tiki, teardrops and true confessions

tiki noIt must be a rite of passage to get your ass kicked by tiki drinks while visiting Los Angeles. The task was not hard to accomplish, what with a happy hour cocktail at the Roosevelt Hotel, huge beers with dinner, and a stop at the Rainbow for a whiskey soda and some jukebox glam beforehand. More reasonable humans might have called it a night at that point, but it was only 8:30! And this particular tiki bar was in walking (er, stumbling) distance from my friend T’s apartment.

But if you’ll permit me, let’s backtrack to Thanksgiving. In the dinner afterglow, perhaps three glasses of wine in the rear view mirror and tryptophan coursing through my veins, I found myself on facebook chatting with an old college pal who was visiting home from LA. We briefly toyed with the idea of trying to get together, but the timing wasn’t going to work. He suggested that I should just visit him in California, and in my warm and fuzzy and expansive postprandial state, I found myself thinking that was a great idea. A few keystrokes on my phone, and I had a ticket.

Mind you, I hadn’t seen T in about ten years, not since his wedding reception when he still lived in Chicago. Back when I was in school at Michigan State, I used to visit him there fairly regularly, taking the EL to the resale shops in Boystown or poking around Andersonville’s coffee houses and junk stores while he was at work. In the evenings, we’d go to dive bars, drink shitty beer and see bands play. Occasionally, his band would have a show, and I’d sing along in the front row.

Ten years later though, did we still have anything in common? I pondered this somewhat nervously as the trip approached. We were both unattached and had recently gone through divorces, so there was that. But we hadn’t really kept in touch since he’d moved (and even for a decent period before that), and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Girlfriends inquired excitedly whether there were any “romantic possibilities” for my trip; I answered quite honestly that I had no idea.

detroit streetMy first afternoon in town, as we wandered the streets of Hollywood at sunset, I kept seeing bits of home everywhere I looked… Berry Gordy’s star on the Walk of Fame; a sign for Detroit Street; a guy in a Tigers t-shirt. As it turned out, by this time there was someone back home who was tugging at my heartstrings like a cheap ukelele, and as much as I was enjoying the California sunshine, I couldn’t help but have him (and by extension, the city I associated with him) in my thoughts. Naturally I thought the best way to deal with this was with a cocktail.

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time place taste memory

Taste and memory are tricky, shape-shifting things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a bottle of wine that I thought was stunningly good, only to drink the same wine at a later point in time and be completely underwhelmed. Of course, wine is a living, natural product that changes and morphs and develops, but there is a reasonable expectation that with any given vintage (assuming proper storage), variations won’t be too drastic from one bottle to the next.

I often wonder how much of a factor external circumstances are to how much food or wine is enjoyed. I believe the experiences tied up with consuming a bottle of wine at a given point in time- company, atmosphere, mood, etc.- can clearly skew one’s perceptions for better or worse. My friend J just got back from a two-week trip to France which he spent touring vineyards and meeting winemakers; I can’t help but think that those wines will taste better to him than someone who didn’t have that experience, because of the positive associations they’ll call to mind.

mas p'alla

Recently I decided to open up two bottles of wine that I brought back from a trip to Spain, where I was lucky enough to meet the winemaker and tour his winery and vineyards. I remember being really taken with these wines at the time, and the whole story of how we met Antonio made the three bottles we were able to fit in our luggage seem precious. The trip to Spain wasn’t just any old trip though; it was our honeymoon. We had been saving the bottles to open on occasions like anniversaries, which we did for bottle #1. It tasted every bit as good that night as it did in the bar in Granada where we first sipped it, if not better, and we marveled over how great it was and how lucky we were as we enjoyed a beautiful dinner at home.

Sadly, by the time our second anniversary rolled around, things were not so rosy and we weren’t in such a celebratory frame of mind. By the following summer, M and I were separated. What to do with these two remaining bottles, symbols of our failed happiness? I feared they would taste acrid in my mouth. In the first months after our separation part of me wanted to open them at home alone, drinking to get drunk and wallowing in regret and self-pity, but fortunately I suppressed that urge and just kept them in a pantry out of sight. Continue reading

bodega naranjuez: the natural wines of antonio vílchez

This is a re-post from my old blog, originally published on May 12, 2012, and has been slightly edited from its original version. I wanted to re-post not only because it fits the theme of this new blog, but because I have recently revisited Antonio’s wines and wanted to give some context.

