Italy: Convalescing in Florence

IMG_0510At 4 in the  morning on our last night in Rome, Bridin told me she couldn’t leave me alone in Italy with my terrible cough and she found an American hospital to take me to. I was sure it was just allergies and jet lag, but I thought about how frustrating it was to talk my mom into going to the hospital, so I acquiesced.

After an exceedingly long Uber trip we finally made it to the desolate hospital, where we were greeted by the most debonair man I have ever met. He was wearing a finely tailored Italian suit and he smoked cigarettes, which somehow looked cool like in old movies. When he spoke English he had a Jersey accent. I thought maybe this place is where people in NJ come from? But Bridin asked him and he had spent most of his life in Jersey.

The doctor told me I had bronchitis and wrote a note to the pharmacy. I was surprised they would accept a note. After filling the prescription the pharmacist gave me the note back with some antibiotics. He also gave me this stuff, which got me WASTED.

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The train ride was lovely. Paying an extra 20 bucks for business class is really worth it. The chairs are super-comfy.

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And you pass all of those mustard-colored houses and Cypress trees from your Under the Tuscan Sun fantasies.

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But if you have an international adapter, make sure not to put the wrong plug in the socket. A big flash went up and everyone in my train car looked worried, then they all Tsk-tsk-ed me. They actually made that sound.

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Hotel Cavour was very fancy and the people were friendly. Fewer people spoke English in Florence than in Rome, but they were much more helpful and patient.

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I had to rest and get better, which sucked because I wanted to see the museums and I had packed a special dress for the opera. But if you have to be sick, a luxury hotel is the place to do it. I felt like Eloise at the Plaza. Unfortunately, the hotel had no room service, but they did serve an American-style buffet breakfast. The cut-up hot dogs were understandable. Someone must have convinced them, really! They eat sausages for breakfast in America!  The steamed vegetables were a little more perplexing.

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Don’t you totally want this couch?

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I would like this mirror, but a little more ornate, please.

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I forgot that in Italy the ground floor is 0, not 1, and I pressed 1 in the elevator and came upon this when the doors opened…

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I mean if you’re going to remodel, don’t you take down the pictures and remove the furniture? Who is that bed waiting for? Or what? On my last day I asked an English speaking desk clerk what the deal was. “Oh, they are fixing it up” was all he would say. I’m both relieved and a little disappointed that he didn’t say “Ohhh… we don’t let anyone in that room — not after the murderrrr….”

And is it the fever dreams or is my name in the wallpaper?

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Italy: Near Death Experience

DSC04146I was kind of burnt out from all of the walking, but Bridin encouraged me to go to some of the places on my to-do list. I love marble cemetery angels, and The Protestant/Non-Catholic Cemetery was highly recommended. It is also a cat sanctuary — what a fantastic use of land.

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It also meant there was a little center for the sanctuary, so someone is always there and it’s not creepy. Plus they have bathrooms. Not to be underestimated.

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DSC03996The memorial most likely to buy you a drink

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This little boy may be the creepiest statuary I have ever photographed.

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What on earth is going on here?

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Their wide array of sculptures includes some seriously bereft angels and cherubs.

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Nicely carved feet

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Italy: How to Avoid Looking Like a Tourist

DSC03689 (2)Before I went to Italy, I read a number of articles advising you on the do’s and don’ts of travel in Italy. Let’s talk about some of them.

Italians serve their bread dry. Don’t ask for butter or olive oil.

On the third day, Bridin declared, ” I don’t care. I want butter. I AM a tourist.” Seriously, why are we trying to hide it? The minute we open our mouths they know where we are from. And probably one glance at my freckles rules me out as a local. Anyways, being able to travel internationally is a privilege. Why should we be ashamed of that? Embrace it.

Cover your knees and shoulders in church or the vatican

This one I agree with. I think it’s important to respect the values and social mores of a country related to things like religion and modesty. I noticed none of the people ever had their shoulders exposed, anywhere. No talk tops or sleeveless shirts. I did not notice anyone’s knees.

Italians eat pizza with a knife and fork.

Not so much. Most of the pizza places are take-aways, and the people I saw eating pizza in restaurants used their hands. But no one ate in public, and when I wandered down the street munching on panini people openly gawked at me. At first I thought they were jealous of my sandwich. Then I thought it was because I was eating meat on Ash Wednesday outside the vatican. But I eventually got the vibe that I was being crass. So where were people eating all of the food I saw them buy? Hiding behind ruins?

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Watch traffic. Lines on the road are just decorative.

