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Trader Joe’s vs. Safeway – a Price Smackdown!

2

July 31, 2013 by Dan

Trader Joes
I do a bunch of my shopping at Trader Joe’s; it has that (less-pain-in-the-ass) + (kinda-hippie-organic) vibe that middle-aging urbanites like me enjoy. I’ve been shopping there for well over ten years, since I lived in Boston and used to go to the branch in Cambridge near the river. When I lived in Chicago, I was incredibly excited when a branch opened on the north side of the river. TJs was, I figured, going to be a cheaper way to live-while-broke than bargain-hunting at the Jewel near my apartment.

What I didn’t know, and what I’ve never bothered to calculate, is exactly how much cheaper TJs is than your average grocery store. Inspired by this post, I hopped on my bike today and went up to the store for a bit of staples buying. When I got home I hopped online and compared my trip today to the list prices at Safeway. I was shocked.

Item
Trader Joe's
Safeway
Comments
Woven Wheats Wafers$2.49$5.49You can occasionally get Triscuits on big sales, and I'm very aware that Triscuits taste better, but…still.
Indian fare$1.99$3.34Walmart Tasty Bite
Grana Padano (price per pound)$11.99$19.99Vs. Primo Taglio Parmigiano Reggiano. At TJs Reggiano is about $13.99/lb, but where we are here they're about the same. Really good Parm Reg is a different story. Also - a can of Kraft Parmesan Cheese at Safeway works out to $13.12 per pound. More than real Grana. I'm floored.
Prosciutto$3.99$8.80TJs Prosciutto vs. Primo Taglio. Obs, we're a step down from Parma ham here, but it's a fair comparison
Chocolate$1.99$3.00Select w/ Salt + Nougat
Dish Detergent$3.99$1.99Safeway detergent vs. all-natural stuff (7th Gen is about $5 for 45 oz)
Goat's Milk Cheddar Cheese$9.99$7.20Price per pound here. I compared the TJs cheese with Tillamook Special Reserve Extra Sharp, which is not really as good.
Tofu$1.99$2.79Comparing O Organics again - there was a club card deal for Azumaya tofu at $1.50
Organic Tomato Paste$1.78$2.78Compare w/ O Organics; regular is even at $0.89
Shampoo$2.49$1.95Club Card price - may be more expensive
Joe's O's$1.99$5.58And I'm comparing the bigger 18 oz Safeway box here…
Pepper Jack$4.49$4.39A bit of apples/oranges here - only bought 0.57 lbs of pepperjack at TJs, and compared with 16 oz of Lucerne Pepperjack.
Mac N Cheese$5.96$13.204 boxes vs. Annie's Organics
Spicy Brown Mustard$0.99$2.59
Flour$2.99$3.69
Cashews - Roasted, Salted$6.99$13.98
Fresh Mozzarella Cigliene$3.49$4.39
Butter$2.99$3.29
Israeli Couscous$1.99$2.24
Avocado (bag o' four, unripe)$3.49$4.39
Totals$78.06$115.08

Crazy, huh? One shopping trip, on a bike, and it’s nearly $40 cheaper! And it’s not including some other stuff which would really exacerbate the difference (booze, olive oil, maple syrup, coffee, laundry detergent, etc.). This data won’t change my life much, as I do most of my non-vegetable shopping at Trader Joe’s. But it sure does make me feel validated.

Some explanations for objections:

  1. “You didn’t use a Club Card!” Yes, I know that Safeway sometimes has better deals if you use a club card. Some of the prices above are with a club card, and I’m certainly not above going down there and taking advantage of such deals when I run into them. However, I’m not going to waste time by checking club card deals and delaying my shopping on the hope that the store puts something that I want on discount. I needed stuff; I went and bought it. That’s how most of us shop.
  2. “They don’t have (x) brand that I absolutely like.” If you’re saying this about Triscuits, I get it. Triscuits are amazing. But they’re not $3/box amazing. And for most of the stuff I buy, it’s either interchangeable, or TJs is actually better. Especially on the cheese front.
  3. “You can’t buy fresh vegetables at TJs because their vegetables are terrible.” Arguably, Safeway’s are worse. I buy veggies either at our local farmer’s markets or at a couple of little vegetable markets. Don’t have a vegetable market? Well, I feel sorry for you – they’re always going to be better than the mass-produced supermarket stuff.
  4. “Their meat isn’t what I want.” Can’t help you here – again, because I’m a Certified Urban Snob, I get what meat I buy at one of three different small-market butcher counters, where things I order are wrapped in paper in real-time. For meat-in-cellophane, I see no difference between TJs and Safeway.
  5. “What about dried beans?” Dude, I love dried beans. TJs doesn’t have ‘em. Feel free to buy them at Safeway or (even better) a Latino market. Cheap, delicious, etc. The point of this exercise is that, for things you can get at TJs, it’s marketdly less expensive.
  6. “I don’t like their (Hawaiian shirts/cheerful tattooed checkers/non-union-yet-fairly-paid employees/German ownership/whatever).” Can’t help you here. Maybe you should calm down.

Leaving WordPress?

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July 31, 2013 by Dan

This site has been running on WordPress for nearly eight years; WP has gone from v 1.0 to Dominating the World, and I’ve been clunking along on it, hacking around with php, changing themes, etc.

But I’m thinking about migrating it to Squarespace. For simplicity. There’s a certain cost in maintaining, upgrading, and figuring out WP problems (right now, I can’t get a banner to work up top, because I can’t upload any pictures to the WP media library. I have no idea why. I could mess with settings and .htaccess and such, but every time I do that I bring the site completely down), and I think I’m getting tired of them.

BUT – maintaining my own WP installation does give me a certain amount of credibility…and, given what I do professionally, that credibility is sometimes helpful.

So…for now, stasis.


An Italian Lake Wedding

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July 11, 2013 by Dan

Our real reason for going to Italy was the wedding of Carolyn and Mark. Carolyn is a dear friend of mine (we’re approaching 20 years of buddyhood) who lives in Switzerland, and she and Mark decided to get married on lake Garda because…well, it was beautiful, of course. But the real reason is that they’re both crazy athletes, and having a place where you could swim and bike was high on their list. Triathletes…gotta love ‘em.

