Tuesday, April 28, 2015

(Not Exactly) As Seen On TV

This post has been coming for a long time. When I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong. Confession is good for the soul. The first step is admitting that you have a problem, and all of that jazz. You see, dear friends, for those of you who are unaware of my condition: I have a strong penchant for infomercial products. Just walking into a room and finding me staring, fixated, at some revolutionary new product on TV causes Clint to sigh, shake his head, and begin immediate damage control. My name is Susie, and I am an As-Seen-On-TV-aholic.

My first recorded infomercial purchase was when I was around the age of eight. Apparently, I was convinced by a savvy advertisement to sign my baby brother up for the Little Golden Books of the Month club. After all, who doesn't want to give the gift of reading? I guess my parents, because once they found out I had used their credit card and signed us up for auto-shipments of children's literature, they were less than thrilled. Even more so when it took a strongly worded letter from an attorney to get the company to stop sending the books and to stop billing my parents for something their eight-year old deemed a must-have purchase.

In my defense, however, not all of my purchases have led to disappointment. Throughout my ordering obsession, I have enjoyed and benefited from many fine products such as the Topsy Tail, Jose Eber's Secret Hair, Billy Blanks Tae Bo, P90X, and let me just go ahead and say it: ProActive cleared up my skin almost as wonderfully as all those celebrities claim it will in their endorsements. Shockingly, I never owned a Bedazzler, but I refuse to even consider the possibility that it was less than a gem of a product. And I think we can all just go ahead and agree that The Clapper pretty much changed the world.

Of course, not every product lives up to the "but wait, there's more!" hype. Sadly, I was less than ecstatic by my Ped Egg, and there was no magic for us with our Magic Bullet (which broke the third time Clint attempted to make his wonder smoothie). I suppose you could say that, over the years, there have been a few disheartening experiences that have resulted from my infomercial madness.

Let me set the scene: it was January, winter 2002, bitterly cold here in Charlotte. We got a record amount of snowfall and, despite my pleading with him to take the day off, Clint left for the office and I was housebound for the day. Snowed in, alone, and bored. Naturally, I turned to the television to remedy my situation, and found myself learning about a fitness program called The Firm. These workouts are still around--just not on VHS the way mine were, and I suppose they have been updated to some degree. The real selling feature of The Firm series is the two plastic step stools that come as part of the kit--the blue one is known as the Fanny Lifter. The purple one is an intensifier, for when you have lifted your fanny, but obviously still want to jack it up higher (I'm paraphrasing the marketing materials on this, but you get the gist).

Now clearly, I had just gone and ordered myself some new-fangled step aerobics regimen, which would have been just fine and fanny, er, dandy, except the good people at Gaiam (the company who churns out this miraculous product) neglected to mention that I had also been signed up to receive new The Firm equipment "essentials" each month, mine to try and enjoy and return for a full refund if not satisfied. I cannot tell you the shock and horror I would experience on a monthly basis when I would arrive home from work and find yet another large package waiting for me that never failed to contain some very colorful piece of plastic gym equipment. I couldn't send them back fast enough, and I had to pay the shipping to return the stuff. I can't remember what negotiating tactics were involved to finally end the steady stream of sub par playground equipment, but I did have to get my hubby involved. He still makes fun of the whole situation to this day, which lands The Firm, the Fanny Lifter, and all 118 other "incredible" products top honors on my most disappointing list.

The next of my less-than-prized-infomercial possessions are the Scoop 'n Strain and the Grip 'n Flip. I was even able to overlook the glaring grammatical errors in the product names on this one. For those of you who missed out on this gourmet cooking phenomenon, the Grip 'n Flip was/is a precision gripping instrument, which results in superior flipability. Gone are the days of clumsily trying to turn burgers--now it is as easy and gripping, and well, flipping. It almost solves all of your culinary problems, right? Except for the fact that it is near impossible to ladle soup without leaving all the meat and vegetables behind, and just serving yourself a big bowl of broth. If only there was someway to both scoop and strain the soup.

Enter the second miracle product in this amazing TV offer, the Scoop 'n Strain. Voila! May you never be burdened by using an ordinary ladle again. There is also that whisk that appears to have been run over by a car, which claims to be a 6-in-1 utensil. I must have missed the demo about that one (I was probably already dialing to order), because all I ever used it for was, frankly, whisking, and it wasn't really the greatest at that. I'm not going to lie: all three of these fine products are still in our kitchen. They've been downgraded from our top drawer MVP utensils to the lowly quarters of the bottom drawer where things like citrus zesters and rolling pins go to die.

