Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ice Cream Utopia in State College, PA

One of the great things about traveling is finding new places to eat your favorite things. One of my favorite things to eat is ice cream, so when I get to a new location, I usually try to find out if there are any interesting ice cream places that I need to check out. This pursuit has led me to some of the best ice cream that I have ever had. So far, my top pick for ice cream is The Berkey Creamery, which is located in State College, Pennsylvania.

The Berkey Creamery (herein referred to as The Creamery) at Pennsylvania State University is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of ice cream achievement. The ice cream that is produced there is all that ice cream could, is and should ever be: smooth, delicious and full of decadent milk fat. There is something about the ice cream there that transfixes me.

The basics of making ice cream must be mastered before venturing off into new territory, and The Creamery has the basics down. If you can't make a decent chocolate ice cream then there's no point in adding fudge, nuts or other goodies to make up for a lack of understanding the fundamentals. The Creamery makes the best chocolate ice cream that I have ever tasted, and this institution continues to be a mandatory stop for me each time I visit State College, PA.

With that background in mind, you can understand my excitement when I had to visit State College on a work trip a couple of weeks ago. I did a little research and found that since my last visit three years ago, The Creamery store had moved to a much larger facility on campus. That knowledge did little to prepare me for what an amazing space The Creamery store now occupied.

Along with one of the people with whom I was working (let's call him Justin), I visited The Creamery for an afternoon snack. I was very impressed with the new space which has a nice, open layout with ample seating for those wishing to eat at a leisurely pace. There are two wall-sized cold cases: one containing ice cream and another with cheeses, milk and other products that you usually wouldn't want to freeze. I could say quite a bit about the non-frozen items, but I'd be getting away from the focus of this article. Let's just say that I was impressed.

Justin and I each decided to get a cone of Death by Chocolate ice cream (chocolate ice cream with chocolate flakes, fudge pieces and chocolate swirl). Of course, "Two Death by Chocolate Cones" is a little much for the cashier to call out to the person who prepares the cones, so it was shortened to "Two Death Cones!" We both found this very amusing, and we were quite pleased with our choice.
The cones at The Creamery are always very generous, and I've always been quite pleased with them. At this point I have to point out the one shortcoming that The Creamery has (aside from it being about 2,874 miles from my home): they don't have sugar cones, only cake cones. For any other vendor of frozen confections I would count this as unforgivable, but since The Creamery makes such excellent products, I'll let it slide. Their cake cones are much higher in quality than I generally see so that helps quite a bit. I didn't even ask if sugar cones were available on my last visit as I have come to terms with this one shortcoming.

While we finished our Death Cones we soaked up the wonder of The Creamery during our much needed break in the day. Once more we smiled as the cashier called out "Death Shake!" Had we not recently become familiar with the "Death by Chocolate" shorthand we might have thought that something sinister was afoot, but instead we smiled and continued to enjoy our "Death Cones".

So far, The Creamery makes the best ice cream that I've had so far, but I'll continue my quest for the best ice cream out there, one cone at a time, wherever my travels may take me.

Have you been lucky enough to find an excellent ice cream shop while traveling? If so, please let me know about it.

I'd like to thank Chris from PSU Food Science for helping me with some of the details for this article.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What Airplane Ear is and How to Avoid it

On my last trip home I ended up damaging my ear, and as result I had some temporary hearing loss. I have completely recovered, but since this is not fun, I thought I’d share my experience with you along with what I learned about avoiding this type of situation.

While traveling home from Russia (recovering from a slight cold), I woke up to find that my left ear felt as if it was still under pressure; sound was muffled, and there was some slight pain that came and went. I thought that my ear was still adjusting to the pressure changes, but no amount of gum chewing relieved the pressure. On subsequent flights, the descent caused the ear pain to come back; it was quite uncomfortable.

When the pain subsided, I noticed that my hearing continued to be impaired. I could hear between 25% and 75% of what I was used to hearing. This definitely wasn't normal air pressure adjustment.

Upon arriving at home I made an appointment to see my doctor. The examination revealed that something had ruptured in my ear due to a combination of sinus congestion and the pressure changes inherent to air travel. Normally the ear can adjust for the kinds of pressure changes that are present during take off and landing, but nasal congestion can impede this process.
In my case the pressure changes and congestion caused my eardrum to half fill with fluid, hence the hearing loss. I was prescribed some decongestants and told to wait for my body to resorb the liquid; this took two weeks.

After doing a bit of research, I found that my condition is referred to as barotrauma (pressure damage), commonly known as Airplane Ear. Airplane Ear can be much milder than my case, but it could cause permanent hearing loss. Web MD has an informative article about Airplane Ear that I enjoyed.

The doctor told me that if I was traveling with nasal congestion I could take an over-the-counter decongestant or antihistamine to help avoid this type of situation in the future. If you are a frequent traveler, it might be worth a trip to your doctor to see if this makes sense for you, but I'll definitely be following this advice in the future because hearing loss, even if it is only temporary, is no fun.

Have you ever experienced travel related hearing problems?

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An Interesting Plumbing Situation

Recently, I visited the Mark Spencer Hotel in Portland, Oregon, for the weekend with my wife. After a rough night thanks to some curing carpet glue in the hallway, I was looking forward to taking a shower and getting out of the hotel for a while. I pulled away the shower curtain to discover this:

For a reason beyond my current understanding, the shower head was, as you can see, well below my eye level. To give you a bit of context, I am 5 foot 9 inches which is about average height for a man. While it wasn't the most comfortable shower I've had, I was able to get the job done.

