Tag Archives: Travel

Follow the Orange Blob Road

12 Jul

When we were in D.C. a couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I spent a lovely afternoon wandering aimlessly. But then we wanted dinner. And so we pulled out our phones, opened Google Maps and looked for the orange blobs.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Take a peek at this map. The orange blobs are how Google designates commercial corridors with restaurants and stores. I don’t know exactly how their algorithm works, but seems like the blobs call out the most densely commercial parts of a specific neighborhood. In this screenshot of northern San Francisco, the the big orange block around stretching east from Fillmore Street marks the commercial heart of a neighborhood called Cow Hollow. That’s where you’ll find the most restaurants and shops (and an absurd number of salons, too). Meanwhile, the blob over on Columbus marks the commercial heart of North Beach.

Orange blobs

In Google Mapland, orange blobs seem to be shorthand for “there’s something worth investigating over here.” As a tourist, the blobs are pretty helpful: they steer you to areas where you’re likely to find what somewhere to eat, shop, relax, etc. The blobs are practical.

But could those blobs also lead us astray? See that stretch of orange that’s south of the “Union Street” marker, toward the middle of my screenshot? That’s Polk Street, the main commercial corridor of San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood. But there are also a lot of restaurants on Hyde, just a couple blocks over. Hyde has beautiful scenery, great local restaurants and oodles of SF charm. So why isn’t that block orange? Are people missing out on Hyde Street’s wonders, just because their map doesn’t call it out?

And check out where Polk Street meets Pacific. There are businesses on those blocks, so I wonder why they’re not “important” enough to warrant the orange treatment. Does that mean those businesses are less valuable for some reason? Will those businesses get less traffic over time since they’re not marked on the map? And why did that one taco joint get a label? This is literally just a map of the area…I hadn’t searched for tacos!

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These kinds of tools are incredibly helpful as we navigate the world around us. But they also give us a curated view of what “matters” in a neighborhood—and sometimes I wonder about the longterm cultural impact. In the longterm, will we limit our experiences to things called out on “top 10 lists,” marked on maps, etc.?

Think about it this way: if you only go to top-rated restaurants and only hit up the parts of town labeled on a map, you’re not actually optimizing for personal taste. You’re optimizing for convenience, easy decisions and probably some element of social cache. You could claim that technology is helping you find the best of the best…but how do you know? Maybe just a couple blocks from that orange blob, there’s a business you’d love if only you strolled by and gave it a chance.

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Travel Eats: New York City

7 May

I’ve spent a lot of time in New York over the years. My trips tend to be hurried, though: I’m in and out for a meeting or there for part of a weekend. Friends who live in New York have gotten used to emails like this: “I’m coming to NYC next Wednesday! Free after 10 PM or before 8 AM on Thursday. Does that work for you?!”

I gotta hand it to my friends: they’ve made a lot of crazy logistics work. But I’ve been itching to spend some quality time in NYC, so I booked a proper vacation for the end of April. My boyfriend and I spent 5 nights in the city, with a very simple agenda: see friends and family, wander, eat.

I’ve done a pretty good job trying NYC eats over the years, even when it meant running around like a crazy person. Like the time I detoured to Zucker Bakery between meetings, or when I met a friend at Clinton Street Baking Co. for dinner to try their pancakes, or when I dashed to Dominique Ansel for a frozen s’more on my lunch break.

This time I had the luxury of 5 whole days and a trip buddy who humors my need to try ever pastry in sight. Before we went, I made a list of restaurants and bakeries by neighborhood. Super Type A? Yes. But also very helpful while wandering around!

So without further ado: here are the top 10 things I ate on my last trip to New York City.

IMG_3895Tahini French Toast at Bar BolonatWhen I was researching for our trip, I fell in love with the brunch menu at Bar Bolonat. I couldn’t stop thinking about how awesome Tahini French Toast must be. It was indeed pretty incredible! The french toast itself is nutty, with a somewhat chewy texture. It’s complemented by halvah threads on top, plus a tahini maple syrup and fresh berries. We loved everything at Bar Bolonat, but this was my favorite. The service was fabulous, too…wish I knew our waiter’s name!

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Pine Nut Citrus Babka at Arcade BakeryI was so sad when we finished our slice of Pine Nut Citrus Babka, and wished we’d bought two! This babka was a bit more like a brioche dough, light and airy inside. The mix of citrus with pine nuts was pretty much revelatory for me, and I’ve been searching for similar recipes since we got home!

IMG_3907Sweet Corn and Pepper Macaron at Confectionary: We stumbled on this chocolate and pastry shop while wandering the East Village. Such a good find! They had a really interesting mix of macaron flavors, and I simply had to try this corn and pepper combo. The macaron shell tasted like sweet corn, then the filling was sweet with a bit of a lingering kick from the peppers. Their treats are vegan, which I didn’t realize until I researched the spot later.

