Cast Iron Seagull, part I

There is something just amazing about a super-duper low tide when you live on the ocean. It’s as if all the land has taken a deep breath into its lungs and floated just that much higher than it usually does, giving you the chance to go and gaze at its normally water covered navel. In local parlance, it is referred to as a drainer (pronounced: drain-ah). Our little corner of the coast takes up a diminutive bite in the greater Gulf of Maine and goes by the name, Casco Bay.  The particular island we live on is flanked by a few small, uninhabited islets, which offer adventure, discovery and poison ivy galore if you’re careless. To visit these little, cut off worlds though, you have to possess the means to get there.

That is to say, a boat.

Boats… Ah, boats. They are wonderful, fun and thoroughly evil little things. They are problematic right off the scale and unless you are a boat person who thinks of nothing but bobbing on the waves and smelling the sea breezes AND doesn’t mind pouring all their time and money into a hole in the ocean, then boating really isn’t for you. Owning a boat in freshwater is hard enough. Owning one that sits in salt water compounds the issues by a factor of about a hundred. The corrosive nature of the water, unexpected storms smashing the hull against the dock, filling with rain water and even just the relentless sun pounding on them does exhaustive damage requiring constant maintenance to keep them ship-shape. And that’s not even mentioning the engine!

Boats are one gigantic pain in the butt.

They are also, admittedly, fun and my wife wants one in the same way an eight year old girl wants a pony: with every fiber of her soul.

The problem is, the buying of said boat is the cheap part… and even that, if you’re careful, isn’t very cheap. If you want something that isn’t going to need to be completely overhauled from stem to stern before it’s safe to try floating off the boat trailer, then you’re going to need to pay up front for quality.

Then there’s the whole “ocean” aspect to consider. We do not live on a pond or lake and if you want to use a boat for transportation rather than just fun on a sunny and calm day then size, I assure you, does matter. Also you need to consider the hull shape, the type of drive system, the ability to get under some sort of shelter when it gets snotty out and how much fuel it burns per hour. All of this I let wash over me like a figurative wave as I listen to Action Girl enthusiastically expound on the latest boat for sale she’s found and how this one would be the perfect match for our needs.

The problem here is two fold:

Firstly, I am most definitely not a boat person. What I know about boats, I have pretty much learned from her. There is no doubt in my mind that she knows her stuff cold, don’t’ get me wrong!  Being a commercial boat captain, she’s out on the sea almost every day and after years of familiarity, can read the waters like a book. She knows where to go and when. She can make a many, many ton vessel dance like a dry leaf in a dust devil and not put down her coffee while doing it. She is incredible at her job. She is also at it quite a lot and thus, not exactly rich in free time. This means that caring for the boat will fall to… me, the “not-a-boat-guy” guy.

Secondly: I need a new hobby like I need a disgruntled porcupine in my underpants. Even if I was so inclined to dive head first into the deep, bottomless chasm that is being a boater, there is no way on God’s green Earth that I have time for it. When a person looks at taking a shower as a significant portion of their “me” time for the day, that’s an unmistakable indicator that the candle might just be burning not only at both ends, but a touch in the middle as well. I had hobbies once. I had lots of them. They all now sit in my basement with about eight centimeters of dust on them. I only hope that when the day comes that I again have the opportunity to get back to them, I won’t be so soft and squishy to get back to it all.

We obviously needed a solution that all parties could get something out of. A way that would keep me from getting devoured whole by a task not of my making or wanting, yet also get my sea loving wife out on the water when she wasn’t at work… out on the water. Hmmm…

Our answer came smunched and flattened in a huge, impossibly heavy and ungainly nylon bag. It was a boat, some assembly required. Happily for me, all the assembly entailed was adding air. Through a series of events both odd and unexpected, we had wound up with a rugged little inflatable boat. We couldn’t use it to commute, but it would be a lot of fun AND easy to take care of! Living with two, small children, if there’s anything I know how to do, its patch holes. The boat’s tiny, measuring only about three meters long and of the type that would be dragged behind something much, much bigger and more impressive as its dingy, but still, it was ours! It even came with a broken, non-fixable engine!