My most recent TV purchase was the amazing "just spray and walk away" InVinceable cleaner. It's sold by the crazy guy--whose name just happens to be Vince--who used to do the Slap Chop and ShamWow commercials, so he clearly gets points for credibility there. My little obsessive compulsive heart went pitter patter when I watched all the uses for this most awesome product: bath, tile, laundry, and much, much more! As Vince says, "Your stains may be tough, but they're not InVinceable!" I wisely made the choice to double my order at no extra cost and simply pay additional shipping and handling. Clearly this was not my first As Seen On TV rodeo.

Imagine my dismay when my InVinceable shipment finally arrived and there was some assembly required. What I actually received was a spray bottle (which leaked) and four little tubes of powder cleaner, which had to be mixed with warm water and then used within eight hours of mixing. Believe me when I say I am a clean machine, but even on my wildest disinfecting sprees, I have never managed to use an entire bottle of cleaning product in an eight hour window. As it turns out, that was the least of Invinceable's issues. The grainy powder would not mix with water, and when I finally achieved liquid cleaning status, every surface I sprayed with this concoction was streaked with a dull, white film. I had to go back and re-clean everything I had so hopefully spritzed with my new purchase.

There have been some letdowns along the way, and I'm curbing my enthusiasm for infomercial products. That doesn't mean my addiction has been cured; I still hope to be the proud owner of some Pajama Jeans, think that My Pillow looks like a dream come true (it's the most comfortable pillow you'll ever own, after all), and I just know that Cindy Crawford's Meaningful Beauty cosmetics would no doubt have a profound impact on my youthful appearance. For the time meaning, I'm putting down the remote control and walking away--but you never know--this special offer may be for a limited time only. Operators are, most certainly, standing by.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Adventures in Italy, Part Three: Rome

Even though I had begged pleaded nagged wanted to travel to Italy for years before we actually went, I never really thought I would find myself standing in front of the Colosseum. No matter where you have traveled and what you have seen, it is simply awe-inspiring. The Colosseum was built in 70 A.D., and was initially covered entirely in white marble. Only 60% of it remains today--but that isn't because of deterioration. It's because the Romans were forced to loot it for the marble and bronze to make weapons and for building supplies. Otherwise, there a good chance the structure would still be completely in tact (save for some earthquake damage). How's that for amazing?

Our tour group in front of the Colosseum.

That was our first stop in Rome (after an al fresco lunch including a Caprese salad with the freshest mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil I've ever put in my mouth along with some delicious homemade pasta), and it was an impressive introduction to the city. Rome is an interesting juxtaposition of a modern city, full of highways, cars, and traffic right alongside ancient ruins from the first century. You really have to see it to believe it.

Historians estimate that the Colosseum could hold as many as 87,000 spectators, who came to watch plays, battle reenactments, and gladiator fights. The original stage is gone now, but it was made of a wooden floor covered by sand (the Latin word for sand is harena which is how we got the word "arena"). The stage covered an elaborate underground structure called the hypogeum which is still there today. This is the area where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Eighty vertical shafts provided instant access to the arena for caged animals and scenery pieces; there were also larger hinged platforms that provided access for elephants and other large animals. Sounds like one heck of a show.

A portion of the stage has been rebuilt. I wanted to tap dance on it, but apparently, that is frowned upon.

Here is an up close view of the passageways under the arena floor
used to store props, animals, actors and gladiators.

The next day, we were up bright and early to head to the Vatican to see St. Peter's Basilica. The Vatican is its own city-state, which makes it the smallest country in the world (it's 1/8 the size of Central Park). We arrived early enough to see St. Peter's Square virtually empty, which is amazing in and of itself when you see the rows and rows of chairs that will accommodate 250,000 faithful for mass.

St. Peter's Square and the basilica, built over the site believed to be the tomb of St. Peter.

St. Peter's basilica is 18,000 square feet of the most beautiful mosaic portraits, sculptures, and carved ceilings I have ever seen. Everything inside the basilica is designed to last forever--so that it can never be damaged by fire or deterioration--which is the reason that all of the stunning artwork is made completely of mosaic tile. Even though the interior was crowded the day we visited, people seem to shrink when you are inside, because of the scale of everything that makes up the massive building. 

Michelangelo's Pieta sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus, inside St. Peter's Basilica.

