Real Travel for Real People

Bad Hombres

North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia. Ominous names in today's crazy world. Nuts with nukes and spooks around every corner spying on all of us, but that was certainly not the case when in 2009 we took a cruise on Azamara's Quest from Singapore to Hong Kong. The ports of call and our accommodations were superb, and we saw both sheer poverty and opulence of the highest order.

Our first stop, the President's Palace, where we saw firsthand the famous palace gates where the Russian and then the Chinese tanks broke through, virtually ending the American involvement in the Vietnam War. ”

One of our most interesting stops was Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon, where our captain told us the night before that he would be on the bridge at 3am to guide the ship down the narrow, winding Saigon River. We had reserved a car and driver for the day and as it turned out our "Miss Saigon" turned out to be a fine young man named John who was waiting for us at the dock Saturday morning. Our first stop, the President's Palace, where we saw firsthand the famous palace gates where the Russian and then the Chinese tanks broke through, virtually ending the American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The American Embassy building was just a few blocks away, and again we all remembered those famous pictures of the last American helicopter leaving with hordes of people trying desperately to grab on to any part of the aircraft for a last chance at freedom.

John then took us to the War Museum, where American tanks and aircraft guard the entrance to this large building which displays some of the most gruesome pictures of that horrible conflict.

The only pleasant part was our stop at the museum's shop where I bought a "Good Morning Vietnam" T-shirt, and a Vietnam Army fatigue cap emblazoned with the communists' yellow star on a red background — I made sure that I did not wear that coming through Passport Control in San Francisco!

John's choice for lunch was a bustling restaurant in the center of town whose claim to fame was Bill and Chelsea Clinton's visit in 1990. The service was quick and the food OK and we would have gotten out of there sooner had it not been for our struggles with the chopsticks — eating soup with chopsticks is not easy.

The following day we arrived at the port of Tien Sa, which got us into Danang bright and early. Our driver, Ti, and our guide, Huang, brought us to the open air Cham Museum to view some of the oldest sand carvings dating back thousands of years.

Along the way, we passed by China Beach, made famous by our GIs enjoying some much-deserved R&R. The short drive to the city of Hoi Am was congested with motor scooters, each carrying three or four people. Hoi Am is an ancient city that was spared destruction during the war and is a tourist Mecca. We visited a silk factory where we saw silk worms, from infancy to maturity, turn into cocoons of silk which were then spun into beautiful textiles. The embroidered art work was absolutely marvelous and of course the shops next door were wide open for business.

The following day we arrived in Hanoi where we stayed overnight at the Sofitel Hotel. Our one-hour rickshaw ride was our reward for having endured a four-hour drive from Halong Bay to Hanoi. Imagine driving for 4 hours down a two-lane road ruled by motorbikes racing four to six abreast — most with three or four passengers. The road has a broken white line down the middle, but that is strictly for decoration. They drive wherever there is space, weaving back in as the approaching vehicle madly flashes its lights, horns blaring. On the way to Hanoi we saw one overturned car, four motorcycle accidents and a poor cow in the middle of the road lifting its badly bleeding hoof.

On the way back, we drove by two automobile accidents, two motorcycle accidents and an overturned truck carrying a load of pigs. A couple of the pigs looked like they might end up on someone's breakfast buffet in the morning.

Bright and early we were on the stump again with our first stop at Ho Chi Minh's marble and granite tomb. Security was tight and cameras absolutely forbidden. I must say, the father of Vietnam looked great lying in state with the four soldiers guarding his tomb, motionless, as if cast in bronze.

We then proceeded to Ho Chi Minh's cottage and private lake, the One Pillar Pagoda and the two block long Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius, and finally to the Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed "Hanoi Hilton" by our captured pilots. Only a small remnant remains, the rest of the compound has been developed into a high-rise office and condominium complex. The French, who built the prison in 1896, made no bones about who they tortured or how they did it. The original guillotine still looked ominous, as did the metal bucket ready to accept the heads of those still willing to fight on for freedom.

Seeing John McCain's flight suit and photos of his capture and treatment, gave me chills and definitely a lump in my throat. On the way back we were driven by the lake where McCain ditched after being shot down. Why was this amazingly patriotic man not elected president?

And speaking of presidents, perhaps our 45th. President can take a brief tour of this area and see how real people live, considering that the average farm worker or fisherman earns about $1,000 a year. Certainly not Mar-A-Lago, but a reality check is often good for the best of us.


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March 2017

Over and Out

Our planet as we know it is encrusted with computers, smart phones and tablets. Communication is inshalicrafter radiotantaneous. Write a few words, push a button and your message travels around the world in milliseconds. That I-phone in your pocket is more powerful than all the computing power that put the first man on the moon. But not that many years ago communicating was much more complicated, using smoke signals, colored flags or rooms full of equipment attached to antennas of various sizes with complete dependence on atmospheric conditions.

…along with numeric codes used at the end of a conversation. It wasn't just "thank you and goodbye" but 73's, and 88 was used for "love and kisses" but the best one of all was 807 to describe a cold beer.”

licenseAs a teenager I got involved in Amateur Radio (known as Ham Radio). My grammar school graduation present was a Hallicrafter short wave radio receiver which was larger than the proverbial bread box. With that came many books and hours of studying while preparing for a Ham Radio license that would allow me to converse with other Ham Radio operators around the country and hopefully around the world. After taking the first test I received my Amateur Class license where I could finally be on the air, although the transmissions were limited to the use of Morse code and the frequencies allowed were highly restricted and very limited in power.

