Friday, February 25, 2011

City Tour #3 -- Los Angeles, California

For my first American city, I'll reminisce over Los Angeles, a city so big and sprawling that it encompasses many smaller cities and towns that each bring something different to the collective table.

I was only there for three days in 2009 before disembarking to Tahiti, so forgive me if L.A. didn't get my full attention while I was there. But I did enjoy my time in L.A. -- more than I thought I would.

Growing up, L.A. seemed to be too overwhelming to visit and I couldn't help but have the same impression when I started to plan for our visit. I'd been raised to think that traffic in L.A. was horrific but didn't experience any of it while I was there and I was surprised to see that the city was aggressively expanding its mass transit system even as the state of California faced an epic deficit.

In short, I didn't want to like L.A. As an east coast native, I wanted to reject the L.A. lifestyle of being famous for no reason, worshiping celebrities, being a Lakers fan and everything else that has become synonymous with Los Angeles. But I came away from L.A. with a deep appreciation for the city. I found that it wasn't completely a playground for the Kardashians or the cast of Laguna Beach. And maybe that's because our unofficial tour guide while in L.A. was so anti-L.A. despite living there that it rubbed off on me.

Perhaps my most favorite thing about the city was that while you could be in L.A., you could also be in a certain neighborhood that had a feel all its own, and not even feel like you're in L.A. -- Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Manhattan Beach, El Segundo, Hollywood, Downtown...

So here is how I thought L.A. stacked up as a whole.

I saw the sign. And it opened up my eyes. I saw the sign.

1. Arts & Culture --10-- There is a little place called Hollywood that makes pretty much every movie that gets shown on a theater in America each year. Plus, all of the major television networks have studios in the city. L.A. also has a rich history of novelists (James Ellroy, Brett Easton Ellis) and has been home to many rock bands and rappers since...forever.

The bomb-ass shrimp tacos.

2. Food --8-- L.A. isn't known for one thing when it comes to food, it's known for pretty much everything. The melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups within the city have made L.A. a food paradise. From Mexican to Japanese, L.A. has it covered. One of my favorite places where this is on display is the Farmer's Market where I had some bomb-ass fish tacos. I never had a chance to make it to Olvera Street in downtown L.A., but I hear there are some good Mexican street vendors there. The sushi in L.A. was among the best I've ever had.

"L.A. has a subway?" -- Lethal Weapon 3

3. Mass Transit --5-- There are songs written about L.A.'s lack of mass transit and its dependence on the automobile and the city has a long way to go to make its system a comprehensive one. But they have also come along way within the last decade. You can now travel by rail from Long Beach all the way to North Hollywood and soon you'll be able to go from East L.A. all the way to Santa Monica. L.A. buses are said to be some of the most efficient in America, and they better be, since the bus replaced what was once the best network of streetcars in America. Since L.A. is so spread out, it takes a long time to get anywhere, whether by car or by rail, but the city has made great strides in improving its transit system and they must be commended for that.

Farmer's Market

4. Look & Feel --9-- L.A. has many vantage points. It all depends where you are. The beach? The mountains? Downtown? Is there smog? That said, L.A. is a beautiful city in almost every way, from the Hollywood sign to its palm trees down to its people. Perhaps its only downfall is its lack of a walkable city center, but Hollywood will suffice.

Nope, that's not Vancouver.

5. Overall --8-- L.A. is a world-class city. It has everything you want in a city, and probably a lot more. It's huge and can be overwhelming, and doesn't have a walkable city center as many cities do, but that doesn't stop L.A. from being completely awesome, as much as you may not want to admit it.

Total -- 40/50

Thursday, February 24, 2011

City Tour #2 -- Athens, Greece

For my next act, I'll review the city of Athens, which was the first trip I'd ever taken to Europe.

Back in 2005, the extent of my travel experience had mostly been to Caribbean resorts. But like me with Montreal, my wife has always had an obsession with Greece, so I wasn't exactly going to protest a trip there. So we decided to broaden our horizons and fly across to the pond to a whole new world.

Until then, Europe to me seemed like some distant land from a fairy tale. It was just one of those places that I never really expected to see when I was young and unconcerned with the world outside of my narrow viewpoint at the time. I knew there were some big important things to see over there, but I never imagined being able to afford to visit those places or having the cajones to step so far outside of my all-inclusive Caribbean resort comfort level. After all, they speak Greek in Greece, so there was no chance of being able to speak a little bit of the native tongue and stories of pickpockets, gypsies and unfriendly Greeks didn't make it any easier.

