ERROR. ERROR.

This is a story that proves that no matter how smart I think I am some days, being a homeowner leaves me stymied more often than I would like to admit.

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It was so innocent--it couldn't be at fault, could it?

Back in October, while I was reading the Internet, I came across a post from a friend detailing his enthusiasm about his new Nest thermostat. There was a post to say it was finally released! another to say it was ordered! another one weeks later to say it had arrived, and a long blog post about how it had changed his life forever. I love a narrative, so I was hooked, and later in November when we were thinking of holiday gifts for our friends and family, I sold Mr. MJ on this being a perfect present for his dad.

This was a great idea right up until I realized that the waiting list I got on was going to last for weeks. Hell, I couldn’t even get one on eBay. We had to come to our Christmas gift exchange with a manila folder of documentation about why this was an incredible present that simply had not materialized yet.

Sometime around Valentine’s Day, I got a notice that said our long wait was over and that we were finally eligible to order up to 5 Nest thermostats. Uh. Five, really? I talked to Mr. MJ about it, assuming that we’d just order the one, but he thought we should order ourselves one while we had this rare opportunity, and so I did it. The thermostats were on their way.

They arrived a few days later, perfectly packaged in a tiny box like a jewel-case, and we marveled at its prettiness, its mirrored sides, the Apple-inspired simplicity. We watched the videos on its website. And then one fine Saturday just before the Oscars, we installed it.

I took a great amount of pride in doing a lot of the work myself, after all, *I* was educated about thermostats. *I* had seen a video on the Internet! It never occurred to me that if I let Mr. MJ do all of the work, I could then blame him for all of the problems on the horizon, but on that sunny February day, there were no looming HVAC issues about to occur, and I was complacent.

We spent the next day feverishly checking our phones and the little Nest’s website, proclaiming over what temperature it was in the house from our bedroom and from our couch. It was only a day or so later that an unusual coincidence struck–the furnace would no longer turn on, and as a result it was well-digger’s ass cold in the house. Of course we didn’t blame the Nest, our new and shiny gadget, but the old and conspicuously un-shiny furnace, a relic of the condo before we passed papers on it. It has been temperamental like no furnace I’ve ever lived with before has been, and all the more noticeable now that we are the ones who have to pay for the repair each time it decides it doesn’t like its fan or its logic board. I have no doubt that it is plotting a day to break on the coldest day of winter, potentially in the middle of a holiday where we are away and only the cat is here to complain, and when we have just blown the budget on some other household emergency like needing to replace my aging MINI.

We didn’t blame the Nest, but we did prefer to have some heat in the house, especially with temperatures in the teens being predicted in the coldest week of the disappointing winter of 2012, so we scheduled the furnace repairmen to come.

“It’s the logic board,” they said this time. “It’ll take a few days to get it here.” We grumbled, prepared for some nights sleeping in the main room with the cat and a space heater. One last question before they left, though, “We just put in a new thermostat a few days ago–it couldn’t be related, could it?” I don’t even remember them looking at it, but they laughed and said “no, not the thermostat. The furnace is old and crochety. It was bound to happen.”

The night they wanted to come back and install the new logic board, I was the only one home. Unwilling to spend another cold night in the house, I reluctantly agreed to stay home and wait for the repairmen. Naturally, they came right in the middle of me making dinner, and stayed until it was ruined. After a few minutes of fooling around with the furnace upstairs, No. 2 came down, “Where’s your thermostat?”

I pointed at the wall. He came over, peered at it, and said “How do I turn it on?” I waved my hand at the wall. Its beautiful digital interface responded, and I spun the dial and tapped it in the combination that would allow it to know it was time to turn on. No. 2 said “That’s fancy.” and then he went back upstairs.

A few minutes later, while trying to coax my dinner back to ‘edible’ from ‘ruined,’ No. 1 came downstairs and said “Your furnace isn’t turning on.” He was right. The Nest was spitting out errors. ERROR. ERROR. Wiring change detected on Rh. Wiring change detected! ERROR. The error message was so long I had to scroll through it several times, and by then there’d be another.

No 1 said, “Where’s your manual?” I handed him this tiny booklet that had come inside the jewelbox of packaging, the perfect square of 12 full color pages that unfolded. He shook his head. “No, the manual. I need to read the error codes.” I gulped. “Um. It has a website?”

