Friday, December 2, 2011

Never take the advice of those who say "never..." (or "always...)

I hope you get the ironic intent of the title to this blog. My college roommate was the first person who discouraged me from being absolutist in my thinking. I have continued to aspire to a more openminded and less pedantic approach, although it can be hard. For, as my title suggests those who take an absolutist stance about being non-absolutist are also being absolutist.

Confused? Let me back up a bit. I was intrigued to discover that Anthony Bourdain, for the second episode of his new show on the Travel Channel called "the Layover," would be covering my hometown (which is also his hometown), New York City. I am always amused when I hear the advice that people give to those who are going to visit NYC, and sure enough, I found a couple laughable suggestions on this week's episode of the Layover.

Not far into the episode, Bourdain says, "Never make eye contact with anyone on the New York Subway." The reason to do it, he suggests, is not that you will put yourself in danger by doing so, but merely that it is impolite! Well, as a long-time resident of New York who often does make eye contact (and even conversation) with people on the subway, I can tell you that as long as you follow common sense about whether you do or do not, you will be ok.

Bourdain tends to take hardline stances on things about New York, sometimes just to be controversial, sometimes because he is being a bit of a crank. For example, in a recent episode of "No Reservations" he stated that New York has not street food to speak of, because it has been replaced by food trucks. First of all, I'd like to know what his definition of street food is, since when I walk through midtown, all I see is street food, and according to numerous street food ratings, the quality and variety of street food in New York City is greater than it has ever been. But some element of edge or danger or underground is missing from it for Bourdain, so what the rest of us call street food doesn't speak to him or something.

Similarly, on his Layover program this week, he declared that dive bars are disappearing in New York City. Now I suppose that the many quirky colorful (and sometimes strange) places in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side don't qualify as dive bars to him. But traditionally, no one set out to open a dive bar. The status of dive bar is something that got conveyed to certain establishments when they had been around long enough that they would acquire the edgy, lived-in feeling we associate with a dive - something doesn't have that falling apart look right out of the cracker jack box!

So in that sense, yes, dive bars are going the way of the dinosaur, but in another sense, dives are more popular than they've ever been. Take, for example, the Essex Street Ale House, where I have been a few times. It has a lot of things I associate with dives: a drunk who begs for money to buy another beer and only leaves when noone will any longer support his habit (which one gathers, on most nights, to be never), bar tenders and clientele who know each other on a firstname basis, lights too dim to see how dingy the place is and music too loud to allow anyone to exchange any useful conversation without shouting, a bathroom so dirty that rather than try to clean it, the proprietors would be better off letting in a scientist to study what diseases are growing there.

Bourdain's only problem is that he lives in the Upper East Side, a place that has never been a home to dive bars, diners, or any other sort of place that regular folks will frequent.

Of course, when prompted, Bourdain himself doesn't hesitate to bite the heads off of others who make absolutist statements in his presence. For example, when a young guy says to Bourdain that "there is no sushi in New York City," Bourdain doesn't need more than 20 seconds to prove to the fool that New York is in fact one of the greatest cities for sushi outside of Japan. I haven't eaten at some of the best sushi restaurants that Bourdain mentioned, and yet even I could tell you that that guy was completely in the wrong.

It was good to see this young fellow sticking his neck out so that Bourdain (and me in absentia) could chop it off, because this was the sort of person we are used to hearing making absolutist comments - young hipster types who usually have come to New York City for college or grad school, graduate, get a job in which they are overpayed to have no life, and then after reading Time Out magazine and maybe an issue or two of New Yorker, consider themselves to be experts in all things New York and therefore the envy of all those who wish they could live in New York City and get overpayed to have no life. We (those of us from around Bourdain's generation who have lived here long enough that we should know not to make dumb statements about what is or is not), we hear these youngsters put their feet into their retainer-laiden maws all the time, and we chuckle and shake our heads.

I know two such people myself very well, my daughter and her boyfriend. They are constantly talking about how they went to the number one rated this and ate the number one rated that. That ratings may be publicity designed to lure gullible ratings believers into eating at certain eateries never enters their heads. Only time will change the tint of their impressionable idealism from robins egg to tooth decay yellow.

Perhaps I am wrong. My philosophy when it comes to New York City is that I can't hope to see and do everything, but then again I don't really want to see and do everything. Things like the Bodies Exhibit and the Teddy Bear Museum are never going to make it onto my schedule. Maybe people like my daughter and her guy haven't settled for a percentage of New York's glories yet. Maybe they still feel like they CAN see and do it all, and they want to start at the top. Which is cool. I just can't buy into the certainty with which they proclaim to have figured it all out in the time that it took God to create the woodthrush. For those of you keeping score at home, that would be a nanosecond.

Which brings me back to my initial point. I guess hipsters are no more wrong to make blanket statements than I am right to cast aspersions at them just because I don't agree with the conclusions they've come to. I know that it doesn't matter whether I eat the best whatever sold at the number one whomever. Throw a pebble in any direction, and it's going to hit someone who has spent their life perfecting some craft or technique. We are a city of number ones, eating and drinking number ones. But if it makes some people happy to believe that they have discovered the needle in the haystack composed of needles, that's fine with me. Just never declare to me your discovery at the top of your lungs. Because I will always scoff and write you off as the number one doofus in a city also full of those.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Belgium once, Belgium yet to come!

My girlfriend Therese and I are planning our next European trip, to Belgium in September of 2012. One of the cities we are going to visit is Bruges, a place I have visited before. In thinking about what we are going to do, I had to put together a recollection of what I did the last time I was there (Therese has been there before too, but only spent an afternoon there probably 30 years ago). In doing so, I can feel the excitement that I felt then, when I was there, taking in the medieval feel of the town, eating mussles and drinking Belgian ale.

