Friday, February 25, 2011

The triple upgrade

Sometimes you get an upgrade, and sometimes you luck out and get the triple upgrade. Thus it happened last night when we arrived at the Waldorf Astoria Trianon Palace in Versailles. I suppose it is low season with few guests, or maybe they truly appreciated my being a Hilton Diamond member—whatever it was, Jenny and I were put into a fancy suite overlooking the Versailles gardens in one of the fanciest hotels I've ever stayed in. What digs!

Picnic supper in the Waldorf Astoria
Halfway through our trip to Paris, my friend Jenny and I (after meeting up in the DFW airport before hopping to Europe) have been sightseeing and simply hanging. The weather has been a bit on the dull side, with gray skies and low temps, but that doesn't really matter much when visiting museums and riding the metro. we decided against using the (almost) free bike system, the Velib, because of the dampness and the fact that almost all Velib stations seem to be full to capacity.

Jürgen and the Happy Pig

Today we are going to visit Versailles—thus our leaving Paris proper for the night. We've already visited Monet's water lillies in the Orangerie, toured the Musee d'Orsay, admired the stained glass of Sainte Chapelle and shuddered thinking of the cruelty of the guillotine while touring the Conciergerie. One really cool (and new for me) museum was the one chronicling the history of the Paris hospitals, replete with state-of-the-art surgical tools—at least in the 17th century! All cool stuff.

Surgical kit from way back then

Tonight we'll be back in Paris and for Saturday and Sunday I am planning visits to a few more choice spots. I'll try to add a few more photos in the next few days, so please come back.

OK, off to Louis XIV's playground now....


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Back in Lubbock, Feuerzangenbowle beckons

Those of you of Old World origin—specifically Germany—will understand the title of this entry, yet for most it will be rather enigmatic. What the heck is a "Feuerzangenbowle" you ask, understandably confused. Use the magic Google and you will find that it is "a traditional German alcoholic drink for which a rum-soaked sugar loaf is set on fire and drips into mulled wine." Well, I don't know why Wikipedia calls it a "sugar loaf" instead of a "sugar cone," but overall the definition is right. The liquid ingredients (cheap red wine, highly volatile rum in the 104 to 108 proof range) are supplemented by a cloves-spiked orange, a cinnamon-stick-reinforced lemon, and a few bags of Glühfix, which I had procured while in Austria. Always think ahead....

Only the best ingredients will do

Back in Germany, we'd bring out the Feuerzangenbowle set once or twice a year, usually in the dark of winter, when relatives or friends would pay a rare visit. Judy was so impressed with this custom that we bought our own set and started having annual Feuerzangenbowle parties at the house. A few weeks back, while having dinner with Alan and Martha, the innocuous question about when we'd have another Feuerzangenbowle party was posed. And so I decided to set another sugar cone aflame between my Munich and upcoming Paris trips.

I had invited an additional three couples (which would have really strained the seating capacity of the casa), but they had to bow out for various reasons. So, it was just seven of us: Wes and Susan, Carl and Terri, and of course A&M, the original instigators. They all descended upon my immaculately cleaned house (OK, somebody has to say something nice about my efforts!) around 7:30 p.m. Everyone was expected to bring some finger foods, and the lads augmented my twelver of Spaten Oktoberfest with plenty of designer brewskies. I had prepared a nice poo-poo platter with a Queso de Tetilla that I had picked up in Madrid, much to the merriment of Howard who like any man is fond of the shapeliness of that cheese.

Yes, it does look like the perfect tetilla!

Terry had brought some deftly seasoned crackers and was immediately chosen to always bring those to parties. (Judy had used a similar recipe for years.) Martha's gift to the world was a ropa vieja based hot dip, and Wes had brought many pounds of homemade sausage, which he expertly grilled on the Kamado. Damn, I didn't get a photo of the lads milling around him and keeping him supplied with beer, but here he is cutting up the spoils:

Wes cutting up the sausage; note the mulled wine in the foreground
The seven of us put a pretty serious dent into all of the foodstuffs (as well as the beer and a bottle of CHW Syrah for the ladies) before we embarked on the most important task of the evening: Setting the sugar cone on fire by liberally dousing it with 54% alcohol Hansen's and then 58% Wood's Old Navy rum. The sugar drips into the mulled wine, which we had heated on the stove, and the rum that doesn't burn off adds a nice extra little kick to the concoction! The flash-photography doesn't do it justice, as all this happens in a darkened room with everyone sitting around the table, gazing into the flames—but Martha's short video captures some of the aura. It's just a really social affair, and the more one drinks, the warmer it gets and the funnier the conversation seems to become.

Martha and Wes and the Feuerzangenbowle
It was around 11:30 when we called it an evening. It is safe to say that everyone left with a special glow—who wouldn't after having been set afire like that?

Time to start thinking about the next party....


