Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Croissants, Crabs and Celtics

Friday morning in Boston was a rainy affair, and sadly the weather did not improve much as the day wore on. But we were not about to let the weather dampen our spirits cause we were on holidays, man – and it felt gooood.

Despite the strong, in-room pod coffee that I had pretty much needed just to open my eyes, I needed a hefty (and larger) Au Bon Pain coffee and croissant to propel me forwards. So it was that I discovered this lovely chain store sells raspberry and cream cheese croissants. Don’t screw your nose up like that – you would love them! But if not, then I would eat it for you and all would be well. I give and I give.

Having purchased my breakfast, I waited outside for J-Train and I was immediately set-upon by a swarm of sparrows. This was not a regular flock either – this was a swarm. Similar to the seagulls back home, these birds had my croissant in their sights, and they were not afraid of me at all. As I lifted the croissant to my mouth to take a bite, several of the brave sparrows flew right up to my face, equally keen for a bite of pastry. It was astonishing! Never have I known sparrows to be quite so forward. Being the Catholic ornithologist that I am though, I started to hand-feed the sparrows, much to the delight of a creepy taxi driver parked nearby who kept shouting encouragement to me. Or perhaps he was cheering on the birds. Who could tell? J-Train took some photos of my awesome bird whispering, and then we decided to move on before all my breakfast disappeared.

For the next little while we rode around on the hop-on/hop-off tourist trolley car – the only tourists doing so on that drizzly morning. We drove past the Cheers bar (well, the one used for the exterior shots on the TV show anyway) and looking ahead at the map I realised we were headed straight for the famous and fabulous Fenway Park, where guided tours are conducted at the top of the hour. Even in the rainy conditions, J-Train indulged me and around we went. Having lived so close to Wrigley Field in Chicago, I really got into the baseball – not the rules of course (I still have no idea), but I love the atmosphere and the tradition of it all. And Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox, has all those things in spades. The ballpark may be turning 100 years old this year, but the place has still got "it". In the ubiquitous souvenir shop after the tour, I wanted to buy a hoodie or a pair of red socks or something, but I felt like I would be cheating on the Chicago Cubs. So I walked away empty-handed. How weird is that?

Leaving Fenway Park I dragged J-Train around the trolley tour route to the Seaport District, and in particular for a lunch at The Barking Crab. I’d been here before – in fact, I tried my first bowl of clam chowder here a few years ago, and the restaurant had made such a good impression. It’s on the water, it’s relaxed, and it’s got great seafood. What’s not to like? After an appetiser of clam chowder and a main course (a 1.5lb bowl of Alaskan crab legs), J-Train seemed as pleased as I was with the lunch destination. My lobster roll and fries hit the spot for sure. We rolled ourselves out of there and met up with our trolley driver, who agreed to drop us off at our hotel even though it wasn’t on the trolley route.

Somewhere along the way, the driver got confused and dropped us off at someone else’s hotel instead (the allegedly haunted Omni Parker House, where the Boston cream pie was apparently created). But this little detour wasn’t a bad thing. I was grateful in fact, cause normally it’s me that gets geographically challenged but for once, I actually knew where we were (conceptually at least)! J-Train took over the map and directed us back to our hotel, through the gorgeous Boston Common (created in 1634 and therefore the oldest park in the US) and the Boston Public Garden across the street. We were set upon by more wildlife – this time it was squirrels, but these ones were actually very cute and curiously interactive, and not the scampering vermin I’m used to seeing.

Back at the hotel we crashed for a bit but then had to spring into action to take the Metro out to the TD Garden, Boston’s big sports stadium (basketball, hockey, and um...other athletic pursuits). We could have taken a taxi there of course, but the Metro line for the stadium was right by our Hotel, so it was almost too easy. In much the same way as New York’s subways require you to know whether you want to go Uptown or Downtown, to be successful in Boston you need to know whether you’re going Inbound or Outbound. Your subway line number or colour helps too. Once we worked all that out though, we knew where to catch the train and where to get off. And the tickets were only $2 each way. So easy!

On Friday night the Boston Celtics (yay!) were playing the Indiana Pacers (boo!) and from our nosebleed seats way up in the back, we had a fantastic view of the court and could appreciate the sea of green all around us. I love watching the NBA basketball live – again, it’s not about the rules (what are they again?). For me, it’s still about the atmosphere and the tradition. When the jumbo-tron tells you to cheer, you cheer. And when the music starts, you chant “De-fence! De-fence!”. Resistance is futile, chums. Naturally I wore a green cardigan to show my support for the team, but I just couldn’t bring myself to invest in official Celtics merchandise. What would the Chicago Bulls say?!

In any case, a victory for the home side left everyone – including us – in a great mood and we capped the night off back at our hotel with a greasy room service hamburger and fries. A great start to the holiday, and to our weekend away.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Where I've Bean

When you have a glass of wine on a Wednesday night before meeting your cousin to see “Avenue Q”, and then you drink two beers during the performance, and you don’t eat dinner until 11pm, it’s a wonder you can pack anything sensible at all for a long weekend to Boston. And yet, that’s exactly what I somehow managed to do.

Not only that, I got up in time – and in pretty decent shape – to go into work on Thursday morning. Along with my fellow half-marathon runners (Flock, Flora and KP), we had scheduled an Australia Day home-cooked lunch for our work colleagues. For $10, they could buy their choice of a main course and a dessert and 100% of the proceeds would be shared between towards our respective fundraising efforts. Our menu was beef chilli and rice (from me), spanakopita and salad (KP), chocolate mousse (Flock) and ANZAC ice-cream cookie sandwiches (Flora). I could have stuffed my face with every single one of those dishes, so I appreciate the tough choice my workmates had. Still, we raised a lot of money for our fundraising cause that day, and enthusiasm seems to be building for a reprise in a few weeks. Excellent! All that said of course, I’m still a way off from my fundraising target, so if you can help out, I would really appreciate it. Either click here to go straight to my page, or you’ll see a big fundraiser link on the right hand side of my blog’s main page. Click wherever – you won’t be sorry.

So thanks to the Australia Day lunch and some admin stuff afterwards, I had a pretty full-on day on Thursday. But then J-Train came to meet me at my office for our trip out to Newark Airport. I had taking the more cost-effective option on Jet Blue airways and booked us cheap flights to Boston from New Jersey. Not a nightmare really, but it’s just not the closest airport to me. Getting out to Newark Airport from Manhattan after lunch time on any workday (by car) is an exercise in the ridiculous; it felt like we were driving forever. The train would have been more direct of course, but that was too much to think about when I was masterminding this east coast adventure. And once we (ultimately) got out to Newark and cleared airport security, we had enough time for a burrito dinner and a brief relax before we were boarding. In less time than it takes to watch two “30 Rock” episodes, we had arrived in Boston, got in a cab, and zoomed over to the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

As glitzy and glamorous as the 1920s-era property might be, and as well-appointed as it definitely is, the Boston Park Plaza Hotel nevertheless has the tiniest, most impractical bathrooms you’ll ever see; so short on space, and definitely designed by someone who valued function over form. Not so the rest of the room, thank goodness. The room itself was large and the beds were really comfortable. The coffee pod machine mixed some really strong morning beverages too (so much that I didn’t even mind the powdered non-dairy creamer I had to mix through it). Gods be praised! From our lofty 12th floor room, we had a fantastic view of (and into) the rooms opposite us. Unsettling perhaps; but still much better than a brick wall or car park view, that’s for sure. Phew! Sleep sure came quickly on Thursday night.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

It takes a lot of guts

On paper, last night's tourism plans seemed like a really sensible idea. For the first day of the Chinese New Year, the weather had turned bad on us, and standing on a street corner in the rain to watch a parade (however colourful and 'firework-y') didn't sound fun anymore. So we - or, more accurately, I - changed it up a bit.

