Deadly derailment won’t keep me off Amtrak

Glad that Amtrak service is back on track between Philadelphia and New York. As it’s always been for me.

I’ve been riding that route since before the guy who was at the controls during that deadly derailment in Philadelphia was born. It was how I juggled two TV news writing jobs in Philadelphia and Manhattan.

lancaster1Now it’s my gateway to NYC and the rest of the world.

amtrak books

My station in Lancaster, Pa., has been undergoing some overdue 21st Century refurbishing. But a quirk from the last century remains. An impromptu book rack offering a freebie to take along for the ride. How quaint can you get?

Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the view from the train, such as it is. Mostly skeletons of abandoned stores and factories, and some still belching air with a slight sting to it. With little bursts of civilization. A faint glimpse of my alma mater, Temple University, in the Philadelphia distance. Folks and dogs in back yards. Or shopping at Lowe’s.

I took the same kind of trip from San Diego to L.A. Except for the tracks meandering thrillingly close to the Pacific Ocean, like some amusement park ride, it was essentially the same gritty view.

After all this time, I’ve never felt in jeopardy, because there was never any reason to. Never experienced anything more than some downed wires during a thunderstorm.

It certainly was unnerving to read that better safety precautions might have prevented the Philadelphia tragedy, and the engineer professed to not knowing what happened.

But that’s not going to stop me or the thousands of others who rely on Amtrak every day.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Let’s Paws: Happy Mother’s Day, to me

ginger and me 2Me and Ginger, my old girl baby dachshund, who’s approaching her 19th year. That would make her somewhere in the neighborhood of 85, at least.

This is a common sight morning, noon and night, though Mitch selflessly takes over the night shift. It’s much more expedient to carry her outside to do her stuff.

I may be mom, but make no mistake, Ginger is the wise one.

Among many other things, she’s taught me the joys of:

White Castle sliders for breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between.

Lebanon bologna (never encountered this radioactive-smelling slop before moving to the central part of PA), which she thinks is as lip-smackin’ good as filet mignon. Only for you, Ginger, would I get anywhere near the stuff.

— Grazing and rolling around in the grass.

— Generally being puppefied — as in, reverting back to being a 3-year-old, if only for a few moments.

Every day she’s with us is a blessing. So glad I’m your mom, precious girl.

Posted in Let's Paws: I break for critters | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Harding-Kerrigan scandal, and other wacky museum displays

If you’re into Olympic figure skating, you probably know about the blow that almost shattered a kneecap and the sport itself.

It was more than 20 years ago. Someone went after figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee with a club just before the Olympic trials in 1994. Despite her injuries, Kerrigan went on to win a silver medal. Skating rival Tonya Harding was implicated in the attack and banned from the sport for life in the U.S.

I just never got into it. Reading about it now, it hit home that it was the supposed differences between them that made it such an American soap opera. Kerrigan was portrayed as a privileged ice princess, while “hardscrabble” Harding had blue-collar roots.

Technically, both were middle-class. Got to say Kerrigan’s always been the classier dresser and seems to honor the maxim that less is more when it comes to eyeliner.

Here’s what happened. And here’s them now.

If you still can’t get enough, and I don’t know why, you might want to include a pilgrimage to an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, address unknown, for a peek at the “Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum“. It’s in the hallway.

The roommates that came up with the idea (after seeing a documentary) had some help — they raised $2,036 on Kickstarter. And they’ve been getting lots of press, including a swipe from Keith Olbermann. (Yes, they’re proud of that. I would be, too.)

Sour grapes on my part? No. Can’t blame them for trying, and wish I’d had a hallway big enough.

But the so-called exhibit raised about $2,000 more than it should have, IMO.

As I understand it, much of the money was spent on pictures from the time, which were blown up at their neighborhood drugstore, and mixed in with other historical footage. I take it they got the rights to all that stuff.

Fans of the idea donated some kitsch.

Admission is free, “but please don’t try anything weird and if you want to, you know, leave a little something on our dresser we won’t say anything,” declares their website.

To each his own, I always say. And I’d normally never pass judgment on a creative effort without seeing it in person.

I know they’re not going to lose sleep over this, but I’m not going to waste my time.

I don’t care that it’s a big bunch of nothing. I care that they thought trash was intriguing. And I’m greatly bothered that folks on Kickstarter gave a damn as well.

But this is America, after all.

What really bothers me are the organizers themselves. Take a look at this official tour video, and you’ll see what I mean. They call themselves comedians, or pardon me, performers.

I couldn’t get past more than a third of the 13 minutes of their schtick. The backstory about their flimsy collection is just not that compelling. They appear sincere; too sincere. Their delivery is so over-the-top, I had the urge to stick my fingers in my eyes, as well as theirs. And that’s being polite.

