Give a Man a Fish

Recently, I was asked to help serve dinner at a local shelter that provides meals and a place to stay at night for those without a home. It was a last minute request but I immediately said “yes”. I joined a small crew of other volunteers in the kitchen of a local Church. There were five of us. A husband and wife team were preparing a large basic salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. We were expecting to feed approximately sixty people and I worried whether we would have enough food. The irony wasn’t lost on me as I realized that the people we’d be feeding must ask themselves the same question every day. Two other volunteers had each prepared a large casserole tray comprised of chicken for protein, root vegetables, creamy soup to form a sauce and add taste. Pasta stretched the meal to feed as many as possible.  Only two of us headed to the shelter where we would meet a third volunteer. The first task was to set the diner style tables, each able to seat 4 people. We laid down the paper napkins and covered them with a 3 piece setting of plastic utensils. A holiday touch of chocolate biscotti wrapped with a paper band sporting a turkey, was placed beside the cutlery. The three of us worked in tandem. One person ensured the food was hot enough to warm the night chill out of the bones of our “guests”. She also plated the food. Two of us took the role of wait staff. We served 3 shifts of 20 diners. With each plate I presented I was thanked. When a request was made for an additional slice of bread it was asked without expectation but with hope. The biscotti brought smiles to weary faces. Many saved the treat, perhaps to savor later or because they did not know when the next meal would come.Image result for soup kitchen

You may wonder what this has to do with travel. My answer is “nothing” but yet, “everything”. Hunger is not unique to certain areas. Indeed, I have seen hunger around the world. Guilt creeps in knowing that I make an effort to control what I eat while others must ration the gift of someone’s left over food. It troubles me when I see food being tossed in the garbage knowing someone will likely pull it out to feed themselves or their family. Being able to travel is a privilege. Being able to have regular food shouldn’t be.  Food insecurity is not unique to the United States, it’s universal. Unfortunately, it may be one of the issues that most nations have in common.

The problem is much closer to home than you might want to believe. Dutchess County is rated as one of the top ten counties in New York State. Yet locally, many go to bed hungry.    It’s called food insecurity. Far too many face a daily challenge of providing themselves with sustenance until the next meal is secured. There’s a saying that you might find familiar “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”  Unfortunately, some people are in a position where they can’t learn to “fish” or worse, they’ve given up trying. I still carry regret about an incident in Grand Central Station. My train wasn’t due to leave for 30 minutes and I purchased dinner from a food stall. I had eaten about half of my meal and wrapped the leftovers to bring home. A young man approached me and asked “excuse me, are you going to finish that?”  I replied “yes” and he wished me a good day. It didn’t occur to me that he might be hungry. Shame washes over me when I think about how humbled or desperate a person must have been to ask me for my leftover dinner and I refused. Surely I wouldn’t have suffered from missing a meal but it likely had been a while since he had eaten.

As the holidays approach this can often be a season of “want“: I want a big screen plasma television, I want a new Iphone, but for many, the needs are simpler. I want my stomach to stop hurting from hunger. I want a coat to keep me warm as I search for a place to spend the night. I want to feel safe when I close my eyes. I want to know that someone, somewhere cares about me. Feeding America.org states on its website that in 2015 “42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children.” That number represents 15.8 million households or 13% of all households countrywide. One local deejay has been extremely successful at filling the coffers of the local food bank for more than a decade. Mark Bolger’s original food drive project, was created during his previous job at another radio station. Today, Suff the Bus continues under the helpful direction of the Iheart media team.

This year they were successful in collecting 12,000 pounds of food and $10,000.00 in cash, surely a testament to the worthiness of the cause.  Mr. Bolger further supported the effort in his current position on Mix 97.7 when he created Jam the Van. If success can be measured in tractor trailers, the radio station was doubly successful having filled two with food donations. Jam the Van also raised approximately $18,000. According to their broadcasts each dollar raised equates to $10.00 worth of food. I say “Bravo” and well done! $180,000.00 will now be available to Hudson Valley residents needing a helping hand. I’m not rich but if I can manage to feed stray animals I reasoned that I sure as heck can find the means to help feed my fellow humans. One request from a friend asking me to help at a homeless shelter provided the opportunity. In this season of plenty I urge you to remember those who have very little. Please do your best to look past the reason and instead search for a solution. Taking my own advice I approached the venture with the intention to not presume or to judge. I didn’t need to know why someone didn’t have a job or a home or a family who cared about them. I wasn’t looking to lay blame or fault and I sure as heck know that I’m not going to solve the hunger problem even in Dutchess County. But, I do know that, much like the starfish tale, that night at the shelter, my efforts made a difference for someone.Image result for charity

