Monday, October 31, 2011

Recipe Test: Seared Sea Scallops

As noted earlier I am planning my menu for supper club this weekend.  I plan on doing a French themed dinner and a couple of the recipes will be new to me.  I decided to test one recipe before supper club -- the seared sea scallops.  I figured I'd fix an entree portion for dinner for me and my mom last night.

I purchased 8 scallops (4 for each of us) from Treasure Island.  I started by cooking 2 slices of bacon in a cast iron pan, keeping the bacon grease in the pan after the bacon was done.  I added some olive oil and put the well dried and seasoned (salt and pepper only) scallops in the pan -- cooking 5 minutes on the first side and 3 minutes on the second.  Once the scallops were done I wilted a bunch of spinach in the left over grease/oil.  Once the spinach was wilted, I added a tad of butter to create more of a rich sauce.  I then added the cooked bacon and plated the spinach on my 1960s plates.

I placed four scallops on each plate and added the bacon/butter sauce to the scallops.  Who would have thought that the bacon fat and butter turned into a sauce poured over a naturally rich piece of shellfish would be too much.  The whole meal was so rich, we couldn't handle it.  I finished almost three full scallops while my mom finished 2.5.  It was quite tasty, but way too much food and rich beyond belief.

I know for sure that I won't ever serve this recipe as an entree -- it will totally kill my guests.  I haven't totally  decided if I'll serve this on Saturday or not.  If I do, I'll probably serve a single scallop and spinach -- an amuse bouche.

Do you have a less rich way to cook scallops that are a real crowd pleaser?  Have you every been completely surprised by an awfully rich meal?  Have you cooked a meal that was too rich and you could only eat a portion of it?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A modern beauty -- Farnsworth House

Today, I schlepped past the City limits, through the suburbs to rural Illinois.  We visited Plano, Illinois today.  We saw one of only 3 single family private residents in the world designed by one of my favorite architects -- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  This house was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth.  The good doctor was a single woman who lived and practiced medicine in Chicago.  She wanted a quiet sanctuary away from the City to visit on the weekends.

I won't get into all the details as to how she found the property, discovered and met Mies or the ensuing drama after they began working together -- I won't do it justice, the story is fascinating though.  This house is relatively small and was designed for a one person retreat.  Follow the links and read a bit more about this amazing space and the story surrounding this home. How lucky we are it was purchased by preservationists and not a private owner/collector who could have moved this home.

The home is absolutely stunning.  As I walked around the property, I envisioned building a contemporary equivalent on the family land in Oregon -- nestled in the trees, looking out on the rolling hills and the pond at the bottom of the property.

My pictures below were accidentally taken in very low resolution -- I need to return next fall and take more photos with a high resolution setting.  The photos do show the blending of inside and out on this property. How lovely would it be to spend quiet, contemplative evenings in this home.

This place is stunning -- I cannot wait to return and if you are in the greater Chicago area, please pay them a visit.

Supper Club Planning - French Cuisine

For the past four years now, I've been part of a supper club group.  There are 4 households involved, so we each host once a year and traditionally meet once a quarter.  I usually host in Q3 - between September and November. I prefer to host earlier in the quarter but this year I'm hosting the first weekend in November.  The dinners have 7 people in attendance (2 married couples, a single and me and MS).  There really aren't any real rules for supper club, but the main unwritten rule is that you must cook -- no catering or ordering in.  We started this because one of the members wanted to cook more, but since she's a single woman she doesn't have the opportunity to cook for anyone other than herself.

Supper club is a lot of fun, but can be a ton of work.  The worst part of it for me is the clean up.  Usually we drink about 1.25 bottles of wine per person and have dozens of dirty dishes.  Thank god for dishwashers, eh?

Since we just returned from Paris a few weeks ago, so my menu is heavily influenced by the rich French food we enjoyed.  Plus, it is fall, so I'm open to a heavy rich meal with friends.  Plus, my new dining chairs have an obvious French flair -- don't you think?

I will be trying a few new recipes during this supper club too. My menu isn't finalized yet, but here's what I'm thinking so far.

I will serve some bubbles to start then move into various whites and red wines for the rest of the meal.  I will probably also serve sparkling and port at dessert.  

I think I need another side dish with the entree, but I'm not sure what else to cook.  I guess I could also include a simple salad, which would be easy and colorful.  

Are you members of a group like this?  Do you enjoy trying new recipes when you have a houseful of people?  Does my menu look appetizing?  Too much bacon (is that possible)?  Too rich?  Would you like to come to dinner?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who do you tip while traveling?

