Friday, October 30, 2009

Things that bother me more than they should

1. Misuse of there/their/they're, your/you're, two/too/to, (added per Andrea's request:) lose/loose, (added per Aisby and Cyndi's request:) I/me, (added per Robin's request:) our/are, (added per Meg's request:) its/it's and (added per Suze's request:) using "would of" when it should be "would have"...among other similar infractions.

2. People who like a band until they get successful and then say stupid stuff like "They sold out. They went all commercial." Umm, no. They were hungry. They needed to make money. To live.

3. People who call in to radio stations. Seriously? You have nothing better to do than call a DJ to answer his stupid poll? "Should Lady GaGa wear pants more often? Call up and tell us what you think!" STFU and play some music. Seriously, STFU.

4. Girl comb overs (Fig. 1 See Ashley Simpson, far right.), often found in mass quantities in southern sororities.

5. Paris Hilton's fake baby voice. Nails, meet chalkboard.

6. When someone emails you asking for info, advice, etc. and you take the time to really answer their questions thoughtfully and in detail and then they never reply back and say thanks.

7. The bureaucracy in Europe. I don't know how anything ever gets done here.

And that's just off the top of my head. If I think of more, I'll edit this post to add them.

Evidently, someone had a bowl of Cranky Flakes for breakfast.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Slippers and the City

What I came home to after the cleaning ladies were here:

All my slippers, lined up by the bed. At the risk of going all Carrie Bradshaw on you... I couldn't help but wonder, have I been collecting loungewear when I should have been saving for Louboutins?

From what I can count off the top of my head, I own about nine pairs of slippers. I have two whole drawers dedicated solely to cozy stretchy things to wear while I sit on my couch and read. (And that's not counting my pajama drawer. Pajamas are for sleeping. Loungewear is for lounging.) Not to mention the five sets of Juicy sweats and three cashmere hoodies that hang in my closet and rarely see any action past the confines of my front door.

I think it's safe to say my loungewear and slipper addiction has reached critical mass. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go slip into something more comfortable. Preferably something made of 100% cotton jersey.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bon weekend

I'll be the first to admit that before last year's playoff run, I was merely a Carolina Hurricanes fan. Which is not a bad thing to be mind you. (Unless of course the team is collapsing in epic fashion before your very eyes - as they are currently...but I digress.) But something special happened last spring. I became a hockey fan.

In my free time, I would read up on rules and penalties and free agency and look at what more knowledgeable fans had to say about certain plays. By the end of the playoffs, I could tell you all about forechecking and backchecking, drop passes and lead passes, wrist shots and flip shots, breakaways and wrap-arounds, power plays and penalty kills, zones, dekeing, icing and offside.

And no one was more surprised than me when I kept watching the games after the Canes were knocked out in the ECFs. That's when Jason knew a true hockey fan had been born.

One of the things I had been the most bummed about since being here in Brussels was that we were missing out on our season tickets. I missed hockey. So Jason starting working his Google magic and found out that we have a hockey team here just outside of Brussels - near Leuven. We noted that they had a home game coming up this Saturday night and made it our business to be there.

The rink is in Slap Middle Of Nowhere, but conveniently, this particular slap middle of nowhere is only about 25 minutes away from our flat. We got there, paid our 7 euro each, got our hands stamped and made our way to the ice.

I was so stupid excited by the time the puck dropped that I didn't even really notice that I was freezing. Note to self: Hockey rink much colder when five feet away from ice. Noted.

Don't you love how a flimsy net is all that's protecting those kids watching from behind the goal? No glass. I repeat: NO GLASS.

Check this out... You could stand right up at the boards and watch the game. Somewhat different than your typical NHL arena experience.

We did that for the second period and it was terrifying. Exhilarating and terrifying. When the players would gain any momentum towards our general direction, I would cringe and take a couple of giant steps backwards. There were a couple of collisions into the boards that nearly took a few spectators out.

During the warmup skate, I glanced over to a poster on an opposite wall. Then I did a little double-take. I thought I saw a Hurricanes logo but I figured I was just being a homer and immediately dismissed the thought. (My vision is terrible, by the way. So it was very blurry.) Then, a few minutes into the first period I put on my glasses so I could, you know, actually follow the puck. I happened to glance towards the poster again and lo and behold, mine eyes did not deceive me afterall!

