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Friday, December 7, 2012

A(AA) Mixed Experience

CANYON LAKE, TEXAS -- For more than twenty years, I have maintained a AAA membership, and probably not a year has gone by that I have not been glad that I did. And, as I have only gotten older and commensurately more apprehensive about travel-related mishaps, it is a service that I have continued to appreciate. Recently, however, I had an experience that was, suffice it to say, a little offputting.

One morning last week, my wife woke me up to let me know that her car wouldn't start so that she had to take mine (presumably, none of that would have been different if she had just let wake up on my own an hour or so later). It looked as if the trunk had gotten left open and that the battery had drained overnight and I could have either called AAA for a jump or dragged out my own cables and done it myself. In point of fact I put it off and did not do anything right away, as she was going out of town and I would only need one car for awhile anyway.

Then, three days ago, I came out of a meeting at the local library and my car wouldn't start! Fortunately, my friends Rodney and Regan Smith were just coming out of the same meeting and, being ever-ready, they pulled out their jumper cables and got my car running, whereupon I was able to drive home.

Next morning I went out to my garage and, as I had feared, now had two vehicles that would not start -- and no third one to jump them with. It appeared, in fact, that the battery for my own car must have been dead and would need to be replaced. One way or another, now I needed to call AAA and get some support.

When I called and explained the situation to the agent, first thing she said was that this would count as two separate service calls because it involved two cars. Really? They did not have to dispatch two trucks, so this would seem to have had a rather thin justification, and it would certainly seem that there would be a better way for them to handle this. But, c'est la vie, I needed the vehicles jumped, so I had little choice but to just accept this.

I was, however, a little mollified when the agent told me that as part of my service the technician responding to the call could actually replace my battery with a new one that I could purchase for a "special price" available to members. This was a nice surprise! I live kind of in the middle of nowhere, so not having to immediately drive 18 miles to AutoZone to get my battery swapped out was kind of a relief and I said this was something I wanted to avail myself of.

My annoyance returned a few minutes later when the phone rang and I discovered it was yet another agent who was calling expressly to tell me that the battery replacement service was not available where I live! Really? The first agent didn't know that? And why the hell not? I certainly don't pay any less in membership premiums than people in other areas! The agent did tell me that AAA was "working on it" and would be providing this service to paying customers like me "soon." How soon? Within an hour when the service truck was scheduled to arrive? Apparently not.

So, an irritating experience with an organization I have patronized for more than two decades. Not enough to make me drop it by any means, but enough to give me some pause.

As a postscript, however, it does bear mentioning that Jim, the driver for contract service company Hill Country Customs Towing, showed up fairly quickly and was very professional, conscientious, and friendly. He also personally recommended a place to pick up a battery that was about six miles closer than where I had been planning on going and said he would drive back to where he was going behind me in case I had any problems on my way. And, when I got to O'Reilly Auto Parts in Sattler, Texas, Wayne sold me the battery I needed and quickly installed it himself, so Jim had indeed given me a good recommendation.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wine Diary

One of the things I enjoy sampling when I travel is the local wine (along with beer and other beverages, for that matter). And, one of the ways I like to travel vicariously when I am at home is by drinking wines from various faraway places. So, I am probably overdue launching a wine diary on this site that lists what I have been drinking, what it went well with, and other details that might be of interest to readers. I will be striving primarily to provide useful information rather than the often baffling and arbitrary comments that accompany many standard wine reviews. Listed in parentheses are the dates I and/or my wife consumed the vintage being discussed. Questions and comments are welcome!

Laetitia "Brut Cuvee," c. $16. (December 1, 2012). It has become fashionable in recent years to dismiss champenoise-style wines as generally disappointing and consumed only by bourgeois people who don't know any better. Fortunately, I am neither fashionable nor bourgeois, I do know better, and I truly enjoy a nice glass of sparkling wine, so I was glad to discover this particular vintage. This decent cuvee is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir that, as its vintner says, is "complex, elegant, and youthful," and which is fairly dry and tart, with hints of citrus. I expect it would pair especially nicely with salmon, trout, or other freshwater fish but, admittedly, enjoyed it only as an aperitif (one bottle serving me in this capacity over the course of three days).

Jumilla "El Campeador," 2011, c. $16 (November 29-30, 2012). I was looking for a nice wine to pair with homemade tapas one evening and made a good choice with this Spanish Syrah/Monastrell/Petit Verdot blend, a complex, semi-dry, medium dry red wine with a somewhat tanniny finish. Its name, "the champion," is according to the vintner a tribute to the hero El Cid (appropriate in that he was noted for striving to drive a teetotaling people off the Iberian peninsula). I think it would go well with just about any sort of Mediterranean style food, and I enjoyed it with some chick peas broiled with sesame oil and red pepper. As much as any red wine, and moreso than many, this vintage benefits from breathing a little while before drinking.

