Category Archives: Adventures of Pinka!

More Than I EXpected

More Than I EXpected

Having looked at the schedule online ahead of time I didn’t really have high hopes for the CNE this year. The vendor list also seemed really short. I pinned all my hopes on food. No mardi gras parade. No aerial acrobatics/ice show. What was going on? Was it just not updated. I held out hope until the day we arrived and got day-of schedules. No luck. On the plus side, we wouldn’t have to rush lunch and we could go to the 4:30pm Super Dogs show instead (as opposed to the 6pm one which was always really busy with the after 5 crowd).

I had a heck of a list of food items to look out for. I had more than I could eat. More than I could eat even with the help of whoever I could rope into it. But every year there are things I can’t find so it makes sense to have a long list.

The day started off relaxed. I stopped in at the Food Building for a red licorice donut from Tim Hortons (every year I leave Timmie’s for alter and every year it is too damn busy). This was actually my first time getting a wacky Timmie’s CNE donut. I tried to order a box of the pink lemonade Timbits but the lady said they only sold them in packs of 20- we had a long day of eating ahead of us and that was way too many Timbits). I passed through the Arts & Crafts building in search of my beloved coffee. It’s ironic, the name of the place is the Wandering Bean yet they are the most stable thing for me at the CNE, they have always been in the same spot.

I cannot believe how hot it was in the little rooms in the Kids Zone. All they had going was a small fan mounted on the wall, no air-conditioning. It was stifling in there. I lasted maybe 10 minutes before I had to get out of there, Camilla Adrian & Alexis would catch up to us later. Plus it was time to go meet my mom and sister by the fountain (the usual). The CNE sign had been moved to the Prince’s Gates and in it’s place, the fountain was surrounded by 12 raccoon sculptures, further cementing Toronto as a raccoon-obsessed city. I was actually glad to not see the ostriches in the Farm Building- they always seem kind of sad in their high-fence pen. The llamas delivered hilarity as per usual. As we finished up, Alexis went to get a pizza from the Food Building, everyone chowed down outside- except me. I was holding out for the Food Building’s more wacky offerings. I was a bit worried that I’d be eating alone.

We worked up an appetite in the Arts & Crafts building, being able to dedicate more time to to it as we were not rushing for the aerial & acrobatics show this year. We hemmed and hawed over at the seafood spread stand, eventually settling on coming back for it at the end of the night so it wouldn’t go bad during the day (plus it would be less to carry). We also visited my favourite CNE vendor, Carmicheal for my yearly purchase of summer sausage. The guy claimed to remember me and that just made me like them even more. They also got shunted to end-of-the-night-purchases, it would be too much to carry.

FINALLY. It was lunch time, my time to shine. I settled on the pho fries for lunch because it seemed like the easiest to share and least wacky of all the items on my list. I was saving the wackier stuff for later when Brent would be joining us. The premise of pho fries was that it was pho, but instead of noodles it was fries with beef and green onions and bean sprouts. It was good. Except towards the end I was getting tired of eating fries so I just ate the rest of the toppings, leaving behind some sad fries. For dessert: deep-fried Ferrero Rocher. It had not been on my list, I just happened across it when I was looking for deep-fried avocado (which got bumped for this).

Satiated and overheated, we piled onto the tram and went over to the At Home and International Pavilions. We had about 2-2.5 hours before it was time for the dog show. Of course we all went for the plant vendor, like moths to a flame. Air plants are so pretty, and every year I swear that THIS is the year. This is the year when I won’t end up killing all my airplants. I also wanted to get some bamboo shoots, but they weren’t even selling them. So instead I got a little cactus to replace the one I had over-watered.

The At Home Pavilion was very underwhelming, way less vendors. It was even worse in the International Pavilion. Pretty much none of our usual go-to’s were there, no Sri Lankan tea, no Polish amber jewelry. The warehouse section was cut in half and there was no Bluenotes or kitchen supply stores. I had my heart set on those two. We finished up in no time. We went to the Colombian coffee place and sat outside on the reduced-size midway and moped. So far this was one of our most disappointing CNE years. After the dog show at 4:30 we would have very little left to do. Camilla left and we lined up for the dogs, except even that was not so busy. We got amazing seats without having to wait for very long so I guess that was a plus? The dog show turned things around, how could it not?

We spent some more time going through the makeup warehouse and the International Pavilion as we waited for Brent. Once he found us we headed over to the Silk Lantern display. On the way we found another plant shop, kind of hidden within the At Home Pavilion. They had bamboo!! I also ended up getting a money tree with the hopes of not killing it. We took a mini detour to look at prize-winning house plants in the horticultural section and it put me to shame. The size and voluminousness of the plant put me to shame.

The lanterns were awesome, as was to be expected, given they were awesome last year as well. We had a pit stop at the Food Building. Lucy was after her traditional corn dog. Brent and I had other plans. After a few failed attempts at finding food (read: every time I asked at the info desk where the vendor was I was told somewhere in the midway) we eventually settled on veal tacos from SanFrancesco. What is a veal taco you may ask? A taco that has for it’s shell a breaded veal cutlet. A+ for creativity BUT it was hard to eat, despite how delicious it was. We also jumped on the bandwagon and had a “beyond meat burger” from Bubs Burgers. For a non-meat burger it was actually pretty good and it was the closest to a real burger we had ever tasted (as opposed to: portobello mushroom, black beans, tofu). From there we slowly made our very tired way over to the Arts & Crafts building for our end of day purchases. Except it wasn’t end of day for Brent and I. We backtracked to the Farm Building so he could see all the animals.

And then it was time to eat again! This time we divvied up the midway stands. Brent stood in line waiting for our deep-fried Kit Kats, I went off in search of R&Js pizza for a slice of dill pickle pizza (it has ranch instead of tomato sauce). Somehow we missed each other on the midway and I had to backtrack to our meeting spot: the bar with the Muskoka chairs (something beach.*). They had a secret menu item: frozen sangria slush. I was all about that! Alas, it was all sold out. I had to settle for a berry vodka slush which was still god. And necessary, between the Kit Kats and the pizza I needed a drink. The pizza was surprisingly good and possibly the best item of the 2019 CNE. The Kit Kat was also pretty damn good. It had thankfully been broken up into the four parts as opposed to being served as a whole.

We ventured further into the midway in search of a Tokyo street dog, and if I couldn’t find that, then a hot Cheetos encrusted corn dog. A guy from a wacky hotdog vendor offered us a sample but as I realized it was not the right place, I asked him if he knew where Street Dogs was. He stared at me blankly, Brent was like he’s a competing hotdog seller!! Turns out Street Dogs was just opposite. Oops. Our last menu item of the night was a tempura battered hotdog with kewpie mayonnaise, teriyaki sauce and strips of seaweed. It was delicious, save for the too-chewy seaweed. Bordering on nauseatingly full, we wandered back towards the streetcars through the midway. I kept shaking my head saying no no nope, at all the roller coasters. I just don’t get it. We stopped at a game where you had to hang from a bar for 1min50s to win a prize. It was hilarious seeing the overly confident guys walk up and be like I got this, only to see their face contort seconds later in agony. It felt like an old-timey fun fair, gawking at people.

*Beach Bar. I was close.

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Posted by on September 3, 2019 in Adventures of Pinka!, CNE, Fooding


How Can Cake Betray Me So?!

I must admit, I was super psyched at the prospect of getting a cake from Bake Shoppe and devouring it for no reason other than it being voted the best cake. I’ve had their baked goods before and their cupcakes (from when they were still called Wedding Cake Shoppe). My excitement only grew when I saw that the vanilla buttercream cake was plastered with little rainbow sprinkles.

I was supposed to sit through an entire dinner at Bar Isabel with this cake, awaiting my bites, just siting beside me? Oh boy, I had my work cut out for me. I (half) joked about Ubering home after dinner.

Bar Isabel had been voted best bone marrow. Not exactly a foodstuff that is at the forefront of my mind nor something I would actively seek out. We’ve had it multiple times in the past and yes it was delicious. But what makes bone marrow delicious is moreso the seasonings and all of the accouterments. Not the  bone marrow itself.

Bar Isabel was busy, as would be expected. But the service was exceptionally slow. Oddly though it did not bother me too much, as the drink service was not as slow. By the time I had finished my first drink our server was back to take our food order. And an order for a second round of drinks. I had enough time to really thoroughly read over the drinks menu. I settled on drink #1 being a house cocktail, drink #2 being a seasonal (in this case winter) cocktail and if there was time drink #3 would be a featured sherry. It made perfect sense. I was initially tempted by a fruity sour beer but when I had Brent look up the label for me I recognized it as one I’d had before.