Getting to Garda was (for once) pretty smooth – we got the earliest possible bus out of Tirol, which put us on the train platform four minutes before the southbound train. Naturally, said platform didn’t have a ticket machine, which resulted in me grabbing 50 Euro from Julie, sprinting downstairs, under the tracks, up the stairs, and to the station, all while a crowd of class-bound schoolkids gawked at me. The ticket machine was infernally slow in processing my request for a ticket to Verona, but finally spit it out just as the train was pulling around the corner to the station. Another sprint, and…victory! We were on the way to Verona.

From Verona (where Julie out-of-nowhere busted out the opening monologue to Romeo and Juliet, another train to Desenzano, where a sleepy train station and helpful agent got us to a bus that would drop us in Salo. We had a moment of comedy when the bus was careening down a hilly road and I noticed that we were passing the Hotel Panoramica. Wait…weren’t we staying at the Panoramica? I hit the stop button, and the driver immediately slammed on the brakes, to general uproar.

But we got there, then headed down to town, where we immediately made a friend.

Julie and Salo - the inventor of the violin!

Little did we know that the bane of children of Tiger parents everywhere was born here. Neat! The town itself is awful purty, and looks like this:

Salo Waterfront

Or this:

Alleyway, Salo

Not bad. It reminded us of an Italian Sausalito, right down to the yachts everywhere.

Boats, Salo

See those mountains in the background? If the sun had been out, you would see that they were stunning, and covered in snow. The weather remained resolutely gray, but we didn’t let that dampen our spirits on the wedding day. I mean… wedding in Italy! If you can’t have fun at that, there’s something wrong with you that even a post-ceremony boat ride to Islo del Garda can’t fix.

Island palace

And who doesn’t love a blushing bride and happy groom?

Smooch!

Philistines, that’s who. We were very pleased to be a part of it all.

Dan and Julie

I’d been to a wedding in Italy before, and as you may expect, the reception was all about the food, and they did a wonderful job. Anything that starts with burrata-smothered tomatoes and proscuitto-wrapped cantaloupe is A-OK in my book.

Yeah. Burrata. Proscuitto.

Tempura Risotto? You have to be kidding.

Risotto with Tempura. It works.

Like all good weddings, this one ended for us on the far side of three in the morning, with an almost-lost walk back to our hotel from the reception site. Salo at three in the morning is nearly deserted, beautiful, and oh-so-quiet.

Salo at three a.m.


South Tirol – Finally, hiking

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July 9, 2013 by Dan

I was going to hike on our last day in South Tirol no matter what. I didn’t care if it was hailing flaming meteors in the midst of an acid rainstorm; we were going to get out there. We woke in good time, had our breakfast of bread, coffee, cured meats, fruit, and yogurt, and packed up a bag. We had raincoats, boots, warm clothes – everything but rain pants, which we both own and have taken on every trip we’ve been on together except for this one. Because we’d never needed them. Great work there, especially given what the morning looked like.

Hopeful for blue sky today

We took the same trail as the one we aborted the previous day, walking up the side of the valley on a ver well-marked path. The weather stayed as it had started – misty, cloudy, but not quite raining. Somehow, miraculously, it stayed that way. We walked above the valley through deciduous trees, revelling in how easy it was to find our way. As we made our way up, the trees changed to evergreen, and my mountain jones was satisfied. How can you be sad in a meadow like this one?

Christmas card?

Sure, it was cloudy and tough to see, but we saw only a few other people on our way up, finally making it to my unstated goal – an Alpine Club hut. These huts are perhaps Europe’s greatest gift to civilization – a series of little bunkhouse/restaurants up in the mountains, staffed by young men and women who make hearty meals and pour beer for tired hikers. And they’re everywhere in the Alps.

Hut!

This one was on a paved road, but it fit my bill, standing at above 2000 meters with our first real-clear view of the Dolomites.

Finally, the clear Dolomites

And, of course, pilsner on tap.

Julie at the top, with reward

There were huts further up that I suppose we could have tried to hike to, but the snow line was very close to where we were, and we saw no reason to go further than the four hours we’d already done. So we went down, finding the real smallest church in town on the way.

The smallest church EVER

We were back at our place by around three in the afternoon; the threatening rain never materialized, and we were both pretty tired out.

Residenz Toglhof

What a wonderful day.


South Tirol outdoors – clouds and rain

1

July 9, 2013 by Dan

We woke from our first night in South Tirol to a gray, miserable-looking day. After a leisurely breakfast, we hung around for a bit and waited for the clouds to clear, which they most definitely did not.

Ominous rainclouds

Read. Lunch. Read some more. Eventually I lost my patience and forced us out the door and up a nearby trail, where we immediately ran into the smallest church in the world (or so we thought):

Tiny church

See how dark that picture is? Ten seconds after that photo, the skies turned black and opened the floodgates on us. We walk-ran pell-mell down the slippery, rocky path, returning to our room after twenty minutes with soaked pants, socks, feet, and souls.

“Let’s dry things off and try again,” I said. Julie, long-suffering, agreed. We waited around with our stuff in the sun – because now it decides to come out – and decided to take another route – down to the valley and up the other side, where the sun was lancing down through the clouds. The trail itself was a path of dreams – a soft dirt clearing through greenery and shrubs. Lovely.

Bucolic trail

We emerged from the trees and got a wonderful view of St. Pietro.

Village of St. Pietro

Today was really shaping up…until we looked down the valley and saw the clouds boiling up down there, a sea of gray and black. It was right out of one of the Mordor scenes from The Lord of the Rings.

Evil, Mordor cloud a-comin!

See that tunnel-looking thing? It was coming towards us like a demonic smoke ring. We could hear the panicked whinnying of horses from the farm down below, and the wind was whipping hard enough to tug at the hat on my head.

“We gotta get out of here,” I said. I’m a good outdoorsey guy, but getting caught in two thunderstorms in one day is not my bag at all. We ran down the muddy path, past the farm and the panicking horses, down the road past sheep gathered under a tree for shelter, feeling the occasional angry spat of rain that forewarns you of the mayhem to come. We crossed the highway and climbed the path back to town, jogging into the pizza place just ahead of the rain. We ordered a beer apiece and waited to watch the rain.

