Visiting Family

A fourteen hour layover in Seattle was my first stop in the United States. Arriving about 9:30 in the morning, I took the convenient light rail into downtown and conducted my most important business: drawing a money order and then mailing it, and my inch-thick Thailand visa application, to the Thai consulate. After a long wait, a surprisingly helpful postal employee walked me through the steps of buying the money order, properly addressing the express mail envelopes, and then packing everything correctly.

2013-08-02 -1After a browse around the Pike Place Public Market and lunch at a cute French restaurant nearby, I visited the Seattle Art Museum to see “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion“. This exhibit, which runs through Labor Day weekend, has more than 100 dresses from Japanese designers such as Issey Miyake, Kenzo Takada, and Rei Kawakubo. These designers revolutionized the way we think of fashion. I only wish Tawn could have attended the exhibit, which he would have found fascinating.

2013-08-08 03In the afternoon, I went to my aunt and uncle’s house and spent time with them and my cousins. Their daughter is about a year old and I last saw her in March at my grandparents’ 75th wedding anniversary, so it was nice to see how much she has grown since then. My uncle prepared some excellent wild salmon on the grill, so I was well-fed.

P1270235My red eye flight departed Seattle about midnight, heading east to a rainy Cleveland. A two-hour connection allowed me time for breakfast and a shoe shine before I caught my flight into Kansas City.

2013-08-08 04The next several days in Kansas City were spent visiting family members, attending football (soccer) games and gymnastics lessons, and the like. Four and a half days was enough time to see everyone, catch up, and then move one before wearing out my welcome. Unfortunately, no time for a side trip to Omaha or Quincy, though.

 

Spending Time with the Family

Of course the biggest reason for heading to the US was to visit family.  My two nieces are growing up quickly and it won’t be too many years before they decide they’d rather play with their friends than hang out with their uncle.  Thankfully, that point has not been reached, yet.  I’m also fortunate to have two of my grandparents still going strong in their 90s, giving me two additional reasons to make a visit.

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I tried to fit in several different activities with the girls, sometimes with both of them and sometimes just one-on-one.  I’ve observed that their behavior is a lot better when they are separated.  When they are together, the level of antagonizing skyrockets.  Here we made some Christmas cookies.  I prepared the dough, refrigerating it, then they helped roll it out and cut out the individual cookies.

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After the cookies were baked and cooled (“Are they cool yet?” every three minutes for a half-hour) we were able to ice them.  The only food coloring at the house was a set of neon colors, which produced pastels very suitable for Easter eggs but not quite spot-on for Christmas.  Nonetheless, they happily iced away, adding prodigious layers of sprinkles on top.

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Emily seemed to be busy much of the time while I was in town, what with her two soccer leagues and a basketball league, too.  Thus, I ended up with more photos of Ava than I did of Emily.  On the left, Ava and her mother talk while at my grandparents’ Sunday School’s Christmas luncheon.  On the right, Ava (with Emily hidden on the sofa behind her) watches TV and drinks some hot chocolate I made for her.  Something about this picture makes her look very adult to me.

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As an added bonus, my uncle Dick flew into town while I was there, with his eldest daughter, my cousin Alex, and her first son, Tommy.  Here, Tommy, Dick, and my grandmother enjoy a pancake breakfast with Santa at my nieces’ school.  Tommy, who is going on two, had a blast playing with his older cousins.

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Here’s the visit with Santa.  Alex had to join the picture as there was no way Tommy was going to sit on Santa’s knee by himself.  Tommy held it together just long enough for a few pictures, then left his two cousins to bend Santa’s ear with their wish list.

Whether because I’m getting older or just because I’ve lived out of the country for a half-dozen years now, I find that I feel the family ties tugging more strongly at my heart.  While I don’t know that I want to move back to the US, I certainly wish I could spend more time there and, by extension, more time with my family.

 

On the Way to Kansas City

Now that I’m safely back in Thailand, let me share some highlights from my recent trip to the United States.  This first portion covers the trip from Bangkok to Los Angeles and San Francisco on my way to Kansas City.

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Self-portrait on the Flight Information Display Signage.  Thankfully, I scheduled a 12:40 pm departure which meant I didn’t have to get up too early or rush to get to the airport.  Instead, time for a leisurely breakfast before hailing a taxi.

