Friday, June 12, 2009

The United Republic of Texas.

I have a love/hate relationship with blogs. Part of me wants to think of escape cville... as a book - I'll travel, jot down where the stories are as they happen, then immediately post once I get back. But the mind doesn't work that way. I get home, write about a few, then grow tired. I get tired of waxing poetic about whatever trip I've just been on. So I file the rest away in a drawer somewhere and forget.

Inevitably though, something will happen to remind me of a great travel story and I'll think, "Damn, I should've written about that the minute I got BACK! That's a GREAT story, why didn't I write about that? " My linear mind wants to write them all down one by one, right then, pretty little memories all in a row. But my real mind jumps around. I remember certain things, forget others - only to remember again in a flash much later when I'm lying awake at 3am. Or doing laundry. Or listening to the radio. Which I guess is what a blog does, jump around, offer some insight into how a person's mind can work. But I just can't seem to get past the satisfaction of looking at the escape cville... archives and seeing all London entries in January, all Breckenridge entries in February....Sigh. Maybe I should just relax and go with the flow. Hell, I haven't posted here in eons after all.

In any case, something happened today, June 2009, which reminded me of a great travel story that happened last YEAR. I hadn't even THOUGHT about it until today. It took Jay Thomas on his Sirius/XM radio show to remind me of it. It was just one statement, but the minute he said it, my mind reeled, flashing back to a sunny day last June on London's Portobello Road. Jay said, "Chuck Norris wants to become President of the United Republic of Texas!"

And there it was. The United Republic of Texas. That statement sent my head Wayne's World reeling, complete with flapping hands and Doodle-do noises, flashing back to an image of two scruffy, grizzled, elderly gentlemen in dirty suits, one brown, the other gray. They wore brogues on their feet, fedoras atop their heads. Sitting outside a pub on Portobello Road on worn wooden chairs. The table in front of them has been gouged with pocket knife carvings and is covered in pint glass water rings. One is strumming a guitar, the other it is humming and playing drums with the tabletop. Both are drunk, guzzling Guinness like it is water...

Hubby and I had headed out that afternoon to meet friends. Telling them to meet us at the corner pub, we grabbed the only two chairs left on a busy happy hour Tuesday. Two chairs immediately adjacent to said grizzled guys. Humming, strumming, drinking along without a care in the world. Waving to anyone who looks and generally being genial in a "I'm drunk and cannot really harm you," kind of way. Most people would've maybe chosen a seat inside, but I figured, what the hell. We're traveling. Let's make some friends.

So we sit. Offer the gentlemen a Guinness which they gladly accept. Small talk is exchanged. And that's when it happens. The older gentleman of the two, his face covered in gray frazzled beard, his eyes just on the verge of rheumy, but jolly all the same, his teeth yellowing, reaches into his jacket and offers me his card.

A business card. Handmade. Like something a child who was just learning computer software would create. The edges were dirty, like he had fingered its edges many times, offering it to people to look at, but never keep. The words were typed in mismatched fonts, the map below was badly pixelated and some of the words were misspelled. It said, in all caps:


With a colorful map of the Republic underneath. Mr. Grizzled then began a long diatribe about how he came to be a proud citizen of this Republic, and in his American accent (getting slurrier by the minute) talked about what brought him to that stretch of London on that particular afternoon. Or day. Or month. Or year. It kinda didn't matter. Mr. Grizzled Two just sat and strummed his guitar and grinned. Grinned like he'd heard this speech many times before. Too many times to count, so why not just strum the day away. Playing nothing in particular.

I think I may have actually whipped around to make sure that 1) I wasn't dreaming and 2) ol' John Singer wasn't about to come walking around the corner because right then I was sure I had somehow dropped right into a Carson McCullers novel.