Which didn’t come. Instead the sun came out, washing over the main square. It was warm enough to wear shorts. We were momentarily bitter – why didn’t South Tirol want us to hike anywhere? – but got over it. For the first time, we could see the Dolomites.

A Dolomite appears

Wow. We would be able to hike tomorrow, right?


Odd Craigslisting

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July 3, 2013 by Dan

I’m trying to sell a wine rack on Craigslist, and I got this message yesterday.

I walk around understin the politics wish you niggas father understood came had all kind of buzz Isaiah say one day any discount? E mail me when you are reading this so I know we can both arrange a specific time to meet to finish this off thanks

I really don’t know what to do with it.


South Tirol – getting there

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July 2, 2013 by Dan

I wanted to go to South Tirol so we could see the Dolomites. And so I could speak German. I have this thing about speaking German in countries that aren’t technically Germany or Austria – it’s a kick. I’ve also spoken German to people in Brazil, Argentina, Nepal, and Indonesia, and doing so in Italy seemed like it would be a kick.

South Tirol is an odd place – it was ceded to Italy by the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. (Another side note – are there two countries that are more different than Austria and Hungary? How did they make one thing out of that? It’s nuts) Italy was happy to take the region, as it controls the critical glacier and winter run-off from the Alps, giving Italy dibs on the water. The people were less happy, as they only spoke German, and it really made no sense for them to be nominally part of a country with which they shared little if any cultural commonality. The upshot of all of this is that the region is officially part of Trentino, Italy. In the town of Trento everyone speaks Italian. In Bolzano (Bozen), an hour north, German is all you’re going to get. To learn more, check Wikipedia.

On the train north of Trento you can see and feel the difference. The houses have crossed-wood architecture, the people suddenly become blonde and blue-eyed, and all of the newspapers have umlauts instead of accents.

Vineyard and church

Our plan was to take the train to Klausen, where we would pick up a bus to St. Pietro in the Val Lunes. I had obsessively researched the bus schedules and the timing looked good – we should have reached our destination at around four pm. All systems were go as we reached Klausen. The train dropped us off, we couldn’t find the bus station, but my German was good enough for me to figure out where it was in a no-English conversation with a store owner. I was stoked.

At the bus station, I asked a driver where the bus to St. Pietro was.

“Nummer acht,” he said, pointing at a numbered space on the pavement. Right. We hung out next to number eight. About twenty minutes later the same driver pulled in, and we joined a line of about twenty people getting on the bus. The sun was out, it was almost warm, and I was happy. Logistics won again.

Until the driver dropped us off in St. Pietro. It was a picturesque little mountain town with a fantastic view of the valley below. I called the number for our hotel.

“Hello,” I said in German. “We are here in town.”
“Excellent,” said the man. “You are at Pitzack?”
“Pitzack?” I asked. “No, we’re at…um…”

We were not at Pitzack. The owner and I talked for another few minutes, and it became pretty clear that, despite the driver’s assurances that we were in St. Pietro, we were not in the right place. Julie saved the day, noting that there was an open hotel/bar across the street, and perhaps it would be better to talk to them in person? Instead of trying to use my rusty German on the phone? It turns out that speaking on the phone is about sixty times harder.

The hotel was wonderful – a U-shaped bar with two patrons, huge window mountain views, and a friendly owner who spoke decent English and had a bus schedule. After another couple of minutes, it became very clear what our problem was.

Two St. Peters!

Yep. Two towns of St. Peter. We were supposed to be in the top one. Instead, we were in an entirely different valley, where the busses only showed up once per hour. And if we got the next one back to town, there was no way we would get the last bus to our St. Peter. Fantastic. I was pretty irritated, especially with the bus driver.

“He didn’t ask you which St. Peter?” asked the bar owner. “That is odd.”

Yes.

He sighed, then grinned, then allowed that his wife happened to be headed down into the valley anyway to pick up their son, and we could catch a ride with her and pick up a different bus, then transfer to another one, which was the last bus to our St. Peter, which would get us into town at seven pm, in time for dinner. Would that be OK?

Julie and I both broke into grins. Of course it would. His wife spoke little English, and was a little flustered by her sudden cargo of two American tourists. We made her leave us at the bus stop, even though rain clouds were gathering and we only had one little umbrella to guard us while it poured on us for five minutes as we waited for the bus. Then it dropped us off and we had to run across a busy road to the other side to catch the correct bus, only seeing the far-safer under-the-road tunnel after the fact.

But we got on the bus, and it made its way up the Val Lunes in a pouring, torrential rain. We made it to the Residenz Toglhof, where the owner is wonderful, friendly, and speaks not word one of English. My German was just good enough. And at eight o’clock that night we were settled in to the Pizzeria bar Café Dreimädelhaus, where they serve fantastic things.

Evening Joy

And the pizza oven has a child’s play area below.

Pizza Oven w/ Play Area

And in the fading evening light, the mountains were almost visible.

A bit of blue for your fog

Tirol was going to be good.


Bologna – but really, the truth

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July 1, 2013 by Dan

Bologna may have the best food in the world. Or so they say. We had heard good things, so we planned to spend the better part of two days there, hanging out and eating. Grant and Ellen dropped us off at a train station early in the morning on Monday, and we joined a horde of office workers and schoolchildren on their way to their mornings. The train was crowded enough for us to need to hang out in the linkage for a bit, but eventually everyone bailed out and we were able to sit and enjoy our croissants.

The sun was shining as we exited the train station, and after a few minutes of casting about we figured out where we were going.

“It’s so warm,” I said. “I might wear shorts later.”
“No way,” said Julie.
“I’m serious,” I said. It was. Almost seventy degrees at ten in the morning. We walked a little ways on porticoed sidewalks until we reached the center of town, where the map on our handy Rough Guide said our hotel was. One minor problem: the map in our handy Rough Guide was completely wrong. The address was right, but the street was so small it wasn’t marked on the book map, or on the small maps in the window of the tourist office. But, at least there was a tourist office, with a helpful woman behind the counter who happily pointed out exactly where our hotel was; around the corner, two blocks away.