We took the #6 train to Astor Place. Given its name, I always expect that this station is going to be fancier than it is. When you get up to street level at Astor Place, you're met with the smell of grilled meat (never a bad thing), and the neon craziness of falafel joints, gyros bars and tiny restaurant after tiny restaurant. And last night in the relative dark of 6pm New York, we were confronted with umbrellas, puddles, and street signs that seemed to go nowhere. So of course we took a wrong turn. I own up to this now because it was the one and only wrong turn we took last night. And for that, I believe we ought to be commended.

Reorienting ourselves, we ended up at Destination #1 - McSorley's Old Ale House. Established in 1854, McSorley's is the oldest still-operating saloon in New York City. It has swinging wooden doors, sawdust on the floor, and the craziest ragtag clientele you'll ever see. But I love me a place with history, and when we arrived the 'bouncer/host' found us a couple of chairs towards the front of the bar. The waiter came over and in his gruff tone asked, "We've only got two beers - light and dark. Which one would you like?". Like deer in headlights, we simply replied, "light". And so it was. We each got two small steins of cool, light beer and mmmm it was tasty. Really refreshing and just the tonic for a cold, dreary night. As Arnie said, "I'll be back".

But the Magical Mystery Tour did not end there. Destination #2 was a few blocks away, The Tuck Shop at the corner of 1st Ave & 1st Street. A couple of lamingtons and a James Boags beer? Um, yes please! Talk about an early Australia Day celebration.

Having hidden out there for a wee while, we headed to our third and final destination of the evening and perhaps the piece de resistance of J-Train's holiday. Katz's Deli is now one of my favourite spots in the whole City. It's been around since 1888 and I don't think you stay in business here that long unless you've got something special. Given the lessons I learned last time I was here, I restrained myself somewhat and just had the chicken soup and 1/2 pastrami on rye and baby, that was plenty! You almost had to roll me out of there. J-Train was truly prodigious, and managed to stuff in an whole pastrami on rye, and then a 1/2 corned beef on rye disappeared too. Is he bottomless? We also took home a bowl of matzo ball soup for later. Delish! As we rode the bus home, both of us succumbed to a scary food coma - vacant stares, the whole bit.

While we may not have seen any firecrackers or eaten any fortune cookies, I reckon our Year of the Dragon got off to a pretty great start!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Brunch, Boxers and Baubles

I am so glad that J-Train keeps letting me drag him from one end of New York City to the other; I have had a wonderful time on his holiday!

Today we slept in, which was great, and I got to put my new snowboots on for an outdoor excursion to the crazy - but amazing - BB King's Blues Club & Grill, in Times Square. I know, I know, Times Square is usually the last place I voluntarily go. But what was I going to do? I wanted my chicken fried, my greens collard, and my mac cheesed. And I wanted my Sunday brunch served up with THE most amazing gospel music, courtesy of the Harlem Gospel Choir. Wrap your lobes around this for five minutes, if you please:



If you can keep still during that clip, you have no soul.

Even though we arrived right on time for the show, most of the seats were already taken up, but a lovely waitress seated the two of us in a booth ("normally reserved for 6 people", scolded the other [evil] waitress). We had the best seats in the house! I did my typical theatre-going thing, where I perch myself right on the edge of my seat. I couldn't help it - I was loving it! The energy - the applause - the music. It was amazing! And I enjoyed it all with my coffee, mac & cheese, bacon, and chicken (baked, not fried, but coated in the most amazing sauce mmm-mmm). I dragged J-Train to his feet a few times and made him clap along with the choir, but we both did a pretty terrible job of clapping off the beat.

The dragging theme continued after brunch, where I led J-Train to Jimmy's Corner, a bar recommended to me by my friend, Skilley. If I couldn't take J-Train to the boxing on Staten Island, I'd give him boxing in Manhattan. And for a bar that is normally packed with people, today it was like a ghost town. I put $5 in the jukebox and got to pick 15 songs to scare the crap out of the tiny crowd. I couldn't do too much damage though - the machine is full of Elvis, Beatles, BB King, The Platters - so much old school I almost cried. J-Train amused himself looking at all the boxing memorabilia and photos around the walls, courtesy of the owner (former boxer and now trainer, Jimmy Glenn).

Post-beers, we walked to the store that puts things in those little blue boxes (for a bit of a look-around at shiny and sparkly things), and then onto the store that packs things in those brown bags of all sizes. The skies got darker, the wind got colder, and we got psyched about some couch time at home.

Ordering some take-away, we kicked back and watched the NY Giants book a spot in the Superbowl on February 5. They beat the San Francisco 49ers and no, I had no idea what was going on during the game. Maybe this is my year to finally learn the rules. But hey, I loved the energy of the game, and the nail-biting overtime that ended in the win for the Giants. And some of the players were very cute. Who knew?!

The Sky Is Falling

I could scarcely believe it when I threw open the living room curtains on Saturday morning, and New York was (finally) a snowy, winter wonderland. I knew the snow was coming, of course, but nothing quite prepares you for the stark change in the landscape.

Sure it was 7.30am, but the streets were uncharacteristically quiet and coated in a white layer of frosting that was growing thicker by the minute. Yesterday was the first time that J-Train had actually seen snow and so while he's not predisposed to vocal outpourings of emotion, I got the sense that he was pretty keen to get out amongst it.

And so we did exactly that. We got ourselves together into our running training gear, and set off for Central Park. Leaving my hot-house apartment, the freezing air of my building's lobby was a brief shock. But that was nothing compared to the relentless snow that fell on us the minute we stepped outside. Snowflakes here and there are just fine - pretty, even - but when they fall non-stop, and occasionally blow sideways into your eyes, it can be a bit crazy.

So I squinted down 1st Ave to see if any cabs were coming, and nearly got bowled over by one as it slushed to a stop infront of us. Piling in, I blabbed to the driver about why we were out and about so early. He howled with laughter about our Central Park training run and didn't hesitate to tell us how crazy we were, but then I played the "we're raising money for cancer research" card, and he was proud of us. But still laughing.

NY cabs drive like crazy people in all weather conditions, so we were at Central Park before we knew it. I'm not sure what J-Train thought, but I was quite enjoying the warmth of the taxi and didn't really fancy being outdoors in all that cold whiteness. But we did it - we got out, we started walking, and it was actually quite okay.

Despite the weather conditions, Central Park was busy yesterday morning with the New York Road Runners Manhattan Half-Marathon. We got word that for safety reasons, the Central Park people had closed the top part of the race route, way up in the north of the Park (where we were also supposed to be training), so we had to restrict ourselves to jogging circuits of the 1.7-mile lower loops. Me and J-Train rugged up, left our bags at the supervised spot, and set off to run-walk a couple of loops. I even used my new interval timer device to track our progress. One of the coaches programmed it for me - I have yet to read the instruction booklet.

We had to dodge a couple of runners to get to our starting spot, but we got started. It's weird but running on the snow is a lot like running on wet sand at the beach - it has that sort of consistency, and it is about as hard on your legs. You don't get very good traction at all (sneaker treads being what they are) so it was pretty slow going out there. And it was slippery too, so you had to be doubly careful. Our coaches are always telling us that we never know what the weather will be like for our race, so it's a good idea to run in every condition that you can, snow included.

And not just because of the weather, I got a good taste of what it will be like on race day too. There were heaps of volunteers and a handful of hardy spectators to cheer us on as we shuffled around the track. Bells ringing, wolf-whistling, motivational cheers and congratulations just kept us moving and congratulated us for what we were doing. I couldn't help but think that these guys were just as admirable - coming out to the Park on a freezing Saturday morning just to be encouraging. That is quite an achievement too!

