That’s Cold: Screened In by Blizzard of 2016

IMG_4487Planet Lippstone’s hemmed in, thanks to the Blizzard of 2016, otherwise known as Winter Storm Jonas. Or more accurately, screened in by an avalanche. We’re in the purply blotch on the radar map of America’s East Coast earmarked for up to 2 feet of snow.

This is a preserved maple leaf from a store in Bar Harbor, Maine, hanging in a window now looking out onto an undefrosted freezer — my Pennsylvania backyard.

Since I’m not about to go anywhere, I have lots of time to ponder this relatively new phenomenon of naming winter storms. Saw that this one was christened by some kids from Montana, working in tandem with The Weather Channel. Catchy name, indeed.

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The Best Explanation for Why I Travel

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It’s a very simple picture that paints a picture of why I travel.

This was the view from the shower in my space at Nuits Saint-Pierre, a trés élégant hotel straight out of Paris. It’s in St. Pierre and Miquelon, a genuine piece of France off Canada’s Atlantic coast.

It was a Sunday in November. It was my last day there, and with the help of some very gracious locals, I’d seen much of what there was to see of an unusual part of the world that was literally a cross between Europe and North America.

I took a last morning walk. On this Sunday, the sun took the day off. Almost everything was closed; my only companion was a steady drizzle in a world of black and gray. Winter’s chill was starting to creep in.

Inside, the shower moisture was soft and beckoning. It invited me to do whatever I liked. To let in as much of the world as I wanted. I felt pampered and peaceful.

I was home. At least at that moment. The kind of moment that’s just about perfect.

You know the one. It doesn’t happen very often and that’s why you know it when it does. I’ve always called that moment a delicious feeling of satisfaction.

Travel has always been my passport to more of those moments.

I plan to do a lot more in 2016. And I hope you do, too.

Happy New Year and Safe Travels.

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Schlepping 3,000 miles for a banana leaf and burned rice

Who would fly 3,000 miles for dinner?  With a drink that tastes like burned rice? And a dressed-up banana leaf for dessert?

I would. And did a while back.

It’s what they eat in Madagascar, that island nation off Africa, better known as the locale for those animated movies with Ben Stiller and Chris Rock. But I didn’t need a passport because the meal was in Portland, Oregon.

It was something I’d heard about on NPR. A couple is in the process of hosting 194 dinner parties, one for every member of the United Nations, in alphabetical order. They call it United Noshes. They do this mostly at home in Portland and sometimes take it on the road. Anyone can show up, so long as they make a donation to help fight world hunger.

I like the catchy title. And that whole United Nations thing. I’ve always been a geography geek. And because I can’t cook, I’m in awe of anyone who can. Let alone anyone confident enough to experiment with fare from far-flung places. Plus, I’m an NPR junkie. I love that I might be able to experience something I heard about from Scott Simon.

I sign up. When the Madagascar dinner opens up on a Saturday night, I book my flight from Philadelphia. I’ll be in Portland for less than 48 hours. But I’ve been there before and don’t mind revisiting. And I’m really curious to meet my hosts and see who shows up.

I stay at an airport hotel to be able to get in and out quickly, and use public transportation.

I start that Saturday shopping, and and score some sweet plastic rose earrings (Portland’s known for its roses).

Matzo ball soup and onion-potato knish, Portland-style.

Matzo ball soup and onion-potato knish, Portland-style.

Lunch is at a reliable Jewish deli I’d tried before that’s so Portland: Outdoorsy Pacific Northwest types especially appreciate a hearty bowl of matzo ball soup on a raw day.

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Then Powell’s, the Taj Mahal of bookstores. An entire city block of people actually buying actual books. It’s a beautiful thing.

I find the perfect dinner contribution: Local chocolate, made with Madagascar cocoa beans. It comes highly recommended.

My hosts, Jesse Friedman and wife Laura Hadden, share a pretty house with their border collie mix, Emmylou, in a well-tended neighborhood.

Friedman’s a marketing guy for Google. He and Hadden, a multimedia artist, have been hosting United Noshes for several years. With more than 100 meals under their belts, they’re past the halfway mark on the UN list. And they’ve raised more than $30,000 for charity so far.

