Peppery Pittsburgh

The kids were out of school this past Monday for President’s Day, so we decided to head to Pittsburgh. As usual, We’d planned on leaving just as soon as Elizabeth was out of school at 3:30, yet we left around 5:30. We left the house cluttered and the bathrooms could have been wiped down, which left me feeling unsettled for two reasons. The first is the devastating idea I wish I could erase from my head but can’t is if we should perish in some tragic accident, I would not want anyone coming in the house and seeing that we left the house messy. What a terrible lasting impression! This concept falls along the lines of never being found with dirty or torn undies. The second reason is that it’s terrible to come home to a messy home after being away.

I was upset over an incident at Nikolas’ school, which has been resolved, yet it had put a dampener on the weekend. This was the reason I threw everything in the luggage bag and neglected the house. It was a beautiful warm Friday afternoon, and I felt guilty that we hadn’t taken sweet baby girl to the park. This February is freakishly warm, and you really don’t want to get me started on the subject of global warming. If you are a non-believer of the dramatic climate change due to our deleterious human practices, take a look at the recession of the glaciers around the world. Please.

Elizabeth started complaining how bored she was, twenty minutes later. She wanted one of those teeny bopper magazines with Justin Beiber’s over-photographed face on the cover. She began arguing about what kind of mother discourages her child to read–exhale, sigh, where’s the rest area? We picked up our oh so healthy dinners from Wendy’s and McDonald’s. What a catastrophe we are in drive-thrus! They all hate us. The kids are yelling out their orders, the staticky drive-thru voice is annoyed and hates their job, and we have to repeat, change our orders, always. It doesn’t help with Nikos’ Greek accent, either. No matter how many years pass with Nikos living in America, he will forever pronounce the McChicken sandwich as “Mack-cheeken”. Nikolas ordered his usual, two baked potatoes with extra butter and sour cream. Elizabeth tried to swipe the potato skin and they fought until we made it to the next exit over it.

We stayed for the night in Morgantown, because Nikos needed to pick up a couple of engines from his friend, Mark. We’ve stayed at the same Comfort Inn before. It is aged and the room made me squeamish. There were carpet stains, stains on the chair, in which Katerina plopped down head first and tried to spin around in the chair. I was spinning with frantic thoughts of what those stains might be. Nikolas had his briefcase (my old college/grad school bag) filled with his beloved coin collection. This is Nikolas’ latest obsession. He has a magnifying glass and goes over his coins for hours. Last week I’d discovered that our yard was chewed up with thirty-plus holes and two shovels beside the latest dig. I knew it had been Nikolas. He’d explained he was looking for ancient Roman coins. Nikolas is a very smart kid, but his sense of geography is frighteningly bad.

I awakened in a sunshiny positive mood. We marched down to the complimentary breakfast, always the same anxious-shushed ordeal, but had to march right back again to drop off Nikolas’ coin-filled briefcase. I should add that he sleeps with one eye open with that beloved thing.  Finally back to the breakfast room, I can’t help it, I look at those plastic serving tools and try my best to not imagine guys scratching themselves and then not cleaning their hands. Elizabeth took half of the microwave bacon, claiming she wasn’t eating anything else. I made Nikolas and Katerina strawberry waffles, and I took less than I really wanted of the bacon, which suddenly looked very appealing. Nikolas took the rest, and I mean every last piece. I had to scold him a few times, and a little louder than I would have for the sake of the annoyed people sitting next to us, who had no bacon, thanks to my greedy boy. Katerina threw her sticky pink waffle at the fireplace, and Nikolas tromped back in that breakfast room, I’m not kidding, to see if the attendant had added more bacon.
Pittsburgh was a mere hour away. The only swimsuit I had forgotten to pack happened to be the little one who goes on trips for swimming and nothing else, Katerina. We were driving to the outlets but Nikos was also looking for a cheaper gas station, and he naturally was lost in two seconds, I was on the phone so I didn’t help him and we drove an extra thirty-five minutes. Nikos stinks at navigation, and there is no other topic that comes close to us arguing more.

Just as we were ascending the hill to reach the mecca of outlets, according to Elizabeth, Nikolas was complaining that Elizabeth had rationed out the Chapstick. He was asking why he had to use the glob off of her finger, and Elizabeth said she didn’t like how he put so much on until he looked like a clown. This is true, but I knew it had to do with her OCD over germs. I got so mad at her, because she’s always bossing Nikolas and he’s so clueless he allows it. I told her she couldn’t go into the outlets with me. This was a partial reason, the second was that I wanted in and out of that depressing place. Elizabeth and I do not share the same liking for outlet malls.