My training didn't last very long. My left knee gave up again (why is it doing that?!) and then I got a very painful stitch right under my ribs, and it hurt to breathe for a long time. We ended up running/walking/shuffling for 4 miles (or about 6km) yesterday, which is no mean feat really. But still, I gave myself a hard time for being a sissy for much of the morning, until we got to Brooklyn Diner, that is. Up by Carnegie Hall, we called in there to defrost after training and all I could think about was a breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, and warm and sweet challah toast on the side. Freshly squeezed orange juice and strong diner coffee helped us feel much more human, as we watched the sky fall outside.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Steak and Sing-A-Longs

Friday was a bitterly cold day, so I was quite grateful to have no meetings outside. I was snug as a bug in my office, and even working on administrative tasks didn't seem so bad, as long as I could avoid being outdoors in the frigid winds.

J-Train wasn't so lucky though. He spent the day shopping, exploring, and then shopping some more. But right on time, we met at 6pm in the foyer of my building to walk home together and chat about our days, teeth chattering all the way.

We didn't hang out at home too long last night because I had made dinner reservations for us at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse (yes, THAT Michael Jordan). Our table overlooked the gorgeous main concourse at Grand Central Station, so the view was amazing. But the food was great too cause we had the three-course NY Restaurant Week menu ($35 per head). Tomato bisque with cheesy croutons, prime aged filet steak, potato gratin, baby carrots and then sticky date pudding and carrot cake for dessert. A bargain no doubt, but still way too much food - even for piggies like us.

After dinner, we waddled onto the cross-town bus into Hell's Kitchen to meet K&P at the truly dive bar, Tobacco Road for a 10pm show of Dueling Pianos. The two guys playing all the hits (Brad and Mark) were fantastic - so talented and their low-brow humour was just the tonic we needed to ease us - and the rest of the crazy crowd - into our weekend. The cheap American beer helped for sure. I requested a couple of terrible songs, but my primary objective was to simply embarrass J-Train by singing at the top of my lungs. I think he was just grateful that his Jack Daniels and Cokes were strong and plentiful. Yay, mission accomplished!

At 2am the show finished and we threw ourselves out of the pub and into the cold. We bundled up and marched straight into Papaya Dog for a much-needed hotdog. The odds-and-ends of animals slathered in ketchup, mustard and relish have never tasted so good, trust me. Yikes!

Rolling with the Punches

With the exception of Wednesday, I've been working while J-Train has been in New York so I can't really comment on the things he's seen and done while I've been at the office. But this past week I've been doing my best to fill our evenings with catch-up time.

Thursday night we had plans to go out to Staten Island to see a championship boxing match. When I read that last sentence back to myself, it doesn't seem half as ridiculous as it did when I first bought the tickets. First of all, I know nothing about boxing (but J-Train does). I'd never been to Staten Island, nor even on the ferry to get there. Everything about Thursday's nights plan promised new and exciting adventures for both of us.

So when we met at my office at 5.30pm that day, we were pumped to get on the subway, catch the ferry, and watch two men pummel the crap out of each other. But what do they say about best laid plans?

We got on the subway at Grand Central and the trip quickly turned sour. The train kept stop-starting and we managed to translate a garbled announcement from the conductor about delays all the way along our line into Brooklyn, due to a "passenger accident". Our train limped into stations and the delays between the stops dragged out longer and longer. Finally we got down to about Astor Place, still 5 or so stops from where we needed to be, and then we just stopped. Passengers around us started to get really antsy, irritated that a "passenger accident" (most likely code for a suicide) was making us all late. Nice, huh?

At Canal Street, our subway idled at the station and shows no signs of going any further. So J-Train and I made the decision to head up to street level and find a cab to take us to the Ferry. A good plan perhaps, but not when you're trying to do it in peak hour traffic, at the change-over time for the afternoon & evening taxi shifts. There was not a cab to be found. In New York City! Can you even believe it?

Time dragged on and it became very clear that we were never going to make it to Staten Island in time for the boxing. And with no guarantee how long the match was likely to go for anyway, we didn't think there was much point trekking all the way out there late. We agreed to abandon the boxing and all of a sudden found ourselves plan-less.

But New York wasn't about to beat us yet. We left frenetic Canal Street and Chinatown behind and walked into Little Italy, to stuff in the original NYC pizza at Lombardi's, where I've only been once before. Margherita pizza with pepperoni on top, some breadsticks dunked in tomato spaghetti sauce, and we were in heaven. Hopping onto the Number 6 subway uptown, we succumbed to our post-pizza food comas at the movies, taking in Marky Mark (sans Funky Bunch) in Contraband. It was good, but our lives were not changed dramatically.

J-Train's so easygoing and didn't seem to mind me dragging him from one end of the city to the other. And if he was bummed about missing the boxing, you'd never know it. Now that's the kind of house-guest you want!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Just Cuz

So it’s Friday lunch time and I’ve finally turned my attention to writing this. I had mentally written it yesterday, but what good is a mentally-written blog post? Hopeless. Granted this one is a bit overdue but for reasons that shall soon become very clear, writing time has been in short supply this week. I'm sure you will forgive me.

On Tuesday night, I welcomed my cousin (J-Train) to New York. This is his first overseas holiday and I’m so thrilled that he chose to visit me here. And if you thought that playing tour guide for my parents over Christmas & New Year exhausted all the sights and sounds of New York, think again. J-Train and me have been carving it up all over town and it has been great.

After a home-cooked meal on Tuesday night (home-cooked by yours truly, do you mind), J-Train slept well and awoke to a snow-less but sunny Wednesday that was full of promise. I had the day off too, but I got up early and rather ill-advisedly, I went to the gym. I was on the treadmill for less than 3 minutes before I had to accept that my left knee was not going to be cooperative that day, so I gave up (cursing my stupid old lady leg the whole way).

I remember we started slowly on Tuesday, in no rush to be anywhere in particular before lunch. We walked up my street to the Empire State Building, and engaged in some hardcore haggling with the tour bus operators, before J-Train finally settled on the three-day, hop-on/hop-off bus ticket he wanted to buy. Ticket safely stowed away for Thursday, we rounded the corner onto Broadway and wandered downtown.

I am a bit mean actually because the section of Broadway around 34th Street is admittedly a bit of a dump. It’s busy, to be sure, but it’s nowhere near as flashy as further uptown towards Times Square, where everything gets a little nuts. But there are shops, and J-Train is all about the shops. Problem is, the shops along this stretch of Broadway seem to sell alternately cell phone batteries, costume jewellery and crappy luggage - and that’s pretty much it. But do you think J-Train minded? Hell no! He was just soaking it all up. Seedy or classy, he’s already keen to move here!

Soon enough, Broadway smartens up again and so before we knew it, we had The Flatiron Building in sight and we crossed onto Fifth Avenue into Eataly. We all know what a love affair I have with this place, and it’s a must-see destination as far as I’m concerned. We had a delicious coffee and a bit of a look-see downstairs, before heading up to the rooftop for a spot of early lunch. Our choices were simple – a couple of local brews and some sandwiches, but the combination of the fare and the hot-house conditions up there and were in heaven. I really think we could have just sat there all day.

But time waits for no-one and before long we wandered up the street so J-Train could take his first New York subway ride. He didn’t get mugged, or see a rat, or anything stereotypical like that, but we DID make it to our destination (Rockefeller Center station), so I was particularly proud of us for that.

I must have been filling with confidence at this point, because in my smugness I took a typical wrong turn coming out of the station. Nuts. It didn’t matter though because the universe then did me a solid. The wrong turn actually led us to the perfect side of Rockefeller Center. J-Train got a great view of the ice-skating rink (no skaters, but a very groovy zamboni in action). And our little sight-see side-trip let me orient myself properly, so we could keep moving - in the right direction this time.

Around past Radio City Music Hall, we headed west towards the studios of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I cannot tell you how excited I was to be going to a taping of this show. My crush on Jon Stewart is no secret, but it’s not easy to get tickets to his show – they are released so rarely. Back in early October they released tickets for three days in January, so I got online and snagged them (with the help of Lex all the way over in Chicago, whose office computer connection is way faster than mine). So yes, I’d had these Daily Show tickets for a while and finally the day had come when we could use them.