At first I thought the low shower head could be the work of a short plumber who was exacting his revenge on everyone taller than himself. I thought about this a bit, and I figured that it wasn't a very likely scenario. Additionally, it doesn't give people that happen to be on the short side very much credit so I have rejected this theory.

I did some searching on the internet, and it looks like some handicapped-accessible rooms actually come equipped with lower shower heads for greater accessibility. This theory sounded reasonable, but there were no other accessibility considerations in the room.

A low shower head could have been deliberate in the design of the room or someone could have just run out of pipe. This is just one of the random things that I have come across in my travels. I never know when something like this is going to pop up, and they tend to amuse me to no end.

If you have any theories on the matter of lower than normal shower heads, I'd love to hear them.

Bonus Plumbing Photo:

Pictured above is a towel warmer that I came across while I was in Russia. Basically, you have a piece of pipe that hot water runs though, and you hang your towels on it. Not only does this keep your towel warm, but the whole bathroom stays nice and toasty. I quite enjoy having one of these in the bathroom as long as I remember not to touch the pipe.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sleeping in the Frankfurt Airport

While I have been traveling regularly for the past five years there is one experience that I've been able to successfully avoid that finally caught up with me on my return trip from Russia. Up until that point I had never spent the night at an airport. As a cost saving measure I chose a flight that had an overnight layover in Frankfurt. I looked into some of the airport hotels, but getting through customs twice in addition to security lines sounded like a good way to cause myself additional headaches. Not wanting to miss my flight the next morning I decided that I would join the ranks of those sleeping in the airport that night.

My flight got in late that night, and as I made my way to the terminal I found that many of the best sleeping spots had already been taken. Amongst those spots were the coveted chairs pictured at the beginning of this post.

Once I found the closed ticket counter where I needed to pick up my boarding pass in the morning I began to search for viable places to sleep. The chairs in this area all had arm rests and they were not usable for sleeping. Several people had camped out in front of the McDonald's as the benches were padded. I considered snagging a similar spot but a nagging thought kept me from it. I couldn't get the image of an irate German McDonald's worker yelling at me the next morning out of my mind. I could imagine being beaten with a broom with startling clarity. Considering that I had already been yelled at in German when I got lost on a train, I decided to move on.

I took a brief escalator ride to a lower level where I found the cleaning crew bustling with activity. You never see cleaning crews out in such numbers during the day at airports. I had known that they must exist, but it was reassuring to have a visual confirmation of their being. I didn't see any other sleepers in this area, and since there is safety in numbers I went back upstairs to find a spot of my own.

Seeing as all of the comfortable spots had been taken I found a nice cold marble ledge to perch on. Another traveler was on the ledge around the corner so it didn't seem like a completely terrible idea at the time. Having the wall to one side offered me some protection from would be thieves. The spot was near a couple of people including a girl in a blue coat who could not sleep. I'm thankful that she was up all night as she probably kept any would-be thieves at bay merely by her presence.

And so I began to rest as best I could given my extremely hard and cold perch. I struggled for some time to find a comfortable position but I finally nodded off. After 2 hours I woke to find that the circulation had been cut off in my arm. I rose to deal with this, put on my shoes and set off to find the toilet.

At some point I realized that my left ear, which had previously adjusted to the pressure changes, was feeling like it hadn't adjusted at all. Sound was muffled and there was a dull yet growing pain. At first I thought that I just needed to pop my ear so I purchased a pack of gum from the 24 hour news stand. The gum didn't help so I took a pain reliever.

A trip to my doctor would later reveal that sinus congestion combined with the pressure changes inherent to air travel had caused something in my ear to rupture. This caused my ear drum to half fill with fluid. Fortunately this was temporary, and all of my hearing has returned.

After this brief distraction, I was unable to go back to sleep right away so I made a few observations, and I took some pictures of my fellow travelers (sans flash). It was strange to be in an airport at night. Airports are places of transit; they are full of activity and movement. At night even the airport seemed to be resting in preparation for another hectic day. Everything had slowed down to a pace that I'd never seen at an airport. I find it hard to describe it, but the term "awkwardly peaceful" seems to resonate in my mind.

Still tired, I tried to sleep once again and nodded off for about an hour. Eventually I found a really comfortable position and slept solidly until the familiar sounds of the airport woke me again at 5:18 am. The bustle and life had returned to the airport once again.

I sat up on my marble slab and began to observe the activity on the moving sidewalk. A little boy and his mother had stopped near the moving sidewalk so that the mother could find the boarding passes in her bag. She told the boy to stand beside her, but if you put a little boy next to something as fun as a moving sidewalk then he's going to be tempted. After testing his mother a bit he decided not to push his luck that morning. Traveling is a lot like the moving sidewalk and the little boy. There are always distractions available but you have to keep time (mother) in mind.

After this observation, I got up, found some food, changed my shirt, got my boarding passes, did a bit of light shopping and found my departure gate. On the way to my gate, I passed the same group of over night travelers in the comfy chairs that I came across the night before; they were still sleeping. I was quite surprised when I saw this because there were large numbers of people passing by, and it wasn't quiet at all. I wasn't envious as my night was probably far more interesting.

Do you have any memorable moments about your first overnight airport visit? If you do, please leave a comment.

UPDATE: Since I posted this article I've revisited the area and investigated a rumor that said sleeping in the Frankfurt airport is no longer allowing sleeping overnight. To read more visit Revisiting Sleeping in the Frankfurt Airport.

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