The Subway Is Not Your Personal Chauffeur

 

© Mae East 2012

I’ve started taking the train to “work” recently. I say that loosely, because although I am working, it is for free.  I used to take the train and subway regularly as a kid in high school, and I probably never really paid attention to everything that was going on around me. Sure, I looked out for my friends and lectured them on street smarts, but I’m sure I was pretty careless when it came to watching my own back.

The other day I sat there, as the train shot into the city and found it fascinating how different people are, even though we are crammed into the same environment. I suppose one could say the same thing for humans living on earth together, but in such a small and compact location, the differences in behavior were amusing.

Things I decided to never do on the train, based on observation:

  1. Wear headphones, at least not on both ears. I see people of all ages and demographics walking through the subway in a total fog because they do not hear what is going on around them. To be honest, it makes me nervous. They’d never hear feet pounding the linoleum behind them, or a warning call. Be aware of your surroundings.
  2. Be like the people who touch everything and then eat with their hands. I’m not a germaphobe, but don’t grip the handrails, door handles, ticket machines and escalator rails and then eat your apple. You might as well have passed the apple through the hands of five hundred people before gripping your fruit and taking a bite. Gross.
  3. Bring a million bags on the train and plop them all down on the ground. One, you’re creating an issue for people to get in and out of the train car without falling. Some people act like the train is their personal shuttle and there’s no need to be considerate.  You’re wrong.  No one wants to trip on your bananas. I’m making it sound like people are eating healthy here, and while I’m at it, no they aren’t.
  4. Pulling through one of the worst neighborhoods in the country, literally, and whipping out every electronic gadget you have. I suppose people aren’t watching the news on their iPads, because it’s a common trend that thieves walk down subway cars and simply slip your smartphone, iPad, etc., out of your hands and keep moving, exiting the train with your fancy devices and all your personal information. Maybe if you heard the guy coming and your bags weren’t scattered all of the floor, you’d still have it.  Be smart.
  5. Exhibiting a lack of manners. I have no problem moving out of your way when we get to your stop. You could not just nudge me. Maybe a simple “excuse me” would suffice. I’ll even stand up and not just slide my legs to the side, so you have more room. I feel like a freak when I say “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me” or smile. I’m not a Pollyanna, even though that is one of my favorite movies, but a little common decency can get one a long way. Being rude just gets people mad at you. It’s almost like the zombie apocalypse has already occurred under the streets of this city. There’s got to be something they’re happy about, especially you, girl with cute shoes.

We all have somewhere to go and we all paid to hitch a ride, might as well be wise and pleasant about it.

Brussels: More Seedy than Chocolatey

On a partly sunny late June morning, our redeye landed in Brussels. With dreams of chocolate and architecture, we waited in the immigration line, eager to hit the cobblestone, rather Belgian stone. Our plan, per Rick Steves, was to peruse the town for a few hours and later ride the rails to Bruges. We hopped the train to city centre, stowed our carry-on suitcases in a locker and approached our first outdoor look at Belgium with a warm welcome from…drunk bums. Upon exiting the main train station in Brussels, we found trash, drunk confrontational homeless people and open outdoor toilets. Yay, we made it!

Don’t get me wrong, we like to make our own adventures but since we were foreigners, I suggested we just keep walking toward the Grand Place or Grote Markt like Rick said and get the heck away from the train station. He did mention Brussels was a little seedy, but Brussels sounds so fancy and French, so the only seediness I envisioned was that of chocolate dipped strawberries. Still, each city has its less desirable areas, so we ventured on and found what our little hearts desired…cappuccinos and chocolate filled pastries amid tall and ornate structures.

It became more and more overcast and eventually started to downpour, but the flowers that lined the windowsills of La Grand Place were still beautiful. The architecture consumed hundreds of pictures on our memory card, with each angle or sculpted archway appearing more intricate and astonishing than the last. This was the Belgium I wanted to see, shortly followed by a little peeing baby. “Let’s go see Mannequin Pis”, I tell my husband. “A pissing mannequin? What? Why?” I expected a response like this, since the only portion of the Belgium book he read was on the beer. But we did find the tiny statue of the baby boy peeing into a fountain, which seems to capture quite the crowd of tourists. It is a national symbol afterall…and there are many different variations that poke fun at the original. I found these much more amusing and not quite G-rated enough to post for your viewing pleasure.

