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Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways

Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: An Iranian 'Idyll'--Part I PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith 

The world is a bride of surpassing beauty--but remember that this maiden is never bound to anyone.

--Hafiz (1325-1389) 

May 13, 2015:  I am nervously awaiting my Turkish Airlines flight to Tehran at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. We're boarding. I pass a man in business class who is holding an itinerary for the same group trip I will be on. I nod at him and continue to my seat in the rear. 

Touching down in Tehran, I fussily try to put on my head scarf, revealing as little hair as possible, while clutching my short black raincoat in a fashion to reveal as few curves as I have left, then exit the plane. 

Immigration goes without a hitch, almost. My agent beckons for me to stand aside. 

What is this about? She then accompanies me to an office nearby, where I am handed over to another official. I see my business class friend ahead, similarly asked to wait.  

We have been told in advance that the last trip sponsored by my group had included a member who had failed to disclose that she was a journalist for an Israeli newspaper, and, by publishing a controversial story, had caused potential headaches for our group. So we are somewhat prepared for adversity. 

Anxiety passes as my fellow traveler and I are cleared; we collect our baggage, meet our guide, and are transported smoothly to our hotel. It is now late afternoon and we are free until the morrow. 

My hotel room is a perfectly adequate city space. The bathroom contains a peculiar expandable, detachable, garden-hose-like water line next to the toilet, which will turn out to be quite crucial in the following days. The TV has mostly Iranian channels but also includes the BBC. Internet comes and goes. I can get the New York Times and my email but not Facebook, Twitter, or other more trashy sites I, in my shameless degradation, am accustomed to follow. The phone system is incompatible with any that my iPhone recognizes, so calls, other than via Skype, are out. 

My towels, two large and two small, are each hygienically wrapped in plastic. Resorting to teeth-ripping, I free them and bathe. 

Now it is time for dinner, so I stumble down to the rather drab lobby coffee shop, where I consume a bowl of tomato soup, glance at my very few, somewhat glum, fellow diners, pay the check, and go to bed. 

Tomorrow, as it turns out, will be quite another day.

Author's note:  This series of articles is not meant to be a political or journalistic juggernaut. Rather, it will be limited to the impressions I had as a tourist. Any information included represents only known facts or my personal observations and is not based on anything I was told on my travels through Iran. I am intentionally leaving out the name of my tour group.

Pictured here:  Former US embassy in Tehran. 

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Tracing the Toilette PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

Apr. 22, 2015:  I found myself in Paris the other day, and, Louvred-out, I decided to visit the Musée Marmottan Monet, located in a lovely residential area north of the Etoile. The museum is the repository of, inter alia, the largest collection of Claude Monet's works in the world, given to it by his son in 1966.

The museum was also the site of a daring, opening-hours robbery in 1985, during which nine Monets, a Renoir, and a Morisot, with an estimated value of $12 million, were stolen. International investigation led dramatically to Japan's Yakuza and the eventual recovery of the art works.

Uninterrupted by any criminal activity, I was there to see the temporary exhibit titled La toilette, naissance de l’intime, or, in translation, The Invention of Privacy. To start out on the right foot, it is important to understand the word "toilette" to mean those things accompanying the daily preparation of the female body, including washing, brushing, applying makeup, and the like.

Using artwork through the centuries, the exhibit reflects changing notions of the toilette's role in life. The viewer is told that public baths were common in the Middle Ages. But with the coming of the Renaissance, such practices became considered dangerous and unclean. Only the elite continued to wash in their own capacious tubs. A tapestry of the period shows a young woman bathing, surrounded by her maids and musicians.

By the 17th century, no one was taking baths, out of a concern that the water would interfere with the body's humors. In its place, at least for the high born, was the literal toilette, a table covered with a tapestry on which rested oils and unguents to be used for the ritual. Linen cloths took the place of water, and bedding was changed frequently. A portrait of a servant girl of the time, who apparently was not so fortunate, shows her picking out lice from her abdominal region.

The 18th century marks a return of water, to be used privately as the first stage of the toilette, followed by a more public grooming. Paintings from the era also show a new eroticism. While women are shown at their toilette, men repair to their dens, on the walls of which are somewhat scabrous pictures of young women, while beautifully dressed, cleansing their more private areas.

In the 19th century, full privacy of the toilette arrives. Women are pictured only brushing their hair and finishing their dressing. The year 1850 brings the advent of running water and daily washing. Some houses have only a single tap from which the water is transported to a tub elsewhere in the residence. But in the prudish spirit of the Victorian era, pictures of washing are limited to the feet or other remote parts of the body.

Near the end of the century, Edgar Degas and Pierre Bonnard depict women lolling alone in their baths, lost in thought, which the exhibit describes as moving toward a more enigmatic and private identity.

Next, Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger transmute the human form from earthy flesh into geometric shapes.

And finally, after World War I, the rise of Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein, and others commercializes makeup for all. Photography of the toilette follows and universalizes the process, bringing to an end the mysterious notion of the toilette and its subject for artists.

