The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

December 27, 2013

Christmas in a Bubble

Filed under: Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:06 am

Photo by Flickr user Lee Jordan, Creative Commons

Once again, Christmas has come and gone.  All the usual festivities are in the books, the presents have all been opened, the Christmas stuff in the house has gone back into storage (actually, in my case it never even came out since I was gone for a lot of it and the Christmas stuff in the stores has hit the clearance rack, and aside from New Year’s Day in a week or so, it’s back to the usual routine, accompanied by the traditional three-month slog through the Seattle Winter (such as it is.)   And although the whole thing has been nice as usual, I just haven’t been able to shake the feeling that it all seems just a little bit strange this year.

I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the changes going on within my family this year (which included my parents moving into a new house some distance away, my brother moving out of the state and a new niece and nephew born this year, while I pretty much stayed put) and the various disruptions to the usual order of things that come with it, but we did still manage most of the usual traditions along the way.  We had the standard Christmas Eve get-together at my parents’ house with the extended family, but since my parents live much farther away from almost everyone now (it’s about a 42-mile drive on mostly backroads from my house, and as much as an 80-mile drive in each direction for some people)  we opted to have it a couple of days early on Sunday.  This meant that for the first time in recent memory I was actually on my own for Christmas Eve.  Fortunately, I did have some plans lined up (I attended a choir and symphony concert at Benaroya Hall) and managed to figure out the rest as I went along.  Christmas Day was celebrated in the usual fashion with a family gathering at my parents’ house, albeit a smaller one than usual (albeit just as loud, six young children running around the house hopped up on candy and presents will do that.)  In the end, all the usual highlights of the season in the family were checked off, and yet things still felt a little unusual.

Of course, the most obvious explanation for this was the cruise I took prior to Christmas.  As I alluded to in the last post, there’s something about a cruise ship (no matter how big it is) that places it off in its own little world, regardless of where it happens to be at any given time.  Even though you’re not truly cut off from the outside world while you’re at sea, most of what’s going on doesn’t really seem to matter much on board.  There’s a couple of news channels on the TV, but hardly anyone seems to pay any attention to them.  There is also ESPN, but it’s the Caribbean feed rather than the American one, which seems to concern itself mostly with Soccer and Cricket (although they do also find a way to get the NBA and NFL games whenever it’s convenient.)  Internet is also available, but it’s very expensive (unless you’ve been on enough cruises to get free Internet minutes on the ship through the cruise line’s loyalty program, and even then you only get enough to use about 20-25 minutes a day at most) and best used in small bursts.)  And even though the ship is decorated for the Holiday season, pretty much the only acknowledgement of the Holidays besides the decorations is that occasionally they’ll have some Christmas movies on the stateroom TVs or on the big screen on the top deck.  I understand that things tend to be a bit different if you’re on board the ship during Christmas itself, but even then it’s far from the traditional Christmas you might come to expect on land.  Combine this with the fact that (assuming you’re in the Caribbean) it’s 80 degrees and sunny every day, and it gets to be surprisingly easy to almost entirely miss the fact that the Holiday season is even happening.  Even in the ports of call that the ship visits (on this particular trip it was St. Thomas, Dominica, Grenada, Bonaire and Aruba) there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of Christmas in the air.  Sure, the decorations are out in force, and the reggae music playing in the shops and the flea markets includes a fair number of Christmas songs, but even with all that it’s still hard to take any of it seriously when it feels like Summer outside and the day’s schedule involves a trip to the beach.

And then after nearly two weeks away in that little bubble (as nice as it is, it still feels like living in a bubble) I get home just in time for Christmas to happen, and immediately start to wonder where all the time went.  I’m pretty sure I can account for most of it, but it definitely tends to distort things a bit.  As for the cruise itself, I’m sure I’ll be talking about it some in future posts, but in the meantime you can find a few of my thoughts on the trip in this post over at Cruise Critic.  To make a long story short, I really enjoyed the itinerary and the chance to see a number of different ports I hadn’t been to before, but there were a few minor quibbles along the way.  I’m not sure I’d be rushing to go do it all again at this point though.  I think it would be a good time to stay put (sort of) for a while.  After all, if I start needing a vacation from the vacation I needed after the last vacation that starts to complicate things a bit.

December 12, 2013

Live from the Lido deck

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 7:41 pm

 photo 20131212_193124.jpg

Date:  Um….  Not quite sure really.  Thursday, perhaps?
Time:  Kind of late in the evening.
Temperature: Not really freaking cold, which is about as much as I care about the subject at this point.
Location:  Somewhere on the leeward side of the West Indies, headed toward Dominica.

It’s kind of a quiet night aboard the Emerald Princess, with not much of not going on this evening.  Club Fusion at the aft end of the Promenade deck is showing a football game, which is just about the most packed I’ve seen the pace all week.  None of the other lounges are showing much of note, and the big movie screen is showing some movie I’ve never heard of.  My traveling companion is, unlike myself, inclined to go to bed at sane times in the evening, so I figure that vacating the premises for a while is probably the best course of action.  Since that doesn’t leave a whole lot of options for activities that don’t involve either watching people dump big piles of money into the slots or dumping big piles of money into the slots myself, I figure I have a bit of time to do some blogging.

