Help a Minor Internet Celebrity

Dear readers,

Your favorite Minor Internet Celebrity (a/k/a that dude I grew up with who wrote that thing that time), Ed Hirsch, is plotting his next international incident–errr, adventure. He’s tackling Spain, people! This is huge and wonderful. He’s never been to Europe before. But he needs your help.

He’s got two weeks, most likely in August/September this year. He wants some history, some culture, and some cute girls. (These are the same things he wants everywhere.) He doesn’t want to spend huge piles of money, but he’s too old for hostels. Where should he go? What should he do? How should he get around? Open jaw or full circuit? Concentrate in one region or plow through the whole thing? Should he see a bullfight? Should he try to squeeze in Portugal?

These are the burning questions we put to you, our loyal and brilliant readers. Only your crowdliness can provide the wisdom we need. Help us help Ed. 

Comment lines are open now. 

Listicle: Trips with a Minor Internet Celebrity

I’ve known minor Internet celebrity Ed Hirsch for approximately half our lives, since back in the day when he attempted to wear a mustache that was never entirely sure of itself. By my recollection, we’ve been on three trips together.

1) Somewhere around August of 1998 a huge group of us piled in our friend’s mom’s Chevy Regal and drove to Milwaukee for GenCon. For the three of our readers who aren’t massive nerds, GenCon is a gaming convention. People carry large bags filled with many different kinds of dice and pretend to be vampires and guys flirt awkwardly with girls who awkwardly accept or reject their flirtations as the mood moves them. I don’t remember a lot about the trip other than we slept about eight of us in one hotel room to save money, and I wound up in a bed sandwiched between Ed and another guy. This was not a bed made for three grown people, even as close friends as we were. Somewhere in the middle of the night, Ed removed himself to one of the chairs. This was quite gentlemanly of him, as it saved my arms and legs from going completely pins-and-needles and then probably turning black and falling off. And just think where I’d be today with no arms or legs. (Actually… probably the same place.)

Lesson: Choose your travel companions wisely, especially if you’re going to be in close quarters.

2) In April 2010 (Yes, that’s a long gap. Life gets busy sometimes, ya know?) I was supposed to be going to the UK to visit some friends, but then this stupid volcano in Iceland decided to erupt like nuts and stop all transatlantic flights. I got a refund on that trip, but I still had the itch to go somewhere. On the spur of the moment, I texted Ed and informed him that I was going to New York and that he should come with me. Of course, he agreed. The next weekend, we were on a plane to New York. I was pretty sure we were going to die while trying to land in a freak thunderstorm at LaGuardia, but after that, the rest of the trip was lovely. We walked everywhere and ate waaaaay too much and I made him look at flowers and go to a poetry slam and we danced to Bell Biv DeVoe. Half of my foot nearly fell off because I insisted in walking for miles around Manhattan in shoes not made for such a purpose, and Ed bought industrial-size bandaids to fix it. I think he maybe was a Boy Scout?

Lessons: Be flexible. Have spontaneous friends. And always be prepared–bring a Boy Scout with you wherever you go.

3) New York having been such a success, in June 2010 I invited Ed and two other friends of ours (and those friends’ two adorable dogs) up to my family’s mostly disused vacation house in northern Wisconsin. (Yes, that’s two trips to Wisconsin. Going to Wisconsin is what people in Chicago do when they can’t afford to go on a real vacation.) We caravaned up, stopping at Mars Cheese Castle and the Piggly Wiggly for supplies. We spent the weekend hiking to see waterfalls, walking in the woods, pretending that zombies and/or bears might attack at any moment, being legitimately afraid that zombies and/or bears might attack at any moment, cooking a ton of good food, being contemplative around a campfire, drinking New Glarus beer from boots, shooting off fireworks, and generally just having the best time ever in the middle of nowhere. The best.

Ed conquers nature one tree at a time.

Ed conquers nature one tree at a time.

Lessons: The world looks better when you’re sitting next to a campfire, and when all your foods include cheese.

How to: Visit Chicago Like a Chicagoan

[Ed. note: The below piece of writing is extremely funny. It is also extremely profane. The word irreverent does not go far enough. If you’re offended by salty language and off-color humor, please just enjoy our photo today and I promise we’ll be back to our usual family-friendly routine promptly tomorrow.]

[Ed. note part 2: It’s also really long. Tough.]

[Ed Hirsch is a huge nerd, rap enthusiast, and homesick Chicagoan currently stationed in Dallas. He is the love child of Studs Terkel and David Mamet.]

