Chicago Charms

“Chicago has two season: winter and construction,” I was warned. What no one gave me was advice on what to do once I got there. So, like a Chicagoan shoveling out the snow, I made my own way – in both seasons.

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Boat tour: Lovely views of the city and surrounding traffic without having to be in any of it. Plus, there are some boat rides that provide architectural tours. Or ones that take you to an unfamiliar neighborhood for free and leave you there, like the kind I took. It seemed like the unfolding plot of a horror film where you get kidnapped and wind up enslaved to a drug cartel. So I used the unexpected docking as an opportunity to find a post office so my family could know my last location. Turns out that it’s easy to find a post office, and get an elevated train out from wherever the boat may drop you.

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Toto, I don’t think we’re in Chicago anymore

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But the zip code says we are

The El: Public transportation that works for most of the public. Unless you want to
gamble
.
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Art Institute of Chicago: It’s got Monet’s lilies for the old-schoolers and edgy modern art for the new. For those who don’t care, it’s also where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off filmed a few scenes. So if you prefer, skip the museum and watch that instead.

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Museum of Science and Industry: They let you watch baby chicks hatch and form your own tornado. Take the family, spend the day.

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Howard Washington Library:
 There are cannons. A 3D printer. Seven floors of books. Librarians who allow people to hide in the stacks till closing. The place is so big I wouldn’t be surprised if it also fit a few coffee shops and maybe an airport hanger. There’s basically everything you’d need to run a small city except people who live there full-time; I’m happy to volunteer myself to make Chicago the first city to have a self-sustaining community living in its library.

 

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WBEZ: Chicago’s NPR station is on a pier. If that was intended to deter sightseers, it doesn’t work. Requests for a tour of active recording studios and a place of business were met with incredible goodwill and cheer. That friendliness that held strong even when I showed up on the wrong date for my tour. Their programming is awesome, they let me hang out with a statue of Studs Terkel, and someone even gave us the inside scoop on the Chicago news-agency softball league. Ask them about it, but don’t mention me.

img_20170305_231241.jpgBusy Beaver Button Museum: Yet another place of business that will let you in to disturb the hardworking men and women of Chicago, turning serious professionals into amateur tour guides. It’s a working button business with an immense collection of slogan buttons. They couldn’t be more gracious about visitors unless they worked at WBEZ. You can see Abraham Lincoln’s campaign button and about a thousand others. Remember the Reading Radicals! button from your childhood? It’s there. Along with the sorts of pithy phrases, pathos, and poetry you didn’t think could fit onto a button.

Chicago Federal Reserve: There are armed men everywhere, so it’s best if you take the opportunities provided to learn about the millions of dollars surrounding you rather than trying to steal them. Also, it’s free – so basically you make bank by just showing up.

Lake Michigan: It comes with a small beach and there’s probably boating somewhere. Sometimes its toxic, but the city puts up helpful signs. No signs? No toxicity!

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They told me there was a Bean. Instead, I found a garden. Next trip, someone bring a map.

Ivan found his customers’ refusal to take leftovers home offensive to his frugal Eastern Bloc upbringing. Kate would cringe with embarrassment as she heard him arguing with patrons about the wasted food.

“Are you sure you don’ vant to take home? Dat is at least breakvast. Maybe breavast and lunch. You have a neighbor might vant? Dog? Do you haf dog? That vould be a lucky dog. No? Okay.”

Kate didn’t mention to her grandfather that many people don’t like soggy hamburgers the next morning. Instead, she offered to take the food.

“I can give it to a homeless person, if you like,” Kate said.

Her deda nodded his approval and wrapped up the leftovers. As he left them on Kate’s table he said, “Give them to a real homeless person. Not vun of those hippie kids, ok?”

from How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

Antwerp Antics

I don’t get out much. But when I do get out, I like to go far. Like, 5,873 kilometers far. And while I’m out and about I like to learn. Here’s what I learned in Amsterdam:

It’s known as a city of cafes – but there should be a caveat that those cafes only open after 9am.

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Amsterdam at 6am – swans and I are kicking it at the park while the city sleeps

Cafes also serve alcohol.

It’s easiest to find a cafe if you’re in an area with other tourists. Otherwise, the easiest thing to find is a hair dresser.

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Two hours of wandering the city, and I found an open cafe that sold coffee, not just beer

Belgians call the city Antwerpen.

