Friday, November 19, 2010

Of All the Roman Gladiators, We Couldn’t Find Maximus

So, I was kind of struggling with what to write about this week; especially, since I already have next week’s post planned out. However, while I looked at various pictures of my travels, I found myself reflecting longer and longer on the ones revolving around Rome. I can’t help but look at the pictures I took at the Colosseum and wish that I was back inside that amazing piece of historical architecture.

As some of you may know, my sister and I spent two weeks in Europe this past summer. For three days, we were given the opportunity to explore the beautiful city of Rome and let me tell you, that place is like none other. As much as I would love to tell you all about those three days, I’m afraid that blog post would be pages upon pages of reading; hence, my decision to focus solely on our day at the Colosseum…for now.

Okay, so you’ve seen it in pictures and movies, and even learned about it in school, but to see the Colosseum in person is quite a sight. Considering that it has been around since 70-80 A.D., it is holding up quite well. Granted, Mother Nature has taken its toll on it, but no one can deny the beauty of this structure.


Sitting Down on the Job...tsk, tsk
So we’re standing in line, waiting to buy our tickets, and I look over to see some men dressed as Roman gladiators. The first thought that popped into my head was that they looked nothing like Russell Crowe and secondly, there was no way I was going to pay to have my picture taken with one of them. I had heard rumors before we left on this trip, that in Rome, when you visit the Colosseum, there would be men dressed up as gladiators and if you want a picture with one of them, it will cost you an arm and a leg. Granted, I didn’t approach one of them, but I assumed from the various reports and stories that I had heard and read that I much rather preferred to keep my limbs. So, with my spiffy little camera, I snapped a few photos from afar…sneaky, I know.

Once purchasing our tickets, and managing to stay in front of two older gentlemen who kept trying to cut in front of us, we finally made our way into the Colosseum. Quickly, I pulled out my video camera and began filming. I didn’t want to miss any of it as I am one of those kinds of people who like to have more than just pictures for memories. Walking up the concrete pathway, into the main arena, I was completely taken back when I saw the enormity of it all. I could almost picture crowds of people standing in the stadium-style arena, cheering (or jeering) for the gladiator below.

“Okay, so where’s Maximus?” My sister laughed.  Yes, unfortunately, Russell Crowe was not there to grace us with his role of Maximus in Gladiator.  I do believe that is the only thing that could have made our day at the Colosseum even better.

The "Hypogeum"
The wooden arena floor has been cut back to showcase the underground chambers and passageways, also known as the hypogeum. As we looked out over the railing, it looked much like a maze—an area that held animals that were used for fighting. How I wish we could have gone down into that. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be expected to fight for your life, in front of hundreds upon hundreds of people; what it was like to battle fierce tigers, elephants, lions, bears, and other wild animals, in an attempt to survive in the arena. Would people cheer for you, or would they hope for your death? I guess it depended upon the nature of why you were there in the first place.

History tells us that men who were trained to become gladiators were not the only ones fighting in the arena. Criminals and Roman citizens were often executed within the Colosseum. Christians were often subjected to public humiliation or death in the arena. I kept this in mind as I zoomed in on the one thing that grasped my attention.

“Look over there. Talk about irony,” I said to my sister. 

When she spotted what it was that I was pointing at, she shared my expression. There, placed for all to see what a large cross. It sits there as a reminder of the Christian martyrs that died in the arena. Now, I realize that things have changed since the days of gladiators and all, but if the Catholic Church in Rome opted to place that cross there, for that reason…then I applaud their respect.

However, history hasn’t changed too much since those days. People may not be thrown into large arenas to be killed in front of thousands of people, but the nature of killing others because they have a different religious belief continues today.

Before I get on my soapbox about that, I’ll refocus and get back to the topic at hand. Both my sister and I simply could not believe that we were actually standing inside this place. Known for its incredible architecture, the Colosseum, I am convinced, is a sight that everyone should see at least once. As you stand outside one of the numerous entrances, you see that you are surrounded by even more of Rome’s great history. Near the Colosseum, you have the Arch of Titus, as well as the Arch of Constantine. And, on top of that, you are right across the street from the Roman Forum…incredible.  
My sister and I (I'm on the right)

Coming from the U.S., I find it absolutely fascinating when I see buildings and structures that are older than my own country. Granted, that is pretty much the rest of the world; however, to be given the opportunity to see it for myself, I couldn’t feel more humbled or appreciative.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

