Loving Cleveland, OH (Sometimes I Leave Peru)

Once a year now, rain, shine, or (most typically) snow, I make two supremely important trips: The first is flying home to Kentucky for the holidays. The second is taking the bus a few hours straight up from Kentucky to Cleveland, Ohio.

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Lizzie, my college roommate and verifiable soulmate — besides, you know, my actual husband — lives in an adorable Cleveland neighborhood with two guys named “Dan”. Dan#1 is her musically inclined boyfriend, and Dan#2 is the heroic savior of this chunk of love:

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Dan#2 pulled a starving Charlie in off the street a few years ago; she clearly seems much happier (and chubbier) at home with Lizzie and the Dans. My impression is that while I’m not there, all four of them just pose adorably whenever they’re not out enjoying the city.

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Cleveland has been around since about 1800, and its history beams through its buildings. Even in winter — or maybe especially — Lizzie’s neighborhood feels warm. In college, I got to briefly visit Cleveland’s highlights: Little Italy and its gorgeous gelato, the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a few of the city’s historic parks, and the downtown area where Cleveland offers theatre that can compete with New York’s. With Lizzie though, I got to really enjoy an actual neighborhood.

Partly, this is probably because Lizzie glows. It’s entirely possibly she could just smile and hug her way into the center of the Pentagon, leaving blushing security guards beaming in her wake. Of course, once she got there, she’d probably just shrug and walk straight back out, saying goodbye to everybody by name on the way. Since when she’s with Dan this glowing effect just gets “worse” (better?), it’s not surprising that it was ridiculously enjoyable to say hello to all the people we met.

The other part of this warmth-in-winter effect, though, is that her Cleveland neighborhood just fully fulfills that charming holiday town stereotype. Yes, you have to deal with snow, but any direction you trudge, the way is lit by soft street lamps, charming houses, and what can only rightly be described as genuine pubs. The first pub we hit up was Stone Mad, which looks and feels like it settled itself onto a Cleveland street corner after migrating from a small town in Ireland.

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The food was hot and, frankly, miles above the status quo for bar food. This isn’t surprising given that food celebs from Anthony Bourdain to Michael Symon (not to mention multiple national cuisine magazines) have been busy praising Cleveland as home to multiple “bests”, from full restaurants to casual eateries. After the long bus ride though, that baked salmon was definitely welcome. Dan#1 also introduced me to Kentucky Bourbon Ale, which is oddly — and tragically — unavailable in Lima, Peru.

We visited Happy Dog too, where — I kid you not — we were lucky enough to visit a place with a regular polka night and the option of having Fruit Loops served on your hotdog. While there, Dan#2 was kind enough to stand while we sat, and we all got to say a brief hello to Dan#1’s sweet sister. Since her work involves Cleveland tourism, she was stopping by to ensure the polka was hot and the dogs were tasty (they were).

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The star of the Cleveland show for me was definitely Westside Market. The concept of a large, outdoor/indoor vendor market selling quality food goods began about 1840. Since then, the residents have flocked to it with so much love and consistency that Cleveland has had to provide bigger spaces for the market at least twice. Finally, in 1912, the city threw down heavy cash and erected the welcoming West Side Market building that stands there now.

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Surrounded by humble but well stocked book shops and cafés/mini-eateries serving homemade and hot everything, the red brick building houses some 100 vendors. These friendly folks (often ready to offer a deal) sell fresh veggies and fruits, a vast array of meat products, a surprising range of quality international goods, and just about everything else in between. unnamed-3 unnamed-2

After making the trip to West Side, we all got home, shivered our way out of coats and into cozy, dry pjs, and started cooking. From Dan#2’s butternut squash ravioli (yes, I ogled it till he offered) to the pierogis and heaping veggie sides, everything was more than well worth our brush with the cold.

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Lizzie’s Cleveland neighborhood was a gem to visit, and I’m hoping this coming year will offer a kinder schedule so I can stay just a little while longer. That glow that Lizzie has? Her whole family has it too, and I hear two new members will be around for the 2014 holidays! Clearly, short weekend stays won’t quite cut it this time if I’m going to get to say hello to everybody.

For the record, thanks much to both of Lizzie’s Dans: you guys were gentlemen and stellar hosts. Your Cleveland neighborhood was a feast, but the real treat was getting such a warm welcome after my bus ride. It’s also nice knowing that until I get back, the only other creature on the planet who can snuggle as effectively as Lizzie will be smothering her in puppy love. I can’t wait for my next visit!

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