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Harvest Moon

Roasted turkey with stuffing, sweet and mashed potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce, apple pie and pumpkin pie; these are the traditional foods of the Canadian Thanksgiving. The similarities, including football games make you wonder which celebration came first; American or Canadian. Canada celebrates on the second Monday of October and their holiday predates ours by almost 50 years.  While the exact origins of their reasons for giving thanks are not clear, it is most widely attributed to Martin Frobisher who set sail from England. Grateful for his safe arrival to New Foundland he decided a party was in order and the tradition continues to this day.  As Americans we too have a lot to celebrate and have a national holiday that allows us to reflect upon our bounty and give thanks once a year.  When it comes to classic American holidays, the tradition of gathering around the Thanksgiving table is at the top of the list.  The image is so beloved it was immortalized by Norman Rockwell in one of his most iconic and recognizable pieces in the 4 Freedoms collection called “Freedom From Want”.

The United States will celebrate Thanksgiving this week and while we consider it to be an “American” holiday, Canada and other countries demonstrate that the giving of thanks is not unique to our culture. Indeed, humankind has been giving thanks for centuries.  It was the Pilgrims who first sat down to feast in 1621 and are recognized as being the originators of what we now call Thanksgiving. In 1863 President Lincoln elevated the party status to National Holiday.  Many cultures also hold an annual celebration to give thanks or to celebrate the Harvest Moon and the bounty she delivers. Let’s take a quick trip around the world.

Israel: Sukkot, also spelled as Succoth, is the 7 day Jewish Festival often called the Feast of the Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths. The unusual festival name originates from Sukkots which are hut like shelters.. This represents the nomadic dwellings that sheltered the Jewish people as they spent 40 years in the desert. It is also a celebration and time of giving thanks for the bountiful Autumn harvest crop enjoyed following the fast of the High Holy Days.Image result for sukkot

A traditional observance of the holiday will often include a recreation of the temporary structures, known as Sukkah, in public places of worship and in the backyards of the faithful. To honor their ancestors, Jewish families will dine and may even sleep in the Sukkah. The Sukkah are purposely built as temporary structures which also represents that life is temporary. Sukkot was observed this year on the evening of October 17 and will be celebrated next year on the evening of October 5, 2017.

China: The Chinese people celebrate the Mid Autumn festival, an event that I’ve written about in a previous article. Visiting Hong Kong late one September and searching for a place to have dinner I was drawn in by the noise of what sounded like a party. In fact it was a street festival, a celebration in honor of the Full Moon and I was lucky enough to arrive just in time to see the dragon dance performed. I will never forget the colors, the energy and the excitement of that spectacle. Sampling moon cakes and strolling among the colorful stalls was also memorable and I’ll always be grateful that I wandered a bit further and allowed my curiosity to lead me to a wonderful experience.

Barbados: Closer to home, in the Caribbean Sea, the island of Barbados celebrates Crop Over. The Bajan Festival blends the traditions of both England and African harvest celebrations and signals the end of sugar cane harvest season. While, no longer a staple crop of the British influenced island, the locals have kept the party going. Calypso music, elaborate costumes, parades and the ceremonial delivering of the last cane of the season make this a unique gratitude festival. The Crop Over season lasts from May to August culminating in Grand Kadooment Day. Best described as the Grand Finale with a colorful and grand parade and street carnival.

