Thursday, April 29, 2010

Catching Up the Travelogue: March's European Vacation, Part Two

When last I left you, constant reader, Beth and I had just arrived in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, on the first leg of our brief but incredibly packed vacation to Europe.  We met Beth's college friend, Ursula, at her flat in downtown Frankfurt, and sat down for a fantastic lunch / early supper and some great German hospitality.

Ursula catered us lunch with some fantastic dark, dense German bread; several cheeses (yes, European cheese is better than anything in America); fresh, hand-squeezed blood orange juice; and some incredibly tasty German coffee.  Then, we set out for a walk along the Main at sunset.

The Dom Sankt Bartholomäus, or Frankfurt Cathedral, looms over all of the riverfront in Frankfurt.  Although it was damaged severely during World War II (and burned down in the 19th century), the Gothic icon has been rebuilt and today is as imposing and impressive as other.

We were in Frankfurt a few weeks before springtime would really come into bloom, but nonetheless during the walk we took through the park along the banks of the Main we could see what a sight it would be during the summer, with tropicals (which somehow survive the harsh German winters) more at home in Irvine, California, than continental Europe, and rows and rows of coppiced trees ready to sprout new green growth for summer evening walks.

Though the sun wasn't at a great angle, we also could see Frankfurt's skyline; as the financial capital of continental Europe, Frankfurt is one of the few cities with much to see in terms of skyscrapers.  Even London, the hub of everything across the pond, lacks the sorts of buildings those of us who've traveled at all to New York, Chicago, LA, and the other metropolises of the United States are used to.
On a more somber and disturbing note, Ursula did point out a somewhat industrial section of the river which apparently once housed a train depot from which Jews were sent off to concentration camps.  I know Germans aren't fond of speaking of the atrocities of World War II and their preeminent role in the same; the section was being remade into a park and, if I recall correctly, several bank buildings.

(No, the photo taken of the light rail beneath a footbridge with Frankfurt Cathedral in the background is not said hellish depot; its simply an image Beth fell in love with and suggested I photograph.  The ersatz train depot was not photogenic, as you might imagine.)

After a lengthy walk through the park--including several common European bird sightings which were nonetheless new life species for both Beth and I, such as the Egyptian Goose, Greylag Goose, Chaffinch, and the ubiquitous Great Tits--we stopped in from the late-winter chill at a cafe with what Ursula described as some of the best hot chocolate in Frankfurt.  Beth opted for a spicy apple wine, though, of all things; I'm not sure she enjoyed the local specialty (and certainly not like I did the hot chocolate!).

The cafe was very close to the caricature museum; I was jetlagged enough I missed much of Urusula's description of the place, other than the moose-in-trenchcoat statue Beth posed with:

We headed back to Ursula's flat at dusk, where Ursula's longtime male companion Thomas prepared for us a fantastic European feast.  I didn't realize until that point that Beth and I are very European in our dinner habits, dining late in the evening most nights; Thomas served dinner around 9:00pm, apparently a normal time of day for supper in Germany.  As a gourmand and everyday chef, I know what goes into meal prep, and I simply can't imagine how Thomas prepared the feast (baked and pan-fried fish, boiled potatoes, salads, and a delicious cabbage dish) and managed to entertain the downstairs neighbors' two toddlers in such a short period of time.

Wine flowed all night, from prosecco while Thomas cooked and we chatted with their French and Czech (I think, on the latter--they understood English but spoke very little) friends who'd been invited to dinner, to Italian and French reds... and finally a Grappa-like moonshine distilled by the Czech friend's father.

We slept in despite plans to get up and walk down to the Main in the morning light; after the redeye flight, long drive up from Munich, the stroll down to the river and cafe, and then our well-past-midnight supper party, I can't blame us.  Ursula and Thomas prepared us a fantastic breakfast, similar to the snacks Ursula had had for our arrival but with the addition of some hardboiled eggs which flummoxed Beth in their presentation in little egg cups.

