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Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways

Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways



Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: A Need for North Dakota PDF Print Email

Written by Adrienne Smith

Feb. 4, 2015: North Dakota? Why North Dakota? These were the questions I fielded when I announced my intention of spending a few days in this "exotic" locale. My choice seemed entirely rational, as it was the only remaining state in our federal union that I had not visited. But why in the winter? Well, after seeing the bleak, snow-infused scenes in the 1996 movie Fargo, it seemed only right to go there when winter was at its peak.

So, packing every warm item I could think of in my ever-trusty, continuously overweight bag, I flew to Minneapolis via Las Vegas (which is an entirely separate story) and drove the 240 miles from there to ND’s largest city, Fargo, itself. The weather did not entirely oblige. Snow fell in brief, dramatic outbursts, but MN and ND highway departments seemed to know how to keep abreast of the storm. It was, however, with great relief that I made my triumphal entry into Fargo, just in time for dinner and bed.

I had planned to drive to the northwest corner of the state the next day to see the Baaken Field, the source of huge new quantities of oil and gas, but having discovered how tedious the drive had been from Minneapolis, and reading about the high percentage of crime and men in my intended destination, Williston, I decided that prudence and fears instilled by one-too-many episodes of Law and Order-SVU dictated that I aim for a nearer destination.

As I gazed out of my motel room window at the gray sky above and grayer snow below, I thought that I had made a huge mistake. But once I hit the highway for the 220-mile drive to Bismarck, I was overcome by ND's stark beauty. Mile after mile of flat, snow-covered land. Lone silos and farms. Isolated shacks. Absolutely stunning! A photographer's dream! And a perfect antidote to the hecticity of New York life.

Arriving in Bismarck, I raced to the state-run museum for a quick education about ND's history. My ticket-taker, one Vic, spent so much time describing the museum to me that I was afraid it would close before I actually made it to the first exhibit. But, as I was to find, this was typical of the incredible friendliness of these Great Plains people.

The next morning, I returned to view the state capitol, the tallest building in North Dakota, which is more like a mini Empire State Building than a typical governmental center. It has no dome, no exterior glitz. Constructed in the 1930s, its interior is, however, a dazzling display of Art Deco, with sculpted bronze elevator doors, gorgeous wood inlays in the senate and house, and fascinating lighting in the chambers representing the sun and moon. Its verticality is intentional, as it actually uses more of its interior space than any other state capitol, an important feature in a region of severe weather.

I have a fear and loathing of tours. They always go on too long and hold you as a captive listener to completely uninteresting facts. So, stepping up to the information desk on the first floor of the capitol, I asked if I could tour on my own. A sweet little old lady told me I could but that she would be happy to accompany me. Out of a rare flash of politeness, I consented. What followed was the fastest, bestest exploration I could have hoped for, complete with tidbits I would never have discovered on my own. Ascending to the top window-filled 18th floor, she showed me the magnificent 360-degree, 30-mile vistas out at the state. And then she took me to a tiny picture of endless bodies lying on a snow-covered area in front of the capitol. Those funky North Dakotans! On a wintry day in February of 2007, nearly 9,000 people assembled and lay down on the lawn to achieve a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for most snow angels in one place simultaneously. My elderly guide proudly even pointed to her body amid the hundreds and hundreds of forms. Oh, the glory of it!

Then it was back to the first floor again, with a gallery of famous North Dakotans, some of whom I list here: Angie Dickinson, Warren Christopher, Roger Maris, Bobby Vee, Eric Sevareid, Ed Schultz, Lawrence Welk, Peggy Lee. Who would have thunk!

North Dakota may, statistically, be the least popular state in the Union to visit, but I was having a ball!

Pictured here: A picture of 8,962 North Dakota snow angels setting a new Guinness World Record in 2007.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

 
Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: A Problem with 'Pensiones' PDF Print Email

Written by Adrienne Smith



 

Jan. 14, 2015: In the spirit of auld lang syne, and because I haven't been anywhere lately, I thought I'd take a trip down memory lane and describe a trip I took with my two youngest children twenty or so years ago.

It was the summer of my discontent. Money was in short supply, but I had to go somewhere. Somehow I convinced myself that, despite years of staying at the crème de la crème Gritti Palace in Venice, lodging at a pensione there might be "quaint" and an "experience."

The children were too young to protest, so off we went, combined with stays at other equally modest hotels.

