What happens in Vegas cabs…

WelcomeToVegasNite“You goin’ around eatin’ horses out there? Aw man, that’s f*&$£d up!”  And in a flash, we stole the culinary innocence of our chatty Thursday morning cab driver in Las Vegas, who was treated to a debate about the respective virtues of horsemeat, rabbit, snails and frogs which are clearly a no-no in the Nevada desert.

It all stemmed from a lost-dog poster I noticed tacked onto a pole as we were waiting at a red light. It just so happened that the “Have you seen Spotty?” missive was tacked directly beneath a giant sign advertising cheap hot-dogs and my mouth blurted out the obvious link before my brain could check it for political correctness. Not that it matters, the opportunity was exquisite. Read more of this post

12 Step Planet: Lebanon

Beautiful Lebanon (copyright Monica Heck)

Beautiful Lebanon (copyright Monica Heck)

In April 2010 I travelled to Lebanon in what was a life-changing trip for many reasons. It came at a particularly good time, when I needed a break from Ireland and my life there. I boarded a plane, switched off my phone and jumped into what was to become the most treasured adventure I’ve ever had.

I was lucky enough to be hosted by some of the nicest people on earth, my friend Michele and her wonderful mother Fadia and was welcomed with open arms by family and friends throughout Easter week. I saw the sights and hung out in the sun, went out at night and sampled the crazy nightlife of Beirut.

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New York, New York

Here I am in the city that never sleeps. And I’m not sleeping either. I’m looking out at the lights of New Jersey shimmering across the water and at Lady Liberty. At last we meet.

New York skyline from the Staten Island Ferry

New York skyline from the Staten Island Ferry

New York has been everything that I hoped for and more. The crowds, the noise, the skyscrapers. It sounds so fake when you hear people saying that it’s a place where anything is possible but it’s true. There’s something about the energy of this place that makes me believe that anything could happen and that everything is possible. It’s a mix of cultures, languages and people that is hard to find anywhere else, a frantic pace that is breathtaking at times. People even do their grocery shopping at full speed, as witnessed tonight in the local supermarket where a woman in a suit nearly knocked us into the cheese display in a bid to lunge for the grated gorgonzola without stopping her trolley.

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We’re the same only different

We sort of speak the same language, we have kind of the same origins and yet on some levels the US is completely different to Europe. My first proper trip over the Atlantic (by proper I mean non-work related and therefore not spending most of my time in a convention centre or an office) and my first ever trip to the East Coast has so far been peppered with little moments of delight at discovering culinary things that I never knew before.

Root Beer. I had never heard of it before this month. I tried it on the first night as it sounded a little like Butterbeer (from Harry Potter, ahem). And I was instantly addicted. I don’t know what it is about Root Beer that makes me just want to have more and more and more… and yes I know it’s unhealthy and full of sugar and probably all kinds of weird flavourings that are likely to kill me in years to come. But I just don’t care, the combination of spices with a hint of cough medicine just taps right into the 7 year-old Oliver Twist in me and murmurs: please sir, can I have some more? I doubt I can find some in Ireland. I will try though. Very hard.

Then, I met an American who came to Ireland and fell in love with our Ginger Ale. He said it tasted of Ginger and had a bitter quality that American Ginger Ale didn’t have. And I have to confirm, the American version tastes like Sprite… He’s been searching for our Ginger Ale without success since he came back from Ireland. So I believe we may have an exchange deal on the cards. Root Beer against Ginger Ale, sounds fair to me.

Another funny realistation is how sweet everything is. Even the savoury is somehow sweet in a naughty way – mashed potatoes, burgers, chips, there’s always a sweet undertone or sauce to accompany it. Take this extra fancy steak house we visited where I had the most amazing Tuna steak of my life. Hands down better than even Japanese restaurants have managed to serve up to me. The side order included lobster Mac’n’Cheese – it’s like the adult version of the child’s menu! What’s not to like?

It’s like the US is the home of every person’s inner 7-year-old. And I like that. No apologies. I know it’s probably bad and likely to kill me in years to come. But if we must die, surely it’s better to die eating something you like than having nibbled at raw sprouts and carrots all your life? Unless you like that type of thing of course. But sprouts and carrots to me are the food I imagine they will serve up in purgatory, if I somehow fail to make it pass the Golden Gates. Good job I took my runners with me though… without exercise, the US would be lethal.