We did have a snag in our plans to travel onward to meet up with Michael and Sam in Italy, though: I noticed the fine print of the rental car contract said that driving a Mercedes into Italy was verboten, and though we had a hatchback, economy-style car, it was still a Mercedes.  After much back-and-forth with Hertz with Ursula serving as our translator (and chief negotiator), we discovered the problem wasn't the Mercedes so much as the fact we didn't have snow tires on the car: driving through Austria on the way to Italy required snow tires.  After much discussion, Hertz agreed to swap out our car at Frankfurt Airport, saving us the trip back to Munich's airport (yes, it was Hertz's fault; we'd told them we were going to be in Germany, Austria, and Italy).  Still, this detour cost us several hours, and it was late afternoon when we finally left Germany laden down with lunches prepared by Ursula, a bag of fine Eilles coffee, and some chocolates in our new Citroen for the eight hour drive to northern Italy.

As usual, the Nolleys were behind schedule: I'd already told Michael, when he asked if he should make dinner reservations for our arrival, "Come on, you know the Nolleys... best not to plan on a specific time."  But so far, our trip was off to a fantastic start nonetheless.  Would we make it through the Brenner Pass, or would the snow we had seen falling in Munich be a sign of rocky weather ahead?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Catching Up the Travelogue: March's European Vacation, Part One

Back in mid-March, Beth and I took our first real vacation since our engagement trip way back in December of 2003 (that's right: we hadn't even taken a honeymoon after getting married in 2005!).  We made a lightning visit to friends in Germany and family in Italy, packing the brief week with visits to Munich, Frankfurt, Venice, Vicenza, Verona, Padua, and Soave, along with a drive through the Austrian and Bavarian Alps.

The trip began at Dulles International Airport, my home away from home.  I was happy to finally have an opportunity to drag Beth over to the Lufthansa lounge over in Concourse B; even though we were flying United, as a Star Alliance Gold flyer (thanks to my 100,000 miles a year on United and my 1K status), we can use any Star Alliance Gold lounge--and the Lufthansa lounge at Dulles is 100,000x better than the United Red Carpet Club.  Whereas the latter has a few apples, some prepackaged cheese, individual-serving crackers, and a cash bar, the Lufthansa lounge has a nice selection of hot soup, salads, pasta, hors d'oeuvres, and even cheesecake for dessert.  Plus free beer--good free beer, including a nice Belgian white ale Beth and I enjoyed during our late lunchtime visit.  We did trek back over to Concourse C for our flight and stopped by one of the Red Carpet Clubs, where I accepted the correct number of bar "drink chits" (2 required for anything above the level of Bud Light) from the front desk--this is something frequent flyers grouse about to no end, mind you--and headed down into the dark, crowded, noisy, and hot lounge, where Beth and I couldn't even find two seats.  What a contrast!

As another benefit to making 1K last year on United--I flew several "mileage run" trips with no purpose other than to get the necessary miles!--I'd used my "systemwide upgrades" to book us into business class instead of economy.  The flight attendants all wondered over Beth's "Asian Vegetarian" meal selection (you have to pre-book anything out of the ordinary), which wasn't bad at all and consisted of several different Indian dishes.

The flight crew couldn't get the business class lights to go out overnight (!!), but an Ambien and I slept until breakfast anyway--and found an "apology" $250 certificate on my seat when I woke up for the trouble.  After breakfast, on approach into Munich's airport, I heard the dreaded news on Channel 9 (United's air traffic control broadcasts onboard): "Attention all stations: due to braking coefficient, Munchen Airport is closed."  Yep, snow on the ground had shut down the airport.  And sure enough, once we finally landed, it was indeed snowing in Munich.

Now, we had quite an itinerary planned out for our short six days on the ground: we would drive up to Frankfurt-am-Main to visit Beth's college friend Urusula, then drive down to Italy to spend the rest of the trip with my cousin Michael and his wife, Sam.  And, time permitting, a stop or two in the Bavarian Alps on our drive back to Munich for the flight home.  (Erika and Brooke will probably commiserate over the pace we endured on this trip: my sisters were "victims" of my vacation planning and draconian cracking of the schedule whip on the visit to London we all took in 2002, in which we managed ever single tourist attraction in London plus a trip to Stonehenge and on to Bath.)

The drive up the Autobahn was largely a pleasure, due not to the speeds per se but the fact that people simply knew how to drive!  The roads were largely four lanes--I'd always imagined the Autobahn some 8-12 lane freeway--and drivers used the left lane only to pass and always gave way to faster drivers.  Still, a few construction zones were limited to 2 meter lanes (that's more narrow than a lot of American cars, and white-knuckle driving at 110 km/hr), and after a short redeye flight I was struggling to keep my eyes open toward the end of the nearly-four-hour drive to Frankfurt.

