Friday, November 29, 2013

Give Thanks

Thanksgiving was pretty standard this year. I woke up early, helped my mom bake bread, ran the Turkey Trot with my best friend, cooked all afternoon and then we all stuffed our faces in about 20 minutes. After the food coma hit, we relaxed, watched a movie and went to bed. A great holiday.

This morning, however, I woke up to a text message alerting me that my best friend from college had given birth to her first child. A Thanksgiving baby. How wonderful. Now, that's not your typical holiday treat. It's absolutely incredible, and I cannot wait to meet her little girl and see how this family evolves.

As I perused the many Facebook comments and admired the first few pictures of the little one, it really hit me how much life is changing, and how quickly. Before you know it, her child will be walking, starting school. These moments are made special by their sheer brevity, and we have to be grateful for the time we have.

There is so much to be thankful for this year, and with all the happenings yesterday, I really didn't have a chance to think about it all. First of all, I'm thankful for my family, that they are happy and healthy and there to support me. (Especially when I feel like work is so stressful I can't handle the pressure.) I'm thankful for Steve, who loves me for who I am, always makes me feel beautiful, and never fails to put a smile on my face. For my friends, both in Chicago and all over the country, who I can go to for anything. I'm thankful for having a good job in an industry I love, even though it can be difficult sometimes and there are days when I wonder if I can even do it. (But then I look at what else I have, and it makes it easier to get through.) I'm thankful for my good health; for the exciting city I live in and the beautiful place I get to come back to every holiday season. I could probably list a lot more things, but who really wants to hear that. I'm sure everyone else has plenty they are thankful for, and I encourage you to really think about those and acknowledge them.

My grandfather, at the wise age of 93, observed a couple days ago that life has been good to him, and that he had been blessed with longevity. But, he said, at a certain point, you have to let go. And I think he is ready. He has fought in a war; lived through many others; watched his children become successful adults who now take care of him; seen his grandchildren grow into strong, independent people; he's watched his wife slowly lose her memory and shift into a different person in a very short period of time; he survived a stroke. He's been through a lot. While I would love for him to be at my wedding--whenever that happens--I know it is selfish of me to hope for him to continue on. He's accepted his life, he's lived a good one, and he's thankful for it.

This Thanksgiving has been special. It has seen a new little girl enter the world and a new family begin. It has brought families together (especially those celebrating Hannukkah, too!), marking the beginning of many festive events to come. And it has made us all look at our lives and give thanks for what we have.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Getting into the Holiday Spirit

The temperature finally dropped to that biting cold that confirms winter has arrived. Twinkling lights hang from every tree branch downtown. Stores elaborately decorate windows with holiday themes. And last night, I went to see A Christmas Carol. (Oh, and it just started snowing!) The holidays have officially arrived.

This is one of my favorite times of year. The festive decorations, lights and music make the cold weather bareable, and everyone seems to be happy, giving and grateful. But the brevity of the season definitely makes it even more special. And even though stores start stocking Christmas materials on their shelves right after labor day, it still takes me a while to really feel like the holidays are here. Well, this weekend changed it for me. And the play certainly helped.

The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival took place on Saturday. The one year I went, it was bitter cold and super crowded, I couldn't even see the floats in the parade or notice if the lights along the street were turning on. So, as a result, I haven't attended the last couple years. And this year was no different. But, yesterday, when my boyfriend and I headed downtown for the play, I got to see the Loop completely decked out in its holiday glory. That immediately put a smile on my face.

When we got to Goodman Theatre, I went to the press stand to get the tickets and they handed me some complimentary hershey's holiday kisses. How thoughtful! And festive. In the lobby, there was a group of professional carolers in amazing outfits singing holiday songs.

Before the show started, I got a cup of hot chocolate (one of my favorite seasonal drinks) to help warm up. When we entered the auditorium, we were welcomed by a cozy set of old, snow-covered English homes. The whole place felt warm and inviting.

The play was absolutely amazing. Now, I know the story of A Christmas Carol pretty well. I've never read the book (Charles Dickens is tough to get through), but I have seen movie versions (personally love the Muppets interpretation best). The Goodman has been offering this annual play for 36 years, and it is now an established holiday tradition in Chicago. This production was probably one of the best renditions of the classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation from cold-hearted, bitter and unsympathetic to a happy, caring and thoughtful man.

The actors delivered a meaningful, poignant performance with just the right amount of humor and mystery, and their own little twists on the tale. Larry Yando, returning for his sixth turn as Scrooge, was  impeccable in his mood, expressions, movements and overall delivery. I can see why people love him so much in this role. The rest of the cast was brilliant, too, and I appreciated how this small ensemble of 27 people worked so well together, seamlessly transitioning from one scene to the next without missing a beat.

