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.

Must See

Not that I’m being controlling here, but I developed this blog for you to see destinations in which you must place on your bucket list. Naturally, Greece is one of them. I always dreamed of visiting Greece, so it is fitting that I snagged a greek guy to marry. Greece is incredible, exhausting, aggravating, the sea is truly that blue, chaotic, and surrounds one with a sense of being completely immersed in life. Sitting in a taverna, with the sea casting water sprinkles on your dusty feet, eating food so fresh that the tomato taste actually still exists, and watching as the elderly guys twirl their worry beads while sporting their trademark caps is an experience to witness by all at some time in your life.

Memory Lane Stops

This section is designated to those trips experienced as a child. The youthful eyes and impression distorts images at such a powerful level, making for some of the most profound memories.

My best memories take place visiting my cousins in NY on the farm and near Cincinnati. These oft visited destinations added a great deal to my life and who I am.

Equally as special were the trips out West in which my dad so bravely took the three of us rowdy kids, and later with Abbey and Alex, the wheels kept on turning.  How he managed to pack everything in a small car will forever remain a mystery. Even being a young child, I felt very appreciative on those frigid mornings, reluctantly crawling out of the tent to see my dad heating up milk on the one burner propane stove, for my belly-warming hot chocolate. We hadn’t need of a cooler for the milk, the crisp glacial air worked well. Erik (my brother) and I would bike all around the campground and the scent of pine is permanently placed on my memory wall. My other brother seemed much more inclined for hiking. As a kid, I dreaded this part of our trips. I’m still bad at it.

My favorite destination as a child was Maichoss Germany, which now does not seem to exist. There’s a town with the same name in Switzerland, but I remember with certainty it was Germany. We came off of the train in the late evening, confronted by snow drifts illuminated by the moonlight. I heard a whispering brook and was delighted to cross the curved bridge which brought us into the village. There was an inn concocted straight out of my beloved fairy tale books. We walked into a lantern lit restaurant and we were immediately welcomed by three eager waiters. The bread with the wonderful butter that I remember questioning what it even was, became my first culinary memory of this magical village. I don’t remember what I had eaten but I’ll never forget dessert. In front of my twelve year old eyes was a pewter pedestal bowl of ice cream with standing wafers. Beside this lovely monument was a matching pewter pitcher of hot fudge. The End.

Good Eats

Food-just about the epitome of all joy. Probably the essential factor of any successful trip is the food. It is an entirely uncomfortable feeling to be in a new town and be in the dark of “the place to eat”. Naturally, every other person has a different opinion unless of course there is only one diner in the town. Good eats are imperative to this forum because without this section we would all be lost souls, desperately seeking culinary excitement.

I will very quickly list one of my very favorite dining establishments, and at a later time my other top faves in random order and even more random locales. The first is- The Common Man. It ends up that this place is a chain of sorts, but please don’t mistake this for the epidemic of plastic American chain restaurants. We came across The Common Man in Manchester, New Hampshire. While waiting to be seated we were ushered upstairs to the bar/lounge for some samples of cheese spreads served in crocks and an assortment of crackers. The entire restaurant screamed giddy shoulder-shrugging coziness and homey decor. The food was perfection. The satisfaction of splendid well-constructed dishes can be inspiring to even the canned Spaghettios cook type. My delightful plate consisted of roasted/sliced duck covered in a blackberry cream sauce, crisp garlic-sauteed green beans and new potato mash. We shamefully could not bring ourselves to ordering dessert, yet the server came out with the bill delivery, carrying a woven basket filled with white and dark chocolate mounds. The beautiful server, even though I have no recollection of how she actually appeared, continued to shave off chocolate pieces straight out of Heaven.

There comes a moment in your life when you are acutely aware that you have witnessed true culinary perfection. This was just that kind of dinner.

Oh so Bad in the Badlands

It usually happens when my anticipation is at its highest, barely containing myself to climb in the car and go, when the trip ahead is doomed for disaster. We’ve had plenty over the years, whether a kid is vomiting with a high fever, Nikos and I are arguing about everything including time travel possibilities, we are out in no-man’s land with no stops or a place to set up camp or lodge, the car fails, or its the weather.

We have witnessed too many disastrous trips than I’m motivated to discuss. Yet, they are inevitable and are necessary in order to fully grasp when the trip has been kind. Above, as you can see from the picture, is a representation of our latest disaster. We went on a brief road trip out West in July. We all love the Badlands in this family of five.

We’d arrived and Nikolas was immediately begging to go on the Fossil Beds walk. The kid is very science-oriented and we do try to be encouraging of the children’s interests. We first stopped by the Visitor’s Center and then picked out our campsite. I wanted one in the middle to avoid the lurking rattlers that were lurking out there in the course field. I’m irrationally terrified of snakes. Then, we drove off to appease Nikolas’ desperate wishes.