They keep trying to remind us that everyone is a Tonya or a Nancy. Um, no, they’re not. I don’t think the great philosophers were quite that simplistic.

At one point, one roommate says to the other “We see through you.” Yes, we do.

But hey, this is America.


Speaking of wacky museums, here’s something I hit upon a while back, written for The Dallas Morning News.

Plus, this seriously great place in Australia, for folks who really don’t like museums.

And skulls and cockroaches. Here’s a few more than I collected for, a former Travel Channel colleague’s site.

Posted in Unusual museums | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brussels: Is Belgian chocolate really worth the trip?

Computer problems on two continents here at Planet Lippstone. A story for another day.

Meanwhile, it was the most indulgent reason I knew for going to Brussels: I was tired of mediocre chocolate. Spring had finally sprung; Easter was approaching; and I didn’t want to be subjected to more substandard offerings from the likes of Russell Stover and Hershey, which was practically in my backyard.

What’s so bad about Hershey, you ask? It’s everywhere, so it’s obviously doing something right, no?

To me, it’s always had the dependable consistency of dried paint. Even at a young age, growing up with the stuff, I knew there had to be more exotic out there somewhere.

More exotic than Godiva, which, while it may be authentic Belgian chocolate, doesn’t count because it’s also sold at my local department store. And Barnes & Noble. How ordinary can you get?

I wanted to go all the way — to Brussels, and indulge in the other offerings at the source in extravagant adult candy land. That’s why I was thrilled that I had an airline credit that was about to expire. It didn’t pay for the whole trip but it helped considerably. Best part: I’d be there for Easter, a red-letter day for chocoholics.

There are any number of chocolate-tasting tours you can take in Brussels. There’s also a chocolate museum. I opted for looking things up on my own. The tours are expensive and seem rushed. But if you don’t have the time, they may be just the thing.

Fortunately, I had a few days and I knew which chocolatiers I wanted to visit. It was just a matter of logistics. Brussels is relatively compact, so almost everything was accessible by foot or public transportation.

What may be the biggest chocolate replica of the Mannequin-Pis, a wildly popular statue elsewhere in Brussels. This was as close as I wanted to get.

Big chocolate replica at Zaabar of the Manneken-Pis, a bizarre Brussels tourist attraction in another part of town.

One of my first stops was at a place called Zaabar. (Not to be confused with Zabar’s, an all-around foodie haven in NYC.)

The Brussels place is a chocolate manufacturer where they give chocolate-making classes. Far from the only one, of course.

I didn’t have time for a class; I just had one question for the nice folks at Zaabar: What makes Belgian chocolate Belgian chocolate? Why can one average-size box cost more than a year’s supply of Hershey Kisses? (OK, gross exaggeration, but not as much as you might think: I spent 75 bucks in one store on not very much.)

The answer, apparently, is the formula: larger amounts of cocoa and cocoa butter; it has to adhere to certain government standards. Which are supposed to protect against watered-down dreck. It’s generally handmade, and there’s something to do with the heating and cooling process. See here. And here.

Now that the technical stuff’s out of the way, here’s the results of The Official Planet Lippstone Belgian Chocolate Taste Test. In other words, is it worth the trip?

The rules were pretty simple. The tastings had to: A) Leave me swooning.  B) And gasping for more.

I stuck with dark chocolates to keep things consistent. Your tastebuds may vary.

I spaced things out over a couple days. Otherwise, each of the flavors would have cancelled the other out. Here then, the results, from awesome to awful.

brussels neuhaus

Neuhaus. The story goes that in the 19th century, Jean Neuhaus opened a pharmacy and dipped the medicines in chocolate to make them tastier. His grandson replaced the drugs with cream, which he dubbed a praline, the first filled chocolate. No wonder my chocolate-covered vanilla butter cream, went down so smooth. Not like chewy, vanilla-flavored glue. More? Yes, please.

brussels wittamer better

Wittamer. Swoon City. Supposed to be a favorite with the Belgian royals. The hot chocolate was a nectar of dark and light chocolate. With fab whipped cream and luscious little pastries. What a rush, and not in a sickening-sweet way.

brussels marcolini

Pierre Marcolini. Trendy and expensive. Informally dubbed the “Christian Dior” of chocolate. A big local favorite. Packaging was gorgeous. Marcolini’s version of one of my staples, chocolate-covered marshmallows, was fluffy, not the usual gummy pads that give you instant cavities. Easter eggs were understated. A little too understated.

brussels marcolini better orange

The chocolate-covered orange peel wasn’t too sweet and runny like marmalade, and the chocolate was crisp. All in all, good, but overrated, IMO. (The host at the Airbnb where I was staying was shocked that Marcolini wasn’t tops on my list.)

