36 Hours in Amsterdam

 

If you had only 36 hours in the city of Amsterdam, Holland, a.k.a. the Netherlands would you jump at the chance? Or would you decline, reasoning that there wasn’t enough to time to “really” see the city? Operating on the theory that enjoying one and a half days in Amsterdam is better than no days in Amsterdam, I submit that it’s all about making good choices. Truly, there are no wrong choices since it’s a matter of preference and prioritizing what matters or intrigues you the most. A city such as Amsterdam has so much personality it should be its own small country where you could easily spend a week or more. However, we’re talking brevity here. The best planners will always start with a master list, one that eventually gets culled to the final magic number. Here, that magic number was 3. Three experiences seemed manageable given the short amount of time but they needed to be unique to Amsterdam. My initial list included historical choices such as the Anne Frank House and several museum options. I added in some limited “seasonal” selections that included Keukenhof, a 79 acre park that is on every gardener’s wish list. Local experiences such as bike riding past the wind mills or floating down one of the many canals on a barge were also considered. My decisions were based upon opportunity, emotional content and what was uniquely of Amsterdam.

My first choice was to visit Keukenhof located 45 minutes from Amsterdam in Lisse. Keukenhof is one of the largest gardens in the world with 79 acres of sheer beauty. As with so many other things in life, timing is everything. With a window limited to a scant 8 weeks each year, the opportunity to see the 7 million springtime blooming bulbs is narrow. I reasoned that I could always visit Amsterdam again but I wouldn’t be able to guarantee that a future visit would coincide with the blooming of the bulbs.  I would be a fool to not take the opportunity to witness 800 varieties of tulips, hyacinths and daffodils sprouting in unison. A mélange of reds, pinks, burgundies, oranges, whites, yellows, greens, blues and violets spread throughout the park as though a rainbow had literally been planted in this magnificent garden and sprouted. Some of the gardens were themed and one of my favorites was the Delft garden. The famous blue and white pottery bears the name of the city where it’s produced and is a popular collectible item. It was also used as a focal point for a blue and white garden. In an unexpected twist the pottery was broken into pieces which were then randomly attached to a waist high white wall. The flowers planted at the base of the wall were color coordinated in blue and white. It was simple, unexpected and elegant. If you have the opportunity, I would certainly recommend a visit. If you never travel to Holland, a visit to your local garden center might be the next best thing. Eighty percent of the bulbs grown in the park are exported, many to America.

My second choice was a somber choice. I opted to visit the Anne Frank house at Prinsengracht 263, Amsterdam. It is the former Opekta factory owned by Anne’s father, Otto Frank. Mr. Frank ran a successful business selling spices and pectin for making jams. When it became clear that he and his family would be persecuted by the Nazi regime Mr. Frank transferred ownership of his corporation to an associate and with his family and several other associates, went into hiding in a secret annex of the building. During this time, his coming-of-age daughter Anne wrote poetry and diary entries that seem wiser than her limited 13 years. Her writings were published in a book titled “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl”. It has been printed and published in 60 countries, translated into 70 languages and more than 30 million copies of the book have sold.  [DC1] The book urges you to revisit the past so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the future. Of all the great speeches given during World War II the voice of one young Jewish girl still speaks to us. If you stop to listen, what you will hear, above all, is “hope”. My travel companions and I arrived without a reservation for a timed entry ticket and opted to take a chance by waiting in line. The exhibit opened at 9:00am and we thought we’d beat the crowds by arriving an hour prior to opening. As I got on the back end of a very long queue, I realized that many other tourists had the same idea.  After an hour of standing in the cold we purchased our admission tickets and followed the slow moving line into the exhibit. We walked silently through the former office building and got a real sense of the era. The preservation of the living quarters offered proof of how well prepared the family was. At the center of all this are the writings of a 13 year old girl, Anne. Through her diary entries you get the sense of a young girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, wise beyond her limited number of years. I look at her photos and in her face I see my mother as a young girl. The similarities are immediately noticeable and I realize how fortunate I am that my Jewish Grandparents were already in the states when the war broke out. No person can exit that building without a new appreciation for the freedom they enjoy on a daily basis.

