Tim Foolery

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Monthly Archives: April 2018

Language and Travel – The Necessities

I love language and language study.  As I mentioned before, I studied Spanish in High School, German in College and now French as an adult.  I’m far from fluent in any of them, but I’m not completely lost when I’m immersed in these languages.

Today’s language struggle comes back from my college days.  We were taking five weeks traveling through the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  I started to get really sick in Amsterdam.  It started as a cold and progressed to a very rough sinus infection.  By the time we decided to go see a doctor in Berlin the illness was very far along – I struggled to breathe, my gums were swollen and from time to time, pus would leak from my tear ducts.  It was awful and I was a mess.

We were staying in East Berlin – this was 1999, only 10 years after the fall of the wall and while the City wasn’t separated any more, they were still quite different areas.  It was around 20h00 and I needed to see a doctor.  My professor and I found a clinic that was open late, we find our way and eventually see the doctor.  She was a solidly built East German woman with a very loud and gruff voice…who spoke zero English.  Surprisingly, she spoke very little Russian too – my professor was fluent in Russian, but that was of no help.

As I sit on the examination table, she asks (in German) what is wrong.  I was able to understand that without a problem.  Then, I immediately think back to my most recent German class.  Towards the end of the semester we could choose between studying the Zoo chapter or the Hospital chapter.  I chose der Zoo and not das Krankenhaus.  Dammit.  Why on earth would I need to yell at a crocodile? “Du Krokodil – Du springen und beißen” was the only real phrase that I remember from that chapter.

So, I’m in the hospital trying to get a point across to the doctor and our interactions go something like this:

Doktor: Wie geht es dir? (How are you? / What’s wrong?)

Me: Uh…Meine Augen sind kaput und meine Nase ist voll (Uh, my eyes are broken and my nose is full.”

Doktor: “Deine Augen sind gebrochen und deine Nase ist voll? HAHAHAHA”

She then proceeded to ask what color various things were and she quickly prescribed some antibiotics – large East German horse pills that I could barely get down.  The next day and after two doses I felt almost perfect.

Whenever I’m sick, or I go to the doctor, I always think of this lovely East German doctor who helped a lost, sick American kid when his nose was full and eyes were broken.  I will admit, I haven’t done much more in my other language studies when it comes to the hospital, but I am confident enough in my language that I can work around the most basic medical ailments.

That was the beauty of my German professor’s style – he did a great job of teaching to “talk around” vocabulary we didn’t know. We knew it would be inelegant, but our point would likely be made.

Have you had any foreign language struggles like this?  I’d love to hear about your struggles and how you overcame the issues.

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Westin Riverwalk San Antonio

Those who follow me on other social media outlets know that I recently spent time in San Antonio. It was my first visit to the nation’s 7th largest city – yeah, I was shocked by that stat too (New York City, LA, Chicago, Houston, Philly, Phoenix then San Antonio). There were just a couple of Starwood properties in this city and since I was there for a major conference most of the hotels were going for about the same price. I chose the Westin on the Riverwalk, it looked nicer than the Sheraton must down the street.

We arrived around 22h30 and were greeted by the signature Westin scent (White Tea) that is piped throughout the building. I always love this smell when I arrive and after I return from a long day but it does start to wear on me after a while. Two people were working reception and as we made our way through the lobby they turned on their huge smiles and both welcomed us.

I didn’t get the 10 minute run down of all the hotel amenities, which I appreciated. We were offered breakfast or points as our welcome amenity, I chose points as I’m not really a breakfast guy and since I was traveling for work, I could expense the breakfast, if I chose to take one.

We were offered a standard king room on the 15th floor, so I asked about any Platinum Upgrade options. She typed a way for a bit, wrinkled her nose and said she had a Studio Suite on the 4th Floor, but the street noise may be annoying. Since I was going to be here for six days, I really wanted a bigger room. I told her we’d take the bigger room and if it was too loud we would change – she had no issues with that plan so she gave us our keys and as we walked away told us the hours of the pool, the gym and the spa, all located right next to our room. This gave me more pause as I don’t want a loud gym crowd keeping me up, but it ended up being a total non-issue.