All Gave Some, but Some Gave All

"America will never run... And we will always be grateful that liberty has found such brave defenders."--George W. Bush
There is a place in this great nation that memorializes those who have sacrificed, witnessed, and survived; a place where younger generations can go to learn about and appreciate the defenders of this nation’s past; a place where names are etched in stone, where statues are erected in honor, and where history lives on—the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
When arriving at this amazing sight, you are greeted with the Washington Monument. Standing at 555 feet tall, the large marble obelisk, which was built in honor of George Washington, provides the perfect starting point for entering the National Mall. On my first trip to D.C. in 2007, I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sight before me. I’d always heard about the National Mall and the feeling it gave you when walking among the massive monuments; however, actually being there and experiencing it for myself was incredible.
Entering into the large open space, my eyes fell upon the long overdue memorial dedicated to the heroes of World War II. If you read my earlier post about my time spent at Normandy, you realize that I am somewhat of a World War II buff. For years, activists worked and rallied for a memorial to be built, honoring those who served in the Pacific and Atlantic. Celebrities like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg became spokespersons for the cause, and in 2004, the National Mall became home to the World War II memorial. A large circular center allows you a 360 degree look at the various concrete structures; all of them dedicated to those who fought. If you are facing the Lincoln Memorial, on the left will be the Pacific and on the right, the Atlantic.  
The Pacific Memorial holds a special place in my heart. My grandfather fought in New Guinea and in the Philippines; specifically, Luzon.  He was an Army medic, which meant that he was an easy target. However, he managed to make it through the war and return home with only a small piece of shrapnel lodged in his head. (Surprisingly, it didn’t begin irritating him until many years later) As I became older, I learned the location of Luzon and was surprised to know that my grandfather had been fighting close to Bataan. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Bataan, in 1942, 75,000 Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese and were forced to march an estimated 61 miles, in the infamous Bataan Death March. It is unclear as to how many died along the march, in the detention camps, and aboard the “Hell Ships.”
Now that I’ve given you a bit of Pacific War, World War II history, let’s get back to the main point here shall we? A large archway stands on the North and South ends of the memorial with the word “Pacific” etched into one and “Atlantic” etched into the other. Standing in the center, you can look up to see four eagles holding a laurel, signifying victory.  The Freedom Wall, complete with 4,000 golden stars, stands for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Each star represents 100 lives that were lost. If you’re doing the math, that is 400,000.
Seeing all of this can make a person quite emotional; especially, when it hits so close to home. However, I’ve never seen it become as personal as when we walked down towards the Vietnam Wall. My uncle Bobby fought in Vietnam and was there during the TET offense. Joining us that day, it was a humbling experience to see him walk that pathway, looking at the thousands of names etched in that stone; each one having lost their life. A book sat at the start of the black wall, containing the names of the fallen and the location of where you can find them on the panels.
As you look down the long pathway, you can see cards and flowers lining the wall; each from a loved one expressing their sorrow and love for someone they lost.

Standing next to my mom, my uncle, his daughter (whom he hadn’t seen in 30 years and was reunited with her on this trip), and the rest of our little group, we all watched as he tried to keep a strong front while looking through that book. You see, during his tour in Vietnam, he and some of the guys from his unit were driving through a field when they hit a land mine; everyone was killed but him.
“I can’t…I can’t even remember their names,” he said as he wiped his eyes and cleared his throat.
“I’ve tried to block all of that out,” he added.
We all just stood there and watched him gaze upon a wall that he thought he’d never see in person. I couldn’t help but wonder if he felt guilty for not being among those names. To stand by a man who has seen the horrors of war and lived to tell about it, well, I’m quite proud to say he’s my uncle.

My Uncle Bobby

Leaving the wall, we continued towards one of D.C.’s most recognized statues; the Lincoln Memorial. Climbing the steps, you come face to face with ol’ Abe himself. Sitting there in his oversize chair, he is estimated to be 19 feet tall. And as far as I’m concerned, he holds the best seat in the house. Turning around, you are presented with an incredible view overlooking the entire mall. To know that many important events in history took place right there, it gave me chills. Looking out onto the beauty of the National Mall, everything can be seen, from the tall trees that provide a small canopy over the walkways, to the amazing Reflecting Pool that sits in the center. Standing atop those steps, you can imagine what it might have felt like to be there when some of the greatest speeches in history occurred, such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.”  Yes, Abe had quite a view and I was a bit jealous.

