A New Experience: Nowhere Else Art and Music Festival

This year my passport might stay in storage. When a couple of kitchen appliances died in December, I knew 2016 would mean swapping travel abroad for house projects: clear clutter, repair or replace things that are broken, and finish projects.  Truthfully, it’ll make me happy to check these things off the to-do list.

Even forbearance needs some balance. I might not travel across the ocean this year, but North America is vast with plenty of places to see. Locally, I’m getting to know the DMV (District of Columbia / Maryland / Virginia) better. This area is a world-class destination! And then, there are also road trips for long weekends.

Speaking of which … my brother, David, had the idea to bring the family together Memorial Day Weekend for a folk festival in Ohio. It’s only the third time in 10 years that my brothers, sister and I were home at the same time. My sister-in-law and niece joined us.

Family reunion at Nowhere ElseFarmhouse at Nowhere Else

Why a folk festival? In 2015, David took Mama for a Memorial Day picnic and outdoor concert to see the Ohio folk group, Over the Rhine. She absolutely loved it. The concert was a fund-raiser for the new barn construction. The barn is now complete and was inaugurated in 2016 with this full-blown art and folk music festival. Hence, David’s idea to bring the family together for what he calls a “signature event.” I was into being with my family and the picnicking. The folk music? Not so much.

My music of choice is classical, soul, Latin jazz, and hip-hop, and some rock. I thought I was well-rounded enough when it came to music… until this folk festival challenge. I wondered if I could stand two days of it.

Based on the vague response of the GPS, the site for the Nowhere Else Festival was nearly off-the-grid. It was on a farm in Martinsville, Ohio… near Wilmington… and not far from Cincinnati. It was also just 45 minutes south of my mother’s house.

Wilmington Ohio - street art

Downtown Wilmington, Ohio

Festival hosts, Karen Burgquist and Linford Detweiler of the folk band, Over the Rhine, live on another farm they call “Nowhere.” The band is named after a neighborhood in Cincinnati. Their “Nowhere Else” farm hosted the festival and housed the artists.

Nowhere Else 2016 Festival Poster

Nowhere Else Festival 2016 Poster

Karen and Linford infuse their lyrics with love for each other and Ohio. “Meet Me At the Edge of the World” is my favorite song of theirs. Song lyrics, like visual art, invite you to create your story of what they mean.

“That lone tupelo soon will be on fire

For all I know with God’s desires

As Autumn in Ohio spirals

Off of the edge of the world.”

(Excerpt from “Meet Me at the Edge of the World” – Over the Rhine)

Over the Rhine band

David’s brain is a database of lyrics from any music genre. Give him a couple of words and ask for a lyric to match, and he can pull it up and give you a story about it. I, on the other hand, am usually lyric-deaf. When I listen to songs, I hear rhythm and instrumentals.  But, when I really really listened to this music, I could hear the poetry — the art within the art.

The new barn’s ground floor was used for artist demonstrations and gallery space. I get all nostalgic about Ohio, and was lovin’ the painting of the state bird.

Cardinal - Gallery at Nowhere Else FestivalGallery space at Nowhere Else barnArtist demonstration at Nowhere Else Festival

The festival was two complete days of scheduled visual and performance artists. Two tents were set up:  one for picnicking and the other for the musical performances. Those who couldn’t fit inside the tent sat outside on their own chairs and blankets. So did we, at one point.

The Poet and her Mentor

My niece and her grandmother.

We packed enough food and drinks for lunch and dinner both days. Everybody in the family contributed to the picnic fare. Our menu was ridiculous:  smoked salmon; smoked chicken; two kinds of deviled eggs; fresh green salad; crab, avocado, and quinoa salad with technicolor tomatoes; Christians and Moors salad; potato salad with sausage; and cut-up fresh fruit for dessert. Although the festival had food available for sale, like pizza, the best part was bringing our own grub.

My brother is laser focused on his plate. Get it, David!

Picnic grub - Nowhere Else FestivalPicnic fare at Nowhere Else festival 2016

Other things that were cool about this festival were: 1) the size of the crowd,  2) the ease of parking, and 3) decent toilet facilities. About 1,000 people attended the festival,which meant there was plenty of space. It was easy to come and go from the site, and parking didn’t cost extra.

A few words about the toilet facilities. I’ve been turned off by many an outdoor event for fear of the toilet facilities. Some would test the stoutness of anyone’s bladder.  At Nowhere Else, the outdoor hygiene station was impressive and had foot pedals to turn on running water. There were also soap dispensers and paper towels. That was better than I’ve seen in county parks and recreation areas! The port-a-potties weren’t smelly, disgusting, or gag-inducing…most of the time…just avoid looking down the hole. A couple of port-a-potties were even spacious. But, when the high heat of the sun was done, I eased up on hydration.  By 7 pm, those port-a-potties had been through hard duty and gone beyond the limit of tolerability.

My favorite discovery at the festival was the band, Birds of Chicago. Catch a bit of their sound here. The female lead vocalist, Allison Russell, is from Montreal. She plays banjo, ukulele, and clarinet. Her husband, J.T. Nero, writes most of the songs and plays lead guitar. His raspy vocals perfectly complement hers. Twang meets soul.

