Friday, July 18, 2014

Big Apple Birthday Affair

Birthdays are meant to be festive events, and when a milestone like 85 rolls around, the observance ought to be a big one.  "Where would you like to celebrate your 85th birthday?" we asked my mother.  When she picked up an apple and took a bite, we caught the hint—New York!  

This was not an easy choice.  A passionate traveler, Nanamama has left her footprints in all 50 of the United States—most of them multiple times.  But though she had been to New York City before, she had not visited the iconic sites and was ready to check off a few items on her NYC bucket list.  To round out the party, we invited sister Jeanne and nephew Steven, two of our favorite traveling pals and booked a flight for July 14.

Pre-trip celebration in Tennessee
Since Steven was the only non-driver among us, the rest of us motored to Tennessee to hook up with him for a flight from Nashville to Laguardia.  On Sunday, the night before the flight, our travel group had a celebratory dinner at P.F. Chang's in Franklin with Steven's mom, Kathy.  "By the way," Kathy cautioned, "you may have a bit of a problem with the weather tomorrow."  Her cousin had been delayed in Syracuse when his flight to Nashville that evening had been cancelled.  But our flight wasn't due to leave until Monday afternoon, we scoffed, confident that Sunday's thunderstorms would be barely a memory by the next day.

Day 1 - Monday, July 14

Monday:  Steven and Nanamama haven't seen all those cancellations and delays on the board
Kathy was correct.  On Monday, that same ferocious storm system had stalled over the Northeast.  Our 1:00 flight was delayed till 2:15, then cancelled.  Delta re-booked us on a 6 p.m. flight, just a few hours before notifying us that this flight also had been postponed—initially until 7:57, and again later to 8:42.  We had arrived at the airport, passed through security screening, and settled in for our wait at the gate by the time the final notification was issued.  This flight too, doubly delayed, had been cancelled, and Delta had re-re-booked us on a 7 a.m. flight Tuesday. How their agents must have been scrambling!  With a departure that early, we opted for a two-bedroom suite at a nearby airport hotel, hoped for better luck the next day, and called it a night.

Day 2 - Tuesday, July 15

Arrived in New York—CHECK!
Tuesday's weather was more congenial, and our flight lifted off without incident, landing at Laguardia on time at 10:15.  With five people in our party, we wouldn't fit in a standard taxi, so we had booked a car for the ride to our Manhattan hotel.  Wiro Limo, with whom we had been in constant contact throughout yesterday's schedule changes, had a driver waiting for us with a spacious Chevy Suburban.  As we rode through the clogged streets of Queens and into Manhattan, we learned that David, our driver, had moved to New York from the Dominican Republic in early September, 2001—less than a week before the events that would change the city and the nation forever.

Having lost one day of our trip, we hit the ground running.  OK, riding.  After dropping off our luggage at the Residence Inn on E. 48th Street, we discovered that David had no further engagements that morning.  So we made arrangements for him to drive us to Grand Army Plaza at the southern border of Central Park, where we could begin working on Nanamama's NYC bucket list.

Carriage Ride in Central Park—CHECK!
Lunch at Tavern on the Green—CHECK!
Then we were off to spend a few hours at the incomparable Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the United States and one of the world's ten largest.  David was still with us, carting us to Tavern on the Green and then to the Met.  When we arrived at the Met, we saw taxis by the dozen and said goodbye to David, confident we could find a suitable ride after our stroll through the exhibits.

Metropolitan Museum of Art—CHECK!
After several hours of exploration at the Met, including a little performance art by Nanamama and Steven in the European sculpture court, we were all ready to get back to the hotel and move into our rooms.  When we exited the museum, we began our search for a yellow minivan taxi that could transport five.  After watching hundreds of taxis stream past with only two minivans (both full) among them, we finally flagged a small SUV, whose driver assured us he had room for five.  Exhausted all, we squeezed in, ultimately settling Steven on my lap to enable us to have everyone belted in.  Lesson learned.  An almost 12-year-old boy who is about to pass you in height is not a child to carry on your lap.  We would not make this blunder again.

Exhausted from our early rising and full day of activity, we opted for dinner in the neighborhood and walked in the rain to 525LEX at the Marriott hotel around the corner on Lexington Avenue.  A satisfying meal and delectable shared dessert later, we sloshed back to the hotel and fell into a dreamless sleep.