Mom and me in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was unable to visit the Korean Memorial, but I have already promised myself that the next trip I talk to D.C., I will make time to see that incredible memorial. After leaving the National Mall, I would highly suggest going to visit the Marine Corps War Memorial, otherwise known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. Approaching this enormous statue, various inscriptions can be read along the base. Looking up, you see the iconic pose that was captured February 23, 1945 by Joe Rosenthal. There, stand five men, raising the American flag on top of Mt. Suribachi.

Having read “Flags of Our Fathers” by James Bradley, it helped to know the story behind the flag raisers and how that picture came to be. A rumor persists that there are 13 hands instead of 12, on the statue; the 13th hand signifying the hand of God. I didn’t hear about this rumor until after I visited the memorial, so I cannot be sure.
One thing I can be sure of is that each and every one of us should be thankful for the reasons behind these memorials. The men and women who fought for this great country are reasons as to why these memorials exist. You speak to a veteran today and they will tell you they are no hero, but that the real heroes are those who died on the battlefield. However, I beg to differ. I’m a firm believer in that if you fight and are willing to die for this country, you ARE a hero. My grandfather and my uncle, both will forever be heroes in my eyes, and not just because they are family, but because they felt it was their duty to fight the freedoms of this country.
Whatever you stance is regarding our current war, it is our job as American citizens to stand behind our troops. As someone who has a close friend in Afghanistan right now, it hits so close to home. Our men and women in uniform deserve the utmost respect and it is our responsibility to give it to them. On this Veteran’s Day, tell a veteran just how much you appreciate their service. A simple “thank you” or smile could mean so much. As you watch the parades, ceremonies, and rallies, I ask that you take a moment and be truly grateful for the freedoms we are given as American citizens.
(*Side note: You may ask why I didn’t write about my visit to Arlington, well, that is a post all on its own and one I will save for another day.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Delicacies of Cruise Ship Cuisine

The Delicacies of Cruise Ship Cuisine
Margherita Pizza, Fish & Chips, Beef Wellington, Lobster, Ice Cream, and Chocolate Molten Lava Cake… Is your mouth watering yet? I know mine is just from reading that list of amazingly delicious foods. Now, a regular person could never find a place that would serve all of these dishes, but I am not a regular person. You see, I like to think of myself as a “cruiser”; someone who is well-versed in the realm of cruise ship vacationing (at least that’s my definition of the word).  That also includes knowing my foods when it comes to cruise ship cuisine.
On one specific night, the crew creates these unique pieces from an array of food. Here you have a lobster and a chicken!

I don’t know about Royal Caribbean or any of those other cruise lines, but Carnival cruises offer some of the best food selections you could ever imagine. From the moment you step on board, the various aromas capture your senses and you feel as if you are literally being drawn to the Lido deck. Up there, you will find a smorgasbord of food.  Every culinary, cultural cuisine (like my alliteration there) can be found, and the best part about it all is you can have all you want and more.
Outside by the pool, each and every day, you will usually find a line of people waiting for a slice of Italian delicacy. Whether it is pepperoni, cheese, or supreme, adults and children alike line up in droves to taste the pizza that is baked right before your eyes. This is the kind of pizza that when it enters your mouth, that warm, gooey cheese is the kind you have to pull and pull at in order to separate it from the pizza; that’s only the best kind, am I right?
If you’re not in the mood for pizza, you can always enter into the food lover’s haven.  There you will find everything from good ol’ American hamburgers and hot dogs, England’s well-known fish & chips, Chinese noodles and egg rolls, and even Mexican tacos and burritos; whatever you crave, the Lido Deck on Carnival will deliver. Oh, and did I mention that after you’ve filled your belly full of deliciously good food, you can mosey on over to the massive dessert bar that they provide? Yes my friends, this is where you will need to take a few breaths, kick that belt back a few notches (oh who am I kidding, it is a cruise ship…whose wearing a belt?) and make way for that second stomach that is often used during the holiday season. Here at your all-you-can-eat dessert buffet, you will find decadent chocolate cake drizzled in hot fudge, creamy cheesecakes with strawberry toppings, flavorful pecan brownies, jiggling Jell-o is a variety of colors, and finally, the greatest dessert of all…ice cream. And you may gripe and complain that there are only three flavors but in my book, chocolate, vanilla and swirl only exist. This is where you grab yourself a sturdy cone (or cup for those who are weird) and pull on that lever. Pile it as high as you’d like because trust me, some kid is running around with it piled higher than yours!