Birds of Chicago - Nowhere Else Festival

At Nowhere Else Festival, the band mostly played songs from their album Real Midnight, produced by Joe Henry. Evidently, Joe Henry is a big deal and artists score a coup if he produces their album, which is yet another thing I learned about the folk music world. Joe Henry was there performing his own music and he held a songwriting workshop. (As a side note, Madonna is Joe Henry’s sister-in-law.)

See the video clip from the festival — Allison and J.T. join Joe Henry’s band for a song. (Joe’s the guitarist in the black hat.)

I struggled to describe Bird of Chicago’s sound until I read Jewly Hight’s NPR review of the album Real Midnight. The artists describe their music as secular gospel. I can hear that. Hight also said this about the band’s lyrics:  “They show us a way to fully live with the awareness that nothing’s forever and everything’s at stake.”

I was surprised by how much I really enjoyed the music at this FOLK festival. What??!! I also liked other artists, like Lucy Wainwright Roche — a solo artist and guitarist with a gift for humorous story-telling. Blind Boys of Alabama closed the festival and took us to church!

Blind Boys of Alabama

Blind Boys of Alabama

But, back to Birds of Chicago. Less than a month later, my sister, a friend, and I saw them at Gypsy Sally’s in Washington, DC. I’d never been to that venue before and it was great, too!

Gypsy Sally's - Washington DCBirds of Chicago at Gypsy Sally's

See what happens when you open yourself up to new experiences?  Have you opened yourself up to anything new this year?

 

 


What is it about Belgium?

Belgians might sum up their country’s national identity by saying: “It’s complicated.”

This country appealed to me because of the cultural duality I saw in its tennis stars, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. They represented Belgium as Fed Cup teammates, but were not friends. These two tennis competitors mirrored their country’s competing regions. That bit of intrigue, and the fact that relatively few Americans travel there, is why I wanted to go.

I spent two weeks in Belgium in 2007; and three days there in 2015 with my local friend, Mollie. Even Belgians wanted to know “Why Belgium?” No one could understand how I could spend an entire two weeks in the country.  To put it in perspective, Belgium is about the size of Maryland. I can’t imagine traveling in Maryland for two weeks and being as enthralled. So, what is it about Belgium?

Belgium map from Insight Guides Belgium

Map from Insight Guides – Belgium

I’ve seen Brussels described in news articles as a second-tier European capitol, which means the rest of the country is probably held in the same regard.  Belgium’s cities, though, have been major financial centers throughout the centuries. For instance, in the 17th century, Ghent, in Flanders, was the second largest city in Europe after Paris.  Liège, in Wallonia, was a major producer of steel during the Industrial Revolution. Now, the European Union (EU) is headquartered in Brussels, which is known as the Capital of the EU.

Did you know…

  • Dutch-speaking Belgium is known as Flanders; and French-speaking Belgium is known as Wallonia. These two regions are culturally, economically, and politically different, and sometimes at odds with each other. Cultivating a single national identity is a challenge.
  • Ancient cities, Tongeren and Tournai (in Flanders and Wallonia, respectively) were part of Roman Belgium (or Gallia Belgica) in 27 B.C.  Earliest reference to Brussels is around 960 A.D., known then as “Bruocsella.”
  • The “Flemish Painters”  — Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony Van Dyck and others — flourished in the Baroque tradition in the 17th century. (Don’t confuse them, though, with the “Dutch Masters.” That group includes Vermeer and Rembrandt.) René Magritte was a famous Belgian surrealist of the 20th century.
  • There is a saying about “meeting one’s Waterloo.” Waterloo, just south of Brussels,  is where Napoleon finally got his little arse kicked by a combination of British, Dutch, and German forces back in 1815.
  • Portions of what is now Belgium were controlled at different times by the Romans, the Spanish, and the French. Belgium was part of The United Kingdom of the Netherlands until 1830 when it gained independence (and its own monarchy) under King Leopold I. Though younger than the U.S. as a nation, some of Belgium’s cities and villages date back a millennium.
  • Belgium is bordered by France, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. Its official languages are French, Dutch, and German. Brussels is a mandated bilingual (French and Dutch) city and province.
  • Belgium was invaded twice by Germany in World Wars I and II. The Second Battle of Ypres inspired the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.”
German WW II bunker - Flanders, Belgium

Remnants of German Bunker – Flanders

Poppies in a field - Flanders

Poppies in a field – Flanders

  • Belgium’s regions are mostly politically autonomous and the government is de-centralized. Amazingly, Belgium went 541 days without an elected government from 2009-11.
  • Belgium currently has the third most robust economy in the EU.
  • Flanders has a fierce lion on its flag; Wallonia has a cock (male rooster!) on its flag; and the national flag of Belgium is identical to the German flag in colors — the only difference being vertical versus horizontal stripes.
Gravensteen Castle with the Flemish flag

Gravensteen Castle – Ghent – Flemish flag above

belgiumflag copyRooster - Ghent 2

What is it about the Belgian brand?  For food that has been exported world-wide, there’s Belgian endive, Belgian waffles, Brussels sprouts, Belgian chocolate, and Belgian beer and ale.  People have made a pilgrimage to Belgium for the beer and ale alone.

Belgian beer-tasting

Beer-tasting in Flanders

Even some dog breeds rate a Belgian brand, like the Belgian shepherd, Bouvier des Flandres, and the very interesting-looking Griffon Bruxellois. Maybe, just maybe, a Belgian brand means Belgium has a national identity after all.