Since moving out of Chicago, I’m asked about every three months for advice about visiting Chicago: what to do, where to stay, what to eat, and so on. I’ve come to realize in these conversations that either (a) I’m a complete slug of a person or (b) everyone assumes I spent twenty-eight years in Chicago living as a tourist. While (a) is probably true, this article is about (b). People will ask me about a restaurant like Charlie Trotter’s or what I think about the Drake Hotel, and I have to remind people that I was living in Chicago on $40k a year. I make more now ($41k!) and I still don’t stay at the Drake when I fly back home. I guess I just know a bunch of obnoxious WASPs, but I don’t think you learn anything about Chicago by trying to hang around Streeterville and Gold Coast for a long weekend. So below I’m going to compile my true honest-to-god suggestions for visiting Chicago.

Where do I fly into?

I don’t care. They’re both about the same distance from where you’re going to stay. Yes, I know where you’re going to stay.

How much is a cab from the airport? Will the cab driver rip me off?

1. If you take a cab from the airport to downtown you’re a coward. Get on the El. Smell public transportation, you baby.

2. Yes, a cab driver will at some point rip you off. You’re a guest in the city, and you should be happy to overpay our cabbies.

OK, so I’m staying at the Drake…

Hahahahahhahahaha and you’re worried about getting ripped off by a cabbie? You bitch.

Stay at the Tremont. It’s $90 a night, two blocks from the Drake, and nobody worth a dime gives a shit that you roomed where some princess or Oprah or whoever stayed. You didn’t get treated like them anyway.

OK, I’m checked in. Now what do I do?

OK, so here are the things I think I would list as cool things to do in Chicago. No particular order:

1) River tour. If it’s warm out, a historical/architecture tour of Chicago is rad for both tourists and locals. Aside from a nice, breezy trip on the not overly smelly river, architectural tours in Chicago actually have significance. This isn’t your chumpsville city where you paid a bunch of dipshits a cool million to design a glass dildo in the center of your three-block downtown. Buildings in Chicago actually mean something to the history of  the city, and you’ll learn something about the meat packing industry, health and sanitation, immigrant migration, and other cool stuff that you probably won’t appreciate because you’re a fucking uneducated hick. Fuck you.

2) Art Institute. Chicago museums are in general the types of museums you have to commit a day to, and I think the Art Institute probably does that experience the best. If you can figure out a way to get tickets in advance it will save you twenty minutes in a line. The “doll-houses” are downstairs, and you can skip the African and Asian art (you fucking racists) and go through the Greek/Roman section and hit up the American classics. That will kill two hours at least, more likely three. You’ve seen about 20 percent of the museum. Also please consider reading (if you can actually read) things about the art. Art has meaning kinda!

Realize your father is terrible.

3) Get someone over the age of fifty to drive you to Pullman Town. I was lucky enough to tag along one weekend when my dad took a friend of his on a tour of the South Side. See, despite what thirty-something yuppie shitheels in Chicago think, the South Side actually wasn’t always just for black people! You should swing through Bridgeport, over to Bronzeville, down to Hyde Park, through Washington Park to Englewood, and then on to Pullman. Ideally this person giving the tour is Jewish, but I don’t have high hopes for you. Pullman is itself an interesting historic landmark, and there’s a nice little museum.

4) Cubs game. As a Sox fan, it makes me barf to say this, but you’ll get better photos and it’s more interesting to walk around Clark and Addison even though it’s just a bunch of frat guys. Hell, you’ll probably feel pretty comfortable with that.

That should eat up your weekend.

OK, but what I was thinking of doing…

I KNOW WHAT YOU WERE THINKING OF DOING IT’S ALL STUPID THAT’S WHY I DON’T CARE.

1) Shopping on the Mag Mile. Ahahhahahahahahahah you fucking dipshit. You don’t have an outlet store in your state? Believe me, I want your fucking money flowing through the coffers of the city of Chicago as much as anyone, but if you came to Chicago to shop you are human trash and I hope you die.
2) Going up the Hancock/Sears Tower. Wow, you went up high. You were higher up when you flew in. Also, you’re going to spend too much on a drink in the Signature Room while sitting next to some screaming kid. Great move, asshat.
3) Seeing a show. Yeah, you aren’t going to see anything interesting, you’re going to see some musical prepping for Broadway or back touring. Wait for it to come to your dumbass state, maybe? You could go to iO or a million other great improv troupes or small theaters, but risking being in a theater where you might have to have a thought about what you just saw is likely for you pretty scary.
4) See the Bean without a local. Seeing “The Sky Bridge” seems like such a great idea too, right?! Millennium Park is like a park but without all that history and gravitas that real Chicago parks have. If you don’t have a fat half-Italian bitching about Daley as you try to take your stupid reflection shot, you’re incapable of raising children right. Ponder that.
5) The Taste. I hope someone shoots you.