I selected a place called Pensione Seguso in the artsy Dorsoduro section of Venice. Its locale, near the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, seemed opportune.

We arrived by train, took a vaporetto to the stop nearest the pensione, and lugged our heavy suitcases up, over, and down several intimidating bridges.

Arriving at our destination, we found the lobby slightly dark and depressing, but, hey, this was part of the experience.

We were shown to our triple room, two beds and a rollaway, a nice size but sparsely furnished in, what might be called by some, Salvation Army rejects. In some version of a lottery, my 10-year-old son won the cot. Tired from our suitcase lugging, he plopped down on the bed and instantly became an Italian version of an Oreo cookie as the head and foot sprang up to enclose him. We instantly extricated him in what I view as a family version of renaissance.

It was now time for the dinner included in our hotel rate. Walking into the dining room, looking left and right, we found ourselves surrounded by a bevy of what appeared to be impecunious and depressive English widows. No problem. Sitting at our assigned spot, we nibbled on the tiny Wonder-Bread-like rolls we were given.

Our first course, an ersatz pâté, had more in common with Spam than I care to remember. The rest of the meal was a blur, perhaps because of the copious amount of wine I drank in an attempt to see the bright side of our adventure.

After dinner, we repaired to our triple, only to be greeted with gulping sobs emanating from an apartment directly across from our room. A couple was having a furious fight. Being a naturally curious bunch, the kids and I crawled guerrilla-style to the window, and from either side, looked surreptitiously over to our querulous neighbors. To our surprise, we saw that it was the man who was weeping so piteously. Only in Italy!

Having had our share of excitement for the day, and enervated by the Venetian summer heat, we threw open all our windows and fell into deep sleep.

We awoke with what appeared to be triple cases of the measles. We had all been attacked by an army of very inhospitable mosquitoes.

Enough was enough!

I instantly dialed the number of the glamorous Cipriani hotel and secured a reservation, at no small price, for the night. Out of a desire not to offend the proprietors of the Seguso, I decided to keep our room for the full length of our contracted stay.

Arriving at the Cipriani at eight in the morning with little more than the shirts on our backs, I'm sure we were taken for unusually ugly Americans. But we were given a pleasant room, and the children proceeded to frolic merrily in the Olympic-sized pool for the rest of the day. We stayed until the latest possible moment the next day, returning to the Seguso for only one painful last night, hermetically sealed in our room.

At the very least, I feel that The Guinness Book of Records should take note of us for having booked, perhaps, the cheapest and most expensive rooms for the same night in Venice, truly a remarkable feat!

Note: In the interest of fairness, I must report that the aforementioned pensione has apparently undergone extensive renovations since my visit. However, I do not plan to make another visit to confirm this detail.

Pictured here: Pensione Seguso in Venice.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

 
Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Frank about Anne Frank PDF Print Email

Written by Adrienne Smith





Dec. 24, 2014: The Anne Frank House is the third most visited museum in the Netherlands, surpassed only by the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. The house where she, her family, and others hid for two years was visited by more than 1.2 million tourists in 2013. Anne's story, The Diary of a Young Girl, has been published in 70 different languages.

But the story of the Netherlands and its Jews during World War II is a far more complicated, perhaps less inspiring, story than Anne's experience would suggest.

When the Nazis invaded Holland in May of 1941, they were greeted with a political vacuum since Queen Wilhelmina and high-up government officials had already decamped to London before their arrival. What was left was a highly organized but leaderless bureaucracy.

The Germans, and Hitler himself, looked with favor on the Dutch people, seeing them as "superior" and as potential future citizens in an expanded Reich. As a result, instead of installing their own military government, the Nazis left the Dutch one in place, which was tasked with taking orders from their invaders.

At first, the Dutch people hoped for the best. Life continued somewhat normally. But for Dutch Jews, who had lived in practical separation from their Christian brethren before the war, worrisome mandates began to seriously impact their world. They were prohibited from working in the civil service, compelled to wear yellow Star-of-David badges, given identification papers stamped with large black Js, and required to register their businesses and themselves as Jews.

It was almost impossible for Jewish denizens to avoid these strictures, as the Dutch had kept careful records of all its citizens, making it easy for the Nazis to identify the 1.2% of the country's, and almost 9.5% of Amsterdam's, Jewish population.

