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We’re on Vacation!

We’ve been celebrating our 10-year wedding anniversary and visiting our favorite city to celebrate, Florence, Italy. So we don’t have a lot of time to write this week. We decided to give you a moment of zen, watching the crews working out on the Arno River with the Ponte Vecchio in the background. We’ll have more on our Italian escape next week.

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We’re Crazy for a Different Kind of Cake

The other day there was a festival in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh (a.k.a. Little Italy). I happen to work in Little Italy, so my walk to and from work was through the crowded festival-filled street. I walked past the various food venders offering all sorts of food: BBQ, Asian fusion, and of course Italian. I was even surprised to see a large RV parked on the side of the street just past the street closures emblazoned with the words “Maryland Crab Cakes.”

Being a Marylander, I of course took a closer look. If they were really Maryland crab cakes they’d have to made by my fellow Marylanders. The RV did indeed have Maryland plates and listed its home base as Havre de Grace, Maryland. I happened to mention that investigation to Amanda as I talked to her on the phone on my walk to my car. She immediately asked me to bring home a crab cake since they seemed to have credibility being from a town along the Chesapeake Bay.

I then realized that my job was to return to the fray of the festival and not go home until a crab cake was in hand. I passed stand after stand until I spotted the gold, black, red and white of the Maryland flag waving in the breeze. Of course there was a line, but it eventually led me to the counter. The cake in hand, wrapped in foil and nestled in a small paper basket I returned to my Jeep and seatbelted it in for the ride home. Precious cargo!

Marylanders take great pride in the state crustacean, particularly when it’s been doused in Old Bay and baked. Amanda enjoyed every bite that evening.

If you’d like to make your own cake here is my mother’s recipe:

Take 1 pound of lump crab meat.

Mix with some bread crumbs, mayo and a beaten egg and form into patties.

Fry in a pan until it is golden brown and serve on a plate or in a bun.

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JetBlue Cuts Through Red Tape

Many consider JetBlue to be a standard of modern air travel and the airline helped kick off a new era in travel between the United States and Cuba this past week. After months of negotiations between the two nations’ governments, the New York-based airline flew its first of many regularly scheduled flights between Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Abel Santamaria, Cuba (located three hours west of Havana).

“We are proud to be the first U.S. airline to serve Cuba, but our focus is on being the best airline serving Cuba,” said Robin Hayes, president and chief executive officer, JetBlue. “This historic flight symbolizes our long-term commitment to provide affordable, award-winning service between Cuba and the U.S. For the first time in decades, families separated by only a short stretch of water can easily and affordably visit a loved one, attend an important occasion or visit a special place – and the role we play speaks directly to our mission of inspiring humanity.”

The airline didn’t clear all of the diplomatic hurdles thrown up in travelers’ paths. The two nations, long hostile towards one another, are just beginning to get along after 60 years. A trip to Cuba is still a little complicated, and JetBlue has taken it upon itself to streamline the process as much as possible.

The first thing the airline is focusing on is what they do best: affordable fares. They want to make it as affordable as possible for families to travel to Cuba, especially considering the large Cuban population living in the United States that haven’t seen family living in Cuba in many years.

The second thing is health insurance.  Yes, health insurance.  The Cuban government requires health insurance for all travelers on all Cuban-bound flights. You also might not mind getting sick in Cuba, or go there for treatment, since the island boasts 1 doctor for every 155 people.

Third in their streamlining approach is rather unique to traveling to Cuba (not that health insurance isn’t) but this one is required by the U.S. government. A U.S. citizen traveling to Cuba must fill out an affidavit affirming the customer is going to Cuba for one of the 12 approved reasons by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

The fourth is getting your visa. Cuba requires all visitors to obtain an entrance visa when traveling to the country. JetBlue has really taken the work out of getting these tourist cards, by making them available for purchase when you check in at one of its gateway airports, such as Fort Lauderdale. The cost of the visa is $50.

Warning: You should still check with the recently opened Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC so you know which kind of visa you will need.

Finally we can get to Cuba from the U.S., but remember that the infrastructure for a true tourist industry is still being built. If you are a truly adventurous traveler and want to take a chance in a country we (the U.S.) had effectively walled off for 60 years, now is your chance and JetBlue is doing its best to cut through the red tape.

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Connecting to the World

The World Wide Web is what we called the internet back 1991. At the time, it was a curious domain only frequented by scientists and certain young nerds named Amanda. A world of interconnecting computers sharing information that could be traced on a map made of paper. You could receive and send information at what seemed like magical speeds of 1.2 kbps (kilobytes per second). The speed today, depending on area, can top out around 500,000 kbps.

We live connected lives; we’re connected to our families, to our friends, and (for better or worse) to our jobs. You just need to remember that before email when you went on vacation you were truly out of the office, completely uncontactable by the pressures of work. The lines between work and home are blurred today. We don’t consider that completely bad, either. Before the internet you could never truly work from home in a corporate environment, opening up options for people to have successful careers at major companies while living on a beach on a tropical island or a village of ancient stone-walled towers. We are simply connected to the world in ways we only dreamed of back in the 90s.

The world of travel changed, too.

The first time I traveled to Greece things were very different. I remember buying a Frommer’s Greece travel guide and using it to find the address and phone number of the hotel where we wanted to stay in Athens. We picked up the phone, calculating for the time difference, and called in the middle of the day Greece-time from the east coast of the U.S. We communicated in broken English to reserve the room. We then bought and mailed traveler’s checks to the hotel for the room deposit. Almost two weeks later, we received a fax (at my mother’s office) with copies of the traveler’s checks stating that our deposit had made it and we would have a room when we get there.

The same went for booking our airline tickets. We went to a travel agent and booked a charter flight (at that time it was the cheapest kind of flight) and were issued an itinerary. We did this months before we traveled. Then came a separate problem that’s pretty rare today. The time of the flight was changed and we didn’t realize it until we looked at the paper tickets, which came in the mail a couple weeks later. We hadn’t looked at the tickets until the day of the flight, and we came to the realization at home in Maryland. Our flight would be leaving out of New York. I remember my father making the trip in just over four hours. We wouldn’t worry about that today. The airline would just send us an alert as the times changed and we’d be able to reschedule or rebook or just simply plan to leave earlier for the airport.

We fast forward a few years to our trip to Africa. It was a far more complex trip with multiple connections, transfers and logistics and we did that all from the comfort of our home in Maryland via the internet.

A world of travel options have opened up to us thanks to the internet. We have multiple competing booking sites that aggregate prices that fluctuate daily in the airline and hotel industries. We can see the places we want to visit through a magical window we hold in the palm of our hand. We can make friends of people in places we plan to visit before we even leave home. The world of the internet, even with all the unfortunate things than can be done with it, is a blessing of technology allowing us to more easily expand our horizons and take that first step out into the world.

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How to Travel Without Embarrassing Your Country

“Don’t be a dick, kids. Don’t be a dick.” — Wil Wheaton

I’m not going to name names in this post.  The events being referred to, however, may seem familiar. I’m going to start out with this simple statement: When you travel, you are a representative of your country. You are an ambassador for your people. You are a guest in someone’s house.  You don’t have to be a high-profile celebrity to make us all look bad on an international stage. You just have to forget the common sense and manners your mama (hopefully) taught you.

Here a few quick examples of what not to do in a foreign country to avoid making the rest of us look like total d-bags.

Don’t Touch the Art!

The American tourist who sparked outrage in Florence after he snapped a finger off a priceless 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary in a museum was today revealed to be an emergency surgeon from Connecticut.

This goes for any museum, but especially ones with priceless 600-year-old statues. I don’t care if you want to get a closer look. I don’t care if you’re a doctor. You don’t just risk breaking the statue but robbing us all of a chance to see a priceless work that has survived generations of wars and turmoil that could have blown it to bits. Your thoughtless, selfish action is an insult to all the sacrifices that have been made to protect that statue over the years.

Respect the monuments and cultural heritage of your hosts. It doesn’t matter how hot it is; do not go swimming in a public fountain in Rome or anywhere. I understand that some one may fall in or there might be a spontaneous act of love like Forest Gump and the Reflecting Pool. But when you dress in a bathing suit and take a dip in a fountain that in many ways is still a public water source you are making an ass out of yourself.

Don’t Try to Be Impressive (Because You’re Not)

We witnessed this one in person.  A single dude staying at our tented camp on the Serengeti was sitting at a table with another group of travelers waxing on (and on, and ON) about the “circle of life” as if he stumbled onto that concept all on his own. He sounded like a pretentious d-bag.

Please, Don’t Break the Law

I think this last one goes for anywhere, at home or abroad. Don’t urinate in public, don’t trash a gas station bathroom, and don’t lie about it to the police.

When you behave badly you make the rest of the respectful travelers feel embarrassed to say where we are from. I want to say with pride I’m from the USA. I once lied while traveling and said I was from Toronto because of a recent (and particularly bad) incident on the part of a fellow citizen. Most of the time when someone asks I say I’m a Marylander.

/rant

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Otakon 2016 preview

The end of the more than decade long run of Otakon, an anime and Japanese pop culture festival, in Baltimore is coming to an end. The three day long festival is moving on after 17 years at the Baltimore Convention Center. Otakon will open its doors one last time in Charm City before moving down the road to Washington, DC. The convention that once ranked in the top three anime conventions in the U.S. lost its title because it needed more space to grow. Otakon has found that room 60 miles to the south with its eyes on regaining its leading role in the Anime Convention community.
“We want to grow because the more people that attend the more money we are able to spend creating a better convention experience,” says John C. Gluth, Otakon’s 2016 Convention Chair.
We know from experience that Otakon is an amazing celebration of Otaku culture and this year we are going to have one hell of a party saying goodbye to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.  You can still register at https://www.otakon.com/

The convention is packed with something for everyone who loves anime, manga and jpop culture. The Otakon pregame on thursday night is an outdoor music festival with a Yukata contest, to select their version of a Miss Otakon. A yukata is similar to a kimono, but made from cotton and not silk. The contestants will be judged on the beauty and design of the yukata and the poise  to which its presented. The convention will have all sorts of panels to attend as well, from favorite shows of the 80’s to feminism in animation.  You can also attend meet and greets of voice actors of your favorite anime.  Have you ever wanted to experience the life of the rich and have a maid wait on you hand and foot? Well you can by stopping by the maid cafe (reservations needed) where costumed maids will serve you tea and call you master.

We think one of the best parts of the convention is the “Artists Alley”.  A large room at the convention center filled with talented artist from all over the area  showing their skill and selling their work.  You don’t have to love anime or manga to appreciate their talent.

If you don’t want to go to the convention but still want to get a taste of what it is like just hang around the Inner Harbor this weekend to see a constant parade of cosplayers.  The costumes created by fans can be extremely simple of very complex and intricate.  A great photo spot is by the fountains near the convention center. If you like some ones costume just say so, they’ll enjoy the complement. If you want a picture more than often they will oblige.  I’ll be there Friday, Saturday, Sunday making all sorts of amazing new friends.

Andi Gilbert -as prof. Bun-bun (Otakon 2015)

Andi Gilbert -This cute little bunny has a blood lust, so be careful. (Otakon 2015)

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Olympic Introduction

The 2016 Olympic games kicked off on Friday night and along with that the parade of nations.  Olympians march into the stadium under their flag and full of pride. I was also surprised that there were a handful of countries that I’d never heard of. I consider myself pretty good at geography, and for an entire country to be off my radar is embarrassing.  So, here is a shout out and a little respect to some of the lesser-known nations.

Benin has six athletes in the Olympics in events like Track and Field, Swimming, Judo and Fencing. It’s a west African country that has is roots in the 1600s. The area of the country is about 70,000 square miles, which makes it just a little bit smaller than Pennsylvania. The economy revolves around subsistence agriculture, cotton production, some small offshore oil fields and regional trade. The population of 10 million makes me embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of it before.

Benin

Benin

 

Comoros a small archipelago of islands in the Mozambique Channel of the east coast of Africa. Their Olympic team includes two in Swimming and two in Track and Field. The collected area of the islands is around 12 times the size of Washington, DC or 862 square miles. The collection of islands is home to 780,000 Comerons. The country is one of the poorest in the world with a limited infrastructure and few resources.

Comoros

Comoros

Sao Tome & Principe is fielding three athletes, two in track and one in canoeing. The small island nation is located in the Gulf of Guinea off the western equatorial coast of central Africa. Sao Tome & Principe became an independent country (from Portugal) in 1975. Its 190,000 citizens live in an area of only 372 square miles. You’ll thank them if you ever meet them; their number one export is cocoa.

Sao Tome & Principe

Sao Tome & Principe

Nauru, the world’s smallest republic, is fielding two athletes: one in Judo and one in weightlifting.  The origin of the Nauru people is a mystery since their language and genetics are not similar to any of the other people in the south pacific. The island nation is eight square miles, or 1/10 the size of Washington, DC. Its 9,540 citizens make their living exporting phosphates and fishing.

Nauru

Nauru

Be honest. Had you ever heard of these countries? Better yet, have you visited any of them? If you have, please share your experience!