It Was a Very Good Year

As we are fully aware of, this time of year always brings out “Best of” and “Top Ten” lists, so in the spirit of the season, I have compiled a list of my Top Ten Firsts of 2012:

10. Red Robin – While not an earth-shattering first, it still deserves mention, because I got to share the experience with my best friend, Rob. The food and service were phenomenal and have been every time I have gone since. Now if only Rob could say the same…
Continue reading It Was a Very Good Year

My Year in Review

So, here I am at the end of 43, about to turn 44 tomorrow. And looking back, this year has had by far some of the most interesting and unexpected turns. As the last couple of hours’ worth of sand trickle through the hourglass, I would like to take a moment to reflect on all the wonders I was able to experience.

When I wished for a fun and exciting year, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. Who knew where a simple audition for a game show would lead me? A visit to New York for the first time in almost 20 years, an appearance on national television, a perfect trip to Europe, and getting a brand new car for the first time in my life! Not to mention this was also the year that I graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree and gave the valedictorian speech, That alone would be enough to make anyone’s year. But that’s only the surface of my life.

It had been less than a year before that my wife had passed when I hit my 43rd birthday, and the last thing I wanted to do was anything. I was mad at the world for continuing to carry on as if nothing happened. I was mad at myself for not doing more to prevent my wife’s death (not that there really was anything I could have done), and, I hate to admit it, mad at God for taking her away and leaving me alone again. When my birthday was approaching, I knew I needed to move forward or I would never move at all, and so I forced myself, one step at a time, to take a step out of that box, or that box would become my coffin. And so, I took a step. And another step. And I began to see the sun again. I began to live again. I still missed, and still miss, Heather terribly, but knowing her, the last thing she’d want me to do is wallow in misery and self-pity. I know she’d be happy for the joys in my life and it would have been so good to share those with her. But I’ll have plenty of time to tell her all about it when I see her again in heaven.

One major change this year is my finally moving closer to God again. I don’t know why He does the things He does, but it’s enough for me to know that HE knows why He does the things He does. I realize that, as much as I hate to admit it, it’s not all about me, and one goal for my 44th year is to get more involved with helping others, volunteering where I can. I’ve gotten back into reading my Bible and praying and I am finally ready to get back to church.

I intended to make the theme of this coming year “Dreams Come True.” Last week, a dream I’d been waiting on for eighteen years seemed to finally come true. Saturday, I followed a tradition and went to the Disney Magic Kingdom. I was supposed to go with my best friend for lunch, but he fell ill, so it was just me. I got my birthday button and strolled down Main Street. A barbershop quartet started singing, “Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.” I stayed and listened to that song, thinking he had indeed brought me that dream. As I headed toward the Cinderella castle, I saw the characters were performing. I get to the castle in time to hear Mickey shout, “Dreams come true!” Then the princes and princesses came out and Princess Aurora (who I’ve taken pictures with – twice!) sang, “I walked with you once upon a dream.” Somebody was trying to tell me something!

I told my friend this and he pooh-poohed (pun intended) the idea, saying it’s Disney, what else would I expect but stuff about dreams? The point I made to him was that I spent all of twenty minutes there. If I had shown up later, I would have only heard the quartet sing Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, and the characters at the castle would have been singing about being pirates. I don’t believe in coincidences, so I still believe that my theme should be “Dreams Come True”.

Ironically enough, I found out today that the eighteen-year long dream turned out to be just a dream, after all, so the day before my birthday, it seems that my theme is already falling apart. But then I realized that dream was shattered before my birthday in order to make room for the dreams that WILL come true! So, hang on to your hats, true believers, and prepare for Jax out of the Box: Year Two – Living the Dream!