We arrived in Frankfurt in the early afternoon... but that's Part Two of our travelogue (and one loaded with photos, I promise!).

Yes, Utah, the Desert Is Hot!

Another thing about the desert: it is hot.  I've been in the Anza-Borrego Desert when the mercury hit just shy of 100--that was hot.  I've been in Palm Springs when it was 110 in the shade (and still over 100 at ten p.m. that night)--that was hot.  But what surprised me most was hiking in the red rock desert of Utah's Arches National Park with temperatures not even hitting 68 degrees, a temperature indoors which would call for a sweater and send many scrambling to turn up the thermostat a notch or two.  That, too, was hot, in a visceral, carry 2-liters-of-water way, where everything bakes away and you seriously question your sanity as to why you're wearing jeans (and thinking that at least they'll protect against sunburn on those lily-white legs underneath).

Indeed, hiking up the 600+ feet of vertical gain over the short mile or so to Delicate Arch under the full sun, with shade an absent friend who has deserted me, I felt like I was in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or perhaps The Gunslinger, crawling across the desert moments away from expiration by dehydration.  I don't know how Beth managed to keep her jacket on; she claimed it prevented her arms from sunburning, but I think I'd have traded the heat for a bit of sunburn.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Amazing Spectacle of the Valley of the Goblins: Our Holiday to Utah, Part 1

Beth and I took a weekend holiday to the red rock country of southeastern Utah this past weekend and filled our senses with some amazing scenery, not the least of which was the Valley of the Goblins and its amazing collection of hoodoos, or pinnacles eroded out of the Entrada Sandstone of the San Rafael Swell.  There stands one of the eeriest, most interesting sights I've witnessed, a realm populated by goblins and trolls and gargantuan gnomes everything else one's imagination can conjure and a testament to the true beauty and wonder of Nature.

The photos I'd seen and the articles I'd read about Goblin Valley State Park simply do not do the place justice at all; I can only hope that the photos I took and will share might inspire you, constant reader, to plan a trip there to experience the Valley of the Goblins in person.  Our own holiday was only a day and a half in length all said and done, taken not in the American tradition of a week-long vacation but a simple weekend which we packed solid with activities, the first of which was a trip to Goblin Valley State Park.

Walking down into the basin itself, the true scale of the "amphitheater" and its goblin inhabitants quickly becomes evident.  Mushroom-shaped hoodoo rocks typically stand 10-15 feet high, with many reaching 30-40 feet or more above the sandstone floor.  And that's where the imagination really takes over: faces emerge, shifting and morphing out of the red sandstone with the change in perspective of only a few feet of hiking.  Huddled, gnarled figures stand silent sentinel duty, while a goblin king sits atop a throne carved by natural erosion from the escarpments along the edge of the basin.  It's not hard to imagine Goombas come to life from the classic video game Super Mario Bros, or David Bowie's army of twisted muppet trolls in Labyrinth.

Let me step back a moment for context.  Our trip began early Friday morning with a 6:00 am flight to Denver, then a connection to Grand Junction, near the Utah border and about a two and a half hour drive from Goblin Valley.  The weather forecast for Friday didn't look good, with rain and cloudy skies forecast--and in Denver, after a long wait in the bowels of the regional jet extension to the B concourse (why do all such terminals look like demilitarized Greyhound depots?), we watched with dismay as rain driven sideways by the wind turned to sleet and then snow.  A check of the detailed, hour-by-hour forecast on for the area showed cloudy skies and a high chance of rain pretty much all day, and I almost opted to skip Goblin Valley altogether and just drive to Moab and Arches National Park--but I really wanted to see the goblins.  The optimist in me wanted to believe the dense clouds would cut back on the high contrast of an overhead sun in the early afternoon, that the storm skies would open enough to render a few dramatic shots.

As you might be able to tell from the lead-in photo on this entry, my optimism did indeed pay off.  And even had the skies not yielded such fantastic photographic opportunities, I'd have been grateful simply to have seen the Valley of the Goblins itself.  I've always loved Nature in all her guises--but this is something beyond description.  (And though Goblin Valley isn't itself presently at risk, after having seen it and the overall landscapes in this arid, silent, and beautiful land, reading about Utah's governor trying to exercise eminent domain to claim lands held in the public trust by Uncle Sam--to turn over for commercial mining exploitation--simply wrenches the heart.)