IMG_4026Beef Hummus at Dizengoff HummusI’ve read a lot about Zahav, an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, for years. So I was delighted to learn that its chef Michael Solomonov opened a casual hummus outpost at Chelsea Market. The Beef Hummus was the best hummus I’ve had in a really long time: a creamy texture, incredible richness, perfectly spiced beef on top, chewy pita to dip in there. It tasted different from most hummus I eat, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. So I did a bit of research, and learned that many critics attribute the distinct flavor to lots of high-quality tahini. Two more points for tahini!

IMG_4033Tahini Goat Milk Ice Cream at Seed + Mill: While we’re on the topic of tahini, let’s talk about this Tahini Goat Milk Ice Cream from Seed + Mill, also in Chelsea Market. Goat milk makes the ice cream taste fresh, while tahini lends a subtle nutty flavor. I got mine topped with bits of halvah, a sesame confection. It was a really refreshing and flavorful treat.

IMG_4071Spicy Lamb Cumin Noodles at Xi’an Famous Foods I’ve gone out of my way to eat at Xi’an Famous Foods many times over the years, and wanted my boyfriend to learn the wonders of these noodles. They’re perfectly chewy, hand pulled noodles, dripping in chili oil and topped with incredibly flavorful lamb. My boyfriend loved the noodles too, so now we’re determined to find something similar in San Francisco.

IMG_3917Kasha Knish at Yonah Schimmel BakeryThis place is a true gem. Yonah Schimmel has been selling its knishes on the Lower East Side of Manhattan since 1890. 1890!!! Their knishes are a wholly satisfying snack: perfectly cooked, generous on fillings, and a firm exterior.

IMG_3961Bird’s Nest at Damascus Bread and Pastry ShopWe happened upon this bakery as we strolled west down Atlantic Avenue toward the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. This shop is packed to the brim with breads, pastries and cooking ingredients. I loved the Bird’s Nest, a type of baklava filled with pistachios and drenched in a sweet syrup. We also got delicious spinach pies here.


IMG_4093Beet Lox Bagel at Black Seed Bagels
I’m not a huge bagel person in general, but that’s largely because they tend to disappoint, A friend had tipped me off to Black Seed a while ago, but this was my first time trying them out. We made it to their Nolita shop on the last day of our trip, and I’m glad we made it happen! The bagel had a crisp exterior and perfectly chewy interior, and the lox and other toppings were super flavorful.

18121522_10101383003526672_1971040716930476426_o.jpgBlack and White Cookie at Dean and DelucaI’ve tried MANY a NYC black and white over the years, but the ones at Dean and Deluca always take the proverbial cake. Which is fitting, because the cookie is just the right kind of cakey, with frostings that are perfectly balanced (not too sweet, not too bland). I forgot to write down the name of the bakery on the cookie’s label so if you know who sells these to Dean and Deluca…please tell!

And a couple non-edible recs for your next trip to NYC:

  • You have to stop by Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks in the East Village. She had an amazing assortment of cookbooks, vintage menus and old signs. Plus, she was a delight to chat with!
  • As we wandered Alphabet City one night, we heard jazz from the sidewalk…and had to check out its source. Rue B is a small bar with awesome live music. We happened upon a jazz jam session, and loved it!
  • The Wyndham Garden Chinatown was a great find. We’d wanted to stay on the Lower East Side but didn’t find a good option that fit our budget. Chinatown is super close to the LES, plus it’s just a hop, skip and jump from Nolita, SoHo, etc. The hotel was clean and well-maintained. It also has a “sky” bar with an incredible view, which was an unexpected bonus!

This entry is cross-posted on my baking blog, Sugarsmith. Check it out for more content about recipes, baking and travel picks! 

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.

Don’t Walk and Eat

27 Nov

When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.

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That green pastry is a melon roll, and it was divine.

Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.

But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.

do-not-walk

We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?

We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.

So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?

I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.

It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.

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Another morning find. This store didn’t lecture us about how to eat, but maybe they just never thought to do it 🙂

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Inside a high-end grocery store.

All Packaged Up (Picture Prattle)

7 Jul
Grocery shelves in Pisac, Peru

Grocery shelves in Pisac, Peru

When you travel, you usually expect to find difference. You expect to hear new languages, see alternative clothing styles, and learn about the ways another culture perceives the world. You’ll find these things, for sure. But you’ll also find a lot of nuances in the products people use, even for something as unassuming as a bar of soap.