We started out with the cheese and meat plate. The winner of the four was clearly the manchego cheese. We were voraciously hungry, and needless to say the dish did not last very long. Nor did my drink. By the time our server came around to clear the plates I ordered a glass of the sherry, making that drink #3 when only one of the three dishes we had ordered came out.

The bone marrow was alright but nowhere near the calibre of what we had at Pinky’s Ca Phe or at Ici Bistro. Towards the end it just became too much for my poor recovering teeth, having to chomp through all that sourdough bread. I was about ready to give up on Bar Isabel when our final dish, the pork jowl came out. Sweetmotherofgod, it was up there as one of the top pork dishes I have ever had. It was spicy and so flavourful and moist and perfectly seasoned. Everything about it was outstanding, so much so that I claimed as taking both first and second place- it was that good.

We transited home as it was getting late (dinner took longer than expected) and it was awkward to carry a cake so far. Yet all along the way I got so many compliments on our pretty cake. I bit into it with very high expectations- which promptly crashed down around me. Yes there were speckles of real vanilla. But that’s about where the positive aspects end. The cake itself was dense which did not pair well with the oh-so-heavy buttercream. How could anyone think that was better than Bakerbots?! I am bewildered.


Hot Springs Weekender: Day 3

Sun. Jan. 14, 2018:
White Sulphur Springs, WV to Charlotte, NC to Toronto:

I woke up at 9am and assumed that Brent was just hiding in the bathroom, so as not to disturb me while I slept. I had heard him rustling about earlier. Except once I woke up I realized he had gone running, duh. I was excited to head to the upper lobby for morning coffee except when I looked at the schedule to confirm I realized, to my horror, that coffee was only served from 6-9am. Who does that?! Who serves coffee so early and stops so short?! Accordingly, the line at the café was long. I was in a rush, I had left the hotel room at the start of a commercial break during yet another SYTTD marathon. I got a caramel latte and a glazed donut and rushed back to the room. I was fairly certain I had seen that episode before anyways. The next one was also old but I was 75% sure I had not seen it before. The old episodes really make me appreciate how much better the show has gotten.

When Brent got back we still had 45 minutes before checkout, enough time for a game of bowling. The scoring mechanism was broken so we kept track on a website appropriately called Bowling Genius. Brent was up first and he started off the game with a strike, setting the bar pretty high. Except that was his only strike. In addition to my only strike I got one spare. The score was 73-62, I won by a margin.

We checked out and went to the café to watch a cooking demonstration. The lady was good at her job, stealthily doing sales pitches as she prepped. At the end we each got to have a slice of spinach-artichoke dip bruschetta (with real parmesan) and I really did learn something. I need new kitchen gadgets. She convinced me I need a microplaner and soft cutting boards. When we handed in our valet ticket we were told it was going to be a 40-minute wait. I wish the people at check-out had said something. It was ok, as we still had a lot of time. I was just in withdrawal from watching SYTTD.

On the drive we passed by a Wendy’s just down the street from the hotel. We stopped for an early lunch, not knowing if we would be passing anything else easy on the way to the airport. It was a scenic drive to the airport. Every time I saw a road sign for a Chick-Fil-A I would briefly get excited for fooding options and immediately remember that it was Sunday and it was closed. I momentarily fell asleep during the podcast Origins about Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm but I immediately woke up as soon as commercials started.

We stopped at the Circle K gas station. While Brent tried to pump the gas I went inside in search of snacks. I found a plethora of goodies: Butterfinger crisp (the most delicious version of a Butterfinger in existence), Hershey Gold which was a weird peanut butter flavoured chocolate with pretzels in it (the cashier was way too excited about it, it was not that good), caramel M&Ms, spicy sweet chili heat Doritos and stale Halloween Cauldron Skittles (they were only 40 cents! What a deal!). We ended up having to go to a gas station across the street because this one required a zip code.

By the time we got to the airport I was a little bit hungry but not enough for a full meal. My bag had been pulled aside for inspection, I guessed correctly that it was the bags of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee I had stashed at the bottom. Not sure why, but they did swab them. From memory I led us to the Carolina Brewing Co. pub because we could not find it on the map. I had a glass of Alamos Malbec, assuming it was a Texas wine. It was not, it was a not-so-great California wine. Or maybe it was the stale Skittles I was munching on that affected the taste. On the way back to our gate I grabbed an Auntie Anne’s garlic parmesan pretzel, it seemed like just the right snack to tide me over for the rest of the day. Somewhere between sitting in the lounge and boarding the plane I lost my bag of caramel M&Ms. Our flight arrived 25 minutes early in Toronto.


Hot Springs Weekender: Day 2

Sat. Jan. 13, 2018:
Hot Springs, VA to White Sulphur Springs, WV:

It is a shame that we did not have a fridge in our room. The coffee was really good, even though I had to use that fake and gross powdered “creamer” in it. Or else learn to like black coffee? The two combined made for a mediocre but acceptable cup of coffee. Checkout was not until 11am and Brent had woken me up at 9am. We had time to go swimming! The plan was to check out the outdoor pool and then head to the indoor pool. I had deemed it to be not worth it to get a spa treatment to gain access to the serenity pool. Then I looked out the window. It was snowing. So much for the outdoor and serenity pools. We tried to enter the change rooms but apparently those were for the spa patrons. The pool change rooms were down a small set of stairs on the next floor down. It was confusing because we had looked there and the sign just said family change rooms were down there. The pool was very nice, with big windows letting in natural light. You could feel the hot spring water mixing with the pool water. As you swam away from the source the water became colder. Before leaving the pool, we hung out right at the source, where the hot spring water was being fed into the pool via a pretty fountain. It was so nice and warm. I wish the whole pool had been that warm. The change rooms happened to be right next to a door leading to the outside. Poor design, it was so cold and unpleasant. By the time I got to the shower I was shivering. The nozzle was broken so I had to use the other stall.

We packed up and got ready to leave. The plan was to get lunch on the way. The hotel was cashless and you couldn’t express check out if you had charges after 2am. It was not the best system- but then again that was what I had come to expect of the hotel.

It was so cold outside that the doors to the car were frozen (it had been raining when we pulled in the night before). Brent’s half of the king size Milky Way bar that he had left in the car was now frozen. But that is OK, because apparently this is a delicacy and was on our list of foods to try from the book, 1001 Things To Eat Before You Die. I did not get the appeal at all. No stretchy caramel, tooth-hurtingly hard. It was impossible and unpleasant to eat. We planned on having lunch in Covington, VA. Driving in the daytime we finally got to see the beautiful scenery we had missed out on the previous day. We pulled over at a scenic overlook and saw some natural hot springs. I got so excited about it, even though there was a fence between me and the hot springs. As we were driving Brent noticed a walkway leading away from the overlook parking. It would appear there was more to the overlook and it had not been made clear. Down the road there was a bit of a shoulder and we pulled over. Turns out the real draw of the scenic overlook was a waterfall. We stopped at second overlook and were treated to gorgeous views of the mountains and valleys. The gorgeous vistas soon gave way to heavy industry. We literally turned a corner in the road and around a mountain there was an ugly smokestack. The town smelled like sauerkraut, not exactly somewhere you want to stop and eat lunch.

At McDonald’s I finally got to try the buttermilk chicken tenders. They were good, but nothing beats a McNugget. The cup size was enormous. It was easily a litre. It got me wondering how much weight people would lose if the cups were simply smaller? Before we left I went back and ordered a caramel latte for the road. Our cashier had been weird and when I went back, I lined up behind a lady at the other register. The cashier stood there, not appearing to notice any customers, finally she turned and was like I could help someone. I let the lady behind me cut ahead. The second cashier looked at the weird one and laughed that no one liked her. It’s not that I didn’t like her, it’s that she was terrible at her job and id rather wait an extra minute to get my order right without unnecessary confusion. On the side I ordered a holiday pie and it was everything I dreamed of and more. A sugar cookie with rainbow sprinkles crust and filled with vanilla custard. Warm vanilla custard. Each bite was a tiny piece of heaven. I can’t believe we never got this in Canada. I am both mad and relieved (I would have eaten so many otherwise).

We were unsure if we were in West Virginia yet. On the other side of the highway we passed a Virginia welcome centre. And immediately after we said it out loud we saw the Welcome to West Virginia sign. We were staying at the Greenbrier hotel in White Sulphur Spring, WV.  The hotel was decorated as if Kate Spade had collaborated with Wes Anderson. Every time we stepped through a doorway we had no idea what to expect in terms of décor and colour scheme. Upon check-in we were greeted with a free glass of champagne. This time it was obviously free (unlike that first time when it caught us off guard all those years ago). After checking in we booked a tour of the bunker.