The room was exactly as she described – a King Studio Suite. As you walk in, the bathroom is immediately to your right. The bathroom was large with a single sink in the vanity, a separate tub and walk-in shower. The toilet was tucked into a little alcove – not completely separate or private, but tucked away.

The bathroom was quite large, but I really don’t dig the sliding door.

Large separate tub and walk in shower – the tub didn’t get used this trip though.

Single vanity with standard Westin amenities.

The toilet was secluded in a far corner.

As you enter the main room, you find a ton of space. There was a sitting area with a couch, side chair and a coffee table, positioned so you could watch the TV.  The furniture was a bit old and rough, but was comfortable enough. I ended up working from the couch as often as I worked from the desk area.

The couch looked a little grungy, but it was comfortable enough – we may have put towels down when we sat on it.

The seating area was a nice touch in this large studio suite.

The desk area was quite large and allowed me to get a lot of work done in this trip – I was even able to have my papers strewn all over the place. There were a ton of outlets on the desk too – a power strip on top and another affixed to the side. It was easy to keep all my devices charged and close at hand while working.

The bed was a proper king bed, unlike those false queen beds I had at the Embassy Suites O’Hare a few weeks ago (those were full/standard, definitely not a queen). The bed was relatively comfortable, but the pillows were utterly awful. They felt like feathery bricks. I asked twice for the pillows to be swapped out for different feather free pillows, which never happened. There weren’t any accessible outlets near the bed either, which is definitely one of my big pet peeves at a hotel.

The king size bed with feather/brick pillows.

I visited the pool a couple times on this trip too and despite the pool bar using mixes for the piña coladas, they were really great. I asked for double dark rum floaters on each beverage and they really made the pool all that much more enjoyable. The bartender at the pool even came out to see if we needed refills while we were in the water. It was lovely.

The only other thing of note was the hotel internet. I got back to my room one evening and wanted to get some work done, but the internet was down. I called the front desk and they said that they do a nightly audit on internet access (basically making sure that people using the network are still staying at the hotel). This process takes a few hours and access is restricted. I have never heard of this before. A late night internet disruption likely doesn’t impact many people but it sure is frustrating. When I checked out I commented on the internet issues and the woman working reception said she never heard of such and audit, but they did have some frequent internet outages. Which is more frustrating, I don’t know?

All in all, I would return to the Westin Riverwalk during my next visit to San Antonio. It was centrally located, had a lovely pool and pretty great service. The main hiccups are the pillows and the internet.

Where do you stay in San Antonio? Do you think the Riverwalk is a bit overrated too?

Dining in San Antonio – Eater Recommendations?

I made my first trip to San Antonio this week and as you know, finding great dining options is always a high point on my list of things when visiting a new city.  Googling “Top New Restaurants in San Antonio” let me to an Eater.com article from last year outlining The 13 Hottest New Restaurants in San Antonio.  I read through the quick descriptions, checked out the menus and booked a few dinner reservations.  Not all of the places I dined were on this list, but they’ve all be recommended by Eater.

The restaurants I visited, along with the Eater notes and my impressions are below.

Weathered Souls Brewing Co.

What Eater Says: The latest brewery to open in San Antonio, Weathered Souls is gaining followers with flights and inventive one-off, small-batch brews. Though the Malterial Girl dry-hopped ale has garnered attention from Madge’s lawyers, the brewery is hoping to weather this storm.

What I Say: A strip mall brewery with interesting, but not innovative beers.  The burgers were quite tasty and the service was genuine and welcoming.  It was a decent schlep from the main tourist area and the Riverwalk.  For a quick trip to San Antonio, I say skip it.

Chisme

What Eater Says: The Empty Stomach Restaurant Group (Hot Joy, Barbaro, the Monterey) turns its attention to Mexican fare with Chisme (Spanish for “gossip”) on the St. Mary’s Strip. Housed inside a former Tex-Mex institution, Chisme is winning fans over with a fun brunch (think barbacoa bennies and fried chicken and churros), massive micheladas, and free chips and queso during happy hour.

What I Say: Fried Chicken and Churros – need I say more? Their take on chicken and waffles was really good and I’d order it again in a heartbeat.  The salsa and the guacamole were so mild and bland, they reminded me of something you’d get while in hospital.  The service was really warm and welcoming and the Bloody Mary went down a little too easily – I did stop my self at just one though.

