Friday, August 17, 2012

Thank You, Enoch Pratt

Ever since I was a little girl, I've loved going to the library. Especially in the summer. Walking out of a steamy summer night and into the library, I'd sigh with relief as cool air washed over my body. This cool and quiet land was a place of wonder and I'd stand stand amazed by the sheer volume and variety of books surrounding me. I'd stare in awe at glossy hardcovers with bold titles and polished author portraits on the back. I'd slowly pry out a classic wedged on a bottom shelf, carefully brushing my fingers over its crumbling binding. I'd flip open front covers and skim through summaries searching for stories to grab my attention. Someones deepest thoughts and dreams printed clearly on paper for me to read - I knew books were special. Gathering book after book into my trusty cloth bag, I'd walk through the library like a triumphant farmer after a bountiful harvest. I signed up for a library card and couldn't believe that just by printing my name on the back of a small piece of plastic I could access all of these books, whenever I wanted, for free! It was magic.

Baltimore has a great public library. The Enoch Pratt Free Library is one of the oldest free library systems in the United States and has 23 branches throughout the city, plus a bookmobile. 23 branches! This means that in almost any Baltimore neighborhood books are easily accessible to everyone and anyone, for free. I try to go to the library every other week to stock up on books. Spending time at the library is one of my favorite things to do in the city because it's fun and free. An amazing resource for books or media of any kind, each time I go, I know I'm the lucky recipient of an amazing gift.

This gift came from Enoch Pratt. Enoch Pratt grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Baltimore with only $150 in his pocket. Pratt worked hard, very hard, and turned that $150 into a fortune. As a successful businessman Pratt saw that the people of Baltimore were ambitious, but that they "didn't have many ways to improve themselves." In 1886, Mr. Pratt founded the library with 32,000 volumes, four branch libraries, and a $1,058,333.00 endowment for upkeep and expansion. He said that Baltimore needed a library "for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color" and he used his fortune to provide it.

I think most people can agree that libraries do good for their communities, but only in Baltimore have I really seen just how much good they can do. The official mission of The Enoch Pratt Free Library is "to provide equal access to information and services that empower, enrich, and enhance the quality of life for all." Every time I visit the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I see this mission in action. I see students studying in specially designated areas, focused and learning hard. Many of these kids don't have a quiet and undisturbed home where they can do their homework, but at the library, they have this space.

The library also has a huge number of computers which you can reserve by the hour. It's one of the only places with totally free Internet in Baltimore and for many people, "free" is the only thing they can afford. There's also an extensive media collection at the library and audio books, DVDs, and CDs in case you have trouble reading or just want something to listen to in the car. In the hot summer and freezing winter, the library is a haven for Baltimoreans who need shelter and a break from the elements. Filled with light, seats, peace and quiet, if you to spend time indoors, do it at the library.

I find books on gardening, on business, on cooking, on traveling, on everything I can think of and more. I pick up books and delve into someones thoughts and ideas, stretching and expanding my own. My fellow library goers are Moms and their babies, college students, high school students, homeless people, business professionals, entrepreneurs etc., all mixed races and walks of life. Each person is different, but all are given the same opportunity at the library which is to read, learn, educate, and "improve themselves" just as Mr. Pratt wished.

As I check out, a father helps his son sign up for a library card across the counter from me. The boy's excited face tells me that this is his first, his own, library card.  While they wait for the librarian to assist them, I overhear the father tell his son, "This card is better than any plane ticket. Books can take you anywhere. Here, at the library, this is where the adventure begins."

I watch the boy sign his name on a small piece of plastic. He reverently checks his first book out of the library.

It's still magic.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The BEST Bazaar

Sunday morning in Baltimore. It's hot and it's humid. Steamy air pants at the windows waiting to ravage the AC the moment I open the door. Stay inside, stay cool, my lazy bones coax me. A tempting offer, yet I can't accept. No matter how hot out it is, Sunday morning hosts one of my favorite outdoor events in Baltimore - The Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar. So embrace the heat and get outside! It's summer after all! 
The Farmers' Market & Bazaar is located under the Jones Falls Expressway. Yes, it's kind of strange to shop for your dinner underneath a roaring highway, but it's totally awesome too! Walk under the highway Monday through Saturday, and you'll find an empty wasteland of trashcans and dust. Walk under the highway on a Sunday, and you'll find a bustling, vibrant, and thriving market. Funky murals mask concrete beams and bright banners hang from lampposts. White tents and street performers give a party atmosphere. The ceiling made by the highway overhead keeps the space cool and prevents plants, produce, and people from wilting in the sun. I call the market, "Repurposed Urban Space At Its Best."
Feeling, smelling, eating, looking, walking,  talking - the market swarms with Baltimoreans. Young children swivel hula hoops while Moms and Dad watch, gratefully sipping their tall coffees. A bearded craftsman displays wooden cutting boards while the adjacent farmer slices up samples of peaches. A couple with dreadlocks piled high on their heads stop and listen to the old man playing a tune on his PVC trombone.  A crowd gathers around a Native American dancing demonstration, transfixed by the booming drums and fiery feathers. A mother laughs with customers while her baby sleeps in the back of a truck, surrounded by flowers. Other Baltimoreans come strictly to shop. They stride through the market at rapid speed, hunting for the freshest basil,

stripiest heirloom tomatoes, flakiest pastries, and hardiest seedlings. Stocking up on fresh produce for the week or winter, plants for the garden, or dinner tonight;  the shoppers make their rounds. "Cash only" quickly changes hands and soon cloth bags and bicycle baskets bulge with Maryland bounty.
Even if you don't like to cook, you can still come to the market to EAT. Food stands dot the market, and the smells wafting from their boilers, fryers, juicers, woks, and skillets coat  the entire premises. It's hard to resist. Even if it is only nine A.M., people tuck into spicy sausage sandwiches and stir frys like there's no tomorrow.  Made-to-order omelets are sprinkled with peppers, sausage, and mozzarella and sizzle on a cast iron skillet. Mounds of wheat grass, carrots, mangoes, and apples are turned into juice, and fried beer-battered mushrooms are topped with hot sauce and cheese, then served on a bed of micro greens.