My third choice brings art and culture to the mix. There are over 50 museums in Amsterdam, far too many to see in a 36 hour period but I reasoned that I should visit at least one. I chose to go to the Rijksmusem, (rhymes with bikesmuseum) partly because of proximity. Also, because I thought I would find the collections at the Rijksmuseum a bit more accessible than the abstract impressionism of the works at the Vincent Van Gogh museum. Stepping up to the admission desk I was advised that the museum would close in 45 minutes. My query about where I would find the most important collection resulted in being directed to floor 2. I didn’t have time to wait for the elevator and dashed up the stairs and came face to face with “The Nightwatch”. This grand painting is one of Rembrandt’s most famous and was drawing crowds. The familiar “Syndics of the Draper’s Guild” was also on display. I will publicly admit that my recognition of the piece had more to do with a Dutch Masters cigar box than cultural acumen.  With closing time approaching quickly, I made an effort to view as many works as possible as I headed for the exit. Despite the pedigree of the pieces housed within the majestic building perhaps the most popular piece resides in the outside courtyard. If you appreciate pop art, you might be familiar with the classic set of giant letters that spell “Iamsterdam”. They are located in front of the museum and have been used in a campaign to promote the city. Each letter stands 6.5 feet high and collectively the letters stretch out to 77 feet long. The crowds waiting to photograph the display were so thick that I left without getting a picture of the iconic image. Perhaps next time. Good planning helped me maximize my experience in a minimum amount of time. While I did leave satisfied with what I saw and what I did, I’m happy to say that the city also left me wanting more. With flight time less than driving to Washington D.C., it’s a great long weekend option and I hope to return in the future.

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Out of the Mouths of Babes

You don’t often see children on a river cruise so when a young girl boarded the boat it immediately caught my attention. Succumbing to stereotypes, I expected the worst; bad behavior, complaining about unfamiliar food, repeatedly hearing the ever familiar “I’m bored” and refusing to be exposed to anything that remotely resembled learning. She initially clung to the woman I assumed was her Mother and the other female travel companions who appeared to be friends of her Mom.  As the trip progressed my opinion quickly changed. She was a well behaved, witty and talented young girl who could often be found sitting quietly reading a book or coloring with crayons, typical 10 year old things. Okay, maybe she wasn’t so typical. There were no head phones to be seen, not a single cell phone and no pre-teen pop star magazines. I and many others on board were soon charmed by this young traveler. I eventually complimented her “Mom” on her daughter’s behavior and learned that she was not her Mother. She was an Aunt. She was also a fellow Travel Agent who when travelling, always chose one niece or nephew to accompany her. It was considered to be both a learning and bonding experience for both of them. I was impressed that Anna, her niece, willingly and eagerly participated in most of the excursions with nary a “are we there yet?” or a single “do I have to?” The child was well mannered at the dinner table, sampling menu items that went well beyond franks and beans or macaroni and cheese.  The attentive staff ensured that a child friendly treat such as ice cream and chocolate milk always accompanied the adult style coffee and Crepes Suzette or Rhubarb Ragout with Cream Chantilly. One evening, after dinner, Anna and her entourage were relaxing in the piano lounge. She had been taking piano lessons back home and when invited to give a performance she obliged. I happened to be sitting fairly close to the piano and watched the concentration on her face as she read from the sheet music. I admired her confidence and ability to move past the unplanned long pauses and incorrect notes. Reading sheet music could be described as deciphering a foreign language in mathematical increments. It’s challenging and consuming, requiring dedication that many adults don’t possess. But this was less about accuracy and more about courage and confidence and she nailed them both. The next day in the lounge I sat across from her. I watched her knit and I envied her varied talents and silently congratulated her parents for raising a well behaved and well-rounded preteen. Clearly, that’s no small feat in today’s world of out of control pop stars and ‘tween television divas. I shared several excursions with her family group and noticed that she proved to be a good sport even when the weather wasn’t on its best behavior. Upon arriving at the port call of Mainz, Germany, by chance, we chose the same excursion.  The day’s visit was to the Gutenberg museum, famous for printing presses and creating the first printed Bible. I expected it to be a ho-hum experience and wondered how a 10 year old would bear the stolid presentation that reeked of history and learning. Our tour guide was accredited by the museum and would be taking us through the history of the printing press. But first, he needed an Assistant. Wisely choosing the young girl, she became engaged physically and mentally in the subject matter and her enthusiasm brought the audience along for the ride. They both donned rubber aprons and thick, elbow high rubber gloves as protection from ink splatters. The letter blocks that spelled out the first page of the Bible were already set in place. We watched as she gripped the roller and applied ink to the letters. The Tour Guide lent a hand to place the oversized sheet of paper in the correct position. However, it was she and she alone who pulled the rolling bar across the screen to recreate the first page of the Gutenberg Bible. Her reward for her participation was hearty applause and a fabulous souvenir. She was allowed to keep the piece she had just created. Imagine the story she was able to share with her classmates upon her return!  The next day our journey continued on to Rudesheim. While riverboats tend to sail at night, we floated by day to allow us to see the most beautiful section of the Rhine.  We passed the statue of the Lorelei whose allure was said to be so great and her song so seductive that myth has it she lured the mightiest of sailors to their deaths on the rocks. This was one of the most castle dense sections of the river, most in ruins but still impressive. In the land where fairy tales began, each castle had its own history and tale of woe. It would seem that owning a castle in the medieval days didn’t always work out so well for the occupants. As we approached the Burg Rheinstein Castle, our cruise director told us the history of the castle. More likely folklore than truth, but when you’re floating down the Rhine it’s easy to believe the local stories. Two children, Kuno and Gerba grew together as playmates and fell in love as young adults. As was tradition, Kuno of Reichenstein Castle sent his unsavory Uncle to the Rheinstein Castle on his behalf to ask for the woman’s hand in marriage. The Uncle, realizing the merits of the young woman, decided he wanted her for himself. Gerba had no choice and Kuno was heartbroken at the loss of his beloved. On the day of the Wedding the Uncle mounted his finest steed and raced to the Church. Along the way his horse became spooked and tossed the Uncle to his death, allowing Kuna and Gerba to finally marry and spend the rest of their lives happily together. 

