Westward and Home

(This post is being published without pictures, due to some technical difficulties that I’m having trouble sorting out.  I’ll keep trying to load pictures.  Check back in a few days to see if I got them to load.)

We began this adventure very early in the morning last September fourth.  We dropped Naomi off at SeaTac for her flight to Israel and we drove south, and at that moment, everything was open-ended, and the return home was a great distance away.  We have now covered that distance, and more.  We headed down the freeway that day, not knowing what was in store, expecting nothing more than something different from our daily lives.  Oh my.  Everything was different.

Our last stretch of road began in Verona, North Dakota, and we drove away from Mike and Dana’s place with them waving in the rearview mirror.  We’re looking forward to our next visit.  We crossed the sections and subsections of homesteaded America, where roads mark areas settled and farmed early in the last century, if not before.  We drove across beautifully farmed and grazed lands, south and west, until we reached the Badlands of southwestern South Dakota.  In the late afternoon we arrived in world-famous Wall, South Dakota, made so famous by the crazy and amazing marketing of the Hustead family’s drug store, Wall Drug.  Under threatening skies, we walked from our lovely one-star motel over to Wall Drug, and this being a Friday afternoon, figured we’d find a minyan for sure.  No minyan, but one heck of a tasty buffalo burger (no cheese!) for me and yet another veggie burger for Beth made a fantastic Shabbat dinner.  Plus the free ice water, of course.  Wall Drug is a place worth seeing.  I might not make a special trip to South Dakota for the experience, but if you’re in the ‘hood, it’s a goof.  It’s actually huge, maybe twenty adjoining stores, a kind-of kitch mega-mall full of the kind of specialized chotchkes that you just can’t find anywhere else.  It’s better that way.

The next day, we spent the morning in nearby Badlands National Park, finding a few good, short hikes, and also finding lots of water everywhere.  It had been a wet spring, so many of the hikes were rather slippery and sloppy, but we endured and enjoyed it anyway.  From there we headed west a bit more, and after passing one of each fast food joint that exists in the known world, we were at Mt. Rushmore.

Mt. Rushmore is very cool.  It’s kind of like, dare I say, the Eifel Tower or the White House…places that you’ve seen a million times, but seeing it in person is just breathtaking.  We paid the exorbitant parking fee and spent a good couple of hours wandering the site, catching views of George, Tom, Abe and Teddy from a variety of different angles, and views of so many of our fellow Americans from different angles as well.  The place is an architectural and artistic wonder.  It is larger than life, to state the obvious.  And the people we saw that day at Mt. Rushmore were also a wonder.  What an assortment of people we are!  All different shapes and sizes, speaking all sorts of different languages, in family groups as different as snowflakes.  We were not long ago in places where ethnicity and national origin are everything…everything.  In America, there is definitely something different going on.  We don’t all speak the same language or eat the same foods or tell the same stories.  But we all go to Mt. Rushmore and take pictures and laugh and goof around with our parents, siblings or kids.  Another obvious statement:  America is different.  It’s good to get away a bit to come back and realize that.

We scouted out a great place for a picnic lunch, and then made a mid-afternoon exit, continuing on our western journey, getting closer and closer to home with each mile.  As we moved west into Wyoming, farmland became ranch land, and somewhere along the way, the places just seemed more familiar.  Maybe it was the trees or the spaces or something.  We were heading West.  Homeward Bound.

We spent the night in Sheridan, Wyoming, a way-station between Mt. Rushmore and our next American icon, the Grand Tetons.  By late afternoon the next day we were in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, gateway to the Tetons.  Another great American vacation town, reeking of kettle corn and full of things to buy that you won’t ever use again.  Lots of nice hotels and motels, though, and the option of taking a horse and buggy ride was hard to resist.  But we did.

Once we were close to the Tetons we stopped and gaped in awe at the mountains, and tried to get close-up photos of the distant buffalo and pronghorn antelope that were well beyond the power of our pocket-sized digital cameras.  The next day we got up very early to beat the heat and the crowds and enjoyed a great, flat and scenic hike around Jenny Lake.  Quiet, pristine, beneath the imposing Tetons.  Then it was back to Jackson Hole for some quiet in the afternoon, and then a movie!  We finally saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a movie that everyone who knew we’d been to Jaipur said we had to see.  OK, we saw it, and we loved it!  I was almost in tears watching those India scenes—it brought us back to that place in a hurry.  I recall whispering to Beth during the movie, “Can you believe we did that?”, and both of us just shaking our heads.  Just for the record, we were in both Jaipur, the main city where the Hotel is located, and Udaipur, the city with the lake where the cremation takes place.  Both amazing places, strongly recommended.  See earlier posts, from January, for details. 

The next day, we drove up the road a couple of hours to Yellowstone.  We drove directly to Old Faithful, knowing that we had to check that one off our lists before we could do anything else.  And we’re glad we did, because Old Faithful is only part of something much, much larger.

We went to Yellowstone not expecting to be impressed…and we were very, very wrong.  Yellowstone was amazing.  The area around Old Faithful, the geothermal area, is huge, and each of the dozens of cracks in the earth that emit water or steam or both, are very, very cool.  We walked along walkways and trails between the vents, and each one was different and worthwhile.  Back in the car we drove for a while, and there were different areas of even more vents, some spouting water high into the sky, some bubbling up mud that seemed almost magical, some just smelling of rotten eggs.  The crowds were big, but the areas are huge, the infrastructure is easy to navigate and well-maintained, and overall, the whole place was great.  Of course we saw buffalo and even elk, right up next to our car, with no need for a zoom lens.  No bear, though.  Not too disappointed.

After a day in the geothermal area, we spent the next day in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, almost an entirely separate park with a spectacular river running through a breathtaking canyon.  Again, easy accessible by foot or car, large enough to accommodate the crowds that were there, photogenic to the max.  Yellowstone—what a great idea!

