June 7, 2014

Slumming the Golden Arches

Golden Arches, Barstow Station

Image credit

This month marks the beginning of student-travel season in Europe, which means that — at any given moment — continental McDonald’s restaurants will be filled with scores of American undergraduates. Quiz these young travelers, and they’ll give you a wide range of reasons for seeking out McDonald’s — the clean restrooms, the air conditioning, the fact that it’s the only place open during festivals or siesta. A few oddballs will even claim they are there for the food.

European onlookers will tell you (with a slight sneer) that these itinerant Yanks are simply seeking the dull, familiar comforts American culture. And this explanation might be devastatingly conclusive were it not for the fact that European McDonalds also happen to be crammed this time of year with travelers from Japan, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Argentina, Korea, Canada, India, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and — yes — neighboring European countries.

Indeed, despite its vaunted reputation as a juggernaut of American culture, McDonald’s has come to function as an ecumenical refuge for travelers of all stripes. This is not because McDonalds creates an American sense of place and culture, but because it creates a smoothly standardized absence of place and culture — a neutral environment that allows travelers to take a time-out from the din of their real surroundings. This phenomenon is roundly international: I’ve witnessed Japanese taking this psychic breather in the McDonalds of Santiago de Chile; Chileans seeking refuge in the McDonalds of Venice; and Italians lolling blissfully in the McDonalds of Tokyo.

Before I traveled overseas, I never knew McDonald’s could serve as a postmodern sanctum, and — save the occasional Taco Bell burrito — I rarely ate fast food. This all changed when I moved to Pusan, South Korea ten years ago to teach English. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of new sights, sounds and smells my first week in-country, I retreated to a McDonald’s near my school, where I was able to stretch a Big Mac Meal into three hours of Zen-like oblivion. The appeal of this environment came not from the telltale icons of franchise culture (which I’d always found annoying), but in the simple opportunity to put the over-stimulation of urban Korea on pause. Once I ended my Pusan stint and started traveling across Asia, I retained this habit of occasionally seeking out McDonalds during times of mental exhaustion.

I’ll readily admit here that, within certain hipster circles of indie travel, announcing that you patronize McDonalds is kind of like confessing that you wet your bed or eat your boogers. For many politically minded travelers, McDonald’s is less an eating establishment than it is a broader symbol of cultural degradation and corporate soulnessness. In fact, fast-food franchises have been the target of so much protectionist, environmentalist, and anarchist ire that firebombing a McDonald’s has become a globally standardized symbol of protest — a McDonaldization of dissent, if you will.

(Interestingly, Marlboros are sold worldwide — and American cigarette brands are just as unhealthy and aggressively marketed as American fast food — but for some reason there is not a similar activist reaction. Perhaps this is because there are no Marlboro outlet stores to firebomb — but I suspect it also has to do with subliminal, adolescent-style favoritism. The Marlboro Man is, after all, a handsome tough-guy, whereas Ronald McDonald is a makeup-and-jumpsuit-wearing dork.)

Political gestures aside, I’d wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald’s has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel. To be sure, the aesthetic enjoyment of the Taj Mahal or the Jardin des Tuileries can often feel compromised when the Golden Arches are just a few blocks away.

Look closely, however, and you’ll discover that (despite their placeless ambience) the McDonalds in far-flung places are culturally discernible from the McDonalds you’ll find in Modesto or Milwaukee. In India, for example, a McDonald’s serves chicken “Maharaja Macs” instead of Big Macs (due to Hindu and Muslim taboos against beef and pork), and a door-greeter is often available to assist the middle-class clientele. Moreover, as any Pulp Fiction fan will note, Paris McDonalds offer the option of ordering a frothy beer with le Big Mac.