The engine was going to be a problem.

Calling it unfixable isn’t really fair. After all, everything is fixable if you sink enough cash into it. In this case, according to the marine engine mechanic in town, that number was going to be in excess of seven hundred dollars. That’s a lot of cash for a free, five horse power, two cycle outboard of unknown abilities or hours of use. It’s also indicative of how price structures work when talking about anything that goes on a boat. Every figure needs to be shot through the magical “boat pricing prism” so that a doodad that would normally cost ten bucks will now run into the hundreds. It’s magic, I tell ya! Fixing a lawn mower might have set me back a couple of hundred bucks, but THIS thing touches WATER! Needless to say, there was no way we were going to repair it and in one fell swoop, the dead engine graduated from “outboard” to “anchor.” Not literally, of course, but you get the point.

So, there was a lot of rowing to be done and row we did. We rowed here and there and the kids seemed to really enjoy their mini-adventures even if they did need to stay low and clear of the swinging oar ends as my wife or I pulled away hard on them. We got some fun use out of the little inflatable. The reality of the situation though, was that rowing is something more fun to watch than do, especially if the boat you’re rowing is essentially a beach ball that is at the utter mercy of both the wind and tide. I has no keel and so, doesn’t track well at all and because it’s only floating perhaps an inch and a half down in the water, any good breeze will move you where it’s blowing, regardless of where you want to go. With those two factors close in your mind, you stick pretty close to shore and none too far from the dock. After all, you need to have enough oomph not just to row where you want to get, but also to row back. Enter our friend, Ian.

Ian, like me, has a weakness for poking at broken stuff. The advantage he has over our affliction is that he’s managed to focus that weakness to just one kind of broken thing. He rebuilds antique outboards. I had no idea about this until I was chatting with him at a summer barbecue and telling him about my rowing related blisters as I cooled them with a cold beer.

For medicinal purposes only, naturally.

“What you need, is a Seagull!”

This is not a sentence you often hear used in Maine. In the past, I’ve heard people refer to pigeons as being, “sky rats” and to extend the analogy to seagulls, I think you’d wind up with perhaps a sky badger or maybe, sky weasel. In short, they are not pleasant creatures.

“Beg pardon?” I took another long pull from my cool pack.

 

To be continued…

Pool Time, Part II

As I bobbed around in the pool with my grinning, water wing wearing bundle of energy, I resolved to see what could be done about a cold adult beverage at dinnertime and continued to listen with great delight to the peals of genuine laughter that Short Stack was making as we frolicked in the water. We kept this up for quite some time until finally, pruny, happy but exhausted, I had to call it quits on our time in the water. Naturally, it took some time and convincing to get my son on the same page as well. He’s a master of the delay tactic and being in the pool and slippery just made him that much harder to corral. We needed food and a rest now. We’d both sleep well tonight.

Padding back to the room, I let Short Stack run ahead and just enjoyed watching his little bouncy form as he trotted down the long, straight hall toward the elevators. He was still going strong and could have gone on playing for an hour more, easily, but time was starting to run short now. The realization that it was important not to squander the few hours that we had set aside for sleeping kept me focused. The simple act of moving with purpose again, waking up my sluggish brain and getting me back in mission mode. At the room we quickly showered up, dried off and dug through the suitcase to see what we could wear. I had packed for myself and knew what I wanted. My wife had packed for our son though, so it was a little work to see what I had available for my resident bed bouncer.

He hurtled over the two foot gap from one bed to another and then back again, enjoying the freedom of movement while I used the time to find what I needed in our luggage.

Bounce, bounce, bounce! “I’m hungry!”

“I’m working on it, Buddy.” I rooted around in an effort to find pants.

“The pool was great! Can we go again after dinner?” Bounce, bounce, bounce. We already had covered this ground before and to his slight dismay, the answer was still ‘no.’ He must have figured that it was worth a try.

After what seemed far too long, I found what I needed in the neat piles of clothing. Cramming the extras back into the approximate locations I had found them in, I motioned my son over. When that failed to get his attention over the bouncing, I called to him nicely. When that failed, I decided to tackle him to the bed and with much hooting and giggling, I started buttoning him into this evening’s attire.