Sergio broadcastingI vividly remember my first contact, my call sign, WN6NLQ, the "N" designating my amateur status. I still have a crude recording of that first contact and what a thrill it was. I then had six months to prepare for my General License and the first requirement was being able to send and receive Morse code at a minimum of 15 words per minute, after which came the written exam, which were both given at the FCC office in downtown San Francisco.

With my General license I could now communicate with the spoken word and have access to a larger range of frequencies and with a lot more power. CQ, CQ, CQ, this is WB6NLQ. That was the standard protocol to request a response from anyone hearing my call. Hopefully someone would reply and the contact started. The conversations were usually very generic and a bit nerdy. What type of equipment are you using? How much power on your rig and what is the signal strength on both ends?

Q-cardThe biggest treat at the end of the contact was exchanging penny postcards known as QSL cards, with your call sign, location, date, and signal strength. We were also required to maintain a log book of all our contacts with the same information. My basic equipment gave me a good start but eventually I installed a huge antenna mounted on the side of our house that could be raised and lowered and rotated 180 degrees depending on the frequency used and again those atmospheric conditions that were so paramount to a successful contact. Sometimes you could "work" Alaska or Hawaii and within a few minutes you could hardly reach San Jose!!

In looking over my log book, my contacts were scattered all around the country and around the world. Once I had worked all 50 states I got a certificate from the American Radio Relay League confirming that I had "Worked All States" and eventually got a "Worked all Continents" certificate as well. Was Russia one of my contacts? I don't remember, but I doubt that Vladimir Putin would have been on the air at that time, he wasn't even born then!

Like countries around the world, Ham radio operators have a language of their own. There's an abbreviation for just about anything, and the jargon is paramount to learning a new language. QSL cards, CW for Morse code, DX for long distance, QTH for location, OT for an old man and YL for a young lady operator along with numeric codes used at the end of a conversation. It wasn't just "thank you and goodbye" but 73's, and 88 was used for "love and kisses" but the best one of all was 807 to describe a cold beer.

J38 telegraph keySo now here we are in the world of texts and twitter. Perhaps our newly elected President should consider a simpler method of reaching out to his minions. White smoke could be a solution, after all its good enough to elect a Pope and it should be good enough for a President. They have plenty of antennas on the White House roof that they can use. Perhaps he could tap into one of those and transmit in Morse code. He could vent all his frustrations and besides, 99% of the people wouldn't understand what he's saying anyway. Now the only issue remaining would be his call sign, after all President Obama has his own call sign, N0BMA. But just remember it can only be a combination of 5 or 6 letters and numbers and it better be good lest we get a tweet in the middle of the night.

73's and 88's from this OM in his QTH who's headed for a cold 807? Over and Out.

Sergio gets around—the world. Feedback:

February 2017

A Scary Santa

Cathedral in Milan (Duomo)

It was December 1980, and our oldest son Bob was midway through his six- month stay in Florence as part of Stanford's "Overseas Study Program." It was also a perfect opportunity for a Christmas celebration in Tuscany.

Our adventure started in San Francisco and brought us to Milan by way of London. We met Bob in Milan, and after the usual greetings it was off to bed to burn off our jet lag. Having been to Milan before, we knew that one of our first stops was at the Duomo, Milan's spectacular Gothic cathedral which took over 600 years to build, and is the largest church in Italy other than St. Peter's Basilica, which is part of the Vatican State. Fortunately, there is an elevator that took us to the roof, bypassing hundreds of steps, and from there we could see the intricate details of the statues, towers, spiky spires and gargoyles. The weather happened to be clear enough so we could see not only the entire city, but the surrounding snow-covered mountains as well.

Our next stop was to admire Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper", painted on the wall of the refectory next to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, but not before stopping by Bob's recent find of a small deli known throughout the city for its amazing Panzerotti. Imagine a small pizza, folded in half, deep fried and served piping hot. With a bottle of Pellegrino water in one hand and the Panzerotti wrapped in foil in the other, we sat on the street curb, looking all the part of a real tourist.

La Scala, the famous theater, was also on our list, but having seen it before we settled for some of the more mundane sites and chores. Sadly, packing for our next stop, Florence, was one of them. Not being as familiar with the trains in Italy as we are now, we chose to drive, arriving in Florence in late afternoon. Arriving at the Augustus Hotel was like reuniting with old friends. We didn't need any recommendations for restaurants since Bob had been there for three months. After the first few choices I pleaded, "no more pizza restaurants, I want some real food." I got my wish and we finally returned to some of our old haunts and the food was delicious.

On Christmas eve we all attended mass at Santa Maria dei Fiore, Florence's main church, which is also known as the Duomo and surrounded by the Baptistery and Giotto's Campanile. With so much beauty and reverence one would think that the people would attend the service with respect and dignity rather than walk around, look around, and pay no attention to the priest preaching fire and brimstone.

Once back at our hotel we exchanged our modest Christmas gifts and said a silent prayer that our traditional Santa was a little more generous than the "Befana", the legendary Italian legend of a little old witch who delivers presents on the feast of the Epiphany which occurs on January 5th. She is reputed to look like an unkempt old lady, with straggly hair, patched-up skirt, raggedy shawl and a broom. If you've been good she leaves candy, fruit, nuts and small gifts, but if you've been bad it's a lump of coal in your stocking.