I pulled out my Macbook Air and brought up the site, and No 1 tried paging through it, but kept getting messed up on the one-button trackpad and all the swipe commands. Eventually I took over — I’m qualified for this, after all, I watched a video on the Internet! The thermostat couldn’t get power, blah blah. The guys took the cover off the thermostat, and said it wasn’t wired right. I said it most certainly was (remember, video!) and while the old one may have needed a jumper between the something wire and the something-else wire, this shiny new one did not need that. They were professionals, and I am certain they thought they were dealing with a crazy woman, and they have my sympathy. No 1. suggested that we turn it on and off and try again, which didn’t work.

“We’ll reboot it,” I confidently decided. Again with the skeptical looks on No 1 and No 2. “Reboot it, you know, every computer works better if you reboot it.” I pawed through the website, looking for restart commands, and eventually came up with a sequence that should work. It didn’t, of course, there were too many errors popping up in the interface for me to get past them, so I walked it through a hard reset, which still didn’t work.

No. 1 said, behind me, “Have you considered just putting the old one back on?”

“No. NO. This is going to work great. I’m just going to reset it to the factory defaults, and reconfigure it.” This only took a few minutes, and it still didn’t work.

No 1 said, patiently, “Lady, do you have your old thermostat around here?” I had to text Mr. MJ for this, and as well as I remember two months later, the conversation went something like this:

Me: I HATE YOU FOR LEAVING ME WITH THESE PEOPLE.

Him: Woah, do you need me to come home?

Me: WHERE IS THE OLD THERMOSTAT? WHERE DID YOU HIDE IT?

Him: Uh. It is in the basement.

Him: Do you need me to come home?

Me: I HATE YOU, I HATE YOUR EFFING BASEMENT. I HATE YOUR THERMOSTAT. I HATE THESE REPAIR GUYS.

Me: AND I WILL EFFING MANAGE THIS BECAUSE I AM A VOTING ADULT, FULLY TRAINED IN INSTALLING THERMOSTATS.

God bless him, because no judge in the world would have failed to award him for not just leaving me with that mess, but he did actually come home early that night, and no blows were exchanged. I still have no idea how he puts up with me.

I went back upstairs and waved my hands at the wall frantically. The little Nest failed to respond–we had exhausted it, and it was too confused to react to my summons. I stood silently by as No. 1 unscrewed the Nest from the wall and re-punctured our careful spackling to re-mount the old, ugly, beige thermostat.

Condo: 1. Nest: 0.

A few days later, it warmed up, and Mr. MJ tried again. The same thing happened, so he called Nest support and dug into the problem with a technician for a few hours. Turns out we have the condo to blame for this one: somehow the furnace was only wired with four wires out of a possible five, and the Nest was actually drawing more power than this configuration could support, starving the furnace of electricity that it needed to turn on.

Mr. MJ opened the wall up and found that there was a fifth wire in the bundle, but that it wasn’t attached to anything on the furnace side. He called me later that day and said, “We have two options–we can put in a transformer that will give the thermostat more power, or if that doesn’t work, we’ll have to rewire the furnace. Either way, we’ll need an electrician.”

Because I am a wiseass, I told him there was a third option–we could put the damn thing back in its box and send it back, but he helpfully ignored me.

I dislike telling a story with no resolution, but there’s no end here to share. The furnace needs a little re-wiring, and so far we’ve not managed to get a Nest certified install partner out here to look at it. Every so often I get out the pretty box and stroke its little face, telling it that it will be its turn some day, and that it’s not its fault that it doesn’t work. I’d hate to hurt its itty feelings, after all.

Pasta and vino for Valentine’s Day

Because of my other little project, we celebrated Valentine’s Day tonight. I hate to go to restaurants for Valentine’s Day, they are all crowded and silly, so we usually select something very special to try at home. One year, or maybe even several by now, we made the chicken piccatta recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, which is very hands-on, and this year, we decided to make a recipe we’d never successfully made before: spaghetti carbonara. 

Carbonara is a special kind of kitchen trick, because you have to keep the eggs from scrambling when you add them in the mix, and I’m happy to say that we nailed it tonight. I’d make maybe two, possibly three changes in how we made it, and I’d happily make it again. But then I got to thinking about a less fussy, yet special recipe – spaghetti all’ubriaco.