By the end of the play, I could not stop smiling. It certainly accomplished its goal of bringing holiday cheer.

And now the holiday spirit will follow me as I head home for Thanksgiving, and will most likely stay with me throughout December, as I decorate my apartment, shop for gifts and listen to holiday music. Yes, it is that time of year and I will keep it in the best way I can.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Get Lost

"Half the fun of the travel is the aesthetic of lostness." - Ray Bradbury
Maps. I'm a firm believer in them, especially when you have somewhere to be at a certain time (or if you're trekking through the wilderness-definitely want to know where you're going). But if you are traveling somewhere new, and are unrestricted by time, then I say, toss the map and get a little lost.

Sure, most maps have major attractions marked, popular restaurants, etc. But, let's be honest, sometimes you want to avoid the big stuff and find something really unique to that destination. When you are not reduced to a select group of streets and neighborhoods, you can decide which path to go down, whether to turn right or left at the next corner. This is how you stumble upon that hole in the wall lunch spot, that local artist selling home-made items for a lot less than the products in the tourist traps, or the tiny church that barely takes up a quarter block.

I think some of the best aspects of a location are found off the beaten path, and it's hard to get there if you're following a map that everyone else follows, too.

So step off the designated route and don't be afraid to get lost, because that's when true beauty is seen.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Traditional Wine, Tomorrow's Technology

Imagine descending a spiral staircase built with materials of the earth, a vast valley of vineyards as far as you can see. You continue to spin down the steps, like wine through an aerator, knowing that the decanter below holds one of the most elaborate cellars of the modern age. This is the new Cantina Antinori in Tuscany--a wine museum, auditorium, cellar, tasting room and restaurant in one. Basically, wine heaven.

Condé Naste Traveler

I love wine (in case you didn't know already), and I also love Italy. So, naturally, this has been added to my list of places to visit. I've been to Tuscany a few times, but this new winery only opened a year ago, giving me one more reason to go back.

The Antinori Family has been harvesting grapes and creating wine in Tuscany for centuries, but this new structure shows just how innovative they are as they look toward the future of viniculture and wine education. Designed by acclaimed architecture firm Archea, the cantilevered headquarters pay homage to the region of Chianti Classico and blends harmoniously into the landscape around it. It is made with local materials and has a minimal impact on the environment.

The design is not only beautiful, but functional. The cellars in which the wines are produced and stored were conceived to allow the grapes and natural materials to be moved with gravity, meaning there is no use for mechanical pumping, which results in a more natural process and a more balanced, elegant wine.

Antinori Cellars

The museum is a showcase of the Antinori Family's history alongside contemporary works of art. The artwork comes from three international artists: Yona Friedman, Rosa Barba and Jean-Baptiste Decavèle. All the items relate to themes like landscape, memory and territory. The Auditorium is a wood-panelled room where visitors can watch videos, short films and documentaries on the family, its estates and, of course, its wine.

The restaurant, which serves as a nice end point to a visit, sits on the roof of the cellars, providing sweeping views of the rolling hillside. Rinuccio 1180 offers visitors perfectly matched food and wine, with dishes that highlight the Tuscan countryside.

Cantina Antinori Source: Antinori Facebook page

The winery is certainly impressive and I cannot wait to make a trip back to Italy, head straight to Bargino (20 minutes outside Florence) and start exploring (and tasting) the fresh yet classic concepts developed at this advanced winery.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Starting Anew in Des Moines

The streets of downtown are dead, completely deserted. The most activity is going on just outside our hotel, as the valets bring around cars for guests who have just checked out. My boyfriend and I put our headphones in and begin our jog through downtown Des Moines and over to the river, where we hope to get a better feel for the city where Steve's sister has decided to live. Once we locate the river walk, we make our way south for about a mile before we reach the point where the water forks. We are forced to head down the other part of the fork, but the path ends shortly after that, and we must turn around. The lack of runner-friendly areas certainly hurt my impression of the city, and I started to wonder if Amy would be happy here.

The trip began early Saturday morning. Steve, his brother Randy, and I woke before sunrise and piled into the car and then headed out to Crystal Lake. Once there, we helped Amy and Steve's mom pack all of her furniture, clothes and boxes into three cars. It's amazing how much stuff one person can accumulate. By about 9am, we were on the road heading west to Des Moines.

Now, you may be asking why Amy was making the move to Iowa. Well, her boyfriend got a job there, and since she was only working a part time job and couldn't find anything full time in Chicago, she decided it was better to be with him in Des Moines. It's a pretty big decision, and a major change for her. She's been living at home the last year and a half, a place where she's comfortable and has a good support system. So this was certainly life changing.

