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The Annual Report (vol. 4)

16 Jan

I say this every January, but last year feels like a total whirlwind. Suddenly here we are, at another new year. January 2016 feels so close and so far at the same time. It seems like just yesterday that I was wandering Nashville’s streets with my mom–my first trip of 2016. And yet, so much has changed that the feeling I had back in Nashville isn’t even a feeling I can access anymore.

I always take time to reflect on my year and try to remember where the time went. It’s easy to remember the big things: my trip to Japan, my new job, the beautiful weddings I attended. But I like to look back on smaller things, too. My diary isn’t very typical. I don’t use it to express myself or track my emotions. Instead, it’s simply a log of all the things I did in a year that seemed notable when they happened. I started the log in 2012 when I was new to San Francisco and created a “San Francisco to-do list,” organized by neighborhood. I started writing down what I did every week, too. Looking back at my log makes me smile, because it reminds me of all the little things that made a year great. Things like brunch with friends, trying that new restaurant, finally making it to some part of town I’d wanted to see, trekking to some far-off bakery. It always makes me happy to see what I did, and who I did it with.

So, as I’ve done for a few years now, I used my personal log to write a sort of “annual report” for 2016. Here we go!

teavel-betterNo wonder it felt like I missed a lot of 2016 in San Francisco: I took 22 trips last year! That’s a lot of time away from home. Trips encompassed everything from Ohio to Portland to Maryland. Work and leisure travel were actually pretty balanced, with a slight tip toward business trips. 2017 will definitely look different, since my new job doesn’t require much travel.

baking-chart

I baked WAY more in 2016 than 2015, but the breakdown didn’t change much. Cookies continued to rule, making up 56% of the 68 recipes I baked in 2016. You can find more details about my year in baking over on my other blog.

Some 2016 Fun Facts: 

  • Meals at my favorite local Moroccan restaurant: 8
  • Bamboo forests explored: 1
  • Trips to wine country: 4 (including 2 birthday bus day trips) 
  • Museums visited: 7
  • Cat birthday parties attended: 1 
  • Magnitude to which I felt grateful for friends and family: as always, non-quantifiable

I wrote 23 posts for Culture Cookies this year, just 1 shy of last year’s total. I would have loved to post more, so I’m a little bummed by that number. But I also wrote 47 posts for my baking blog last year, so of course I couldn’t do it all. As cheesy as it sounds, I give myself permission to write less frequently for Culture Cookies. This blog digs deeper into analysis and commentary, while Sugarsmith is more about personal stories and recipes. That blog is simpler to write and since I bake so often, I constantly have new material. I used to get more annoyed about the lack of posts here, and I still wish I posted more often… but I also know that things get busy, and I can’t do it all. And that’s ok!

Top New Posts of 2016

  1. Talkin’ Bout My Generation
  2. Off the Road
  3. When Suggestion Engines Get It Wrong
  4. Much Ado About Toast
  5. At a Crossroads

1 Older Post that Technically Cracked the Top 5:

  1. How do YOU Flâner?

My Favorite 2016 Posts Not in the Top 5: 

Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, debates, and shares!

Off the Road

11 Dec

This time last year, I was staring out a hotel window at a smoggy LA scene. The day before, I was in Austin. The week before? São Paolo. I wasn’t on an intentional adventure–this was business travel. All three stops were for focus groups. I tried to make the most of it: an early morning dash for donuts in Austin, a quick museum stop in São Paolo, trying a new restaurant in LA. Mostly, though, I sat in focus group facilities, scribbling notes about consumer behavior and eating an inordinate amount of M&Ms (a focus group staple).

And now here we are, a year later, and I have zero business trips planned. After 7 years of frequent, often chaotic business travel, I’m officially off the road. It’s largely a relief–but there’s also something bittersweet about it that I’m still trying to process. My new job will involve the occasional business trip, but most the time, I’ll be home sweet home.

Switching myself off from business traveler mode has actually been one of the weirdest adjustments to my new job. On the one hand, I’m elated. Business travel can be so tiring, and it made my life really fragmented too. I could never quite plan ahead, I never committed to weekday plans more than a week out, and I always knew there was the possibility I’d have to hop on a last-minute flight. I struggled to set good habits because once I’d gain momentum, the next trip would come along and disrupt it.

And yet: there’s something beautiful about popping up all over the place. Business trips took me places I probably wouldn’t have been to otherwise: far-flung suburbs, extremely small towns, medium-sized towns that just don’t make most tourist itineraries. I’m full of stories from the last 7 years, some treasured and some reviled. That time I got lost in Alabama and ended up at a pecan farm. All the late, late night drinks and early, early breakfasts with NYC pals, crammed in to accommodate my work commitments. The months I spent staffed in New Jersey, barely seeing anything beyond my hotel and my client site.

