2012 Amelia Island Chili Cook-Off

The 2012 Amelia Island Chili Cookoff in Fernandina Beach featured 27 contestants to benefit the Amelia Island Montessori school.

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Krakow is one of the most fascinating places I have ever seen, where the ancient clashes with the slick. The food is cheap, the beer is decent, and the vodka flows freely. What’s not to like?

Krakow’s Old City in fog

It was foggy when I arrived in Krakow. It was early in the morning, and the streets were empty. Krakow gets livelier once everyone wakes up.

If the first moments in Krakow after you get off the platform at the main train station are any indication, Poland is doing its best to outgrow its tragic history of partitions, re-partitions, and Communism. From the platform you walk into Galleria Krakowska, a slick shopping mall where they were playing Ke$ha over the PA system when I walked in.

Good God, you can’t escape her.

Despite this, history is everywhere in Krakow, from its beautifully preserved stare miasto (Old City) to sites further afield.

Two hours away by train is Oświęcim, home of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The scale of it cannot be conveyed in photos. Little can be written about the site that does it justice.

Remains of gas chamber #4 which was destroyed in a prisoner revolt

It was the most sobering tour I ever did.

Departure board at Oświęcim station

Polish railways are a mishmash of sparkling-new high speed trains on electrified tracks and creaky coaches rattling back and forth until their wheels give out–it all depends on where you are.

Assorted pierogi

When I sat down for this plate of pierogi (the Polish dumpling*), a friendly Pole speaking flawless English sitting across the table asked where I had come from. Poles were immensely curious as a whole, and every day a few of them would come over to chat me up.

He made his living exporting Polish labor to foreign construction sites (with the unspoken second half–Polish workers getting followed by their families into the new country). I asked him for some tips on what to eat.

“Are you looking for typical Polish food?”

Well, yeah, I had come all this way.

He paused for a second and answered “Pork chops. Fried pork chops.” He scribbled down kotlet schabowy on a piece of paper, along with vodka recommendations.

I took his word for it. The pork chop itself is on the upper right, this photo was taken to emphasize sheer volume of the potatoes.

“It’s like a religion. Every Polish family has to eat it at least once a week.”

Before we finished our lunches, he remarked that everyone needed a sense of humor (tragic history or not) and told a Polish joke. I don’t remember what it was, but I asked him if he had heard of Polandball.

It’s a meme.

He had not. I told him to Google it, and we parted ways. I hope I made his day.

Departure board at Kraków Główny railway station

On the departure board is a train to Wieliczka, home of the one of the world’s oldest continuously operating salt mines. The Wieliczka Salt Mines are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Miners not only excavated salt rock, they carved statues and even entire statues in the mine.

King Kazimierz III Wielki (the Great) in rock salt

After descending over 300 steps, visitors are shown only 1% of the full mine. Tour guides will tell you that it is not expressly forbidden to lick the walls–they’ll also note that virtually nothing can grow on salt rock.

I licked the wall. It was salty.

Poles are devout Catholics, and working in an underground salt mine will make you want to pray extra hard. Chapels small and large were carved into the rock salt, including a huge chapel with rock salt renditions of the Last Supper, Jesus on the cross, and chandeliers made of crystal-clear halite. You can rent it out for weddings, if you’d like.

Pope John Paul II

Zurek – sour rye soup. This stuff was addicting.


*I can hear you, Megan. “Dumpling” is for sake of explanation.

Gustav Mahler’s Vienna

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” – Gustav Mahler

I’m spending Thanksgiving in Krakow, but I am blogging a few days behind. So here’s Vienna.

Gustav Mahler in the Vienna Museum of Sound

There is not enough time in the world to soak yourself in the high culture of Vienna’s art and music. For centuries, the greatest minds in classical music, from Mozart to Beethoven to Strauss and and Schoenberg came to Vienna to compose and perform their works.

Art museums of all kinds dot the city. I saw two museums in one day and was almost knocked dead with culture.

