29 February 2008

The Playboy Mansion, Chicago

Hey everyone! I have good news.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email asking me to authorize one of my photos for possible use in a travel guide featuring Chicago. I was in Chicago visiting family a few months back, and my cousins and I went on a bike tour of the city. One of our stops was the Playboy Mansion on the north side of the city, where I took this picture:

It's by far not one of my best photos, and the resolution could be better, but I don't care. Because this morning, I opened my email to find a notice that my photo was chosen for the guide!

Check it out at Schmap!! Chicago.

27 February 2008

Royal Barbados Cigars

Part two of our tour took us to the Royal Barbados Cigar Company. Here, they make cigars completely by hand.

When we arrived, we were greeted with yards and yards of hanging, dried tobacco leaves. As someone who has almost always been repulsed by the smell of tobacco (unless of course we're talking about sweet, sticky, molasses-y hookah smoke), to the smell outside the factory here wasn't exactly pleasant to my precarious nose. But, if you like that sort of thing, the drying Cuban tobacco probably would have been pleasant.

Once inside the factory, we met with the Swiss woman that ran the place with what appeared to be an iron fist. I didn't get a picture of her, but Brian does a great impression of her that I wish I could share with you. Anyhow, Some of the women didn't like to have their pictures taken, but they did allow me to take pictures of their work. In this shot, the woman is unraveling Cuban tobacco to be sorted.
Once the leaves are flattened out and orderly, they're sorted into small, medium, and large. These are the leaves that will determine the size (re: 'number') of the cigar. These leaves were from Ecuador and Cameroon. For those of you too anxious to wait for the embargo on Cuba to disappear, she did tell us that even though the cigars are Cuban tobacco, they are importable to the US because they are a product of Barbados.

At the next station, we watched one woman stuff the tobacco leaves into the wedge on the rubber roller, while the whole leaf was stationary on the top.

She adjusts it and then rolls all of the filler into the larger leaf wrapping. I couldn't believe how many times our Swiss 'guide' said the word nice in describing how this is done. I think she must've said it 30 times. Nice!

Once the filler is done and the cigar is first rolled up, they're placed in these blocks. The block ensures that the cigars are a uniform shape and size for the number that they are producing that day.

In the next step they take an extra large tobacco leaf that has been stripped until it is thin and extremely pliable. She cuts it down to a size that is relative to the size of the cigar. Then, the cigar is rolled inside the final wrapping until it appears flawless. The woman who rolls the cigar then cuts the leaf again and seals the ends with a natural, vegetable-based glue like guar gum. They don't want you to fire up your cigar and burn chemical glue and poison yourself. So a vegetable gum it is. Follow the pictures of the process below:

After the cigars are glued and dry, they move on to the next step in the process, were they receive their pedigree.

The cigars are labeled by hand and each label gets a small dab of Elmer's glue. The glue is not supposed to ever touch the cigar skin, otherwise the cigar is rubbish and has to be thrown out.

After they're labeled, the cigars still have one more step of QC. They must be matched perfectly by color. At this point, the woman working on the cigars held up two of "differing" colors to the light. I thought to myself, I'd be fired from this job, because I can't tell the difference. They all look like they're the same color to me. If you look at the picture above, can you tell the difference?

Finally, the cigars receive individual cellophane wrappings. They are boxed and ready for presentation. For more information about Royal Barbados Cigars, go here.

26 February 2008

EarthWorks! Art Studio

When I was doing pre-trip research on Barbados, I learned that native "Barbadians" call themselves Bajan. They also speak a language by the same name, that to my American ears sounded almost completely intelligible. Basically, it's a mixture of African expressions, idioms, and syntax mixed with Scouse English of Liverpool. After talking to a few people, I learned that Bajan, is actually the accented and shortened form of the official word, Barbadians. I've read that it's comparable to Jamaican Patois, but more like Creole. I learn something new every day.

Since it was Valentine's Day, and we wanted to do something fun, Brian and I went on a tour led by Johnson's Tours of Barbados. They operate lots of tours, but this one is their "100% Bajan" tour, where we get to experience the crafts of several places close to the Bajan heart. We began our day with a long drive through endless sugar cane fields to head to a pottery and art studio called Earthworks.