Europe Epilogue

Transcribing my journal notes helped me to relive the most amazing trip I ever had, but there is so much that I didn’t cover in my notes. I was worried that taking the trip in early March would mean cold weather, but, except for the aforementioned half-hour of rain in Barcelona, the weather during the rest of the trip was perfect. Not too hot, not too cold. The days were sunny, except for my last day in Paris, when I was heading home. The skies were cloudy and the day was gray, almost as if Europe was sad to see me go.

My Personal Paella!
My Personal Paella!

The food during my trip was excellent. Barcelona, a seacoast town, prides itself on its seafood, which I don’t care for. I did eat fast food (McDonald’s and Burger King) for a lot of my meals. But, just before I went into La Sagrada Familia, I stopped at a restaurant around the corner and I asked the proprietor where I could go to get a paella that did NOT have shrimp or some other disgusting sea creature in it. He had me hold on while he went to speak with the chef, who then proceeded to go out of her way to make a custom chicken paella just for me. It was delicious! And they were so friendly and accommodating. As I mentioned in my journal, I did have the pizza and gelato in Rome. You can purchase the pizza by the pound. You tell them how much you want of the pie, they cut it, weigh it, and charge you accordingly. And every bite was such a delight. And the gelato…my mouth is watering right now just thinking about it. In France, at the creperie, I managed to enjoy both a sweet and a savory crepe. I also got to sample a delicious cider with quite a kick. Even with so many wonderful culinary memories, I think the one that stands out is when I had descended from the Eiffel Tower and was waiting for my tour boat to arrive. I got a hot dog from a vendor, but this was no ordinary hot dog. Two franks in a hoagie roll, a generous sprinkling of cheese, and then the whole thing was pressed. I sat on the bank of the Seine, facing the Eiffel Tower, and eating the most delicious hot dog I’d ever had.

The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps

Stairs were a big factor in my entire trip, and reading back through my journals, I’m surprised I didn’t mention it more. My hostel in Barcelona was on the fourth floor, a little piece of information they really should include online. But, of course, most of the occupants of hostels are young, energetic people, and not older, out of shape individuals like myself. I remember the first day, climbing those stairs and thinking I didn’t really want to go anywhere outside because that would mean climbing the stairs again when I returned. But I braved those stairs many, many times in my days there. By the end of my stay, I was actually able to take the stairs with minimal complaints. Stairs also factored in Rome. When I visited the Spanish Steps, I had to climb them, of course. And, as I mentioned, I climbed all the way up to the second floor of the Eiffel tower, the equivalent of 46 stories. I know that, if it hadn’t been for the fourth floor hostel in Barcelona, I would not have been in any shape to try the stairs at the Eiffel tower a few days later. Just another example of how everything happens for a reason.

The Beehive - A Honey of a Place
The Beehive – A Honey of a Place

Speaking of the hostel, these are the places I stayed at and would highly recommend:

Barcelona –
Rome –
Paris –

Both hostels in Barcelona and Rome were inexpensive and clean. I did splurge in Paris with the Montparnasse, but it really was worth it.

There are so many other things, so many other memories. The kissing couple at the Trevi Fountain. The cats at the Coliseum. The awe of seeing the Mona Lisa in person. The countless sights, sounds and smells that, together, combined to form the perfect trip. And I can say that with no hyperbole. And I can’t wait for my next visit, because, good Lord willing, there will be a next visit.


On a final note, the last leg of my trip continued to be both nerve-wracking and fortuitous. When last we left our gutsy globetrotter, he had just gotten through the maze of the Charles de Gaulle Airport and had gotten himself a first-class seat on the way back to Atlanta. The story continues…

When I landed in Atlanta, I found out that my standby ticket had not been validated for the leg from Atlanta to Orlando, which meant I needed to speak to a ticket attendant in order to put myself on the standby list. Because our flight had been delayed, I barely had enough time to make it to the ticket counter. Once there, I see there are already more people on the standby list than there are seats available, meaning I may have to find alternative means of getting home. A later flight, or even possibly a car rental to drive home. While I’m talking with the ticket agent, I see a group of four who are also waiting to get on the plane, and, when three seats open up, the younger woman volunteers to stay behind and catch another flight. This leaves just two of us at this point on the list. A minute or so later, her name is called and she manages to get on the plane. And then there is one – me. As I’m on the phone discussing options with a friend, my name is called. I have managed to get the last empty seat on the plane. Soon enough, I’m seated comfortably and on my way to Orlando. A perfect ending to a perfect vacation!

