Monday, October 31, 2011

Think I'll Take Up Jugger

One afternoon in Berlin, Jake and I enjoyed a filling and delicious brunch with my friend and our host Cate, then went for a walk in the park by her apartment. An airport until 2008, the transformation to park is still underway, so it's mostly just a gigantic field. It's a popular place for kite enthusiasts of all kinds, since it's so windy and there's so much open space. Also, it's apparently the location of a twice-weekly Jugger practice.

This picture not taken by us. I got it from the Internet. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about here.

We came across this group of people who we thought were LARPing. But they didn't have Medieval costumes on, so we thought it might be LARPing practice. But as we watched, we realized this was probably some sort of game with a set of rules. The players had weapons and would attack each other systematically, and each match lasted only a few minutes before they went back to each of the end of the field and did it again. I especially appreciated the constant drum beat. It made whatever was happening seem so much more serious.

After we thought we had it mostly figured out, Cate went and ask the guy beating the drum what it was called. Jugger, an "official" sport for many years they said, inspired by 1989 Australian movie The Blood of Heroes. The goal is to capture the dog skull (not an actual dog skull, but is meant to look like one) and bring it to your stake to score. Weapons include the staff, the "famous" Q-tip, the sword, the shield, and my personal favorite, the chain. The chain has a ball attached to the end of it. The player with the chain gets to whip it around and knock people out. If one of your opponents strikes you within the legal strike zone (essentially anywhere but your head, lower legs, and forearms), you must stay down for five beats of the drum, or eight beats if the chain dude got a strike on you.

Get a little bit of a better idea, complete with a Creed soundtrack:

As I said, the people we saw playing weren't wearing costumes, just normal athletic gear. Also, hot girls were playing, which kind of boggled us. Aren't hot girls supposed to play tennis and volleyball? But no, this one hot girl would always challenge the chain guy, and 9 times out of 10, she would bite it hard, face-first. It's very hard to battle the chain, we learned. If she can do it, maybe I can too. I don't know if there are any Jugger teams in Chicago.

Anyway, my whole point in writing about this, was that we didn't exactly go to Berlin to discover Jugger. But that's what happened, and I think all of us preferred spending that time watching the Jugger match and then subsequent YouTube videos than we would have visiting a museum or church. Just one of those true clichés of travel, I guess: the things you accidentally stumble across can make for some of the best memories.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bike Crash

One of my greatest fears is getting in a bike accident. I always imagine it'll be me vs. car, but yesterday, my first major bike collision, it was me vs. pedestrian. It was awful.

I was working another race, this time leading a half-marathon on my bike. My job was to help clear the course and make sure the people racing had a path. They were mostly running on the Lake Shore path, which is a pretty crowded running and biking path as is. There were a lot of runners not participating in the race.

I tried to get out of the way of a runner coming towards me. He tried to get out of my way. We both moved to the same direction and collided. I don't know how I fell, but we all fell, me, him, and my bike.

When I hit the ground, I didn't feel anything, but just saw this guy just laying there. Not moving. I somehow managed to untangle myself from my bike and didn't even see if he was okay. My first instinct was to get him help, so I immediately called the race's medical team on my walkie talkie, and they were soon on their way. Meanwhile a few other bystanders had stopped to help and called 911 and were talking to the guy to keep him awake. I acted calm. But I wasn't feeling calm. The guy obviously hit his head. Blood had started to seep out from behind his head. He was talking, but he was too calm in my opinion. If it were me on the ground, I would have been talking more, asking more questions. He seemed confused and made no effort to move. And he was older. Obviously fit, because he had been running, but still. In his '60s.

It wasn't long before the medical team had arrived, and an ambulance and fire truck shortly after. He was obviously in good hands, and he was talking, though a bit lucid. His name was Ed, he was 65, and had no medical conditions, but he took one medication, though he didn't seem to remember what for. Everyone was super calm, and it all felt very a routine. I'm sure the medics see stuff like this all the time, and all they did was bandage his head and ask him a few questions before carting him off to the ambulance. In retrospect, that was a very good sign; no neck brace, no scary equipment. But as I stood by as they worked, all I could think about was that I was responsible for this guy on the ground with a head injury and blood all over.