We obviously made the cut and got to celebrate with some nice sweaters, Fila sportswear and some delicious Florentine candy, Torrone and Panforte being our favorites. The following morning, we headed to Lucca where we celebrated Christmas day with a few of our remaining relatives, and then it was time to head back to Milan, celebrate the new year, and head for home the following day.

Bob continued his studies for the remaining three months in Florence. We returned to San Francisco eternally grateful for our two-week stay in Italy while enjoying the sites and holiday sounds of such a beautiful region, and especially thankful that we were spared the embarrassment of having to explain to the Customs officials why our suitcases were laden with chunks of coal.

In retrospect, after going through the last few weeks of election madness, we now have our choice of what to expect in our Christmas stockings. Is Santa going to leave us with a basket full of sweet candies or merely a box full of dusty coal? As the eternal optimist I hope it's going to be a nice box of See's candies. Merry Christmas and Happy Trump year to all. Here's to a happy and healthy 2017.

Sergio gets around—the world. Feedback:

December 2016 / January 2017

Cathedral in Milan (Duomo)

Mission Accomplished

While driving south on 101 one of our favorite detours is peeling off at San Juan Bautista, which is a couple of miles east of the highway. In less than five minutes one leaves behind the madness of the road with its endless parade of semis and cars chasing each other recklessly down the road as if competing at Le Mans. Once there our first stop is always at Dona Esther, one of the oldest and best known Mexican restaurants in the area. If it's a warm day we'll sit in the patio, otherwise a window table is our next choice. A full menu is available but we always fall back on our favorite, "Chicken Enchilada for the Small Appetite" which is more than enough for us. The plates arrive scalding hot with the same warning, "don't touch the plate." The cheese is beautifully melted over the enchilada and the refried beans and the rice are delicious. The biggest treat for us is the home- made chips & salsa that is mostly devoured before our entree arrives.

Having been in the same location for over 34 years, the restaurant was originally started by Alfonso Castaneda, and is now managed by his daughter Tami and her cousin, Fredy Castaneda. Dona Esther has been recognized as one of the "Best Restaurants in the U.S." by Hispanic Magazine and voted "Best Mexican Restaurant in San Benito County." No wonder we enjoy it so much!!

And after that delicious meal, if we're really in the mood to pig out, we'll swing by Margot's Ice Cream Parlor, just down the street, or make our way to the San Juan Bakery at the end of the main street for a loaf of freshly baked bread, or possibly some nice sweet treats.

Understandably, after all that guilt we always feel the need to stop by Mission San Juan Bautista and make amends for our gluttonous ways. Hopefully those few coins in the collection box will buy us some time before our next visit to the ice cream store.

Mission San Juan Bautista was the fifteenth mission founded in 1797 by the Franciscan father, Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, who was the successor to Father Junipero Serra. The mission happens to be the largest of the mission churches and is still in excellent condition. In fact, it was Alfred Hitchcock who selected the mission as the setting for the 1957 production of the movie Vertigo, starring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. Now that alone is worth a trip to check it out.

On our last visit we were told that every December 21st the light of the midwinter solstice illuminates the main altar tabernacle, with the sun's early morning light projecting through the church structure, creating a breathtaking spectacle.

I can certainly understand why the city has become so popular, with events scheduled every month of the year, like the annual Ghost Walk in October, Marathons, Arts and Crafts Festivals, Car Shows, performances at Il Teatro Compesino, a Dutch Oven Cooking Demonstration, and finally "Vertigo Day" at the San Juan Bautista Historic Park.

Once back on the highway you can head south towards Monterey or Los Angeles, or if heading back home to the Bay Area you can always stop off in Gilroy at the Premium Outlet Stores if you really want a smack of reality. But if you're really desperate, there is an In-N-Out Burger right there on Leavesley Road, but just remember one very important thing, it ain't no Dona Esther!!!

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November 2016

Saluting the Flag

The calendar is telling us that summer as we know it is slowly fading into Fall, but not before we get to enjoy the best part of the season, Indian Summer: warm, clear, fogless days to rival the best of our southern neighbors'. But as hot as it may get here it will never be as hot as the summers that I spent at Camp Roberts, outside of Paso Robles. For six years I was a member of the 91st Infantry Reserves, stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco where we attended training every Thursday night in preparation for our two week stay at Camp Roberts.

But the one thing that still stands out so vividly in my mind is waking up early, falling out to the sounds of the bugler playing Reveille, and standing tall and proudly saluting our flag. As I've said for all these years, "God Bless America.”

When I joined the reserves in 1955 we were required to spend two years on active duty after finishing college, but by being in the reserves we could take whatever rank we earned with us once we went active. As time went on, the rules kept changing and two years became six months and eventually the requirement was lifted entirely and I finished my obligation in the reserves.

The first year that I went to Camp Roberts we went through a form of basic training which started out with a 5 am wake up call, falling out for Reveille while our flag was raised, which signaled the start of another day of running up and down the hills, going to the rifle range, and running through rooms filled with tear gas while trying to recite our serial number after removing our gas masks. The tears left an indelible mark on my cheeks for days. Lunch was mostly served at the barracks, where we always ate a handful of salt tablets to replenish our body's normal supply; Gatorade had not yet been formulated.

