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Tour de France 2015 Croissant Comparison

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“This is the excellent foppery of the world…” ~William Shakespeare (King Lear, I, ii)

The 2015 Tour de France is just over one-third of the way through its 23-day jaunt around the French countryside, having started on July 4th in the neighboring Netherlands and slated for its traditional finish in Paris on July 26th.  One cannot profess to be a serious Tour de France fan without consuming at least a few handfuls of croissants (and/or baguettes) during those three weeks, and so, as a pure service to fellow French pastry fans (of course, there was no personal gain in this for me whatsoever, ahem) I have conducted a thorough comparison of some of the rumored-best croissants in the Austin area.

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d'Huez).

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d’Huez).

I did some of my own croissant research ahead of time to find out the highest rated and most popular bakeries in the area to help me decide where to go.  I decided to compare both plain butter croissants as well as chocolate croissants from each source, because, well, they’re both very delicious options.  (In French we say “pain au chocolate” instead of chocolate croissant, and it’s important to know this doesn’t mean it’s made from chocolate dough, but rather there is supposed to be a bit of chocolate piped into the middle of regular pastry dough.)  I also did limit myself geographically to central and north Austin (to save on gas $$$), and I put an upper spending limit on what I’d buy: no more than $3 per croissant (because anything more than that is just crazy talk).

The reviews are also listed in the order in which I purchased and tried them, not necessarily in ranked order.  Croissants were sampled from:

  1. Upper Crust Bakery
  2. La Madeleine Country French Cafe
  3. San Francisco Bakery & Cafe
  4. Quack’s 43rd St Bakery
  5. Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

You now have two more weeks of the Tour to take full advantage of this very important information, so allons-y, read it and eat:

1)  Upper Crust Bakery (4508 Burnet Road, Austin 78756; cocktail/small size Plain Butter Croissant $1.45, cocktail/small size Chocolate Croissant $1.90)

Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe

Upper Crust Bakery

I’d heard about Upper Crust for quite a while now but for some reason I’d never been there since moving to Austin.  It’s both a large full bakery and a cafe with quite a bit of seating for those wishing to dine in.  When I arrived around noon, they were already sold out of their regular-size croissants so I had to settle for their “cocktail” size options instead, which was fine because they were still a decent size and less than $2.00 each.

The plain croissant had nice layers inside but no flakiness of the crust (which I consider essential to a croissant), the bottom was nicely browned but not too much, I could taste the butter (and visible yellow egg layer) inside, and it had very nice “pull-apart” action from the ends with a decent chewiness.  I thought it was good but not great.  The chocolate croissant had a cinnamon-sugar topping which I didn’t care for at all (it made it too sweet in addition to the chocolate), and a decent amount of chocolate inside that was not overly sweet (which is good).  However it had a soft donut-y cake-y type texture instead of typical croissant layers; for that reason and because of the topping, it was my least favorite of the chocolate croissants in this review.

2)  La Madeleine Country French Cafe (9828 Great Hills Tr, Austin 78759; Plain Butter Croissant $1.89, Chocolate Croissant $2.79)

La Madeleine

La Madeleine

La Madeleine is a chain-restaurant mostly in the south and southwestern US that also has within each location its own small bakery, focusing on French-themed pastries.  The butter croissant was a great size for the cost and had a very buttery taste indeed; the color on the outside was a little too brown in my opinion, but it had good pull-apart action, a very good chewiness on the inside, and its taste overall was very good.  My main issue with this croissant was that it had too much space/air inside of it and not enough substance (see picture below).

The chocolate croissant had a really nice flakiness on the crust and decent layers inside, and its butter flavor was good and not too strong.  The chocolate was a nice dark-tasting chocolate but unfortunately there was just hardly any of it – as you can see from the picture below, the chocolate “tunnels” inside were near-empty; my other issue with this one is that they gave me an extremely small size croissant from the bakery rack, which was probably half the size of the ones in the display case – I had to hand it back and ask for a regular-sized one instead of a mini-one.  The baker seemed miffed at this and said “well they all proof to different sizes.”  Ok then, if you’re going to give me a mini-one, charge me for a mini-one ($.99); if you’re going to charge me nearly three times the cost of a mini-one, then give me a decent-sized croissant.  Thank you.

La Madeleine - near empty chocolate "tube"

La Madeleine – near empty chocolate “tube”


La Madeleine - big empty space inside butter croissant

La Madeleine – big empty space inside butter croissant

3)  San Francisco Bakery & Cafe (2900 W. Anderson Ln, Austin 78757; Plain Butter Croissant $2.09, Chocolate Croissant $2.39)

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

I’ve been to San Francisco before for lunch with a friend but hadn’t tried its pastries before.  They have a small bakery case up front by the register but the place is mostly a cafe.  I thought their butter croissant had a great butter taste and smell, excellent dough-y layers and chewiness, and great flakiness of crust.  It was a good size, not too large or too small, and although the bottom of it was a little too browned, in my opinion this was the best of the bunch that I reviewed.