Africa: If you’re a fan of yams there’s a party just for you. I do love yams. It doesn’t matter if they’re baked, fried or mashed, I love the sweet potato so much, I’m happy to eat it plain, straight out of its warm, steaming jacket. Imagine my delight to learn that there’s an entire festival dedicated to celebrating yams. As a root crop it’s a staple of the diet of many cultures, especially in poorer nations. A bounty of yams that can be stored for months means that there will be a steady supply of food and that’s worth celebrating.  Harvest feasts are held during the Fall period on two continents both in Africa and Papua New Guinea. Parades, dancing and singing, tribal drumming and eating yams are all a central part of the festivities.Image result for african yams

Great Britain: The Brits hold their own version of a Harvest Festival and it is considered to be one of the oldest known of all the Harvest Festivals. According to website “Country File” there is a charming tradition of making corn dolls from the last sheaths of the harvest which expressed the farmers’ joy and hope for the future. The dolls were placed on the banquet tables when parishes held their huge feasts and kept until the Spring to ensure the continuation of a good crop next year.  This custom began with Saxon farmers, who believed the last sheath contained the spirit of the corn and represented the goddess of the grain.

Australia: Autumn arrives “early” down under. The geographic location of the continent is such that the Aussie Fall coincides with our Spring. Therefore, harvest time arrives in March and so does the annual festival celebrating the crops of grapes and apples.  Instead of sitting down for one big feast, the locals party for days.  The Aussies will compete in grape crushing competitions which naturally leads to wine competitions. Street carnivals and a grand parade are a part of the festivities and nothing says “thanks for the bounty” better than fireworks. For the Grand Finale no festival is complete without the crowning of an ‘apple n grape’ ambassador.

So many people and so many countries with so many problems still have much for which to be grateful. The celebrations may differ but they are a direct reflection of the people who are celebrating. The one thing we all have in common is gratitude.  As you sit down with family and friends, holding hands around the table and giving thanks for the bounty in your lives I wish you a joyous celebration.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Over the River and Through the Woods

Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year.  The statement might seem odd at first if you equate “travel” with flying. However, the majority of people travelling over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house are most likely to do so by car on the day of the holiday. When the last piece of pie has been eaten, AAA estimates that 46.9 million Americans will have travelled to be with family and friends. The majority will travel during the holiday period between Wednesday and Sunday. That number represents an increase over the previous year and is expected to either remain the same or increase again this year.  Driving is often the preferred method for destinations 300 miles or less.Image result for traffic It’s more economical as a family of four to pay for gas rather than airline tickets. However, let’s say your relatives live in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina which is just under 600 miles south. The average airline ticket from NYC during a non-holiday period currently costs approximately $193.00 per person. For a family of 4 your total travel cost is a reasonable $772.00. Let’s look at the same airline, same flights for November 23 returning November 28, 2016. The rate is $462.00 per person at the time I am writing this. Multiply $462.00 by 4 passengers and you are at a whopping total of $1848.00. That number is pre seat assignment cost and paid checked luggage. This local family would need to depart their home 4 hours prior to flight time to drive to the airport. Once there, they need to locate a parking space, check their luggage, be cleared for travel by airport security and still arrive at the departure gate on time. If they lift off as scheduled for the hour and 45 minute flight, you’re looking at a total time investment of almost 6 hours. If the same family packed the SUV, loaded the kiddies and hit the road, their drive time would be between 9 to 10 hours. The extra 4 hours in each direction could yield a savings of at least $1076. That hefty total might be enough to tempt many to drive. Some distances are just too great to attempt with a young family. Despite the hefty costs, longer distances are often best accomplished by flying. This mode requires much more preparation if you wish to get the dates, times and the rates you want. When planning to reserve a holiday period flight, it is best to devise a plan that focuses on organization, a willingness to get in the game and commitment to a strategy. This is the travel industry’s Super Bowl and the best prepared team is usually successful.Image result for crowded airport

It can be a challenge to find reasonably priced fares. Especially on flights from the local airports that will allow you to work a full day and yet make it in time for pre-dinner festivities. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Avoid connecting flights during any holiday even if it saves $100.00 or more. The money you save won’t be worth it if you find yourself stranded in Chicago due to a missed connection. I suppose you could use the $100.00 you saved to buy snacks and beverages while you wait for your next flight.
  2. Pack the car and fill your gas tank the night before departure. This will eliminate the extra time spent double checking the house for anything left behind.  You also avoid an additional 15 minutes of anxiety if you have to wait in longer than normal lines for the fuel pumps.
  3. If your drive to the airport takes 2 hours, you should allow 3 hours to make the same drive in case you get stuck in holiday traffic.
  4. Increase the regular 2 hour check in time at the airport for domestic flights to 3 hours. For international flights increase your arrival at the airport from 3 to 4 hours prior. It’s amateur time, baby, and the airports will be filled with novices unaccustomed to packing correctly to ensure an expedient check in. It’s likely that security lines will move slower than normal.
  5. Pack your own snacks in case of delays and to save money. Fortunately, airport food is getting better but the higher prices reflect not only the increase in quality but also the convenience.