Plus, there was a race going on. Hundreds of runners were passing by, clearly horrified by the scene. When the ambulance was ready to take him to the hospital, they had to reroute the race and send the runners onto the beach so they could back the ambulance out on the path. There was a puddle of blood left on the ground, but the medis decided to leave it because didn't want to wash blood onto the path of all the runners.

No one would take my name or let me file any reports or sign anything. I asked every single medic and firefighter present. No, they told me, it was fine. Everything would be fine, they said. Instead everyone was asking me if I was okay. I didn't understand why that would be an issue, and it took me a few minutes to realize that I could very well be injured too. But I wasn't, aside from a few bumps and scratches.

It wasn't fair that I, the younger person involved, the one with the vehicle, was walking away from this. Everyone kept telling me that it was no one's fault, even the people who had witnessed the collision said so. But I felt responsible. I should have been more careful. He was defenseless against a bike. I felt like I could have done a better job to avoid it.

The ambulance took him away and I just stood there. One of the medics made me feel a lot better. She told me these collisions happen all the time, which I know, they do. The Lake Shore path is always crowded. That didn't make me feel better about being a part of one. But, she said, he would probably just need a few stitches and go home fine. That a concussion is not the worst thing to happen to someone.

I considered following the ambulance to the hospital, but I was working and would have to notify my manager, who was out on the course somewhere. He didn't even know what had happened. Plus I had one of the race's walkie talkies, so I would have to drop that off somewhere. By the time I got to the hospital, it was unlikely they'd let me see Ed, because I didn't even know the guy. I didn't his last name either, so I wasn't sure how I would even find him. I decided the best thing to do was to let the hospital take care of him, that there wasn't really anything I could do by going there to see him.

Really, there was nothing to do but get back to work.

I still feel awful. I'm confident that Ed's okay based on the information the medics gave me, but I still have the image of him on the ground in my head. And I still feel like the whole thing was my fault. It's not a good feeling to have. I wish I had walked away with more than a few bruises and bumps. It's not fair that I got off so easy.

I hope Ed has insurance, and that they were able to contact his family so they could come be with him at the hospital. He didnt have a phone and it didn't look like any identification. Since he was talking and conscious, I'm sure he was able to tell the doctors who to call. And I also feel guilty for not being the first next to him talking to him seeing if he was okay when it first happened. I know I did the right thing; I had the walkie talkie and access to the medical team, so letting other people tend to him while I called for help was the right thing to do.

I wish I could tell him I'm sorry.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Paris Syndrome

According to Wikipedia, Paris Syndrome "is a transient psychological disorder encountered by some people, in most cases from Japan, visiting or vacationing in Paris, France." This Atlantic article descibed it better:
And though it may sound like a disease unique to freshman girls with Le Chat Noir posters everywhere, it is a serious disorder that causes tourists, especially Japanese tourists, many problems on their trip through the City of Light. And what is Paris Syndrome, exactly? Simply put, it's a collection of physical and psychological symptoms experienced by first-time visitors realizing that Paris isn't, in fact, what they thought it would be.
I am not a first-time visitor to Paris. My passport is filthy with France stamps. My first time was on a trip funded by my grandpa when I was 19, when I spoke not a word of French, and this is my fourth time back. I love Paris and my whole being ached when I decided that the best decision for me was to leave. Such a beautiful city with so much rich culture and such a beautiful language that I could never grow tired of hearing or speaking!

I live in Chicago now, but. I repeat. I still love Paris and France, obviously, or I wouldn't have entered this competition and worked so hard to win. Just so you understand that.


People need to stop making such a big deal about Paris.

I mean, there's this Paris Syndrome thing, which is laughable, but apparently a real condition. Because people think Paris is this whimsical place, just like a Coco Chanel commercial. When really, there's dog poo everywhere and pretty much every metro station smells like old urine (with the exception of Line 14, which smells like sulfur). It's grey and rainy a lot, and the black/grey sidewalks make it seem even more dreary. The sidewalks are narrow as are the metro cars, so you always feel like the crowds are closing in on you. Rent's high, so most people live in small apartments. When you spend a considerable amount of time in Paris, these things come together and can make for a blue day or two.