Our worlds are built on little blocks of accepted behaviors and patterns. Whether you like it or not, much of your daily routine is rooted in the products you use. The shampoo you wash your hair with, the cereal you enjoy for breakfast, the cookies you eat as a snack. When you travel abroad, you realize that many of the products you perceive as “givens” are only givens to you. You may think Oreos are the reigning sandwich cookie, everywhere. But then you go to Peru and see Casino cookies and realize you might not be so right, after all. And then you go to China and try to replace your shampoo, the one you can buy at any drugstore or grocery store in the USA- and you realize that perhaps the things you perceive as “ordinary” products aren’t necessarily ordinary for everyone, everywhere. I like to think about how it’d be to live in a world that’s defined by a whole other ecosystem of brands and products. What would be my go-to soap? My favorite brand of beer? My go-to indulgent packaged snack?

The consumer packaged goods industry fascinates me. Modern innovations mean that giant corporations can mass produce, mass ship, and get a worldwide reach that’s bigger than the world has ever seen before. And yet, local preferences persist, sometimes at the brand level, and sometimes at the product level. I always check out grocery stores when I’m abroad, and I specifically look to see how many products I recognize. Given my love of cookies, it’s no wonder I tend to do this exercise in the cookie aisle before any other part of the store.

The next time you’re traveling, no matter where it is, take a look at the assortment in the local grocery store. Do you see all the products you’re used to? Or are your perceived “staples” perhaps not universally staples, after all? If you lived in this place, how would your behaviors and preferences change? What products would blend into your life?

A Holiday in Spain

3 Dec

As you’ve likely noticed, I write about France on a pretty regular basis. Whether it’s laughing about mistakes I made before I understood French, musing on 1900s Paris, or reminiscing about how I came to love Nutella, I always have plenty of things to say about France and its culture. But while I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying French culture, I’ve actually spent more time physically in one of France’s dear neighbors: Spain.

Though I “lived” in France for 5 weeks during college, I spent an entire semester studying in Spain. Which is why it’s a bit of a shame that, to-date, my blog posts on Spain are rather few and far between. I’ve woven in anecdotes here or there, but haven’t written much that’s explicitly about my time in Spain.

What inspired this sudden revelation? Old photos, of all things. Over Thanksgiving I started digging through family photo albums and came across a picture of me posing in a guard post in front of the Royal Palace of Madrid. The photo was from 1989, when I was still a toddler- but I immediately recognized where it was taken. Because the moment I saw the 1989 photo, I had a vivid memory of posing in that exact same place with a couple of friends back in 2008. The two pictures are sheer coincidence: before I saw this picture the other day, I didn’t even realize a 1989 version existed. So as you can imagine, I squealed with delight when I realized I had two pictures of me in the same place at two very different times in my life.

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From 1989 to 2008,  in front of the Palacio Real de Madrid

I immediately dug through my more recent Spain photos to find the more contemporary version and put the two pictures side by side. Neither photo is a particularly good one, but who cares?  From toddler to college student, from tag-along trip-member to study-abroad adventure-creator. Seeing these photos reminded me of many things: how greatly I adored my time in Spain, how appreciative I am that I got to travel at a young age, and, well, how much I love posing. Let’s hope that someday I can post yet another version- perhaps in 2028?- and show you even more of my evolution as a traveler.

Naturally, I then started looking for more photos to put side-by-side. The photos below aren’t a perfect match, but they’re close enough. On the left, a photo of me at the Alhambra of Granada in 1989. On the right, the same courtyard, shot in 2008.

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P.S. I have to thank my dad for these discoveries because he created meticulously-organized photo albums for every family trip we did growing up. It’s such a gift to thumb through pre-digital memories!

Let’s Go!

25 Jul

A couple days ago I wrote about an anthropologist who let strangers dictate what he did with his day in San Francisco. Now imagine that instead of letting strangers plan your itinerary for a single day, you left it up to chance where you headed for your ENTIRE vacation. Would you do it?

 

the Mexico City airport

the Mexico City airport

Heineken recently pulled a marketing stunt where they set up a giant wheel at JFK that was labeled with a ton of destinations. The brand’s team then dared travelers to spin the wheel and play “Departure Roulette” to see where the wheel would land. Players were expected to go wherever the wheel dictated- meaning they would have to cancel their original plans. Some people declined to participate from the get-go since their plans couldn’t change, but others played along and gave the wheel a spin. They then took off on an adventure, letting the wheel tell them where to go.

Now, who knows what level of obligation these folks actually had to follow the will of the wheel- and who cares? It’s a fun idea, and the promo video has already gotten close to 2M views on YouTube, giving Heineken great exposure. Does this have anything to do with beer? Of course not. But so much of alcohol marketing has to do with lifestyle, and Heineken clearly has an agenda in mind about how they want their brand to be portrayed.

I don’t know if I’d actually drop everything and change my plans when I was already at the airport, but I do want to take a trip where I choose my destination more haphazardly than normal. Meaning that instead of spending weeks planning for a specific destination I’d simply plan on vacation days, then pick my destination the week, based on whatever flights happen to be cheapest. The boldest move, of course, would be to just decide at the airport based on flights leaving that day. But even picking a week before sounds exciting to me, and almost freeing in some way. Maybe this year…

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