After the first week's rigorous training we all got ready for Saturday morning's inspection and parade. Once again we got up early to the sounds of Reveille and yes, we saluted the flag. Shortly after we made up our bunks just a little bit nicer for the inspection and waited for the officers to walk up and down the aisle, avoiding our grungy fatigues but paying particular attention to our highly polished boots. After the inspection came the parade, with hundreds of men marching on the tarmac that by early morning had reached 120 degrees. The best part was listening for the command "dismissed" and at that point it was off to San Luis Obispo or Pismo Beach.

The overnight stay was the highlight of the two weeks as we sadly returned to the post after a brief stay amongst civilians, and with some luck an occasional girl or two.

By the second week we were in the groove and ready to take the enemy head on. More running, more target practice, and more sweat, but fortunately no more tear gas.

Camp Roberts was also the training ground for the tank crews, and you couldn't find a crazier bunch. They drove those tanks up and down the hills firing at whatever was out there in that scorching heat. It was bad enough on the ground, but just imagine the heat in those tin cans. I'm sure that at night they downed more than just a few salt pills.

Looking back, those were the good old days and a chance to meet some new and dear friends. Once back at the Presidio, we had the occasion to head to Fort Berry or Fort Cronkite where we went twice a year for target practice on the range. My most vivid recollection was running up and down the range screaming at the top of my lungs for all to hear, "I'm a dammed fool, I forgot to lock my piece." Some things you never forget. You could have earned your marksmen medal, but safety was paramount on the range.

So for the next five years we went back to the same post, the same parade grounds, the same heat and the same barracks, with the same toilets lined up neatly one next to the other. No partitions, no privacy. But the one thing that still stands out so vividly in my mind is waking up early, falling out to the sounds of the bugler playing Reveille, and standing tall and proudly saluting our flag. As I've said for all these years, "God Bless America."

Sergio gets around—the world.

October 2016

A Beautiful Day

When I called for reservations at Terry's Lounge in the Cypress Inn in Carmel, the first thing they asked me was "will you be bringing a dog with you to dinner?" My immediate response was to say, "No, just my wife" but then I realized that they must hear that at least a dozen times a day so I settled for just the date and time. I guess I could have said "No, I'll be ordering off the menu" but the click on the other end would have been deafening!

Doris DayOriginally built in 1929 what is now the Cypress Inn on Lincoln and 7th in Carmel was purchased in the mid 1980's by Carmel native Danny LeVett and Doris Day who has always been known for her love of animals which made the Cypress Inn one of the first pet-friendly boutique hotels in the country. The four legged guests are as welcome as their human counterparts and attending the "Yappy Hour" from 4 to 6 is a Carmel treat while enjoying a "muttini."

The ornate entrance to the hotel speaks of the Golden Age of Hollywood and somehow you would expect to see some of Tinseltown's great stars like Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra or James Cagney sitting at the bar enjoying one of the hand-crafted cocktails. Ronald Reagan, who starred with Doris Day in the 1952 movie, The Winning Team, always enjoyed his favorite gin-n-juice Orange Blossom, which is still served to this day with a side of jelly beans.

Having stared in 39 films and recording a series of memorable albums, Doris is still the quintessential all-American Girl and legendary Hollywood "girl next door" but now enjoys a quiet life at home in the Carmel Valley.

We've always gone to Terry's pooch-less, but have always enjoyed the casual atmosphere and the food, and the service is always top notch. One of our favorite dishes has always been the sand dabs, but the Braised Short Ribs and the Grilled Salmon are right up there with the signature Cypress Burger.

Terry's Lounge, which is named after Doris's son Terry Melcher, was elevated to a new level last week with a bevy of glamourous guests, accompanied by some of the most exotic and expensive cars in the world. Yes, once again it was car week on the Monterey Peninsula, with cars and drivers being welcomed from all over the world, and parties and parades running all day and all night. An endless stream of cars flowed from Pebble Beach through the streets of Carmel, and amazingly most found a parking spot on Ocean Avenue, a nearly impossible task on any given day. Anticipating yet another stunning sunset, and after droves of tourists and gawkers, the cars filed back to Pebble accompanied by local meter maids, police cars, TV crews and California Highway patrol cruisers. The outfits of the drivers and passengers would rival the best of Hollywood's costume designers and the snapshots were endless. There certainly is no mistaking the roar of the engines propelling those red Ferraris, Rolls Royces, Maseratis and this year's featured car, the BMW. One of the most popular attractions is the car auction, which would make anyone's hair stand on edge. and thankfully the money donated to local charities seems to set new records every year.

So car week is now history, the Concours d'Elegance packed away for another year, the cars shipped out for yet another show, but Terry's is still in town and for all of us to enjoy. So stop by any time and enjoy a Cypress Burger and a nice glass of Silvestri's pinot, and if by chance you should run into Doris Day, tell her how much you've enjoyed her movies and music and thank her for her love of animals. Finally, I hope that you were not too disappointed that yours wasn't the successful bid of 11.9 million for that 1933 Alfa Romeo Monza. See you next year in Monterey.

Sergio gets around—the world.

September 2016

Up in Smoke

What was once illegal and immoral is now front page news. Open any major newspaper or popular magazine and the pages are filled with endless articles about weed and the new weed economy. What was once known as Mary Jane is now, pure and simple, medical marijuana. You have an ailment? We have a cure. Dispensaries are now out in the open and available as a McDonald's.