Normally, you would say if you hadn't been to someplace in 5 years, a lot would've changed. Certainly that is true of New York City: when I go somewhere on vacation for two weeks, it always feels different when I return home. But Bruges, when you visit it, feels like nothing has changed in hundreds of years. Nevertheless, there is progress, even there.

For example, a company, Zapfi, has installed inobtrusive antennae, to provide the entire city with free/low-cost wifi. Soon, it will be possible to get on the internet from your laptop computer ANYWHERE in the city. Why, I can't even do that here in New York City. Sounds pretty amazing.

But in general, I don't think Bruges has changed much since I was there the last time. Certainly, the city was very recognizable in the movie "In Bruges" which was filmed a year or two after I last visited. So here is a taste of what I experienced when I was there last.

When I went there in September of 2007, it was for the second half of a two-week vacation which started with a week in Madrid and Toledo, Spain. Madrid was hot - it was 95 degrees fahrenheit the day I arrived there, and got into the 80s pretty much every other day of the week, with plenty of sunshine. Bruges, by contrast, was cool and mostly cloudy, reaching 70 one day but hovering around the high 50s and low 60s for the week, with rain on a couple afternoons.

I stayed in the Hotel Ter Brughe (, a gabled building facing onto one of the canals. My room was on the first floor, also facing the canal. One morning I was serenaded by some swans swimming by. However, the proximity of the canal meant it was a good idea to keep my window closed at night - one night I left the window open and had to do battle with mosquitos for half the night. Probably the best thing about the hotel was the free breakfast every morning in the medieval basement: ample breads and fruits and coldcuts and hard boiled eggs and juice and coffee.

Sticking with food for a moment, most days my lunch was a cheap sandwich from a local patisserie. For less than 3 Euros I would get a fresh baguette with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, ham, turkey and sliced hardboiled egg. Very filling!

The first night in Bruges, I abandoned the list of restaurants on my itinerary and picked a place that I just happened on in my wanderings, a friendly place on the Eiermarkt whose name I don't know. I saw lots of university students sitting outside on the terrace, so I figured it must be affordable. Sure enough, it did the trick. My spaghetti cardonara was delicious, and the liter sized mug of Leffe Brown ale that I drank with it transported me to heaven.

My other nights, I also had very good culinary experiences, and I must say it was not just the fact that the excellence of the beer overshadowed any shortcomings in the cuisine. Breydel-de Coninck ( had wonderful mussles, and I enjoyed the company of British neighbors who I had run into a day earlier in a Bruges supermarket. Another night I braved the Markt and ate at De Gouden Mermin (, once again eating really scrumptious mussles and frites, once again washed down with a couple different amazing monster-sized glasses of beer. Even at Cambrinus (, more an ale house than a restaurant, I was pleased: the roast chicken was tender, the vegetables full of flavor. And the coconut beer I had for dessert, while too sweet to really take seriously as a beer, nevertheless was a nice way to cap off the meal.

On Sunday, my first full day in Bruges, I followed a walking tour I found on Frommers (I would post the link to this walking tour, but Frommers seems to have removed all walking tours from its website - I guess guided tours are big moneymakers...). Starting from the Markt in the center of Bruges, I followed the tour through some of the busiest most active streets, where the museums and shopping are, ending at the Minnewater park and lake.

The next day, Monday, I knew a lot of the main attractions in Bruges would be closed, so I decided to take a walk to the northeast part of the city to get an up-close look at the windmills and the medieval Kruispoort gate. I walked back towards the center of town from the Kruispoort along Langstraat, stopping at a supermarket to get a snack and drool at the low-priced packages of exotic Belgian beers. The conclusion of the afternoon was a trip to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a mysterious and gloomy chapel in the southwest corner of the Burg.

Tuesday was my day to see the art museums, the Groeninge Museum and the Memling Museum, sandwiched around a visit to the Onze-Lieve Vrouwekerk. Without a doubt Jan van Eyck's painting "The Madonna with Canon van der Paele" in the Groeninge Museum was a highlight of my entire vacation. I stood there staring at the incredible colors and the meticulous detail in the foldings of the clothing, just in awe. It was also lovely seeing Michelangelo's Maddona and Child sculpture in the Vrouwekerk (the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy), but with such a crowd of people crushing to see it, it was hard to really enjoy it.

Wednesday was one of the rainy days. I started by trying to do some writing on my laptop out of doors, only to discover that the rain and the overcast sky made it impossible. So I walked to the Konigin Astrid Park in the south of the city. As the rain grew heavier, I ducked into Sint-Magdalenakerk, under renovation and therefore at the time the sight of an intriguing art installation. After spending some time there and leaving some comments on a piece of paper as I was invited to do, I poked my head out to find that the rain had abated, leaving the park wet but explorable.

Thursday being my last full day, I spent it exploring some of the amazing Renaissance and Baroque churches in Bruges. I started with the Sint-Salvatorskathedraal, then walked across town to the Sint-Walburgakerk, and ended up at the Sint-Jakobskerk. The latter was under renovation, but I just happened to walk by when the workmen were taking a break, and so they let me walk inside and take a look at it.

