A Big Apple Day

Is New York City the apple of my eye? Well, once it was. I spent who knows how many hundreds (thousands?) of hours in one or another of its five boroughs while growing up on Long Island. And after moving to Philadelphia in the mid 1970s, to start what became a 34-year career in government work, I made pretty frequent trips to NYC, 10 or 15 each year. I was pulled there magnetically by its museums, architecture, music clubs, gracious and spacious parks, and streets just made for strolling and girl-watching. Nobody needs me to tell them that the Big Apple is one of the coolest kids on the planet. It has been for, what . . . at least 100 years?

But, for one reason or another, those Philly-to-NYC visits became less and less common when the early 1990s rolled around, petering out to a mere one every few years. Incredibly, New York City, with which I’d had the cuddliest of relationships, faded gently from my mind. “New York, wait for me! You’ve meant the world to me! I’ll be back semi-regularly, I promise. Hell, you’re only 100 miles away,” is what I should have felt and said. But I didn’t. Man, if you’d have told me before then that such ever would become the case, I’d have had you committed.

This, then, is where Dave, one of my greatest pals, enters the story that you’re reading. He, like me, used to be a Long Islander. We became friends there in high school, during the Middle Ages. And he used to love NYC. These days, though, the city’s hustle and bustle does a superb job of frazzling Dave’s nerves. He ain’t in love with NYC anymore.

Still, Dave, who took up residence on the West Coast 40 years ago, visits New York now and then, despite the jittery situation with his nerves. I guess he’s a masochist. And one of those now-and-then occasions occurred recently. “Yeah, I’ll see you there,” I told Dave when he informed me of his impending eastward trip. Thus, two Saturdays ago I headed north from my home in the Philly burbs to hang out with Dave for half a day in the greatest of the famed metropolis’ five boroughs. Manhattan.

We met where 42nd Street and Broadway colorfully come together. In other words, at the bottom end of Times Square. And for the next four hours we graced various neighborhoods, and Central Park, with our dynamic presences. Though on the cusp of age 70, we strode the streets like the titans we vaguely once were. And vaguely still are. Gorgeous girls couldn’t keep their eyes off of us the other day. Isn’t that right, Dave?

“Damn straight, Neil,” Dave just told me. “Damn f**king straight! Even though it could be that our 20/80 visual acuity distorted our view of things just a little bit.”

Speak for yourself, Dave. I know what I know.

Here’s how we spent our time together: We shot the breeze vigorously, catching up on each other’s doings. And we walked and walked and walked while shooting that breeze. And when we got tired of walking we sat on boulders in Central Park, and a little after that on chairs in a snazzy restaurant near the park’s southwestern corner.

What’s more, we didn’t have any interest in taking in any famous sights, though we saw some anyway (such as Carnegie Hall, Columbus Circle and horse-drawn carriages in Central Park). You can’t not see them in this history lesson of a city. To repeat, then, what’s already been said: Yapping, wandering, eating and girl-watching proved to be the items on our agenda.

The time flew by, as sometimes it does, and around 3:30 PM Dave and I said our goodbyes. He needed to go back to his hotel and start getting ready for the wedding that had brought him to NYC in the first place. One of his friend’s daughters was about to get hitched.

But my bus wouldn’t be leaving for an hour and a half. I had time to kill. And what better way to do that than to stroll along some of the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, the Garment District and Times Square. Those nifty sections of the city run into each other, and would keep me close to the Port Authority bus terminal, from which my Philadelphia-bound ride was scheduled to depart.

Which brings us to the final topic I want to talk about. To wit, photos. I didn’t take any while with Dave, except for a couple of selfies of him and me. Why? Man, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting this blog, it’s that obsessive photograph-snapping can interfere one whole lot with enjoying the time you’re spending with people you like. Besides, who the hell would want to see a picture of the roast beef sandwich that Dave tore into at the snazzy restaurant, or of the boulder we sat upon in Central Park? Oh, you would, would you? It figures.

All I can say is that it seems that you’ve come to the right place anyway. Because after Dave and I went our separate ways my picture-taking mode kicked into high gear. And the pix that I shot over the subsequent hour are the ones you’ve been looking at on this page. New York City is a lot of things. One of which is photogenic. So, even a clod like me can’t help but come away with some nice shots.

Thanks for reading and viewing. Till next time . . .

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A Trip To Fallingwater

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling during the 69 years I’ve taken up space on Planet Earth. Been to Asia (Nepal). And to the Middle East (Israel). And to North Africa (Egypt). And to various countries in Europe any number of times. And I’ve been here and there in the States and Canada. How about Pennsylvania, then, the state I’ve lived in since my late 20s? Well, I’m nicely familiar with its greater Philadelphia region, which is my home territory, but outside of that orb I haven’t ventured all too much. And in the last couple of years I’ve been thinking about what I may have been missing. A trip to Ohio via the Pennsylvania Turnpike that my wife Sandy and I made a few weeks ago drove the point home pretty decisively. “Wow, look at all these mountains and farms. Who knew?” I said to Sandy more than once during that westward journey. “It’s time to explore Pennsylvania. Let’s do plenty of that before the sands of time run out on us.” Those weren’t my exact words, but they are close enough.