I read an interesting post from Ben at One Mile at a Time today and it got me thinking -- do I tip too often and too much?  The gist of Ben's article is that he doesn't tip people for just doing their job if they make more than minimum wage and aren't offering a specialized service (e.g. Hotel Maids).

I always tip hotel maids.  Believe me, they won't retire of my small gratuity, but I do leave them something.  Traditionally, I will lave $5/night -- but I leave this upon my departure.  If I made a total mess of the room (ahem, Los Angeles, January 2009...) I will leave them a bit more.  I don't do it because I feel obligated, I do it because I think it is the right thing to do.  I agree with Ben, this is their job -- I don't get tipped for doing my job, but these folks are providing me a service and I have the financial ability to thank them for it.

Let's look at other people in the service industry and see if we should tip them.  When getting a cab from a hotel front door, I always slip the doorman a couple bucks.  He has to stand out in the weather hailing a taxi -- which if I were standing 20 feet away, I'd have to do it myself.  When he does it for you, you stay dry/warm (or cool) and more often than not they will escort you out with an umbrella if it is raining/snowing.  That's totally worth $2 to me!

I don't use hotel porters to bring my luggage to my room as I traditionally travel with a simple 20" Roller.  If I did require help with my bags, I would probably give $5 if I had more than 2 bags.  When I "check" my bag at the hotel, either because I arrived early and my room isn't ready or I checked out and don't want to schlep my suitcase around, I will usually leave between $1-$2 upon my return.

In Oregon, you cannot pump your own gas -- there is an attendant. We never tip these guys though (interestingly enough, a frenzy of comments on Facebook recently showed me that sometimes my friends do tip these guys, especially in bad weather).

I always tip a bartender at least $1. If I know I'm going to be at said establishment for the long haul that evening and it will get busier, I'll leave more $5-$10-$20 on the first drink, just so I KNOW I will be recognized and served throughout the night.  In this instance, I'm not tipping on service, I'm basically bribing the person behind the bar for better service.  Same basic concept though -- paying extra for the prospect of continued good service.

Following the logic I have laid out above, you would think that I'd tip a stew -- especially a first class stew, but I don't.  They serve me copious amounts of booze and sometimes acceptable food, but never do I even think about tipping these folks.  I will pass on the comment cards/notes that elites get each year for good service, but that's it.

I don't tip my dry cleaner but once a year at Christmas ($20), I tip the maid ($50) at the same time and I tip the property manager for my building ($100) as well.  These people don't do a better job than anyone else, per se -- again, they provide me a service that I can't do, don't want to do or don't have time to do, and I have the ability to thank them financially for their service.

What do you think?  Who do you tip?  How much do you tip?  Do you think hotel maids should be tipped and if so how much? Do you leave the tip nightly or at the end of your trip?  Do you work in an industry where you should be tipped but aren't regularly?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New Bedroom Planning

 I've been cruising Pinterest for several days now, trying to find some inspiration for my bedroom redesign and I'm not coming up with much of anything.  Since I moved in 30 months ago I toyed with the idea of putting my bed under the window, using the window as a headboard of sorts.  I don't want to block the window at all and I don't want the cold Chicago winters to freeze me while I'm sleeping directly under the window.

I am not 100% sold on the idea of installing curtains in my room and if I put the bed under the window that definitely cannot happen.  Moving the bed under the window also would allow for enough space at the foot of the bed to put a small chair in the room -- I could sit and read in the corner -- or watch TV, if I opt to put a TV in my room (again, not at all sold on this idea either).

As you can see, I pulled the trigger and moved my bed.  You'll see there is really a lot more free square footage.  It seems a little tight with my two nightstands flanking the bed. There is still plenty of room to get into the walk in closet, but it looks too crowded. I don't need the storage that is created by two nightstands -- so perhaps I'll use only one.

The wall that was behind the bed looks even more bare now.  That wall, as well as the opposite wall are wired for TV, so if I wanted to put a TV in my room it will be on one of these walls.

One issue I have with my room layout (no matter where the bed is located) is the door.  I have to keep the door open 24/7.  If the door is closed, Lilly demands to come in -- she'll knock, scratch and yell at the door until she gets in.  Then when I let her in and close the door she does it all over again to get out.  The other issue is that when the door is open, anyone who comes down from upstairs can easily see into my room.  Nothing too major, I just like having a bit more privacy in my world.

If I do keep my room set up like this I would like to get a fun rug to put at the end of the bed and a chair for the corner.  I was thinking a narrow, wing back chair that would bring a pop of color into the space?  I could even bring in a low profile headboard, which would block a bit of a window, but wouldn't be a deal killer.