Perhaps the stress of the airport or the cost of the flights has you thinking about driving to be with your family in Raleigh-Durham. Departing from Dutchess County you would drive approximately 600 miles in each direction. If your car averaged 30 miles per gallon highway driving, you might expect to use 40 gallons of fuel.  The cost of gas in the local area is an average 2.39 per gallon and will decrease as you drive South, eventually dropping to an average of $2.20. If I use only the New York pricing we can expect that your total travel cost should be under $100.00. That number doesn’t include the snacks purchased during rest area stops.

Opting to drive allows you to set your own schedule. You determine your own departure and arrival times. It is also a premium opportunity to encourage family bonding. Trivia games, singing with the radio or playing an old fashioned round of “I Spy” (I spy something red with 8 sides = a stop sign) are fun ways to pass the time.  I also spy a good chance to sneak in a geography lesson. Parents could prepare trivia information for each state they’ll pass through to teach the kids or grandkids about state capitols, and historic landmarks. The names of local sport teams might spark enthusiasm as you wind your way down or across the states. This is memory making at its best and NO headsets allowed. Talk about how they are related to the people they will be meeting. Sneak in a good manners lesson about how to greet people. Explain what a “Kid’s table” is. Pack pillows and blankets for mid trip naps.Image result for sleeping in car Bring sandwiches, snacks and beverages to keep costs and stops along the way to a minimum. Bathroom and refueling breaks will be necessary and you don’t want anyone to be tempted by expensive sugary treats and snacks available for sale.

This might seem like a lot of effort and it will be but it will be worth it. Of all the suggestions I offer above, the best advice is this: remember to be grateful for the bounty that is your family.

Pay to Play

Are you old enough to remember buying an airline ticket, receiving a seat assignment, and being welcomed aboard a clean plane? Your luggage was checked without a fee, and as you settled into the aisle seat you requested, the Flight Attendant handed you a complimentary blanket. You also received a headset that allowed you to enjoy the complimentary in flight entertainment. A selection of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages accompanied a hot meal on long flights or a snack on shorter flights.Image result for airline food cart

An experience such as this can still be had aboard international carriers. On domestic flights it’s gone the way of airport porters and refundable economy tickets and both no longer exist. The airlines say it’s all about “options”. I say it’s about profit.  Their seemingly selfless goal is to allow each passenger to choose his or her amenities to personalize their trip to their liking. I would call that fancy marketing.  The air carriers graciously allow you to pay more if you want an aisle or window seat. You can also pay more if you wish to have the exit aisle with the extra legroom, but buyer beware.Image result for crowded airplane seats The mantle of authority is transferred to you because sitting at the exit row comes with additional responsibility. In the event of an emergency, should it become necessary, you will be the hero who unlocks and opens the emergency door. Your mission, should you accept it, also includes assisting others off the plane before you too, beat a hasty retreat. Perhaps they should pay you for agreeing to do what should be the responsibility of the crew. Once airborne, you’ll barely have time to put your seat back tray in an upright and locked position before flight attendants will offer headsets for sale, mileage earning credit cards and Sky Mall catalogs from which the truly bored with extra money order odd items to be delivered to their home. From the very first time a passenger paid to sit on the aisle I hung my head, recognizing the beginning of the end of basic on board amenities. The amenities are still available to passengers but no longer on a complimentary basis. Most carriers proudly proclaim that it’s all about choice. From my middle seat the only choice I see is pay for good service or don’t pay and receive no service.  Surely, we all deserve a fair amount of leg room? At five foot two I rarely have space issues. Still, I sit in solidarity with my fellow, taller travelers who are allotted less legroom than found at the local movie theatre. You usually pay about $10.00 at the theatre but at least you get a first run movie with decent sound quality. Today’s modern theatres offer seats that recline to a comfortable position and some even swivel.  Why should we have to pay to check luggage? Surely if we were taking a short jaunt we would drive our own vehicles and fill our trunks or hatchbacks and depart on time. It’s obvious, at least to me, that if we’re flying, it’s most likely to a destination out of local driving range. Shouldn’t it be presumed that we will need to bring some personal items along for the ride? The only travelers I’ve met who didn’t need to bring luggage were business travelers and nudists. I know what business fares cost. Believe me when I tell you that business travelers pay air rates high enough to allow you, me and everyone in rows 15 through 19 to check luggage for free. Business folk might need a change of shirt, underwear and a briefcase filled with paperwork and nudists, well they just need a toothbrush and some sunscreen. Seats and meals were just the start of the fees. It used to be a pleasure to escort a young adventurer on their very first flight. Most airlines even had special toys or coloring books for the wee solo travelers. The toys are long gone and have been replaced with fees as high as $100.00 in each direction to send Junior to visit Grandma. My estimates put the sky high babysitting cost at about $2.00 a minute.Image result for empty wallet