As fear mounted in the Jewish community, the Nazis ordered prominent Jewish leaders to form an organization, the Jewish Council, to maintain order among their people. These leaders hoped that the effort would ensure their safety.

In July of 1942, the Nazis ordered all Jews between the ages of 16 and 35 to report to their local train stations for transport to "work" camps. The council selected the order in which these recruits were to report. Adolf Eichmann commented, "The transports run so smoothly that it is a pleasure to see."

As was later discovered, many sent away were murdered on arrival at their destinations, and the council itself was later harshly criticized for the elitist manner in which it selected the deportees.

What was a Jewish resident of the Netherlands to do? The choices were holding the line, emigration, or going into hiding. Holding the line, as the council attempted, was not working. Emigration was almost impossible, given that the countries bordering the Netherlands were controlled by the Nazis and the North Sea was heavily patrolled. Hiding was the only real choice for many. And so, an estimated 40,000 Dutch Jews went into hiding for an average of 2-1/2 years.

Dutch citizens who secreted their Jewish compatriots took enormous risks, including possible deportation to death camps and destruction or confiscation of their homes and properties. Children of families hiding Jews had to be trusted to keep the terrifying secret and could not bring friends into their homes. Bounty hunters lurked, turning Jews and their protectors in for as little as $20 a head. Anne Frank's own luck ran out in 1944. To this day, no one knows who betrayed her.

After December of 1943, the Nazis declared Holland Judenrein, or free of Jews. And, by the end of the war, of the Netherlands' original 140,000 Jews, only 30,000 remained alive. Only Poland's Jews suffered a greater percentage death rate.

The Netherlands is doing some hard thinking about this. Commissions have been created to investigate the illegal appropriation of Jewish possessions, finding, inter alia, that the Dutch ambassador to Israel had a confiscated piece of art hanging in his office. A list maintained by the government's euphemistically entitled Central Bureau for Jewish Emigration of a staggering 310,000 Dutch collaborators has been opened for viewing, but only by family members of, or actual, victims.

The tiny Museum of the Resistance, a stone's throw from where my Amsterdam houseboat was moored, reviews the possibilities for the country's citizens during the war: resistance, adaption, or cooperation. It then asks visitors what they would do in similar circumstances. Not an easy question but a necessary one.

Pictured here: The cover of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

 
Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Bicycle Built for One? PDF Print Email

Written by Adrienne Smith

Nov. 26, 2014: Michael Bloomberg, Amsterdam is the place for you! Citi Bike may not be the success that the former mayor hoped for, but then New York bikers are at a relative disadvantage. In the capital of the Netherlands, and throughout the country, the two-wheeler is king. The automobilist there colliding with a two-wheeler is considered to be at fault, no matter what the circumstances. Bikers always have the right of way. In New York--no way.

As a continually jet-lagged traveler, I always have to think twice before crossing the street in foreign climes. There is, of course, England, together with its current and former possessions, which insists on a "wrong-way" traffic flow. In Vienna, trams often travel in the opposite direction to regular traffic. And in Bangkok, simply trying to get to the other side of the road becomes a life-or-death game of dodge ball.

Amsterdam is equally challenging. Bikes are everywhere and always aimed at you. Men, women, oldsters, young children all breeze by at top speed. Riders toting babies in Snuglis, tots in rear infant seats, grocery-laden carts, dog owners "walking" their dogs, cell phone texters, lovers holding hands, you name it. You can see every possible combination.

Most amazing is that what ought to be chaotic turns out to be amazingly safe. No helmets here. Children, friends can be draped on front wheels, skaters pulled at the rear. What is the secret?

Well, part of it is that there are dedicated bike lanes throughout Holland. Another is that the convenience of bike transport obviates the need for automobiles. A third just has to be the exquisite skill with which the riders negotiate their journeys, with a panache that should make a New York Chinese takeout deliveryman jealous.

The death toll for Amsterdam riders hovers at around six unlucky people a year, truly a marvel given the estimated one million bikes owned by city residents. Outside the city, the statistics are somewhat grimmer, mainly due to accidents at more rural intersections.

In the Netherlands as a whole, there are more bicycles than people. One-third of city residents ride their bikes to work and 60% use them for excursions in general.

