Friday, 10 July 2015

Good Times - 4th of July

My mom is a rock star. She booked rooms for our family in the Netherlands Plaza Hotel (Hilton) in Downtown Cincinnati with access to the VIP lounge. We drove down on the 4th to watch the Reds game and see the fireworks show afterwards in the Great American Ballpark.

Mom, Dannen, his girlfriend Haylee, Dad, me, and my fiancĂ© James drove down together and stopped by the MadTree Brewing to meet my long time friends Kevin and Joanna and their awesome daughter Lilly for a couple of brews. It was so fun to catch up and see Lilly growing up! It seems like she was just a tiny baby last year. Kevin and I met when I worked in Knoxville at WATE-TV in 2001. I was a reporter he was a photographer and editor. We then had the opportunity to work together at WKRC-TV in Cincinnati (that's where he met the beautiful Joanna) for a few years as well. 

After seeing Kev, Joanna, and Lilly, my parents, bro, and our guests cruised down to the riverfront and checked into the Hilton. If you get a chance to go, don't miss the amazing Art Deco details. The Orchids restaurant shows some fantastic examples. From there, we tried The Blind Pig. We loved the spot for the location and especially enjoyed the patio overlooking the river. 

Next up was the stadium. I have loved the Great American Ballpark since I lived in downtown Cincinnati. I would walk over after a day at work (I worked the morning shift) and get a "businessman's special" ticket for half price and listen to the crack of the bat. Dad landed excellent tickets behind home plate for us for the 4th. We were only slightly bummed that the Reds didn't play that well. (They lost to the Brewers.)

James and I agreed that besides spending time with people that we love, the best part of the night was the fireworks show! From our vantage point, the sparkles were perfect. The show was designed at the right explosion height for Reds fans and it seemed like they were shot directly off of the river just for us! 

I hope you had a lovely 4th! There were some "super" fans in the stadium who celebrated a bit more publicly. I was envious.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Hello, 36

Today is my birthday and it will be the sixth year that I’ve thrown a “party” for myself. Tonight a few people are coming over to our home in Columbus to have a beverage and finger foods. The weather is supposed to be gorgeous – 75 and sunny and I’m going to set up the back deck so people can hang out there as well.

This year will be fairly low-key compared to parties in the past. I somewhat perfected the “backyard” birthday party. I would get a keg of something “decent” each year (Sam Adam’s Summer Ale) and make pretty little bites to eat. We would also have a fire in the fire pit and people seemed to enjoy it.

I am of the opinion that birthdays should be celebrated. People have different ways that they may want to celebrate but hey – you survived another year on this great earth. Why not mark the occasion with something special? My favorite way to celebrate is to have people that I love near me to laugh, catch up, and make memories. (If there happens to be champagne then that’s a bonus!)

Last year around this time I wrote a post about turning 35. Looking over it, I noticed that the general take away from the rambling was that I am more comfortable in my own skin. (Other people’s opinions about me matter less.) I guess that sort of happens to everyone as we age.

What have I learned this year? Hmmm. I guess I’ve had a few moments where I thought everything was absolutely dire. Horrid, going down the tubes, over, appropriate to just throw in the towel. Then… the next day a solution would sort of appear beneath the fog of the situation. It takes great patience to not react to something that seems devastating but that’s what I learned. Things are never as bad as they seem. Courage and positive thinking are much more useful than mental surrender. That sounds clichĂ© but I will spend time reminding myself of this as I spend two months in Pakistan as a Fulbright scholar. 36 will be a great age! 

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Fulbright Scholar 2015-2016

It took at least a year to get through the application process and paperwork but I am officially a Fulbright scholar for 2015-2016! The grant is for an appointment of two months in Pakistan to continue my research regarding freelance journalists who cover conflict.

I’ll be heading to Islamabad in September and October of 2015 (if the Visa comes through without a problem) and will stay in the “Fulbright House” where I’ll have a driver, cook, cleaner, and “handler.” I will not be allowed to go off of the grounds on my own even to take a walk and I cannot conduct research without someone accompanying me. This is all for security and safety reasons and I completely respect the need for certain restrictions. I learned much of this information by attending orientation last week in Washington D.C. with other Fulbright scholars. The meetings were informative and I feel incredibly honored to be going through this experience.