Wiener Schnitzel, a breaded and tenderized veal cutlet

I didn’t come to Vienna to look for any of those composers though. I came to look for the greatest composer that ever lived–Gustav Mahler. His output is small compared to the other greats, a set of symphonies and some song, but within those works lies the whole world. He described himself as “thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, as a Jew throughout the world—always an intruder, never welcomed.”

Sauerkraut in a Vienna market

His symphonies were epic in size and scope, and broke the limits of what was known at the time. There were no small works from Mahler, no trite sonatas or pleasant quartets. Every work was an expansive exploration that tried to span the entire range of human emotion. It is the Sixth Symphony, the “Tragic”, that has always been my favorite. In the final movement, three hammer blows crush the hero into bleak nihilism, relevant today as we face an uncertain world. His life was constant struggle, and it shows in his work.

“I am hitting my head against the walls, but the walls are giving way.” – Gustav Mahler

Go big, or go home. In Mahler’s work, the listener is alternately drained and inspired. It is the soundtrack of my life.

I won’t waste any more words trying to write about his music, go look it up yourself. Writing about music is like photographing a sculpture, it will never convey the true nature of the work.

Mahler is buried in Grinzig Cemetery on the outskirts of Vienna. As is Jewish tradition, pebbles left by visitors line the top of his headstone.

I stared out the train window as it passed through the Austrian countryside that inspired his greatest work. Perhaps he knew while alive, deep down, that a century after his death people from continents away would come just to leave a single stone.

“All that is not perfect down to the smallest detail is doomed to perish.” – Gustav Mahler

Occupy Frankfurt

Each Occupy protest has its own flavor. In Frankfurt, there is a definite anti-capitalism in the air that American protesters have not quite gotten to. Asking for substantial reform and asking to smash it all to pieces are slightly different concepts, after all.

Having a huge Euro in the park where Occupy Frankfurt has been for over a month makes it a photographer magnet. Juxtaposition! Oh my God!

Even I feel old watching some of these kids.

I asked him why he was here, and he shrugged. “I am here for a better life.” He then introduced me to a friend who was rolling a joint (I did not partake).


Seems that everyone in Frankfurt am Main and Vienna had someone’s hand to hold on to.

Dangling hearts

They hold hands…

…and march in lockstep.
Vienna U-bahn

Love is holding your girlfriend’s shopping?

Or is it your wife’s shopping?

Just a hug…

“The deepest experience and fulfillment of life is the feeling of being in love.” – at the Vienna Museum of Modern Art

Two Cloudy Days in Iceland


Iceland is a land of contrasts.

Glacier mafia?

It’s called the “Land of Fire and Ice” for its glaciers and volcanones. It’s called “Iceland”, yet the Gulf Stream keeps the climate mild. It has the oldest legislature in the western hemishpere, and is home to some of the newest blocks of land thanks to constant geologic activity.

On a date at Volcano House (Tryggvagata 11, 101 Reykjavik) with rock exhibits and documentary showings on Iceland’s latest eruptions.

It is small, with a population of only 320,000—equivalent to Aurora, Colorado. It looms large, especially when its volcanoes ground planes in dozens of countries, and its bank collapses cause panic across oceans.
Comemmorate both the volcano and the banks in one shirt!

The Althing was formed in 930 at Þingvellir, or “Parliament Plains”, which I visited. As tour guides at the Virginia General Assembly will tell you, the Althing was suspended in the first half of the 19th century, leaving the General Assembly the oldest continuously serving legislature in the Western Hemisphere.
Þingvellir National Park

These two bodies have since taken radically different swings—the Althing elected the first lesbian world leader (Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir) in 2009, and the Virginia General Assembly is now controlled by raving, foaming at the mouth conservative crusaders who would be apopleptic at homosexuals running the show, getting in the way of personhood bills and uranium mining.
Unique to the Icelandic alphabet, that weird “P”in Þingvellir is pronounced “TH”.

