Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016: Year in Review

Today is my 30th birthday.

It would be quite natural to go into a downwards spiral, fretting about what I expected 30 to look like and the rapid, unrelenting passing of time.  To prevent said spiral, stay with me while I break those two concerns down.

First, expectation.

I believe it's fair to say that life never happens how we expect it.  Over the last decade, while some things haven't happened how I imagined, so many other unexpectedly amazing things did.  I've developed life-lasting friendships here and abroad.  I learned to speak Italian fluently.  I've kept this blog up for eight years.  Hell, I touched Channing Tatum's abs.  Did I expect any of that?  No.  I have a great job that makes it possible for me to travel the world, my family and friends are safe and healthy, and thousands of other, seemingly inconsequential but fabulous details and experiences make up the fabric of my life.  I'm incredibly grateful for those I've surrounded myself with and where I am right in this moment (to be fair, and literal, it's in my pajamas, in bed, but I mean on a more existential scale as well), and it's this gratefulness that helps me remember that everything happens for a reason, that we all must forge our own path, and that managing expectation is one of the most important skills we can learn in life. By the same token, perhaps throwing expectation out the window and being open to the unexpected is just as important.

Second, time.  

If time seems to be moving too quickly, that's because I'm not doing enough to slow it down.  Lately I'm brutally aware of how days pass into weeks until months snowball into years.  But it is scientifically proven that when we experience new things, it slows down our brain's perception of time.  The older we get, we become exceedingly set in our familiar ways, and time seems to speed up.  When we do new things, it takes our brains longer to process the unfamiliar information, and time appears to slow down.  A favorite blogger of mine, Sarah Von Bergen of Yes and Yes, makes a list of new things she wants to try every year.  I'm planning on doing this for 2017 as a way to combat this time warp.  More on that to come.

So back to the whole age thing.  Those younger than me would say, "Damn, 30.  Not looking forward to that."  Those older than me would say, "So young.  What I wouldn't give to be 30 again."  So here's to living for today, to filling life with new experiences, and to each decade being better than the last (that's what they keep telling me!). Because really, I'm getting pretty excited to leave the tumultuous twenties behind, and am starting to think my 30s will outshine the rest. 

Now perhaps I should be reviewing a decade (which is about how long I've been blogging), but let's be reasonable.  While 2016 certainly presented its challenges on a global scale, it's good to remember the small victories, smiles, and adventures.  So I present again, more or less chronologically: My Year in Review.

In 2016, I...

Won an Oscar pool
Celebrated Amanda's bachelorette on a boat
Danced in the Boston subway to Justin Bieber on a violin
Went to Opening Day at Fenway Park
Slayed, or rather Beyonce did, at the Formation World Tour
 Shared the magic of Amanda and Andrew's tropical nuptials
Danced like everyone was watching
Jumped into a pool with a bunch of fully-clothed adults
Soared above the Costa Rican rain forest on a kilometer-long zip line
Slept at the foot of a volcano
Celebrated cousin Kendall's first birthday
Walked over the Brooklyn Bridge on Independence Day
Watched Adele perform from the fourth row
Finally completed my gallery wall

 Laughed a lot
Got Global Entry and TSA Pre-check, making airports infinitely easier
Returned to Italy for the first time in four years
Was reunited with my favorite gelateria in Bologna
Incredibly, drank my first cappuccino ever
Celebrated Gavina's bachelorette on a boat (trending)
Smashed things at my first (and hopefully not last) Italian wedding
Bicycled along the Loire River
Got lit with Letizia in Paris
Got to flip K's at AT&T Park and continued #beliEVEN
Started a book club with my best friends from college
Volunteered by mentoring, teaching reading, fundraising, and coordinating gift drives
Finally made it to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
 Enjoyed a swanky afternoon tea (with bubbles) in London
 Attended a Guy Fawkes bonfire in my Notting Hill garden
Celebrated my dad's retirement, after 22 years at SFO
Had countless precious Emma moments
Cleaned up for the Box holiday party
Saw Kinky Boots (NYC), Wicked (London), and Hamilton (Chicago)
Was moved to tears by the beauty of snow
Sucked helium from an edible balloon at Alinea, a three-Michelin star restaurant
Went to a professional ballet for the first time
Celebrated Christmas with the entire family, including avó from the Azores
...and turned 30!

I went abroad three times this year and took my first international business trip.  The travel kept me busy and I loved every adventure along the way.

  1. Miami, FL and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
  2. Boston, MA 
  3. Nashville, TN
  4. Costa Rica 
  5. New York, NY
  6. Italy (Bologna, Florence, Sardinia) and France (Loire Valley, Paris)
  7. Seattle, WA
  8. London
  9. Chicago, IL
This was the year of blow-out shows, meaning my concert budget has ballooned.  But Beyonce AND Adele?  Worth it.

  1. Justin Bieber @ SAP
  2. Seinabo Sey @ The Masonic
  3. Grand Ole Opry (Featuring Rascal Flatts) @ Opry House
  4. Beyonce @ Levi's Stadium
  5. Andrea Bocelli @ SAP
  6. Adele @ SAP
  7. Bomba Estéreo @ The Independent 
  8. Alessia Cara @ The Masonic
And even though Beyonce's show was mind-blowing, Adele takes the cake this year.  Being in the fourth row for this wickedly witty woman and witnessing her talent first-hand felt so intimate and magical I could hardly stand it.

Became obsessed with:
  • Perfecting the technique of Spaghetti alla Carbonara (check!)
  • Audiobooks (so that's how people read so much)
  • The Hamilton Soundtrack (below, me on my way to see the show live)

Excited to see what 2017 brings my way, and more importantly what I make of it!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Deep Pockets: Chicago

Last weekend I joined Brittany, Faith, and Cante to celebrate Faith's birthday in Chicago, and it was a cozy time filled with exactly what you would expect with this group: great food and wine, bocce, and lot of laughs.  Faith had been surprised with the trip the week before, and sobbed for five minutes straight when she found out she would be traveling to Chicago to eat at Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz's three-Michelin star restaurant.  And I got to tag along for the ride!

The first day was supposed to be the best weather (a toasty 22 degrees but no snow), so we took the opportunity to walk through Millennium Park, enjoying dusk at the Bean and marveling at the talented mid-western ice skaters. 

That night we managed to fit in pizza, improv at Second City, shuffle board, and most notably, a game of Do You Want To Buy a Duck? which lent more laughs than perhaps anything else that weekend.

Saturday morning we awoke and decided it would be the best day of our lives.  Fearing we wouldn't get tickets for the San Francisco tour, Brittany and I bought tickets to Chicago's Hamilton, and got ready for the matinee show by eating brunch at Grange Hall.

I was just a little bit excited to be seeing Hamilton, the most highly renowned musical maybe ever, and one I already knew all the words to.

Through every melody, every chorus, I leaned forward, on the edge of my seat, taking in the voices, choreography, and set production, marveling at the genius of the creator, Lin Manuel, and trying to soak up every moment to replay later as I would continue to listen to the soundtrack on repeat.  I didn't think it was possible, but the show somehow managed to exceed my already vaulted expectations.

Afterwards, as we prepared to leave the theater, night had fallen and it was snowing.  The first snow of the season, it swirled about magically and laid a pristine blanket on the ground, so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.  We frolicked through the streets and made our way to the German Christmas market, where we drank hot tea and ate sugar-coated nuts as we window-shopped the handmade ornaments and took in the festive scene. 

On our walk home from the market, I noticed Brittany didn't have her souvenir mug in hand.  When I asked her where she put it, she said, "Good thing I have deep pockets!" and I laughed because after buying tickets to Hamilton and Alinea in the same day, our pockets were left anything but deep. 

Our snowy scenic route home continued the presidential theme set by Hamilton, as we walked by statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  It was a truly magical stroll!

After a short rest at the hotel, we prepped for the weekend's main event: Alinea!

I don't want to give away too much about the experience, but I do recommend you watch the premiere of season two of Chef's Table on Netflix, which features Alinea's Chef Achatz.  More than for his unique take on molecular gastronomy, he's famous for creating an unexpected dining experience that plays on the senses.

We enjoyed no less than 17 courses that featured innumerable delicacies including truffles, caviar, and Wagyu beef.  No ingredient was left in its pure state-everything was pickled, gelled, moussed, or freeze-dried: you name it, they did it.  While the food was experimental, interesting, and usually delicious, I can tell you the cuisine itself registers only number three on my list of the evening's most memorable, notable elements.  In second, the unpretentious service, with wait staff diffusing the potential stiffness of a venerated restaurant by keeping it real, making jokes that poked fun at the elevated cuisine, and making us feel at ease.  Coming in first, the experience itself, and the ways the chef managed to surprise me, evoking feelings ranging from nostalgia to glee to intrigue, and spotlighting one sense over another depending on the course.  I felt genuinely wowed, a sensation rare to come by as an adult these days. 

Ice boat filled with goodies

We started at a communal table, where we attempted to settle our giddy tendencies and get acquainted with a handful of the dozen people that would be sharing our dining experience that night.  Near us were two couples who couldn't have been more different: a dispassionate married couple from LA and an overexcited newly-engaged couple from the Midwest.  Watching the two interact was fascinating, but we were pleased to escape to the kitchen for our next course, where we spotted The Chef himself!

Putting aside his culinary achievements, part of what makes Chef Achatz so impressive is his experience with and recovery from tongue cancer.  The radiation he received took away his sense of taste (a most unfortunately ironic situation for him to find himself in), and he had to find a way to continue innovating a three-Michelin star restaurant as a head chef who could not even taste the food he was creating. 

Fortunately, his sense began to return to him, and he had to slowly learn how to taste as a child would, only with the benefit of his existing culinary education.  As you can imagine, this only heightened his creativity and focus on engaging all the senses during the experiences he invents.

Back in the Alinea kitchen, we were enjoying the fruits of his labor and ingenuity.  That green contraption below is an antique cocktail shaker, where they made us delicious old fashions paired with dreamy cheesy doughnuts.  It needs to be said that I will not accurately name or describe anything we ate, as all courses had titles like "Yellow", "Smoke", and "Glass", and I didn't catch or understand more than half the ingredients, techniques, or states of food that were presented to me!  But hey, confusion leaves room for surprise, right?

So excited to be in the kitchen!
If only Chef had photobombed us.
(Instead he ignored us all and focused on the food!)

My favorite effect of the evening was when the waiter came and poured water into our still life bowl of citrus, revealing the hidden dry ice beneath as white smoke began to permeate the surface of the table, swirling around our hands and next course. 

Seriously, these waiters were fun.
Also, I never want to push my own chair in again.

 This was one of my favorite dishes, 
with sprouted coconut and shellfish.

I asked the waiter if this was an Oreo. 
It was gruyere and black truffle on pumpernickel,
but he came back and asked if it was the best double stuffed I'd ever had.

The restaurant's most course? experience? is the sugar helium balloon.  We were thrilled when they put one in each of our hands, and more thrilled still at the pure joy and hilarity of listening to 16 adults speak in chipmunk voices in such an elegant setting.

But no, that wasn't even the finale!  After our "Nostalgia" course, it was time for "Paint".  One of the waiters brought in a stepladder, and ascended it to detach the square paintings from the ceiling, delivering one to each table.  These would become the pallets for our next course. 

As they were setting it up and building suspense, I started to pick up a faint beat.  The music continued to build, and just as we noticed Chef descending the staircase behind us, suddenly they cut the lights.  Chef approached a table, bowl and brush in hand, and began to paint his own edible art on that pallet before moving on to the next.  More sweet soldiers appeared, each with their own flavor in hand, waltzing from table to table to sweep, swirl, and stain our surfaces with deliciousness.  Shrouded in darkness, we listened to the percussion of the drums and tried to take in the mystifying yet calculated scene around us.  Finally, they stacked two bricks of frozen chocolate in the center of the work, and simultaneously smashed them to pieces and re-illuminated the room, revealing their crackling creation to us.  

By the end, we were so incredibly full yet satisfied.  I have never and will never again experience this kind of dinner and a show!

On Sunday, our last full day, we bundled up and headed to the Chicago Athletic Association for brunch at Cindy's (with awesome balcony views of the city), a bit of relaxation in their incredible lobby, and of course, bocce in the impressive game room.  

We want to see this place again in the summer!

Later that evening, we met up with Andrew and Akila for dinner and a catch-up session.  By the end of the meal, we were also good friends with our well-natured and quippy waitress Anna, who Andrew was trying to set up with one of his friends, as he often does!

Chicago never fails to bring its A-game.  Between Alinea, Hamilton, the snow, and all the friends I got to spend time with, it was an unforgettable weekend.  Thanks, Faith and Co., for including me!