The kids were way too wild and embarrassing us as they jumped off the walkway and then fell, then were yelling that it was the other who started it. I grabbed both of their arms, pulled them up and dished out my threats. We are always a spectacle wherever we go. I can only imagine what well-behaved perfect kids might be like, but I might be failing in this department. But how can perfect kids come from imperfect parents? It helps lower the expectations, fortunately. Although, I never give up trying.

Nikolas kept running off the trail and I kept my eagle-Mama eyes out for rattlesnakes. Nikos’ forehead was all wrinkled in frustration, clearly wanting all of this to be over. Elizabeth seemed to be showing off and acting like she was going to ascend a vertical crag. Then, he found it. Nikolas discovered a fossil planted smack in the ground, resembling a marbled cow patty. Nikolas was hyperventilating and I thought I saw his eyes roll back in his head. Nikos took some pictures and Nikolas was dancing and grabbing his head and exclaiming how incredible his strike of fortune was, two thousand times. On the way back to the park headquarters, Nikolas said it was by far the very best day of his life. So, how can I place this story in the “disaster”section?

We gave the description to the ranger and Nikolas had to write down the description, location, etc. The ranger said it certainly was a fossil and that it would be documented and labeled. The pride of my sweet eight year old boy was unparalleled to any other great moment of his life.

We headed back to the campground for Nikos to pitch the tent. I set out the camping chairs, and began to enjoy a lightening show. Every time we’ve visited the Badlands, there has always been a spectacular performance of dancing lightening. Elizabeth and Nikolas were squabbling over who got to hold the ladybug kite, while Katerina tried her very best to blow bubbles with her new Dora bubble bottle. All she ended up with was bubble lip gloss and by the look of her scrunched face, bubble juice in her mouth. I was filled with that familiar sense of pure joy when all seems in order at the campground.

Nikolas joined me to watch the nearing lightening streaks, stemming from the sky to the arid earth. Nikolas was asking me endless questions about space and fossils in which 99% of my answers were, “We’ll have to look that up on the internet when we get back”. Nikos joined the girls who were working on the kite, Katerina’s bubbles long abandoned. The kite fell and Nikos mentioned that it was not a good sign that the air had grown eerily still. The wind always blows in the Badlands. Within a mere thirty seconds, the ferocious wind slammed against us. It was frigid, a contrast to the 85 degree temperature just moments ago. The chairs began to fly, the kids fell, and I saw the tent with all of our always too much luggage, began to tear and blow away. I screamed at the kids to get in the car and Katerina began crying. I had to scream three times to be heard to get the baby in the car as Nikos and I used all of our weight (thanks Tudor’s breakfast Sundays) to hold onto the tent and its contents inside. The tent was tearing on all sides like a possessed parachute. Rain began pounding upon us, drenching and cold. A fellow camper, once snug in his camper, kindly came to our aid. If you camp you will understand this precious campground camaraderie.

The storm finally subsided enough for Nikos to drag whatever was left of our tent underneath the heavy picnic table. Once we made it to the car, Katerina was wailing and seemed a bit traumatized. Nikos and I both knew but did not discuss the fact that Katerina would have easily been swept up by that wind. We went to the lodge to eat and the power was off. When it returned we booked a room at the Badland Inn, located just outside of the park. It could not be too bad for $95/night. I felt miserable, wet and cold. Nikos on the other hand, was annoyingly chipper, likely glad that I wouldn’t bug him to camp at least for the rest of the trip.

Dinner was less impressive than our visit the year before. The kids loved the sweet potato fries, at least. We were tired and I was cranky when we pulled up to our accommodations for the night. In one quick word-depressing. As we strolled down the walkway, I noticed a wide open window with a man sprawled out on the bed and two questionable women on the other. One was sporting only a bra and shorts. They were drinking beer and looked about as sorry as slicing into an under-cooked still-frozen turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. I found out the following morning that one of those women was the dude’s daughter! Thanks Nikos for talking to the motel neighbors.

Our room had a kelly green rug draped over a concrete floor, serving as carpet. There were dead bugs scattered about and live ones on the walls. The bathroom wood-sided paneling had streaks of I only hope I don’t know. I slept uneasily while the rest of my family were conked out in minutes.

The following morning we went back to the campground with slumped shoulders and heads hung. A few of the survivors (which were embarrassingly several) came out to talk to us. Nikos went to throw away the tent, and I know he took way too much satisfaction in doing so. I wonder about his ingrained resentment towards my obsession with camping. It just so happened that a meteorologist pilot who works with the government chatted to Nikos while I spoke to his friendly wife. They live in MN. The meteorologist explained to Nikos that what we had witnessed was a series of mini-tornadoes which had touched down on the ground. Nikos seems to still believe that it was the cheap stakes he used.

Two days after arriving back home, I ordered the same tent.