What do you think? Is the bed in front of the window too annoying?  Does the room look to crowded with two nightstands on this wall?  How does it look with the bed not centered under the window?  Does your bed sit in front of the window?

US Airways Grand Slam Update - Miles Sweep 2

I woke up this morning and found that US Airways had credited an additional 7,000 miles to my account -- this shows my second set of four hits in the Grand Slam have been fully credited.  I have a total of 11 hits sitting in my account now. Once one more hits, I'll get another 5,000 miles and then with another 4 hits, I'll get an additional 10,000 miles (which would bring my bonus miles to 25,000 miles).

The frustrating part is that I've earned 6 more hits, but they haven't posted to my account yet. has been the bane of my existence.  I'm just trying to change 10 US Airways miles to 4 Asia miles -- (which took 2 weeks, 3 emails and two phone calls) -- and turn those 4 Asia miles back into US Airway miles.  Now those Asia miles are trapped in limbo.  I'm making this swap just go get a hit, I don't even know what airline uses Asia miles.  Once this process is over, I don't think I'll ever use again as they are just slow and not at all self service.

Later this week I'll outline the other hits I've already earned (but not posted) and the other few that I'm finalizing now.  I have a feeling that I'm going to get screwed on some of these miles just because I'm new to the Grand Slam and didn't get some of these things started early enough.  Next year I will know better and I'll have things all queued up to start posting points a day or two.

Did you notice a point sweep this morning too?  Are you having issues with some of the partner points posting lately?  Did you spend 3 weeks fighting with just for a hit?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My US Airways Grand Slam Update

As I noted earlier, I'm not a US Airways fan. Well, I've never flown them, but I'm a total United guy.  I am playing US Airways Grand Slam 2011 to get miles that I will use on other Star Alliance carriers -- hopefully earning enough to fly First or Business Class to Europe or Asia.  Here's what I've done so far and how the points are stacking up.
  1. Dividend Mile Toolbar -- I downloaded one of those damn annoying toolbars that attach to your browser.  I did the required three searches on September 12 and my 3 points were posted to my account on September 16.  Pretty easy.  I am keeping the annoying toolbar installed on Internet Explorer, which I never use, for a while just to be sure they don't try to take the points away. I earned 4 miles with this hit.  Hit One. 
  2. E-Rewards -- This is a free, yet time consuming hit.  Basically you fill out surveys and get rewards dollars that can be redeemed for miles.  I started this process before the Grand Slam kicked off, so I had a head start.  It took a while to get the $25 but I cashed them in for 500 miles on US Airways.  I cashed them in on September 16 and they were credited on September 20. I earned 500 miles here, bringing me to 504 miles.  Hit Two.
  3. Dividend Mile Dining -- This wasn't necessarily free hit, but the incremental cost was nothing.  Basically you sign up a credit card with this reward website and when you pay at select restaurants with the designated cards you get points.  I dined at Freshii on September 26 and the points were credited on September 29. I earned 26 miles with this hit, bringing me to 530 miles. Hit Three.
  4. Buy Dividend Miles --  I find buying miles a huge waste of money and time.  The value is not all there, but I get a hit and the bonus points make it worth it.  I bought 1,000 miles for $29.56 including tax.  This has recently gone up about $6 for the same number of miles.  Good timing for me.  I bought the miles on September 30 and they were posted to the account on September 30, as well.  Hit Four. Obviously, I earned 1,000 miles for this, bring me to 1,530 miles plus this was my fourth hit, which earned me an extra 3,000 miles -- 4,530 miles total.
  5. 1-800-Flowers -- My mom's birthday is on October 23, so I opted to buy my mom some flowers.  I ordered the flowers on September 30, with a delivery day of October 21.  Since my charge went through on September 30 and the points posted on September 30.  I spent $64.73 on the flowers and earned a total of 900 points, bringing me to 5,430.  Hit Five.
  6. Audience Rewards -- This was some silly trivia question relating to theater.  I answered the questions and had the 12 points transferred to US Airways.  The questions took about 4 minutes to answer and I immediately transferred my points to US Airways.  They posted on October 4, which was 3 days after I requested the transfer. This brings my total to 5,442 miles.  Hit Six.
  7. Miles for Magazines -- I believe this is the only way you SPEND miles and get a hit.  I opted to spend 400 of the miles I earned thus far to get another hit and get a renewal subscription to Cigar Aficionado.  I lost 400 points on this bringing my mileage total to 5,042 miles.  Hit Seven.
  8. Track-It-Back -- This is one of those things that I just bought for the hit. On October 10, I purchased a sticker that you put on your phone or the like and if you happen to lose this item someone finds it and calls the "Track It Back" number and you get your valuable back.  I spent $24.94 on this hit.  It posed to my account on October 13.   I haven't received my sticker yet though. I earned 500 miles with this purchase bringing my total to 5,542 miles .No bonus miles have posted for this hit yet. Hit Eight
  9. Dividend Miles Shopping Mall -- As noted above, my mother's birthday is on October 23. I opted to buy her a gift from Amazon points suck as you get 1 point for ever $2 spent.  I bought her a gift on October 7 and the 55 points posted on October 20, bringing my points to 5,597.  Hit Nine.
  10. Super Shuttle -- Yes, I did.  I booked a $13 airport shuttle ride from DFW to the DFW Hyatt.  Of course, I wasn't in Dallas and I haven't stayed at a Hyatt in probably 8 years...and never in Dallas.  I earned 50 miles for this hit bringing my total to 5,647 miles.  Hit Ten.
  11. MasterCard Purchase -- One of my oldest credit cards was a Platinum Card from Barclay's Bank.  This card got switched to a US Airways card a month or so ago -- I did not ask for it to be switched, but the interest rate was still fine and no credit limit changes, so who cares.  Plus this counts as a hit.  I earned 348 miles bringing my total to 5,995.  Hit Eleven.
I've got a few more hits queued up already, they just haven't posted yet.  I do not know how often the do their Grand Slam mileage sweeps...but I should get at least another 7,000 miles (for my 8th hit) soon and hopefully some of the other items that I've done, but whose points haven't posted yet will hit and I can get another 12,000 (5,000 in addition the 7,000 that I'm already set to get) soon.  My next post (give or take) will explain the other hits that I'm planning on doing -- and hopefully an update that will tell about all the bonus points I'm earning...fingers crossed.