Totally true. One woman walking to the Vatican with us stood in the street and I saw a driver waiting to turn right get angrier and angrier. I had to yank her out of the way just as the driver zoomed through the space where she had been standing. The tourist looked at me in shock, I deadpanned, “They don’t care.” I noticed it was often a matter of playing chicken. One gorgeous woman glared at my cab driver like, “I DARE you” as she crossed in front of him. Then on my last day, I screamed, “Look out!” as a driver backed into a crowd of people. One guy jumped, but still got a little bump before the driver threw the car into gear and took off.

Italian people are more fashionable and you should dress up.

I took that to mean “pack a few nice dresses for restaurants and churches.” That was not what it meant. Italian people are heavily tailored. They wear a spotless uniform of perfectly cut jeans or pants with nice shoes and a puffy quilted down jacket. Speaking of shoes, they hate it when we wear sneakers. But they aren’t walking 9 miles a day through museums and historical sites. They also have shoe closets nearby. Travelers don’t have the luxury of packing 8 different pairs of shoes.

After worsening shin splints, I finally started wearing my river shoes, a cross between sandals and sneakers — which everyone hated. One woman in the train station looked me up and down between my shoes and face with open disgust, like I had dog shit on my feet. I just thought smugly, “Yeah? What are you all dressed up for? To go to work. I am going on a magical European vacation, so suck it.”

Rick Steves promotes the idea of “blending in” and in one video points out a group of Americans and Italians sitting on the steps laughing together. He uses them as a perfect example of getting to know the locals when traveling in Italy. First of all, we know those people were hired and paid for this scene. And unless you are a single person under 30 your chances of establishing tight relationships with the locals are pretty slim. I’m sorry, your hostel days are over. No more snogging with randoms at the music festival. Anyways, Rick Steves, with your red hair, backpack and khaki shorts, do you really think you’re blending in?

I will tell you how you can blend in. I believe every Italian is assigned a quilted down jacket upon birth and changes them out like shells every year. Almost every single Italian I saw was wearing one. Buy the quilted jacket and be one of them.

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When it’s warmer, they switch from the parka to the shorter jacket style

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jacketsAnd when it’s really warm, they switch to the vest. Even the gondoliers wear the vests.

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So I photographed and made fun of these jackets for 2 straight weeks. Then I left my coat in Venice. I had to buy something or freeze to death for the rest of the trip. When in Rome…

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Italy: The Vatican Museum

DSC03806The secret to not waiting 3 hours in line for Italian museums is to cough up 30 bucks or so for the “skip-the-line” guided tours. At the Vatican Museum they start about two hours before the museum opens. The only problem is that then you have to follow a guided tour. I don’t know if it’s ADD or individualism, but I can’t seem to stay with a tour. I kept jumping ahead and lagging behind, making the tour guide insane. At one point I told her I had to go to the restroom and she tried to make me wait for the scheduled restroom stop 20 minutes later. You can’t make a woman over 40 wait that long unless you want to see what the goofy-looking Swiss Guard does to people who pee on the floor of the Sistine Chapel.

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The Vatican Museum is a collection of marble, gilt and gold like you have never seen. It is really overwhelming. The entire ceiling is awash with gold. Some of the statuary is really trippy. There is an entire room of male nudes with their penises lopped off, thanks to Pope Pius IX and Catholicism’s weird obsession with the human body. I wonder where they keep all of the penises.

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Babies and creepy children are allowed to keep their penises, because chopping them off would be weird, right?

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And boobs are cool. In fact, the more, the better.

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Foot fetish? No problem.

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There are a lot of babies in the museum. And a lot of beheadings. None of John the Baptist though. I think these are Judith. At least one of them clearly inspired Artemisia Gentilischi.

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The guide was really into the 4 Raphael chambers. Lots of muscular butts.

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And what was Sylvester Stallone doing there?

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You heard me.

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There is a lot of Egyptian art there too, but I guess the guide had to pick and choose from the miles and miles of art. But before the Sistine Chapel she whisked us off to the snack bar past a Chagall and two Dalis. I complained, “You are skipping the entire 20th century!”

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IMG_0309IMG_0319We made our way into the Sistine Chapel, where no photography is allowed. It is just as well because it allows you to totally become immersed. Everyone focuses on the ceiling, but the wall behind the altar is a gorgeous blue and had enough going on to keep me there all day. I sat on a bench and put on the glasses I never wear and just fell into the splendor. The tour guide forced me out against my will. I just wanted to stay there all day but for some reason I HAD to go to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Oh, The Pieta, well, that was almost worth leaving the Sistine Chapel.

