allowed to have radios, but one of the things we would do each night is gather in a room to clean weapons, shine boots, etc, and bullshit to pass the time. Alot of times, someone would start singing a song and most of us would join in if we knew it. I ended up learning alot of country songs I'd never heard, and when I got home, I turned on the tv and lo and behold, my cable system got CMT. CMT was like MTV except that it played all country music. I ended up watching it all the time and heard alot of the songs that we would sing in basic training for the first time. It was such a different sound than I'd ever heard and so I got pretty into it. As you can imagine, I was the only person I knew who liked it, so I got more than a few smart ass comments. Wayne never hassled me about it, although he did like to make fun of a lot of the songs. As it turned out, several of my friends started getting into country music after hearing a few of the songs and seeing a few of the videos (we also got CMT on the college cable system). Eventually most of my best friends from back home who had originally teased me started listening to it as well. By the time I graduated from college, country music was rapidly becoming a fad in New England. Boston even had not one, but TWO country stations founded during this time. Country dance lessons became all the rage. It was during this time that I started losing interest, as most of the country music being made was little more than watered down pop tailor-made for radio play. I listened to alot of country music back then because I liked the honky-tonk sound, the steel guitar, the depressing lyrics. It was fun to go to a country bar in a pair of nut-huggers, hear some "yee-haw" music, drink some longneck bottles and basically act like a redneck for a while. I haven't really listened to much of it in the last 10 years or so, but when I do, it's always older stuff such as Charlie Daniels, George Strait or the Bellamy Brothers.

Although my college years were dominated by rap/hip hop and country (I know, what a mix...), there was a lot of other stuff I listened to. During my sophomore year, U2's long awaited follow up to "Rattle and Hum" came out - "Achtung Baby". I was a poor college student, so I volunteered to give tours during the university's open house, as voluteer's were paid 15 bucks. I took the money and went immediately to the college bookstore to buy it and was not disappointed. To this day, I think it is U2's finest album. Very few agree with me, but I just can't get enough of it. I still listen to it quite a bit.

Another popular music genre during my first couple years was the soft/pop metal sound. I remember the whole dorm listening constantly to such songs as "Heaven" (Warrant), "More Than Words" (Extreme), "Give Me Something to Believe In" (Poison), and "High Enough" (Damn Yankees).

Apart from hip hop and country, these were some of my favorite songs during my college years:

The Power (Snap!)
I Touch Myself (The Divinyls)
Free Fallin' (Tom Petty)
Hippychick (Soho)
Close to You (Maxi Priest)
Twice as Hard (Black Crowes)
Pictures of You (The Cure)
Damn I Wish I was Your Lover (Sophie B. Hawkins)
Joey (Concrete Blond)
I Remember You (Skid Row)
Sadeness, Part I (Enigma)
Everybody, Everybody (Black Box)

The last bit of musical influence of note is sort of strange as well. During my senior year, disco was making a comeback for some reason. I guess it was the whole retro thing. Pretty much every party you went to had '70's classics blasting out of the CD player. It was kind of fun to relive some of that stuff.

I didn't realize it at the time, but after reading this post, I finally got a sense of how strange my college years were musically (and every other way). Hip Hop and country? Quite an eclectic mix. I guess I've never really cared about image, I've just listened to what sounded good to me.

Stay tuned for Part IV...

Friday, February 18, 2005

My Music History, Part II: The High School Years

By the time I reached high school, my metalhead days were softening a bit. I still listened to it, but I realized that high school girls were not really that into the whole heavy metal scene. So I began listening to other stuff such as pop and alot of classic rock. I first discovered classic rock through the radio. The two main stations I listened to were 101.1, WGIR ("Rock 101") and 107.3, WAAF. Rock 101 was mostly classic and hard rock and WAAF was mostly the same but a little bit harder. It was on these two stations that I was exposed to such rock and roll luminaries as Led Zeppelin, The Who, the Stones, Aerosmith, and all the other classic rock icons. Although my musical tastes have changed considerably through the years, my appreciation for classic rock has never wavered. I still love all the classics, but don't listen to them much anymore as they're just waaaaay too overplayed. The problem with classic rock is that they're just not making anymore of it, so you hear the same 100 songs over and over. I mean, how many times can one person listen to "More Than a Feeling" and "Dream On"? Here are some classic rock songs that I taped off the radio and listened to quite a bit:

Baba O' Reilly (The Who)
Freebird (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
Night Moves (Bob Seger)
Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
All Right Now (Free)
Anything by the Doors
Ramblin Man (Allman Brothers)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
Life's Been Good (Joe Walsh)
Black Dog (Led Zeppelin)
Don't Fear the Reaper (Blue Oyster Cult - cowbell and all!)
Honky Tonk Woman (Rolling Stones)
Dust in the Wind (Kansas)

My musical road took another major detour in high school; rap. Somewhere around 1985, I heard Run DMC's "King Of Rock" and was blown away. I didn't exactly start wearing a Kangol and a clock around my neck, but I did start listening to alot of rap. Back in the mid 80's, there was no such thing as "hip hop". It was rap, and there wasn't a whole lot of variety. Sometime in '87 or '88, I heard Elton John's "Your Song". I'd heard it a hundred times before, but it had never sounded so beautiful before. Apparently my musical tastes were evolving yet again; thus, began my Elton John phase. For some reason, I started listening to more and more of his stuff and the more I heard, the more I liked. I'd always avoided him because he was a well renowned pillow biter and when you're a guy in your early teens, that kind of stuff is to be avoided at all costs. I guess as I got older, I was able to separate the music from the man enough to realize that he was an incredible musician who produced some fantastic music. "Goodbye Yellowbrick Road" became my favorite song for a while. And I used to write the words to "Your Song" to just about every girlfriend I had (hey, when you're 16, that kind of stuff is considered romantic). Following the trend, I became a pretty big Billy Joel fan too.

Oddly enough, I also had a very brief Oldies phase during high school. There was an oldies station in Boston (Oldies 103) that my mom used to listen to and I started finding myself singing alot of the songs and even ended up buying a few oldies tapes. There was actually alot of good, innocent music that came out of the 50's and 60's.

The other big musical revelation I had in high school was U2. The Joshua Tree came out my sophomore year and I was addicted to it for quite some time. It was then that I developed a love affair with all things U2. When "Rattle and Hum" came out my senior year, I saw it in the theater, bought the soundtrack, the movie on videotape, a t-shirt, and wore them all out.

My senior year of high school brought yet another new musical phase; classical - and more specifically, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I had a class called "Music Appreciation" where we studied the classical composers. Had I been a bit younger, I probably would have had a closed mind to that stuff. As it was, I took to all of it right away, but none as much as Mozart. His music just floored me. Prior to that, my only exposure to Mozart had been the 1984 classic "Rock Me Amadeus" by Austrian rock star Falco. After watching the film "Amadeus" in class, it quickly became one of my all time favorites, and remains one of my top 5 to this day. I've seen it so many times I can actually recite the lines along with the actors all the way through. My favorite Mozart piece is his Symphony #25, which plays at the beginning credits of the movie. Everyone has heard it, it's one of his most famous, but I still get a jolt everytime I hear it. If you like Mozart, I highly recommend the Amadeus soundtrack. I still love classical music, but Mozart is the only one I still listen to with any regularity.

Stay Tuned for Part III...

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

My Music History, Part I: The Beginning

My taste in music is rooted in the 70's. I was pretty young, but listened to whatever the older folk were listening to. The most popular was of course the Beatles. We would drive around with my dad and he always had a Beatles 8-track playing in the car. I learned all their songs at a young age. My dad also had a tape called "Storytellers" that we listened to all the time. It was one of those K-tel specials that you ordered from TV or something like that. Looking back, there were some classics on that tape. Some of the ones I remember were "Killing Me Softly" (Roberta Flack), "Maggie May" (Rod Stewart), "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (Gordon Lightfoot), "Mr. Bojangles" (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), "One Tin Soldier" (Unknown), "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" (Unknown), and several others. Apart from that, I had an older sister and cousins who were into the whole teen thing so I was exposed to disco, Peter Frampton, "I Will Survive", Blondie, and other 70's mainstays. When we were little, my mother would always watch Solid Gold on Saturday nights, so I spent most of the late 70's/early 80's addicted to all the top 40 songs on the radio. Every Saturday afternoon was reserved for Casey Kasem's Weekly Top 40. I remember loving songs like "Elvira" (Oak Ridge Boys), "The Gambler" (Kenny Rogers), "Don't Stop Believing" (Journey), I bought my first album - yes, ALBUM - around 1980. It was Van Halen's first album. In 1982, my sister became a big Def Leppard fan. Being young and impressionable, I followed along and became a Def Leppard fanatic as well. "Pyromania" became the second album I ever bought and I played it for hours on end. I also became a big fan of 45's and bought several. Some of the ones I can remember buying include "Gloria" (Laura Branigan), "Rosanna" (Toto), "We Got the Beat" (Go-Go's), and many other 80's classics. For a while, my life revolved around "Eye of the Tiger" (Survivor) and "Centerfold" (J. Geils Band). Other songs that were at the top of my list at the time:

Physical (Olivia Newton-John)
Don't You Want Me? (The Human League)
Hurts So Good & Jack and Diane (John Cougar)
Private Eyes (Hall & Oates)
Mickey (Toni Basil)
867-5309 (Tommy Tutone)
Start Me Up (Rolling Stones)
Jeopardy (The Greg Kihn Band)
Electric Avenue (Eddie Grant)

By the time I started junior high around 1984, I had turned into a certifiable metalhead. I spent most of my time worshipping at the altar of AC/DC, Rush and Judas Priest. I had a jacket I used to wear that was covered in those little pins with pictures of the bands on them. I used to draw the band names/logos on all my school books. I waited with anticipation for each new issue of Hit Parade and Circus. I would play air guitar in front of my mirror. In short, all the things a normal 13 year old boy would do in the mid-80's. The albums I listened to most are as follows:

Screaming For Vengeance (Judas Priest)
Defenders of the Faith (Judas Priest)
For Those About to Rock (AC/DC)
Moving Pictures (Rush)
2112 (Rush)
Animalize (Kiss)
Out of the Cellar (RATT)
W.A.S.P. (W.A.S.P.)
Piece Of Mind (Iron Maiden)
Shout at the Devil (Motley Crue)

There were alot more, but those were the ones I remember most. I had several Judas Priest albums and they were the band I worshipped most for a while. My brother was a huge Iron Maiden fanatic. Between the two of us, we had a pretty good colection of heavy metal tapes. Plenty of Ozzy, Deep Purple, Ronnie James Dio, Dokken, and the like. Kinda wish I still had most of them.

Stay Tuned for PART II...

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Travel Tuesday - Brussels, Belgium