Belgium is a diverse country. When I was there in 2007, I was struck by the number of Muslims and Africans living there. In the 1860s, Belgium became a colonial power when it stole the Congo (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo).  The exploitation continued until the mid-1950s.  Belgium also controlled a territory, formerly known as Ruanda-Urundi, and now known as the Independent Kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi. Hence, the African populations in Belgium from the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.

I wondered when and why Muslims migrated to Belgium. In the 1960s, the first wave of migrants came from Morocco and Turkey. They were in Belgium on guest worker passes. Later, these migrants were followed by those from Algeria and Tunisia. Muslim populations in Brussels and Antwerp are comparable in size to those in Marseilles and Paris.

From my observations, North African Muslims and Africans did not appear to be thriving or part of mainstream Belgian society. I thought the same thing about Paris back in 1998, and recently in 2015. But, I was just passing through, so what did I know? Since then, I’ve learned my observations were on point. As an African-American, I have radar for this sort of thing.

What is it about Belgium? Why do people from these groups still come? Linguistically, Belgium works for native French and Dutch-speakers from anywhere in the world. And Belgium’s “balance sheet” is very much in the black. Migration generally occurs in the direction of opportunity. The question is whether everyone can partake in opportunities.

After the Brussels terrorist attacks on March 22, 2016, media outlets seemed to focus on Belgian authorities as being a bunch of boobs. That the Belgian government is mired in incompetence. That Brussels is an incubator for jihadists. That the EU is a failure when it comes to communicating intelligence to its member states. That Belgian nationals were among the Paris terrorists, and it’s Belgium’s fault because they were radicalized there. Any iota of sympathy for loss of lives and property in the Brussels attacks was overwhelmed by the recriminations.

What is it about Belgium? The public response toward Brussels was not like it was toward Paris when it was attacked in January and November 2015. Did someone press the mute button on the sympathy response? Where was the Belgian flag overlay for the Facebook profile photos?  Some people think it’s because Belgium is not as well known as France.

Shortly after the Paris attacks, I wrote this piece. It applies to Belgium’s tragedy from jihadist attacks, too.  Mollie was on her way to work when she was turned away at the Métro station and sent home. The Métro had already been attacked. In Mollie’s words, “the fear is palpable.” Belgium’s predicament has been ours, too. Terrorism occurs all over the world.

What is it about Belgium? Tiny and complicated though it is, Belgium is an historical treasure, and a major player in contemporary European politics. Without a doubt, Belgium and the EU have particular challenges.  I’ll give Belgium a moment or two to regroup before I travel there again…and I certainly will.

Logo bigger final

 


Paris: Eating Like a Local

I’ve been thinking about my trip to Europe last October because my sister, Cheryl, will be traveling there soon. We’ve talked about how food is a major part of the travel experience. And we definitely love food.  What does it mean to “eat like a local”? It can mean eating where locals eat; eating the way locals eat (with locally-used utensils or hands) and even eating at the time of day locals eat.

Of the three European cities I traveled to, I spent the most time in Paris. I love French food, but my diet has changed over the past eight years. No béchamel sauce, crêpes, croissants, pastries, and baguettes for me. So I thought. But, I also figured I could navigate my little food quirks, even in Paris.

The French take their entire culture — language, art, music, wine, and food, very seriously. They are clear about what it means to be French. France has a Minister of Culture presiding over touchstones of French identity and French contributions to the arts. French words pertaining to food, like restaurantgourmet, café, connoisseur, and cuisine are commonly used in English language.

French cuisine has always been a gold standard for trained chefs; and I have read that the cuisine is in crisis.  So what does that mean? Food at an authentic-looking bistro may have been previously frozen, perhaps pre-assembled, and not totally prepared in-house with raw ingredients. Read about it here.

(Good lord…that sounds like American restaurant chains! I didn’t have to leave home for that!)

So, with that awareness, I decided to be discriminating about where I would eat in Paris, same as I am here. I would not eat at bistros with burgers and pizza on the menu. I can get that food here (if I were so inclined — which I am not). But, then again, when you’re fresh off the plane and it’s lunch time, you might just bust those standards and eat anywhere. People who know me know that I go from very hungry to “hangry” fast.

I found Bistrot La Bonne Cécile a mere two blocks from my Airbnb and ate lunch there. The menu is rotated seasonally. The restaurant served fresh food made in-house. I could not have been more delighted with my first meal on the Continent, and glass of Sancerre. The restaurant was charming and the service was exceptional. (Tip: you do not tip in France.)

Soup course - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Soup course – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Entree seafood pot and rice - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Seafood pot and rice – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Coffee is big in Paris, but I don’t drink it. I indulged, instead, in chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) made with milk and cream. Made right, it’s oh-so-rich. I’m lactose intolerant and didn’t get a stomach ache from drinking it!  Best cups are made with chocolate, not cocoa powder. As noted in this blog, using a powder instead of a high-quality chocolate bar with its rich cocoa butter, is really hot cocoa and not hot chocolate.

