Monday, February 27, 2012

Runners Up

In June 2011 I moved into my current apartment.  By August 2011 the bad lighting in my living room had made me want to gnaw off my arms and legs.  Because I was working too many hours at the law firm to figure out how to do that, I decided to try an alternative:  I launched a lamp-finding contest.  While I negotiated contracts, my devoted reader(s) would have a chance to find a stylish lamp to brighten my soul living room.

The entries were quick to arrive but it wasn't until January that work had slowed down enough for me to focus long enough to make a decision and order the winner twice.  (Twice because the first company I ordered it from went out of business immediately thereafter...)

But the wait isn't quite over.  The lamp is here and installed, but my camera is traveling by llama and/or drug mule from Guatemala -- and the contest rules clearly stated that a photo of the winner would be posted on the blog.  So in the meantime, and in the finest tradition of American television contests, I am going string out the announcement for as long as possible, starting with tonight's announcement of (drumroll...) THE RUNNERS UP!


Submitted by mon pere, this little beauty was described as a "nice head lamp" and "practical."  I was assured that I would be able to wear it anywhere I liked, including while "sitting in [my] yellow chair" and "during a hurricane."   


This submission came from a reader known to me only as cms.  Any lamp that has "History of the Corset" emblazoned in large type merits a second look.  If only all that writing had actually been such a history!  (Just imagine giving this tour of your library:  "Greek philosophy is on the top shelf, and Jane Austen is over by the window; if you're looking for something on corsets, try the lampshade.")

(in no particular order)

From anonymous

From Lady (at least, this is what I think she had in mind based on the description)
From cms

From Ashley

(Honestly, Ashley,
this is awful!)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Eating Blind

If I eat something fun but can't post pictures on my blog, does it count? 

Today I had brunch with a friend at Founding Farmers and dinner with another friend at Ren's Ramen -- but I have no pictures to share because my camera is enjoying an extended stay in Guatemala City.  (Oops.)

So you'll just have to believe me that the meals were tasty (especially the ramen) and pretty (especially the omelette), and that they were well worth (1) getting up at 7:30am on a Saturday morning after a late dinner party the night before, (2) getting pulled over for going the wrong way on a poorly-marked one-way street (no ticket, though), (3) eating in the dark when the power went out, and (4) driving hundreds of miles to the middle of nowhere in Maryland (proving, yet again, that all the best ethnic food in DC is out in the suburbs).

Not to worry, though.  My wandering camera has been apprehended and is wending its way home, at which time I will have plenty of pictorial updates (especially as regards a certain dark corner in my living room!). 

Dinner Party Conversations

I went to a dinner party tonight after work.  It was hosted by the same woman who threw the New Year's Eve party that I almost completely missed.  As I'd expected, it was full of interesting people:  there was an environmental lawyer, a graduate student in social work, an environmentalist who works at the World Wildlife Foundation on climate change issues, a prosecutor who was preparing for a murder trial in two weeks, a person who works at a think tank specializing in Middle East issues, and a few others whose occupations I never learned but who were alumni of the University of Michigan.  The group was definitely well-traveled, politically to the left, and very well educated.

Thing is, while the group was interesting to me, I'm not sure the feeling was mutual for some of the others.  Here's how one conversation went:

Climate Change Guy:  And what kind of law do you practice? 

Me:  I'm in the corporate group at C&B, downtown.

Climate Change Guy:  Ah, yes.  Of course you are. 

Me:  I also do a lot of media-related work.  So it's a mix of M&A and financing, but also work for broadcasters, newspapers, magazines, the major sports leagues, the International and US Olympic Committees -- lots of content licensing and distribution, digital media. 

Climate Change Guy:  Hmm.  And do you do anything interesting?

*   *   *

But people sang a different tune when they discovered I'd brought chocolate cake.  At regular intervals the conversation and card games would be interrupted with the increasingly insistant "When do we get to have chocolate cake?"  It even became a point of leverage for the hostess to prevent certain people from leaving -- "If you leave now, you won't get any chocolate cake!"  When it was finally time, everyone had a piece; some had seconds.  The poor store-bought apple streudel was practically ignored (and the one person who did have a piece ate it with a tranche of chocolate cake). 