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From Munich to Madrid

Friends drinking Irish beer in Spain
While I sit in the BA Lounge at London's Heathrow airport, waiting for my flight back to Dallas, I thought I'd post a pic or two of my stopover in Madrid yesterday. I had been able to book my flight—without incurring any additional costs—with a one-day stop-over in Spain. My old friend Howard, whom I met back in 1975 during my trip through Israel, lives just 10 minutes away from Barajas airport, so it was a no-brainer to try to see him.
Howard carving the pig leg

The evening started out innocuous enough, with Howard trying to not slice off his fingers while carving typical Spanish ham. You can see yourselves how delicious that oinker was!

Murphy's y tapas

After that we were off to the Irish pub around the corner (first carve, then drink, if you want to avoid serious injury!), where we had some fresh Murphys off the barrel.
Old buddies ...
... and a beautiful young woman

Before long, Howard's Mexican wife, Lydia, and his beautiful daughter Karen joined us for a quaff and tapas. You know that you're in Spain when the girls leave at 9:30 p.m. to buy the ingredients for that evening's supper!

To make a very long evening short, we sat together at home over more tapas and two fantastic bottles of wine until the very wee-ish hour of 2:30 a.m., with a 7:00 a.m. reveille looming. But one lives just once. The four of us (occasionally joined by the non-pictured Simon, Howard's third child—the lovely Sandra just recently moved away from home) had an absolutely wonderful evening, and I will make every effort to stop over next time the opportunity arises.

And now I am sitting here in the BA lounge, with about 30 minutes left until my flight starts to board. What an incredible week I have had. What a fortunate man I am to experience all this. And still I wish for nothing more than to share all this with my Judy, which, of course, is impossible. However, she has been with me on this entire trip—just ask Sabine, Wolfgang and Inge, and Howard's clan. Yes, Judy was present the entire time.

That's all for now, folks.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Austrian Magic

Who would have thought that the ski trip that seemed doomed because of an extreme thaw in the region would turn out to be the magical XC ski adventure that one thinks of when looking at travel brochures?

My old friend Sabine and I left her home in Freising, about 45 minutes from Munich, on Tuesday morning, after I had arrived in Europe late Monday. My baggage remained lost until Friday (when it finally showed up at MUC), but I had packed with just such a possibility in mind and had my XC tights and jacket in my carry-on—and enough undies and socks to keep me rolling for a few days.

It was clear and sunny when we left in Sabine’s Skoda, heading south toward the Alps. But there was no snow, nada, nothing, zilch. It was in the 50s, and it looked like spring. Only the tops of the Alps were white, but that’s not where one finds XC trails. Our plan was to keep driving until we found some place that still had a bit of snow left, with no idea where that might be. The drive was beautiful, first on the Autobahn (with the occasional BMW or Mercedes blasting by us as if we were standing still, even though Sabine was staying at a steady 130 to 140 klicks), and later through the scenic Sachrang valley. We crossed into Austria, and suddenly there was snow on the ground as we wound our way up to higher elevations. We crossed a small pass (probably not more than maybe 3,000 feet, and had a magnificent view of the Inntal where Innsbruck is located in the far distance.
View of the Zahmer Kaiser
Riding shotgun and occasionally consulting the map I suggested that we’d head toward St. Johann where Judy and I had spent a great week XC skiing years ago. As soon as we started to enter the Tirolian area known as the Kaiserwinkel (there are two massive mountain complexes here, the Wilder Kaiser and the Zahmer Kaiser, the wild one and the tame one) the snow was uninterrupted. Even though the valley’s elevation is only around 600 meters, or 1,800 feet, this is one of the most snow-proof areas in Austria. We couldn’t believe our eyes. With the blue skies and intense sun this was a fairytale landscape!

Instead of going to the better known St. Johann we decided to stay in Kössen, a much smaller (and quieter, and most likely less expensive) small town of 3,000 souls or so. With the help of the tourist info we found a two-room apartment in a small Gasthof, and not only did we have an apartment, but we had a bright room with a beautiful view of the mountains and a wood-fired stove. Our host was the warm and friendly Frau Schlechter, and over breakfast (typical Kaiserbrötchen, good coffee, a hard-boiled egg, cheese, meats, and jams) we heard much about the local culture and gossip (for example, the local post office clerk refuses to sell stamps by not ordering any!).

Our guest house

For two days we cross-country-skied through the valleys surrounding Kössen, with some of the most spectacular views of the surrounding countryside imaginable. While many of the south-facing slopes showed signs of the recent thaw and were patchy, the north-facing mountain sides were covered in deep snow. The quality of the groomed trails in the valleys was astonishing. All trails featured at least one classic (parallel) track, but more often than not two; additionally, a wide skate track allowed those “flying on skis” to use the same interconnected system of 140 kilometers of loipe. Only when we crossed small roads or tiny asphalted paths that led to outlying farm houses were we forced to step out of our skis because of the lack of snow.