The ship grew quiet as we reflected upon the tragic story with the happy ending. However, eventually all children will be just that, children. Despite her maturity, patience and incredibly good behavior, apparently this child had finally reached her limit.  Out of the contemplative silence a plaintive cry of “Not another castle!?!” could clearly be heard. It was the young girl. Those of us standing close enough to hear her disappointment chuckled.  This was just one castle too many. No one could fault her. Despite her talents, good manners and best behavior she was, after all, still a child.

A good day in Switzerland

In my previous article “Something not funny happened on the way to the Alps”, I shared the travel challenges I experienced due to a stalled train. I was travelling with two companions to Zurich after completing a week on a Rhine River cruise that embarked in Amsterdam, Netherlands and ended in Basel, Switzerland. We extended our stay in Switzerland by one day to take a fast-paced tour that would introduce us to Zurich, Lucerne and Mt. Titlis, fulfilling my wish to visit the Alps. The river cruise and its itinerary exceeded my expectations but the trip from Basel to Zurich did not.  The Swiss railway system, noted for their promptness, failed to live up to their reputation this time due to a stalled train. That delay caused us to miss the tour departure from Zurich but due to the heroic efforts of the Swiss Rail employees, I and my two companions joined the tour in progress in Lucerne. Steady rain was disappointing but did not detract from the overall appreciation of the city. Lucerne is likely the most beautiful city in Switzerland and one of the prettiest in Europe. It hosts a marvelous architectural mix including buildings in Baroque and Renaissance design. Others have a strong medieval influence with many painted in tromp l’oeil fashion, a style which creates an illusion that the painted item exists in 3 dimensions and therefore seems realistic. The section known as Old Town transports you to another time as you walk past ancient buildings with an authentic patina, many with turrets that perhaps, once upon a time, were occupied by fair maidens. Covered walking bridges float over rivers and waterways with the most famous being the Kapellbrucke Bridge. This well- known landmark crosses the Reuss River and is the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe. It’s likely the most beautiful bridge in Switzerland, with a multitude of flowers draped over the hand rails creating an image reminiscent of the works of Parisian artist, Monet. The Swiss Alps created an incredible background canvas to the city but I can’t deny that the steady rain detracted from our enjoyment of the landscape. Due to the challenges we endured to reach Lucerne we didn’t have the luxury of time to allow foul weather to keep us from seeing as much as possible. The lack of time caused us to forfeit seeing the famous Lion statue but I have no regrets missing the depiction of a dying animal. Despite the rain it was hard to ignore the beautiful facades of the classic city buildings.