At times, an international McDonald’s franchise can serve as a kind of measuring stick for cultural nuance. In China, where familial identity is a core virtue (and where a sexually ambiguous bachelor-clown mascot might seem a little weird), Ronald McDonald is known as Uncle McDonald, and he has a wife, Aunt McDonald. In parts of Bangkok, where the laid-back Thai concept of sanuk (lightheartedness) threatens fast-food efficiency, McDonald’s staff members use James Bond-style digital countdown clocks to ensure the food arrives in a timely manner. In Cairo, I witnessed young, middle-class Muslim couples going on chaperoned first-dates in a McDonald’s; in Tel Aviv, the teenage staff got so flustered when I ordered non-kosher cheese on my Big Mac that they forgot to add the beef patties.

Just as fascinating as these local variations of American fast food are the local food chains that copy the McDonald’s model. In Jeddah, for instance, you can join Saudis for a round of halal chicken-burgers at Al Baik; in Tokyo, you can compare the teriyaki burgers at McDonald’s to those served at the Japanese Lotteria chain; at Jollibee in the Philippines (which has exported its franchises to the United States), you can sample chicken, burgers, or a startlingly sweet variation of spaghetti.

Ideally, of course, fast food should play a decidedly minor role in any international sojourn. Still, it can be interesting to learn how the simplest experiences overseas can affect the way you see things when you come home. I recall how, after returning from my first year in Korea, the understated calm of a Great Plains Christmas left me with a severe case of reverse culture shock.

My solution? I headed over to the west 13th Street McDonald’s in Wichita, where my sense of place melted away the moment I walked through the front door. Indeed, as I ate that Kansas Big Mac Meal, I may have as well have been back in Asia.

Tip sheet: A few pointers regarding travel and fast-food
1) Street food is the true fast food.

Remember that fast food didn’t originate with Ray Kroc: Street vendors, who cook local delicacies right in front of you, mastered the art centuries ago. Any city or region you visit will have plenty of street-food specialties: samosas in Mumbai, roasted sweet-potatoes in Quito, crepes in Paris, kosher-dogs in New York, sheep’s-brain-and-falafel sandwiches in Damascus, mandu dumplings in Seoul. And fresh squeezed juice from a guy pushing a cart always trumps a Super-Sized Coke.

2) Save franchise food as a last resort.

Visiting a McDonald’s to temporarily escape the urban hubbub of Kiev or Curitiba or Kuala Lumpur is perfectly normal — but eating there every day is silly and escapist. Granted, travel can be taxing and disorienting, but overcoming these challenges make a journey invigorating. One visit to a Burger King or KFC per week on the road is plenty; any more is a cross-cultural copout.

3) McDonald’s (and other fast food) is easy to avoid.

Irritated by the fact that you can spot the Golden Arches from the Acropolis, Tiananmen Square, or Copacabana Beach? Not to worry: McDonald’s doesn’t make Greece any less Greek, China any less Chinese, or Brazil any less Brazilian. Just hike a block in any direction, and it will be easy to find authentic local food (and the farther you get from the tourist attractions, the cheaper that food will get).

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on June 5, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, Food and Drink, Travel Health, Vagabonding Advice

March 4, 2014

Anthony Bourdain: On food and travel

5205261313_30aeb4bc1e

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I have a confession to make: I’m falling in love with Anthony Bourdain.

After twelve years without a television to share my life with I discovered his shows when we were wandering in New Zealand. The food. The locations. His sass. I was smitten. Then, I began to read, you know he’s a writer, don’t you? Swoon. He writes about food. He writes about travel. He will awaken your lust for both:

The journey is part of the experience – an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.

— Anthony Bourdain

“I wanted adventures. I wanted to go up the Nung river to the heart of darkness in Cambodia. I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback, sand and dunes in every direction, eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow off my boots in a Mafiya nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy neon-lit pulqueria in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder. I wanted kicks – the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I’d yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I’d found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books. I wanted to see the world – and I wanted the world to be just like the movies”

― Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”

-Anthony Bourdain

“Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.” 

― Anthony Bourdain

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

― Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after,you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and whats happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there- with your eyes open- and lived to see it.”

― Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones

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Category: Food and Drink, Travel Writing

December 25, 2013

Christmas in England: music, food and decoration

In the final entry in my series of posts on the subtle but interesting variations in how European cultures celebrate Christmas, I take a look at one of the finest places to spend the holiday season, England. It’s not just a beautiful country with a joyous approach to the holiday; it’s also the spot where some of the most cherished Christmas traditions originated.

Throughout Europe, the sound of carols spill out from churches great and small, and the youthful choir’s heavenly harmonies are carried to the rafters on the cold air, just as they’ve been every year for centuries. Families cluster together and listen to the joyous sounds as their ancestors did, often in the same place.

But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of England—Wells, Canterbury, Durham, Bath and Salisbury to name just a few—hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight. Outside of the massive churches, colorful Christmas markets buzz with activity.

Once a pagan country with a large Druid population, England is also to thank for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The custom originated with the Druids who would decorate their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.

The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.

As if England didn’t have enough influence on Christmastime rituals, it was also the originator of the “kissing under the mistletoe” tradition. Dating from the medieval period, there was a tradition of hanging a small treetop called a “bough” upside down in one’s home as a blessing upon the occupants. As the years went by this custom lost its popularity, but was resurrected by the Victorians (nineteenth century) as a holiday decoration under which sweethearts would kiss for good luck.

A particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul, because every proper English event involves tea.

Trees, teas, carols, and mistletoe: England is a fine place to enjoy the warmth, food and music of the season. Attend a carol performance at a magnificent old church, decorate the tree, have some pudding and kiss your honey under the mistletoe. It’s the most joyous time of the year and England is a great place to spend it.

 

 

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Category: Europe, Expat Life, Food and Drink, General, Notes from the collective travel mind

December 23, 2013

Tamales and Coffee

I spent some time talking with local residents of Monteverde, asking about the history and traditions associated with their Christmas holiday celebrations. Everyone got so excited that they started talking over one another, but I had a translator, so I think we captured everything they wanted to share with me. Here is some unique insight on Costa Rican traditions, and more specifically, traditions of Monteverde.

Festival de la Luz is a holiday festival held in San Jose every year. The people of Monteverde view the big city as a bit intimidating, especially with young children, so seven years ago, they adapted their own version of Festival de la Luz, naming it Monteverde Brilla, translated as “Monteverde Shines”. On the  first Thursday of December, the community celebrates culture, art, and healthy recreation for the whole family, with a parade made up of bands, floats, and performing groups. They hope every year to teach their children the history of Costa Rica, and form healthy traditions among children, families, and the local community. I heard school bands practicing everywhere I walked last month, as they prepared to play during this festival, and it is something Monte Verde is very proud of.

Costa Ricans have adopted a lot of American traditions, such as giving gifts to children from “Santa Claus,” and singing Christmas carols. But because this area is largely influenced by Quakers, who first settled in Monteverde during the Korean War, there are alternative traditions offered as well. The Monteverde Friends School recently built a new meeting hall where they hosted a beautiful holiday presentation by the children who attend the school. This meeting hall doubles as a place of silent worship. Quakers in the community hold a special yearly service where the whole community gathers, shares food, and trades cookies, after singing traditional carols.

Some Quakers and others in the community keep Jesus’ birth at the forefront of the holiday and teach children that Jesus wasn’t given gifts until days later when the Wise Men brought him Frankincense and myrrh. For this reason, some people do not give gifts to children until a week or two after Christmas.

At the beginning of December, families decorate Christmas trees and put out their nativity scenes. They do not place Jesus in the scene until Christmas Eve at midnight.

Families gather on December 22 and 23 to make tamales, which is a long-lasting tradition for them. During Christmas, they include various types and cuts of meat, rice, and vegetables. Tamales are also popular during Holy Week at the end of April, but meat is traditionally not included. In December, families cook and trade tamales, while drinking Rompope (their version of egg nog WITH alcohol).

At midnight on Christmas Eve, when families introduce baby Jesus into the nativity scene, they each eat a grape (I am told that some families eat a total of only 12 grapes, while others don’t have a particular number), and make a wish for the new year and the new season. They hug, and celebrate good things they are expecting in the coming season.