Pictured here:  Painting by Abraham Bosse, 1604-1676, one in a collection titled Five Senses.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Stumped at Stonehenge PDF Print Email


Written by Adrienne Smith

Mar. 25, 2015: If you're a Chevy Chase fan, as I am, you must remember the wonderful scene in European Vacation when, on a visit to Stonehenge, he inadvertently leans against a stone, and the whole shebang comes crashing down like a bunch of children's blocks.

Well, I'm here to tell you that the British organization (being very British here) does not let Joe tourist get anywhere near the stones except on special days of the year, the summer and winter solstices and the two equinoxes, when the sun casts its particular shadow. So fear not!

While in London, I decided I needed to take at least one day-trip, so, getting up early, which was not at all easy because of the time change, I hopped on a tour bus that took me to Bath and then on to Stonehenge.

Remarkably soon after leaving the city, the landscape turned attractively pastoral, and I enjoyed myself being allowed to do nothing for an agreeable hour and a half. Arriving in Bath, we were turned loose for a whole hour to take in its wonders. I hiked to the world-famous Roman baths, dating to the first century AD, giving testimony to the breadth of their empire across Europe and over to Britain. The city itself, set as it is in a deep, verdant valley, is totally charming, and were it not for the unspeakably short time I was there, I could have whiled away many happy hours.

Back on the bus, we rode for, perhaps, another hour to Stonehenge. Espied from the distance, it doesn't look like much, but, as we closed in, it took on more magical characteristics. We had to debus a half-mile or so from the site, next to a rather curious new visitor center that opened in late 2013, to take an official bus the rest of the way, past normal-looking farmlands populated by cud-chewing cows.

And then we were there. Happily, as it was late in the day, there weren't great gaggles of tourists, so I was actually able to get some "personless" shots with my trusty iPhone from the mandatory pedestrian path that circled the rocks.

Now, just in case you don't know Stonehenge's backstory, here goes. Construction of wood-lined, recessed concentric circles around the present-day site may date back to as early as 3000 BC. The introduction of stones, often weighing as much as 25 tons, probably dates to the period 2500-2000 BC, no small feat for those Mesolithic times.

Numerous excavations of the site over the years have discovered large numbers of animal and human bones, suggesting that the spot was used for burials. But, in general, mystery surrounds Stonehenge, for there is no written record of its purpose. Some believe it to be an astronomical calendar because, for instance, two of the center stones align with the sun at the summer solstice. Others see it as a place for mystical religious rites.

Things can also get a little nutty. In researching for this piece, I found that the former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who is not always known for his clear thinking, had sent a "message to the Red Planet" while visiting there with his family.

Fortunately, no sneaky Chevy-Chase-like visitor can inflict harm, because, over the years, careful restoration has bolstered the sometimes-tenuous joints between the stones as well as slightly repositioning tilting rocks.

It's worth a visit for the camera shot alone, but you might want to go independently so you don't have that 45-minutes-and-back-on-the-bus routine I endured.

Pictured here: A view of Stonehenge.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Living the Life in London PDF Print Email

Written by Adrienne Smith


Mar. 11, 2015: A few weeks ago, I flew out of New York for a London homestay after successful holidays on a houseboat in Amsterdam and a Paris logis.

I booked through an established website, from an owner with a stylish hyphenated name, who, prior to my arrival, sent me a somewhat daunting multipage set of instructions regarding the care and feeding of the place.

Taking a day flight to London, I opted to stay in a hotel my first night so that I would not have to deal with new complexities upon my nighttime arrival.

Leaping up the next morning, I closed my as-always massive suitcase and bounded into the Underground for a quick trip to South Kensington. I then dragged said impedimenta more than a few blocks to my intended address.

On arrival I found to my dismay that the ringer for my flat had been dismantled and that a box supposedly holding a key to the place was nowhere in sight. Stories I had read about places rented to multiple lessees simultaneously and vacation spots that turned out to be vacant lots swirled around in my head. Now what? I rang every doorbell in the building to no avail. I pounded on the front door, I cursed the gods. Nothing.

At last, an angel of mercy in the form of a housekeeper from the basement apartment appeared and beckoned me to a subterranean lockbox, the code for which had been emailed to me previously. Using said magical combination, the keys were mine.

However, this was but my first challenge. I had failed to register that my apartment was a fifth-floor walkup. Pulling what might as well have been a dead adult body up all the flights, two of which were treacherously winding and narrow, was a Herculean feat, after which I had to do a full body check for herniations.

Opening the apartment door, I was met by a simple but charming main room, kitchenette, bathroom with tub, and a red-painted spiral staircase leading to a loft bed overhung with a glorious skylight.

Resolving never to go down the stairs again because I would then have to reascend them, I set about familiarizing myself with the place. Flat screen TV with billions of channels? Check. Dishwasher? Check. A small clothes washer, with interestingly built-in dryer? Check. What more could a girl need?

Soaked with perspiration from my exertions, I decided to bathe. But turning on the spigots, I could find nothing warmer than tepid water. Going back to my voluminous instructions, I read that both the hot water and the heat were regulated by a thermostat, which could be overridden for an hour at a time when needed. So climbing the stairs to the loft where the controls were located, I spent an hour mulling over the options provided, wishing throughout that I had gone to MIT.