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It’s about an hour to dinner for 16 and ingredients are still being thawed. There’s a banana leaf simmering in a pot, and I’ve volunteered to cut up some tilapia. If this were my party, I’d be crying cause I want to, and frantically ordering takeout. How and why do they do it?

Jesse Friedman, left, gets meal pointers from Mimy Manavihare, a Malagasy.

Friedman, left, gets kitchen pointers from Mimy Manavihare, a Malagasy.

Friedman, who’s honchoing the entire meal, likes it that way. He enjoys cooking for crowds, and finds these trials by fire relaxing, and the whole experience fun.

“At the end of pretty much every meal, we come away having learned a bit about the world, met some fascinating new people, and (usually) eaten something tasty, which is motivation enough to do it again,” he says.

Hadden and Emmylou take care of all the other details.

Hadden and Emmylou take care of the other details.

Hadden, who does everything else, explains it started when they moved to Brooklyn. “We grew tired of meeting up with friends in bars and restaurants instead of in living rooms and backyards,” she says. They longed to entertain, and saw the hunt for ingredients as an opportunity to really learn about The Apple.

They tried out their first dinners on friends in their 500-square-foot apartment. Then, an epiphany. “We decided to make it a fundraiser to fight hunger because we felt we had to acknowledge the fact that many people couldn’t even enjoy the sorts of foods that we were celebrating from their own country,” Friedman says.

United Noshes continued after they relocated to Portland.

Friedman does tons of research in his quest to cook authentically. If he can hook up with someone familiar with the cuisine, even better. He’s had his share of flops, most notably the Bhutan dinner, where he was forced to use yak-dairy substitutes, which didn’t cut it.

The project has been an insight into the workings of the UN, if you’re into that sort of thing. For instance, he says, “Macedonia we’re not going to do until ‘T’ because it’s listed as ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’

I just love that sort of geopolitical minutia.

Friedman’s getting an assist with the meal from Mimy, a Madagascar native who lives in Portland. So I get to meet a real Malagasy. Along with, as it turns out, the reporter who did the NPR piece. And the grandson of a former missionary in Madagascar. He and Mimy wonder if their people ever crossed paths.

Dinner is served. Madagascar cuisine, I learn. is a stew of African, Asian and French flavors. Our meal is typically served on Sundays and special occasions.

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What makes this different from Sunday dinners at my grandparents are a side of something called cassava leaves, the beverage of water spiked with burned rice and the banana leaves with rice and peanuts for dessert. Certainly exotic, but that was about it.

I fill up on decent rice and fish; my chocolate, which was fabulous; and later, at the hotel, that good old American staple, Oreos.

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But there were endless helpings of laughter and chatter. And that’s all I’d really hoped for.

If you’d like to get in on a United Noshes dinner, there’s no charge, but charity donations of up to $20 are suggested, and they’re matched by Google. For more information, click here.

 

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Let’s Paws: Happy to be a Blind Dog’s Seeing-Eye Dog

My latest trip was to take what might be my last journey with one of my favorite beings — my blind nephew Chaos, a 12-year-old Labrador Retriever.

I volunteered to dog-sit, which meant flying down to my sister’s in Charlotte, NC. I hadn’t seen him in years, certainly not since being told he was blind from diabetes and that he had shrunk to about half his size.

Chaos and mom, my sister.

Chaos and mom, my sister.

That was hard to grasp because this is how I remember him, a lightning bolt when it came to playing catch, which he would do endlessly. We used to call him the outlaw Jesse James because he always found a way to crawl under the backyard fence to freedom. Luckily he was always found before he wandered into trouble.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see he was still the same pup.  Still loved to revel in belly rubs and give gooey kisses.

And cuddling. We had a few heart to hearts. Chaos was a last tie to my late brother-in-law who’d actually named him more than a decade ago because he had a thing for chowing down on eyeglasses, TV remotes and Benadryl. (Marley had nothing on him.)

Chaos firmly in lap of late brother-in-law.

My late brother-in-law with Chaos, top, and late brother, Skipper.

He’d seen us all, humans and other dogs that had once been in the picture, through a lot.

