Sunday, March 30, 2008

NYC: Public bathroom report from Bryant Park

It is widely known that NYC underwent a massive clean-up, both substantively and image-wise, over the past 20 years or so. The 1970s, when the city teetered on the bring of bankruptcy and basically went into receivership, were the days of trash and hooker-strewn streets, where roaming packs of truant teenagers (no exaggeration) kept people fearfully locked inside their homes. No place was more emblematic of the city's problems than Times Square, full of sex shops, dirty movie houses, and drugs.

A block away from Times Square is a (now) lovely place called Bryant Park, adjacent to the main branch of the famous New York Public Library. In the Bad Old Days of NYC, it was basically an open air drug bazar and home to many, many, many homeless, drug addicts and hookers. Something like L.A.'s Pershing Square, but much nastier.

Today, Bryant Park is filled with cafe kiosks, great seating areas, gorgeous landscaping. It is even hosts events like New York Fashion Week, a holiday ice skating rink, and a great summer concert series. I knew it had cleaned up its image, but I was unprepared to find the foyer (yes, it has a real foyer) of this public bathroom building:

filled with fresh flowers worthy of - no, bigger than would be found at- the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

For more of my public potty reports, check here.

The Biddy Bus

Upstate New York suffers from a very serious demographic problem: loss of the 18-34 year old population. Not only is the entire Upstate region losing population overall, it is especially acute in this coveted age bracket. And "professional" 18-34 year olds? Not so much sticking around the area. See, no matter how good the quality of life is around here- and it really IS good: excellent public schools, low crime rate, no traffic, plenty of parks and public amenities- educated young people want this little thing called GOOD JOBS, and that is where Upstate NY in the 21st century fails to deliver.

One of my many local jokes (which fails to slay 'em) is "Know what the best thing about being 30-something and professional in Binghamton is? NO peer pressure! Get it? Ha ha ha ha ha!!!"

All this is backdrop for the sad (for me) story I am about to relate. So I went to NYC on another day trip yesterday, courtesy of a local travel company that arranges bus trips from Binghamton to places like the big outlet mall across the border in Pennsylvania, the big Indian casino in the region, the annual flower show in Philly, etc. You can imagine that the bus is filled with mostly women (who, like me, don't want to drive) and they are mostly, well, "older."

I am such a "regular" that they have started seating me in the front row. This is not a status I am proud of. While normally I love to be an insider and know the people who own and operate a business, since it usually means perks, this is not a business where I would proudly hold VIP status.

We were getting ready to leave NYC yesterday, waiting for the stragglers as 7 pm approached, and from my front row perch I see a nicely dressed, professional-looking young man pop his head in and have the following exchange with the bus driver:

Cute yuppy guy: "Is this the bus to Binghamton?"
Driver: "Well, yes, but it's a private bus."
Cute yuppy guy: "Yes, I know. You see, my grandmother is on this bus and she is a bit slow making her way to the bus. She's coming- please do not leave without her."

NO, yuppy guy! Please! Come on the bus with ME and live the Upstate dream with us! All those hopes, dashed as fast as they arose. The Biddy Bus took on its last passenger (after securely stowing her wheel chair in the luggage compartment) and the grannies and I made the long trek back "home."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wich is Wurst?

When you walk into a grocery store and go to the aisle titled "WURST":

I guess you shouldn't really be surprised when you find a box-o-tongues there:

Yep, those Germans, gotta have ready access to tongue at all times. This bucket full of laminated tongues greeted me at the local mini-mart near our hotel in Berlin. Funny, after being blind-sided by the stomach/colon/feces sausage at the charming French bistro, I somehow felt a new appreciation for tongue- at least it immediately declares itself and visually repulses, and won't stand a chance of sneaking its way onto my plate for $30!

"Ich habe diarrhoea" and other useful German phrases

For as long as I've been traveling on my own, the first I thing I do when planning a trip abroad is go out and buy the applicable Fodor's travel guidebook. I probably picked this habit up from my mom, which I finally realized (it only took me 15 years) means that Fodor's is a bit boring. You know, it's your mom's travel guide.

I was über-excited about the Berlin piece of our trip, since it's a really edgy, transitional place with a strong counter-culture; we definitely wanted to explore outside the bounds of the traditional Fodor's territory. A friend recommended I use the Lonely Planet guidebook for Berlin, which turned out to be great advice, since it led us to the funky, young-people stuff we were craving there. I'd never used Lonely Planet before, but it seemed to be aimed at younger travelers, backpackers, and more adventurous and open-minded people who want to explore beyond the traditional tourist fare.

A great book until, that is, I tried to use the mini-language guide in the back. That is where I realized that the target Lonely Planet audience and the target Fodor's audience apparently have little in common. Aye, aye, aye!

