Tijuana

I had zero interest in heading across the border from here until I received this email, “I’d like to go to Mexico to get migraine meds. Would you have any interest in driving to Tijuana with me on Saturday?” Sounds like an adventure, I thought, and it was.

The “Best” Eats

Who doesn’t love going out to eat? While one of many reasons we stay at Airbnbs is having the ability to cook and keep fresh food handy, a big highlight of traveling is exploring local restaurants. Once in a while, we’ll stumble across a great find but random picks can often disappoint.

With so many choices, how do you find the good places? From the best coffee to the best bakeries to the best ethnic restaurants, recommendations from locals are our go-to source. I also keep a running list garnered from various travel articles, plus suggestions from friends. Local newspaper and magazine websites are pretty dependable and I like Eater.com. TripAdvisor is handy abroad but back in the States, I’m not a fan.

Yelp? Although our niece Emily works for them, I rarely, if ever, follow their suggestions. Until today.

Our friend MJ forwarded an article about Yelp’s Top-Rated Restaurant for 2020, located right here in San Diego. Michelin-star rated? No. Fancy white table cloths? No. Classically trained chef? No. With a perfect 5-star rating over 500 reviews, Yelp’s #1 restaurant for 2020 is . . . a food truck. Selling shawarma. And who doesn’t love shawarma? We headed to San Diego’s South Park neighborhood to check out Shawarma Guys.

Set up in the parking lot of his buddy’s liquor store, the owner, a former cell phone salesman, serves up to 900 plates a day with the help of his family. The service is friendly. The prices are cheap.

And the food? Frank and I ordered a chicken and a beef shawarma plate. Portions were large and accompanied by tasty sides of rice, hummus, pita and tabbouleh (bonus for me: no cucumbers!). Meat was tender and flavorful. We switched a couple times, having a hard time choosing a favorite. We did agree on one thing though, as far as shawarma goes, it was one of the best. We’ll be back.

As a footnote, we stopped at Eclipse Chocolate Bar & Bistro, also in South Park. Travel + Leisure magazine named theirs “America’s Best Hot Chocolate.” I had the dark chocolate Masala Chai. I’d have to say, it was pretty, pretty good.

Happy 2020 from San Diego!

Frank and I begin this new year and the new decade in sunny San Diego. After six months in a cozy(?) 250-sq. foot apartment and dreading the impending Wisconsin deep freeze, it was high time to “get outta Dodge.”

Our California apartment is comfortable and spacious, located in the heart of San Diego. Within walking distance is most of what we need. For anything farther, there’s a trolley stop right behind our building. It’s so liberating not to need a car. We joined a club so Frank is back swimming and in his happy place. Both of us are looking forward to a couple months of relaxation, rejuvenation, exploration and visitors(!).

If you’re reading this and have any San Diego area recommendations, please send us a message!

“My home is not a place, it is people”

As 2019 ends and a decade closes its doors, now seems like a good time to ponder those words from Lois McMaster Bujold.

I’ve grown accustom to reciting my own quote, “Home is wherever our suitcases are.” Is that true? It’s been six years since Frank and I sold our home and hit the road. We’ve visited and lived (albeit temporarily) in some fantastic places, places where we could happily settle and feel “at home.” We’ve met some truly wonderful people, eaten well and had some incredible experiences.

But we always come home to Wisconsin. Even here, we stay in different places. The place, we’ve discovered, is irrelevant. For us, being home means being surrounded by our people. This last stretch had its challenges but time spent with family and friends made it more than worthwhile.

Frank and I love and look forward to continuing our adventures. I can’t say we won’t have a house someplace else at some point, but good, bad or freezing cold, Wisconsin will always be home.

Thanksgiving in NYC

Frank and I loved spending Thanksgiving in New York City. Seeing Andy and his new place, having Nick and Kim join us from LA, good food, lots of laughs, a little sightseeing and the burgeoning Christmas decorations made for a truly memorable week!

Andy’s apartment is right next to the Stock Exchange in the Financial District of Manhattan. (Yes, he has a real Christmas tree!)

His neighborhood is a great mix of new and old. The 9/11 Memorial and Calatrava’s Oculus transit center are nearby. I had just seen “Hamilton” back in Milwaukee so it was especially interesting to see our nation’s first capitol, the tavern where Hamilton had dinner the night before the duel and the church where he is buried.