Smartly, we had already planned a day and a half of discovery in the Keystone State. On the way back from Ohio (you can read about the Ohio visit by clicking here) we drove to Uniontown, a less-than-flourishing community nestled in southwestern Pennsylvania, where we had booked a hotel room. The following day, Monday, would be our visit to Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that has become a tourist destination. Neither Sandy nor I had ever been in southwestern Pennsylvania before.

To be honest, I feel a little guilty writing about Fallingwater. It’s not as if the world needs any more mentions of the place, as the 2,400,000+ Google results for Fallingwater obviously prove. But what’s a blogger to do? I considered typing an opus about what I ate for breakfast this morning (strong coffee, and Wheaties with blueberries), but opted instead for Wright’s creation. Nobody wants to read about my breakfast, not even me, no matter how delicious it was. Fallingwater it is.

To summarize Fallingwater’s history: Edgar Kaufmann, a department store magnate who lived in Pittsburgh with his wife Lillian and son Edgar Jr., commissioned the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build a weekend/vacation home for the family. The house was to be set within the enormous, heavily-forested swath of land that the Kaufmanns owned in the Allegheny Mountains. That plot was (and is) about 50 miles from Pittsburgh. Wright completed his design in 1935. Two years later the house was in place, and two years after that a guest house, uphill from the main residence and connected to it by a short cement span, went up. In 1963, some years after the death of his parents, Junior donated Fallingwater and the family’s mountain acreage to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a land and water protection organization. The Conservancy opened the buildings and grounds to the public in 1964, and before long Fallingwater caught on. Really caught on. To date, upwards of 5,000,000 visitors have toured the facilities. For a place that some might describe as being in the middle of nowhere, that’s genuinely impressive.

Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

And here’s why they keep on coming: Fallingwater’s exterior looks better than just about any house that you’ll ever see. It is sleek, lovingly tiered, rustically handsome and highly imaginatively laid out. And the house’s placement is, as they say, unparalleled. It is built atop and alongside boulders, a few of which poke out into the living spaces. And, rather incredibly, it is perched above a descending stream at the point where the waters – you guessed it – fall over rocks. A waterfall! A modest waterall, to be sure, but beautiful nonetheless. Fallingwater, a looker in an admirable, peaceful way, communes righteously with the natural environment that surrounds it. Harmony definitely prevails.

After breakfast on Monday, Sandy and I jumped into our car and drove the 25 miles, half of them along winding country roads, that separate Uniontown from Fallingwater. Our tour, scheduled for 11:00 AM, began on time. Twenty or so folks were in our tour group. The guide, alas, informed us that photography wouldn’t be allowed within the house. Nor would touching of the objects. Bummer. The interior shots I’ve included in this humble essay, therefore, are photos that I’ve snatched off the Internet. By the way, Fallingwater’s room arrangements and furnishings have been left pretty much as they were when Junior turned over the keys to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Photo by Jeffrey Neal

Most of the tour took place inside, as opposed to outside, Fallingwater. My memory being duller than a butter knife, let me pass on a few recollections before they fade into oblivion. First, I dug Wright’s color scheme. Earth tones predominate. They make for a calming, comforting experience, which without doubt was his intention. And I was surprised to learn that Wright designed not only Fallingwater’s structure, but many of its objects – desks, cabinets, chairs and tables. And they are beautiful. The guy was something else. Was there anything he couldn’t do? Well, he couldn’t walk on the waters of the stream flowing beneath the house, right? Or maybe he could.

Photo by Brad Ford

I noticed a couple of broad wooden desks, wedged into corners, that have portions of their tops neatly cut away so as to allow windows to swing open. Brilliant idea! And I spent some time in Junior’s bedroom looking over the smallish but swell collection of books on his shelves. They reflect an open and bright mind. Among them are the 10-volume set of The World’s Best Essays, a long-forgotten collection published in 1900. I’d have loved to pull out one or two of the volumes to take a look at the wisdom contained therein. But that wouldn’t have been a wise move, as the tour guide might have dragged me off the premises by the few strands of hair remaining on my head had I attempted to satisfy my innocent desire.

The one-hour tour over, Sandy and I headed down a trail that paralleled the stream and led into deep forest country. Rhododendron bushes grew in numbers you’re unlikely to see elsewhere. Oak and maple trees flourished, as did a variety of evergreens. It felt good to get lost, metaphorically, in the woods for a while. Take more forest walks is something I’ve added to my to-do-soon list. Forests don’t exist in my paved-over home area, but a few are within reasonable driving distance.