You could say I was excited. I mean, of all the 30 NHL teams in the league, what are the chances of seeing an ad featuring our star center and assistant captain in a rink in Slap Middle Of Nowhere, Belgium??

Leuven Chiefs defeated {insert name of unpronouncable Belgian team here} 5-3. It was a pretty exciting third period considering the Chiefs were up 5-0 going into it.

A couple of interesting things about the post-game rituals... (I don't really think "rituals" is the right word there but I can't think of a better one at the moment.)

At the end of the game, each team lines up separately and exchanges high fives, fist bumps, hand shakes, stick taps, words of congratulations, words of encouragement or what-have-you with their own teammates.

Then, they line up for hand shakes with the opponent. I just thought it was interesting since, in the NHL, you only do hand shakes once you've knocked the other team out of the playoffs. It sort of adds a touch of civility to the game and shows a bit of respect for each other as players in a way.

And if that wasn't enough, after the hand shake line, both teams lined up facing the crowd and started tapping their sticks on the ice as a way of showing their appreciation to the spectators. Once the visiting team skated off, the Chiefs stayed and made a bit more noise on the ice and then raised their sticks in a sort of salute to the cheering fans before skating off themselves.

It was such a great experience! And so different from any other sporting event I've been to. I'm really curious if it's the same in other hockey leagues around Europe. If so, it would certainly explain the intense admiration our Finnish players seem to have for the Canes fans...

Sunday was pretty much a lazy day. We hung about the flat in our pj's till almost noon and made a totally sick breakfast of eggs, bacon-hashbrowns and ciabatta toast. We did finally venture out to cross another pub off the 10 Best list. Au Bon Vieux Temps (loosely: "The Good Old Days") was the victim this time. And like La Becasse, it was situated at the end of an unassuming little alleyway.

We opened the menu and saw, wonder of wonders...miracle of miracles, we had unwittingly walked into the pub that serves The Best Beer in the World! (According to whom, we are unsure.)

But of course, the Mister had to try it. Though it was certainly tasty, he still prefers de Garre.

We attempted to hit another one on the list, which was really more of a cafe than pub. But the bitch in there was so rude that we got up and walked right up on out of there. Do not, I repeat, do NOT mess wif da Sangers. We are f-ing hardcore. Hardcore!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Come quickly...I am tasting stars!

Well, cross one more wine region off the ol' travel list. (Tis a goal of mine to visit them all before I perish. Or before my liver perishes. Whichever cometh first.) I do you say...a very big fan of champagne. And sparkling wine and cava and prosecco and sekt for that matter. A wine snob, I am not. If it be havin' the bubbles, I be drinkin' it. That's my motto.

So I guess you could say I was pretty excited for this trip. This trip to the birthplace of champagne. And do you know what's particularly fabulous about living in Belgium? You can drive there, door-to-door in less than three hours. No getting raped by airport security. No queueing up to be herded like cattle into a germ-ridden tin can with wings. It's all just a leisurely motorway drive away.

We arrived Friday evening and checked into the very lovely Villa Eugene (which, coincidentally, was previously a family residence of the Mercier family - champagne royalty here in the town of Epernay). And Jason, being the rock-star that he is, had called ahead earlier in the day and ordered some of the fizzy stuff to be chilling in our room.

We woke up Saturday morning and set out for Reims, the region's largest city, and home to several big champagne houses.

Like G.H. Mumm, for instance...

Let's get this thang crack-a-lackin, shall we?

Now, I actually learned this fact on our visit to Schramsberg during our trip to Napa and Sonoma over the summer but didn't mention it on that post. Maybe because I was still drunk when I wrote it? I dunno...

Anyway, all sparkling wines must go through a process called riddling. Riddling is done by a riddler. (Try to keep up kids.) Historically, all bottles were hand-riddled. By the riddler. Today, much of it is done by machines. Called riddling machines. But most of the nicer houses still have some of their bottles hand-riddled. By a riddler.