Okay, let me step back a bit more.  What originally kindled my desire to visit the red rock country of Utah was the fantastic documentary film Winged Migration and its scenes shot in Monument Valley (a well-known locale to western film fans).  I mentioned this to family friend Joy Colbert during a visit to her house late last fall--along with the first nebulous plans for Beth and I to visit Michael and Sam in Italy--and Joy mentioned Goblin Valley.  She and Beth's mom P.A.T. had visited Colorado and Utah just a couple years ago, before their Ireland vacation, and Joy shared several photos from their trip, including the off-the-beaten-path state park.  After a bit of reading, I was hooked, and then it was simply a matter of finding a weekend when Beth wasn't booked solid with petsitting and finding affordable flights (risking too much of a tangent, I ended up redeeming miles for Beth's ticket and using a $300-off voucher to pay for most of mine).

I'm actually a bit surprised to have talked Beth so quickly and readily into the holiday, but Goblin Valley turned out to be her favorite part of the entire trip.  Yes, I'll say it again: the grotesque caricatures in sandstone, spun by one's imagination and the processes of Nature at work over timespans which make our lives pale in comparison, are really an incomparable sight.  Still, Beth's trip into the valley wasn't without perils, as this medieval plague-physician mask goblin showed.

And to think this was but the first part of our trip!  I'll write more later on the time we spent in Arches National Park, the 12 miles or more I hiked over unforgiving high desert slickrock fins, and the pre-dawn rising and moonlight hike back out all to see the fabled sights of Delicate Arch, Double-O Arch, Landscape Arch, Balanced Rock, Turret Arch, and more.  (I'll leave out for now the flaming muscle car tearing down the streets of Moab--in the midst of a classic car show and apparent drag race bonanza--the proposal and its acceptance in the spectacle of Delicate Arch at sunset, and many more stories from our brief 42 hour holiday in the west, tales for another day.)

Until then, I leave you with another fabulous vista, photographed as we drove out of the Valley of the Goblins to retrace our way to Interstate 70 and onward to Moab and the lands of canyons and arches.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Weekend Scones Report: Breakfast In... the Laundry Room?

At Chateau Papillon, we have a tradition we call "weekend scones," where at least one of the two mornings I bake up something special for breakfast.  It doesn't have to be scones proper: in the past, I've made donuts, muffins, cookies, cakes, tarts, and all sorts of other tall-glass-of-milk-worthy confections.  This weekend's dish: Walnut Cream Cake.  This weekend's cafe locale: the laundry room.

Yes, that's right: we had our breakfast in the laundry room this morning.  We finally replaced my old washing machine--on which I'd replaced the drive coupler three times over the years and into which I put a new clutch a couple of years ago--thanks in large part to Uncle Sam, the so-called "stimulus act," and its energy efficiency rebate funds.  No more clanking-transmission on the old machine, and to boot, we have an Energy Star model which uses less water and electricity and gets our clothes cleaner than the old one.

Though the new washer was delivered on Friday afternoon, we didn't have the laundry room quite ready for it yet: we still had tile prep work (floor leveling, mostly) to complete under the old washer and the dryer, and of course tile to lay in that same area.  We'd been putting off those last few bits of work as we turned our attention to the outside at Chateau Papillon and got our early spring gardening chores in, but with a new washer to install, it was time to get moving on the tile.

We had a marathon tile laying session Friday night, wrapping up around 11:00pm and emptying out around three more cartons of tile--we've still got around 15 more to go to finish the hallway and parts of the storage area in our "water closet."  Late Saturday afternoon, we grouted the entire area done to-date, then sat back to let things dry so we could replace the appliances this morning.

After maneuvering the washer into place, getting all the connections set up, and the washer leveled, we tossed in a load of dirty clothes to try it out and make sure everything was properly in place.  That's why we had breakfast in the laundry room, mind you; we may be kooky, but not so much so a morning in front of a new washer is "entertainment."

Chance pronounced the new washer properly leveled as he tested it out for vibration on its inaugural load.  We still have my old dryer, which though 12 years old really hasn't seen that much use (none, in fact, from 2004 through late 2009); I didn't see a good reason to replace it yet, particularly since there aren't any energy rebates offered on dryers at present.