I buy a small hot  bag of freshly made doughnuts and douse them with powdered sugar. "Would you like a napkin" asks the doughnut maker. Definitely! I reply,  my hands already coated with white. Some people eat at tiny plastic tables and others camp out on the ground. But no matter where they sit or what they eat, people chow on this market food with true pleasure and enjoyment. The blatant disregard for time and decorum is awesome. Want to eat dinner for breakfast? Dessert for breakfast? At the market you can, and you should!
As I peruse the market, my first stop is always at a small bakery booth for a perfect taste of France. A fresh, golden, crusty, chewy, sleeved-in-paper baguette, and I'm in heaven.

Armed with my baguette, my other purchases depend entirely on what is seasonal and what looks the freshest. I love shopping this way, without a list and without a plan. I never know what the different stands will offer each week and this makes cooking much more creative and exciting. Market shopping is such a great excuse to let myself get caught up in the colors and textures of so much local produce, and then come up with a plan for it later in my kitchen.
This week I score dark leafy kale, giant portobello mushrooms, strawberries, leeks, chives, red potatoes, cilantro, and apples. On the walk home, I start concocting meals in my head. Grilled portobellos with chives? Baguette with kale and a fried egg on top? Endless possibilities, all from the Farmers' Market & Bazaar! I can't wait to get to my kitchen.

Think I'll walk a little faster.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Let's Get Outside - It's FlowerMart!

What exactly is FlowerMart? From its name, it sounds like a row of sweet smelling booths overflowing with buckets of irises, peonies, and tulips etc.. It sounds like a colorful array of plants and flowers from Maryland's farmers presented for the masses to sniff and touch, photograph, examine, and purchase. It sounds like a place where Baltimorians can come to take bundles of heady blooms back to their homes to rest on their mantelpieces and tables. It sounds like a market of flowers.

I had it on good authority that FlowerMart was not any of the things its name suggests. I had heard that FlowerMart was filled with crafters, performers, and food vendors, and while a fun festival, was grossly absent of actual flowers. I heard that at its beginning FlowerMart revolved around flowers, but as the years passed, it drifted away from flowers and became more about vendors pushing gifts for the upcoming Mother's Day, retaining only a few token flower booths. 

I was, of course, completely intrigued by the idea of a street festival that had, even if only very slightly, anything to do with flowers. Saturday morning I awoke restless and excited to finally see what exactly FlowerMart was about. Sipping my coffee, I leaned out the window and felt the warm, steamy, humid Maryland air wash over me. Down on the sidewalk, parents in tank tops lugged backpacks and pushed strollers filled with kids sporting sun hats and drinking from juice boxes. I could almost smell their SPF40 from the window. At 9 am it was already a scorcher, and a perfect day to spend outside discovering whatever FlowerMart had to offer.

I walk around the Mt. Vernon Monument almost everyday. It is usually uncrowded and quiet, visited by only a few people reading newspapers, writing, or visiting with friends over lunch. Yet on Saturday, FlowerMart had completely transformed this usually slow scene into a bustling market of people, tents, vendors, and action! The streets around the Monument were closed off with caution cones, and I basked in the freedom of walking over the cobblestones without worrying about traffic. If only there were no cars everyday, I wistfully thought. 

As I walked, the unmistakable smells of street food wafted through the warm air, enticing festival goers to forget their budgets, forget the healthy carrots they packed, and dish out large sums of cash for crispy, crunchy, salty, and sweet goodness. Sitting at plastic tables, lounging on the grass, or just standing in the middle of the street, Baltimorians of all ages paused and bit into crab cakes, french fries, teriyaki chicken skewers, corn dogs, and cinnamon buns with looks of pure bliss on their faces. The 21 and over crowd slurped bright yellow margaritas out of purple, pink, and orange plastic, beaker-shaped tubes, while others stirred icy mojitos flecked with green mint leaves. The official drink of FlowerMart, half a lemon speared with a peppermint stick, was cupped by sticky hands all throughout the park. Many mouths sucked hard to turn these sticks into straws and many lips puckered when they did.  

After winding past the food vendors we came upon the crafters, importers, non-profits, and local business booths. One booth sold homemade pastas, another herb infused olive oils and barrel-aged vinegars. One man imported African bracelets and hand carved wooden spoons, while the tent adjacent to him sold bejeweled and whirling garden sculptures. My husband and I swirled chilled Vidal Blanc in our mouths from tiny plastic cups, courtesy of a local vineyard, and chatted with the other tasters squished next to us.

We nibbled spicy habanero cheddar off of toothpicks at another booth and laughed as we felt our faces break out in a sweat. I watched a girl tug a lacy white linen dress over her clothes, trying it on for size, and at another tent, sixty year old women squeezing into crinkly, fluorescent-colored expanding tops, the kind you only ever see at craft shows. I saw the look of pure wonder on a little boy's face as he watched a magician hammer a nail into his nose and pull it out again, and the look of pure delight on a little girl's face as she stroked a rescue cat with a glittery collar. 