Leaving Yellowstone, we know we’re almost home.  OMG.  We caught a night’s sleep in lovely Butte, Montana as we crossed and recrossed the Continental Divide, zeroing in on Spokane.  Montana is wide and beautiful—we need to return and do some more exploring, especially off the I-90 corridor.  Montana gave way to a little bit of the Idaho panhandle, and before you know it, we’re in Spokane—we’re as good as home.  We visited with friends and family there, spent the night with Beth’s brother and his family, and hit the road in the morning.  Once the signs started to read “Seattle”, I knew the party was almost over.  We’ve done the drive between Spokane and Seattle countless times, but this one was different.  I was driving it a bit slower than usual.  It’s not like I didn’t want to get home or see the people in Seattle.  It’s just that I didn’t want this year to end. 

We had our last lunch out of the picnic cooler at some rest stop along the way, one that we’d eaten at before more than once with the girls, and then, it was up and over the Cascades and down the other side, into the clouds and home.  We arrived on a Friday afternoon, and before you know it, the whole family is over at Beth’s parents’ place for a wonderful welcome home dinner.  How great it was to see Naomi and everyone else!  How great it was to be home!  How great it had been to be away!

People like us don’t often get to do this kind of thing—to travel, live on the road, live abroad, enter the lives of others and impact their lives as they impact ours.  We lived it up!  We tried to take advantage of each and every day, either by meeting new people, seeing new things, eating new foods, having new adventures.  Back in Seattle, we’ll try to learn from this by taking each day on, looking for new people, new things, new foods, and new adventures to add to our year of wonder.  The challenge, and the fun, is to keep the year going, even at home, even back in the good old 98115, back in our little red house surrounded by our friends and neighbors.  We might not be able to pull off another year of living on the road like we just completed, but that does not mean that we can’t pull off more adventures, more new things, eating more meals off banana leaves or drinking more Belgian beer.  We’ve had a taste of all that—we can’t be expected to just give it all up! 

Home we are.  Location matters–we saw that everywhere we went.  Location affects how people live, and we live very well, in the nice  northwest city that we have chosen.  It’s great to be back in our house, among our family and our friends and our stuff. 

Thanks for reading this.  Writing this blog has been fun—it’s forced me to think about what I’ve seen and done and put some form to my thoughts.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Be in touch.  David

Drive-Over States

When we left my cousin Rob and his family in Ann Arbor, we entered into a part of the United States that many of us have only seen out the window of an airplane.  In fact, when we left Nancy and Neil in Northampton, the terrain and the cities and the places—the locations—all came into focus in a way they never do when looking down from 30,000 feet.  Places, and angles of view, matter.

We left Northampton, and shortly, we were in Albany.  We crossed New York State, amid fields and vineyards, and a bit of post-industrial rust.  Schenectady, Utica and Syracuse passed us by.  We didn’t swing down to the Finger Lakes or Seneca Falls, tempting as they were, and before you know it, we’re in Buffalo, which looks nice and rather classic and dignified from the freeway.  We swung up to Niagara Falls—up close and personal, described elsewhere in this blog.  Amazing waterfalls, but the town?   Feh. 

A picnic along cleaned-up Lake Erie between Niagara Falls and Cleveland

West and south along the shore of Lake Erie, a picnic lunch and down into Cleveland we cruise.  Interstates 80 and 90 are joined for a stretch—not all that exciting, really, but it’s something.  We continue west and surrounding us is Toledo.  We pass the exit for Fifth Third Field, home of the Mudhens, and  don’t see any sign or reference to Corporal Max Klinger.   We zoom by at 70 mph. 

Michigan is next.  Ann Arbor, the beautiful college town, and west from there, we pass by the turnoff to Lansing, but instead continue west by Battle Creek and toward Kalamazoo, and then south along Lake Michigan and into Indiana.  What great names—Battle Creek, Kalamazoo.  We’re not far from Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome, but we don’t take the turn to South Bend, and instead we pass close to

Gary, Indiana reminded me of this great musical, in which little Ron Howard sang that tune

Gary, Indiana, and I’m suddenly humming show tunes as I drive.  All along the way, we’re seeing stores and roads, of course, but also farms and fields.  Someone’s still working the land back there.

Illinois is next, and we spend a weekend in beautiful Deerfield, just north of Chicago, with friends of Beth from grad school.  Wonderful people, friendly community, and a nice, quiet Shabbat.  It’s getting warm, the beginning of the Midwest summer. 

Beth and her cousin Mickey, before she headed out for an evening of mah jong with her friends

Next town over is Northbrook, where we met one of Beth’s cousins, actually a cousin of her mom, who at 81 is a total hoot.  We laughed and told jokes and just had a great visit with her.  Sunday in Chicago was gorgeous—walking in Grant and Millennium Parks and along Lake Michigan, visiting the Field Museum, eating ice cream and watching the crowds gathered at the truly cool Cloud Gate sculpture. 

That’s us, in front of the extraordinary Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park, Chicago

We were also staring at it and taking pictures of ourselves in its reflection.  Who doesn’t?  Chicago compares with other great cities we’ve recently visited—monumental but approachable buildings, great public spaces, water, ice cream.  What more do you need? 

On to Minnesota, via Wisconsin.  We head north and west out of Chicago, passing by and through Madison, and thought of our friends and kids of our friends who studied there.  From there, it’s straight up the Interstate to Eau Clare and then due west into St. Paul and then Minneapolis, with our final destination Minnetonka, where our friends Harold and Cindy live. 