But no, Mr. Grizzled was real. And he was passionate about his cause. He talked and talked about why this Republic needed to happen. And why it needed to happen NOW. I wanted to ask if he was so passionate about it, then why was he sitting on a London streetcorner instead of protesting down the Main Street in Dallas, but he kinda wouldn't let me get in a word edgewise. It's as if the card was attached to an invisible string which led to his sternum, and once it was pulled, he would talk until that string rode back up inside him. However many hours that took.

Our friends arrived a while later and so we left these gentlemen. One strummed, and one talked. Even as we stood to leave, Mr. Republic of Texas just smiled, waved, and kept spewing his passion all over Portobello Road. Later on that week we saw them both, one strumming, the other just sipping, this time seated at the front of a different pub on a different street in the same neighborhood. I caught the eye of Mr. Texas and he just smiled. Pointed his index finger at me like it was a gun and with a wink of his eye pulled the trigger. But in a genial way. Like we had shared a secret joke.

So is this travel story accurate? For the most part. But like all travel stories you file away in a drawer for a year, it is probably the victim of embellishment. Maybe forgetting for a while makes it better? Maybe not. Nevertheless, it definitely makes it mine...

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ski Food.

I’ve made a recent rather sad discovery about traveling. When I was younger I used travel and vacation-time as an excuse to eat every bad food on the planet from burgers to nachos to mile-high sundaes. Plying myself with everything I had denied myself back home, and washing it down with an armada of boat drinks. But now, I find I just can’t do it. Not even a little bit. My whole body rebels. It's awful.

I tried to do it in Breckenridge on our trip there last month – loading up on burgers, chili, mashed potatoes. Carbing it up for the snowboard lesson the next day. Hey, doesn’t matter right? You’ll burn off all those calories anyway. But when I tried it, my body freaked out. When into rebellion. Instant carb coma. It was yelling at me things like, "Go a day without fruit? A day without some sort of vegetable? All right - just TRY it, and see what happens. And TRUST me, it won't be pretty."

I carbed it up and tried to tell myself that trail mix with chocolate chips and yogurt covered pretzels mixed in was healthy. And an hour before my snowboard lesson, I got the jitters. The sugar shakes. And it wasn’t just from nerves. My body was going into veggie withdrawal. Lack of fruit convulsions. Or maybe it was veggie withdrawal mixed with altitude sickness. In any case I didn’t feel better until I had some miso with seaweed and sushi that night. Real food with omega 3’s and vitamins. Now instead of going whole hog (sometimes LITERALLY) on vacation, I’m going to have to eat like I do at home. Search out healthy but tasty things while at the same time treating myself ONLY every once in awhile. This REALLY sucks.

Where before I'd use vacation as an excuse to leap from the diet without looking back, particularly in hotspots like Vegas where food and boat drinks are king, now the travel journey has changed. No longer will I have to workout extra because I jumped headlong into a vacation mode - the high-fat abyss. Now I'll have to change the paradigm. Look at why I love to travel so much from a whole different angle. This will be difficult for someone who plans her entire trip around the cuisine of the region she's traveling to. Damn. And pigging out was so much fun too.

Before reaching this epiphany, I *did* do some pigging out at the Breckenridge Brewery. Even though their burger sent me into a high-carb-coma and my guts felt like they were being wrenched out of my body, it wasn't because the food was bad. On the contrary, the burger was OUTSTANDING. Especially when washed down with a yummy Vanilla Porter. I just paid the price afterward.

Oddly enough, I did find some incredibly tasty, healthy options in Breckenridge. Maybe these restaurants are meant for those few non-skiers out there who don't need 5,000-calorie pancake suppers to fuel their trips down the mountain? Nonetheless, they were pretty damn tasty.