That’s long enough to escort the UM (unaccompanied minor) to their seat and assure that their seat belt is fastened correctly. They get checked on a few times during the flight and then after arriving at their destination, are walked off into the loving arms of their waiting family. I’m not sure how the airlines justify this fee since it would be a challenge for the minor to wander off a moving aircraft and get lost. If you’ve decided that you just can’t leave your best friend home you can expect to pay anywhere from $35.00 to $195.00 for Fido’s flight, in each direction. That’s a lot of kibble, especially since the pet carrier is expected to go under seat in front of you where you would normally place a carry on bag. As an animal lover, with that fee, I would expect the royal treatment for my dog to include a special showing of “Lassie” and gourmet biscuits.Image result for animals in suitcase

The bright side to all of these fees is that airfare prices have remained fairly constant through the decades. My very first flight was to Florida and the cost of the transportation was somewhere south of $200.00. Today you can book a nonstop flight from New York to Miami for under $160.00 including taxes! That’s definitely progress. It’s your choice to raise that fare by paying the fees for extra luggage or food or movies or legroom with the key word being “choice”. There are fewer airlines flying today compared to 30 years ago but competition remains vigorous and the airlines look for ways to keep their costs low so their prices remain lean and accessible to the masses. Deregulation of the airlines may have been the catalyst for the competition but charging fees is now part of a long term concierge style strategy and is here to stay.

A Brief History of Cruising

In the beginning, ships set out on perilous journeys in search of new lands to conquer. This was usually at the behest of a greedy King or Queen and far from luxurious. Often sailing for months, the most a crew member could hope for was to survive the journey and arrive alive at their intended destination.  An equally successful return to home port was a bonus. Pleasing his or her Majesty with whatever riches or new land discoveries and acquisitions they procured along the way usually guaranteed a better life.  Trade was also a primary motivation as precious metals, spices, textiles and other goods were brought back to homelands with hopes of currying favor. The failures outweighed the success and many a stolen treasure is still to be found at the bottom of very deep oceans.  Eventually ships morphed into fishing and whaling vessels procuring food and coveted whale bone. However, it would be centuries before average people would board a boat by choice. Fast forward to the very late 1800’s when Albert Ballin believed that the well-heeled would enjoy boarding a ship for fun and relaxation. According to www.cruisehistory.com   Mr. Ballin is considered to be the “inventor and father of the pleasure cruise”. He straddled two worlds as a Jew in Germany and a successful ship designer that brought riches to the German government before ultimately being branded as a traitor and taking his own life. However his successes are his legacy. Cruise lines such as Holland America owe a nod of respect towards his vision of the Prinzessin Viktoria Luise. The ship was designed to recreate the experience found in luxurious European hotels while providing passage simultaneously. These were the golden days of travel where men and women filled trunks with frocks and waist coats. Each day aboard the ocean liner saw several changes of outfits based upon the day’s itinerary and social functions. Passage was booked by “class” which also determined the prominence of where your cabin would be located, the level of service you received and in which restaurant you would dine. As a nod to this former elegance in cruising, today’s Cunard Cruise Line still observes the tradition of cabin position determining your dining experience. Image result for prinzessin victoria luise cruise ship

