Balloons of Joy

Hello Readers!

So, these have been somewhat heavy times for me and maybe for many of us.  However, this is not that kind of blog (if you’re interested in the heavier stuff, follow me on twitter); it’s a blog to share exciting adventures, delicious food and cool pics.  There could not have been a better day for taking and sharing some AMAZING photos from the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta than this morning.  All of these were taken either on my cheap phone or my real camera and I have done nothing to them (not even cropping), so you can share this morning’s beauty as it was.  Have a wonderful day!!!

 

Thought for the Day

This Time the Pandas were ALIVE!

Ciao Readers!

As I promised, this blog post is about the cutest of all creatures – LIVE pandas.  Why the stress on the “aliveness” you may ask…let me explain….

For those of you that have been following this blog (or my adventures) for a while, you might remember an ill-fated trip to the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, where, after much panda-phanelia hoopla we were unceremoniously (well, a little ceremoniously) informed that the panda was dead (and told to have a nice day at the zoo).  You can read about it in my post about Japan (or simply scroll to the bottom where I cut-and-pasted the relevant part).

In any case, unlike my love of Shake Shack burgers, my desire to see a cuddly (live) panda remained unrequited – that is until last weekend.  Steve planned a surprise birthday weekend in San Diego, mostly to see the sea and eat seafood, but where, coincidentally, 3 of the 12 pandas in the U.S. live!  San Diego Zoo, here we come!

So, until this trip I knew nothing about the San Diego Zoo; I could not believe it when I read online that the tickets are $54!!!  For those of you also previously unfamiliar with the zoo, once you’ve been there you get the ticket price (mostly) – this place isn’t a zoo, it’s animal Disney!

In any case, the Universe decided to be generous to me – either for the disappointment I felt at the Ueno Zoo a decade ago, or maybe just for the “ack” year that was 2017 – either way, I got a panda-stravaganza!  After trying to catch glimpses of the mom panda walking back-and-forth in her area (cute, but…), we finally snapped that just a little further down there was much more excitement  to be had – the youngest panda (Xiao Li Wu) was about to eat lunch!  While I know the pictures below probably don’t do it justice, this adorable panda just sat there and ate bamboo and played in bamboo and basically acted as adorable as if he were starring in all the adorable viral panda videos (yes, I am overusing the word “adorable” on purpose).  And just to make it a little more fun was the hysterical (unintentionally) docent, who after making it very clear that she was NOT a volunteer and had been doing her job for 21 years, proceeded to tell us of all the ailments and less pleasant aspects of the pandas (things like the fact that the father panda gets acupuncture for his arthritis on Tuesdays, and how much “food” comes out of pandas).  In such a fancy zoo with such an amazing exhibit you’d expect someone peppy telling you all the great facts about how adorable the pandas are….maybe because that part needs no explaining (or maybe because after 21 years the adorableness eats at your soul), this docent preferred to tell us how the pandas would rip our faces off if we tried to cuddle with them.  In any case, her banter somehow only added to the experience (an appeal to Steve and my respective dark senses of humor), and she seemed unfazed when I motioned for permission to snap a photo of her instead of the panda (below).   (And, oh, yes there was an adorable baby koala and other cute things…..). Enjoy!

 

From May, 2012 post:
Tale of the (Dead) Panda
When we were in Tokyo we decided to venture out to the Ueno zoo since they had a giant panda (Ling Ling) and I had never seen one in person.  The anticipation built as we neared the zoo and encountered all sorts of panda-related items – giant statues, posters, vending carts with stuffed pandas, you name it!  The entrance to the zoo was similarly decorated with panda-phanelia.  When we got into the zoo, there was even a place to take your picture with a stuffed panda.  We excitedly went in the direction of the panda sign, but after at least 15 minutes of searching and walking in circles by cute (but little) pandas, we gave up and went to the information booth.  A women bowed her head and handed Steve a laminated piece of paper that said (in English) something close to “We apologize.  Ling Ling dead.  Please enjoy your day at zoo.”   It turns out that Ling Ling had passed away quite some time ago, but as we had already learned on our trip, refunds are really not heard of in Japan, so we did the best we could to heed the advice on the laminated paper and enjoy our day!  (Here is a picture of me making the Japanese “ja nai” sign [no, can’t, forbidden, not here] in front of the stuffed panda):

 

Five Reasons to Boycott Valentine’s Day

Ciao Readers!
Just in time for Valentine’s Day I thought I’d reblog this past post about boycotting it (most “liked” post I’ve written, hmmm….). And as a tickler for a more warm-and-fuzzy post to come…notice the somewhat (okay, very) grumpy picture of me with the stuffed panda in Japan…it will be pivotal to an upcoming blog (“This Time the Pandas were ALIVE!”). Happy V-Day!