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On the climb out of Bangkok, I could still see some lingering effects of the flooding.  While these rice paddies normally have water in them at this time of year, you can see how the vertical boundaries between many of the paddies have been erased.  The water is still high enough in this area to the northeast of the city that water flows across dikes and roads, combining multiple paddies into small lakes.

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The connection through Taipei was smooth and we landed about thirty minutes early in Los Angeles in the mid-afternoon.  Here, I snap a photo of my plane before boarding a bus at the remote parking area.  Winds were very high and were blowing offshore, the opposite of the usual direction.

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Los Angeles is a great place to see the world’s largest passenger airplane, the Airbus A380.  Qantas sends multiple planes there daily, one of which is hidden behind the other in the picture on the left.  Singapore Airlines also sends an A380 to LAX (above right) and Korean Airlines and Air France will soon join them, too.

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I connected to Southwest Airlines for a flight up to San Francisco.  Had I realized that my 6:00 departure was going to be delayed, I would have hustled over from the international terminal and tried to make the 3:30 flight instead.  While waiting for my flight, a teenager practiced his violin, playing very well for an appreciative crowd of passengers.

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A young girl gets her start as an aviation enthusiast, watching the planes as her father “flies” her through the air.

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My high school friend Ryan, pictured above with his 2-year old son, picked me up at the airport and we were able to catch up over dinner – Vietnamese noodles! – before I crashed on an air mattress at his house.  While I was only in the San Francisco area for about 12 hours, it was very nice to be able to see Ryan and his family again.

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After some coaxing, Elliot decided it would be okay to pose for a picture with Uncle Chris before heading to the airport.

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The weather on Friday morning was crisp and clear, allowing for a beautiful view of San Francisco as we took off to the north, climbing towards Oakland. 

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After buying Midwest Airlines, Frontier adopted their practice of serving fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies onboard.  A nice touch at an airline that is hard to distinguish from all the other domestic carriers.  After a tight connection in Denver, I arrived in Kansas City about 5:45 Friday evening.

 

Christmas Comes Early

Friday evening, finished with work, I flew from Houston to Kansas City with a quick Southwest Airlines stop in Dallas.  In other words, twenty minutes on the ground as one load of passengers deplaned and another load promptly took their place.  At about 10:00 pm I was met at the KC airport by my father, who had decided to drive 9 hours from Indiana to see me.

We arrived at my sister and brother-in-law’s house well after the nieces had gone to bed, but did everything we could to keep the noise to a minimum, lest they wake up and have their surprise spoiled.  I wrapped their Christmas presents and placed them – “From Santa” – under the tree before going to bed.

About 7:00 Saturday morning I came upstairs from the basement guest room to find the two girls, going on ages 5 and 8, glued to the cartoons.  “Good morning,” I said.  They turned around and for a moment you could see the wheels turning as they tried to process the disconnect between what they were seeing and what they knew to be true: that their uncle was thousands of miles away in Thailand.

The youngest niece actually turned back to the TV before doing a double-take that would have been at home in a slapstick comedy.  “How did you get here?!” she asked.

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I made my case that Santa had brought me along with the presents.  To prove my point, I used as evidence the photo of me and Santa that had been taken the night before as part of a Southwest Airlines / Microsoft promotion at Houston Hobby Airport.  For any number of reasons, they were skeptical of this evidence.  “He looks like family,” the older niece said.

Here is a four-minute video of the present opening, if you would care to watch it.  I imagine relatives will be more interested than most of you will be, but it has a few cute comments made with the sheer innocence that only children can.

If you elected not to watch the video, here were their presents:

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Ava received the larger hedgehog (which she has named “Judy”), a beachball sized stuffed animal that took up half my suitcase and made it inexplicably light for the baggage handlers.  This one matches a smaller hedgehog we gave her on a previous visit, of which she was convinced she already had the larger one of the pair.

Emily received a Hello Kitty watch – her first watch ever as she is now finally able to tell time – and a stuffed tiger that was a Christmas gift from one of my colleagues, but which will have a more loving home in Kansas City than in Bangkok.

We had lunch with my grandparents and uncle and then after running several errands we met another family friend for dinner at Lidia’s Italian restaurant in downtown.  Andy and Sugi were unfortunately not able to drive down from Omaha to join us as they were experiencing blizzard conditions.

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That evening, Emily practiced reading (she has become very proficient and devours chapter books) with “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” while Ava (in her “To Wong Foo with Love, Julie Newmar” outfit) practiced her alphabet, shouting triumphantly, “Look!  I drew an ‘h’!”