IMG_0358But most of the art and design was kind of garish. Pope John Paul II’s tomb  was there, and I almost wanted to pry it open and see if both of his forearms were still there.

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Italy: Eat, Sightsee, Rock Out

DSC03664I now know why Italians can eat so much pasta and gelato and still fit into their high fashion ensembles. They are so active I can’t keep up with them.

Tuesday we thought we would catch the hop-on hop-off tour bus and see a few sights. Our rented apartment is one block from the vatican, so it seemed like a bus that hits the tourist sites would stop nearby. But we had to walk about a mile to the stop next to the Palace Saint Angelis.

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I wanted to see the Trevi Fountain, so we hopped off the bus at that stop. Again it was a much longer walk than we expected. Even though we are traveling off season, the square was a madhouse. But we were able to get close enough to toss our coins in the Fountain, guaranteeing our return.

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DSC03624We slogged back to the designated bus stop, but the bus goes so far so slowly we didn’t have time to make another stop before Bob had to get to his gig for soundcheck. An open double decker bus really is the best way to see a city, though, there were statues and ruins everywhere.

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We had eaten a late breakfast, Bob and I splitting a prosciutto and mozzarella panini. Here the bread for the panini is very thin and crisp. It’s one of the best things I have ever eaten so greasy but with delicious grease. It’s ubiquitous here, kind of like the ham and gruyere sandwiches you can live on in Paris.

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So we had a very small lunch of pizza by the slice before bob had to go meet up with the band. It wasn’t as amazing of an experience as you would expect.

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Pizza in a cone

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Later, Bobs mom, Bridin, and I had an excellent dinner at a random local place. Borgo pio has been very lucky restaurant-wise. Bridgin had gnocchi in a pesto that would make American pesto hide its face in shame. I had osso bucco, which wasn’t as hot as I would have liked, but was nonetheless spectacular.

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DSC03692Then we took Uber to such a desolate place our driver insisted on going to check it out before he dropped us off. I loved the driver because he spoke Spanish and we communicated perfectly in a sort of Spang-talian. It kind of screwed me up because now my Italian keeps lapsing into Spanish.

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The club was cool, if a little small. Komatsu, the Dutch band that’s opening for them on this tour are very clean and tight. Heavy rocking. The Freeks were fantastic. I think the band challenges Bob, and having Jonathan there gives him a solid place to jump off of. At one point the band was doing their slow spacey prog rock and Bob was drumming fast and intense. Bridgin told me it was like the drums were our heartbeat. From the outside our bodies appear slow and placid, but inside our hearts are going a mile a minute.

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Italy: Back Alley Relics


IMG_0364One interesting thing about staying just outside the Vatican is that the tourist shops all sell Catholic merch. Usually Catholic stuff is made by religious orders but you could tell some of the manufacturers knew nothing about Catholicism. Proper rosaries are black or dark brown with the exception of children’s which can be white. The shop across the street had rosaries in such garish colors, like stripper colors. Of course I had that one blessed for you, Donna. From the Mary Magdaline collection.

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In the back of one shop in Catholic alley I found a little basket of something bearing the image of Pope John Paul II which piqued my interest because everything else was Frances Frances Frances. I looked at the little disc and saw a carefully placed bone chip. It was a relic.

For those of you who don’t know, Catholics venerate relics — 1st degree relics are parts of the bodies of Saints, usually bone or hair or teeth. Even a bit of cloth can be a relic, albeit 2nd degree. Every church must contain a relic. The fancy new cathedral in downtown LA has an entire body built into the wall.

So when I saw the supposed relics of the Sainte Pope John Paul II I accused the merchant, “Fugazi!” He swore it was real, even pointing to a place on his forearm to intimate that’s where the bone chip came from.

I said “what? Where the hell did you get these?” He covered my hands with both of his and looked around in a panic.

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Non toccara la Virgen!

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Italy: the Pope is Dope

IMG_0192Before coming to italy I had purchased several tours. One of them was to see the pope`s Wednesday afternoon talk. I certainly would not have bought a tour in order to get a ride if I had known our apartment was literally one block from the vatican. I spoke to the tour on the phone and they saw no problem and it was too late to get my own ticket.

The coach dropped us off even further away than the bridge of angels. As I walked, cursing the cramp in my calves, I applied some good old Catholic logic — your suffering could not even compare to the suffering of Jesus. Jesus had way more to contend with than leg cramps.

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The huge square at the vatican was cordoned off into large seating sections thank god! Chairs! People were hesitant to approach the front but a lifetime of concerts has taught me to just keep walking towards the stage until somebody stops you. So I got 3rd row. Center!