I went on vacation to escape electoral nonsense back home, so I’ll stop there. I haven’t checked any blogs since departure.
Keep your bears leashed in Downtown Reykjavik.
Iceland is a small country home to friendlier politics. There is no standing military, and the prime minister just parks on the street in front of his office—one of the busiest streets in the city!
Prime minister parking – yes, it actually says “Prime Minister”.

Regardless, the Althing was in full swing when the British who would later form the House of Burgesses in 17th century Jamestown were still stabbing each other to unite England. The modern Althing building is across the street from the six-tent Occupy Rejkyavik protest. I’d tell you a story from there, but nobody was around.
Like the original, with less police brutality.

Þingvellir National Park, home of the site where the Althing met for its first 6 centuries, is down the road from the site of the original Geysir, from which we derive “geyser”. Thanks to the magma covered by a veneer of volcanically active crust, nearly everything in Iceland is powered by geothermal activity.

The use of natural steam, instead of coal or oil, contributes to the crisp air and crystal clear water that Iceland is proud of. The water is so pure that it comes to taps unfiltered, and into the thermally-heated outdoor pools where chlorine isn’t added.
Fill your bottles right from the source!

All year round, even in the dead of winter, Icelanders flock to naturally heated thermal pools, and the “hot pots” beside them (better known as “hot tubs” in the United States, not to be confused with the Chinese “hot pot” but the concept isn’t too much different.) The most famous of these pools is the Blue Lagoon, on the Reykjanes Peninsula near Keflavik International Airport. Buses will take you straight there after your arrival in Iceland to relax away the stress of flying. On the Reykjanes Peninsula, you can see for miles across flat volcanic rock covered with thick moss, without a single tree blocking your sight.
Rocks and moss

Then you round the corner into the Blue Lagoon, and streams of electric blue, mineral-rich water break up the moonscape of jet-black basalt and moss, lending an even more otherworldy touch. The Blue Lagoon is the most famous naturally warm swimming hole. I don’t have any photos of the pool itself (you think I was going to haul a camera through the locker room and into the water?). Steam rises from the water, blowing in your face before you step in, but it’s only there because the air is so cold. It shrouds your view, turning the other people in the lagoon into blurs, and it seems that you are alone soaking in an alien lake, with only staff sticking out through the steam in flourescent-yellow jackets circling around to check on things. Marketing copy says the Blue Lagoon has natural healing properties. Regardless, it’s a relaxing way to forget about the troubles back home.
Take a swim!

Next to the City Hostel where I am staying is Laugardalslaug (30 Sundlaugarveg, 104 Reykjavík), the largest public thermal pool in Reykjavik. It’s cheaper, and there’s just plain water inside. No photos here either, since it’s actually banned. Icelanders of all stripes are seen soaking in the outdoor pool and rocketing down the waterslide. Just outside the door is a stand selling one of Iceland’s most popular traditional foods – pylsur.

Yes, hot dog.

But it’s not the same hot dog you find at ballparks or the boiled sticks of mystery meat sold by dodgy carts on any American street. Freshly grilled hot dogs are everywhere, from street corners, to convenience stores, and in the hands of hungry residents tromping down sidewalks.


Pictured above is Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur ( Pósthússtræti Tryggvagata Reykjavík, 101) near the old harbor in Reykjavik. It’s the most famous and oldest hot dog stand in Europe, and in 1998 it was placed on the map when President Bill Clinton stopped by for a visit. His face appears in a photo of the moment and a political cartoon from the next morning’s paper behind the cashier.


In just six seconds, they will serve you a hot dog with all the fixings. The hot dog itself is nothing special, but what makes it different is that Iceland learned to put all the usual toppings plus raw onions, fried onions, and remolaði, a tangy local concoction. Both the crunch of the onions and the spice of the mustard blend together. I even had one with bacon on it in front of the pool. Bacon!

Reykjavik Library, Archives, and Museum of Photography

I fly out tomorrow morning from Keflavik Airport to Frankfurt, and then will take an overnight train to Vienna, where I’ll likely do another post.