Despite my trepidation (I'd baked it too long), the cake was a hit.  Everyone tried to guess the ingredients:  Liqueur? Pineapple? Raspberry? Almond?  One woman actually got all the key ingredients (which I will not list here).  "So you're a really serious baker?" she said. 

Clearly, this was the angle I should have taken when introducing myself to this group in the first place.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Sues

I love the small world of international travel - especially in small countries with relatively few international flights. At the coffee finca on Sunday, our tour group consisted of Jennifer, Mark and me, and a passel of British retirees who were all named Sue. (Well, the man's name may have been John, but there were at least two Sues, which surely is adequate grounds for generalization.). We chatted amicably during the tour, mostly about the weather and everyone's health (they are British after all, although not one of them had a Mackintosh square or a pretty young ward), and when my lot ditched the coffee-tasting portion of the tour there were fond farewells all round. But when I got on the airplane this morning, lo and behold, there were the Sues all in a row behind me. Naturally, being besties, we reminisced about our Guatemalan adventures and conspired (successfully!) to stake out half the overhead bin for our fragile souvenirs. We parted ways once we got to Dallas -- now the Sues are making their aged way to London and I'm waiting for my flight to DC.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Guatemala, Day 3 - Sunset on a clear night

For all of the less than wonderful aspects of Guatemala City, it remains nonetheless remarkably situated from a geographical perspective.  The surrounding volcanoes provide an exotic backdrop and frame beautiful sunsets.  Haze had prevented my seeing them the past few days, but today the air cleared enough to appreciate the view.

The climate is also incredible -- every day in the mid-70s.  Warm in the sun, cool in the shade and in the evening.  Perfect temperatures for leaving the windows open all day long.  Mark and Jennifer say that it's like that pretty much all year round, with only minor variations.  It's too bad Washington, DC can't have that kind of climate.

Guatemala, Day 3 - Splendido

For our last dinner, we went to a small restaurant called Splendido with another of Jennifer and Mark's friends -- a girl our age named Dani (not sure if I spelled that right) who works at USAID with Mark.  Like the crew I met the other night, she seemed like a fun person; the sort you'd want to have in your expat circle of friends.

The food was good but struck me as not quite as good as the other places we'd eaten.  The best was a bowl of fresh peas that came with my chicken.  The dessert parfait, on the other hand, was practically inedible once I got past the layer of whipped cream and vanilla ice cream -- it was full of these awful little wafers and artificial strawberry syrop that made me want to gag.  As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to food there's nothing more disappointing than thinking you're ordering fresh fruit (because that's what the waiter says you'll be getting) and getting artificial syrop instead.  Boo.

Crema de Elote
(Cream of soup with peppers and bacon)
Tarragon chicken with mustard sauce
Vanilla Parfait
(qui n'etait pas parfait du tout)

Guatemala, Day 3 - Ummm

Computer?  What computer?

Guatemala, Day 3 - Vieja Ciudad

This afternoon Jennifer and I (while Mark finished work), went out to explore the colonial center of Guatemala City.  This is the old city core that was founded in the early 1500s and which became the colonial capital in 1776 after Antigua was destroyed by an earthquake.  Unlike Antigua, the colonial city has not been well preserved.  It is dirty and most of the once-lovely buildings in various stages of dilapidation.  It's also buzzing with that gritty energy that so typifies Latin American cities.  It's not necessarily a nice place to be, but it is an exciting place to be. 

We walked around some of the architectural attractions surrounding the Plaza Constitucional and its adjacent neighborhoods, then headed to the market to do some shopping.

Catedral Metropolitana
Built in 1534, this church is older than the oldest English settlement in North America (which I believe was Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609).

Plaza Constitucional

Palacio Nacional de la Cultura
Despite the name, we suspect that this building houses more of the government than just culture -- we saw signs for the Ministries of Education and Mining, at least.

The small-scale colonial architecture of the plaza is dominated by a monking concrete behemoth that is struggling (and failing) to age as well as its older neighbors.

Palacio de Correos
As we wended our way through the streets surrounding the plaza, we came across this beauty.  Intrigued, we came closer.