Besides having some great food in the evenings, I also had some minor adventures. The night I ate in the Markt at De Gouden Mermin, as I was walking off my meal, I heard the sound of teeth chattering. Surely, I thought, with the temperature more than 50 fahrenheit, noone could really be shivering. I walked toward the sound and discovered a group of about 7 Mexicans, huddled together to brave the cold. One who spoke English explained to me what they were doing in Bruges. They all worked for UBS's Mexico City office, and the parent office in the Netherlands had put together a football (i.e., soccer) tournament, to which teams from all the company's offices worldwide were invited. These Mexican folks had extended their vacation beyond the weekend football matches, and had taken the train to Bruges, with plans to stay the night and then take the train to Brussels the following day, and then to Paris after that. Unfortunately, none of them had brought warm clothing. They invited me to have my picture taken with them, which I did.

Thursday night was the first of four nights of open-air performances of Mozart's Die Zauberflote given by a professional opera company in the Burg. With the dramatic Stadhuis as a backdrop, they set up a stage and risers for the audience. I decided not to buy a ticket, but then discovered, after my dinner at Cambrinus, that there was a place you could stand in the corner of the square where you could see the stage very well. I joined a small group of interlopers there, and we took turns sitting and standing (there was luckily a public bench there), enjoying the opera immensely.

On Friday, I reluctantly left Bruges, taking the train to Brussels to spend a day there before returning to New York. In Brussels, I stayed in the Hotel Mozart. Due to renovations, I had to take a staircase up to my room that was so narrow I had to drag my suitcase behind me.

Rather than spend the afternoon in Brussels at their Fine Arts museum, I opted instead to explore a series of their churches: the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, the church of Notre Dame de la Chapelle and the Eglise Notre Dame du Sablon. I felt like I made the right choice because I enjoyed these three churches.

After a nap, I made my way outside to find a restaurant for dinner, opting for the rue des Bouchers as my destination. Every large city, it seems, has a street filled with restaurants, some good, some aweful, all reasonably priced, with hawkers trying to get prospective diners to choose their place over the others. In New York we call this street (West 46th Street) "Restaurant Row". In Brussels, they call Rue des Bouchers and its neighbor, petit Rue des Bouchers "Ilot Sacre." The restaurant I picked, whose name I never knew, had lovely seafood - I saw a family of locals feast on a spectacular dish of lobster, clams, etc. with rice and bread - but I opted for a typical Belgian dish, rabbit in Belgian sour ale (aka "gueze") sauce, with frites and excellent Belgian ale, of course. A wonderful dinner, and a great way to finish my time in Belgium.

Here are the pictures I took while in Belgium:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Our long weekend vacation at home in NYC

Two weekends ago, Therese and I took off half of Friday and all of Monday and had ourselves a vacation at home (not to be confused with a stay-cation - more on that below).

Friday morning, Therese went to her office for a few hours, and I did some computer work at home. I met her at lunchtime at the Metropolitan Museum to begin our fun weekend. She treated me to lunch at the Petrie Court cafe: I had a Jerusalem-artichoke salad (don't usually like frisee, but lightly sauteed, it was quite pleasant) and herb-roasted chicken salad, while Therese had the Wild Mushroom Bisque. We paired them with the suggested beverages - an Ommegang Hennepin beer for me and some sort of white wine for Therese (not realizing that doing so saved each of us $2 over just ordering from their beverage list. Another pleasant surprise was the size of the portions - I remember Petrie as giving very small portions, but these were huge - I would've been stuffed just from the chicken salad alone...

So no better way to work off a big lunch than to walk around and see some incredible art. Our focus was on seeing the new Islamic Wing: It was fabulous. Therese liked the room full of Arabic rugs, while my favorite was the blue ceramic Mihrabs. I also liked the section on Andalucia, the section of Spain that was ruled by the Moors for over 6 centuries. It reminded me of the Alcazar in Sevilla, the Alhambra and so many other breathtaking Arabic architectural ornaments you can find in Spain.

After leaving the museum, we discovered we could take the bus to get pretty close to our next destination, the Church of Holy Innocents near Penn Station: The first Friday of every month, there is a special all-night vigil that begins with a 6pm Mass for the Sacred Heart. My friend Charlie Weaver leads the chant choir, and that gives me a chance to sing traditional Gregorian chants. This was the first time Therese has gotten to hear me sing chant, and she was delighted.

Friday evening was a quiet one for us - we wanted to be home early so we could get a good night's sleep and prepare for Saturday.

The main activity for Saturday was attending the Live in HD broadcast of Wagner's "Siegfried" put on by the Metropolitan Opera. But we went to the Brooklyn Academy's Rose Theater to attend a pre-opera lecture given by opera and Wagner aficionado Fred Plotkin, followed by watching and listening to the opera.

There were two 30-minute intermissions, and we were ready - we had brought a kind of picnic lunch, made up mostly of goodies I bought from the Fairway Supermarket on Broadway and 74th Street: We ate Pinot Grigiot-infused sausage and cheese on French bread, seedless grapes, Pate de Champagne, washed down with Snapple iced teas. Mmmm, yummy. The music was amazing, the intermission interviews somewhat less so (Renee Fleming is not so good at interviewing people...). The new tenor who sang Siegfried was quite good, the singers were excellent all-around. Now if they could just figure out what to do with that dragon...

Saturday night we were wiped out a bit, so we stayed in and ate leftovers of our wonderful picnic food. I made us up a couple of huge charcuterie plates, we watched some Food Network shows, and we were good to go.

Sunday morning was another early one - we had to make a sign to root on Therese's cousin ken who was running in the NYC Marathon. We had figured out how to negotiate around the transit alterations to get pretty close to the mile 17 marker, 1st avenue and 77th street. And we had calculated when Ken and his girlfriend Karen would be passing by. Miracle of miracles, we saw Ken - or rather he saw us and ran over to wave at us! We missed Karen, though. It was fun rooting on the runners - our first time ever doing that.

