Friday, November 18, 2005


Last night I embarked on a holy quest...the pursuit of the ultimate burrito. Warm flour tortilla, lime-cilantro infused rice, sweetly sauteed red onions and green peppers softened just so, tender marinated pork salty and bursting with packets of flavor, mild tomato-onion pico de gallo, spicy green tomato salsa slightly smoky yet not overpowering, and creamy Montgomery jack cheese melting gently over the warm pork and peppers all wrapped up. Yes. I'm back. Chipotle's most loyal customer has returned.

We arrived on schedule as expected on Tuesday. The flight seemed to go incredibly fast, which was shocking since the best movie they had in the queue was The Bad News Bears (i.e. total craptacular filth). But, unlike my voyage to the UK in August 2004, this time I had someone next to me that I could talk to, share with, and enjoy. American Airlines is not my preferred choice, but it's not too bad and at least we had one of the extra big rows in the back of the plane. I can't express how fantastic it was to come here with Ms. Colombia at my side. I mean, wow.

Immigration, however, was not so smooth. We got through the first round with no problems. I went to the US side, she went to the foreigner side, but we both got processed quickly. Getting through customs, however, posed greater difficulty. We were not too clever, so Ms. Colombia was holding both our passports. When I got to the customs lady, she wanted to see my passport, and...tada...that implicated Ms. Colombia. She was sent away, back to immigration, I was sent through. Even though I tried to wait for her, that was not possible. The customs people are fairly rude and even when I explained the situation, they still wouldn't let me wait. Instead, I was sent through and had to wait for people to go through so that I could peer through the doors and try to glimpse her. Finally, after about 40 minutes, I saw her. I found out later that she was "profiled" and almost didn't get through. Colombian, traveling with her boyfriend, with two giant suitcases, and with a mother who lives in the US. Add it up and it spells trouble. But, she was honest, they trusted her, and she had her return ticket to Colombia, so she managed to get through. Still, a very stressful and annoying time.

We've been visiting with her mother since we got here and just enjoying our time. Obviously, a burrito was had. And, I'm happy to say that not only was every detail of the moment recorded by camera, Ms. Colombia thoroughly enjoyed her pork tacos (crispy) and is happy to go back. I'm just superbly pleased by this development for many reasons, but primarily for those that are entirely selfish. My biggest fear about being away for so long was that they would change the recipes or somehow diminish in excellence. Not only that, the moment had been so built up over time as I had numerous dreams about the burrito eating process that it seemed almost impossible to top. Thankfully, even my wildest expectations were surpassed. That was without a doubt the best burrito of my life. My sister, who I talked to after the fact, said I sounded "drunk". Perhaps that's the best way to describe the process. I got drunk on burrito...and didn't have a hangover.

Today, we cleaned the house. Ms. Colombia likes things neat and clean and I particularly despise dust (especially out of HVAC vents). Working together, it didn't take too terribly long and we feel good as it was a big help to her Mother. We've also been doing a bit of cooking. Ms. Colombia is a great cooking partner because she's excellent at doing things I'm not fond of like salads and rice. Plus, she made guiso which is a Colombian sauce of tomato and onion that goes on top of rice and is especially tasty and delicious. Tomorrow I'm making quesidillas which I'm quite excited about as I've really improved my recipe and have reached some level of personal satisfaction.

It's quite odd being back in the US, but also totally awesome. Of course, I have to wonder, was it entirely necessary to give Tony Danza his own show while I was away? There's nothing particularly noticeable that's standing out to me right now (aside from the Danza travesty), but I'm also new to this area, so maybe I'll see some things in DC that shock me. Of course, we went grocery shopping yesterday and I was UTTERLY shocked at how low the prices were compared to what I had been paying for vastly inferior quality in the UK. Cilantro, for example, was $0.33 for a huge bunch yesterday while I've been paying close to $3 for a much smaller amount in the UK. Plus, I'm totally looking forward to my first bacon cheeseburger. The US meat is just so much better than UK beef with the added value of possible mad cow infection.

I'll get to see some friends over the weekend that I'm looking toward quite favorably, plus we're going to the Bears game on Sunday, so that will be awesome. Soon, we'll be in DC. After that, we'll have a fairly difficult 3 months apart that I am definitely not looking forward to.