Taking a break in front of a farm house
 I had rented a complete set of skis, boots, and boots and poles for 8 euro a day while Sabine had her own classic equipment. There are no fees to use the groomed trails, and there are no parking fees at the trailheads, either. We had been given a handy trail map, and over breakfast we decided which loipe to follow. The trails are marked according to the standard color system indicating level of difficulty, but even the black trails were technically not much more difficult than the blue ones—just longer and with longer ascents. We both managed to crash a few times on the blue and red trails, and I banged the same rib twice on consecutive days so that I currently feel as if that rib may have a bit of a crack. Oh well. 
Perfectly groomed trails
We’d hit the trails around 10 a.m., after our extensive breakfast with our host and other guests. For lunch we had hoped to hit little guest-houses along the loipe, but with our luck several of them just happened to have their “Ruhetag” when we came along—their Day of Rest. On our second day, though, we lucked out with a small restaurant that offered not only a wonderful spot outdoors in the sun but also an out-of-this-world wood-smoked garlic trout! Of course, there’s always beer to be found, and on the first day Sabine had a Jägertee (a hot toddy made mainly of rum with some water and sugar) that damn near put her out of her misery. We’d finish off our day of skiing around 5 p.m., when the sun was about to set behind one of the two Kaisers.
Magic Tirol

Each one of our three evenings in Kössen we had initially planned to go out to the local pizza joint, and three times we never left our apartment. We both were so tired that we preferred to grab a bottle of wine, local bread from the bakery, cheese from the local “Sennerei,” and the best cold cuts ever from the “Metzger.” We had dinner next to our warm oven, and we couldn’t stand the thought of going out again. It’s a good thing when two people think alike in those matters!

Wood-smoked garlic trout ...

...and beer in the sun!
 On our last day we had first intended to do a few more laps on a local trail, but with the weather turning sour (clouds, way-to-warm temperatures, even a bit of rain) and my rib asking for mercy we decided to leave Kössen without having to hurry and take the scenic route back to Freising, where we needed to pick up Sabine’s son ,Jonathan, from his own one-week ski adventure in Tirol. (Apparently, all schools in Bavaria offer such a trip to their pupils at one point, since every Bavarian is expected to know how to ski.) The total distance from Freising was about 140 kilometers, and on the way we stopped by the Chiemsee, a lake that attracts the rich and the not-so-rich, and Wasserburg am Inn, an amazing medieval city built on a small slither of land where the Inn on its way to the Donau forms a looping gooseneck.
The ascent to Schwendt
 What a great trip!

I am updating all this on Sunday morning here at my friends Inge and Wolfgang’s house in München proper. I left my stuff at Sabine’s yesterday and took the train from Freising to München, and we had a long afternoon and evening of catching up yesterday. Everybody is still asleep, so I have a chance to use their computer to write all this. (Actually, I am writing on my laptop, will then use the memory stick, and crank up their computer since there’s no network here.) This afternoon I will take the train back to Freising, and tomorrow Sabine will take me back to the airport. On the way home to the US I will stop over for 24 hours in Madrid to see Howard and Lydia, so there may be more photos soon.

If you want to cross-country ski in Europe one of these days, feel free to ask me questions. I’ll be back for sure.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

No snow in Bavaria—and no luggage, either

While Texas has had its share of snow over these past few weeks, Bavaria shows itself from its green side. With temperatures in the 50s, all the snow around Munich is gone and it looks like spring. Flying in from London yesterday, the only snow I saw was in the Alps to the south.
The oldest brewery in the world, since 1040
The flights to München were quite comfortable, but unfortunately my checked luggage has not shown up so far, and the tracing service shows no results. Not good. So, with the way the weather situation is my friend Sabine and I will head for some area close to the mountains to try to find snow for some XC action. We could have also done some hiking, but my hiking boots are in the cehcked luggage. So, I will live out of my carry-on for the foreseeable future and hope that they find the luggage and deliver it to wherever we may end up.

Vitus Weizenbock, 7.8% alc
Sabine lives in Freising, only minutes away from the Munich airport. Just around the corner, in Weihenstaphan, is the world's oldest brewery, dating back to 1040! No kidding! Sabine received her degree in Weihenstephan, and she showed me around last night. The beer, the Vitus Weizenbock, was extra-yummy, similar to some of the Belgian abbey beers.

I have no idea when another update may come as we will simply head south and hope for snow and then find a small place to stay. Internet connections may not be a given, so I'm signing off for a few days. Servus!