In the frigid conditions between the office buildings, when the wind chill was truly terrible, J-Train valiantly trudged along with me, never once complaining that he was cold. I could tell of course, but he would never admit it. But like all new visitors to NY, it takes a day or two to work out how you’re supposed to dress. Just cause it’s sunny, doesn’t mean it’s warm. In fact, the clearest winter days are usually the coldest – there’s no clouds to trap whatever warm air might be around. So yes, the cold weather came in fiercely the further west we walked, and the nearer to the Hudson River that we got.

When we lined up, we met my friend C-Hun, who wrapped the first series of his web-based show “Fat Guy” late in 2011. Season 2 is in the works, and will no doubt be great.

We waited in line, got our ticket numbers, and were then instructed to come back about 90 minutes later to line up AGAIN (in our ticket order), so we could go into the studio.
To kill time we wandered over to VNYL in Hell's Kitchen, which C-Hun couldn’t believe I’d never been to, and when we got inside I could see why. Click on the link back there and you'll see what I mean. It's got "me" written all over it. Mosaic tiled tables (some of them mirrored), fabulous steel-topped bar with funky cocktails, gorgeous vinyl records incorporated into the d├ęcor, and (perhaps best of all) BARBIE action figures of recording stars. A Dolly Parton action figure, anyone? Uh, yes please! It was so fun. And when you’re in a fabulous place like that, what better to enjoy that a delicious cocktail and an Elvis tribute sandwich – gooey and melty peanut butter, tempura bananas, and Billionaire Bacon. OH LORD. I don’t even know why they call it Billionaire Bacon – and who cares, really. It's bacon, and it's amazing. The whole sandwich was so delicious, but I’m pretty sure it held my heart in a vice-like grip for a while afterwards.

Back at the studio we filed in for the taping and before long, Jon Stewart came out to chat with the audience (a little over 200 of us I think). He could have stood up there and read the phone book and I would have been transfixed, so I’m afraid I can’t really give you an objective review of his show. Special guest was a New York Times columnist and author, and they talked about Mitt Romney being a lunatic and how private equity firms work to rip us all off. It was quite riveting and I was in serious danger of actually learning something. So I chose to stare at Jon Stewart instead. The man’s brain is incredible. Sigh. Don't judge - everyone has their thing.

Anyway around 7.30pm or so, the taping ended and we wandered in the direction of the train home, stopping first at a phone store to buy J-Train a top-up card. The junior sales “man” (and I use that term loosely) asked me if J-Train was my son. Um, now between you and me I am only 13 years older than J-Train. Okay so I guess biologically I could be his mother but more to the point - who the hell asks someone that? A customer, no less!? I nearly died. I couldn’t look at the guy - lest I grab his face and smash it. C-Hun wanted to wait outside, while J-Train just wanted the floor to open up and swallow him. But we did none of those things. I simply ignored the guy (he was dead to me anyway), walked up to the female sales associate (who was wearing a giant grin at this point), and I quietly paid for J-Train’s phone card, and we left.

We found beer pretty quickly after that though. It was good.

Parting ways with C-Hun, I hailed a cab so J-Train and I could have dinner at Baby Bo’s Cantina, around the corner from my apartment. Despite all the junk we’d eaten and drunk that day, somehow we found room for baby burritos. Because really, isn’t there always room for baby burritos?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

When The Blob met The Unabomber

Reading over my previous post, I approached this weekend with a resolution not to be such a pansy-ass about my NYC Half-Marathon training. Instead, I decided to do the miles I was supposed to do, and just not complain about it. And do you know what? That's exactly what I did.

And the weekend weather being what it was, my fleecy-lined running tights got some outdoor time this weekend. Still confronting to shoe-horn my thighs into them, but they are very comfortable and were hugely useful to fend off the frosty New York air.

Saturday we had our group training session and we had to get into pacing groups. I still don't really know how long it takes me to run a mile but I took the conservative option of joining the slowest group in the pack - not just because it seemed do-able, but also because I didn't want to make my knee any more sore than it has been. The group I joined was actually a combination walk/run group, and our plan was to shuffle through intervals of 2 minutes running, 1 minute walking. We motored along at a slow but constant pace and while I'm still not good at having a conversation while I run, I got through the rostered 6 miles without even realising it! And I could talk - and more importantly move - after our training and in spite of the frigid conditions, I was feeling pretty proud of myself.

Today (Sunday morning), the weather was sooo much worse. We're only looking at a maximum of -3 Celcius today, so obviously the morning start was pretty brutal. When I left the house, it was only -7 degrees. Yikes! And we also didn't have the luxury of someone to watch our bags this morning, so I had to dress for that. I had to wear something warm enough to go out in, but not too warm that I would overheat as I ran. Decisions, decisions. So I adopted a Unabomber-type costume of my running tights, singlet, long-sleeved hooded running top and a weather-proof jacket on top. Plus sunglasses and earrings (a bit of overkill perhaps, but if I can't wear make-up, I have to do something extra - right?). I met Flora & K-Train at 10am at our usual Central Park training location and off we went, along the 4 mile course of the upcoming Gridiron Classic. I'm registered to do that race and I wanted to have a bit of a rehearsal before race day. Fortunately for me the girls agreed to keep me company. I also gave the girls the heads-up that I'm not exactly the fastest (or most chatty) runner, and I was honestly happy to let them run on ahead and I'd catch up later. But whether they slowed down for me, or whether I just did better than anticipated, I actually kept up with them and ran the whole 4 miles! I honestly still can't believe it.

So sure, it was a combination of run-walking this weekend but I still clocked up 10 miles and I feel really good about it. Running outside instead of on the treadmill really does make the world of difference. Plus running with other people helps a lot too - even if you don't talk to them.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Knee-ding to focus

I got back into training for the half-marathon this week and despite missing our big training on Tuesday night (theatre tickets), I stuck to the fitness schedule very well. I did my Pilates for strength training and I ran some miles on the treadmill (not as many or as well as I would have liked, but “time on my feet” is more important apparently).

Today we're on a rest day, and I'm left alone with my thoughts - always a dangerous prospect.

After a week of good intentions it saddens me to realise that my body is rebelling against me. Today for instance, the muscle behind my left knee is very sore and it even hurts to walk let alone run. I’ve iced it, I’ve heated it, I’ve stretched it, and I’ve even massaged it and I still can’t shake the nagging pain. My body has staged a mutin-knee. Sorry, couldn't help it.

For heaven’s sakes, all I want to do is run 4 miles without stopping and my body – via just one knee - seems to be doing everything it can to stop me.

And if I can’t run 4 miles, how am I supposed to do 13.1 miles in March? I am starting to panic about this.

I’ve shared my fitness fears with the coaches and they assure me everything will be fine. They tell me never to doubt myself and I want to believe them. I really do.

The coaches also tell me that lots of people had a training break over the holidays and are now trying to get their heads back in the game. “Focus” seems to be the challenge for a lot of us at the moment – the need to recommit to training, fitness and fundraising.

My head and my heart are ready to focus and to recommit, but my body doesn’t seem to want to play ball. It’s so frustrating. I am afraid that I’m going to be the slowest, most unfit person at the back of the pack; the lamest horse in the race. I know what they do to lame horses.

We have training at 9am tomorrow and according to the schedule, we’re supposed to run 6-7 miles. Just the thought of it makes me sad.

How am I supposed to keep my head in the game when I can’t even picture myself in it?

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Day Seventeen, Shops and Caffeine

It felt good to sleep waaaaay past 4.15am on our third day in Vegas. Indeed we were in no rush whatsoever to get moving on Thursday. We headed back to Jimmy Buffet's for breakfast, where I demolished a delicious plate of huevos rancheros much to the horror of my parents. I can't help it - huevos rancheros is my favourite breakfast item. It's fun to say AND fun to eat. Whatever.