antonio vilchez natural wine vineyards

Wandering Granada’s Albaicín neighborhood on a rainy April afternoon, M and I decided to take shelter in a tiny café called Bar Kiki. We were leery that it would be a tourist trap, as we were adjacent to the mirador San Nicolas (a popular vantage point from which to view the city and Alhambra), but we entered anyway to warm up with a glass of wine and some rabo de toro (oxtail stew). It turned out to be a great little spot, with a friendly bartender who was happy to answer our questions about different drinks and menu items. My chatty inquisitiveness paid off; when a local winemaker came into the bar to make a delivery, the bartender offered to sell us a bottle at their cost. We started talking to the winemaker, Antonio Vílchez, and before we knew it he had invited us to come to his bodega, about 45 minutes away, for a tasting and tour of his vineyards.

wine tasting bodega Spain

The next day we were heading for Córdoba (the exact opposite direction), but decided to take a detour to the east to visit Antonio’s winery. After all, when would we get another chance to have a personal guided tour with a Spanish winemaker? We drove towards Guadix and found our way toward the tiny (300 inhabitants) town of Marchal. On the way into town, we spotted a gypsy caravan on the side of the road, as well as cave dwellings in the surrounding cliff side. After pulling up in front of the tiny ayuntamiento (town hall) and getting some curious looks from the townspeople, we located Antonio and he showed us into his place. The operation was small and unglamorous- he produces a mere 8,000 bottles per year- but it was great to get an inside look at how a small winery operates. Continue reading

a traveling life

Back when I was in my twenties and the dollar was fairly strong against the euro, I tried to get a group of friends together to go to the south of Spain. You could rent beautiful villas in the mountains with infinity pools that overlooked the ocean, huge beautiful rustic kitchens, fireplaces, and patios with outdoor stone ovens, all for about $100 per person per week. Flights were maybe around $700, and food and wine are dirt cheap there, so the whole thing could have been under a thousand bucks. But all of my friends claimed they “couldn’t afford to” go. How was it that I, who was working in a bookstore at the time making $9 an hour, had the cash to make a trip like that but no one else did?

spain landscape A traveling life (assuming you’re not independently wealthy) obviously requires you to make certain budgetary choices. I got really tired of hearing friends say things like “Oh, you’re so lucky” in regards to my various trips. Luck had nothing to do with it- it’s just about priorities. While my peers were busy racking up credit card debt shopping for clothes or going out to eat all the time, I was shopping in thrift stores and bringing my lunch from home as often as possible, then jetting off to Japan or Italy or France or the Pacific Northwest. My friend P is even more extreme than I in his dedication to experiential pursuits. He loves to drink good wine and eat good food (I consider these to also fall under the category of experiences in that they’re transient pleasures), and to that end, he forgoes owning a car, among other things. I’m not passing judgment on anyone who makes different choices than I do, but please don’t attribute my lifestyle to luck. Incidentally, science is on our side: studies have shown that people who spend money on experiences over material possessions are generally happier.

My favorite way to travel on the cheap these days is to troll Kayak’s explore function. You just put in your departure city, and it produces a map of the world with the cheapest ticket prices that people have purchased within the last 48 hours. It’s great if you don’t necessarily have a destination in mind. Detroit doesn’t always have the most attractive international fares, so one day last July I was fooling around and thought I’d put Toronto as a departure city, just to see what came up. Lo and behold, I see this little speck in the middle of the Atlantic that says “$283”. I zoom in, and discover it’s an island chain called the Azores lighthouse on the northern coast of san miguel island, azores, portugalthat are part of Portugal. Less than 24 hours later, I had convinced my friend A to join me, and we booked tickets for a week in October. My favorite part about this story is that I took a screenshot of the ticket price and posted it to Facebook, which resulted in a chain reaction of sharing, and something like 15 people ended up going to the Azores from Detroit in October and November! I’ve also seen flights to Istanbul and Marrakesh for around $500 that I had to pass up because it was bad timing with work (those places are both on the short list though for my next big trip). But the point being, if you have a flexible schedule and are open to seeing what’s out there, you can get some great deals.My latest travel purchase was a flight to New Orleans for $70 round trip. I mean, that’s less than the price of a pair of jeans. I’ll be there in just a few weeks with my business partner, who is like-minded enough that she agreed we should consider this a “business retreat” and pay for it on the company card. (It’s still my money, but at least it’ll be a tax write-off!)