Pictured: three stabbings, eight thefts, and someone eating a stupid thing on a stick

OK, I am properly humbled. Now, WHERE DO I EAT CHICAGO HAS GREAT FOOD RIGHT GREAT FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD STUFF FOOD IN MY MOUTH I NEED TO BE A FAT PIGGIE.

OK, now here’s where we get serious.

Eating like a Chicagoan means understanding you can get good to great food anywhere. Yeah, I’m sure Rick Bayless has had his proverbial knob gobbled by every Food Network person you watch, but it turns out if you don’t go to some rib joint that’s open until 1 a.m. you may as well be a plantation owner. So here are some quintessential Chicago dining experiences.

Chicago-Style Pizza

Yeah I know you went to Gino’s East or Giordano’s or whatever. You did it wrong. First off, you ate at the restaurant. Second, you were probably mostly sober. In no way is that how you approach eating a Chicago-style pizza.

1) Go out to a dive bar on the north side (anything west of Southport and north of Belmont will count, I feel; YMMV) and begin drinking. If they have PBR you should have at least two. Same with Schlitz. If you want to do the beer snob thing, you’re welcome to it. Same with scotch. No wine. Vodka is OK.
2) Keep drinking.
3) Begin talking to locals. They will be the interesting people around you.
4) Become best friends with locals. It should be about 10:30 by now.
5) Keep drinking. Decide if you are going to try to sleep with any of these people.
6) At 12:30, begin talking about how you’re hungry. This will be true as you have not eaten.
7) Convince your new friends to take you to their apartment. It will look like this most likely:

Hello, I am a two-flat.

8) Order a deep dish from Chicago’s Pizza.

9) Fifty minutes later, make a major ordeal about how you are going to pay this delivery guy.
10) Eat a slice of the pizza that you have somehow paid for.
11) Fall asleep on couch, not having sex with locals.
12) Wake up four hours later. At this point the pizza should be sitting on the coffee table across from you. The cheese has congealed and the sauce gone cold. Think to yourself “There is a block of cheese inside of me. It has to get out…right?” Ponder your life failures as you sneak out of this person’s apartment and try to find a cab/el stop.

This is a picture of failure.

This is a picture of failure.

Chicago Meat

Oh you want to go to a steakhouse? Ohhhhhhh hmmmmmm yeah no. Half the places out there are chains, and you aren’t mafia enough to pull off being in the ones that aren’t. Chicago meat to you can be summed up as HogDogGyroItalianBeefSausageBurger. Also ribs.

The shortcut to all your Chicago meat needs is Portillo’s. I know what you’re thinking: did this guy who can’t stop being a prick to me just tell me to go to a chain? First off, it’s no chain you ever heard of so put your dick away. Second, go ask around about Portillo’s and see what kind of reaction you get. Portillo’s is like the only popular thing Chicagoans like that’s not named Derrick Rose.

But, if you want to live it real, avoid Portillo’s and find your own hole in the wall. To do this, first you look for a sign.

Despite never being there, I know this is a reputable establishment.

Despite never being there, I know this is a reputable establishment.

Your keys to spotting this place are:

1) Vienna Beef logo on their hanging sign
2) Their name includes one or more of the following
a. Chicago
b. Windy City
c. Beef
d. Dog
e. Gyros
f. The name of the street you’re on
g. The name of a street you’re not on
h. Any ethnic sounding name followed by an “ ‘s ”
3) Their staff appears to all be related or from the same ethnicity
4) They have any of the following
a. Signed pictures of the old mayor
b. Railroad paraphernalia
c. A picture of a giant hotdog, possibly floating in Lake Michigan
d. A menu hanging above the counter that appears to have ~50 items
e. An elderly lady working the cash register

You should expect to eat here a few times. You will want to try a hot dog (plain), another hot dog (everything), Italian beef (hot peppers), Italian sausage (peppers), gyros (everything, pronounce it “euros” or someone will slap you in a just world).