I had a golden opportunity to visit Belgium a few years ago. My friend Olga from back home was doing an internship with the EU in Brussels and asked if I wanted to come up and visit. I was stationed in Germany at the time and jumped at the chance. I took two weeks of leave and hopped on a train eagerly anticipating the trip. I'm happy to say that I wasn't disappointed. Most of the people I knew who had been there didn't seem that impressed, but I've learned never to let anyone else sway your opinion of a place. I arrived at the station and went straight the nearest cafe to sample the local cuisine and, of course, beer. Unfortunately, I made the wrong choice with the latter - a Stella Artois. Belgium, for my money, is the best beer country in Europe. But Stella Artois is the Belgian version of Budweiser; a mass produced beer lacking of any real character. But more about that later.
I met up with Olga and we went to her place and got situated. She had to go back to work, so I spent the day walking around exploring on my own. The first place I went turned out to be one of the highlights of Europe for me, the Grand Place. The Grand Place is the main square of the city, and is surrounded on every side by the most ornately structured buildings. You just have to see it for yourself to get the full effect. I sat there in stunned silence just taking in the sight of the place. It was so impressive that I grabbed a seat at one of the outdoor cafes and had a few drinks so I could soak in the ambiance of it. Leaving there, it's a short stroll down to another of Brussel's famous landmarks, the Mannekin Pis. The Mannekin Pis is also known affectionately as the Piss Boy, as it's basically a little statue of a boy peeing. They dress him up in special costumes sometimes and even have a museum displaying some of the costumes he's worn over the years. My favorite is the Elvis one.
There aren't a lot of tourist attractions in Brussels, so that's not why I liked it there so much. For me, it was more the attitude of the city. It's really relaxed, and yet has a big city atmosphere at the same time. The nightlife was fantastic too, but that's to be expected of a city that serves as the headquarters of the European Union. We would normally start out at the Irish Pub (can't remember the name), then after a few hours, end up in one of the many discos in the downtown area. By that time, I'd be nice and liquored up and much more able to enjoy the disco scene. Then, in the wee hours, it would be time to go home, but there's one obligatory stop to make first - the frites house! Yes, the greasy treat that we Americans call french fries are known there simply as frites (which is French for "fries"...funny how that works out), they are an institution in Belgium. They have places called frites houses that serve several different kinds of fries, complete with a variety of sauces and other toppings. It was in Brussels that I got addicted to fries with mayonaise. Yes, just like Vincent Vega describes them in Pulp Fiction, they "drown 'em in that shit!". I thought it sounded disgusting and had no intention of even trying them. However, a British girl that we had hooked with that night talked me into trying them and hot damn, am I glad she did. I've been hooked on them ever since.
Speaking of fries, the national dish of Belgium is supposed to be what they call "les moules et les frites" - mussels and fries. I first had them in a Belgian restaurant in Strasbourg, France, and they're great. Other than that, Belgian food is not on the level of, say Italy. But the beer more than makes up for it. Belgium is my favorite country in the world for beer. Just the thought of a cold Hoegaarden or a malty trappist beer gets my mouth watering. And Brussels is the perfect city for beer drinking, as you can try pretty much any style Belgium has to offer. I drank plenty of Leffe and Duvel, and sampled quite a few krieks, which is a fruit style beer made famous by the Belgians.
Overall, I fell in love with Brussels and have always wanted to go back but haven't yet had an opportunity. After my trip, I even tried to get a transfer there with the Army, but ended up in Italy instead and the rest is history. I'm not sure I would recommend Brussels to a lot of people as most I've talked to hated it. But that's fine, that means it'll be less crowded next time I go...

I've got a couple pictures of the Grand Place and the Mannekin Pis on the Brussels page of the website. Here's the link:



Monday, February 14, 2005

Roses, jewelry and...steaks?

Ah yes, it's Valentine's Day once again. Personally, I think Valentine's Day has become a lot like Christmas - it's roots are noble, but it's become so commercialized that it's nothing like it was originally intended. Personally, I enjoyed it alot more when I was single. Why? Because ladies, if you haven't figured it out yet, I'll tell you a little secret; GUYS HATE SHOPPING. We're not good at it, we don't like to do it, and will do anything at all to avoid it. But, a few times every year on occasions such as Virginia's birthday, our anniversary or Valentine's Day, I have to get in touch with my inner metrosexual and come up with some kind of gift that won't make me look like a complete unromantic ogre. I always take the easy way out and do the dozen roses thing, but luckily for me, Virginia absolutely loves roses so it never gets cliche. This year, I'll probably do jewelry, but there again, I have no idea how to pick out jewelry. The few times I've done it, I came through big time, as it turned out to look great on her, but the law of averages says that eventually I'm gonna crap out. Hopefully it won't be this year.

So this year, I decided to do something a little different than in the past. While having coffee upstairs at the neighbors last week, I asked Giampietro if he and Agnese were doing anything special for Valentine's Day. I figured they're Italian, and they've been married for like 35 years or so, so they must be the experts. Turns out, they're not doing anything. So I said, in my broken Italian, "why don't we do dinner up here? I'll get some big steaks from the commisary on base, and we'll cook them up." They agreed that it was a good idea, and Agnese even offered to make her specialty - risotto con asparagi (risotto with asparagus). The big surprise is that I've arranged for a special bottle of Amarone for the occasion. Amarone, for those who don't know, is a very strong, robust red wine produced in the Valpolicella region outside of Verona. It's one of the most perfect compliments to red meat. However, as it's very expensive, it's not a wine you drink with every meal. Luckily, I have a friend who lives near Verona who hooks me up when I need it. He's selling me a bottle from his private stash for this evening, so it'll be a night to remember. See? Sometimes the best plans are the ones that you didn't plan on.

And that's how we're celebrating Valentine's Day, 2005. How 'bout you?

Friday, February 11, 2005

Apology Alert!