How are you playing the Grans Slam?  Are you running into delays in miles posting? What about your bonus miles?  Did you play last year?  How much money did you spend and how many points did you earn?  What did you do with those points?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bedroom Redesign

My project for this coming winter is to redesign my bedroom.  If you've been reading my blog long enough, you've seen my floor plan and know why I chose the house I did and how I have it currently arranged.  My room is on the main floor and suits me just fine -- functionally suits me just fine that is.  It is quite lacking in design/style.  I intend to change that this winter.

I think I will repaint the room.  My room is painted the same color as the main room, the master bed room and the guest bath -- Behr Light Olive (3B5-2), which I really like.  The color on the monitor really looks nothing like it does on the wall, but you know how it goes.

I think I'm going to go with a light grey for a more modern feel.  I think I might go with Quietude (770E-1) or Subtle Touch (7903-1) both from Behr.  I think the sleek cool color of these greys would add a nice backdrop for my personal sanctuary.

As you can see, my room is relatively small and currently contains just a queen bed (well, mattress and box spring, not a real bed) and two old nightstands.  I've got two small lights, one reading and one for ambiance along with two larger pieces of artwork.  The painting was a gift from MS last Christmas, which I love.  I was with him the summer prior when we both saw this at a gallery -- it is probably my favorite view in Chicago (looking north on Wabash from an L Platform up to the Trump Tower).  It was quite a surprise when I received it.

The other piece of art is from an ex.  It is a simple framed self portrait poster of Andy Warhol.  It has no real value, but I like the bold color and minimalist frame.  In my new room I would like to keep the painting, but am not wedded to the Warhol poster.

Of course, I'd like to have an actual bed, not just a mattress on a box spring, it's been too long having a half put together room.  My nightstands are old second hand Ikea -- and I really am not tied to them at all. They serve their purpose but I do not care about them at all.  I do need some bed side storage in my new room -- drawers and/or doors preferably. Lilly is quite nosy, so the drawers/doors need to latch.

 You'll also notice that I don't have a dresser in my room.  I am lucky because my home has a TON of walk in closets.  I can't imagine not having all this amazing space.  Ideally I would like a chair so I could sit and read or relax, but I just don't think there will be enough space.

You will also notice that I don't have a TV in my room.  I am not 100% sure that I actually want one. From time to time I do wish I had one, especially when I'm feeling under the weather, like today.  What kind of light fixtures do I want?  I'm not sure at this point. Obviously, I'd like to get rid of the builder grade crap I have now, but I don't know if I want a ceiling fan, or a pendant light or something different all together.  I do think I'd like two sleek metal table lamps flanking my bed -- perhaps not matching, just coordinating.

