Wednesday, January 30, 2013

One more month

Or at least, that's what not only I hope for but what is written in the schedule that DreamMaker Kitchen has given me in regard to my house remodel.
The east wall of the kitchen before the project
Looking toward the kitchen from the living room, a few weeks ago
Since coming back from first Germany and then—after the short stint at home—Mexico, I have been living out of the back half of my house. When I came back from Munich barely three weeks ago, I was greeted by the prospect of having to clear out the entire kitchen within three days; when I came back from Mexico a bit more than a week ago, there were no cabinets left, one-and-a-half walls were gone, and I had to decide to increase the size of a doorway. Seven days later, the living room, dining area, and kitchen have been re-textured, wallpaper is gone, wooden paneling is a thing of the past, and new cabinets will be in place before the end of the week. And let's not forget about the absence of those light fixtures from 30 years ago.
The same kitchen wall after I got back from the last trip
Good thing I am, once again, running away. I'm on the way to London, where I will spend a week with Howard, Celia, Lydia, and the "kids." Eating out of the microwave, doing dishes in the bathroom sink, and dealing with dust and noise most of the day are only so much fun. When I left a few hours ago, Tyler and Travis were hard at work finishing off the texturing and getting started on new trim and getting ready for the new cabinets. The change in appearance of the rooms on a day-to-day basis is amazing, and I am already looking forward to what things will look like when I get back a week from today.
My fridge in its new temporary location in the living room
Open-concept kitchen and dining area, with the wall that will support the granite bar
Of course, at that point the painters will have arrived, and they will stink up the place for the better part of next week; so, I am already planning to run away after my return from Europe to Midland to spend maybe two nights without fumes at Mike and Candi's—of course, not until first having checked my mail.
The entry hall, sans wallpaper and without the hideous light fixture
The estimated finishing date is one of the last two days of February. So far, DreamMaker has been nothing short of incredible. We're dead on schedule, the workers are all pleasant and customer-service oriented, and owner Steve is treating me like an old friend who knows how stressful such a remodel can be. And my real friends have been wonderful, too, asking me over for dinner or grabbing me for beer and pizza at Triple J's, like Carl did the other night.

I can't wait to post pics of the finished product in about a month's time. As Judy always said, this too will pass.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

La Calavera Catrina, mascot of Aguascalientes, Mexico
And once again I am sitting in the DFW airport, this time coming back from Mexico where I spent the past four days on UCI business. It was a trip I had been looking forward to, but it almost had to be nixed when I started to have some problems with the old pump last weekend that saw me spend the night in Lubbock's Heart Hospital. Seems as if the long flight from Germany, my stressing over the house remodel as well as the race in Mexico, plus a few extra drinks were the cause of the atrial flutter that I experienced. Thanks to various doctor buddies I was checked out quickly and pronounced fit to travel with 24 hours to go. And so I went to Aguascalientes.
My home for the past five days
It was an interesting five days, most of which I spent inside of the ultra-modern velodrome that had already seen major international competition in the past few years. I worked closely together with two truly enjoyable gentlemen from Argentina (Juan) and Costa Rica (Cristiam), and together we took care of the task at hand. I had never worked a track race, and I have to say that the hours were longer than for any other cycling events that I have been involved in. Every night we'd close shop after 11 p.m., only to have dinner at midnight and go to bed at 1 a.m. But I'm not complaining as I met an amazing number of  hospitable people and enjoyed the cooperation of the local organizers as well as the respect of the commissaires.
Posing with the race doctor
There wasn't much sightseeing possible. If Dallas hadn't been iced over on the day of my departure and my first flight out of Lubbock hadn't been cancelled that monring, I would have had a full half day of exploring Aguascalientes, an old colonial city about six hours' worth of driving north-west of Mexico City. But I had to take a later flight that afternoon and didn't get to my hotel until about midnight. (The hotel itself, the Grand Hotel Alameda, was quite a trip—it had seen its best years probably 50 years ago but still exuded some of the colonial charm and certainly made up for some of the lacking modern amenities with its warm personnel and unbelievable breakfast buffet that included such favorites as chilaquiles, frijoles, and carne guisada, chased by fresh orange juice as well as papaya and pineapple.) However, this morning I did get a chance for a two-hour walk through the old city center, and it was vintage Mexico.
Fruit in all flavors