Well, after rooting on runners, we found we had worked up an appetite - you know, taking turns holding the sign over our heads for minutes at a time was tiring! So on our way back to the bus, we stopped in for brunch at Per Lei: We started with glasses of Prosecco, followed by an ink squid linguini Fruiti di Mare for me and some wonderful stuffed crepes with a scrumptious tomato sauce for Therese. A nice little romantic bistro - good food and good atmosphere.

A New York thing to do on Sunday is read the mammoth Sunday NY Times, and we decided we would spend the afternoon doing just that, accompanied by a lovely bottle of red Spanish wine, Protocolo, that I bought Therese for her birthday a few weeks ago: She tackled the Travel and Arts and Leisure sections and the Magazine, while I went straight for the crossword puzzle.

We finished up Sunday watching two of our favorite tv shows, "The Next Iron Chef" and "Pan Am":

Monday we slept in and then both spent a good deal of time doing admin catch-up (I know, not very vacation-like). Then I made us lunch (sorry, I don't remember what that was!), and in the afternoon we went to Trader Joe's to do a grocery run and stock up on lots of our favorite frozen prepared foods:

We finished up Monday, and our long weekend, with dinner with Therese's work colleague Ken at Park Avenue Autumn, the seasonally themed restaurant on Park and 63rd: The food was very good, and the atmosphere was better, and the hospitality hostess gave us free glasses of dessert wine to apologize for a door that kept hitting Therese's chair. A great housewine, and the company was the best thing of all. We can't wait to go back for the winter version of the restaurant in December!

So there you have it! We live here in NYC, and it is so easy with our busy lives to miss out on so many of the great events and things there are to do here. So for one weekend at least, we acted like tourists and did a whole bunch of those things. Very different from a stay-cation, I think (except for Monday when we did our admin...), where you take time off to put in new drapes or whatever. And delightful! We are already planning when our next vacation weekend in NYC is going to be!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Upstate New York at the Renaissance Faire and environs

TripAdvisor suggested writing a review of an offbeat or quirky US vacation rental, so I thought before I made such a review, I would tell you about my offbeat, quirky, perhaps slightly bizarre experience from the summer of 2009.

I had made plans with my friends from Tampa, FL Steve and Vanessa to attend two weekends of the Sterling Renaissance Faire in upstate New York. In between, we would spend the week exploring whatever there might be to do in the vicinity.

The previous summer, we had attended one weekend, and Steve had found us a couple cabins in Sunset RV Park, outside Oswego, and just a short ride to the Sterling Fairegrounds. We loved that so much that we decided to do it again in August of 2009, but in more elaborate fashion.

Once again, Steve booked us cabins at Sunset RV Park. But this time, I got a bigger cabin (although it had no bathroom), and Steve and Vanessa stayed in a cabin with two bedrooms and a kitchenette. And they rented a third large cabin like theirs, to be used by other Tampa friends Chris and Ken for most of the time, and by another Tampa friend Sarah for the second weekend.

Now, let me say first of all that we all had a great time, at the renaissance faire and during the week (did a road trip to Niagara Falls, etc.). The weather was great, Lake Ontario is right across the street from the RV Park, Steve and Ken went fishing and caught salmon that we grilled a couple nights that was amazing, and we all got along for the most part.

And secondly, I should add that I consider myself pretty flexible when it comes to adapting to unusual situations. I am often comfortable in offbeat situations. I have waited in line overnight for Grateful Dead tickets, in the process sleeping on the concrete sidewalk on just a thin blanket. I have gone canoeing in the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey at the peak of the summer, with air so close you felt the universe was ready to fold in on itself any second. I have been hiking in the Catskills in the middle of winter, where if something bad were to happen, they would not find me until the spring thaw six months later. I am willing to go along with any number of crazy or improbable schemes, if only to be able to say that I did it and that it was fun.

So here I am in my cabin with no bathroom for I guess it was 10 nights. No big deal: across the way, about 50 feet from the back door of my cabin, was the building with the communal toilet and shower rooms. Well, I don't know if it was that I was drinking a lot of beer the whole time we were there, or that I was drinking lots of water to make sure the beer was not leaving me dehydrated; but either way, I was getting up at least once a night to scamper across the grass in my bare feet to the toilet and do my thing. It started getting comical, because more than once I woke up having to go and didn't really know where I was, and I barely made it out the door and across the grass before my bladder burst.

I know, tmi. But that wasn't the bizarre thing, really. Of course, out in the woodsy parts, in the summer, with a Great Lake across the street from us, we were bound to have lots of bugs. I was careful to keep my cabin screen door and window screens intact so nothing got in that would make it impossible for me to sleep. But early in the week, I found I had a nasty bug bite on my calf. Ken said he had also gotten bit, so I didn't think anything of it. Then, fairly late in the week, I woke up in the middle of the night with a bunch of bites on my feet and ankles. Luckily, the cabin had a sink in it, so I blasted my feet with icecold water for a couple minutes, and that took the edge off the itching.

Unfortunately, the bites started multiplying, and the itching started to get out of control. I figured it had to be fleas. I Googled fleas on my Blackberry, and everything I read completely matched what I was going through. I thought I should inform the owners, and see if they could move me to another cabin. Well, the owner I spoke to (they're a couple and this was the guy) was basically in denial. He said there had been no pets in that cabin in a long time, so there was nothing to bring in fleas. I said you don't need an animal to bring them in, and this is definitely fleas. He said there were no empty cabins for me to stay in, and he would check it out after I left. I should've demanded that he refund part of my money or something for my discomfort, but I just figured I would make the best of the situation.