That miso and sushi I talked about was wolfed down at Mountain Flying Fish, an unassuming little place upstairs on Main Street near Peak 9. They promote themselves as the "Highest Altitude Sushi Bar in the World!" Not sure about that, but I wolfed down the stuff because I can't remember when I've had better sushi. It was superb. The yellowtail belly nigiri was sublime, the grilled yellowtail cheek was a revelation of crunchy skin and sweet, tender flesh. And yes, it was a yellowtail kind of night. The service was friendly, the miso was tasty, and all that sushi after a carb coma was very very welcome. Afterward we kept talking about how good it was and couldn't stop. In fact, it was SO good we went back to eat two nights later, the snow pounding down all around us - the first heavy snowstorm of our trip. Not sure if it was because we were eating sushi during a snowstorm, which is strange, or if it tasted so yummy after all the carbs, or what. All I know is that it tasted like the freshest, bestest sushi we'd ever had.

After the wonderfullness of the sushi, I was determined the next day to find myself something healthy for lunch. Hubby went skiiing, but I had given up snowboarding by then (and yes, there is definitely a forthcoming travel story there). The snow was still falling heavily as I ventured forth in my ski jacket and big boots. Crunching my way along Main Street, then down the narrow side streets, just wandering and exploring. Taking pictures of the quaint Christmas village that is Breckenridge, and marveling at how rugged and old all the houses looked. Like something out of and old western movie. Happened upon this little house on a corner. The sign said, "Amazing Grace" and so I went in. That's what you do in my world anyway. You see amazing grace you check it out.

Inside I found an adorable little three-room house full of mismatched furniture, not unlike the restaurant slash houses I used to frequent during my college days in The Fan (Richmond, VA). A shiny silver woodstove was roaring in one corner, the glass-encased counter near the kitchen was full of baked goods, and the entire place seemed to invite you in to take off your coat and stay a spell. I did, ordering their spicy tofu salad rapidly, like a man in the desert. I needed veggies! I was starving for sustenance and vitamins. That sushi the night before had only wakened the beast. Now the beast was hungry for greens.

The salad didn't disappoint - a HUGE portion of greens, carrots, peppers, and other yummy vegetables with a spicy tofu salad atop it. The spicy tofu had the consistency of something like tuna salad. It had a great kick of heat which paired nicely with the great crunch of the greens. I swear as I ate more of the stuff I felt my body sighing with relief. Which made me stay a longer while, open my laptop, do some writing, and sip a chai while watching the owner stoke the fire. Watching the snow fall. Listening as the mother and daughter in the corner (other non-skiers?) laughed over a huge book called, "What Does Your Birthday Mean?" It was a perfect afternoon, so perfect I decided to pack up a little of it to take with me. Bought two huge lemon raspberry ginger scones to drink with coffee the following morning. My "once in awhile" treat. They were out of this world good.

So what's the travel story here? Just a little ditty about how a middle age woman had a not-so-pleasant food epiphany while on vacation in Breckenridge, Colorado. How she came to realize that maybe food doesn't have to be the epicenter of the entire trip. Maybe by having to put a little more effort into finding tasty, healthy food (while at the same time leaving room for some delicious banned items) she can have an even more delightful culinary adventure. Weirder things have happened...

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So I went on vacation with Hubby to Colorado last week, and ever since, I've been asking myself where the story is. Where is the story here? What strikes me the most?

Hubby and I stayed in Breckenridge, a quaint little ski town way up in the mountains west of Denver. Don't get me started about Denver. I've never visited, and not sure I'd ever want to go on first glance. Nice airport, but the city itself is so FLAT. From the highway at least, Denver appeared to be a smoggy sprawl-filled industrial complex. High rises in the distance promised something more, some change in the desert-like scenery, but it came across like Charlotte, NC does. Flat, flat, flat, then BAM! High rises. Not aesthetically pleasing.

Breckenridge, on the other hand, is beautiful, albeit in a Swiss-chalet-rugged-Rocky-Mountain-High-meets-tiny-Thomas-Kinkade-Christmas-village kind of way. There's great looking abandoned houses there. I say great looking because they're all rugged and windblown like a derelict, falling-down homestead you'd find out on the prairie in Butch Cassidy or something. Buildings left over from when Breckenridge was a gold mining town. We passed a high school in Idaho Springs (on the way to Breck) and on the football field in huge letters was written, "Idaho Springs Goldiggers!" How awesome is that? Evidently the theme carries. Great beer in Idaho Springs by the way. Stop off at the Tommyknocker Brewery and Pub on your way to Breck and order a porter. You won't regret it.