A quick cleanup, and we started to explore. Oddly enough, Bologna has its own leaning towers – not quite as pretty as the more well-known one in Pisa, but they still lean.

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And the folks there are really into smoking.

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But really, it was a quiet town of cobblestone alleys and piazzas with tables spilling out everywhere.

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Compared to the crowds of Florence and the cool weather of Parma, it was heaven. We ate outside, happily slurping on tortellini in beef broth (no pictures, sorry), then did some more wandering. It’s a good city for wandering, and people were friendly. Loving, even.

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As the sun set we found ourselves in the food market near Piazza Maggiore, where all sorts of colorful things…

Purple Bolognese Garlic

And savory things…

Sausage and ham

And people…

Food markets, Bologna

Mixed all together. We were kind of stupefied, and eventually found a small cafe where we could sit inside out of the growing wind.

I wish I could tell you that we spend the night gorging ourselves in gustatory activities. We tried our best – heading down a dark, deserted street to an even-more-deserted alley (finding a store along the way that sold California beer, which was neat) to Osteria Le Sette Chiese, where we ordered the beef salad (a huge platter of arugula, topped with shaved raw beef, parmesan, lemon juice, and onions) and some tortellini. It was delicious, but we were kind of fooded out at that point. We’d been eating cured meat for days; by my count, I’d only had two meals in the previous fifteen that didn’t include some kind of salty pig.

Don’t get me wrong – I live the stuff. But when we woke up and had breakfast the next morning, we were happy to be going north, away from the food mania that had characterized most of our last four days. We were headed to the mountains.


The best Pig in the World? Maybe (Part II)

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June 25, 2013 by Dan

Our plan was to get in the car and go to Antica Corte for lunch. We had heard about the place from friends. It’s a farm-cum-restaurant that specializes in aged Culatello, which may be the best pig product in the world. Culatello is a form of prosciutto, only made from a certain part of a certain type of pig (the pig only sits on its left leg. The hame is only made from that left leg, which makes for a better flavor, some say). Now, this is a bold claim, as I’m something of a pork purist. I own a copy of Pig Perfect by Michael Kaminsky. I wrote a note to Trader Joe’s when they changed their bacon provider, making it worse. I make my own pulled pork barbecue, and it’s quite good. So you might say that I was eager to check this place out.

Anyway, Antica Corte was about a half-hour from where we were staying, and we had reserved a 10:30 tour. We drove in past an unremarkable-for-Italy church that pre-dates anything in this country.

Church near Antica Corte Pallavincina

And then to the main house.

Antica Corte

We were greeted by a slender young guy in a suit and tie. He blinked at us from behind his glasses.

“Hi,” said Ellen. “We’re booked for a 10:30 tour?”

“Yes,” he said. “Right this way.”

He opened a door and started in about the room we were in – it took us a few minutes to realize that this was actually the tour, and we had started it. We were all a little fuzzy from the gustatory celebrations of the previous night, so perhaps the confusion was entirely ours. Anyway, we walked through several rooms in the old manor house, marveling at the fire pits, chandeliers, and things so old they defied our conception of the term.

Down a flight of stairs was the main event: the ham cellar.

Alain's culatello

Culatello from this region is highly prized, so much so that Michelin-God-chefs reserve theirs right when it is hung up, then wait for it for years. The entirety of the cellar was given over to culatello hanging, which gave the place a sweet, rank smell that has no analogues that I can think of. If you wanted a snack, they had the means to give you one right htere.

Ham slicer in the cave

Kidding, I am. The smell was strong enough to kill any desire we had to eat. Next to the ham room was the cheese room.

Aging parmesan wheels

All Parmigiano Reggiano, all the time. It was all I could do to not crack one open and try it. For fun, the place also had a wheel that had been aging for twenty years. It was black and intimidating; I asked our guide what it would taste like.

“Not much to eat,” he said, laughing. “Mostly…salt.”

Yum.

The tour ended at around eleven, and our reservations were at noon. We took a little walk around the grounds, which were populated by manly peacocks…

Blue Peacock

And gardeners gathering herbs for the days’ meal.

Gardner harvesting herbs

Eventually we made it to the little adjoining town, where there was a little square, a church, and a memorial to the locals who died in the world wars.

World War II Dead, Polesene

We sat in the sun and watched the people for a bit, until it was time for lunch. Of course, we got a couple of culatello plates:

Culatello. 12, 24, 36

And…it was really good. Really, really good. We had differing opinions on which was the best – some of us liked the 24 month, others the 36. But any of the three were better than any ham I’ve had in the States, which really shouldn’t be all that surprising. We also ate a bunch of other things that were super-delicious – partridge ravioli, some local fish, things like that. But the real star was cured pig leg, with striations of fat and lean that combined to meltingly delicious.

Delightful. Much like the entire weekend. Best pig in the world? I’m not entirely sure of that, as I haven’t had all of the pigs. But it’s certainly in the conversation.


The Best Pig in the World, part I

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June 21, 2013 by Dan

Remember our pals Grant and Ellen from Japan? If you don’t, you should. If you need a primer, go here. We were Internetting back and forth in February and March – Ellen was hoping to come out to California to visit an uncle, and we would get to hang out a bit. That didn’t work out, and set off the following chain of communication (paraphrases):

Us: Bummer. But we’re going to Italy in May and June for a wedding, you should totally just hop over, because it’s pretty much on the same continent as you!
Ellen: Done! What weekend?
Us: Pausing. You guys are awesome.

They flew to Italy a day late after the plane problems, rented a car, and picked us up in cold, rainy Parma on a Saturday evening. We had a joyous, hug-filled reunion, then made our way to the town of Salsamaggiore, where we were staying at the Antica Torre, an incredible place to stay. We were met by the wonderful host, who showed us the little apartment where we would be staying for two nights. We immediately got down to business:

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Wait…what’s that in the lower left corner?