Castello del Poggio "Moscato D'Asti," 2010, c. $16 (September 2012). What is it about certain Italian white wines that they have the effect of putting me in a good mood? Maybe it is the very slight fizziness characteristic of some of them, subtle enough in the case of the vintage I am writing about here that I might not even have consciously noticed if I had not opened the opened the bottle and poured a glass myself. This delicious, full-bodied sweet white wine is superior for its type and is full of fruit flavors with an emphasis on fresh melon and hints of honey. It is wonderful as either an apéritif or a desert wine, and I enjoyed it both alone and with some ripe green grapes and think it would pair very nicely with many other sorts of fresh or dried fruit (although I would not recommend it as an accompaniment for any sort of actual meal, based on my preferences for drier vintages with most food).

Frei Brothers Reserve "Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon," 2008, c. $22 (February 25 and March 1, 2012). My wife and I cracked open this nice bottle of red wine -- which our friend Jon Reichman brought us during his recent visit to Texas -- to accompany a marinated sirloin steak that we grilled one Saturday night and enjoyed with sweet peppers sauteed with goat cheese and some white rice. We only drank about two-thirds of it and I finished up the balance of it five days later with a simple dinner consisting of it and a plate of macaroni-and-cheese.
It is a fairly dry, full-bodied wine with a complex palette of flavors and complemented both meals perfectly. I have been partial to Alexander Valley wines since about 2000, when my friend Chip Cassano and I drove through it during a road trip up the West Coast, and recommend this appelation in general and this product of it in particular.

Tangent Winery "Sauvignon Blanc," 2009, c. $16 (February 29, 2012). My wife selected this wine to accompany spaghetti with a vegetarian sauce made with artichoke hearts, tomato, onion, and garlic, and in that it was tangy and not sweet it paired perfectly. We had some dried pineapple for desert with our second glasses but, while this sort of fruit is a nice accompaniment to many white wines it was a bit too sweet to go well with this one. "This vintage is bright and racy, with flavors of passion fruit, pear, lemon and grapefruit," says Christian Roguenant. "Minerality notes, lively acidity, and green grassy elements balance the wine nicely. It finishes long with a touch of zesty lime. My favorite wine with oysters, it pairs well with most all seafood." I agree on all counts and look forward to trying this one with some fresh oysters!

Carinena "El Bombero Seleccion 15% Especial," 2008, c. $16 (February 24, 2012). This is a fun and particularly potent Spanish red grenache wine, in that it has a 15% alcohol content, as compared with the almost universal 12.5% for other vintages. We enjoyed this with grilled pork shortribs -- a fairly heavy meal -- and this full-bodied, slightly hot-to-the-tongue wine paired very nicely with them.


Tenuta Ca'Bolani "Prosecco," 2010, c. $16 (February 19, 2012). This Italian frizzante wine was, on top of everything else, a fun surprise for us, in that we were not paying particular attention and were expecting it to be a regular white wine. I had actually been feeling a bit down and felt immeasurably more upbeat just one sip into a glass of this nice northeastern Italian "champagne."
While it had a bit of a fruity finish, it was dry enough that it paired nicely with our broiled steelhead salmon (I loathe sweet wine with most food and so was sensitive to how well this would accompany a meal). For desert we had some strawberries and dried pineapple, both of which compliment many white wines in general and a decent sparkling wine in particular. According to the vintner, it is "gently pressed and vinified at low temperature to retain the lively, fresh, aromatic orchard fruit, white blossom, and sweet almond character."

Saturday, August 25, 2012

America's Allied Wounded Warriors

The following story does not contain any tips for travel but is inspired by some significant things I learned during my recent trip to the Czech Republic, and will likely resonate with anyone interested in the issue of wounded warriors or the ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

As a journalist, I have always been aware that the United States was not alone in the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Knowing that in theory, however, does not necessarily make one think about the non-American troops that are not just serving alongside U.S. military personnel, but being killed and maimed like them as well. I was exposed to this largely unknown phenomena and gained some insights into it when I visited the Czech Republic in July. Since then, I have been moved to begin writing a book on the subject with the working title Allied Soldier and to begin telling the story of the things I saw and the people I met. (Shown here is a Czech soldier guarding the presidential palace in Prague.)

There are, in fact, currently more than two-dozen nations serving with the United States in Afghanistan, including Great Britain, France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. This is, moreover, the first time the Czech Republic has been involved in hostilities since World War II and it faces many obstacles to providing adequate support for its soldiers severely injured as a result. One of these hurdles is that many of the nation's citizens do not understand the value of supporting either the war in Southwest Asia or the veterans wounded in it. Another is that the Czech government does not have either the resources or the breadth of experience of larger, wealthier nations like the United States, which can draw upon the lessons it has learned in the many conflicts with which it has been involved over the past six decades.

Two years ago, a number of concerned Czech citizens founded REGI Base Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing critical resources and support for wounded warriors that goes beyond what either the government or their families are able to do. Its centerpiece will be REGI Base I, a state-of-the-art medical facility currently under construction outside of Prague in the village of Svémyslice that, when it is completed, will be able to house up to 16 veterans undergoing treatment and serve the needs of up to 35 outpatients per day (the facility is shown here as it appeared during my visit). The intent of its founders is that it will include modern diagnostic equipment unavailable anywhere else in the region, be able to provide rehabilitative care onsite, and serve as a clearinghouse of information on physicians and clinics worldwide to which it can send wounded warriors in need of specialized care.