What are your thoughts on my bedroom design initial thoughts?  Do you like ceiling fans in your bedroom?  Do you have to have a TV in your room?  What am I missing?  Is there something in your bedroom that you can't imagine living without?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Holiday Inn Express Urbana, IL Review

We went to the University of Illinois this past weekend.  MS went to school there and I wanted to see his college town and he wanted to show me.  Illinois was playing Ohio State -- a very popular weekend.  Most hotels were at capacity.  There aren't five star hotels in the Champaign/Urbana...

 We opted to stay at the Holiday Inn Express (for over $180/night).  The other low end hotels were all over $220/night.  We were quite happy to find this rate.  I've never stayed at a Holiday Inn Express before.  The room was quite large, with a king bed, a desk and the TV in the bed area. It also had a room with a couch and a table.  The room itself was large and relatively clean.  The walls were paper thin -- we could hear people talking in rooms on either side of us.

The bed was comfortable enough (if you have ear plugs).  After the first nights sleep we were awoken by the maid at 08h30.  After I told her to come back later, twice, she opened the door and came in.  I loudly told her again to get out and come back later.  I don't know how she couldn't hear me -- I heard every word that our neighbors uttered.

When we got back that night, we found our room hadn't been cleaned.  The bed was still unmade and everything was just messy.  They were kind enough to leave us a big basket of towels in the bathroom, but that was about it.

We asked the front desk to send the maid up to clean the room and he said that he would try (we could tell from his voice that he wouldn't even try).  Since we told the maid to come back later she made the assumption she didn't have to clean our room that day (I gleaned that from the front desk clerk).  Who knew?

Am I going to hold this rough experience against all Holiday Inn Express Hotels? No, I do know I need to adjust my expectations when staying at hotels like this.

Do you like Holiday Inn Express?  Have you ever had a maid refuse to "come back later?"

UPDATE 10.18.2011 20h58:  The Holiday Inn folks responded amazingly fast to my review.  They offered the GM of the hotel to contact me to discuss the details.  I appreciate the offer, but as long as the folks at the hotel revisit their customer service requirements I'm happy.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dining Room Design - The Chairs

My dining room chairs arrived on Friday (while I was out of town, of course).  My mom was kind enough to sign for the delivery.  I hate not being around for a delivery like this -- what if the fabric isn't quite right or the chairs are damaged.  It would be a total pain in the ass to deal with a furniture return.  I was very excited to return home to check out the chairs.  I've been waiting to find the right chairs for so long I was lucky to find these and at a great price.

As mentioned before, my table has very narrow space between the legs at the head and foot -- 19 inches only.  Most chairs I found were too wide for the small opening. These chairs from Arhaus fit the bill -- they are just wide enough to be comfortable but narrow enough to fit under the table.  The colors go well with the table but aren't matchy.

I struggled for a while on the fabric selection, but couldn't be happier. The pattern is bold, but muted at the same time. The colors soften the busyness of the pattern as well.  I chose this fabric because my home is more neutral and modern and using these classic fabrics helps bring some unique softness to my home.

The chairs themselves are quite comfortable.  The seat has a nice spring to it and the high back chairs will make my long dinner parties so much better (especially considering the chairs I've been using for 2 years have been cheap folding chairs).

The delivery folks from Arhaus were really good.  They confirmed delivery time the day before, then day of confirmed again.  They ended up running a bit late but called a few hours before to update the time.  They brought the chairs in (which were fully boxed and protected), unwrapped them fully inspected each one and placed them exactly where we wanted.  The removed all the boxes before they left too. They were extremely professional.

This was my first  purchase from Arhaus and am really impressed.  Based on my experience so far, I will be shopping with them again.  I will obviously keep everyone up to date on how the chairs hold up.

Have you recently purchased a piece of furniture that you've been eyeing for a long time?  Do you shop at Arhaus?  What about ScotchGuard-do you use it on your furniture? Should I? These are fabric dining chairs, so there is a good chance food will fall on them.

Of course, Lilly sees the camera come out, so she has to make her way into the photos.

Friday, October 14, 2011

How I am playing the USAirways Grand Slam - 1

I will not bore you with the basic details of the USAirways Grand Slam -- so many other people have provided such great overviews and strategies.  I, however, will tell you how I am playing this game.  First off, I have never flown USAirways, but since it is a member of the Star Alliance, I know I can use these miles in future travel (Lufthansa First Class to Europe, Thai First to Asia).

First thing I did was sign up for a Dividend Mile Program. I then reviewed the Grand Slam details and set my goal.  I knew I wasn't going to hit 24 hits, without the whole program being cost prohibitive.  So, I set my sights on getting 20 hits, which will earn me 35,000 bonus miles (and a few thousand miles from actually participating in the program -- buying miles, online shopping and point transfers.