Fried Chicken and Churros is a great take on Chicken and Waffles

Battalion

What Eater Says: As the third concept from the team that opened Feast and Rebelle, Battalion had to deliver great results from the get-go. Chef Stefan Bowers and his team take a modern approach to Italian fare with shared plates of housemade pastas and charred squared meatballs, all served inside a renovated former firehouse in the city’s Southtown area. Two words that seal the deal: amaro cart.

What I Say: I’m a sucker for a good pasta dish and when you start off with daily housemade pastas how can you go wrong?  Well, you start by overcooking your pasta like the folks at Battalion.  My lasagna was very overcooked – not quite to a paste level, but close plus the sauce was used so sparingly. My dining companion had the bucatini and his sauce was mostly water and wouldn’t stick to the pasta.  We split the Veal Piccata and it was so salty we couldn’t finish it.  It was tender but the only flavors we got were salt – and salt licks are great for cows, but not for me.

Very salty veal piccata at Battallion

Rebelle

What Eater Says: After receiving accolades from Texas Monthly, the San Antonio Express-News, and the San Antonio Current, Rebelle’s holding its own inside the St. Anthony Hotel. Chef Stefan Bowers (Feast) and his staff are adding French techniques with global flavors to the dining scene within its glam and upscale walls (most San Antonians still reserve it for a special night out). It’s by far and away the biggest opening of the year since our last heatmap.

What I Say: I loved the space – it was fun, modern and exciting.  The service was pretty slow – all the servers appeared to spend their time hanging out by the central bar area and not their sections. Water was never refilled without asking for it twice.  We should know better, but don’t trust the servers here with wine recommendations.  Paired very poorly.  The wine service itself was just off too – opening the bottle you ordered at the bar, serving one guest out of a tasting glass, the other out of a proper sized glass, the bottle kept being removed from our table and put back near the bar – we finished that bottle much quicker than we thought we should have (maybe others were helping us reach the bottom).

Cured

What Eater Says: The crown jewel” of the Pearl offers dishes like hot goat sausage and catfish mortadella while incorporating San Antonio’s Mexican culture with items like masa-fried oysters over sopes with black beans and avocado mousse.

What I Say: Loved this charcuterie.  Four of us split the large charcuterie board and about half a dozen other items, including a steak.  The service was attentive, but not oppressive.  The drinks were unique and delicious. I loved my final drink of the night: My Sherry Amour with sherry and mezcal.  I’d return here in a heartbeat too.

Downstairs

What Eater Says: If the Esquire helped turn San Antonians into cocktail hounds, Downstairs, the not-so-speakeasy bar below it, is turning them into refined bar-goers. Seating is limited in this intimate establishment that retains details of its sister bar with taxidermy fish, but with a cocktail menu dedicated to corn. Elaborate charcuterie boards and excellent service make Downstairs feel like you’re more than five feet away from the kitschy River Walk.

What I Say: This was my favorite spot in San Antonio. We just had a couple of stellar cocktails and perfect oysters. The bartender, Hank, was really knowledgeable and welcoming.  My dining companion wanted hot sauce for the oysters and the servers were a little snobby about it – commenting on how hot sauce would just destroy the flavor and your tastebuds for future cocktails (which they are right), but they could have been a bit less judgy.  I really loved this place and would return just for the Sazeracs alone – I tried both the regular and the reserve versions and while both were great, I think you can just stick to the regular – amazing and quite a bit cheaper.

Perfect sazerac at Downstairs.

In addition to these places, we stopped off for drinks and snacks at various places along the Riverwalk, none of which are worth mentioning here.  All in all, I will say, I was pretty disappointed in my dining selections in San Antonio.  For a city with 1.7M people (the 7th largest in the US), I was expecting something a little brighter.  Many of the folks I spoke with had the same feelings, but my sample all come from major food cities like New York, LA and Chicago – it’s tough to compete with the restaurants in those markets.  That being said, there’s got to be something else we are missing.

What are your favorite places to dine in San Antonio?  When I return, where should I eat?  What’s a popular restaurant that you think is overrated?  Did you know that San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the US – I KNOW!