The day today was spent in lovely St. Thomas, where the agenda included a visit to Trunk Bay on St. John, and a brief shopping trip in Charlotte Amalie, also known as the Wal-Mart of the Caribbean (although ironically there isn’t actually a Wal-Mart there, just a Kmart.)  The snorkeling at Trunk Bay went far better than the earlier attempt at snorkeling at Princess Cays a couple of days ago, where the waves made everything to murky to see anything.  The beach at Trunk Bay is also just as nice as advertised, making for a lovely couple of hours (one of the big drawbacks to cruising is that there never seems to be enough time in any one place, one of these days I really need to take a land trip out here…)  As for the shopping, I ended up with a shiny new automatic watch I probably don’t need.  Oddly though, my attempts at finding fake Rolexes didn’t bear much fruit today.  Plenty of fake handbags in the flea market though.  There were alleged Pradas, Coaches, Guccis, Tory Burches, Michael Kors and Burberries all over the place, but oddly enough not a single fake Louis Vuitton to be found anywhere.  Presumably they sent someone over to crack down recently.  The next four days each have a port stop (tomorrow is Dominica, followed by Grenada, Bonaire and Aruba,) then there are two more sea days before arriving back in Fort Lauderdale to disembark.  Maybe there will be better luck there (not that I actually need any fake Rolexes or anything like that…)

One thing you learn quickly when taking a cruise is that it tends to mess with your sense of time.  If I was at home this would be pretty close to the peak of the holiday season, with all the pomp and circumstance in downtown Bellevue that always accompanies it.  Around these parts, Christmas seems to be some vague thing that is happening, but doesn’t really seem to be all that big a deal.  Sure there are all the obligatory decorations on the ship and in the ports (as well as the obligatory reggae versions of all the usual Christmas staples) but it all seems out of place when it’s 78 degrees and sunny everywhere we’ve been so far.  If it wasn’t for a few trees and decorations scattered around, it could easily pass for the middle of April around here.  Taking a longer itinerary than the usual 7 days tends to mess with ones sense of time as well.  Even though we’ve only been on board for four days do far, it already feels like we’ve been here for ages.  And we have a whole week left before it’s time to head home (the flight back is the day after we get of the ship to save the hassle of trying to fly out the same day.)

All in all, it has been quite interesting so far, but my traveling companion seems to be wishing things were a little more active around the ship, particularly in the evenings.  Although I’ve been pretty loyal to Princess in my cruising, I’m starting to think the next time I come down here I will probably need to try out one of the Oasis class ships on Royal Caribbean, if for no other reason than a change of pace.  To be honest, I’m not a big party type person, but even I have to admit that things do get a little slow at night here.  I suppose it’s either that or Carnival, but I think that might be just a little to much party and/or booze cruise for my tastes.  Then again, as long as I can get away from things for a while, that’s really what matters here.

December 4, 2013

Random Thoughts: What a Short Strange Trip It’s Been

Filed under: Food, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:52 am

There seems to be some sort of a strange limbo that one finds themselves in when something long anticipated is about to arrive, but is still not quite here just yet.  The two weeks of vacation that I’ve been planning for the past six months are coming up this weekend, but I can’t quite mentally check out just yet since various work-related things have picked this time to flare up and keep me busy.  As I noted a couple of posts ago, I ended up on a whirlwind business trip to Silicon Valley a couple of weeks ago, and although the tight schedule didn’t allow time to do much besides work, I did manage to sneak a couple of other things in along the way.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty to talk about from the upcoming cruise (although some of it might have to wait until I get back) but in the meantime, here’s a few random thoughts left over from the trip:

One of my personal cardinal rules while traveling is that whenever possible, I try to eat at places that I cannot find at home.  This means that for the most part I avoid the major chains, and try to seek out the more local type places or restaurants endemic to the area in which I’m traveling.  I do this not because I’m any sort of a food snob (although I suspect on occasion I might be one whenever it happens to be convenient) but mostly because it’s a way to take advantage of the limited time I have to travel.  After all, it there’s a place I can go to on a typical Wednesday night, why would I spend vacation time there?  Anyway, while on this particular trip I had limited time for just about everything, so I wanted to find something not too far from the hotel, yet something with a bit of history to it.  A search of some Yelp reviews came up with Original Joe’s in Downtown San Jose, an Italian restaurant and steakhouse boasting a long history and generous portions.    After braving a fair bit of traffic in the downtown area and a couple of unplanned sorties into way-too-narrow parking lots, I found my way to the place, and after a short wait found my way to a spot at the counter.  As you might expect, this place is a throwback to a previous era, with decorations little changed since the restaurant’s opening many years ago.  Another interesting feature of this restaurant was an open kitchen, where one can watch the frenzy of activity as steaks were grilled, pastas were served up, veggies were sauteed (sometimes with the theatrics that a conveniently flammable bit of something-or-other can add to the whole experience) and things generally hummed along at a frantic pace as a hungry Saturday night crowd (when I arrived, the people in front of me were warned that the wait for a table could be as much as an hour) was served.