I never got to rent that villa with friends in Andalusia, but I did go there in 2012 and fell head over heels in love with the region. I’m not giving up on the villa dream! It’s certainly more expensive now, but I still think deals can be had if you share a big house with 6-8 people. Alternate locations could include a seaside house in Turkey, Morocco or the south of France. Who’s in?

P.S. As of this writing, you can still get ultracheap tickets to the Azores from Toronto on Sata Airlines. Tickets for April are even cheaper than the ones I bought!

act like you like it

“That’s Jillian,” the woman at the bar said reverently. “Do you recognize her? She’s been in so many things, like, I can’t even turn on the TV without seeing Jillian, but she’s always stressing that she isn’t getting enough work. She’s in the Jack-in-the-Box commercials, you must’ve seen those, right?”

No, I said apologetically, we don’t have Jack-in-the-Box where I live and I don’t actually even have a TV. (I did mention that I watch stuff occasionally on Netflix and Hulu so as not to offend her and/or come off as a complete Luddite.) She nodded distractedly, mentally dismissing me and calculating how long she had to sit with me to be polite before taking her leave to go chat with the fabulous Jillian and her other industry friends.

One of the great things about travel is getting to know the particular cultures of different cities, and the best way to do this is, of course, by hanging out with a local. While in LA I had the pleasure of staying with an old friend who, while from the Midwest originally, has lived in LA for 8+ years. Many of his friends are in the entertainment business, so I got a small but interesting glimpse into that subculture while visiting.

While T was living in Chicago in the mid-’90s, he became friends and bandmates with actor Eddie Jemison (Oceans 11/12/13; Hung; the Bud Lite “Yes I Am” commercials, among other stuff). At the time T moved to LA, Eddie had already been there for a few years, and the two reconnected to form another band with Vance DeGeneres (brother of Ellen) and another guy, Dave Gibbs, who I didn’t get to meet. As luck would have it, they were playing a show during my visit to celebrate the release of Eddie’s directorial debut King of Herrings, which he also wrote and starred in with his lovely wife Laura. It was at this show that the above exchange took place.

Luckily that night, through the magic of Tinder (T’s, not mine), I got to meet another really amazing woman named Lulu who sat with me through the show. She’d had a date with T and showed up to the bar solo, so I got to chat with her while T’s band was playing. Her playful eyes and adorable bleach-blonde hair, cropped ultrashort save for a cute wavy forelock that stuck up in front, belied her 47 years. We gabbed about men and divorce and sex and heartbreak and possibility in the way that only two strangers can (the gin and tonics didn’t hurt). Her ex-husband was in the entertainment business but not her, and she seemed pretty blasé about the whole thing- it was just a job. It was nice to talk to someone whose eyes weren’t roaming sideways to see who else they could be talking to that was more important.

The upside to T’s connections with the acting world was that we got invited to a private reading in the Brentwood home of a lovely couple who are part of Eddie’s weekly acting group. Their friend Champ Clark, a writer for People, is also a playwright and  wanted to try out some material with a live audience. We sat on folding chairs in the dining room and watched maybe a dozen short plays read aloud, performed without the aid of props, costume or staging; it was one of the coolest theater experiences I’ve ever had. T admitted that he probably wouldn’t have attended if I hadn’t been in town, but was glad he did. The material was laugh-out-loud funny for the most part, with some more serious and/ or surreal scenes woven in. After the reading, we ate, had some wine and mingled with the actors, who were of all ages, shapes and sizes. It was a completely unpretentious crowd and very welcoming to a stranger.

Before I visited LA for the first time in 2000, I hadn’t had any great desire to go there; I’d imagined it as this place where everyone was phony and plastic, i.e. not the type of place where I’d fit in or enjoy myself much. Both times I’ve been there, I’ve definitely encountered those types of people, but it was the overwhelming minority. Shame on me- kind of like someone assuming everyone from Detroit is a blue collar line worker or nerdy engineer. I should be so lucky to go back and get another first hand peek into a fascinating and worthy art form.