On Christmas Day, families gather with neighbors and friends, share food, drinks, songs, and gifts. I was told to look forward to eating tamales while drinking fresh coffee with them on Christmas Day. Tamales and coffee? I honestly cannot wait.

monteverde Christmas

A Monteverde family’s nativity scene before Jesus arrives

 

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Category: Central America, Food and Drink

December 19, 2013

Christmas in France–delicious and traditional

One of the great things about Europe is its magnificent Christmases, when the frosty air is infused with a spirit of joy and celebration. From Scotland to Slovakia, a smorgasbord of culture is on display as each country celebrates with its own unique traditions.

This is the second in a series about the Continent’s various subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yuletide differences that make each culture uniquely fun.

Some of France’s yuletide traditions have spilled over to the US, where we associate the word “Noel” with the holiday. In fact Noel is the French word for Christmas, stemming from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news”.

Christmas in Alsace.

Christmas in Alsace.

Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a realm of secular Scrooges: its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any scene in New York City. The shoppers bustle under the glow of the light-strewn Eiffel Tower, radiating light like a beacon against the cold night sky.

In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Soaring abbeys host more elaborate performances of ancient music under their arches. The smell of burning wood emanates from the fireplaces and stoves of old farmhouses in the chiller Normandy and Brittany regions, while the southern areas of the country enjoy the more moderate temperatures afforded by their proximity to the Mediterranean. Epic manger scenes crowd around the courtyards in front of the great cathedrals, uncomfortably close to the commerce-heavy outdoor markets where locals score the freshest chestnuts and tastiest red wine while shivering carolers entertain with the old favorites.

french xmas

In this strongly Catholic country, many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.

And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy).

Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.

Small towns do Christmas right.

Small towns do Christmas right.

After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.

From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than the act of gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.

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Category: Europe, Family Travel, Food and Drink, On The Road, Solo Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life, Youth Travel

November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving overseas: chocolates and rasperry beer in Bruges

Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.

Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.

Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.

My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).

Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.

Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.

Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.

Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.

The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.

I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.

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Category: Europe, Expat Life, Food and Drink, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing

November 28, 2013

How to Find Love Abroad: Test Yourself

“C’mon, try it.”
They floated in a thick, dark sauce. The nails had been cut off, but the rest of each finger stared back at me without eyes from the plastic plate, livid in vinegar. Truncated joints just below the feathers’ line. As I kept staring at my prospective dinner, I wondered how low a man can go to impress a pretty girl.

“So, will you try one?”
Her eyes were inquisitive windows open on her own world. A slot machine of emotions tilted inside of her head, trying to spit out the appropriate row of words to describe me as delusional. When she invited me out to try some of the best street food in Penang, she probably trusted me to be a different, more interesting date.

In Italy, chicken feet are not popular. They are not food. They don’t even appear at the poultry meat section, unless you buy a freshly slaughtered chicken. They get cut and thrown away as trash.
As I approached the soft, darkly simmered meat with chopsticks, my mother’s voice came abruptly in from a lost corner of my memory lane.
“During the War,” she whispered, “your grandmother’s family used to eat them.”
I had to trust her. They couldn’t be so terrible, after all.

picture credit: Flickr/dfinnecy

picture credit: Flickr/dfinnecy

I looked at my companion profile against a backdrop of sizzling pans and rugged Chinese limbs which rotated in and out of steamy pots. Her attention was completely fixed on my next move, keeping the final verdict tightly squeezed behind stretched lips. My idea of a romantic after-dinner stroll at the seaside was suspended between the plastic extension of my right thumb and index fingers, a soy-sogged poultry mutilation, and her candid foreign perfection.
I finally plucked it.

The virgin taste of tender slime melting in my mouth slightly surprised me as I found a bunch of tiny bones between my teeth.
“Spit them out on the table, it is OK,” she instructed me gently, savoring her relief at not having chosen a cultural idiot as a prospective boyfriend. I unleashed an awkward garter belt of unexploded chicken bones against the orange plastic of the table without injuring anyone.