As we got closer, we started seeing strange street signs.  Artists' crossing?  Really?

Turns out, the building was originally built to house the national post office administration but has since been devoted mostly to the arts.  So naturally Jennifer and I felt entitled to walk right in and explore.  We made it through most of the building on our own.  When we finally were stopped at a little gate guarded by two stout women, I just started asking questions and turned on the charm -- sure enough, within a minute they were opening the gate and asking us to please visit any part of the building we wanted to see.  (Boy do I love it when I get the "charming" right in other languages.)

From the walkway, the view to the west
And the view to the east
Pollo Campero
After exhausting the Post Office Palace, we were about to embark on a prolonged shopping excursion.  My fancy French toast had worn off by then, so I suggested stopping into a Pollo Campero for a quick bite.  For those of you not familiar, think of Kentucy Fried Chicken, but with waiters. 

You'd think that a place devoted to the consumption of roasted chicken would have the sense to ACTUALLY HAVE CHICKEN.  Alas, no.  I ordered the roasted chicken and was told they were out.  (That's like McDonalds saying it's out of hamburgers -- clearly somebody had screwed up.)  So I ended up with chicken nuggets, some dubious fries, and a pile of glurk that they were trying to pass off as "cole slaw" but which might actually have been regurgitated cow cud.  Yum.

From left: chicken nuggets, fries, mystery goo
Mercado Central
We drowned our luncheon woes with a head-first dive into the subterranean warren of shops that is the Central Market of Guatemala City.  It's chaotic and sunless and full of tiny stalls crammed with pretty much everything you could possibly want (or not want).  There was a produce section, fresh flowers, evening gowns, leather goods, key chains, religious pottery, candles, shoes, cloth, and plenty of knick-knacks and miscellaneous goods and/or junk (depends on the eye of the beholder). 

Entrance to the mercado
See, it's underground but surrounded by a dry moat
More street views
I always forget to take pictures of ordinary streets, so my albums might lead one to think that all of Guatemala City is cathedrals and pretty courtyards.  I tried to capture a few streets this afternoon as we walked.

Guatemala, Day 3 - Brunch at Jean Francois

Both Jennifer and Mark technically had today off from work (Mark because he gets all the US holidays, and Jennifer because she just took the day off), but both of them needed to take care of a few work-related things during the late morning.  So rather than plan big activities throughout the day, we opted for brunch at Jean Francois

This is another one of Jennifer and Mark's go-to restaurants, and I can see why.  It's in a lovely colonial building that wraps around a pretty garden courtyard.  I got the brioche french toast bread pudding (which consisted of two slices of brioche with a berry syrup that had been caramelized in a manner similar to creme brulee) with ham and and scrambled eggs with ranchero salsa.  All very delicious.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Guatemala, Day 2 - Night In

We got back from Antigua shortly before 5pm and were all feeling a bit droopy.  It's not like we'd done anything particularly strenuous -- just walked around the town, picked some coffee beans, and enjoyed a delightful and filling lunch -- but still, we weren't going to make it through the rest of the evening without a little pick-me-up.  So we declared nap time (o, glorious nap time!) and everyone zonked out.

We emerged from hibernation about an hour later and proceeded to stare at each other in that groggy post-nap stage.  Now what? 


Clearly, our brainstorming faculties were still recovering.  No one was hungry yet, and there was nothing to do on a Sunday night in Guatemala City, so we decided to have a low-key night in the apartment.  Gradually we came up with an agenda for a super fun night:

First:  Veronica Mars
Amanda's been recommending the TV show Veronica Mars for a while now, and last night one of the couples at Jake's recommended it as well.  So we decided to give it a go and watch the first episode.  It wasn't at all what I'd expected (think gritty film noir meets Clueless) but it was fun and I will probably continue watching the show.