We continued by coach to Engelberg, a mountain resort cradled by the Swiss Alps. This would be the grand finale of the sightseeing trifecta. The continued rain cast an obvious pall over the travelers on board the bus. No doubt, we all shared the same vision of snowy white Alpen peaks melting away in rivulets as the foul weather showed no signs of abating. With false optimism we entered the cable car that would take us to the platform where we would begin the second part of our ascent. To continue the journey, we boarded the Rotair, a rotating cable car that affords panoramic Alpine vistas as it ascends to a dizzying height of 3,238 meters (that’s 10,623 feet for us Americans). The slow rotation allowed me and my companions to exhale and begin to relax and enjoy the 360-degree views. We also noticed that the rain had slowly turned to snow. Each Rotair car stopped at a halfway point allowing fully equipped skiers, sledders and snowboarders and anyone else who so desired to exit the car and find their own way back to the bottom. The falling snow covered the mountain and lifted our spirits. This is what we had come to see. We remained onboard as we had yet to reach our ultimate destination; the top of Mt. Titlis. The wind was increasing and stirring up the snow, creating a swirling, snowy dreamscape. It felt like quite an accomplishment to reach the summit but in reality all we had to do was sit there and enjoy the ride. Once on top, we were given a generous amount of free time to explore the mountain and the glacier that forms its base. Some of the features are tourist driven such as a visit to the Glacier Cave. A 500 foot long walkway takes you through a manmade ice tunnel descending 65 feet below the surface of the Titlis glacier. Thrilling and chilling! Other features are sports driven. This is the place for skiing, sledding, tobogganing and snow shoeing enthusiasts of which I am not. Fortunately, it’s also the place for sightseeing, view seeking, want to see the Alps peeking kind of people, like me. Despite the suggestions in the brochure I did not ride the Ice Flyer to get closer to the frozen crevices. Nor did I soar down a snow slide in Glacier Park. I also failed to “summon the courage to walk over Europe’s highest suspension bridge, the Titlis Cliff Walk.” It was closed that day due to wind gusts. That bit of good fortune alleviated the need to concoct a believable story aout why I chose to not walk across a thin metal suspension bridge 10,000 feet above sea level. Instead, I headed for the food and beverage concession area to achieve my final goal; hot chocolate in the Swiss Alps. The line was long and slow moving. Those ahead of me were ordering snack and lunch options. With laden trays they carried their food to the nearest available table. I wondered if the hot cocoa was warming in a large cauldron or would I need to be patient while they heated the milk and melted the chocolate. I slid my empty tray down the railing closer and closer to my final desire. When it was my turn to be served, I paid for my soon to be savored, rich, thick, authentic Alps hot cocoa. The cashier placed a Styrofoam cup on my tray. Watching eagerly I waited for him to pour the steaming, velvety brown liquid but instead it was clear, like water. Did he think I requested tea? Did he misunderstand? Did I order incorrectly? The answer to the puzzle became obvious when he placed a packet of Swiss Miss instant cocoa mix on my tray. Was he serious? Yes, he was. To his credit, he offered to mix it for me, as though this was a product unique to Switzerland and not standard in most U.S. households. Considering the surroundings the faux hot chocolate was disappointing. What was a Swiss chocolate craving tourist to do? My solution was to go to the next floor which could be better known as the Lindt Level. Here, I was in chocolate heaven! Tobleron, the chocolate covered honey and almond nougat Swiss treat was also featured. In fact, it was oversized to where it would require both arms to hoist their biggest bar. I stocked up on chocolate gifts for friends and family and purchased a huge bar of Lindt chocolate for myself. My intention was to melt it and make my own hot chocolate. Despite the rough start, any day that ends with a large bar of chocolate should be considered a good day.

Musical Memories

Tourism is one of the top revenue producers in the world with an economic impact counted in Trillions of dollars. If you’re having trouble envisioning what the exact number looks like imagine a “1” with 12 zeroes after it. This staggering figure includes the airline and cruise industries, hotels, motels and inns, trains, buses and car rentals. Tour guides, souvenir shops, eateries and general spending also contribute to that massive bottom line. The industry is one of the largest employers providing 277 million jobs in 2014. The World Travel & Tourism Council reports that 1 in 11 jobs held by Americans are in the tourism sector. Governments fund their tourist departments to entice visitors who utilize accommodations and restaurants and public transportation. Tourist attractions, restaurants and shopping areas also benefit mightily. Germany is the 7th most visited country in the world! Over 407 million tourists enter the country each year, all staying in accommodations, buying food, paying admissions to attractions, and perhaps purchasing souvenirs. That works out nicely for the main tourist cities such as Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin. But what if you’re a small town on the Rhine River? How do you entice tourists and their vacation dollars?  Rüdesheim am Rhein is a small winemaking town in the Rhine Gorge. Its location on the river allows it to be included as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Still, even though it sits in the shadows of all the magnificent Rhine castles, Rudesheim has successfully positioned itself as a regular stop for river cruise boats.