We didn't have a tour of the studio, but I enjoyed that they gave us time to wander freely and watch the workers mold clay on the wheel, glaze, and fire their works, as well as having the opportunity to speak to each of the artists as they create their works.
This woman was molding a vase on the wheel. Below is an unfired clay carving of a head that I spotted on one of the many shelves of seemingly endless creations.
Outside the studio, I heard a rooster crowing, and I decided to follow my ears. Once I was outside, I saw a pretty impressive looking rooster walking around piles of broken pot shards.
I looked around outside for a while spooking and chasing the chicken in the grass. What can I say, I'm a kid at heart. I was thinking about all of that broken pottery, and what on earth they could possibly do to recycle it somehow. then I wandered around the studio some more and found this:
I thought it was pretty cool, all of the shards held together in what looked and felt like terracotta. These pieces were probably cracked, broken, or otherwise imperfect before they were put into the wall here. I think the effect is awesome. When I finally made my way into the studio-shop, I found this:

The finished products are quite pretty with swirling colors in shades of blues, greens, and yellows. Then I looked at the price tags. Each of these vases cost upwards of $60US. The smallest thing I found, and ice cream bowl that was much to tiny to serve my cravings was almost $15US (EACH!). In the end, I couldn't bring myself to buy any of it for the prices they were offering no matter how pretty or cool some of this stuff looked. Maybe someday in the future, I'll be more willing to drop hundreds of dollars on pottery like this.

25 February 2008

Greetings From Vienna - Auf Wiedersehen

Actually, I can go without wiedersehening Vienna for another 8 years...also, fyi, the pictures in this blog have nothing to do with the text, they're just random shots of the city.

In the beginning, there was German. A noble language etched with the power and force of the German-speaking peoples' forefathers. Then, at some point the Saxons made their way to the island Brittany (aka Britannia, Britian, etc) and brought their noble langauge with them. The, during or after the Norman invasion and the arrival of William the Conqueror (I'd be able to describe this better had my university/professor thought to include history of the german language as course but no...)German began to devolve and soon the world had English. Then at some point high school students started to study the language in which their's is rooted and the world then had Germish (German-English). Or Engman I suppose but it doesn't have as nice of a ring...

Now the situation is even worse. As English evolved from German and we in England and American and America Jr. to the north spoke English and the Germans and Austrians retained their language, it seems that the devolution is happening again. English has been sneaking its way into languages for decades now like an insiduous disease eating away at perfectly good langauges. Some, like Chinese, are such as they cannot accept English words and continue to make up their own to fit increasingly modern concepts. For example, my favorite Chinese word is the word for bus: gong gong chi che (ignore my bad pin yin, I never got the hang of it) which literally translated means 'public together vapor cart.' Others like the French simply refuse to let English take over their language. So whatever contempt I have for the country as a whole I have respect that they insist on linguistic integrity.

On the opposite end of the scale is German which is increasingly using more and more English words. First it was just technical words. Hier mit dem Maus an das Computer kilcken. (Click here with the mouse on the computer). Das Internet, das Kredit Karte etc etc. So ok, on the one hand, technical words (although credit card isn't really technical...) but everyday words for which I know they have perfectly good words of their own? That's unforgivable. For example, I had dinner in an Indian restaurant tonight (more about that below) and the waiter wanted to know how spicy I wanted it. Gar nicht scharf (not at all) or medium scharf. Medium? Medium?! Since when is that a German word? Answer...it's not!

Ok, enough of my rant...on to food!

Since I have given up meat for Lent I've been mostly living on pizza and pasta and after this long, even I can get sick of pizza. I know, right? Take a minute to let that one soak in! In any case, I was delighted to happen across an Indian restaurant today. I ordered butter naan and my second favorite Indian dish, palak paneer, which is spinach cooked down with onions and 'spices' until it's the consistancy of baby food and then has chuncks of soft white cheese tossed in. I ate traditional Indian style which means by hand using only the right hand. Now no one else in the restaurant was doing this and probably it was taboo but whatever. I am a firm believer in eating food the way it's eaten in its country of origin. For foods out of India and Pakistan and a few other countries, that means by hand (only ever the right one!). For China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan it means chopsticks or toothpicks for street food. In the western world it's forks or hands. I think it is an unforgivable sin to eat Chinese food with anything but chopsticks.

And back on track...

About halfway through my palak paneer my stomach caved in on itself and crumpled into a tight, angry ball. Uh oh. This is not going to be pleasant. But did I stop eating? Pfft. No. Also not one to turn down Indian sweets I ignored the pains in my stomach and ordered dessert-gulab jamun and chai. The gulab jamun was lovely but the chai was a serious let-down. I expected that an Indian restaurant, even one in Germany but with an obviously Indian owner (and I thought the Austrian accent was odd!) could do a chai at least as good as mine. I was so wrong. Oh well. Despite the gripping stomach ache and the disappoiting tea I do not regret tonight's dinner. If nothing else I got some much needed iron.