Riddling is basically turning each bottle an eighth to a quarter turn every day for two weeks (and simultaneously tilting them at increasingly steeper angles). This is what allows the sediment to gather in one place and collect in the neck of the bottle for easy removal. A skilled riddler can riddle up to (and in very few cases - more than) 50,000 bottles per day.

And one last fact, learned on this trip: Madame Cliquot (yes, of the infamous Veuve variety) herself is credited with inventing the whole process of riddling.

And these, dear students, are the riddling racks upon which riddlers do their riddling. Don't let these few fool you. In most of the caves we visited, there were loads and loads of racks. Long long hallways lined with them.

How much for these three? No matter. Wrap 'em up. I'll take 'em.

And finally, the best part of any wine tour...the tasting. Depsite the fact that it was not even 11:00 am, we went for the three-glass option. I mean, that was the only way to taste the good stuff. The vintage Grand Cru! What would you have done?!? We had no choice!! No choice, I tell you!!!

We sought out Cafe du Palais for lunch as it had been featured rather prominently on the Champagne episode of Three Sheets. (I can't recall whether I've mentioned this before, but if you aren't familiar with this show and you like arm-chair travel and you like drinking, WATCH IT. It's hilarious and informative and interesting and culturally enriching and did I mention hilarious? Back me up Suze.)

We had a very special appointment after lunch. Very special indeed. A little reverence please?

The tour at Veuve Clicquot was fantastic. Their chalk caves are unreal. They were actually dug by the Romans. You know, in Roman times - which is to say A REAL LONG LONG TIME AGO. They mined the chalk for use in building churches and such. Well, the French happened to find out that these chalk caves are ideal for holding champagne because of their year-round chilly temp. And our guide was too cute for words. You could tell she had a real passion for champagne. This amazing "sculpture" is carved into the wall of the caves. That's chalk!

Another thing I learned on this trip: some bottles of champagne are vintages and some are not. (I had never noticed.) If a bottle's label has a year on it, it's made with grapes from only that year's harvest and is classified as a vintage. If a label has no year, it's a blend of different wines from any number of years. It's one of the cellar master's jobs to create the blends. So, bottom line, you only get vintages when there is a particularly good crop.

This is Veuve's stairway of vintages. Or stairway to heaven as I am apt to call it.

I was right! It was a stairway to heaven! It led us right to the tasting room!

Do I really need to caption this?

Empty riddling racks can also be used as stocks to hold unruly guests.

I don't want to go! I'll miss you. I'll never forget you. You complete me. But alas, there is more champagne to taste...

...right around the corner at Pommery! (I got over that pretty fast, eh?)

We didn't do the tour here since we were both getting a little worn out. But we can pretty much always squeeze in a tasting.

And after that, we headed back to our hotel in Epernay to pass out for a rest before dinner. But we took the scenic route and detoured through the countryside a little.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny and crisp - a perfect fall day. Which was good, because we were hoofing it today. In Reims, you pretty much have to drive from house to house. But in Epernay, most everything is located right on one street (which you will see the name of a bit later) - and very pedestrian friendly. In fact, our hotel was right on this very street (which you will see the name of a bit later). Très convenient, non?

Epernay is precious. We stopped at a market and picked up a little take-away box of some little fried potato thingies to munch on during our walk around town. They were cooking them right there on the street and I have no willpower. Basically potatoes + frying = smell I can't resist. A couple of photos from our promenade à la pommes de terre:

And finally, (a bit later) it is time to begin the Avenue de Champagne marathon! (When I was looking for a hotel for this trip, I barely even checked to see how nice Villa Eugene was. Really, they had me at Address: 82 Avenue de Champagne.)

Starting with Mercier... Mercier was one of my favorite tours because the house came of age in the Belle Époque period and their style really captures that. What's not to love about the Belle Époque? Champagne-making techniques were perfected in this era. Parisian haute couture was born in this era. The cabarets and bohemian lifestyle depicted in the film Moulin Rouge flowered in this era. And as we all know, these are a few of my fav-o-rite things....

I love Mercier's old delivery truck. It still runs! In fact, they drive it a couple hundred yards up the street at the end of each day to park it in a gated lot across the street from our hotel. One morning from our room window, we watched them start it up and get going. It was a rather lengthy process to get that thing warmed up enough to drive it.