Unfortunately the chocolate croissant was not the best of the bunch, mostly due to the overly sweet and too-rich chocolate inside – there was a decent amount of chocolate but it had way too high of a sugar content for my taste.  The crust was also too dark and the croissant part itself tasted a little bland; however there were good layers inside, good crust flakiness outside, and it wasn’t at all cake-y.  My biggest issue at San Fran was the prices – for the size of the croissants, I thought they were pretty expensive.  Many of the chocolate croissants in the display case were literally half the size as some of the others, yet they were charging the same price for all of them.  Ask for a larger-sized one and they’ll give it to you.

4) Quack’s 43rd St Bakery (411 E. 43rd St, Austin 78751; Plain Butter Croissant $2.25, Chocolate Croissant $2.99)

Quack's Bakery & Cafe's HUGE croissants

Quack’s HUGE croissants

I’d never even heard of Quack’s before I did the research for this post, but I’m glad I know about them now.  They had a LOT of fantastic-looking baked goods in their multiple display cases, and when I saw the croissants I had to ask them “are those the giant sizes, do you have any regular or mini-sized ones?”  (They don’t.)  Their croissants are HUGE, which is good because they’re also expensive, but really it’s like you’re getting two croissants in one so it’s not so bad.  Their plain butter croissant had amazing flaky crust layers outside and a good color, while the inside was very airy (almost too much so); it had a good chewiness but there was a lack of a real buttery taste inside.  It was very good but not the best I’d had.

Airy layers of Quack's butter croissant

Airy layers of Quack’s butter croissant


Impressive flaky layers of Quack's chocolate croissant

Impressive flaky crust layers

However the chocolate croissant – oh my WOW.  The best layered croissant by far that I sampled (see picture below), both outside and inside.  Excellent layers.  The croissant was a bit flat and not raised like some of the others, but I’m assuming that’s because all the butter in those layers weighed it down a bit.  This croissant was also humongous, way larger than any of the other chocolate ones I tried, but unfortunately its chocolate tunnels were tiny in proportion to its size and there was a minimal amount of chocolate inside.  The chocolate that was there though tasted high quality, dark-chocolatey and not overly sweet.  The non-chocolate part of the croissant tasted just ok, but it was really the layers that made this one shine.

The unending layers of Quack's chocolate croissant.

The unending layers of Quack’s chocolate croissant.

5) Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery (6808 N. Lamar, Austin 78752; Plain Butter Croissant $2.00, Chocolate Croissant $2.00)

I’d also never heard of Tous Les Jours before this project.  They’re a Korean bakery that also makes French and European pastries and apparently it’s a chain with 30 US locations; the atmosphere inside the Austin location is nice and they have trays and trays of breads and pastries laid out in the non-cafe area; you’re supposed to grab a tray and some tongs, pick your pastries, and then the cashier goes through this elaborate ritual of putting each pastry in its own swanky little plastic bag and sealing it with a gold twisty tie.  I’m not a fan of breads and pastries being out in the open air, where just anyone (most of the trays are right at kid eye-level) can put their germy hands and fingers on them if they want or flies with poopy feet can land on them if they make it in through a door.  I guess I like it better when they’re in pastry cases or behind the register where the baker can hand you your baguette if you will.

touslesjours1

Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

My first impression of the butter croissant selection was that most of them were pretty small for the $2.00 price.  On the other hand, I thought that the same price of $2.00 that they were charging for the pain au chocolate was reasonable.  They did also have teeny-tiny mini-versions of each of these too, literally maybe two bites max, for $1.00 each.  (They were the smallest chocolate croissants I’d ever seen, I didn’t even know you could make them that small.)  The butter croissant was probably my least favorite out of all the ones tried – it was almost completely flat, as if the doughy layers inside were just too heavy to hold themselves up.  There was a decent flakiness to the outside crust, but inside there was a yeasty rather than buttery smell and taste; in fact, I couldn’t really taste any butter in it at all, although the inside was very greasy.  Overpriced for the quality.

Unfortunately their pain au chocolate was not much better.  It had a strange shiny, sticky glaze over the outside top layer which did not smell or taste good, and glued down all the flakiness; I actually had to peel off the top layer because I found it very unappetizing.   This croissant was also very flat, the dough layers were good but too heavy, and there was a very minimal amount of chocolate inside (I had a hard time even tasting it).  I couldn’t detect any butter taste at all, and like its companion, I wished it had been more airy and less heavy.

One bakery/cafe I can highly recommend that I’ve been to before but did not include in this review is Baguette et Chocolate Authentic French Bakery (12101 Bee Cave Rd, Bee Cave TX 78738), it’s just too far for me usually.  I did go to a few other bakeries that had been recommended but didn’t get croissants for them for different reasons:

  • Texas French Bread (2900 Rio Grande, Austin 78705) wanted $3.75 PER CROISSANT (!!!)…and they were about half the size of Quack’s bigger croissants; when I asked why they were so expensive I was told “we use real butter and cream.”  And?  Are those particular cows dipped in chocolate and rolled in gold shavings?  Sorry, those prices are way too high for me (and probably for most university students in the area, but they tend to cater to Austin’s “celebrity” clientele I hear, *coughlancearmstrongcough*).
  • Phoenicia Bakery (4701 Burnet, Austin 78756) told me they only make/offer croissants three days a week, but the guy behind the counter couldn’t tell me which specific days.  There were none available when I was there.
  • Bee’s Knees Bakeshop (109 Cypress Creek Rd, Cedar Park 78613) is gluten-free only, so they don’t make bread items like croissants.