I was lucky enough to have tried this one out in Italy, not that I followed the lead of this Serious Eats writer and actually made it into the kitchen, but I am sure that she and I went to the same place. It was unforgettably good, such a wow dinner, and so it fits in with my theme from yesterday: things you bring home. I like this recipe here, but it’s not as thoroughly a memory of Italy for me as the one I have developed after many tries. For starters, I believe in less water, more wine, and I also believe in rather a lot of garlic.

Try this at home!

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Souvenirs

I have not been able to write much about travelling in the last couple of months, because I simply don’t have any concrete plans in progress right now. For someone who really loves the adventure of planning the adventure, that’s pretty hard, but I’m sure the next big thing will come to us given time. 

This week, though, I was thinking about the things we bring back from our trips, in our hands and in our heads.

Five years ago, in Greece, Mr. MJ and I fell in love with the creation that is the Nescafe frappé. It’s blended ice, instant coffee, milk, and sugar with a thick foam on top. I found the recipe online, and for over four years, I made it every morning at home. One of the things you always hear when trying to pare down on regular expenses is that buying coffee in a Starbucks or cafe is no way to save money, and this coffee drink was good enough to forget about frappuccinos entirely, even if it took a constant supply of ice and about ten minutes every morning to make. 

One of the things we indirectly brought back from our last trip was an overwhelming love for our friends’ super-automatic Jura espresso and cappuccino machine. We were so spoiled by its one-touch buttons and programmable features that we looked it up immediately on returning home. The price tag was pretty large, so we saved up and made it a joint Christmas gift to each other. Now every morning we can choose between trip memories to serve first thing in the morning–hot, or cold? I love the fact that The Machine makes coffee to your preference by the cup, but still doesn’t have very much waste–far less than a Keurig machine with its single serving pods, or making a traditional pot every morning only to throw most of it out. (a not-so-secret secret if you know me: I hate drip coffee). I’m also having a lot of fun buying different kinds of coffee beans to try out, and already have a few favorites. We even have the idea that on future trips, we might have an incentive to buy beans or coffee cups to bring home. I love it when a plan comes together. 

In Asheville last fall, I was smitten with the work of a local ceramic artist, and kept returning to her Etsy shop again and again to admire the urchin-shaped bowls on display with colorful insides. Today, I celebrated payday by finally purchasing one to have at home. I’ll keep it in my office and smile when I think of walking through the Woolworth building with its artist stalls. 

There’s more little stories, littered around my house: a tile from Istanbul, a teapot from Sydney that I carried by hand for ten thousand miles, a little wooden egg with a rooster painted on it from Hungary that inspires witty little comments about my, ahem, rooster. They all make me smile, which is what I need on this bright, cold winter day. 

What’s next?

There’s colorful leaves crunching under my feet when I walk down the sidewalk, and when I leave work now, it’s completely dark outside. The days are shorter, and like always, there’s no time to get everything done. My brain is cluttered up with little things to take care of, all the little pieces of the puzzle that I live in, and I know I need a vacation.

But.

After all our gallivanting around the globe this year, Mr. MJ has almost no earned time left, and our bank account is gasping for us to take a break and pay the condo insurance already, so I can’t plan a real trip for anytime in the near future, no matter what my brain is telling me.

Casting around for escape options, I emailed Melodie, who planned our last cruise, to see if there was any two or three night cruise we could take in late December, but there wasn’t much available considering those limitations, so I scrapped the plan. The only thing left to me to do for a few months is retrench, research and pretend.

I say that every trip we take spawns another that we need to take. When we went to Greece for our honeymoon, we spent 30 hours in Istanbul during the Ramadan celebration, and it was the best, biggest party I had ever seen. I felt a bond with the city and would love to go back, especially for an extended stay. I would love to learn Turkish and live in Istanbul for a year. When we went to Italy for ten days, we had to pick and choose what we would see. We saw Rome and Florence but missed so many other things–Cinque Terre, the isle of Capri, Venice, Sicily, the Lakes, Torino, Milan… That’s four or five trips to Italy alone I could plan without even having to buy another guidebook, and I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what Rome has to offer.