Finally, at the base of the Monument, I found some flowers at FlowerMart. I also quickly found out that my dream of finding buckets of fresh flowers was not going to come true. The cut flowers consisted of only a few buckets of wilted carnations and commercial bouquets, all imported and nothing local. Someone had gotten a bit creative and made a flower sculpture of a women with a skirt made of red roses, but it was more weird than pretty. The plant selection was better: a local nursery had a great selection of bright potted dahlia's and fuchsia hanging baskets, and another grower had fragrant herb gardens and more hanging baskets. 

The best "flowers" at FlowerMart ended up being a slightly scary selection of carnivorous plants with appropriate names such as "Shark's Teeth" "Big Mouth" "Long Red Fingers" and my favorite, "Fused Tooth." With their spiky teeth and deep caverns it was easy to see how an unsuspecting fly could be swallowed up whole by one of these carnivorous plants. I told my husband he should try putting his finger in one, but for some reason he didn't want to. 

A group of ladies in purple sequined tops warbled out show tunes on the main stage as we left FlowerMart. Even though it didn't sound too good, they looked like they were having a blast, all dressed up on stage, and I thought well, good for them! Everywhere I looked I saw people tasting new foods, trying new products, learning about local businesses, interacting with each other, and maybe even getting a little out of their comfort zones. A lot of good things are happening at this small festival, I concluded.

Even though it should be called "Spring Fling" and stop pretending to be a flower market, I've decided that I'll forgive FlowerMart its lack of flowers because it really was a totally fun, free event. I loved having an excuse to spend most of the day outside and I'm guessing, based on the hundreds of other people there, that the rest of Baltimore loved it too. So thank you, whoever decided to throw a festival in Mt. Vernon.  I had a great time at your Spring Fling. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Kindness in a Back Alley

The back alleys of Baltimore: skinny lanes trailing throughout the city creating wild and secret ways to get from here to there. Some are crowded with trashcans, cars, porches, and patios, while others house nothing but the towering backs of business buildings. A few back alleys steam from direct sun and others chill and darken from shadows. Several back alleys become busy with traffic as Baltimorians escape delays on main roads, yet many back alleys remain quiet footpaths for humans and the occasional animal.
I don't travel the back alleys too often. I usually stick to the main roads because they are where the grocery store, newsstands, cafes, and my other weekly errands lie. It is easy and direct to travel by main road only and I like people watching as I walk. It makes sense for me to take the main roads on an everyday basis, and yet I always look down the back alleys as I pass by, curiously wondering what is happening in them.
On days when I do let my curiosity get the best of me and I travel through these back alleys, I am never disappointed. I once saw two women shouting and gesturing wildly at each other about rent, and "He said, She said." They argued on and on, neither one willing to give up the fight, looking like two hens picking at the same piece of corn. Another time, I saw a dead rat squashed into the pavement, its life quickly ended by a speeding car. Countless times I've glimpsed beautiful, hidden gardens filled with wisteria and ivy and brilliant pops of colorful blooms. These humble gardens become luscious oasisses in the dry, pavement-filled alleys and provide a welcome reminder of nature's presence in the city.  I've seen unshaven and unshowered guys emerging from a narrow apartment for a smoke at four in the afternoon, dark sunglasses covering what I know are bloodshot eyes. Other times I've noticed tiny balconies crammed with barbecues, tomato plants, plastic chairs, and citronella candles: the city dwellers' successful substitute for a backyard. Many days I've seen the homeless unapologetically scrounging in trashcans for discarded items they can use. Our trash really is their treasure, and they take almost anything. The homeless almost always say a friendly "Hello" as they don't' bother me and I don't bother them.
I'm usually in a hurry as I walk through back alleys, places to go and people to see. Yet on my last back alley trek, I stopped mid stride, struck by a small act of kindness. Two paperback novels lay on the pavement, carefully placed by a caution cone for extra visibility. I stopped to read the titles and found that the books were fairly new and in good condition. Not buried in a trashcan, not covered in coffee grounds, these books were purposefully and neatly displayed in the alley for someone to take, read, and enjoy. Such a kind decision by the previous owner to offer their books to others before tossing them in the trash. Tossed in the trash they would have little chance of being read, but placed on the street they could be used and recycled.
This small act of kindness stirred my heart. I thought of how a homeless person could take one of these books to the park, and then spend a carefree afternoon reading it. I thought of how a student could grab one book, take it home, read it, and then pass it on to another student at the end of term. Or maybe someone feeling lost and alone would find these books in the alley and feel cared for once again. I didn't take either of the books, but I did take a picture of them because I wanted to celebrate how kind people can be to each other, even to strangers walking in their back alley.
I'll never know who ended up taking those books. When I walked by there a few days later, the books were gone, and only the caution cone remained. It's always an adventure going off the beaten track and through back alleys (especially in Baltimore), but it's an adventure I urge you to try. I think that if you do, you'll end up seeing some interesting things and if you're lucky like me, you might just witness an act of kindness in a most unexpected place.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Watch Your Back

First day of Spring. My husband and I walk home from the Inner Harbor on a Tuesday night. It is warm and breezy and we have spent the evening waiting in line at Rita's for free water ice. A hundred Baltimorians wait with us, and by the time we are finally clutching paper cups filled with mango ice, the Circulator has made its last rounds for the night. Shoot, we missed the bus. Oh well, no big deal. We just have to walk home as we have done many times before. 