My apologies for not updating the blog much this week, as it's been too busy at work. With the few spare minutes I had today, I finally updated the website with the new pictures of the X Man. If you'd like to see them, here's the link, just look under the red "New!" headline:



Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Travel Tuesday - Amsterdam

This edition of Travel Tuesday is dedicated to what I consider the craziest city I've ever been in; Amsterdam.

Everybody knows all about what it's famous for, the infamous Red Light District. It has alot more to offer but this a blog, not a guidebook, so let's concentrate on that. I first went to Amsterdam in late April of 1999. I was single then and usually stayed at Youth Hostels when I traveled. Not only are they cheap, but they're great places to meet other travelers to hang out (and drink) with. It adds tremendously to the travel experience. So I got a room at one of the hostels in Amsterdam that happened to be right smack dab in the middle of the RLD. It cost 20 guilder (10 bucks) a night and featured a bed and a shower. After checking in, I was eager to take in as much of Amsterdam as I could. I found a great English style pub called the Old Salt that has the perfect location for people watching as it's right on the corner of two busy cross streets. It was a beautiful day and the huge windows were all open, which pretty much made it an open air bar. I sat there for about 3 hours drinking Guinness and just watching the goings-on. I saw guys paying for the ladies in the window. I saw guys picking up...well, let's just say they looked like women, but they weren't. I saw a few good fights. I saw plenty of junkies, and even had a couple people approach me and ask me "what I needed". The choices included such luminaries as hashish, smack, rock, or just plain weed, as well as pretty much any other exotic substance you can think of. I just said I wasn't interested and they left me alone though, so it was never scary or dangerous (I've found that even if you're alone, if you come across like someone who knows what they're doing as opposed to a ignorant tourist, people don't really bother you. Of course, it helps to be a man and to look like you're in pretty good shape. I've been through some of the seediest areas in Europe and never had a problem. I can only speculate that this is why). The RLD in Amsterdam is really not too bad though. By now, it's actually become somewhat of a tourist attraction. I even saw a few tour guides take their groups through and point out some of the strange things there. After a few hours, it gets old, and I took off to explore the city a bit. I went to the Heineken Brewery, but it was closed. I soon discovered that while the RLD is the place for mischief and revelry, the best nightlife is found in the Leidesplein area.
Upon waking up the next morning, I discovered that staying at a youth hostel in the middle of the RLD was not the best idea I've ever had. It was a YMCA style, which means there were about 50 beds in the dorm room I was in. It was hot and very humid. When I woke the next morning, the windows were steamed up, and the room smelled like what can only be described as a combination of alcohol, hash, weed, B/O, and very bad ass. It was so bad that I showered, grabbed my bag and got the hell outta dodge as fast as possible. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was Queen's Day, which is The Netherlands' big holiday. Queen's Day is the best day to go to Amsterdam. Someday in the future, I'll do a separate post on Queen's Day.

The second time I went to Amsterdam was equally as crazy. It was December 30th, 1999. I had made no plans for the millenium celebration (I seldom make plans), and was starting to panic. The world was supposed to end, so where does one go to celebrate the end of the world as we know it? You got it. Amsterdam. I talked a few other guys into grabbing a train with me. We had no reservations and no place to stay, but what the hell? We were young, crazy, and the world was gonna end, so we didn't need a place to sleep. Our plan was to party all night and - assuming the Y2K bug didn't cause the end of civilization - take the first train back to Germany. Unfortunately, 2 million other people had the same idea. We got there fine and quickly got our drink on. Then, much to our chagrin, we discovered that almost all of the bars closed at 11pm so everyone could enjoy the celebration. We made the best of it and walked around for a few more hours, mostly watching an epic brawl that had started among a bunch of Turks in the RLD. Eventually it got extremely cold so we headed to the train station thinking we would just crash there until the first train left in the morning. The city had other ideas; they locked the train station to prevent people from crashing there until the first train left in the morning. We said screw it, we'll crash outside the train station with all the hippies and bicycles (if you've been to Amsterdam, you know what I'm talking about). So I climb up on the window sill, rest my legs on the nearest bike and start to drift off. I get woken up by something moving under my legs. I look down in time to see a junkie squatting under my outstretched legs, his crack pipe blazing away. After a few seconds, he looked up at me and saw me giving him a "are you kidding me?!" look. Must have scared him, because he crawls out, jumps up, and scurries off without a word.

