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Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways

Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Dining Delights PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

May 25, 2016:  I’m sure we all have had the occasional unpleasant experience in restaurants: surly waiters, untoward delays, less-than-delicious food.

But something triggered my remaining neurons the other day when the Washington Post reported a tragic story of abused customers at a Chinese restaurant in Arlington, VA.

It seems that a tableful of plaid-attired customers had objected to the way their rice was presented, communally rather than individually, which led their servers to present the final bill accompanied by a slur against their sartorial choices and a suggestion that one member of the group had a deficient member.

The owner of the restaurant, one Peter Chang, in a remarkable display of courage, fired four of the employees involved, including his own daughter.

Why, you ask, would this ring a bell for me?

Well, a month ago, I was in the Williamsburg, VA, area, alone, where, after an extensive tour of the historic property, it came time for lunch. For some unexplained reason, I felt I needed to eat Chinese. And what popped up as the best place around? None other than a local branch of, yes, Peter Chang.


But not so fast. Going to their website, I read what started out as impressive credentials guaranteeing good eats: "award winning" (sic), THE chef at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, etc. Nice enough.

But this was followed with multiple descriptions of how Mr. Chang had “disappeared” from various positions he had held, including the DC gig. He had apparently worked at a restaurant in Fairfax, VA, but was gone by the time a favorable review was published, followed by yet another unexplained departure from a second location. He popped up in Georgia the next year, only to “disappear” again, to reappear at a new spot, leaving that after only a few days.

Although he is now his own boss at several locations, it seems rather clear that this man needs lithium, both because of his inconstancy and, more important, because he writes about it.

Needless to say, I settled for a quick burger somewhere else.

But this brief trip down memory lane reminded me of when restaurants are their worst enemies.

We had an excruciating experience at the Batik Room in the Mauna Kea Hotel when, after two hours of waiting for our main course, we were told that the chef had quit. At another hotel on the Big Island, the very positive waitress insisted that she could keep track of our orders without writing them down, only to bring a jumble of unwanted food. And then there was the time in Knoxville, where the waiter at a faux-French establishment made a great flourish of pouring my after-dinner coffee from an astounding height, only to miss the cup and deposit said liquid in my lap.

Even worse, some places exude hostility. I dined with my delightful cousin at a restaurant in Beaufort, SC, where each table had a neatly folded card stating, I kid you not, "We cannot separate checks. No food substitutions. No free refills on any drink. Bread is served EXCLUSIVELY with Appetizers. Olive oil, Balsamic Vinegar & Parmigiano are served with the appropriate items only." As you can imagine, this works up your gastric juices to a fever pitch.

And I will close with an incident most recent in the pantheon of potential insults. On a Concordia College trip to Turkey a few years ago, we stayed in an above-sea resort somewhere in the country, sharing our extensive buffet meals with what appeared to be impoverished elderly English pensioners. On each table was a warning that anyone removing food from the enormous dining room would be apprehended and fined (or words to that effect). The potential for criminal "charges" made for worrisome dining lest a roll or piece of fruit "accidentally" fall into my bag.

So mangiamangia!

Pictured here:  Peter Chang restaurant.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Brügge and Bruegel PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

Apr. 27, 2016:  Bruges, glorious Bruges! The next stop on my Belgian itinerary, where I stayed in a lovely one-bedroom apartment in a converted warehouse in the center of Brügge, its more-used, Flemish name.

Brügge's main square, complete with its climbable belfry, is, perhaps, the best-preserved Renaissance locale in Europe and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The city was a major center of trade and finance from the 12th to the 15th century and was home to what was reputedly the first stock exchange in the world. However, access to the city via a river to the sea was slowed by accumulation of silt, and, despite a limited rebirth in the 17th century as a lace center, it suffered a major decline.

Happily, Brügge was revitalized by comprehensive restoration in the 1960s, and now it plays host to more than two million visitors a year, who pass their days in a multitude of hotels, inns, and B&Bs, while dining in the many excellent restaurants scattered through the area.

Known as, at last, a Venice of the North, it is set among numerous canals in whose waters the stunning buildings abutting them are magically reflected as one strolls around the city at night.

If a trip there is not in the cards, I suggest watching the rollicking 2009 comedy-drama In Bruges, set mostly in the central square, and featuring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes, and a cantankerous dwarf. For the more traditional, The Nun's Story, one of Audrey Hepburn's favorite movies, was partially shot there.