Friday, February 4, 2011

Yes Henrietta, it does freeze in Lubbock, too

Those fine feet and legs are attached to my body, getting ready to warm up after a 20-mile ride this afternoon in temperatures around 32 but with a pretty good windchill. After limping in from Dallas on Wednesday, I spent yesterday hunkered down in the casa while the thermometer struggled to top 15 F. Dude, it's been cold! At night we've been getting close to the psychological zero barrier. We didn't get too much snow, but we sure got the cold. I know, this is absolutely nothing compared to what, for example, Chicago had to endure this week, but then, who'd want to live there? Or, for that matter, Fargo, ND?

So, knowing that with my upcoming trip to München my cycling days in February will be very scarce, I decided to take the truck to the outskirts of the Hub City (something I generally frown on, but unusual in-town road conditions warrant the occasional straying from one's principles) and ride on the dry shoulders of our Farm-to-Market roads. It wasn't pleasant, but it was probably 20 miles more than most club members covered on their two-wheelers today. And with the hot tub waiting to warm up the bones, there really aren't any excuses.

Nothing like a Sundance spa in the backyard after a cold workout
Last night my buddy Keebler and I had a boys' night here at the house, with yummy pizza and fine wine. Good company is about the best thing in the world. Every time I get together with buddies I realize how lucky I am to know all these great people. Tonight I'm going to spend time with Martha and Alan, eating Martha's patented old underwear (Ropa Vieja, a great Cuban meal) and most likely sharing too much beer with Alan, as usual. Ah, what a life.

Martha's Ropa Vieja

Stay tuned for an update from München in a day or two and, if you can this weekend, check out my new music section to the right—each link takes you to a YouTube concert video.

Have fun trying to stay warm!


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Props to American Airlines!

Airlines don't control the price of crude, and they don't control the weather, either. Case in point: Today's blast from Santa Claus Land that crippled much of the nation's air travel.

Ice crippled DFW on Tuesday

But you do control how you deal with the fallout, and I have to say that American, my airline of choice, once again has come through. I'm currently stuck in DFW, after coming back from my UCI race site inspection in the LA basin. All the (affordable) hotels are fully booked, so I was resigned to bunk out in some corner of one of the terminals after being told before heading out of CA that my Lubbock flight had been canceled. When I got to the Admirals Club here at DFW's Terminal C (for those of you not in-the-know, that's one of those lounges that you pay a few hundred bucks for to access on an annual basis), I ran into one of the fellas who know me by sight. He gave me the hardly encouraging news that my flight tomorrow morning has been canceled, too, and that I have been rebooked for a flight home on Thursday morning. Mind you, this is Tuesday! And then, with a bit of magic finger dancing on the keyboard, he rebooked me onto a Continental flight tomorrow around noon, going via Houston. Even better, a short time later he came by to tell me that the AC in this terminal will stay open all night to accommodate a few of us stranded members. Since then, they've brought me a cot, blanket, and pillow. Now, I say, that's taking care of the situation and your customers!

While I am at it: Bonelli Park, where the UCI race will be run, is an absolute gem. I wouldn't have thought that such a pretty park (lake, hills, trees, green grass) could exist in the middle of the LA basin.
Bonelli Park, looking north
I think the race will be a real success. My meetings with the key people who are putting on this event were fruitful and nothing but positive. Scott, who is the pres and owner of Sho-Air, has the vision and the will to use his own money to make sure that this vision becomes reality; Tom of Team Big Bear is one of the old hands in the sport with whom I have worked on numerous occasions; and Ty, the marketing guy but really the secret engine behind it all, is on the same wavelength as I am. So, WTF if I have to spend another night in some airport, eh? (As a matter of fact, Scott just sent me an e-mail pretty much ordering me to get into a hotel and send him the invoice, but I'm not going to waste $150 of his money for a few hours of marginally better bedding. Thanks, Scott!)

So, next time a race director wants me to fly an airline other than American because they are $2 cheaper, I'm going to pull out this blog post and say Thank You Very Much, But No Thank You. And what else do we learn from this? Always travel with some extra clothes, your toothbrush, and  a good attitude.
Some of Bonelli's single track

 Sleep well, and may the Miata start up tomorrow when I get to the airport parking lot.


So close to Mickey Mouse

Just a quick hello from Anaheim and the LA basin. This morning I took the Eagle to DFW and then connected to Orange County where I was picked-up by John from Sho-Air, organizers of a UCI race in Saint Dimas in March. In what in my experience is an unprecedented move, Scott T. and Ty K. from Sho-Air decided to bring me out, ahead of the race, to get input and feedback. Well, I've come prepared, and I am sure the first US Cup race in March will be a true success. Tomorrow morning we'll inspect the course, after going over UCI requirements today.

Traffic patterns in Anaheim
Dinner was a tasty affair in a hip restaurant that catered to the palate. Great company, too—two of Scott's British friends joined us, and so did the two lovely ladies who are tied in varying degrees to Scott and Ty. Oh, did I mention the Chimay they had on tap? Great evening!