I bought a little something for all of us, Addidas t-shirts were only three bucks, a little leather coin bag for Nikolas, tank tops for Elizabeth to go under some shirts I won’t allow her to wear without them, and Katerina’s pretty little two piece. Okay, outlet malls do have some good deals, and that’s all I’ll give them. We stopped by a Giant Eagle for discounted zoo tickets, but they weren’t selling them. Elizabeth was with me, way sweeter than she had been forty minutes prior. I bought her that ridiculous brainless magazine for the trip home, and only because I found the most lovely white chocolate mini-cake filled with raspberry in the center, and covered in white chocolate curls. How could I resist? I also bought Katerina a ball and Nikos some cookies. I told Nikolas he could get something from the vending machine at the next hotel, and he was pleased enough. He didn’t care, he had that briefcase resting on his lap and he was immersed in his treasure of coins.

We ate lunch at Einstein Bros. A few months ago, I’d taken the kids around Pittsburgh for three days while Nikos was in MN at his business. I thought I was hot stuff knowing how to navigate without that stupid GPS phone (the other woman) of Nikos’. We’d eaten at Einstein Bros. twice when I was on my own with the kids.

It was early afternoon when we reached the zoo. Being that Katerina is great at walking, we decided to skip the stroller. It was a beautiful, slightly chilly day, and I felt tremendously glad to be out with the family on such a fine afternoon. Katerina loved the zoo, especially, and we all love that sweet baby elephant, who has grown since we last visited. For a Saturday, it was not terribly crowded, and there weren’t the self-centered aggressive parents who fight over the window space.

I was tempted to skirt around the playground and save us thirty minutes, until my guilt kicked in. Katerina ran full force ahead screaming, “Look, Paygound, Mama!” Serious guilt filled me after that! The kids played on the slides and Nikolas jumped dangerously on the nets, and poor Elizabeth at that highly awkward age of thirteen, was stuck trying to have fun at a place she is clearly outgrowing. It was nostalgic, even melancholic sitting on the bench smiling and clapping every time Katerina went down the slide with her wild messy hair behind her. What a small window of time it is, and there was Elizabeth’s seven year old phantom, sliding down that same slide. It felt like an Autumn afternoon, bittersweet. Nikolas also seemed a little down, and he commented several times that the animals seem sad to be trapped in their areas. I could bet that he felt exactly as I had at his age, scheming how I’d break in the zoos and set all the animals free.

There was yet another playground next to the kangaroos. Katerina hopped all around that circle claiming she was a kangaroo, until we lost her in the maze of tunnels at the playground. The zoo closed at 4p.m. and we took our time leaving. It was a perfect afternoon, in my opinion.

I wasn’t quite hungry (just get over your shock) but we drove around Pittsburgh for so long it was five when we pulled up to a Cheesecake Factory. It’s Elizabeth’s favorite. I spied a German restaurant just behind it and preferred to go there. The wait for the Cheesecake Factory was ninety minutes, it was freezing therefore impossible to wait. We walked with the griping Elizabeth to the German restaurant which had a three hour wait. Finally, we settled on a seafood restaurant, in which the hostess told us without reservations, the next table would be available at 8:30. She suggested the bar and there was one booth available.

The food wasn’t bad. The sourdough bread wedges helped keep Katerina from being thrown out of the restaurant. Katerina found a space in the booth seat which I’m sure still is holding ten pieces of silverware. Nikos and I shared a lobster bisque, well, the kids took all of the lobster out of it first. It was a little cheesy that the waitress held the bowl, poured a silver pitcher of the soup in the bowl, and honestly it wasn’t that great for $12. I ordered parm-encrusted flounder with extra lemon butter sauce. The sides were garlic sauteed green beans and sweet potato risotto. My meal was delicious. Nikos ordered chicken carbonara for crying out loud-no more comments on that one! The kids each had coconut shrimp. Somehow, I directed the waitress to pick up one of the same cakes I’d described to her that I’d bought, and she seemed pretty excited to get off of work to get it.

We stayed at a Comfort Suites near the airport. Katerina had her swimsuit on before I’d even thrown off the bedspreads. We all went swimming, Nikos reluctantly followed once I gave him a talking to about how the kids will remember how their dad never played in the pool with them and all of that good guilt-induced information. Nikolas has reached that annoying boys stage where he splashes and aggravates everyone around him. There were two more boys at the same stage in the pool. My failed attempt at keeping my hair dry was evidence enough.

The kids fell asleep relatively quickly, once they tired themselves of jumping on the beds and finally would be grounded if they jumped once more. I could not contain my excitement over eating that beautiful cake. It beckoned me and the only thing between us was the fact the kids needed to fall asleep first, so I wouldn’t have to share.