Paris Prattle

Paris Panorama
Paris Panorama

And now, the last stop on our trip…

March 9, 2012
Midnight Paris Time

Final thoughts, final words on a trip that has been amazing, marvelous, spectacular and a host of other things. Arriving in Paris last night proved even more of a language barrier than Rome. I had a tough time trying to figure out where to go. Of course, part of that is my fault for not getting the Paris travel guide. The series served me well in Barcelona and Rome. But I knew Ali would be here and she would serve as my guide. Assuming I ever found her hotel. Which I finally did.
Once we got ready, we had a spectacular night on the town. We had crepes, saw the Eiffel Tower light up, saw L’Arc de Triomphe, then went to the Crazy Horse to watch a burlesque show, as well as a magic show by Rocco. Champagne flowed freely and the night was perfect.

L'Arc de Triomphe
L’Arc de Triomphe

I decided to pay more than I had for my last two hotels in order to stay another night at the Novotel Montparnasse. It’s pricey, but it’s worth it.
Then today, the touring started. The Eiffel Tower. The Seine on a boat cruise. The fountain at St. Michel. The Church of Notre Dame. The Louvre. L’Arc de Triomphe. Then back to the creperie I ate at last night. This time I shared a booth with four women. They were very friendly. One is from Connecticut, in Paris on business. I gave her my name. She said she’d look me up when she went to Boynton Beach.
As long as the subject of women is up, I had a great conversation on the boat cruise with the guide. She’s Italian and her name is Guiseppina, Italian for Josephine. And she was very beautiful. I do feel that, between getting fitter – I climbed 670 steps to the second story of the Eiffel Tower! – and feeling more confident about the things I can accomplish, I feel more self-confident and more self-assured. No more believing I deserve second-class anything. I will not settle.

The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower

I am a little sad that this incredible journey is reaching its conclusion, but I am also happy to be going home, close to those I love and who love me. It will be strange coming back to reality, because this entire week has not felt at all real. I will always treasure this opportunity I was given and the perfect weather and timing and everything. I am grateful I got to experience this. I guess this may be my last European journal entry. If so, then adios, arrividerci and au revoir!

March 10, 2012
1:05PM Paris Time

So, it turns out there will be one more European entry into the journal. Today has been the first real nerve-wracking day of my entire vacation. I went out early to get souvenirs, little realizing how long it would take. I didn’t get back to the hotel until after 10AM, later than I’d hoped. Then I faced a looooong train ride to the airport, arriving around 11:30. The the next speed bump. It seemed like I needed another ticket to get OUT of the subway. Fortunately, I found an exit that was open and I walked out, figuring if someone said something I’d be able to explain. Then the next speed bump – the check-in. I started at Area 3, and the lady there told me I needed Area 7. I get to Area 7 and the lady there says I need to go to Area 2, which was right next to Area 3. I get in line and then the agent sends me to the Delta desk to get my buddy pass information. Then it’s back in line. The lady talking to the agent I need to see again is talking…and talking…and talking. I start getting a little frustrated, but I still manage to smile when I get to the desk. I finally get my boarding pass, but I’m still standby, so I’m not out of the woods yet.
I go to Gate 37 for my 1:40 flight. A couple of minutes after I sit, ready to enjoy my coffee and raspberry croissant, they announce the flight has been changed to Gate 41 and 2PM. Finally, after a few more minutes of waiting, a seat assignment – 1C! That’s right, I’m in the front row, first class, baby! See you in Atlanta. Or Orlando. Au revoir!