My visit to Rudesheim started with the option of riding an open car miniature train down the narrow cobblestone street or by foot. The silly little train made it easier for the less mobile to reach the museum so I chose to walk. It was chilly and overcast but I enjoy walking.  Wandering down the cobblestone street of Drosselgasse gave me a front row view of the window displays. It’s basically the “Main Street” of the area with all the requisite tourist souvenir shops and food offerings. Our small group made its way to Siegfried’s Mechanisches Musikkabinett which translates to: Museum of Mechanical Instruments–or as we know them – music boxes.  The prospect didn’t excite me but I was hesitant to separate from my travel companions who did want to visit. Our representative from the riverboat delivered us to the front door of the museum and introduced us to the resident tour guide. She was dressed in 1800s attire, the period when music boxes were first developed. The mechanics of how the music was produced didn’t interest me. I was more interested in the artistry and detail of the beautiful and varied pieces. My experience with music boxes had been limited to a small Swiss Alpine style log cabin that belonged to my Mother.  It wasn’t large enough to hold anything but the smallest of trinkets. Lifting the roof activated the music though I can’t remember the song. During my mid teen years first boyfriend gave me a larger music box. Asian in style which, at the time was my preferred décor aesthetic, I pretended to be surprised when I unwrapped the gift. The truth is that I hankered for that box every time we passed the drug store window where it was prominently featured and had made my wish known, very clearly. Our tour guide explained the evolution of the music box. The complexity of the instruments was quite an accomplishment considering that, in comparison, the automobile had yet to be invented. With each new room the music boxes increased in size, ability and grandeur until we entered a room which held phonographs from the 1800’s. They looked like the record players we’re familiar with yet, the “record” was very different. These too, were music boxes but designed to look like a phonograph. The sound generated from a 12 inch perforated metal disc when the arm of the antique record player plucked the notes producing music. As the older audience recognized a long ago familiar song, several chuckled in recognition while some swayed to the music. When they reached the chorus “que sera, sera whatever will be, will be” many were singing along. Their memories were palpable, their joy infectious. My eyes now moist, gave me away as I was deeply touched watching my fellow travelers recalling and reliving decades old fond memories. Some might have thought it hokey watching the older folks in the audience closing their eyes and tapping their feet to familiar tunes. I was deeply touched. Music has the power to transport us to another time, to stir feelings and memories to the point that even those with dementia react to familiar songs. I unwillingly admit that while I can’t remember where I placed the scissors 10 minutes ago I can recall every word, every nuance from childhood pop songs. Even when I haven’t heard them in a decade. Our tour ended with a stop to sample the famous Rudesheimer Coffee. I would describe it as sweet and quite potent. Suddenly boarding that little tourist train seemed to be a really good choice. If you’d like to try the coffee, please see the recipe I’ve included. Remember no drinking and driving but riding in miniature train cars is definitely allowed.

When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements. This happens because rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing. They are influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues. A person’s ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact late into the disease process because, again, these activities do not mandate cognitive functioning for success.

Music Associations. Most people associate music with important events and a wide array of emotions. The connection can be so strong that hearing a tune long after the occurrence evokes a memory of it.Prior experience with the piece is the greatest indicator of an individual’s likely response. “

Rudesheimer coffee – Coffee with a kick

Almost 1.5ounces of Asbach Uralt 3 cubes of sugar Hot coffee (regular or decaf) Whipped cream sweetened with vanilla sugar Grated milk chocolate

Cooking Instructions Rudesheimer Coffee

– Put 3 cubes of sugar in an original Rüdesheimer Coffee cup, pour over 1.5 ounces of well-heated Asbach and light it by using a long match. – Stir with a long-handled spoon to dissolve the sugar. – Let it burn for about 1 minute, then pour in hot coffee to about 1inch  below the rim. – Top off with a scoop of whipped cream and sprinkle with grated chocolate.