Inspiration for both the name of REGI Base and its mission is Chief Warrant Officer Jiří "Regi" Schams, a Czech special forces soldier who was horribly wounded on March 17, 2008 (shown here shortly before his injury). On that day, he was part of a 13-person multinational team that was conducting outreach operations to the civilian residents of a particularly dangerous province of Afghanistan when it was attacked by a suicide bomber. Four of the other personnel in the squad were killed outright, including two Danish civil affairs soldiers and the group's Afghani interpreter, and nine were wounded, including Schams, who was incapacitated by the blast. It initially appeared as if he had suffered some relatively minor injuries and a concussion. Before long, however, it became apparent that a piece of shrapnel had entered the back of Schams' head and burrowed its way through his brain almost to the front of his skull.

At first, there did not appear to be much chance that Schams would survive. But to the surprise of everyone — including his doctors and his family — the phenomenally tough special operations soldier managed to stabilize and pull through. That brought its own host of problems, however, for the injured veteran, who suffered extreme neurological damage and was thereby confined to a wheelchair, initially unable to speak, and plagued with vision problems that force him to perpetually keep one eye closed.

Following his return to the Czech Republic, Schams received the best medical care that his government could provide, and enjoyed the attention and support of his former comrades-in-arms and family members, particularly his mother. But resources available to him were inadequate for dealing with his condition, and his recovery was slow and very limited; for the first two years after he was injured, Schams believed he was in the middle of a nightmare from which he would eventually awake, something that severely retarded his progress.

In 2010, a Czech entrepreneur named Hynek Čech met Schams through a mutual friend and was horrified to discover that the wounded warrior was living alone in a high-rise apartment building that he could not even exit on his own (Schams is shown here with REGI Base co-founder Hynek Čech, right, and Kent Wills, author of a story about the wounded veteran titled a "A Soldier for Life").). His situation improved a little when friends would visit or take him somewhere, when he would stay with his mother on the other side of town, or when he would go for an annual two-week course of therapy at a nearby military hospital, but was still far from ideal. At both his and his mother's apartments, for example, the elevators are barely large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and can only be accessed via flights of steps — making it difficult for him to come and go even if someone is helping him. He also has trouble using the toilet or bathing without assistance.

Čech began looking into what could be done on behalf of Schams and other wounded warriors and soon came to the conclusion that the only thing that would work is a completely new, private organization that both supplemented the available treatment and services and went beyond them. It was this realization that prompted him to help conceive of and become one of the co-founders of the REGI Base Foundation.

One of the very first thing the fledgling organization did was to take Schams to a special neurologic clinic in the Black Sea city of Odessa, in the Ukraine, so that he could be tested by a top specialist in brain injuries (that doctor had, ironically, served in a Soviet military field hospital in Afghanistan from 1982-84, during that nation's ill-fated occupation of the country). After being examined and receiving additional CAT scans, the medical staff at the facility recommended that Schams be sent to a military rehabilitation center in the Ukrainian city of Saky. He spent six weeks at the facility and, as a result of the treatment he received there, his speech improved significantly.

That was the limit of what could be accomplished for Schams in either the Czech Republic or the Ukraine, however, and the staff of REGI Base realized they needed something better. So, in January 2012, Čech traveled to TIRR Memorial Herman in Houston, Texas (shown here), where a dozen Romanian soldiers had recently received treatment for traumatic brain injuries, and the costs for this had apparently been covered by the U.S. government. The best that hospital representatives were willing to do, however, was to give REGI Base a quote of nearly a half-million dollars to treat Schams — something that closed the door on help for this allied soldier.

Despite this frustrating setback, REGI Base has continued to move ahead in its attempts to provide help for both Schams and other critically-injured soldiers.

“Our fundamental idea is to create a unique complex that will combine rehabilitation, accommodation, and 24-hour assistance for soldiers who have returned from overseas missions but who cannot be adequately cared for by their families or friends," said Čech (shown here at his office in Prague). "Our first priority is to provide 365-day-a-year service to soldiers who cannot be fully treated at home or by the government. The Czech Republic currently has more than 500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and, as something tragic can happen at any time, we need to be ready to provide special care when it is needed.”

Čech also emphasized that, once it is established, it is his intent that the facility will serve as a regional rehabilitation center that serves the needs not just of military personnel from the Czech Republic but other nations as well, including the United States and other NATO nations. Ultimately, he said he would like REGI Base to have branches worldwide and to established reciprocal agreements that would allow military personnel to receive the treatment most appropriate to them at facilities in any of the participating nations. And going beyond medical care, Čech is also actively lobbying in his country for legislation that would help provide jobs for discharged Czech veterans and working on a project to provide special insurance benefits to them.