Though it was a bit Disney World-ish, I admit it was kind of nice to get off our feet and ride a little tram on the tour through the chalk caves. (Who am I kidding? I love a good tram ride. I jumped up and down and squealed a little when I saw the tram.)

There is a rather interesting little story about this gargantuan barrel. Eugene (as in the Villa of the same name) Mercier had this 20 tonne oak barrel pulled by twenty-four oxen all the way to Paris for the 1889 World's Fair. The journey took eight days. It took sixteen years to build and would hold the equivalent of 200,000 bottles of champagne.

To give you a hint of how impressive this thing is in person, it took the second place exhibition prize at the World's Fair. First place? A little monument you may have heard of called the Eiffel Tower.

You didn't think we were leaving without a tasting, did you? Oh, hell-to-the-naw.

And just a few meters down the Road of Champers is Castellane.

We weren't able to do the tour there because it started before we were done at Mercier but...

...we had plenty of time for a tasting. (Don't worry. We shared those four glasses.) (They're not even real-sized glasses.) (I don't care what you say. I don't have a problem.) (Get off my back okay! I can stop any time I want to!)

Of course, poor Jason got stuck lugging our purchase around. We bought three bottles at Mercier too but since it was so close to our hotel, we were able to drop them off before continuing La Tour de Bubbles. But we were kind of pressed to make it to one last house so no time for that.

I give you......Moët & Chandon. And let's get something straight right now. It's pronounced Moe-ette, not Moe-ay. See those two little dots above the e? That means you pronounce the t. Say Moe-ay around these parts and somebody is liable to backhand you.

The godfather of champagne, my brother in bubbles, the accidental inventor of the nectar of life - Dom Perignon. A Benedictine monk from the Abbey of Hautvillers, he was the first to taste the sparking stuff when he was testing the bottles of wine and found some had stopped fermentation due to cold weather setting in and resumed fermentation later when it got warmer. The sugary residue left behind when the original fermentation stopped then allowed the CO2 to appear when fermentation kicked back in.

He is reported to have said "Come quickly! I am tasting stars!" Right on.

Who can blame me for suddenly finding my religion?

In the cellars at Moët...

The only house that I really really wanted to visit but couldn't was Perrier-Jouët. The design of their signature bottles enthralls me. It's such an interesting story too... (per It was designed in the mid 1960's, inspired by the discovery of a decorated bottle, dating from 1902, found gathering dust in a cupboard. The bottle bore a motif of anemones by the glassmaker Emile Gallé. A previous owner of Perrier-Jouët had apparently commissioned it as a symbol of the Belle Epoque era. Today Gallé is renowned for the high quality of his glasswork, and is regarded as instrumental in the art nouveau movement in France.

A big part of me wanted to go there mainly for the whole Art Nouveau vibe.

But it was not to be. For whatever reason, they no longer do tours or tastings.

On Monday morning we opted for another country drive en route back to Reims, where we had our final tour and tasting scheduled for the afternoon. Just follow the Route de Champagne. It's kind of like the yellow brick road, but way better. Less witches, more champagne.

When we passed through Ambonnay, we saw it was one of the few Grand Cru villages in the region (there's only 17) so we figured there was no better place to stop off for a tasting.

I picked this one because I liked their sign - a riddler! Riddling!

Turns out I chose well. Very well. This was some might tasty champagne. And it was only about 17 euro a bottle!!! Wha??? So we bought five of the one we tasted and one of their slightly higher priced vintage. Score!

Then, sadly it was time for our last hoo-rah. But Ruinart was a great way to cap off the trip. It's the oldest champagne house in France. They also have the Roman chalk caves, like Veuve. It's kind of crazy - you can see these sort of well-like openings in the ground all around the property and they're the original entrances dug by the Romans.

We tried our damnedest to figure out a way to get these pallets off the property without anyone noticing. No dice.

And there you have it. Another trip. Another anniversary. Another kick off to another best year of our lives together. Each one better than the last. With each one that passes, I fall more in love. And just when I think my heart can't get any fuller, it does. I guess that's what happens when you marry your best friend.