Eating our water ice, we begin marching home. Cars shoot by us, it is still light out, and the city is fairly busy as people go out to or come home from dinner. I revel in the soft night air and the fact that I can finally wear sandals again. We walk past the entrance to the Galleria (a fancy shopping mall) and spy shoppers darting out of its gleaming doors with glossy bags strung over their arms. Some of these shoppers hail taxis while others take to the sidewalk and trudge home on foot.  

Coming to an intersection, we decide to take North Charles Street home. We walk on North Charles all the time because it's a busy street filled with restaurants and shops and much to do and look at. Making a left turn onto East Lombard Street, which leads to North Charles, we are met by two Korean girls running frantically towards us. I look past them towards the end of the block and see a group of five girls running in the opposite direction after a guy. The five girls run in the middle of the sidewalk chasing this guy, while another guy on a bike rides furiously in front of them on the street. It is apparent that the guy running and the guy on the bicycle are a team who have just robbed this unsuspecting group of girls. 

The girls scream, curse, and yell, "Thief! Thief! Stop him!" and desperately run after the pair of thieves. Unfortunately, these thieves have a huge head start over the girls and when the whole group disappears around the corner, the girls are way behind the thieves. Should we chase after them too? No, there is no way we can catch up. We are just close enough to witness, but too far away to help. Though we don't see the actual robbery occur, it seems that this pair of thieves must have a definite method for stealing from this large of a group. I guess that maybe the thief on foot has stolen the purses or bags and then handed them off to the guy on the bike. Whatever their method of stealing is, they have a plan this team of two, and it is grossly successful.   

I am sickened. I cannot believe we have just witnessed a robbery on a main street, when it's light out, from a group of five girls. One or two girls together is plausible, but a group of five? Do people really get robbed in such large groups? Apparently. It disgusts me that this pair of thieves is trolling the streets looking for people to rob.  The two Korean girls who have practically run into us are panicked and frightened. They have barely escaped being robbed themselves. We gather together and discuss what we should do. I contemplate grabbing a cab, but we don't have any cash. Be rational, I think. The chances of us being involved in another robbery tonight are probably low. We can make it home. 

We ask the Korean girls if they want to walk back with us. They nod yes, and the four of us quickly cross to another street. We pass a Dunkin Donuts just a few hundred feet from the robbery. A Baltimore cop walks out of the door with a steaming coffee. Darn it. If only this cop could have waited a few more minutes before getting his caffeine fix. Maybe then, if he had been outside instead of inside waiting in line he could have stopped the robbery. Yet I don't blame him, I've needed a coffee too. But darn! This cop was so close by. My husband tries to tell the cop that we've just seen a robbery. For some reason the cop doesn't seem to hear us and gets in his car. I hope he will hear about the robbery on his radio. I comfort myself by telling myself that the robbers will meet justice one way or another. 

We make it back home without incident. The Korean girls walk with us almost the whole way, never talking directly to us, just walking closely behind us talking amongst themselves. They drift away once we near their home and we don't say goodbye because there is no need. We share a silent gratitude for keeping each other safe and go our own ways.  

Why share this unpleasant story? I have debated sharing it because it exposes a hostile side of Baltimore that I know will make many people worry and/or deter them from visiting the city. Yet, I have to admit that seeing this robbery blew some of the glitter off of the streets and revealed a dingy, hard layer beneath. I wish I'd never glimpsed this hard layer, but now that I have, I can't forget it's there. 

It is not my intention to make Baltimore seem like a scary place. I still love this city and I still see the glitter. I just can't only write about the pretty and ignore the ugly - it wouldn't be truthful. What I can do is try to paint an honest portrait of the city and hope that the highlights will outweigh the shadows. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sidewalk Sitting in March

Baltimore was beautiful yesterday. The sun shone, birds chirped, cyclists whizzed through the streets, windows were opened, and restaurants dusted off their outside dining tables and chairs and placed them on the sidewalk. A brave invitation for Spring to come and stay. When I saw those tables resting outside in the sun, I had to sit at one. So I did. 

Last night, my husband and I walked to Marie Louise Bistro, a chic little restaurant close to our apartment for a drink and outdoor date. Even though it was getting windy and chilly by the time we left, I couldn't resist the novelty of sitting outside at a restaurant, in March. Like an invisible fishing line, the fresh air hooked me and reeled me towards a small iron table with two chairs.  

There are many things I love about eating outside at a city restaurant. First of all, I love hearing the city go by. Horns honking, bits of conversation, always shouting, a runner's heavy breath, dogs' barking, and if you're lucky, someone's unabashed laughter. I love hearing deep bass pulsing out of a Jeep with the top down as it stops at a traffic light. I love hearing friends slap each other on the back as they greet on the street. Sometimes in Baltimore I will hear a ship's horn way down in the Harbor and I wonder where it's sailing to or from. All these city sounds together create a sound that you'll miss hearing when you eat indoors. Yes, it might be quieter inside or there might be a band playing (which I love), but don't forget there's music outside too. 

Another thing I love about eating outside at a city restaurant is the chance you get to study the architecture around you. I walk on North Charles Street almost everyday as I dash out to buy lettuce or grab a newspaper, but I'm usually in too much of a rush to really notice the buildings around me. I notice the buildings around me with flags or flashy signs, the ones that really standout, but it takes more than a quick glance to really notice the subtleties of the architecture in any city.