“Perfect!” I said through my own grinning smile. ”Nothing says, ‘I’m on vacation’ quite like Hawaiian shirts and camo shorts! Now hold still you little jumping bean!!”

Wrestling him as he squealed with glee, I managed to stuff the wriggling, laughing mass of four year old into his clothes and eventually got him ready. The hotel was supposed to have a restaurant downstairs and I intended to stay on premises if at all possible. With my energies starting to run low and Short Stack’s due to ebb any moment now, I wanted to make this as simple and painless as possible. The two of us wandered around the ground floor for a bit, looking for our goal and listening for the clink of plates and silverware. After a few minutes, I gave up and asked the front desk about dinner. It was the same nice lady who had checked us in an hour and a half ago.

“Oh, well we don’t have a dining room per se, but we do have the bar. It’s right here!” With a sweep of her hand, she motioned around the corner of the check-in desk where, indeed, it had been fitted out with bar stools. Talk about your all in one service! “Here are some menus” And with that, she handed them to me and then left us to look them over while she checked in another couple just a few feet away.

For the set up, the menu was surprisingly complete and held exactly what you’d expect for bar fare. Though I was at first a tad taken aback at this setup, I quickly realized that this would be just fine for our needs. I helped Short Stack up to his very own stool and once he discovered that it spun, immediately put it through its paces. We looked perfect for the part we were playing, loud shirts draped over our pale frames and we both were happy with the way things were turning out. Short Stack was mostly happy with spinning his stool as he revolved around and around, slowed only by my hand in the concern that he might get dizzy and fall off. Glancing through the menu, I decided on two personal sized pepperoni pizzas to go, figuring that though they were probably of the microwaved variety, it gave me the best shot of getting some sort of dinner into my spectacularly hard to feed son. That decided, I then looked intently at the beer list. It had been a long day and a hard push and it was almost over.

Pretty much every evening when I’m home, I celebrate the close the day with a good, cool beer and it’s become almost a ritual for me. I don’t drink much, and having been cursed with the most amazing ability to extract the most fierce hangovers from the smallest quantities of alcohol, I rarely have more than just the one, but I’d be lying if I said that the notion of continuing my tradition this evening hadn’t been in the forefront of my mind for quite some time now.

I looked at the beer list and scanned the names.

Hmmmm.

Then I started thinking about later tonight.

In less than an hour, I was going to lie down next to my young son who may or may not actually close his eyes and nod off. In reality, even if we both did manage to, it would be more nap than real sleep. I’d be getting us up an hour before midnight, repacking the car, then driving for an hour or better on unfamiliar roads and THEN would have to get us in through the gate and set up at the Kennedy Space Center. I’d need to be on my game and what I needed, regardless of what I WANTED, was something that was non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated. I needed to be good.

Booooo!

I looked away from the tempting list of frosty delight and back up at the concierge/front desk manager/waitress/bar tender whom had returned, smiling, to take our order.

“Two, small pepperoni pizzas and… how about two orange juices. Large please.”

With an inaudible sigh that rattled around in my head for a second or two, lamenting the lack of my evening drink, I placed the menu down as my son decided to abandon his stool for the comfort of my lap. Like every establishment in Florida I’ve ever been in, the air conditioning had been cranked to polar temperatures and our jaunty shirts and tropical shorts didn’t offer us much protection from the incongruous chill. I’ve always found this remarkable when I encounter it, but it always seems to be the case. One doesn’t really think of needing to pack a sweater when traveling to the tropics but I often feel like I need one when I venture inside. I never remember this until it’s too late and I’m covered in goose bumps. Now Short Stack was discovering this too. I hugged his warm body to mine and we chatted quietly as we waited for the food to appear.

In the end, getting our dinner took way longer than anticipated, especially for two microwaved dinners and as my little traveling companion started to fall asleep in my lap, I was getting more and more ticked off at the wait. We should be sleeping by now! With the food’s arrival, I quickly paid for it, scooped up both dinner and my son and headed for the elevators. When, sitting on our miniature couch back in the room I opened the takeout style boxes, I was surprised to discover the reason. The pizzas had been hand made and baked in a pizza oven. They were delicious!