A hanging menu at a street cafe

The chicken is getting ready for the noon crowd

An old woman peels cactus leaves, nopales

One of the many pretty churches in Aguascalientes
That was just a small sampling of the many photos that I took this morning. Boy, I sure would have liked to stick around a little longer. But as I said, this was a work trip, and so I should add a few pics from the velodrome, too. It's quite cool to have full access to all parts of such a venue, and even though I did not have very much time during the finals to watch the action I still got a chance to see some of it. The perspective from the infield is quite different from that from the ranks, and I enjoyed being in the middle of the fast-paced action. Here are a few shots from the past few days.
The ultra-modern Aguascalientes velodrome

The view from below

A soigneur pins the number of a Mexican rider before the Madison

The well-oiled Swiss team pursuit team warms up
The view from the commissaires' stand

A Swiss rider surveys the damage after crashing in the Madison
So, once again I had an exciting trip with lots of new impressions and experiences. We were fed like kings (even cochinita pibil!), and whatever we needed was provided. I had a chance to work on my Spanish, and I made new friends. Still, it's a bit of a shame that I had to head home because I would have liked to take in at least one these three attractions:
Will it be the bullfight, the concert with Chuy Lizarraga ...
... or the circus tonight (only 40 pesos, and viewing the lion is free)?
Instead I am heading home to a kitchen that by now will be on the way to a completely different look, i.e., most likely it's demolished. I am sure that the next few days will be busy, as usual—but maybe I finally get a chance to ride the bike again. I am terribly out of shape after all that travel of the past two months and will have to buckle down to make myself presentable again.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Happy 57th to myself!

Here I sit in a hotel room—which probably had its best days in the year of my birth, 1956—in northern Mexico while on a UCI assignment and contemplate past and future. Today is my birthday, and if it weren't for some e-mails and a present that I brought along from Wes and Susan it'd be a day like any other.

With a very young Sabine, anno 1977 in Luxemburg
Time flies, as you and I know. It's been more than 2 years since Judy died, and the moment is ever-present. It's been almost 3 years since my retirement, and that last day in the classroom feels like yesterday. I have been in the US for going on 36 years now, the better part of my lifetime. And those early days in Trier and Schleiden are just around the corner, too.
With family in Schleiden, 1977
Who knows how the future will shake out. If my health holds up and I don't run off all of my friends with rude remarks and snide comments, well, then I have it made. The house remodel will be finished in no time, and more exciting trips just keep lining themselves up. Like everyone I have my low moments but I try to overcome them as quickly as possible because there is so much beauty and love to be experienced.
With Howard, somewhere in the middle of Tunisia, 1976
So, I accept the b'day card from Korbel Cellars with the many, many champagne bottles on a magnificent b'day cake and say "Happy Birthday to Myself!"


Monday, January 7, 2013

Istanbul—Take #2

The Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed, with four of its six minarets pictured
We left Istanbul three days ago, but as usual it's never easy to find the time (or the right time) for another post. A week in Turkey's largest city (but not its capital—that's of course Ankara) was just right to get reacquainted after all those years.
Ottoman splendor in the harem section of the Topkapı Sarayı, inside ....
... and outside
First off, let me recommend a visit to the former capital of the Roman and Ottoman empires to anyone who has even the slightest sense of adventure. Really, this is no longer the strangely semi-oriental stepping stone before one heads out into the Muslim world across the Bosporus. What we saw of the city reminded us of any large European metropolis, with the odd sight of mosques and their minarets thrown in to give the skyline just enough mystique. Sure enough, the bazaar still has a bit of the aura of the 19th century, but it's no longer populated by nargile-smoking shopkeepers who will try to drag you into their tiny stalls. Water pipes have been banned from most public spaces, just as there is a general ban on cigarette smoking in most public places. All fine and good, but the atmosphere simply is different. It's a bit like that Irish pub that no longer reeks of tobacco.
A water pipe, or nargile, with fresh charcoal on top of the foil-covered tobacco