So, in sum, I'm back in the US, with my fiancee, and I've feasted on the best burrito of my life. Yeah, I'd say I feel like a million dollars right now.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Berlin & Paris

Berlin is the complete opposite of Rome. Everything is new, everything is modern, and the city feels empty compared to the narrow, busy warrens that make up Rome. My experience in Berlin was entirely different from my trip to Rome. While in Rome, I saw many great things and quickly realized that there were more things to see than possible, in Berlin, I quickly realized that there simply isn't much to see. The city had been completely redeveloped since the end of the Cold War and most of the remnants of division are gone. In fact, of all the cities I've visited in Europe, Berlin felt the most American. Wide streets, perfectly orderly traffic, new buildings, and polite residents. In that sense, I was vastly disappointed by Berlin. It just lacked the character of Rome, Geneva, or, as I found out later, Paris.

That being said, a few observations:

- It was a colossal mistake to go with Real World. I don't know why I asked her to go. Probably a soft spot in my heart called "hope", but it was basically a trip that finished our friendship (from my perspective). I've said a lot of negative things about her in this space over the past year, but even with those things, we were still friends. But, that's no longer the case. She did nothing out of the usual - she was just herself, but I found myself loathing her. She is the most selfish, dishonest, narcisstic, paranoid, self-absorbed, addictive, and down-right pathetic individual I've ever met in my entire life. But, I take responsibility for that. I invited her, I knew what I was getting into, and I'm not going to whine about it. Finished.

- We stayed with a family of Germans who were SO nice. They fed us, took us to a party with their friends, let us stay there. It was great. That was probably the best part of the trip.

- The Wall is now reduced to four bits of broken wall. Not exciting. In fact, if you didn't know that the bits were there, you would miss them.

- Everything runs on time and works propery in Germany. Say what you will about the Germans, but they know how to make things work right. Trains, buses, everything. Every bit as efficient as I expected.

- Germany would be better in the summer. It was damn cold and I hate that. But, even still, if anyone asked about going to Berlin versus Munich or some other city, I would steer them away from Berlin. It has no soul, no character.

- German is an awful sounding language. I took one year when I was younger and always liked it. But after going from Italy to Germany, well, it just doesn't compare. (Of course, the Italians sound nice but are pushy and rude while the Germans sound utterly horrid but are polite and extremely nice, so in the end, who give a sh*t.)

- Real World speaks German about as good as she speaks English, i.e. Not very well.

Anyway, I got back to London on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I went to a lecture at school on international law. It was interesting, but not entirely new material. Still, I wanted to go since it was my last opportunity to do that sort of thing. After, some of my former classmates told me that my professor ranted about me and my presentation. Apparently, he told them I was the "best student he ever had". And yeah, I got an A on the dissertation. Sweet. So I felt pretty good about all that.

I went to Paris on Thursday and absolutely loved it. The city is incredible. Just amazing how much to see and do. And, much to my surprise, even with very rudimentary French, I was able to survive without experiencing the "rude French waiter". When I got there, I immediately went to Notre Dame. It's cool, but not other-wordly. Of course, no church is other-worldly after St. Peter's. Then, as I had a few hours, I walked the streets and got to know Paris a little bit.

I stayed with Ms. Colombia's cousin and he was awesome. Really nice. He took me around, showed me many places (Arc de Triumph, Champs Elysee, Eiffel Tower, Montmarte, etc) and it was great. I don't have time to go on and on at the moment, but the point was, I loved Paris and I loved getting to know a future relative. I can't say good enough things about both.

Now I'm back in London. Heading to Chicago tomorrow. I'm very excited. And I'm ready to leave London. But not before I go to Nando's one more time. Speaking of which....

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Back in London

I've been traveling the last week which is why there haven't been any posts. But I'm going to try to catch up a bit, now that I have a chance. First the itinerary: Tomorrow, I go to Paris, returning on Saturday. It's a quick trip, but it's all the time I have. We fly to Chicago on Tuesday and then to DC on the 22nd. So, if the posts come sporadically, that's the reason.

I flew to Rome last Monday night. It was Halloween night, so maybe not the best omen, but as I'm not the superstitious type, I carried on. Arrival in Ciampino Airport (Southeast of the city) was smooth and uneventful, however, there is absolutely zero information available about how to get to the city. I knew from my internet research that there is a bus to a train that is cheap, but there was info about which bus or where to catch it at the airport. Instead, there was a sign that said "bus terminal" and pointed to a very narrow bench and overhang in the middle of the parking lot. Following the crowd, I just hopped the first bus that came, got off when the other backpackers got off, and even managed to catch the first train to Termini Station in Central Rome. Chaos is truly the Italian way.