With Harold and Cindy along the shore of one of those great Minneapolis lakes as the sun sets

A nice drive, painless, rather long, but with some different views—commerce, agriculture, residences, universities…what you miss from the air.  Minneapolis is great.  It reminded us a lot of home, with lakes throughout the town, drivers stopping for others and patiently waving at them to proceed (no, we’re not in Boston anymore), cool old houses and funky neighborhoods with great bookshops and cafes.  Who knew that Minneapolis was the milling capital of America once upon a time?  We learned all about it at the

View from the Gold Medal Flour Mill, home of Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury Doughboy, down onto the mighty Mississippi

Mill City Museum, right there along the banks of the Mississippi, which powered all this milling.  (Location, again.)  And who also knew that Minneapolis has a large Hmong community, as well as a large Somali community?  We live in a beautiful city, but if we didn’t, we’d consider Minneapolis.  Except there, we’d need air conditioning in our house—it was already steaming and uncomfortable and we were there before summer officially started—and a better bike—the biking options are awesome.  And, it is so darn flat that I felt like I was back in Holland.  In fact, we’d hardly seen a hill since we began this journey in Northampton. 

A small section of the huge, multi-building Hmong Market in St. Paul. How does one get from Laos to Minnesota?

Where have all the mountains gone?

What’s just west of Minnesota?  Quick—do you know?  I do now:  The Dakotas.  North Dakota was our next stop.  From Minneapolis we drove up Interstate 94 up through St. Cloud and toward Fergus Falls, where we hung a left and were suddenly in Wahpeton, North Dakota, en route to the small town of Verona, where lives Beth’s cousin Dana and her husband Mike and their three kids—the fourth one is already married and living in South Dakota somewhere. 

Horses and cows relaxing in the grass outside Mike and Dana’s place

This family makes up now five of the 86 persons counted in the 2010 census in Verona, and they live with a few horses and two dogs and two cats and a handful of cattle that they’re looking after on sixty acres of the most breathtakingly beautiful land that I’ve ever seen.  Look at where we’ve been—ballooning in Cappadocia, lounging beachside on the Arabian Sea, along the Adriatic coast of Croatia, and here we are in North Dakota, just blown away by the scenery.  Who knew?

With Dana and Mike as the sun sets on the Great Plains near their place

We were so happy to be in our cousins’ home.  It’s not often that you find yourself ‘passing through’ North Dakota.  Dana, Beth’s cousin, is from Seattle, but her mom is from North Dakota, and she married a local guy with roots deep in the rich black soil.  While there, we were shown an area rich in family history, cruising along well-maintained gravel roads that took us to ancestral homes and farms, historic towns and forts, and more astounding views.  Beyond the geography were the people.  Dana and Mike are the nicest, warmest and most hospitable people you could ever hope to meet.  Mike is a senior manager at a local factory, and Dana works at a couple of local shops where she helps her neighbors solve their quilting problems and meet their hardware needs.  This is Small Town America, and we were surrounded by people who knew us or at least knew our family, and by those huge fields that you see when you fly from coast to coast. 

Beth with Cameron visiting in the screened-in porch

In between those fields, in those tiny houses that you see from on high, you find people like Dana and Mike, and Cameron, their 21-year-old, rodeo riding, tobacco-chewing, F-150-driving son who looks perfect in jeans, boots and his black Garth Brooks cowboy hat.  Cam’s career goal is to join the North Dakota Highway Patrol, to help rescue his stranded neighbors during nasty Dakota winters.  This kid is an absolute star, fit and lean and ready to do good in the world.  These are hunters who eat what they shoot (the venison jerkey was great!), gun-owners who believe in common sense gun rules, people who build things like tables and screened-in porches, ‘break’ horses and then ride them with care and skill, and make you just happy to be around them.  They have values and live by them.  Come to North Dakota!

These are some of the things we’ve seen from the ground level, all for the first time, places and people who we’ve flown over a million times we go from coast to coast.  We’re very lucky to have the opportunity and time to do this kind of drive.  From North Dakota we’ll be heading west, on our own, with no relatives or friends to stay with, toward the national parks of the West.  That will follow.

The Return

We arrived back in the US after over seven months away.  The return has been smooth and fun—we’ve been connecting with old friends, spent some quality time with Helen, and hit the road on our cross-country return road trip. 

Culture shock? No way!

In 1973 I came back to San Carlos from my first trip outside the US, and my first trip to Israel, feeling like a stranger in my own home.  I had been changed so dramatically, and yet my friends and my world had remained the same.  I experienced a bit of that again this time, as we swung onto Route 1 “The Providence Highway” south of Boston, a clone of El Camino/Aurora Avenue/Sprague Avenue and many other such thoroughfares across America.  Size matters, and the size of America, or at least the size of the stores along Route 1, made me shake my head.  We’d woken up in Paris, amid boutiques and cafes and little shops crowded together selling hats and gloves and shoes and everything else, and we were going to sleep amid Target stores and TGI Friday’s restaurants. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…we spent some good money at Target and other big boxes along Route 1.  It just took a bit to adjust to it. 

We arrived in Boston, were met by Helen at the airport and spent our first night at her place in Brookline.  In the morning she drove us out to the home of our friends Suzanne and Jeff in Sharon, where we’d left our car in a snowstorm on Halloween.  With the help of a jump from AAA, we got the car going and drove it to the Toyota dealership, where they brought it back to life and prepared it for the road ahead.  The next two days we did some shopping, some reading and resting, and eased ourselves back into the swing of things here. 

With Suzanne and Jeff in Sharon…no snow or dinner by headlamps this time

We had some fun, as noted, at Target, where we broke down and bought a GPS device to help us get home, and the local Salvation Army store.  Advice:  when shopping at Salvation Army, find one in a nice leafy suburb like Sharon…their throw-away clothes are much nicer.  We had some time with Helen, which was great, and met some of her friends and JOI activist colleagues.  We joined our hosts at the WaterFire Festival in Providence on Saturday night, which was very cool.  We saw Emma and Hannah there!  Sunday brunch we ate with other friends in Newton, on their backyard deck in the nice spring sunshine, and after a shopping spree at Israel Books in Brookline, we hit the road west.