Paris has an abundance of ethnic restaurants. I enjoyed them, too. I also had great meals at very casual restaurants. One of them was Le Pain Quotidien. My friend, Charlotte, asked me to meet her there. We have one in D.C. — that I’d never been to — and I didn’t expect to go to that chain in Paris. Well, it was a cut above and delicious! I had a great salad, gluten-free bread, and a bowl of soup. I’ve since been to Le Pain Quotidien in D.C.

Some other casual restaurants in Paris:

Divin’ Art, near Arts et Metiers Metro, is a gluten-free crêperie in walking distance of my Airbnb. I ate a savory crêpe (smoked salmon, soft-boiled egg, and peppers), carrot soup, green salad, and a chocolate crêpe.

Savory gluten-free crepe - Divin Art

Gluten-free crepe from Divin’ Art in Paris (Marais)

While walking in search of Paris’ street art in the Oberkampf neighborhood, I found this vegetarian and gluten-free restaurant. I had a fresh juice, carrot soup, and a vegetable rice and almond dish. Simple, healthy, and delicious. And the meal was cheap!

Vegetarian gluten-free in Paris

L’esprit Tchaï – Paris

Rice and vegetables

I also ate food that was a little out of my comfort zone. The complete meal here was the salade niςoise and escargot, with a glass of white wine.

Salade nicoise

Salade nicoise with anchovies

Eating escargot was a challenge. I eat escargot because they are a super-beneficial food for my blood type. I take an almost medicinal view toward it.  I don’t go into a swoon over the taste, but escargot is more than just palatable. The challenge was dealing with the little animal in its shell, which was a first for me. The escargot I’ve eaten has always been hidden — thankfully, because they are rather ugly — under a garlic, parsley and butter sauce in a snail plate. No shells included.  But, I had on my big girl panties and would eat escargot like the French.

I asked the server to show me how to use the snail tongs. First, you grip the shell, which is when I had the Pretty Woman moment. The shells are indeed “slippery little suckers,” but at least they didn’t go flying across the room. Next, you use the little fork to pull the critter out. After an embarrassing struggle, I managed to grip three shells and pull out three escargot. I couldn’t get the last two out of their shells.  As far as I was concerned, no one was home. The server was watching me, so I asked him to try. I wish I’d taken a video of him trying to find the snails. He probably thought it was just me. He gave up, too, and put in an order to replace the two snails that had gone missing.

Escargot

Escargots

See this video for how to eat escargot.

Another outside-the-comfort-zone food was this dish of wild mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, and parasol) and poached egg.  I don’t like poached eggs, but I gave this dish a go.  It was a work of art, interesting and tasty. The restaurant, La Mazenay, was lovely; and the service was meh.

Le Mazenay - wild mushrooms and poached egg

A highlight was lunch with Charlotte at elegant Bofinger’s near Place de la Bastille.  I had this delicious fish and vegetable dish.

Fish and vegetables in sauce - Bofinger's

I also ate this dish of sauerkraut, or choucroute. It was not part of my order. It came from the table of diners next to ours. I was eye-ballin’ their sauerkraut because they weren’t eating it, and it looked good. They were eating the pork all around it instead. Charlotte asked the diners if I could have a taste. That was a little tacky, I know, but I guess they decided to help the American out.

Choucroute

Another food that is not everyday fare in the U.S. is  rabbit, or lapin. I had this very tasty rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichin 3 — a family-owned restaurant in the City of Chartres near the Cathedral. Damn, it was good!

Lapins at the market

Lapin at the market before one was turned into stew

rabbit and prune stew at le pichet 3

Rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichet 3

In addition to chocolat chaud, I enjoyed two other kinds of sweets:

Macarons — looking like colorful little hamburgers, these gluten-free cookies made of almond flour have a flavored cream filling. They are everywhere in Paris. Quality matters. Eat enough of them and you can distinguish the mediocre from the sublime.

Macarons

Les Macarons

Panna Cotta — the best I’ve ever had in my life came from a tiny Italian restaurant Charlotte and I ducked into to escape the rain. This was Charlotte’s dessert. After a taste, I had to order my own. The texture was perfectly smooth, and the sweetness came from the berries and sauce.

panna cotta in Paris

Panna Cotta

My main dining event was a six-course dinner at Pierre Sang in Oberkampf. The hostess took everyone’s food restrictions and preferences. You don’t order from a menu. The six courses are the chef’s choice and everyone gets the same dish, customized as requested.  The hostess answered our questions about what we had eaten afterwards. I was fine with that. It was part of the experience. Reserve a seat at the bar so you can watch the chefs and talk with other diners, especially if you’re solo.

I was thrilled that the Pierre Sang experience was only €45. For the same price here in D.C., a diner could pay that or more for uninspired fare.

There are so many options for dining in Paris. You can dine satisfactorily or fabulously for good value in this city.  Challenge your food comfort zone when you travel, and eat like the locals!

 

 


What I Think of Parisians

When we think of Parisians, we think of artists, fashion designers, style trendsetters, and people who express the joy of living. On that last note, I’ve always heard the French embrace the “work to live” ethic. It’s so much more in line with having a balanced life.  (Sigh.)

These are my additional thoughts about Parisians.

1. PARISIAN DOGS HAVE A SPECIAL PLACE IN SOCIETY.

Parisians have little dogs. Parisian dogs can go almost everywhere their owners go —  unless they’re expressly not allowed (like cemeteries). I think French bull terriers are a favorite breed.  No surprise there!