There are amazing things about Paris. While I don't think any city in the world has anything on the Chicago skyline, Paris, the City of Lights, is very beautiful at all hours of the day and especially at night. I have met great people there. The food's yummy, the wine's cheap, the cheese is plentiful. The pace of life is slower than here.

What am I trying to say?

Maybe I'm just frustrated that people see Paris as a postcard and not as a real place where people live and work. It's not like Parisians are frolicking under the Eiffel Tower on their bicyclettes every day. It has this feeling of romance, but just as many people are in love in other cities in the world. A city is a city is a city. If you remind yourself of that before you go to Paris, maybe you will not be shocked to realize there are not mimes and accordian players on every corner. If you have the opportunity to go, do it, go. It is a city unlike any other and even if you only owned a disposable camera, your pictures would still turn out great because the city is so photogenic.

But keep your expectations realistic and watch your step because there's plenty of dog poo waiting to be stepped in.

How was Paris?

How was Paris? It was great! Of course it was great! A lot of people think I won this trip by chance, but that's hardly the case. Part of my success was tact, but most of it was asking every single person I had ever met via phone, text, email, or Facebook to vote for me. And the other part of it was having friends and family rallying behind me and spreading the word, because they wanted me to win. Everyone knows I freaking love this city and this country. I would have made it this year anyway, I just would have been thousands of dollars poorer. Of course Paris was great because I could just wander down the streets and be happy. But my vision of Paris is very different than most.

I had mixed emotions there. Sometimes I remembered how lonely and sad I was when I first arrived. In recent months, I've forgotten about all the things I did alone while I was there. I would go to events, bars, and museums alone all the time, half hoping to make a new friend. Jake and I spent a lot of time in the area where the Centre Pompidou is, one of our favorite places, a modern art museum. But that area has bad memories, because I lived there with some pretty awful people who were passive aggressive and mean and ultimately kicked me out. It was the for the best.

It was for the best because it led me to my next apartment, where I met the most amazing roommate who welcomed me into her circle of friends. These are the happy memories I have of Paris, and the ones that made it so hard to leave. Not only these friends, but also the families I worked for babysitting and tutoring. When people ask "How was Paris?" these are the people that made it great. By the time Jake and I left Paris for Berlin, I was exhausted by the many dinners and appointments with all these people. But I was glad for them all.

These were great times and I am so happy that I could go back to Paris and spend time with these people. Although they are far away, they are all very important people in my life. It was nice to see everyone and catch up, and it was nice to remember why this city is so amazing. We have the stereotype that French people are rude and hate Americans, and some of them do, yes. But not these people. They helped make Paris feel like home for me, and I really think I needed those lonely months to appreciate that more.

Paris was wonderful, because I was able to see these friends and that will help me continue to maintain these friendships. I stay in touch with these people via email and Facebook, but dining and drinking with them is much better. When I go back — I will, because I cannot stay away, even if I don't live there — I hope to again visit my favorite Thai restaurant along the Canal St. Martin, to see what the kids I used to babysit are up to, and to drink delicious inexpensive wine in the company of friends. I'll see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and all that good stuff, too. You gotta! But Paris means more to me than that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Paris: Day 1

Our flight to Paris was pretty okay. Air France is a classy airline, with complimentary wine, yummy food, and a large selection of in-flight entertainment. So we watched some movies and did our best to sleep. That didn't go so well. Someone brought a robot baby programmed to cry the whole flight. I slept more than Jake, but he needed more. He had only slept a few hours the night before because he woke up early to get the iPhone4S. We got to Paris pretty exhausted, but I had deliberately planned a busy day to get us adapted to Paris time as quickly as possible.

My friend Pierre met us at the airport. When I was a teacher in a couple primary schools here, most of the teachers were cold and rude. I didn't have an amazing time teaching because a) I didn't know what I was doing and b) no one was very helpful and I felt unwelcome. But Pierre was the opposite, and I had a great time with his class doing all the fun activities I had planned. Other classes didn't get as much fun because their teachers thought my lesson plans were stupid. If a teacher was standing in the back of the classroom rolling her eyes because I wanted to — God forbid — sing a song in English, the class would sense the negative energy and feed off it. Pierre embraced my energy and dedication to make learning fun, even though I was young and inexperienced, and he worked with me instead of against me. So I stayed in touch with him and was happy to have a chance to spend time with him in Paris.