Rome is a what I have crudely termed a "Holy Sh*t!" city. The reason for is that every time you turn around you say "holy shit!" because you see something totally amazing. Seriously, you can basically get whiplash in Rome because there's so much to see. Basically, after one day, I was on full information overload. I did it properly, though, and saw as much as I could including: St. Peter's, the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel (overrated), the Coliseum, Peter in Vicoli, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, Castel Sant Angelo, Villa Borghese, Cript de Cappucini, Fontana di Trevi, Clementine's Basilica, some 4th century crypt that my uncle took me to, the Presidential Palace, and a half dozen other sights that I saw but cannot remember. In short, it was an exhausting time. I walked everywhere, stubbornly refusing to utilize public transportation (and risk pickpocketers), and by the end of the week I was beat down like a Red Headed Stepchild.

A few comments:

I SAW THE POPE. He was in his Popemobile. He looked old and unpopely. Sadly, my pictures of him didn't turn out.

The Coliseum is amazing. To think that something like that could be constructed 2500 years ago and still stand is just inspiring. When walking through it, one wonders if in 2000 years any of the modern day Coliseum's will still be standing. Doubtful.

The Vatican Museum was disappointing because it's not really a museum. A museum tells you the history of things - the good and bad history. The Vatican "museum" does neither. There is a lot of art and maps and things like that, but not much history. I really wanted the dirty version of the history of the Catholic church. Not surprisingly, they aren't exactly talking about the dark years.

Rome is a nuthouse. There seem to be more mopeds and scooters than people. Crossing the street is a matter of daring yourself to jump into oncoming traffic with the faith that they'll stop. In fact, it's an oddly appropriate act - a leap of faith in the city of faith. There's excavations ongoing everywhere. The metro system is extremely limited because every time they dig, they find more stuff that they have to preserve. Yet, there's loads of graffiti, trash, and dirt. It doesn't have the alcohol problem London does, but it has a crime problem that likely exceeds that of London. In short, it's a city of contradiction...i.e. perfectly Italian.

I also met my Uncle there, who, as a priest, has a great feel for the religious side of the city and gave me several tours, filling in fascinating tidbits of information. Plus, he took me to a really nice Italian restaurant that was cheap and utterly fantastic. I can't even begin to describe how totally, fundamentally, incredibly fantastic the Tiramisu was. Tasty, delicious, and succulent.

Still, two themes dominated my time there. First, I was traveling alone. I once wrote (roughly) that I was likely to travel solo again (proved true). But, while solo travel is doable and can be fun, traveling with someone you truly care about and respect is much more enriching and rewarding. When I saw things in Rome that amazed me, those words reverberated in my heart, mind, and soul. What would Ms. Colombia have thought? What would she have said? What would she have wanted to see that was different from me? Don't misunderstand. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. But when I think of how it could have been with Ms. Colombia, well, it pales in comparison. So, in short, I missed her more than I expected for such a relatively short trip and that's a good thing.

Finally, it occurred to me at some point on the 4th day of my stay in Rome, that Rome truly is the birthplace of modern civilization (with Greece laying the foundation for Rome). In that sense, Rome is a city that everyone should see at least once in their life - it's a must see city if there ever was one. But, Rome in its current incarnation is a sad state. The petty crime, the poverty, the graffiti, and the dirty streets all speak to a decaying culture desperate for rebirth, rejuvenation, and failing that, a wet-dry vac. One hopes that in the heart of the Catholic world, the environment would be more suitable.

Sadly, Rome is merely another vast European city with unbreakable ties to the past and a dim and unremarkable future. Much like the British, the legacy of a vast empire permanently departed has stained the culture in ways that will probably never be truly understood. Is this the fate that awaits America? Coming from a country that dominates the globe yet can't control petty crime and can't help those that are most needy, one is left with the impression that America is the modern version of Ancient Rome. The streets are perfectly straight and well paved, the violence of hte coliseum has been replaced with simulation on television, the images and activities that most signify modernity are firmly entrenched in American culture. But, it's an awfully cosmetic picture when millions of Americans live in poverty with no hope of escape, every illegal drug on the market can be had within two blocks of the White House, and homelessness remains the most vivid image of many of the nation's best cities. I love my country, but I fear for its values, its priorities.

Next post: Berlin

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