French bulldog at Le Pain QuotidienFrench bulldog at lunch

Usually, Parisian dogs are on a leash; but sometimes they’re not. This particular dog looked like he belonged right in that spot. People had to walk around him because he wasn’t budging.

Unleashed and ignoring everyone

I came across this dog — ancient, toothless, and dearly loved by her owner. She accompanies her owner to antique shows and flea markets in this antique baby carriage.

Elderly dog in antique baby carriage

Parisian dogs have attitude — a certain je ne sais quoi. This one had a stylish strut, like his owner. The Parisian dogs I saw didn’t consort with strangers and were downright aloof. I couldn’t get their attention at all.

dogs with je ne sais quoi

(My sister’s dog, Lulu, would never be mistaken for a Parisian dog. She’s the right size, but, bless her little heart, way too friendly and undisciplined.)

Lulu and Wiley copy

Lulu – on the left.

2. PARISIANS ARE NOT RUDE SNOBS. 

I don’t understand the reputation the French have in the U.S. for being snobs and rude. I’ve never had that experience, especially in Paris. Parisians interact with “politesse.”  The word originates from the Latin word polire — meaning, to polish. Politesse means formal politeness. Courtesy. Basic civil interaction. Good manners. Geez…what a concept.

These four little French words can earn you some engagement with Parisians:  “Bonjour” (hello), “Merci” (thank you), and “Au revoir” (goodbye), and “Pardon” (Excuse me).

I stopped people on the street regularly to ask for directions. I would get someone’s attention with “Pardon, (Madame / Monsieur). Bonjour.” To which they would respond, “Bonjour.” I would ask for directions in a way that was not brusque or entitled. I’d start my  question in French with “Je cherche….” (I am looking for….) and pull out my map. I’d always be respectful, because … guess which one of us needs help. After awhile, I understood directions en français:  “tout drois” (straight ahead); à droite (to the right); and à gauche (to the left).  Even the most rushed person would stop, listen intently, and pull out their smartphone for Google Maps to show me where to go.

Parisians — they had me at “Bonjour.”

3. PARISIAN KIDS PLAY AND ARE TRAINED TO BE INDEPENDENT. 

I was struck by the number of kids I saw un-tethered to adults. We call them “free-range” children in the U.S. I saw these kids independently making their way to school, none of them with eyes glued to a device. Some kids looked as young as eight. They were usually in pairs or small groups, talking and laughing with each other.  Some kids rode through Paris streets on their scooters. I also saw plenty of Parisian parents with their kids, especially in parks.

place des vosges - kids

Teenagers – Place des Vosges

kid on scooter

Young musician on scooter at Pont St. Louis

place des vosges playground

Kids playing – Place des Vosges

Father - daughter playing in front of Eiffel Tower

Father – daughter playing: Parc du Champ de Mars

On a side note: I saw a Parisian dad publicly discipline his son. The child was a hellion, willfully disobeying his dad and charging across the street on his scooter with dad in hot pursuit. I stopped to watch the spectacle. (I had a flashback of the uninhibited discipline U.S. parents gave their kids before “helicoptering” took over.) This dad snatched that boy off his scooter, and spanked him down to the ground. The boy got up, and reached for his scooter. The dad didn’t give it back.  Maybe he was training the boy for the day when he could safely and independently ride his scooter on Parisian streets. Good for that Parisian dad!

4. CAFÉ DINING IS A PARISIAN WAY OF LIFE.  

Parisian cafes are equipped with awnings and heat lamps. Bad weather won’t stop the unabashed people-watching. If  you notice, everyone sits facing the sidewalk and the chairs on the other side of the table are empty. The outdoor café diners are the audience; and you…passersby…are the show.

parisian cafe culture

5. PARISIANS DO TINY SPACES WITH STYLE.

I gave myself a splurge at the end of my trip and decided to spend my last night in Europe in a traditional hotel. But, I didn’t really want an ordinary hotel. I checked out quirkyaccom.com to find something different that I could afford. The price, about €135,00, was right for a splurge in the 15th arrondissement.

Circular bed at Platine

Hôtel Platine is a cinema-themed boutique hotel. Hence, the blonde babe as the focal point over the bed. That bed was a huge playground! Alas, I was solo. Just so you know, the blonde bombshell over my bed gave me neither nightmares nor a complex. I slept very well, and was happy to wake up still me with black hair and smart.

The bathroom was the most efficient use of space. Lighting options were a Hollywood production.  For instance, this shower could be lit with regular lights or amped up with red lights, as shown here.

Hotel Platine Bathroom ShowerHotel Platine Bathroom Sink

I was dazzled by the glass-walled bathroom, and it took more than a minute to realize this was a two-piece bathroom.  As the French would say, “Oú est le toilet?”

Hotel Platine Toilet

In a room that was only yea big, I opened doors until I…found it! Behind a door that I thought was another closet, there was the toilet and this lip-smacking wallpaper.

Other unique hotel features were the movie screen in the elevator, the Turkish bath available to hotel guests, and spa services for additional cost. The hospitality was top-notch here, too. I’d come back for another splurge.

I look forward to traveling to Paris again, and discovering more of the city and its residents. About those Parisians: I’m a fan.