As a place with a 57-year history in the same location, there’s bound to be a few stories to be told, and as luck would have it, I found just the person to tell them.  Seated next to me at the counter was a regular of this particular establishment, who first visited the restaurant at the age of thirteen, and who had been visiting the restaurant for over 50 years.  And he seemed more than happy to talk about it with a newcomer who had no idea the place even existed two hours before.  The waiter had been there a month, but was getting used to it pretty well.  The guy working the saute pans was one of four guys trained for the (suprisingly complex) job a few years ago, but was the only one who actually made it through.  Some of the guys in the kitchen had been there as much as thirty years.  He knew everyone there, and many came to visit.  There were also plenty of stories.  The computers for order tracking in the kitchen were installed only a few years ago as they recovered from a fire (apparently one of two the place has had in its history,) but even with modern technology they still call out all the orders anyway.  In the end, the New York Strip was pretty good (maybe not the best I’ve ever had, but I’ve definitely paid more money for much worse steaks over the years) but it was the guy who knew everyone in the place except for the random stranger who happened to be sitting next to him that really made the experience for me.  And that, in a nutshell, is why I seek these types of places out when I’m on the road.  Even if the food isn’t always amazing at places like this (it’s rarely quite that memorable, but at the same time it’s rarely disappointing,) sometimes it’s worth visiting a place like this just for the experience.

Flying in and out of cities I’ve never visited before typically means visiting unfamiliar airports as well, and for lack of much else to do on the way back, I took the opportunity to wander up and down the shockingly long hallways of the San Jose Airport while awaiting my return flight home after the business I had been sent down to take care of was completed.  As airports go, the one in San Jose is relatively small compared to most of the ones I fly in and out of (28 gates total, most of them being in one big long line) but it’s also one of the more modern ones I’ve seen, with Terminal B having opened to passengers just a few years ago.  Heeding the now standard advice to arrive two hours before my flight’s departure time, a short security line left me with most of that two hours to wait, which left plenty of time to wander.  It turns out that the walk from gate 28 (where the security checkpoint for terminal B is located) to gate 1 in the other terminal comes out to pretty close to half a mile in each direction.  With flights coming in and out of Terminal B constantly (most of them Southwest and Alaska flights), you get the impression that this is a rather busy airport in spite of its size, but as you wander down to the older Terminal A, you find that things get a lot quieter fast.

One particularly interesting sight along the way was an ANA 787 Dreamliner parked at Gate 15, getting ready to board a flight to Tokyo.  I’ve seen a few Dreamliners flying around here and there in the skies over Seattle, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to see one up (reasonably) close.  Sure it’s had its highly publicized problems, but it’s still quite interesting to see one.

As the gate numbers go down, the activity in the terminal seems to go down with them, to the point that by the time you reach the waiting area where gates 1-7 are located the place is, for all intents and purposes, a ghost town.  Whatever newsstands and restaurants used to serve this part of the terminal now appear to be shuttered due to lack of interest.  A Bane-Of-My-Existence AA MD-80 sits idle at one of the gates, waiting for nobody in particular.  A couple of the gates have signs up indicating long-haul flights that are several hours away, giving no reason for anyone to really be here in the first place.  In fact, the only source of sound in this part of the terminal at all seems to be the occasional clangs and clicks of a kinetic sculpture, busily whirring away and accomplishing nothing useful while nobody pays any attention to it (well, nobody until I showed up and watched for a few minutes, I’m admittedly a sucker for these kinds of things.)  These days, it seems like every airport I fly into is as busy as ever (especially if you’ve got three flights of people waiting at one gate, as seemed to be the case with my outbound flight from Seattle) so it’s a little odd and quite possibly just a bit eerie to see nothing happening in an airport where you would expect the exact opposite.  Then again, all it takes is a little walk, and everything is back to the way you’d expect it to be.  21 gates and a world away, it seems.

Oh, and apropos of nothing, here’s a picture I took of the Android lawn statues in front of Building 44 of the Googleplex in Mountain View.  Granted, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to do a lot of sightseeing while I was down there, but given the fact that practically my entire job right now involves working with Android right now (and most of the phones and tablets I have here at home run it too) I figured it was worth a visit.  Aside from the big Android in the back (the one next to the donut) they really aren’t nearly as big as you might think.  The Jellybean and KitKat ones aren’t much taller than I am.  Maybe if I had more than 18 hours notice that I’d be flying down I’d have more time to plan things like this next time, but sometimes you just need to cram in whatever you can cram in.

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