Concierge/Front Desk Manager/Waitress/Bar Tender/Pizza Chef!

That girl was good!

By the time we were fed and ready for bed, it was later than I’d hoped, but still, not too bad. We’d get a good, solid three and a half to four hours before we needed to be on the road. I pulled out traveling clothes for later, laid them out so that I could jump into them with a minimum of consciousness needed, repacked the rest and got things set so we could zip out the door as fast as possible. Short Stack was moving much slower now, the efforts of the day finally showing on him. As I tucked him into one of the massive queen sized beds, I looked down with a smile as he instinctively curled up into a tiny ball. He looked like such a peanut, dwarfed by a mountain of pillows and lost under unfamiliar sheets and blankets. He was yawning continuously but the questions never stopped.

“What will we see there?”

“When will we get there?”

“They won’t launch the Shuttle without us, will they?”

“Are the astronauts going to sleep now too?”

It was time for me to go to sleep as well and I glanced at the second, still made bed just a couple of feet away where I had expected to catch what rest I could. Then I looked back at my little boy. His voice came small and groggily from beneath the sea of bedding.

“Daddy, I’m cold”

With a glance and a last thought about having my own space tonight, I turned my back on it, gently pulled back the covers of his bed, crawled in and joined him. Still in a ball, he scrunched himself into my chest and rested his head on my arm.

“G’nite, Daddy.”

“Good night, buddy. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

In seconds, he was out cold. As I drifted off myself, I thought of the astronauts who were getting ready at that very moment. The thrill that they must be living and the excitement of knowing that soon, they would be in space. The ride of a lifetime! But as I listened to my son’s quiet breathing and my nose was tickled by his mop of hair, I realized that right then, I wouldn’t trade places with any of them. This was heaven and into it, I gently slipped away as well.

Time to sleep.

Zwack Attack

Last night, I was the parent on duty. Action Girl mostly works second shift and thus, the evenings are my territory with the Widgets. When it was just the single Widget, Short Stack, it was really not very hard to pull off. Things went pretty smoothly on the whole and hell nights not withstanding, we got along pretty well and he got to sleep at a reasonable hour. Then came Lulu Belle.

Just about the time the evening routine had become highly predictable and easy to execute, we threw in the random variable of a new baby. Things immediately got way more interesting than any sensible person would ever want. With new babies, the real problem is that routines just don’t exist long enough for you to figure them out and exploit them. Just about the time you realize that the baby always likes this or laughs at that, everything changes. Yesterday’s panacea is today’s anathema. It keeps you on your toes. It also makes me relish that evening beer all the more.

After Lulu Belle is tucked in and happily reaming about an edible world and Short Stack is lying in bed pretending to be asleep, but actually whispering stories to him self, I switch off the lights, go to the fridge and grab a beer. The day is over, both kids are fed and I’m pooped. I feel that I’ve earned my cold one.

Last night, disaster struck. As soon as the kids were down and I quietly padded into the kitchen, I had a sinking feeling. I know what I’d find. Opening the door only cemented my horror as an empty beer drawer stared back. This was not what I was hoping for. As the lone adult in the house and with both kiddos asleep (or close enough to asleep), there was no way I could to run down to the store. I was trapped in my beerless home. Just to add insult to injury, my half full bottle of Black Strap rum had been left at another house after an evening of Dark & Stormies, so my other late night favorite was inaccessible as well. I looked around to check out my options.

Scotch? Gone.
Calvados? Finished.
Whiskey? Also empty.

You have GOT to be kidding me!?

With the exception of a few liquors that didn’t appeal to me at the moment (Gin, Sake, Tequila) there was nothing in the “booze” range to be had in the house. Even the wine cellar was looking pretty bare. That’s was okay for the moment though. I didn’t want wine. I wanted BEER!

A conversation with my wife later that evening netted me some sympathy but didn’t whet my whistle. I assured her that would somehow cope without my nighttime libation but as I hung up the phone, I started casting about for something to take its place. I settled on my favorite daytime drink as an alternative and poured my self a generous glass of milk. Though cold, smooth and normally enjoyed fully, the milk lacked a certain… everything. The kicker was when Action Girl returned home after her shift was done and guiltily admitted that after the boats were tied up, she had gone out to the near by pub with a coworker to cap off the night. AAAGH!