We've still got a little bit of rebate funds available; between the furnace last fall, an energy audit, and the 20% rebate we'll get back on the new washer (on top of the sale price + 10% additional off at Home Depot), we should have around $200 to put toward either a new water heater (ours is 15 years old and rather cranky) or else an Energy Star-rated French door to replace our sliding patio door.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Recapping Some Recent Cuisine de Chateau Papillon

My mother in law P.A.T. always claims that being in the kitchen energizes me creatively.  It certainly pays not to argue with one's mother in law--particularly when she's right.  I enjoy building upon culinary inspirations from many sources, be they travel (like the Mozzarella di Bufala bruscetta I baked after our trip to Italy); cookbooks (sometimes I even follow the recipe); or even lack of a dinner "plan," when I rifle through the pantry and fridge and build a whimsical dish from whatever I have on hand.

This past weekend, the fantastic weather had Beth and me eating out on the patio each morning, enjoying the sounds of springtime.  Thus, I spent a pretty fair amount of time in the kitchen and put together a couple of dishes I'd like to share.  First, for Sunday, I baked a vanilla-orange buttermilk pound cake; I wanted to make a breakfast/brunch item which would take advantage of fresh fruit, could be enjoyed with coffee, and was something different than the scones and pancakes I so often cook on the weekends.

After flipping through my baking staple cookbook, The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg, and scanning several fairly exotic quick bread, muffin, and cake recipes, I decided on pound cake--but Bo's recipes are typically scaled for the restaurant kitchen, so rather than dig out my calculator and multiply all the metric ingredients (real chefs bake from measurements by mass, not volume) by 40% to account for the smaller pans, I consulted another of my favorites, Alton Brown's baking text, I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking.  Then it was time to tinker.

Most people will say you can't mess with recipes for baking, but I'm here to say that so long as you know what you're doing, you most certainly can (Beth, though, might still refer to it a "tampering" with the recipe instead of my preferred "tweaking" or "tinkering").  I wanted a denser, finer texture than Alton's pound cake, so I swapped half the all-purpose flour out for cake flour; the lower protein content of the cake flour would result in less gluten linking in the finished product.  (Incidentally, I note Alton's online buttermilk pound cake recipe on Food Network's site uses cake flour and an extra egg, among other differences from the one in his cookbook.)

I also used dehydrated buttermilk instead of fresh--we never use all of a container of fresh buttermilk before it goes bad, so we now keep plenty of powder on hand and just reconstitute it as needed.  And, of course, the flavoring: two vanilla beans, their insides scraped and added to the batter, along with about 4 tablespoons of fresh orange peel I'd grated myself as a byproduct of the hand-squeezed OJ we've enjoyed of late, and finally about 2 tablespoons of Grand Marnier, the definitive orange-flavored cognac every cook should have on hand.  As for that orange peel: just use a Microplane grater and skim off the outermost rind; use it fresh, or spread it in a thin layer and allow to dry, and store in an airtight bottle.  (The greenie in me must also note that the leftover rinds, chopped finely, go into our compost pile afterwards.  No wasting here!)

After baking in a bundt pan, I served the cake with some homemade whipped cream (with a quart of heavy cream going for $2 or so at Costco, no reason ever to use canned stuff!), sweetened with a bit of vanilla sugar.  (One more "waste not, want not" note: the vanilla pods I scraped out go right into a cannister of plain old sugar, where they infuse it with fantastic vanilla flavor for coffees and baking!)  Fresh strawberries finished the cake off--and a cup of espresso.

On Saturday morning, we'd already had some leftover cookies which I'd baked earlier in the week, so for late breakfast I wanted something a bit more savory.  I had several mushrooms getting near the end of their culinary lives in the fridge, just begging to be used, so I sautéed them and incorporated the fungi into a couple of omelets.

There's something of a skill involved in cooking up an omelet verses something simpler, like scrambled eggs, particularly when nonstick cookware is verboten (due to the potentially-deadly fumes when overheated; we have several birds at Chateau Papillon, you may recall).  The key is in getting the pan properly lubricated--I used a mix of canola-based cooking spray and fresh butter--and at the right temperature.  I scrambled a couple of eggs up with a pinch of salt; a fork does wonders for scrambling an egg with much less mess than a whisk, I might add.  When the pan's at the ideal temperature, the eggs will "set" on the bottom very quickly when poured into the pan, so during those first few moments, it's critically important to keep the pan moving.  If done properly, the eggs will set up on their bottom but not stick (remember, move the pan around, shaking it in a slightly circular motion)--and then it's time to quickly add any fixings before the omelet cooks through!