Another mind-boggling thing we discovered on our tour of St. Peter's is that there are 100 tombs underneath the basilica. When a Pope dies, they are preserved with paraffin and buried below the church; if they are sainted, their body is moved and displayed inside the basilica:

The tomb of a sainted Pope, preserved and wearing a paraffin mask. A little unexpected, to say the least!

The Swiss guard has been keeping watch at St. Peter's for over 500 years.

After leaving the Vatican City, we stopped for lunch in one of Rome's popular piazzas and enjoyed a seafood pizza and a ham and ricotta calzone that was almost life-changing, while sitting in front of the Fountain of the Four Rivers, one of Rome's famous landmarks. Then we walked a few blocks over and found ourselves in front of the massive Pantheon.

Rebuilt in 126 A.D., the Pantheon is one of ancient Rome's best preserved buildings.

The Pantheon has been in continuous use since it was built, and is now a church. Inside are the tombs of the artist Raphael, Queen Margherita (yes, the one with the pizza named after her, and the first king of Italy. 

The oculus (eye to the heavens) inside the Pantheon acts as a kind of sundial
and also heats and cools the building.

Leaving the Pantheon, there are actors outside dressed as Roman gladiators. Tour guides will tell you to avoid this tacky tourist trap, but since when have we ever found a touristy gimmick that we didn't like? Of course we stopped for a photo (or five).

The actual cost was around 4 Euros, but I think the photo is priceless.

We continued our walk and made our way to the famous Trevi fountain,which sadly, was undergoing restoration. They say if you throw a coin into the fountain, you will return to Rome one day. I had to settle for throwing mine onto the sidewalk in front of the fountain, but I'm sure that counts, right?

The Trevi fountain, which I'm sure is even more impressive without the scaffolding.

The week before our trip, we set the tone for Italy by watching the movie Roman Holiday. In it, Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who is exhausted by her daily responsibilities, so she runs away and winds up spending two days touring Rome with Gregory Peck. One of the most well-known scenes from the movie is when he takes her to the Boca de Veritas, or Mouth of Truth. It is a large stone drain cover carved to look like a face, and superstition says that you put your hand inside the mouth, and if you tell a lie, your hand will be severed.

Here's the scene from Roman Holiday at the Mouth of Truth.

We walked away with all our hands, I promise. Clean living!

There are so many incredible things to see in Rome, I wish we could have stayed one more day. We did also manage time to see the Spanish Steps, and visited the church of Santa Croce (the Holy Cross) where we saw what is believed to be a piece of the cross Jesus was crucified on, as well as two thorns from the crown of thorns, and a nail used in the crucifixion. 

Our final evening in Rome, our group got an exclusive private tour of the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican museum typically has 25,000 visitors a day, so to experience it in a private group of only 24 people was absolutely surreal. I can't imagine trying to see the ornate ceilings of the Sistine Chapel with crowds filling the room; luckily, we were able to spend a quiet evening taking in the breathtaking beauty that Michelangelo spent four years painting.

Highlights of Rome: The Colosseum, Pantheon, and Vatican City, including St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.

Pros: Unbelievable ancient ruins, walking in the footsteps of Roman history, seeing one of the new seven wonders of the world (the Colosseum was named to the list in 2007).

Cons: Aside from having trouble catching a taxi (Rome can be exhausting!), the only negative was that we felt we didn't have enough time to see everything that the city has to offer. We would love to have visited the catacombs, the Cripta Capuccini or Bone Church, the Forum, and the Holy Stairs--stairs from Pontias Pilate's palace that Jesus climbed to meet his fate. I hope that, along with the coin we threw in/at/around the Trevi fountain, means there will be a return trip!

Overall rating: A+. I am still trying to process all that we were able to see and do, from the architecture to the history to the incredible art. 

Our adventures in Venice, Florence, and Rome were the trip of a lifetime. Writing these posts has been a fun way to revisit everything that we experienced--just don't expect this to be the last time I talk about the trip, okay? And as for you, Italy, here's hoping to a presto (see you soon)!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Adventures in Italy, Part Two: Florence

Our Italy trip continues--well, the details of my trip, do, anyway. After our three fantastic days in Venice, our tour group boarded the high-speed train and headed to Florence, the home of the world's greatest collection of Renaissance art. It is a city known the world over for its monuments, churches, and amazing buildings--the most famous of which is the domed cathedral of the city, Santa Maria del Fiore, known as The Duomo. 600 years after its completion, it is still the largest brick and mortar dome built in the world. The dome dominates the skyline of Florence and can be seen from anywhere in the city.

The world famous Duomo in the heart of Florence.