Well, my job here is done.  I do believe I’ve eaten my last croissant for the next 12 months or so, and I may have to fast now for the rest of the Tour.  Next year’s Tour de France food review, I’ve already decided, will be the Battle of the Baguettes.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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Fiery Farenheit Frustration

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“Too hot, too hot!” ~William Shakespeare (Winter’s Tale, I, ii)

Usually August is the absolute worst month in Austin for heat and humidity but this year September really gave August a run for its money.  It’s been nearly five years now since I moved to Austin and I still am having a very hard time getting used to how infernally hot it really is here.  My parents and brother moved here over 20 years ago and I used to visit them a few times each year; I remember it being hot but not this hot, and I also remember it raining a lot more than it does now.  And it seems now like Austin just stays really hot from about March through September; there is no real winter here and when the temps dip down into the 70s, everyone starts referring to it as a cold front.  Oh, and when it does get “cold” from December through February, we have the insane cedar allergy season to deal with, so it’s not like we can even go out into cold and enjoy it…no, those of us blessed with allergies have to stay cooped up in our HEPA-filtered houses and run from the car to the house to dodge the yellow blasts of pollen exploding from the trees.

Yes, I’m feeling grumpy lately if you couldn’t tell.  I grew up in Albuquerque NM and spent most of my adult life there until I moved here.  Albuquerque is blessed to have near-perfect weather year round; no it doesn’t snow there as often as it used to either, and rain is so rare that it brings people out on to their front porches in amazement, but it has actual real feel-good seasons.  Fall is fall, with its crisp mornings and state fair apple cider and turning leaves; spring is spring with its windy days and layering-your-clothes weather.  There are MANY people in Austin who never stop wearing shorts, regardless of the month (I’m not one of them).  A few years ago here in Austin we almost hit 100 degrees one February day…I remember thinking that it could not possibly be true but it was.  The leaves here don’t turn until extremely late if at all, and a late fall warm snap can dupe the trees and plants into thinking it’s spring already, so they get all confused.

 

I miss the true fall of ABQ.

I miss the true fall of ABQ…

A few weeks ago I had to spend six hours outside for a work function, under a tent, in danger-level heat-index warning temps.  It was so miserably hot that I got heat rash on my FOREHEAD.  The last time that happened was when I lived in the middle-of-nowhere Africa, where temps regularly soared into the 110s or often higher.  It should NOT be (or at least seem) as hot in Austin as it is in Africa, I paid my hotter-than-hell dues already!!  I remember the first year I was here, I went with my brother and one of my  nephews to an annual ice cream festival – outside of course, in August.  It was indescribably hot, and the fact that your ice cream would melt faster than you could eat it only made it that much worse.  (I don’t go to outdoor festivals in August anymore.)

And another thing – I don’t have a pretty sweat pattern.  I’ve been cursed with sweat glands that run like faucets in areas that you don’t want it to look like you have a running faucet.  I also sweat a lot all over my scalp, which is extremely unpleasant and makes every hot day a bad hair day (which is depressing when you have less-than-great hair to begin with).

Getting and staying that hot for that amount of time makes me very cranky.  It makes me do things like throwing my bags down when I get home, flinging open the laptop, and immediately start searching the internet for jobs in Seattle.  Or Maine.  Or blissfully rainy England.  Anywhere where it isn’t as hot as here.

A few frustration tears are shed sometimes.  Yes, it’s possible to escape the heat temporarily with a blast of the A/C (in Austin, not in Africa), but then I know it’s out there again tomorrow, waiting for me.  Until finally, it’s not, and the weather turns the corner…and instead of the wind feeling like dragon fire-breath, you feel just the slightest perceivable tinge of coolness in the breeze, and along with it, a sense of immense relief.

Which happened yesterday.  FINALLY.  And not a minute too soon…  I was just about to apply for that job in Seattle.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Evolution and Enchiladas

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“Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide.” ~William Shakespeare (King Lear, I, ii)

After Christmas, I made a return trip to my homeland of New Mexico to spend some time with family members at a vacation home in the southern part of the state.  During that time, I also drove up to spend a night in Albuquerque, where I lived for 35 years (wow that makes me feel old) before I moved to Texas.  I ate at some of my favorite restaurants (I’m looking at you Saggio’s and Frontier) and got to see and catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in over four years.

A collage tribute to one of my favorite places ever: The Frontier in Albuquerque.

A collage tribute to one of my favorite places ever: The Frontier in Albuquerque.