I had the mushrooms ready, along with a few grinds of black pepper and some crumbles of goat cheese; these went in, and then with the assistance of a spatula, I flipped the omelet over in half and let it cook a few seconds more--then off onto the plate.  Voila!  Mine also included some prosciutto, something off-limits to pescetarian Beth; had we a bit of smoked salmon, she'd have gotten that.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Papillons on Parade: Pupsters Picnic in the Tidal Basin in DC

Beth and I don't make it into DC every year for the cherry blossoms, but the fantastic weather made this year a must-see, so I packed a picnic supper and loaded Didi, Chance, and Mr. Parker into the car and met Beth in Vienna after her late-afternoon petsitting appointment for the drive into the District.

In the early 20th century, the mayor of Tokyo gifted the United States with flowering cherry trees as a gesture of the then-growing friendship between Japan and the United States; the trees were planted all along the Tidal Basin near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where late every March they provide a fantastic show of natural beauty.  Tracking the cherry blossoms ("sakura" in Japanese) as they bloom from the south to north through Japan is a national pastime there, and the National Cherry Blossom Festival each year in D.C. is likewise a huge tourist draw.

Indeed, fighting the crowds can be something of a nightmare, but going on Easter Sunday in the late afternoon seemed a decent bet to dodge some of the tourists (not to mention that the much-warmer-than-usual weather had the blossoms peak several days early--the leaves were beginning to show through on several of the earlier-blooming "indicator" trees already).

We've been in to see the cherry blossoms times when we needed a coats, gloves, and hats, and times when the wind has ripped across the Potomac like a frozen knife, so a clear early evening in the low 70s was really about as perfect as weather as I've ever seen this time of year here, and the dogs were thrilled to get out for an expedition (Didi started celebrating and leaping around as soon as she saw me filling up their water bottle at home).

Beth took Chance and Mr. Parker, while I had Didi and my camera gear (and our supper on my back).  It was something of a hike from where we parked (East Potomac Park) back to the Tidal Basin proper, but with landmarks always in sight, navigating was pretty easy: the Jefferson Memorial straight ahead, and the Washington Monument just across the basin.

We ran into another Papillon owner and had a chat for a while; I managed to keep Didi under control (and less barky than usual) for most of the walk, even when she passed a big hound dog--though there was no stopping her barking at the poodle, a dog for which Didi shares her Daddi's disdain.  What was really amazing was the number of tourists who wanted to stop and even asked us to pose with the Papillon!  I think we tried to get them all three to sit together in the middle of a crowded thoroughfare and all look at the camera ... well, at least six or seven times that I recall.  One Indian gentleman prodded his teenaged daughters to go pose with the dogs, despite the fact the girls were clearly terrified of dogs (hopefully they learned not all dogs are bad, and that even those who bark, are likely lacking in the bite department).

I managed nonetheless to get several great photos, inspiring me to want to make a return trip later (sans pupsters) to simply walk the National Mall at the right times of day to get some great shots.  I have to think of a good time to do so: May, perhaps?  When kids aren't yet on vacation, the weather not yet boiling hot.  But even whilst managing one Papillon and providing moral support for two others, I still managed several nice shots of the Jefferson Memorial.

We stopped in the middle of a field to have our picnic lunch, but unfortunately a couple of joggers cutting through (the pupsters hate joggers), then a small child running toward them, had all three of them yipping and yapping away.  We did get to enjoy some curried deviled eggs I'd made this morning--can't have Easter without hard-boiled eggs, can you?--as well as a ciabatta-bread sandwich with homemade pesto sauce and cheese, a few grapes, and for me, a nibble of prosciutto.  Before we could have our dessert, though, the doggies were out of control, and it was time to bag things up and head for home.

On the way back, several more groups asked for pictures with the doggies.  At one point, Chance got away from Beth and chased a cyclist a heart-stopping 20 feet or so right alongside the busy street--fortunately, he was recovered with no harm,  But Chancois! Mr. Poo! Must you scare your mommy like that?