So, with the break of a new day and a trip to town scheduled, I knew what my first stop would be. Normally, I would have saved the beer run as the last item on the “to do” list before returning to the ferry terminal… but not today. It was snowing like a bugger and knowing I had a ton of shoveling in my future, I wasn’t willing to risk it. I love my local beer and booze shop, and not just because they’ve given me free beer in the past, though to be honest, it doesn’t hurt their standing in my book. I like them because they are friendly, exceedingly well stocked and very, very knowledgeable. These are not your average front counter drones. They all know their stuff and if you ask them for their opinion on… oh, I don’t know, Finnish vodkas or Belgian dopplebocks, they will have one. A very well informed one. They are worth listening to. They are also curious and keep bringing in more and more unusual alcoholic items from obscure corners of the world. You just never know what you’ll find there.

As I walked through the door with a smile and a wave to the guy behind the counter, I got as far as, “Hey, how ya’ do…” before it changed me pointing with an outstretched hand and to a shouting.

“HOLY CRAP! YOU HAVE ZWACK!”

There, sitting on the counter, still next to the box they were being unloaded from, was the familiar green bottle with the warning-like gold Swiss style cross emblazoned on it. It’s a liqueur made in Budapest and the bottle itself is vaguely shaped like an old fashioned bomb such as one you’d fire from a bronze cannon at invading Napoleonic infantry. Perhaps they did.

“Yah, we just got these in. Are you familiar with it?”

zwack

I marveled at the bottle for a moment and thought back. I have only encountered Zwack on two occasions. The first time was at our friends Laura and Harrold’s house in western Germany. He’s a Colonel in the U.S. military and having a variety of men serving under him, he’s received various gifts to stock the bar over the years. While Action Girl and I were visiting them one time, we all decided to get some drinks going. I spotted the bottle of Zwack.

“So… What is it?” I asked.

Harrold looked at it appraisingly. “You know, I have no idea. I’ve had it for years and sort of never dared get into it.”

We got into it. The name begged for us to. I don’t remember the night too well.

The next time I spotted a bottle was years later in, of all places, a friend of a friend’s house outside of Boston. We were there for a surprise party and the bottle sat happily in the liquor cabinet all night and taunted me. We never did get into it and I wasn’t sure who our host was exactly and so, was unable to inquire in the most leading way possible. Oh, the missed Zwack!

So, a few moments after spotting this rare bird on the countertop of the booze store, I happily walked out with my very own bottle. As I sit here now, with the kiddos tucked in bed and ostensively sleeping, I’m just finishing off my first glass of Hungarian booze in many years. The taste? Well… I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that nostalgia has colored my memory of the taste. It’s a liqueur and so it’s rather syrupy and sweet. Not clean and bracing like good whiskey or vodka. Do I regret the purchase? No, not one bit. It’s a good drink after an evening moving snow around the driveway and warms you all the way down as you sip it. All in all, it’s a perfect winter libation.

Also, I’m betting that it will last us longer than a six pack of the local micro-brew’s beer. At least it had better. If we tried to polish it off in a few nights without our friends here to help us, we’d be speaking slurred Hungarian in no time.

Valhalla in Salzburg, part II

These doors weren’t just big. They looked like they belonged on the front of a castle. A smaller entrance, apparently intended to be used when not mounted on a massive war horse, was set into one of the main doors. With out a pause, Mountain Man reached out and pushed it open. I was really feeling uncomfortable at this point.

“Where are we going?” I hissed. “Wait and see. It’s totally worth it.” was all I could get out of him. Beyond the door was a hall. Not a hall like you see in a normal building, but a hall that matched the doors that shut soundlessly behind us. Double barrel vaulted arches loomed overhead in the darkness and busts of old men set on pedestals gazed disapprovingly at us as we wandered down its length. It was like we had found a back door to a museum. I just knew we’d be arrested soon.

The hallway forked and Mountain Man unhesitatingly led me on. Then down a set of stairs and then… What’s that noise?