We wandered around saw the whole hotel. We found a proper bowling alley, a small but fancy casino, a movie theatre and an ice cream parlour. I had so many different ideas for what I could do later while Brent went running at the gym. After all that we still had 20 minutes before our bunker tour.

The bunker tour was 90 minutes long. It turns out that earlier we had stumbled upon one of the blast doors to it. We were very confused as it seemed to be a decoration, with regular doors where it would have closed. Adding to the confusion there was a sign saying there were more rooms down that way. This all got explained on the tour. The bunker had been secretly built while the hotel was building a new wing of suites and space for trade shows and conferences. It turns out that when there are events happening those doors are open, and the blast door is purely decorative now as it is bolted into place. At first the inside of the bunker was very underwhelming. It was just a plain exhibition room with high ceilings and giant pillars. Things quickly got more interesting when our tour guide showed us the giant blast door at the end of the vehicle entrance tunnel. The tunnel even featured a slot in the wall to hide the door so that exhibitors at the time would have no idea they were actually entering a bunker, not just an exhibition hall. We got to see “state of the art” medical equipment that had been kept in the bunker. I couldn’t help but giggle at the defibrillator, it looked like a 1980s robot. It was because of if that I learned that the robot from the Smash Brothers game franchise is not the Dr Pepper-loving robot from the cheesy 80s movie. The tour could have been shorter. At first it did not seem relevant to go look at the generator and the diesel storage tanks. Until she took us past them to a small room where the incinerator was. Now it made sense. If the bunker “had been activated” (I don’t know how many times she said that sentence) and the worst-case scenario happened, the incinerator is where they would dispose of the corpses. Even still, we spent too much time learning about the diesel storage. When we had first started the tour I had thought to myself that a decommissioned bunker would be great for safe storage. I really regret not having said it out loud, because soon after the tour guide mentioned that part of the bunker had now been bought out by a data storage company. I had been right! Dammit! The whole time we were not allowed to have our cellphones or to take pictures. To the point that they took all of our devices and locked them in an office before we started on the tour. At the end of the tour they made up for this by giving us free image postcards so it turned out ok.

We sat around the hotel room for half an hour. We were going to stop by afternoon tea in the upper lobby just after 4pm and then Brent would continue off to the gym to run. Half an hour was the perfect amount of time to enjoy an afternoon cider. The Woodchuck fall harvest cider was so good, it really hit the spot with the apple spice. The afternoon tea was an absolute zoo. The lobby was crammed with people clamouring for free mini cookies. We bailed and I walked with Brent in the direction of the gym, parting ways with him at the (very empty) café. I bought a chocolate chip cookie and ate it in the lower lobby while debating going to the casino. I was googling how it worked but finally I gave up and asked the lady at the entrance to the casino if it was cash or if I had to preload a card. I started out on a 25-cent machine but my dollar bill only got me 4 plays. On all of which I lost. I moved on to the 1 cent machine but now I was antsy that it was taking too long. I never did find a good groove, part of it is that you no longer get to pull the handle, instead you push buttons. Part of it was my confusion with some of the 1 cent machines having automatically multiplied bets. In total I spent $3, won 40 cents, lost 39 cents, and walked away with a commemorative 1 cent voucher for my scrapbook. I also met a nice employee while I was there. He seemed bored.

Back in the room I opened a nice cold beer. This time we had a fridge and unlimited Wi-Fi. The Purple Haze raspberry lager from Abita brewing was delicious. It was like a less fruity version of Frulii. Brent was going to be gone for about 2 hours. I had a fridge full of cold drinks and there was (as always) a Say Yes To The Dress marathon on TLC. I sprawled out on the bed and got comfy, I was in it for the long haul. The Redd’s Black Cherry Ale was delicious and the best beer of the trip. After 2 hours the TV shut itself off, I had barely moved and now I was being forced to reach for the remote like a sucker.

We had a 7:30 dinner reservation in the main dining room at the resort. The Cajun shrimp amuse bouche was amazing, it was some of the best shrimp I have ever had. We ordered appetizers and once again disagreed on whose pick was better. I was convinced that the beef carpaccio was way better then the fried oysters, but Brent disagreed saying it was the other way around. Yet we did not trade back. Having ordered some fancy juniper-ash encrusted venison for my main, it only felt fitting to have a glass of red wine from France. Once again, we disagreed on which dish was better, to the point that we swapped back. I was not a fan of the pork, it was rubbery. For dessert Brent ordered the Greenbrier peach ice cream and I had the lemon meringue. Both dishes were amazing. Who knew peach ice cream could be so good? After that we also got a plate of mini dessert as an amuse bouche. They were not as good as the actual desserts we had ordered.

We tried to go bowling but some of the lanes were not working and the others were occupied. We went back to our room to wait a bit, also giving me a chance to change into more bowling-appropriate attire (I was in a dress with heeled boots). I went back to my usual channel, TLC but there was a different wedding dress show on about designers competing to make a dress for the lady from The Bachelorette. It was alright, but thankfully the scroll at the bottom said there was another SYTTD marathon coming up. Yes! In anticipation of it I wondered if ever I would see a rerun. Thankfully they were newer episodes. At 11pm I was gonna go to sleep, but then the episode they had been advertising all day where the lady calls her (secretly pregnant) twin sister fat came on and I had to watch. What’s another 30 minutes I thought. Except then I looked at the clock, it was 11:40 and the episode was still not over. Then it dawned on me… how many more hours had I spent watching this show, given I had assumed the episodes were only half an hour…? I had to stop, I had to go to bed. If I let myself finish the episode I would keep watching the next one and the next one. What can I say? I love, love, LOVE, watching SYTTD in bed while on vacation. It is my idea of paradise.


Hot Springs Weekender: Day 1

Fri. Jan. 12, 2018:
Toronto flight to Charlotte, NC, driving to Hot Springs, VA:

The 4:30am wakeup was unbearable, due in no small part to the boilers quiet nighttime hissing. Making things worse was the fact that Brent had already flown into Charlotte, North Carolina the night before so I had to take TTC to the airport, instead of the usual which is a cab paid for by his company. The whole reason for this impromptu weekender was that he had a one-day meeting and we figured heck, why not.

It was a long bus ride to Kipling- the subway was not open yet, it was that early. At least I had a cherry Coke Zero. Even though it was a Friday the airport was not busy at all. I was almost three hours early, making it just after 6am. In total I waited longer in line at Starbucks than I did checking in and getting through security. My wait would have been even longer had I gone to Timmie’s but it was too early in the day. In retrospect I should have gone. The breakfast sandwich I got from Starbucks was mediocre at best (still better than the only option by my gate, Great Canadian Bagel). Walking to the gate I was having flashbacks to that time we tried to fly to Hartford, I was departing from the same section of the airport. And then over the speaker they announced that the Hartford flight was delayed and taking a detour through Montreal. It was happening all over again! Except this time I just watched from the sidelines. My flight was not as affected by the oncoming bad weather, except for the fact that my gate got changed three times. At least it was only a difference of one gate each time. It made me antsy, I was just hoping my flight would not be delayed. I needed to get out of there before the winter storm arrived.

I tried to listen to podcasts on the plane but inevitably, as always, I fell asleep. Thankfully the seat beside me was empty. There was no coffee being served on our flight so I had to settle for a Coke Zero. I fell back asleep, awoke startled, readjusted and played it off as if it was nothing and fell right back asleep. Once we landed I made a beeline for the Chick-Fil-A that was now open (we had missed the opening of it last time by a month). Despite the breakfast sandwich, I was voraciously hungry. The deluxe chicken sandwich, sans tomato, was so good and it was just what I needed. I stopped in at Starbucks for some much-needed coffee and headed over to the car rental place where id be meeting Brent. Thankfully it was just across the way and I didn’t have to take a shuttle or a train. My phone was not connecting to the Wi-Fi so I resorted to reading Fall On Your Knees. Pretty soon another coffee craving kicked in but now it was too late. I had emailed Brent (the iPad did connect) telling him I was at the car rental place before leaving the airport. The car rental place did not have Wi-Fi, nor did the airport Wi-Fi reach there. I was stuck, dreaming of another cup of coffee. In the end it kind of worked out, we had a four hour drive ahead of us and it was unclear if there would be anywhere to stop.