A Thanksgiving away from home was a new experience. We conveniently rented a two-bedroom in Andy’s building. The kitchen was fairly well-equipped but didn’t have everything you’d need to cook a full holiday meal. I froze and brought some cookies and breads from home. I knew I could manage a few side dishes and hors d’oeuvres, but a turkey? Enter Citarella’s. Turkey, check. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy — check! I found the “best” New York cheesecake (May Ze Dahr) and a good place for dinner rolls (Amy’s). Pre-holiday pickups gave me a chance to explore different areas of the city!

The best part of Thanksgiving was the company! Andy invited a few of his new friends — Dara, Neal and Frankie — to join us.
(Hey, I know that guy!)

With Thanksgiving behind us, the city was so cheery and put us in the Christmas spirit!

It was fun watching the tree come together in front of the Stock Exchange next to Andy’s building.

All too quickly, it was time to say goodbye. We are so thankful for a wonderful week and can’t wait ’til next time!

Thanksgiving in NYC: Macy’s Parade

Perhaps it’s because I was born on Thanksgiving. I love everything about the holiday — family,  food and the Macy’s Day Parade! I’m glued to the spectacle every year while preparing the turkey and our family’s traditional holiday spingi (Italian donuts). The bands. The floats. The Rockettes. Santa. And, of course, the balloons! The parade sets the tone for a joy-filled day and the start of the holiday festivities.

Andy moved to NYC in July and now splits his time between here and Milwaukee. Our first visit to see his place is over Thanksgiving — presenting me an opportunity (coincidently?!!) to personally experience the pinnacle of all parades!

Everyone I know that’s been to the parade, told me I had to go see the balloon inflation the night before. Frank and Andy said they’d join me. That is, until we were rerouted several times and several blocks into a street packed like sardines with a slow-moving mass of humanity. The guys headed back downtown and I swam along. I rounded the corner; still no balloons. Once bags and backpacks were checked, the crowd loosened up and soon, around the corner, was the first glimpse of the balloons.

People were well-mannered and friendly. Excitement was all around!

My favorite, a new balloon designed by Yayoi Kusama

Would we see these balloons in flight tomorrow? The possibility of extreme winds had been reported in the days leading up to the big event. City rules require balloons to be grounded if sustained winds exceed 23 mph or gusts exceed 34 mph. The balloons have been grounded only once (in 1971) for weather-related reasons. Would that happen in 2019? A decision would not be made until right before the parade starts . . .

Parade Day

I met a lovely couple on the train platform. Although their home is in NYC, it was Pedro and Anna’s first time at the parade. We exited the train and found an amazing spot in Columbus Circle!

For some reason, we had a funny feeling this was too good to be true. We kept wondering how the parade could go around the circle, despite reassurances from a few of NYC’s finest. We asked around some more and found our hunches were right. We’d have to move.

We wandered up and down the now crowded streets and finally talked our way into Central Park where we found an even better, elevated, SEATED spot on a grassy hill! Frank had been texting me balloon updates. We were thrilled when city officials opted to have the balloons fly, albeit lower to the ground.

Showtime!

Go Dodgers!!!

So what’s a girl to do when her husband puts the kibosh on a party for his 75th birthday? How about a trip to see his beloved Dodgers play the Yankees in sunny LA?!!

While Frank is a huge Milwaukee Brewer fan . . .

. . . his heart will always be with the Dodgers. “My dad liked the Yankees but they were always winning. I preferred the Bums (the Dodgers’ nickname) even back when they were in Brooklyn. Roy Campanella. Don Newcombe. Then the Dodgers moved to LA. Sandy Koufax was my hero and pitcher Don Drysdale, too.”

Despite the hideous “Players’ Weekend” uniforms in lieu of their iconic jerseys and the use of nicknames instead of player names, nothing could take away from the historic rivalry. And yes, it was 86 degrees (felt like 100+!) but it IS sunny California. Did you know the Dodgers haven’t had a rainout game in nineteen years?!!!

Frank’s team pulled out a win for his special day — it couldn’t have been a better day for our favorite “Dodger Dog!”

Venice Beach — a fun place to visit but . . .

In our several stays within a block of the Venice Beach boardwalk — some for a week, some for a month — this is the first time we’ve visited when I haven’t said, “I love this place. I could live here.” Having always harbored a soft spot for the diversity, color and vibe of California’s hippie enclave, this trip gave me pause. 