The Piazza della Signoria, home of the municipal government and the original site of David,
until it was moved in 1893 to protect it from damage. It's also where the "bonfire of the vanities" took place.

The Uffizi (which means "offices") gallery is one of the best art museums in the world. The massive gallery space occupies what was once office buildings belonging to one of the most powerful families in Florence, the Medici family. On our morning tour, we saw works by Raphael, Caravaggio, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, to name a few. The majority of our group was enthralled by our surroundings, however, I'm afraid that our small town, public school educations started showing: as it turns out, Clint and I are not art aficionados. After truly appreciating the magnificence in about three rooms in the museum, team Stancil started getting antsy. Shamefully, we lingered toward the back of the group and people watched, discussed the museum's snack bar and gift shop, and planned the rest of our afternoon. The Uffizi was amazingly beautiful, it's just that our guided visit there started to feel amazingly long.

View of the Ponte Vecchio ("old bridge") from the Uffizi Gallery.

Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (The Holy Family) painted circa 1507 in the original wooden frame
designed by the artist himself.

After a full day of sightseeing,Clint treated himself to a signature dish of Florence: bistecca fiorentina for dinner. It is a huge piece of meat, similar to a T-bone, from large white oxen (I, of course, stuck with pasta--it's part of my no-carb-left-behind lifestyle commitment). The steak is served rare with a pinch of salt, and it was so delicious it needed nothing else. Well, except maybe an excellent glass of wine to wash it down. Luckily, we had that, too.

And that, my friends, is the bistecca fiorentina. I do believe he ate it all.

The next day, we took a short bus ride to Tuscany. On the way, we stopped at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial. Most of those buried there are from the Fifth Army who died in the fighting that followed the capture of Rome in June 1944; others fell in the heavy fighting in the Apennines between then and 2 May 1945. The cemetery is 70 acres and when you are there, you are technically on American soil. It is hard to explain how incredibly moving and peaceful this unexpected stop on our itinerary really was, but it was certainly a highlight.

There are 4,398 headstones in the cemetery, all made of Carrara marble.

We enjoyed a very colorful tour of a vineyard in the Chianti region, (our spirited Italian sommelier managed to use the f-bomb twice, but he did it with such charm that even the grandmothers in our group giggled), and then were treated to an olive oil tasting, followed by a 4-course lunch with wine pairings from the Antinori brand that the vineyard produces. The wine cellars were actually housed in the Badia a Passignano Abbey cellars; the monks have allowed Antinori to use their cellars to age the wine. It goes without saying that it was a memorable and unique part of our tour, and it embodied everything we had imagined about Tuscany--the country side, hills and hills of grape vines, and cellar rooms stocked with hundreds of barrels of aging wine.

Badia a Passignano Winery in Chianti Tuscany

Florence, like much of Italy, is filled with piazzas that are the gathering places for people to socialize, take a break, and enjoy coffee, cocktails, a snack or a meal. We took a break one afternoon with some creamy gelato down the street from the Duomo, shopped for souvenirs in dozens of jewelry and leather shops, and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the city from a rooftop bar one evening before dinner. I don't think I have ever seen so much beauty, all in one place, as I did during our trip to Italy.

Beautiful views of Florence at night from the rooftop of the Westin hotel at the Exelsior bar.

Highlights of Florence: The Duomo, Michelangelo's David, the Ponte Vecchio bridge, the Florence American cemetery, our afternoon in Tuscany.

Pros: Amazing art collections, huge array of leather goods and gold, and (at least for Clint) bistecca fiorentina.

Cons: There is a risk, at least for the uncultured among us (read: me), of overdosing on art history. Also, my flatiron did not work in our hotel, even with our adapters, and required the use of a 20-foot, industrial extension cord. It's hard being me, but I still manage to do it...every single day.

Overall rating: A-. It's hard to find anything not to like about Florence. It is brimming with art and history, and is still a small enough city to allow you to walk, wander, and explore. I could (easily) be persuaded to visit again.

My next post will cover our visit to the eternal city of Rome, including the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Vatican, and the Sistine chapel. Until then, ciao, amico!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Adventures in Italy, Part One: Venice

We've been back from our trip to Italy for a grand total of 10 days now, and I already feel like I could stand to go back. Spending a week and half in Venice, Florence, and Rome enjoying all that Italy has to offer will downright spoil a girl. Because we saw and did so much, I'm breaking down our trip into three different posts, one for each city that we visited.