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Pope Francis appeared on one of those econo metal stairs on wheels they use to get high things off the shelf in Costco. A bunch of guys were pushing him way too fast so it was like

here…comes…the…pope…there…goes…the pope….

But I thought it was really cool he hit all the sections so everyone could see him up close even way in the back.

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The talk was very long, exacerbated by the fact that it was interpreted into about 8 different languages. The sun was hot and of course there was no shade in St Peters Square. There is also no water available. They need vendors like at the baseball game. But. As I suffered from terrible thirst I thought about the Roman soldiers giving Jesus vinegar when He asked for water.

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Pope Francis did give a nice homily about The Exodus not only being an escape but a journey of hope, and how in these difficult times we should choose to travel the way of hope.

As the Mediterranean sun bore down on me, I realized I only had to be there for two hours. Jesus had to hang out in the sun for three hours.

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Italy: All Roads Lead to Rome

DSC03163It was a long journey fraught with misadventure, but we have made it to Italy. I would not even be here without my brother Glen’s emergency delivery of my forgotten prescription to the airport. Bob’s mom Bridin rented a nice little apartment that just happens to be a block away from St Peters Square. The winding marble stairway to the third floor apt is certainly a workout.

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The little cobblestone alleys are very safe feeling and near such a literal mecca that many people speak English. My Italian phrases are helping more than I expected.

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Last night we had dinner at Taverna Angelico around the corner. We shared an appetizer plate. There was a semi hard cheese called “parmigiano something indecipherable.” I will dub it “parmigiano magnificent.” Adorned with a light drizzle of honey, it may have been the best cheese I have ever eaten. I thought, “If the first thing I put in my mouth in italy is THIS good, it’s going to be one heck of a trip.”

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The carpaccio was also unbelievable. Can I say drizzled twice in one post? I think I have to. The carpaccio was drizzled with an intense and thick balsamic. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as pleased with my pasta. Bob, however, loved my pasta as well as his own fish dish. The waiter noticed something was awry and so I told him I just wanted something light. I asked for an entire plate of that cheese. So delicious.

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N’Awlins: Wandering Around the Quarter

DSC01319 (Copy)Every time I walk through Jackson Square I remember seeing Al Taplet selling his folk art for $50 and it makes me crazy that I didn’t buy one. I didn’t have 50 bucks back then anyways, but I still regret it.

DSC01310DSC01316 (Copy)The cast of Godspell was hanging out

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“Canned food is a perversion,’ Ignatius said. ‘I suspect that it is ultimately very damaging to the soul.”
John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces   

“I avoid that bleak first hour of the working day during which my still sluggish senses and body make every chore a penance. I find that in arriving later, the work which I do perform is of a much higher quality.”
John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

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The Cafe du Monde Tried to Kill Me

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When you’re in New Orleans, you always stop at the Cafe du Monde for their hot beignet. On this particular evening I left Bob to order and made my way to the ladies room. Or at least the line for the ladies room.

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You know how industrial bathrooms have 2 gigantic toilet rolls encased in a plastic dispenser? When it was finally my turn, I was just sitting there, minding my own business and the goddamned thing fell right on my head! Roll and all! When I tried to get out of the bathroom, I was locked in! After much pounding and fiddling, I finally made my way out. I told the next girl, “Turn it all the way to the left, then hard to the right.” She said, “I’m not locking that door.”

THE EVIDENCE:

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N’awlins: Omni Giveth and Omni Taketh Away

DSC01327After watching a movie in our room until around 10pm Monday night, I realized I was hungry. I had only eaten crab claws and half a cup of jambalaya all day. So I called down to room service and ordered steak frites, profiteroles and an iced tea. What followed was a comedy of errors like a Benny Hill episode with the poor bellhop running all over to the tune of Yakety Sax. I was especially amused by the line, “I’m sorry I did not bring your profiteroles. I did not know what they were.” And comically, every time he showed up to fix something else he brought another iced tea.

Finally I ordered a calzone from Magazine Street Pizza and I swear it was the best calzone I have ever eaten!

The next morning I had my heart set on Mother’s. But Bob was hungry and wanted to visit the hotel’s breakfast bar. I thought it was strange to have a free continental breakfast at a hotel of this caliber, but there it was. After we finished, a server appeared and handed us a check for $50. We were so upset! There was no sign or verbal warning that it wasn’t free. 50 bucks for a couple of pancakes and a piece of bacon. Oh well, we decided, with the amenity we were actually still $50 ahead. In fact, we were $50, 1 birthday cake, 2 profiteroles and 4 iced teas ahead!