The flea dirt I found was at the base of the bed I slept in, so I slept sideways so that no part of me would be within biting distance. And what do you know? It helped. The last couple days, the bites I had started to heal, and no new ones appeared.

So, in the final analysis, I would say that, if you can help it, avoid the Sunset RV Park. The first time we stayed there, Vanessa and Steve's cabin got sprayed by a skunk, and then there was my flea problem. The place sells out that time of the year, so they don't seem to care if people have problems. And if you want to stay in the vicinity, you don't have a lot of other options, and the options there are sell out like a year in advance. Soooo, maybe the best advice is to not visit Oswego, NY. Or something. I leave it up to you to decide. As for me, I am happy attending Renaissance Faires in other places where flea-bitten RV parks don't figure in the equation.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fall Foliage versus Old Man Winter - who will win?

I have very little experience with seeking out Fall Foliage. But I know that here in the Northeast U.S., it is a big activity every Autumn. They even have a term (which I didn't know) for those who search for fall foliage - they call it "leaf-peeping" and those who do it "leaf-peepers." It seems like a stupid term to me, but hey, what do I know? I only work here.

So Therese expressed interest in doing a little leaf-peeping, so I started looking into what might be fun and also fit into our budget. The NYTimes actually had a few articles in their Travel section one Sunday with some ideas, so I started from there.

Very quickly, I saw that there were logistical challenges to doing some leaf-peeping. We would have to match up our own availability over the coming weeks, and the availability of whatever tour or whatever we wanted to book, with the progression of the leaves changing their colors. Luckily, there is a website that shows you this progression, On the Foliage Network, they get reports every few days of where the leaves are changing, etc., and they post this information.

Unfortunately, while they show you where things are today - let's say, there is peak color in such and such counties, while other counties are past their peak, and then some more southerly counties have not yet reached the peak - they don't give you any prediction on how quickly this change might progress in the weeks to come. So I had to guess based on seeing how quickly things had changed, how much they might continue to change.

Putting it all together, and looking through all the possible things we might do, I came up with the idea to take a Fall Foliage Brunch Cruise from SailNYC which leaves form Chelsea Piers on the westside of Manhattan, travels up the Hudson River to the Palisades and back. And I thought if we waited and did this on October 29th, by then hopefully things would have gotten chilly enough for some leaves to turn a little bit north of New York City, and we'd get some nice colorful leaf-peeping in!

So we ordered our tickets, and waited for the day of our foliage brunch cruise, keeping an eye on the Foliage Network to see if there might be some good viewing coming our way. Unfortunately, the weather around New York City remained fairly warm, but we heard there was a storm coming our way... in fact, as a friend informed me the day before our cruise, there was a snowstorm in the forecast, even for New York City! In October!

So we bundled up on the morning of the 29th and got to Chelsea Piers early as we were encouraged to do, with a steady rain already falling, wondering how much we were going to be able to see! Standing under an awning, we watched children in gymnastics classes being led through all their paces in tumbling and such. And at 10:25, we and the crowd that had gathered to surround us were asked to board our yacht.

The yacht, built to resemble a 1920s yacht, was quite beautiful, all new looking with lots of clean varnished wood. They led us to our table, and the first mate introduced us to the rest of the crew and gave us some idea of how the trip would happen, and gave us some pointers on how to walk on the boat when it was moving - basically, drink in one hand, other hand free to grab a pole or table.

So to eliminate any suspense, I will tell you that we didn't see much. One woman opened a window near the back, I guess so she could see better, but there was fog outside as well as condensation on the inside of the windows. Right around the time we passed the George Washington Bridge, it cleared for a few moments, and people took pictures but the leaves were still pretty much all green. And not long after that, maybe an hour into our cruise (or one-third of the way through), it started snowing!

As we gave up on the idea of seeing orange and yellow and brown leaves, we were able to focus on the other pleasures of the excursion, which were many. First of all, just being out on a day when we would normally be huddling in our warm apartment, but still protected from the elements and having fun, was a major element of the adventure. Second, the food was pretty good, especially the fruit plate that went along with the desserts - strawberries, pineapple, canteloupe and honeydew the like of which I've rarely tasted during any season in any place. The crew was very nice, and we were together, relaxed, and having fun.

Not long before the cruise ended, I talked with a man who was part of a large group at a table not far from us. He told me that all his family members, who are dispersed all over the country in places like South Carolina and Boston, had come to New York City for a family gathering. The cruise was the last activity of their vacation together, before they would all head off to airports and train stations and so forth. And they were having a great time - the cruise was apparently a perfect ending to a very enjoyable family trip in New York City.

As for Therese and I, we climbed down the snowy gangway, luckily got a cab after just a few minutes, and were back in our apartment taking off our wet clothes lickity split, with half the day still in front of us to snuggle in our warmed up livingroom, gazing at the snowflakes still falling outside our window, and saying to each other now and then, "gee, wasn't it great that we went on that cruise?"

Hey, what's on tv?

Growing up in the 1970s, I was a big television watcher. As an adult, my philosophy has been to focus on making my own life rich and keeping myself interested in going further in that direction, rather than investing too much time in following the lives of people, fictional or real, on tv.

But there are still things on tv that capture my imagination. These days, that is mostly programs about traveling and about food.

For example, I have become a big fan of "Iron Chef America" shown on the Food Network. These year's competition to crown "The Next Iron Chef" really has me rapt with anticipation. In the week or so leading up to the first episode, which was shown last Sunday (Oct. 30), they have been showing episodes from previous competitions. I watched a few of the old ones, to get an idea of what the competition might be like.