New Mexico to Italy

Ciao Readers!

So, today I go off on a tangent (i.e. mini-rant); one of my only posts not about travel or food. I figure, I have this grand public forum, why not totally abuse it?  If you don’t know this about me, I HATE (yes H-A-T-E) Valentine’s Day and have since I was a teenager.  I honestly think it is the worst, most sadistic/masochistic, commercialised abomination ever.  I hope you’ll agree and join my 3-decades long boycott.  Here’s why…. (in no specific order and somewhat redundant)….

  1. No one ends up satisfied.  Seriously, how many people are out there right now building up their expectations for Valentine’s Day and how many people are fretting about the expectations put on them? What percentage of people on February 15 think “YAY, let’s do that again!” v. “Whew, thank goodness that’s over!” or “Boy, am I disappointed!”?
  2. It makes kids feel bad.  Do…

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River of Lights!!!

Ciao Readers! Happy Festivus!

So, while I have one more Italy blog in me (“Siena’s 500+ year-old Palio: violent horse race or community therapy?”), it’s going to take some research and be a little heady, and after the melancholy note on which I left my last post, I thought I’d share some holiday cheer….

Tonight we went to the River of Lights, a ginormous light display throughout the Albuquerque Botanical Gardens.  The display has over 500 sculptures and millions of bulbs, requiring workers to start setting it up in early October (using over 90,000 zip-ties)! Next to the Balloon Fiesta, I think it’s my most favorite (non-edible) thing about Albuquerque.  So, instead of blather on about it, I’ll share it as best I can (notice one of the quirky new additions, a UFO over the corn field):

 

Choose Your Own Adventure: A. Lovely light-hearted photos; B. It’s been a weird week

Ciao Readers! Happy Thanksgiving Week!

It’s already the end of my trip and I’m still trying to process the past week. In the past I’ve noted that travel blogs are best kept light-hearted with lots of photos, lest you lose your audience. However, this has been a weird week and it deserves some reflection. So, what I’ve decided to do is a two-part blog, starting with the breezy photo anthology; if that’s your interest, by all means, enjoy the scenery and then stop reading. If you’re curious for a little peak into the darker parts of my psyche and the week, read on (or skip down) to the second part….

A. PHOTO ANTHOLOGY

A trip to an olive oil factory in a lovely little town in Chianti:

The Duomo of Siena (originally intended to best rival Florence’s – an unrealized goal):

Lunch in the piazza:

A stroll around Siena:

B. IT’S BEEN A WEIRD WEEK

Okay, this is the part of the blog where we get down to the nitty gritty. I’m actually starting this on the plane ride back, where I scored an hour free wifi. I have no idea how or why, but this flight from Rome to Atlanta is 11.5 hours long!!!

So, some of you may remember me mentioning (and others know first hand), that when you go to language school in Italy there’s always an interesting and diverse group of students, and you always meet folks to go out to lunch, dinner, museums, etc. with – yes? Honestly, on this trip that was more of a draw than the classes themselves – I really needed to get out and about and out of my own head, where I’ve been spending way too much time.  So….you can imagine my surprise and chagrin when I ended up being the ONLY student at school all week. That’s right, not the only student in my class – IN THE ENTIRE SCHOOL!

For those of you who are more serious students than I, the thought of an entire school and a teacher at your disposal may be a dream come true…for me it was just the opposite. Now, not only was I spending too much time in my own head, but I was literally doing it alone in a foreign country to boot! I have been to many Italian schools and there’s never been less than 4-5 people in my class, even during the off-season; I didn’t even know there being zero was a possibility.  If you read my truffle post carefully, notice that I said “we,” but I didn’t say who “we” were – we were me and the owner of the school.  And the lunch in the piazza photos above was solo…. I think you’ve got the picture.