Tell me all of that doesn't look good...

This type of eating can be enjoyed in the afternoon and at night. The mornings bring biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, pancakes, waffles, omelets, cereal, and basically any other type of breakfast food you can think of. If you’re dieting, there are always low-fat yogurt selections, gorgeous fruits that shine of bright red apples, yellow bananas, and a delicious mix of honeydew and cantaloupe. No matter what you choose, walking away from breakfast, lunch, or dinner should be a filling occasion.
For those who choose more of a fine dining experience, you can venture away from the buffet-style eating and instead, dress in more suitable attire and make your way to one of the cruise ships two dining restaurants. The great thing about Carnival is they offer an early and late seating. For those who like their meals earlier, they can choose the 6:00 dinner; however, my family and I have found that the 8:00 seating allows for more time spent out in the sun and immediate nightlife after dinner. There’s really no waiting around.
Of course, before dinner, Carnival offers the most fabulous array of sushi; all made to order, right before your eyes. The chef stands behind a small glass window and as you point to your sushi of choice, he quickly works his magic; transforming rice, fish, and seaweed into your very own, perfectly cut sushi. My taste buds usually favor mackerel, crab, salmon, and shrimp; however, for the more daring (this not including my sister), you can venture out and try an octopus tower. Yes my friends, you see the little suckers still attached to its tentacles in this sushi concoction. For me, this is just a bit too much…so I’ll settle for other fine choices that are available.
After eating our semi-sushi appetizer, we make our way towards the doors of the dining room where guests are treated to either a private table (just enough for your party) or a larger table that requires you to sit with other cruising guests. Over the years, we have tried both; however, after a few experiences with some interesting people, we now opt for a table of our own.  While looking over the menu, you are provided a basket of bread which my mother and I both feel is probably the most dangerous item at the table. You see, the bread on this ship…there is something about it, something that makes it so good that you simply cannot stop eating it; hence the groan you might hear when we see the waiter coming with it.

Isn't that pretty? All of it is fruit!!!!

Each night, the types of food you can order are different and range from Prime Rib to Lobster. Chicken and beef can always be found on the menu but my personal favorite…well, that is definitely, without a doubt, the lobster. Large, shelled lobster tails are delivered to your table with your very own cup of piping hot butter, just waiting to coat the yummy goodness. Of course, you cannot have lobster without your side of creamy mashed potatoes and an assortment of colorful vegetables. Let’s not forget that before you get your main entrée, you are given the choice of another appetizer (don’t forget, our family has sushi before dinner) and a salad. Fruit plates, crab cakes, soup (lobster bisque being my favorite), and your choice between two salads are just a few of the incredible starters you will find.

Now let’s not forget that during your meal, you can order anything else you would like, pretty much at any time. If you ordered the prime rib but want lobster afterwards, you are certainly able to do so. My dad is notorious for that. While you’re enjoying your elegant meal, the bread continues to be refilled, causing menacing glances to occur between my mom and me.  However, once our waiters see that each of us has made a happy plate, because let’s face it…you’re on a cruise and you absolutely refuse to let any of this delicious food go to waste; they arrive and clear your table, only to present you with yet another menu, only this time, it is filled with chocolate, cake, and pastries…time for that third stomach that you pull out only for dire times like these.
Unfortunately for me, the rich and chocolaty goodness that is present in the chocolate molten lava cake is something I cannot consume (Chocolate gives me migraines). However, there are cheesecake, crème brulee, ice cream, cheese and fruit plates, and even a diet-friendly cake that you can choose. Never in my life have I been surrounded my so much food. I’m dead serious here because if you’ve ever seen my family at Thanksgiving or Christmas, you know that we definitely do not skimp on food; however, Carnival Cruise Ship food takes the cake.
If I were to give you any advice prior to your cruise ship getaway, do not eat the entire week before you leave. You may starve and beg for something to fill your stomach, but the minute you step on that boat, you will fill it right back up to the point that it is screaming for you to run away and never feed it again by the time you are coming back to the mainland. For those who are picky, this is the perfect time to try new cuisine and tempt your taste buds. If you don’t like it, go get something else…no questions asked. (I did that with a langoustine, which is a crawfish. It came out whole and I simply could not crack open the head...sorry, not going to happen). This is your chance to branch out and taste what the world has to offer. Oh, and while you’re at it…have that ice cream cone at breakfast…you know you want to!