During my visit to the Czech Republic, I met with Schams and his mother; Čech and his staff; Schams former commander, Major Pavel Ruzicka, currently second-in-command of the Czech military police corps; Special Operations Group members who served with Schams (most of whom cannot be mentioned by name or photographed because they are still on active duty and involved in classified operations), and Deputy Minister of Defense Michael Hrbata (who appears with me here in his office at the Ministry of Defense). Hrbata in particular has been a champion of REGI Base, as has his boss, Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra — who gave the initial "green light" for the veterans organization — and the two of them have done everything in their power to garner support for it from the government and amongst the Czech people.

What really struck me during my visit, in fact, was how everyone concerned was doing everything in their power to help Jiří Schams and soldiers in a similar situation, but how so much more was needed (Schams is shown below as he appears today). REGI Base has got a handle on what those additional measures are, and when I visited the site of the clinic under construction and heard about all the great things the foundation wants to do, my response was, "Let's get this done! What do you need?"

As with almost anything big and complicated in the modern world, of course, what REGI Base needs is funding. It has thus far raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for its facility outside of Prague and, in the course of moving ahead with it, has just added a third level to the main building. It needs millions more, however, to complete construction, purchase expensive diagnostic equipment, and get treatment for Schams at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston. In the meantime, the war continues, billions of dollars go every day toward its prosecution, and, every week, more soldiers, allied and U.S. alike, join Schams among those who will need a lifetime of care as the price for their sacrifices.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Space City Con (Houston, August 10-12)

If you have not got any plans this weekend, or are going to be in the Houston area anyway, then you are not going to find anything more fun and exciting to do then go to Space City Con! I will be a there as an "author guest" of the convention and giving talks on various things related to fantasy literature in general and his books in particular, and my Skirmisher Publishing LLC and d-Infinity game magazine will also be exhibiting and running events.

Being held at the Westin Galleria hotel and convention center August 10-12, this event is an all-ages fan festival of comics, sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, literature, and art. According to its organizers, it is a "geek festival with free parking" for which they have attempted to "put on the best convention possible for current generations of fans and instill a love of comics, sci-fi, and fantasy in the next generation."

Space City Con is the Gulf Coast’s newest fan culture convention, offering a robust mix of authors, artists, sci-fi, fantasy, comics, gaming, fan group networking, literature, writing workshops and more, and has specifically been designed to be family-friendly.

Venue for this event, being held for the first time this year, is the fourth largest mall in America, in the fourth largest city in America. Galleria Mall boasts 375 stores, a large food court, ice rink, and a wide variety of restaurants.

Just as Houston has a broad economic mix in aerospace, energy, manufacturing, transportation, it also boasts the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions. It also has the top-ranked port in the United States, has always been home to a large international community, and is home to famous NASA Johnson Space Center and Mission Control.

"Space City Con will be a gathering of fans of all ages, with an exchange of pop culture passions," said founder George Comits. "More than entertainment, a place to escape for a while, forge lasting friendships, and connect with talented creators across a spectrum of genres."

During this inaugural year, Space City Con is embracing the Kids Need to Read foundation, as its founders say they consider "these elements as fuel for creative thinking, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and most of all, expanding the boundaries of what is known, into dreams and a yearning for what is unknown, what is unseen … but can be painted by the incredible human mind and spirit."

Space City Con wants to pass on the torch from one generation to the next, echoing the cry for “Inspiring Imagination!”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Eating and Drinking in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the reasons my wife and I came to New Orleans was to experience its unique and famous cuisine! We have, in fact, had a number of decent meals here along with a few exceptional ones, and I will provide an overview of them here. And over the course of a week we have actually only had one bad experience that bears mentioning, our wretched breakfast at Montrel's Bistro, bad enough that it warrants its own article and which will hopefully save a few unsuspecting souls from its indolent clutches. We also visited world-famous Café du Monde, an establishment that deserves its own entry for entirely positive reasons.

Pat O'Brien's (718 St. Peter Street)
This local watering hole is known for its mixed drinks, and we repaired to this establishment to sample some of them and sooth our jangled nerves after our irritating experience at Montrel's Bistro. Diane had the specialty of the house, its aptly-named Hurricanes, and I opted for my first-ever Mint Julep; there are, after all, so few things one can do for the first time at the age of 45 that they should not pass up the opportunities to do so. (Shown above is Pat O'Obrien's mascot by its Bourbon Street entrance; I am actually working on a coffee table book depicting nothing but my wife posing with creepy streetside mascots, a project in which she is almost inexplicably uninterested.). We sat in the establishment's pleasant courtyard and, while we were not up for eating anything during that visit, thought the food looked good enough that we came back to try it the next day.
On our second visit we sat in a semi-open dining area and I ordered a glass of red wine and the Shrimp and Grits (shown at left), something I had never tried before but wanted to, and Diane ordered the Cancun Shrimp starter and an Abita strawberry ale. The food was all good --high point for me being the fried cakes of cheesy grits, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside -- and Diane especially enjoyed her beer, vowing to pick up a case of locally-brewed Abita on the way out of town.