Lost in Translation

I’m sure I’m like everyone else when preparing to travel abroad. I too always have the typical concerns. Will I be able to communicate? Will I be able to read a menu? What will I do if I have to hail a cab or ask for directions? As a general rule and out of respect for local culture I always try to learn a few local words. It’s not only practical, but it’s polite. It can also be fun as you prepare for your trip.  As a Travel Agent, it’s one of the first things I advise people who are travelling abroad to do. Not only as a courtesy to the local people but because you never know when you’ll need help with directions or other practical questions. Sometimes it’s a fairly simple procedure. In Europe, you can hail a taxi, give the name of the hotel and be pretty sure that you’ll wind up at the correct destination. Since Europeans use a familiar alphabet and so many words have migrated into our own daily lexicon you should be able to handle a map or subway system with minimal issue. However, in some Eastern European countries, the language is more challenging than the more common “Romance Languages” of Western Europe. Romance languages have their origins based upon Latin and share similarities across multiple countries. We also share a familiar alphabet and have probably been introduced to the more common phrases at some time. Parlez vous Francais?  This previous exposure offers comfort and gives a starting frame of reference for figuring out pronunciation. Further, the Czech language is Slavic in origin and uses letter combinations that are foreign to an English speaker. Despite the challenge, I made the attempt to learn some words that would indicate that l had basic manners and that I cared enough to try. I went over armed with the confidence that I would be able to say “Hello” (dobry’ den), “please” (prosi’m) and “thank you” (dekuju).  I certainly wasn’t proficient enough to carry on a conversation, but a handful of prepared words could eventually get you most of the answers you needed. Usually, the person I was addressing would at this point switch to English. However, while at a banquet, I was surprised by what I considered to be the rudeness of some of the servers. As I stood in line waiting to be served I was attempting to determine what was in a particular dish. The young man behind the table waved his hand, shook his head as if to say “no” and then walked away from me. I was surprised given all the other positive encounters I had already experienced. I was ready to chalk it up as an aberration but then it happened again, and then again. No matter what I asked the answer was the same: “no”. It took me a while but I finally figured out that what they were trying to convey was that they didn’t speak any English. They weren’t saying no to me they were just saying that they didn’t understand. Lesson learned to not judge someone on a very narrow set of circumstances.

Visiting Asia can also be linguistically challenging.  The number one rule to remember is that very few taxi drivers speak or read English. The number two rule is to grab the hotel’s business card before you go off to see the sights. I’m not normally a rule breaker but for some reason I broke both rules in Korea. After a full day of wandering around I was tired, hungry and completely lost. Worst of all, I couldn’t remember the name of my hotel. Definitely a bad combination! I tried to stay calm and remember the name of the hotel. That didn’t go so well. I tried to ask for help from people on the street but wasn’t very successful at finding anyone who spoke English. I thought I hit pay dirt when I got the attention of two local students. They were more than willing to help, if only I could tell them where I needed to go. When I couldn’t, they very eagerly tore pages from a local phone book at a telephone booth and handed me the “Hotels” section. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t remember the name of the hotel and didn’t want to start calling hotel front desks to ask “excuse me, but am I staying with you?” Out of desperation, I headed to the nearest underground train station to see if I could find any English speaking people. I was just about to give up when I spotted someone who also looked like a visitor. It turned out that he was an Officer with the U.S. Army who was on leave and visited Korea regularly. I introduced myself and explained my predicament.  He wasn’t just an Officer, he was also a gentleman and was willing to help me. I was able to tell the Officer the general vicinity of my originating train station and he was able to offer the names of several hotels in that area. With tremendous relief, I recognized one of the named hotels. This kind sir hailed a cab on my behalf and told the driver where to take me, closed the cab door and I was off.  Lesson learned. Only after I was on my way back to the hotel did I realize that I neglected to thank the serviceman who had gone well above the regular call of duty. I fretted about that for the rest of my trip. But, sometimes fate hands you a second chance and this time it gave me the opportunity I had missed the first time. Seated aboard a very full flight we were waiting for a few extra passengers before pushing back from the gate. Coming down the aisle was the Officer who had helped me, this time in full uniform.  I waited until he had stored his carry on and was seated, and got up and took this second chance to say what I should have said the first time: “Thank you!”