“Good. Not many foreigners agree to try. Was it so bad, after all?”
The delusion had vanished from her face.
Shaking my head, I realized I just had my jackpot: a row of three Sevens, straight from the deep of her heart, started to fill the coin hopper that was standing empty between us until a minute before.

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Category: Asia, Food and Drink, On The Road, Sex and Travel

December 27, 2012

Suffer from food allergies, there’s an app for that

Engineers at UCLA are working on converting an iPhone into a small laboratory. Weighting less than 2 ounces, the iTube attaches to your phone and analyzes a food sample in about 20 minutes using a colorimetric assay test. The user grinds up a small sample of food with hot water and places it in the tube along with an extraction solvent. After several other testing liquids are added; the phone then captures an image of the sample using its built-in camera and a program app optically analyzes the image for allergen particles down to parts per million. It doesn’t just confirm the presence or absence of peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, eggs or gluten; it also tells the amount within the sample.

image courtesy of: UCLA Newsroom

As someone who suffers from severe food allergies; the possibility of such a gadget intrigues me. However I am still skeptical. When in doubt about the specific ingredients of a food, I simply opt not to eat it. True, this practice limits my culinary variety but I figure I can find thrills other ways.

 

How about you? If you suffer from food allergies would you consider the iTube a useful gadget for home or travel use?

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Category: Food and Drink, General, On The Road, Travel Gear, Travel Health, Travel Tech

November 26, 2012

“Secret” spots the hot new travel trend?

Top secret stamp.

Top secret stamp. Photo: Mike Licht / Flickr

You’ve got a favorite restaurant that few people know about. Or it’s a cool location with a view that’s only meant for the locals. It’s fun to have secrets. CNN had this article: The rise of ‘secret tourism.’

The story talks about event organizers who build anticipation and unique experiences by keeping visitors in the dark until the last possible moment. In a way, it harkens back to the pre-Internet ways of travel: where you were never sure what you’d see when you arrived on the other side. Today’s world of the Internet, social networks and information overload can diminish the mystique of going abroad.

If you’re on the inside, exclusivity is fun: it makes you feel cool and in-the-know. For those who think the experiences in the CNN story are too manufactured, here’s a similar piece about underground bars and clubs in Japan: Hidden Tokyo. Now that’s a city I could live in for years and still not find all the awesome venues.

One of my favorite secret spots was a bar/restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan called People Restaurant (a.k.a. Shintori Restaurant). The branch I went to was down a set of stairs between two banks. Only people who knew it was there would find the place. Not a place where pedestrains would stumble across it. There is a big wooden door and no sign. The secret: stick your hand into a stone lantern, then the door will slide open. Inside, is a sleek, fashionable hangout. The drinks come in kooky, weirdly-shaped glasses. The popular item with groups were the “test tube” shots. A bowl of alcohol shots in little glasses that looked like test tubes. People Restaurant was my top spot to take visitors.

Do you have favorite secret spots? Please describe them in the comments.

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Category: Food and Drink, Notes from the collective travel mind

November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving overseas: Belgian beer in Bruges

Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.

Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per Federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.

Bruges is a lovely little time capsule, a prosperous medieval port city that saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The city’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers:  its cathedral, cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals, and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.

My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the galaxy (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).

Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.

Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300, the gorgeous Crusader-financed Basilica of the Holy Blood, and the terrific Gruuthuse Museum housed in the former home of a wealthy medieval merchant. Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and then checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.

Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night. The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of pralines, a hangover, and a few good stories.

I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, Food and Drink, On The Road, Vagabonding Life
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Vagabonding Field Report: The Great Ocean Road
Are you afraid to travel?
William Least Heat-Moon on why we travel
An interview with Freelance Writer Joe Henley
Just go!
When adversity strikes, two things are under your control…
Why change is a beautiful thing and why you should travel right now
Vagabonding Case Study: Paul Farrugia & Karen Sargent
Considering a career break? The time is now: Meet. Plan. Go.
Mike Spencer Bown on the dark side of travel and technology


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