Somewhere down the hall, I could just make out what I thought might be a crowd of people. As we finished the flight of steps, we entered a large windowless room. At least I think it was windowless. I can’t say for sure because every inch of wall space was taken up with racks and racks of beer steins. There were two sizes, big and bigger. The center of the room was dominated by an impressive, circular stone fountain. Mountain Man quickly informed me that the smaller of the steins were for the ladies and selected one big enough to make a home out of after you finished your drink, handed it to me and then grabbed his own.

I followed him to the fountain where we gave them a quick rinse in the ice cold water and carried them to a bar that looked like it had been ripped directly out of Dungeons and Dragons. A big, bald man, complete with impressive mustache grabbed our steins and filled them from a hog’s head behind him.

“The secret,” Mountain Man whispered to me as our steins were being filled, “is to immediately stick your thumb as far down into the beer as possible when he hands it to you. Otherwise it’ll overflow. That’s how they spot the tourists.”

I did and instructed and killed most of the head before it could go on an independent expedition down the side of the vessel and across the bar. We paid and stepped through another arched doorway into… Valhalla?

“So this is where all the Norse Gods go to get away from it all”, was all I could think to say. The room before us was enormous, punctuated by huge columns that held up massive stone vaults barely visible above the smoke and darkness. Long communal tables were peopled by all sorts of Salzburgers. There were families, off duty workers, old folks, everyone except tourists. I quickly wondered how I could look as Austrian as possible.

Mountain Man has no problem blending in here. Though he and I grew up in the same town in New Hampshire, he is about as Germanic looking as you can get. Tall, fair skinned, blue eyes, blond hair and possessing the ability to not only speak German, but to speak it so well that German speakers don’t know it’s not his native tongue. They may not think he’s from their area, but he’s so good that they just assume he’s from Frankfurt or something. It doesn’t hurt that his real name is a common one in this part of Europe, either.

I am a different story. I don’t look particularly Germanic, at the time, I didn’t speak hardly any German at all, my name is not one found in this part of the world and to make it worse, pretty much my entire wardrobe came from L.L. Bean. I wasn’t sporting a fanny pack or twenty six pounds of camera equipment but essentially, I screamed “tourist”.

I summoned up my best “I belong here” look and followed my guide to an empty booth on the periphery of the throng and scooted in. Mountain Man smiled, clinked my stein and hoisted. I followed suit and was in heaven.

I love beer. Specifically, I love good beer. Precisely, I love good wheat beer, and this was the best I’d ever had in my young life.

Many years ago, My father did something truly dastardly. I don’t know if it was his plan from the start., but the effect was the same. At some point when I was in high school, my Dad made it known that I could have a beer out of the fridge if I wanted it. The rules were that I could only have one, that I couldn’t give any to friends and that it couldn’t leave the house. The goal was to demystify beer and hopefully keep me from doing some of the usual stupid kid things involving alcohol and parties and it worked for the most part. The evil part was revealed to me only once I went to college. It turned out that what my Father always bought was really good, imported beer. When you are raised on caviar-beer, so to speak, cheese whiz-beer holds little appeal. This was my curse. As a poor student, I saved up for my expensive imported beers, didn’t share with the guys drinking the PBR and tried very hard to make each bottle last as long as possible.

Here, in Salzburg, it was a different story. I was staring down what looked like a ceramic well of fantastic beer and there was plenty more where that came from. The first liter went down eeeeeasy. The second, just as smoothly. The third, I don’t remember so well.

At some point a older man in coveralls wandered over with a stein of his own and a plate piled high with thinly sliced meat. He asked something in German and Mountan Man replied favorably. “He wants to join us.” I was feeling mighty rosy by now and flashed him a big lopsided smile. He grinned and sat opposite us. Mountain Man and the the gentleman made introductions and I was informed that he was a plumber that he had just gotten off work. We shook hands, I did my best “pleased to meet you” pantomime and he nodded approvingly at our drinks.