Twenty Minutes

All it took was 20 minutes for me to fall in love with France.  That’s quicker than my daily drive to work and almost quicker than it takes for me to choose my dinner in a restaurant. My first impressions of France began while I was still in the air, circling, preparing to land. The ground below was green, very green. 20150511_032241So much so that it’s noticeable from above when you get your first glimpse of the country from an airplane window as you begin your descent into the airport. It’s been said that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, however, this isn’t about Paris. Indeed, Paris is beautiful in many parts, and truthfully, a little ordinary in others. But, it wasn’t the city that caught my eye, instead it was a 20 minute detour due to a missed turn that captured my heart. I admit that I approached Paris as though expecting a quick fling. Much like a first date, you’re nervous about the introduction to the city, not knowing what to expect, wondering if you will click. But, the French countryside, well that was definitely more than a crush. The French people have a phrase for it: “le coup de foudre”, which translates to love at first sight.

I was about to set sail on a river cruise with Avalon Waterways aboard the Tapestry II but the recent rains resulted in higher water levels making it difficult to pass under the beautiful bridges of Paris. In order to navigate the river we would need to board a motor coach to drive to our first stop. We would then embark at the first port of call in Vernon-Les Andelys. Some might have seen the change in plans as disappointing but I now believe it was fortunate fate. The bus ride along the highway to our new starting point was just like any other highway: multiple lanes of traffic in each direction with very little to look at. You could almost call it boring. We were moving along at a fast pace, passing other vehicles and sometimes being passed. Perhaps this hypnotic tedium contributed to our driver missing the turnoff for our destination. One additional exit later, an alternate route was chosen and unknowingly, our luck had just changed and for the better as we unexpectedly found ourselves in the French countryside.20150511_032308

At times it seemed as though the full size motor coach, the travel industry’s fancy and professional name for “bus”, couldn’t possibly navigate the small roads of the ancient villages. The driver faced a modern day challenge as the curbs were lined with private cars and the twists and turns were tight and many. Surely l wasn’t the only one to hold my breath as inch by inch the driver slowly and carefully shimmied his way through the narrow roads. But then, as I exhaled, the village itself took my breath completely away. It was everything you would imagine a small European village to be. A town where the tallest structure is the church steeple and people with picnic hampers lounge on the grass. Winding roads, originally built for animal drawn carts, weave past 16th century chateaux whose placement was determined long before there were paved roads. Stone houses with tiled roofs and grand chimneys had wooden shutters that covered full length windows. Jumbles of colorful flowers spilled over ancient stone walls that were originally erected to delineate property lines. However, the current function of those walls seemed to be solely for the purpose of preventing the premature deaths of free roaming chickens by limiting their access to the road. Occasionally you come across a newer home whose design with its constructed antique appearance is such that it intentionally pays homage to its past. Some homes are trying for modern sustainability while retaining an aged patina and have found a way for solar panels to coexist in design harmony with an earlier time. The pace was comfortable and slow and the countryside seduced you into relaxing and setting down the burden of daily life. It invited you to have a sip of calvados, the apple wine and perhaps taste a bit of pastry as you spent some time getting to know each other. Villages are dotted with handmade signs advertising apple “cidre” and fresh eggs and are replete with open meadows inhabited by contented cows and happy horses. The narrow roads allowed a front row view into the daily lives of the local folk giving the appearance of an idyllic lifestyle or at least a page from a themed calendar featuring story book cottages. Slowly, almost at an escargot’s pace, the driver continued safely past automobiles parked on both sides of the narrow road, until we had successfully navigated our way. I was almost disappointed to arrive at our destination as I wanted more of this countryside charm. I didn’t yet realize that this wasn’t the end of the trip but just the beginning of our journey.20150511_032400

We boarded the ship and were soon on our way. Smoothly and slowly, we made our way up the Seine (pronounced Sen). Local cottages gave way to grander homes perched high upon the riverbanks, set amidst the rolling green hills that lined the banks. Occasionally, a friendly land owner would wave and those of us on deck would wave back. I envy their lifestyle, perhaps they envied me mine, however temporary it was.

Did I fall in love? Absolutment! But, France was more than just a whirlwind romance or a brief fling for me. I believe that it was the prelude to a long lasting relationship – definitely an affair of the heart. “Jusqu’a ce que nous reverrons” – until we meet again.

