How to take the first step toward any journey

Next time you feel bogged down — like I’ve been with work and a million stories that are nagging to be written; or have already been written, and are just nagging — think of this woman.

Proof that that first step makes all the difference.

 

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Who pays when a flight delay is an ‘Act of God’?

Things were going too well. Except for a tight flight connection in London that got the old heart racing, a recent trip to Italy and Greece was perfect. (More on that later.)

It ended with a great couple of days in Chania, on the Greek island of Crete. Pretty, if touristy, town; nice people; divine food; and appropriately mild Mediterranean weather to usher in spring.

I noticed it was overcast and a bit windy when I left for the airport to make my way home to the U.S. The only thing that crossed my mind was how lucky I was to have had such great weather up until then.

But the wind actually had airport folks worried. Especially the pilots with Aegean Airlines, the carrier I’d booked for the morning flight from Crete to Athens and then homeward.

The wind picked up and the flight to Athens went from being delayed for a couple of minutes to a couple of hours. Then, the Aegean pilot refused to fly and it was postponed to that night. (Word was, the locals were floored by the wind’s ferocity, which I found hard to believe. Certainly this wasn’t Crete’s first ill wind.)

That meant my entire return trip home, which had several twists because it was a frequent flyer ticket (they’re never a straight line unless you book years in advance), had just been blown up. And it was up to me, not Aegean, to fix it.

Two Aegean staffers were attempting to wrangle dozens of crazed passengers just like me. Complicated cases like mine landed in the office of the nice but flustered Aegean boss, who was having a surprisingly hard time dealing, given his title. What if he’d had a real disaster on his hands?

One young woman on her way back to China, her mom and baby in tow, was in his face, which he kept covering with his hands, demanding he fix things. It was an Act of God, he pointed out. Technically true.

I should add that the other airline that covers the same route, cut-rate carrier Ryan Air, was flying. By the time I realized this with a gasp, those seats were long gone.

Why was Ryan Air flying and not Aegean, I asked Mr. Flustered. We care about human life and really, really care about liability if something happens, was the gist of what he was saying. Human life. So overrated when you really need to stick to a schedule.

(Ryan Air’s alternate approach didn’t really surprise. I once flew out of Hong Kong with an approaching cyclone. My flight was the only one that left. Since I was young and thought I was invincible, I didn’t give it a second thought.)

Anyway, while I dictated, Mr. Flustered typed a To Whom It May Concern letter explaining that weather conditions in Crete would force me to miss my other connections back to the U.S. The equivalent of a doctor’s note back in grade school.

He also let me take over his desk while I tied up his landline for a good hour (saving me some dough on my international cellphone plan), re-arranging my itinerary and becoming 500 bucks poorer in the process (had to buy another flight). I was also charged more to change my frequent flyer ticket. I’ll be fighting that with my trusty note.

I also got a meal voucher from Aegean, which was good for exactly one Greek version of a potato knish from the Crete airport concession stand. Gummy, greasy, and oddly as big as my foot. I nibbled mostly out of boredom.

I was on my last bite when, finally, my Aegean flight from Crete to Athens got off the ground.

I was entitled to a free hotel room in Athens because I got there so late. But there wouldn’t be much sleep because I now had to catch a predawn flight to Frankfurt, Germany, for the flight home. (No, there won’t be a quiz.) So I hung out at Athens airport the rest of the night — a funhouse of dozing travelers, cleaning crews, duty-free dreck and cable news.

Turns out, the wind grounded dozens of flights in Greece that day. But writing this from home now, it still puzzles me that Ryan Air planes took off. They, too, have a rep to maintain, and I can’t imagine them being that reckless.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, security at Frankfurt airport — a big European hub — was a little more stringent than usual a day after the Brussels attack. Interestingly, unlike the U.S., shoes never have to be removed.

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Bittersweet memories of Brussels

This may sound silly and trivial given the gravity of the situation. But I’m trying to make a point here.

A year ago, at Easter, I visited Brussels. I wanted to acquaint myself with the city and, who am I fooling – indulge in Belgian chocolate at the source.

My quest for the perfect confection took me all over the city. I also took time to discover the more substantial stuff – a visit to the European Parliament, an open-air market popular with the locals, and a side trip to make like a queen in a castle at Ghent.

I walked everywhere and used public transit. I was wowed by a place steeped in beauty, history, and political influence. The real heart of Europe.

Brussels has been living under a shadow much of the year. I’m sorry that the sweetness of this Easter there is soured by such tragedy.

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Eats: Philly, home of one of world’s best desserts

You’ve just gotta trust me on this. Because I know dessert. Especially the frozen kind. I’ve been taste-testing ice cream and sorbet ever since I was old enough to buy something from the Good Humor man.

I’ve had encounters with Ben and Jerry and Edy and Rita. Have had every incarnation of ice cream and sorbet all over the world (i.e., cowed in Ireland), and been disappointed time and again.

I found my nirvana in a specialty store in my Pennsylvania back yard. A pint of chocolate sorbet because I was in the mood for something light, sans creme. Yeah, right.

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The label says it all. It really is like frozen fudge. And who doesn’t like fudge?

It’s made by Zsa’s, a Philadelphia outfit. They make some luscious-looking ice cream, too. The sorbet’s so decadent, I haven’t felt a need to move on to the harder stuff.

They’re all over the Philly area, including the city’s famed Reading Market. So check ’em out next time you’re there. Sow worth it.

 

 

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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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