I then downloaded this great Grand Slam Hit Tracker so I could easily keep up to date on my status.  I then researched all the possible hits and decided which ones I would NOT do (Buy Trial Preferred Status, Buy Up to Preferred, Dish Network, Energy Plus, getAbstract, Hilton Vacations, Lasik, Life Shield, LifeLock, Marriott Vacation Club, Select Warranty, Starwood Vacation Ownership, USAirways Club Membership, USAirways Cruises, USA Today, Verizon Wireless), some of these because they were too complex or because they were too expensive for the incremental bonus miles. I shaded these items RED on the excel sheet.

The next step was to find the ones that were pretty easy and I would definitely do (1800Flowers, Audience Rewards, Biscoff, Buy Miles, Dividend Miles, Dividend Shopping Mall, e-Miles, ING-Direct, Magazines for Miles, Office Max, Dividend Mile Search Tool Bar, SuperShuttle, Thanks Again, TrackItBack). I did some research and found these were the ones I could do with little additional effort.  Since there are some birthdays and other holidays coming up, I would just shift some of my shopping to the online portals and do it a bit earlier this year.  Since these prices aren't inflated, there is no additional/incremental cost for me.

I've completed 15 hits, but so far have gotten credit for 8 and have been credited the bonus miles for 4 (1800Flowers, Buy Miles, E-Rewards, Magazine for Miles) and last Friday I was credited my first 3,000 bonus points.  I don't know how often USAirways does the mileage sweep, but last Friday I got my first bonus.  Right now I have 5,522 miles with US Airways and I've spent $94.24, but I bought flowers for my mothers birthday, which is in a couple of weeks -- without the flowers, I'd have only spent $29.56 to buy the miles.

As my miles and bonuses post, I will keep you posted.  My ultimate goal is to get enough miles for a free first class one way ticket to Europe or Asia -- all while spending less than $200 incrementally.

Are you playing Grand Slam 2011?  What is your strategy?  Is there an easy hit out there that I haven't listed?  What do you plan on doing with your GS11 Miles?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Language of the Land

Historically language study has come pretty easy to me.  I studied Spanish for 3 years in High School, German for nearly 2 years in College and have dabbled with other languages (Arabic, French, Italian) with Rosetta Stone and have seemed to pick them up pretty easily.  My issue is sticking to it until I am functional.

High School Spanish was just that -- High School.  It seemed like no one really wanted to learn.  I also had a different teacher (and teaching style) each year.  My German teacher was fantastic instructor, he even won Teacher of the Year in 2009. He wrote our German book, he spoke very limited English in class -- he really engaged us in the language.  My favorite part of that class was the question he posed each and every morning of class "Was singen wir heute?" -- What are we singing today?  Then we'd start off class with a German song.  Such a great professor.

The Rosetta Stone program works very well, for me.  I find it to be entertaining and at a quick enough pace that I do not get bored.  While you can work through a single lesson pretty quickly, it does seem like it takes forever to get through some lessons.  Rosetta Stone allows you to read, listen and write/type pretty easily.  There is also a speech recognition component that allows you to speak specific phrases and it will rate the quality on a speedometer type gauge.  I think the speech aspect is the worst in Rosetta Stone.  I had a hard time getting green/good pronunciation in French...and I didn't quite understand how what I was saying didn't match up with the sample.  Which brings me to my current language studies.

I knew I wanted to learn French before we traveled to Paris and unfortunately the Rosetta Stone wasn't going to cut it.  I did a bit more research and found Alliance Francaise Chicago...and more importantly they had a French for Travelers Course that started the week after I found the class and ended two days before we left for Paris -- it's meant to be.

The course was taught by a young French woman from Paris. Our class had an interesting mix of people: young and old, white and non-white, smart and well...not so smart.  Everyone in the class had studied another language before (Spanish, German, Russian or Italian).  As the class progressed we got to know each other and got to know the people who wanted to learn and those who did not -- just like my original High School Spanish class.

I really liked the class.  I learned a lot every day -- and when class was over, I was full of excitement and wanted to learn more.  My language skills were so poor, but I enjoyed saying what I could and pushing myself to listen and understand something brand new.

While my vocabulary was quite limited, I was confident I could get by and not struggle too much.  I even managed call the hotel a week before to confirm my reservation and request an early check in.  I did this all in French.

Once in Paris, I was surprisingly able to communicate with people.  I wasn't eloquent at all.  I did run into a few problems when ordering dinner a couple nights. I had a hard time pronouncing the word for lamb, which of course, I ordered at least once a day.