Christmas Spirit in Amish Country

If you live near Pennsylvania Amish country as I do, the National Christmas Center Family Attraction and Museum in Paradise, PA, is a perfect way to kick off the Christmas season.  A self-guided tour through this museum delivers history, culture, tradition, fantasy and faith to showcase Christmas throughout the world.

When you enter the museum, you see life-sized vignettes of American family celebrations of the holiday.  The cultural reference points include jolly Santa, children trying to sneak a peek at Santa, children tearing open presents with delight, and the traditional Christmas tree topped with a star.  These images — part of our national consciousness — actually date from mid-20th century American Christmas celebrations.  You (or your parents) might be catapulted back to these very familiar moments.

In the corridor leading to the museum proper, you are treated to an exhibit of the history of Santa Claus.  Santa is derived from St. Nicholas, a Turkish bishop known for giving gifts to the poor.  St. Nicholas was depicted wearing his bishop’s miter, a tall conical hat.

St. Nicholas

As the legend of St Nicholas evolved to Santa Claus, the clothing and depiction changed, too.  Some images are of an ugly, gnome-like creature, while others are both ugly and disturbing on many levels. Dare we say the forebears of Santa — the beloved icon — looked creepy?  The Dutch, the Belgians, and the English all added or subtracted elements over the course of Santa’s evolution. You will be fascinated with both the images and the history.

St. Nicholas - Dutch tradition

Creepy Santa 1

Creepy Santa 2

European Santas

One of my favorite exhibits was the crêches (nativity scenes).  I love these because they demonstrate that Christianity is celebrated all over the world with each culture injecting their own race, nationality, and heritage into their understanding and depiction of the story.  Indeed, it is easy to see the manifestation of God’s gift to the whole world through these crêches.

Kenya Creche

Kenyan Nativity Scene

Guatemala Creche

Guatemalan Nativity Scene

Columbia Creche

Colombian Nativity Scene

Ireland Creche

Irish Nativity Scene

I was taken back to an era when a Woolworths 5&10 store was the nerve center of a community. Lancaster, Pennsylvania was the home of the original Woolworth’s.  The museum has a replica of the store’s Christmas section.  You can walk around the space like a shopper and marvel at the cost of trinkets, decorations and gifts from back in the day.

Woolworths - Lancaster

In the museum proper, we find Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’s, A Christmas Carol.

Dickens's booksdickens' christmas carol

From there, you can wander through one “country” after another, approaching a front door, looking in a window, and being transported to Christmas celebrations in other times and places.  There are a variety of Christmas trees, decorations and depictions of Santa and other figures important to the season.  Vignettes are captivating, inviting you to return for another look to see what you may have missed.  Be warned, this could take you into serious visual overload!  The wonderfully curated vignettes match sounds — music, animals, Christmas carols, or spoken word — with the scene.

Dutch house

Dutch home at Christmas

Dutch Santa

Dutch Santa

British Santa

British Santa

Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia – St. Lucy’s Day is celebrated in Scandinavian countries during Advent.

Moving on, you find Tudor Town and delight in the animals’ storybook Christmas.  As you move through this exhibit, you can read the story and see the characters in charming vignettes—pure fantasy.  Your inner child will approve.

Tudor Towne entrance

tudor towne scene 1

While all the fun and delight of Christmas is great, it’s easy to forget the point of the celebration. The next several rooms set the stage for Christ’s birth, beginning with “O Holy Night,” a life-size panorama of the desert and the travelers at night.  You begin to quiet inside, letting the images seep into you.

O Holy Night

After “O Holy Night,” you are back in daylight experiencing a walk through Bethlehem and the market place.

Middle East market scene

You look inside the type of dwelling Mary and Joseph would have called home; and realize they were in the Middle East.  Think about it in light of current events.  I did.  The curator did a fantastic job of making this transition and leading us into “the Holy Land.”  The mystery and wonder begin to envelope you.  You remember the Christmas story as it unfolds in front of you: the angel appearing to a shepherd; the good news heralded by horn; and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the manger.  The tour doesn’t end here, but the Christmas story does.  You have reached the apex.

Heralding the birth

Winding down, you are shown gifts and ornaments from different cultures arranged as if in a small boutique.  There were lovely things, odd things, some you would expect, and some you wouldn’t.  Two displays, in particular, struck me as almost heretical for today’s consumer.

Did you know that cartons of cigarettes were popular gifts in the ’50s?  And, did you ever see an advertisement for the gift of a gun?

“To give or receive a Winchester Rifle or Shotgun affords pleasure and satisfaction.  At Christmas time or at any season, a man, a woman, or a boy who enjoys life will appreciate a Winchester as a gift.”

Seriously, Santa?

Sinister Santa Ads for Guns

Santa and Cigarette Ads

The National Christmas Center Family Attraction & Museum has something for everyone and is worthy of an annual pilgrimage, if you can make it.  It is open most months of the year, and now…well, ’tis the season! You can enjoy the museum with or without kids—though the teachable moments with kids are numerous.  You will experience nostalgia, hope, and the realization that there are common bonds among all peoples.

National Christmas Center

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

 

Author – Cheryl


Planes, Trains, and Vehicles: Getting Around Europe (Part 3)

Amsterdam is a two hour train ride from Brussels, and trains run frequently. I was fine buying my ticket the day before I’d travel.  The price: €42.  After two weeks in Europe, I was in the home stretch and near the end of my travel budget.