In 2010, we had the great fortune to see some of Central Europe last year when our friends Jonathan and Anna were living in rural Czech Republic. We saw Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and about 30 hours in Munich, along with their home base of Prachatice. Immediately, we knew we needed to go back to Munich (which we did earlier this year), Vienna, and there’s a piece of my mind dwelling on a wine-oriented tour of Hungary. We went back to Munich in September for Oktoberfest and to see the surrounding countryside in Bavaria and Austria, and already we know we need to order a dirndl for me and lederhosen for him, and and go back to Bavaria with our tracht for another round.

 

This year, we started in Seattle, and drove until we got to San Francisco, stopping at wineries on the way. We barely scratched the surface of wineries in Napa, missed half the Oregon coastline, didn’t see Vancouver. And I hear there’s still plenty more coastline in California left to see, along with the Monterey aquarium and the Hearst Castle. Wineries in Oregon. Beaches in southern California.

I could leave happily for any of these places tomorrow. It doesn’t stop! So what’s next?

It’s November now, and dark, and cold at night. I’m thinking about sunny skies, beaches, and tropical fruit. I’m thinking about Spain, and the Amalfi Coast, and everything my co-worker from Azerbaijan has said about resorts on the Black Sea. I’m thinking about how much fun we had in Puerto Rico (got to go back there! It’s warm and needs no passports) and how much I would like to see Hawaii. I’m thinking about my friend’s photos of Pulao and Fiji, and Australian wine, and the southern California coast. I’m eyeing my screensaver image, of the Santorini main town of Fira, and thinking about how blue the sky and the rooflines are in Greece. But I have no time off for a week away.

There’s cold-weather weekend possibilities not to be discounted, while I wait for the springtime. I don’t ski, but Mr. MJ does, and I love to be in a place without pet hair so I can work on my giant, perpetually unfinished quilts. It’s going to be a good time to visit New Hampshire soon. I can almost smell the wood smoke in the air, coupled with the clean cold scent of snow and evergreen. There’s great shopping in Tilton and North Conway, and a quilting shop not to be believed in Centre Harbor, and it’s a special treat to visit the New Hampshire state liquor stores off the sides of the interstate. Which, if you’ve never been, go. It is like Wal-Mart of alcohol. Don’t pass go, but take the $200 because you are going to need it.

There’s plenty to do in Boston for the winter. I have tickets to the Nutcracker, a performance of A Christmas Story, and a one-man rendition of A Christmas Carol, among other things. In a couple of weekends, we’ve plans to see Handel’s Messiah. But it’s a poor substitute for warmer weather, and I close my eyes, thinking of gelato in Rome in August.

I need to remind myself of all the good things about November and the cold months beyond. Hot chocolate at L.A. Burdick. Stuffing and cranberry sauce. Making and signing holiday cards. Picking out stealthy holiday gifts for everyone. Our wonderful New Years’ Day open-house brunch. The end of street-cleaning in our neighborhood. Snow days, maybe. Hot buttered rum. Picking up a fresh-smelling Christmas tree, and stringing colored balls and lights. The winter doesn’t have to be a dark place.

I have no vacation time, but I’ll listen to all my Rick Steves podcasts, and make some notes against the future, and right around Dec 21 when things are the darkest, I’ll buy a guidebook and a new highlighter, and start to make some notes. Maybe in May, maybe next September, we’ll go somewhere else, and until then I’ll enjoy my dreams.

In which I contradict myself

I ended my last post by saying:

The point is that you have know what kind of trip you’re planning and research to pick the kind of lodging that works best for the trip you are on, and picking the right place can make your trip.

The truth is, this isn’t always true. When planning the trip for Mr. MJ and I to the West Coast, one of the things that had me really worried while planning out our route was that we were driving from Portland to Napa via the coastal highway, and I didn’t exactly know how fast we’d be able to travel or where we might choose to stop along the way. Because the destination of the trip was a secret from my husband, I deprived myself of my best asset for defusing my worries, and continued to agonize about it all for several days.

I shared all of this with my mother-in-law, Linda, at Easter and she had an idea that I never thought would work. Her anti-type A advice to me, her type A daughter-in-law?

Don’t plan ahead, just figure it out spontaneously. 

When she said this, I thought my eyes were going to bug out of my head! Don’t PLAN something? Is she crazy? Run in circles, scream and shout!

