Catching Up on the Food

It's taken me a little while to sit down and actually finish typing this out. I hate to say it but it will probably take me a little longer to get all of the pics finished. They're all downloaded, I just have to format them and upload them. All in good, eh?

Where was I? Oh yes, we had just arrived at the hotel with all of the drama of a police escort, no less. In fact, the hotel itself was crawling with security guys dressed in black-gray-white camouflage wearing black berets. The Soviet Union may be long dead, but its remnants can still be seen here and there. After checking in, my traveling companions, Jacob and Marley, and I decided to freshen up and then go to dinner. Dinner! I could barely contain my excitement. Part of what I love about traveling is trying the local cuisine, something new, something you can't find at home. On the plane I had read about Macedonian food, and how it blends traditional eastern European dishes with both Greek and Turkish influences. Mmmm. But first, a nap.

A short nap and a refreshing shower were just what the doctor ordered. That and a growling stomach, time to find food. I met Jacob and Marley in the lobby and off we went. Unfortunately, on a Sunday not much was open, but the staff at the front desk pointed us to the large open air mall behind the hotel. Our chances of finding an open kitchen would be greater if we concentrated our efforts there. So we walked out into the balmy, comfortable, Macedonian evening in search of delicacies with which to fill our outspoken bellies.

The mall was very much like any mall you would find in America, the only exception being that I couldn't read a single word. But the idea came across loud and clear just the same. Capitalism is alive and well in the former Soviet bloc. But our guts still rumbled. We passed pizza shops, italian eateries wafting rich aromas of thick tomato sauces, sandwich shops, but nothing authentically Macedonian. Everything had been transplanted from the west. But we perservered. We turned a corner and met a row of cafes along the river Vardar. Our mouths watered. What tasty treats awaited us in these cafes. But it was not to be so, these cafes were merely trendy watering holes, a delightful place to grab a drink, light up a cigarette, and chat about the goings-on with livejasmin friends.

Racked by hunger, the ugly American reared its ugly head within Marley. He was now a man on a mission. "Enough of this foreign food," he exclaimed. "Where's the American food?" And as if, by providence, an Irish bar appeared around the next corner. Marley, a consummate beer connossieur, rejoiced and danced a gig. He forged ahead, parting the late-night drinking crowd like the Red Sea, and planted his flag in the middle of the pub. Apparently we had found our eatery for the evening. Although our stomachs were sated, I was a little disappointed.

The next day at lunch we were turned loose on downtown Skopje to find something to eat. Surely, exploring the city in daylight would lead to the discovery of a treasue trove of delectable dishes. Jacob, Marley, and I walked the sidewalk by the river. My eyes were scanning the storefronts for menus and the tables for plates. Unfortunately, while I was looking, Marley was leading and he made a beeline straight for the Irish pub. In my mind, I rationalized the decision. We left the conference late and had less than an hour to be back before the next session started. So we ate our second meal at the pub.

The conference day ended around 5PM, and the three of us retired to our separate rooms. I caught a quick nap, and called Jacob when I awoke. We had the entire evening, so why not try and find someplace new to eat. Jacob heartily agreed, and he phoned Marley. Within ten minutes we were walking down the street again. I was searching for restaurants, Jacob was following, and Marley was headed straight for the pub. There was no deterring him. Marley was hellbent on eating only at this single restaurant, none other. The ugly American had found his haven, and, by Jove, he was not going to give it up. By this point, I was starting to feel queasy, and reluctantly I followed Marley to the Irish pub once again. When I sat down, I realized that there was no way my stomach was going to hold beer, not to mention food, so I politely drank a Coke and kept quiet.

The next day, Tuesday, we broke for lunch again. I had met a guy named Oliver about my age from an Air Force unit in Germany, and so I invited him to lunch with us. Jacob and Marley invited a couple of folks they had met, and we all walked out of the hotel together. It took me two minutes to realize that we were headed to the Irish pub. Again. Four meals. In a row. At the Irish pub. It was too much. I turned to Oliver and said, "This is the fourth meal we have eaten here in a row. The food is a bad knock-off of Irish-American food. We should go somewhere else."