Here the çay and the nargiles are being prepared by the attendants
Lest you think we're teetotalers, we did go to one very cool tea and nargile den. It was a cozy place just a few steps away from the Blue Mosque, but the clientele was probably 50 percent sophisticated local students (the area is close to the university), 35 percent other customers with local roots, and maybe another 15 percent tourists. This establishment, within the perimeter wall of an ancient cemetery, apparently sidestepped the new regulations against indoor smoking by enclosing a summer terrace area with plastic and thus technically being located at least partly out-of-doors. The çay cost all of one lira (about 60 cents), and a water pipe would have set us back from about 15 lira and onward (maybe 9 dollars), depending on the tobacco chosen. But we pussied out (we thought we'd have a major cough attack), even though there were some cute high-school aged babes at the table next to us innocently yet intently sucking on the exquisite mouthpiece of their communal nargile. Still, the experience was second to none, and the second-hand smoke was pleasant and comforting, nothing like the regular pipe smoke or, much worse, cigar or heaven-forbid cigarette fumes.
Inside the Grand Bazaar
The Topkapı Sarayı, the former palace where the Ottoman sultans ruled for close to half a millennium, is a place where you can lose yourself for the better part of the day. Close-by are the Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet Camii (or Blue Mosque), and the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market are just a short walk away, too. That's the Istanbul one sees in the travel brochures, and that's probably why one visits the city in the first place. Tourism is definitely high on the list of revenue generators for Istanbul (and the entire southern coast of Asiatic Turkey where sun-starved central Europeans book their summer vacations). We read somewhere that Istanbul is one of the most-desired weekend-trip destinations in all of Europe. Judging from the immense number of Japanese tourists, it's also on top of the list for longer trips.
Even street-corner döner kebap is most of the time more expensive than in Berlin, and less tasty
With all those tourists come high prices. Man, I could not believe how one of the cheapest cities I had ever traveled to has become another Paris or London! Take a few extra bucks along if you plan to eat a nice meal out, take a taxi, or drink something stronger than the ubiquitous çay. The country still uses the Turkish Lira, and things would have looked more expensive had I calculated the exchange rate from American dollars instead of used my German euros. But then, everybody knows that I am a cheapskate, so you may think the prices are just fine—but heck, I still think of the Istanbul I saw 35 years ago.
Freshly caught fish near the Galata Bridge is one of the cheap items
Spices, teas, and sweets outside of the Spice Bazaar
Istanbul is now home to close to an estimated 17 million people, and many of them live in extremely poor neighborhoods. Shanty towns are apparently a big problem as peasants flee the countryside to find jobs and fortune in the big city. We didn't see these slums, but we read about them. The areas in Old Town and on the north side of the Golden Horn that we saw looked OK, but not fabulous. In the distance we saw all those skyscrapers that are evidence of modern jobs and a middle class, but we were wondering more than once about the large divide in income in this country, which has a median income far less than most European countries. (Of course, outside of Istanbul and Ankara as well as some of the tourist destinations in the south, the country is poorer than dirt, dragging down any averages.) The areas that we saw in the city that were obviously frequented by Turkish citizens reminded us of the fairly affluent city centers of other European metropolises. The shops and brands are the same, the way people dress is the same, and the price level is the same.
Have van, have plastic chairs, will travel, and am pleased to serve çay—well-off vendor

All it takes is a few gas stoves to be an entrepreneur...
... or a BB-hand gun to shoot for a few lira ...
... the balloons on the beach. Talk about entrepreneurism!
One of the amazing things is how everybody seems to find a niche to eke out a living. It had been a long time since I had seen such an unbelievable number of street vendors; the last time was in India. It seems that all of Istanbul is a market place—every sidewalk becomes the showroom for some thing that somebody will need at some point in his or her life. A new leather jacket? An Adidas or Izod shirt? What about a Louis Vuitton hand-bag? Designer perfume or a Rolex? Soccer paraphernalia such as scarves and jerseys? Bath sandals? Note blocks and pens? Baby shoes and mittens? A new cell phone? A charger for said phone? Or corn-on-the-cob and sesame simit pastries and chestnuts? Dude, you got it! We also noticed that like industries were located next to one another—there were entire streets with nothing but shoes being sold, or hand-bags, or copper kettles, or boat anchors and chains, or sexy underwear, or whatever you happen to need.
A shoeshine artist and his cat attend to business
One afternoon we took the ferry boat across to the Asian side, to Karaköy. Seeing the city from the water gave us a completely different perspective, and exploring the neighborhood around the ferry station gave us a completely different view of the city: We suddenly felt immersed into the bohemian Paris of 15 years ago! Trendy pubs, art galleries, tiny bookstores with an even tinier café built in, an intellectual-looking crowd, rooftop bars—you get the idea. That was probably the biggest surprise for us as we had expected the Asian side to be the one that was, well, more traditional.
One afternoon we took a 2-hour tour of the Bosporus
On another afternoon we took a boat ride up and down the Bosporus, marveling at old palaces, burned down wooden yalıs, and posh mansions. The weather sucked, but that gave it all a bit of the melancholic feeling that the locals fondly call the hüsün. Maybe I'll get a chance tomorrow to add a quotation from an interesting tome that Sabine found in the opium, I meant nargile, den.
The Argonauts on the Bosporus
Well, this entry has already become quite unwieldy and only the truly dedicated will have read this far, so I better close. Istanbul is definitely worth a trip, whether as an excursion during your next European sojourn or as a destination in itself. We'll certainly be back.