But one thing I’ve learned after knowing Linda for several years now is that she’s one smart lady who has a few things figured out. She is a great traveller, and such a planner that she even puts me to shame me sometimes. So if she’s telling me not to over-plan, I shouldn’t over-plan. Right? And our experiences road-tripping for many years between Boston and Alabama backed this up. I had never, ever, even back in my early twenties, booked a hotel in advance for being in transit from Alabama to Boston. Even at the holidays, even when I was traveling alone. I trusted that there would be a room available when I needed one (or that I was a big enough girl to pull over and sleep in the car in the McDonald’s parking lot. Which I am not advocating that you do. Ever. Even if you are 35 and a grown voting adult!)

So I ignored all my panicky gut-instincts and did not over-plan. I booked the hotels for Seattle and Portland, and I booked the several nights in Napa. We stayed two nights on the road from Portland to Napa and then we got a hotel in San Francisco near the airport the night before we left. Our experiences ranged from great to fine to ‘at least there’s a light switch and a pillow’, and…nobody died. Nobody got divorced. No eggs or heads or legs broke because we didn’t have a hotel reservation. And as far as I know months later, we didn’t bring home bedbugs. I’ll even admit to a teeny bit of excitement over our spontaneity, and a true feeling of accomplishment that we were able to solve the problem on our feet.

But let’s be fair, we weren’t trying to stay in the middle of the Olympic host city during the opening ceremony, or in downtown Munich for Oktoberfest. It was a pretty fair bet that a few hotel rooms might be available in rural coastal California in May, and we won the bet.

So here’s my amended, totally free advice on how to plan your lodging for your trip–or not:

Know your trip, know who you’re traveling with, and when you can, trust modern technology.

Since we were in the US, we had access to unlimited data on our smartphones and I was able to do some quick price comparisons between hotels using AAA’s iPhone app, the Kayak app, and the TripAdvisor app, and got some great deals. (ok, for that hotel by the airport, $40 was still almost too much, but it was a great deal!) But even if you don’t have an unlimited data plan and an iPhone, you can still just drive by and ask. Having a AAA membership really helped us and it might help you too, as well as having some handy people just a call away who can change a tire.

Another less hi-tech solution might have been to plan the route and give ourselves 3 or four potential stops for the night, and a list of 2-3 hotels in each place with an address and phone number. That way we could call and compare pricing when we decided it was time to stop.

I think the conventional wisdom for hotels at the last-minute is that unlike airlines, if you ask for a hotel at the last-minute you’re likely to get a pretty good rate, on the grounds that it’s better for them to fill the room than not. After many road trips in the US, I’ve rarely not been able to find a room for under $75, and in some cases–think rural coastal California or rural Virginia when there isn’t a Va Tech game–quite a bit better than $75 a night. Your mileage may vary, but isn’t that always the case when traveling?

Would I ever plan out a full week of vacation, in the US or otherwise, without booking a place to stay in advance? I probably wouldn’t, but I could see booking the first night and the last night, and winging it in between, as long as it wasn’t in the middle of some massive event. That little frisson of excitement at our ability to be spontaneous–that’s what traveling is all about.

Staying outside of Asheville

When I made plans to visit Asheville with my parents, I knew that I would have some different considerations in mind while planning the trip. While my husband and I might enjoy the kind of vacation where we’re on the go for ten or twelve hours a day and only come back to a hotel room to sleep, I knew going in that this vacation wasn’t going to be that kind of vacation. My parents are blessed with health, but they’ve earned a little rest, especially on one of the first vacations they have taken together in a few years. Moreover, from traveling together before, we’ve learned that we’re all more comfortable with each person getting a bed of their own–I’m a kicker! I admit it! That can be expensive, and I struggled for a while to figure out what to do that wouldn’t end up costing a fortune for 3 hotel rooms with nowhere comfortable to sit. And we’re definitely big on sitting, especially when the season première of House is scheduled. I knew that if we didn’t have cable, Mom would probably disown me. Serious concerns!

I did look at hotel rooms for a while, but pretty much got nowhere, or at least nowhere I would consider affordable, and then I got thrown a softball. A group of ladies and I go away each fall for a crafting and wool festival in New York State, and since it was time to plan this trip too, I applied my knowledge of one to the other. When we go to Rhinebeck, we enjoy renting a house as a big group rather than staying in hotel rooms, and additionally we save a lot of money by preparing dinner and breakfast in the rental.* We’ve had a lot of luck finding houses for Rhinebeck on vrbo.com, so I decided to give it a shot for my Asheville trip too.