And we did. We walked further down the river and hung a left, walking towards the city center. Soon we found ourselves in an Italian restaurant, but after a quick look through the menu, it was obvious this restaurant served an eclectic mix of Italian and more traditional dishes. What luck! I ordered chicken with tomatoes and olives, and Oliver ordered chicken curry over macaroni (at least it smelled better than it looked). When the waitress set the plate down in front of me, I couldn't believe my eyes. Two full-size chicken breasts with tomatoes and olives, potatoes, rice, orzo, carrots, and peas. It was huge! I slowly started on the gargantuan meal in front of me, but before long I was thoroughly defeated, and the almost full plate stared back at me, laughing.

On the last day of the conference, the morning broke for lunch. Oliver and I, having nothing to do with the remaining proceedings, decided to take the afternoon off and explore the city. We began our adventure by hunting for someplace new to eat. We walked down the Vardar past the famous 15th-century bridge that is the symbol of Skopje, continuing until we were just shy of the football stadium. There we found a small outdoor grill and cafe. The smell of grilled meat was intoxicating. Entranced by the aroma, we pulled up a couple of chairs to the table and ordered. I requested five mincemeat kabobs with a shops salad, and Oliver asked for a stuffed hamburger with a Greek salad. Within minutes our salads were set in front of us, and we dug in with relish. His salad was a standard Greek salad: chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions with olives and feta cheese. My salad was similar minus the olives and the feta was grated on top of the salad. From what I could tell, the dressings were slightly different too, but I couldn't tell you what exactly made them unique. I wolfed down my salad and sat comfortably, watching the world go by, when our entrees arrived. On my plate were five hunks of grilled mincemeat, which is ground beef with any number of spices mixed in. I had read that this dish, in particular, exuded the Turkish influence over the region. Oliver's stuffed hamburger was a patty of the same mincemeat as big as his hand, and it was stuffed with gooey, melted cheese and bacon. You just can't go wrong there. It was delicious, exactly what the doctor ordered before a long day of exploring. Yum.

Everything changes eventually

To break from the monotony of studying and let her mind wander free, Lizzi has requested that we Tivo and watch every single episode of Dawson's Creek currently running in syndication. What's funny is that she wasn't the Creek fan the first time around. I was. I admit it, I was addicted to Dawson's Creek for many a year, and I still think Joey and Pacey belong together. Damn it!

The other day we were watching Joey and Jack fumble through their first kiss while Dawson and Jen were playing a no-questions-asked game of tonsil hockey when the record needle scratched across the vinyl soundtrack playing in my head: Both Joey and Jen are (going to be) mothers! In real life! Believe me, this realization disturbs me as much as you, and almost as much as realizing that Jen Lindley took it up the hoo-hoo from Ennis Del Mar. But that is the god-awful truth. These boys from the Creek grow up fast. And now their going to have their own kids. I feel like it was just yesterday that they were spouting PhD-candidate psychobabble that made my head hurt.

At least Jen had the good sense to marry a real sheep-herding man and not a couch-jumping elf.

Just one and apparently four days. Yikes!

What started as a gloomy, nigh Sixteen Candles moment ended as one of the best weekends in recent memory. Yes, I spent my birthday without the Scoobs and feeling pretty low. But that doesn't mean that there were not great things afoot. Friday night I joined Dan and Steph for a drink before hitting the movies. They were also bidding "bon voyage" to one of their friends from law school who is moving to Arizona. Lizzi and I haven't known Dan and Steph all that long, but somehow they seem to have keyed in on our personalities with precision. For my birthday they got me a gift certificate for a night of go-kart racing. How sweet is that!

