A Year of Adventures and Doing Stuff

Rodin on traveling abroad.

December 31, and the week leading up to it, has always been of interest to me. The culmination of a calendar year causes me, and seemingly every other blogger, to reflect on the past year’s events, what happened, what didn’t, where’d they go, what did they cook/eat, who did they date. The arbitrary nature of time demarcators has led me to question the significance of today versus yesterday or any other day. As a society (and world) we mark today as the end of the year and tomorrow the day to join a gym, just as soon as the room stops spinning and we find our pants.

In stark opposition to the mindfulness movement, I have largely been focused on the parts bookending “now.” Where am I today versus a year ago? Where will I be a year from now? In my 29 years I can safely assert that I am not clairvoyant, nor a historian. I often struggle with remembering where I parked my car or what I just ate. I have a vague notion of where I will be tomorrow and maybe a week from now, but beyond that…

The basis for mindfulness is that you can’t change the past, nor predict the future, so why worry about either? If you have any friends who post those inspirational quotes or read any profiles on a dating site this year, I’m sure you’ve read some variation on that axiom, likely attributed to Buddha.

While I try to become more “now,” I did want to enumerate what happened in 2014, mostly so I have some reference point when I fry my brain from rapidly vacillating between gadgets and apps.

Travel

Oh, the places you’ll go…

Where didn’t I go this year? I have dreamed about going to Europe for many a New Year’s reflection day. This year finally was the year. After dating Leann for about two months, I shared that I wanted to spend my birthday somewhere other than Chicago. She asked where and I said Italy and Paris. She followed up with inquiring if I was going solo or with friends. Leann shared that if no one else would go, she would be interested.

“How committed are you? If you had to give a percentage…”

“75-80,” Leann answered.

A few weeks later I asked “Are you sure?” no less than five times. And after that our first trip was booked. My quest for a passport stamp would be realized. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve looked at those stamps since the adventure. Even more peculiar was that someone was willing to go overseas with me for a prolonged period of time.

Stops along the way: Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, Fajardo, Old San Juan.

Each inspiring and beautiful in their own way. Florence was one of the most breathtaking places I have been, possibly due to the steeply sloped hills. Traveling was one of the main themes for my writing this year. While it certainly can be expensive, seeing other cities and cultures opens the mind. Plus, I don’t think many people want to read about my daily commute. Traveling is my escape to newness. Experiencing a city for the first time is magical. There is no feeling like my first time in Paris. Walking around Paris that premiere nuit. Wandering in the damp and chilly early evening. Emerging from the Metro and seeing I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid. Turning to Leann with mouth agape. Then walking some more. Wandering. Then, our feet hit the damp pavement a little faster. There it was. Illuminated in all its glory.

Le Tour Eiffel.

Le Tour

I have never experienced anything like that day. That’s the magic of travel.

I hope to return to some of these places in the future, but I’m not focusing on the future. MINDFULNESS!

Dating

More than traveling this year, there was a larger theme. Adventures with Leann. By some luck I happened to find someone who is eager to try new things, a patient listener (we all know my stories are seldom succinct) and someone who says yes. She gives unconditionally. She has unknowingly reminded me of the innocence of young love. Those times before becoming jaded or disenchanted with the dating “process.” There is little doubt that I am crazy. Somehow that doesn’t bother her. What started as a conversation about ice cream while sipping margaritas has developed into a year full of happy times getting to know her, her family and her friends. What adventures will we get into in 2015? Follow #lookatusdoingstuff to find out.

Foodstuffs

This was the year I became a professional chef. Thanks to Chicago Food Bloggers and Mealsharing.com, I hosted my first dinner party at a swanky rooftop in Chicago’s South Loop. This was also the year of bacon. Leann and I entered a cooking competition through The Takedowns. To supply us for the showdown, they gave us with bacon. Lots of it. Enough to clog all your arteries. And those of your friends.

Also thanks to Yelp and Chicago Food Bloggers, I got to eat some delectable dishes that inspired my cooking. I had the chance to meet restaurant owners and some other bloggers in the process.

Dancing

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2014 was also the year I became a professional dancer. No, not that kind. Thanks to Nicolle Wood, I got a bit closer to learning that devil dance known as balboa. The first few weeks were rough because I had basic knowledge of the basic step. Through her patience and generosity with her time, I was able to learn hangman, crabs, scoots and the routine in time for our performance outside Harold Washington Library. Hoping to take on lindyhop in 2015.

Working

Another year at the same place, but there were lots of shuffles. The company was acquired by another company and the office moved from the ‘burbs to downtown. That has necessitated several shifts in commuting and lifestyle. The company continues to grow and my team is growing exponentially. I have had the opportunity to recruit and hire some very talented people.