As I sat outside at Marie Louise, I had the welcome opportunity to observe the buildings around me from a different angle. It's not brain science, but looking at a street from a chair is very different from looking at it while walking by. Sitting outside on North Charles, I noticed a small alleyway across the street I had never seen and a small apartment above a restaurant. I noticed how the buildings around me were largely unrenovated and still in their original state. I appreciated how the huge apartment building across the street had been repurposed into four restaurants all attached to each other. I noticed how tall the buildings in Baltimore are with their blackened chimneys reaching to the sky. I observed the many, many different shades of brick that define and separate each other. All these small architectural details flesh out my picture and understanding of Baltimore and I would have missed them if I had sat inside. 

I enjoyed noticing the architecture of the city, yet more than that, I enjoyed noticing the people of the city. The sidewalk table provides the perfect venue for this. I noticed the purposefully ripped T-shirts of the art school students walking together in packs looking for somewhere inexpensive to eat. I observed the business executive as he got out his car to buy wine from the shop next to us. He was in and out of the shop in a few minutes, no doubt relieved that his day at the office was over so he could head back to his family. I smiled at the mother helping three girls in tutus and ballet shoes cram into her small car, so reminiscent of my childhood dance classes. I laughed as a group of girlfriends sat down at the table next to us exclaiming "It is such a gorgeous day!!" with dizzy excitement, exactly as I had a few minutes earlier. So many beautiful human moments out in the open, free to be appreciated from the sidewalk table.  

Sitting outside on this March day was an incredible gift. Too often responsibilities make it impossible to be outside, or better yet, to pause outside. Pausing outside. By sitting at a sidewalk table, I gave myself the chance to pause outside and notice the life around me without distraction. Exhilaration swirled through the streets as Baltimorians ventured outside without their coats and boots. As the warm spring air brushed my face and I sipped my drink, I felt I was truly part of the city. 

Sidewalk sitting? Yes please! I'll happily give you the corner booth. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sure, I'll Take A Cinnamon Roll!

There are a lot of important things you have to do when you move to a new city, but none are as necessary as finding a good breakfast joint. Now, I love going to trendy bistros for dinner and drinks, but for breakfast I want something simple. I will always bypass a gourmet breakfast menu for the tried and true breakfast basics. Eggs, sausage, hash browns, toast (with jam), and a bottomless cup of coffee for under $10. This is what I crave on a lazy Saturday morning. 

Since moving to Baltimore, my perfect brunch joint has regretfully eluded me. One place we tried was too fancy, another place had horrible service. Last Saturday however, I told myself "enough is enough." Time to find somewhere great to go for breakfast in Baltimore. Armed with Yelp and Urbanspoon, I began swimming through brunch reviews of restaurants in the city. The name Blue Moon Cafe popped up again and again and I quickly began to hope that this small cafe in Fell's Point might be the key to my breakfast quest. Onward!

A quick ride on the Circulator plus a winding walk through the harbor got us to the door of the Blue Moon Cafe. A skinny brick building painted with a blue starry sky, Blue Moon Cafe had just the right amount of quirky charm for a breakfast joint. The mass of Baltimorians huddled outside in the wind seemed a bit daunting, but I figured a line was better than no line. A hustling host darted in and out of the cafe letting people know their tables were ready. When he finally paused to add our names to his two-page list, he told us it would be a two-hour wait. Two hours? Was breakfast worth two hours of a precious Saturday morning? Yet, I was so curious to try this food that had people lined up on the street, that we had to wait it out. The host told us to feel free to walk around Fell's Point while we waited, and to take our time.

Luckily, Fell's Point is a perfect place to kill two hours, especially when it's sunny and bright out. We took our time exploring an art gallery, a bike shop, a few side streets, and people-watched to our hearts' content. When I thought I couldn't get any hungrier, we walked back to Blue Moon Cafe to see if our table was ready. It wasn't. And it still wasn't ready until forty-minutes later. When the host called our names we ran to the door high-fiving each other. Yes! We finally got in the door! 

When we entered Blue Moon, I realized why the wait had been so long. The place is tiny. The cafe has maybe only ten tables and a breakfast bar with four seats. The place was packed when we entered, and from the amazing looking food stacked on people's plates, I understood why people  were willing to wait so long for a table. 

Our seats were at the breakfast bar and we had to squeeze to fit in beside another other couple seated there. Maybe not the best place for a private conversation, but our seats did give us the perfect vantage point to see how the cafe worked. From our seats we could see a sliver of the kitchen where a chef cracked eggs by the dozen. I saw servers filling coffee cups and mixing chocolate milk behind the bar. The phone rang continuously and was always answered by a laughing server. Even though the cafe was extremely busy, the servers had a great time working. They were cheery and polite and served the food with tons of fun. Eighties songs blasted on the radio and the servers sang and danced to them while they quickly filled orders. No apparent stress in sight! 

As we surveyed the the vast breakfast menu of omelettes, french toast, pancakes etc., our waitress listed off the daily specials. Breakfast quesadillas, two fried eggs with hash browns in-between, and super cinnamon rolls. When I saw our waitress heat up a cinnamon roll for another customer, I could hardly believe how huge it was! Three inches tall and six inches wide, this cinnamon roll was big enough for four people to eat.Gooey layers of homemade roll dripping with brown sugar and cinnamon: I started going into a sugar coma just looking at it. I knew I'd definitely regret eating one of these cinnamon rolls, but I couldn't resist. When our waitress brought out ours, it was warm and bursting with spicy cinnamon. So many restaurants boast of having "homemade" baked goods that always disappoint. These cinnamon rolls far surpassed any homemade cinnamon rolls I've ever had. So moist, and SO sugary. Just like that, without tasting anything else, I fell completely in love with Blue Moon Cafe. 