Eddie (bottom row, second from left) and his acting group. Photo credit Angela Gollan.
Eddie (bottom row, second from left) and his acting group. Photo credit Angela Gollan.

watts towers

watts 1Watts Towers rise up out of the surrounding working-class neighborhood like a fist pumped heavenward in victory. Amongst run-down ranch houses and dead-end streets, they sit serenely and proudly, a confection of concrete spun like sugar. Despite graffiti that proliferates elsewhere in Watts, the Towers remain untouched; rightfully respected.
watts 4Back when I worked at Book Beat, I’d seen pictures of the Towers many times in folk art or outsider art books and been intrigued–I’m a sucker for anything with mosaic or tile work, so right off the bat, the site appealed to me. When T and I found ourselves not terribly far away after an afternoon at Venice Beach, we decided to go check it out. watts 3

I’m not sure any photograph could have prepared me for how astonishing and moving this structure is in person. As someone who dabbles in creative pursuits in my spare time, it was both inspirational and incredibly humbling (like, who the F am I, this guy was the real deal). The towers’ creator, Simon Rodia, was an Italian immigrant and day laborer who worked on the project over the course of 33 years (1921-1954); pretty much any second not given over to work or bodily functions was dedicated to their construction. He created what he called nuestro pueblo, “our town”, partly out of scrap found along the railroad tracks, and would walk up to 20 miles up and down the tracks for materials. The towers were built solely with hand tools, no machinery. The dedication and perseverance it took to realize his vision are virtually unknown in this day and age, a sobering thought to those of us quasi-addicted to the instant gratification of blogging, instagram, etc. Not appreciated and even at risk of being torn down in the 1960s, the work is now being maintained and restored.
watts 2We weren’t able to actually enter the site, but had to content ourselves with viewing it through a fence. It’s beautiful and strange and awesome and I can only imagine sitting inside and staring up through the towers from within. Please do yourself a favor and visit this place if you’re anywhere nearby; photos don’t do justice to the actual experience. Read more about Watts Towers at the official website or on Wikipedia. Particularly fascinating is the religious ritual performed in Rodia’s home town and from which it is speculated that he took his inspiration.

watts 8
watts 9

venice in january

hare krishna van in venice CA

The boardwalk at Venice Beach is a maelström of humanity. T has informed me in the car that we will most definitely see a guy with a snake, and true to his word, the very first street performer we see wields a slithering sidekick. Approaching from Windward Ave, we pass some inviting restaurants and cafés which give way to a grotesque but expected series of tourist shops blaring pop music and hawking the usual t-shirts, sunglasses and other tchotch, as well as a number of marijuana outlets whose dreadlocked proprietors vie for our dollars like old-time medicine men.

“How are you feeling? Good? I can show you how to feel AMAZING…”

“Wanna kiss the sky?” (or maybe it was “this guy”?)

We make our way to the skate park directly ahead, and marvel at the lithe movements of these ratty young men, who, like all talented performers, make their craft look so easy. Torsos stay erect while hips gyrate to the curves of the concrete bowl. I try not to stare too much, but it’s mesmerizing.

The water is calling me, so we head across the expanse of sand. Giddy as a child, I roll up my jeans, take off shoes and socks and head for the water. T warns me to be careful, look out for needles. It spoils the moment just a little. I stand with the waves lapping my feet, staring into the surf and marveling at the fact that it’s JANUARY and I’m wearing a T-SHIRT and I’m BAREFOOT in the OCEAN!

Sadly, probably due in part to being a little hung over, we have not planned well and have neglected to bring a blanket or books or other sorts of things that one would want handy if one were to pass an afternoon on the beach. This causes me a fair bit of mental anguish, as there is nothing I want more at this moment than to doze off on the sand with the sun caressing my bare arms. Such is life. I focus on the positive (the BEACH! WINTER! T-SHIRT!) and we head back to the boardwalk.

We perform the ritual tourist walk-and-gawk. A man has trained his dog to lie prone while wearing a hot pink lamé bikini, which has dollar bills tucked in and around it. I don’t know whether to be amused or feel sorry for the poor beast. Awful art mingles with even awful-er art and a smattering of decent art. Buskers range from angelic waifs with sunken eyes and clear trembling timbres, to puffy middle aged men tunelessly belting out minor hits of the eighties. Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-ah his stride.

As we stroll on, observing the motley assortment of artists, performers, shysters, freaks and just plain beggars, I marvel at how anyone gets by. Practical me queries: aren’t tourist dollars more apt to be parted with in exchange for a “show” of some sort? How do the homeless and talentless survive? But survive they do, and in droves. Our nostrils are assaulted in a steady stream by the stench of the unbathed. A small parade of Koreans with placards marches past. “Come to Jesus!” exhorts the group’s leader, and the rest of the group echoes in a call and response. “Cooooome tooooo Jeeeeeesus!”

We agree that nothing we’ve seen today can top that, so after fueling up with lunch from a hole-in-the-wall Peruvian joint, we decide we may as well call it a day. The hustlers and hippies and hijinx of the boardwalk will remain as ever, should we choose to return.