But I hunkered down and boarded that plane in the first step of a journey that took me to Athens, Mykonos, Rhodes and even Kusadasi, Turkey. Turkey! Although this trip was more than just Athens, this city will always hold a special place in my heart for awakening me to the realization that the world is bigger than just Maryland and the Caribbean. And since then, I've been completely obsessed with seeing as much of the world as possible.

Here's how Athens stacked up.

1. Arts & Culture --10-- The Acropolis. Greek Mythology. The Olympics. The origin of modern thinking. Need I say more? There was so much history and culture in Athens that I sometimes had to pinch myself to remind myself that I was in the same city where all of this stuff happened.

2. Food --6-- The Greeks are known for many specialties, but in my finding, none of the food really wowed me while I was there. Pardon me. I should have said "none of the food really wowed me while I was there except for a lamb kabob stand across the street from our hotel". Holy shit was that stuff good. But aside from that, the food was so-so, and maybe that's because we were so new to European travel that we didn't know where to go for good, local food. We mainly stayed close to tourist-friendly locations and didn't go off exploring like we are so prone to do now. So while I didn't have much amazing food in Greece, I can respect the tradition of Greek cuisine and give Athens the points it deserves. It was a "my bad" on that one. In the beverage department, Greece also left me a little cold. Ouzo is probably the most rank liquid that I've ever tasted and Greek wine and beer leaves much to be desired. I came away from this experience realizing that the Greek people and terrain are very tough, which explains the tough cuisine.

3. Mass Transit --6-- Again, because this was our first trip to Europe, we didn't explore much on our own, which meant that the mass transit system was unused by me. However, I do know that the Athens metro is serviceable and largely new, largely built for the 2004 Olympics. Had I known about the metro back then, I wouldn't have had to take the hour and a half long taxi ride from Pireaus to the airport.

4. Look & Feel --9-- Athens itself may not be much to look at: lots graffiti and run down buildings, but all you need to do is look at the Acropolis and all of that other stuff just falls away. Also, historic parts of town like the Plaka and Psiri -- at the foot of the Acropolis -- offer markets, bars, restaurants and night clubs. The view from Lycabettus Hill is breathtaking. While my wife and I had dinner at a restaurant located at the top, we could see the lights come on, illuminating the ruins located across the city one by one after sunset. It was one of the most memorable views I have ever seen. Overall, Athens may not be a handsome city, but it's stunning where it counts.

5. Overall --9-- Take away the stunning Acropolis and some of the other ancient ruins that are scattered across the city and Athens may become just another bustling city on the Mediterranean. But come on, this is Athens! Those are the reasons this is one of the most important cities in the world! No matter where you're standing in the city, a thousand important people stood there at one time before doing a thousand important things. And that experience alone is reason enough to see Athens for yourself. Ok, so the food may not have been all that great, but I know it exists. And you can always survive on lamb kabobs.

Total -- 40/50

City Tour #1 -- Montreal, Quebec

I thought I'd start in Montreal, a city that I've had an odd obsession with since childhood. Growing up I rooted for the Expos (as my #2 team behind the O's of course) and always found it odd that there was a French city in North America. I still hadn't quite yet grasped the whole French Canadian thing.

So in October 2006, I talked my wife into driving to Montreal for our anniversary. We drove up and spent the night in the Catskills, since the drive alone is around ten hours each way. And by doing this, the drive went by in a breeze. I also have to admit, since Montreal has had a hold on me since childhood, it was a pretty surreal experience to drive there. Flying into a city is one thing, but driving to a city is another. Especially a city as foreign as Montreal. It's been called "the Paris of North America" and here I was, essentially driving to Paris. Once we crossed the border and I started to see signs on the highway, it hit me: I am going to Montreal. And when I saw the skyline in the distance, I couldn't help but feel like I'd accomplished something.

So did Montreal live up to my self-created hype?

1. Arts & Culture --7-- Montreal has the benefit of taking the best of Francophone and Anglophone Canada and claiming it as its own, which is why it feels like such a European city. The sculptures throughout the city are decidedly modern, which are a stark contrast to some of the old town decadent Catholic churches. McGill University is one of North America's most prestigious colleges, and Montreal's mid-2000's indie-music scene was on par with Seattle's grunge revolution of the early 1990's. Case in point is the Arcade Fire's recent Grammy win for Best Album of the Year. Other bands such as Stars and Wolf Parade also put Montreal on the map, not to mention dozens of other smaller independent bands which draw inspiration of such a culturally rich city.