The meal was just to fortify us for the day of consumer madness at the Las Vegas Outlet Mall (south side). I came out here on my Vegas trip in 2008, but they have added a few more stores since then. We bought our $7 day tickets on The Deuce - the Strip's shuttle bus service - and got out to the Mall for a great day of browsing and buying. I snagged a few great clothes bargains but one thing the place seriously couldn't offer us was good coffee. [Side point to all Australian baristas who might be reading this. Please come over to the US and use your skills. Expats in this country need you, man. This is not a drill.]

Carrying multiple bags (and a new suitcase for my parents), we caught the Deuce one stop closer to the Strip, to a place called Town Square. I think this must be where Las Vegas locals shop. It has a Whole Foods, a bunch of other dining and clothing stores, and a massive electronics store (which was why we stopped in). We also managed to get a half-decent cappuccino, which helped immensely.

Back on The Strip we dropped our bags off in our room and caught the Deuce to the MGM Grand, just in time to see the lions before they went to bed at 7pm. I also found a fantastic light-up postcard for Granny in the gift shop, and it was all I could talk about for hours. Lame.

Wandering back along the Strip we saw the fountains of the Bellagio exploding with full-force, which was just amazing. We'd seen them a few nights before (but from the Hotel side) so it was very impressive to stand across from them and watch them spout and froth in time with the music. Oh Vegas, how I love you for being totally over the top.

And before long we were back on the Deuce, this time heading out north for the Freemont Street experience. Our Grand Canyon tour guide had suggested this as the first item on his must-see list and I had done it in 2008, so I was definitely eager to head back there. And it HAD changed a bit since I was last there, so that was really good to see. They've added a zip line for one thing, so you can go flying-foxing over the heads of people and I was quite surprised when Mum said she would be keen to do it. We didn't though - perhaps it's a job for next time? After a bit of a flutter on the slots at the iconic Golden Nugget casino (which was not as seedy as I remember it being last time), we were under the giant canopy of plasma screens just in time for the 9pm light show happening 90ft over our heads, this one set to the music of The Doors. Amazing.

Even though we hadn't gambled our lives away, or even seen a stage show, by this point in the holiday Las Vegas had chewed us up and spat us out. We were exhausted. It was all we could do take the Deuce back past the World's Largest Gift Shop and to our hotel, stuffing in some food and a cold beer, before collapsing into bed.

Day Eight & Ten, Back to NY Again
This is just a brief paragraph, and not something that needs its own blog entry. The last day of my holiday with my parents was Friday and it all happened so fast - the airport shuttle, the check-in, the hasty coffee & farewell before we parted ways.

I know that just by reading back over these blog entries I can relive all the great times we had - not only discovering New York together, but also Washington DC and Las Vegas. From the stories they've told me, my parents really enjoyed their US adventure and I am so grateful they let me tag along. I hope I can see them again soon. At the very least, now that Dad has retired he should have plenty of time to make me the photo DVD of our trip that he promised me. Get to it, fella!

Back to work on Monday - eek, normal life rears its ugly head already. Fortunately my cousin is coming to visit later this month so I'm counting down the sleeps until that one. We have a date with Jon Stewart (well, with the taping of his show anyway) so let the anticipation build!

The Sixteenth Day, A Tour Underway

I briefly mentioned in yesterday's post that Caesar's Palace should come with a map. The hotel is confusing enough when you don't have anywhere important to be. But when you're running late to meet your 6am tour bus departure for the Grand Canyon, the last thing you need is to be lost in the never-ending corridors of a behemoth casino. And yet, that's exactly what happened to us at the start of Day 2.

When the alarm sounded at 4.15am that day, I think we all pretended it wasn't happening. But then we swung into action and got ready for an exciting day trip to the West Rim of the (literally) awesome Grand Canyon. This was a first for me too, so I was particularly excited. First time to Arizona; first time to the Grand Canyon. Bring it!

The elevator doors opened onto the Casino Floor and I was first struck by the acrid stench of cigarette smoke. When you live in New York, you become accustomed to a range of crazy smells, but fortunately cigarette smoke is not something I need to contend with indoors anymore. So in Vegas, that people were slumped at slot machines and chain-smoking at 5.45am on a Wednesday came as quite a rude (and smelly) shock; though perhaps it really shouldn't have.

We didn't have time to dwell on this though because we had a tour bus to meet at 6am, underneath the Planet Hollywood globe around the corner from our Hotel. An easy enough meeting point to find, you would think. But then you need to remember a few salient points: a) I am geographically-challenged at the best of times; b) we were all in a new and confusing place; and c) each one of us was substantially decaffeinated that day. We were seriously set up to lose.

After a bum steer from a "helpful" security guard, we ended up almost running through the splendor of the casino's Forum Shops before FINALLY emerging onto the Strip with no clear view of the Planet Hollywood globe that we needed to find. My watch said three minutes to six. Taking a wild guess, I turned right and broke out into a little jog up the hill. Did I think that higher ground would help me find the meeting point? Nope, I was just desperate at this point - for a comfy bus seat, for coffee, for not missing our chance to see the dusty plains of Arizona. As luck would have it, at the top of the hill I not only spotted the PH globe but also our tour bus - revving its engine and ready to go. At two minutes past six, we piled into our seats and set off. We were back on schedule.

Once we got off the Strip, Vegas turned into a very quiet town in the pre-dawn light. Our tour guide obviously didn't want to start yapping at us too early - so many of us were still asleep - so we all just gazed out the windows for a while and watched the world go by. Before long, we left Las Vegas behind and drove into small-town Nevada, headed for Arizona. The landscape changed and the roadside ceased to be about casinos and car dealerships, instead becoming covered in spiky and gnarly joshua trees and the anticipation of seeing a bighorn sheep, the state animal of Nevada. We didn't seen any of those though - boo to that!

The primary advantage of leaving Las Vegas at the ungodly hour of 6am is that your bus is the first - and usually only - one in the parking lot of all the tourist attractions on your visit schedule. You don't have to battle hordes of other visitors in gift shops, or jockey for positions to capture the perfect photograph. You have space, you have peace and you have quiet. It became clear to us quite quickly that getting up and out at the crack of dawn was the best thing we could have done that day. And the weather in Arizona was working for us too. Cool in the pre-dawn, but warming up to a bright and sunny day - perfect for some time in the great outdoors.

Our first stop after a quick roadside breakfast (provided by the tour) was the majestic Eagle Point, home of the Grand Canyon Skywalk. This area, indeed the whole Grand Canyon National Park, is home to the Hualapai and because you're on their tribal lands, there are some restrictions to photos you can take. But there are representatives of the Hualapai Nation on-site to either take photos of you, or give you advice on what you're looking at over the huge expanse of mountains and valleys before you. We didn't go on the Skywalk, not because we're overly squeamish about heights or anything - it's just that we didn't like the idea of paying $100USD for photos of ourselves out there. You can't take your own photos, you see. The Hualapai take them and then charge you for them in the gift shop - it all seemed a bit steep and besides, our photos turned out OK after all. We did take the opportunity of browsing the amphitheatre, Native American housing, and gift shop instead though.

By now it was almost time for lunch so we piled back on the bus and continued through the Hualapai lands to the icky-named but beautifully scenic Guano Point. If you like, you can click here to view a gorgeous 360-degree photo of the spot and I think you'll agree that despite it's name, Guano Point is very impressive indeed. And the best advantage of the place is that there are no guard rails or security measures of any kind there. One false move and you plummet all the way to the bottom of the Canyon. But for uninterrupted photos of the amazing expanse, you cannot beat it. And our lunch was a very tasty meal of roast chicken and vegetables, and our table couldn't have come with a better view.