I was so happy I studied French before my trip. After spending five days in Paris and interacting with the Parisians, I knew I wanted to continue my French studies.  I jumped back in at an elevated level (which is very tough and most of my classmates have studied French several years prior) and still really enjoy it.  It is quite a push for me though.

Do you speak a foreign language?  When you travel, do you take language classes? Rely on a language section of a guide book? Buy a separate phrase book? Do you just speak English, but do so loudly? God, I hope it isn't the latter...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Southeast Asia - Planning Phase - FOOD

I've really started digging into the details of the March 2011 trip to Southeast Asia.  When traveling MS and I try to get live/act like a local.  While traveling together, we have never stopped at McDonald's and always like to try the local food. Our trip to Vietnam will allow us great opportunity to try new food.

I've heard for years that the Vietnamese eat some interesting things (but then again, I'm sure some Indians are horrified that Americans eat cows), things that we could hardly imagine sitting on our dinner plate.  For example, the people of Northern Vietnam eat dog.  I must admit, I honestly never thought ever about eating a dog.  Once this trip made the planning queue, I started to wonder if I could eat a dog, would I want to?  What would it taste like and how would they prepare it.

Interestingly enough,  my guidebook had a section on food and it included details on how the Vietnamese add dog to their diet.  The book indicates dog can be relatively tough -- that doesn't surprise me.  I love to cook and from time to time, I'll use a tough cut of meat.  Toughness is relatively easy to fix: marinate, tenderize or stew and you can easily change the texture of these cheap cuts of meat.  How to do the Vietnamese chefs handle this issue with dog meat?  They opt to tenderize the meat...

They tenderize the meat, but not like you are expecting.  According to the guidebook and a couple of other travel websites the dogs are "tenderized" while still alive.  The dogs are beaten with rubber hoses before slaughter - evidently this really makes the meat tender.

Upon reading this, I knew I would never eat a dog.  The idea of eating a dog is a bit rough for me, but the idea of someone beating a dog with a hose right before it is butchered is something I cannot handle.  Don't get me wrong, I will eat lamb and veal -- two animals that some people say are tortured before consumption.

It looks like I will be the unadventurous American and will not try dog while in Vietnam -- I will not knowingly try any animal that has been beaten while living.  I cannot shed my American taboos.

Have you ever tried dog? Is my research incorrect -- are the dogs not beaten with a hose before they are slaughtered?  When you travel do you live like a local or prefer to try foreign versions of American restaurants?

Monday, October 10, 2011

United Miles for Star Alliance Award Booking

I've been using the award booking tool, which is so great, by the way.  Unlike United's website, Continental has a pretty dynamic tool where many Star Alliance Partner availability show up (UAL, Continental, ANA, Thai, Lufthansa and LOT all had availability for my proposed itinerary).

I knew where I wanted to go and relatively when I wanted to go.  I immediately headed over to Continental and began my search.  I was hoping to fly first class to Southeast Asia round trip -- and I wanted to try the first class product on Star Alliance carriers (read: not United).  After spending a few minutes, I realized that all of the award availability I found earlier in the year wasn't really there any more.  The only "saver" first class tickets had me going to Europe in Economy then flying first class on LOT to Hanoi.  I'm not spending 140,000 miles to go to Europe in Economy -- and the idea of flying LOT wasn't really appealing either.

So, First Class wasn't an option any more -- I guess we're stuck going Business Class (which only had us saving 20,000 miles round trip).  It was pretty easy to find award availability once I gave into the idea that First wasn't going to happen.  Since I didn't have enough miles to actually book online with Continental (all my miles were with United), I had to call United and finish the booking.  I figured it would be quite a simple process, since I had already confirmed the availability, had dates/times/flight numbers and the miles at hand.  Easy enough, right?  Not so fast.

I called UAL and was connected to a lovely woman named Linda.  I gave her my info, and explained that I was booking two award tickets, paying for three of the four legs with my miles then one of the legs with another account (MS didn't have enough miles at the time to book his airfare). I walk Linda through everything I wanted and after about 15 minutes of limited chatting and a lot of the clicking away on the keyboard she confirmed the required miles and the tax amount.  I asked if she could confirm specific seat options for me -- and she started clicking away....then CLICK.  "Hello?  Linda?? HELLO!?!"

We were disconnected.  Linda had taken my phone number at the beginning of the call.  I waited, expecting her to call me back -- how silly of me, eh?  I called back, fully expecting to start this whole process over again...but this time not being as lucky -- and probably with a rude phone rep.