But that excursion left me feeling pretty melancholy.  Something had changed since I’d last visited the Q a little over a year ago.  The city itself felt depressed to me, and the neighborhoods around my childhood home appeared deserted and old and crumbling. There seemed to be barely any traffic on the streets anywhere in the city, especially compared to the ever-constant congestion on Austin’s roadways.  The wintery landscape was bathed in familiar browns and grays, with the ever-present lack of greenery that I remember from living there.  New Mexico has a stark and unique beauty, but I didn’t feel it while in my former city this time.

I had to wonder if it was more me than the locale.  As I drove around old haunts and hangouts, including my home I had for 14 years as an adult, I just felt…sad.  So much has changed in my life recently, that maybe I’m more sensitive to other things that appear to have not changed at all.  And while I have a few friends left in Albuquerque, only one of them was able to get together this time.  The others I saw a year ago weren’t available, which is ok; it was short-notice and the end of the year, and I completely understood.  Last year, Bryan Cranston sat his Hollywood self right next to me at a downtown cafe, but this year I just felt like a lonely loser as I brought my take-out enchiladas back to my hotel room.

I think part of the sadness comes from acceptance of the fact that there are several people and places in Albuquerque that are no longer part of my life, and probably won’t be again.  I should have known better than to go by my old house, the mere sight of which floods me with painful, wonderful, life-changing memories.  For better or worse, that part of my life is over.  And as life stumbles on, we come to realize that certain friendships have also run their course.  Sometimes it isn’t even a fight or one specific event that brings the relationship to a slow close…it’s just the evolution of the history and the fading of the future, and then before you know it, you haven’t spoken for years and instead of feeling wrong, it’s somehow ok.

I think many people force friendships past their evolutionary end out of a feeling of false obligation…but they’re not being honest with either themselves or the other person.  Some things just end.  We all know who our true, lifelong, call-me-no-matter-what-you-need friends are; it doesn’t matter how much time goes by either, you can just pick up where you left off, which often was years and years ago.  But let’s face it – most friendships don’t fall into that category.

For me, they are few and far between.  I’ve been faced with fading friendships over the past few years, and it hasn’t been just a result of changing zip codes.  Letting go of people who have been there during good and bad times and memory-making moments is a strange thing to have to do.  Admitting and accepting that we have little in common anymore or that we don’t agree with each others’ past choices is slightly gut-wrenching, but to me, seems necessary as part of being true to ourselves and choosing to be UNunhappy.

I’ve grieved for fallen friendships and lost love, and if I let myself, it’s easy to trudge back into the trenches of wallowing.  But at some point, it has to just be enough.  Move on.  Move up.  Move into the realm of where you feel you are supposed to be.  Even ‘LOST‘ agreed that you have to hit the reset button sometime.

I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be, at least for right now (even though I hate being held hostage in my own house over the last few days by the insanely high cedar pollen counts in Austin, it’s ridiculous).  I don’t know if I’ll return to Albuquerque again or when, although the possibility of never going back seems unlikely to me.  Maybe we’ll tow the nephews along to Balloon Fiesta one year soon; I’d love to see the looks on their faces at the wonder that is a thousand balloons launching off the field in simultaneous waves of fire and color.

Source: Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

(Source: Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta)

By the way: after some searching since I moved here, I did find a pretty good enchilada place in Austin.  It’s not quite the same, but it’s enough.  I’m hitting the enchilada reset button. (And it’s just around the corner, which is either convenient or dangerous, depending on how you look at it…)  I hope that you too are lucky enough to have enticing enchiladas available to you wherever you are.  Because what’s life without the perfect plate of enchiladas every once in a while, right?  (Let’s see how many times I can use the word enchilada in one paragraph.)

(Source: TripAdvisor)

(Source: TripAdvisor)

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Snippety Snippets Vol. 1

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“What, shall a child instruct you what to do?” ~William Shakespeare (King Henry VI, Part 1, III, i)

Welcome to a new segment of the operationUNunhappy blog that I’m calling “Snippety Snippets.”  Yes I know it’s the season of giving and light and red-nosed reindeer, but – admit it – it’s also the time of tried patience and shopping fatigue and please-let-there-be-alcohol-in-that-eggnog.  If you haven’t looked into the price of plane tickets for an escape holiday trip to the Caribbean at least once, you probably are in the minority of revelers out there.

island

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not anti-Christmas at all.  I think it’s really cute the way my nephews start behaving noticeably sweeter in the weeks leading up to the big day, with thoughts of red-suited deliveries on their calculating little minds.  A few years ago, I really got into the spirit when I bought a purple (yes purple) faux Christmas tree for my house.  I like hearing a good Victorian carol song, and I look forward each year to my annual holiday screening of ‘Love Actually’ with a good cup of cocoa.  And I really do enjoy the rare occasion when I come up with just the right gift idea for someone.