For those existing on a slightly less cultured plane, you might be fascinated to know that Eva Longoria's basketball-playing, very brief husband, Tony Parker, was born there.

However, the highlight of my stay was a visit to the Sint-Janshospitaal, which has been converted into a museum, to see an exhibition titled Bruegel’s Witches.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/1530-1569) is renowned as one of the finest Flemish painters. The exhibition takes off from two of his prints, within which are first-time representations of witches stirring cauldrons by fireplaces. Prior to this time, the occasional painter had depicted specks of witches flying through the air on broomsticks, but Bruegel added to the symbolic repertoire.

Why, you ask, is this significant? The answer is that from the 15th to the 17th century, Europe was seized with a witch-hunting mania, much of it centered in the Low Countries, which included what is now Belgium and The Netherlands.

It has been estimated that somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people were executed at the stake or by hanging, following confessions forced by torture. Although most victims were women, men and even children were not exempt.

Theories abound as to why this frenzy occurred, an obsession that might have seemed more likely in the Middle Ages than in these Early Modern times. Among the considerations were the printing of Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches), made accessible to readers by the then-recent invention of the printing press, a papal bull issued by Pope Innocent VIII acknowledging the existence of witches and granting authority to eliminate them, the sectarian conflicts resulting from the Reformation itself, and a long period of crop-damaging cold known as the Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1560 to 1660.

In addition, wizened old women, especially those who behaved erratically, could become easy prey to explain local disasters and deaths, even infertility and impotence.

Because Brügge at the time of Bruegel had become a printing center, his prints were widely distributed, and, as the exhibition demonstrates, became a hallmark, incorporated by numerous other artists, many of whose works have been collected for the show.

So Brügge is a place for wandering, for wonderful food, including endless variations of steamed mussels, and culture. Consider going there, but try to make it off-season, as the summer months are jam-packed.

Pictured here:  Bruges at night.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Baffled by Belgium PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

Apr. 6, 2016:  I've been thinking a lot about Brussels, both because of the strong reactions to my last write-up and because, on further examination, I learned how incredibly complicated Belgium's, and Brussels', present-day political situation is.

Belgium as a political entity dates back to post-Napoleonic times when, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, it became a part of Holland. However, fifteen years later, it seceded, taking with it its colonial empire in Africa.

Skipping 185 years, Belgium is now a country divided by language and, to some extent, by ethnic origin. The majority of its population of 11.35 million, 59% to be exact, are Dutch-speaking Flemish people, residing primarily in northern Belgium. Most of the rest, the Walloons, speak French and are found in the south and constitute a majority in Brussels itself. Of course, many people speak both languages, some also speak English, and there is a small German-speaking population.

Unfortunately, the Flemish and the Walloons do not all get along. In fact, some Flemish politicians would like to divide the country in two.

Belgium almost had a constitutional crisis starting in the 2010 elections, when none of the seven main Flemish parties and five main French parties received a majority of the votes. It took 541 record-setting days (surpassing the former record-holder, Iraq) for negotiations to create a coalition to govern the country, a country whose motto is "Strength through Unity."

The country is a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral federal parliament consisting of a senate and a chamber of representatives. The executive is headed by the prime minister and includes a cabinet of ministers, an equal number from each of the two main linguistic communities. The central government's powers include the conduct of foreign policy, taxation, defense, and social security.

In an effort to ease tensions between the less-economically advantaged Flemish and the Walloons, the country's constitution was amended a number of times in recent years. As a result, Belgium is officially divided into three governmental regions, to wit, Flanders in the north, Wallonia in the south, and Brussels-Capital Region, an enclave within Flanders, and, if you're still with me, four linguistic regions, including the three areas just mentioned and a German-speaking area that is a small part of Wallonia on the German border. All of these regions are granted some form of autonomy.

Flanders has one assembly; Wallonia, two; and, although you may despair at this point, Brussels-Capital Region has incredibly complex layers of government. First, it has its own parliament, primarily dominated by Flemish representatives. Then there is a French-speaking parliament and a Council of the Flemish Community, which come together in the United Assembly of the Common Community Commission. Some representatives also serve in more than one entity.

At this point you may think that this is a delayed April Fools' joke.  But, alas, it is not.

Brussels-Capital Region also has a minister-president, always French-speaking, four other ministers, divided 2-2 among the linguistic groups, three state secretaries, one of which must be Flemish, and a governor.