So now, it’s off to another party. Some close friends are gathering for homemade pizza and reflecting on the year that has been full of -ING verbs. Thanks for following this year and I hope to share more great adventures from around the world in 2015!

Become a Travel Expert in Two Weeks

Always find the view.

All it takes is one trip to be perceived as a travel expert.

Prior to this adventure my only international travel explorations were Canada and Mexico. I have been back in the states for five days. In that time I have been asked for advice on upcoming trips by friends and coworkers, including my VP. I suspect his budget may be a bit different from mine.

I am guilty of asking everyone and anyone I have ever met for their advice before I left. Beyond anything else, I hate waste. Wasted words, time, energy or money. I wanted to travel efficiently. And who better to ask than someone who has already been where I was going?

While catching up with some of my well-traveled coworkers this week, one asked me what I would have done differently. I wish I’d taken a formal tour of the Vatican and Colosseum. The manager promptly replied, “I told you so.” I will take this opportunity to repeat his advice. If you are going to the Vatican or the Colosseum, get a tour guide.

Be careful if/when you return. Some people will ask you about your trip. Others will hate you for having left the office, especially if they had to cover your work. This may be why Caesar was really killed. Brutus got jealous that Julius was gallivanting around like he ran the empire.

The Vatican is overwhelming. Wandering around aimlessly is fatiguing and frustrating. I ended up not enjoying the Vatican Museum as much as I hoped I would. I’ll write more about that in a separate post.

If you are a history buff and remember everything from World History in high school, you are my enemy. But, you will be well prepared for visiting the sites in Roma.

The Colosseum is doable sans tour guide, but if you get one of the tours offered you gain access to restricted areas like the third level and onto the main floor. The tour was about 10-15 euros and lasts an hour. In our haste, we ascended the stairs after getting through the gate and marveled at the spectacle of the monstrous arena. After an hour walking around mouth agape we headed for the exit and saw the signs for the guided tours. At that point we didn’t want to spend another hour walking around the Colosseum.

Traveling is one giant upsell. You buy a museum pass, then you get there and a tour is offered for another 10 euros. Or an audio guide for 7. You begin to forget you already paid to access the site or museum.

Tip: Read as much as you can pre-trip. Stock up on history texts. If you’re like me and don’t have a ton of time to read (fall asleep on page 2), there are tons of podcasts and lectures you can stream.

Aside from those two sites, I wouldn’t have done anything differently on the trip. That’s a bold statement from me. I am extremely critical, especially of myself. One time I parked in the wrong parking garage for a company party. The garage cost $30, instead of the valet that was pre-arranged and cost $12. I still haven’t forgiven myself for that.

Most people enjoy talking about two things: themselves and their travels. So, be curious. Ask them questions. What did they love that they didn’t think they would? What would they have done differently? Where do they wish they had time to go? What was underwhelming? What’s the transit system like?

Those are all questions I asked anyone willing to talk to me. The answers helped me shape the time in each city and agenda. I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends who have traveled the globe. My cousin studied in Rome for a semester. Another friend spent a significant amount of time in Italy. I didn’t get a ton of advice on Paris, but supplemented personal advice with travel books and Paris’ tourism site. I was also extremely lucky to have someone with similar cultural interests and curiosity joining me on the trip.

Ultimately, if you are a planner, you’ll do your legwork before take-off. If you like to wing things and live each day as it comes, you will also have a great time. The biggest advice I could give if you are traveling with someone is to make sure you know what type of person your companion is. If I had gone on the trip with someone who wasn’t a planner and relied on me for everything, I would have been resentful and burnt out.

Traveling is tremendously rewarding but also tiring. I haven’t tallied up all the museums and sites we saw or the mileage covered, but this may be the first trip where I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Aside from getting on the flight back to Chicago.

6 Essential Apps to Avoid Getting Killed in Europe

travel, apps, iphone, ios, google, podcast, tripadvisor, metro, paris, italy, rome, florence, venice, zelda, nes

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I love apps. I love staying connected. And I love technology that helps me do things smarter and more efficiently.

Prior to leaving for Italy and France, I read a stack of articles including some on essential apps when traveling. I loaded up my phone with a few of them. Here are the ones I found to be most useful and I credit with keeping me alive.

TripAdvisor

This app comes in quite handy and barely edges out Google Maps for what I used most during the trip. You can download city guides for wherever you are going. They have most of the major cities. The best features are walking guides that cover must-see attractions. Beyond that, the app also has some historical context for sites and attractions pulled from reviews on the site and Wikipedia. The app also has some pretty good maps that can help orient you with where you are. If you are looking for a particular place, they have a “Point Me There” button that tells you which way to start walking/hobbling.