Things are more confusing in a city where you don’t understand any of the four national languages.

There’s more kosher food in the Jewish area than the internet lets on. Internet, you misled me.

The trains won’t wait for you. I don’t recommend the New York stick-an-arm-in-the-door to keep the train in the station trick. A conductor saw me rush toward an open door and told me it was too late – even though he was standing on the platform. His tone said he wasn’t kidding. I stayed on the platform and kept my limbs.

There’s always another train coming. If you miss your train, there are worse places to wait than a clean and well-lit Belgian train platform. If you’re uncomfortable because the only other person on the otherwise abandoned platform sits next to you, be glad you’re not in the nearly empty Brussels airport before 6am and being hit on and/or the potential victim of a kidnapping.

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Clean enough to eat off the floors

Most public areas have wifi, but it’s only accessible to people who have an account with a Belgian internet company. Sad for you, foreigners.

Trains do not have wifi.

Europe has 2-pronged circular outlets. Internet, you lied to me. Again.

It’s hard to find an adapter on short notice.

Everyone speaks English. Even the old woman who runs the discount store that doesn’t sell adapters.

Belgians usually look serous, but they love a good joke. My best line: Do you speak English? Gales of laughter, guaranteed. I didn’t get many chances to use my line, because most people started their conversations with me in English. As one museum guard explained, I look like I speak English. He didn’t care to explain.

The sidewalks are meant to be shared by bikeriders and pedestrians. People who aren’t used to sharing sidewalks occasionally find themselves walking in the bike lanes. In related news, I was a menace to Antwerp bikers.

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Antwerp is incredibly polite. No one will curse you out – or even draw your attention to the fact that your decision to walk in the bike lane has forced them into oncoming vehicular traffic. Which might be less politeness than an indifference to fools. Or a lack of self preservation.

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It’s best for everyone that the streets were empty while I was there

Travel Guide: Pittsburgh

A friend went on vacation to Pittsburgh. Since they didn’t know the region, I offered to pull together some hot spots and pro tips. I considered the vast array of cultural, social, and natural attractions Pittsburgh has to offer. Then, I winnowed down the options to a carefully curated selection, as seen below. I sent my list to Special Correspondent Ellen to make sure I had chosen wisely. Ellen confirmed that my list was a good sampling, though she inquired as to why I’d put together weeks of activities for someone spending only a weekend there. Because there’s just too much fun to be had there, Ellen.

Public transportation

Buses require exact change, unless you want them to keep your money. You pay getting on the bus if you’re going into Downtown and you pay getting off the bus if you’re heading away from Downtown. Riding Downtown – all six blocks – is free. Thankfully, you can also ask the bus driver when you get on whether he wants your money now or later.

Squirrel Hill:

Frick Park includes a playground, as well as miles of trails. Some of them lead to:

Frick Nature Conservatory; while it’s technically it’s part of the park, this part has a welcome center and has cooler trails. I’m not sure exactly why, but it was definitely a field trip destination.

Afterward, stop by Rita’s Italian Ices. Pittsburgh isn’t known for its kosher food, but the ices and gelato here are kosher and delicious. There are branches all over the country, but the chain started in Pennsylvania, so I’m consider it a cultural delicacy.

If you’re really loving loving the public parks in a city go to Schenley Park too. Like Frick, but further west. Schenley also leads into the neighborhood of

Oakland:

The Nationality Rooms of the University of Pittsburgh has a different room for each language they teach; the rooms are decorated in the style of that country or region and tours are fun.

Across the street is the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The building is awesome, the books are better. Andrew Carnegie poured a fortune into the building – the floors are made of marble so precious that Italy ran out of it – and it shows. If you’ve ever wanted to see what the restricted reference area in the New York Public Library’s main branch is like, you should check out the Carnegie – it’s stacks are exactly the same but open to the public and with a circulating collection.

It’ll probably be raining, so it’s a good thing that you can walk into the Carnegie Museum of Natural History from the library. Inside are: Dinosaurs! Gems! More natural history than you can shake a stick at! Dinosaurs!

The modern wing of the museum is actually the Carnegie Museum of Art – I think it’s as good as the Met but on a smaller scale – it’s got a little bit of everything.

Across a bridge, you can find Phipps Conservatory which is filled, top to bottom, with flowers, cacti, bonsai, and more flora – inside and outside.