We had only one scheduled stop on the drive: Publix grocery store. Josh and Chuck, of Stuff You Should Know podcast fame, had been talking up the Publix white cake and I just had to know what it was all about. Plus we needed to grab some singles so I could add to my bottle cap magnet collection. Along the way I also grabbed some Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

Driving to The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia we passed through the Allegheny Mountains. Pretty soon the coffee started wearing off and my hunger came back. I don’t know how I was possibly so hungry again already. It was a really pretty drive, with mountain peaks poking out overtop of low fog. Pretty soon though the fog moved away from the mountains and onto the road. Not helping matters were all the 18-wheeler trucks. Oh, and it was getting dark. Pretty soon we could not see the beautiful landscapes, just dark, fog, and the occasional headlight. Soon we were driving on switchbacks through the Allegheny Mountains. It made for interesting views and I was desperate for pictures but there was nowhere to even pull off, the road was narrow. Thankfully we had a car-buddy ahead of us. Brent astutely pointed out that they must be heading to The Homestead as well. We turned to listening to the radio because for some reason Brent’s iPhone wouldn’t play through the USB cable, only through the AUX and we needed to charge it- it also refused to play with both plugged in. Near the mountain top we passed frozen icicle waterfalls. It was all very eerie and creepy but in a beautiful kind of way. It reminded me of the scenery from a horror movie, the creepy bare branches against the dark blue sky, fog everywhere. Eventually the car in front of us caught up to someone who was driving much slower, they pulled over and joined our convoy at the back. We lost them somewhere on the main road, turns out they were not heading to The Homestead. When we got to the hotel and saw our car-buddy emerge from his Land Rover we both had the same reaction: what a yuppie! At check-in I was amused to discover that he even had a yuppie name.

We had been upgraded to a room with a view and a balcony. Except it was dark and raining outside. Our balcony did not have an awning. We didn’t even get a proper view of the hotel with the mountain backdrop. We had a drink in the hotel room before heading out to explore. The Leinenkugel grapefruit shandy was surprisingly good, especially given I don’t particularly like grapefruits or beer.

The arcade was confusing, we had no idea how to pay for the games. We left it for later and took off looking for the hotel and the indoor pool that is fed with hot springs water. The outdoor serenity pool was apparently closed on Saturdays so the indoor pool would  have to meet our hot springs needs. The pool was beautiful. We gawked at it from the gym, even still it was awkward to take a picture of. It reminded me of a scaled down version of the pool at Hearst Manor. It had beautiful tiles, gorgeous windows and a nice ceiling. We went back to the arcade. This time we tried swiping a room key in the card reader on the arcade game. Nothing. Just an error message. We went to the concierge and after waiting a really long time (there was a chatty guy who would not shut up and only one person working at the desk) were told to go to the bar to load money onto the card. Of course, who wouldn’t have thought of that, the busy bar that the arcade entrance is near. Makes total, perfect, sense. We flagged the bartender but then an oh-so-polite lady informed Brent that she had been there first. Clearly she does not know how bars work. We loaded money onto the card, Brent got a beer and I borrowed a fork. I had seen a guy with takeout containers so logically I though the bar had plastic cutlery to-go. We needed it for the cake back in the room. The guy handed me a metal fork. I shrugged and put it in my back pocket hoping for the best (aka hoping I don’t fall/get shoved resulting in an awkward-to-explain stabbing injury). Back at the arcade we tried the card. Insufficient funds. Ok, the guy said to wait a few minutes of that happens, it takes a second to load. We did a full circle, determining what we would play. We glanced at the bowling. Brent had said there was a bowling alley in the hotel, it was more a modified bowling game, not a full one. Back to the Pac-Man arcade game, it had been 15-20 minutes and it should work. It did not. Back to the bar which is now even busier. Again we wait, some staff talk to us, no one addresses our issues. Finally, the same bar tender comes back, he had forgotten to put the transaction through. From start to finish it was unbelievable how bad a system they had in place, we complained and a staffer said she agreed. My stomach was hurting pretty bad by this point. I had chugged my beer too fast and now I was super bloated.

I watched in suspense as Brent played Gallaga on the Pac-Man machine. Played a 5-round game of (kids?) bowling. Even with the gutter I was so epically bad at it. I wanted to blame my shoes. It was still fun though. It had taken us so long to actually get credits for the arcade that we didn’t have time for any more games. We had to get changed for dinner. We got dressed while watching Final Jeopardy! and guessing. We also chowed down on the Publix cake which weirdly made my stomach feel better. It was worth all the hype and rave reviews, way above what you would expect of a grocery store vanilla cake.

It was a good thing we had gotten a reservation…not. Other than a few other tables it was pretty empty. Evidently the rich prefer to dress down and eat dinner at a bar. Even though it was a hotel restaurant there was a dress code. In this case it actually seemed to be enforced, everyone around us was dressed to the nines, even the kids. It looked good, especially when people took to the dancefloor while the three-piece ensemble played the theme song to Snoopy. Looking at the dinner menu we opted for appetizers and mains, given we had just eaten dessert in our hotel room. Nothing on the dessert menu stood out either. Brent had a glass of white wine from Virginia that was surprisingly good. I opted for a cocktail with bourbon, another liquor and ginger ale. It was intended to soothe my stomach, however it was more liquor than ginger ale. I nursed it during the whole meal. The lobster bisque with smoked lobster was confusing. When it first arrived, I thought I was being served an amuse bouche: I had been given a giant soup bowl with a tiny quarter-sized piece of something in it. Then the server started pouring and I realized that had been the smoked lobster and he was pouring the bisque. The soup spoon was awkwardly wide, I resorted to eating with the slightly-too-small dessert spoon. I tried a bit of caviar from Brent’s Caesar salad, it was good. His salad got a solid F for eatability. He was presented with one giant romaine lettuce leaf, flat pieces of thin brioche on either side as croutons and a row of caviar down the middle of the leaf. How is anyone supposed to eat that?! Looking over the menu I had assumed that Chateaubriand had to be the vegetarian dish, I had no idea what the name referred to but there weren’t any other vegetarian options. The choice was easy: I’d get the organic roast chicken. Then the server told us that the Chateaubriand was a steak. Dammit, because the sides sounded really good. I ended up going with between the two and the chicken won. The chicken was amazing. I always find it impressive when a chef can take something as plain as chicken and turn it into something so incredible. We traded halfway, but the chicken won ahead of the Allegheny Mountain river-caught trout, by a smidge. The crispy fried grits with my chicken were great at first. Then the sauce ran out and they were just so dry and awful. It was like eating a mealy french fry. As I tried to finish the last bites of my dinner it was nice to watch people dancing. I couldn’t even finish my drink, I relinquished the last few sips to Brent. There was no way in hell we were ordering dessert.

I was so full and my stomach was hurting again. Swimming would have to wait until tomorrow. After resting (and burping) I felt better. Brent poured his beer into a glass and we casually headed down to the lobby. Every time we passed by the mini games room there were different people in there playing chess and working on a puzzle. I got distracted by the puzzle. I just wanted to put two pieces together. And then two more. Brent had to pull me away. The lobby was busy, a mingle of wedding guests and rich guests. Many lobbyist jokes ensued.

We went back to the arcade to finish what we started. The bowling machine ate $3. So instead Brent played Pac Man. Except, adding to the suspense, the top half of the screen was cut off. It was riveting to watch as he disappeared to the top to clear off all the dots. Afterwards we played Star Trek pinball. The machine appeared to eat our first credit, we swiped again and realized we were supposed to push the start button. So really we had two games. It was impossible to tell where one game ended and the next began. I also had no clue what was going on. Brent kept almost losing but then somehow the ball got saved or he got a free ball. A lot of bells, whistles, lights and noises. The game seemed to be going forever. Then I stepped in and immediately lost the ball, which was saved, then I lost it again. Oops, my bad. Our total score was just under 3 million. The lowest score on the leaderboard was 24 million. I don’t understand how the scoring worked!!! There was a kid playing the basketball game next to us. He was trying o get a new highs core and Brent went from encouraging him to shooting a few hoops for him.


Austin on a Lark- Day 6

Day 6: Fri. Dec. 15, 2017:
Fredericksburg to Austin, TX to Toronto:

Like a dummy I had set my alarm clock for 8:30am except my phone had never switched time zones. At least the 7:30am wakeup made waking up at 8ish easier. We grabbed breakfast from the hotel and set out back to Austin to catch our flights home. The coffee was good but the pastries were awful, the worst I have ever had. They were rubbery and soggy. I had also grabbed some little packets of Nutellas as souvenirs. I was still coughing but I felt a little bit better (despite the awful sleep on the too-soft bed). Luckily I still had some Reese’s clusters left, breakfast was saved.

At the airport there was a cute little fluffy puppy hiding behinds the seats and refusing ot come out. As we looked around there seemed to be a lot of dogs at the airport, not including the sniffer-dog who was busy at work. We went to Auntie Anne’s for an early lunch. The sour cream & onion pretzel delivered exactly what it promised. It was just like the chips. Brent was still hungry so we went to a Salt Lick BBQ taco pop-up. It was too early for meat, and I was still a bit off it after Franklin’s. I went to the coffee shop there but the Texas pecan (that’s a thing?) coffee was horribly watered down and tasteless.