Lucky for Chance (and Beth's cardiovascular system), Chance didn't really think of going into traffic--just after the cyclist who was riding illegally on the sidewalk.  It did curtail my opportunities to get shots of the fantastic twilight reflection on the Tidal Basin, all in the pink of the trees and the red-indigo of the deepening sky at sunset, unfortunately, but that's for another time.

Well, it was a fun day and one which reminded me that it's not all just sprawling suburbs and endourbs piled with high-rise condo towers and offices with their on-premises trendy shopping options.  And its not just the natively-gardened corner of the neighborhood we're building one step at a time to flow into the nearby nature preserve.  No, there's history, and a beauty in what humans have done which isn't strictly nature, too.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Planting, Framing, Painting, Framing (A Different Kind), Wiring, Writing (Or: Where Has My Weekend Gone?)

It's been a busy weekend for me at Chateau Papillon (and busy for Beth, period; she's putting in 12-hour-plus days petsitting due to spring break for Fairfax County).  First, the plantings, with all this fantastic weather: two River Birches to join the one we planted in our side yard last year; add to that two Red-twig Dogwood shrubs, a juniper (non-native, unfortunately, but c'est la vie), and three bags of various bulbs.  Oh, and I replanted a tree sapling which had seeded itself along the fence line.  Still to go: the Ninebark, two Blueberry bushes, three Rhodies, two foamflowers, and two Inkberries.  And about 6 sacks of miscellaneous bulbs.  And the little saplings from the Arbor Day Foundation (10x) whenever they come in.

The framing?  I needed mats cut for two 12 x 18" prints, so I picked up a Logan 450 Mat Cutter at AC Moore with a 50% off coupon (making it cheaper than Amazon by about $40, but it can be found more cheaply online than that).  I framed the two photos (one of Fort De Soto Beach at sunset, one of a park in Vicenza, Italy), then moved on to more complicated matting and framed a creepy kitty postcard from Venice (said feline is dressed as a plague "doctor"), doing the 4 x 5.75" postcard in a huge 12 x 16" frame with a black mat.

Painting... well, not as much as I might have wanted so far, but I got out the power paint stirrer for my drill and cracked open a can of the chocolate we used in our hallway... two coats later, and the new thermostat looks like it was always meant to be there--despite all the screw holes I filled and sanded down where the new unit hangs vertically.  Add some general touch-up in the hall as well... I'll say the paint, over a year old now, is on its last legs; within 10 minutes after mixing, it had already begin to separate back out.  That leaves the library wall near the lights witch, as well as the library closet (which is still fuchsia, believe it or not).  And touch-up here and there throughout the rest of the house.  Not to mention the Neptune Suite and painting the exterior block walls, but those latter tasks will have to wait.

Framing again... I'm slowly working on framing in the new wall and doorway which will separate the laundry & storage room from the rest of the basement--once complete, guests staying in the Neptune suite need no longer see our Zombie Preparedness Racks of food bought in bulk and the like, or our grubby laundry sink and the sundry junk (X-mas decorations?) piled around that room.

Wiring... goes with that latter framing.  Two new outlets (one GFCI), a new light fixture, two light switches, and rewiring two fixtures we put in a few weeks ago to get them all on the same breaker.  Still to come: crawling in the attic again before it gets ungodly hot and draws in all the buzzy-bees and creepy-crawlies who have come to life with the coming of Spring.  I've got a ceiling fan and the Library's second fixture to install before weather compromises my ability to work in the attic.

Writing... well, I keep having inspiration to go and put some pen to paper and tackle something really creative--maybe the Torso Man story, or maybe something a little less gruesome.  Instead, I'm pooped and am writing in my blog.

I've left out photos, something quite important, as the Bird Watchers' Digest contributor submissions are due Monday, so I've got tomorrow to get my set together and posted online for BWD with the hopes of having them take (and pay me for) one of this month's.  And I've got to check into the due dates for Virginia Wildlife's contest, and Wild Bird's (which I won last year with my White Ibis--can't enter the amateur category there anymore; sigh).  Not to mention more trip photos to process, bird photos taken around the yard (no time yet for a trip to our favorite birding park, Huntley Meadows; sigh).

And cooking... oh, yes, how can I forget that?  I think I'll have to devote another blog to that alone.

It's been a busy start to the weekend, anyway.