First stop:  Northampton.  These first stops—Sharon, Newton, Northampton—were all places and people we visited in the fall on our outbound road trip.  It was great to revisit them, and regale them with some of our travel adventures.  We were in Northampton from Sunday evening to Tuesday morning, which included time for a haircut, a bit of shopping, a great lunch out in the countryside and relaxed reentry into American life.  Neil and Jonah, father and son in our Northampton family, spent the weekend with three other of Jonah’s friends at Bonnaroo, and returned after a seventeen hour drive from Tennessee with some good  tales of their own to tell.  Northampton—quiet streets, cute stores, organic everything, PC-to-the-max…I’m good for about 36 hours there.  We just got out in time.

An example of the understated marketing that is everywhere in Niagara Falls, Ontario

Next stop—Niagara Falls.  No one told us that Niagara Falls, or at least the Canadian side where most of the hotels are, is a mix of the Jersey Shore and a very bad county fair.  OMG!  An awesome natural wonder, and on one side, a place as crass and tacky as any you could imagine.  Quiet restaurants, romantic strolls, lingering for hours over dinner…this was not to be.  We were not in Paris anymore.  Oversized casinos, monsters and freak shows, believe-it-or-not wax museums, everything supersized and deep fried… and everything costs $20.  This was not culture shock—this was electric shock. 

A river view above the falls on the American side

In Niagara Falls, and elsewhere along the way during these first days, I got an idea of what is driving New York Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign against sweet drinks.  People in this country are huge.  Of course they are—that’s not news, but it is incredibly noticeable in contrast to the places where we’d just come from.  Parisians somehow eat very well, and late at night, and most fit into their skinny jeans in the morning, no problem.  Belgium and Netherlands, same story.  Israel—pretty similar.  Every place has exceptions, of course, and problems with obesity and health are global problems.  But sitting and watching the parade of people passing by the arcades  and fast-food joints of Niagara Falls, I got the feeling that I was watching an epidemic pass before me.  No, I don’t think I want fries with that, thank you.

Niagara Falls–breathtaking geography

In the morning we visited the American side of Niagara, exploring the great and un-commercialized state park there with its close-up views of the Falls.  This is where Nik Wallenda was going to tightrope across the Falls three days after our visit.  That’s amazing.

My dad spent his teenage years in Niagara Falls.  In 1924, when he was eleven years old, he was adopted out of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City by his uncle Barney, and brought to live upstate.  Barney ran a bar and speak-easy during that time, which was also Prohibition, and my dad’s youth was spent working around the place.  He left after high school and returned with my mother on their honeymoon in 1946.

The Maid of the Mist–a great view of the boat ride up to the Falls

While I didn’t see any remains of Uncle Barney’s place, I really liked being there, and seeing the views of the awesome Falls that my father saw as a kid and that he and my mom saw on their honeymoon.  Despite the wax museums and other schlock, the place is a natural wonder. 

Next stop—Cleveland, or more specifically, Shaker Heights and our friends Margy and Aaron Weinberg, formerly of 39th Ave NE, Seattle and Congregation Beth Shalom and the very early days of Seattle Jewish Primary (now Community) School.  How great to see them! 

With Margy and Aaron around their wonderful garden table in Shaker Heights

They welcomed us in like long-lost landsmen, we ate a great dinner, went to a minyan so Margy could say kaddish for her dad, took a walk around their very classic old neighborhood, and exchanged stories late into the night.  Their kids are great—Nadav lives in Tel Aviv, did the army, looking for a start-up that needs him.  Tali is starting grad school in the fall in speech pathology.  Aaron’s research at Case Western and Margy’s amazing volunteer work in the community are both being recognized.  It was just a blast to reconnect after a long time.  We felt immediately at home with them, and look forward to seeing them again soon.

With Avi and Rob Dobrusin–doing some family history research

Next stop—Ann Arbor, and my cousin Rob Dobrusin and his family.  Rob is my second cousin—his grandfather and my grandmother were siblings and immigrated together from Latvia.  We grew up not knowing that the other even existed—it appears that his grandfather was “not a very nice man”, as Rob says, and was very estranged from the rest of the family, to the point that his descendants were not connected at all with the descendents of my grandmother or the other old-country relatives as result of some family squabble that took place in the 1930s.  We all got to know each other only through Beth, who happened to be at Brandeis with Rob, and who made the connection after hearing that I was related to a lot of people named Dobrusin through my mother.  Rob is the Conservative rabbi in Ann Arbor, where he lives with his family—his wife Ellen and children Avi and Miki.  It was a real treat to spend some time with them and get to know them a little bit.  We took a great evening walk around Ann Arbor and the campus of the University of Michigan, and exchanged stories of the family. Many of my stories were new to them, and Rob’s stories were new to me.  Rob and his son Avi are very interested in our family history, and in fact Rob is heading to Latvia on a ‘roots trip’ in a week’s time.  It will great to hear his stories upon his return.  Our small family just grew! 

Next stop:  Chicago.  To be continued…

Totally Charmed by Paris

“Our” building in Paris

I was totally and absolutely charmed by Paris.  I did not know what to expect when we arrived.  We had been traveling for a while, seen many special places and had many extraordinary adventures.  Would Paris be just another big, busy European city?  I had not been in Paris in over 30 years, and had only the faintest recollections of anything that I saw or did back when I was in college.  Everyone we talked to said that Paris would be the highlight of our travels in Europe, and perhaps of the entire year.  These predictions were pretty much correct.

The first few days there, as described in the last post, were busy—museums, walking tours, parks, meals, explorations.  We slowed it down a bit for the last two days, but just a tad. 