We were going on two separate flights. Brent left just after noon and I still had two hours to myself in the airport. I wandered a few times up and down the concourse. I had no appetite. I knew I would probably not have time to grab food during my short layover in Atlanta so I eventually grabbed some Keebler cookies as a snack and a LARA lemon bar for later. My flight was delayed first by 10 minutes. Crap, I thought, I already had a narrow window (49 minutes between landing and my next flight taking off) to catch my connection. That time didn’t take into account boarding and leaving the first flight. By the time my flight took off the delay was closer to 20 minutes. At least I was able to distract myself from worry by watching more Say Yes to the Dress. Adding to my discomfort we had bumpy turbulence on the way into Atlanta. There was a nice lady sitting next to me who even offered to take my bag and put it under my seat for me so I could sit easily and she let me use her under-chair storage space as well. It wasn’t all bad. Until we landed. I was towards the back of the plane and antsy to get off. Why did they not rearrange seats and let me sit closer to the front? It was torture, standing there watching people take their time, chatting nonchalantly and not moving. It was a mad dash as soon as I was off the plane. Thankfully my connection was only one terminal over. I ran for the train, I ran past a guy to get to the escalator so I had to run up the stairs else I’d look like a jerk for running in front of him and then just standing there. I ran to the bathroom, allowing myself at least that. There was no hell in chance of me grabbing any food. I ran to the gate and got there only to see that there was no one there. The sign said they had boarded early. The one time! There was another guy who appeared out of nowhere and asked me if I was trying to get on the flight, asked if I was off a connection. I said yes. He said he could still see the plane and that he was going to get us on it. He took off, down the hallway to the airplane, meanwhile a guy sitting in the waiting area shook his head and laughed. I just stood there in shock. A minute or so later the crazy guy emerged, followed by two airline staff, they were warning him not to do that. He said, or what you will arrest me? And they said yes next time that could happen. They then scanned my boardpass and let me on first, ahead of the crazy guy. I got on the plane, coughing, wheezing and red in the face. I crammed my backpack into the first open spot I saw in the overhead bins and walked back to my seat. I rushed to get settled in, meanwhile they were (rather passive-aggressively) announcing over the PA if everyone could take their seats so we could finally takeoff. And all for nothing. We had technical glitches and it was another 20 minutes after I sat down before the plane took off. As we flew I dreamed of getting Wendy’s at Pearson after landing. After all, I would still have another hour before Brent landed.

I found out later that Expedia had booked me onto the next flight into Toronto, I would have arrived 3 hours later around midnight.


Austin on a Lark- Day 5

Thurs. Dec. 14, 2017:
San Antonio to Fredericksburg, TX:

In the night I had gotten up to go to the bathroom and on the way I almost walked into the mirror that was stupidly right beside the door. I had finally been getting a good night’s sleep until at about 7am I was rudely awoken by really loud drilling noise. It sounded like the entire city’s road crew were working just outside our hotel. After a minute or so it stopped and I could hear a lady in the courtyard by our door yelling. It was a guy with a leafblower and thankfully he stopped.

Our hotel had a late checkout meaning we did not have to worry about gathering everything up and leaving it with the concierge. We took the River Walk to the Alamo. All week long I had been making forget jokes about it. It was right downtown and had free admission. There was an exhibit about Bowie knives and the guy that made them famous. I learned about his crazy fight on a beach and a great new name for knives: Arkansas toothpick. The one place where I wanted to take photos, the church, was the one place you weren’t allowed to. All in all there wasn’t much of the ruins to see and we finished in about an hour. There was a volunteer in the church that loved Brent’s glow-in-the-dark alien from Toy Story shoes and wouldn’t stop talking about them. There was another volunteer at the Bowie exhibit that was just way too psyched about the exhibit.

We still had time before our lunch reservation at Boudreau’s On The River. We stopped in at the mall across the street from the Alamo because I had not packed enough clothes. We were supposed to go home Friday night and then up to Collingwood the next morning but now it was looking like we would get picked up from the airport on Friday night. It was a very sad and empty mall. The vendors were desperate. I found PINK inside a Victoria’s Secret, even though it wasn’t even listed on the mall directory. On the way out of the mall we passed through H&M where I impulsively bought a $5 t-shirt, also needed for the weekend.

We were unsure where the entrance to the restaurant was from the River Walk so we looked for the other, street-level entrance. Except it led us to an elevator, taking us down the River Walk level and now we had to enter through the back of the restaurant and walk all the way through to the front. It was awkward because we were the only people there (good thing we had made a reservation). We split a Texas plate that had a delicious (but too spicy) sausage, at least it was good for my sinuses. Brent had the chicken enchilada which was good but nowhere near as good as the blue crab tostada I had ordered. We did not swap plates halfway through. It arrived in a corn taco shell bowl with melted cheese on top. I really could’ve used a demonstration of how to eat it. I just hacked at it with my fork, breaking off pieces of the taco shell and scooping the contents with it. The prickly pear margarita I had was awesome and a perfect pairing. I was way too full to eat the useless salad my tostada sat atop. We were sitting on the patio and it was nice because they had heaters all around. Plus it was a warmer day.

Walking back along the other side of the river I noticed a sign that said Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I got way too excited about. Ice cream was no good for a cold (especially when coughing really bad and with swollen lymph nodes), except in lifting the spirits and so we climbed the stairs to the second level of shops. I tried a new ice cream flavour they had: caramel with marshmallow and chocolate chunks. It was good, but it was no Phish Food. The ice cream was too frozen and really hard to eat, meaning I was forced to eat slowly and savour each bite instead of the usual which is just wolfing it down in a few bites.

Our first stop of the hill country tour was Bandera, known for being a cowboy town. On the way we stopped at a post office so I could mail my postcards but the line was so long and while standing there I realized I would arrive home before my postcards so I may as well just hand them to everyone instead. We drove past a farm that had a bunch of goats and one lone donkey hanging out amidst them. We walked down the main stretch of Bandera, which is to say one sidewalk with four shops and a closed café. That sealed it, I could never imagine living in Bandera. What kind of a town was this?! There was nothing to see, not surprising for a town with a population under 900. That is not a typo. We stopped in at the liquor store but the selection was awful and they did not sell singles.

On the drive to the Western Art Museum (or cowboy art museum as we still kept calling it) in Kerrville I was deteriorating and fast. The inside of my nose burned, I could not believe how often I was having to blow my nose. It felt futile and pointless. Add on top of that the fact that I was (shocker!) dehydrated. In the parking lot of the museum there were a ton (more than 10) deer grazing. They looked up at the car and kept going about their business. I was amazed at the deer population in Texas. I have never in my life seen so many deer (dead and alive). During that trip alone I may have seen more than during all other trips combined.

It was awkward when we got inside. Four ladies had just gotten there ahead of us and the docent was eager to give us all a tour. As we paid for our tickets they patiently waited. They continued to wait as the lady at the front desk told us all about the wonderful new ceiling (or was it floor). It was both. We cut her off in order to let the docent know that we were not interested in a tour and that they could go ahead. The museum was a lot less cowboy-y than I had expected, especially given the former name of Cowboy Art Museum. But it did live up it’s new name so it all makes sense in the end. There were a lot of beautiful paintings featuring cows and donkeys. It was a well-curated collection, small but well presented (we were out of there in 35 minutes). At the museum I discovered that I really like cow paintings. I was tempted to buy a small painting from the special exhibition but it would have been a pain to pack it in my luggage and then worry about it. I was already worried about the desktop fountain I bought for Camilla.

We drove by the main street in Kerville but there was nothing to see. It was a much bigger town and didn’t have the quaint small main street. To finish off our tour of hill country we drove along the Willow City Loop. We were the only car on the road. At times it felt like we were trespassing on private roads. It was just ranches, hills, valleys and eventually cows as far as the eye could see. I could imagine what it must be like when the flowers are all in bloom (aka the main attraction). We saw a few wild turkeys in a field. One ranch had a cowboy boot on each post of the fence. There was so much cow shit on the road though. It was fun to slow down by the cows and roll down the windows to get their attention. They would stare back, mid-chew, and immediately go back to eating.

We took a short break in the hotel, we were staying in Fredericksburg, another small town in hill country. I drank my Newton’s Folly cider (winner for best name of a cider I’ve ever had) and watched my go-to TV show, Say Yes to the Dress. Before dinner we went for a walk along the main stretch of town. There were so many quaint little country shops. Except it quickly dawned on us that every other shop was either a wine shop (offering tastings), an art gallery (serving wine) or a shop that also sold wine in addition to country knick-knacks. It was really weird but soon we realized that you were allowed to open-carry and drink. We went to the park to see the Christmas display. On the way I noticed the beautiful-exterior library. It just so happened to be next door to the town courts. Of course I made a joke about throwing the book. There was even an ice rink in the park for those desperate for wintertime activities.