The dark side of my US culinary discovery tour comes in the form of Beef Jerky and worse, its dodgier cousin Turkey Jerky… it fills the snack aisle and it resembles dried road kill or worse, the treats you buy for the dog (pork scratchings?). For a dare I bought some to ensure I wasn’t judging a book by its cover. I wasn’t. It tastes like dry corned beef. I didn’t dare try the Turkey one. I only do chicken ant turkey very well cooked. I’m sorry but those snacks will not make it on to my “best buy in the US”  list…

Instant Mac’n’Cheese is also on the weird list… it’s sold in pots like Pot-Noodle, just add water and tadam, you have your Mac’n’Cheese… the bit I don’t get though is… isn’t that how you make regular Mac’n’Cheese? Just put your pasta in a pot, boil it up, grate some cheese and you’re set? But no, someone had to make it even more instant. I bow to that culinary massacre – if it sells, well why not!

The atmosphere and service in restaurants was something to behold. In Boston we visited a couple of restaurants with small entrances leading to large hangar-like rooms, decorated in an opulent manner to make them cosy. These gigantic spaces were full of people either dining or waiting for tables and were filled with the genuine buzz of enjoyment and the impeccable way the service staff manages the queuing system in what could easily descend into chaos as people mill around the bar. That just doesn’t really happen in the same comfortable manner in Europe, but I’ve seen it done in a similar manner in the Middle East however – the atmosphere in some of the places we visited was not unlike a busy restaurant in Beirut or Dubai. Class, enjoyment, conviviality and great service.

And I’ve just realised that we left Boston without tasting the Boston Cream Pie… Stop the bus I want to go back!

The dirty business of campaigning for US President

I’m watching with fascination as the presidential campaign trail unfolds around the New Hampshire Primary. First of all, the ads. The ads are incredible. Sophisticated, expensive, like movie trailers with action music, each showing the candidate as a Bond-like figure ready to make things right again. Hair is flowing, teeth are white, faces are set in a kindly but determined mask, there are strong graphics and sound effects. That is the shiny side of campaigning. There is also a dark underbelly.

Take Jon Huntsman. He’s a candidate that is seen to have made a surprising come-back in the last few days, swiping 2 votes, neck and neck with Romney, in the tiny Dixville Notch midnight poll. Huntsman is seen as the Republican that Democrats can adhere to. He was US ambassador to China under Obama.

When Romney attacked him about serving under Obama, Huntsman responded by slamming Romney’s attitude as symptomatic of what is truly wrong in the US and how Republican vs Democrat war was taking precedence over the bigger picture. And then out popped rumours that an ad – which accused Huntsman of being anti-American and commented on the adoption of his daughters and which he countered in an emotional address during his campaign – could actually be linked to his own campaign trail, who could have disseminated the ad against him to make him look good…

Romney also put his foot in it when he declared that he “likes to be able to fire people that provide services to me”. His opponents quickly ran with this, using it to tear at his time at Bain Capital, where he was said to have made a lot of money and made a lot of people redundant and was branded a “predatory corporate raider” by a pro-Gingrich group. Another film is said to be about to target Romney for the next round of votes in Carolina about “corporate raiding”, again linked to a group or PAC, not Newt Gingrich directly, the trailer of which looks like it belongs to “Wall Street” or “The International”.

Who knows at this point who did what, but that is how dirty political fighting is done! In comparison, Dana-gate and Gallagher’s Brown-envelope-gate during our own presidential campaign make it look like the debate was just heating up!

This morning a financial expert on CNN made a comment which I thought was relevant in highlighting why this year’s campaign is perhaps a little different due to the current world wide recession: “The Republicans are arguing about the DNA of profit making”. It’s true, in the case of Romney, the Republicans sound like they actually oppose capitalism…

Romney is still in the lead as I type. Meanwhile, the Doomsday clock is ticking on CNN, bringing us closer to the end of the world which is planned on 21 12 2012.