He helped us navigate the RER and Metro to our hotel, where we dropped our bags in our room, changed clothes, and immediately headed out to see some cool Paris stuff. We started with the Catacombs. Back in the 1800s, people in Paris were getting sick, and they blamed the cemeteries. So, they cleaned the cemeteries out and brought millions of bones to these underground quarries to contain the diseased dead. The Catacombs contain the bones of six million Parisians, which are neatly stacked for a mile or two. It's pretty creepy, but also cool. It's weird, you see the first portion of the visit, with femurs and fibulas stacked on either side of you with skulls placed on top, and it's very strange and morbid. But then you continue along the visit and see the same thing over and over, and you begin to become desensitized to it. You know these are real bones, but they kinda seem like they could be fake ones too. Pierre commented that these people probably never got that close to another human being when they were alive, but once they were dead the concept of personal space ceased to exist. Now their bones are all mixed up with other folks' bones.

After the Catacombs, we grabbed lunch at Exki, which was an inexpensive soup and sandwich place with all organic and natural foods. The atmosphere was cool; it was minimalistic and contemporary, with bamboo and plants. It was pretty yummy, and it was nice to eat some good, healthy food. The chicken and rice Air France served us was great for airplane food, but, it was airplane food.

Then, it was off to the Louvre. I was feeling pretty spent at this point, and almost wanted to skip it, but we had free tickets and Pierre had a whole folder with him with stuff about the paintings he wanted to show us. Also, it's the Louvre. Pierre is really knowledgeable about art, and had told me in advance that he would prepare a visit, but it would be best to only see one section. The Louvre is ginormous, and if you try to see it all, you won't remember anything. We saw some of the best hits (Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, some old thing of a lady smirking that some da Vinci guy painted), as well as the Italian painting wing. It was really great to have some context for what was going on in the paintings and what significance they served. Pierre doesn't speak English and Jake doesn't speak French, so I translated. I was worried it'd be difficult, but it really wasn't bad.

We would have loved to stay at the Louvre longer, but by this time it was 5 p.m., or midnight for us. I wanted to meet friends for dinner, so we had to say goodbye to Pierre and get some sleep. I slept about an hour, left Jake so he could sleep longer, and made it to Mme Shawn only 30 minutes late, which is just on time for Paris. Mme Shawn is this Thai restaurant I really like, and I had eaten there a couple times with the group of Parisians I was lucky enough to call friends. I met them through my roommate, Ina. They were really her group of friends and she shared them with me. They kinda took me under their wing and let me hang out with them and stumble through my French even though most of them speak great English. I have them to thank for a lot of slang I know. I also have them to thank for not being totally miserable and lonely my whole time in Paris.

I really like the neighborhood where the restaurant was located. Mme Shawn is on the Canal St. Martin. It's not close to the Eiffel Tower or any of the main sites, so it's more residential. The canal is a nice place to walk or have a picnic or play pétanque, the French version of Bocci ball. I also spent a lot of time running along the canal when I was training for a marathon. I was happy that my friends had picked this restaurant, because I wanted Jake to see the neighborhood.

After dinner, Jake met up with us and we went to a little bar that struck us as very French, just because it was small and rusticish with oldish decor. The bartender was kinda a d-bag, but that's okay. It didn't really bother us. Customer service is not at all a thing here in France, and it cracks me up. A lot of Americans get really angry if they have bad service, but hey, that's just how it is. For example, we ordered two pints and he kept suggesting that I order the half-sized glasses instead. Weird, right? Wouldn't he want to make more money? Also, I ordered a pint glass, so could you please give me what I ordered? He said he was out of big glasses, so I gave him the glass from my previous beer, he magically found another (even though he was out), and we got our 2 pints.