The town of Breckenridge definitely has a Christmas-ey feel to it. Blue lights on the trees - lights everywhere actually. They looked beautiful against the constant snow falling each day we were there. Tiny flakes of constant light fluffy snow that packed well so you crunched when you walked. And you could walk everywhere as most of the restaurants, coffee shops, and ski gear and "crap" stores were located on Main Street. A crap store is a store you find in any vacation town. They sell souvenirs, tee shirts, ugly art that you love with three hot toddies in you but when you hang it up at home later you think, "CRAP!" You know, CRAP stores?

As I said, the whole town was adorned in tiny Christmas lights. Some shops even had holiday wreaths still on the doors, in February, and one coffee shop had a small Santa by the register. Which is where the story is. Finally. HERE is the travel story I've been searching for.

Every store, every street, every lane, every condo, light post, and sign had their holiday finery on. Christmas lights up. In February. It's like beneath the cheery veneer, Breckenridge is lost in time. As far as they were concerned, it was still December. Are they so lethargic they can't take down their holiday crap? (there's that word again) or are they trying to attract some form of tourist who seeks out stores like The Christmas Mouse, where they celebrate Jesus's birth every single day of the frikkin' year? Is it a ploy to attract business? Desire a magical Christmas ski village for your next vacatin? Why, step right this way!

It might be a ploy, because you see, no one was IN Breckenridge. Breckenridge was dead. Dead as a doornail. No one was there - yet another vacation town hit by the tanked economy. My husband skiied all day while I trolled the main drag, going into coffee shops for a latte, eating lunch (in an adorable little vegan restaurant called Amazing Grace, but more on that later). And everywhere I went, I was the only person in the place. Maybe 10-15 people on the street at the most.

Now you could argue it was because most people were skiing. This is a ski town after all, the weather was pretty good, so why wouldn't you be on the slopes? Except Hubby agreed the town was dead. He'd been here at the same time in previous years when it was positively PACKED with skiers. But this time? The lines at the lifts were non-existent. Trails uncrowded. We'd go to eat somewhere at 8pm and be the only people in the place, the proprietors giving us looks like they wanted to close up. I can't remember the last time I stayed so long in a restaurant I closed it down, but here we were doing it regularly. By going out to eat at 7:30! Very weird.

We would ask these proprietors if they had been hit hard because of the economy and they'd give us a look like they didn't know what we were talking about. Store clerks shrugging their shoulders like we were speaking Latin. I asked the concierge at the hotel if business was slow, and he gave me a look like, "No. We're fine. Just FINE," before saying just as much. But what I saw in his face tells me something else. Everything is clearly NOT fine.

Underneath all the Christmas-ey lights was a quiet desperation. A pleading. See the pretty snow? See the pretty lights? Doesn't it make you happy? Doesn't it make you want to spend money? Lots of money? This vibe of desperation that settled over everything like the constant snow depressed me. Because every day I explored Breckenridge I met so many super-friendly local people, business owners ekeing out a living in this small rugged little mountain town. Cut off from the rest of the world by the craggy Rocky Mountains. Moving here to rake in the dough from the rich Denver-ites and tourists who crave that ski rush. And here they are at the height of season sitting on their hands.

These folks are so genuine too. Really chatty and helpful and generous with their time and their courtesy. Small-town friendliness in a vacation spot? How often do you see that? Hubby and I remarked that we met not one rude person the whole week we were there. Breckenridgers exude a, "We're all in this together, so let's make it work," kind of feeling, despite the desperation of these times. It makes you want them to succeed. To win in this crap economy.

It was the snow and the skiing, and the natural beauty that took us to Breckenridge, but it was the people that will take us back. I just hope when we go, that I don't find my favorite coffee shops have closed. Because that would be a damn shame.

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where i've escaped...

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