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Waking up in Sao Paolo

This lifestyle shift is really impacting me right now. I find myself thinking about the feeling of checking in at a new hotel, pondering how much time I spent in airports, remembering all the times I dragged my suitcase around a new place. Planes and hotels were such a big part of my life for so long, whether I liked it or not. Being on the road had some exciting moments but more importantly, it was familiar. Lack of routine was my routine for so long, and it’s sort of bizarre that the pattern ended.

A more open calendar means opening up my life: the lack of movement means I can move forward in new ways. But, I’m still figuring out how this whole “non-business traveler” thing works. I’m trying to establish a better routine. I’m saying yes to weekday plans. And above all else, I’m savoring the feeling of staying still.

Since I keep a sort-of diary, it was really easy to map the places I’ve traveled for work. So naturally, I had to do it. This map only reflects locations, not frequency. For example, I hit up LA a few times in 2013 alone. Maybe someday I’ll add frequency in… but for now, the data-geek side of me finds this map pretty satisfying on its own.

At A Crossroads

9 Oct
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Gion, Kyoto, Japan

Do you ever have those moments where something just clicks and you walk away with a renewed perspective on your world?

I had one a few weeks ago, standing at the very corner you see here. During an early morning stroll around Kyoto, Japan, I found myself at this beautiful intersection. At a literal crossroads, early enough in the morning that no one else was around. I stood there for a few minutes, just taking it all in. The architecture and the history, of course, but also what got me to that corner in the first place.

What brought me there? Change, friendship and a bit of serendipity.

I switched jobs recently, which always causes a shift in perspective. My whole routine changed–every little bit of it. I’m on different routes everyday, since my new office is across town from the old one. I see different people, talk about different things, think about different topics. My role itself is incredibly different from what I was doing before. Everything is new, exciting, intriguing and of course–sometimes intimidating, too.

I didn’t get much time off between jobs so I planned to take vacation pretty soon after starting the new position. I’d originally intended to stay home and take it easy–after all, I’m a huge proponent of staycations. But at the last minute, a friend tempted me to join her in Japan, instead. And I figured: why not? I had the miles, I had the time and most importantly, I had a dear friend inviting me to join her adventure. So off I went to Kyoto and Osaka for a whirlwind, delightful trip.

We crammed a lot into our few days together, exploring as much as we could. On our final morning in Kyoto I took a solo walk around the Gion district, famed for its high-end restaurants and traditional geisha culture. We’d already wandered thru this way at dusk, which is when the guidebooks tell you to go. I’m so glad I made it back there during the daytime, too. Something just clicked as I walked around, taking in the incredible wooden buildings and charming side streets. Soon I found myself at this crossroads, standing  utterly still, contemplating all the change and newness in my life.

I found a lot of peace in that moment. I probably looked crazy, standing there so deep in thought. But it was the perfect burst of serenity and reflection, self-love and self-care. I needed that moment. I needed to stand there and think about where I’d been and what was ahead.

As I stood there, I felt my brain and heart and soul click into better alignment. And I don’t want to forget how that morning felt. So I made this photo the wallpaper on my work laptop. And anytime I need a quick dose of inspiration or a quick brain refresh, I’ll take a peek at the photo and try to remember how it felt to be on that corner, in the crisp fall air, contemplating my world.

Travel Eats: Portland

21 Aug

I’ve found that one of the best ways to reset my brain is to wander a new city or neighborhood. Wandering provides the perfect mix of adrenaline, curiosity and relaxation. As I explore, my brain is so wrapped up in discovery mode that it forgets stressors and to-do lists.

I switched jobs recently and wanted to reset my brain a bit before heading into something new. Portland, Oregon has long been on my mind as a potential vacation destination. I’d heard such good things about its scenery, its people… and of course, its food. So when I realized I’d have a few days between jobs, I booked a rather last-minute trip and finally got to see what Portland’s all about.

We spent 2.5 days wandering every neighborhood we could, and sampling every dish we could. We also rented a car so we could drive to Multnomah Falls, the second highest waterfall in the U.S.

I’d compiled our list of “must dos” based on lots of advice from friends, websites like Eater and a bit of Yelping. We found so many delightful spots on our trip, but today I’m just going to share the very top eats. This was supposed to be a top 5  list… but I couldn’t narrow it down to 5! So, here are my top 8 places to eat in Portland:

1. Chizu 

IMG_0636Chizu focuses on cheese, and its menu is mighty impressive. You can pick cheeses by the ounce to make your own plate or order “omnikase” style and let the staff pick cheeses on your behalf. We ordered $20 of cheese plus some duck charcuterie and were incredibly pleased with what we got. The platter included an awesome mix of hard and soft cheeses, served with accompaniments like honey and dried fruit. The staffe explained the back story for every single cheese we ordered. Plus the staff was super friendly and chatted with us about recommendations for our stay.