I am planning on a design change for my blog in the coming weeks because I’d like to spend a considerable amount of time using this site to update my friends and family about my appointment. We were specifically encouraged by the Fulbright institute to use social media to promote what we are doing, who we are meeting, and the ways in which we are representing the United States abroad. As far as my time in Pakistan goes, I would so appreciate your support through reading and commenting on my posts because I’m afraid that I’m going to be fairly lonely. Replying to social media posts would also be fantastic because I will likely be facing a pretty large cultural difference and may need support. From the bottom of my heart I thank you for any interaction you might have time for.

I am specifically looking forward to a few almost outlandish aspects of the grant. The United States embassy in Pakistan may invite me to speak at events, have dinner with important folks, lecture at conferences in Islamabad, and generally represent the U.S. I will also be able to make a short trip to another South Central Asian country for professional activities such as teaching, lectures, and/or presentation of research. That means I might be able to spend time in places such as Sri Lanka or the Maldives. (Um, wow!)

As far as social and culture behavior in Pakistan goes, I learned quite a bit at orientation. Here’s a look at some of my questions and the answers I received:

1.     Do I need to dye my hair to a darker shade? No, there are U.S. citizens and ex-pats that live in Islamabad and blonde hair isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

2.     What should I wear? Loose clothing. Most women wear a sort of leggings/tunic combo. I was also asked to bring some “dressy” clothing because apparently Pakistani people love to dress up and I will need outfits for embassy events!

3.     Do I need to cover my head? No. Westerners do not normally cover their heads in Islamabad. 50% of Pakistani women apparently do not regularly cover their heads in public.

4.     Should I shake hands with people I meet? No. You can wait for them to extend their hand to you as an invitation to shake. Otherwise, you can place your right hand near your heart as you meet someone.

5.     Should I change my research focus to only women freelance journalists in order to get better access socially? No. You can safely meet with men in the Fulbright offices for interviews. It is not recommended that you meet with them in other situations.

6.     May I have a glass of wine at a restaurant? No. Drinking in public is not socially or culturally acceptable in Pakistan. There may be wine at an event at the U.S. Embassy and people are welcome to partake there.

7.     What faux pas or stereotypes should I be aware of? Do not think of the concept of “time” as the same way you might in the United States. Be patient and calm in all situations and know that not many people communicate quickly via email. Face to face or a phone call might garner better communication results.

While I am very excited about being a Fulbright scholar this is a daunting appointment. The orientation leaders warned us about random stressors. They asked everyone to think about coping strategies for moments of anxiety and even led everyone through a mindful breathing exercise. Women might be objectified, belittled, ignored and disrespected. Locals may apparently ask newcomers, “Are you Muslim?” Our “culture coaches” asked us to think about how we will answer that question politely and sensitively. Westerners are also viewed as being fairly selfish read: “independent” and it is necessary to be aware of that type of stereotype.

Two things that I could use your advice on: What area of life in the United States should I give lectures about in Pakistan? One of the most highly attended lectures was by a scholar who talked about the meaning of comic books in the U.S. How can I top that? Also, what sort of small gifts should I bring that represent the U.S. and/or Tennessee or Ohio?

One last note – please share about your life when you have time. I’m interested to hear about what’s new with you!

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Truffle Hunting in Tuscany

While on a Silversea cruise earlier this summer, I had the amazing opportunity to go hunting for truffles in the countryside of Tuscany. The experience was listed in the activities option on the cruise itinerary and while James, his family, and his family’s friends were touring another part of of the area, I went via bus with around 10 other cruise guests to an amazing village in the county.

We spent a few minutes listening to a well-versed truffle hunter (and part owner of the Savini family business) talk about the truffle hunting process. 