And that's Amsterdam.

Monday, February 07, 2005

City vs. Country

Man, I should be draggin' ass at work today, as I stayed up all night to watch my New England Patriots win their 3rd Superbowl in 4 years. The game comes on at 1230am here, so I had no choice. I'm tired, but it was well worth it. Just wish I could have watched it with my friends from back home...

Anyway, on to today's topic. I sometimes find myself pondering where I would like to live if I had a choice. Would I prefer to live in a city or in the country? It's a hard question to answer. I grew up in Nashua, NH, which is close enough to Boston to be considered somewhat of a suburb (some people even call it Boston North), but far enough away to have it's own identity. I always preferred being far enough away from the city that we didn't have to deal with the "big city problems", but as I'm getting older, I find my view changing quite a bit. It stems mostly from two things:

1. Going to College and getting a College education and

2. Traveling around the world and getting a real world education.

Although I didn't exactly grow up in the sticks - Nashua is a very modern city of around 100,000 - I did certainly spend quite a bit of time in the great outdoors. I used to love going up into the mountains, fishing, canoeing, camping. When I was young, I thought this was what I wanted to live in. But now, I find that I prefer the conveniences of a big city. For instance, I hate going home to Nashua, as I now find it boring, but I absolutely love going to Boston. Not only that, but when I travel, I feel much more comfortable in the bigger cities such as Rome, Berlin, Munich, and Hong Kong. There is just no substitute for getting ANYTHING that you want at any time of the day or night. Plus, the bigger cities have much better food. For me, the big plus is the culture. I need a plethora of bars, pubs, restaurants, and I especially need to be wired. I'm an information junkie, I need access to information at all hours. When I wake up in the morning and don't have a newspaper, I feel cut off from civilization. I can get this in a city. I can't get this in the country.

If I was to pick one place where I could get the best of both worlds, it might be Hong Kong. The city life is legendary, but most people have no idea that Hong Kong has plenty of quiet wilderness that is close nearby. You can take a ferry 20 minutes and be hiking on a secluded mountain on an island somewhere. In fact, if I had the choice, Hong Kong would be the city I would choose to live in for the rest of my life. I just love the energy.

I do still enjoy the outdoors however. I've always been an avid hiker and I do miss tying a fly to the end of my line and getting a rise out of a nice fat rainbow trout. But as I've learned, sometimes you have to sacrifice some things to gain others. That's one thing I love about Europe - everything is here, and it's all relatively close. On any given weekend, I might choose to go to Milan, Venice or Rome, or instead I might opt to take a drive up through the Alps, or into the wine country, or some other place far away from the hustle and bustle.

So which is better? As for me, I'd prefer to live in the city, but at least have the country at my fingertips. Call me greedy, but I want it both ways.

Friday, February 04, 2005


We need to talk about beer.

I know beer. I love beer. I've drank lots of beer. Benjamin Franklin said it best:

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy"

I myself have sampled many different kinds of beer in several different countries, in several different continents. Budweiser claims to be the King of Beers. I'm here to tell you, they are not the King of Beers. The King of all beers of course, is Guinness. A simple pint of Guinness is more than just a beer. There's a great scene in the Irish movie "The Snapper" where, after Colm Meaney's daughter has her baby, he goes across the street to the local pub and orders a pint. When it arrives, he just sits there looking at it, and the look on his face says it all.

Gettin' my pour on

As far as countries, I'm going with Belgium. The only bad Belgian beer I've ever had was Stella Artois, which, ironically, is the only one many people have even heard of. This is because Stella Artois is the Belgian version of Budweiser. One of the locals I was drinking with explained that SA is not viewed as a good beer by the majority of Belgians. As usual, the best selling is not always the best. On a hot day, there is nothing like a cold Hoegaarden with a slice of lemon. Leffe Blond is another excellent Belgian beer. Although they are much maligned, I am very fond of the kreiks and lambics, which are Belgian styles that feature fruit flavors in them. If they're done right, they're delicious.

I've always wanted to spend a couple weeks touring around England sampling the many bitters and ales up there. I've found very few that I don't like. Thank God there are many bars on the continent that cater to British ex-pats where I can get my fix. I've loved every pint of Boddington's Cream Ale I've ever had (It's the cream of Manchester after all...), but sadly, I hear they've been sold, which always affects the taste of a brew.