The potential of bringing cruising to the masses was eventually recognized and Carnival Cruise Line was the first company to bring fun to the seas. Their colorful casual laid back style appealed to the suit wearing, schedule keeping, nine to fivers who wanted to do anything on their vacation, except dress for dinner. Their food was adequate but plentiful and the juxtaposition of a superior wine list to moderate food was due to the fact that the former CEO of the company was a bonafide oenophile. Not wanting to be left in the wake of a competing cruise company Norwegian Cruise Line took it a step further by morphing into “Freestyle” cruising where jeans could now be worn in the dining room and reservations or timed seatings were a thing of the past. True, Norwegian had a rough start and a lot of negative experiences with the new program but its current success can be measured by the number of copycats. However, what Norwegian didn’t get right, other cruise lines did by learning from Norwegian’s mistakes. Norwegian’s lack of initial success was mostly due to assuming that the passengers wouldn’t notice that the same restaurant that was serving breakfast by day was being presented as an Italian Restaurant by night. The passengers weren’t fooled by the thinly veiled quick change and the complaints came rolling in like waves on the ocean. Competing cruise lines took note and refined the experience in a way that allowed both freestyle and traditional dining on the same ship by utilizing multi-tiered dining venues. Today’s cruise lines come in all shapes and sizes. Smaller ships plying smaller bodies of American waters such as the St. Lawrence or Mississippi Rivers have revived a feeling of Americana. Surely, you will be just as surprised as I to learn that there are over 250,000 rivers in the United States. Exploration of European waterways with their locks and castles and easy access to magnificent European cities has almost quintupled. The popularity of river cruising is such that it is one of the fastest growing markets in the travel industry. Large cruise lines are entering the river cruise market while ironically, Viking River Cruises, one of the most familiar river cruise companies is literally testing the ocean waters by debuting a larger ship.  Ships built 20 years ago that were considered large carrying a mere 2000 passengers now seem dwarfed by today’s mega liners carrying 5000 passengers. These vessels now offer dozens of entertainment venues and unique experiences that include an ice bar complete with faux fur coats for you to don during your chilly visit. Celebrity chefs such as Guy Fieri have food outlets on board with special menus for cruise passengers. Microbreweries and entertainment by Blueman Group can also be found at sea.Image result for blue man group Your children can meet Sponge Bob Square Pants while sailing and even Mickey Mouse himself has dipped his oversized feet into the water with great success. Yet, there is still a market for Mid size liners or as we in the travel industry call them “classic ships”. These smaller vessels might have fewer activity options but offer an attractive starting price and are also less likely to overwhelm first time cruisers. The fastest growing sector in the cruise industry today is river cruising both exotic and domestic. Smaller ships host fewer passengers than large cruise ships and offer choices that range from relaxed atmosphere to upscale ambiance. Combining incredible views of European cities and curated menus that reflect the locale gives an intimate experience that can’t be found aboard large ships.  Imagine visiting exotic Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, aboard a 30 passenger boat. You immerse yourself into an exotic land and return to the familiar comfort of a ship designed with Western passengers in mind. As the competition has increased and cruise lines began to fail, consolidation was inevitable. Long time cruisers will remember the popular Home Lines Cruises which was absorbed by Celebrity Cruises, which, by the way, is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines who also own Azamara Cruise Lines. Is your head spinning? You will likely be surprised to learn that Carnival Cruise Lines, one of the biggest players in the casual cruising markets owns Holland America, Cunard Lines, Princess Cruises and the luxury Seabourn line. According to Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, 2015 saw a record breaking 3 million cruise passengers visiting 1000 ports of call and the debut of 22 new ships. These are impressive numbers but more notable to me is that not one of these ships nor those in the past single ship has ever borne the name Albert Ballin.Image result for norwegian cruise line

 

 