Google Maps

I should also mention I love Google. I consider myself a Google disciple and await them sending me those funky glasses. I’m holding out to be a beta user for the self-driving car. But, their map app saved countless time wandering the streets. When you have WiFi turned on your phone, somehow the app figures out where you are. This goes for both this app and TripAdvisor’s. In Venice, maps are deemed useless. You wander the streets and hope for the best.

zelda, hyrule, map, nes

At times I felt like I was in Zelda without a map, wandering room after room, only to end up looking at a canal with nowhere to turn. Google Maps saved me time and miles of walking. I used it mostly when trying to find a particular attraction or at night when trying to get back to the hotel.

Podcasts

This may seem like an unlikely pick, but there is a font of knowledge in the podcast and iTunes U app stores. My main go to was Rick Steves. He has museum guides for all of the major attractions in Italy and Paris. I downloaded these before I left, then popped in my headphones at the museum and had a personal tour guide directing my attention to important works of art and sculpture. I bought the audio guide at the Vatican for 7 euros and regretted it. I didn’t have my headphones so I had to put the mini remote/speaker thing directly on my ear, risking Cauliflower ear. Maybe they disinfect them with Holy water. It’s so loud in the Vatican Museum you can’t hear the audio. Plus you have to key in the numbers for the items you want to know more about. Fun fact: the Vatican has an ungodly amount of things.

The audio tours from Rick are free and most are close to an hour. I’d highly suggest going this route if you don’t want to hire a private or group tour guide.

MetrO

Oh, the Metro. How I love thee…

I used this app mainly in Paris. It works extremely well. It works offline and presents you with multiple route options. You can even have it use your current location, likely thanks to the little sprites and lemmings toiling inside my phone. Our train stop in Paris was Jules Joffran. With that knowledge, I could plug-in my current location and have the app tell me how to get back to the stop closest to my hotel. It presented the shortest time route as well as that with the fewest transfers. This is a must if you’re going to Paris. The Metro is amazing and this app helps you take advantage of its greatness.

Google Translate

I didn’t use this a ton because it requires an internet connection. But when I was back at the hotel, I’d use it for some phrases I wanted to know. Or if I wanted to look up what I had ingested at dinner. Cuisses de grenouille equals frog legs. FYI.

Google+/Dropbox

As you may have noticed. I take a fair amount of pictures. These apps allowed me to sync my photos when I had a wi-fi connection. One of my greatest fears, next to being in a foreign prison, was having my phone stolen or broken. Friends and relatives have had cameras stolen or broken when abroad and lost all their photos. These apps diminish the gut-wrenching pain if your camera/phone is stolen. One bonus for Google+ ahead of Dropbox, Google+ has unlimited storage. Dropbox caps you at 5GB.

Honorable Mentions

I tried a few other apps but they ended up not being of use for me. I downloaded a WiFi finder and a few language apps. Some had helpful phrases and more robust capabilities if you paid a few dollars for the full version.

Final note:

You read that time above correctly. I now wake up pre-6AM. I haven’t consistently woken up this early since high school. The thought that people voluntarily get up at this hour frightens and saddens me. Then again, I have found this new time to write and start my day at a more leisurely pace.

Happy travels and comment with any apps you found helpful during your travels.

When Do You Leave?

travel, translation, italian, iphone, europe

travel, translation, italian, iphone, europe

Every day for the past two weeks I have been asked the same question. I am unsure if my friends and coworkers can’t wait to be rid of me, or if they are as anxious as I am for the grandest adventure of my life. This includes that time I walked across the US/Mexico border and spent the day traipsing around Tijuana.

I have been fortunate to travel domestically (and to Canada and Mexico last year) since college. Most of these trips involved visiting friends in cities I had never seen. Glamorously, this also included crashing on couches or in dorms. When you rarely sleep well at someone’s place, be it a relative or friend, staring at the ceiling on an air mattress or on a couch is irrelevant.

This vacation may signal what psychologists call “adulthood.” A thing that I often avoid at all costs. The trip involves zero couches or air mattresses. It also features seeing some of the world’s greatest art, origins of the modern city and the finest cuisine.

When do I leave, you ask?

The scheduled departure is this Friday evening. The destinations, if you haven’t been subjected to my repeated questions or discussions, are Rome, Florence, Venice and, at long last, Paris.

For the past four to five weeks, I have been researching every travel guide and blog I can find. Rick Steves has become my close personal friend. For one week he accompanied me on my commute, sharing stories on Rome at Night, the best churches, Trastevere and walking through the countless museums that house priceless treasures.