The next morning we drove home, southwestern Pennsylvania before long disappearing from our rear view mirror. Now, I’m not going to say that this rural region of Pennsylvania is a must-see destination. For those who groove on mountain hiking or fishing or rafting, it’s absolutely A-OK. For those not of that persuasion but who are passing through the area or taking in the sights in Pittsburgh, here’s the thing: You could do a lot worse than make the drive to Fallingwater. Sandy and I agree that Fallingwater made our trip worthwhile. The place is a beaut.

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The Short And The Long Of It: Scattered Thoughts About Music

Tomaz oYou know, when earlier this summer I showered cyberspace with a three-part recap of my wife Sandy’s and my recent European frolics, I thought I was done with that subject. Next thing I knew, though, I was typing out a story that had its genesis during that same trip, in Amsterdam. In said story (which is viewable by clicking here) I wrote about the owner of a bistro we had dinner in. The restaurant’s name is Tomaz, and possibly the owner’s name is that too. But seeing that I don’t know for sure, I referred to him in the piece as Maybe It’s Tomaz. Man, I can’t believe it, but I’m about to talk about MIT again. Obviously it’s a good thing I met the guy, because he has become fodder for your frequently-devoid-of-story-ideas narrator. MIT, if by some fine miracle you ever read this post or the previous one in which you star, please know that I’m in your debt. Figuratively, not financially. Anyway, I’m certain you’d feel fully compensated by basking in the limelight that my epic tales place you within. Well, maybe limelight is too strong a word, considering that this blog is among the least-read publications on Planet Earth. Nevertheless, write I must. Or must I? I’ll have to think about that.

MIT became part of this article’s thought process the other day while I was listening to WXPN, a sharp radio station based in Philadelphia. They play so much music from so many genres, and know so much about music, it’s amazing. And the station always is trying to come up with cool ways of packaging its product. For example, during the other day that I mentioned, they hit upon a great idea. For hours on end they played only short songs. Short meaning under three minutes.

Now, I’m no music historian or researcher. My brain capacity, not to mention my patience, isn’t sufficient to take on either of those roles. However, I’m pretty sure that, before the hippie era bloomed in 1967, the bulk of recorded songs were under five minutes, and oodles of those — the truly short ones — topped out beneath three. This partly was due to the limited storage capacity of vinyl singles and albums. And there also were commercial considerations. Namely, if songs were short, then pop/Top 40 radio stations would be able to play a sizeable number of them per hour and still have plenty of time left over for ads. Things loosened up in many ways in and after the late 1960s, including the length of songs. To this day though, some still don’t surpass the three-minute mark.

3MinuteLogo riattrezzare-macchina-in-3-minutiOK, as with much of life, all of that is neither here nor there. Or is it? I’ll have to think about that one too. Getting back to WXPN, I listened on and off the other day for a total of an hour or so and was pleasantly blown away by all the great tunes that they spun. I’ll name a few (if you click on each title you’ll hear the songs). The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic?. Paul McCartney’s Man We Was Lonely. The Box Tops’ The Letter. Patsy Cline’s I Fall To Pieces. Remember (Walking In The Sand) by The Shangri-Las. Each song has a wonderful melody, an alluring arrangement and is packed with feeling. And each satisfied my soul completely and then . . . bam! . . . was over just like that. They are perfect.

Would MIT have loved the XPN playlist as much as I? Let’s see. As Sandy and I ate in his restaurant, MIT and I gabbed away about music. Like me, MIT is a music nut. MIT piped sweet stuff through the restaurant’s speakers by Harry Manx, Jonathan Wilson and Israel Nash, artists I wasn’t familiar with (examples of their work are embedded in the aforementioned article in which MIT appears). The songs were on the long side (six minutes and up I think), transporting and satisfyingly spacey. And were, said MIT, typical of what he mostly listens to nowadays. He made a point to say that a song’s length, not just its style, was part of his selection method — he was into music that took its time telling a story. I liked the Manx, Wilson and Nash numbers. A lot. If I hadn’t been involved with swigging beers and downing a steak dinner, I might have laid my head on the table and gone on a magic carpet ride. Yes, I imagine that MIT would have said “yeah, terrific” about WXPN’s focus on the short the other day, but would have turned off the station after a bit and gone to Spotify or wherever to get his massive daily requirements of the long.

What’s my point, then? Good question. I’m likely to nab the trophy awarded to “The Person Who In 2016 Made The Most Obvious And Lame Observation” for the upcoming sentence, but here goes anyway: Music, as everyone knows, can be a joy and an inspiration and a release. (Oy. Let’s continue). The need for music is somehow built into the human genome. And my guess is that the need’s long form is the dominant gene. Really, not much is better than closing your eyes during a worthy, lengthy number, letting the sounds wash over you and take you on a journey. That’s true whether you’re listening to recorded music at home or on the go or grooving at a concert. On the other hand, there’s no denying the rush that just might overtake you from good songs that are oh so brief and tight. Me, I’ll keep listening to both the short and the long. And to whatever’s in between too.