Mad about Macarons

macaron-whoopie-pie-workshopThe French know food. Their contributions to the culinary world are countless and they’ve succeeded at taking dining to an art form. Many of their well-known dishes have found their way on to American menus and no doubt you are familiar with Bouef Bourgonion (beef in wine), French Onion Soup (onions in wine), and Coq au Vin (chicken in wine). Despite their obvious love of wine,   the French chefs really step up their game when it comes to desserts. In a nation with so many fashionably svelte people it’s a wonder that this country gave birth to Eclairs, crème brulee, Crepes Suzette and Chocolate Mousse. Their secret is that they enjoy small tastes of rich items and unfortunately, I prefer large tastes of rich items. I was already familiar with most of these dishes but I hadn’t yet been properly introduced to the Macaron, a cookie that is uniquely French. The first time I saw a Macaron was in the arrivals hall of the Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris. Bright and colorful, hundreds of the little cookies were on display in equally colorful push wagons. It was an excellent marketing decision as, no doubt, they were a quick and easy gift to pick up to and from wherever you were travelling.
Perhaps you’re a Macaron novice, as I had previously been, or just have never been properly introduced. First, let’s cover the basics: Macarons are not macaroons. Even the name is pronounced differently. I offer this basic primer: Macaroon sort of rhymes with balloon. Macaron sounds like macaroni if you were to eliminate the “i” at the end. The spelling is similar but the cookies themselves couldn’t be any more different from each other. Macaroons are largely based upon coconut as the main ingredient and are often dipped in chocolate. The chewy treat is a free form cookie with the batter being dropped from a spoon onto a baking sheet. I love macaroons.  Macarons are served as a sandwich style cookie with two colorful almond flavored merengue discs surrounding colorful sweet whipped cream. I prefer dense, chewy cookies so I had no interest in trying a Macaron. I have never been fond of whipped cream, hard to believe but true, so I had even less interest in this national treasure in cookie form.  I was convinced that I wouldn’t like Macarons so I didn’t try one.
My second introduction to the Macaron was during my cruise on the Seine River. Avalon Waterways arranged for a Michelin starred chef to come aboard our ship, the Tapestry II and give a demonstration on creating classic French desserts, tasting included. This was definitely a fun afternoon and I gleefully sampled everything, except the Macarons. They looked beautiful and yet I still wasn’t convinced, and wouldn’t allow myself to be swayed from my anti-Macaron conviction so I didn’t try one.
My third opportunity to welcome the little French cookie into my life came as I watched my travel companion purchase several gift boxes of Macarons at what I thought was an insane price. However, after visiting several shops hoping for a better rate I realized that this was one pricey little cookie. No matter which store we entered the price was always the same at e1.80 per treat. I’ll convert that for you: it’s the equivalent of $2.00 U.S. per cookie for what is actually a rather small cookie. You can practically buy an entire box of Nilla wafers for that cost. I began to wonder if there was some French patisserie syndicate that was guilty of price fixing. I was ready to consider that “strike 3” against the arrogant little confection and was smug in my self-righteousness. I planned to spend my last day in Paris searching for the perfect gifts in the local markets, for several people, most importantly, my staff. It’s always challenging when one of us is out of the office for an extended period of time and I like to show my gratitude. Nothing says “hey, thanks for covering for me” like sweet treats. Instead, I spent the last day in bed with the flu. Fortunately, I had already purchased a box of incredibly rich butter cookies but I wanted something additional. Suddenly I became that person shopping at the airport for a last minute gift and I headed straight for the Macaron cart. I was warmly welcomed back to my office, less likely due to being missed and more likely because I was bearing gifts. We started with the butter cookies which immediately elevated my status to that of “favorite boss”. Then, I pulled out the oh so French Macarons and became a legend. As everyone oo la la’d at the colorful confections, I decided the time was right and chose a red cookie. The texture was better than I expected. Slightly crisp on the outside, light and airy inside. You arrive at the creamy, whipped buttercream center before finishing with another colorful disc.  It was just like a little slice of French heaven on earth. We quickly finished the box and wanted more and the irony of all those missed Macaron eating opportunities deflated me like a chilled soufflé.
If you won’t be getting to Paris in the near future and are curious about these marvelous little confections, I’ll share a secret. You don’t have to go all the way to Paris, although I encourage you to do so. It’s as close as 1946 Campus Drive (Route 9), Hyde Park.  If you didn’t recognize the address it’s for the Culinary Institute of America.  Authentic Macarons are as close as the Apple Pie Bakery. You walk in, stand on line, look at the different flavor options in the display case and choose. You might wonder why anyone would pay $2.20 USD per cookie, but then you taste one and you know. If you’d like to try out your cookie-baking skills visit our facebook page to see the video and recipe for making authentic Macarons. Bon Apetit.
Photo source: http://asi.cpp.edu/campuscrop/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/macaron-whoopie-pie-workshop.jpg