We continued to wander and saw a parade of Belgian police ride through the narrow streets on gorgeous horses. It was a procession that included drumming and what seemed like a ceremonious trot through the main square. And though it was raining and the sight was one that we’d remember, I remember most getting my jeans smattered by….”stuff” from a horse splattering on the Belgian stone. I think that is the most delicate way to put that. Wonderful, a post full of bodily functions. But luckily we had our handy laundry detergent and my husband stopped laughing long enough that I could get cleaned up and we could head over to Bruges, which would hopefully welcome our tired and cranky selves with open arms, clear skies and beer.

Travel Minimalism

I’m not a minimalist, but I pretend to be one when I travel.

In preparation for our ten day European trip, I thought about our prior two trips to Ireland. We had taken large rolling duffels and then I wore a satchel as a day bag. My shoulders were sore and the bag was inconvenient. The second trip in particular was rough because we were caught in the middle of an epic snowstorm. When buses were stuck, we ended up hauling our duffels through snow drifts for what felt like miles to get to our destination. Well, we knew we wouldn’t hit snow this time, but I was not going to be an over packed American. I made rules that I was unsure that we could follow, and they are as follows:

10 Day strict packing list:

  • Carry-on suitcase each; only 1/3 full
  • Rucksack each; nearly empty
  • Money pouch (neck/waist-type)
  • Five pairs each; socks, underwear, tee shirts
  • One pair sneakers; worn there, not packed (I cheated with a pair of sandals too)
  • Two pairs of jeans each, wear one there
  • Two pair each either shorts or capris
  • One quart size bag of liquid toiletries each, each with a 3oz bottle of detergent
  • Small bag of shared necessities; nail clippers, tweezers, band aids, razor, bobby pins, etc.
  • Glasses/belts and other random requirements
  • Ipad, two cameras, eReader (Nook), chargers and spare memory cards
  • One 4-socket power converter.  Charged all electronics in one swoop each night.
  • A long cord aka clothesline

Score one for us. It was the easiest travel trip ever. Since we nearly missed our plane to Brussels, one of the key begging points in allowing us to board was that we had no luggage to check. We were able to fit both our bags in the same train luggage locker at each city we went to, saving time and money when we were unable to check into our room too. Halfway through the trip, we washed our clothes in our sink, hung them up on the cord we cleverly tied across one side of our bedroom and off we went the next morning, fresh, clean and with far less luggage then the over packed tourists who could barely lift the bags up and onto the train.

Laundry in Berlin

The worst would be seeing the retired couples with the elderly men hauling multiple enormous pieces of luggage behind his wife on crowded public transportation.  I gave my husband the go-ahead then and there to berate me if I ever got that bad.  I may not wash our clothes in the sink forever, but maybe one day if we’re fancy we’ll just pay to get them laundered instead.  Who am I kidding?  We’ll never be fancy.

Back to the packing list; for those who may question the possible excessive electronic choices, let me explain.

Ipad, a wonderful gift from our parents saved my shoulders in a big way rather than toting the heavy laptop as we did in years past. But, since there is not Wi-Fi everywhere and we found many Europeans do not offer it for free, the Nook was a great backup to access tour books, maps and translators that were pre-downloaded, thus eliminating the need for the internet and heavy travel books during the travel. In cities like Brussels, where we were limited on time, we used the Nook to do our own walking tour per Rick Steves, saving both time and money. When you have the opportunity though, I do suggest taking a real tour, Rick is wise, but he doesn’t know every nuance.

And there you have it. We came home with smiles, souvenirs that fit in our existing bags (including a real cuckoo clock) and never had to check a bag or pop a painkiller. This my friends, comes in handy when you’re sharing a six person sleeping compartment on a train.