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N’Awlins: Omni and Coop’s

New Orleans OMniIn order to get low fares, I had booked our flight out of LAX at 5:50am. We had to get up at 3am! We figured we would drop off the luggage and then wander around like zombies until check-in time. Well, apparently I had signed up for some Omni membership plan because they upgraded us — and our room was ready. Right away. Oh heavenly sleep! We were snoring away in the comfy beds when someone knocked on the door.

Omni New Orleans room

“Who is it?”

“I’m a hotel employee ma’am. We have an amenity for you.”

“Is it a DO NOT DISTURB sign?”

As soon as I opened the door I felt like an asshole because they were bringing up a birthday cake and a card signed by the employees for me. SO SWEET.

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A little while later we were awoken by the telephone ringing. Bob answered and they asked him if he wouldn’t mind looking for a Hawaiian shirt a previous occupant had forgotten. Bob asked if they could do this later. They told Bob, “He is standing here and he is very…insistent.” So Bob had to turn the light on and I suggested Bob take his own Hawaiian shirt down and insist it was the only one he found in the drawer. But Bob understands that there are people who don’t appreciate my sense of humor, and he produced the man’s shirt.

We woke up later in the afternoon and discovered an envelope on the floor. I cooed, “oooh! Another amenity!” It sure was. Inside was a card apologizing for housekeeping’s lack of thoroughness and a credit for $100 to be used all at once. They only had a small cafe, but the Omni Royal was home to the much-awarded Rib Room, so we made a reservation for Tuesday night.

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It was still sunny, so we took the Riverside streetcar to our favorite local place on Decatur: Coops. The streetcars don’t turn around. There is a steering wheel on either end. So when they hit the end of the line, the operator walks down the row slapping the seatbacks so that they slide to the opposite side and are now facing the other way.

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My favorite thing at Coops is deep fried crab claws with an intense horseradish cocktail sauce. Bob usually gets pasta opelousas, but this time he ordered the sauce on a chicken breast instead of fettucine. I ordered a side of rabbit jambalaya, which was much spicier than I remembered.

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Seattle: One Breakfast, Many Tentacles

Lola's SeattleJonathan, a close friend of ours (and best man at our wedding), recommended breakfast at “Lula’s.” I suddenly realized he meant Lola’s. another Tom Douglas restaurant I had visited on more than one occasion. He insisted we try “Tom’s Favorite Breakfast.” It was a bit steep for breakfast at almost $20, but Jonathan knows his food. Tom’s favorite breakfast consists of: mediterranean octopus, sugar snap peas, spring onion, potatoes, bacon, green garlic yogurt, poached egg, and toast.

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Bob had to say it was the best breakfast he had ever eaten. I tried a bit of the tender charred octopus, but went with my Seattle staple, a morels omelette. Sometimes I will even add fiddlehead ferns if I’m feeling crazy. Their smashed potatoes are whole new potatoes bashed with a cast iron frying pan and sprinkled with kosher salt.

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Lolas with the Pancake sisters

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Seattle Top Pot Donuts

IMG_4575 (Custom)You simply can’t visit Seattle without making a stop at Top Pot Donuts. Sadly, they no longer make their famous peanut donuts, but we will carry on somehow.

Top Pot opened in 2002 on Capitol Hill in 2002. The name came from an old Chinese restaurant sign the co-founders bought that said TOPSPOT. When they had the sign taken to be restored, the “S” fell off. Hence we have Top Pot Donuts.

The founders loved the retro sign and it fit their dream of creating a cozy donut spot that wasn’t full of buzzing fluorescent lights. They began with a recipe for their handmade donuts from the 1920s, and created wood counters, glass display cases and a 2-story bookcase to make Top Pot as far away from a fast food donut shop as possible.

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Seattle: There You Were Under the Tree of Song

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This is Hendrix’s original grave in the humble family plot before his memorial was built. It seems a little sad and neglected in this picture, but this Seattle cemetary is actually lush with grass. The only reason for the dirt is because the constant stream of visitors created a well-worn path that didn’t allow the grass to grow.

On November 26, 2002 Hendrix’s body was exhumed and reburied under a much more fitting marble dome memorial in another section of the same cemetary, Greenwood Memorial Park. If you are in the area and would like to pay your respects, you can find the location at findagrave.com.

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Golden rose, the color of the dream I had
Not too long ago
A misty blue and the lilac too
A never to grow old.

There you were under the tree of song
Sleeping so peacefully
In your hand a flower played

waiting there for me.

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