And speaking of pot, some years ago we had the good fortune to have visited Amsterdam for the second time in a few years, and enjoy the beautiful sights and sounds of this bustling city. As the capital of the Netherlands it's a city of canals, great houses with gabled facades, years of history including the city's 17th century Golden Age, and a very tolerant "live and let live" attitude."

And speaking of pot, some years ago we had the good fortune to have visited Amsterdam for the second time in a few years, and enjoy the beautiful sights and sounds of this bustling city. As the capital of the Netherlands it's a city of canals, great houses with gabled facades, years of history including the city's 17th century Golden Age, and a very tolerant "live and let live" attitude. Having been there before, we planned well in advance and arrived with our e-tickets in hand which allowed us to use the "Fast Lane" to the Rijksmuseum to admire the rooms full of paintings by the Dutch masters. The most famous was Rembrandt's "Night Watch," a huge painting taking up an entire wall. Next was a brief visit at the Van Gogh Museum before moving on.

After an enjoyable visit at the museums and a brief walk down the street we made it to the canal boat landing, and within minutes we were aboard and under way. Amsterdam is a city built around miles of canals and with the canals, endless canal boats of all sizes and shapes. During our 75-minute canal boat tour we were treated to the real beauty of the city. We saw the location of Anne Frank's house, a must see for us, but on our return trip on foot we found the line wrapped around the block and too long a wait for our limited stay.

Our lunch at the Hard Rock Café capped off our tour, and taking off on foot, we headed for the Dam, a large monument in the center of the plaza that anchors the Old Church on one side and the Red Light District on the other. Running a little short on time, we decided on a Pedi-cycle tour, and for the next 30 minutes the young man peddled and pushed his way around these famous streets. As part of our tour we passed a variety of Coffee Shops, not stand-ins for Starbucks, but legitimate cannabis dispensaries where up to 5 grams of cannabis is available. No alcohol is served and smoking in the shop is not allowed.

The second of the two greatest tourist attractions in Amsterdam was De Wallen, a designated area forlegalized prostitution, and is Amsterdam's largest and most well-known red-light district. It consists of a network of roads and alleys containing several hundred small, one-room apartments rented by sex workers who offer their services from behind a window or glass door, typically illuminated with red lights. After the initial shock and awe we settled into reality and realized how sad the whole thing is. So many young, beautiful women who should be doing better things with their lives. As was proven once again, money is the root of all evil.

So there we were, pot and prostitution. Does that mean that if one passes this November the other is soon to follow? Fortunately we still had two weeks to enjoy our cruise as we headed through the Kiel Canal with a brief stop in Warnemunde, where a cadre of soft ice cream vendors spoiled us while watching a young man standing in front of a table full of water filled glasses playing operatic arias. Next was Copenhagen, Helsinki, Saint Petersburg for a two day stay, and finally Stockholm.

Looking back it was an enjoyable but eye opening experience. All those different cultures and lifestyles, but in the end we all strive for the same thing—a decent meal and a comfortable bed in which to sleep.

In retrospect, maybe we should have visited one of those Coffee Shops. With the jetlag that followed we could have used a good night's sleep.

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July 2016

Running a Marathon

The endless line around security wove around like a demonized serpent with its fiery head spitting out commands, "take off your belt", "remove your shoes", "raise your arms". Can there really be that many would-be terrorists on the loose? With pot bellies and baseball caps the most harm they could do is to burp in your face. Next stop was at United's over-crowded lounge where a Diet Coke soaked up 20 minutes before boarding our flight to Boston for our granddaughter's graduation from Boston University.

Boston is a beautiful city and often compared to San Francisco. So where are the homeless? Easy, they're all in San Francisco!! The most offensive thing we saw was a couple of guys sitting on a street bench holding out a paper cup.”

After the usual greetings at least half of the carry-on luggage was removed and placed below. So much for flying in a 737!! Airline food is, well, airline food. We obediently ate our kale and helped save the world one green leaf at a time. Maybe we should have accepted those complementary drinks after all, especially when the seat belt signs kept coming on with the pilot instructing the crew to go to their jump seats and buckle up….another broken promise for that smooth flight that had been previously announced. At least our ride to the Lenox hotel went smoothly, and while our driver Mohammed unloaded our suitcases I had the chance to check out the Dunkin Donuts across the street. At that point life was good.

Boston is a beautiful city and often compared to San Francisco. So where are the homeless? Easy, they're all in San Francisco!! The most offensive thing we saw was a couple of guys sitting on a street bench holding out a paper cup.

Our room, the Judy Garland suite, came with a red slipper and a white orchid, and from the picture window we could see Pizzeria Uno right next door to Dunkin Donuts; at that point life was really good.

First Church of Christ ScientistOn Thursday we walked along Newbury Street admiring all the beautiful shops, boutique's, restaurants, and a handful of old churches. For dinner we returned to Clink at the Liberty Hotel where we had stayed last time, and managed to finish our dinner before the fire alarms went off and emptied out the entire hotel and restaurants……never a dull moment.