Second:  Xbox Kinect
Funnest computer game ever.  You stand in front of the Kinect sensor, which scans your body and creates an avatar that moves with you -- and you don't have to hold a single piece of equipment.  One of the games was a series of adventures that you could go through with a second player.  You might be teammates (for example, both in a raft hurtling down a raging river trying to avoid obstacles and catch sweet air by jumping off of cliffs) or competitors (racing each other through obstacle courses) or fellow disaster survivors (trapped in a glass tank underwater that is repeatedly rammed by sharks and other fish, you have to work together to stop the leaks).  To add to the hilarity, the Kinect periodically takes snapshots of your antics and then presents a slideshow at the end of each round to celebrate your achievement.  Here's some footage of Jennifer and Mark on the obstacle course:

The great thing is that you get totally engrossed in the game and end up jumping and flailing wildly about, so that by the end of the race you feel like you've actually run the race!  It's exhausting and sweaty and enormous fun.

The workout games were fun, too.  The principles are all the same, only that game had a more overt fitness objective.  I particularly liked how it offered both the traditional workout moves (situps, lunges) as well as some fun (and silly) dance routines.  Jennifer demonstrated first with a hip-hop workout.  Then I did the Bollywood routine. 

I now totally want a Kinect.

Third:  Quesadillas and Guacamole with Boggle
Having worked up an appetite with our Kinect games, we moved into the kitchen and made a snack of cheese quesadillas and homemade guacamole, which we devoured while playing ten rounds of Boggle.  Jennifer clearly has a talent for seeing word patterns in the tea leaves (as well as a set of helpful strategies that boost the score -- hint: where possible, write down the singular AND the plural...).  Mark and I lagged behind for a minute but started to get our sea legs after a while. 

Fourth:  Downton Abbey
With Jennifer's Boggle triumph assured and our bowl of guacamole empty, we retired to the TV room to watch an episode of Downton Abbey, Season 2.  Access to the episodes is delayed in Guatemala, so Jennifer and Mark were only on the second episode, but I didn't mind going back -- no one's ever had to ask me twice to watch a costume drama with Maggie Smith and a great English country house.

After that, it was off to bed for everyone, in anticipation of another fun day tomorrow.

Guatemala, Day 2 - Finca Filadelfia

Ever wonder how coffee is made?  I never had.  Probably because I don't drink coffee.  But coffee is Guatemala's principal export and therefore a major part of the economy.  As part of our visit to Antigua, we toured Finca Filadelfia, a coffee plantation just outside of the town, and learned a lot more about what it takes to create that aromatic brown drink.

The first step involves grafting.  The Arabica coffee plant produces high quality beans that are used in gourmet coffees, but it is a more fragile plant and harder to cultivate successfully.  The Robusto coffee plant gives lower quality beans that are used in mass-produced ground coffees, and (as implied by the name) is a robust, hardy plant.  So the plantation grafts its Arabica seedlines onto the Robusto roots to get the best of both worlds.

Grafted seedlings
Even with the Robusto roots, the Arabica bushes are still fairly delicate -- they need to be shaded from the direct sun.  So taller trees are planted amongst the bushes to provide shade.  The type of tree used (the name of which I have forgotten) has the added advantage of being very popular among birds that eat the insects that damage the coffee plants.

The lower bushes are the coffee plants,
the trees are there for shade and to attract pest-eating birds

The coffee beans grow in little fruits that look like cranberries.  They form in clumps along the branches and turn red as they ripen.  Strangely, the Arabica berries ripen at all different times, so at any given moment you can have flowers, green berries, and ripe ones all on the same branch.  Makes for a tedious and prolonged harvesting process because each berry has to be picked one at a time, by hand, and each bush has to be harvested multiple times to get all the berries.

If you pull away the red fruit, you find a slimy little kernel that looks more like what you'd expect a coffee bean to look like.

Once harvested, the beans are brought back to be weighed and sorted, soaked, sun dried, run through machines to get rid of the husks, roasted, and then packaged for sale.

The platform in the upper right is the scale,
the beans fall through the slots into a basin of water, where
the ripe ones sink and the unripe ones float

Soaking pools, where the bean husks are loosened
Patios where the beans are dried in the sun before being
run through machines to remove the husks


It's a very labor-intensive process that seemed surprisingly non-mechanized to me.  Given the many steps between taking the ripe berry and producing an actual cup of coffee, I'm amazed that anyone figured it out in the first place.