Monet’s masterpiece Water Lilies, in the museum which was was built to show it, The Orangerie

We did another museum, The Orangerie, meeting there once again our friends Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso et al, and after immersing ourselves in their art we were all set to jump on the Metro to follow a walking tour of their old haunts in Montmartre, when it started to rain, hard and cold.  So instead we bailed on the walk, and went shopping instead!  We had lunch in a department store cafeteria with a view of Notre Dame and the Seine, and after checking out the 150 euro shirts and 300 euro jackets in the department store, we found ourselves in a big barn of a used clothing store just down the block where high quality, previously owned clothes were sold by weight—what a concept!  It’s called The Kilo Store, and I had some fun in there, buying some not-so-heavy clothes and priming the local economy. 

A choir singing show tunes in a plaza near our apartment

We got back to our apartment, only a few blocks from our shopping spree, and we were just pooped.  The week in Paris, the traveling in Europe, the whole darn year, were catching up on us.  So much for Montmartre—we took a nap instead.  We need to leave something for next time, I guess.  In the early evening we ate dinner in a café just across the street from our place, one that was bursting at the seams on Saturday night.  We got a table and occupied it for a while, in attempted Parisian style, and from there we took the Metro to the Trocadero stop, just above the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower from Trocadero

Trocadero and the areas around the Eifel Tower are like many places in Paris—designed for the use and enjoyment of the locals.  Just charming.  Trocadero is a square with a smashing view of the Eifel Tower, and a short walk away is Champ de Mars, a park that stretches for blocks away from the Tower, giving anyone who lives nearby or passes by breathtaking views of this giant erector-set structure.  Earlier in our visit we had climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and enjoyed that spectacular view of the Tower from that vantage point.  This view was even better, since we were right next to the massive thing.  We found a bench in Park Champ de Mars on the chilly but dry evening and enjoyed the view as the lights went up. 

The Eiffel Tower after dark, from Trocadero

After dark and after taking lots of pictures, we walked back to the Metro, passing the hordes of tourists still waiting in line to go up on the Tower.  That’s another outing we have left for next time.

Tuesday we went to Versailles.  It’s indescribable, really.  It’s ridiculously grand and huge and over-the-top, almost to the point of being absurd, a caricature of itself.  Doing Versailles takes some commitment of time and energy.  It’s outside Paris about 35 minutes by suburban train, not Metro.  The lines are long whenever you go.  The place is packed.  Is it worth it?  No doubt.

Beth among the great unwashed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

We spent about an hour in a long, snaking line in the grand square outside the main gates just to make it to the security point.  This was not a Disneyland line…there was no order, no ropes or people telling you where to go.  People come, and they wait.  Our museum pass made it so we avoided the ticket purchase line, which was another hour at least.  Finally we made it into the chateau, where we were part of a mass of humanity tromping from room to room, ooing and ahhing over the pictures, sculptures, mirrors, furnishings and other things that made Louis XIV and his descendants so beloved by their people. 

The crowds, the fountains, the Chateau…what a place!

We eventually and thankfully emerged into the cloudy afternoon and wandered through the incredible, almost endless gardens.  We were lucky enough to be there on a day of the Fountain Shows, where many of the fountains are turned on and dramatically spew their water all over the place, all to the ‘beat’ of some of Debussy’s greatest hits.  After the gardens and fountains, we wandered through the other smaller palaces and out-buildings, The Trianon and Petit Trianon, and the Temple of Love, where the royals would go to escape the madness that they had created in the chateau.  We walked and walked and walked.  We were surrounded by tourists from all over the world, school groups from all over Europe, as well as many locals. 

Marie-Antoinette’s Temple of Love

We left Versailles on the 6:30 train, and were back in our place by about 7:45.  We found a great neighborhood bistro for dinner, our last dinner in Paris, and kept our table for a good two and a half hours, trying our best to blend in. 

The charms of Paris are both subtle and prominent.  The city itself, or at least the part that we saw in a week of following the instructions of Rick Steves, is beautiful almost beyond words.  The buildings, squares, river and its banks, shops, boutiques, boats, monuments—it’s all just so nice.  Built on a human scale, and very real.  Among the subtle charms of Paris are the people themselves —they’re friendly and helpful, we found, contrary to what we had expected, even in the face of an onslaught of touristas that just never ends.  Even, and especially, waiters and people in service jobs—helpful, funny, quick with a bottle of water and quick with a clever retort.  Another charm of Paris is just how it works so wonderfully as a densely populated, complicated place.  Parisians live literally right on top of each other, and yet it somehow works, and works beautifully. 

The French Open comes to downtown Paris

It’s charming that the plaza in front of the City Hall was transformed into a sunny open-air tennis watching center, with a huge high-def screen showing the orange clay of Roland Garros and the French Open all hours of the day, with hundreds of people, all locals, sitting on chairs or at picnic tables or just leaning against their bicycles or nearby buildings, watching the tennis together.  This open-air communal event is so much nicer than sitting in a bar watching a football game—it’s part of the charm.  It’s charming that ‘boules’ players, while competing fiercely, engage with the crowd, and with each other, in such a friendly, neighborly way. 

A little combo on the Ile Saint-Louis bridge

It’s charming that buskers in places like Place de Vosages and Ile Saint-Louis gather crowds and work them, but in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching a concert or an artistic performance, not a money-making scam.  I’m much more likely to drop a euro in a hat of someone treats his or her audience with respect and provides a good show than one who seems desperate and needy.  It’s charming that there are bookshops almost everywhere, and people are in them, browsing.  It’s charming that school kids climb on great works of art in the parks and gardens here while on their lunch breaks on museum field trips.  Talk about getting up close and person with art! 

The Metro–a truly charming transportation system

The Metro is charming—clean, efficient, breathable air, a free and dry place for the homeless to sleep, and for 1.70 euro it can get you anywhere in the city.  It’s charming how well people are dressed, all the time–not flashy, just nicely.  It’s charming how very few restaurants or bars have TVs in them.  They’re not places to sit and watch sports.  They are places where people gather to talk, tell stories, eat and drink and enjoy each other’s company.  Just charmed the hell out of me.