Many stories to follow.

Atlantic City: The Original Vegas

Atlantic City Boardwalk

Saturday was so beautiful in the Northeast. It was the perfect kind of day to spend in the garden, or divert the car towards Atlantic City.

So that’s what we did.

Eighty degrees, cloudless sky and a nice sea breeze. Add that to the smell of funnel cake, sunscreen and slurp down the experience with fresh lemonade, while strolling the boardwalk and recognizing street names you normally see on your Monopoly board.

Steel Pier, Atlantic City

Atlantic City is a diverse mix of people, but it has most everything that Vegas touts, except there’s an ocean and expansive boardwalk. No, Celine Dion isn’t playing Atlantic City every night and I’m ok with that, but there are shows to be seen. There are glitzy and glamorous nightclubs, casinos and hotels. The amusement rides may not be as sparkly and the exterior decor may be a little more worn, but there’s something to be said for the city by the sea.

I grew up being fascinated by films of ladies jumping their horses off diving boards next to Steel Pier and photos of the old timers who wore their Sunday best as they wandered the boards in the early 20th century. I’ve also watched a lot of Boardwalk Empire on HBO, and though I know its primarily fictional stories written for entertainment, I have no doubt that Prohibition brought waves of crime and corruption that still linger today. Feeling that way does take away from the nostalgia of flapper girls and their shiny cigarette cases and replaces it with heroin chic society types that rival fashion models of the 90’s.

Atlantic City is an accessible city. It is a little less sparkly but nice equivalent to a five hour plane right to Nevada from the East Coast. But just like Vegas, don’t wander too far off the “strip” in Atlantic City; unless you’re looking for some non-fiction CSI type experiences. Also, get some saltwater taffy; it’s so good and the remnants of it can be tasted for days since it’ll be stuck in your molars. That might be an exaggeration, but in all honesty, stop at James’.  If taffy isn’t your thing, drop by the Whiskey Tavern in the new Revel casino, order an Old Fashioned and slip into shiny 1925 subway tile heaven.

James’ Salt Water Taffy

An Irish Ballad for St. Patrick’s Day

It’s only appropriate as we approach St. Paddy’s Day, that I indulge myself in more Ireland talk. On our first trip to Ireland, we tried not to plan and follow the stone walls to wherever they might lead us. We did a few things that Rick Steves suggested too, however. Though we spent most of our trip travelling around the Irish countryside and avoiding crowded tourist destinations, we did spend a couple nights in Dublin and took in the Musical Pub Crawl.

I fell in love with Irish music on this trip.

The music ranged from traditional to humorous and of course included beautiful and mournful ballads. The musicians that lead the crawl vary from night to night, based on traveling musician schedules and we were lucky enough to have Anthony Bools. His voice had so much character and fit the tone for each type of song chosen.

They had a professionally recorded CD compilation of various musicians that lead the tour and it has been a mainstay on my Ipod for a few years now. I couldn’t have been more pleased to have heard this particular song live, with fiddle accompaniment and later have a version to play at home, while I dreamed of Guinness and seisúns. I do suggest the tour if you are interested in learning about Irish music. The real feel of a seisún can be found in a good local pub, where the musicians play amongst themselves instead of to a crowd but this is an opportunity for a musician to take a moment between songs and discuss the fundamentals of the music and the instruments that are so specific to this type of music.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.  Slainte!

Haunted By My Irish Great-Grandfather

I’ve written about my ancestry research before.  It’s something I love and hate, because it’s thrilling to find a piece of the puzzle and incredibly frustrating to find either nothing or to confirm your initial theories were false.

I found a crucial piece to our family puzzle last night.  I confirmed all the vitals of my Great Grandfather; a man I never met, my father never knew and his father barely knew.  His World War I draft card says he was 5’7 with red hair and green eyes.  He immigrated by himself at the age of sixteen from Ireland.  His ship ran ashore leaving Liverpool before coasting onto Philadelphia.  He was a steelworker and laborer.  He married an Irish girl here and housed her widowed father and two younger brothers; all of them laborers.  They lost a baby girl as an infant and died fairly young themselves.  The census says he could read and write, but the signature on his Naturalization paperwork leads me to believe he was not accustomed to holding a pen of any kind.