2. Hat Yai

IMG_0870Hat Yai is all over the “best new restaurant” lists for Portland right now, and the hype is definitely substantiated. We loved our meal of meat skewers, curry, roti and grilled corn. Everything was so flavorful, and so satisfying. We stopped here on our way back from the Falls and it was the perfect post-hike dinner!

3. MÅURICE

IMG_0907Maurice calls itself a “luncheonette” and is only open until early evening, so make sure you stop here for lunch! It’s adorable inside, and its food is simple but delicious. We got a wonderful shaved carrot salad, delicious scones and yummy open face sandwiches.

 

4. Shalom Y’All

IMG_0632.JPGThis recommendation came from my mom (hi Mom!). I love falafel, and Shalom Y’Alls take on falafel was truly incredible. Spiced with sumac, accented by the unusual additions of walnuts and feta – this falafel sandwich keeps calling to me in my dreams. I usually find falafel options disappointing and really wish I had a Shalom Y’All in the Bay Area! The PDX location is in a “food hall” with several other local favorites.

5. Nuvrei

IMG_0900This Pearl District bakery has the most beautiful display of varied pastries and croissants. I opted for the Kare Pan, a brioche bun stuffed with Japanese-style curry. This thing was SO GOOD.

 

 

 

 

6. The Meadow

IMG_0939This shop specializes in salts, chocolates and bitters. So in other words, it’s a foodie’s dream. I snapped up awesome saffron salt, and resisted the urge to buy every kind of chocolate they had in stock. There are two locations in Portland and one in NYC, plus an online store!

 

 

 

 

7. Cheese & Crack Snack Shop

IMG_0783I found this shop by Yelping “pickles” and man, am I glad we visited! We stopped here for snacks on our way to the Falls. We got a “cheese plate to go” that had a great selection of cheeses, crackers and spreads like honey and mustard. We ended up eating this overlooking a vista point. Turns out that cheese + vista points = the perfect combo.

 

IMG_06148. Simple Local Coffee/Sterling Coffee Roasters

Ok, I’m cheating a little, but both these shops serve the same brand of coffee. First we bumped into Simple Local Coffee, a charming shop downtown that serves Sterling Coffee. A couple days later, we sought out Sterling’s own shop over in the city’s Alphabet District. I drink my coffee black, and loved their flavorful roasts. Fun fact: there are remnants of an old tunnel in the lobby adjacent to Simple Local Coffee, complete with old tools. Pretty cool!

 

 

Here are just a few more snapshots of our wonderful trip. If you’re ever headed to Portland, let me know. I’ll give you all the dirt on different neighborhoods, eats, etc.!

 

((This entry is cross-posted on my baking blog, Sugarsmith

Mapping Memories

7 Aug

It started with a sports bar.

A few weeks ago I was rounding a corner in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, rushing to meet some friends for dinner. As I looked up at the bar across the street, a wave of memories came crashing over me. Back when I lived in Chicago, I’d gone to that bar for a university alumni event. Seeing the bar again reminded me how happy I’d been to attend that event, how nice it’d been to see old friends and how good it felt to meet more alums.

The same sort of memory “flash” happened again the next day, when I passed a French bistro downtown. My thoughts flashed back to getting late night snacks there after a networking event, with people I’d just met that night, and never saw again.

Sometimes when I walk around a city, memories ripple through my brain in a series of bits and pieces. It’s small moments that I suddenly remember, prompted by a physical sight that takes me back to another time. Some of the memories are monumental; I think of my boyfriend whenever I pass the bar where had our first drink. But most of these “flashes” are made up of non-monumental moments. They’re those experiences you sort of forget about over time, but reflect on fondly when they float to your brain’s surface. They fill in the gaps between milestones and big life changes. They make up most of our day-to-day lives, and collectively form most of our life stories.

I’ve been wanting to create a “Memory Map” for a while to chronicle these sorts of moments. The things that make me smile, make me reflect, make me think back to a different point in my life. I’ll probably start with a map of San Francisco, since it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my post-college days. Perhaps over time I’ll do the same for other places I’ve lived, and places I’ve visited. I love keeping track of different pieces of my life: it provides a good mix of nostalgia, reflection and general Type A geekery. And it just sounds so satisfying to draw all over a physical map, to “formally” associate spaces with thoughts, memories with markers.

 

On The Other Side of Town

21 Apr

Last week, I took a vacation to the other side of San Francisco. I rented an Airbnb in the Outer Sunset neighborhood, a little under 7 miles from my own apartment.