Bikes, Boats, and Beer

I’ve recently visited Amsterdam, Netherlands. As part of my “job” I get to tell people why they should visit the city and what they should see and do during their stay. You can insert the classic response: “it’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it”, but that actually is part of my job.  I do hope I can entice you to visit the city by sharing my experiences. It would be easy to sum up Amsterdam with the 3 “B’s”: Bicycles, Boats and Beer but Amsterdam is more complicated than that. The city has a unique and open culture that works well for them. The locals only ask that you respect their freestyle living and get out of the way of fast rolling bikes. Known as the Venice of the North, Amsterdam has almost 1300 bridges (an extra “B”!)  crossing 165 canals. Bicycles are the primary mode of transportation for most Amsterdammers but you also find public forms of transportation that include trams and buses. The congested traffic provides proof that there is an abundance of automobiles as well. You will sometimes see drivers dare to challenge a bicyclist for space and usually lose. The Dutch version of the family station wagon consists of mom on a bike with a basket full of groceries. Dad is rolling alongside with one kid in front of him sitting on the handlebars and a younger child behind him in a special bicycle seat. It was not unusual to see a family travelling together on bicycles with the youngest child using training wheels. They deftly and daringly weave in and out of busy 6 lane traffic, assuming that they have the right of way. Even if it weren’t a given right, they would still claim it for their own. Most bicycles are equipped with bells and you will hear the ting, ting as a bicyclist whizzes past you leaving you wondering how they seemingly came out of nowhere. Bicycle parking lots dot the streets with some housing thousands of bikes at a time. I could not determine a system that easily allowed a bike owner to retrieve his or her bicycle and quite frankly, one bike looks like another to me. Perhaps the riders just took the most easily accessible bike at the moment. Many riders will use bicycle chains and you will see bikes secured to fences, sign posts, light poles, store fronts and even to other chained bikes. According to the official Iamsterdam.com website “an estimated 800,000 people or 63 percent of the population use their bikes on a daily basis. 32% of traffic movement within the city is by bicycle compared to 22 percent by automobile and only 16 percent by public transportation”. In the very center of the city 48 percent of people get where they’re going by riding a bicycle.

Boats are also popular as an alternative transportation choice thanks to the 100 kilometers of canals that wind through the city. To us non-metric Americans, that’s 62 miles of water flowing past beautiful historic homes and buildings. Floating through Amsterdam offers an easy alternative and unique way to navigate a congested city. In addition to the privately owned boats, hundreds of public sightseeing vessels allow visitors the chance to see the city from a different perspective at water level. It’s relaxing and depending upon the time of day you might also be able to enjoy a luncheon or dinner cruise. Commercial exchanges such as floating bars and restaurants and souvenir shops are common but my favorite use of a boat was the De Poezenboot. Translated as “the Cat Boat” it’s a loose play on words referencing Puss in Boots and is a floating cat rescue and adoption organization.

Beer! If your first thought is to grab a Heineken in downtown Amsterdam you’d be surprised at how wrong that answer is. The locally brewed beverage is not the local favorite apparently due to the Amsterdammers’ distaste for the company’s perceived gross capitalism.  In a city where one bar alone serves over 200 types of bottled beer and at least a dozen more on tap, you could grab a craft beer every night for 9 months and never repeat a variety. Unless of course you chose to do so. This is a city that takes its beer seriously, very seriously. The history of beer making in Amsterdam goes back to the Middle Ages when a lack of clean drinking water forced the locals to seek options that didn’t include a side of dysentery. Beer had the additional bonus of making homely wives more desirable, work places more tolerable and dinner time more sociable. There’s no doubt that that the Dutch share recipes with the local neighbors Belgium and Germany, two countries that also know a thing or two about hops. As a non-beer drinker I must rely on the locals who informed me that the best beers on the Dutch market are produced by companies most of us won’t recognize. Breweries such as La Trappe, De Molen and Emelisse,  consistently top the “best Dutch beers” lists. Each brewery produces multiple varieties giving beer connoisseurs lots to taste and talk, or perhaps argue, about.

There is a 4th “B” – one that is whispered about in the States but spoken of openly and is on display in “Anything goes Amsterdam”. I’m coyly referencing “Babes”. Amsterdam has a very active Red Light District. Yes, it’s legal but obviously there have to be some limits so, photos of the women on display in the windows are not allowed. There are very big men who will not so gently remind you of this by confiscating your camera. Within this Red Light District, you will occasionally find a blue light indicating that while the “women” in the windows might look like women, looks can sometimes be deceiving. Buyers might want to beware.

Acceptance is both a choice and a lifestyle in Amsterdam and seems to work extremely well for the locals. It might be a bit shocking for others but if you approach the experience with an open mind it might be the most interesting vacation you’ve ever had.

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.