From the bar I walked up the street to the movie theater to watch Syriana. Damn, that is a kickass flick. George Clooney is incredible; I've never seen him so pudgy, but he's fantastic. I have to say though, that as much as I loved this film, it made me feel really uneducated about the effects of globalization and the United States's influence on global politics and business. If you think the U.S. is out of the chaturbate business of rigging national elections and eliminating worrisome reformers, this film will make you think again. I have to agree with Kevin Smith that this is the one film this year that made me realize I don't know shit. Finally, there is a scene towards the end of the film that is near and dear to my heart. Watch for it and remember it's the silver Range Rover with the sunroof. This has been a big year for Clooney, producing not one but two award-winning films. I hope he stays the course of directing, producing, and acting hard-hitting, worthwhile films.

Saturday morning I woke up bright and early to be greeted by a recently recalcitrant sun. I showered and got ready because I had a class to get to. In true Lizzi form, she got me a photography class for Christmas. Nothing extravagant, just three Saturdays during the winter. The class was fantastic, exactly what I've been looking for. It's not a technical photography course, obsessed with f-stops and light meters. Rather it's a course devoted to making you think about your audience's response when they look at your pictures, what they perceive, and how that can help you take a better picture. Of course, as is the norm for me, I was the youngest person in the class by 15-20 years. The next youngest person was most interested in taking better pictures of her son's high school football games. The next youngest person wanted to learn to take better snapshots of her grandkids. Oh, and flowers. As luck would have it, the instructor is going to dive much more into what I want to learn rather than trying to teach us how to pose bratty four year-olds. I'm really excited, and I can't wait for next Saturday.

After class I packed a bag and drove to Beantown to rescue Lizzi from her bar preparation course. I only got to save her for one night, but what a great night. She booked us a room at the swank Boston Park Plaza and a reservation at Bonfire, the steakhouse downstairs. The food was exceptional, and the atmosphere was young and trendy, two elements tough to find in Portland. We plowed our way through spicy tuna tartare tacos, a filet mignon and a ribeye, and a to-die-for chocolate cake, barely taking a moment to sip our jalapeno martinis.

With our bellies full, we retired upstairs. And promptly fell asleep. But at 2:21AM the most annoying sound in the world shattered our exhausted dreams. I swear to god, I thought the world was coming to an end with that klaxon. But soon the wailing siren was replaced by a perfectly calm voice telling us to 'Get the fuck out of your rooms and down the stairs 'cause we're all gonna DIE.' Yeah, evacuate the hotel. At 2:21 in the morning. We calmly dressed ourselves; Lizzi made sure she had her bar study materials, and we left the room and walked to the stairs. But the stairs were jammed with groggy people. We slowly made our way down flight after flight. It took fifteen minutes and we made it five floors. From the 14th to the 9th. Reassuring if ever there was a fire. As it happened, we made it to the ninth floor, and the fire department sounded the all-clear. We stumbled back to our room and had no problem falling back to sleep.

The next morning Lizzi woke up at some god-awful hour and went to class. I woke up at a much more reasonable hour and checked out. I then met Jason, Cris, and Julie for lunch. We walked around Boston Common, looking for a little lunch place. We strolled past the Bull & Finch, you know Cheers, which any Bostonian will tell you is shite. And finally we settled on Bella Vita, a cozy Italian eatery where we munched on humongous sandwiches and bowls of chowder and greedily spooned gelato and tiramisu into our mouths. We chatted and joked for a while. Julie had some work to do, so she went home, and J, Cris, and I went looking for some fun. We thought about seeing a movie, but nothing was playing at the right times, and so we walked around, looking for a Barnes & Noble before heading back to the hotel lobby to wait for Lizzi.

But wait, the weekend doesn't stop there. After saying good-bye to Jason and Cris, we drove north to Portsmouth, where we stopped to grab a bite to eat. Lizzi was craving comfort food, so we went back to The Friendly Toast. That place has the best food, and its shabby-chic appeal is part of its charm. Finally, we hit the road, crossed the border to Maine, and landed at home. I'm telling ya, it could not have been a better weekend.