GENERAL TIPS
* Wine tends to be less of a good deal than beer in many New Orleans establishments! We were generally seeing prices, for example, of around $4.50 for a local Abita beer in many places, as compared to $7.50 for a small glass of unexceptional house jug wine. The fact that I just prefer wine to beer with many sorts of food was my downfall here ...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Café du Monde

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the world-famous institutions visitors to the city should be sure to partake of is Café du Monde, a coffee shop established a full 150 years ago during the U.S. Civil War (as per the sign my wife Diane is peering at toward the bottom of this page). It is located on Decatur street, just a block from the banks of the Mississippi River and at the west end of the French Market, Café du Monde was established in 1862.

Café du Monde is patronized by tourists and locals alike, who come to enjoy its French-style beignets and New Orleans-style café au lait blended with chicory. A beignet, by the way, is a pillow of fried choux dough, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, covered with powdered sugar, and served fresh to order at the café (they are kind of like a classy version of the fried dough that can be purchased at state and county fairs nationwide). Other than a few other sorts of beverages there is nothing else on the menu, a reminder that some of the best pleasures are also the simplest ones. Interestingly, its beignets have been certified kosher since 2008! That probably makes them halal, too. So, beignets can be enjoyed by everyone.

During our online research ahead of visting Café du Monde we noted that a number of people had complained bitterly about having to wait as much as two hours to obtain a table and their beignets, but a little legwork revealed just how inane this was. Yes, when we walked past the cafe on Saturday afternoon there were what looked like two-hour lines in front of it. But when we went there around midday on Tuesday we sat right down and had our treats and drinks in front of us within minutes.
Café du Monde is, in fact, open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, except for Christmas Day and when the city is getting slammed with hurricanes. So, if you waiting two hours to get your cafe au lait and beignets then you either want to suffer or are too clueless to how to keep from doing so.

Enjoy! I would not have wanted to miss my first beignet during my first trip to New Orleans and recommend that visitors to the city also have their first at the place most famous for them.

Nom, nom, nom! This family sitting near us especially relished their big plates of beignets. But how can you not like something that is deep fried and then buried under a mound of powdered sugar?

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

NEW ORLEANS -- One of the must-visit places in this city for ghosthunters or anyone interested in architecture in general or burial grounds in particular is certainly St. Louis Cemetery #1. This crumbling, above-ground graveyard has been in continuous use since the 18th century. It bears mentioning that the cemetery is only open until 3 p.m. on most days, and just noon on Sundays and holidays, so plan accordingly!

This is the main entrance to the cemetery. There are a number of other gates but this is the only one that appears to be open to the public.

"When New Orleans was founded in 1718 burials were made on the river bank. The first cemetery, in 1721, was on St. Peter Street. Burials were also made in the church. The first cemetery was demolished when this cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, was established by Spanish royal decree of August 14, 1789. As the city grew St. Louis No. 2 was established on Claiborne Avenue in 1823 and St. Louis No. 3 on Esplanade Avenue in 1854. New Orleans Archdiocesan Cemeteries 1983

Wow, check out that orb! Hah, I wish. This is what happens when you have sunshowers during an investigation ...

Fans of horror author H.P. Lovecraft will likely know exactly what I mean when I say this picture makes me think of the short story "Pickman's Model" ...

Wandering around in the maze of tombs that is St. Louis #1 can give the visitor an otherwordly feeling, and it is very easy to forget that the whole place is just the size of one city block.

This ornate group tomb holds the remains of members of an artillery company, which would likely have more-or-less served as a club for affluent gentleman (i.e., those able to afford cannons). The finials on the posts surrounding the tomb depict flaming bombs.

The tomb of "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau, to this day an object of veneration that is surrounded with votive offerings of all sorts. While we were there I say some visitors examining these but would not presume to do so myself ...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Haunted History Tours' Ghost Tour

NEW ORLEANS -- As a paranormal investigator, one of the first things I like to do when checking out the supernatural activity in any particular city is take the local ghost tour. Some are good, some are bad -- and some are the real deal. And that is most assuredly the case with Haunted History Tours, a company that takes its participants to real sites throughout New Orleans associated not just with ghosts, but also voodoo and even vampirism (no, the Big Easy's role as a reputed haunt for bloodsuckers did not start with Anne Rice).

On the day we took our ghost tour of the French Quarter, my wife Diane and I met with Haunted History Tours founder Sidney Smith outside of Rev. Zombie's Voodoo Shop (shown at left, during a daytime lull in the action), just a few blocks from the chaos of Bourbon Street. It would literally be fair to say that he helped "write the book" on paranormal activity in New Orleans, as he collaborated on author Kalila Smith's New Orleans Ghosts, Voodoo, and Vampires, a must-read primer for anyone interested in any of the title subjects. Using everything from crime reports, to historic records, to first-hand accounts, he and his staff have meticulously researched the haunted histories of the sites to which they take tour-goers.

All of Haunted History Tours' guides look pretty good but I would still say that we were lucky to get Jesse St. Croix, a native of witch-haunted Salem, Mass., who visited New Orleans in 1975 and decided he never wanted to leave. He brings a winning combination of knowledge, passion, and showmanship to the tours he leads, making them as informative as they are enjoyable. Over a two-hour period, St. Croix led us through the humid, darkened streets of the French Quarter to a number of the most significant haunted places located there.