Hector answered the phone and was quite frustrated that I didn't have a confirmation number (can't give you one, if I don't have one).  After he spends nearly 10 minutes searching for my flights (while I was on hold) he came back on and said he found nothing.  Right when he said that I received four emails from UAL outlining the reservation that Linda put on hold.  SCORE.

I cut Hector off and read off the confirmation numbers, he makes a couple quick adjustments and we are set!  When I originally booked with Linda, we were going First Class from NRT to BKK, but with Hector we are stuck in Business Class. All in all, it is something I can deal with.  Hector didn't seem too excited to help me and I'm confident he didn't want to start from scratch on what in all honesty wasn't a really easy booking option.

I did ask Hector if he prefers customers to call in with all the flight info they need, or does he like to help customers do the research while on the phone.  He told me both options were equally bad for him.  Not really the answer I was looking for -- I just got the feeling he didn't want to help anyone.

What did I learn from this experience.  1) Do your research before hand, know the City, the Date, the Carrier and the Flight Number before you call United. 2) Make sure you get your reps name. 3) Give the rep your name/phone number/FF# immediately upon connection. 4) If you don't get the answer you want, try talking to someone else (I would have hung up on Hector if he had charged me more than what Linda had indicated previously).

So how much did this trip cost you ask?  We paid a total of 240,000 miles (60,000 for each leg) and $236 in taxes total.  If we opted to buy these flights it would have cost us just under $12,000 round trip -- which to me is absolutely outrageous.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Third Street Flats Review

This weekend was my 10 year college reunion which of course was tied to the Homecoming football game. Linfield won 73-7, by the way. We opted to stay at a small establishment a few blocks from the school, in the heart of downtown McMinnville, OR.There are not a lot of lodging options in town. There are several small chain hotels (Best Western for example...ugh), a nice local chain (Hotel Oregon) and a decent number of bed and breakfasts.

McMinnville is on the heart of Oregon wine country, and my home town (sort of). We spent time in July in town for a wine festival and found what looked like a cool 4 room "hotel", unfortunately during the wine festival, it was sold out. We didn't want to stay in a soulless low end chain hotel during homecoming so we checked and were surprised that Third Street Flats had an available room.

I used hotel in quotes previously because I don't really know how to describe this place. There are 4 rooms, we stayed in Room 3, which was a large studio apartment with a great kitchen and dining room and a very comfortable living/bedroom.

The room (and common areas) were decorated with pieces by local artists, all of which were for sale. The room was styled with items from Ikea and West Elm, but had a sophisticated (not college student/recent grad) feel. The king size bed was extremely comfortable, with lovely linens but like most hotel rooms had what seemed like thousands of decorative pillows. There were ample power outlets (God I hate staying in a place with one usable outlet no where near the bed).

The kitchen was fully stocked with every utensil you would need to cook your own meals while you travel, but why would you, considering all the great local restaurants within walking distance. The bathroom was adequate, with a pedestal sink and a small shower. The bathroom had not been updated in a while, and had green linoleum and a well weathered (although clean) shower. The water was hot anytime we needed it, but the super low flow shower head did get a bit annoying (Green is Good....and this is Oregon for God sake). The paint color in the unit was very bold, almost a little too bold, but it worked. I would not opt for that color in my home though. I mentioned earlier how I struggled with defining this place as a hotel, that is because there is no lobby, no on-site staff, no real amenities outside the room (other than the town itself).

Since we arrived in town around 22h30, the innkeepers left our key in a lockbox and emailed me the code. We were a little confused as there were 4 lockboxes. We assumed that since we were in Room 3 we would use Lockbox 3. We tried for about 10 minutes trying to get into the box, with no luck.  As I was getting ready to call the owner/manager, JDEC tried the big box and it worked. Not sure what the other boxes are for. Not a bad thing, just a little confusing for us.

When we reached our room we were welcomed with a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir and two caramels covered in dark chocolate with a touch of sea salt on top. The chocolates were much so, we paid a little visit to the chocolatier our second day and stocked up for home.

Booking this hotel was easy and Erin (the only person I had contact with at Third Street), was so pleasant, even giving me restaurant recommendations.

So, would I stay at the Third Street Flats again? Absolutely, without hesitation.  The room was great, the price was right and the location (for my needs) was perfect.  If you need to be in McMinnville, why stay at the Best Western when you can stay in a charming local establishment in the heart of downtown.

Have you returned to your home town and found a great little inn and rediscovered your own community?  Have you ever thought the paint was so loud you might have trouble sleeping?  Have you ever been so taken by a piece of chocolate you couldn't wait until the store opened so you could stock?