He introduced us to his dog (which is not an actual “full-bred” truffle hunting dog) that sniffs out the truffles. The dog is medium-sized with short, wiry, curly fur and obviously, a nose for truffles. Our guide explained that people also use pigs for truffle hunting but dogs are preferable because pigs will eat the truffles! Can you blame them?

As we all gathered back onto the bus, the truffle hunter and his dog jumped into a little red truck and sped off to the woods in front of us. Once there, the dog relieved himself (this is apparently part of the animal’s regular routine), sniffed around on a gravel trail for a few minutes and darted off. The truffle hunting adventure had begun!

Because I was one of the more nimble participants on this outing (Silverseas is a great cruise line for luxury travel and many of the guests are in their 60+), I kept close to the dog and hunter for the first search. We were literally running through the woods and jumping over fallen trees in order to keep up with the dog. He eventually stopped near a few tree roots and started digging. 

The guide explained that the hunter must stay close to the animal because it can start digging for a truffle and scratch it with his claws. A damaged truffle is not worth as much as one that comes out of the ground unscathed and has to be used for cooking rather than sent to market. 

In just 45 minutes, the hero – the dog – located four truffles the size of limes. The dog can only catch the scent of a truffle if it is becoming ripe. Of the four found on our excursion, two of them smelled more ripe than the others. The scent is a deep, heady smell that reminds me of damp, mossy woods. This is what the truffle looks like:

While it was fascinating and exhilarating to participate in the actual truffle hunt, the second part of the afternoon was just as amazing. We were treated to a three-course meal made with all things truffle and Italian red wine. It was hands down one of the best culinary experiences that I’ve ever had. I will post details on this place at the end of the article. If you are a serious foodie, put it on your bucket list! 

We started with a plate of appetizers. This included prosciutto infused with truffle oil and made with flakes of truffle, cheese made with truffle, freshly baked bread drizzled with truffle oil and even olives infused with truffle oil.

The next course (my favorite) was pasta made with bits of truffle, topped with a truffle cream sauce (including a bit of truffle butter) and fresh, shaved truffle on top.

They also served amazing little dishes of baked egg with fresh truffle shavings and truffle oil topped with a dash of truffle salt.

The Savini family truffle hunt and lunch is certainly one of the best culinary experiences out there. The only thing that compares (for me) was the cooking lesson I took in Uruguay. This was an authentic "farm" to table process that we were about to participate in and admire. 

Friday, 3 April 2015

Dr. D'Arcy

Finally. The work for my doctorate degree is complete.

I successfully defended my dissertation on March 25th at the University of Tennessee, College of Communication and Information Science, School of Journalism and Electronic Media. My dissertation chair, Dr. Catherine A. Luther guided me through tough questions during the defense and reminded me that it was okay to "argue" my point. The committee members (who are supportive and fantastic but tough) accepted my work with minimal revisions. I'm on Cloud 9!

Today, I finished my last set of revisions and read through my dissertation word by word to correct any typos or mistakes. My absolute worst nightmare is that my dissertation will be published with a mistake. I then submitted the document to the university's system. It is finished!

Mom, dad and I celebrated officially with a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Rose Sauvage (a gift from James to my mother for her birthday) and dinner at the Bald Head Island Club. This spring is looking good.

Monday, 16 March 2015

A few hot spots in Paris, London, and Amsterdam

I always need blog topics so thank you to my friend Melissa for having a fabulous upcoming trip. She is taking her daughter who is graduating from high school to Paris, London, and Amsterdam! Her trip has led me to think about my experiences in those fantastic European cities and consider my favorite spots.

Paris: anyone who goes to the City of Lights must visit the Eiffel Tower. It is fantastic from far away, but to stand under it in the courtyard or to gaze at it from the surrounding gardens is a special experience. I did not buy a ticket to go up into the tower especially because I didn't want to wait in the long lines (and it's pricey). Remember that summer in the United States = tourist season in Europe so try to book ahead if you want to see certain attractions. The Eiffel Tower experience (in my opinion of course) is just as amazing without spending your hard-earned cash to go to the top.