After putting the girls to bed and saying my goodbyes, I reloaded my bags, filling the void left by the hedgehog with cans of chipotles and tomatillos.  By midnight I was in bed for a few hours’ sleep before an early trip to the airport at 4:00 am.

 

Delta BKK-IAH and MCI-BKK

The past week’s business trip to the United States was brutal.  Some helpful wag calculated that of the total trip time, 29.4% of it was spent in transit to/from the US.  The formula, for those of you looking for it, was (60 hrs / (60+(6*24))).  I’ll share a little bit about the trip over the next few posts, starting with some information about the flights themselves.

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Above, a reflection of a Delta 747 at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.

My trip was on Delta Airlines, which offered the cheapest economy class prices by far for the dates I needed to travel.  While my company’s policy is business class on flights over 8 hours, I did not qualify for this as technically my agreement with the company is that they will not pay to fly me to the US for meetings at all, since I chose to relocate outside the country.  That’s okay – I appreciate simply having a job!

I worked very hard to avoid being routed on one of the planes shown above because the economy class experience on them is very out-of-date.  (This holds true for United Airlines’ 747, too.)  Instead, I routed myself through Seattle so I would be able to fly on the more up-to-date A330, which features power ports in the front half of economy class and individual seat-back screens and on-demand audio and video throughout the cabin.

My experience on Delta was mixed.  The hard product itself – seats, food, entertainment, etc. – was fine although not amazing.  For the Bangkok to Tokyo and Tokyo to Seattle segments I was able to get an aisle seat in the front half of the economy cabin, so had about an extra inch of leg room and access to the power ports so I could work on my computer without draining the battery.  Additionally, I had an empty seat next to me on both flights.  The seats are actually pretty comfortable and the adjustable headrest does a decent job of cradling your head if you try to doze.

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Breakfast out of Bangkok – omelet, potatoes, and sausage with fruit and yogurt.

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Pre-landing snack – chicken and cheese croissant – before arriving in Tokyo.

On the flight out of Bangkok (6 hours), I traveled with one of the three guests from Kansas City who had been in town the previous two weeks.  Since he slept most of the flight, it was okay that we were a few rows apart.  While in Tokyo we had a few hours transit time so we ate some ramen at an okay snack shop.  The Narita Airport has nice facilities but the food selection within the secure area of the terminal is only okay.  There are better restaurants in the public area of the main terminal.

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Out of Tokyo for the eight-hour flight to Seattle, I purchased the above box from the noodle shop to supplement the meal served on the flight.  What was inside?

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This lovely katsu (fried pork cutlet) sandwich!  Oddly enough, the bread doesn’t get greasy or soggy at all, even though it sits in the box for a few hours.  It was really, really satisfying to eat mid-flight.

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This was the meal served out of Tokyo, beef and (reconstituted) mashed potatoes with a shrimp appetizer and mixed green salad.  The best thing about the meal was the coconut sponge cake.  Portion size is fine and the quality was decent.

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Mid-flight they served a slice of banana bread as a snack.  Pre-arrival to Seattle (which was early morning) there was a breakfast sandwich which was quite greasy.

Arriving in Seattle for immigration and customs worked very nicely.  Ours was the first flight of the day, arriving shortly after 7:30 am.  There was no line at immigration and within about twenty-five minutes of landing I had my bags, was through customs, and had dropped the bags on the through-checked belt to continue to Houston.

With about three hours between flights, I had time for a friend to meet me for breakfast at a nearby restaurant, which was a nice opportunity for a brief catch-up.  While there, she gave me a gift she had been holding for me for many months: a pair of banneton, wicker bread proofing baskets that I had talked to her about at some point in the past.  This was a funny and much-appreciated gift I will have to blog about soon.

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After a busy week in Houston, I flew Southwest Airlines up to Kansas City.  In order to construct the least-expensive ticket I could, I routed myself on an “open jaw” ticket on Delta, flying from Bangkok to Houston and then returning from Kansas City to Bangkok.  A $100 ticket on Southwest connected the open part of the jaw, resulting in about $350 savings for my employer.  This also gave me the opportunity to fly out of Houston Hobby Airport, the smaller airport on the south side of downtown that is nearly monopolized by Southwest.

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As part of a promotion with Microsoft Windows, Southwest was offering free pictures of Santa (that came with a brief demonstration of some new photo editing feature from Microsoft).  These came with a coupon for $20 off your next Southwest flight (before the end of March).  Of course, who could resist getting their picture taken with Santa?