I’m charmed.  Paris is a great, global city, like New York.  And like New York, it’s pretty draining.  After a week, we were done. 

At Versailles outside Paris, our last stop before returning to the US

Now, it’s time—we wake up in The Marais in Paris, take a high-speed train to Amsterdam, then flights to London and on to Boston, where Helen will meet us.  We left the US about seven months ago, and in that time abroad, we’ve been to Israel, India, Croatia, Bosnia, Turkey, Holland, Belgium and France.  That was after an 8000 mile road trip across the country, from Seattle to Boston by way of LA, New Orleans, McComb, Mississippi, Whitwell, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Northampton,  Acadia National Park and many, many other points in between.  Opportunities for years such as this one are rare, when time is given to learning and exploring, and not just to work.  The learning and exploring were not only while we were abroad—the US was and is our classroom as well.  So the adventure, and the learning and exploring, continues.  This post will be finalized in Boston, our first stop back in the US, where we’ll pick up our car and drive it back over the course of three weeks or so to Seattle.  What will happen next on this last section of our road trip?  Stay tuned!

Paris—The First Few Days

The Eiffel Tower, an evening shot from the Arc de Triomphe

There is a lot to do and see and eat and experience in Paris.  We decided early on not to try to do it all…we’re going to take it somewhat easy, explore what we can, relax a bit and get ready for our re-entry into the US.  In Paris it is tempting to always be on the go—you don’t want to ‘miss’ anything.  We’ve missed a lot, but we’ve seen a lot, in our first few days here.

We arrived by bus from Brussels on Wednesday afternoon, and made it with all our stuff and with the help of a few kind locals to our apartment, successfully sorting out two Metro transfers en route.  We decided on an apartment rather than a hotel because, with a full week here, we wanted the privacy and flexibility of having a real place of our own. 

At the table in our little Marais apartment

Our apartment is a nice-sized studio, a fourth floor walk-up in the Marais neighborhood, smack dab in the middle of everything.  We are no longer on the wrong side of the tracks like we were up in Brussels.  We are where it’s at.  Location.  Location.  Location.

For those who know Paris, we are at the corner of rue Vieille du Temple and rue Roi de Sicile—13 rue Vielle du Temple to be exact, overlooking the corner of these two street.  We’re a few doors from Rue de Rivoli, about halfway between the Bastille and the Hotel de Ville.  We have views going down each street and into the apartments directly opposite us—and they can see right into our place as well.  Ah, high density life!   And the street noise comes right up and into our windows—it’s part of the package, no extra charge.  Always travel with earplugs. 

View from our window of the sidewalk cafe across the street

We’ve got a bed, a bathroom, a decently stocked kitchen, and, believe it or not, a washing machine!  We were kind-of enjoying the back-to-nature aspect of using only a bathroom sink to wash our clothes for three weeks, but for the benefit of the citizens of Paris, and each other, we’re now walking around in freshly washed clothes.  So civilized!

What’s up in Paris?  Well, we found the great huge open-air market at the Bastille, fifteen minutes’ walk from our place, and stocked up on food. 

Beth among the fresh veggies at the Bastille Market

After three weeks of restaurant food, we’ve enjoyed making our own food and eating in a few times, including a pan-fried salmon last night that was just amazing.  The market-fresh food is more like Mahane Yehuda than Safeway, that’s for sure.  We’ve been to Notre Dame and the islands in the Seine, the Left Bank and the Right Bank.  We’ve shopped for clothes and goodies here and there.  We browsed at Shakespeare’s Books.  We purchased a museum pass and have been using it to visit some of the most amazing museums in the world: 

Andy Warhol’s Liz–seen with much less pushing and shoving than the Mona Lisa

the Louvre, the Orsay, the Orangerie, the Carnavelet, the Jewish History Museum, the Conciergerie, the Pompidou, and others that I can’t even remember right now.  We were on top of the Arc de Triomphe at sunset and watched the Eiffel Tower light show from there.  We watched pressure-packed games of boules in public parks and squares, a game akin to bocce or lawn bowling, where we had a great time doing our best Dave Niehaus play-by-play of a game we don’t really understand played by people we’ve never seen before.  We visited quite a few churches and other monuments, including the Pantheon.  We sat by fountains in sun-drenched parks, watching kids and their radio-controlled sailboats, and sat by other fountains on other days getting rained on, wishing we had brought our fleeces and raincoats. 

A Parisien boules player, with the unconventional ‘squatting bowl’ style

We ate great food.  We lucked into two seats at a sidewalk cafe on  a weekend night that was absolutely packed, every table filled for blocks around our place at 11pm, and just enjoyed the parade.  We bought food for a picnic but then ate it at home, to get out of the rain.  It was a great picnic spot, right in the center of the Marais!  We caught two nights of free jazz, one a Django Reinhardt-type trio with a brilliant guitarist who were joined in their second set by a statuesque chanteuse who brought the room to life.  The other group was a quartet of kids about Helen’s age who riffed and jammed and made a lot of noise, some of it very, very nice.   

A perfectly-timed coffee break at the Musee Orsay

There’s no place like Paris.  It’s similar to New York, but nicer, cleaner, with a beautiful river running through it.  It’s a perfect place for us to end our foreign travels.  In a couple of days, we’ll be in Boston.  I’ll report of the rest of our Parisian adventures soon.

Is Brussels the Make-Out Capital of Europe?

