Feeling Genki

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Jun 182009

I had a really nice lunch with my sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and my cousin Tuesday at a great sushi shop in Wilmington called Genki Sushi. It’s my new favorite Japanese restaurant in the state of North Carolina. It’s sort of like a cross between a sushi bar and an izakaya (which is a Japanese pub).

Coming here really does feel like coming to a real Japanese restaurant, and Sugi-san and his wife do an excellent job of making you feel right at home. The menu is full of good stuff, too. From good fresh sushi to those dishes that make you feel a little 懐かしい (natsukashii) for good old Japanese food.

It’s not the stuff you get in the steak houses, and it’s not some fancy fusion stuff. This is good, solid 和食 (washoku), which means traditional Japanese food (like sushi), along with some good 洋食 (youshoku), which is the more “modern” Japanese food (like tonkatsu). It’s all good stuff.

I had some tuna sushi (nigiri, of course), with fried squid legs, and a great tonkatsu plate. And of course, a bowl of Sugi-san’s excellent rice. He makes the best rice I’ve ever had. (And I’ve had some excellent rice.)

Hot Dog!

No trip to Wrightsville Beach is complete without Trolly Stop hot dogs either. I had a couple of  Carolina Dogs on Wednesday for lunch. Those are the best hot dogs in the world.

And I’m not biased at all because I was born here.

A Carolina Dog is a hot dog with chili and cole slaw on it, but for some reason, the chili and cole slaw at the Trolly Stop just goes really well together.  I love to add a dash of mustard and ketchup. (Not too much.) And the steamed hot dog buns are perfect.

Oh yeah, the beach was wonderful, too.

Hey, it’s the beach. Of course it’s great. The beaches in North Carolina are hard to beat. (Except, of course, when you’re in the middle of a hurricane…)

It’s good being with the whole extended family, but it will be good to get home and take a break from all of the traveling for a few weeks. It’ll also be time to stop eating so much, and get back on a more sane diet.

Jun 142009

I made it safely to Wrightsville Beach, NC, where we have a big family get-together every year. It involves eating way too much food and a lot of staring at the ocean. There’s also a lot of setback involved.

Setback is a card game that apparently only the people in my family know how to play. I’ve never met another soul who knows how to play it. More importantly, it requires four people, and that means it requires a family gathering of some sort to get enough people to play it properly. The best way to describe it is “Redneck Bridge,” and I’ll just leave it at that.

But getting there is half the fun, or so they say.

I managed to get out of the hotel in Baltimore at about 12:30, and made it on to the highway okay, only to get caught in the usual Sunday gridlock just south of DC on I-95.

Of course, as I approached DC, my TomTom tried to tell me about all of these great shortcuts, but this time I ignored it. No more shortcuts through hospital parking lots, thanks.

Why do I use it then? Mostly as a trip computer, or for when I get lost. It’s really handy for those sorts of things. I also use it to find places I don’t know how to get to, but I don’t particularly like relying on it alone.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling not knowing where I am, and just relying on a random black box to tell me where to go. I always keep a few maps lying around the car. I don’t use them, but I have them, just in case. (And AAA gives them to me for free.)

As I fled DC, I got stuck in the usual I-95 southbound gridlock. It lasted for about 10 miles, and can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to get through. There’s no particular reason for it, other than that there isn’t any other way to get out of DC and go south.

After crawling through Northern Virginia, I wound up grabbing some junk food along the highway south of Petersburg at some anonymous truck stop that had a Burger King nearby. Sometimes hunger trumps common sense. At least I won’t have to eat there ever again.

It was a good reminder that making your own food is a lot smarter than trusting a faceless corporation to do it for you.

Have You Seen I-795?

As I headed back into North Carolina, I started looking for the exit for I-795, which is a shortcut. It cuts about 30 minutes off of my travel time to Wilmington, and, more importantly, gets me off of I-95, which is full of people falling asleep at the wheel or driving like maniacs at this point.

If you’re not familiar with I-95, it’s the main freeway from Maine to Miami along the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.

For people driving from New York to Florida, North Carolina is the state where many of them tend to fall asleep and run into things. The news here is full of reports of these kinds of accidents. The results are not usually very pretty.

So while I was looking for I-795, I wasn’t seeing any signs for it. The problem was that nobody in the NC Department of Transportation had decided to put up a sign for the road until the last second, so I missed my exit. The sign was actually nailed onto the exit sign as an afterthought.

Thanks, guys. Way to put my tax dollars to work.

Actually, I could have made the exit if somebody in a van from NY would have let me pull over, but instead she honked at me and gave me the finger.

Thanks. You’re a giving person, aren’t you?

Of course, the GPS wanted me to stay on I-95. It wasn’t convinced that I-795 would save me any time. So I took the next exit, pulled out my free AAA map, and managed to find I-795.

Or so I thought.

When I saw the signs suddenly saying I was on US 264 East, headed to the Outer Banks, I realized that the score was now NCDOT 2, Rich 0.

At this point I admitted defeat, and started listening to the GPS.

Fine, I give up. Just get me back on a road that will lead to Wilmington. I’ll even go on your stupid I-95.

The little box started leading me on all kinds of back roads for about 15 minutes, until by some miracle, I wound up on I-795. Amazing. It really does exist!

And this time, I didn’t have to go through a single hospital parking lot.

About 20 minutes later, I was on I-40, zooming towards the beach.

So I guess these things do eventually work out… sometimes. I finally got to the beach at about 8:30 that night, so I only lost about half an hour overall.

I highly recommend taking I-795 as a shortcut.

If you can find it.

Cannoli Quest

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Jun 132009

Tonight I completed a dangerous and important task. I got cannoli for the big family get-together in Wrightsville Beach, NC. Since I’m in Baltimore, I might as well find an Italian bakery and give it a shot, right?

I decided to try to find one of the branches of Vaccaro’s Italian Pastries, which just happens to have a store in Little Italy, about a 10 minute walk from my hotel.

Now I’m going to talk about my iPhone for a second. It may seem like a non-sequitur, but it’s actually important. Without it, I may not have found the store. Just using the web browser and the Google maps apps on the phone, I managed to hunt down the store.

The iPhone is a lot easier to carry around than a big bulky GPS, and it can do searches right on the Internet as you’re walking around. I didn’t drink the iPhone Kool-Aid at first, but now I’m somewhat happy with it.

After wandering and playing hide-and-seek with the iPhone, I found Vaccaro’s. The lower level is closed due to construction, so everyone was jammed into the upper floor, which is a tight fit. That meant the eating area, take-out area, and the kitchen were all stuffed into one small space.

Luckily, I got there just before the after-dinner rush, because within about 10-15 minutes, the line of people waiting to get take-out from the bakery was going down the stairs and out the door.

I got 12 mini-cannoli for the family and a tiramisu for tonight, and headed back to the Irish pub for more fish and chips.

After that, I headed back to the room for some tiramisu (which was excellent) and some Survivorman reruns.

Les Stroud amazes me, not because he can survive for a week on some twigs and grass he finds, but because he gets some incredible shots while surviving on just some twigs and grass.

Tomorrow the conference winds up, and then I have a 420 mile drive ahead of me.

Baltimore is Expenive, and Other Obvious Things.

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Jun 122009

I’ve got some extra time to kill, since I’m skipping some of the Organized Fun Events at the conference, and instead just being a tourist here in Baltimore. I’ve only ever spent the night in Baltimore once, about 8-9 years ago, so I want to take the chance to see the sights around the Inner Harbor where I’m staying.

On Thursday night I thought about heading to the ESPN Zone and seeing what all the fuss was about, but after reading some not-too-glowing reviews on Tripadvisor, I decided to walk around and look around the neighborhood and see what else there was. I was really in the mood for seafood, so I tried to target some of the seafood restaurants around my hotel, the Marriott Baltimore Waterfront, but when I saw $45 for a plate of crab cakes, I decided to just find someplace that wouldn’t eat my wallet.

I wound up at James Joyce’s Irish Pub (I think that’s the name), and had a plate of calamari and fried fish for half the cost of those crab cakes. They were pretty good, too.

The Inner Harbor area is very much a tourist trap, and very expensive. You’ll find all sorts of theme restaurants and chains all over the place, and all of them will be happy to liberate your cash from your wallet. So be warned.

But it’s somewhat architecturally pleasing, so that counts for something.

If you want really good Italian food, you’re supposed to go to Little Italy, which is in the same area. I’m going to try going to one of the Italian bakeries to bring some cannoli to the beach for my relatives. I’ll save that for Saturday night.

Sleeping with the Fishes

Tonight (Friday) I went to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Let’s get this out of the way. It’s expensive. Outrageously so. $25 just to see the fish. $30 if you want the “full experience.” I didn’t want the “full experience,” so I just took the $25 hit in the wallet.

I can’t really say that I got my money’s worth.

I realize that it’s an aquarium, and all aquariums have fish in them, but this place had that “funky” odor of not being well maintained. I’ve been to a number of aquariums in my time– notably the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, and the Kaiyukan in Osaka, and both blow this place out of the water in both exhibit quality and overall fit and finish. I just kept feeling like I wanted to wash my hands, and I don’t know why.

One of the most irritating things was that the fish in the tank and the fish pictures around the tank never seemed to match up. It was almost as if they had decided to just take all of the explanation cards and shuffle them all up, just to confuse me.

Maybe the fish were on vacation or something.

There were some cool things to see– the sharks were impressive.

And there was a cute cowfish who kept chasing this one guy’s digital camera and jumping in front of the other fish to be in the picture. The Australian exhibit was nice, albeit kind of short, as was the rain forest exhibit.

But $25 is a lot to ask for this particular aquarium trip.

I stopped by the snack bar to see if I could get a quick bite (because I was starving), but the prices were so ridiculous, I just suffered. $3.00 for a bottle of water is nuts. $6.75 for an object that barely resembles a sandwich, doubly so.

There’s a gift shop, too. But I didn’t want to take out a mortgage for it.

After that, I wandered around the Inner Harbor some more, taking pictures of the ships at anchor, and looking around at some of the buildings. It’s a nice place, but it’s expensive. I wound up eating dinner in my room, thanks to the power of my portable electric cooler and some pre-trip planning, and had dessert at Haagen-Dasz…

which was also expensive.

I’m sensing a pattern here.

Arrival in Baltimore

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Jun 112009

So, after a somewhat uncomfortable drive on I-95, I made it to Baltimore for the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.

Along the way, my TomTom GPS decided that no, the Beltway isn’t a perfectly good way of going around Washington D.C. Instead, it kept insisting that I wanted to get off of the Beltway RIGHT NOW and go on some random city streets that certainly didn’t feel like they were heading towards Baltimore.

I had the same kind of feeling you get when you’re following dodgy directions, and you wind up in a cornfield somewhere, completely lost.

Only this time, the stupid box was leading me through a hospital parking lot in the middle of a downpour.

Isn’t technology grand? It eventually led me to some highway, which led me to another highway, which eventually dumped me back on to I-95, which I should have stayed on in the first place.

Stupid machines.

Needless to say, I wound up getting to my hotel right around midnight, only to stand in line behind about 15 other people who had just gotten in to check in.

I’m betting they were driving through the hospital, too.

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