Foremost among the places we visited was certainly the LaLaurie Mansion, a hulking edifice whose whose socialite lady had tortured to death dozens, perhaps even hundreds of slaves in the mid-19th century. It has been considered to be haunted from the day the crimes committed in it were discovered and has had such a disturbing effect on people since then that most recent owners -- including actor Nicholas Cage -- refuse to spend the night in it. (For those interested in ostensible paranormal phenomena, note the two small orbs in the right half of the picture, both of which appear to have faces on them.)

Other haunted locales we visited on the tour included Muriel's, a haunted restaurant; the home of Civil War General P.G.T. Beauregard; the Andrew Jackson Hotel (shown here); a haunted bar; and the home where a mulatto mistress froze to death on the roof while trying to entice her master to marry her. The evils of slavery, intemperance, and greed have imposed their legacy not just upon the visible history of New Orleans, but upon its haunted one as well, and the time we spent with St. Croix gave us some fascinating and disturbing insights into that.

There is more to come! Keep your eye on this space for more details about the places we visited on the French Quarter ghost tour -- and for an account of Haunted History Tours' Vampire Tour!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Montrel's Bistro (AVOID!)

NEW ORLEANS -- Save yourself some time, money, and aggravation and skip Montrel's Bistro, a promising looking but ultimately disappointing eatery in the market district of the French Quarter (1000 N Peters St, 70116-3317).

"This is some prime real estate wasted," my wife Diane observed. "They are obviously geared toward tourists, 'cause they can't be getting any repeat business."

We had entered the French Quarter via its southeastern corner and passed by all sorts of wonderful looking food stands in the open-air market, where I should have given into the temptation to grab something. We wanted our first meal in New Orleans to be something a little bit special, however, and so held out for a sit-down place.

We were, in fact, seated immediately at Montrel's, and even noticed how many more greeters were lurking about than were servers. After that, it took at least 20 minutes to even put in a drink order, and probably about that long again before we could order our food. We both asked for the breakfast special, the simplest thing on the menu and an item recommended on the board in front of the establishment.

I am sure there are those would defend the way Montrel's is run on the basis of the laid-back New Orleans attitude, that visitors just need to relax, etc., and that is fine as far as it goes. Where it breaks down, however, is when the quality of the food starts to suffer as a result. My grits and eggs were warm but not hot -- and the latter had a chunk of shell in them -- and the sausage was almost cold, which means my breakfast sat for awhile before anyone bothered to bring it out.

Ironically, I would not have cared about how slow the service was if I had been able to make good use of my time by getting online and checking my email, and there were signs nearby indicating we were in a wi-fi hotspot. None of the waitstaff, however, knew the name of the local network or the security key to access it, so this supposed benefit was of no use to us at all (and contributed to the aggravation of our visit).

Pros were that the Bloody Mary's were good -- although we had to struggle to get them -- and that the wait staff was friendly. Our waiter even promised to find out how people could access the Internet so that he would be able to help the next customer that needed this information. As touching as this was, I also suspect that it was not true -- and is certainly not enough to offset a disappointing culinary first experience in New Orleans.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Prague and the Czech Republic

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC -- Am currently on the ground here with my associate Josh Mayo as part of a short-notice trip for TechForce Protective Services to assess how we can help with development of the REGI Base wounded warrior project and avail ourselves of some import/export opportunities!

This is the broad Moldau River, which flows through Prague and thenceforth into Germany.

Am at the tail end of day five of our mission and have pretty much been moving, eating, drinking, or sleeping the entire time and it literally feels as if we have already been here at least twice as long. So far, however, this has been an incredible trip in a fascinating place and I will endeavor to convey some of that here. So, keep an eye on this space for more to come!

This is my first time in the Czech Republic and I am trying to get a handle on what the place is like; is very reminiscent of Germany in many ways, but somehow not quite the same, with perhaps every fifth detail changed somehow. It is a pleasure, in any event, to be in a country inhabited by people to whom I am ethnically related and who recognize my name as an indigenous one. Above left: This is the clock tower in the Old Town square. Thanks to tour guide Misha Švarcová for helping us to pick out all sorts of details on this and other things that we might have otherwise missed!

Prague is notable for its architecture and has a disproportionate number of beautiful, historically significant, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Even the buildings in Paris never seemed to me to be embellished with as many statues, flourishes, and other features! Above right:This seemingly disused building across from the prime ministers's office displays many of the features that make Prague architecture appealing.

Josh and have been staying pretty busy here but have had a few hours during a couple of days to get out and explore the city on foot, have dinner on the town, and enjoy a few drinks -- to include the famous local Pilsner beer. We have managed to visit the castle overlooking the town that is used as the president's palace, explore the Old Town and its great square, spend some time in the ancient Jewish Quarter, and cross the famous Charles Bridge any number of times. Above left: This is Konopiště, built at the end of 13th century as a medieval castle in French Gothic style and later rebuilt into a Baroque chateau. Thanks to REGI Base for the opportunity to get some aerial shots of its and other features of note around Prague!