On the way back to Vegas the bus slowed down so we could take photos of Hoover Dam, but I'm not sure whether the pictures will turn out because we were still motoring along pretty fast. A great feat of human engineering to be sure but after the gorgeous nature we had been seeing all day, the Dam looked a bit ugly from where I was sitting. And as the neon madness of Vegas came into view over the horizon at about 5pm, we all had to steel ourselves to re-enter society.

Having seen the Forum Shops of Caesar's Palace in the early morning, it was quite a shock to be back there again and fighting the crowds for a good spot to watch the Fall of Atlantis show, ride curved escalators (true!) or find excellent espresso. So it was little wonder that we rounded out our long day by dashing across the street to hide out at Bally's casino, in a small Thai restaurant that offered delicious food and cocktails.

Knowing when to hold 'em and fold 'em

Thank heavens for this blog sometimes. My brain doesn't need to remember dates or details, because this handy little catalogue will do it for me. In February 2008 I went to Las Vegas for the first time. When my parents mentioned that on their trip to the US they also wanted to see The Town That Calls Itself Fabulous, all I had to do was drag out my blog entries from a few years ago and I had the inspiration for the start of an amazing three-day trip.

Day Fifteen, At Least It's Clean
If you wanted to analyse the Las Vegas trip properly, it didn't start off in particularly promising fashion. My parents had booked their NY-LAS flights MONTHS before I got my act together, so by the time I looked at airline tickets the costs to get me on the same flight as my parents were pretty ridiculous. It started to seem like we would not be able to fly to Las Vegas together after all. So I went to an online travel site and inputted my search criteria so that I could at least fly out of the same airport, on the same day, at around the same time.

How excited I was when the online site offered an option that fit the bill beautifully, so clickety-click, I purchased the ticket. It wasn't until the confirmation email arrived that I realised I'd booked my flights out of JFK airport and not Newark, like my parents. What the?! I hadn't chosen JFK airport as an option - I knew what airport I wanted to fly from, and I'd carefully selected Newark as part of my ticket search criteria. Why would an online travel site just automatically disregard my departure airport, just so it could find me the cheapest air ticket? Doesn't William Shatner know I don't read computer screens and I just obsessively press buttons? What is wrong with the universe?!

Sigh. So yeah, the trip to Vegas started out with yours truly ballsing up her airport departure.

On the actual day of travel though, none of this was any problem in the least. I booked two airport cars for us - one going to JFK, the other to Newark, and I made it to Las Vegas McCarran Airport about 30 minutes before my parents. I was waiting for them at baggage claim when they arrived. We were back on schedule.

When I came to Las Vegas in 2008 we stayed at The Bellagio. Now even back then I knew that that was an amazing and very special experience; one not likely to be repeated in my lifetime. And true enough when it came to booking this trip, the accommodation discount gods of the Bellagio were not smiling on me. So this time around, we stayed at the mammoth Caeasar's Palace Hotel. Our room was clean and well-appointed, about a kilometre from the elevators (through rabbit-warren hotel corridors) but at least we were well away from the mania of the 24-hour casino floor. Forget chocolates on your pillow - this place should come with complimentary valium. And a decent map. In equal measure, Caesar's Palace is enormous, confusing, smokey and incredible.

But hey, I'm honestly not bagging Caesar's because I totally chose to stay there. I wanted my parents to have an authentic Vegas experience. I wanted us to be in the thick of the action on the Strip, surrounded by noise and people and neon. I got all those things in spades.

Our first stop after dumping our bags was Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. This is like my oasis of calm in Las Vegas and I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to sip on the pomegranate margarita and soak up the crazy atmosphere of the place. Even my Dad soldiered on, in no small part powered by the ultra-amazing Perfect Margarita (and its fabulous - and multiple - tequilas inside).

By the time we got back outside, evening had arrived and the pamphleteers were out. You know the ones I mean - they are shady looking guys and gals who pass out little pamphlets to male tourists on the Strip. These little pamphlets are actually catalogues of strippers and escorts that you can purchase to come to your hotel room and keep you company for a couple of hours. I had warned my Dad about the pamphleteers of course - so he knew what to expect. But in typical fashion, they fiercely descended upon him and flicked their pamphlets at him, left and right. To the wails of "come on, big maaaaaan", they tried to tempt him to purchase a lady or two for the evening. For me and Mum, watching Dad try to stay nonchalant and coolly navigate these very insistent PR men was most amusing.

Back at Caesar's, we lost a couple of dollars in the slot machines (just to say we did it) and then we were in bed super early, knowing that Day 2 of our Vegas Vacation would be a long one.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Two Weeks In, Gluttony's a sin?!

So this time tomorrow we'll be in Las Vegas and my parents will almost be on their way back to the motherland. Is our holiday really almost over? Sad face. But we are not depressed really. In fact, we were quite resolved today to make the most of Mum & Dad's almost-final hours in New York.

In fact, this morning we set off early-ish and headed to Houston St to Katz's Deli, the famous place where Sally had her heavy-breathing moment ("I'll have what she's having"). For a deli that opened in 1888, I seriously hope Katz's hasn't changed much about its menu or its food recipes. I like the idea that Katz's is totally old school and fabulous. Mind you, I had the pastrami on rye sandwich (naturally) but OMG, there was SO MUCH MEAT on that sandwich. My heart ended up being wrapped in pastrami. Is that even biologically sound? I'm not so sure. But fortunately we got to the deli about 30 minutes before the huge crowds showed up - perfect.

When we left, we took the subway to Brooklyn Bridge and wandered through that neighbourhood down to South Street Seaport. It's weird being here in the cold weather - when the beer garden is shut, and the ice cream stores are all closed too. It's like a ghost town, except the sheer array of souvenir shops and trinket outlets is quite staggering. Anything that they can slap an "I heart NY" logo on, they will. Mouse pads, tshirts, baseball caps - crazy.

After the Seaport, we caught the East River Ferry back to my place and rested for a bit, before having dinner at El Parador for some lovely Mexican food. Roast duck enchiladas? Uh, si senor! Yummo.

Now of course I have to pack for the next three days in Sin City. We're staying at Caesar's Palace (so we could have the full-on Las Vegas experience). I'm so excited to be back in the land of the velour tracksuit. Naturally I'll be a bit quiet on the blog for the next few days, but you can count on a pretty fun recap when I return. Stay tuned!

Day Thirteen, How Much We've Seen

You can step outside my apartment building, look west up the street, and see the Empire State Building staring at you. So how is it that we've made it to Day 13 of this holiday and I still haven't taken my parents up to the ESB's Observation Deck?! It's crazy, I know. And yet on Day 1 of the New Year, we just had no time.

Our day started - yep, you guessed it - early; but that was because we knew we wanted to have brunch at Red Rooster, way up north from me in Harlem. On Sundays, and indeed yesterday, Red Rooster was offering its famous Gospel brunch, and I was resolved to be early for it. Southern food and a gospel music? I'm totally there.

So on a whim, just before we left the house, I thought I'd just look up the restaurant online again to double-check the service times for brunch. Noon till three pm. What the?! I was sure the website said 10am when I'd checked earlier. Oh man. I'd dragged my parents out of bed at the crack of dawn for nothing! We could all have had an extra 90 minutes' sleep, no problems. ARGH. How to confess this?

I took the Band-Aid approach and just all-out fessed up to the error. Mum & Dad were totally cool with it, and actually liked the idea of just going somewhere local for coffee first. Phew. As we left my house, a "flashy bus" was pulling into the bus stop by my house so we jumped on it. Early as it was, the streets of Manhattan looked like a ghost town yesterday morning. It was at this point I questioned what coffee shops might exactly be open at this time on New Year's Day. Hmm, my holiday planning was starting to get sloppy. I could see people walking the streets with Dunkin' Donuts coffee but that was definitely going to be a last resort for us.