And what about Heineken? Hmm. Let me just say that when I was in Amsterdam for Queen's Day a few years ago, it was hot, and the Heineken taps were out in full force lining the streets. The taste of a cold Heineken straight off the tap in Amsterdam was truly unforgettable. However, after that experience, I can no longer drink it anywhere else, especially in bottles. It just doesn't taste the same.

Beck's? Don't even get me started on that swill. They are to beer what Boone's Farm is to fine wine.

I've found that an ordinary beer can taste extraordinary in the right circumstances. For example, when we eat Chinese food, I always order a Tsing-tao and it always compliments the food well. Same with Singha beer and Thai food. Next time you're eating Indian food, try a cold Kingfisher with it. You'll see what I mean.

Whenever possible, always try to use a glass when drinking your beer. You should never drink beer out of a bottle if you can help it. Always keep a couple pint glasses in the house, as well as a couple pils glasses and plain old beer mugs. A beer that comes in a can is not your friend. If one should approach you, simply say "no thank you" and send it on its way.

The Germans know their beer. The best beer in Germany is of course found in Bavaria, brewed around Munich, and has no equal in Germany. Some of my favorites are Erdinger Dunkelweizen, SchneiderWeiss & Paulaner.

Enjoying a hefeweizen in Kaiserslautern, 1998

We can't leave out the Czechs, creators of the "real" Budweiser, which is called "Budweiser Budvar". This is a good beer. But try a Pilsner Urquell - the world's first pilsner! - and you will see why the Czech Republic is the top per capita beer drinking country in the world. That's right, even more than Germany.

The French have mastered the grape, but still haven't figured out what to do with yeast and hops, so let's skip them.

Here in Italy, the local beers - namely Peroni, Nastro Azzuro, and Birra Morretti - are nothing special. But being in the North means it's easy to get German brews, so we don't have to live without good beer.

So, to sum up: Beer is a good thing. I'm always happy to share a beer with anyone, so if you're ever in my nape of the woods, look me up and the first round is on me!

Further reading: All About Beer Magazine. I have a subscription and read every issue cover to cover.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

A Sort of Homecoming

Well, I'm back finally. Sorry for the delay - I've been suffering from the worst case of influenza I've ever had. I've missed most of the week, so let's get caught up, shall we? Andiamo...

Virginia and the X Man arrived into Venice on Sunday. I jumped in the new Passat and headed out to the autostrada with a full tank of gas and a book full of CDs for the drive (Venice airport is about 30 minutes away with my driving). There are fewer feelings in this world greater than cruising at over 200kph with the 8 speaker monsoon sound system doing it's thing. I picked them up, and oh how cool it was to see the X Man walk! My little boy is growing up so fast, I feel like I'm missing half of it. We drove back home, stopping at the base to pick up a few groceries. That's when it all unraveled. As I was waiting at the airport, I realized that I was coughing quite a bit. By the time we got home, it was getting worse, so I figured it was my turn to catch the cold that was going around. Would that it were just a cold. The next morning I got ready for work feeling like hell. Got to work and within two hours, had to go home sick. I went right to bed, and Virginia took my temperature which came out to 99.6 F. From there it just got worse. I was unable to even get out of bed for the next two days, with my fever topping out at about 102. For all you Euros, I think that's about 36 celcius. Several times I tried to get out of bed and walk to the kitchen, got dizzy, and had to fall backwards into bed again. It sucked, lemme tell you. Thank God Virginia arrived home when she did, I really don't know what I would have done without her to take care of me. So I didn't eat anything for a couple days, and tried drinking lots of fluids, and finally went back to work yesterday. I probably should have stayed out one more day as it was miserable, but I was starting to fall behind with some important things at work, so I couldn't miss any more time. As it is now, I'm still suffering several ill effects, but I'm much better now. I saw on the news that the Pope is also suffering from the flu - in fact, it has him hospitalized. Apparantly, the recent cold snap we're having in Italy has caused a major flu outbreak. And let's face it, if the Pope isn't immune, none of us are safe.

So I'm trying to get caught up on everything as best I can. Hopefully the insightful, witty posts that you all have grown accustomed to will now be returning to their regular schedule...