We had dinner at the Fredericksburg Brewing Co. because it was a mix of German and Tex-Mex offerings. To start we split a warm pretzel with grainy mustard, an oft forgotten and under-rated food item. It might actually be one of my favourite foods., I ordered the chicken-fried steak as it was my turn, Brent had ordered it last time at Threadgill’s. In case I had forgotten I was in Texas, my plate reminded me of that fact. The chicken-fried steak was easily close to 2 pounds and way bigger than my head. Brent had ordered the schnitzel, which inexplicably came topped with ham and melted cheese. All of the schnitzels on offer were like that. What’s wrong with just a good ol’ schnitzel? Why pile stuff on top? Was this an American thing? I had ordered a glass of Merlot but soon after I realized I had meant to order a Texas Merlot, not a house Merlot. I can only assume that their house wine was also a Texas wine. Apparently Texas wine is a thing. Who knew. It pairs well with the Texas pour. Just filling a wine glass, regardless of how many ounces that is. That should have been a clue to as the anticipated size of my main course. I made a huge dent in the chicken-fried steak. It was ok, just too much food, and honestly, I would rather just have steak or fried chicken. Why combine the elements of two great dishes into one mediocre one? On the side I had ordered mashed potatoes (always a great side) and a fruit cup. The fruit cup ended up being my saviour when the meat got to be too much. Plus, I had not eaten fresh fruit in days. The pretzel won hands down as the best dish.

Walking back we stopped at a bar to check out the selection. Brent got a double IPA to go. I was tempted by the ACE pear cider but I felt like I’d already had so much (that pour had been at least two glasses) and I was planning on taking more DayQuil. I had been silly to think I could go off it. Brent also bought a beer from the front desk at our hotel. (See? It was a weird town). He asked about soda and the lady said it was free in the breakfast room. I had been hoping to get some tea while I was in there but they only had black tea which had caffeine. Instead I got Mountain Dew- forgetting that it has caffeine in it.

There was a scary wolf spider in the bathroom but Brent got it. I had to wash my hair, so it was going to be an early pajama night. I chanced upon the brilliant idea of sucking on a lozenge while in the hot shower. It was life altering. We ended the night watching Full House and Bob’s Burgers while eating the Reese’s clusters and munching on Speculoos cookies.


Austin on a Lark- Day 4

Wed. Dec. 13, 2017:
Austin to San Antonio, TX:

I woke up really early, around 7am. I had slept poorly again, mostly because of my cold and the ridiculously small pillows we had in our hotel room. We left our backpacks with the concierge. We were in search of the best BBQ, which made the 7am wakeup not so bad. The weather report said it was 4 degrees out so I bundled up and grabbed a coffee from our room (it was nice because for once they had actually cream instead of that powdered gross stuff). I was under the assumption that as it got warmer I would just peel the layers off. Turns out I did not have enough layers on. It was damn cold outside. It was a 30-minute walk to Franklin Barbecue and it was mostly through an industrial area, not that scenic.

We got there just after 8 and there were only about 25-30 minutes. After standing for a bit we realized that people had not brought their own camping chairs, they were getting them from a spot under the stairs. The restaurant had provided chairs for people waiting in line! We settled in and got cozy. It was still unbelievably cold and I was glad I had grabbed my headband and left my gloves in my coat pocket. I fell asleep in the chair for at least half an hour. I woke up and it still had not warmed up. What was going on? I was actually starting to shiver. I went inside to use the bathroom, but mostly it was an excuse to momentarily warm up. I guess I could’ve gotten a cup of coffee but I was too tired to go looking. I was tempted to get a drink, they had started serving alcohol at 9 but I thought better of it. The young university guys in front of us were getting increasingly more annoying. I walked to the CVS just down the street. Again, to warm up, but also to stock up on more throat lozenges and cold meds. By chance I found a relaxation water fountain for really cheap, the perfect Christmas present for Camilla. I also grabbed some Reese’s versions of Turtles chocolates for later.

Even though I was cold the whole time, it felt like the wait went by fast as I listened to podcasts and played games on my iPod. Once we were inside, but still in line, the kids in front of us somehow got even more irritating, I did not think it was possible. The door was closed behind us, we had just made the cut-off of the first round of people inside. On the way in the guy holding the door open high-fived us. Earlier in line we had been advised how much to order. The staff at Franklin Barbecue were awesome. We passed the time in line trying to figure out if we would get a table indoors or have to sit outside. It worked out that by the time we had ordered the first people in line were finishing up their meals. The staff even gently corralled them if they lingered by coming by and asking if anything needed to be wrapped up to go, implying you’re done, free up a table. Or so it seemed to me anyways. I needed a distraction from the annoying kids.

We ordered ¼ lb pulled pork, ½ lb beef brisket, ½ lb pork ribs, a single serving of coleslaw and a slice of pecan pie (for later). It was a lot of food but I was glad I had the coleslaw in between bites of meat. The bread also helped. On the side I had a Dublin Dr Pepper, complete with destroyed bottle cap. The brisket was amazing, it was the best I had ever had. We had a mix of the lean and the fatty and it was incredible, it just melted in your mouth in meaty, fatty goodness. When the guy was prepping our food, he had noticed Brent’s Toronto Blue Jays hat and asked if we had ever been to Adamson’s Barbecue and we were so surprised that THE Texas barbecue place knew about Toronto’s equivalent. It made me feel like such a foodie, having now been to both. The pork ribs were hands down the best ribs I have ever had. They had a really good rub and were well spiced and the ribs were very meaty. The pulled pork was also good, but compared to the brisket and ribs it just didn’t stand up as well. Even with the bread, coleslaw and Dr Pepper to even out my bites, it was becoming too much meat. Yet I still get going back for more bites of brisket, despite how full and even nauseous I was starting to feel.

I never did warm up. Walking back to the hotel I was still feeling cold. However I was unsure if it was because it was still cold outside or if my core temperature was still low. Who can say. From the hotel we walked to the car rental place. It was a super small car rental, they didn’t even have an on-site gas station and the guy had to drive to the nearest one to fill up the tank. They also did not have GPSs for rental.

We drove to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Centre. I had left my jacket in the car and all I had was my scarf. Turns out the day was not warming up by much. I ended up using my scarf as a shawl, draped over my shoulders and it worked just fine. There were no flowers but it was still peaceful and relaxing to walk the gardens. We also walked through the oak tree mini-forest they had created. There were some wacky oak trees, including one that had fallen over and continued growing. We joked that the holly tree had it in the Latin name not to eat it: vomitus.

Up next we drove to the town of Gruene where we would have gone tubing on the river had it been warmer, as was in the original plans. On the way we passed by an In N Out Burger but I was still so full. I wish I had known that there was In N Out Burger in Texas. We walked down to the river to see it, the river was nice and calm and would have been great to go tubing down. The place might not even have been open, as the parking lot was empty. We stopped in at Gruene Hall for a drink. Good thing we hadn’t gone with the original plans (to have lunch there) as they did not appear to serve food. It was just a bar with a giant dining hall and concert stage in back. I ordered a sangria because there were no ciders and the selection was limited. There were a few people in the bar wearing cowboy hats. We talked to the bartender for a few minutes until some other people came up to order drinks, allowing us to disappear and check out the dining hall and concert area. On the way back to the car we stopped in at the general store and I got a bottle of Big Red soda, mostly for the bottle cap.

By the time we got to our hotel in San Antonio my head was hurting and it felt hot. I had a cup of tea, took some DayQuil and laid down for a bit. By then it had gotten dark outside which was perfect. We went down to the River Walk (our hotel was on the river) to see it all decked out and lit up for Christmas. It did not disappoint, even the tour barges were lit up. There were carolling barges and even one featuring a dinner- all while cruising down the canals. It was a very cheery and festive walk but at the same time it was weird- there were no carols playing over speakers, no signs of anyone selling hot chocolate.

