January 2012

Besides Rome, Venice has to be one of my favorite cities in Italy.  Before I went for the first time, some fellow travelers brushed Venice off as being “cheesy” and “overrated.”  After spending a few days there, however, I had to disagree.  I’ve been about three times now, and each time the city seemed even more beautiful and more intriguing.

With its winding canals, ornate gondolas, and gilded palazzi, Venice is truly unlike any other city in the world.  Its history alone is fascinating.  The city was built on several islands of a lagoon, which were then linked by bridges that you can still cross over today.  Venice was the cultural, artistic, and political powerhouse of its time, serving as the hometown of both the great explorer Marco Polo and the infamous womanizer Casanova (born in Venice in 1725).  The city withstood plagues, became part of the Hapsburg Empire after being defeated by Napoleon in 1797, was spared during World War II on account of its beauty, and faced rising water levels and flooding as the city’s marble foundations sank further into the marsh.

Speaking of sinking, one must only look at the water lines on Venetian stoops to see the dramatic evidence of rising water levels.  Steps that were several feet above the water centuries ago are now submerged.  According to National Geographic, Venice dropped about five inches between 1950 and 1970, and while the city now sinks at a rate of less than two inches every 100 years, the surrounding Adriatic Sea continues to swell and causes more threats of submersion.

Under a new plan to save Venice, Italian hydrologists would inject billions of gallons of seawater to try and “inflate” porous sediments under the city.  Hopefully, this would cause Venice to rise by as much as a foot and would create a more stable foundation for existing buildings.  The trick is that Venice has a layer of clay under it, and therefore the injected seawater would spread out underneath the clay and cause a lateral elevation.

The method of “subsurface fluid injection” has apparently been used to California, Canada, and other places to lift up sagging land, and experts are optimistic that this experiment might dramatically help the city.  According to National Geographic, tourists don’t really mind the flooding in places like Piazza di San Marco (although I’ve been there when it has flooded, and it was scary to see how quickly the piazza was submerged), and Venetians are used to the acqua alta (high water), but the concern is that over time the flooding would become more catastrophic.

Venice is a truly remarkable city, and although its mask is a bit dulled from time and wear, you can still see the glimmer of gold in its countenance.  It will be interesting to see if the fluid injection experiment goes forward, and whether or not progress is made.  Either way, I don’t think that anyone wants to see such a beautiful city sink past the point of no return.

Chatting with a local shopkeeper in one of Venice’s many beautiful shops


Happy National Peanut Butter Day!

Indeed, who knew that January 24th was a day set aside to celebrate that delicious, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth concoction that is made from peanuts but isn’t really butter?

I didn’t know this before doing some research, but peanut butter was apparently created in a raw form in 1890 by Dr. John Kellogg (the same Kellogg of the corn flakes company) as a way for patients with no teeth to get their protein.  Years later, Dr. George Washington Carver developed a better tasting version of peanut butter, and in 1922 it was commercialized by the Rosefield Packing Company in California.  Today, over half of American peanuts are used to make peanut butter.

Growing up in Texas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were consumed by probably 95% of the kids in the elementary school cafeteria.  This was, of course, before peanut allergies have apparently become commonplace; it seemed like everyone’s mom packed them peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.  There were even debates at the table over which type of jam was better with peanut butter (I voted strawberry, while most of my friends said grape), which texture was better (crunchy for me, creamy for others), and which brand was tastier (Skippy for me, even though at home we mainly had Jiffy or Peter Pan).  It was a staple in our young diets.

Peanut butter was also a necessity for anyone going through a lean economic time, whether in college or starting out in the professional world.  When I first moved to D.C. and spent most of my first paychecks on rent, I lived off of peanut butter sandwiches (without jam–that would have been an extra $5!) for ten days straight.  By day eleven, I couldn’t handle it anymore and took about a six month sabbatical from peanut butter.