By morning the rest of our group had arrived and we took advantage of the beautiful day and headed to the Mapparium, where we stood inside a huge 3-story glass dome while perched on a 30 foot glass bridge where we could see the entire planet in living color, all the continents created in stained glass dating back to 1935. Right next door is The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which was built after Mary Baker Eddy discovered and founded Christian Science. The church boasts one of the world's largest pipe organs and is often played by visiting organists. The music can be enjoyed on their website, pipe organ

Dinner for our group of 11 was enjoyed at Lucca Restaurant on Hanover Street, a very nice, good-sized restaurant where the pasta and entrees were nicely presented and our four grandchildren were made to feel comfortable. Considering that it was graduation week we felt very fortunate to have found this very accommodating restaurant.

The next day we did a good deal of window shopping, and stopped in at the newly- opened Apple Store and just down the line, at a very glitzy Microsoft Store displaying a variety of competing laptops and tablets. The most exciting visit of all was at the new, shiny Tesla showroom, where most of the gawkers had never heard of a Tesla. The Falcon Wing model was certainly a major attraction, and not wanting to act snobbish we took it all in stride.

On Saturday we switched our allegiance from our granddaughter Katrina to our grandson Michael Strem, who is finishing his junior year at Boston College and is a star baseball player. The game was at BC and they handily won, pushing them closer to a college World Series playoff. Surprisingly, even without a reservation for the 11 of us we did find a nice restaurant in The Shops at Chestnut Hill named Tokyo Japanese Steakhouse. We all gathered around the steel cooktop as the chef flipped his forks and knives, lit the onion cone, squirted sake in our unsuspecting mouths while filling our dishes with delicious steak, chicken, rice and mushrooms. We ate dinner in a shopping center? Yes, and it was great. This was more than a lesson in humility; it was a chance to enjoy our family in less demanding circumstances. Once we get back home we're definitely going to Benihana to relive the adventure.

Sunday was graduation day and we all started with an early breakfast, a larger Uber sedan, and cameras to go all around. Katrina received her degree in Political Science and the group of about 200 young men and woman proudly found their way to the stage to receive that bright red diploma followed by hugs and handshakes from the administrators. With the playing of Pomp and Circumstance we all filed into the dining hall next door and feasted on cakes, cookies and beverages. The afternoon ceremony was held in the football stadium, where over 4,000 graduates listened to a variety of speakers as we all shivered in the 43 degree weather.

Dinner that evening was at Toscano at 47 Charles Street in Beacon Hill. Although we had never eaten there before, we knew from previous visits where it was, that it was a great choice, and certainly worthy of a return visit. We especially enjoyed eating in the Grotto, a private room on the lower level which gave us privacy and shielded us from the usual restaurant noise.

Dinner, dessert, fine wine and a lovely family, what else can one ask for? How about a nice smooth flight back to San Francisco?

After being dropped off at Logan International Airport we weaved our way through security, and it appeared that that the serpent had taken a break so we next headed to United's lounge. After scanning our boarding passes we were informed that this lounge is only for international customers. The place was empty! What's the worst we could do, eat a banana!!

The westward winds were with us and we did manage a smooth flight and even arrived 20 minutes early. On the way back I had 6 hours to think, I wonder if Amtrak goes to Boston. With one more graduate next year that's something that we'll definitely look into……

Sergio Nibbi gets around—the world! Feedback:

June 2016

Shake Rattle and Roll

When heading to AT&T Park to join yet another sell out crowd, driving down 3rd Street to admire all those new sleek towers laden with young entrepreneurs and biotech geniuses, or being thankful for the new Benioff Children's Hospital, do we ever stop and realize that not all that long ago the entire area was an environmental wasteland? The area was laden with oil-soaked soil mixed with deadly toxins, rusting steel tracks, and creosote-soaked railroad ties, long abandoned.

1985 Locomotive at Ferry Bldg
PHoto 1985 by Drew Jacksich


… throughout the day we could hear and feel the trains rolling down 16th Street rattling our windows and shaking the floors, having started from the Embarcadero and fanning out through the area calling on the various businesses in Mission Bay.”

Diesel locomotiveFor years the industrial buildings that dotted the area were served by rail cars dropping off and picking up all sorts of products. Typical businesses were a who's who in the fuel and paint business: Richfield Oil, Chevron, Valvoline, Glidden Paint, L&H Paint, battery manufacturers, and building materials suppliers. To this day there are still huge steel pipes under 16th Street that carried fuel from barges that docked at China Basin to fuel depots owned by Chevron and Richfield Oil. Railroad tank cars were the Uber of the day.

For many years our offices were on the corner of 17th and Arkansas Streets, and throughout the day we could hear and feel the trains rolling down 16th Street rattling our windows and shaking the floors, having started from the Embarcadero and fanning out through the area calling on the various businesses in Mission Bay. Ft. Mason Tunnel

The San Francisco Belt Railroad started out as the State Belt Railroad in 1889, and was renamed when the city bought the Port of San Francisco in 1969. Eventually all operations ceased in 1993. The railroad connected the Port of San Francisco with many of the docks along the waterfront, serving the area for years. Eventually the 67 miles of track stretched from its roundhouse, which was eventually converted to modern offices on the Embarcadero, to a train/ferry slip at Pier 43, through Fisherman's Wharf, Aquatic Park, Fort Mason and terminating in the Presidio.

From its general offices in the Ferry Building, the company provided its services by switching cars from four major railroads to points throughout its system. Working with Southern Pacific, Northwestern Pacific, Western Pacific and my very favorite, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, the system supplied the area for all those years, and additionally gave birth to a very popular song, Harry Warren & Johnny Mercer's "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe", written for the 1946 film, The Harvey Girls.