Amen.

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Amsterdam, When Lights Were Low

This time of year in suburban Philadelphia USA, where I reside, the Sun sets around 8:30 PM and the sky begins to grow meaningfully dark half an hour later. A few weeks ago, though, during my wife Sandy’s and my trip to Paris and Amsterdam, the lighting was different. (If you click right here and right here, the previous two articles about our trip will appear). There, sunset happened circa 10:00 PM and darkness started its descent about thirty minutes after that. It wasn’t till 10:45 or so that you’d say nighttime truly had arrived. These were phenomena that took Sandy and me a little by surprise. We sure weren’t used to them. But we liked them.

Now, Amsterdam is a beautiful place in daylight, as is Paris, natch. Those canals; those old, quaint brick houses; those cute houseboats parked here and there on the waters; those many streets no wider than alleys. Man, investigating and gawking at all of this in full light was the best. But — and I’m not exactly issuing a news flash here — things looked different when the effects of our friend the Sun started to fade. Different isn’t always better, yet often it is equally good. And that was the case with Amsterdam during late evening hours.

Maybe we were under the spell of the delayed darkness, I don’t know, but in Amsterdam we found ourselves starting the evening repasts much later than at home. Most evenings we didn’t begin to eat until 8:30 or later. By the time we concluded restaurant business and moseyed out onto the streets, sunlight was approaching the low end of its dial or was gone. And that’s when our evening entertainment, nighttime walks, began. It also was when the canals put on their more formal clothes.

IMG_1465IMG_1466One night, after a dinner in the western part of town that ended at 10:15, we wandered for ten minutes in search of the still-existing house (now the Rembrandt House Museum) where Rembrandt van Rijn lived during much of the 1600s. Eventually we found it. The famed artist lived near the Zwanenburgwaal, a handsome canal. I imagine that the area looks pretty much as it did in Rembrandt’s time. And, no question, it startles at night. There was a fair but quickly fading amount of light in the skies as we strolled around Zwanenbuegwaal and other nearby waterways. The canal waters glimmered, the electric lights from within houses glowed mightily. And we were amazed by a scene that was almost too good to be true, the Moon early in its rise above an assemblage of rooftops and gables. I don’t know if Rembrandt ever painted a waterscape like that, but if he didn’t he should have.

IMG_1478IMG_1480Another post-dinner trek, along a couple of canals not far from our hotel in central Amsterdam, also was gold. This time our walk started under skies that were fully dark. Not too many people were around. And it was quiet. These were conditions that collectively, in a major city, you don’t often run into. I tell you, the vistas were something else. Reflections from house lights in the canal waters looked like cascades of glitter. And the small bridges crossing the canals were lit along their sides like yuletide shrubbery. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Amsterdam is a place where I’d be happy and content as a clam to live.

 

IMG_1388IMG_1389

But it wasn’t only late night outdoors views in Amsterdam that nabbed my attention. Things sometimes got awfully atmospheric indoors too during advanced hours. Usually in restaurants. Our first night in the city, for instance, we had dinner in the middle of town at the cozy Corner House, which serves up some traditional Dutch fare. We had arrived in Amsterdam from Paris with our friends Martine and Alan, and they were at the eatery with us. We all settled in comfortably on that rainy night, soaking up Corner House’s low wattage vibes. The subdued lighting gave the place a charm and magnetism that probably it didn’t have at lunchtime. And after dinner we stepped outside into streets hundreds of years old where, electric lights illuminating the dimness only gingerly, mystery and intrigue cast bigtime spells.

IMG_0787And talking about vibes . . . they don’t come much better than those you get, as midnight approaches, within In De Wildeman. It’s a tavern in a semi-ancient building, and prides itself on its wide selection of beers. A craft beer geek, I went there several times to drink suds from Dutch breweries not named Heineken and Amstel. There are a decent number of them, though most Amsterdam establishments don’t carry them. More’s the pity. In any event, Sandy and I popped into evocatively-lit In De Wildeman, down the block from our hotel, very late on a Wednesday night. The next morning we would fly home, and I wanted to down one last Dutch microbrew before bidding the Netherlands adieu. I did. Sort of. It was a pale ale brewed exclusively for In De Wildeman by The Wild Beer Company. It was delicious. Turns out, though, that Wild Beer’s brewery is located in England, not the Netherlands. Oh well, close enough.

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Monet The Great

Well, I’ve made it to this, the beginning of Part Two of my planned three-part examination of the trip that my wife Sandy and I took to Paris and Amsterdam last month. So far, so good. For those interested, the first installment may be read by clicking right here.