When Culture Espresso turned out to be closed (sad face), we took a chance on Bryant Park and sure enough - like the very Holy Grail itself - the park was a hive of activity. Aroma Coffee delivered the goods and we sat on folding chairs, right up by the rink, to watch HEAPS of people start the new year whirling around on ice skates.

After a little while we figured it would be a good time to head up to the restaurant for brunch. The subway ride up to Harlem (125th St) took off from Times Square, which was not far from where we had paused to enjoy coffees.

Now you're probably thinking, Red Rooster? Why the hell would you want to have brunch at a Red Rooster?! Well, this place is not like any Red Rooster we get back home. No six-pack fried chicken and moist towelettes here, friends. If you didn't already do so before, click the link here and check out the restaurant for yourself. The restaurant is gorgeous - and not too large (though the downstairs events space - with ENORMOUS dance floor - would be lots of fun). The chef is Marcus Samuelsson, a Swedish Ethiopian chef with restaurants dotted around the US and one in Stockholm. And the food? Oh man. It's comfort all the way.

As the lone gospel singer wandered the restaurant with her hand-held mic, belting out prayerful tunes, we all stuffed in some delicious brunch. I had the burger (it came with truffle fries - I was powerless to resist), while Mum had the lamb & potato hash, and Dad had the scrambled eggs with onion & chorizo. Some cornbread to start and a glass of prosecco to wash it all down? Delicious.

Tummies full we bade the restaurant farewell and caught the train back Downtown, so we could wander around the main concourse of Grand Central Station. In terms of size, this place is very impressive but I'm still a bigger fan of Washington DC's Union Station I think. But there is no denying that Grand Central is a terribly well-used and very popular tourist attraction in NYC and affords some very good photo opportunities, if you can manage to capture the immensity of the place.

By this point in the day, we were ready to slow down and take it easy. So we went back to the apartment and chilled out for a few hours before ending our day with a screening of "We Bought A Zoo". The movie was adorable to be sure, yet I waited 2 hours to see Matt Damon shirtless and my patience was sadly unrewarded. Not even Matt Damon in a singlet! I got Matt Damon in a turtleneck and reading glasses - and Matt Damon in khakis and a tool belt, so perhaps I shouldn't be complaining. In fact, who are we kidding? I'll totally take that. With a side of truffle fries.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Day Twelve, a year to shelve

The final day of 2011 was another early one for me. I took myself off to the gym for the first time in ages and admittedly I didn't do very well. According to my training calendar, I'm supposed to be clocking up 4-5 mile jogs but I just wasn't up to it yesterday. I did last for a little over 2 miles on the treadmill before giving up, cursing my ankles for feeling sore. As penance I did about 6 more miles on the exercise bike, but I still felt a bit disappointed in myself afterwards. Have I already forgotten just how far I walked in Washington?! Crazy.

Setting off from my place on foot, we walked to my favourite Eataly for a proper Italian coffee. It is crazy how amazing that place looks and smells. Sliced meats, fresh cheeses, and the pastries?! Oh man.

We continued the gourmet adventure by heading up to Zabar's and again, we loved the sights and smells. We even loved the ancient men and women, pushing their trollies around the aisles to buy their delicious produce. Perhaps it was best that we weren't heading back home straight away, otherwise I think we would have loaded up our arms with outrageous quantities of epicurean delights. Instead we restricted ourselves to a couple of pre-made sandwiches, some tasty chocolate rugelach and some fresh fruit for our lunch. And we walked a couple of blocks south to Central Park and enjoyed our meal in the sunshine at Bethesda Terrace. So good.

Watching the outdoor skaters scoot around the iconic Wollman Rink, we then stopped by The Plaza Hotel, the sterling silver jewellery collection of Tiffany's and then tried to hide from the world (aka the tourists) at St. Patrick's Cathedral. I am sure God Himself was about to strike me dead for all the evil thoughts I was having about the other tourists in church yesterday. Why do people come into places like that if they refuse to be quiet or reverent in any way? Why do they think they're allowed to help themselves to devotional candles and not pay even a minimal donation? Why can't I give the death glare to people and not have it do any good? No fair.

Clearly I had hit an invisible wall by this point in the day, so the fact that a taxi showed up out the front of the Cathedral must have been a sign from the Almighty after all. The three of us headed straight to the cinema around the corner from my house, and we relaxed in the dark watching the new "Sherlock Holmes" movie, and then the latest offering from the "Mission Impossible" franchise. No life-changers there, but when we came home and ordered take-away Indian food, it capped off a beautiful evening and the perfect way to spend New Year's Eve when you're really not a NYE kind of person.

Continuing my fine tradition, my head hit the pillow at about four minutes past midnight and I didn't feel a thing. I must have been asleep or something :)

Four Days Behind, Losing My Mind

You know it's a good holiday when you start losing track of days. But today is January 1st, which means a hearty HAPPY NEW YEAR to all. But more on that later. First up, we need to recap our little side trip to the nation's capital - Washington, DC.

Make a coffee before you start reading. This recap is likely to take a while.

Day Eight, Don't Be Late
I have been a bit silly, dragging my poor parents out of bed early while they're supposed to be on a restful tour to the States. But you know what? If we sleep in every day, we miss out on seeing lots of cool things and then we only achieve half the things we set out to do.

So it was that we rocked up at Penn Station, New York bright and early on December 27 to catch the train to Washington. I had already bought our tickets ahead of time, and put us in business class on a regional train. We could have got express train tickets but that train left even earlier in the morning and I really don't think we could have faced that. As it was, the regional train stopped at only a few places but it gave us a lovely chance to peer out the windows at towns along the route. Plus we've only got little legs, so there was ample leg room and comfort for us in business class, thanks very much. And we were two carriages away from the cafe car, so what's not to like about that?!

You know it's funny - if the only thing you ever see of Philadelphia and Baltimore is what you spot from the inside of a train, I don't think you'd ever go there. The towns look pretty grotty and not too welcoming really. And yet I'm sure I've heard good things said about both places. Maybe one day....

Our train pulled into Washington DC's gorgeous Union Station about 15 minutes behind schedule, and the weather had turned pretty rotten. Grey skies, drizzle - not a good start to a mini-break. Our taxi driver was a Pakistani ex-diplomat who, as he drove us to our hotel, regaled us with stories about the fantastic postings he'd had throughout his career and how he's now only driving a cab to pay for his son's university education. He does pretty well out of it too - with all the additional cab fares we had to pay (extra passengers, luggage, mileage), he'd charged us $10 before we'd even set off for the hotel! Classic.

Before long we pulled up at our hotel and I was very impressed with the location and amenities. We were right across the street from the Spy Museum, around the corner from Chinatown and one block from the Metro station. Perfect!

With the weather like it was, I have to confess that we really didn't want to pound the pavement and start exploring the city. So we dashed across the street and sought refuge in the truly beautiful (and IMMENSE) National Portrait Gallery. Even if museums and galleries aren't normally your "thing", this place is amazing. Endless corridors filled with amazing - and very different - works of art. Portraits of ordinary and famous Americans filled the walls and we happily lost hours in there. When we couldn't walk any further, we paused for a coffee in the indoor Kogod Courtyard which is just gorgeous. Me being me, I flatly refused to leave until I had seen The Great Hall - and me being me, I couldn't find it; even though I had the map. Absolutely hopeless. But it's amazing what happens when you ask for help and in no time we were ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the gorgeous mosaic tiles and stained glass windows of the room I'd been searching for.

Obeying our sore feet and rumbling tummies, we ducked around the corner into Chinatown for a really tasty meal and frosty Singha beer.

I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow that night.

Day Nine, Feelin' Fine
It was about this time in the holiday that I realised that wearing knee-high leather boots was probably a really dumb idea. So on Day 2 of our holiday, when we did more walking than would ever be considered normal elsewhere, I switched to sneakers and was pretty proud of myself for remembering to pack them.

We had 2pm tickets for the tour of the Capitol Building (but had to be there 45 minutes before that), so we really didn't want to venture too far out of the city.