I realize you may find this odd – and I do understand. With so many compelling places to travel, staying close to home may sound like a missed opportunity. But I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of different “versions” of a city. Even if you and I live in the same city, our experience will be markedly different depending on our neighborhoods. Living in a different part of the city shifts your daily “center of gravity.” It’s what you see, where you go, who you meet. It’s the lens that defines how you experience the city, and how you interpret the city’s culture. Living on the western edge of San Francisco vs. the eastern edge literally means seeing everything from a different point of view. Your relation to the city’s landmarks shifts, and your conception of the city’s heartbeat shifts, too.

When I travel I love to wander, trying to uncover the threads of that city’s life. I do a pretty good job wandering San Francisco, too, but I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to live across the city. I’ve wondered what it’d be like to have an distinct center of San Francisco gravity.

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Looking toward Sutro Tower

And so, I embarked on vacation to the other side of town. I picked the Outer Sunset because its character and composition are very distinct from where I live. The area has always intrigued me, for some reason, and I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to live there. It’s close to the ocean, and has a bit of a surfer-like, laid-back feel. I live in the midst of city congestion, near a street full of bars, and narrow streets. I love my neighborhood, but I certainly wouldn’t call it relaxing.

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Headed to the ocean

My boyfriend and I spent a few days wandering the area’s nooks and crannies, letting ourselves unwind. It turned out to be the perfect getaway for what I needed, in that moment. The right dose of change, and the right level of inspiration. We crossed off several things on my San Francisco “to do list” that I’d just never made it to before. We spent time at coffee shops, my boyfriend working and me writing. We went to neighborhoods I’d never seen before. We walked along the ocean, looking toward the same San Francisco landmarks we usually see, but from a new perspective. We got a taste of what it’d be like to have a different San Francisco life.

I’d love to do this over and over, trying out the myriad areas of San Francisco that interest me. In reality, I know my next vacation will take me further away, because there are just so many places I want to explore. Still, I hope this can become an annual tradition- stepping out just far enough beyond my own slice of the city, to shift my center just a little, to change my point of view just enough to reflect on the many shades of San Francisco.

Craving a City

14 Feb

Sometimes I wake up craving a city. I get out of bed, and imagine that when I walk out the door, I’ll find myself someplace other than San Francisco. Sometimes I’m in a Chicago mood. Other times it’s Madrid. Just last week, it was Arkansas.

I’m not entirely sure what drives these “cravings.” I’ve lived a good number of places by now, and each one does remind me of a particular stage of my life. I’ve also been a business traveler for so many years- and the first few years, I was on the road every week, headed to the same place for months at a time. So those places factor into my city cravings, too. They make it messier, in fact, since I never really lived there, but went there so often. I have no roots in those places, but I do have a bond. Sometimes I find it hard to grasp that my story ties to so many places, and that my life has been such a web of locations, projects, people. I suppose it’s common in today’s world, but at times I wonder what it’d be like to live in 1 place your entire life, and leave only for vacation.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I thought feeling like I should be in Chicago made a lot of sense. After all, I’d just spent a few years there, and I barely had any friends here yet. So I’d regularly miss Chicago, miss my friends, and feel like I was in the wrong place. I’d expect to walk outside my building and see the bricks of Lincoln Park, the curve of Lakeshore Drive, the grandeur of downtown Chicago. Instead I’d walk outside to light gray sidewalks, the ascent of the Fillmore hill, the elaborate Queen Anne homes. I’d get on the 45-Union to go to work, rather than the 134-Stockton/Lasalle Express. I’d walk up to a 4-story office building, rather than a skyscraper kissing the Chicago sky.

Nostalgia is a simple explanation for these “cravings.” And it can be triggered by people, moods, weather. Whenever the weather hits a specific shade of crisp, it takes me back to St. Louis, and to my first true “fall” season, the first fall I spent away from Southern California where the seasons blend together.

And yet- it’s more than nostalgia, I think. I can easily wish to be back on 2012’s vacation to Hawaii, but that’s longing, not a feeling of belonging. When I wake up with city cravings, I feel like I’m in the wrong place- that I was meant to be somewhere else that day. The Arkansas example is a good one. Back in 2010, I spent several months commuting to/from Bentonville, Arkansas every week for a consulting project. I certainly didn’t lay roots there- we stayed in a hotel each Monday to Thursday, and flew back home Thursday nights. And yet, thinking about Bentonville takes me to a specific mindset and feeling. When I woke up last week and imagined I’d be stepping into the lobby of the Aloft Bentonville rather than my San Francisco home- it surprised me a great deal. For some reason, I just felt like I was supposed to be in Arkansas that day.

Every city has its own rhythm and flavor. When you walk through its streets, you feel a certain way. The building blocks of a city combine to produce something excitingly distinct: the architecture, people, tastes, smells. The way the air feels. The way the people interact. And when you spend time in one of these places, it sticks with you. Something about that experience seeps into your soul, hooks into your psyche. And once it’s there, it’s there. To be uncovered someday, perhaps by a sign, a memory, a mood.

A look at some of the places I’ve called home:

 

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