Downtown:

Market Square has free lunchtime concerts on Wednesday and a farmer’s market on Thursday. They used to put out rocking chairs on Fridays but they reconfigured the square a while back so they might have stopped that.

It’s right by PPG Plaza, where the plaza turns into a fountain, which you’re welcome to run through. Shoes always required. Sometimes closed for maintenance.

Walk to the end of the city, and you’re in Point State Park. The park includes the Blockhouse – part of Fort Pitt, it predates the USA -, enough green space to run an ultimate frisbee game, and The Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is where Pittsburgh’s three rivers – Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio – meet and there’s a giant fountain that’s on for most of the summer. It’s a nice place to sit and watch the rivers while eating lunch.

If you want to be like George Washington you can ride down Mt Washington on a horse. If you want to be like a Pittsburgher you can take the Incline instead. It’s a trolley that goes straight up the mountain. Then you walk around the top of Mt Washington to take in the view and ride back down.

Biking

If you can borrow bikes and are up for the hills, you can ride the Jail Trail from Squirrel Hill to Downtown. It’s flat – part of the rails to trails program – along the river. It goes past the jail but as far as I know, it hasn’t been used in any escape attempts.

If you’re not up for biking in the city, you can always go out to one of the nearby state parks. I think Moraine State Park has bikes, and it definitely has boating, geese, and a herd of deer.

Outside the city, and not accessible via public transportation are more not-to-be-missed opportunities:

Tour Ed Mines: You haven’t been to Pittsburgh till you’ve been in a coal mine. This one is non-operational, so it won’t give you black lung.

Triple B Farms: where you can pick berries and pet a goat. Fun for the whole family.

Carrie Furnace, a furnace at a former steel mill. It’s been cleaned up in the past few years and the site is now used as an alternate location for events and clubs. Very hip among the younger generation, though the old generation doesn’t feel the need to connect with the furnace’s legacy of smoke and pollution nor are they interested in hanging out in an abandoned and still decrepit factory.

Pittsburgh: where there’s too much to do to stay for less than a lifetime.

Destination Wedding

The only destination wedding I’ve been to was in Baltimore. Which is known, among the locals, as The City That Bleeds. The wedding was nice. The city could have used a transfusion.

Between work and local friends, I haven’t been invited to any exciting destination weddings. Nothing that would involve jetting off to coral reefs or hanging out in an igloo. Though I once went all the way to the airport for a wedding – the ceremony was held a few miles from there, in Howard Beach.

I don’t travel much. So I can only assume that traveling for weddings in better than normal travel. It gives you something to base your trip around, and perhaps even a place to stay. Plus it seems like it’s much easier to keep a dress wrinkle-free if you don’t have to travel to the wedding by subway. So, all these thoughts have compounded my desire to log some travel miles for a wedding. Which is why I was thrilled to be invited to the wedding of a friend from Los Angeles.

I’ve never been that far west.

And I won’t be going that far west anytime soon.

I just got word that my friend is getting married in Monsey.

Anywhere But Lakewood

Today’s post is courtesy of Special Correspondent Marissa. Though I couldn’t agree more.

My number one fear when opening a wedding invitation is that it will read “Lakewood” where the location should be. There is nothing worse than a Lakewood wedding. The wedding itself isn’t the problem, it’s the traveling. Traveling to weddings in general is a bit of a headache to arrange, but getting to a Lakewood wedding is a full-blown migraine.

Nothing compares to a Lakewood wedding. No one wants to drive there, no one wants to take a bus. No one wants to go there. It’s far, inconvenient, expensive, and just an inconsiderate place to hold a wedding. Even people who have cars don’t want to drive there because it’s so far, so they fill up any potential spaces in existing rides. I don’t live in New York, and I don’t know anyone nice enough to lend me their car to drive to Lakewood, so I’m stuck taking a bus. Taking a bus from New York’s Port Authority to Lakewood takes over two hours, and costs me more than I pay to travel 400 miles by bus. I could travel from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, or from New York to Philly in that amount of time. Once you get to the Lakewood you still need to hail a cab or get someone to drive you to the wedding hall, because nothing is within walking distance of the bus station.

If you want to get married in Lakewood, please don’t invite me, or if you must, can you just supply a mode of transportation along with the invitation?