Greetings From Vienna - City of Statues

One of the things that I love about Europe is the prolific use of statues. They can be monuments that might just be a bust of some random person that you might miss unless you walk into it or big huge monuments that you can only miss if you are actually blind. Like this monument in the Museum Quarter to Maria Theresa.

The Opera House comes replete with several statues whose significance, other than decorative, escape me.

Then there are the random carvings that decorate buildings. Most of these places are now used for modern purposes, guest houses, cafes, shops, etc but I wonder what they used to be? All the old buildings are just so beautiful to begin with, maybe it was just the style to slap a few busts onto a building regardless of the building's intended purpose?

Other than a brief excursion earlier today I'm pretty confined to my hotel so i can be online and work and convince my boss that I should be allowed to go back to Belgrade tomorrow so to remind myself that I am in Vienna I'm watching a movie on my computer. And what else would I watch except Amadeus? Absolutely fantastic movie but I still cannot watch the bit at the beginning when the old Salieri cuts his throat in an attempted suicide...that part always freaked me out when I was a kid and I'm still not over it apparently. Poor Salieri, his music really wasn't bad, he just had the misfortune to try to be a composer in the same era as Mozart and his contemporaries.

24 February 2008

Greetings From Vienna - Sunday

This morning I attended High Mass in Saint Stephan’s. While I took many a photo of the outside of the great Cathedral, I did not take any inside. Mostly because it’s dark as pitch in there and my camera and I do not do well in the dark. Mass was…freaking freezing cold. That’s one of the many drawbacks to attending Mass in the old stone churches-there is no heating and it is often more cold inside than it is outside. I sat in one of the front pews, obviously reserved back in the day for the wealthy as evident that the plank o’ wood kneelers had thin pads covered with nawgohide tacked onto them, and shivered for an hour while listening to a Gregorian choir and struggling around the various Viennese accents to understand the Mass. I must say I didn’t do too badly.

Communion was as I feared it might be. People simply pour out of the pews and rush the Communion rail like a stampede of water buffalo. They get their wafer then push back through the crowd to return to their seat. Really? This is the house of God for cripe’s sake! Could we please have some order? Serbia is only slightly better. People do just leave their pew whenever they’re ready but manage to form to coherent lines. Taiwan was the same as was Italy if I recall correctly. Are Americans, supposedly so uncultured and lacking history and refinement in comparison to the rest of the modern world, really the only ones to perfect the orderly procession of one pew at a time?

After Mass I headed out of the city center towards the Belvedere Museum. On the way I saw the dome of the Karl’s Kirche and detoured towards it. Grand and ancient as St. Stephan’s may be, Karl’s Kirche is far more in my style.

I generally prefer the basilica’s dome to the cathedral’s spire and the inside of Karl’s Kirche was filled with shining white marble and streams of light illuminated the beautiful frescos, paintings, and statuary. I love places like this and how they are filled with air and light and don’t make me feel claustrophobic like their darker counterparts (i.e. St. Stephan’s and my own church in DC St. Matthew’s).

The on to the Belvedere which ended up being a big debacle. Had I known this morning what I now know, thanks to commenter Christine, I’d have stuck closer to the center and actually gone to the opera. Or at least taken a tour. Why it did not occur to me to find out if they offered tours I do not know; that was really stupid of me and I’m paying for that stupidity with the loss of a great opportunity. Alas, they are not open on Mondays and tomorrow will no doubt be my last day in Vienna. Well if I ever again find myself in Vienna…

I do not know the distance I walked but by the time I finally found a meatless place to eat which I could afford (I’ve been spoiled by Belgrade prices!) and sat to rest my feet, the muscles up and down both legs quivered and jumped continuously the entire time I ate. Then it was off to a Konditerei for another slice of cake and a Viennese coffee.

On my way back to my hotel I was unfortunate enough to encounter a group of youths (couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16) all dressed in military paraphernalia, one with a black mask over his face, another with Serbia written on his forehead and carrying a Serbian flag. So apparently not even here can I escape the little bastards who drive me from Belgrade in the first place. Also I lost my scrunchie. Granted they went out of style ages ago and I cringe when I see them on Beverly Hills 90210 (it plays on a Croatian TV channel) but they’re so much better for throwing hair into a messy bun than a rubber band is! And it was my favorite scrunchie. Sigh. My life is so full of tragedy (insert mocking and sarcastic self-pitying tone).