And now it’s time to move past Part Two’s beginning . . . uhhhhhh, we have a problem here, Houston. You mean I need to come up with something to say? Now? What’s that all about? I tell you, this writing business ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

(The author, frustrated and close to tears, is moments away from removing his fingers from his computer’s keyboard. Shortly he will be guzzling several shots of Jack Daniels. Straight.)

Macarons are in the middle of photo.
Macarons are in the middle of photo.
Where's the driver?
Where’s the driver?

OK, I’m back and feeling better. I’m not gonna throw in the towel just yet. A jolt of inspiration whacked me a few minutes ago, and it was more than helpful. “Dummy, what’s the one thing you did in Paris that you liked more than anything else? That’s what you should write about next,” the jolt said to me. Wow, that was an enlightening question and an on-target statement. I put down my shot glass and thought about some possibilities. Seeing that I like being part of the In Crowd, I had to admit that eating macarons, colorful and tasty meringue-filled cookies that are all the rage in Paris, was a nifty experience. So was sitting at the front of one of the driverless Metro trains as it sped down the tracks, wondering how the f**k anybody figured out how to make that concept work.

But neither of them was number one. Nope, number one took place in a museum. And were it not for a blog that I stumbled upon a month or so ago I wouldn’t have been there.

I became a blog surfer at some point last year. Meaning, I get a kick checking out, sort of randomly, the near-infinity of blogs in cyberspace. And what I’ve discovered is that there are an astonishing number of blogs that range in quality from good to superb. Who’d ever have thought that so many perceptive/talented/creative people exist? Hey, it gives me hope. Anyway, I don’t remember the name of the website that I just mentioned stumbling upon, but stumble upon it I did while researching my Paris-Amsterdam expedition. And one of its articles made an impression on me. In it, the writer mentioned once being in Paris and absolutely loving the large canvases of water lilies, painted by Claude Monet, that hang in Musée de l’Orangerie (The Orangerie Museum). I was familiar with various of Monet’s water lily paintings — he churned out more than 200 of them over the years while living at Giverny, a country village about 50 miles from Paris, getting his inspiration from the water lilies that floated in the large pond on his property. But I knew nothing about l’Orangerie or its contents till skimming that article.

And thus when Martine and Alan, our Parisian friends with whom we were staying, asked Sandy and me what we might like to do while in Paris, I said I didn’t have a lot of specifics in mind but maybe l’Orangerie wouldn’t be a bad idea if we happened to be in the area.

Good call, Neil. In fact, a perfect call.

IMG_0548IMG_1335You know, I feel fanboy-ish and unstudied in saying this, but the eight enormous water lily canvases at the Orangerie are among the greatest paintings I ever have seen. Complex, inspiring, bedazzling, calming, mind-expanding, yes they are all of that. And their powers play off one another. Which is why their cumulative force is off the charts, in a contemplative sort of way. Right, right, I’m getting carried away here, but what can I do? I’ll try to calm down.

Monet worked on these paintings for 12 or so years, nearly up to the time of his death, at age 86, in 1926. He donated them to France, wanting them to represent peace and tranquility to a world that needed macro doses of same, as it does today. And he negotiated with the French government for the canvases to be housed in special chambers. Two curved rooms with natural lighting, quiet and elegantly simple, would fit the bill he decided. And he felt that the Orangerie would be a fine spot in which to build those rooms, whose design and construction he oversaw. But he didn’t witness the installation of his giants, which took place the year after he left this world.

IMG_0560IMG_0559Earmarking eight monumental canvases (they are six and a half feet high and average 37 feet in width) for France’s citizens, to be displayed in custom-made quarters, was a grand gesture on Monet’s part, possibly the grandest of his life. When I walked into the two rooms that the works occupy, four per room, I felt as though I were in a sanctuary, a shrine. And I was. Sandy, Alan, Martine and I spent an hour there. These are paintings you can get lost in. I know that I did, and I think the others in my party did too. The canvases are dreamy, amorphous, color-rich yet for the most part muted. Water lilies are depicted on each canvas, but they are only part of the story. Other small vegetation appears. And wispy visions of willow trees float on the four paintings, done in somber shades of violet and purple, that are housed together in one of the rooms.  Still, more than anything the works are dominated by water, sky reflections and, depending on the canvas, bright or nuanced light. All of those components, material and ethereal, are in their glory in the Orangerie’s Monet spaces.

IMG_0547IMG_0550And the paintings verge on abstraction. These are a whole other ballgame from the gorgeous hillside and seaside scenes that Monet, a founder of Impressionism in the 1860s, once painted. Monet’s sense of color, and his feel, are totally recognizable on the large canvases, but the idea of place largely is gone. Purposely. I think that what he was trying harder than ever to do was to distill the natural world, to get to its essences. An incredible endeavor for someone who began the project in his very advanced years. Monet The Great, no doubt.