Chicago Ethnic Food

Chicago is good at ethnicities and racism. It’s a good mix, as it means you end up with very particular neighborhoods and streets (ghettos?) to experience unique foods. Here in Texas, I’m not sure if most people can tell the difference between an African American and a Latino, but in Chicago my old barber (Uncle Joe!) once gave me a lecture on exactly when the neighborhood went to hell: when the Irish moved in.

So while in Chicago, you should at least try to get someplace weird. While I think Andersonville and Rogers Park are two great places to do it, I’m going to send you to Uptown. Uptown works for three reasons. First, it’s accessible, right off the Red Line. Second, it has an energetic corner at Lawrence and Broadway. Third, the Green Mill is there. And fourth, there’s a rad Ethiopian place called Demera. If you’ve never had Ethiopian food before, I expect you to go. Do not google anything. Do not be a coward. Do what they do and stop crying. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to see a guy perform guitar there and drink some honey wine. Once you’re done, go across the street to the Green Mill. Pay the cover. Listen to whatever weird experimental Swedish jazz band has flown in to play there and just there. Shut your gaping mouth and just try to appreciate what is happening. Please. Try.

THAT’S A LOT TO DIGEST, LOL.

I get it. A pun.

OK, so this should get you through your weekend in Chicago such that I will give a crap about what you did there. Other things to consider may be:

  • getting into a fight with a homeless man at an el stop
  • having a terrible opinion about sports and sharing it with everyone
  • being involved in a gun crime
  • eating a plate of fries at Clarke’s and wondering how unsanitary the kitchen is
  • going to a Polish buffet on the far northwest side and getting threatened by a three-hundred-pound man in sweatpants
  • freezing your fucking balls off
  • becoming a fan of Rod Blagojevich
  • bitching about Oprah
  • growing a moustache

Capitalism in the Raw

[Ed Hirsch is a huge nerd, rap enthusiast, and homesick Chicagoan currently stationed in Dallas. The power of the cobra still courses through his veins.]

Almost six months before I visited Saigon (known technically as Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC, but no resident referred to it as that unless they thought someone from the government might be listening), I was told exactly what to expect. “Saigon is capitalism in the raw,” I was told by a girl who had spent the last several years opening factories for her father in China. In reflection her story seemed a little fantastic, but if she was lying she made an incredibly lucky guess on Saigon. I landed in Saigon at 3 a.m., and the city felt like a mix of the manic energy and claustrophobia of New York with the dilapidated style of New Orleans. Directly across the street from the hotel’s luxurious windowed lobby, a line of cabs barely obscured the street families cooking food, cleaning their clothes and going to the bathroom.

I was in Saigon for a little over a week, a school trip for my MBA’s international business course. Saigon was also my first major international trip ever, so even with school commitments I felt I should try to appreciate a city and country I will likely never be in again. During that time I learned a few facts about Saigon.

1) Saigon is an extremely safe city, assuming you know how to dodge cars/buses that will not hesitate to run you over.
2) The only major crime you will experience is the time-honored tradition of ripping off tourists, which was well played by cab drivers, bartenders, and passport officials.
3) Seventy-five percent of the Vietnamese population is under the age of thirty, which will make you feel ridiculously old and leave you wondering if this has to do with the Vietnam War or some cultural revolution we Americans forgot about because we stopped caring about Vietnam about thirty seconds after that last helicopter took off.
4) Despite that war, people in Saigon only rank Americans third in their Nationalities to Hate list. The Chinese and French beat us out. USA! USA!
5) Grown adults can still laugh at the word dong.
6) SAIGON IS CAPITALISM IN THE RAW.

This little girl chased me down an alley punching me to force me to buy $5 in cheap plastic hand-fans. Just think, I probably could have bought her as a wife.

Anything can be bartered or negotiated for in Saigon, and that most definitely includes regular access to sex and child-sex-slaves. On one of our last nights in town, we were told the top floor bar had a “ladies night” going. The eight or so women on our trip discovered that ladies night in Saigon has a slightly different meaning: it was simply the night the hotel relaxed its “no locals sleeping overnight” rule and let the prostitutes line up for work.

My experience with capitalism, though, had nothing to do with sex. Instead, it had everything to do with cobras.

One afternoon on the way back from a factory tour, my friend Chris asked our guide Nguyen Nguyen if the bottles of liquor with a cobra and scorpion in them were in any way “legit.” Nguyen told Chris that those bottles were simply bathtub liquor with a cobra stuffed in after the fact, but that if we wanted, he could get us some cobra. From a group of sixty students, only four volunteered.