The omelette's we ordered were magnificent as well. Perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned full of vegetables,cheese,sausage, and eggs. The accompanying pile of hash browns were crispy and light and so were the homemade biscuits which we barely touched because we were so full. Our mouths filled with flavor as we ate and sipped our coffees. Each bite was delightful and so was the cheery atmosphere in the cafe. The positive attitudes of the servers bounced onto us and made us feel happy to support this small cafe. 

I left Blue Moon Cafe fulfilled. My stomach was filled with delicious food, and my quest for finding an awesome breakfast spot in Baltimore was finished. Yes, the wait was way too long, but the feel-good environment and the incredible food made up for it. 

Especially that crazy good cinnamon roll. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wit & Wisdom: A Great Name, A Great Establishment

It is a freezing and windy Saturday night. My husband and I decide to take a leap of faith by exploring a bar recommendation from the free paper. Looking extremely stylish in our huge puffer coats, we jump on the Circulator and head out to Harbor East Baltimore. The Circulator deposits us almost at the door of the impressive Four Seasons Hotel, which is where the bar is located. As we walk past scurrying valets and European sports cars waiting in the driveway, I wonder if we have made a grave mistake. Is this going to be way too sophisticated for us? Are we really allowed to come here? Only one way to find out! We push through the gleaming revolving door and enter the hotel.
To the left of the grand and beautiful lobby of the Four Seasons, we spy the sign for Wit & Wisdom and proceed to enter. Wit & Wisdom is split between a bar on the left side, and a restaurant on the right side. Though the two sides are separate, they flow into each other with a graceful ease and the whole space feels open and effortless. No doubt this "effortlessness" is the result of master designers and architects. Low, rustic looking tables and elegant couches create mini lounge areas where people chat and sip their cocktails. Large picture windows frame a beautiful view of the Baltimore Harbor and the hotel's courtyard. I can only imagine how green and lush it will look in the summer. A hundred or more white lamps illuminate Wit & Wisdom and fill it with a warm, soft glow. These lamps rest on skinny wooden shelves and create the illusion of magical floating lights. Potted echeveria (a large green succulent) and tall spring branches grace the tables and corners and bring a fresh and natural element into the space. In a nutshell, the room is a perfectly balanced mix of natural and industrial elements which make it feel modern and inviting.   
The bar itself is the anchor of the room : an impressive piece of black walnut two-inches thick, smooth on the top and rough cut on the bottom. Solid and elegant, I can't help but to think of this wood's story. Who grew it? Who sanded it? How many hands touched it in the process? Maybe a lumberjack hauled it through the snow? Maybe someone said "Yes!" over it? If only this wood could talk. As we lean our elbows onto this piece of wood to read the cocktail list, we become another part of its saga. 

This long oval shaped bar at Wit & Wisdom seats about sixteen people on each side leaving enough room in the center for five bartenders. These five bartenders are truly masters of their art. I watch them mix, stir, shake, measure, and pour with fluidity and surety. They know what they are doing, and do it well. They know the cocktail recipes by heart and are not afraid to improvise. One bartender leans over to ours as she is mixing a drink and suggests that she add a sprig of fresh sage. "I tried it yesterday" he says. "It is much gooood" he adds. As we read the menu and chat with our bartender, we learn that all the syrups, infusions, and juices at Wit & Wisdom are made on the premises in small batches by the bartenders. We are hooked. 
Our bartender tells us that using only fresh ingredients is key for creating a perfect cocktail.We try a unique one called Pickett's Fence made with ingredients found within a 100 mile radius of the bar. It is a mixture of rye whiskey, local honey, a sliver of granny smith apple, bay leaf infused vodka, Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA, and a bay leaf garnish. As we watch our bartender prepare it, she explains to us the exact order of how to mix the ingredients. She says it is especially important to add the IPA last so it doesn't lose its carbonation. Before she adds the bay leaf garnish, she lights the edges of the leaf on fire to release its full flavor. When we take a sip, Pickett's Fence doesn't disappoint. Seeing and understanding each ingredient added into our drink makes us taste each flavor and really savor it. We notice many more characteristics of the drink than we would have had we not witnessed its creation. As we sip, another bartender comes over and tells us that he concocted the recipe for Pickett's Fence for a contest, and won. He tells us even more about the ingredients and why he loves it. His enthusiasm for the drink spills onto us, and soon we love it too. 
As we head home, I reflect on why Wit & Wisdom appeals to me so much. I realize it attracts me because going there is such a refreshing experience. It is refreshing to find out that an exclusive hotel has a completely accessible bar/restaurant which allows the average person to experience beautiful design and excellent service. I loved spending a perfect long evening there chatting, sipping, and just soaking up the atmosphere with my husband. I know that we will definitely adventure here again, and I have a feeling that when we do, we will be bringing some friends along. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Let's Circulate!

A free bus you say? Yep, it's true. Baltimore has a free city bus called the Charm City Circulator and it is fantastic! 

Since I have moved to Baltimore, I have used the Circulator many times to access parts of the city that are too far to walk to. With stops close to my apartment, it is extremely easy to jump on and off the Circulator when I want to go to the Inner Harbor or Fell's Point and I don't feel like fighting for a parking space. Though the bus timetable says it stops only every fifteen minutes, I have never waited more than seven to get on and the wait is usually even less than that. The bus drivers are friendly, especially if you say hi and thank you to them, and will always wait for you if they see you running up the street trying to catch a ride. 