That’s right. Cheese and cured meat from Parma. Say what you will about the place, but the delis are choice. After our snack of cheese and meat, we retired to the dining room for…more of the same.

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I do not physically possess the words to write about how good the aged parmesan was. It was salty and crunchy, and sweet and wonderful. Then, they gave us a ham course.

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Again. Words fail. Up to that point of my life, this was the best cured ham I had had. End of story. Of course, after that, they served lasagna, which was so good I forgot to take a photo, then wine, then some snacks, then dessert.

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See how spongey it is? They took all of the best Italian dessert flavors that have ever existed, and put it in this little cake. I was blown away.

We stayed up late talking, and the best thing about talking and staying up late was perhaps that we were so comfortable. There is something so wonderful about new friends, and confirming that your new friends are, indeed, your friends. We drank too much grappa and ate even more cheese and eventually went to sleep.

And woke up to a day that looked like this. Oh, it was going to be on.

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Parma – Saving the Day With Food

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June 18, 2013 by Dan

There we were in the cafe with two empty cups and nowhere to sleep for the night. I broke out our trusty Rough Guide and took a look at the options listed there; nothing really appealed to us.

“Let’s go back to the unhelpful tourist office,” said Julie. “That’s what they’re for, right?”

She was, as always, correct. We trundled our rolling luggage back across the square and to the office, where the unhelpful woman behind the counter looked at us strangely – were we going to ask about luggage again? I explained our predicament, and she gave us a little book of Parma hotels.

“Or,” she said, “you could go to the other tourist office. They have lists and can help.”

The other tourist office?

“Four blocks away,” she said.

We bumpity-bumped our bags over the sidewalks to the town’s main piazza, where a small amount of traffic wound its way through an enormous open plaza, ringed by restaurants andporticoes. The tourist office was in one corner, and was stuffed with brochures, couches, and a friendly attendant. She gave us a list of hotels with prices, and we sat on the couch and looked at the phone. I was steeling myself to make a call – I have a little angst about non-English phone calls these days – when the woman spoke up.

“I am happy to call for you,” she said. “If you know where you would like to stay.”

You know in the movies when the trumpets sound and the sun comes out from behind the clouds? This was like that. In three minutes we had a place to stay at a reasonable rate, walkable from where we were. Getting there involved bumpitying our bags about halfway to the train station over a sidewalk we had trod many times before, but that was fine. The hotel was perfectly nice – a little albuerge with an incredibly friendly desk guy, morning coffee, and a shower that ran hot. Julie curled up in bed with a book, worn out from the annoyances of the morning.

After an hour or so, I got bored. “Let’s go somewhere,” I said.

“I kind of hate it here,” said Julie. “Maybe if we stay in it’ll stop being lame.”

“Come on,” I said. After a bit more cajoling, we got our act together and headed out. A happy omen – this place was right down the alley:

Hanging hams, Parma deli

We walked past the main piazza to a small alley chock-full of little restaurants and shops, selling all sorts of things, and the inevitable cured meat.

Best store ever?

Eventually we settled in a Tabarro, a little wine bar with a small appetizer menu, tables made from wine barrels, and a friendly barkeep who spoke fantastic English and gave us a primer on our wine and cheese plate.

“This,” he said, pointing, “Is the goat. This is the sheep.”

Works for me.

Rescuing the night with cured meat and cheese

I would like to note here that the Parma ham and cheese were stunning. Delicious. Bordering on unbelievable. We started to perk up. Outside, local folks were gathered at the two outdoor tables, swathed in coats and scarves in the cold. Inside, it was crowded and warm, and we happily sipped red wine and noshed.

Time for dinner – we checked out a couple of places on the square, but nothing seemed quite right.I had a brain flash – there had been a little trattoria right across the alley from our hotel, right?

And there was. And it was perfect.

The best restaurant in town

The owner in and out of the kitchen, the wife back cooking, the son handling the front of the room. Eight tables. Ravioli in butter-parmesan sauce, and braised pork cheek. The ravioli was perhaps the best either of us have ever had, swimming in creamy, delicious melted butter. The pork cheek fell apart as I jabbed it with my fork, mixing with a perfect polenta. The owner swooped down on us after we finished, presenting us with two glasses of his limoncello, on the house. We paid our check, and as I was putting on my jacket, he swooped again.

“Dessert,” he said. “A gift.”

It was like tiramisu, but not quite that – a creamy pastry thing with chocolate shavings an an extra helping of delicious. We were the second-to-last people to leave, and we left quite happy.

Parma – not bad.


Down and Out and Up in Parma

2

June 17, 2013 by Dan

We weren’t supposed to spend the night in Parma. Our plan was to hop on the train at Vernazza, do a two-step, get to Parma, drop our stuff at the left luggage counter, hang out and eat some ham, then get picked up by our friends Grant and Ellen at the train station at 8pm, at which point we would head off for a wonderful agriturismo weekend. The best-laid plans, as they say, never survive contact with the enemy; in this case, the enemy was weather and British Airways.

When we reached Parma it was cold with occasional spitting rain, the kind that feels like the sky gods are angry with the ground. The train station was under construction, so we made our way to the temporary terminal – an outdoor mishmash of white clapboard with a ticket office, a couple of cafes, a bookstore, a Parma culture space, a tobacconist…

“Where is the left luggage?” I wondered aloud. Then I wondered the same thing to a ticket agent. Her English was fantastic.
“No let luggage,” she said.
“Is there anywhere to leave a bag?” I asked.
“No,” she said.”

I got the feeling she was asked this quite a bit. I also wondered what happened to the left-luggage guy while the construction was going on. Did he just get to hang out for a few years? My questions bounced around in my brain with nowhere to go.

After a quick, dispirited conversation, we decided to walk downtown and see if the tourist office could help us. Me being me, I also made us stop into a hotel to see if I could charm the front desk attendant into letting us keep our bags there for a few hours.

“No,” she said. “I can’t do that.”

Parma 2, us 0.

The walk downtown was cold and damp. Our path to the tourist office took by the Palazzo della Pilotta, where a few sad tourists were wandering with their down jackets and umbrellas.