Day 3 - Wednesday, July 16

Wednesday's weather forecast called for a 100% chance of rain for the morning, so we opted to reschedule our visit to the Statue of Liberty, which we had booked for 8 a.m.  Instead, David picked us up at 10 and we headed back north, this time for a visit to FAO Schwarz.  It wasn't on Nanamama's bucket list, but she loves to see Steven enjoy himself, and at the oldest toy store in the U.S., everyone feels like a kid again.

Playing the Big Piano at FAO Schwarz
Steven and Nanamama even played the Big Piano.  Though Steven was just dabbling, Nanamama, organist at her church for more than 50 years, stepped off an unconventional rendition of Amazing Grace.

The predicted rain had not materialized, so from FAO Schwarz, David shuttled us over to Rockefeller Plaza, where we gaped in the window at the Today show in progress, admired the plaza where the famous ice skating rink and Christmas tree mark the winter season, and took a peek at the amazing creations at the Lego store nearby.

Rockefeller Plaza—CHECK!
With 2:00 tickets to the new National September 11 Museum, we headed south toward the financial district with our faithful David at the wheel.  He dropped us off just north of the World Trade Center complex on Grennwich Street at the Blue Planet Grill, a contemporary restaurant serving brick oven pizza.  Though she was tempted by the wide array of menu offerings, Nanamama had a hankering for a Philly cheesesteak from a New York street vendor.  The restaurant staff graciously invited her to bring her sandwich in to dine with the rest of us, so everyone was happy.

Lunch from a street vendor—CHECK!
Fortified by lunch, we walked the few blocks south to the World Trade Center complex where we checked out the memorial to the victims and first responders of the 9/11 terrorist attacks before entering the museum.  Named "Reflecting Absence" by its designers, the memorial comprises a field of trees interrupted by two large recessed voids marking the footprints of the missing twin towers.   Each cavity is encircled with a waterfall around its perimeter with a smaller cascade in the center of the lower level.  Names of the victims are inscribed around the parapet.

9/11 Memorial
Between the two memorials is the National September 11 Museum.  Both the memorials and museum were respectful and somber tributes to the lives that were lost in this horrific event.  Exhibits in the museum put a face on the enormity of loss on that fateful day.

National September 11 Museum
Upon leaving the museum, we asked David to drive us to the South Street Seaport.  Though we had some interest in checking out this historic district with its restored 19th century commercial buildings and the tall ships docked there, our primary purpose was visiting the TKTS booth, a same-day discount ticket broker operated by the Theatre Development Fund.  At the time we arrived at the booth, about 4 p.m., the wildly popular TKTS location in Times Square, which opens at 3 p.m., probably had a thousand or more people in line.  At the quieter South Street booth, there was one group of four in front of us.  In less than five minutes, we scored five half-price tickets for that night's performance of the Tony Award winning Pippin.

South Street Seaport
Our transaction complete, we wandered around the seaport area for a few minutes, especially entertained by the trapeze school underway on one of the docks.  "Forget fear.  Worry about the addiction!" a sign advised.  That was not a concern for anyone in our group but we did enjoy a few minutes of vicarious frisson as the trainees boldly released their grip and flew through the air.

Times Square Toys R Us ferris wheel (not on the bucket list)
Too late for a respite at the hotel before our dinner and theater plans, we asked David to deliver us to Times Square, where we had just enough time to stop by the massive Toys R Us store for what we thought would be a quick ride on their in-store ferris wheel.  The ride turned out to be a stop-go six-revolution marathon for Steven, Nanamama and me, as the wheel halted for loading and unloading as almost every car reached the bottom.

Broadway Musical—CHECK!
(Photo from Theatre Development Fund
With the theater just a block away, we had dismissed David for the day.  So when we were finally were released from the ferris wheel, we walked around the corner to the convenient Crossroads restaurant inside the Marriott Marquis.  After an excellent meal, we stepped next door to the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street for the evening performance of Pippin, a circus-inspired musical fable about the fictional son of Charlemagne.  And thanks to Annie Potts' inviting the audience to sing along on the chorus of her solo, we can all say we performed in a Broadway musical.  Back to the hotel to rest up for our last full day in the city.

Day 4 - Thursday, July 17 

Still left over from the previous day's agenda, the Statue of Liberty loomed large on the bucket list and on the day's priorities for Thursday, as did the Empire State Building.  Tickets in hand for a 12:00 cruise to Liberty Island, we were picked up by David at 10 and made our way south toward lower Manhattan.  With plenty of time to spare, we stopped in at Wall Street to check on our investments and then slipped into the historic burial ground at nearby Trinity Church on Broadway, the final resting place of Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton, William Bradford, and other notable early Americans.