It takes about five hours to get to Des Moines, but we managed to stay entertained (thanks to Ted Radio Hour, one of our favorite podcasts; and some retro music that took us back to the glory days of high school). The scenery also made the drive much more enjoyable. I am a city girl, through and through, but I can certainly appreciate the beauty of the country. The fall colors are so vibrant, with the trees sprawling for miles and miles. There were times where I got lost in the mixture of golds, reds and oranges. I love fall.

Before long, we reached our destination and made our way to Amy's new apartment. Her boyfriend, Zach, lives right down the road from Drake University in an old cow milking barn that had been converted into rustic-style lofts. It was actually really cool, I liked it a lot. The only problem is that his place is one room, so if she wants some privacy, that will be hard to come by. She'll need to figure out a way to separate the room, it'll be an escape for both of them.

We moved everything in pretty quickly, and then headed downtown to the Marriott where we were staying. I was excited to see what the city was like, but I quickly learned that it wasn't all that exciting, at least on the weekend. We were clearly in the business/financial district, so most places were closed and the streets were relatively empty.

After we freshened up a bit, we walked down Grand Avenue and crossed the river into historic East Village. Finally, we saw a crowd of people in front of the restaurant Amy and Zach recommended for dinner. Apparently, Zombie Burger is the place to be on Saturday nights, because we waited over an hour for a table. Luckily, they had some delicious (and strong) beers on tap, so we enjoyed a drink while we waited.

When we were finally seated over an hour later, I was about to faint from hunger--or maybe it was that 12% ABV I had. Either way, I prayed that this place was worth the wait. And it definitely is. The menu  is filled with some very unique burgers, with names like East Village of the Damned, 28 Days Later, The Walking Ched, Undead Elvis and Envy Corpse, to name a few. I went for the Fulci (brie cheese, prosciutto, caramelized + raw onion and truffle mayo), Steve and his brother went for The Walking Ched (breaded + deep fried macaroni + cheese bun, bacon, cheddar cheese, caramelized + raw onion, macaroni + cheese, mayo), Amy picked the Raygun (monterey jack, fried jalapeños, caramelized onion, bacon, guacamole, chipotle mayo) and Steve's mom got the Undead Elvis (peanut butter, fried bananas, bacon, American cheese, egg, mayo). And if you think it sounds crazy, it looked even crazier.

After we raised our chance of heart attack, Amy and Zach took us to a great bar just outside of downtown, called El Bait Shop. Housed in what looked like an old trailer/cabin from the outside, the bar had walls covered in different beer taps, road signs, images of famous guests, retro posters and much more. The beer menu was just as varied. I decided to try an Iowa beer called Twisted Vine Honey Harvest. We sipped our beers and chatted for a while, but soon the food and the alcohol hit us all and we decided to call it a night. On the way back to the hotel, we walked the Des Moines skywalk, a maze of indoor bridges connecting all the buildings in downtown, especially helpful in cold weather months.

The next morning, Steve and I woke up early for our run. After running for only a couple miles and finding ourselves at a dead end, we made the best of it and headed back, but took a slightly different path. We made our way over the river and back into East Village, where the capital building and many other major political structures stand. It was here where my image of the city shifted. In the morning sun, the majestic buildings shined among the changing colors of the trees. As we jogged around, we discovered some beautiful public art structures and found an impressive view of downtown. I had to admit, it didn't look so bad. 

I will admit I had preconceived notions of Des Moines, of Iowa as a whole. I believed there was just cornfields and some small towns, and that's about it. I'm not completely wrong, I've driven through it many times and there is a lot of corn. But I was pleasantly surprised at Des Moines. There's more there than I expected, and, apparently, it was ranked a top city to live in because of its economic growth potential. I'm not saying I would move there myself, but for two young people in their twenties just starting out in their professional careers, it definitely has potential.

We ran back to the hotel, packed everything up and made our way over to Amy and Zach's neighborhood for a farewell brunch at Drake Diner. There aren't many brunch places in Des Moines, so, naturally, the wait was pretty long. But living in Chicago, I'm accustomed to long brunch lines. When we finally sat down, we quickly ordered and scarfed down our food. And then it was time to say goodbye.

Amy and her mom cried as they hugged each other, and I could feel tears brimming as I remembered saying goodbye to my mom nearly 10 years ago. It wasn't as emotional, but it was tough leaving a person who was always there for me, who was a strong support system for the first 18 years of my life. But you have to let go, because every parent wants their child to be independent, to live on their own and support themselves. 

We waved our final goodbyes, hopped in the car and prepared for the long drive back to Chicago. And as we merged onto the highway, I looked back one more time and said a little prayer for Amy and Zach, wishing them all the best as they embarked on a new journey in their new home.