What I wanted: three bedrooms, available during the week I had off of work, near Asheville but not necessarily in it, not too remote, a full kitchen, cable, and bonus if it had an internet connection. I can survive without my email, but it’s not pretty to watch. It’s possible to directly search for most of these criteria through their search interface, and the rest is available on the listings themselves, but it does take a little time to compare.

What I found after some time and some other inquiries was the Willson Rock Cottage in Weaverville, just north of Asheville in a little town that someone else online had described as ‘Mayberry’. After seeing Weaverville, my opinion would be: Well, maybe not quite, but in a complimentary sort of way. I have no recollection of Mayberry having a neat pizzeria, a bakery café, or a mega-grocery store well-stocked enough to satisfy me and my acquired (city-dweller) tastes. The cottage was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, and single level, with only three stairs leading to the door.

I worked with the owner, Mr. Willson, over the phone and by email to secure the place, and was even able to make my payment by credit card. It was incredibly affordable at about $900 (including deposit) for the 4 nights of our stay, when it would have cost us at least $1200 to stay in a hotel and we would not have had all the amenities of a full kitchen. And Mom got to watch the season première of House, which is all she really wanted to do anyway. Who’s a great daughter (and has two thumbs)? This girl!

As a fair warning when using vrbo or similar rental sites, make sure you understand the total costs, including cleaning and security deposit, the rules of engagement, like whether you can bring pets, and how to get in touch with the owner if there’s a question or a problem. Even if you’re a paperless fanatic, like I sometimes am, this is one time you’re going to want to have things printed out.

It’s also fair to consider the best way to care for the property. Specifically, there may be rules about trash disposal, or what can be burned in a fireplace, or maybe noise regulations. For us, this was no problem. Mr. Willson had some printed instructions in the house for us to follow about trash, cleaning, and usage, and we followed them and were pretty happy. Because I followed these instructions, I got my deposit credited back to my card, about a week after I returned home.

The cottage turned out to be hands-down the best decision of our trip. We all got our own bedroom, so everyone got plenty of sleep and was able to keep their own hours. There were two bathrooms, which was convenient for getting ready in the mornings. We used the kitchen to cook breakfast each morning and a couple of dinners. When my speed of vacation overtook that of others, we were able to come back and all sit together and talk or watch TV. I know that the best memories of this trip for me will be just sitting in the living room, snacking on junk food, watching ‘Hard Core Pawn’ or endless re-runs of ‘Law and Order’ and laughing about how funny people really are deep down at the heart. Every family bonds over different things and that’s our story.

The point is that you have know what kind of trip you’re planning and research to pick the kind of lodging that works best for the trip you are on, and picking the right place can make your trip. For us, that was Stone Cottage. If I were a more hardcore fan of the Biltmore estate I might decide to stay there sometime. For my one night in Salzburg in September, it was super important for us to have free parking and walkable access to the old town, but we only had a budget of 100€ so it was harder to accomplish than it otherwise might have been.

* Unfortunately for the idea of frugality, we also spend a lot of money when at the Dutchess County Sheep and Wool Festival too–usually on red wine, cheese, and sheep-farming by-products. 

A night on the town in Asheville

There was once a time when I travelled for business, and used to have friends and acquaintances in what seemed like every major town in the United States with whom to socialize when I was in town, wherever town was. Five years ago or so, I changed jobs, and haven’t really travelled a lot domestically since. When I made plans to visit Asheville, I had a squee moment when I found out that an old friend, Will, lived in the area. We made some plans to meet, and on a nice Sunday afternoon in October, we did just that.

He wanted to show me downtown Asheville, and I had several hours free, so with an agenda of ‘show me everything!’ we set out.

One of my favorite places on earth (and my Tuesday night haunt) is L.A. Burdick in Cambridge, Mass, who have both wonderful truffles and incredible hot chocolates in dark, milk, white, and four new single source varieties. I feel incredibly in-the-know when I overhear people on the street in Harvard Square talking about ‘the hot chocolate place’ and know exactly what they mean. So I’m all about trying new chocolatiers when I’m from home.