Horrors! The “Venice Freak Show” has been replaced by a renovated storefront housing a Starbucks! I don’t recall ever seeing a “chain” on the boardwalk. “The beginning of the end,” I remember thinking.

Next, was all the construction. Several buildings have been razed, replaced with fancy beachfront housing.

Will the Venice-Beach-as-we-know-it disappear in a few years? As the week went by, however, I began to think, “Will this evolution necessarily be a bad thing?”

We found ourselves experiencing increased aggravation toward many things we once perceived as quintessential Venice Beach. It wasn’t good. 

Gritty has evolved into disgusting. Garbage is everywhere. (Seriously, people. Pick up your trash!) The smell of urine is ubiquitous.

The homeless population has increased dramatically. The odd but harmless are mingled with the creepy and provoking. In the alley outside our bedroom window, a guy bellowed a 30-minute litany of four letter words around 2 am our first night. An irritated neighbor called out, “Hey! You done? If not, I’m calling the cops. Thank you.” We laughed and said, “Welcome to Venice.” Repeat performances on subsequent nights weren’t as funny. 

A cardboard shelter was intermittently set up in our car port surrounded by spilled food, wrappers and countless flies. Once interspersed, mounds of random possessions and makeshift tents now line the Venice Beach boardwalk. More than a few high or mentally disturbed souls aimlessly stumbled along the walkway. We witnessed one guy in the middle of a busy street. My heart goes out to these individuals but it’s extremely disconcerting and sometimes scary.

For now, Venice Beach is still the place to be. Come as you are. Anything goes. Bikes, skateboards and scooters dart through the steady crush of tourists, while mounds of random possessions and makeshift tents line the sidewalks. Street artists peddle their creations. Bikini-clad teens pose for selfies in front of make-shift backdrops (donation only $1!). The kitschy souvenir shops are bustling and there are lines at restaurant pick-up windows.

The future? As luxury homes and boutique hotels sandwich their way onto the boardwalk, I think the Venice-Beach-as-we-know-it will be cleaned up and shifted to a dedicated, compacted area. I see it becoming an almost Disney-esque version of itself that tourists will continue to visit. It will still attract its share of “free spirits” and Muscle Beach strongmen. Skateboarders will skate. Surfers will surf. The Sunday drum circle will drum. And you know there will be plenty of shops selling tie dyed “I Love Venice” t-shirts, along with a few token tattoo parlors and marijuana dispensaries.

The change will inevitably result in at least some displacement of the homeless, which flies in the face of Venice’s culture of diversity and acceptance. Many are boardwalk “fixtures” who have been embraced by the community. Can housing, employment opportunities or some form of social services be implemented to keep them in this area they call home? Safety for all is paramount and those with drug addiction and mental health issues need to be treated.

I’m certain we will continue to visit Venice Beach when we come to Los Angeles. I still love the area, especially around Abbott Kinney and the canals. Many of our favorite restaurants are here.

It will be interesting to see how the beach area evolves. Can homed and homeless residents, city government and hungry developers conquer the challenges and still retain some of the character and embracement of inclusivity that makes Venice Beach the “people’s beach?” Will I again say, “I could live here?” Time will tell.

The Home of Happy People

The Danes always rank near the top of living in one of the “Happiest Countries in the World.” Frank and I were happy to spend time with two of those happy people!

We met Marie and Anne-Mette on a two-day boat trip to Vietnam’s Halong Bay,

When looking for a place to stay, I knew our first digs were meant to be — the name of the street was Bagerstræde! Although the host did not have UW paraphernalia, he did have a bunch of stuff from Ohio University and the Masters golf tournament!

Our Vesterbro neighborhood is just west of the central touristy area. It’s pretty trendy with lots of cafes, shops, bars and restaurants.

The 1930s white concrete buildings in Vesterbro’s Meatpacking District once housed huge butcher halls. Now it’s the place to go for some of the best restaurants on town.

Copenhagen is dotted with colorful streets in many different neighborhoods.

When Frank and I got back from our side trip to Norway, we stayed at Marie and Anne’s home in Nørrebro. We really enjoyed our time in this multicultural neighborhood — so eclectic with lots to see and do.