2. Food --7-- It's obvious that Montreal is going to have a heavy French-influenced cuisine, which alone gives it very high marks. But on the Anglophone side of things is an old Canadian trapper tradition as evidenced in restaurants serving game meats such as Que de Cheval, Gibby's and the Beaver Club. Poutine (french fries, gravy and cheese curds) is probably the city's most popular and recognizable native dish, which is disappointing despite poutine being delicious, since Montreal is so much more culinarily rich than just gravy fries. As for beverages, Canada is known for its beer, and while the French are more about their wine, Montreal thankfully defers to beer as its drink of choice as evidenced by Molson, North America's oldest brewery.

3. Mass Transportation --8-- The comparisons to Paris are very much alive on the city's metro subway, as the Montreal metro has rubber tires, just like Paris. The city boasts a very well laid out metro system that offers good circulation within the city. The headways were 5-10 minutes, which means short waits for trains. Montreal's metro allowed me to leave my very tired car at the hotel and navigate through the city as the locals do.

4. Look & Feel --9-- Montreal's old town is the city's most charming section, and is where one is most likely to be reminded of Paris. Shops and restaurants housed in old stone buildings line cobblestone streets. The view from Mount Royal offers a different view of the city, this one highlighting its central business district and sprawling downtown grid. And across the St. Lawrence River at the Parc Jean Drepeau, one can take in beautiful water views of the city.

5. Overall --8-- Montreal may get higher marks from me because of my odd obsession with the city from childhood, but it stacks up to most North American cities in every way. I had a wonderful time there, and it met and exceeded the hype I had created for it. One night, my wife and I took a carriage ride through the old town, and someone called out to no one in particular, "Happy Montreal"! I think that would make a great slogan for the city.

Total: 39/50

The Bad Oriole City Tour!

OK, so in case you couldn't already tell, I've got a case of the Februarys.

So to kill time, I thought I'd rummage through the memories I have in each city I have visited in the last few years and rate them based on five categories.

1. Arts & Culture -- what the city has to offer in terms of history, entertainment and fun.

2. Food -- not so much the quality of restaurants the city has...this is more about the city's indigenous food.

3. Mass Transportation -- yeah, I'm a train geek but when visiting cities, mass transit is a crucial component.

4. Look & Feel -- Architecture, water views, the city layout and pretty much the feeling I get from being in the city.

5. Overall -- how each category comes together in creating my overall opinion of a city.

I'll admit, I haven't been to as many cities as I would like. I'm still waiting to visit such gems as Paris, Tokyo, London, Barcelona, Seattle, Chicago and San Diego. But I also do think of myself as being pretty well traveled, having visited Rome, Athens, Florence, Venice, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Boston.

So obviously I am only going to review cities that I've visited. And as I visit more, I'll add them to my list. I'll try to add a city every week or so, as I have the time.

So in the meantime, enjoy! And feel free to let me know what you think.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Baltimore Blahs

It's February 22nd. We just got six inches of snow. The Terps are headed for an NIT appearance, the NFL is headed for a potential work stoppage and Orioles baseball is still a month and a half away.

Anyone else have the Baltimore blahs like me?

Time has healed some of the wounds I suffered when the Ravens choked away a the AFC Championship in Baltimore, but I'm still very much ticked off about it even though the Steelers lost in the Super Bowl.

Times like these it would be nice if Baltimore had an NHL or NBA team to follow, but with the new arena still years away from breaking ground -- much less being completed -- that is nothing but a pipe dream.

I spent a nice Sunday down in Fells Point at Max's Belgian Beer Festival, which helped kill some of this idle time. A trip to somewhere warm sure would be nice right about now. Last year during this time, my wife and I went to Miami.

Note to self: Take more mid-February trips.

That's all I got.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Radiohead, The King of Limbs

Sometimes, it's better to let someone else do the work. In this case, it's my buddy Andrew, who runs Binge Listening. His review of Radiohead's new album, The King of Limbs is spot on with how I feel about this challenging new release from the current best band in the world. Enjoy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Arcade Fire win Grammy

There may be hope for the Grammys after all -- the Arcade Fire won "best album of the year" over the likes of Eminem, Lady Antebellum and Lady Gaga.

It's still an insult for the Arcade Fire to have been nominated with those other shitbombs, but thankfully, the Grammys got it right in the end. The Suburbs was one of the best albums of the year -- and shocker -- actually an album. It had a common theme from beginning to end and wasn't a vehicle for a slew of radio-friendly singles to be strung together. And the Arcade Fire are one of the best bands around today. Three albums into their career, you have a feeling that they're just getting "Ready to Start".

Yeah, I just said that.