But that being said, I know I’m not the only one that thinks this over-extended, over-commercialized, bank-account-draining time of the year is a little trying on the nerves. Add into that mix the misery of cold and flu season and the insanity of cedar fever here in central Texas, and pretty soon the patience wears pretty thin for all things even remotely irritating.  (Google ‘cedar fever’ if you’re not familiar with it…it’s the miserable annual price we pay each winter for living in Austin TX and what puts the city at #1 on the list of worst allergy cities in the US.)

So I thought I’d indulge myself with this Snippety Snippets segment to be able to just vent about stupid little mundane things that have annoyed the crap out of me lately.  Don’t you just want to be able to say what’s really on your mind sometimes?? 

kellytheoffice

I have the feeling this will actually be very beneficial in terms of my UNunhappy level, so here we go:

  • Last Wednesday, SIX days after Thanksgiving, a female co-worker cheerily wished me “Happy Thanksgiving!” while I heated my lunch in the microwave.  This was a first for me.  I’ve been Happy New Year-ed up to several weeks after the actual day, which is also annoying, but for some reason this much-belated post-turkey sentiment was especially weird and should not be allowed.  I didn’t say it back to her but rather gave her a sideways suspicious look while mumbling “thanks.”  The stores have had Christmas decorations in the aisles since before Labor Day, no one cares about Thanksgiving after the actual day; move on, lady.
  • Everyone knows you don’t mess with perfection.  A few weeks ago I went to pick up my to-go dinner of chips & queso from my favorite taco place, only to find out once I got home that they’d completely changed the recipe.  They’d added in humongous chunks of red and green bell peppers and extra long pieces of slimy onion, which were not part of the plan prior to that.  Once I fished out the offending newcomers, there was hardly any actual queso left in the container.  And what was left tasted all bell peppery and oniony, blech.  So much in life is changing all the time – is it too much to ask that you just let the queso be, favorite-taco-place-of-mine?  Or is this a sign from the universe that I should stop eating queso?
  • People who yawn with their mouths uncovered right in front of me in the Starbucks line (or any line, anywhere actually) so that I then have to move into your plane of yucky yawn breath air:  STOP IT.  Is your arm broken?  Are you completely uncivilized?  I get that you’re tired and haven’t had your caffeine yet, but yawns should be considered the same as sneezes and coughs in my book – cover with your arm or hand and spare the rest of us the view of your silver filling collection and leftover yawn breath.  Gross.

lionsyawn

  • This one is for any woman who has ever visited any public restroom, especially one in the workplace/office:  this is not your bathroom at home.  We have to share this space multiple times a day with you.  So if you decide you just have to fix or brush your hair while in the bathroom (and why didn’t you do this at home before you came to work?), finagle your neck muscles to actually look down at the vanity/sink area before you leave.  See all that hair you left behind in the sink and on the counter?  No? Look again, it’s there, all over the place.  CLEAN IT UP.  Quit being such a slob.  (This point can also not be stressed enough regarding any substance of any kind you left behind on the toilet seat when you were performing bathroom acrobatics in order to avoid coming into contact with the actual toilet surface; spend ten extra seconds to actually look down before you leave and make life more pleasant for the rest of us by cleaning it up, thanks.  Guys, you are so lucky.)
  • Healthcare.gov… *sigh*  Still unable to enroll after a month of trying.  Can’t talk any more about it or my head may explode.
  • The 170 people who move to Austin EVERY DAY – please stay off Mopac and 183 as much as possible, you are making a horrible traffic problem much worse and your slow rubberneck driving is going to give me a stroke before too much longer.  Just please move downtown and find a job that you can run to on the Hike & Bike Trail so you don’t have to drive anywhere, thanks.  And – did not you not hear about cedar fever before you made the decision to move here??!  Bring lots of kleenex and allergy meds with you, you’ll need them.

Ah, well, I guess that’s all the snippety snippets I have for now.  I feel much lighter now, thanks.  (Maybe it’s because I haven’t had chips and queso in two weeks…)

How about you, anything you want to get out there off your chest and into the universe?  Go ahead, get snippety, let us know in the comments section.  We won’t judge you.  We get it.  Oh and Happy Holidays!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Lost in Austin (But Finding My Way)

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“Come, thou shalt go home, and we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks, and thou shalt be welcome.” ~William Shakespeare (Pericles, II, i)

As I sit in front of a warm fireplace on a cold, rainy November night, I’m reflecting on the fact that it was four years ago this week, the day before Thanksgiving 2009, that I moved from Albuquerque NM to Austin.  The day I arrived was also cold and rainy, and we unloaded much of the moving van in a drizzly haze.  My Dad and I had caravaned in my car and the moving van over two days time to break up the trip.

It was not the best time for me, which had precipitated much of my decision to move.  I was still heartbroken and reeling from a recent divorce, and had decided to leave my anxiety-ridden job of 7 years at a disease management company that was itself crumbling.  It was not an easy decision to leave the city in which I’d spent most of my life, but it seemed a logical one.  My family had been in Austin for almost twenty years by that point; it had taken me two decades to finally follow them.

