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Ghost buster, ghost hunter, phantom fighter: Jim Fassbinder doesn't want to hear it. Despite the name of his popular nightly walking tour – the San Francisco Ghost Hunt – the paranormal expert insists, "I don't bust ghosts. I study them." And he's been doing just that his entire life. Fassbinder regularly materializes on the Travel Channel, as well as magazines and newspapers around the country to discuss his favorite subject – especially in October when interest in ghouls and ghosts, zombies and vampires is at an all time high.
But if you can't get to San Francisco this month, there's probably a haunted hotel somewhere near you. To find out, I caught up with this spook spotter to learn which hotels in the country make his personal top-11 list.
"The prosthesis endured longer than our love. It was made of sturdier material."
I was in Zagreb at the Museum of Broken Relationships. I didn't know what to really expect when I had heard about this small three-room museum in the center of the Croatian capital.
I wasn't sure if looking at objects that broken-hearted people had donated to the museum would have any redeeming value. After all, when I first heard about the museum, visiting it sounded about as joyful and exciting as a funeral procession.
But I was in Zagreb, a town I didn't like very much (at least the last time I was there) and decided I had a choice: I could go to this museum or watch drunkards fall down in the main square. I went with the former.
The island has been shaped by many occupiers and visitors; the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Bourbons, and Genovese have all stopped here and somehow left their mark. But it's the Arabs who really engraved, "We were here" the deepest into the island's ubiquitous dark-hued volcanic rock. They brought with them dishes like couscous and shakshouka. They also planted olive and citrus trees, as well as something that has given the island its main reputation: capers.
Whenever I told someone I was headed to Pantelleria, they'd either give me a blank stare, which told me they had no idea what I was talking about, or they'd say, "Oh, capers!" Yes, capers from Pantelleria are the capers to consume, apparently.
Capers are everywhere on the island, particularly, of course, in restaurant dishes. There were capers in pasta, in pesto, on spreads over crostini, topped on fish, in caponata. It was starting to seem like a caper version of Monty Python's famous skit about Spam.
"New York," I said.
"New York?" he asked, the tone of his voice incredulous and amazed at the same time, as if I'd said I went on a stroll from my West Village apartment, and somehow randomly ended up here on a one-lane road where sharp, black volcanic rock met the rough post-storm Mediterranean.
I nodded, affirming again where I live. His follow up: "Then what the hell are you doing here?"
Which was a good thing. Because my dad's pizza was the worst I've ever eaten in my life. About one Sunday every month, I'd stroll out into the kitchen and see stacked-up containers of flour and jars of tomato paste and I knew it was one of those dreaded Sunday pizza nights. The thin crust of dad's pizza, set nonna style in a rectangular pan, would cook wildly uneven: the edges were brick hard and the center doughy; the sauce was so thin it was hard to see on the finished product that there were even tomatoes involved in this near-inedible orgy; and the toppings always consisted of ground beef and bell peppers.
In a way, it seems hard to screw up something so simple. Pizza is just flour and egg for the dough, tomatoes for the sauce and whatever else you want to top it with. Put it in a scalding oven for 10 or so minute and ecco la! Your pizza is done and delicious.
I've recently found my dad's match for the worst pizza I've ever tasted. And it's right where I live in New York City. In the last few years a recent phenomenon has emerged on the city's dining landscape: $1 pizza slices.
These were the first words I said to the driver after getting in his cab outside my apartment on W. 10th Street in New York City. His eyes went from looking at me in the rearview mirror to whipping his head around to look at me face to face.
"Huh?" he said.
I repeated it and then mentioned the reputation cab drivers have: that, in addition to being oft-eratic drivers, they supposedly hold the secrets to a city's best cheap eats. He let his head fall back, his face staring up at the ceiling of his car, and let out a huge laugh.
"You see," said Joseph, "I mostly eat junk food."
I pressed him, fearing I was going to end up at McDonalds or Taco Bell, asking where he usually eats when he's taking a break from cab. I know it was cheating but I verbally cajoled him a bit. "Something good," I said.
And then a lightbulb went on above his head: "Ah," he said. "I have it." He stepped on the gas and we whipped eastward down W. 10th St.
"I'm on a boat!" I kept singing to myself. "Everybody look at me because I'm sailing on a boat." I was referencing the "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Andy Samberg and T-Pain sail the seas making this one simple proclamation. But this was no ordinary sea and I was on no ordinary boat.
I was on a yacht owned by the Missoni family sailing around the Venice lagoon. I wasn't, though, sipping champagne flutes with a bunch of well-fed, blue blazer and gold button-clad Italian gazillionaires. I was on the judges' boat at the San Pellegrino Cooking Cup. I won't go into all the details except to say it's perhaps one of the most bizarre cooking competitions, ever. Mostly because it takes place on a boat while that boat is racing. I wasn't sure what food-loving billionaire was smoking when he concocted this idea but I liked it.
One benefit in covering the Cup - besides eating well, of course - was that it allowed me to see parts of Venice I might not normally have seen.
The first time I ate a fertilized duck egg was at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York City three years ago. I was headed to Vietnam in a few months and knew I'd be writing about something food related, so I spent the run-up to the trip eating as much Vietnamese food as I could. When I saw balut, as fertilized duck eggs are often referred to, on the menu, I knew I had to try it. But as if the chef expected no one to order balut, my dining companion and I were informed they were out of it. "You want us to go get some," the server said, daring us. We called their bluff and soon enough someone from the restaurant was making a fertilized duck egg run to Chinatown. A few minutes later, the eggs were presented to my dining companion and I.
They weren't good. They weren't bad, either. If you closed your eyes and didn't look at the little dead baby partially formed fetus duck pinched between your chopsticks you'd just think you were eating something very egg-y. My dining companion went for seconds but I think he was just showing off at this point.
I thought I'd sworn off eating duck fetuses but a few months later, there I was in Saigon, doing a story on Vietnamese-born New York chef and prolific restaurateur Michael 'Bao' Huynh for a New York Times travel article. The mission seemed easy enough: just go where he goes and eat what he eats. The rub, though, was that he was eating congealed pigs blood, rats, snakes and, of course, those fermented duck eggs.
I'm a very pork-patient sort of guy. Homer Simpson said it best in expressing his empuzzlement when his daughter Lisa became a vegetarian, asking what she could and couldn't eat:
Homer: "What about bacon?"
Homer: "Pork chops?
Lisa: "No! Dad those all come from the same animal!"
Homer: "Yeah right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical, animal."
Homer is right. But it's time take an electrical prod to the head of this porcine passion. The straw that broke the pig's back for me was when I noticed last week a restaurant down the street from my apartment in New York's West Village opened up called Swine. It's not all pork on the menu but it reads like a farce – a caricature unto itself – of 2012 menu trends, right down to the name of the restaurant itself.
A few minutes earlier I had checked into a Spartan hotel on the town's main, triangular-shaped square, where the friendly receptionist almost gasped when I told here where I was from. "New York?!" she said, covering her mouth, reacting as if I said I'd gone on a walk, got lost, and ended up here a couple miles from the Czech-Austrian border.
Which was sort of true. I had just finished a 15-mile walk where I strolled by a plus-sized monastery in the middle of nowhere, around crumbling medieval Landstejn castle, through a field dotted with World War II-era bunkers. I was hiking around the southern part of the Czech Republic, following a series of trails that goes from Prague to Vienna. And what I really wanted at this moment was a beer. I got several of them, thanks to my waitress.