I have already seen how on some competition shows, like Top Chef, the contestants are flown to exotic locations to compete, so that the challenge is as much adapting to a new location and conditions as it is doing whatever is asked of you. In "The Next Iron Chef" that seems to be pushed further even than usual.

For example, on last year's competition, the contestants were told to show up at the airport, without knowing where they were going. The attendant at the counter informed them there were tickets in their name on Lufthansa to Munich. When they arrived in Munich, they were directed to an enormous airplane hanger where they found Lufthansa's newest largest luxury airplane and were given their challenge: to create amazing airplane food.

I'm looking forward to all the twist and turns of cooking settings on this year's competition. And I can't wait for each new episode, partly because this year is a "super chefs" competition, full of chefs who have lots of experience on tv and therefore many of them are well known to me.

So if you're trying to get in touch with me on a Sunday night and I seem to be unreachable, you will know where I am and what I'm doing. Yes, in spite of my efforts to make my own achievements and activities the center of my life, I still am drawn just a tiny bit to living vicariously through the talented and charismatic folks on tv.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

If I can't travel, at least I can pretend!

So you know my dictum, the title of my blog: I live to travel. And when I'm not traveling, I am often planning the next trip. Like right now I am putting together preliminary ideas for a trip next September to Belgium with my girlfriend and her mom, and planning out a trip to Florida next spring to see a baseball game and visit friends.

But that's not enough. So... since I live in New York City, a place that thousands if not millions of travelers come to every year, I figure I can treat my own hometown as if it were some place I was traveling in. I can turn my tourist's eyes on what is already familiar, look on things with a fresh perspective, as things to be discovered, as places to be explored.

Like last Thursday. Friends of mine gave me tickets to a concert at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. Therese and I were excited to go, and decided to have dinner beforehand.

Therese's first idea was to go to Shelly's Trattoria on 57th Street, one of her favorite restaurants. She had taken me there the last time we went to a concert at Carnegie Hall (which, sad to say, was more than a year ago), and I remember the king crab legs being amazing, so that sounded great to me. However, when I started nailing down exactly where Shelly's is on 57th Street, I found out that it has closed!

So now what? Well, I remembered that a partner at a law firm I worked for a few years ago, whenever he would take clients to concerts at Carnegie Hall, would always have me make reservations at Trattoria dell' arte, which is on Seventh Avenue between 56th and 57th street, just across the street from Carnegie Hall. I took Therese and some of her work colleagues there several months ago, and everybody loved it. Plus, I remembered that the bar area was pretty cozy, so I figured we could meet there and have a quick dinner before our concert.

It worked out fabulously. We just ordered antipastos, but at Trattoria dell' arte, that is not a terrible thing. They actually have an antipasto bar, with more than a dozen options. We had shrimp and scallop cocktail, olives, roasted red beets, eggplant caponata and fennel sausage. And we were good to go! The next time we go there, we will have to sit at the actual antipasto bar, with all the bowls of vegetables and seafood and so forth displayed on beds of ice.

On to our concert! It was the English Concert directed by Harry Bicket with special guest, countertenor Andreas Scholl, performing music of Henry Purcell, Heinrich Biber and Georg Muffat. Now, I am not scared off by early music by composers who are outside the standard A list of composers that everyone knows - and I hope that doesn't scare you off, either. Truth be told, I am at home in all kinds of music, but I am particularly enamored of the obscure music of the European Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods.

And I have loved the music of Henry Purcell for many many years. To hear it sung by Andreas Scholl was a special opportunity. And the concert did not disappoint. There was plenty of sublime music making going on here. Not just Mr. Scholl's singing, but also the playing of this small orchestra with its trio of woodwinds - two oboists alternating as needed on recorders and bassoon - and duo of trumpeters. All extremely satisfying. And Zankel Hall is lovely: bright blond wood, intimate, acoustically sound from what I could tell.

Ironic that it was my first time hearing English Concert, since they have been around for 30 plus years. And Mr. Bicket and Mr. Scholl made good music together, a great sign since they are to be reunited in December at the Metropolitan Opera for their production of Handel's "Rodelinda". There Mr. Scholl will play Bertarido, the lead male character and husband to the title character portrayed by Renee Fleming. I hope Mr. Scholl holds his own there - his voice is delicate and I hope he won't get drowned out by the combined forces of the Met Orchestra and Ms. Fleming.

Therese and I left Zankel Hall feeling as if we had been transported to another place. We crossed 57th Street to have a snack and some tea at Europa Cafe before hopping on the M57 bus home to our apartment on the Upper Westside. The one benefit of not being a tourist in New York City is being able to sleep in our own beds after our wonderful night on the town.

Our next such excursion is on November 5th, when we will taxi to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see and hear the Met's Live in HD broadcast of Wagner's "Siegfried." Going to Brooklyn is almost like going on a trip - and I say that even though I lived in Brooklyn from 2001 to 2010. So I will have my tourist's eyes tuned that day, and tell you all about it. And in the meantime, hopefully if I am not lazy I will start to fill you in on some of the traveling that I have done in recent months and years.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Our Mediterranean cruise's "low-points": Kotor, Montenegro

St. Luke's Church

The Cathedral Labyrinth in St. Tryphon's Cathedral

Well, as I told you before, our cruise aboard Royal Caribbean's Splendour of the Seas back in late August included many highlights. And I promised to give you some in-depth descriptions of what those were. But I thought it might be useful to tell you about the rest, the stops and places we saw that I have chosen to call the "low-points."