The boy who cried fire over the intercom at 3am

The alarm sounded in the room around an hour ago at 3h30 am, first a fire alarm then the serious voice of ‘He who is not to be messed with’, announcing that an emergency was detected in our building and that we had to remain calm, that they would call floors to evacuate and to wait till our floor was called. Then silence. Our floor was not called out.

Cue bleary eyed panic, scramble for clothes and passports. I’m thinking it’s bad news when your floor isn’t called out, it probably means that they’re saving the easy floors first. Being on the top floor pretty much condemns you to fry anyways, right?  Those are the thoughts of the 3am adventure wake-up call.

Then more fire alarms and “He who is not to be messed with” is on the line again: *meep, meep, meep* “May I have your attention, may I have your attention please. The hotel emergency personnel and the Boston Fire Department have determined that there is no danger. You can now return to your normal activities. We would like to apologise for the inconvenience. *meep, meep, meep*

OK… erm… if you say so… I’m only half convinced and curiosity is knawing away at me but I’m getting ready to go back to bed when “He” is back on, announcing that they have determined there is no danger and that we can now return to our normal activities. And again five minutes later *meep, meep, meep*. Nothing inspires confidence in an all-clear message more than a random repetition of this message every 2 or 3 minutes.

A trek downstairs confirms that the incident is due to some kind of secret brass polishing spray painting activity being performed when people are tucked up in bed. An accidental elevator trip to the lower basement confirms this theory as the toxic fumes perfect the wake-up call.

The all-clear message sounds for another 30 mins at 1 minute intervals. Meanwhile, Mr C. has become “He who should not be messed with” as the morning alarm looms with no prospect of sleep.

We’ve been up for an hour and it’s not even like our building even burned down! See, I’m more concerned about the story than burning to a crisp on floor 14, there must be a good journalist in me somewhere…

It’s the season of First Primary

Well it looks like I’ve landed in this area of the US in prime political season, the New Hampshire Primary happens tomorrow, determining which of the hopeful presidential candidates stand a chance and which will disappear into obscurity. I’ve awoken to a media frenzy on the topic with the Republican candidates in the spotlight. Apparently you win the Iowa Caucus (which happened on January 3) and the New Hampshire Primary or you go home. To my understanding, these locations sort of act as “temperature” gauges for the population at large. In Iowa, Obama walked away with the Democrat vote but competition was fierce with the Republicans and Romney beat Santorum by just 8 votes.

So far Mitt Romney is still in the lead but as the debates got more heated, he was apparently torn to shreds by his rivals over the weekend. Other heavyweights include Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, John Huntsman, Newt Gingrich and all hope to knock him off balance and make it to the top 3.

Votes are cast tomorrow, with the little town of Dixville Notch voting in advance, at midnight tonight, one of but a handful of places that kept this tradition of middle-of-the-night voting. Their 21 ballots cast will be cast, containing 30 names. That is probably the busiest day of the year for the inhabitants of this remote hamlet located 20 miles from the Canadian border, that is thrust into the spotlight twice on presidential years. They vote in advance for both the Primary and the Presidential elections as their tradition is to close the polls at one minute past midnight. I can imagine the media spotlight is fierce up there tonight.

Political tourism is apparently a strong feature of Primary season and an article by Bobby Caina Calvan in the Boston Globe gives great insight into the experience and motivation of volunteers, who often take holidays to come up to New Hampshire and campaign. Serious campaigning apparently involves over 12 hours a day of cold calling people, sweeping floors and shouting at cars as they drive in to town to encourage them to vote… a hard task in the cold weather! Now that’s dedication…

Twitter is currently buzzing, with hashtags including #nhprimary and #FITN. Someone commented that political tourists are good for business but bad for stealing car parking spaces. It’s the little things isn’t it…

I would like to be a political tourist tomorrow pretty please. The atmosphere must be interesting up in Manchester; there are reports of media frenzy. But I’m faced with a logistical dilemma. The bus service is scarce between Boston and Manchester, there are no reserved seats meaning that I may get stuck out there. The train service is actually routed through the bus service. One bus. So I could get stuck in a place where all the hotels are booked in the middle of winter. And being a broke student I cannot afford a 1h30 cab drive back nor, to be quite honest, the hotel… I’m really in 2 minds about this… I may have to bow out of being there this year and hope that my future media employer sends me back in 4 years time as a fully fledged reporter.