Sign in a window we passed between our hotel and the Grand Place, Brussels

We were in Brussels from Friday afternoon until Wednesday morning, just hanging around, taking walks, enjoying a music festival, exploring the parks and restaurants and doing some serious people-watching.  And I must say, one thing that sticks out in my mind above others, above the beer and the chocolate even, is that there were one heck of a lot of people making out in public all over the city.  In town squares.  In sidewalk cafes.  In parks.  Just walking down the street—everywhere we looked, people were engaged in extremely public and passionate displays of affection.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…it’s actually a very fun activity.  It’s just not something I expected to find while in Brussels, this bi-lingual, multi-cultural and extremely diverse capital of not only Belgium, but also the home for the European Parliament, making it effectively the capital of Europe.  Who would have thought that Brussels, a city full of lawyers and bureaucrats, would be a place where people feel so free and easy?  Was I offended?  No—it was all quite PG-13.  Surprised?  Oh yes, indeed.

Van Belle Hotel–you get what you pay for

We got to Brussels by train from Bruges mid-day sometime on Friday, and dragged our bags to our nearby hotel.  It was a warm day, my suitcase handle was not extending all the way, so the six blocks from the train station to the hotel was a drag, literally.  Yet, while working up a sweat to get to the hotel, we noticed that most of the signs and shops and places we were passing looked somewhat similar to the places we left behind in Jerusalem—small grocery stores, fruit-and-vegetable stands,  local merchants selling shoes or car repair or a variety of common, everyday things, not tourist-type shops.  And one other thing—most of the signs were in Arabic.  Hello.

Lunch in Brussels

Our hotel, a large, rather frumpy old place, was smack in the middle of the other side of the tracks in Brussels.  No wonder it cost about half what most of the guide-book-recommended hotels were charging.  We checked in and found our room—clean, adequate in every way.  A bit warm, and no A/C.  We ditched our bags and found lunch across the street—in a Middle Eastern meat-on-skewers place like we had enjoyed so often in Israel.  This one was halal but not kosher, so Beth ate the salads—spectacular houmous and baba-gannouj, while I did not hold back and had fantastic, fresh skewers, plus a selection of salads as mentioned above, all for less than a bad pizza had cost us in Bruges. 

Beth amid the flowers in the Grand Place, Brussels

From there, we began our city explorations.  From our hotel, and the restaurant across the street, it was a fifteen minute walk to the Grand Place, the main plaza of the Lower Town where all the tourist stuff is concentrated.  We found it with no problem, and, once there, we noticed a huge stage.  We had come to Brussels for the weekend of the Brussels Jazz Marathon, a weekend event with 200 free jazz concerts all over town.  Get outta here! 

Detail from cartoon mural–they’re all over Brussels!

Friday night in Brussels we were looking for a minyan, to meet some people and hopefully have as positive an experience as we had in The Hague the week prior.  So we connected with a synagogue that had a website, got invited, and got invited to Friday night dinner as well.  The shul was a very small Chabad place, very American, located in the “European” part of town, a separate neighborhood where all the trans-Europe institutions, such as the European Parliament and the Council of Europe are located.  This little place is part of something called the European Jewish Community Center, and they have a small building where they concentrate a number of Jewish institutions—welfare agencies, schools, senior center, and the like.  Mostly, they serve non-Belgian Jews who work in the European organizations, and ex-pats and travelers, like us.  Small, friendly group, quick service (we barely had ten) and then dinner at the home of one of the principals, Avi, and his wife Nehama.  He’s originally from Argentina, she’s from Paris, and they live in Brussels with their three kids, and the fourth coming in about a month.  Nice apartment, sweet kids, excellent food, and lovely people—friendly, hospitable, interesting, making us feel quite at home.  We finally wandered out of there at about midnight, got a late subway home to our side of town, and felt lucky to have met them.

Mercator holding a globe–father of map-making is from Brussels, and his statue is in a delightful shady park

We spent the rest of our time in Brussels walking around, picking out the sites we wanted to see and avoiding the others, sitting on park benches or in sidewalk cafes, watching the people go by.  Brussels has outstanding people-watching.  I sometimes think badly of trips to jungles or off the beaten path with the intent of ‘seeing the people’—as if once you’re up-country in Thailand or  in the bush in Kenya, everything becomes something of a ‘people zoo’.  I was totally guilty of this in Brussels—and enjoyed every minute of it.  People from all over the world had converged on Brussels this week, and they were all out in force in the nice, warm weather.  What a zoo, indeed!  And all that kissing!!!

Sunshine, gardens, very old towers in the distance–Brussels had it all

Our hotel did not grow on us.  It was packed over the weekend, but mostly with French teens and Eastern European package tours.  Breakfast was not a meal we looked forward to, even though it was included in our nightly rate.  Just too bleak.  And our room, while quiet, faced east, and it was  blazing hot starting very, very early.  To top it all off, internet access, which we paid extra to receive, was extremely weak and frustrating.  We spent most of our time elsewhere.  To quote my dad and many others, you get what you pay for.

This Ladyship-like group had the crowd up and moving!

Jazz was everywhere during the weekend.  From the big stage in the Grand Place to small, intimate clubs, it was great, it was free, it was exciting.  We caught up with a small African-Belgian combo that sounded like they had played on Paul Simon’s Graceland album.  They had people up and dancing! 

Vocals, horns, percussion–an outstanding band

A young Belgian vocalist with a voice something in between Norah Jones and Amy Winehouse, backed up by a sax, trombone and trumpet—awesome!  And a group belting out American rock-and-roll hits, Elvis, CCR, etc, in a little sidewalk bar where everyone was going absolutely crazy Saturday at midnight. 

Who knew that Brussels was such a party-animal kind of town?

Late in the evening, and the streets of Brussels are packed

And that’s about all she wrote.  We did head over to the European area on Monday, and visited the very cool “Parliamentarium”, a high-tech visitors center that gives way too much information about the EU and everything associated with it. 

European Union buildings, Brussels

Best thing about it was this I-phone like gadget they gave us to place over different symbols to learn the stories behind the pictures.   I enjoyed mastering the use of that gizmo, and even learned some new things about the EU. 