Now, it is unfortunate that, in designating some particular feature of a trip as being the highlight, other features of the same trip may be seen as just not that exciting or worth seeing. Certainly, that is not the case with the low-points here. Even on the days when we were not wowed beyond belief, we saw much that we enjoyed. And every stop was worthwhile. But some didn't stick in our minds as being the first thing we wanted to tell everyone about when we got back home.

And that's part of the reason that I want to tell you about the low-points first. There may be some things here that WILL be the thing that you'll treasure when you make your way to the Eastern Mediterranean. Or these places may appeal to you for some reason that has little value or appeal to us ("Wow, that island had the best stewed sheep's guts I've ever tasted!"). And here without any further ado I will present to you our cruise's low-points (and then we can get to the really great stuff in some posts to come).

Our first stop after leaving Venice was the old city of Kotor, Montenegro. Kotor is set in a very dramatic geographic setting, on a little triangle of land sticking out into a harbor surrounded by great rocky hills. The old city is your typical medieval city, surrounded by walls built by the Venetians during the time that Kotor was part of the Venetian empire. After entering the old city, we consulted our map which we just got from the tourism office, and planned out our walk through the historic center. It was very very hot that day, so we prized whatever shade we could find, which was not a lot.

Thankfully, again as typical with old medieval cities, everything was pretty close together. We first went to the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, an 11th century white building (well, everything in Kotor was pretty much white) which has been rebuilt many times through the centuries, and includes lots of touches of all those centuries along with many ancient surviving touches. I liked it, I think, much more than Therese and Eileen. It was of a modest size for a cathedral, but I loved the gray stone and the cathedral-style labyrinth in the floor tiles in the middle of the floor.

There was also a cathedral museum which included lots of artifacts from the earliest days. And a nice portico gave us a nice vista over the square in front of the cathedral and the tiniest of breezes. Aaaaah!

Not far from the cathedral was the Maritime Museum. Filling 3 floors of what almost looked like a schoolhouse were paintings and wooden model ships and all kinds of other momentos to Kotor's status as a port city. The highlight for me was a bas relief of St. Tryphon holding his cathedral in one hand while gesturing kindly toward the St. Mark's lion of Venice, indicatin the close relationship between the two cities during the Medieval and Renaissance eras.

The heat was starting to get to us, so we agreed that our next stop should be to eat lunch. We looked for a restaurant with some shade - the options were sitting outside terrace-style, or sitting inside of cramped restaurants with no air conditioning, so while neither of the options were ideal, we settled on the first. We chose the Scorpio restaurant, where the three of us feasted on yummy roasted meats and refreshing local beer and wine.

Full and somewhat rested, we moved on to the St. Luke's Church, really a chapel in terms of size, but a very old one, as old as the cathedral but one of the few town structures to have survived the 1979 earthquake.

Having seen the few things on our itinerary, and having eaten well, with the afternoon running away from us, we were conscious of the time and knew that we wanted to get back to our tender before too late. So after seeing one more church, a 19th century abbey I believe, we made our way back to the slip and waited for our tender boat back to Splendour of the Seas. We all agreed that while we enjoyed our day in Kotor, we didn't feel like we needed more time to see it, and did not feel like we would ever need to go back there.

In my next post, I will finish up the low-points with Santorini, Greece and Split, Croatia.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Learning to love the concept of cruising

So now I embark, as it were, on my journey into sharing my travel adventures with you. But it makes a bit of sense to start off going backward, i.e., to start with my most recent travel experience. This just happened to be my first experience on a cruise.

Now I feel a bit sheepish starting this way. I told you what my philosophy is about traveling: go to one place, spend a length of time there, get to know it well enough that it gets under your skin. Cruising would seem to be the exact antithesis of this: going to a bunch of places for a day each, with just enough time in each place to see a couple of things or maybe a few things if you rush. Not usually my idea of the way to travel. So I reveal myself to be, just like everybody else, a bit of hypocrit, I suppose.

But I prefer to look at this as me showing some flexibility, being willing to expand my traveling experiences. And also being accommodating, since Therese and I went on this cruise with her mom Eileen, and it was great traveling with her. I left for this trip hoping to be able to apply my usual philosophy to the trip - if we weren't staying more than one day in each city, at least we could do our best to not rush, trusting that seeing a small handful of things fully would still be a rich experience, and whatever we would miss might inspire us to return to one or more of our ports.

And of course the second part of going on a cruise is everything about the boat. Flying somewhere is usually the least pleasant part of the entire trip; but going somewhere by boat sounded like it could be a lot of fun.

So let me give you the details quickly, and then I will discuss a handful of points in some detail. And I will also make some posts of the highlights of the trip in the near future.

The three of us left New York City on Sunday August 14th, arriving in Venice the following late morning, checking in and getting on the boat in the early afternoon. We took the Royal Caribbean Splendour of the Seas on an 11 night Eastern Mediterranean cruise, leaving from Venice and stopping in: Kotor, Montenegro; Piraeus, Greece; Kusadasi, Turkey; Mykonos, Greece; Santorini, Greece; Bodrum, Turkey; and Split, Croatia. Our final destination was back in Venice. Therese and I then tacked on a side trip to Istanbul, Turkey at the end (we stayed there for 4 nights).

So let's talk about the boat, first of all. Splendour of the Seas, when it embarked on it maiden voyage 14 or so years ago, was one of the largest cruise ships. Now, it feels like one of the smaller ones. Its smaller size is ideal for cruises like ours since we passed through some straits and docked at some ports which a larger ship could not have done. Therese and I had an outside cabin on a low deck with a large window and some gorgeous views. We were relatively comfortable. I wish there had been more to do on the ship - the small amount of entertainment they had did not interest me, so I spent the days at sea reading and surfing the internet.