Grabbing an extra strong coffee as we wandered the streets, we walked past the gorgeous Ford's Theatre, where President Lincoln was assassinated. Then we wandered past more truly gorgeous architecture - the IRS building, the EPA building, and the expansive museums of Constitution Avenue.

By then we had agreed that our aimless wandering should take us to the Washington Monument, so we headed across the parklands and over to the enormous obelisk. The Monument is still temporarily closed because of the 5.9 magnitude earthquake in 2011, but it is still possible to take some great photographs of it - which we did.

Then we looked across Constitution Gardens towards the Lincoln Memorial, and we agreed to walk over to there next. En route we looked at The National WWII Memorial and watched construction workers make long-overdue improvements to the Reflecting Pool site.

There is something amazing about standing at the Lincoln Memorial, at the foot of the mammoth statue and seeing what the late President sees - the wonderful view over an amazing city. From our lofty vantage point we could trace our route backwards, as well as see the day's ultimate destination - the Capitol Building.

So we were off - back along the other side of the Reflecting Pool, stopping this time at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - the loss of life truly scary when you see just how many names are etched into the memorial stones (58,195).

Ducking around The Elipse, we gave ourselves a fantastic photo opportunity of the front lawn of The White House. Sadly no tours at this time of year, but I hope to get back another time. You don't watch as much "West Wing" as I do, and not have a curious interest in touring the amazing building.

With no time for lunch, we got to The U.S Capitol Building a few minutes before 2pm and lined up for our tour. After a short introductory video, our tour guide took us through some of the main rooms, including the gorgeous rotunda (Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol", anyone?!). We walked into the statuary, which used to be the original House Chamber and offices. You can see plaques on the ground where famous politicians used to have their spots (incidentally we were almost standing on top of Lincoln's plaque without even realising it!).

At the conclusion of our tour we took ourselves through today's House and Senate galleries. Even though the pollies were on a holiday break, it was very impressive to look around the chambers and see where all the political magic happens. The information brochures that you can pick up for free are also really good - they give you a seating plan so that from up on high, you know who's who in the zoo.

After this we were tired, hungry and over stimulated, culture-wise. And yet we thought it would be a good idea to take the underground tunnel to the Library of Congress, so that's exactly what did. I have to say, I don't regret it in the least. You know me and books - I can scarcely resist a library or a bookshop to save myself. The website may be plain, but the building itself is spectacular, which says nothing of its contents. The Reading Room alone made me wish I was someone of importance, who had access to the incredible collection. To browse those shelves, even for a few minutes, would be such a gift. Naturally we are plebs, so we had to observe the Reading Room from up on high, behind a giant perspex sneeze barrier. But I took a sideways glance at some of my fellow tourists that day, and I don't blame the Library for a second - I wouldn't let any of those weirdos near my precious books either.

Having toured the Library, we were now OFFICIALLY knackered. We called in to the McCormick & Schmick's restaurant across the street for dinner that night. It was my pick, and I didn't have it in me to be any more creative than that. The seafood was pretty good though - but in a case of lovely deja-vu, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow that night too.

Day Ten, An Early Start Again
On Thursday we were up early again. After all the walking we'd done the day before, my feet were feeling so tender on Day 3, and so sneakers were totally the only option again.

More confident of our geography this time, we headed straight to the Metro station and after a change at Metro Center, we took the blue line subway to Arlington National Cemetery.

There is something quite lovely about a visit to a sombre place like Arlington, when you have the weather to match. I recall we had the same experience at the 9/11 Memorial in New York. For us at Arlington, we had a bit of fog, a bit of grey sky and the threat of rain, but nothing that actually materialised. The weather just added to the atmosphere and it was beautiful. I came to Arlington on my first (and only) visit to Washington DC back in February 2006 and I remember being really impressed then. Rather than taking the trolley car, we walked around the Cemetery this time and it really is a great (and easy) way to see everything. We visited the very simple Kennedy graves, Arlington House (aka the Robert E. Lee Memorial) and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider for the impressive - and rather haunting - Changing of the Guard ceremony that takes place every hour, on the hour. I wouldn't normally sanction the recording of such a lovely ceremony but given that the crowd prevented me from seeing much of it on the day, I don't feel too bad about sharing this video with you.



Once we'd done those things, we wandered back through the Cemetery to the main visitor entrance and then we were back on the Metro, returning to DC.

It would also seem we had not quite reached our limit of museums, because we devoted the next four hours to The National Museum of American History. My God, the people!! Tourists everywhere you looked - and who brings kids in strollers to these sorts of places? ARGH it was manic. But we steeled ourselves ("elbows out") and used the museum floorplan to ensure we hit up all the key attractions. We saw Julia Child's kitchen, Dorothy's ruby slippers, the Star Spangled Banner, the original Muppets and finished up by going though a couple of the ongoing exhibitions, including the First Ladies (evening gowns! fine china!) and Within These Walls, a wonderful exploration of the life of 1 house and all the families that had inhabited it over the past 200 years.

Were we exhausted after that? You bet. But did we stop? Hell no.

Wandering next door we stopped into the National Museum of Natural History. The life-size whale hanging from the ceiling, and the gorgeous elephant in the main rotunda were real highlights. But aside from that, and the mammals exhibit (impressive), I was in a daze from this point of the evening forward. The groovy neon inflatable artwork woke me up a bit of course, but I was pretty much done.

So it surprised us all that once we were out in the open air, we had enough energy to walk past the statue garden and watch the outdoor ice skaters for a while. But then our stomachs won out and we set off in search of dinner. All we wanted to have was a bowl of soup, and yet when we stumbled across Hill Country Barbecue Market, we had to go in. And so it also goes without saying that with BBQ ribs, mac & cheese, and brisket on offer, there was no way we were having just soup. The live band started up downstairs at 8.30pm and we enjoyed a couple of tunes (I was quite transfixed by the lead singer's fluffy red afro, to be honest. It was like a car accident atop his head, poor fellow).

It's amazing how a pitcher of beer, a good feed, and some happy tunes will restore a couple of weary travellers.

But yes, you guessed it - I was asleep before my head hit the pillow AGAIN. Third time's the charm.

Day Eleven, and a lack of a rhyme
The start of our 11th day was another early one because we had to contend with a hotel check-out, an Amtrak train departure and (in my case), a swabbing from the transit police for illicit drugs and other contraband. Fortunately I had enjoyed a rather strong coffee before that part!

We got the train back to NY without incident, and arrived in the City on a sunny and clear day. Is this December or what?! Winter be hanged.

Say what you will about how lovely holidays can be, sometimes there is just no place like home. And getting back to the apartment and swapping my sneakers for slippers never felt so good.

We did a couple of loads of laundry and then headed out to Times Square (ugh!) to meet B&C for dinner at Sardi's. Despite the traffic and pedestrian chaos, the restaurant was really nice and of course I couldn't fault the company. B&C had only been in New York a few days but had already seen most of the major sights and seemed to be enjoying themselves (though B did bemoan the lack of quality coffee - a kindred spirit if ever there was one).

After dinner we pretty much RAN to the theater to see "Million Dollar Quartet" and it was fantastic. Skilley is my friend from work and she joined us for the performance - we had fantastic seats, only a few rows from the front - and no one in front of us to block our view at all. The story is fantastic - capturing the music of the recording session at Sun Studio in Memphis, when Jerry Lee Lewis joined up with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The whole cast was just amazing, and was a nice flashback to my own visit to Memphis when me & K toured Sun Studios and stood in the very room where the music magic happened. I think I might have to be friends with the entire cast of that show - I just loved it, and I think we all did.

After the show we said goodbye to Skilley and walked B&C back towards their hotel, stopping off for a quick coffee & catch-up chat along the way. It was great to see them and I was very envious to hear about the rest of their US trip, including a visit to New Orleans. Lucky ducks!