Taking the Circulator to circulate Baltimore is a relaxing thing. It is usually easy to find a seat on the bus and the interior is brightly lit,clean, and monitored with security cameras. The bus drivers don't tolerate anyone sleeping on the bus and are quick to scold the offender with a disapproving shout. The fact that the Circulator is entirely free makes taking it for a ride a no-brainer. I love the fact that I don't have to scramble for exact change whenever I want a ride and that I don't have to include the cost of the bus in my Friday night budget. 

Sponsoring a free city bus is a brilliant move on Baltimore's part. Having a free bus encourages people to explore different areas of the city and makes the city accessible to everyone. It promotes restaurants that are farther away and keeps foot traffic thriving. The free Circulator makes it easy for people to take public transportation and cuts down on car traffic and drunk driving, especially on the weekends. 

I know the Circulator isn't really free (we are paying for it in Baltimore taxes) but it still feels like it is when I take it for a ride. In my mind, the Circulator feels like a nice "Thank You" gift from Baltimore to its citizens for living here and for keeping the city in business. I certainly appreciate the gift of a free ride and I know many others do too. I hope that other cities can adopt this great idea and that they do it soon! 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pizza Extraordinaire: A Restaurant Review

Come on, grab your coat. No, not that one, it's too thin. Yeah, your black pea coat with the high collar is perfect, more sophisticated. Grab your grey scarf too. Fold it in half and loop it through around your neck. No, that's too tight. You look like you are choking. Loosen it up a bit. Aww, there you go. Perfect. Do you have the keys? ID? Wine? Alright, come on! Lucky, lucky you my friend is going on a date with me. To Iggies. Let the night begin!

Another Friday night in Baltimore and it's time to explore another promising restaurant. This time Iggies Pizza is the destination and it is conveniently located right around the corner on Calvert Street. Understated and clean,the storefront of Iggies tells me that this is a place where good food, and not fancy frills, is a priority.Large picture windows let me gaze directly in at laughing and relaxed eaters gathered around long tables enjoying wine, pizza, and each other's company. Illuminated with small lights hanging from the ceiling, Iggies is like a glowing pot of gold on the dark street. I am more than willing to enter inside. 

As I enter Iggies, yeasty air embraces me in a warm hug. I feel as if I am entering into a best friend's kitchen where I feel completely at ease. The maitre d' greets us with a smile and asks how many people are in our party. Pointing at two empty seats wedged in the middle of a long table, she tells us we can sit there and takes our wine for a placeholder. Seeing our somewhat apprehensive faces, she also asks if we have been here before. When we say no, she says "welcome!" and explains the "rules" to us. Iggies isn't an ordinary restaurant. They do seat you and give you plates, but from there on, it is self-serve. Wine glasses, water glasses, silverware, napkins, and corkscrews sit on a small sideboard in the heart of Iggies, and we grab what we need. Easy. Choosing which intriguing pizza to order from the chalk-written menu on the wall is not quite as easy. Orange squash, silky pears,creamy mozzarella, salty pancetta, tangy olives: the extensive list of ingredients delightfully goes on an on. So many possible tastes to savor. We deliberate, and finally decide to go half and half on our pizza with one side the Alioe, and on the other the Diovolo.  

After placing our order at the small counter, we make our way over to our seats. Fellow guests sit directly next to us family style at the long wooden table and we squish ourselves into our chairs carefully trying not to bump our neighbors. To our left sit a young man and his mother who have already finished eating but are still sipping their wine and enjoying a quiet conversation. To our right sits a couple who is chatting quickly and loudly and perhaps a bit nervously. A first or second date? They start holding hands across the table. I think it's a second. An Asian group of students at the far right-end of the table asks the maitre d' to take a photograph of them eating cheese, and saying "cheese." So cheesy, I love it. 

 The close quarters at the table might be too close for some diners, but I enjoy the camaraderie of the table. I love catching quick glimpses into the lives of those sitting next to me as I hear bits of their conversation. Something about a mean girl at work. Something about an art show. Can you pass me the hot peppers? I relish the fact that even though I am sitting amongst complete strangers who can hear everything I'm saying, I feel entirely uninhibited to say whatever I want. I know my conversation isn't really private, but it feels like it is because of the surrounding noise. I know that no one is really listening to me because they are focused on their own conversation. If they do tune into mine, they will probably just laugh and enjoy it, just as I enjoy hearing theirs, and continue on.  

When the chef calls our order, we are ready to eat. The pizza that waits at the counter for us is a beautifully crafted masterpiece. On one side, bubbling mozzarella and parmigiano lay over a bright red tomato sauce finely supported by a thin pita-like crust. Sizzling spicy sausage and fiery hot peppers add a kick and a punch, and another kick. On the other side lies a brilliantly green coating of pesto dotted with vine-ripened tomato, steamy garlic spinach, and buttery goat cheese. Each piece that enters our mouth is an applauding testament to the duo of fresh ingredients and crispy crust. We eat every last chewy cheesy crumb of this pizza, and long after it was gone, savor its taste on our tongues.

The delicious food at Iggies does more than satisfy my stomach: it satisfies my soul. I am reminded to value the small moments of life as I eat my pizza. The apparent appreciation for good food, good friends, and good times that permeates the air at Iggies is why I will be back and why I heartily say, 
"Bravo Iggies! You sure got a good thing right!" 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Friday in Fell's

The taxicab. It's amazing how this unique combination of sticky leather seats, smudged windows, lingering cigarette smoke, and static radio is the perfect ticket to a night of adventure in a new city. Where else but in a taxicab can you get a real tour of a city that won't bore you to death and will cost you only ten dollars cash plus a tip? That's right my friends, nowhere else.