After a few minutes of me staring hazily into the crowd while Mountain Man and the plumber chattered away, I was shaken from my thoughts by an offered plate. The plumber was smiling at me and making the international “do you want some” gesture with his open palm. The plate of meat looked… safe and the realization that I had roughly three leters of beer in me and nothing else, struck home. Brightening at the concept of something to soak up the Hefeweizen, I happily accepted. He loaded up a napkin and passed it to me.

The meat was… chewy. Not fatty, exactly, but tough. I had another piece. Chew, chew, chew. “What kind of meat is this?” A brief exchange was had between the two German speakers. “Boiled, shaved cow’s cheek”, Mountain Man gleefully replied.

Hmmm. I took another, very long pull from the stein.

Conclusion next.

Valhalla in Salzburg

“Where the heck are we going?”
“You’ll see! It’s going to be great!”
“You’re not going to kill me and stuff my body in a trash bin, are you?”
“I can’t promise that. It’ll depend on your behavior.”
“Great.”

The lower city of Salzburg twisted away from us as we climbed, as my good friend bounded ahead in a dubious looking direction, trying to remember his way in the dark of the sleeping architecture.

That spring, I was visiting a good friend of mine (I’ll call him Mountain Man) who was living Germany. He was there on a Fulbright Scholarship, teaching english at a gymnasium in what was until very recently, East Germany. The Wall had come down only a few years before he went over and it was a great time to be there. Every one felt positive, everything seemed to be getting better and most importantly of all, you could now travel all over what was once forbidden territory. We were having a blast.

This particular night though, we had traveled back to one of his old haunts. We spent a day traveling and another punch on our euro-rail passes and had arrived in Salzburg, Austria.

Mountain Man knew Salzburg. It was his old stomping grounds, having spent a year studying abroad in this charismatic city. I had only been there once before on one of my family’s epic en-mass vacations. Traveling with the family meant nice hotels, meals at meal times and package style tours with guides. Mountain Man most defiantly had other plans and to be fair, we were doing this on the cheap.

I will freely admit, that the traveling with my family (my WHOLE family, including parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents) had made me jaded. Growing up and traveling en masse, I never had to think about where we would stay, eat or go and look at the local pile of ancient rubble. It was all planned for me and though we didn’t travel opulently, we did travel comfortably.

This trip would be different. This was where I really learned how to travel.

We had arrived in Salzburg by train and immediately headed into the city to secure lodging. It was early evening and Mountain Man was afraid that the hostel that he had in mind would be near full capacity by now. He had gone on and on about how popular it was as were their breakfasts. Warning lights should have been going off in my head with the mention of the word “popular”, but foolishly, I had equated it with the notion of it being due to its fine rooms and beds. How wrong could I be? Ohhh. Very, very wrong.

I actually could hear it before we saw it. The music was thumping out into the darkening streets and the yellow light of the foyer poured out from the open doors almost as powerfully as the cigarette smoke. As we walked in, I was immediately taken by two things. First was that the place was packed by what looked like fourteen year olds, all holding ¾ empty beer steins and smoking what must have been four to five cigarettes a piece. The second was that Mountain Man was asking the clerk for a couple of beds for us.

“No! I don’t care if we have to sleep on benches in the park, but we aren’t staying here!”

Mountain Man looked at me thought the blue smoke and smiled sheepishly. “Well, that’s about our only other option. At this hour, we’re lucky that they have any room at all. By the time we get to the next hostel, the chance of finding space is just about nil.”

I looked around at the plastered and partying highschool age patrons and sighed. “Fine, but do they at least have a double room or something. Just so we don’t have to be in the bunk room?”

He winced again. “Nope. We’ll be in a room with 32 beds.”

Great.

After securing our packs, we fled the hostel looking for an activity that didn’t involve drunk teenagers and tobacco. Mountain Man, in an attempt to make up for my obvious disappointment in our lodging situation, promised an experience that would be second to none. He wouldn’t say what it was, but that it was just “going to be awesome.”

A bit suspiciously, I followed. What else could be done?

We climbed out of the lower city and up towards the less traveled areas. It was getting late now and the only light was from the street lamps. With hardly anyone else out walking and all the shops closed, it felt a lot like trespassing. The roads we took turned into wide alleys and the alleys into open stairs, punctuated by small parks and paths that appeared sporadically as we ascended. This was when I had posed my question to Mountain Man.