Shown here is the view from just in front of the place we are staying, Trinidad Hotel Prague Castle, in the heart of the Old Town. That is, in fact, the title castle -- and note the vineyards to the right of it! Prague is a very green city and little details like this are abundant.

Overall, this is a beautiful, exciting, historic city that is part of a terrific country. We came over to conduct business and have got an added incentive to continue doing so in order to allow us to keep coming back!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Eating and Drinking in Prague

One of the most elegant meals we had in Prague was at Toninni, the Italian restaurant located beneath the hotel where we are staying. Josh and I eat breakfast there every day and, despite our busy schedule, really wanted to try dinner there as well, and were glad when we finally had an opportunity to. Proprietress Veronika Enstrom regularly travels to Italy, especially the Apulia region, to select the wines, cheeses, and pastas that she serves in the restaurant. She also personally obtains many of the fresh ingredients that are used in the restaurant, and when we told her that we wanted to try her linguine cozze she made an effort to seek out mussels that she would be ideal.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bella Vino (Spring Branch, Texas)

SPRING BRANCH, TEXAS -- It was not purely by coincidence that my wife Diane and I stumbled across Bella Vino Wine Bar & Coffee and, as is the case with half the new places we have tried in the past year, we have Groupon to thank for making us aware of it. It just opened in January and is located inside the affiliated Bella Napoli Italian restaurant, which was happily celebrating its first anniversary the day we visited the bar.

Bella Vino's offerings include a great selection not just of wine and coffee but also of local and microbrew beers. It menu includes a nice selection of light fare, including appetizers/tapas, meat and cheese plates, sandwiches, and deserts. My wife and I opted to share a delicious cold artichoke and spinach dip, followed by a two-person antipasto platter dubbed "The Kitchen Sink" that included about 20 different kinds of meat and cheese (including prosciuto and mortadella), along with spiked olives and a few pepperocini, grapes, and strawberries. We washed it all down with a bottle of Francis Ford Copolla "Votre Sante" pinot noir, a full-flavored, light-bodied wine that was the perfect accompaniment to our meal.

What makes Bella Vino most appealing to me, however, is its "rustic chic" ambience, something that puts it in a league with just a handful of other places around Canyon Lake (e.g., the Silver Sage Grille). Part of its elegance comes from its wine-oriented decor and prints, each of which has its own story, and we enjoyed chatting with proprietress Michelle Wertheim and hearing some of those stories.

Go hear some of them yourself! Bella Vino is located at 13140 US Hwy 281 N., Spring Branch, TX 78070, and can be reached at (830) 228-5330.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Military-Friendly Experience with AirTran

Just about everyone these days likes to claim that they "support the troops" but once in awhile I actually come across a company that puts their money where their mouth is. And, as two separate experiences on a recent trip indicated, airline AirTran Airways would appear to be one of those companies.

In one, I was in the boarding line behind a uniformed young woman who appeared to be flying home after completing her military basic training. Just before she handed her ticket to the AirTran person clearing people to get on the plane, she noticed another uniformed young woman -- apparently one of her basic training buddies -- sitting nearby and waiting for her boarding zone to be called. The young woman ahead of me called to her friend and the two were able to trade a few quick comments before the one ahead of me got her ticket scanned. When she did, the AirTran employee very nicely offered to change their seats so that they could sit together on the flight home, which the young woman gratefully accepted.

In my other experience, was checking in for my flight and handed my dependent military ID card to the person at the AirTran check-in counter, preferring to use it in lieu of a driver's license when flying. Knowing I was not an active duty military person, the clerk very graciously waived the baggage fee as an act of kindness to someone they recognized as either a former member of the uniformed services or the family member of one (note that I have opted not to identify this person by name, gender, or even airport, as I have actually seen people be punished by their higher-ups as a reward for good deeds; I have no reason to think AirTran would necessarily do this but do not want to jeopardize someone as a reward for being kind).

The fact that I enjoyed these two experiences at different airports and in different parts of the AirTran operation speaks well for the company and suggests it truly does have a benign attitude toward military personnel and their families. That is more than can be said for many companies, airlines included -- and is the kind of thing that will make those of us who have seen it first hand keep coming back to them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Message from Celebrity Cruises' President & CEO

I recently received the following message from Jim Hanrahan, the president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, in response to the recent disaster surrounding the wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship and thought it was interesting and timely enough to share with the readers of my TravelBlogue.

Dear Michael,

Like you, all of us at Celebrity Cruises, both shipboard and shoreside, are deeply saddened by the events surrounding the tragic Costa Concordia accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by the incident.

I debated about writing to you, as I wanted to be respectful of the investigation process and avoid adding to the speculation as to the cause or related failures. However, the concerns that have been raised about the safety of cruise ships compelled me to take the opportunity to share what an intense focus we have always placed on safety, and how rigorously we put that focus into practice every day.