Brussels-Capital Region is divided into 19 municipalities, of which Brussels Ville (City of Brussels) is the largest, with a 2015 population of about 176,000, living within 12.6 square miles. The smallest municipality is 0.4 square miles, and the smallest population is 21,500. The terrorist brothers who wreaked mayhem at the Brussels Airport were from a municipality called Molenbeek-Saint Jean.

"Stop!" you say. But each municipality has its own mayor, council, and executive. These officials are charged with responsibility for education, law enforcement, and the like.

This all leads in to the question of why Belgium, and, more particularly, Brussels, have become a haven for the disaffected.

Until fairly recently, Belgium's immigration and naturalization laws were fairly liberal. It received a large influx of people from other parts of Europe, from its former African colonies, most particularly Morocco, and countries like Turkey.

Because Belgium doesn't keep records by race and religion, unpacking the percentage of its originally foreign population can only really be done by country. Add to this, naturalization obscures local origin. But it has been estimated that almost 70% of Brussels itself is populated by people born outside the country, a much higher figure than for Belgium as a whole.

Language barriers for immigrants, combined with high youth unemployment, make for the kind of social problems we have recently seen. The New York Times reported even before the terrorism event that the mayor of Molenbeek-Saint Jean had been given a list of more than 80 suspected Islamic terrorists to monitor by Belgian security, together with a total of $42,000 to deal with the problem. Included on the list were the two brothers who blew themselves up at the Brussels Airport. Said the mayor about the task, "What was I supposed to do about them? It is not my job to track possible terrorists."

The article described the impossibly complex chain of command that Brussels must wend its way through to deal with terrorism, including the three parliaments, the 19 local councils, the two intelligence services, military and civilian, a so-called threat assessment unit, and six local police agencies within Brussels-Capital Region, as well as a federal police service. The article went on to say that Belgium is often referred to as "the world's most prosperous failed state." Most haunting in this enumeration is that it was written on November 24, 2015, almost four months before the terrorist attacks!

Pictured here:  Brussels streetscape.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Bemused in Brussels PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

Mar. 23, 2016:  I woke up yesterday morning to news of bombings throughout Brussels. This really hit home, for, you see, I was there three weeks ago and came back with some negative feelings.

You, my readers, know that I enthuse about almost every place I write about, but, for some reason, Brussels left me literally and figuratively cold.

I decided to stay in the city for four days on my way to a longer sojourn in the hauntingly lovely Bruges. The hotel I chose, Hôtel des Galeries, was a wonderful boutique hotel with its own gourmet restaurant. But its location came to symbolize the divisiveness that is the area.

If, exiting the hotel, I turned to the right onto the rue des Bouchers, I was greeted by a long line of second-rate restaurants, whose employees, in very un-European fashion, practically grabbed me to try their cooking, all a bit like walking through the cosmetics counters in New York's Saks Fifth Avenue. It was so unpleasant that I made every effort to circumvent the area.

If, instead, I turned left, I came almost instantly to one of the most charming areas in Brussels, the Galerie du Roi, a marvelous Victorian covered shopping alley, open at both ends, and loaded with luxury shops, primarily selling gourmet chocolates for which the country is famous. 

Beyond my immediate vicinity, the city itself was surprisingly bleak. Uninspired gray, institutionally designed buildings lined the streets. Nothing like Paris. Nor did the people walking the streets exude any kind of Parisian elegance. Yes, there was a pleasant art museum, a part of which was closed, and numerous Art Nouveau buildings, one of which I toured after standing in a cold rain outside for almost an hour. 

But what I did spend a great deal of time in were the railroad stations servicing the city. The Gare Centrale was a few blocks from my hotel, more a suburban and metro outlet than a full-service hub, but handy for my day-trip out to Antwerp. 

More like one of our stations, the Gare du Midi is the location for international and some domestic destinations. I took a Thalys train to Paris from there on an ill-advised day-trip as well as the Eurostar to London. 

Let me tell you about the Gare du Midi. It's quite huge, the station itself, along with many boutiques and food outlets, at ground level, and escalators and stairs up one level to the actual train tracks. It's completely open at both ends, so, on the day I went to Paris, when, unfortunately, an electrical problem at a key station messed up all train schedules, I logged a significant amount of time waiting for my trains.