Chocolate Fetish (36 Haywood Street) was a fine place to visit when away from my local chocolatier. They have a display case with all their truffles and sweets in it, and it was awfully hard to decide on just one thing. In the end, I didn’t make a single choice, but two! I chose a Wine and Roses truffle along with a Key Lime truffle and was quite happy with both. The key lime truffle had a hint of a graham cracker aspect to it, and the wine and roses truffle paired red wine, chocolate, and candied rose petal. They were big enough to share quarter-bites, which we did; and why not when you’re among old friends?

Fortified with sugar, we walked along the main streets, peeping into Malaprop’s Bookstore, the Woolworth Walk, and the Grove Arcade. I fell in love with one of the niches of artwork in the Woolworth Walk; Element Clay Studio, by Heather Knight. Her stark white clay sculpture with splashes of color echo natural textures, such as that of seashells, anemone, animal hide and even beds of grass. The 3D wall tiles were a special favorite of mine, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how poorly they might pair with my stackable washer’s overactive spin cycle. What I can see actually working out in my house is one (or three) of these horse-chestnut-like spiky bowls that look like a hedgehog upended. Good thing she has an etsy shop, as I reluctantly passed up my favorite bowl on display because that felt like a hard souvenir to put into checked luggage. Wee bonus: Her business cards are among the cutest I have absolutely ever seen.

Isn't this gorgeous?

We kept walking. The Grove Arcade in Asheville was a hub of shopping activity in downtown Asheville, curtailed by being seized in 1942 by the government as part of the WWII war effort, languishing as an office building until the 1970s, and then being restored to use as a retail arcade in 2002. In one corner of the arcade is the Battery Park Book Exchange, (1 Page Avenue, ste 101) which has a solid, affordable wine list sold both by the bottle and by the glass. It also has comfy chairs, and shelves of books for sale or just for reading, making it an extremely cozy place to spend a late afternoon. The two of us sat and caught up over the last fifteen years over two glasses of Vignale pinot grigio. I think this would be a great addition to my neighborhood, and am just a bit jealous that Somerville doesn’t have any place like this.

To be a successful tour guide, know where to get a drink, or two, or three. For bonus, points, though, know your history.

As it got dark out, we moved on again, taking our reminiscences and stories a few blocks across town to a cozily lit establishment specializing in rum–or perhaps I should say rhum–Storm Rhum Bar and Bistro (125 S. Lexington Avenue). Dear Asheville, I am officially jealous of you for having this place.  Will strongly recommended the Devil’s Oasis, so I had one and didn’t regret it at all. It’s rhum, mixed with passionfruit purée, lime juice, and honey with a kick of cayenne pepper. My late lamented Gargoyles on the Square had something similar in spirit, the Cherry Blossom, and I still miss it. My next drink was a caramel apple sangria special, which was interesting as I thought caramel, apple, mulling spices and red wine were an odd combination but it did seem to work. It was hard to imagine having a bad drink here, though I think the table next to us missed the memo–they ordered Bud Lite. Oh well, more rhum for me!

The Devil's Oasis: sign me up!

It got darker out and we moved on again, this time for the last time to Tupelo Honey (12 College Street) for dinner. It reminded me a little of the late lamented Magnolia’s in Inman Square, Cambridge (now replaced by the similarly named Tupelo). I ordered a spicy blackened catfish filet over grits, and it was pretty good, plus a local-ish beer that wasn’t, and I’ve rather happily forgotten what it was.

Not only was it a welcome amount of indulgence for a vacation, but I felt like I’d really seen a lot of what Asheville had to offer, especially in direct comparison to my stomping grounds of Camberville.

The scorecard?

Chocolatier to Cambridge, but I would love to see the playoffs on this one.

Rhum bar to Asheville, and why doesn’t Somerville have one? This feels like a wonderful project instead of the next iteration of faux Irish bar, or poutine-bearing gastropub.

Wine bar to Asheville, and again, clearly this is missing, someone open one tout de suite!

Upscale catfish to neither, because one day I will learn that catfish only tastes perfectly perfect when fried. But I would love to go back and try the shrimp and grits.

Friends who change and yet stay the same, across a thousand miles and fifteen years? I will take those anywhere I can find them, they are without price.

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