Wall Street—CHECK!
Continuing south on foot, we made our way to Battery Park just in time to join the long line for an airport style security screening prior to boarding the ferry to Liberty Island.  Thousands of other people wanted to visit the Lady that day, and the security staff did a commendable job moving visitors through the screening process efficiently.  Though the sun was beating down as we waited for screening and boarding, once we were on the ferry, the cooling breeze and a refreshing snack quickly made us forget our overheating.

Visit to Liberty Island—CHECK!
Always a Lady
After we paid our respects to the Lady, another ferry ride brought us back to Battery Park where the ever faithful David was waiting for us.  How he managed to deal with the crazy Manhattan traffic and always find a spot where he could wait for us was quite a mystery, but we were very grateful.  We piled into the SUV for a ride uptown to the Empire State Building.  By then, our snacks were fading so we made Foley's Irish Pub our first stop.  After lunch, we walked across W. 33rd Street to the Empire State Building.  As with the other major places we visited—the Met, Statue of Liberty, 9/11 Museum—we had purchased our tickets online, so the only queue we had to join was the one for the elevator ride to the main observation deck on the 86th floor, and later to the top deck on the 102nd floor.

Empire State Building—CHECK!
From the main observation deck, Nanamama picked out a sign she had been looking for—Macy's, the world's largest store.  So when we made our way back to street level, we parted ways.  Ken returned to the hotel on foot, while the rest of us went to Macy's.

Shopping at Macy's flagship New York store—CHECK!
An hour of shopping later, we caught a cab back to the hotel and decided to return to 525LEX for dinner when the wait at the seafood place across the street stretched beyond an hour.  Then it was back to the hotel to pack up and prepare for a 9 a.m. transfer to the airport the next morning.

Day 5 - Friday, July 18

Since we knew that David would not be driving us back to the airport due to previous engagement, we had bidden him farewell the previous day.  His reliability, cordial service and unflappable demeanor added immeasurably to our enjoyment of New York.  Friday's skies were clear, and our return flight to Nashville was routine and uneventful, a pleasant change.  Everyone in our traveling birthday party gave two thumbs up to our three-day exploration of New York, agreeing that we couldn't have asked for better traveling companions.

Happy 85th Birthday—CHECK!

More Photos from the Birthday Trip to New York

Our wonderful driver, David
Meeting another transporter
Monet at the Met
Our travel angel, Jeanne
Steven does a little magic
Performance art at the Met's sculpture court
A fun place for all ages
The new One World Trade Center tower
The last column removed from Ground Zero
At the Music Box Theatre waiting for Pippin to begin
The beautifully landscaped Trinity Churchyard
Trinity Churchyard
Liberty Island ferry
Nanamama on the Empire State observation deck
Posing for tourists on the observation deck
Empire State Building lobby
Jeanne, who is no longer afraid of heights, at the Empire State Building
So, why do they call it the Flatiron Building?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Heavenly Days

THE BIG CHILL, The Final Chapter

Less than an hour after we returned home, we began to wonder whether we had dreamed up Newfoundland and Labrador or if such a place really existed.  Unpacking our bags, we laughed as we pulled out long johns and winter caps.  In the sweltering South, it hardly seemed possible that we wearing such items just a week ago.  Now all that's left is looking back on the memories of two weeks at the eastern edge of the continent.

East Coast Trail at Signal Hill, St. John's
More than a thousand years ago, the Vikings made landfall on the remote northern coast of what would become Newfoundland—the first Europeans to journey to the New World.  What they found was not unlike what we saw in 2014—rugged coastlines guarded by barren cliffs, rocky landscapes with only a thin layer of soil, and vast expanses of emptiness dotted with huge glacial boulders deposited randomly over the land.  Over the intervening millennium, only the hardiest souls have chosen to make Newfoundland and Labrador their home—those who scoff at the challenges of six months of winter in a land where snow drifts have been known to completely conceal two-story houses, who are willing to drive 30 miles from home to find a tiny plot of soil worthy of gardening, and who crave the combination of solitude and beauty that only this remote land can offer.  And those who choose it don't just tolerate Newfoundland.  They love it fiercely.  We met numerous locals who told us they had tried living elsewhere but couldn't wait to come home to Newfoundland.