On that rainy night of my arrival, I moved into a depressing duplex on a dismal street filled with struggling families and broken down cars.  But my family did their best to dress it up and give me the warmest welcome possible.  I was grateful to finally just be here, among them, no matter what the circumstances.  Moving is a big risk at any time, for anyone.  I didn’t exactly outrun my depressing circumstances, and it was quite a struggle to find a decent job in the middle of the worst economic recession in modern history, but I was here, and that was the goal.

A lot has happened in those four years since.  Births and deaths, finding jobs and quitting jobs, leaving that depressing duplex for a new home, stress and setbacks, risk and realizations.  I’ve been privileged to travel during that time to see sights I’d always wanted to see.  I’ve been lucky to make one or two new friends in four years, which may not seem like a lot, but one of the facts I’ve come to realize (and accept) about myself is that I’m not one that makes friends (real friends) easily.  So I’m grateful for that too.

Four years still doesn’t seem like enough time to consider myself an Austinite though.  I still get lost all the time; if it weren’t for my iPhone, I’d have no idea where I’m going in the hilly streets of this city (with no reference points to guide me).  And whether you’re lost or not, Austin’s traffic woes will drive you mad.  The extreme heat and the humidity and the ever-present mosquitoes have been hard to get used to (I’m not sure I ever will) and make outside activities pretty undesirable for me.  I miss the perfect weather and seasons of Albuquerque and the striking beauty of New Mexico landscapes and sunsets.  In four years, I haven’t been able to find a decent Sunday morning breakfast spot like I had in Albuquerque.  The cost of living here in Austin is about double what it was in NM, and I still have to remind myself to call them breakfast tacos instead of breakfast burritos.

IMG_4306

The pink Sandia Mountains lit by an Albuquerque sunset.
I miss you Q.

But there’s one overriding factor that validates all those drawbacks (which are relatively minor), and it’s a pretty powerful one: family.  Every time over the past four years that I’ve been asked why I moved to Austin, I’ve always responded with the same answer: it’s where my family was.  It may not sound like much, but it’s pretty much everything.  It’s hard to beat being near your family.  It hasn’t been perfect, and there have been ups and downs, but we’re here if we need each other, and I’m thankful for that.

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So during this week of Thanksgiving, I’m thinking of how grateful I am for each one of my family members: their love, their health, their support, their proximity, and their help.  Thank you for bringing me here.  Thank you for putting up with my mood swings and fluctuating aspirations.  Thank you for all the car battery jump starts, free handyman repairs, midnight urgent care trips, family dinners and home-cooked meals, babysitting advice, leanable shoulders and listening ears.  I don’t say it enough, but I love you all and appreciate each one of you.  And – you’re lucky you live in Austin, because it’s the only city in Texas I would’ve moved to (it is pretty cool here, in a hot, humid, Austin-weird way).  Thank you for helping me find my way (whatever that may turn out to be).

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Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

The Fine Line Between Lovely and Lonely

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“Alone she was, and did communicate to herself her own words to her own ears…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, I, iii)

Last Saturday, I made the 25-mile trip into downtown Austin by way of the Metro Rail train to grab some dinner and support a local improv theatre called The Hideout.  Their show that night was called “Fakespeare,” in which the troupe created a never-before seen, completely improvised Shakespeare-ish play, along with some very funny improv skits and games along the way.  The train was a new experience for me (and brought back fond memories of riding trains in England and France), and I had a great meal at the 1886 Bakery & Cafe inside the historic Driskill hotel before the show. 

The Metro Rail station in downtown Austin.

The Metro Rail station in downtown Austin.

Austin's landmark Driskill Hotel, built in 1886.

Austin’s landmark Driskill Hotel, built in 1886.

A scene from "Fakespeare," in which the troupe performs in the audience-named "Thou Shalt Do It Again."

“Fakespeare,” in which the troupe performs a scene in the audience-named play “Thou Shalt Do It Again.”

This was a solo venture, which is not new for me; it’s the norm actually for most of my outings.  It’s not that I’m completely anti-social – after all, I sat in the theatre as part of a group of similar-minded Shakespeare fans to watch the show – but more often than not, it’s just more convenient for me to do things I want to do by myself.  I’m sensitive to the fact that most (if not all) of my friends and family don’t share a lot of my interests, and it doesn’t feel right to force the issue just so I won’t be alone.

I had a perfectly lovely UNunhappy time.  It was a lovely stroll around downtown, a nice dinner, an entertaining show. Which was why I was surprised on the train ride home to find myself feeling lonely.  I don’t get lonely very often, but I found myself thinking it would have been nice to have shared those activities with someone else.  Surely I’m not the first person to notice there’s only one letter’s difference between lovely and lonely?

I’m mostly used to being alone by now.  You see, I must somewhat-sheepishly admit that I’m the Ross Geller of my social circle of friends and family, in that I’ve been divorced more than anyone else in the group (twice now).  Some questionable decisions in the past and a well-meaning (but misguided) save-him complex led to two failed marriages and some very wealthy therapists out there.  (But seriously, those therapists are also heroes in my eyes who helped save me on many occasions, so thank you.)