We still had time before dinner, I got comfy in bed drinking my Big Red and flipping between Full House and Floribama. We were having dinner at the hotel restaurant but neither of us was that hungry. We were mostly going there for the view of the river and for our free drinks. Alas the drinks were only at the hotel bar, somehow separate and in another part of the hotel. I ordered the corn chowder with crab and it hit the spot. I had never been so happy to eat warm bread and butter (the anti-meat) was I was that night. Brent had ordered the gnocchi with veggies but it came with parmesan sauce which was so rich and thick that it was just too much. I tried to help and eat as much as I could but it was too heavy. The whole experience was rife with oddity. One of the lady’s working there was weird. She asked how we were, when we asked her she said great now that we were there. She gave us bread and whipped butter. Said we wouldn’t believe it but it’s butter. This was followed by an awkward laugh, at her own joke, and then she told us she was delighted to serve us bread. There was a weird lady at the table behind us. She asked if she could take a menu home. The server mentioned that he could email it to her. She clarified that she collects menus, she already had 3 and she wanted this one because it was so nice. She did not want just the paper menu, she wanted the entire thing. The server then told them that the Rare Eagle they had ordered was not yet in the system, so he could not charge them for it. When he walked by our table Brent jokingly tried to order two glasses of it and the guy laughed. He also laughed at us when we said we had barbecue for lunch and were still full. There was no way we were going to order dessert.

At the bar I tried to choose the best cocktails to remedy our colds (yes, Brent seemed to have caught my cold) from the Christmas-themed list of twelve cocktails. Mine had gin, Elderflower liqueur, pureed cranberries and lemon juice. Brent’s had grapefruit and sage. I was so tired by the end of the night and it was barely 9pm.


Austin on a Lark- Day 3

Tues. Dec. 12, 2017:
Austin, TX:

I had slept poorly because I did not anticipate how smart (is that the right word?) my body was. I thought I could trick it with DayQuil, the thinking was it would alleviate my symptoms just long enough to let me fall asleep. Like clockwork, I woke up four hours later miserable. I should’ve splurged and gotten NyQuil as well.

Brent had an early business meeting so I was on my own for part of the day. I started out at the historic Driskill Hotel that Google Maps told me to go look at. The lobby was gorgeous and they had a nice Christmas tree. The restaurant in the hotel wasn’t busy so I had breakfast there. Given I had slept in and missed the free breakfast at our hotel- again. Who stops serving breakfast that early?! I ordered a cappuccino and a cinnamon bun. I forgot that I was in Texas when I ordered. I was served a massive cinnamon bun. I had to hack at it with my fork to get through it. The businessmen beside me laughed at the enormity of it as they were leaving and I joked back that it’s the perfect way to start the day. Even given the size of it (about the size of a small child’s head) I managed to devour 2/3 of it before I had to give up. I couldn’t keep it as leftovers for lunch because I had a small purse and I was heading to an art gallery. I must’ve made some garbage-can-diving pigeons day.

I’m not sure if we didn’t notice it the day before but I was glad to see that there was a Christmas tree outside of the Capitol, complete with Christmas carols playing over some speakers. The blue jays from the day before were still hanging around in the trees. I cut around the state Capitol on my way to the Blanton Art Museum on the University of Texas campus. I was really excited to see a photography exhibit they had about photography and roadtrips in America. The exhibit was even better than I had imagined. It was not the work of one contemporary artist, instead it featured artists like Ed Ruscha and Robert Frank. It was amazing and it is one of my favourite art exhibits I’ve ever seen. I was not a fan of the more contemporary stuff, thankfully there wasn’t much of it as it was a small museum. Even still, they had the requisite religious paintings. They also had antiquities but due to the small size of the collection it was just a selection of intact items, rather than that plus a bunch of just shards. In addition, the vases had mirrors behind and underneath them so you could see every detail (they were in great condition). There was one unsettling Baroque painting where everyone was grey, aptly titled Death of Rachel. They all looked like corpses or zombies. I finished the museum in an hour because not all the galleries were open, new stuff was being installed.

Up next was The Contemporary Austin. It was even smaller and luckily admission was free. I say luckily because I was not at all impressed. It turns out the one artwork I wanted to see, a sculpture by Ai Weiwei wasn’t even on display there. It was somewhere else within the city. At least I’ve learned my lesson to read the museum website more carefully. The other installations were beyond weird and exactly what one would expect of a gallery connected to an art school. I was out of there in under 10 minutes. It would’ve been sooner but I pretended to admire and contemplate the work. When in reality I was trying to think of how to describe it later on. All I could think was weird. There was also no one else in there besides staff, who outnumbered me 3-1.

The Contemporary having taken way less time than anticipated left me with a few more hours. I was still not even close to hungry, I stopped in at Starbucks on my way back to the hotel for a tea. On my walk back I was on the other side of Congress, the side we for some reason kept crossing over from. I passed by a bar that made me do a double-take, it was called Mort Subite- one of my favourite Belgian fruit beers! Could it be? I added it to my list of things to research back in the hotel, along with the botanical garden near our hotel. I also stopped in at CVS for more pocket packs of Kleenex. I popped into a liquor store but they did not sell singles.

A guy on a bike was approaching the intersection where he faced a red light. His brakes must have been broken because he was attempting to stop with his feet and his back wheels almost skidded out in front of him. And when the light turned green… off he went, cycling at a mad speed. He had so narrowly avoided disaster, clearly his brakes were not working and off he went.

Back in the hotel room I set about researching. The Wilker Botanical Garden was too far to walk to and back, it was only a 15 minute bus ride from just outside the hotel. But the garden appeared to be quite big and I still had an evening of walking ahead of me. And I was not feeling 100% great. I briefly considered going to the mall but it was even further. Instead I took a nap. Well I tried to, I ended up just laying there. I remembered that my dad was crazy for Biscoff cookies and I had not seen any grocery stores as of yet. How could all of downtown Austin not have a grocery store? I remembered seeing people downtown with Trader Joe’s bags and I was right, there was one nearby. The internet also said Trader Joe’s was good for getting single bottles of beer. It was settled. I would head out on a short walk, with a brief pitstop at Starbucks. I ended up getting the Trader Joe’s version of Biscoff cookies and building my own 6pack. Back in the hotel I settled down with a “Not Your Father’s Mountain Dew.” Which I thought was going to be a citrusy beer, not boozy soda. It was still delicious and it hit the spot. It paired well with watching shitty TV. Brent got back around 4pm but it was still too early to head out for dinner (I was still barely hungry). Instead we watched Chopped and South Park.

We went to Threadgill’s for dinner around 6pm, just in time to miss the happy hour deals. Brent did not believe me when I said it was a shoe’s throw from the hotel, literally just up the street. They were known for their chicken-fried steak. I instead opted for the buttered grilled catfish with a side of corn and mashed potatoes with gravy. The catfish was way better than the chicken-fried steak. It was a very cheap dinner especially for how much food we got. And the service was so fast. Alas, I was too full for dessert.

On the way to Antone’s bar we passed by our bat friends again, but there was no sign of them under than a few streaks in the lamplight. We had looked up the schedule for the bar but the band did not come on until 10pm. We were just going ot have a drink and see what the music venue looked like. We were pleasantly surprised to walk in and see a band playing. I guess they must have been the opening act that the bar failed to list. Adding to the surprise: there was no cover and there was a surprising amount of people in there for a Tuesday before 8pm. We got the last few stools at the bar. I ordered a rum and coke and the bartender was very generous with his pour or else it was a very flavourful rum. We stayed for a few songs and then headed out. Our night was not yet over.

As it turns out Mort Subite is a Belgian beer bar and we could not pass up a chance to check it out. Even if I was sick and living on DayQuil. The choices were not as varied as at Bangers but it was still an impressive selection- even if they didn’t have Cantillon. The choice was easy, as I had tried the Silly Sour the night before., I lived on the Kriek Lambic when we visited Belgium leaving me with the two options: cherry wine or lemon-cherry sour The Bruery. The choice was obvious. I knew going into it that the beer would be sour. But it was sour! It was two types of sour and it kept making my face pucker. It was definitely a sipping beer. That combined with my full stomach, I was only here for one drink. Plus, Brent mentioned that he had gotten an offer for free holiday drinks at our hotel. It was fun to watch TinTin at the bar. It was surprising how busy Mort Subite was as well. Maybe Austin is just a bar town.

Back at the hotel bar the bartender had no idea what we were talking about. Which is good thing because I was not feeling another drink. It turns out that the free drink was at our next hotel. Oops. I was exhausted, my nose was all stuffed up and it burned. It was barely 9pm and it was time for bed.


Austin on a Lark- Day 2

Mon. Dec. 11, 2017:
Austin, TX:

I slept almost til 10am and no wonder why: I woke up with a headache and a stuffed nose, even though I had pre-emptively taken an anti-histamine before bed. Someone on the plane or in one of the airports got me sick!! While I’m on vacation!! I put a positive spin on it that it bookended our year of vacationing nicely: I had also been sick with a cold on our first vacation of the year when we went to Quebec City. I woke up too late for the free hotel breakfast (which inexplicably only runs until 9am). I completely forgot that sometimes hotels offer free breakfast. I had planned on going to Voodoo Doughnuts for breakfast anyways. And what donut place doesn’t serve coffee? It was perfect.