Which brings me to my next point. At this point in the game, you can grade whether something is excellent or not, to me, based on whether there is free internet service readily available. Splendour has wifi only in certain hot spots, AND you have to pay by the minute. There was one whole day, the day we were tendered next to Santorini, that there was no internet service anywhere. So as regards the internet, I would give Splendour a low mark.

The food on Splendour was not bad. And our dining experience was mostly very positive. The first couple nights at dinner, we were at an empty table, in a corner, facing some ugliness on the deck. We asked if we could be moved to sit with some English-speaking passengers, and the table they moved us to was great. Not only did we get to know our dinnermates a bit - 4 Australians and 2 Americans - but the waiter and her assistant, 2 lovely young ladies from Brazil, named Ana and Diva, were wonderful. Ana and Diva made our dining experience memorable.

Now I am allergic to dairy, and I made this known from the beginning, and the dining staff was great about preparing me special meals. Each night before the end of dinner, the head waiter would bring the next night's menu and ask me to pick an appetizer and entree, and they would make it for me with no dairy. The desserts they made special for me too - yummy berry mouses and fruit soups and things.

So overall, I think I would rate the boat experience, on a scale of 1 to 10, about a 6. Cabin, not bad; entertainment, non-existent; dining experience, quite nice.

Moving on, I suppose you would be curious as to what were the cruise's highlights for me? In short, I loved Venice, the Doge's Palace especially. Our excursion from Mykonos to the ruins on the Island of Delos was remarkable. Our trips to other ruins at Corinth and Ephesus were also quite wonderful. Lunch and shopping in Kusadasi was a ton of fun. St. Peter's Castle in Bodrum we all loved. The food pretty much everywhere was very good, and the local wine and beer we drank was also just right.

Istanbul had many highlights: eating iftar dinner with all the Muslims in Sultanahmet Square; visting the Ayasofia and Blue Mosque; visiting the Chora (Kariye) Museum; an evening cruise with music and food on the Bosphorus; and a culinary walking tour of the Beyoglu neighborhood.

I would definitely love to go back to Venice and Istanbul. Therese would go back to Bodrum again, and I could easily visit Delos again (although I can't imagine having a tour guide as good as the one we had!).

So how successful was I in applying my principles, or adjusting my principles, to the cruise? Well, as regards the time on the boat, I would have to say not so much. Yes, I did enjoy chilling with Therese, and with Therese and Eileen. But otherwise, my time on the boat was a dud.

As for the places we visited, I did a little better there. The places where we had structured excursions worked the best, I think. We made sure to pick excursions that did one or two things, and did them really well. For example, we hired a driver at Piraeus to take us to Ancient Corinth and to a Nemea winery. The day was perfectly timed: a stop at the Corinth Canal for some photo ops, a lengthy visit to the Ancient Corinth site, a drive up to the top of the Acrocorinth hill and amazing vistas of the surrounding bays, a great lunch at a local restaurant, and lastly, a nice wine tasting at a well-regarded wine bodega.

Similarly, the excursions we purchased from Royal Caribbean were focused and fruitful. Delos was the best, but Ephesus (from Kusadasi) and Salona/Trogir (from Split) were also quite nice.

Will I take another cruise in the near future? Just for Therese and I, no. But if that gives me the chance to travel with Eileen and again, and perhaps other family members, I would say, yes, absolutely.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

One day at a time, one place at a time...

So if one really wanted to make traveling one's life, how would you start? Well, I assume one part of this effort would be to talk about what traveling means, why you enjoy it, and the like. Make a case. Sell the concept. Pitch it. So here I am to do that.

I have come late to traveling, admittedly. I grew up in a family where I got the impression that traveling was a luxury, something we could not afford. At the same time I heard about people like Jules Verne, who never traveled but still managed to create incredible worlds from his imagination. So it occurred to me that traveling may not necessarily be a matter of distance. Rather, it may be the traveler who makes the traveling.

That's criteria one for my philosophy of traveling: be ready to have an adventure wherever you are, at any time. Look on your surroundings with the eyes of a traveler. Experience the delight of seeing what you have always seen with new eyes, as if looking at it for the first time. Expect to see something wonderful.

One of the first kinds of traveling I did was walking. I loved seeing something far off in the distance grow larger and clearer and more exciting as I drew closer on foot. And that experience informs my second criteria for traveling: don't be in a hurry. If you're in a museum, for example, looking at a particular painting that is amazing, seeing it once for a few seconds is not enough. Go away and come back 5 times. The painting may seem different each time.

But of course that's not true - what is different is ourselves. It is important to remember that we are traveling not to get anywhere or see anything. We are traveling to affect ourselves, to change ourselves.

The main part of my philosophy for traveling is to spend a good deal of time in one place. I like to really get to know a city I am visiting. After a few days, after I have seen all the sights and eaten in all the restaurants on my list, a place can really start to get into my bones. It can become the sort of magical place that I will revisit in my dreams for years to come.

Toledo, Spain is just such a magical place for me. You will see a picture of part of Toledo in the photo at the top of this page. With its medieval stone buildings and bumpy cobbled streets, being there is not at all like being in New York City where I live. I have visited there three times and will happily visit there again. Yes, there are lots of things to see - museums, medieval churches, etc. But more importantly, walking up and down the windy narrow streets, I get transported. Toledo gives me the kind of traveling experience I thirst for. It is delightful being there.

So in future posts I will start to talk about other places I have visited, and talk more about why I love traveling so much.