Light station near Signal Hill
For the rest of us, we'll just visit and enjoy the province on our own terms, rushing home when nature pushes back to separate the men from the boys.  Before we finish up with our visit to this enchanting place, we should state that the correct pronunciation is not 'new-FOUND-land' nor is it 'NEW-fun-len,' as we were prone to say before our visit.  The authentic Newfie pronunciation is 'new-fin-LAND' with emphasis on the land, not its 'new'-ness or its 'found' status.

In our all too brief two weeks traveling around Newfoundland and a tiny, tiny sliver of Labrador, we observed a number of things which we came to think of as distinctively Newfoundlandish.  Though they may exist elsewhere, they occurred there in numbers too large to be coincidence.  Some were self-evident, while others required some assistance from a Newfie to understand their purpose and meaning.

Trash Boxes
Beyond urban areas like St. John's and Corner Brook, virtually every house in Newfoundland has a wooden receptacle near the roadside for the purpose of storing garbage.  They come in an endless variety of designs, some to match the house, some just whimsical.  Some sport the house number, and some even support the mailbox.  Whatever the design, they keep seabirds, bears or whatever other wildlife your neighborhood harbors out of your garbage.

Roadside Woodpiles
Another familiar sight along Newfoundland and Labrador roads, especially in the Northern Peninsula, was an endless string of roadside woodpiles.  Individuals pay a government permit to cut wood on public land.  Then the wood is hauled to a roadside area for storage, where longer logs are arranged in a pyramid, teepee style, to allow them to dry out. Once seasoned, the wood is chopped to stove length and stacked in neat, standard size rows.  Often the telephone number of the pile's owner will be painted on a board and attached to the pile for the convenience of purchasers.  Winter lasts six months in Newfoundland, and fuel prices are very high, so most families go through lots of firewood each year.  

Like the roadside gardens, these woodpiles are not targets for theft.  According to locals, you don't steal from your neighbor in Newfoundland.  The harsh conditions and often brutal winters require a culture of interdependence for survival. 

Firewood Sleds
For convenience, trees are cut in winter for the following year's firewood.  Since every family owns a snowmobile, hauling the wood from the cutting location to storage is much easier with a snowmobile-pulled sled.  And these are stored along the roadside also.

Rock Box Bases
Try as we might we were never able to obtain a definitive answer for why some utility poles in Newfoundland had rock-filled wooden frames at their bases.  Among the replies locals offered were that the ground was too rocky or too boggy to support the pole.  Yet often, as pictured here, one pole would have what we came to call the rock box base while an adjacent pole did not.

Roadside Gardens
As we already mentioned in another blog post, roadsides in Newfoundland, especially those on the northern peninsula, are lined with individually operated gardens.  With topsoil at such a premium, no right-minded Newfoundlander would build a house in a place with loamy soil, so they live on rock on the coast and garden along the highway inland where road construction turned up sufficient arable soil.

Mother-in-Law Doors
The first time we saw a door with no steps we thought it odd or just incomplete.  After seeing them in larger numbers, even on two story houses, there was a pattern.  According to local lore, most Newfoundland houses were built by the people who live in them.  For practical purposes, they put the entrance at the back through a mud room going into the kitchen.  Then after Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, the federal government mandated that all houses have a front door and a back door for fire safety.  So Newfoundlanders complied; they installed the front doors.  The mother-in-law moniker should be obvious.

Fishing Stages
Fishing stages are small, usually rudimentary, elevated sheds at water's edge in coastal village harbors.  Vital to the traditional cod industry, stages were used to offload and process fish for salting and drying.  Also known as fishing rooms, these ubiquitous structures inspired the design of Newfoundland's provincial museums in St. John's, which are called The Rooms and which dominate the city skyline.  (See The Rooms at the top of the photo here.)

Brilliant Color
Whether it's atmospheric conditions or just the halo effect of a colorful palette, we couldn't say, but the colors in Newfoundland appeared much deeper, more saturated to us than in other places.  Whether there is a genuine difference or it was just an optical illusion, our cameras reflected the brilliance also.

East Coast Trail at Signal Hill
Back in 2010, we spent a month-long road trip in the maritime provinces of Canada and wanted to include Newfoundland on our agenda.  Alas, we were traveling in April and May, and ferry service to Newfoundland from Nova Scotia didn't begin until late June.  Four years later, we can say Newfoundland was worth the wait.  From the breathtaking scenery to the hospitable people, the province is a top-notch destination.  In just two weeks, we began to understand the old Newfoundland saying about the afterlife:

You can always tell the Newfoundlanders in heaven.  They're the ones who want to go home.

June 26, 2014

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