My Fodor's French mini-language guide filled about 10 pages, divided into predictable subsections like "Numbers," "Colors," "Dining Out" and "Useful Phrases."

John had done so well polishing off his rusty French and getting us through some key situations in Paris, I felt compelled to at least try and pretend I had some German skills. I mean, I look German, right? And I'm pretty good at faking accents, so I figured I might be able to conjure up something from those 6 weeks of "Intro to Foreign Language" German I took in 8th grade. Plus, I could refer to the handy mini-language guide that was certain to be at the back of my guidebook, nein?

The Lonely Planet language guide is a whopping 3 1/2 pages. It includes NONE of the above-referenced handy subsections found in Fodor's. It literally does not include basics like "Where is the bathroom?" or even "Excuse me." Was? Instead, I felt my "Those crazy kids today!" generation-gap grow by leaps when I read the following phrases from these random categories:

Phones & Mobiles:
"Ich hätte gern ein Ladegerät für mein Handy."
I'd like a cell phone for hire.

"Ich möchte meine E-Mails checken."
I'd like to check my email.

Symptoms (huh??):
"Ich habe diarrhoea."
[You guessed it . . . ]

But the best phrase, the one that Lonely Planet apparently feels is more important to its readers than "Where is the bathroom?" is this one, from the Going Out category:
"Wo sind die Schwulen und Lesbenkneipen?"
Where are the gay venues?

FABULOUS. Very useful for me, thank you. Hopefully the gays in the clubs speak English, because I ain't gonna be able to ask them where the bathroom is!!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Andouillette AAAAA: "not a party pleaser"

We returned from our Paris/Berlin trip last night (it was fab, thanks for asking) and I have to report on the run-in we had with a little bit of nasty food while abroad. I had recently written about how I was diligently researching German sausages, to make sure we avoided the "brain-wurst" or whatever macabre pig-bits might pass for "food" there, but it did not occur to me that France also suffers from bad judgment in the "what is acceptable to ingest" department. Here's the deal:

After a busy day of sightseeing, it was approaching the late-lunch hour and we were starving. So hungry we could "eat a horse"? Not exactly. I would rather have eaten a horse than what we did end up eating. We found a darling, bustling bistro- I mean really, damn cute, and Art Nouveau, to boot. We scoured the menu (written only in French). I was apprehensive and told John, "I'm not picky but I'm also starving, and I just don't want a plate full of stomach sausage or something completely inedible." John, in his unfailingly positive and generous manner, responded (words to the effect of): "We are going to order the best we can and we are going to eat what we get. If you don't like yours, you can share mine."

John ordered for us (in French, since there was definitely NO English spoken at this joint) something called "Andouillette AAAAA." With all those "A"s after it, it had to be extra good, right? And the word sounded familiar to John, like something he had eaten before with his French buddies in LA. He thought it was going to be (at least the "first cousin of") "andouille" - the spicy sausage found in gumbo and jambalaya.

Long story short: A plate of "Andouilllette AAAAA" plopped in front of me and I cut into the sausage casing. What happened next should never happen to anyone, ever: the sausage innards literally flopped out! And they were not normal sausage innards, either: they looked more like a rubbery seafood substance, not finely chopped meat normally found in sausage. No, my friend, this was not striated muscle tissue. This was smooth muscle. Parts of an animal that this city girl could definitely not identify by appearance, much less by taste.

The taste? Well, let's just say the smell was very strong, and the taste was- for better or worse (WORSE) - the strongest I've ever tasted. It was like chewing on rubbery . . . poop. There, I said it. Turns out, this was the dreaded "stomach sausage" of my pre-trip nightmares, right there in a steaming pile in front of me, next to some superb pommes frites and a lovely salad.

I ate about 40% of it before my gag reflex really starting building up, so I passed it off to John to take it for the home stretch. I'm glad I went first, because watching him choke down that chewy nastiness, and personally knowing how gnarly it was, made my stomach ache even more.

Given that we had a belly full of it, we didn't really want to talk about it too much, but we pretty much convinced ourselves that we had just eaten "snout" or "ears" - something non-traditional yet not emetic. We joked that the "AAAAA" meant "extra snouty." Turns out that Andouillette (I still don't know the meaning of the "AAAAA") is made from the worst possible stuff: pig or cow stomach and colon, which may or may not still include the above-referenced POOP. Not joking. Take a read of the Wikipedia entry for our beloved "Andouillette" and count how many times the word "feces" is used in the short, descriptive paragraph there. Yup, count 'em FIVE "feces" references.

Elsewhere on the web, I found a few other blog posts about people's personal experiences with the stuff. One website understated andouillette as "definitely not a party pleaser" and another chef said that, in 40 years of trying, he's only been able to convert 2 people to the unique taste . . . of poop.