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I held his head in my hands and reminded him of this. That he was Oscar and Daisy’s boy (the labs who were his parents), even though he looked like their grandparent at this point, his eyes clouded over. He nuzzled me and I’m sure he knew what I was talking about when I told him how much we all loved him.

No more playing catch. But he still loved to go out and sniff. His nose and ears became a super-sensitive GPS. And wouldn’t you know it, I’m told, he still managed to suss out gaps in the fence.

It was amazing to watch that GPS in action. But he still needed a bit of guidance. I was happy to accommodate him. That’s him and his shadow — me.

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Brussels: Sad to See Dark Cloud Hanging Over Brilliant City

I really hate to see Brussels, Belgiumon lockdown, with the city bracing for a possible terror attack like the one that decimated Paris.

When I went there last Easter in search of extraordinary chocolate, I also got a good taste of the place. It was so cosmopolitan, I couldn’t understand why it had a rep as a European wallflower as opposed to glamorous Paris. Its French and Dutch roots were just as interesting. Here are a few snapshots.

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First off, it’s no secret that Brussels has seen its fair share of violence. I did stumble upon the Jewish museum that had been a terrorist target last year, which I wasn’t actively looking for nor avoiding. But there it was. A frightening and upsetting sight.

But I found the city and its people lovely.

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The Airbnb I stayed at was dreamy; one of the nicest I’d ever been in. Like a palace. It was in Ixtelles, centrally located, which means it was within walking distance of some of the best and worst neighborhoods. I walked everywhere or took public transportation, kept a low profile, and never had a problem.

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My host was on his way to a nearby flea market, and he was nice enough to walk me there. It was like wandering through a gigantic attic with, I have to say, a lot of junk. Here’s more about it.

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I came away with some earrings that I was told were from an estate, though I would have preferred these darling dogs. No fleas on them, as far as I could tell.

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Locals attempted to teach me the fine art of eating Brussels mussels. With frites — fries — on the side.

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There were frites joints everywhere, including this one in the neighborhood. The advertised fare seemed heavy. I was more content just to gaze at the beautiful building.

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Another place for potatoes was more my speed. Baked and mashed potatoes in all manner of combinations. The place’s grand opening was that night.

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The owners served me up a preview, and it was lovely getting to know them. Just checked in with them; nice to know they’re still in business.

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Brussels has a couple good museums, including one showcasing the work of late Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. Neat stuff; sorry I couldn’t stay longer.

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It’s also the gateway to two medieval towns on canals, Bruges and Ghent, easily reachable by train.

Though the former was made famous by that movie starring Colin Farrell, I was attracted by the latter because it sounded less touristy.

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Not quite. Ghent was pretty enough, but still crowded in early spring. I hid out in a castle in the middle of town.

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brussels looking down from castle

I could hide out no longer; I emerged to eat awful, overpriced Belgian waffles. Everything in the tourist section looked awful and overpriced; the local alternative in another part of town looked to be mostly burgers. So there wasn’t much to choose from.brussels wafflesAs it turns out, these were the best waffles I had in Belgium: from a truck near that Brussels flea market. They still weren’t that hot.

But the city is, and it’s well-worth a visit.

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Let’s Paws: TSA Dogs Looking for a Few Good Homes

So the TSA is looking for a few good homes for a few good dogs who flunked basic training. Would that we could. Honestly, we’re far from being over the loss of our beloved Ginger.

Even if we were ready, our condo association has rules against big guys. The weight thing.

Darn.

We know when it’s time, there will be millions more looking for a good home. There always are.

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Weekend Journey: Last of New England Foliage, by Train

Packing my Vera Bradley carry-on for a new Amtrak adventure. Going from Lancaster, Pennsylvania,  to Portland, Maine, on the Downeaster, something I’ve been interested in doing for awhile.

It’s probably as expensive as flying and about the same amount of time as driving — just under eight hours. But I can spend the time leisurely gazing at the last fall foliage instead of the road.

I’m breaking up the trip with an overnight in Boston and taking the Maine train from there.

In Maine, I’ll be partaking of much seafood and dropping in on a former TV colleague who has a whole new life. She went from a high-powered L.A. newsroom  to a high-energy job as a Presbyterian pastor and hospice chaplain in New England.

She’s graciously allowing me to tag along for a bit. Can’t wait.

 

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