• The Lakes are three rectangular lakes in the middle of the city. The area is popular for walkers and bicyclists.
• Movies are never dubbed in Danish, although they are sometimes subtitled. Candy and beverages are self-serve, paid for at the counter. (Guests must be pretty trustworthy!)
• We saw many young people wearing captain hats and discovered they were recent high school graduates. On the weekend after graduation, each class rents a vehicle to take them from family home to family home to eat, drink and celebrate! (Liquor is legal at any age with parental permission.)
• I like the way cemeteries are utilized as quiet public parks. Assistens Kirkegård cemetery is the burial place of some of Denmark’s most famous individuals including writer Hans Christian Andersen, composer Karen Jønsson and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

Superkilen is a public park designed by an arts group, along with local architects.

Food, Drink and Shopping

Danish style

When we got to Copenhagen, one thing that struck me was the absence of balconies (we had seen so many in Berlin). They are, in fact, plentiful but are located in the back of the house, often overlooking pretty courtyards rather than busy streets. Once inside, we came to appreciate the minimalist lines of Danish/Scandinavian design. The sleek lines in the kitchen with the built-in refrigerators and hidden drawers created a very clean, uncluttered look. On the beds, there is no top sheet. Two comforters (with washable duvets) all but eliminate the “stop taking all my covers” scenario.

So, why are they so happy?

Colorful neighborhoods. Simple, cozy homes. Good food, drink and shopping. Healthy, outdoor lifestyle. What else? Taxes are high but Danes don’t have to worry about health care or education costs. It seems they also have a very healthy work-life balance. Many employers offer at least five weeks of vacation and employees can often work from home. This allows more time for family and friends — friends like us — who they meet and who come to visit their happy friends in this happy place called Copenhagen!

Copenhagen

Bikes, Bikes and More Bikes!!!

When we were in Berlin, I thought there were a lot of bikes. That was nothing compared to Copenhagen! Biking here is a religion. Over 60% of people use their bikes to go to work or school. 

The Christiana Bike with the front cart was invented in Denmark. You’ll often see children, pets and everything else being wheeled around in them. I wondered about the lack of helmets on cyclists but noticed many wearing these thick black collars. The Hövding are actually airbags that activate in a fall! (Click here to see a funny video, especially around 2:30)

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

Frank and I decided to do a bike tour. We were lucky in that we were our guide Rune’s only two clients for that day. Biking with the masses was a bit daunting at first, but we quickly got the hang of it. What a fun way to see the city!

We met up with Rune in Kongens Nytorv and rode to:
• Rosenborg Gardens, a 17th century castle surrounded by colorful gardens.
• Nyboder is a complex of historic yellow row houses that once housed marine families. The area is unique in that these homes are well-preserved and have not been destroyed by fire.
• Amalienborg is the residence of the Danish Royal family. (Did you know that the Danish monarchy has the world’s oldest lineage? Queen Margrethe II’s heritage can be traced back more than a thousand years to a king born in 958!)
• A Danish foundation donated the money for the Royal Danish Opera House, which is one of the largest in the world. The only stipulation was that they would build it on an island in direct line with the Cathedral, the Royal residence and a park (the four tenants of society: religion, monarchy, nature and the arts).
• The Church of Our Savior is one of Denmark’s most famous churches. Each year more than 60,000 people climb the 400 steps to the top of the spire (we weren’t two of them!).
• The Old Stock Exchange dates back to 1625 and is one of the oldest buildings in Copenhagen. 
• Kastellet is one of the best preserved fortresses in Northern Europe. It is constructed in the form of a pentagon with bastions at its corners.

. . . and Copenhagen’s most famous sight

Almost everyone who comes to Copenhagen pays homage to The Little Mermaid. The original story by Hans Christian Andersen (lower left) is much darker than the version by Walt Disney.

Freetown Christiana

Freetown Christiania is Copenhagen’s “alternative hippie neighbourhood.” Although we stopped here on the bikes, we got a more in-depth visit when we went with Marie and Anne. The community collective of around 1,000 people has its own flag and rules. You can’t drive cars here so there are plenty of bikes (including the Christiana bikes invented here and mentioned above). The vibrant mix of homemade houses, galleries and music venues is a photographer’s dream but you are warned not to take pictures in certain areas, especially around Pusher Street because they sell pot there! (illegal in Denmark)

Another Perspective

Our “Hey Captain” tour was a blast, complete with a fun group of people — and a couple bottles of wine! Sam took us to some off-the-beaten path sights, including UN City which houses seven departments of the United Nations and some cool houseboats.

Next up: Copenhagen — Home of the Happy People
(neighborhoods, homes, food and shopping)