Andouillette is a real delicacy in a certain region of France; it's what French farm people eat because its made from the stuff that they can't sell to discriminating buyers like you and me. You know, people who prefer not to dine on pig sphincters. As my mom says, farmers (around the world) eat "everything but the oink" and it seems that France is no exception.

p.s. John later realized that he actually HAD eaten this poop sausage before - in Los Angeles with a bunch of Frenchies, one of whom had smuggled some andouillette back (stuffed in his socks, where the taste undoubtedly mellowed). The stuff was practically rotten by the time the group huddled around the skillet and- snickering as if on a dare- watched it turn from gray/green back to the color of . . . poop. Rest assured, there is not enough butter on this planet to make it tasty.

Monday, March 10, 2008

German Sausage: Take Two

After writing about currywurst in such detail last night, I awoke this morning craving exotic German sausage, then, just as quickly, fearing what I'll find in my culinary explorations. I decided that I could avoid ruining my palate on an accidental blood sausage if I could just learn a few German sausage-related words. You know- figure out the words for "beef" and "pork" and "fried" and I'd be on my way to navigating what appears to be a ridiculous array of tubular German meat offerings (see image).

I started out by learning the sausages I'd already heard of, and found these:

Braunschweiger: pork liver sausage (a.k.a. liverwurst), named for its home town of Braunschweig; spoils quickly: "About a week after opening, the meat will change from a fresh pinkish color to a dull gray, and will then begin to turn green." Yeah, NOT in my fridge it ain't, cuz I'm not going near that nastiness. Apparently it even makes a good chocolate egg substitute, for Easter-egg-hunting purposes.

Bratwurst: sausage made of finely chopped pork, beef, or veal. Sounds safe. We'll see.

Knockwurst: "crack sausage" (so named because of the sound it makes when you bite into the taught skin?) Also sounds relatively safe: a garlicky beef sausage meant to be eaten by hand.

Overall, I was not exactly off to an appetizing start, although things quickly turned south once I strayed from the familiar ones. Consider these offerings, which I sincerely hope to avoid:

Gelbwurst: "made from pork, veal and mixed spices such as ginger and nutmeg." OK, you had me at "Hellllloooooo, tube steak!" and then we move on to the fine print: "traditionally contains brains." Why, why, why, I ask, would you ruin a perfectly good sausage by throwing brains in there? Next!

Blutwurst: You knew it would appear. Every country with a strong sausage tradition seems to have its version of blood sausage. But the Germans love it so much, you can even buy the Blutwurst Throw Rug. (Hopefully it is vomit-resistant.)

There doesn't seem to be a consistent way to unravel the mysteries of the sausage nomenclature. Sure, "weisswurst" translates to "white sausage," but why, pray tell, is it white? Given the above, I wouldn't be surprised if it translated as "sausage made from pig eyeballs."

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Currywurst: Pride of Berlin

We are leaving for Paris and Berlin next week (don't miss me too much for the next 2 weeks- I guaranty some good blogging upon my return), so I've been researching (shocking!) stuff to do. In Berlin, I kept coming across something called "currywurst": hot pork sausage cut into slices and doused in a sauce made of ketchup and curry. Sounds tasty- and besides, who doesn't love a meal you can eat with a wooden stick?

Currywurst - one of the many German interpretations of sausage - that was invented(?) in Berlin in 1949. It is street food that has become something of a cult. It inspires everything from guerrilla street art/graffiti, to My too-good-to-be-true finding was the Deutsches Currywurst Museum- which, in fact, IS too good- the opening has been stalled for several years and it doesn't appear to be open yet. (Damn! There go your stocking stuffers, Margie!)

When I typed "currywurst" into "google images," I got over 25,000 results, which I find amazing since I'd never heard of the stuff before (had you?) Reviewing the image results gave me a keyhole into the vast World of Currywurst. It also may have revealed some of the reason for the evident fascination with the stuff: apparently it has magical powers to make your boobs grow, and maybe even other body parts. Some of the photos made it look reasonably appetizing, but something about this German delight just does NOT photograph well (am I being too generous?)

Pride of Berlin or not, the photos actually started to gross me out. I mean, really, this image looks downright painful, and this one, just, I don't know: YUK. And leave it to the Germans to think that they can improve the visual by throwing in some corn for color. Nice try, but you can't fool me- I've seen the truth!

Somehow I think I'll regain my appetite and start craving one of these about this time next week. I'd better get over it, anyway, since there was a restaurant I was supposed to check out, on the recommendation of a friend, but I got so distracted by THIS PHOTO of the owner/chef - that photo grosses me out even more!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

I Survived My First Snoop Dogg Concert!