Anyway, their win should have fans of indie rock cheering. It's about time an indie band gets some mainstream accolades. Not only are indie tunes routinely used in commercials, they are also supply the soundtracks of many of today's popular television shows. Yet no mainstream radio station dares play an indie band like the Arcade Fire. And I doubt their Grammy win will change any of that any time soon.

Oh well, I almost prefer it to be that way.

But like Kanye West said on Twitter after the Arcade Fire shocked the world, "There is hope!!! I feel like we all won when something like this happens! FUCKING AWESOME!"

Friday, February 11, 2011

ESPN personalities chime in on Orioles

Whether you like the moves or not, you have to admit that the Orioles were busy this offseason and have assembled a team that has elicited different opinions from some of the most well-respected baseball personalities over at ESPN.

Here's what they had to say:

Keith Law

Jayson Stark

Buster Olney

Well at least it's nice for ESPN to actually spend some time talking about teams other than the Red Sox and Yankees, even if they don't always have positive things to say.

But out of the three of them, Stark and Olney liked what the O's did this offseason, and Law, who used to be a writer for Baseball Prospectus, usually bases his opinion on value-per-dollar-spent, and if a few things go wrong this season, the O's could have spent millions for nothing, much like they did with Garrett Atkins in 2010.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

When the Lights go out

Clear eyes! Full hearts! Can't lose!

Last night, one of the best TV shows of all time came to an end, and not many people even knew the show existed in the first place.

That name of that show, you ask? Friday Night Lights.

Unlike The Wire, which started off largely ignored until it started to gain traction with audiences in its fourth season, Friday Night Lights never got the same "better late than never" attention and acclaim it rightfully deserved.

It seemed like each season of the show was a last-minute announcement, leaving fans wondering if there would even be another season. Thankfully, after its third season, DirecTV stepped in and bought the first-air rights, giving it a much needed home for the show's fourth and fifth season, which came to a close last night. The show will air on its original home, NBC, sometime over the summer.

Based on the book and film of the same name, FNL followed the Dillon Panthers -- a Texas high school football team so ingrained in the community that one ponders if Dillon would even exist if not for the team -- its coach, Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), their daughter, Julie, (Aimee Teegarden) and the travails of the many players who came and went, among them being Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) and Jason Street (Scott Porter).

But wait.

Not only did Friday Night Lights better the movie upon which it was based, a rarity for TV shows based on films, the show also reinvented itself during the fourth season, moving Coach Taylor to a new school and adding a new cast. It did all that, and got even better!

There's more.

FNL was primarily a family-themed show, both literally and figuratively. LITERALLY - At its core, the Taylor family, one of the best portrayed families in the history of television. FIGURATIVELY - The show never steered away from serious family issues: teen-drinking, premarital sex, abortion and rape. The difference between FNL and most other TV shows was the way in which FNL handled each issue with tenderness for its characters, whereas other shows use those issues as plot devices to generate ratings and exploit characters.

And that was FNL's biggest quality -- its ability to tell stories realistically -- from camera angles and direction down to the improvised dialog.

I don't know many people who watched FNL, but I am glad I am one of the few. For five years I was treated to some of the best TV that will ever exist.

I only hope that people will retro-actively discover this show and keep its legacy alive.

Friday, February 4, 2011

It's a Vlad, Vlad, Vlad, Vlad World

He looks good in orange, no?

It's not 2004, but the Orioles signing Vladimir Guerrero to a one-year, $8 million dollar contract is still a good move. Sure, it would have been nice to have had Guerrero's services since 2004, when the Orioles lost out to signing Guerrero to the Angels, but at 36, Guerrero can still perform as long as he's healthy, and last year Guerrero proved that he still is, playing in 152 games.

The one-year, $8 million contract was about $3.5 million more than the O's initial reported offer, but it doesn't matter. Even at $8 million, signing Guerrero is a coup for the O's, who have put the finishing touches on a pret-ty good 2011 line-up.

The Guerrero signing means that Luke Scott goes back in LF, and Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold get relegated to the bench and Norfolk respectively. And as much as I want to see Reimold rebound in 2011, having him start the year in Norfolk just speaks to the depth that the Guerrero signing gives the Orioles.

Most important, the move gives manager Buck Showalter a veteran-laden team, something that he worked wonders with in Arizona. Sure, many of the veteran players the Orioles have under contract in 2011 are here on one-year deals, but a manager of Showalter's stature can milk the most talent possible out of a roster filled with this much experience. That isn't to say that the Orioles are headed toward the postseason, but the O's have at least given Buck Showalter some real tools to work with, something that previous managers cannot say.

Yet, at 36, you have to wonder when the aggressive-swinging Guerrero will start to break down. Maybe he already has, and the Orioles are paying $8 million to find out.

But I think it's worth the risk.

Guerrero had 115 RBI and 29 home runs a year ago, and with more rest (something the O's can afford to give Guerrero), Vlad should be able to put up similar numbers for at least one...more...year. And even if he is not at 100%, or on a decline, I still think Guerrero could still be an asset to this line-up. He just knows how to hit, having hit above .295 over the course of his entire career.

And let's not forget what the 2011 season should be about -- ending the 13-year losing streak. I know one winning season doesn't translate to anything more than just that, but O's fans are absolutely starved for a winning season and with Guerrero on the roster, the O's have one more weapon to achieve that task.

And with the Pittsburgh Steelers playing in the Super Bowl this weekend, the Guerrero signing should give Baltimore sports fans a little something to smile about for the time being.

At least until those goddamn Steelers win the Super Bowl.

Pondering the red line

I can barely believe it myself, since I am a huge transit nut and have been pushing for the red line for the last few years, but some people over at the Baltimore/Washington, DC forum at SkyScraper City have actually challenged my opinion on the red line and whether it is the best transit system that the city could build -- and I am starting to wonder if the red line is what's best for Baltimore.

That's not to say that I am no longer in favor of the red line -- I definitely am. But I am beginning to side with some of the people who have been criticizing the red line and thinking about some of the alternatives.

The red line, as it is currently planned will be a 14-mile light rail line running west from Woodlawn/Social Security to Canton and out to Dundalk. It will go underground downtown, avoiding the sluggish street-level path that the current light rail makes through the downtown area. But aside from that improvement over the current light rail, the red line is primed to make many of the same mistakes.

For one, the red line is planned to run at street level down Edmonson Avenue on the west side of the city, where there are many traffic lights, as well as Boston Street in Canton. This will make for a slow ride through the area, putting it on the same level with the #40 QuickBus, which takes a similar route down Edmonson Avenue and route 40 on its way downtown.

Once it gets downtown, the red line will not use any of the current tunnel systems already in place, opting for an entirely new tunnel instead, meaning that it will not directly connect with any of the existing transit lines (metro subway or light rail) despite Charles Center having the capability to handle a second line. Instead, the red line will be connected to Charles Center via an underground walkway. Sure, it's better than the current transfer point between the subway and light rail, which exists at street level without much signage, but it still doesn't take advantage of what is already in place.

Once the red line arrives in Canton, it will go back to street level and proceed down Boston Street, much to the chagrin of Cantonites who want the red line put underground. And as it continues east toward Dundalk, the red line will pass by abandoned factories or areas not primed for Transit Oriented Development (TOD). And when the red line terminates in Dundalk, it still doesn't give the east side of town a good transit line downtown like the subway does for Owings Mills on the west side.

So basically, despite its positives, which there are many, the red line is a brand-new transit line being built by an administration with a track record of mistakes, and will not be fully integrated with what already exists. It's a lot like someone building an addition onto their home when the rest of their home is in dire need of repair.

So what is being suggested in place of the red line?

The one thing I can definitely agree with is that the current subway line should be expanded east past Johns Hopkins hospital to Morgan State University and out toward the White Marsh area, like the metro does on the west side for Owings Mills. The east side of town and county needs a line downtown to alleviate the heavily driven portion of I-95. And White Marsh, a booming retail and residential center, can dispel the notion that the subway was to blame for killing Owings Mills mall.

Some other suggestions are to use the tunnels that already exist in the downtown area to build segments of heavy rail systems that will connect to current ones. They won't allow for park and ride systems like the current red line is planning at the end of route 70 in Woodlawn, but they will get people to crucial MARC train stations and increase the circulation of people in the downtown area, something that the current system severely lacks -- something that the red line will not improve upon either.

And finally, there are people who are just in favor of building the red line entirely with heavy rail, since it is the fastest method of transit available, but the most expensive. However, to offset the heavy price tag, people point to the $2 billion dollar price tag of the red line and say "if you're going to be spending that much money, spend a little more and do it the right way." And that is where I probably fall. I like the idea of the red line and the extra line of transit it gives the city, but realize the flaws that it creates. A heavy rail line would erase many of those flaws.

So while I am still very much in favor of the red line getting built, even in its current inception, I do realize that it is not a perfect system and it will not fix the many transit problems the city of Baltimore currently suffers from. But I do believe that it can be a good starting point to build an east-west system in Baltimore, even though that is not what the city should set out to do. They should build something, from the beginning, that is going to work from the beginning, instead of piecing it together as they go, like they did with the subway and light rail.