Imagine a city with slightly over a million people having more major train stations than New York City.  Brussels Midi Station is impressive. Here’s a practical tip: there is a gated entry to “les toilettes.” You can “go” for a fee. This seemed to be standard in public places, especially train stations.  Paying to “go” spares people from a nasty bathroom.

bathroom gate at Brussels Midi

Au revoir, Bruxelles — so nice to visit you again!

Au revoir, Mollie!

snapseed-kim and mollie 10-12-15

Amsterdam train platform

It was worth staying awake to watch the landscape go by and see what’s different about The Netherlands.

I saw farm land striped with water-filled drainage ditches, and cattle grazed between them. Like Flanders in Belgium, this is polder country, meaning the land is well below sea level. This is so for 26 percent of The Netherlands. Much farm land has been reclaimed from the sea through different methods, including the use of windmills to pump water.  (No wonder The Netherlands could offer expert assistance to the U.S. when New Orleans was flooded from Hurricane Katrina. This country knows how to hold back the sea.)

Dutch polder landscape copyFarmland en route to Amsterdam

Greenhouses and windfarm en route to Amsterdam

Greenhouses and windfarm

windmill in distance

Windmill in the distance

grafitti en route to amsterdam

Grafitti en route to Amsterdam

Street art en route to Amsterdam

Street art en route to Amsterdam

Train announcements were in French, Dutch, and English. About an hour into the trip, I heard, “Due to an individual  on the tracks, we will terminate this train.” This message was conveyed in a casual tone. Mollie told me this could happen.

train to amsterdam

I missed every announcement in English that followed because everyone started buzzing. I only knew we’d be changing trains. So, I followed the crowd. The two trains we switched to were packed. On the first one, those without seats sat on bags or stairs in the area between train cars until we changed trains again. Then, I managed to snag a seat and cram myself in with my bags. Once things were sorted out, we were about an hour behind schedule.

The bicycle culture revealed itself when we stopped in Rotterdam.

Bike rack en route to Amsterdam

Rotterdam – parked bicycles in background

Hallo, Amsterdam! Hoi!

Amsterdam Centraal Station

Centraal Station — grand, vast, and busy — was not generously equipped with restrooms. “Waar zijn de toiletten, alstublieft?” It was a hike to the “toiletten” and, again, you had to pay to “go.” Keep coins handy!

At the station, I located the tram my Airbnb host instructed me to take. Trams are priced in an interesting way. You can pay one price for unlimited rides for a set period of time. When I reached my stop, I had a nice, long walk to the apartment. I was wowed by what I saw of the city along the way. It was clearly different from Paris and Brussels.

As a pedestrian, you need to be extra-vigilant in stepping off sidewalks to cross cyclist lanes and streets. Intersections are regulated by lights specifically for each mode of travel — trams, cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. It’s a little complicated.

My head moved like a metronome every time I stepped off one path and onto another. Crossing a street sometimes meant going from one pavement island to another before reaching the pedestrian area. It was a gauntlet of sorts. This is not the place to walk with your eyes glued to your phone. Beware the bicycles and scooters, especially at rush hour!

Amsterdam streets - cyclists scooters

Cyclists lane at rush hour

Cyclist in training - Amsterdam

Tiny cyclist-in-training

Road traffic - Amsterdam

Cyclists stop at traffic light

It seemed that canals and bridges were everywhere. For €16 — more than I paid for my Megabus from Paris to Brussels — I took a boat cruise to see the city at water level. The cruise was a little over an hour long. We went in and out of various canals, while the boat operator told us interesting things about the city and its architecture. Part of the cruise was on the Amstel River. I knew of the beer, but didn’t know it was named after a river.

Amsterdam viewed from boatAmsterdam Canal - filter

From the boat, we saw the bike parking garage that holds 2,500 bikes. You can’t get “greener” than that! But, apparently, this is still not enough space for bicycle commuters and the city will have to create more parking.  No wonder car traffic was light.

Amsterdam Bike Garage

Bike parking garage on the right

Amsterdam is a very walkable city. There is a subway, but I never went underground. I traveled either on foot, boat, or tram. Next time, I’ll explore Amsterdam and the countryside by bike.

After three days, it was time to return to Paris. I’ve mentioned before the possibility of transit strikes. Had I not been paying attention to signs and cafe chatter, I would have been waiting in vain for a tram. The transit system planned a strike for the morning commute. To reach Centraal Station on time, I decided to walk to the Marriott Hotel where I knew I could get a cab. Cab fare was €18, more than the Megabus trip from Paris to Brussels. Just sayin’.

I’d made a reservation about a month in advance for the Thalys high-speed train to Paris.  (You may recall, this is the train on which a terrorist was thwarted from an attack by American servicemen.) The ticket cost €120. I thought this was a decent price until a local told me it was high. Here’s a tip:  make your reservations three months in advance and you’ll get a much better price. Wish I’d known this before.

Amsterdam Centraal - en route to ParisAmsterdam Centraal - train platform

Onward to Paris. I spent one final night there in a different neighborhood than I was in before. I spent a little time getting oriented so I could decide if I’d be comfortable taking Metro to the airport. After all, I’d have to walk to the station in the dark. Hmmm…would I pay €10 on Metro or 60€ for a cab?