Up next – Final Thoughts on the European Adventure

Rome Ramble

When last we left our intrepid world traveler, he was on his way from Barcelona to Rome. The journey continues…

March 7, 2012
10:45PM Rome Time

So, my wild time in Roma is almost done. I arrived around 5:30 last night and made it to my hotel room, the Beehive, by 6:00. It was too late to travel, so instead I spent some time wandering the neighborhood. I immediately felt the cultural barrier here in a way I never felt it in Barcelona. I have had trouble communicating with the locals, having to resort to gestures and the hopes that some Spanish or English would be understood. But, despite all that, I managed just fine. I had my first taste of Italian pizza last night along with a gelato. Delicious! I may not understand much, but I would stay just for the food!

Le Tre Amici
Le Tre Amici

Today was a mad rush trying to get as much done as possible. I started at the Coliseum at 8:30 and I slowly worked my way across the city, ending at St. Peter’s at around 3PM. I had managed to see the Roman Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and plenty in between. By the time I got back to my room I was done for the day. There’s still so much I want to see, and that coin in the Trevi Fountain guarantees that I’ll be back some day. I really need to learn some Italian before then, though.
Tomorrow, Paris!

Gypsy on the Spanish Steps
Gypsy on the Spanish Steps

March 8, 2012
3:00PM Rome Time

Three quick observations while at the airport.
1. I had my first native try to rip me off. I bought a Coke for 2,80€, gave him 10€, and he gave me change for 5€. He knew what he was doing because, when I pressed him about it, he didn’t question it, just handed me the other 5.
2. Three teenage girls were standing in front of me in line. Although I couldn’t understand a word they said, their actions were just like any other group of teenage girls. They giggled, they talked loudly, they checked Facebook. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. If I remember correctly, that’s French for “The more things change, the more things remain the same.”
3. An elderly man argued with the flight attendant, wanting to sit in the front instead of seat 14B, which he’d paid for. That argument would have gotten him kicked from the plane in the U.S., but here, she finally gave in, exasperated, and let him sit in front. She shot him plenty of nasty looks, though.

To be continued…again…

Barcelona Babble

It’s been a while since I posted, and I am going to try to make the hiatuses (hiaiti?) less frequent. I promised I would blog about my European trip, so, without further ado, here are the journal entries I wrote during my trip. First stop – Barcelona!

March 2, 2012
12:00 PM Eastern Standard Time

I’m sitting on the plane just minutes from takeoff on the first leg of my international trip. Who could have imagined that an impulsive decision to try out for “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” seven months ago would have resulted in my traveling to Europe today? Not me, that’s for sure. I find it humorous and appropriate that my first leg, to JFK, is almost an echo of the trip that got me to the show, although that one was to LaGuardia and not JFK. I am nervous, thrilled, and scared all at the same time. I love to travel. It’s something I got from my dad, probably both genetically and through example. My father was a tour guide when I was growing up, so I got to see a lot of places. Virginia, Washington, D. C., Canada, Dominican Republic. Once I was old enough to travel on my own, I did. I’ve lived in Arizona, Texas, and Florida, and I’ve traveled almost every state on the Eastern coast, and all the states on the Southern border. I also have been to Illinois, South Dakota, and Minnesota. In other words, I’ve traveled a LOT. But this is a completely different experience. This is a whole new country. A whole new continent! Talk about loving outside the box. I can’t wait to see what this adventure holds for me.

March 3, 2012
7:00AM Eastern Standard Time – 1:00PM Barcelona Time

Here I am, in a completely different continent. I am still in amazement that I’m actually here.
The flight from Orlando to JFK was uneventful, but the flight from JFK was a different matter. I knew it was going to be a good flight when I got a first class seat. Then when a beautiful woman took the seat next to me, I really knew this would be a good flight. We had a great time talking throughout the flight. The dinner was okay, but nothing spectacular. The seat was comfortable, and I did get some rest on the way here. But there’s one moment that is quite vivid and will probably not be forgotten for a long time. At one point during the night, I looked out the window, and the sky was full of stars. It felt like we were in space. The beauty of that moment is indescribable.
After landing, I grabbed a bus to Barcelona, and then I wandered around while I waited for my room to be ready. Then I checked in, showered, and am now ready to head back out there!