Okay, now lest I come across as completely unappreciative, the school owner and teachers were molto gentile and we did go on a few excursions together (and a former student joined us on one). But it was just strange – it almost felt like paying for people to play with me. Since the excursions seemed to interest the school folks (the owner Mauro is actually contemplating getting a truffle dog), I eventually got over that feeling, but it was indeed a weird week.  For example, while the ride and the town in Chianti were gorgeous, the olive oil factory was modern stainless steel, the workers were cleaning up for the day and we ended up hanging out in their breakroom and eating food Mauro brought (albeit with some nice freshly pressed oil). All the workers were men and in their break room was a semi-naked bikini calendar, which was not at all quaint and frankly made me uncomfortable (especially in light of how woke we’re all supposed to be getting about sexual harassment and the like).  I resisted the urge to take a photo (I try to keep my blog PG, which is also why I’m not including the photo of the dead thing I would pass on my way to school I took to see if Steve or anyone at school could identify what type of animal it was).  Okay, free wifi time is almost over and the turbulence is making me nauseous, will continue this during my 4-hour layover….

Ack, that flight was long and bumpy!  Okay, where were we…. suffice it to say it was not the week I had in mind. Below are some photos from the beautiful but lonely walk to school, ending with a view from the door to the building (it’s supposed to be poignant, humor me). After school/excursions for the day were over I basically did what I’ve been doing at home too much lately – crawling into bed with my iPad.  Now, this is a travel blog and going any deeper would be a bit too much (though it is appropriate fodder for a book) – I’ll end by quoting the astute observation in the tag-line of another travel blog I follow – “No matter how far you run, you still bring yourself along for the ride.”

Truffle Hunting!

Ciao Readers! Happy Monday!

Today (Sunday) I got to do something amazing that I had no idea I was going to do – I went on a real truffle hunt!

So, to back up for a bit, when we lived in Florence we went to a fabulous truffle “sagra” (“sagra” = festival) in San Miniato. It was exactly what you’d picture – tons of booths featuring all types of truffles and truffle-based foods. I went on about it in detail in this blog post.  The event we attended today was called a “mostra” – I didn’t get the difference before hand and expected a festival very similar to the one in San Miniato….

The trip started off well – the rains held off and we drove into the beautiful town of San Giovanni D’Asso:

But once we got into town, I have to admit my heart sank a bit – while the town is gorgeous, look at the small area of booths we encountered:

What I hadn’t understood is that unlike a “sagra,” a “mostra” is an “exhibition” – more about learning than just booth-wandering. I also didn’t know we were signed up to go on a real truffle hunt. I stress the word “real” because there are apparently ones staged just for tourists – the truffles are purposely buried before-hand, so it takes no time for the dog to find it and success is guaranteed. Our hunt was nothing like that – we started with about a 45 minute lecture about the process from a life-long professional truffle hunter (all in Italian; the rest of the participants were Italians, not tourists). We then proceeded to trek through the woods for about an hour, over hills, through mud, you name it.  Then came the real excitement – at the top of a very steep hill, behind a ton of pokey brambles, one of the dogs signaled it had found something!  I didn’t take any pictures climbing the hill because it was all I could do to stay upright and continually untangle myself from the brambles (and I thought breaking a second iPad in a week would be a bit much, even for me), but aside from that part, here’s the adventure (full disclosure, despite the enthusiasm of the white dog, the other dog actually found the truffle – can you pick it out in the hole it/its owner dug once it found it?):

And, of course, I had to pretend to eat the truffle (I hid it and said “delicioso” to the truffle hunter, cheesy I know):

Our truffle hunt and the accompanying (mostly) educational lectures lasted till after 1:30 – we were hungry! Now, lest you worry that I never actually got to eat my beloved truffles, all of the (very packed) restaurants in town were featuring truffle dishes, and we chose ours on the recommendation of the professional truffle hunter.  (In one of his tangents during the hunt he explained how much he hates people taking pictures of their food, but since he wasn’t at lunch, I couldn’t help myself) – Buon Pranzo!

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