Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Guilty Travel Pleasure: Television

I will freely admit that I don't always get out and explore new areas like I should. Travel takes a lot out of a person, and I'm not always up to trekking through a new town in search of something interesting to see or do. Sometimes I'm just too tired, while other times I'm uncertain if the neighborhood is safe to explore at night. At any rate, I usually turn to television. I use TV as a distraction, for background noise and sometimes just as something to keep me awake until it's time to go to sleep.

There's quite a bit of variety in TV programming throughout the world. For instance, in Europe MTV actually plays music videos for the better part of the day.

I'd like to share with you a few of my favorite TV moments that I've experienced while traveling.

1. The Simpsons in Switzerland
After a trip to the grocery store to pick up and sample a variety of chocolate bars, I was feeling the effects of all far too much sugar: I was quite warm, I was unable to cool off and my heart was racing. After a walk through a nearby square, I decided to head to my hotel room for a bit of a rest in order to give my heart a chance slow down.

I flopped down on my twin bed and searched the TV channels for something interesting to watch, and I found The Simpsons. Normally, I'd find something different, but the show was in German so I thought I would give it a try. The voice casting was pretty good for Bart and Lisa, but they got Homer completely wrong. The voice was a little to quick and, well, German for Homer. It was the efficient delivery that was so incongruent with the character which was distracting. I watched the whole episode, amused by this slight difference.

2. Infomercials in Norway
Informercials have always captivated me. I grew up in a household that occasionally purchased items after seeing them on TV (snackmaster and a food dehydrator). I think that my interest in infomercial has something to do with the cheesy showmanship of the format.

The last time I was in Norway I found a channel which was a dedicated to informercials. Regardless of the language used, what they were selling was clear enough, and the classic informercial plot was easy to follow:
Phase 1: Establish a problem
Phase 2: Show shortcomings of other products that address this problem
Phase 3: Present a better product
Phase 4: Wow, that's amazing
Phase 5: You'd be stupid not to buy it

The formula stays the same, while just the language changes. Somehow this captivated me, and I couldn't switch away.

3. Sheep to Shawl Competition in State College, PA
This is, perhaps, my favorite travel TV moment. While visiting Penn State, I stumbled upon a cable access presentation of a sheep to shawl competition. Several teams gather annually to participate in the sheering sheep, carding of wool, spinning of yarn and weaving shawls.

The whole process takes about 3 hours and it's pretty amazing to watch as the raw material rapidly makes the transformation from the source to a finished product. The shawls are then auctioned off for charity, and the teams start planning for next year's competition. I had never seen anything quite like this, and I couldn't go to sleep until I saw the finished shawls.

Even though it isn't the greatest thing to do while traveling, I still enjoy the comfort of watching TV while enjoying the subtle differences in programming. Do you have any interesting TV travel stories? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Black Licorice: One Traveler's Quest for Sweets

Photographs by Nicole Holt

When it comes to licorice lovers, there are decidedly two camps. There are those that love the nostalgic flavor of the black variety, and there are those that love the sweeter flavor of the red
variety. I am decidedly in the camp of black licorice lovers.

It's not that I have anything against red licorice, but, most of the time, I prefer the soothing anise flavor of black licorice.

I didn't always favor black licorice, but I wasn't really exposed to it until about 10 years ago. In general, black licorice isn't widely consumed in the United States, so the samples that I had early on were often stale due to the fact that they did not sell quickly.

While I slowly went about my path of black licorice exploration, there was a huge variety of which I was simply ignorant. International travel eventually broadened my licorice horizons.

The black licorice produced overseas can contain more variety than a slight sweetness and a mild anise flavor. That licorice could be more savory than sweet was a revelation to me.

My introduction to savory licorice came in the form of a salted licorice fish called Salt Sild. A coworker brought some back with him from a trip to Finland. I examined one of the small black fish; it was caked in fine white salt which were caked in salt.. It tasted impossibly salty and was not at all like candy with which I was familiar. Beyond the salt, a strong aftertaste remained. The flavor was not entirely unlike molasses but not quite the same. It was disgusting.

A few months later, I noticed an open package of Salt Sild on my coworker's desk and decided to try another. This time I wasn't disgusted by the flavor. This time I was prepared, and I was able to appreciate it for what it was. The complexity of the licorice struck me: a savory, salty and slightly sweet candy. It was amazing.

From that point on, I have kept an eye out for interesting black licorice on my travels. Scandinavia proved to be the epicenter of my licorice discoveries since many varieties of licorice are available there. These range is from sweet to quite salty. Some are hard, while others
are soft. Some leave a pleasantly bitter anise flavor behind when eaten, while others leave behind a mild honey flavor. Some licorice varieties even have a waxy feeling to them.

While salt is a common addition to licorice, menthol is also a favorite in Europe. Mentholated licorice can vary from pleasant, like a cough drop, to cough inducingly powerful.