Since Celebrity Cruises’ founding more than 20 years ago, the safety of our guests and crew has always been our highest priority. The measures we take in the interest of safety are many, often exceeding regulatory requirements. It’s a critical part of our ongoing commitment to innovation and continuous improvement in every aspect of our business.

Our guests see just a portion of our safety practices through the mandatory muster drills we conduct at the outset of every sailing. But our safety practices encompass so much more. In light of the Costa Concordia accident, we chose to post a summary of our safety practices on our web site. Simply go to, www.CelebrityCruises.com/Safety, and click on the tab labeled "Safety and Security". I encourage you to take a look, and to share the information with your family and friends.

Above and beyond what we’ve communicated there, you also may be interested to know that the leader of Celebrity Cruises’ Captains is a highly experienced former officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, Greg Purdy. As the head of our Marine Operations Department, Greg’s highest priority is to guide and monitor the safety of our fleet. His own experience at sea, including serving as Captain of a Coast Guard vessel, combined with his depth of knowledge of cruise ship safety, ensures that he and the entire Celebrity Marine team continue to build on our strong safety culture.

Our Captains across the Celebrity fleet hold degrees from some of the world’s finest maritime institutions. You also may be surprised to know that, along with the Captain, every one of our ships has at least two other officers who hold the level of license required to serve as Captain of a cruise ship. Essentially, we have three people onboard every Celebrity ship who qualify as a Captain.

On average, each of Celebrity Cruises’ Captains has 25 years of seagoing experience. Besides the training and drills we conduct onboard, our Captains and their bridge teams also participate in navigation simulator courses and other training. One of the cornerstones of our training is that everyone is expected to speak up if they detect something wrong, regardless of their rank. Our shipboard officers and our shoreside team spend a considerable amount of time focused on how we can continually improve our safety procedures.

On average, each of Celebrity Cruises’ Captains has 25 years of seagoing experience. Besides the training and drills we conduct onboard, our Captains and their bridge teams also participate in navigation simulator courses and other training. One of the cornerstones of our training is that everyone is expected to speak up if they detect something wrong, regardless of their rank. Our shipboard officers and our shoreside team spend a considerable amount of time focused on how we can continually improve our safety procedures.

Along with our vast in-house expertise, we also rely on a group of experts known as our Maritime Safety Advisory Board. The group was established in 2006 to help guide our safety program and provide critical thinking from the world’s leading marine safety experts. The group includes former senior officials from the US and UK Coast Guards, as well as leadership from the academic world.

Our Chairman Richard Fain has said there’s no such thing as perfect safety, but there is such a thing as perfect dedication to safety. And that’s what we strive for daily.

Whether you’re a longtime cruiser, or have yet to sail with Celebrity, I hope you’ll help us reinforce the fact that cruising continues to maintain the best safety record of any industry in the travel business.

Our highly skilled and dedicated crew members look forward to welcoming you onboard soon to provide you with an outstanding vacation experience. Meanwhile, I thank you for your continued support of our brand and our business.

Sincerely,

Dan Hanrahan President & CEO

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Restaurant Review: La Hacienda los Barrios

Some of the best Mexican food in San Antonio is located just off of Highway 281 and the 1604 Loop (18747 Redland Road, San Antonio, TX 78259; (210) 497-8000). Opened in 2004, La Hacienda los Barrios is the second restaurant to be opened by the Barrios family and brings to the edge of Hill Country cuisine the family has been serving at its downtown San Antonio location since 1979. It is managed by Diana Barrios Trevino, daughter of the restaurant’s founder, who is a world renowned chef in her own right.

My wife Diane and I had heard good things about La Hacienda from some of our neighbors and recently decided to check it out. We were pleased to discover that the restaurant has a beautiful outdoor eating area and chose to enjoy our meal there.

La Hacienda has an extensive menu with entrees starting at under $10 and running up to more than $20, along with by a very nice drink list that includes several varieties of flavored margaritas and a terrific selection of both domestic and imported Mexican beers. The place also serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and also has a menu of early bird specials. House specialties include San Antonio-style puffy tacos and several very decent looking vegetarian offerings, along with all the items associated with traditional Tex-Mex fare.

I opted for the fish tacos, one of my favorites if they are done right, and was pleased to discover that they were made with blackened tilapia and accompanied by rice, a vegetable relish, and slices of tomato and avocado. My wife opted for a platter with three different enchiladas, one each filled with cheese, chicken, and pork — and each topped with a different sauce — and accompanied by beans and other sides. I had a Victoria imported beer with my dinner and my wife had a margarita with hers.

While we were pleased with our choices they were not easy to make and other very tempting looking items that we will want to try on future visits to La Hacienda include its brisket gorditas and shrimp enchiladas.

One item we had never before encountered anywhere else was something called chimichurri, a condiment made with parsley, garlic, pimentos, and oil, that our waiter brought to our table with the complimentary chips and salsa and which went well on just about anything (and which I enjoyed on both my fish tacos and the salad items that accompanied them). It was just one of the things we enjoyed about this terrific restaurant and which will bring us back to enjoy it yet again.