At times I wonder how all that equipment would survive in today's environment with cars, pedestrians, bicycles and skate boards all competing for a spot to navigate. A few weeks ago, the Chronicle's C.W. Nevius wrote an interesting article about the horrific traffic in this same area. A viable solution is not easy. The tracks are gone, the locomotives are gone, the businesses are gone, but the people are not. Would a new train line work? Why not? It worked at Disneyland, at the airport and the fairly new "F" line along the Embarcadero. Who needs open air sightseeing buses or Red and White fleets? I propose that we rebuild the San Francisco Belt Railroad, load its cars with people and not products, and drop off all those happy fans at AT&T Park and the Warriors new stadium, and the tourists at the Wharf, and all those hi-rise dwellers going back home. No more parking lots, no designated drivers, free flowing beer and great music along the way. My first choice for a theme song? What better than Johnny Mercer's "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe?" Let's put it up for a vote.

Sergio gets around — the world!

May 2016

The Verdict

Bruno Magli shoes, a Ford Bronco, a pair of leather gloves and dueling attorneys. A perfect mix for a 10 part series on FX reliving the drama appropriately called "The People vs OJ Simpson." The trial was hyped as "the trial of the century" and it certainly grabbed everyone's attention, including ours. The verdict was read on October 3, 1995 around mid-morning, but for us it was dinner time in Vienna and we didn't dare leave our hotel room until the unanimous decision was read. The verdict? "Not guilty."

The adventure for us started in London, moved to Rome, Florence, Lucca, Venice, and finally ended in Vienna. September the 18th 1995 was my 60th birthday, and with a group of friends, family and relatives we celebrated the occasion in Lucca, Italy where I was born all those many years ago. It was an unforgettable celebration in the Tuscan hills where we had rented a villa named "Fattoria di Fubiano" situated in the small village of San Gennareo, about 30 minutes outside the walls of Lucca.

The celebration ran late into the night while the more than 100 guests enjoyed the delicious food, wine, and music sprinkled in with a few remarks, all under white canvas tents which shielded us from the unexpected rains that evening. After all these years, people still comment on the food and surroundings, truly an unforgettable evening.

A short distance from the villa is a village called Collodi where Pinocchio Park is located, perfect for a day trip with our young grandchildren. For the adults we ventured off to Montecatini Therme, where we drank some of the curative waters, and then made our way to Montecatini Alto on the 100 year old funicular for a spectacular view of the surrounding area.

The week's stay went by much too quickly, but it did give us the opportunity to relive some of the more pleasant moments of the past few days. After the usual tourist stops in London, we found our way to Rome where again, we were treated to the splendor of the Vatican where Michelangelo's Pieta is beautifully displayed just to the right of the entrance, carefully protected by a bulletproof acrylic glass panel. During our first visit to the Vatican in 1971 we did see this amazing piece of art while it was displayed out in the open in the main church before a mentally disturbed geologist from Austria walked into the church in 1972 and attacked the sculpture, doing great damage. A trip to the Colosseum and a stop at the Trevi Fountain to toss a coin and make a wish, then it was time to head to Florence for a visit with David, another one of Michelangelo's masterpieces.

After a stroll on the Ponte Vecchio and a visit to the Duomo, we drove to Lucca where we all settled in for the celebration. Venice came next, where a gondola ride was a must for all of us after an evening stroll through Saint Mark's Square, where the best entertainment of all was watching the pigeons that outnumber the tourists, who are the biggest pigeons of all.

Our train ride to Vienna was relaxing and prepared us for the last push before heading home. Our stay was at the Hotel InterContinental, and our three day Metro pass gave us access to all the sites and sounds of this beautiful city which is a mix of old and new. Our first stop was St. Stephen's Church, followed by a visit at the Schonbrunn Palace and its marvelous gardens, and of course a stop at the Kunsthistorisches Museum to admire the two rooms full of Rubens. The next day was spent at the Belvedere Palace, where we just had to see Gustav Klimt's painting of The Kiss, an oil painting with applied layers of gold leaf considered Klimt's most popular work. And what better way to wrap up our trip than with a boat ride down the Danube River, and a bumper car ride in Prater Park?

With hours on the plane we had the opportunity to discuss the trip, compare sites, and decide on what we enjoyed the most. Was it the Vatican, the Villa, Vienna or watching the grandchildren playing on the swings and slides? We took a vote, opened it up for discussion, polled the jury and patiently waited for a decision. The verdict? A hung jury! At that point we had no choice but to dismiss the jurors and start over. The simplest solution was to repeat the process, which we did a few years later, and relive the adventure, after which we took another vote. How did that go? I don't know yet…the jury is still out.

Sergio Nibbi gets around—the world.

April 2016

The Last Supper

Is there anything more enjoyable than watching the cooking shows on Saturday morning while preparing a special breakfast side by side with all those TV professionals? Sinfully good and certainly better than an Egg McMuffin. There's no doubt that today's chefs are all fun to watch but one of my favorites has always been Jacques Pepin with his simple but masterful style that always makes it look so easy. Sadly he's now wrapping up his career with his last televised series called "Jacques Pepin, Heart and Soul." Fortunately after years and years of pure joy in the kitchen his work has been recorded and published for all of us to enjoy.