We stayed until close, and he gave us plastic cups to take the rest of our beer with us. I poured my beer into the plastic one and Jake pounded his. In America, you can't drink outside of restaurants or bars, so he didn't know that we could take our beers with us. We said goodbye to our friends, tried to find a taxi back to our hotel, failed, but then randomly ran into a couple we had met earlier in the night that was friends with one of my friends, and took a night bus with them instead. That was pretty lucky, because I'm not sure we would have found a cab, and I'm terrible at navigating bus maps and routes. Jake commented that this bus was the most attractive bus he had ever been on. I don't think Parisians are necessarily more attractive than us Americans, but they just put more time into their clothes, makeup, and accessories, so they look more attractive.

So that was our first day in Paris. I am exhausted thinking about it and now I don't have the energy to recap day 2.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Marathon Fever

I'll occasionally work behind the scenes at a race to make a little but of extra cash. I wouldn't do it for free, but I also enjoy the adrenaline that comes with these races. I ran all through high school, and although I don't run races as much as I used to, I still get excited when other people do them.

This past weekend I worked with the elite fluids for the Chicago Marathon. All the elite athletes mix their Gatorades and electrolyte drinks the day before and bring them to us to set out every few miles on the course. It was easy work, and also interesting to see a little bit of how much goes into organizing a race with 40,000 runners. Of course the elite fluids had to be on the course before the everyone started running, so our work day was done by the race start at 7:30 a.m. Then we had front-row seats to watch the marathon start.

There are so many runners in this race that it take about 30 minutes for all of them to cross the start. That's a whole lotta adrenaline and excitement, and I decided that I absolutely had no choice but to run the marathon next year.

I've done three marathons since I was 18, roughly one every two or three years. My last one was in 2009. Every time I run one, I tell myself I'm never going to do it again. And then I do. It doesn't make sense, but it does. I don't feel like explaining it.

I always tell people that running the marathon is the easy part. Once you get to the starting line, you've already (or should have) done the hard work in training for the race. The race isn't easy, but it's easier than the 4 months you've spent training for it. Anyway, I won't bore y'all with marathon talk. It's a weird weird cult. But just know. I'm doing it.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

On Steve Jobs

I haven't written about Steve Jobs yet mostly because I felt like I didn't have anything worthwhile to say that hadn't already been said. As soon as the news of his death reached the Internet, every article ever written about him was shared. When I saw one of the pictures of an Apple store window plastered with Post-it notes, I started getting a lump in my throat. When I visited the Michigan Avenue store myself, I felt that lump creeping up. Seeing all these multicolored notes thanking Steve Jobs in so many different languages really got to me. On my bike ride home, I started crying.

I've never lived in the same lifetime as an inventor who has so heavily influenced my daily life. I have an Apple product in my hands about 12 hours a day. I wake up early to my iPhone alarm clock, flip open my MacBook Pro to write a little, then head to work where I'll spend the whole day writing on another Mac, then stop at the grocery store on my way home and check a recipe on my iPhone, and switch back to my Mac personal computer when I'm home to do more work. Other products that factor heavily into my day-to-day life — bikes, forks, ballpoint pens — are ones that were around way before I was. I never saw these inventions evolve and so was never able to imagine a world in which those things didn't exist.

Many of us who love Apple products feel personal about our relationship with the brand, that we independently discovered our first Apple computer, and it significantly changed everything in our lives that happened after that point. My dad had this crazy smart ahead-of-his-time friend who influenced him into purchasing only Apple and nothing else, so I was lucky to receive my own personal desktop Mac at age nine or ten in the early '90s. This was around the age when I started to realize how much I liked writing. My favorite computer games were writing-based ones. I wrote a lot of really really dumb stories on a program called Imagination Express, and I was always playing Oregon Trail. You know how Oregon Trail kept a journal of your journey with entries detailing who died of cholera that day or exactly what was lost to the current when your wagon capsized in the river crossing? I actually went added my own made-up stories to those journals.