Not unusual for me, I was late to the party. Obviously. I mean, millions of people know about the Monets at the Orangerie Museum. And swoon over them. A few days ago, for example, my brother mentioned to me that they are his favorite works of art in all of Paris. Ah, what can I say?

Okay, I’ll say this: The Orangerie is brimming with tremendous art besides Monet’s. The many oils there by Chaim Soutine and Maurice Utrillo, two guys you don’t ordinarily see too much by, knocked me out. But Monet is the museum’s heart. A couple of day’s ago, Sandy reminded me of something that popped out of Alan’s mouth after we left l’Orangerie. “I guess we got our Monet’s worth,” he sagely cracked. Truer words were never spoken.

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Fun Times In Paris And Amsterdam: An Overview

We went, we saw, we had a very swell time overall, and then we came home. The end.

There’s something to be said for conciseness, don’t you agree? And maybe if I were more courageous than I am I’d write not another word beyond the 18 contained in the two masterful sentences above. But my fingers, God help them, are itching to type, so I’ll bag that idea for now. In fact, I’m going to try and bite off more than I normally can handle, by turning my wife Sandy’s and my recent visit to Paris and Amsterdam into a three-part blogging extravaganza. I’ve noted before on these pages that I have trouble enough producing one-parters. Wish me luck.

Let’s begin. In many ways I’m a lucky individual. And I don’t take my good fortune for granted. Throughout my adult life, for instance, I’ve done a fair amount of traveling. In the earlier of those years I somehow wandered far and wide with not much more than a few bucks in my pockets. During the last three decades they have been more fully filled with cash (and plastic). Regardless of my financial situation, though, I’ve never ceased to be amazed that I’m able to leave the home environment and rev my motor in other parts of the world. And for my money you can’t do a whole lot better than to frolic in Paris and Amsterdam. Great cities both. Beautiful cities both. And Sandy’s and my week-and-a-half-long sojourn there earlier this month came with a special bonus. Namely, we spent most of the expedition with our très magnifique pals Alan and Martine.

The view from Martine and Alan's guest bedroom.
The view from Martine and Alan’s guest bedroom.

Martine and Alan live in Paris. Have a lovely home in the city’s heart. And they not only put up with us, they put us up. I guess they like us because, after four days of that, they hopped aboard an Amsterdam-bound train with Sandy and me. The four of us spent several days bopping around that canal-laced city until the scheduled time arrived for the Parisians to return home. Alan! Martine! Don’t abandon us! We’ll be lost without you! But Sandy and I showed ’em. Yeah, maybe we stumbled and fumbled a bit, but we sure as shootin’ had three more Amsterdam days heavily sprinkled with fun. Amsterdam, I miss you. A lot.

Now, Sandy and I had been to Paris before. We’d seen most of the must-sees and plenty of the less-noticed sights too, such as the building in which Vincent van Gogh crashed with his brother Theo for two years in the 1880s. This time around we decided to let things flow organically, whatever that means. And to try and spend lots of time just strolling around, taking in the views and vibes in as unpressured a manner as we could. Sure, we couldn’t resist going to a couple of museums (The Orangerie, The Marmottan Monet), and we had a sweet dinner in a quintessentially Parisian eatery (Le Petit Colbert), the type that natives frequent. But walking is what we did the most of. Miles and miles of it. All over central Paris, on both sides of the Seine. And beyond. The entire time, indoors and out, Martine and Alan accompanied us. They are expert tour guides and really, really good sports.

IMG_0523 IMG_0511 What can I say about Paris that hasn’t already been said? Nothing much, pardner. But that won’t stop me. I mean, I’ve got blog stories to create. First, if you haven’t been and have the means, you should go. As everyone knows, Paris’ appeal isn’t simply its gorgeousness . . .  the city is intriguing too. Streets come together at odd angles, a wonderful idea. Many sidewalks are narrow, an example of quaintness of which I approve. And seemingly every block has alluring buildings you’d like to live in, bistros whose tables are just made for sipping espressos beside, and perfect, little shops loaded with foods better than you’re likely to find at home. The pastries, the breads, the cheeses. Did somebody say breads? I live in suburban Philadelphia, and I know of only one place within five miles of my house where I can buy a crusty, flavorful rustic loaf of bread. Yo, when’s the next flight back? I need to be around people who know how to bake the staff of life.

Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Notre Dame Cathedral.
Notre Dame Cathedral.

And there’s a soul-satisfying uniformity in scale and color to much of Paris that I’d forgotten about. Most of Gay Paree’s buildings are from the 1700s and 1800s and about seven levels high and made from beige-colored limestone. Talk about a charming and serenity-inducing look. I couldn’t get enough of it. I wallowed in its aura.

It would be a mistake for me to end my brief Parisian recap without mentioning the big guns for which the city is famed. For starters: The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Seine, the unreally-huge Louvre Museum. To first-time visitors I’d say you’d do well to examine them thoroughly, though, to be honest, you easily could live without stepping foot within the Louvre.