While in Sweden, I found little boxes of Salta Katten, and I couldn't resist the little salted licorice cats. I brought the small yellow boxes home and forgot about them until my wife and I went to
the movies. I pulled out a box of the tiny black cats and popped a few into my mouth. Soon I realized that something wasn't quite right; my mouth was going slightly numb. There is something in Salta Katten that causes oral numbness.

The experience with the mouth numbing salted cats was slightly disturbing, but it was a nice reminder that there is such a great variety of licorice that I have yet to explore. It's just too bad that our options for finding licorice within the United States are limited...

I had thought that all hope for finding excellent licorice in the United States was lost when I visited Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, PA, earlier this year. In this market there is a shop called Chocolate By Mueller. While chocolate is their namesake, licorice is another one of their passions. They stock well over 30 types of fresh imported and domestic licorice, and the proprietors are very knowledgeable about all of them.

At Chocolate By Mueller, I purchased the freshest licorice wheels I have ever tasted. After speaking with the proprietor, I discovered that their location gains some of the credit for the freshness that they are able to provide. Reading Terminal Market attracts tourists from all over the world, including those parts of the world that love licorice. For those that have been denied access to decent licorice on their travels, the licorice selection at Chocolate By Mueller is like an oasis in the dessert.

My only problem is that I don't live in Philadelphia, but all is not lost because they ship. If you ever find yourself in Philadelphia near Reading Terminal Market, I highly recommend stopping by for some salted licorice. For those that don't find themselves near Philadelphia, you may find a variety of licorice brands at Whole Foods, Cost Plus World Market, candy shops and stores that import European goods.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Moleskine Journal: Common Availability, Uncommon Quality

A while ago, I wrote about the raw utility of the travel journal in Travel Gear Highlight: Travel Journal. In the comments to that post, a reader noted that I should try a Moleskine journal.

Since December of last year, I've been carrying a small black Moleskine (3 1/2" by 5 1/2") on all of my travels, and it's now full of notes from my adventures. I've been quite impressed with it. It traveled with me to Moscow, Sweden, Italy, all over the United States and through a cross country move. Needless to say, it's been through a lot.

Despite all it's been through, my little Moleskine only shows some minor wear at the corners and some staining from a peach that was accidentally left to rot in my bag. Other than that, it has remained in great condition. The quality of this journal's construction continues to impress me. It's built of quality components, and it's built to last.

The quality of the Moleskine becomes all the more apparent when compared with a journal of similar design yet inferior quality. I've used several journals for other projects that were obviously inspired by the Moleskine design, which were made by the Picadilly company. With much lighter use, the components began to fail.

The ribbons fell out and the elastic bands quickly lost their stretch. A loose elastic band may seem like a small detail, but it could allow the journal to open and become damaged while bouncing around in a backpack. Damage to the corners of the Picadilly journals were also evident far before similar damage was found on the Moleskine.

It should be noted that the Picadilly journals are much less expensive at around $4.00 USD while the same size Moleskine costs $10.00 USD.

I have to admit that before I used the Moleskine I was a bit skeptical about it being of legendary quality. Now, there is no doubt in my mind; this is the best journal that I have ever used.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Guest Post: Finding Adventure Close to Home

Photograph and Article by Nicole Holt

While Graham is away on trips, I like to plan the things we are going to do together when he is home. Being married to a man who travels regularly for work is a challenge for me because I do not get to share in his adventures. I make up for this by planning adventures for us to have when he is home.

The vast majority of these trips are local or, at most, an hour to two hours away by car. They are simple activities like going to an arboretum or checking out a place that has multiple pinball machines. The simplest one was exploring our backyard.

I didn’t notice the mushrooms growing all around our house until we had been living in Eugene for over a year. I blame it on the distraction of wedding planning followed by the gloom and subsequent seasonal affective disorder inherent in a rainy Pacific Northwest winter. After finally noticing the mushrooms and starting to photograph them all over our neighborhood, I decided that Graham and I needed to explore the woods behind our house.

There were many reasons to not explore our backyard area by myself; needless to say, I did not feel safe. So, I planned to go back there with Graham. At first, we stayed fairly close to the house, but over time, we ventured farther into the woods. It did not take us long after that to find the cliffs and the small brook below. It was beautiful back there, especially on a sunny day when the light filtered through the trees. The day I took the above picture was just such a day.

Roaming around those woods with Graham was one of my favorite things to do during our final months in Eugene. It is a shame that we did not think to explore back there sooner, and now that we live in a metropolitan area, I miss being able to stroll out of the house to go on rambles in the woods. However, the thought of our backyard explorations serves as a continual reminder that adventure can indeed be found in your own backyard and that engaging and worthwhile experiences are possible anywhere if you are open to them.

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