He left his family behind at the age of thirteen, to make a living in England as a coal miner.  After three years in the soot, he left for America.  I haven’t a clue what became of the rest of his family.  I’m having difficulty with his parents’ names and the time span of Irish records I need were either lost in a warehouse fire in 1922 in Dublin or destroyed by the Irish Free State purposely.

While in Ireland for our honeymoon, and I met with a county genealogist who gave me records from my family.  It seemed too easy.  I don’t want to say they tried to fool me, but I was fooled.  I have records for someone of the same name, in the same town but it doesn’t add up.  I’ve done this long enough to know that back then, records and dates were not consistent and often disregarded, but I’m dying to figure out the answers.  As a researcher and history buff by nature, I can’t feel settled until I can go further.  I don’t want to go harass any distant relatives; on the contrary, I’ve had Irishmen contact me in regards to possible connections.

There is simply something to be said about learning where you come from and feeling that you share some sort of trait or identity with those who came before us.  I was the only one in my family with hair that glows red and though my eyes are often hazel, they shine green regularly.  I’d like to think somewhere along the way, it’s trickled down to me alongside my fondness for Ireland.  Maybe that is a bit too romantic, but whenever my husband comments on how red my hair looks a particular day, I can’t help but admit that I’ve been dreaming of the Galway Bay.

What Did New Jersey Do to You?

I was technically born in Philadelphia, but raised right over the bridge in New Jersey.  Despite popular belief, it is not the armpit of the country, it does not smell bad (outside of Newark) and there is a ton to offer, other than fodder for late night TV hosts.

Why does everyone hate Jersey?  What have we ever done to you?

There are some things that need to be cleared up.

  1. The Jersey Shore crew, yeah, they aren’t from Jersey.  They are from New York.  Don’t judge us on their characters.  Even the shore doesn’t want them there.  They did nothing but ruin our already ridiculed image and waste our tax dollars.
  2. New Jersey is the Garden State.  There is an abundance of agriculture and farming.  Though it is the most densely populated state, there is an array of pinelands, beautiful coastline, mountains, creeks, rivers and farms that add to the beautiful landscape.  As a matter of fact, bordering states know us for our delicious Jersey corn and tomatoes, and Ocean Spray uses our local cranberry bog farmers for their juice.
  3. North Jersey and South Jersey people have nothing in common.  This is a tried and true fact.  Though the state is only 170 long by 70 miles wide, South Jersey has no common traits or loyalties to North Jersey and vice versa.  They were originally two separate territories between 1674 and 1702 and they should have stayed that way.  South Jersey supports Philadelphia sports and clean air.  North Jersey houses New York fans and commuters.  I’m not sure if you’ve noticed that I’m partial.
  4. Don’t ask me who supports New Jersey major sports teams; I don’t know anyone who knows the answer to that.  There has to be somebody, I just have yet to find them.
  5. New York loves to make fun of us, yet they fail to recognize that Manhattan would not function without the assistance of New Jersey public agencies and our workforce.  Also, your beloved Giants play in Jersey, don’t forget it.
  6. Entertainment trends seem to define us.  We are also not all mobsters.  I won’t deny that they exist, but I also won’t admit to it.  I don’t want cement shoes.
  7. I realize I just said entertainment seems to define us, and I do somewhat resent that, but our state pumps out some of the greats to be proud of anyway; and many more.  They are in no particular order, but we’ll let the Boss believe otherwise.
  8. We love our diners.  We have the most in the world – how can you not love that you can’t get five miles without stumbling upon a place to chow down on an omelet at 3am?
  9. Thomas Edison did a lot of inventing here, while Atlantic City revolutionized gambling and leisure.  Light bulbs and slot machines are still important to our culture; I think you’ve heard of them.
  10. You can make fun of us all you want, but we’ve got hundreds of pluses and 8,821,155 people who tell you that you’re crazy not to appreciate our history and what we have to offer.  No, I don’t work for New Jersey, but if you visit, maybe you can drive my taxes down with tourism profits.