Also in Paris, definitely get a crepe from a small vendor on one of the side streets in the main part of the city. This is one of my favorite memories of Paris: standing in the street eating Nutella with bananas encased in a steaming hot, fresh crepe. There is no one in the world that can do crepes like the French. If I have the opportunity to go back, I will try both a sweet and a savory crepe and compare different creperies. Speaking of food, at some point, certainly try some "real" Champagne. Is there anything better than sipping tiny, semi-sweet bubbles while you are actually in the country that grows the grapes? (Okay one more food recommendation - mussels and frites. OMG.)

I went to Paris with a student group from graduate school in London and another free activity that I enjoyed included walking along the Seine River. Melissa and her daughter are going in June and the weather should be amazing. It is fun to grab a fresh baguette and French cheese and have a picnic along the Seine. Boats travel by occasionally and the people watching is excellent. Advice: find a spot along the river in the sun, breathe in, close your eyes, and remind yourself that you're in Paris!

A must, of course, while in Paris is a visit to the Louvre Museum. Choose a few highlights to see and enjoy. It is too humongous to see everything in one day. Guide books for Paris do a great job of making suggestions on what to see if you only have a few hours here.

In my opinion, it is also highly worth it to go to Palace of Versailles for a day. (It is about an hour outside of Paris and you can book with a tour company to take a bus.) You will probably have to stand in line unless you're with a tour that pre-buys tickets. It might rain, so take an umbrella or wear a rain jacket. If you don't have a guide, spring for the headphones and be prepared to be stunned and amazed by details about the French royals. I'm lucky enough to have visited many palaces and nothing compares to Versailles. It was pouring rain when I went and didn't get to see the gardens but I'd recommend a quick tour of them as well.

If there's time left, take a tour of Notre Dame. It is free to get in and I remember being awe-struck by the history. This is another great place to utilize your guide book. Take it in and read about the cathedral while you walk through. 

A warning - scams on U.S. tourists are numerous here. Do not talk to strangers and if someone approaches you with a ring or watch... or something... that they found on the ground... keep walking. The deal is to give it to you so you can pawn it but they want a bit of cash up front. The item is always a fake and worth nothing. If something seems too good to be true, it is. Keep your belongings close to your body.

London: Many of the highlights of London are free to the general public so while the city is extremely expensive to stay in, travel around, and dine in, attractions will not necessarily drain your bank account. I would certainly visit Buckingham Palace and just observe the massive building from outside the gates. If you get there during changing of the guard - bonus (in fact, try to plan your day around this)! Walking the gardens surrounding the palace is a peaceful and enjoyable experience and you can plan your next adventure while you walk.

Go to Trafalgar Square and take a photo with the impressive, long-standing lions. Stop into the National Gallery while you're there and see two or three paintings of the artists that you love. (There's a special Monet exhibit that I would view.) On that note, most of the museums are free in London so if you are into museums, visit any and all of them as often as you want. From Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden is a short walk. The market here is fun and there are usually bizarre street performers.

Walk along the Thames and take pictures of Big Ben and Parliament. Westminster Abbey is also near here but the ticket to get in is 20 quid. Yikes!

If you are in London on a Saturday or Sunday, go to Camden Town. This is such a fun place for shopping, people watching, and trying street vendor food. The food here - SO MANY choices! It is so fun and while it seems a bit seedy, Camden has amazing character and again, it is free to walk around and people watch.

In London, you'll need to have cash on hand. U.S. debit and credit cards do not have a "chip" and a lot of merchants don't know how to deal with it. If you HAVE to use a card, let the person know that they "have to swipe it."

Amsterdam: Spend lots of time walking and taking photos. The canals are romantic and the architecture of the tall, narrow houses (Canal rings houses) is impressive. I love this city for its vibe and its unique look as compared to other European cities. My only complaint is that it can seem dirty as compared to London and Paris. Keep your belongings close to your body and don't carry all of your cash at once.

Anne Frank house is an absolute must. Go early so you don't have to wait in long lines to get in. Or - even better - book your ticket using a credit card ahead of time. This is certainly an attraction that is worth the ticket price. You may also want to bring some tissues. For me, the tour was emotional.