Nowadays, I don’t eat that much peanut butter, but whenever I travel for extended periods of time I find myself craving the stuff like crazy.  When I interned in Rome for a summer, I was introduced to the European equivalent of peanut butter, Nutella, and quickly embarked on a love affair with the chocolate/hazelnut spread.  To this day, I love Nutella (although it just doesn’t taste as good when you buy it in the States–it’s creamier in Europe), but there is still a subconscious void when peanut butter isn’t around.  As an American, it’s part of our culture.  So, to keep my American roots intact, there were days when I made Nutella/peanut butter sandwiches for lunch in Rome (thank goodness for care packages from the parents).

Living in London also brought up peanut butter cravings, mainly on account of the lack of it.  I found myself missing Reese’s peanut butter cups, Reese’s pieces, and jars of Skippy, which seemed ridiculous because, as much as I love my home country, let’s face it–the Europeans do chocolate and confectionary sweets better than anyone.  So, I tried to enjoy the local sweets but also enjoyed indulging in peanut butter whenever a fellow expat would bring a jar over from a visit home.

During my time in South Korea, I discovered quickly that while Koreans were developing a taste for American sweets, they weren’t crazy about the creamy thickness of peanut butter.  Once again I found myself daydreaming about a big peanut butter and jelly sandwich, often while I was enjoying my lunch of kimchi and rice (healthier, to be sure, but certainly not delicious with chocolate).

Now, living in D.C., I admit that I tend to take peanut butter for granted once again.  It’s becoming more “hip,” though, and many recipes nowadays incorporate peanut butter into more grown-up dishes.  They all sound delicious too–peanut butter pancakes, peanut butter cupcakes, peanut butter cheesecake, and so on.  There’s also the classic, tried-and-true American snack of peanut butter on apples.

Peanut butter certainly has its place in American history and culture, and if you ask most kids who grew up in the States, it holds a nostalgic element as well.  There’s something comforting, even to this day, about having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I almost feel like I’m back in the school cafeteria, talking with the other kids about the pressing matters of the day (homework, does Joey like Emily, when is recess today, and so forth).

In the end, I guess it does make sense to have a day set aside to honor peanut butter.





Each new year brings a new discussion of what hot spots travelers should pay attention to.  There are lists floating around the Internet of what cities to visit, what beaches to frequent, and so forth.

I often find myself feeling like the lists miss out on some great destinations, which is no surprise given how subjective travel lists are.  After reading Frommer’s list for 2012, I liked several of their suggestions (Beirut, Ghana, the Yucatan Peninsula), but wanted to add some of my own “hot spots” for 2012.

Below are my travel picks for this new year, a year hopefully filled with travel adventures (international or domestic)…

1)  Dublin.  I spent a few days in Dublin several years ago and fell in love with the easygoing, friendly locals (most likely laid back on account of how many Guinnesses they can put away before 10 a.m., but no matter).  After feasting on some incredible Irish stew with soda bread, it’s easy to arrange a tour to take you out to the emerald hills and waterfalls that make Ireland so breathtaking.

2)  Dubrovnik.  In recent days, Croatia has been touted as an “up and coming” tourist destination, on account of its great location on the Mediterranean but cheaper prices than other European countries.  Some friends of mine visited recently and reported back that Dubrovnik is a great combination of quaint history and emerging modernness.

3)  Tahiti.  Leon and I are spending our honeymoon in French Polynesia, and I am counting the days–I developed a fascination with the islands back in college after seeing pictures of the bungalows suspended over turquoise water.  The area is also famous for its vanilla and black pearls, not to mention that Tahiti hosts a Paul Gauguin museum chronicling the intriguing life of the artist who left his family in Paris to morph himself into an islander.

4)  Tel Aviv.  It has always been a dream of mine to make it out to Israel at some point to visit the Holy Land, and to experience Tel Aviv.  Known as the cultural capital of Israel, the city has everything from beaches to the famous Old Jaffa neighborhood to incredible museums.

5)  Auckland.  New Zealand has the whole Lord of the Rings-esque scenic beauty, to be sure, but I mainly want to visit because all of the New Zealanders I’ve met are just so cool.  When I lived in Korea, I worked with several New Zealand natives and loved them to death.  They love their homeland, and after seeing one picture of Auckland, my attention was captured.

