So We Went to St. Petersburg (Part Two)

La Segunda Bakery

In the time since my last post (So We Went to St. Petersburg [Part One]), someone mentioned to me that the Hotel Indigo is haunted. I poked around the internet and found out that the hotel used to be a hospital. It is purportedly haunted by a little girl who died of polio, and a man in a wheelchair who haunts the lobby. I saw none of the ghosts, but Thai family lore says that we’re protected by too many angels to be successfully haunted…

On the middle day of our trip we took a break from St. Petersburg and headed to Tampa. We went because we are food geeks, and wanted to find a Cuban sandwich that was as good as the ones we used to eat at Kool Korner in Atlanta. If any place in the world has good Cubans, we reasoned, it should be Tampa (or perhaps Miami, but we weren’t anywhere near Miami)!

On UrbanSpoon we found La Segunda bakery, which has existed in the same neighborhood of Tampa since the turn of the 20th century. The neighborhood is a bit on the scruffy side nowadays, but the second we stepped inside we realized we were on the right track.

It was packed, an excellent sign. We got our number (just like at the DMV) and stood waiting for fifteen minutes while people walked in and out with long bags of Cuban bread, boxes of pastries, and thin-pressed sandwiches. I watched one woman pause at the door, throw away all the extra bread packaging, and dig right in.

We ate the sandwiches in our car in front of the shop, with the sauce dripping down our fingers and the Florida heat making us sweat buckets. We had it with strong, tall-poured café Cubano, with guava-cheese pastries for dessert. It was grand. The Cuban was not as good as Kool Korner, but still tasty.

Dave’s dad mentioned to us that Ybor City was worth visiting. After imbibing our Cubans we went for a sweaty walk down the long row of old storefronts that make up the center of Cuban history in Tampa. The streets were lined with cigar shops and bars and historic places. I caught snippets of stories as I walked, especially enjoying the tale of the Italian-born Cuban revolutionary (photo below). Now the corner where the revolutionaries met to caters to tourists.

Dave bought a cigar from a friendly gentleman who said that he’s got a cigar cutter chained to his garage. “The whole neighborhood stops by when they need to trim their cigars,” he said. Dave bought the cigar cutter too.

The cigar shops of Ybor

After a long wander through Tampa (including a stop to browse through Mojo Books and Music, one of a rare breed of Florida’s small used bookstores), it was time to return to St. Petersburg for one last drink. Also on UrbanSpoon we found The Ale and the Witch, a low-key but honest bar that reminded me of the brewpubs of Portland, but with much more sunlight. I had something I’d never tried before, a Belgian Ale that was dark with no bite at all and a mocha aftertaste — heck if I can remember the name, it wasn’t my usual Omegang. (…Darn, this will bother me.)

Then a band began to play Grateful Dead covers, and it was time to head back to the hotel.

We had no haunting on our last night, but I really missed the morning wake-up cat and child. It was time to head back home! All-in-all, I think I should plan more of these anniversary things. Apparently advanced planning means that we get to have a nice time together – imagine!

One last drink!


So We Went to St. Petersburg (Part One)

The cultural mood surrounding our 11th anniversary trip to St. Petersburg was actually one of national gloom and rage. The morning that we left, a quick skim of my Facebook statuses showed that half my friends were still interested in boycotting Florida due to the verdict of the Trayvon Martin trial. In fact, walking the streets of St. Petersburg, we came upon a church group peacefully rallying in front of the little town hall. “JUSTICE –” cried a woman. “NOW,” cried the crowd. We paused a moment in respect, and then walked slowly past.

We were no longer in Orlando, but on the West Coast. I chose St. Petersburg for our anniversary trip because it had a lot of what Dave and I like to do: see art, browse bookstores, walk, talk and eat good food.

Hotel Indigo

If I could personify St. Petersburg, I’d draw it as an antebellum lady standing with her parasol on the deck of a riverboat. The whole town felt like it was meant for a leisurely Victorian “taking of the waters,” with a quaint bay full of miniature yachts and an ancient hotel hovering across the curved bay park from the Salvador Dali museum.

“Where is the money coming from that funds this town?” I asked Dave, noticing how well-kept everything seemed, right down to the carefully manicured parks and the row of museums.

“Well. There’s a BB&T headquarters and a small college in this town. Chihuly has a glassworks here. It’s coming from somewhere.”

We did a bit of urban exploration in the old Victorian hotel, forcing a door open and finding a wide patio overlooking the bay. It was empty and smelled of old wood and sea air. “It needs those rocking chairs from The Shining, and it would be perfect.”

Dali museum and Chiang Mai Thai

The town’s art didn’t disappoint us, nor did the food. We were both immediately overstimulated by Dali. His most famous work, the Persistence of Memory (the one with the melting clocks), was a tiny picture that I walked right past in favor of a work that dominated a far wall. Seeing Dali was like stepping from Orlando into a vivid and crowded nightmare.

We caught with relief on symbols, repetitive motifs. “Oh, he’s a Freudian,” I said, after reading a sign. Then we saw penises everywhere, along with locusts, crosses, and cello after cello echoing the curve of Mrs. Dali’s waist.

After a few hours we rested, leaning over a railing and watching little boats circle in the bay. “There must be a little sailing school,” Dave said. We dreamed of coming for a week and enrolling Alba.

Thank goodness for Urban Spoon. After all that surrealism I needed home cookin’, so Dave found me the best Thai restaurant in town. Chiang Mai Thai was a bit of a walk from our hotel, but it had excellent fusion American/Thai food. “This is not authentic,” the waitress (who was from the Northeast of Thailand) said to me, after learning that my mother is Thai. “Trust me, go for the Yum Nua (steak salad), but not the papaya.”

We trusted her, and the Yum Nua was indeed authentic, but the more fusion-y food was good too. We had an interesting dish of VERY non-Thai tempura eggplant in peanut sauce, and some super-amazingly-soft duck. The cooking even pleased Dave, who (as a former cook) has some high standards. (“It has to be better than what I cook at home.”)

Chihuly collection at the Morean Arts Center

The next day, we saw more art. Chihuly featured vaguely in my memory as a guy who did neat stuff with glass, but I didn’t know much about him. He made pointy things, and round things, and put them in natural settings. We watched a film about some of his installations, and indeed, he used glass to both highlight natural beauty and make people think about nature. His glass wasn’t flat or square, it was anything but. The most interesting part of the exhibit for me was watching how the glass was made. None of it was an individual effort — all of it was produced by a team, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s factory.

I wish I’d seen Chihuly’s installations made of ice and neon, but instead, my favorite part of the exhibit was a boat carrying enormous and lovely glass balls, floating in a sea of black like the night sky. “I feel like it’s a boat full of planets,” I said to Dave. “Rowed by some crazy god, distributing them through the universe.”

“Alba would like this, as long as we duct-tape her hands to her sides.”

Glass everywhere, you know.

[Read Part Two!]