Despite me being used to being alone, it still seems to be an anomaly in other peoples’ eyes.  As I arrived to the cafe for dinner and asked to be seated, the host asked “Only for one?  No one else is joining you?”  Bravely staring him down in a non-threatening but assertive manner, I replied “Nope, just me” as I was then escorted to an enormous booth that could have seated six people.  Why not give the single girl the most conspicuous table?  (Whenever I eat out alone, I always think of that great scene from ‘Hope Floats‘ where Harry Connick Jr consoles Sandra Bullock by saying It’s not for sissies you know, dining alone. Gotta be made of some pretty stern stuff to do that.”)

"It's not for sissies you know, dining alone."

“It’s not for sissies you know, dining alone.”

But I needn’t have worried.  The entire time I was there, not only was I alone at my gargantuan booth, I was the only person in the entire restaurant.  At 7:15 PM.  On a Saturday.  I began to think I’d missed a health department report or something.

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

My soup and salad tasted fine though, and finally as the waiter brought the check I asked “why am I the only one in here?”  He laughed and said “It’s August in Austin, no one wants to come to the city when it’s 105 degrees outside.  Plus, we don’t really get hopping until later when they rope off the streets for the revelers.”  Hmm.  Still thought that was weird.

The suspicion of my solo-ivity didn’t stop there.  The rows in the theatre consisted of four seats each.  I sat in an aisle seat, and a few minutes later a man and his party of three asked me if the rest of the seats in the row were free.  When I said yes, the woman with him said “Really, all of them? You aren’t saving the one next to you?”  Sigh.  “Nope, they’re all free for your big butts” I said (in my mind).

On the train ride back home, all around me were couples and groups of people riding together.  I seemed to be the only solo traveler.  Even the police officers serving as our Metro marshals traveled in pairs.  Then bizarrely, everyone exited the train before my station (which was the last one).  During the last leg, I was the only one left on the entire train.  And for the second time that night, I found myself surrounded by empty seats.

It's like a scene from the Twilight Zone.

It’s like a scene from The Twilight Zone.

I felt mocked somehow.  Venture out alone, we’ll show you alone!  (Insert evil laugh here.)

Of course I’m not alone in being alone; I see Twitter tweetmates who also document their solo journeys, getting on with their lives.  Whether by choice or not, we march on, making the best of our solo situations.  It’s not our fault that people in general don’t like “lone” anything; heck, even Johnny Depp couldn’t save ‘The Lone Ranger’ from an unexpected demise this summer.  Our society looks down on singles for some reason as it caters to couples, but the joke’s on them.  Being alone and single has its definite perks, such as: 

  • I can eat cereal for dinner EVERY SINGLE NIGHT if I want to.  Ha!
  • The only person scared by my troll-doll hair first thing in the morning is me.
  • I can ignore that razor in my shower for umpteen days if I feel like it.  A little stubble never killed anybody.

I could go on, but let’s be honest, there’s too many to list.  (But if you want to add your own in the comments section below, I’d love to see them).

I’ve talked before about how I’m a bit of a loner, and about how I’ve traveled alone to faraway places.  And while there’s a degree of pride in that self-sufficiency, I’m only human – I know and remember well that there are certain things in life that are best shared with another by your side.  I’ve been lucky enough to have many of those experiences in my past, and they were great.  I can’t help but think that a little loneliness in my life now is the price I pay for decisions made in the past, and I get that.  I don’t mind paying the toll – the journey was expensive, but educational.

No one knows what the future holds, and I’m a believer in good things happening when you least expect them.  Risk is fraught with both reward and (sometimes-harsh) reality.  I’m more open to the possibilities of change now than I have been in quite some time.  But for the time being, I accept both lovely and lonely into my life. 

And maybe I’ll even go shave.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Start and Re-Start

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“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit…” ~William Shakespeare (Henry V, III, i)

This is a time of starts and re-starts in my life, which is great! Next week I start a new internship with a high-end floral design studio that specializes mostly in weddings. I applied a few weeks ago and found out recently that I’m one of two interns they chose for their program. For two months, I’ll be learning the ins and outs of what it takes to design intricate floral creations for elaborate events and I can’t wait! It’s going to be hard work – this company does a lot of building and installation of many of the surrounding elements of design, such as lighting, sets, art treatments, and signage, so that means a lot of manual labor, but I’m good with that (she says now, naively). It will mean late nights as we set up and then take down the creations at the wedding and event sites, but it’s all part of a new learning experience for me and I welcome it.

I’m really looking forward to observing and learning how the floral designs come to life – from the time the flowers arrive at the studio, through the processing and handling stages to make sure they last as long as possible, and then into the actual creation of the floral pieces themselves. Bouquets, centerpieces, art pieces, headdresses, arches, urns, bowls, jars, runways…the list of possibilities goes on and on.