The Red Light district is a possibility if you want to experience the "real" Amsterdam but I would recommend going during the day. You will see women standing in their underwear in full length windows. They are on display because they are essentially selling themselves. This is certainly a tourist attraction so don't be afraid to go there - just remember you are NOT allowed to take pictures. You won't see another Red Light district in the world (at least not one that is as "safe" as this one) like this so if you or the people you are with aren't easily offended, it is worth a look.

Check out Delftware pottery in Amsterdam. You might even consider buying a tiny piece as a souvenir. I bought two Delftware pottery clogs. I gave one to my mother and kept one for myself. Such a sweet memento of my time in this AWESOME city.

Please do a lot of eating in Amsterdam and get a "proper" pint poured for yourself - if you like beer. It is so interesting to see how the bartenders serve beer here. With that pint, order the Bitterballen. Oh my goodness. Bitterballen is little fried balls of anything you can imagine: chicken, pork, beef, veggies... Very delicious and served with mustard.

Photo from 

DO NOT attempt to rent a bike and ride it in Amsterdam. It is dangerous just walking in this town with cars, trolleys, bikes, buses, and scooters coming from literally all directions. Be highly cautious when crossing the street. Seriously.

My final thought is to record what you do when you travel. Write down the restaurants you go to, the sites that you enjoyed, the flowers you see in the local stalls. That way, if you ever return, you can look up your favorite restaurant and go back. I always carry a tiny notebook and pen or pencil in my pocket or purse for easy access.

Friday, 13 March 2015

On the Shelf: Memoir of the Sunday Brunch

If you've been a reader of my blog for any length of time you know that I love reading and reviewing memoirs... especially if they have anything to do with food.

My latest favorite (I just finished it today) is Julia Pandl's Memoir of the Sunday Brunch. She sucks readers in with fantastically humorous accounts of her father's behaviors as a manager of a restaurant. He rules over employees with cold smiles while shouting and "twitches," cooks fantastic meals (but not for his family), knows all of the techniques of a professionally trained chef, and regularly uses all nine of his children as staff to oversee his restaurant's Sunday brunches.

The first part of the memoir is funny, heavy, and worthy of a second study due to the fantastically detailed experiences of Julia. She is the youngest of a Matriarchal, Catholic family and hates de-boning fish. One of the chapters is dedicated almost entirely to her first hangover - on a Sunday morning. It doesn't matter that she can barely lift her head off of the pillow. She is in charge of helping her father (as well as her siblings) with Sunday brunch. He realizes that she is suffering and once in the restaurant's kitchen, bites the "cheek" out of a fish and chews it in front of Julia with a smile, pointing out that her job that morning is to de-bone all of the fish - and quickly. It is Sunday brunch and she explains the excruciating way that she holds it together before finally vomiting. 

The second part of the memoir also pulls the reader in - but in a different way. The concept of suffering is examined in-depth by Julia as she watches her mother decline from diabetes with not only the amputation of her foot but numerous surgeries. Mrs. Pandl keeps a brave face (as she always has) and holds fast to her Catholic faith and particular saints. 

After her death, the generous but fastidious Mr. Pandl seems to be on a downward slope to depression. The children reconnect with him and remember their mother's dying wish - "Take care of dad."

Julia takes ultimate care of him when he is diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 80. She moves in with him and chronicles his downfall. While depressing, there is moment of light and clarity when "George" (as the kids all call him) continues to decline but says that he has lived a "wonderful life" and is happy. In one of the last scenes of her father's dramatic life, Julia talks about the night that the priest comes to read last rites. He shows up and almost all of the Pandl children are sitting around George's bed sipping Stella with him. The priest accepts a beer and they laugh, share stories, and pray. 

There are many take-aways from this memoir. That's why I don't want to write about what was particularly meaningful to me. This memoir will take to readers in different ways. It is certainly worth a read and you can finish it in a weekend. Enjoy and let me know what you think.