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In fact, this picture provided useful evidence the next day when I explained to my nieces how I had managed to make it to Kansas City from Thailand.  More on that tomorrow.

After just 30 hours in Kansas City and an overnight inch of snow, I headed for my return trip to Bangkok.  The 6:00 am flight out of KC to Salt Lake City was delayed for more than a half-hour thanks to a string of mishaps by Delta.  First there was the fact that the potable water in the water trucks was frozen – no coffee or tea and no water for washing hands in the lavatory.  (Thankfully they had sanitizing hand gel.)  It had been below freezing all of Saturday so why they didn’t leave the heaters on overnight is a mystery to me.

On top of it, the tow bar froze to the aircraft so it took them several minutes of dousing with antifreeze to get it unstuck.  You would think Delta has never conducted winter operations out of Kansas City!

The long and short of it is that I missed my connecting flight from Salt Lake City to Seattle.  Thankfully I was rebooked on a later flight (and upgraded to first class) that got me into Seattle in time for my connection to Tokyo.  However, my layover was no longer long enough to meet with my aunt and uncle for breakfast in Seattle, something I had intentionally scheduled.

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Above, the A330 for my flight at a drizzly Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The flight from Seattle to Tokyo was ten hours long, delayed for more than a half-hour because of electrical problems at the check-in podium.  In fact, the Seattle operations were a disorganized mess.  On the flight itself, I was able to get a bulkhead aisle seat, ensuring that nobody would recline into my personal space, which made the flight reasonable comfortable.  I slept for about five hours, waking every so often then dozing off again.

The service was spotty with a crew that was generally unfriendly.  One flight attendant, Jamie, had a sour lemon expression the entire flight.  During the flight she handed me things (food, water, etc.) a dozen times and each time I made the effort to give her a cheery “thank you”.  You see, I think it is my responsibility as a customer to initiate the friendly service I would like to receive.  Not once did she say ‘thank you” or acknowledge me in any way, verbal or nonverbal.  Terrible, unfriendly service.

Now another flight attendant, Ann, was the complete opposite.  She was cheerful and friendly, patting me on the shoulder when I declined a mid-flight treat of an ice cream sandwich (“They taste mighty good in the middle of the flight!” she advised) and laughing with other passengers throughout the service.  I am going to write a letter to Delta and offer praise for Ann and a note of concern about Jamie.  If even half of Delta flight attendants were as friendly as Ann, I would probably fly them regularly.

The final segment, Tokyo to Bangkok, was delayed by more than an hour.  I had time in Tokyo to use the public showers ($10 for thirty minutes) which makes for a nice mid-trip refresh, and also had a chance to get a bite to eat.  Comparing the two adjacent concourses, United’s operation out of Tokyo is much more organized and professional than Delta’s, using better signage to explain the boarding process and has a generally more updated look to the gate areas.

I landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport at 12:10 Tuesday morning.  Here’s a tip to help you deal with immigration lines: there are two immigration areas at the Bangkok airport and there are monitors outside each showing what the lines at the other area look like.  It is worth the walk of about 150 meters to go to the other immigration area if the queues are shorter.  I ended up clearing immigration and customs in less than forty minutes, which for late night at Suvarnabhumi is quite good.

Tawn picked me up and I was home and in bed by 2:30, exhausted and glad to be back.  More in the next few days about the Kansas City portion of the trip. 

 

Lidia’s Again

For the second time in a week, I ate this afternoon at Lidia’s Kansas City, the Italian restaurant at which Tawn and I held our wedding reception.  Safe to assume I like the place.  The first visit was with colleagues.  This second visit was a lunch with family members, about 16 of us.

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Ava, previously the youngest great-grandchild in the family (pictured on the left with my mother) has been supplanted by Tommy, my cousin Alex’s son.  He’s pictured on the right with his mother and our grandmother.  It will be interesting to see how Emily and Ava react to no longer being the center of attention.  So far, so well…

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White bean and summer greens soup.  Flavorful broth and quite the kick from some chili flakes.

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Fried polenta squares with a dusting of Parmesan cheese.  Tasty but not oily.

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A roasted beet and peach salad my mother had.  What an interesting combination.

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A side of barley risotto.

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My entree – a rare beef panini (which wasn’t really a panini in the traditional sense) with fried onions and roasted bell peppers.  Potato salad on the side.  Pretty tasty.