Palazzo della Pilotta

The tourist office was a nice modern space with automatic glass doors, brochures about the city, and a monosyllabic young woman who said “No” when I asked about bags, and not much else.

“Crap,” I said.
“Parma is awful,” said Julie

We went and got coffee from a piazza cafe. It was three in the afternoon, a dead time in Italy when the restaurants are all closing and the shops haven’t opened up yet. We were two of the three customers, and we shoehorned our bags into a corner table, trying not to take up too much space. I figured we could waste an hour there, play cards, then maybe find a bar and waste two hours, then dinner, then gone. So much for Parma.

Then the phone rang – it was Ellen, calling from England.

“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “A plane caught fire at Heathrow and they cancelled a bunch of flights, including ours. So now we’ve got another flight to Milan, but it leaves tomorrow, and we’re driving to Edinburgh to catch it. Are you guys going to be able to find a place to stay?”

I laughed. “Sure,” I said. “Today was already crummy. Might as well spend some more time here.”

Julie was listening to this conversation with a look of terror. I said goodbye and hung up the phone.

“Bad news,” I said. “We have to hang out here for the night.”

What happens next? Tune in tomorrow for sadness, depression, and a dramatic rescue of a day!


Five Lands

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June 14, 2013 by Dan

“Where are you guys from?” asked the woman. She was sitting at the table behind us, dressed in nice-post-hike chic.
“San Francisco,” I said.
“I knew it,” she said. “I could tell from the way you were talking that you were Americans.”
I smiled.

Were I a terrible person I would have answered “That’s an easy guess even without us talking,” or “Just like half the people here,” or something like that. I’m not a terrible person, so I made cheerful conversation; she and her husband were versions of the kind of person I hope to be when I retire.

See, the Five Lands are crawling with Americans. It’s like a horror movie where a Rick Steves guidebook gets ripped open and spews out mother-daughter hiking pals from Newport. Don’t get me wrong – it’s quite a pretty area. But somewhere along the line it became a Place to Go, and a bewildering number of people are there during the spring and summer seasons. At least during the day, it’s kind of a mess.

I’m not trying to seem petulant here. We stayed in Vernazza and it looks like this:

Vernazza harbor

That’s some serious prettiness. The chic woman at the restaurant had warned us to start hiking the trail to Monterosso as soon as we could in order to avoid the crowds. Because we are not notably early risers while on vacation, that meant that we got going at 9:45. Luckily we were going in the opposite direction from most of the tour groups, and didn’t really see many people until an hour and a half in.

So, we were able to climb up, up, above Vernazza.

Vernazza, higher up

The trail winds along an old trading path, and passes by quite a few private homes. This one felt the need to protect itself from the bladders of the hiking public.

Interesting sign

After that aforementioned hour and a half, things got a bit ugly. We had to stop several times for many minutes as we waited for groups of twenty-plus people to claw their way up narrow staircases and along cliffsides, coming the other way. It was frustrating, but not as frustrating as it would have been to be going in the other direction. I chuckled when I recognized a mother-daughter team from breakfast who had taken the train to Monterosso and were hiking home. Wrong call. Stuck in staircase lines makes for miserable walking.

We reached Monterosso before lunchtime, and decided to hike up to Sant Antonio, an old church on a thousand-foot hill that overlooks the whole coastline. We planned to stop there, then continue on to Levanto for a late lunch. Unfortunately, we didn’t count on two things.

1) The trail is pretty much a stairclimber:
Untitled

2) It was well above 80 degrees.

By the time we got to the church we were out of water, so made the sensible decision to nip back down to Monterosso for lunch and hydration. But the view was worth it.

Monterosso

Oh, you’d like to see us, as well? Done.

Dan, Julie

See how I’m holding my arm out a little bit? It’s because I was drenched with sweat, and having my arm touching me felt gross.

Lunch – a salad, a panini, and this.

Monterosso beach

A quick train ride back to Vernazza (the boat was going to be a while), and we were seated outside at a bayfront restaurant, snacking with vino de la cassa, playing Yahtzee. The place was packed with American tourists, with a smattering of Brits, Aussies, and Germans. The best of them was the couple I snapped below, who had gotten married in town that day. They were happy and in love, stopping for pictures, kisses, and views. We watched them walk the length of the waterfront, then back on the path to wherever they were staying. They made me happy.

Happy wedded couple, Vernazza

So, yeah, the Cinque Terre. Happy I went, probably wouldn’t go back again. If you’re going to go, stay at least a night so that you can see the villages at sunset after the day-trippers go home. At that time, in the spring, there’s a little bit of magic.


A Pisa stopover

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June 12, 2013 by Dan

Pisa is one of those places. Well, Italy is full of those places, but Pisa is really one of those places. Pisa is, of course, famous for the leaning tower, which was first a screwup, then a weird series of makeup attempts, and now one of the Must See It Attractions in the area.

We had no plans to go to Pisa at the outset. But then we were leaving Florence on our way to the Cinque Terre, and it was a beautiful day with no real need to head all the way to the coast at the outset, and so…we decided to stop over. One quick trip to the incredibly convenient and absolutely open left luggage later, we were wandering our way through the small streets of Pisa, lost, hoping to find the Tower. We were laughing and joking around, not entirely sure where we were, when this suddenly reared up in front of us.

Leaning Tower. Holy Crap.

It is awesome. And I mean that in the stop-in-your-tracks way, not the normal California way where a great meal can be awesome, or finding an extra five dollar bill in your pants can be awesome. No. The tower is something else. Photos don’t really do it justice – it’s beautiful and strange and really not like anything I’ve ever seen.

Just as impressive, and somewhat overlooked is the Duomo. One hundred years of building effort and dozens of remodels later, it was our favorite of all of the Italian cathedrals.

Duomo ceiling

Again, pictures are pointless here. Just go, and let your mind be blown.

Of course, the place is completely full of people doing things – the Campo dei Miracoli is full of t-shirt vendors, tchotchke shops, souvenir hawkers, and hundreds of tourists, all doing the perspective hold-it-up thing with the Tower.

All the people, doing the thing

But who cares? the area is one of those things that’s absolutely, totally worth seeing.