Embassy Suites O’Hare

I am not really a Hilton guy, I much prefer Stawrood Properties. I was speaking at a conference being held at the Embassy Suites near O’Hare. I had stayed at this property a few years ago when I had a 12 hour overnight layover at ORD – I didn’t want to deal with heading home for just a few hours.

This stay was two midweek nights. I checked in around 17h00 and was given a room on the fourth floor. Since I was on some bulk conference rate, my Gold Status didn’t get me any welcome amenity. I had to nearly beg for a couple bottles of water.

One of the elevators was out of service during our stay, which made the trek to and from your rooms very long. I asked about taking the stairs, but was told the doors were locked and I couldn’t enter the floors once I walked up. I try it – I’d have been very frustrated if I walked up four flights only to find a locked door.

My rooms was immediately across from the elevators. The glass doors to the rooms didn’t seal fully and the noise from the elevators and atrium really carried into my room.

Entering the room, you find the sitting and office area, with a TV.

The utilitarian couch in the front room served it’s purpose.

The work and dining table combo allowed me to be very productive when in the room.

The wet bar area was a surprisingly nice touch – no minibar though.

Continuing on, you pass the bathroom and the closet. The bathroom was large, but dated. I always forget how annoying the low bathroom vanities are. When brushing teeth or shaving, I end up with some back pain. The toilet had almost no power and when I attempted to flush a single Kleenex, it floated, swirled and barely went down the drain…and that was just a Kleenex- I was nervous about other things that needed flushing! Gross, I know.

The single vanity in the bathroom wasn’t an issue considering there were two other sinks in the rest of the suite.

I was surprised by the tile design in the shower – the water never got hotter than tepid though.

The sleeping area was at the very back of the room, with two full sized beds (Hilton calls these queen beds, but the measurements sure don’t add up). This area had another TV plus a chair in the corner. The corner windows provided a ton of natural light.

These sure aren’t queen sized beds, despite what the hotel says.

The small seating area in the bedroom was showered with natural light.

The bed was surprisingly comfortable, albeit very small – I was afraid I’d roll out. Luckily, I remained securely tucked in.

I wrote about my interactions with hotel maintenance immediately upon checking in, which still surprises and confuses me – no one else I spoke with had the “Clock and Peephole Check.”

The internet was fast and I didn’t find any Wi-Fi deadspots – which is surprising in hotel conference spaces. The water pressure was light and the water never got hotter than tepid, which starts to wear on you after a few days.

Despite the rooms being dated and a little loud (hallway and atrium noises) I’d likely stay again…assuming I needed a quick stay near ORD. I wouldn’t spend multiple days here though.

Have you stayed here before? Was your room loud and your water lukewarm? Where is your favorite hotel near O’Hare?

Interesting Hotel Service…

I’m spending a few days at an Embassy Suites for a work conference.  I’m not a Hilton guy (but thanks to my American Express Platinum, I do have Gold Status) – I much prefer Starwood Properties (Platinum).  I checked in and everything seemed normal, but I get to my room and before I can even start to unpack (can’t have a wrinkled suit), there is a knock at the door…I ignore it.  Then again…this time more forcefully…then continuous.

I reluctantly open the door, thinking it was a colleague.  Nope, it was an Embassy Suites Maintenance Guy.  He was here doing a “Peephole and Clock Check.”  I told him I was fine, but he wouldn’t listen.  He came in, I left the doors open, and followed him around.  He looked through the peephole (from the outside and in) – checking something off his list.  He then moved into the bedroom where he checked the clock – confirming the time (it was off by 3 minutes – he reset it) and confirmed the alarm was off.

I wrote about my hotel pet peeves a few years ago, and while the clock issue never made my list, it has more recently. I hate when the hotel clocks are wrong and I utterly loathe when the alarms are set.  I know I should always check the alarm before I go to bed, but I often forget (shame on me).

This seems so strange to me that this guy (in full Embassy Suites uniform) came in to check these two things. He wouldn’t explain why he did it either. He was gone as quick as he came.  I did pop by the front desk to ask about this and they said that they had some complaints about the clocks so they started checking them regularly.  Other than the service itself, nothing seemed off about this guy (he was properly uniformed and had a maintenance cart with him).

Am I nuts, or does this seems really strange to you guys too?