Because of the station's open-air design, it was extremely cold inside. Add to this that, on my return from Paris, awaiting a train to Bruges, I had to spend a late-evening hour and a half there.

Most of the people in the terminal appeared to be going nowhere, and I felt somewhat uncomfortable. They were of mixed ethnicity, the result of Belgium's unfortunate colonial heritage. In addition, large groups of drunken lads roamed around, tossing empty beer bottles and otherwise disrupting what little peace there was. Police presence was quite minimal, nothing like what we find at Grand Central, and the few there seemed to turn a blind eye to the disorder in the station.

In fact, for a city that was at that time most probably the hideout of the number-one terrorist in Europe, it struck me as somewhat strange that security was so lax both at the station and throughout Brussels. In contrast, Paris had been teeming with police presence, including machine-gun-carrying personnel at the Gare du Nord and on the Champs-Elysées.

Have I made you eager to book a trip to Brussels? Probably not. But what I saw on a very superficial level may somewhat suggest what occurred yesterday morning. It's just terrible!

Pictured here:  Galerie du Roi in Brussels.

Photo by Adrienne Smith


Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Flying through Florence PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

Feb. 24, 2016:  I was traveling through Florence the other day. No, not that one. Florence, Arizona. On a whim, I had left it to my car navigation system to choose a route from my apartment in Tucson to the airport in Phoenix. And, rather than taking me, as I was accustomed, via the rather monotonous Interstate, I found myself traversing starkly beautiful cactus-laden countryside. That is, until I arrived in Florence.

Let me start by saying that, although Florence is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and despite the fact that its male population outnumbers its female members by a whopping 2 to 1 ratio, I would not suggest that a young woman eager to marry move there.

For, you see, Florence is the home of an enormous Arizona state prison complex, including its death row, as well as a few privately run institutions for illegal immigrants awaiting hearings and deportation.

As you drive into town, you see masses of barbed wire, unpleasantly stark motel-like cellblocks, and signs galore warning motorists not to linger. You also see orange-clad prisoners outside shooting baskets and engaging in other hopefully nonviolent sports.

Several years ago the town leaders, in an effort to make the non-incarceration areas more appealing, hired consultants, who advised them to erect signage directing passersby to turn off the highway before coming upon the complex from either direction, and, it appears, to take down the signs warning motorists not to pick up hitchhikers, despite the fact that the typical ride seeker probably has a few bright orange vestments in his wardrobe.

The historic area is a bit forlorn. No movie theater, no grocery store until recent years. But the town is paid $210 per inmate per year, and with that bounty, it has financed, inter alia, the town hall, the library, a skateboard park, and the high school's electronic scoreboard.

But back to the prison. One unit, which I believe I circled, houses prisoners on death row, members of certain designated Arizona gangs, and other detainees who have proven to be unusually fractious. You would be well advised to avoid falling into those categories, because the ACLU brought suit against the state alleging that conditions there constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU cited the windowless, tiny cells, lack of adequate health care, very little human contact, and, sometimes, only two meals a day. The state eventually agreed to some quality-of-life modifications.

Capital punishment has been on and off and on again at the prison, which is the only place in the state where executions are held. At first, the manner was by hanging, but when the head of the first woman to be executed became separated from her body, public outcry ended that technique. Next was the use of toxic gas. The first prisoners to so return to their makers were two brothers, executed in tandem. Now prisoners can elect gas or lethal injection.

But for those opposed to capital punishment, as I am, do not be overly concerned. The average time between sentencing and execution for those dispatched post-1992 is 17.44 years, leaving plenty of time to exhaust every possible legal remedy.

In what might be considered possible bad taste, the Arizona Department of Corrections website includes for each prisoner executed his choice of a last meal. One guy, on the more reasonable end of the spectrum, requested a meatball sandwich, French fries, corn on the cob, cranberry sauce (ask not), apple pie, and a vanilla shake. Another fellow, somewhat sadly, asked modestly for two cookies.

For anyone who cares to become more intimately involved with a prisoner, I found, during my extensive research, that you can go to to select an incarcerated buddy, winnowing the field by selecting gender, age, birth year (doesn't age take care of that?), sexual orientation, category, including death row, and, perhaps most important, release date.

So, the next time you don't have quite enough money to venture across the Atlantic, think of our own Florence, where you can while away the time at the Blue Mist Hotel for a mere $65 a night.

Pictured here:  Arizona state prison complex in Florence, Arizona.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

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