Originally Brent was supposed to have two days of business meetings but it got changed to one, so we had planned on going tubing on a river. It was way too cold for that so instead our plan for the day was to walk around downtown Austin and do a portion of what I had planned on doing on my own on Tuesday.

We started by walking under the Congress St. bridge by our hotel. As we walked we looked and tried to guess where the bats would normally hang out, the bat guano all over the wall under the bridge confirming we were in the right place. We could hear quiet little squeaks, there were still some bats left!! There was hope!!

At Voodoo Doughnuts I made a last-minute change to my order. I had planned on ordering off the specialties menu. I had looked up the menus online and I had forgotten all the stuff I looked up until I got to the register and I saw a giant donut the size of 6 and I realized I was about to order it, the TexAss donut. I panicked and changed my order. The guy assumed I still wanted a specialty donut so he suggested the Cock and Balls, another giant donut. Blushing and in a panic, fearing I was holding up the whole line (there was no one behind us), I tried to read the menu as the screen changed. I ended up ordering the Portland Crème. Brent got a Butterfinger donut. In the end it worked out, I got their version of a class (Boston crème) and Brent got a wacky donut with a chocolate cake base. The Portland Crème was amazing, the chocolate on top was very high quality and has now made me realize that every chocolate covered donut I’ve ever eaten was made with terrible low-quality chocolate.

After breakfast we walked to the Texas State Capitol. Afterwards we popped into CVS so I could stock up on DayQuil- my cold was not budging. On the way we took a short detour to look at St. Mary’s Cathedral which Google Maps had marked as a thing to see. It was not. It was just a church. The State Capitol, however, was easily one of the most picturesque Capitol buildings we have been to, the walkway up to it was lined with trees. We ended up going inside. Initially we were just looking for bathrooms but we ended up staying and doing a self-guided tour. The Senate and the State Congress rooms were decked out in holiday fare. The trees were real, the garlands were hung and in the State Congress room there were Christmas carols playing over the speakers. Even the Governor’s meeting room had a small tree- which I don’t know how it was not dried up and crumbling, it was so hot in that small room. The library was underwhelming, even after we creeped on it from the floor above. It was cool to see the State Capitol dome from the inside, continuing in the trend of this being a very picturesque building.

The Google maps directions we had printed out were awful. However, we could see the next destination off in the distance- the clock tower on the University of Texas campus. It was awkward to go there given the troubled past and the tower wasn’t even open that day for tours. We got it via random wandering through the very nice campus. The more difficult task came with trying to navigate to my next destination: the Clock Knot sculpture. It was not tall therefore not visible over the other campus buildings. It was not famous enough to have directional signs pointing us to it. We were about to turn Brent’s phone back on, we knew were close just unsure which way to go, when around a corner we stumbled upon it. It was just a giant bright red statue of knotted steel that looked like it had escaped from the Storm King Art Centre. Google Maps was right for telling me to go look at it.

It had gotten very warm out. I took off my cardigan, rolled up my pant legs and regretted having left my sunglasses at home. We walked by the massive university football stadium and went inside to have a look. We could only peer through the closed gates at the field. There was a $10 admission fee the Lyndon B. Johnson library and museum and he was not nearly interesting enough to warrant that kind of an expense. We walked through the lobby, looked at his limousine and exited through the giftshop.

We had planned on going to Stubb’s BBQ for lunch but when we got there it appeared to be closed. It was on a corner, so we went down the street but only found their parking lot and smokers. We turned back and tried for the door again. There were cars in the parking lot. It made no sense. We kept walking and passed an open concert area, still part of Stubb’s. Past that I saw another sign that said Stubb’s BBQ. Apparently, they take up a whole city block as a bar, concert venue and finally a restaurant. The beef brisket sandwich was ok but nowhere near what I was expecting. Of the three beats (pulled pork being the other) the sausage was by far the best. It wasn’t even a contest. To go with lunch, I had a pint of Austin East Cider (despite the cold and despite the DayQuil).

Walking back, I was so uncomfortable, I was so full, it was hot outside and we were walking in the direction of the sun. We took a path under the Congress St. bridge instead of crossing at the intersection, it was a much nicer walk, plus I wanted to hear more bat squeaks. There were a lot of turtles hanging around in the Colorado River.

Back in the hotel I was exhausted and ended up falling asleep on the couch. I woke up feeling better and snacked on some Milk Duds while watching TV and waiting for Brent to wake up from his nap in the other room. He came out in a tizzy, he had forgotten his dress shirt at home. We found a menswear store nearby and headed back out. It was expensive but the downtown core was weirdly devoid of chain stores. It was all bars and boutiques. The timing would work out perfectly, because we would be heading back to our hotel room right around dusk, when the bats start to emerge from under the bridge. On the way to the boutique we found a consignment shop and went there instead. It was cheaper than the boutique.

We got to the bridge 40 minutes before sunset, the internet said that was when it starts. The internet was wrong. We waited and waited. A guy came up to us and told us to go further down the bridge for a better vantage point. We walked only a little bit of the way. There were other people further down and the last thing we wanted was a conversation. We kept slowly inching our way down. To pass the time we watched egrets converge in one tree for the night. Just when we thought it was impossible, that no more would fit in that tree, another one would show up. Our excitement grew when a bat tour boat appeared. The tour guide was pointing and shining a red light. We thought maybe they would fly out soon, if the tour boat had arrived they had to know the timing of this- alas nothing happened. After an hour of waiting we gave up. We were the last ones left standing and no bats had emerged. As we walked, we stopped at the most popular spot and looked down. We could see the bats swooping in arcs below the bridge underneath the light from the streetlamp. They were so fast that it was just a streak. It was fun to watch and narrate as moths escaped, desperately flying upwards. Out of nowhere a giant cockroach appeared by my feet. I momentarily considered kicking him down to the bats, just to get a better glimpse of them.

We dropped off the shirt at the hotel and I swapped out for a smaller purse and grabbed my wool coat and scarf. It was getting cold outside. We walked the short distance to Guero’s Taco Bar for dinner. I could not tell Brent at the time where I had gotten the recommendation for the restaurant because it was from a book I had gotten him as present. But the recommendation lived up to the hype. It was fast, cheap and plentiful. Brent ended up getting a free bonus pork taco too. Hands-down the chicken taco was the best, it was topped with pickled red cabbage. I got the ground beef taco because it was listed under the label of Tex-Mex which is what Guero’s was known for. It was very confusing when it arrived. I was given an in-house made corn tortilla, with warm ground beef inside, wrapped in foil. On the side were all the fixings. It was a build-your-own-taco deal. You can’t go to a taco bar and not have a margarita. It was good but it was so strong, probably stronger than the 2.5oz listed on the menu. Because I had only ordered one taco and stolen bites of Brent’s chicken and pork tacos, I had room for dessert. We told our server we were going to split an order of the dulce de leche cake. What we actually meant was Brent would have one spoonful. Either they were generous and gave us a double serving or else it’s true that everything is bigger in Texas. We got an enormous slice of cake. I still don’t know how, but somehow, I managed to eat the whole thing. It was a struggle towards the end. It was an amazing cake, coconutty, moist and not too sweet.

I had 30 minutes of walking to digest it all. We were headed to Bangers for after-dinner beers and ciders. On the way it was amazing how many more bars we had passed. We wondered how so many bars can remain profitable in such a small geographical area. On the way we stopped on the bridge, the bats were still circling the lamplight. Then we passed through yet another strip of bars. It was unbelievable how many bars there were, in just that small section of Austin.

Bangers was great, the internet was right. They had over 100 beers on tap and it was like a combination of two great places in Toronto (WVRST and Birreria Volo). Bonus points because they let us sample beers too. I tried a sample of the Ace pineapple cider. It was too sweet for me, but I needed to try it because a year ago we got he bottle cap from it but neither of us had actually tried it. Now my goal was complete and I was free to order a pint of something else. Instead I had a glass of the Upland Kiwi Soured Beer. The bar tender said it was one of the best beers they have on offer. He was right, it was awesome. The place was not too busy and the selection was great so we stayed for another round. I ended up ordering a glass of the Stupid Silly Sour that Brent had sampled during round one.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped for one last look at the bats. Maybe they would spontaneously all fly out? Nope, no luck. There was a confusing couple on the bridge. At first we thought they might be bat-watching, it got us excited. As we drew closer though we realized that they were just being lame and making out. It was tempting to boo them. Back in the hotel a lady got off the elevator in workout shorts, holding a box of Krispy Kreme donuts and shouting into her phone trying to find her friend. I found it oddly amusing. It may have been all the alcohol and DayQuil.

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