My Amsterdam houseboat came with two bikes, but I could not summon up the courage to join the flow, perhaps because of a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder. You see, several years ago, while on one of Viji George's fabulous Concordia College trips to India, our Indian guide, Viji, and I rushed to secure Taj Mahal tickets before the place closed for the night. As we broke through a gap in the crowd, a middle-aged local biker, who had clearly had a tough time with geometry in high school, rode right into me, despite the fact that there was considerable empty space to my right and left. I did a complete feet-over-head backward summersault and arose shakily, covered with roughly two-thirds of the skin I had possessed a moment before and containing what seemed like several fewer pints of blood.

I still flinch when I see a bike.

However, toward the end of my stay in the Netherlands, while out in the countryside, I mounted up and enjoyed a pleasant half hour riding through a beautiful, heather-covered national forest. No cars, few other cyclists. It was heaven. But, taking no chances, I'll leave further two-wheeling to the gym.

Pictured here: Bicycles in Amsterdam.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

 
Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Aboard in Amsterdam PDF Print Email

Written by Adrienne Smith

Oct. 29, 2014: April might be the cruelest month, but it was also the time that a cursory search of vrbo.com, the worldwide home rental website, set in motion a series of actions that led to a delicious stay on an Amsterdam houseboat. 

In 2013, I had made the mistake of renting a charming Parisian apartment for three weeks that July, failing to take into account the combination of a lack of air conditioning and 90-plus degree weather. That error resulted in multiple restless nights lying buck naked (do your best not to summon up a picture thereof), covered with a damp bath towel, in an attempt to enter a somnolent state.

This time, I decided to move northerly and to September. Amsterdam sounded like a good bet, and I assumed that I would find a pleasant, centrally located flat to rest my heavily traveled head. 

But, as often happens to best-laid plans, a ridiculous picture of a houseboat, with giraffes appearing to loom over it, stole my heart. (You can see the image by going to http://www.vrbo.com/344981.)  This optical illusion was created by taking a picture from across the canal on which the boat was docked and within the confines of the Amsterdam Zoo.

Within a matter of days, the houseboat was mine, and in mid-September I alighted at the Amsterdam train station to begin my two-week stay. My taxi seemed to drive far from the center in a worrisome combination of twists and turns before arriving at a rather plain-looking blue boat in what appeared to be a somewhat desolate area.

Exiting timorously from the cab, and claiming my ridiculous amount of luggage, I turned to find my cheerful landlady emerging from the bowels of the boat to greet me effusively.  She led me through the hatch and down a steep ladder to my living quarters, consisting of a charming bedroom with porthole windows, living, dining, and kitchen area, and full bath. My space had everything I could possibly need--a washer/dryer, dishwasher, wireless Internet, and TV. Not bad.

After sharing a Dutch beer with my host, I was left to my own devices. Outside, swans and ducks floated by in a constant parade. Boats of all sizes passed, filled with passengers varying from tourists to middle-aged female crewers. And across the way--the zoo, although the giraffes were spending their time in other quarters. The zoo was, however, ever present in my thoughts, since I would awaken occasionally in the night to the howls of unknown beasts across the canal.

Best of all, the TV had very few English-language channels, so, after watching some ridiculous, brain-destroying shows, including one where competing chefs had to make a supersized cake in the shape of a cheeseburger, I was forced to mellow out and start reading. And read I did, polishing off almost a book a day.

When I first emerged from my womblike world, I found myself in a converted warehouse district, automobile-free for the most part, with wide, brick-lined sidewalks. My neighbors, who lived in loft-style apartments, would bring picnic tables and chairs out their doors and enjoy long, wine-filled dinners in the still-warm late summer evenings, while their blond and hopelessly beautiful children would cavort nearby.  What a lifestyle!

A ten-minute walk and a six-stop tram ride would take me to the Museum Quarter, where I could take in the newly reopened Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Another tram would deposit me in the far less appealing center of Amsterdam, where a combination of redevelopment and urban blight made me happy to be staying in my more remote part of the city.

I spent the first week exploring all Amsterdam had to offer, returning happily to my little piece of paradise. I spent the second on day trips to The Hague, to see the goldfinch painting made famous by Donna Tartt's current bestseller, and to a charming museum, the Kröller-Mϋller, in the hinterlands, and, finally, and most memorably, an overnight to Bruges.

When the time came for my departure, I felt quite a pang. But I was off to Venice and new adventures.

Pictured here: The houseboat on which the author stayed.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

 
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