Florence – apartment-staying and Duomo-hopping

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June 11, 2013 by Dan

Florence is a ridiculous place. When I started writing about it with my little treatise to Florence at night, I was trying to create a mood – quiet, reverent, art-ish – that doesn’t exist in the city during the day. It’s a hyper, crowded town, with endless piazzas, tens of thousands of tourists, the requisite thousands of touts, guides and sellers, overpriced restaurants, terrifying lines, and a general feeling of unsettled-ness. It’s like being in an incredibly big, crowded city, except it’s a pretty small place.

We had arrived in Florence and checked into our Airbnb, a fantastic apartment right near the central leather market, in a stone building hundreds of years old, hosted by a cheerful mohawked Italian and his friendly German girlfriend. They lived in a loft in the living room, we were in one of the bedrooms, and some other guests had the second bedroom. It was quiet, comfortable, and had the most amazing door:
Front Door of our Airbnb

Bred the host was kind enough to make us coffee and give us a first-day lunch recommendation. We went and had maybe the best plate of pasta I’ve ever put in my mouth. Spaghetti with spicy sauce. So, so, so, so good.

First meal - YUM!

That, plus wine and bread and grappa, and we were ready to go. The name of the place is Trattoria Barrasca, and if you’re there, go. Over the next couple of days, we saw a good bit of town, and while I won’t say that I know Florence or have done Florence, I got a bit of a sense for the place – a fantastically arty (classical) town with a bit of an arty (modern, playful) underside.

Of course, the first pictures we took were self-referential. I mean, who wouldn’t want to hire a PI while here?

Julie, playing detective

But we soon made our way to the Duomo, which really must be seen to be believe.

Front of Duomo

That picture? It doesn’t show the half of it. We paid the money and stood in line and climbed the stairs to get to the top of the dome, which is absolutely one of those things that everyone does that you really should do, because you climb and climb up a ridiculously narrow, low-ceilinged set of stairs to get there.

Stairs up

I’m five foot nine in shoes, and I was pretty glad that I’m not a tall fellow. Finally, you emerge to the dome, a few hundred feet off the ground, and it hits home that yes, somehow, they painted the ceiling of the thing.

Dome ceiling

The painting is huge – they apparently wanted to illustrate everything from the beatification of being in heaven (the top) to every possible torture that would await the damned (the bottom). When I was looking at it, I really only thought about safety issues. What did Vasari and Zuccari stand on while painting? Were they tied off? What were safety regulations like in the 1500s?

And then, from there, you get to go up and up and up some more, past silent guardians.

Statues

And to the top of town, where we took the kind of photo that may or may not show up on our Christmas card this year!

Dan, Julie, Florence


Florence at night

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June 10, 2013 by Dan

On our first night in Florence, we slept for seventeen hours, until 2:30 in the afternoon. I saw the clock, started, and nudged Julie.

“It’s 2:30,” I said.
“In the morning?” she mumbled.
“No. Afternoon,” I said.

We panicked – showered as fast as we could and ran out into the street for a quick lunch at a touristy sandwich shop (nothing else is open in the afternoon in Italy), then careened into the tourist throngs in the Piazza del Duomo. It’s really hard to describe the throngs in May in Florence, but I’m going to try. Imagine a crowded public square – like one where they’re showing a movie or a fairly popular band is playing. But instead of all looking up at the stage or the screen, the thousands of people are gathered in discrete groups, listening to guides through little earphones or wandering around in a daze, cameras focused on places up high. It’s like that all day – from eight – thirty in the morning (when the Uffizi opens) to well after dark, when the museums close and everyone’s gone to bed.

And then Florence becomes wonderful. After dinner, after the hordes have returned to their hotels and gone to sleep, after about ten in the evening, you can walk through the streets without having to dodge hundreds of others. Corners and alleyways beckon, and you can find a small coffeehouse/bookstore/bar with a decent bottle of house wine and play cards in the company of blue-haired students and the kind of things that make you feel at home. We stayed until a little after midnight; the cafe was playing R.E.M. and the Cure, and we sat on the balcony, looking down at the street and the people.

Lovely evening

And after playing cards, we walked to the Piazza Duomo, which was deserted, and full of the kind of art and wonder that makes Florence the wonder that it is.

DSCF5387

All outside, quiet. The night was cold, and we were bundled up in fleece and holding hands, staring at gods of long ago.

DSCF5391

Street sellers dotted the plaza, launching flourescent rubber-band rockets. We shook them off easily (we are from San Francisco, after all), and walked slowly back to our room, savoring the night, the emptiness, and the quiet.


Italy – Getting There

3

June 5, 2013 by Dan

We knew we were going to Italy quite some time ago – a dear college friend of mine was getting married, and when she let us know in Octtober that it was going to be in Salo, on Lake Garda, in Northern Italy, our conversation went something like this.

Me: So Carolyn’s getting married in Italy in June
Julie: OK!
Me: So we should just get tickets, right?
Julie: OK!
Me: Ten days?
Julie: OK!

Not a lot of disagreement in our marriage about this kind of thing.

So I sat down in front of a laptop in October, after the save-the-date arrived and tried to figure out how to get us there. I had about 100,000 British Airways miles to burn, and Julie had about 88k sitting in an American account, so after some doing, I figured out a routing.
San Francisco – Dusseldorf – Milan, leaving on May 22. AirBerlin using BA Avios miles.
Milan – Dusseldorf – Los Angeles – San Francisco, AirBerlin business class using AA miles. We didn’t have quite enough for this one, so we had to buy 12,000 AA miles for around $150. That’s an expense I’ll take.

Then, a few months later, we started to get antsy. I kind of wanted some more time, and Julie wanted to see Florence. Unfortunately, the schedule and schlep didn’t make a whole lot of sense. We had the following conversation:

Me: I wish we had more time.
Julie: Me too. Is there anything we can do?
Me: No. Wait, maybe there is. I think I got an email a bit ago…

I had received an email from British Airways in January that I had completely ignored – something about our flights. I went back and dug through it and…our flight to Milan had been cancelled! AirBerlin had decided to stop flying directly to San Francisco, and we were out of luck.