A snap of the fingers later, Sandy and I and our friends found ourselves in Amsterdam. I’d been there about 30 years ago, though my pigeon-like brain has forgotten many details of the experience. Sandy never had been. I’ve got to tell you, this is a place where I’d be happy and content as a clam to live. And the fact that there wouldn’t be a language problem is a plus, as Amsterdammers speak English in addition to their native tongue. I kept looking around and exclaiming to myself and to whomever else in the party was nearby: “I love this city.”

IMG_1401IMG_1463What’s not to love? Amsterdam looks great. Most of the houses, many of which overlook canals, are cozy and cute and entertainingly gabled. Generally they stand five levels above ground and are constructed of bricks. And they are not new, the majority having been erected between 1500 and 1900. I like being in places that look pretty much the same as they did hundred of years ago. And the canals? Man, they crisscross the city gently yet semi-riotously. And their prettiness can not be exaggerated. As in Paris, the four of us walked and walked and walked. Very happily. And when we got tired of walking we climbed aboard Amsterdam’s trams, which make navigating the city a breeze.

 

IMG_0670Amsterdam is relatively compact, meaning that you can make it to pretty much anywhere on foot, though some treks might take you an hour and a half. There aren’t a ton of cars on the streets, and that’s because Amsterdammers are bicycle-crazed. Practically everyone owns a bike and uses it to get around. I’d heard about the bicycle scenario, and it was a gas witnessing it. Bicycles, bicycles everywhere, loads in operation, many more attached to bike racks, bridge railings, trees, you name it. You gotta watch out where you’re going or you might get smacked by a bike. One evening, Martine received a double dose of near-trouble. It’s easy to become distracted by the loveliness surrounding you in Amsterdam, and that’s what happened to her. Stepping off the sidewalk into the narrow street bordering a canal, she nearly got clipped by a car. Half a minute later, at the same spot, a bicyclist almost broadsided her. But I’m giving the wrong impression. Back to Amsterdam’s magnetic powers.

At the zoo.
At the zoo.

The Fearsome Foursome hit some of the famed sites together (Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum) and took a groovy canal boat tour of the city. And after Alan and Martine hightailed it back to Paris, Sandy and I poked around neighborhoods and other spots, such as the city’s botanical gardens and zoo and the Stedelijk Museum, an astonishingly good modern art repository. Then, before we knew it, the time approached for us to head to the airport and return home. But I can’t wind things up without mentioning two subjects: marijuana and prostitutes. Amsterdam is famed for both, as cannabis use and prostitution are legal, within boundaries, in this enlightened and welcoming city. And they undoubtedly help make for an atmosphere real attractive to millennials (residents and visitors alike), who fill Amsterdam’s streets in uncountable numbers.

Now, seeing the prostitutes was kind of cool. They have set up shop on a smallish enclave of blocks in what’s known as the Red Light District, which my group toured on a Sunday afternoon. Barely dressed, the ladies stood in full view behind ground level doors and windows in what I assume used to be normal residences. My eyes, and those of my companions, were popping. Needless to say, I didn’t come close to indulging.

A purveyor of marijuana.
A purveyor of marijuana.

But marijuana was another story. Me, I haven’t had a toke in about 30 years. And boy was I tempted to resume the habit temporarily. After dinner on the day we arrived, Alan and I strode into one of the town’s numerous marijuana parlors, all of which, for reasons I don’t know, are called, incongruously, coffee shops. Alan strictly was an observer. The place looked like a Greenwich Village beatnik hangout. Lights were low, tables were small and occupied, and the air was filled with second-hand marijuana smoke. Inhaling deeply, I started to feel a bit of a buzz. I walked to the counter and sized up what’s what. Gazing at a menu, I saw that various strains of grass were available. The least potent varieties were described as strong. The most powerful were guaranteed to get you incredibly high. Prices for one ounce ranged, I think, from 10 to 15 euros. Not too expensive at all. One of the two girls behind the counter suggested to me that getting stoned after years of abstinence would be a terrific idea. I looked at Alan and pondered the situation. I breathed in the second-hand smoke hungrily. My buzz got slightly stronger. In the end, though, nerd that I am, I chickened out.

To be continued, if the stars align themselves properly.

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(Most photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. The crooked ones are by a nerd whom she knows. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Willy Porter Anchors A Visit To Jim Thorpe, PA

Another weekend has come and gone. It was a good one. The locale: Jim Thorpe, PA. The main reason for being there: Willy Porter, a terrifically talented singer-songwriter and guitarist.