Nguyen loaded us into a cab that night and drove us out of the posh district-1 and into authentic back-alley Saigon.

“So… is this legal?”

“Technically, no.”

Technically was the key term. Hanoi had made keeping cobras illegal a while back, presumably to reduce the number of waiters-dying-from-cobra-bites statistics to a more reasonable level. But Saigon is about as far from Hanoi as Dallas is from Chicago, and laws are more a tool for government officials to get what they want than, say, laws. “Technically illegal” meant it wasn’t illegal if you did it as a tourist and you were in district-1 or if it really didn’t mess anything up for anyone else. Or, of course, if you could pay for it. “Technically illegal” is the kind of illegal where something becomes actually illegal if you have to go down to the police station… but the police officer could resolve it right here for you.

During the ride over, Nguyen also explained to us that cobra is the Vietnamese Viagra and that it would be best if we ran a few laps around the hotel once we went back.

We unloaded into a small restaurant with its front completely open to a small side street. The street itself was unlit, and the fluorescent light spilled out as if inviting a police officer to walk by and begin raiding our wallets. We sat at a short metal table, common for any restaurant catering to actual Vietnamese people. I flipped through the menu, and while I had figured out some of the basics of fish, chicken, and pork, I was struggling with this menu. Nguyen pointed out something on the menu to us.

“Bat?”

I wanted to. I felt this was becoming a night to absorb as many spirit animals as possible. But the rest of the table shied away.

The waiter brought us a round of Heinekens, Nguyen pointed to a few items on the menu, and we were gestured toward the kitchen.

This is as sanitary as you imagine it!

We were asked if we wanted to have water snake, milk snakes, or cobra. We had come for the cobra, so there wasn’t much negotiation. The cook warned us the cobra was $80 American, not cheap. We insisted, and my friend Chris asked how we knew if we were getting cobra. This led to another great fact.

7) To tell if a snake is a cobra, poke it with a broom handle. If it goes all cobra on you, it’s probably a cobra.

A cobra, even restrained on a stick with its mouth clipped shut, is a terrifying thing. Conrad probably wrote a short story about it, and I suspect it ended with a white person realizing that the cobra was just symbolic of the dark, chaotic reality of nature and man. The reality is if a series of mistakes happened–about the same number that would need to happen for a cobra to bite me today as I type this–that cobra would have been loose, and it certainly could spot the four Caucasians that had paid to see it paraded before us and killed. The most dangerous game is still man, but high on that list is pissed-off cobra.

By this point, Chris and I realized that our fellow students were a little intimidated by this situation. They wanted to come along, but they only wanted to do one shot and then eat some chicken. Food was being brought to the table now, and even with several Heinekens and cobra-shots in us some people thought they were going to avoid eating. Nguyen and I called an audible: Nguyen wouldn’t tell us what we were eating until everyone had at least a bite.

First up came a stew. It was a bit salty but basically could have passed as a Campbell’s soup with some wild rice.

“Rice and leeks, with cobra intestines.”

OK, one down.

We began to finish off the first bottle of cobra blood, and Chris and I called for a second one. There was plenty of undiluted blood left.

“Venison”

We have deer back in the States. Last I checked they weren’t even poisonous. Definite 2/10 on the macho factor.

For the longest time I thought Nguyen called this “cuttle-bird,” but from what I can tell there’s no bird called a cuttle-bird. It was definitely a bird, though, and definitely not the bat I was wanting.

Well, hello again Mr. Cobra. I was wondering what had happened to you.

There was no way anyone could miss it. The main dish of cobra was served. This is the point in No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain takes a bite, pauses, and then says, “That’s… very good!” He may have even already said this about cobra. If so, I feel very comfortable in saying Anthony Bourdain is a liar and is only telling you this so you can suffer his fate of eating rubbery goo with tiny sharp bones in it. Eating grilled cobra is like eating ribs if you’re a giant, and if ribs sucked in this giant-having world.

Everyone had at least one piece, and I think I somehow managed to get through three before all was done. In that time we talked drunkenly about Vietnam and what it’s like–most of which was lost to being about six beers and ten shots in at that point.

Somehow Nguyen loaded us into a cab and got us back to the hotel, where we found the rest of our class going out to a bar to play darts. The night got fuzzy after that point, but I do know that I spent an hour walking in front of darts to prove the power of the cobra. I left there basically intact. What other proof do you need?