I took Metro, of course.

Bonjour, Aer Lingus!  We meet again for the trip home.

Aer Lingus over Dublin

Aer Lingus jet landing in Dublin

 


Planes, Trains, and Vehicles – Getting Around Europe (Part 2)

Onward to Brussels!

I thought three weeks would be enough time to make a train reservation from Paris to Brussels. The cities are less than 200 miles apart and a high-speed train could get me there in an hour and a half. My plan was to arrive in Brussels early on Friday and leave for Amsterdam on Monday. My new friend, Mollie, was expecting me. Plus, I wanted to get there in time to check out Marolles Flea Market at Place Jeu de Balle.

Alas, travel by train was not to be. I scoured train schedules, and a 10:45 p.m. arrival on Friday was the best I could do. I was on the phone with my sister, Cheryl, as I waged battle with the Thalys reservation system; and then surrendered. She knew I was frustrated when we hung up. How else could I get from Paris to Brussels?  About a minute later, I had my answer. I was excited! I immediately called Cheryl to tell her I would be traveling by….

Megabus

Megabus! This is the same bus company I use to go to New York. It’s cheap and comfortable on the East Coast. And it’s really cheap and comfortable in Europe. My bus ticket from Paris to Brussels cost just under $13! For that price, I didn’t care that the ride would be three hours longer than the high-speed train. My Megabus was going to get me to Brussels by 12:20 pm!

Sweet!

Megabus departs from Porte Maillot, which is on the Metro line. The station is within sight of the Arc de Triomphe and the cars racing around L’Etoile.

Arc de Triomphe et L'Etoile

I left the apartment around 6 a.m. and walked along empty streets to the subway. It was still dark outside when I arrived at Porte Maillot. I didn’t know the lay of the land so I gave myself plenty of time to get lost. At Porte Maillot, I glommed onto another traveler, who was also looking for her bus. She was headed home to Germany on another cheap ride — FlixBus. Europeans really know how to get around, don’t they?

Au revoir, Paris! A bientôt!

The bus ride was relaxing, and I was able to sleep a bit. We had one 30 minute stop for water, snacks, and the restroom; otherwise, we went straight in to Brussels. I snapped photos of the scenery along the way.

The bus pulled into Brussels Nord (North) Station. I missed an opportunity to photograph the train station exterior because I was desperate to find le toilette. Durn! Now I need to return to Brussels someday to photograph the train station. Speaking of les toilettes, keep coins handy because a trip to a stall will cost you.

There wasn’t a lot of action at the train station when I arrived. Why? Train employees were on strike that day. Strikes are planned in advance and probably the reason why I couldn’t buy a ticket for a train that would get me to Brussels at a decent hour. No matter… I had discovered Megabus.

I took the flea market off the itinerary. I was starved and needed to meet up with Mollie. She’d given me instructions on how to reach her office building via Brussels Metro. The Metro is great, and includes subway and tram lines. Have I mentioned before that I love mass transit?

Brussels Metro stations have interesting artwork. I remembered that from when I was there in 2007. Photographing the art in all the Metro stations is another good reason to return to Belgium. (Every excuse will do.)

Metro station - BelgiumBelgian Metro station art

Although mass transit factored large in getting around cities, I’ll give a shout-out to walking as an underrated mode of transportation. Mollie and I enjoyed a long walk to National Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It’s popularly known as Koekelberg Basilica.

The Basilica is a marvel of Art Deco-style architecture, and it is the fifth largest church in the world. Construction started in the early 20th century, but was interrupted by two world wars. It finally opened in the 1970s.

Basilica - BrusselsBasilica interior 2Basilica interior - BrusselsBasilica exterior - Brussels

After visiting the stunning Basilica, we took Metro into the city.

Metro stop with Basilica in background

Metro stop with Basilica in background

With Mollie in Brussels

Grand Place is an iconic Brussels site I wanted to see again. This town square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its scale, compared to other town squares in Belgium, or elsewhere in Europe, is immense and majestic. Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), constructed in early to mid-15th century, is located there.

Hotel de Ville is surrounded by guild houses because tradesmen and merchants were held in high regard. Guild houses are sort of like trade unions in the U.S.  The great French writer, Victor Hugo, had a house on Grand Place as well.  You can find Grand Place in miniature, along with other iconic European Union structures, at Brussels’ Mini-Europe.

Day trips are incredibly easy from Brussels because of its three major train stations: Nord (North), Zuid (South), and Central (Central).  Back in 2007, my mother and I took day trips to Brugge, Antwerp, Ghent, Liege, Namur, and Tournai. Those cities, along with Brussels, are in six of 10 Belgian provinces and Brussels-Capital Region.

Mollie and I went to Brugge for the day. It’s a city in West Flanders province, popularly known by its French name, Bruges.  You can reach Brugge from Brussels in a little over an hour by train for about €30 roundtrip. Advance reservations aren’t necessary. (Tip: Check the website’s Stations and Trains page for a list of “Disturbances.” It will notify customers of strikes.)

Once in Brugge, you can rent a bike, take a boat ride, or walk. This small city is perfection.

Brussels is a wonderful destination in its own right. It is also a great base for day trips throughout Belgium. I highly recommend it!

Next … the finale of Getting Around Europe (Part 3).

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