As with Kim Richey, whom I wrote about recently, I’ve known of Willy Porter for years but actually knew almost nothing about him. I’d never seen him perform, couldn’t have named a single song by him. One thing I did know, though, is that he would be at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania on April 25. The idea of visiting Jim Thorpe had been spinning quietly in my head for a couple of years, ever since some good friends of mine told about the fine time they’d had there. My wife and I recently were thinking about nabbing a weekend getaway, and at seventy miles Jim Thorpe isn’t too far from where we live. But our visit would need an anchor, a strong reason for going. To wit, Willy Porter. Something told me he’d put on a good show, and I was right.

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

Jim Thorpe is a cute town nestled in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. From the early 1800s until 1930 or so it was a prosperous place, a cog for coal mining and railroad industries. Its name then was Mauch Chunk, derived from a Native American language. Over time, there came to be not only Mauch Chunk, but also the adjacent town of East Mauch Chunk. As coal mining in the area dwindled in the 1900s, both Chunks’ fortunes headed south. People and money left. Town leaders had a plan, though a very odd plan, to try and reverse the decline. It revolved around Jim Thorpe, the celebrated Native American athlete who died in 1953.

Jim Thorpe lived in California at the time of his death, but was a native Oklahoman. His burial was to be in Oklahoma. It seems, though, that Oklahoma had trouble raising money for a Thorpe memorial, something that his family wanted. His widow Patricia somehow had heard that the two Chunks were looking for an economic boost. So, she and the towns’ officials made a deal. Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged and became Jim Thorpe. Town leaders hoped that the new name would prove a draw for businesses and tourists, a pretty wifty notion if you ask me.  Jim’s remains were transported to the newly-christened community, which built a memorial to him. Possibly Patricia was paid for all of this. The details are quite cloudy.

I doubt if the name change helped business grow at all, but during the last 20 or more years Jim Thorpe has become one of those places that people like to visit. With its old fashioned look as key, it has evolved into an artsy, craftsy and happily hippyish town. Bed and breakfast establishments have blossomed. The historic district is small but well-preserved, with strings of nice neat 19th century structures on twisting and narrow streets. Jim Thorpe is close to beautiful areas where you can hike, bike and water raft. But if you aren’t overly jazzed by those activities, then a one night stay, or even a day trip, is all you need. We arrived on April 25 and left the next day.

The highlight of our excursion was indeed Willy Porter. We also enjoyed walking around town checking out the architectural details and the town’s surrounding mountains, though that becomes old pretty fast as a steady pace will bring you from one end of the historic district to the other in eight minutes. But the addition of an excellent restaurant dinner, a bit of shopping,  and a tour of the Asa Packer Mansion made the weekend worthwhile, as did The Parsonage, the comfy B&B where we landed.

Willy Porter and Carmen Nickerson at Mauch Chunk Opera House
Willy Porter and Carmen Nickerson at Mauch Chunk Opera House

If you are a fan of good singer-songwriters, then Willy Porter is your man. His subjects often are love and personal freedom, and he peers at them intelligently from a spectrum of angles. One of many tunes that had me head-bopping was the Caribbean-flavored Elouise, a gentle love song that put me in mind of artists such as James Taylor, Jack Johnson and Martin Sexton.

If you are a fan of singer-songwriters who do more with their guitars than simple strumming, then Willy is totally your man. His abilities on amplified acoustic guitar made my jaw drop. He can play pretty much any which way he wants, and often had several harmonious interweaving lines going at the same time. Think Leo Kottke or Michael Hedges.

Willy was on stage for over two hours. Carmen Nickerson, his vocal accompanist, added depth and deft atmospherics to the mix. The funky Mauch Chunk Opera House, occupying its site in town since 1882, was another plus. Porter, a nationally-touring musician, has played there many times, becoming a Poconos fixture.

Food? Don’t miss Moya, a stylish and casual restaurant on Race Street. Before the Porter concert, my wife and I both ordered crab cakes, which came with a wonderful cilantro sauce. Delicious. Dessert, a shared crème brulee, was rich and vanilla loaded, and was served at the correct temperature, warm instead of piping hot. I’m always in search of beers I haven’t had before, and I found a great one at Moya, the Fort Collins Brewery’s very hoppy and dry Rocky Mountain IPA.

Asa Packer Mansion
Asa Packer Mansion

Well-presented history? Take the tour of the Asa Packer Mansion. Asa Packer’s name has been substantially lost in the mists of time, but he was a rich and powerful man in the 1800s, a railroad magnate and founder of Lehigh University. He lived in the mansion with his wife and several children from 1861 until his passing in 1879, and it continued to be the Packer home until 1912, the year in which his last surviving child, Mary, died at age 73. Mary left the house and its contents to Mauch Chunk. Everything there today is pretty much intact from that date.

Now, house tours can be kind of a snooze, but this one wasn’t. The home is full of lovely objects, and the tour guides are lively and make Packer history interesting. I especially liked the gorgeous but modest stained glass windows in the dining room and second floor landing. They stood out in a house dominated by various shades of brown.