Watching him on television is great but how about seeing him in person? It was almost 45 years ago when my wife and I decided to take some cooking classes and the one person that was highly recommended to us at the time was a gentleman by the name of Jack Lirio who had a modest home on Monterey Blvd, just up the street from where the Safeway store is now located. A basement room had been converted into a demonstration kitchen that held about 20 people as we watched Jack cooking while we followed his recipes, took notes and eventually enjoyed the fruits of all his hard work.

Jack Lirio was not a professional chef or restaurant owner, although he did study at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and truly enjoyed cooking and teaching. He eventually wrote two cook books called "Cooking with Jack Lirio" and "Fast Fabulous Desserts."

Jacques,Claudine and Shorey

His classes were held once a week and although the food was delicious the biggest attraction was the exposure to foods that we never would have tried on our own like Peking duck or fried cheeses with fennel sauce. On one particular evening he told us that there was a young French chef who would soon be teaching a few of his classes. His name, Jacque Pepin, a virtual unknown to most of us but it didn't take long to become mesmerized by his endless talent. Most cooking teachers would bring in food already cut, trimmed, boned or shaped but not with Jacque Pepin. Boning a squab or slicing and dicing was not done ahead of time but rather right there as he told stories and demonstrated his flawless techniques. I'll never forget watching him prepare a tart shell molded from a flat sheet of dough, no drawn circles, no pattern, no measuring, yet when it was finished it was a perfect circle, the same height all around and ready to fill and bake. Amazing!

At that time one of Jack Lirio's helpers was a woman by the name of Charlotte Coombs who eventually started her own cooking school in Redwood City and again we had the pleasure of sitting in on more classes taught by Jacques Pepin. The two of them seemed to have a special bond and it brought a new dimension to the evening. A couple of the students would even bring their own bottle of wine and enjoy both the wine and the demonstrations adding to the evening's pleasure.

In the ensuing years we've taken cooking classes in Lucca, Florence, Paris and even in Oakland from Linda Carucci, who was a chef instructor at the International Culinary School in San Francisco and who cooked a very special birthday meal for me years ago but somehow we always seem to associate with Jacque Pepin.

After all these years we still have two binders full of recipes from both Jack Lirio and Jacques Pepin so if you want to whip up a lobster soufflé or some braised squab accompanied with carrots vichy just let me know. JaquesPepin

So now Jacque Pepin has celebrated his 80th birthday blowing out all those candles with so many of his chef friends surrounding him but he still enjoys doing what he's done so well for all these years along with his daughter Claudine and now his granddaughter, Shorey, cooking and telling stories.

What an amazing, rewarding and successful career that has given so much pleasure to so many of us. So let's keep enjoying his great talent and never forget what he's always been so fond of saying at the end of each television program, "Happy Cooking."

Sergio Nibbi gets around—the world! Feedback:

March 2016

And the Winner is…

Half truths, exaggerations, deceit and deception! That seems to be the new norm for today’s election cycle and it appears that not much has changed in all these years. But was it always that way? After being welcomed home as a national hero, did Dwight D. Eisenhower insist on building a wall to separate our southern neighbors? Wasn’t it Ronald Regan that pleaded to “tear down that wall?” And would our affable peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, turn away millions of refugees during a time of need? I’m sure that George H. W. Bush, a one time director of the CIA, would not have taken on Valdimir Putin, a former senior officer in the KGB, over nukes and political nuts. And speaking of our 41st President, I remember taking a trip quite a few years ago that took us through Kennebunkport, Maine on our way to a 60th birthday party celebration for a very dear friend of ours in Maine.

Our trip started in New York, and after the usual few hectic days in the Big Apple we boarded an Amtrak train for our 5 hour ride to Boston, which was different, unusual and scenic. We arrived at the Westin Copley Place for a pleasant stay before driving off in our Hertz rental to the Spruce Point Inn, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Stopping off in Kennebunkport was opportunistic and gave us a chance to visit the summer home of our newly-elected president. As I recall, we visited the Dock Square area, which was right on the Kennebunkport River and reputed to have the president’s speedboat docked nearby. After a pleasant lunch and a tour of the town, we did get a glimpse of the boat, but also found out that the boat was heavily guarded by the Secret Service on land and with Navy divers protecting the hull. Our reward for the day was a souvenir coffee mug that we still use on occasion. There’s also an interesting video on the internet showing the boat pulling away from its mooring and smashing back into the dock as people scrambled around in amazement. That happened years later and hopefully with someone else at the helm!

A clam bake started off the festivities at the Spruce Point Inn and gave us all the opportunity to meet and greet old friends as well as new. Then came the party, the speeches, great food, and cold drinks, and it was soon time to head home, but not before stopping off in Tamworth, New Hampshire for a night, and then a stay at the Tulip Tree Inn in Chittenden, Vermont, and finally our last night at the Gables Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts. Along the way we did get the opportunity to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge as well as the nearby home of Edith Wharton just up the road.

We then headed to Boston for our United flight back to the familiar surroundings of the San Francisco International Airport.

So now we’ll wait and see how this election unfurls. More stories, more struggles for the top spot, and eventually Election Day. In the meantime all we can say is “may the best man win.” OMG, did I really say “man?”

February 2016

More Real Travel for Real People (2013-2015) More Real Travel for Real People (2009-2012)