March 4, 2012
12:10PM Barcelona Time

My first full day in Barcelona was one of mixed emotions. It was, and is, amazing being in another country, heck, another continent, and the sights are fantastic. On the flip side of the coin, though, is a deep, overwhelming sense of loneliness. I am thousands of miles away from everyone I care about, and if something were to happen to me here, I would have no one to turn to. I used to consider myself a lone wolf, a wanderer with no ties to anything. After all, in 2003, I took off for Texas without knowing anyone. And that wasn’t for a visit, but to live there. This is for a week, but I guess it’s different because it feels so foreign.
I did have fun, though. I got to see the Picasso Museum. I strolled through the Parc de la Ciutadella. I got to see the Arc de Triomphe, which is funny because, in a few days, I’ll be seeing the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Another interesting tidbit is that Picasso also went to Paris after Barcelona. I wandered La Rambla last night and it reminded me of Times Square, if the buildings were older and everyone spoke Catalan. There was an energy to this city that was probably what brought NYC to mind. Performers are everywhere, street vendors hawking their wares on every corner. Like I said, this trip is one filling me with mixed emotions. I love it, but I wish I were sharing it with someone.

The Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe

March 5, 2012
11:40PM Barcelona Time

It has been a jam-packed couple of days. Yesterday, I took the bus tour which took me just about everywhere. Halfway through, I stopped at Mount Tibidabo. After a tram and a funicular ride, I reached the top. Tibidabo is like Barcelona’s answer to Disney. Rides, food, even a roller coaster. The atmosphere is pure fun and the vista is breathtaking. When I left there, it started to rain, and it rained for at least a half hour, if not longer. I toughed it out on the bus and, eventually, the sun came out. After another hour or so, I got off the bus and headed back to the hotel.
After a couple of hours I headed out again, this time to see about the karaoke bar I’d seen advertised. It prove to be just as much fun as I expected. After wandering around Port Olimpic some more, I called it a day.
Today was another full day. I rode the Metro to La Sagrada Familia and all I can say is…wow. That is the place the biblical term awesome was made for. That is a beautiful, amazing piece of architecture. From there I rode the Metro again and headed for the beach. I got to touch the Mediterranean Sea, and it was cold! From there I headed back to the hotel.
I next spent an hour at a Laundromat. How utterly normal and unremarkable, doing laundry, you would think. But even that proved unique. Two girls were in there doing laundry as well, and one had a guitar. She just started playing right there. This place is so beautiful and amazing. I will miss it.
Tomorrow, I check out and fly to Rome. I will only have one full day, so I will need to make the most of it!

La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia

March 6, 2012
10:00PM Barcelona Time

I am just a few hours away from flying to Rome. It’s funny how I never would have imagined being able to say that. And yet, here I am, about to hit the second of three European countries on my whirlwind tour.
Barcelona has been strange and familiar all at the same time. The architecture and the language have been the strange part, while the flow of life here reminds me so much of New York. It’s almost like my whole life had prepared me for international travel. I manage to get a pretty good sense of the area within a day or so, to the point where I went from constantly consulting the map to only having to check it occasionally. I’m sure if I had more time than one day in Rome, I’d be able to do the same. Although, that may not be so.
One advantage I have here is knowing Spanish and a smattering of French. Some signs take me a moment to decipher, because Catalan is a mixture of both languages, but more often than not, I can figure them out. I may not fare as well in Rome. While Italian and Spanish are similar, they have a lot of differences as well. We shall see shortly how I do. See you in Rome!

To be continued…