Irish Whiskey on the Horizon

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Saint Paddy’s Day will be here soon. Last year I spent the holiday having major surgery. The anesthesiologists told me that the stuff I’d be getting was much stronger than my Irish whiskey. They were right.

Although St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal for our family, I hadn’t been too devastated because we had returned from Ireland only a couple months before. My husband still swore he’d dress in his annual Leprechaun costume for the occasion, but luckily he didn’t. Though part of me would have liked to see the looks on people’s faces as he sat in that surgical waiting room, in one of the country’s best hospitals, with tights and a top hat.

We enjoy Irish whiskey any time of the year, but the Irish season is amongst us in America and I thought about our trip to Bushmills in Northern Ireland. Alongside many brands of Irish whiskey, Bushmills is a classic.  Most startling was when we took the tour and saw Jameson bottles being pushed along the rolling conveyor belt.  Come to find out, that Jameson drives tanker trucks from the southern tip of Ireland to the northern one, as they have a deal to use Bushmills as a bottling plant.  I find it hard to believe this economic reasoning, but whatever it is, it is humorous to have the #2 Irish whiskey in the world, bottling the #1 guy’s stuff.

We also discovered the greatest job in the world; if you enjoy whiskey that is.  Bushmills whiskey is blended, with other malts and derivatives of other flavored casks for the best flavor.  The master blender, Helen, tastes and tests the blends of Bushmills.  That is her job.  Our guide said she’s picked up and driven home each day because her job is to drink whiskey.  Whether that was a bit of Irish humor or not, I like to believe that Helen has the greatest job in Ireland.

We had such a great day at Bushmills.  My husband and I only take tours that truly interest us, and not for the sake of adding admission tickets to our scrapbook.  I can’t remember a time that we didn’t connect with the guide and develop further conversation as the day progressed.  We ask questions and honestly want to learn.  This day was no different.  We ended up having our complimentary tasting and a few more, thanks to the generous tour guide when we went back to the tasting room.  We sat amongst a gigantic copper still and enjoyed some of the greatest things Ireland has to offer; whiskey and banter.  Our love for Ireland doesn’t end with these two things, but we’ll save more for another day.

Slainte.

ABBA, J. Peterman and New York

I missed posting yesterday, but for good reason.  I was lucky enough to join my Aunt to New York to see a Broadway show.  She had won tickets to Mamma Mia.  I am a huge fan of New York City, but of Abba?  Not so much.  I do love many forms of art and stage, so I did not turn down the opportunity and in the end, I was really pleasantly surprised.

My musical taste skips the Abba and spandex generation altogether, but since I’m not technically a musician, I feel I have no place to judge the taste of others.  These people wrote the music that millions know and love today.  You should have seen the crowd at the end.  People of all ages compelled to jump out of their seats and frantically wave their hands and sing along.  I could’ve gone that far if I had a couple drinks from the bar first, but I did clap in attempt to maintain rhythm.

Speaking of which, it’s been some time since I’d been to a Broadway show and I was unaware that there were rolling bar carts next to the candy guy and the program sellers.  Maybe it’s one of the details you don’t notice at a younger age.  I suppose it’s a very good thing that I wasn’t scouting out the pinot grigio before Beauty and the Beast during my school field trip to the theater.  Regardless, I had anticipated a dated show and instead the updated one-liners and costumes gave the show a more current ambiance.

New York was chilly, and the fresh chill and flurries were a good reminder that even though the Northeast has had a spring-like winter, spring is not yet upon us. There’s still plenty of time to pull out the gloves and my nemesis, the ice scraper.  Still the train ride up was easy and the company enjoyable.  This paragraph is making me feel like I’m writing a J. Peterman catalog narrative from Seinfeld.  Wool peacock blue coat, large retro matching buttons, dark jeans and boots that both emulate New York style and provide walking comfort.  I hope someone gets why I just wrote that.