I was awakened at 2:30 by the obnoxious neighbors making an incredible amount of noise which was karma already biting at me for being stingy with my cake. Instead of going back to sleep, I began thinking about the ordeal at Nikolas’ school, involving a boy who has been bullying Nikolas, and I grew so upset. Nikos woke up and told me I need to stop caring too much about the kids and things that really aren’t as big of a deal as I make them. Does Nikos not know after all of these years, that you don’t tell an upset mother, especially in the wee hours when everything is over-dramatized, such stupid suggestions?! I tried to roll him off the bed, he told me I was insane, and I was two seconds away from knocking on our still noisy neighbor’s door and give them a stern talking to. Had I not been wearing my pajamas with the hole in the rear that is shaped exactly like a heart, and no I didn’t cut it, I would have.

Nikos brought me my coffee as he always does in the morning when we stay in hotels. Katerina was awake ten minutes later, sipping up all of my half and half containers I could have added to the bitter coffee. The breakfast was an odd combination of french toast sticks and scrambled eggs, cheerleaders and pageant type moms with crazed looks in their eyes. Nikolas used sixteen packs of sugar in his tea, and it was too late, he had already ingested it before I realized it. Elizabeth followed in Nikolas’ footsteps and ate all of the french toast sticks. Where have I failed? Why are my kids so greedy in hotel breakfast rooms? They need to be threatened at home if they don’t eat more of their breakfast, their punishment being they will be forced to eat school cafeteria food. It works every single time. Katerina was standing in the chair waving wildly at a two year old boy she later be-befriended and bugging the angry looking guy reading the paper.

Our first stop of the morning was Einstein Bros. on the way to the Carnegie Science Museum for our lunch to go, since we needed to stall until the museum opened at ten. Nikos and I then got in an argument over respect and how he doesn’t show me any and instead gives all of his love to that robot lady on his GPS. Yes, I am jealous of an automated voice! Nikos put his phone away and asked how we get to the museum. Well, for once in a hundred, I got us lost. The kids were moaning and groaning at their extremely immature parents still arguing about “the other woman GPS voice”, and in the end she won, that bitty! Those two, Nikos and his GPS she-bot, triumphant together against me!

We started off at the sports complex at the science center. I rode the unicycle on the tightrope, and worried that my cake indulgence might throw me to the floor. I was thirty feet in the air. The kids rock climbed and Katerina tinkled in her pants until I found the restroom, and we rushed a little to make it to the Imax film, “Rocky Mountain Express”. This was the very first Imax film Nikos hadn’t slept! We ate our bagel lunch after, and then we were ready to play. I’d promised Nikolas we’d visit the robotics floor first. My favorite is the miniature train room. Nikos came over and told me that there was a psychotic mom who reprimanded Nikolas that it was her son’s turn first, and then she had her husband play, other son and then herself, and they weren’t even in line, except for the son. Later, Nikos pointed them out and I feigned bravado and said a little over a whisper, hoping they heard me, “Yep, they look like psycho parents!”.

We went to a live demonstration of fruit flambe-making. We’ve been to these before and I knew to get in line for a good seat. There was an East-Indian family who were initially waiting in line, and then had dispersed and the moment we’d arrived front in line, they were back. The mom pushed her son in front so we were standing next to each other, and I was transformed into competitive only slightly psycho mom chanting in my head “we are getting in there first, lady”! These moments bring out the worst in me. I shouldn’t be around people. We arrived at the same time, and for what? Both Nikolas and that boy were the only ones answering questions after questions as if on opposing quiz bowl teams. Admittedly, the other boy won by two questions. Katerina warmed my heart when she answered a question, what her favorite fruit was, she replied loudly, “babanas!”. Elizabeth was strangely shy which amazed me, but she answered a question or two.

Filling our minds with great knowledge lasted until 3 p.m. and it was time to head home. The best part of going to all of these museums is that it fills the parents with such a satisfactory feeling of good parenting. You just can’t help feeling like you have done your good parenting deed for the month. On the way home, I received a sweet e-mail from the principal regarding Nikolas, and all of my sadness and anxiety had been lifted regarding the school issue. Justice and goodness prevailed! We also bought the kids shamrock milkshakes and I had sweet tea to pass the miles by until dinner.

We were all in great moods as we drove home. I only nagged Nikos about his inconsistent speeds twice. It was good to be home in our cluttered house, the chickens were still alive,and our skanky cat hadn’t vomited on the ivory carpet or the bedspreads as she usually does when we leave.

Day / Weekend Trips

This section is devoted to some of the sweetest surprises our car has carried us. Day trips can be affordable while managing to get you out of the pit of mediocrity, enough to revitalize and send you back home with hopefully a refreshed spirit.

Our recent day trip was to the New River Gorge, near Fayetteville, WV. It was Labor Day weekend and I could not settle at home knowing every other person was off somewhere. We decided for Sunday and wanted to make it back to the house by eight in the evening to watch “Big Brother”.

The rain clouds were formidable but I wanted to stand up to them and tread on, well drive that is. The 1.5 hour drive was peaceful, none of the kids were carsick, Nikos looked over his shoulder when passing (usually a bickering session ensues if he doesn’t), and Nikolas only needed a bathroom break twice, which means pulling off to the side of the road. I know, we are fancy.

As usual, we couldn’t find the other end of the fishing pole so Nikos stopped in at the Fayetteville Walmart to purchase our 500th pole. Elizabeth accompanied him which was fine because she was beginning to aggravate me, falling into whine mode. Coincidentally, they ran into a a mother of one of Elizabeth’s friends. This must have been the reason it took thirty minutes to buy a cheapo pole.

It began to pour the rain. We stopped by the New River Gorge visitor center. Katerina was way too excited to be out of the car and was bellowing happiness. The Stoufis clan gathered uncomfortable stares as a result. This one lady in particular held such an impenetrable stare that I felt like reverting to seven years old and making my ugly face at her.

My kids have numerous Junior Ranger badges in which they have righteously earned from the national parks we’ve visited. Katerina takes it very seriously. She even shushes us if we talk during the park films. I found it strange that the one badge they have never earned happens to be one of our favorite day trip destinations. I waited in the short line at the ranger station and asked the gentleman behind the desk if he could please hand over three Jr. Ranger booklets. He proceeded to ask the ages, and then nearly reprimanded me that Katerina would be too young for the program, since she was only two. He droned on without pause, therefore I had to hold onto my patience until I finally had the opportunity to explain that the other parks allowed me to help her with it. He handed over a coloring book and talked too much yet again, saying she could not possibly understand the tasks. I am not the “my kid is a genius” type, but I do not believe in never underestimating the capacity of learning at any age. The guy was a volunteer, and I suppose was trying to inflict his unearned authority over me, however, I remained polite and gathered the two books plus a coloring book and simply said, “Thanks”.

Nikos had overheard the conversation and was enjoying the quiet scene. Does he ever come to my aid? Uh, nope. That’s okay. When it’s four a.m. and the kids think it’s a fine time to open the presents from under the Christmas tree, I won’t stop them, even if Nikos was up until two assembling ridiculously intricate toys. Nikos just shook his head, chuckled and said I was a Jr. Ranger psycho instead. I harshly whispered that he would get another booklet or we would not be leaving the visitor center.

We watched the wonderful film, beautifully created. I love visitor center films. Nikos does as well, he gets a solid nap during every single one we’ve ever sat through.

Nikolas begged for a bird call, then a book on fungi, then a gem, all of which I wouldn’t allow. I’d just bought him a book on fungi, he just needs to remember where he left it. Meanwhile, Nikos obnoxiously waved the third Jr. Ranger booklet and I nearly ran out the door. We can mail the booklets in for the kids’ badges.

It was still raining but we drove down the very steep descent to Fayette Station. If you ever make it to this area, be very careful at “Stupid’s Corner”. It will tear up your car if you fail to take the turn carefully.

While assembling a florescent yellow fake worm on our new fishing pole, Nikos ran into the a fellow engineer he used to work with. The guy is second under the commissioner. The drizzle curled up Elizabeth’s and Katerina’s hair which looked very pretty.

Nikolas took off running to be the first to cast, over near the huge boulder. Katerina tripped four times on the rocks and dunked her feet immediately into the river. Elizabeth stepped in dog poop, and proceeded to dunk her shoes in as well, while squeamishly grimacing at her misforutune. Katerina delighted in throwing the heaviest rocks her bay arms could lift in the rushing river. There’s a reason why we never catch any fish. The rafters were banking, and I envied their adventurous rush a little.

The misty clouds rose into the hilltops, providing perfect scenery. The fishing line was caught and broken early on and our fishing for the day was over. The river whispers its ancient secrets and I am always aware, every single visit, that this is truly a special place, forever in my heart.

We headed back up the hill to our favorite restaurant in WV, Smokies on the Gorge. The food is amazing, the view equals the culinary fare, and it is a must for the “Good Eats” section. I gorged at the Gorge (oh that’s some serious cheese!)

Going home with our happy bellies, satiated by our day trip. Katerina fell asleep just before we made it home.