I survived my first (and last?) Snoop Dogg concert. And so did the 1,001 other vanilla-ice-wannabe local kids, plus about 4 real, live homies thrown in for flava'. As I said before, it was absolutely incomprehensible to me that THE Snoop Dogg was coming to B-town- not "Snoopy on Ice," not "Snoop and His Doggies, The Nation's Premier Snoop Dogg Cover Band"- but the real 9-time-Grammy-nominee himself. [Perfect illustration: the next "big show" scheduled for our local Magic City Music Hall is a classic: "Degameth" which is variously billed as "The Northcoast's Premier Tribute to Megadeth" and "The Nation's Premier Megadeth Tribute Band" and I'm not sure which title is lamer.]

Doors opened at 6 pm, with Snoop scheduled for 8 pm. Being the total dork that I am, I made sure that John and I arrived, along with a 6'4" young lawyer from my office (for additional security, you see), promptly at 7:45 pm, so as not to miss Mr. Dogg's entrance on-stage at 8 pm (there it was in writing, on my ticket- "8:00 pm"). I was still a little scared of the crowd we might find there- worried that some of the very sketchy locals would appear and cause trouble. So I was glad, initially, to see that we were going to get frisked upon entering. That is, until I was whisked into the "female" line, only to have the "frisking" consist of some lightly-mustachioed high school gym teacher-lady slide her greasy hands all over my backside and then pronounce me "clean"- yeah, not so "clean" after THAT groping, thank you very much!

Mr. Dogg apparently did not read the ticket and, to my surprise (not kidding) did not arrive onstage promptly at 8 pm, so that I could be safely at home/in jammies by 10:00. No, we had to endure over an hour of Snoop's "warm up" guys, if you can call them that. There was no actual warm-up entertainment, just 2 guys- 1 of them very prison-buff and wearing a do-rag, and 1 of them extraordinarily fat, to the point that he was surprisingly fun to look at. Here is the full text of the pre-Snoop "entertainment," as bellowed by the aforementioned "entertainers":

"All a y'all out there from Endicott, say YEAH!!!"
"All a y'all out there from Johnson City, say HELL YEAHH!!!
"All a y'all out there from Binghamton, say HELL THE FUCK YEAH!!"
[crowd goes nuts]

Although I didn't "get" the pre-game "act", Snoop came on around 9:15 pm (how anal retentive/old am I that I was actually looking at my watch and taking notes on Snoop's timings, while surrounded by a cloud of skunky-pot-smoke and college-aged partiers?) and he did give a good show (all 1 hour, 20 minutes of it, which was just PERFECT for us, actually!) I'm bummed i can't remember more of what he actually said between songs, because it was pure gold. Stuff like, "Ladies, if you lookin' gooooooooood, like you know you shoooooooooooould . . . drop it like it's hot" and "Ladies, if you got love for Snoop, say HELL YEAH!" You get the idea. It was great. And definitely took me into a culture that I hadn't experienced before.

I had to read, with much confusion, the review of Snoop's show in the local paper. The writer (we won't call her a "journalist"), who is only a couple years older than I am, apparently did not appreciate Dogg's "work"- here is an excerpt, which I find overly-dramatic to the point of being ridiculous:

"I know of no other way to put this. A review is an opinion and my opinion is that Snoop Dogg's concert was probably the most offensive, disgusting performance I have ever had to endure. Seriously. Unfortunately, I can't reveal the reasons why, because this is a family-friendly newspaper and Web site and I can't print some of the raunchier, more vile things Dogg said."

What I wanted to know was, What show did SHE see? I actually saw her standing on the sound stage behind us, her face in a grimace, but seriously, did she not expect to hear a bunch of F-bombs out of Snoop? From her elevated perch, was she able to see some on-stage raunchiness that I missed, and, if so, could I get my $30 back???

FASHION TANGENT: Speaking of cultures I hadn't experienced before, I am surprised to learn that there is this whole style of dressing for these college guys (how old did THAT sound?) that is so god-awful, I had to look into it. Check it out: there was a SUPER annoying/drunk/pot-smoking guy standing next to me wearing what I thought was the worst baseball cap I'd ever seen: a red NY Yankees cap covered in rhinestones. Oh, but that fugly item of clothing was NOTHING compared to his hooded sweatshirt, which had big cartoon-ish diamonds and dollar signs all over it. In PINK, no less. So I scoured the internet, trying in vain to find the exact hoodie that I had to stare at for that 1 hour, 20 minutes, and was shocked to find that not only are these sweatshirts ubiquitous, they are PRICEY- apparently this is the hottest style of urban sportswear and the trend-setting line costs up to $300. THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS for one of THESE!!! Or THIS, but it's SOLD OUT at $330! My god. Seriously, I know this is totally-'80s of me, but wasn't it a scandal for working-class parents everywhere when the cool urban sneakers cost $100? And now we have THIS? Apparently they are sold by a company called Billionaire Boys Club. At least the flagship store, which opened in NYC last December, looks like a cool shopping experience.