6)  Seoul.  It seems like yesterday that I left Seoul to return to the States, and I cannot believe that it was actually three years ago.  The city is a mix of vibrant intensity, chic cosmopolitanism, and traditional heritage.  In one neighborhood of Seoul, you can find the newest gadgets that aren’t even available in the U.S. yet, while in another you can observe Koreans participating in a cultural festival wearing their native hanbok (traditional dress).  And don’t get me started on how incredible the food is…

7)  Colorado Springs.  Obviously, the U.S. has incredible travel destinations that bring in tourists from all over, so I had to include a great American city in my list.  Leon and I have spent time in Colorado recently, since he hails from Pueblo, and we took time over the holidays to meet up with some of my college friends in Colorado Springs.  The snow-capped mountains were breathtaking, and the view of Pike’s Peak does not disappoint.  There is a cute downtown area where we grabbed some fondue one evening, and I remember being impressed with the city’s laid back, fun vibe.

These are just a few suggestions for 2012–I’ll of course be interested to see what locations emerge as promising destinations as the year goes on.  In the meantime, happy travels!


Last week, as I wrote about, Leon and I found ourselves preparing for our first Christmas as an engaged couple with two sets of families (in two different states) to visit.  I’m happy to report that, besides being delayed en route from Denver to Colorado Springs due to ice, things overall went pretty smoothly.

We knew heading out that spending Christmas together with each of our families would be new territory for not only us, but our families as well, and to be honest we didn’t really know what to expect.  We prepared to the best of our ability, i.e. trying to get everyone gifts that would travel easily, confirming flight information, and just not having expectations over how things “should be.”

The week absolutely flew by, as holiday times tend to, and it felt like we were arriving back in D.C. right after waving goodbye.

Our first stop was McKinney, where we spent some time with my family.  It was a good visit, and I’m glad that we were able to have face-to-face time (as everyone who lives far away from family knows, it often feels like you inhabit a separate world from your loved ones and it’s difficult to figure out a way to merge the two).  We exchanged presents, and my heart melted when my parents gave Leon a gift for the first time, as it symbolized that soon he would officially be a part of the family.  We enjoyed some Tex Mex, saw a movie as a family, and just hung out.

After spending Christmas morning in Texas, we caught our flight to Colorado and made our way to Pueblo to visit Leon’s family Christmas evening.  Since the ice delayed our trip by a couple of hours, by the time we got to Leon’s parents’ house it was pretty late and I don’t think either of us really knew where we were.

We had a great visit with Leon’s family in Pueblo, and enjoyed catching up with neighbors and friends that Leon had known since childhood.  Being in small town Texas and small town Colorado is so different from D.C., and it’s easy to forget amidst the hectic pace of Washington that we both grew up in places where things just didn’t move so frantically.  It was a nice change of scenery, to say the least.  I was also reminded of how blessed I am to have great in-laws–they welcomed me into the family from the beginning, and Christmas was no exception.

It’s also fascinating to observe your fiancé in his hometown.  I knew early on that Leon had grown up playing the organ, but I actually had the chance to hear him play at his parents’ house.  It was amazing to peek into that part of his life, long before we ever met, when he would diligently practice hymns and other songs.  (I’m also glad that one of us is musical–my parents kindly paid for seven years of piano lessons that didn’t really yield much besides a few piano recitals where people had to clap because it was polite).

Before leaving Colorado, we were able to meet up with Abby and Brian, friends of mine way back from Baylor days.  We grabbed some fondue in Colorado Springs and caught up in person for the first time since their wedding six years ago, and like it always goes with good friends, it seemed like no time had passed.

Then, in the blink of an eye, our plane jolted down on the runway in D.C. and our first Christmas as an engaged couple running around the country was over.  As we celebrated New Year’s with Rose, Chris, and Adam in D.C., Texas and Colorado seemed eons away.  I found myself, as I often do after visiting family, torn between two feelings:  happy to be “home” but sad to have left loved ones behind.  (I also found myself at the gym–who can resist either Texas pecan pie or Pueblo green chile gravy?)