Our first stop of the trip was in Venice, which turned out to be my favorite of the three. Venice is comprised of over 200 canals, and there are no cars (because there are basically no streets). Every little walkway and charming neighborhood is connected by bridges. The buildings are adorned with flower boxes, exposed brick, and private docks, and it's virtually impossible to find anything...on a map or otherwise. They say if you don't get lost in Venice, you haven't really experienced the city, so we consoled ourselves with that each of the half dozen times we wound up hopelessly lost and confused in the labyrinth that is Venice.

View from our balcony.

We arrived at our (gorgeous) hotel by water taxi and took in the sights of Murano glass chandeliers and beautiful antiques. Our hotel was a former convent turned aristocratic palace and even a shelter for the Knights Templar. We walked about 12 steps from the lobby and found ourselves smack in the middle of the Piazza San Marco, the heart of the city, where we enjoyed a fantastic lunch with fresh seafood (one of the benefits of all that water), beautiful views, and the unofficial national drink, the Aperol spritz. Hey, when in Venice, do as the Venetians do, right?

Our lunchtime surroundings: St. Mark's Basilica.

This is what the Italians call "la dolce vita"--the sweet life.

We spent a day and a half adventuring on our own, and then we met our travel companions for the rest of our trip: 22 other people who comprised our tour group; the group that we would wind up eating our meals with, sightseeing the country alongside, and ultimately sharing an amazing experience. One big, happy family of mismatched (if somewhat misfit) travelers.

During the three days we were in Venice, we visited St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace (the palace of the seat of the Venetian Republic and where Casanova was imprisoned and then escaped), watched a glass-blowing demonstration, lunched on the waterway of the Grand Canal while boats cruised by, and even took a somewhat soggy gondola ride (day 2 was a very Venetian-style rain out). We went to the famous Harry's Bar and enjoyed a bellini; they were invented there, after all, and the restaurant has served them up to Charlie Chaplin, Orson Wells, and Truman Capote, just to name a few. Our tour guide recommended a fantastic restaurant where I had one of the best meals of my life: thick spaghetti noodles with a cheese and pepper sauce. It was heaven in a bowl...topped with melted cheese. If it gets much better than that, I can't comprehend it.

I'd like to thank my friend Mary, whom I met during our tour, for braving the gondola in the rain with us.
Spirit of adventure!

One thing I did discover, much to my soda-loving heart's dismay, is that Coca Cola does not enjoy the same dominant presence in Italy that it does in the United States. Even though their version of Diet Coke--the Coca Cola Light--is a very delicious, fizzier version of my beverage of choice, Italians just don't love the stuff the way Americans do. In fact, they were downright puzzled each morning at breakfast when I ordered a Coca Cola Light, and then a bit bewildered that I wanted ice for it, too (apparently, ice is also not high on the list with the Italian people). Still, I soldiered on and drank my delicious drink each day--for them as much as for myself. I'm all about sharing my culture, and it's a well known fact that Coca Cola is Southern champagne.

The Marco Polo ballroom is where we enjoyed breakfast (and Coca Cola Light) each morning.
It's no Motel 6, but we made do.

The sounds of Venice are that of water lapping against the city's slowly sinking buildings, and of steps echoing on cobblestone streets. We meandered through tiny alleys lined with shops selling Venetian carnival masks, snacked on the best bruschetta I've ever tasted, and wandered over bridge after bridge all the way to the Rialto, the oldest bridge in Venice (it has been rebuilt several times, and the "new" version was completed in 1591 with a little help from Michelangelo).

The Rialto Bridge, a Venice icon.

This is Venice, and it is perfection.

Venice was everything I had hoped Italy would be: quaint, charming, romantic, and friendly. Rich with beauty and history, delicious food, refreshing cocktails, and chock full of gondolas and canals. It was the ideal way to begin our trip, and a postcard perfect city to explore.

Highlights of Venice: Piazza San Marco, St. Mark's Basilica, the Doge's Palace, lunch at Cafe Florian (Venice's oldest cafe, which has been in continuous operation since 1720), and a gondola ride.

Pros: The people, the boats, the bridges. The food, the drinks, the spritzes. It's Venezia, and it's amazing.

Cons: Confusing to navigate, high concentration of very tame pigeons (I'm deathly afraid of birds and this was sheer terror at times), limited Diet Coke availability.

Overall rating: A+.  In fact, if you would like to plan a visit, I am more than happy to accompany you to Venice and provide you with my travel expertise so long as you cover all my expenses. If you go without me, please raise an Aperol spritz in my honor...and be very wary of those pigeons.

My next post will be about our time spent in Florence. In the meantime, arrivederci!