Or, really, we were in luck. I called up British Airways and spent about an hour on the phone with a helpful agent, who told me that we would need to find award space in order to reschedule/reroute our tickets there. I went online that night and using a weird combination of BA.com and AA.com found a ridiculous routing that fit the bill:

SJC – ORD – DUS – STR – FLR

That’s San Jose, Chicago, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, Florence. Five airports, coach class, something like eighteen hours of total time. But still free! And leaving on May 18, giving us a full two weeks! And flying into a different city, so we didn’t have to do a loop! I felt like a true Frequent Flyer Badass. The flight was under the same confirmation number, so I noted it and then forgot about it until mid-April, when I realized that I had never received a second confirmation with an e-ticket number. So I called up British Airways and was told to call back on May 1, because sometimes it takes a while for those tickets to work through the system.

Note: if someone tells you this, do not believe them. It is not true. Modern IT systems do not take three months to work through things.

I called back on May 1, worried that our flight wasn’t really a thing and that we’d have to shell out a couple of thousand dollars for a last-minute flight. Luckily, I got the best British Airways agent in the world. He was a guy with a southern accent and a no-BS attitude, and after he looked up my reservation, he said “what exactly the hell is going on here?” I explained my story, and he laughed a bit.

“No, no,” he said. “If your flight was cancelled it’s on us to get you onto another flight, regardless of whether it’s award space or not. Hang on.”

I held for two minutes. He came back on. “How about San Francisco to JFK to Dusseldorf to Florence?” he said. “It’ll save you that ridiculous Stuttgart stop.”

“Works for me,” I said.

“OK, it’s done,” he said after a bit. “You should get an email in a couple of minutes. If you do not, then call us back.”

I checked. It was there. We were, finally, going.

Except…one thing that I was not aware of that I should have been aware of was that if you use one airline’s miles to fly with another airline, your confirmation numbers were different. Since we were flying American from SFO – JFK, I needed an American confirmation number to check in; I found this out when attempting to check in on the BA website the day before we left. Not too big of a deal, but I still had to spend an hour on the phone with BA to make sure that the confirmation numbers worked. Even with that, we still weren’t able to print out boarding passes for the last leg, because I was checking in more than 30 hours before that last leg took off.

All first-world problems, admittedly. But still, there are some lessons to be learned here. Check your reservations. Check your confirmation numbers. And, if you have problems or worries, call.

The upshot of all of this was that we woke up at 4:30 in the morning on Saturday the 18th, rode to SFO, checked in, and were soon settled into aisle-and-window seats on an American Airlines 767. And so it began…


Back in the States, or the Italy Chronicles, part I

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June 4, 2013 by Dan

Well, we’re back in the States after two weeks in Italy; we were there for a wedding and decided to make a Real Vacation out of it. I’m still a little woozy and headachey from the jet lag (it gets worse as I get older. Like pretty much everything except for my judgement and capacity to overanalyze things), but I thought I’d do the same thing here that I did for our Japan trip last year, and talk through where we went and perhaps give some advice

Getting There
We did a two-step with miles this time around, flying coach with AirBerlin from SFO – JFK – DUS – FLR, then back in AA business class MXP – JFK – SFO. This time around there wasn’t any lounging with celebrities or ridiculous airport bourbon tastings, just a bit of oddities with doing flights on one airline with miles from another. Anyway, the flights were fine. We got there.

Accomodation
Places to stay in Europe are expensive, full-stop. Not quite Japan-$200-for-a-hostel expensive, but not great. We did a mix of things, using Airbnb in Florence for a wonderful experience, staying mostly in two-star and three-star little boutique hotels, and burning points on our final night for an airport place. No real splurges, but no dumps or dives, and one real standout.

Getting Around
We used the train, mostly. Efficient, cheap, gets you there. If you’re going places that aren’t big cities and aren’t on a train station, there’s usually a bus, and you’ll probably screw up at least one of the busses. But it’s not too bad – schedules are generally online and sometimes in English.

So that’s the start of it. More to come, in typically exhaustive fashion.


Corporate busses, who runs ‘em?

2

May 10, 2013 by Dan

Corporate busses are a thing in San Francisco. I’m not going to comment here on whether they’re a Good Thing or a Bad Thing – I’m probably too close to that argument. But what I did start thinking about when I was going for my morning run today was…

How come nobody has come up with a list of all the companies that run shuttles?

Then, I realized that I am the guy who decided to document all the police agencies who can arrest you in San Francisco. I’m probably the guy to do this. Please note that this list is just from inside my head and what I’ve seen. If there are more, add them in the comments and I’ll update. Fair?

  1. Google – Big white busses, run by SFO shuttle
  2. Apple – Big gray busses, not sure who runs them
  3. Facebook – Big white or blue busses, run by SFO shuttle
  4. Genentech – Branded, so you’ll always know who they are
  5. LinkedIn – Just graduated to big ones, run by Bauer’s, I think.
  6. Electronic Arts – Big branded Bauer’s busses
  7. Yahoo! – Never seen ‘em – they don’t run through my area
  8. eBay – Never seen ‘em.
  9. Cisco – White, functional, SFO shuttles
  10. Box – Large blue busses
  11. Dropbox – New kids on the block – just saw their small Bauer’s airport-rental-car-size shuttle the other day

That’s what I’ve seen lately. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the guys at Stamen made an amazing map of these busses. It’s already outdated – the big tech companies are all doing it these days.


Cosplaying

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May 9, 2013 by Dan

I’m not a cosplayer. I’m not into cosplaying, don’t go to conventions, dress up, or even put on a costume for Bay to Breakers. So that’s my introduction to the part where I say that this article about cosplaying is one of the best things I’ve read online in a while. Good writing about an interesting, sorta-obscure-but-really-a-thing subject. Isn’t that what journalism should be?

On another note, I’m writing this from a bus, and we just passed a group of outdoor personal-training types who were bending down and lifting balls up and over their shoulders, alternating with each lift. Then a couple of sleeve-tattooed chefs taking out the compost at Delfina.

At 7:45 am, though, San Francisco is 40% people in workout gear.