After a few days in Brussels, we decided to explore one more city in The Low Countries–Ghent.  Ghent is about half an hour by train from Brussels, and like Bruges, it was once a very important trading center.  Nowadays it is still a real city, with a major university and other industries, but its glory has faded. 

More canals, more flowers–in Ghent

What remains are lovely canals, medieval churches, huge public spaces and narrow, meandering lanes.  A great day trip from Brussels.  As advertised–spectacular spaces, both indoors and out, old bridges, flower-lined canals, soaring churches, vast plazas.  They just don’t build cities like this anymore, that’s for sure. 

I’ll teach more and differently about Europe next year, to be sure.  I’m not sure I’ll be emphasizing the expansion of the EU, or the make-out possibilities in Brussels.  Whatever it is, it’ll be new and fresh.  So, next time you’ve got the urge, go with your special someone to Brussels, and feel the love all over the place.  It’s quite a place—the Make-Out Capital of Europe!

In Bruges: Beer, Chocolate and Techno-Accordion Tango Music

Belgium is a country with 1500 different beers, or so we’ve been told.  It is also a country that places a very high value on chocolate, especially fine, hand-made chocolates.  On top of all that, there is a hopping music scene that is as diverse as the people who live and visit here.  There is much more to this place than just a bunch of beautiful old buildings and canals.

Beth with Maggie, our hostess at the wonderful Royal Stewart B+B in Bruges

We took a smooth, quiet and altogether pleasant bus trip from Amsterdam to Bruges on Monday morning.  The bus meandered a bit—Utrecht, Antwerp, Ghent and then finally here, arriving in mid-afternoon.  We found our way on public transportation to our accommodations, the Royal Stewart Bed and Breakfast, a truly delightful spot just minutes from the main Market Square, owned and operated by a welcoming and cheerful Scottish ex-pat named Maggie, her husband Gilbert and their two terriers.  Our room was comfortably furnished with functional and cool antiques, breakfasts included lots of hot coffee, and we are surrounded by ancient buildings and quiet canals.  Ah, Bruges!

After the delicious Maes Brewery Tour, Bruges

In Bruges the big decisions of the day are often dominated by the two big products here:  beer and chocolate.  Such as: which beer should we have with lunch?  What about for dinner?  How many chocolates should we have for our mid-morning snack?  What about a mid-afternoon chocolate run?  Perhaps an after-dinner bon-bon?  These are the issues that we wrestled with, along with which of the great museums to visit, which way to walk to get lost among the 15th century buildings, which park bench to sit on for an hour watching swans silently swimming around a city pond.  We did all of the above, in a quiet and leisurely  

Logo for the Airbag Accordion Festival 2012, Brugge

And then came the music.  Airbag 2012 is a two-month-long celebration of all things accordion, and all the action takes place right here in Bruges.  I personally was not aware that Bruges was such a center of accordion culture, but so it would appear.  During our short stay, we were lucky to land tickets to far and away the greatest accordion concert I have ever seen, featuring two bands:  Tango 02 and El Juntacadaveres.  This was not a night of some oom-pah accordion schmaltz, nor was it anything like you’d hear at a klezmer convention.  This was accordion tango music, and it was sizzling!

Tango 02–they had the dancers gliding across the floor

The venue, outside the canals that encircle the city, on a street that tourists don’t usually visit, was a big open theatre space, with a high ceiling and big stage, but with no fixed seats.  We lucked into two folding chairs along the side, where most people were sitting, leaving the central area open for the dancing.  The first band, Tango 02 (www.tango02.com) is a six-piece accordion-led band that got the dancers gliding with their traditional tango tunes.  They were joined for a few numbers by a wonderful Argentinian tenor who brought tears to our eyes, even though we didn’t understand a word he sang.

El Juntacadavres–they had the crowd up on their feet, feeling that accodion

El Junta Cadaveres (www.eljuntacadaveres.com) are something else altogether.  This group was anything but traditional.  Two accordionists, one who doubled up on tenor sax and as lead singer, an electric/traditional pianist from Mexico, a crazy-good electric bass player, an fine electric guitar guy, a big-time drummer, a rap-turntable artist who was out of his mind, and a woman on her Mac up there on the stage who created incredible visual images on the big screen behind the band.  I don’t even know what a ‘typical’ accordion-tango band looks like, but I’m pretty sure this was not it.

For all their fireworks, their music and musicianship was tremendous.  They played for a bit more than an hour, barely stopping between songs, and soon most of the crowd of about 200 was up, standing and moving to the music in the space where the tango dancers had been.  The crowd loved them, they played an extended encore, and by then everyone was up.  What a band!

On the way to Damme…canals, bicycles, windmills, the whole thing

The next day, after the pot of coffee to get us going, we rented a couple of bikes and took a quiet and flat ride around the edge of the city and out to the village of Damme, about a 4 mile trip.  Passing between canals and lush farmlands, on a trail that was as flat as a proverbial Belgian pancake, this was a delightful ride and a great way to recover from all that accordion intensity.  The town at the end of the ride was small and quiet.  We found a deli and made a shady picnic with the bleating of sheep as background music, and after a cold beverage and ice cream for dessert, we saddled up…and waited. 

The Tour de Belgium speeds by us in Damme, in a blur

We couldn’t leave—the Tour de Belgium was just then passing through this town!  How exciting—some big-time European road racing, right in front of us.  What more could we ask for?  Well, after the cars and trucks and cops and support vehicles, and then finally the racers, we were finally able to mosey back to town.  I’m glad no one was timing me on this trip.  In Bruges, there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as ‘hurry up’.


Bruges—tall medieval towers, winding alleyways, grand churches, impressive museums, quaint restaurants—it’s all here.  And chocolate and beer and techno-accordion tango music.  As with many stops on this adventure, we got much more than we expected.  Eyes open, let’s see what happens next, in Brussels.