We had climbed for quite a while and I was sure we were lost. “This it it!” Mountain Man had stopped at a set of massive, studded, dark oak doors on an unmarked wall.

“Are you serious?”

He just smiled. I looked around to check for empty rubbish bins, just to be safe.

More later…

Free Beer

Though my linage includes bloodlines from varied and well spaced parts of Europe and North America, the two primary parts of my particular family tree are Scottish and Irish. As my father once told me, “That means that half of me wants to get drunk but the other half doesn’t want to pay for it.” I can be a bit of a tight fist, or as I prefer to think of it, “frugal”.

This may lead you to think that you could find me haunting the halls at the Big Box-Mart buying the 50 pound bag of industrial coca/spackle, but you’d be wrong. I can’t stand the giant cube-building shopping centers that seem to be just about unavoidable these days and will do just about anything short of burning the contents of my pockets to keep my money away from them and to a mom&pop. It’s not just that most big box stores like Mall-Wart don’t support domestic manufacturing (which the decidedly DON’T). For me, it’s that I have watched with great sadness, what they do to our downtowns. They turn them into ghost towns.

In my city, we are blessed with a very vibrant downtown and though the picturesque setting and beautiful old buildings mean that we are neck deep in flocks of clueless tourists all summer, it’s still a blast to walk around in. In and amongst the various kitsch shops selling base ball hats with fake moose poop on them or fish markets selling lobster meat for $129.95 an ounce, there’s a little beer and wine shop… and they are fantastic. The owner is often the one behind the counter, they have very low employee turnover and the staff KNOWS what they are selling and can recommend to you items that you may not have considered. I love that.

I’ve become a regular there and stop in about once a week if not more. They know me by sight if not by name. I have a thing for really good micro-brewed beer and am particularly fond of some small label German beers that are unusual to see in the States. Being the top notch place that they are, they almost always have them stocked and cold. They’ve even kept specific beers in the fridge just for me, because I once asked if they had any already chilled. They’re like that. I like them a lot and we’ve had some good beer geek chats.

Today, I went in and picked up a six of one of my favorites and a four pack of ginger beer to make dark and stormies with over the weekend. The store has a fantastic selection of beers, wines and hard stuff and since it finally got pretty warm this afternoon, it made me pause at the cooler and think about those wonderful wheat beers that go so well on a warm summer day; hefeweizen’s. When I got to the counter, I asked if they had a hefeweizen by the name of UFO, brewed by Harpoon [brewery].

“Sorry, we don’t normally stock it. But if you’d like, I’ll special order some and keep it cold for you?”

(I love being a regular!)

“Sure. I’ll buy it if you get it!”

Then the guy asked if I’d tried another local brewery’s hefeweizen. When I told him that I couldn’t recall if I’d tried it, he took me over to the beer fridges and pulled a bottle out of a six pack to show me. The label looked familiar but I told him that I couldn’t remember how I liked it. With out a blink he closed the cooler door and handed me the beer.

“Here, you want to take this one? Maybe you can stick it in a pocket or something?”

I had a lot of stuff in my hands. I was carrying a six pack, a four pack, my lunch bag and my rain coat, plus a back back slung over one shoulder.

“Um… Yah! I’ll figure out some place to stow a free beer!”
“Good man. Id be worried about you if you turned it down.”, he added with a smile.

So, I walked out of the store with my purchased and free beer, happy as a… well, a guy with a free beer! They could have been assured of my continued patronage even with out the freebee but after that, they have pretty much got a customer for life.

It cost the owner one beer but what he got in return was a happy customer who’s going to steer people his way for a long time to come. At Big Box Mart, no manager would have dared a strategy like that. He most likely would have been fired or sent to the eastern slave cities to sew 5XL size briefs as punishment. It costs me more to shop at the independent stores, probably something like 10% more, but you know what? For service like that, I’ll happily buy 10% less stuff so I can afford to shop where I want to.

By the way… The Hefeweizen was good, but I like the Harpoon version better. Glad he’s getting some for me. I’ll be in next week.

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