I could type faster than I could write by hand, so all of my silly little-kid stories were written on a Mac. I typed and I typed and I typed. I typed so much the keyboard had to be replaced. During Steve Jobs' Stanford speech, he talks about how his interest in the art of calligraphy influenced the clean type of the first Mac, and influenced the clean type of every computer that came after that, since Microsoft just copied everything he did. The type was so well-designed that it didn't feel designed, and for me, a kid stumbling through writing an extremely underwhelming story, it was perfect; everything was very simply and cleanly about the words I was writing and nothing else.

I am sure I would have pursued writing regardless, because I loved it so. But I had a platform that made it easy for me to get my words out, and I didn't want to stop. The Mac was so intuitive that I was able to fully become engrossed in this writing thing without thinking about anything else. And that's what I still love to do today, and, I still do it on a Mac.

This is my personal story with Apple and what Steve Jobs gave me, and it's not that interesting. But those Post-it notes? Man I can't keep it together even thinking about them. Because everyone who scribbled a few words and stuck a note to the window had some insignificant but personal story with how Apple changed their life. These Post-it notes are a celebration of a life well-lived. I wish I had a Post-it note to add. I don't know what I'd add. I could only squeeze a few sentences on there, which wouldn't be enough to say all that I wanted to say.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Damn You Dutch Oven

I was at Goodwill the other day, and I found the Dutch oven pictured above. Cool! I could use that. It's a great (FRENCH!) brand, and I could make French onion soup or something in it. I turned it over for a price, and experienced some sticker shock. $40. $40 is a lot to spend on something at Goodwill. I decided to take a pass.

At first I felt I made a horrible, horrible decision, because a new Le Creuset Dutch oven is about $250. Of course I went back the next day to try to buy it, but it was gone. And of course, Le Creuset Dutch ovens have been haunting me ever since. I went to a knife skills class yesterday, and had to walk past a whole shelf of Le Crueset Dutch ovens in the practice kitchen. I opened my issue of Bon Appetit and of course the Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs recipe I would like to try requires a Dutch oven. On page 42 of the magazine, Bon Appetit pictures one specific Dutch oven — a Le Creuset one — and tells me to buy it for homestyle entertaining. If only I had purchased the $40 Dutch oven, my life would be so much better!

Ultimately, not spending $40 on something I would use sometimes but not all the time and don't really need was actually good decision. Yeah, it was $200 cheaper than a new one. And that's the part I'm kicking myself over because I love deals so very much. But it was also $40 more than needed to be spent. $0 was the price I should be spending on things I don't really need. And $0 was what I spent.

Deals aren't great deals if you're buying something you don't need or won't ever use. That's why the Extreme Couponer people with hundreds of tubes of stockpiled toothpaste have a problem. It's great to get toothpaste for chep, but the average person only uses a few tubes of toothpaste a year. That being said, I still kinda wish I bought the Dutch oven, but I'm not terribly upset that I missed my chance. I can make Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs in a pot.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Favorite Things of September

Home Cooking: Since we finalized our Europe trip, I'd decide I'd try to scrimp and save a little more. So I resolved not to eat out until Paris. Aside from our weekend in Toledo and today's Chipotle festival, I've stuck to it. I don't eat out frequently anyway, but cooking 100% of my meals at home has led me to try some new recipes, such as creamy carrot soup and homemade macaroni and cheese (I apparently only cook orange foods). I like this trend. I think good food tastes even better when you've made it yourself. Next week's menu will include slow cooked buffalo wings. Yum!

Starting the day early: Since I've picked up some extra freelance work, I've been waking up a couple hours early to get it done. It's nice to brew a cup of French press coffee and be productive early in the morning. I feel much more accomplished. It also helps me work a couple morning workouts into my schedule too.

This: Travel Planning: Paris. Berlin. Australia. New Zealand. It's all happening before my next birthday. Yay! This means more work and even more frugality, but all in the name of voyage!

The cat's space heater: Nothing keeps the Lib happier than a Holmes HFH442-UM Heater Fan with Adjustable Thermostat and ALCI Plug. She discovered my roommate's last year and has taken such a liking to it that I bought one just for her. If the cat's happy, then I'm happy. I'm hoping she'll forget about me when I'm in France and just curl up next to this heater the whole time. Fall flavors: Pumpkin, pomegranite, apple, caramel. I welcome your scent in candles and flavor in food stuffs.