Then back to the tub. Still no hot water, but at least it wasn't cold. So necessarily hasty ablutions followed.

Now about the spiral staircase. It put the spiral in "spiral." If I had weighed 20 pounds more, I could have lodged myself in it partway up, only to be found, vilely decayed, when the next renter appeared. With various twists and turns, I was able to negotiate the ups and downs, but, during my stay, I determined it prudent not to heed the call of nature in the night lest my crumpled body be found on or near the floor below.

Despite these little hiccups, I had a ball. As I woke up in the morning and gazed out through the skylight, multiform clouds and Heathrow-bound airplanes danced by. The TV had Law & Order and Criminal Minds. The washer/dryer really washed and dried, although the total time necessary for one load approximated the length of my one-week rental.

But best of all was the South Kensington area itself. A little Bronxville, with far more diversity, was right outside my door. Grocery stores, cleaners, apothecary, cupcake shops, Indian, Lebanese, and Italian restaurants all beckoned. The Tube itself took me in minutes all over London.

I had the best of all worlds, a fabulous city outside and the comforts of home within. However, before I rent next time, I will work on my aerobic capacity.

Pictured here: Author navigating the spiral staircase.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Mayhem and Maris PDF Print Email

Written by Adrienne Smith

Feb. 18, 2015: One of the great things about traveling is that, on occasion, you learn about something that wasn't on your horizon but that ended up resonating profoundly with you.

This is exactly what happened in Fargo. I was irresistibly drawn to North Dakota's largest city by my love of the 1996 movie of the same name. All of the "you betchas," combined with gory scenes of mayhem, delighted me. 

So you can imagine how disappointed I was to discover while there that, other than a brief opening bar scene, the whole movie had actually been shot in Minnesota. In addition, the current TV series, except for one episode, has been filmed in Winnipeg, Canada.

The one redemptive part of this is that the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau has on prominent display the actual wood chipper from the movie, complete with artificial leg sticking out, as we lawyers like to say, therefrom, on loan from the dolly grip for the film.

The bureau distributes a brochure detailing the provenance of the chipper and includes the actual recipe for the blood and gore produced in the epic scene, to wit: RV antifreeze, red Kool-Aid, a box of strawberry Jell-O, and hunks of meat from a butcher. Lovely!

But, surprisingly, what touched me the most was a visit to the Roger Maris Museum, housed somewhat inelegantly in the city's West Acres Mall.

Growing up somewhat under-challenged academically in Bronxville, I watched endless Yankees games on TV and, in the fifth grade, yearned futilely to have Mickey Mantle come to my birthday party. Fargo's pride, Roger Maris, never grabbed me the same way Mickey did. But the Maris Museum changed all that.

Through glass-enclosed exhibits and multiple short film clips, the museum brings to life the 1961 drama as Maris closes in on and eventually surpasses Babe Ruth's 60-home-run record. The clips show Maris as an intensely private man, who hated the glare of publicity. They also show the drama of the contest, as Maris fails to hit his 60th* in the 154th game of the season, thus falling short of Ruth's literal record, but then hitting his 60th and, in the last game of the season, his 61st, in a period extended by necessity because of league expansion.

The museumgoer sees a man married to his high school sweetheart, devoted to his six children, uncomfortable in the glare of New York publicity, and, finally, a victim of an early death at age 51.

The exhibit also deals with the controversy about his record and his failure to be admitted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. 

John Corry mentioned Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick in his recent article about Bronxville in 1965. Frick, a friend of the then-deceased Babe Ruth, announced that, if Maris broke Ruth's record, the new record would be recorded with a "mark" showing the difference in number of season games. Of course, this might be considered moot, first, because baseball had no official record book at the time, and, second, because three batters, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds, at least two of whom (if you get my drift) were found to have used steroids, have surpassed Maris's record.

The second issue is the failure to elect Maris to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This is a man who, in 1960, hit a single, a double, and two home runs in his first game with the Yankees and who, at the end of the season, was named the American League's Most Valuable Player, received the MVP award again the next year, was selected for and played in four All-Star games, played on seven World Series teams, including three championship ones, and beat Ruth's record.

The press's dislike for him, his reticence taken for hostility, figures largely in his exclusion, together with numerous career injuries that limited his at-bats and an under-.300 lifetime batting average. Maris himself stated, "I'll leave the Hall of Fame to the geniuses that vote on it. I will never get in. I have always known that. I will not argue with you about why or why not I should be elected. . . . It's like getting burned. You never get rid of the scars."

The Hall of Fame has a Golden Era Committee to reconsider unadmitted players from the period 1947 to 1972. Starting in 2010, they have voted every three years on ten candidates picked by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Maris has never even been on the ballot.

A sad story!

*My own "mark." Maris hit his 60th home run in fewer season at-bats than Ruth did.

Pictured here: Wood chipper from the movie Fargo and movie poster in Fargo, North Dakota.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

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