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Homemade pasta trio.  I didn’t try these but everyone who had them really liked them.

Family members started arriving from out of town yesterday and will trickle in throughout the day today.  The big family reunion events are Saturday and Sunday.  I’ll try and get some pictures.

 

Food in the US – Lidia’s Kansas City

While I don’t have a lot more pictures to share of things we did in the US, I will share a series of entries about some of the food we ate.  I’m a big believer in the value that a good meal adds to your life.  Not only quality food and careful preparation but also good company, all of which are necessary to really eat well.  This first entry is about Lidia’s Kansas City, the first location of several restaurants opened by Italian grandmother and public broadcasting celebrity Lidia Bastianich.

Andy already wrote about this meal, so if you read his blog as well, you’re in for a rerun especially as his camera is better than mine.  Nonetheless, humor me with this entry.

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Lidia’s was the location of our wedding reception last August.  It is a charming space in a converted freight warehouse adjacent to the rail yards across from Union Station.  Service is great and the food is prepared with a lot of attention and love.  Just the kind of place to celebrate our union.  In fact, the waitress who served us on our most recent visit turned out to be one of the waitresses who had worked our reception. She was very excited to see us back and took good care of us during our meal – a good reminder of why it is always a good idea to treat servers very well.

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Andy and Sugi made the drive down from Omaha to visit us and spend the night in KC.  While I grouse in my entries about the feeling of having to make lots of appointments and visits with people while we’re in the US, that really doesn’t apply quite as much when we’re in Kansas City, where most of the people we know are family.  Andy and Sugi feel just like part of the family and seeing them was one of the highlights of our trip, and a reminder of how much we miss close friends while we live overseas.

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A Friday evening, it seemed appropriate to begin with drinks before moving on to a really nice bottle of wine.  I’ve recently decided that Campari and soda is my new apéritif of the moment – the bitters are nicely refreshing.

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Lidia’s features a nice selection of homemade bread, including some of the lightest breadsticks I’ve ever enjoyed.  The menu includes seasonal selections with an emphasis on locally grown produce and meat.  There is a three-course fixed price menu for $32 which is a good value given the quality of the food.

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Choosing from three “primi” or first-course offerings, I enjoyed the Montasio Cheese Frico.  Kind of like a quesadilla made without the tortilla, the frico has potato, leek, and in this case lump crab fried with melted cheese until crisp.  It is then topped with a light salad.  Very refreshing and flavorful start to the meal.

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For my “secondi” I chose the Battutina of Veal.  As the name implies, it is a battered (pounded) veal steak that is fried and served with broccoli, prosciutto, and a Taleggio sage-tomato sauce.  Despite its tenderizing, the veal wasn’t all that tender.  It was very flavorful, though.  In hindsight, I should have enjoyed the risotto with Gorgonzola and pear instead.

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Andy enjoyed a wild boar ravioli.  Lidia’s gets bonus points for all of their pasta being homemade.  An excellent touch that makes all the difference in terms of taste and texture.

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Another option on the menu is the bottomless tasting of a trio of pastas, the selection of which changes daily.  Servers bring pans around, refilling as long as you’d like more pasta.  Of course, no obligation to take seconds, but if you want just a few more bites of your favorite, of course that’s okay!

Today’s trio included a spinach linguini with shrimp and tomato sauce, a rigatoni with butter and herbs, and a wild mushroom ravioli.  All were very nice – my favorite was the mushroom ravioli. 

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Why is it important to treat your servers well?  Because when you come back next time they treat you well in return.  After we ordered dessert, our waitress brought us a plate of homemade cookies, candied orange peel, and vanilla gelato.  Yummy. 

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We split two desserts including this very good tiramisu.

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We also had this Torta del Mascarpone, a Mascarpone cheesecake with pistachio crust, vanilla rhubarb, and salted pistachio brittle.  I’m a sucker for anything with rhubarb in it.  Beebop-a-reebop rhubarb pie, if you know that reference.

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After dinner Tawn, Sugi, Andy, and I posed for a picture against the original brick wall of the freight warehouse.  Interesting artwork on the wall, eh?

It was a wonderful dinner with wonderful company, followed up by some more wine and conversation at the Trio Cafe on the Country Club Plaza.  As we called it a night, the freezing rain was coming down.  By the time Andy and Sugi dropped us off at my sister’s house, the first flakes of snow were falling.