Now Baltimore isn't the largest city, but it does have its fair share of taxis roaming the streets, especially on a Friday night. A few weeks ago, my husband and I decided to snag one with a group of friends and headed down to Fell's Point. For those of you who don't live in Baltimore, or have just moved to Baltimore, Fell's Point is seriously charming. Visiting Fell's Point feels like visiting one of those historic preserved towns like Williamsburg or Pioneer Village except that there is no yellow caution tape or souvenir stands. A little history. Fell's Point was founded in 1763 and officially became Maryland's first National Historic District in 1969. So it's super old, and super cool. Most of the buildings in Fell's are made of red brick and are super narrow. The streets are tight and cobbled and finding a parking spot is equal to winning the lottery. If you visit Fell's, expect to park at least one or two blocks from you destination, or be smart and take a taxi.

My favorite thing about Fell's is that it is so close to the water. It is a beautiful thing to smell the harbor as soon as you get out of your car in Fell's. Now one of the trendiest places to live in Baltimore, someone told me that Fell's Point used to be one of the worst places to live because of the strong fish smell coming off of the water. Because of the fish and dirty water stench, real estate used to be cheaper in Fell's and this is why many poorer immigrants ended up living there. Today, the fish smell has left(lucky for us), but the sturdy row homes and all their history remains.

As our taxicab excursion showed us, Fell's Point is loaded, and I do mean fully loaded, with bars, bistros, restaurants, and boutiques. What I call the "main square" of Fell's is located on South Broadway. The restaurants and bars on South Broadway nest together like eggs in a crate with barely any space between. Until further excursions allow, Max's Taphouse is one of my new favorite places in Fells. This corner bar is definitely a favorite of many Baltimorians because it was packed when we pushed in through the old wood doors. Crammed with exhilarated Friday night partyyers, we finally  made our way to the taps. I have never seen so many beer taps in one place. Max's boasts having 140 rotating drafts, which makes for some tough decision making. After some nail biting and chin scratching we finally choose a perfect brew and took it to the upstairs lounge which was a bit less crowded. 

The atmosphere at Max's is laid-back, crowded, medium-loud, and totally fun. Small four pane windows overlooking South Broadway let the city air and occasional siren light into Max's and grow the Friday night excitement. I watch randoms meet and bump into each other right and left and chat up the night. With such good brews and good company it is easy to have a great night at Max's. Needless to say with 140 rotating drafts to choose from, we will definitely be back, soon.

By the time we leave Fell's Point on this Friday night, the streets are even more crowded than when we came. Taxicabs troll every alleyway and pick up fares at every curb. We dart into a steamy little pizza place and grab a cheesy slice. So good. The sidewalk is bursting and it feels like everyone in Baltimore is with us in Fell's. We find a taxi driver who says he doesn't mind if we eat in his cab, and head home. 

Adieu Fell's Point, until next weekend. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

A New Beginning

 Baltimore, Smaltismore, what to make of you? 
 First night in the city, I crawl into bed (a super small mattress plopped on the floor) and listen to the shrill sound of sirens wailing out the window. An ambulance light glares through our makeshift curtains of hammocks and towels and lights up our room with a red glow. Someone shouts in the street. My husband and I look at each other and shake our heads. Welcome to the Charm City?Yet there's no turning back now, we are here to stay. Time to embrace our future. We open up a bottle of wine and toast the city with styrofoam cups.  
 The morning paints a prettier picture. Sunlight streams into our  bedroom. No sirens yet, only a few birds that can't wait to be heard. I usually love staying in bed for as long as I can, but this morning, my desire for coffee is too great. I force myself to emerge from a mountain of blankets and throw on my warmest clothes. Time to find a a local coffee shop! Hmm, where to go? I decide to walk north and pass a few dogs pulling their still yawning owners along. I spy a few people drinking coffee out of paper cups that aren't from Starbucks and I know a delicious coffee shop is just around the corner, somewhere, if only I can find it.
 This early morning coffee run in Baltimore is the first of many I can already tell. There is something truly magical about an early city morning. I have always felt this magic whenever I have ventured out into the city for school or work or travel. I think the magic steams off of a mostly empty sidewalk stretching out in front of you and all the places it can take you to. The magic comes with the excitement of wondering who you are going to meet today and what conversation you will have that could change your view from horizontal to vertical. 
 As I walk past strangers on my coffee expedition, I wonder where they are going and what they are thinking about. Even though I don't talk to these strangers, we do acknowledge each other as we pass by sometimes with a nod, smile, or step to the side.Inside my head I wish them well on their journey today.I love the simple fact that no matter what the differences are between myself and these strangers, we are all experiencing the same beautiful city morning together.
 Ta da! I finally find an awesome coffee shop which is clean and modern and filled with happy patrons sipping their coffees, reading the paper, and chatting and laughing. I pick up two steaming cups of java and after fixing them with cream, head out the door. After one sip, I am sold. I cannot wait to come back here and settle in with a paper myself one future morning. As I walk home, a guy on the street shouts "You must REALLY love coffee" at me as I pass by him holding an extra-large coffee in each hand. I laugh, and reply "Yes, I do" and we both laugh again. I walk the final blocks back to the apartment and ring our doorbell so my husband can let me in. Waiting on the front stoop I think "yes." Yes, I am beginning to like Baltimore, and yes, this is just the beginning.