Another few days were comprised of mimicking an “Italian for Travelers” CD my girlfriend picked up. Should I be concerned that all of the hotel dialogue was about the rooms being small and too expensive? I still need to learn how to ask where the library is and what noises Italian animals make.

Then I hit the podcasts and apps. In a true measure of nerdiness (or being curious about the world), I found lectures on the great artists. This lecture from Washington University Professor William E. Wallace was particularly fascinating about Michelangelo as artist, sculptor, foreman and aristocrat. One might call him a renaissance man.

All this crammed research made me wish I took more art and world history classes in college. I realized I would’ve paid a lot more attention if I were going to Rome and Florence at the end of the semester.

I haven’t done as much research on Paris, mais j’espère que les années de français sera de retour à son arrivée à Paris.

This trip will mark the first time I haven’t been in Chicago for my birthday. Instead, I’ll be in the eternal city and Florence. In lieu of buying me a drink this year for my birthday, feel free to send me some euros my way.

Mille grazie et merci bien to my lady friend for agreeing to join on the adventure and to all my jet setter friends who have shared their experiences on places to see, places to skip and reminding me to plan to time to enjoy la dolce vita/la belle vie.

I’ll try to update BachelorBasics with pictures and vignettes when I can. If you want more, follow me on the social channels (links are up top).

No one has asked when I come back. I think they know that I wasn’t kidding when I replied that I wasn’t.

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La Famiglia – 437 Rush Re-Opening

chicago, food bloggers, cfbeats, phil stefani, 437 rush, la famiglia

Within 10 minutes of entering Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush’s re-opening party last night, I had a glass of vino and more food than I get at my grandma’s house. (I hope my grandma doesn’t read this.) The waiters came in unrelenting waves with trays of everything from bruschetta to tuna tartar. I had quickly amassed more plates than a circus performer, replete with my very own mini trident.

chicago, food bloggers, cfbeats, phil stefani, 437 rush, la famiglia, salad

For the Stefani family, food is their life. This restaurant goes beyond being a mom-and-pop upscale steakhouse to being part of their empire, which includes CastawaysChango LocoRiva Crab House and Tuscany (4 locations throughout Chicagoland).

Gina and Anthony Stefani grew up with a restaurateur for a father and learned the family business from an early age.

“My dad had me working the pasta stand at 11,” Anthony recalled.

“And I was washing dishes at 15,” Gina added.

Phil, the patriarch, makes it back to Italy five times a year to sample the authentic flavors of the motherland. Their family vacations might sound a bit different than yours and mine.

“Whenever we took trips, it was always focused on the food,” Gina said. Instead of waiting in line for the teacups at Disney, they sampled sauces and breads in Italy.

“But the food in Italy is amazing. You’ll never have anything better.” Gina continued.

The brother/sister duo were entrusted with updating 437 Rush from the old-school Italian steakhouse vibe.

“Anthony is more of a foodie than I am,” admitted Gina. “He knows all the trends for new ingredients.”

Gina stepped away from her gig in PR and event planning with XA to lead the project management of the redesign.

“This has been my baby for the past two months and tomorrow will be its birthday. I told people we should’ve had a film crew in here,” Gina said of the remodel resembling those featured on HGTV. It came down to the final hours of pulling the plastic off light fixtures the day before the party.

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The white tablecloths have been removed. With new floors, Edison lights (a requirement for any new bar), Chicago-themed art, dinnerware and flatware, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the focus on the diner. Their new menu retains classic staples like gnocchi, branzino and the montecarlo, a dish that was a non-negotiable for staying on the menu.

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“We wanted to still serve the dishes our regulars come here for, but also offer some smaller plates and new cocktails,” Gina said. The aim is to attract the lunch and happy hour crowds looking for a place to unwind.

Like the Stefanis, executive chef Christian Fantoni also comes from a family involved in food. His father was the cook for an Italian prince in northern Italy. Gina and Anthony worked with the chef to adapt the menu to include more small, shareable plates. Some of the apps offered last night included wild boar pate, melazane (a pesto with eggplant) and risotto with buffalo mozzarella.
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The redesign also includes a salumeria bar with sliced, melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, mortadella and salamino nostrano. I fought the urge to request half a pound sliced thin to trump anyone else’s lunch at the office.

The next wave of waiters brought glasses of warm lobster bisque. He informed us that their process takes 12 hours to make their batch.

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If that weren’t enough to satiate your appetite, martini glasses of limoncello and cosmos were the next round to wash down the food. Then came the barrage of cakes: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and banana.

After the din of the 150+ guests started to wind down, I found the Stefani family gathered, like most families, near the kitchen to enjoy what matters most: good food and la famiglia.