Beautiful "Message" & "Ilios" roses

Beautiful “Message” & “Ilios” roses

I’ve never been an intern; as long as I can remember, I just always jumped right into the jobs I was hired for. And when I moved to Austin and started my first job here, I actually supervised several different college interns over a few semesters. I created their schedules, assigned their workloads, supervised their projects – and found it very enjoyable. There was something about helping them learn and explore their interests, and guiding them without fully directing them, that I found very fulfilling. And now I’m on the other side of that coin! I’ll be the wide-eyed intern, learning and exploring and being guided. Funny how things really do go around that big circle sometimes.

On the re-start front and a completely different subject, I kicked myself in the pants (with a little help from my friend Sheila, thank you!) and finally got back on my bike. The poor neglected creature had sat abandoned and forlorn in the garage for the past many (MANY) months without nary a ride to speak of. It’s weird right, that I’m such a big cycling fan but haven’t been logging any miles myself? It felt strange to me too, so I’m glad to report I’ll be riding again.

Within the first few months of moving to Austin, I realized that this was a big bike city. Not just because you-know-who lives here and, according to many, put American cycling on the map in general – but Austin is a fitness-crazed conglomeration of runners, cyclists, and all other things health-related. We have the world headquarters of Whole Foods here; we have umpteen miles of running trails around the city; and we basically (and unfortunately IMO) have no winter to speak of, so outdoor activities get a lot of screen time.

So, even though “fit” was not a word anyone (including myself) would use to describe me at that time (or now), I caved to the pressure of the panting exercisers in the city and bought a bike. Nothing too serious mind you – just a mid-range hybrid Trek with not-too-skinny tires and flat handlebars that would let me sit a bit more upright than a traditional road bike. I love my bike actually – it’s a cool purple-y color and actually has a flower design on it (of course). And, it has the all-important “granny gear” that someone like me needs to hike themselves up the never-ending namesakes of Austin Hill Country.

My Bloomin' Bike

My Bloomin’ Bike

I started doing road rides by myself, first 10, then 20, then 30 miles or more. Then I started doing group rides each Saturday, carting my bike the 25 miles to downtown to meet at a bike shop and then ride 25 miles. The farthest I’ve ever ridden in one day was 45 miles for the Livestrong Challenge a few years ago. I’m pretty slow (except on the downslope, that extra weight comes in handy then), and I’m a turtle on the uphills, but I have the endurance for some reason to ride far, even though it may take me forever.

Before my longest ride of 45 miles.

Before my longest ride of 45 miles.

My previous job position had involved biking on a very regular basis, and it was great. We’d go out for rides with kids on the way to school, or we’d conduct bike safety rodeos and safety seminars – there was always something bike-related to look forward to. I even became certified as a League Certified Instructor (LCI) with the League of American Bicyclists to be able to teach bike safety to the kids and parents we were working with. Biking had become a consistent part of my life.

But when I was transferred into my last job position about a year ago, all of that stopped. The biking aspect was completely eliminated from our restructured jobs; our experience and qualifications sadly counted for nothing anymore. I got so depressed about it that I just pushed my poor bike aside, literally. First I stopped going on group rides; I was commuting so far downtown five days a week anyway, that driving down there again on the weekends was the last thing I wanted to do. Plus, I was so slow that I felt I held up the group and it was embarrassing. I still went on some solo rides around my neighborhood on the weekends, but eventually that stopped too. Add to that the constant ill health I seemed to be suffering, and I just couldn’t get into it anymore.

But I’ve actually always liked riding a bike, so I did miss it. I have wonderful memories of my Dad teaching me to ride my bike in the park for the first time when I was about 7 years old – a pink banana-seater called “The Strawberry Sizzler.” I rode that thing to pieces all over our neighborhood. When I was about 12, he revamped my mom’s old Schwinn, painted it red, put a new seat on it, and gave it to me for my birthday; I loved it. When I was 16, I bought a sleek black road bike with my own allowance money and the very first time I took it out, I did a 20-mile ride through the canyon outside the city limits; it was stolen out of our garage one weekend about a year later, unfortunately. My sole means of transportation during Peace Corps was a green Trek mountain bike; it became an extension of me, taking me down the unpaved red dusty roads to the market, neighboring villages, and to get life-sustaining water at the pump well.

Leaving at end of Peace Corps service, faithful Trek in the foreground.

Leaving at end of Peace Corps service, faithful Trek in the foreground.

So when my friend Sheila proposed last week that we go for a bike ride, it was the welcome impetus I needed to get back on the saddle. I gave my bike a good wash, a tune up and chain lube, aired up the tires, and hooked up the bike rack to the back of my car again. After an interesting time of squeezing back into my dusty bike shorts, we took our bikes down to the Veloway in south Austin and pedaled a couple of loops. It felt great! (Well, to be honest, my bottom was pretty sore the next day, but I didn’t even care.)

I guess the lesson is that it’s never too late to start or re-start something you’re interested in, especially if it makes you UNunhappy. Expect a few posts about the intricacies of the upcoming internship, and if anyone out there wants to go for a bike ride, I’m game. Let’s just stay away from the big hills please.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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