brussels blondeel

Frederic BlondeelAfter savoring one mint chocolate,  I wanted another. And another.

brussels passion chocolat

Passion ChocolatYet another local hangout. I waited for a well-heeled woman to finish buying out the place before I picked my one champagne truffle. I don’t drink and know nothing about champagne, but it was very pleasant. Neither the champagne nor the chocolate was overwhelming. Just what I need. Another bad habit …

brussels leonidas

LeonidasAnother venerable brand. The chocolate-covered coffee cream was just OK. And the chocolate-covered orange peel was too plastic and not as subtle as Marcolini’s.

brussels jean galler waffel sign

Jean GallerWord is the Belgian royal family likes to pig out here, too. The chocolate-covered waffle thingy was a new item. An overpriced Pop Tart. Maybe I should have tried something else.

brussels mary

Mary. Pretty, but the chocolate-covered vanilla butter cream did nothing for me.

brussels mallomars

ElisabethHuge letdown. There it was, what looked like the Belgian chocolate version of the Mallomar, my number-one indulgence. Chocolate-covered marshmallow with flaky graham cracker crust. Wait a minute: No graham cracker here. Too crispy and tasteless. Billy Crystal, you’re right: The lowly Mallomar is still the greatest cookie of all time.

ZaabarYes, the place that gives chocolate-making lessons is no place to learn from, if you ask me. Seems the owner, who’s Belgian, fell in love with Turkey and decided to combine chocolate with things it should never be combined with. Namely, spices that have no business mucking up other flavors, let alone chocolate.

brussels zaabar curry yuck

I sampled chocolate mixed with fennel, rose, pepper, mace (really) and turmeric. Vile. I’ll take my turmeric in my curry, thank you. Not mixed in with dessert.

brussels no more chocolate

At this point, I’d had it. No thanks. No more. Raising the white flag.

I was sick and drunk on all that sugar, and craving real food. I was finally listening to what my body had been trying to tell me for a lifetime: Chocolate is a treat and not one of the four basic food groups.

Haven’t had any since, unless you count, uh, some marshmallow twists for Passover from my local supermarket. Cheap and gummy. But hey, I’ll concede cheap and gummy has its place sometimes.

So is Belgian chocolate worth a trip to Belgium? Sure, if you happen to be there anyway. But as I discovered, it quickly becomes an afterthought.

Posted in Eats, Europe | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ghent, Belgium: What they sell in a castle gift shop

ghent baby clothesEverything that’s positively Medieval for your Little Crusader.

Castle of the Counts, Ghent, Belgium. 4.10.15

ghent assault toy(Been a hectic week in Brussels. Doing regular news job in between all the running around, which included this day trip to Ghent, Belgium, a hip place with a Medieval past.

Moving on to London tomorrow to visit a friend. Will have more time then to catch up on everything.

Did conduct my official Planet Lippstone Belgian Chocolate Taste Test, and I have a winner. I’m officially sick of the stuff and don’t want to see any for at least a few hours.)

Posted in Europe | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Eats: Memorable Easter Dinner in Brussels

brussels soleil afrique crowd

Just back from a memorable Easter dinner in the Matonge (African) section of Brussels, a few blocks from where I’m staying. Place was absolutely packed. I was parked near a family with a child who insisted on putting her toy in my rice.

brussels me in african restaurant

I see Au Soleil d’Afrique got mixed reviews. I adored my chicken and rice dish, which was flavored with lemon and citrus and had a a bit of a kick. Maybe I loved it because it wasn’t chocolate. (I’m already sick of the stuff.)

brussels viagra africain

The chicken wasn’t the only thing on the menu with a kick. I asked the swamped server what constitutes a Viagra Africain. The only word she said in French that I could make out was rhum.

Speaking of which, I feel drunk after a long but rewarding day that had me haggling at a flea market a little over an hour after I got here from the U.S.and never stopped until now.

Happy Easter from Belgium.

Posted in Eats, Europe | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Big challenge: Tons of chocolate without big weight gain

My quest to lose a few pounds before I headed for Belgium and some heavy-duty chocolate taste-testing didn’t go very well. I blame it on all Easter and Passover goodies floating around. I’m a victim, really.

So as I head off into the land of chocolate, frites and waffles, my goal is to not gain 10 pounds on top of the 10 I already need to lose.

I went to the gym today, and started off with a good old American tuna fish sandwich.

Trying not to put undo pressure on myself. The goal is to enjoy, but not overdo it this time. I will be sampling. And doing my usual walking everywhere.

Honestly, I think the big secret to traveling and watching weight is to do the best you can. And not to beat yourself up beyond that.

Sounds like a plan. Cya in Brussels.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment