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Posts Tagged ‘family’

— 1 —

We’re back! Life has slipped and tumbled back into the normal paradigm: school, sort-of-homeschooling (Hey, there was a lot  of learning that happened in Mexico, wasn’t there?), work, music….etc.

— 2 —

Here’s a post I pulled together with links to all the entries on the trip to Mexico, with some thoughts on safety and links to our accommodations. It’s called I went to Mexico and didn’t die

—3–

This coming Sunday is, of course, Divine Mercy Sunday. St. Faustina is in the Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. Here’s a page:

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–4–

In case you didn’t know it (er…I didn’t) – the Feast of the Annunciation is being celebrated on Monday – (because the actual date fell on Palm Sunday)  You can download a free pdf of my Mary and the Christian Life at this page (scroll down a bit). If you want to spring .99 for a Kindle e-reader copy, go here. 

And hey – with First Communion/Confirmation/Mother’s Day/Graduation season coming up – check out my books for gifts! 

–5 —

From Atlas Obscura – I’d never heard of this – it sounds similar to our local Ave Maria Grotto. The grace in the found object. 

Brother Bronislaus Luszcz, a native of Poland, spent 23 years building this collection of large grottos. He used local Missouri tiff rock to create beautiful statues and mosaics freckled with found and donated objects like seashells and costume jewelry. He began the work in 1937, though the seeds of his endeavor were planted long before.

While Brother Bronislaus was growing up in Poland, he would watch as pilgrims trekked through his home village on their way to a shrine for the Virgin Mary. The memory of the pilgrims lingered in his mind even after he moved to the United States and inspired him to begin constructing his own shrine. 

–6–

In an era in which the only movies that seem to make it to the screen are remakes and comic book-based…you read a tale like this and you wonder…why not this story? Wouldn’t this be a fantastic movie – or even television series? Let’s do lunch and make it happen!

She zoomed over forlorn dusty roads, responding to the beckoning call of new adventures. The airborne sensation and the freedom of the road ensured that she climbed on her trusty Harley-Davidson time and time again. Long before the hashtag #CarefreeBlackGirl was coined, Bessie Stringfield was living her life freely on her own terms—riding her motorcycle across the United States solo.

Born in 1911, Stringfield got her first motorcycle, a 1928 Indian Scout, while she was still in her teens and taught herself how to ride it. As chronicled in the 1993 book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road by Stringfield’s protégé and eventual biographer Ann Ferrar, at the age of 19, young Stringfield flipped a penny onto a map of the US then ventured out on her bike alone. Interstate highways didn’t yet exist at the time, but the rough, unpaved roads didn’t deter her. In 1930, she became the first Black woman to ride a motorcycle in every one of the connected 48 states—a solo cross-country ride she undertook eight times during her lifetime. But not even that satisfied her wanderlust. Eventually, she went abroad to Haiti, Brazil, and parts of Europe.

And you just wonder….how many other stories are there?

And the answer…one for every person. 

At least. 

–7–

It’s Easter Season! Below are related excerpts from our favorite vintage 7th grade Catholic textbook, part of the Christ-Life Series in Religion . The first is about the season in general, the second about next Sunday (before it became Divine Mercy Sunday, of course).

What I like about these – and why I share them with you – is that they challenge the assumption that before Vatican II, Catholicism offered nothing but legalistic rules-based externals to its adherents, particularly the young. Obviously not so

I also appreciate the assumption of maturity and spiritual responsibility. Remember, this is a 7th grade textbook, which means it was for twelve and thirteen-year olds at most. A child reading this was encouraged to think of him or herself, not as a customer to be placated or attracted, but as a member of the Body of Christ – a full member who can experience deep joy, peace and has a mission.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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And finally…it’s Easter. Sunday morning, rise and shine.

My body was worn out, but functional. I roused every one about nine and had them clean themselves, dress and pack. We’d be heading to ten o’clock Mass at the Cathedral, then returning to the hotel for any last necessities, checking out, and leaving our bags at the desk for the afternoon.

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Easter morning view from the hotel room. 

Our flight back home was early Monday morning. I had a room reserved at the Mexico City Airport Marriott Courtyard for the night. Good buses run from Puebla directly to the airport all day, so I knew that there was no need to reserve any tickets. Shooting for a general time frame would work just fine, so that’s what we did, the time frame being 4-ish – which would get us to the hotel by seven at the latest, we hoped. And ten hours later, up and out and on the plane home.

The zocalo (town piazza or square) was not as busy as on former days (yet), but there were magazine vendors setting up who hadn’t been there before. As I mentioned, the Cathedral was celebrating Mass every hour most of the day – wander in and you’d hit something guaranteed.

We slipped in a side pew just as Mass was beginning, the final strains of Pescadores de Hombres fading as we did so. The celebrant was, I’m presuming, of the archdioceses’ auxiliary bishops. It was an Easter Sunday Mass, with organ and small choir and the same stellar cantor who had sung on Thursday and, even though I couldn’t see him, I’m sure, at the Vigil. The only disappointing and honestly puzzling point was that the cantor led the Responsorial Psalm and continued to stand at the side, which led me to believe he was prepping to sing the Easter Sequence…but no. It was simply recited by some old guy. Why???? It’s so haunting, beautiful and expressive – and this fellow with the wonderful voice was standing right there! Why??

After checking out and stashing our luggage, we…as we do…wandered. Food was consumed – churros (excellent and fresh – there was always a line at the place around the corner), street tacos, the famous local cemita sandwich and street quesadillas and probably some ice cream. We shopped, not only for souvenirs – including candy at Puebla’s famed Street of Sweets –  but for clothes and shoes (as I was told, everything was open) as well. As I’ve said, the cost of living here is so low, it’s crazy how inexpensive even good shoes are.

 

Behind the Cathedral is the “House of Culture” which houses, among other spaces and institutions, the oldest public library in North America, the Palafaxiona Library.

When, in 1646 the bishop of Puebla, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, donated a rich and select personal library of 5,000 volumes to the Tridentine College, he thought of the formation of the clergy, but also of the society of the city of Puebla. He therefore established, also, that anyone who could read was to be allowed inside this magnificent library. As a seminary library, it was also a library with a broad range for reading, one not limited to knowledge about God and his church, but to the study of all that might occur to the pen of man, and in order that man might have strong arguments to defend the faith.

By 1773, then Bishop of Puebla, Francisco Fabián y Fuero, established the principal nave of the Palafoxiana Library at 43 meters in length such that the population would have access to the collection of Bishop Palafox. The bishop also had two floors of fine shelves built in fine ayacahuite, coloyote and cedar.

The collection increased with donations from the bishops Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz and Francisco Pablo Vázquez, and by the inclusion of the library of the Jesuit College. Today, some 45,059 volumes dating from the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th centuries coexist with a few from the 20th century.

Those darn obscurantist Catholics, up to their repressive tricks once more!

 I had determined it was open, so it seemed like a visit would be a quick, painless dip into culture – but wait – there’s more!

As we climbed the steps on our way to what we thought was the museum, we encountered an exhibit – an exhibit of devotional statues that had, at one time or another, been on display in the Cathedral. (Don’t worry – it hasn’t been wreckovated – there is plenty of art still there in every nook and cranny. It’s just that over five centuries, you collect a lot.) It was free admission, so we walked through and took some time with the emotionally expressive, finely wrought work. I was especially intrigued with the back of this Christ the King – that hair……

We were on our way to the library when we heard music, and discovered, down in the courtyard a floor below us, a dance performance happening in front of a large, appreciative crowd. Video is on this Instagram post.

On to the library, which involved a slow walk through – probably quite boring for some, but absorbing for me. Libraries are that way in general, but to be surrounded by centuries of exploring, meditation, research, creativity and pondering, hand-written, laboriously printed, carefully preserved – is humbling.

And so….quick version of the rest of the day:

Retrieved luggage. Got an Uber to the bus station. Arrived at bus station (different from our arrival station – this is the one for the airport buses) – tickets available on a bus in 45 minutes, purchased tickets, sat and waited.

Even though the station was busy, the experience was less confusing – there were fewer IMG_20180401_163516.jpgbuses leaving, so it was clearer which was ours. As we did before, we checked our luggage, went through security and then boarded – getting our promised first class snack – A WATER AND A MUFFIN – this time. Although this time, the movie screen wasn’t working – the bus driver even stopped the bus about fifteen minutes out, came back, took out a panel from the ceiling, fiddled around, squinted at the screen, shrugged, returned to the front and kept on driving – screen dark, but we did have wi-fi.

The bus dropped us off at Terminal 1, the originating terminal for most international flights (Inter-Mexico flights as well as Delta fly from Terminal 2) and the location of our hotel. I am so glad we stayed at the airport. Our flight was at 7 am, and I can’t imagine how more miserable we’d have been if we’d stayed any distance away. We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was unnecessary, as we discovered afterwards when we walked to see how far we’d have to go in the morning – we could have just turned a couple of corners and eaten our choice of fast food at a third of the price (this was most expensive meal we had in Mexico…)…ah, well!

Departure was painless. I was glad we flew Southwest – the departure lines in the morning were non-existent there while the other airline counters were crowded, even at 6 am. Hobby Airport in Houston has an almost completely automated immigration system – US citizens didn’t even have to fill out customs forms – and the re-entry experience was a breeze. Back on the ground in Alabama by 12:30, in the Chick-Fil-A drive through by 1.

Success!

Come back in the next couple of days for a summary post and Deep Thoughts. 

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A very, very smooth trip. I am not in anyone’s fan club, least of all an airline, but I have to say that this Southwest flight from Birmingham to Houston to Mexico was one of the better flights I’ve had lately. First, there were no lame Southwest flight attendant hijinks, which I was dreading. Secondly – when the plane pulled away from the gate…it kept going. And going. Faster and faster until it was in the air! Fancy that…no ten minute waits on the runway followed by another ten minute wait, then followed by a thirty minute wait in which we are told, “Looks like we’re almost maybe perhaps next in line for takeoff.”

Airport moment:

Older (I can still say that! Sometimes!) woman sits down next to me at the gate. Gets out her phone. Starts talking. Loudly. This is what she says, no lie: Oh, she has no class. She speak so loudly all the time. Just no class. Well, yes, I hope they’re happy, but I doubt it will last. You know how it started right? They had an affair? He was married and left his wife for her?

Too bad she’s not as classy as the dame loudly gossiping about her in the airport!

****

One of the very tense moments in any transition from airplane to vacation stay in any city is the issue of actually getting there. Airport taxi rip-offs are everywhere, from Paris to Rome to most other places I’ve never been. Mexico City actually has an excellent system for minimizing the chances of being overcharged or taken to parts unknown.

The taxi companies all have booths in the actual airport. You go up to a booth, and tell them the address of your destination. If you don’t have a lot of people with you, be sure to specify sedan or they will stick you in a van and it will be a hundred pesos more. (Not a lot but still). You pay the booth attendant, he or she prints out a ticket, and then you take it outside to the outside attendant and he or she hooks you up with a taxi. You’ve already paid, they know where you’re going – almost like Uber!

So that’s what we did – taking then about a thirty minute ride through a very busy city to our apartment. There was one stretch of road which was lined with market stalls, thronged with people, and with even more people darting towards cars stopped at intersections with toys, ice cream, and water for sale, and bottles of sudsy water ready to wash windshields.

***

The apartment’s good. The only negative (which I’ll mention to the owner and in the review) is that there’s no “guide to the area” – I’ve rented a lot of vacation apartments before and leaving a guide with directions for transportation (here’s the nearest subway stop, this bus line runs near the apartment, and so on) and favorite local restaurants and grocery stores is absolutely standard. It certainly makes life easier. But other than that, it’s good – two bedrooms, a large living room/dining room.

After a bit of a rest, we set out walking. I hadn’t intended walking all the way to the Zocalo, but that’s what we did, taking a break along the way for Mass. It was a long way (almost 3 miles) and (spoiler alert) we cabbed it back (I couldn’t get Uber to load properly at the moment).

We walked along the Reforma, the main central drag through Mexico City – lots of higher end hotels are located here, there’s a central walking and biking path lined with trees and benches almost the whole way, and I understand on Sunday mornings, they make the road pedestrian-only, which must be lovely.

It was busy, and the closer we got to the center, the busier it got  – it wasn’t unruly or crazy – mostly families of one size or another – but it was certainly a surging river of folks. In a way it was just like any other similar scene in any other city: lots of characters, from Iron Man to Mickey Mouse and street performers – the street performers were, however, in three categories and three categories alone: Hurdy-Gurdy organs, then a man playing an accordion while a woman holding a baby stands with a cup, and little children – no older than seven or eight years old – playing beaten guitars.  Those in the second category reminded me of the beggars in Rome, and I wondered if, as it the case with the Roma and their babies, the children are sedated. As for the little boys banging on their guitars? You might think it’s cute, but it’s really not. You can’t help but wonder what’s going on, and the little boys are clearly tired and even a little angry.

Our primary goal was Mass, which we hit about halfway through at a church I thought had something to do with St. Francis, but which I cannot for the life of me locate on the map right now. We’ll pass it again at some point – I want to go in and look at the décor more carefully, and take phots with my real camera. Some interesting points:

Those of you familiar with Catholicism in Latin countries probably already know this, but it was new to me. And I don’t know if this is standard practice everywhere, but at this parish in Mexico City, it was. In the US, we have our palms  given to us at the beginning of Mass. Regular old strips of palm leaves. We process, have Mass, and that’s it.

It’s different here. Outside of the church are crafters and vendors of artifacts made of palms – the intricately woven standards you might have seen, but even very elaborate figures, such as the crucifixes you see in the photo. People buy those before (and after) Mass, and bring them into church.

Now, we were not there at the beginning, so I don’t know if there was a procession, but it was the end of Mass that intrigued me.

After Mass, everyone who has something – either purchased that day or from home – brings it up to the front for a blessing (It’s like what I’ve seen at the Hispanic community’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Masses in Birmingham – everyone brings up their religious objects, no matter how big, at the end for blessing.)

What was thought-provoking to me was that while, as is normally the case, perhaps ten percent of the congregation received Communion, almost everyone had a sacramental to be blessed and take home. I need to think about it more and work it out, but the dynamic seems to be that Mass is the locus of blessing, the presence of Jesus. From the Mass, we can take the sacred back into the world, into our homes.

Those of us who are frequent Communion-receivers frame that dynamic in terms of the presence of Christ within us in Eucharist – but those who don’t receive the Eucharist frequently still find a way. A powerful way, it seems to me.

 

 

One of the reasons I want to go back to this church is to take a closer look and better photos of the medallions of the evangelists in the sanctuary – you can barely see them running across the center above. What was great about them (again, maybe this is a common motif – I’ve just never run across it before) is that each of the evangelists is, as usual, paired with his symbol – ox, eagle, man, lion – but here they are riding them. It’s fantastic.

After Mass, we just made our way over to the Zocola, which is massive. The added treat was that there was obviously something going on – we could see a crowd gathered, attention directed towards a covered concert area. It was to be a symphony performance – Beethoven’s Ninth.

If it hadn’t been the end of a long travel day with two boys who’s only consumed donuts in the morning for their daily sustenance, I would have stayed for the whole thing. But as it was, I could sense the mood in my crew, which was a hungry one, and there were no food vendors of any sort around, so we took a turn around the square and peaked into the Cathedral (Mass going on in two places within – we’ll go back later in the week for a closer look during the day), all with the first movement resounding in the air. It was a lovely, stirring welcome to Mexico City, and a reminder of the contrasts so much a part of this culture: Beethoven in the square, with impoverished little boys banging on beaten-up guitars four blocks away.

 

We took a cab back to the area of our apartment, and started looking for food. The restaurant at the end of the block I’d been thinking of was closed. We walked around a bit, almost decided to do just sandwiches from the 7-11, but then I said, no, we’ll go back to the Argentinian restaurant not far from the apartment, and that was a good decision. The food was great – excellent fresh empanadas, two huge hamburgers and a fabulous skirt steak for me. It was a fairly casual restaurant, but the service was so old-school and so many levels above the Hey guys, how’s everyone doing style of American eating, the boys were intrigued.

So there you go. I’m writing this Monday morning, and we have a long day of Teotihuacan – the main attraction – ahead. We are knocking it off today because museums are closed on Mondays, so we might as well….

Video at Instagram. 

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Greetings from…back in Birmingham.

It was an excellent weekend, although shorter than originally planned.

The last workshop of the symposium was scheduled to run from 3:30-5 on Sunday. That was also the only Sunday workshop my son was really very interested in – it was on LIDAR technology, which has revolutionized Maya studies.

(National Geographic ran a breathless, irritatingly hype-y special on this a few weeks ago.)

But after attending four talks on Saturday – three right in a row – and gotten the zoo visit done, I discerned that perhaps….this was enough. A day long workshop on Friday and IMG_20180310_144930.jpgfour academic presentations? For a thirteen-year old? I suggested that perhaps we could just…go home earlier on Sunday?

We talked it over. He was, indeed, interested in that workshop, but LIDAR had been discussed many times in the talks he’d attended, and considering how interested he is in the topic and how hot LIDAR is in the field…he’ll have a chance to engage with it again. The thought of getting home at 5 instead of 10 or later was certainly attractive to both of us.

Decision made…so that’s why I’m writing this from home Sunday night instead of..Monday morning.

But let’s backtrack.

First, our New Orleans hotel. Here’s Amy’s Travel Advice  Section:

I’ve stayed in New Orleans before, in various spots, and never paid what I consider an exorbitant amount. We’ve stayed in various chains in the city, and once at a Residence Inn near the airport. When I started looking for rooms this time, I got serious sticker shock. Nothing, nada even close to downtown for less than 350 a night. Even hotels in Metairie were more than I wanted to pay. Finally, I settled on a Holiday Inn and Suites across the river in Harvey, which was at least under $200.

(And why was this? I poked about and saw a couple of events – the Sun Belt Conference Championship tournament and a Bourbon Festival, but really? Would that be enough to drive prices up for the weekend? Spring breaks beginning? That certainly might be part of it. Well, then we were driving and walking around Sunday morning I saw, not one, but two big cruise ships in port – the Norwegian Pearl and Carnival Dream. That might just have been the tipping point – thousands of folks coming in early to get the party started before departing on Sunday. Maybe?)

Then about a week before the trip, I checked again – just to see. What I actually checked was the question, “Slidell as a base for New Orleans trip.”  Because hotels out there are of course much cheaper. The discussion I happened upon answered that initial question with a resounding NO DON’T DO IT, but buried in the various answers was the suggestion of a hotel – the Prytania Park Hotel – which, the person said, was reasonably priced and close in – just on the edge, between the Garden District and Downtown.

I checked the usual booking sites  – no vacancies listed for my dates. But then, just IMG_20180311_091502.jpgbecause I know that what is listed on the booking sites is their inventory that’s been released to them from a particular hotel – I went to the hotel’s website and checked. Vacancies! For a “junior suite” with two beds and on two levels.  For well under $200 a night. I emailed just to make sure, got a positive response, cancelled that Holiday Inn and booked this one directly with the hotel.

So there’s a lesson for you. Always check with the hotel (or airline, or whatever), even when it seems hopeless.

Isn’t it always the way, though. These innovative ways of doing life pop up – one place where you can check All The Prices! – but it never quite works out the way we think. In this particular case, the booking sites and hotels are vying for profits, with the hotels – especially independent hotels – in a real bind. They can’t survive if they’re not listed, but then those third party sites will take their cut. The hotels are helped by the review systems – to a point. They’re not helped if the third party sites don’t crack down on fraud and competitor sabotage and let unjustified poor reviews stand.

And so for us the consumer? How does it work out? There’s a certain level of convenience in these third party sites like Booking.com. It helps to get a broad survey of availability and an efficient way to look at room arrangements (particularly outside the US where there tends to be more variability), but be aware of two points:IMG_20180311_092001.jpg

First, what I’ve just described: the booking sites don’t have all of a hotel’s inventory available to them.

Secondly, if you end up having a problem after booking, resolution goes much more smoothly if you’ve booked with the hotel (or airline or car rental agency or tour agency) directly. Trying to get refunds and justice with the added layer of Orbitz or TripAdvisor or what have you is going to make things even more difficult than they already are.

Use them for research, sort of trust, and always verify.

Oh, and the Prytania Park Hotel? I liked it. It’s a bit shabby – it’s not a shiny chain hotel or a pristine boutique inn. But it was very clean and secure. Our room was, as advertised, a IMG_20180311_092047.jpg“junior suite” with two twin beds in a loft, and then a downstairs area with couch, chair, desk, desk chair, fridge, microwave, two sinks and bathroom area with tub and shower. And a balcony! The clientele seemed mixed, but mostly families and middle-aged to elderly folks. There was a breakfast, but it was clearly a step down from what you’d find in a Residence or Hampton Inn (i.e. frozen waffles instead of those you make yourself, no proteins, etc…).

There’s not a heap of street noise, although there was traffic outside – there must have a been a club nearby because Friday night, the bass was pretty consistent and loud until well after midnight – but strangely enough, it was much quieter on Saturday night.

Right across the street, there was an older fellow sitting outside on his front porch both mornings, reading. He resembled my father so strongly, it gave me a start: Same build, IMG_20180310_083457.jpgsitting exactly as my father would be reading in the morning if he were outside, legs crossed, with a hat like this on his head, holding and smoking his cigarette just so. I texted the photos to my older sons who both responded with many exclamation points and, in the case of one, the obvious conclusion that my father had faked his own death and escaped to live in seclusion in New Orleans….

And, here on a trip, with a longer one coming in a couple of weeks,  I thought of the conversation I had with him about this time nine years ago, when I told him, a little nervously, that I was going to take the crew to Sicily, of all places. Someplace completely different, somewhere just…away.  I couldn’t face the entire summer here. We had to leave town.  I braced myself, expecting an argument and an attempt to dissuade me. Sicily? But that’s not how it went, at all.

I think that’s great, he said without hesitating a second. It will do you all a lot of good. Go and have a wonderful time.

And so we went. And went. And went…and still go. We go, thanks, for a lot of different reasons – his encouragement, his financial legacy, his own regret at not traveling more earlier in life before it became physically challenging – to him.

 

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Christmas in New York City….what to say?

How about…been there, done that. 

Or…There. That’s done. 

I’d always thought Christmastime in the City would be fun to experience, and now that my oldest lives there, we had a good excuse. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve got the gist of the trip: we left Christmas night from Atlanta, spent Tuesday-Thursday there, left at the crack of dawn on Friday for other parts of the country. I was glad to do it, glad to spend time with my son and see friends, but heavens, it was cold and wow, it was crowded. As I said: been there, done that was what I thought as we flew away for points south!  Highlights:

  • First highlight was in getting there in the first place. The boys were scheduled to serve Christmas Day Mass at the convent, and when I made the reservations, did so assuming that Mass was at the usual Sunday morning time – 11am. Only to find out a few weeks later that no, Mass was at 12:30. Flights were at 6:19. From Atlanta. 2 hours from Birmingham.  A time zone ahead. So essentially, we would be leaving for a 6:19 flight a little more than four hours before it took off from two hours away, with perfect traffic.
  • Well, we obviously made it. The most tension-inducing aspect of the situation was that I had purchased United’s most recent low-level fare – the Basic Economy, which comes with a lot of restrictions, most of which – only being able to take a personal carry-on like a backpack, no guaranteed seating together – didn’t bother me (we each took a backpack, which was fine for three days, even in winter weather – we are not fashionistas), but there’s one more restriction: you can’t check in ahead of time online unless you are checking a bag (which costs extra, natch). This is to enable them to enforce the no-carry-on rule on site, so it’s understandable, but still. You know how it is when you’re racing to the airport. You can think: Well, at least I’m already checked in. Nope.
  • But, we made it, with time to spare. Go me. I mean…go. 
  • We flew into Newark, which was a first. Arrived, then took the very crowded train into Manhattan. Why was it so packed on Christmas night? It seemed to me, since it was crowded when we boarded at the airport, that the riders were folks who’d done their Christmas elsewhere and were returning home. We had to stand for most of the trip, but that’s fine.
  • Got to Penn Station, then walked the seven blocks in the cold to our hotel – the Leo House.
  • Now, this was a new discovery for me. I am not sure how it had never crossed my radar before. The Leo House is a Catholic guesthouse that’s been around for decades, named after Leo XIII and originally founded to be a safe haven for German immigrants. You can read its history here. It certainly showed its age – particularly in the bathrooms – but it was very clean and the breakfast was substantial and varied every day. I prepaid, and so we had a double room – two rooms connected by a bathroom, with three beds – for under $200/night. With breakfast. In Manhattan. In a good location, a block down from a subway, with the Empire State Building in view. It worked. It would be just about perfect if the bathrooms were updated, but that would be a multi-million dollar, probably unaffordable project. I’d stay there again – and probably will!
  • Day one (summarized on Instagram here). Yes, we went to the Central Park Zoo. We’d never been, and online commentary indicated that it wasn’t a bad winter activity – there were animals that flourish outside in the cold, and there was enough indoors to make it bearable. Walked through the park by the skating rink (we heard them introduce a skating session with about 5 minutes of announced warnings and disclaimers – #ModernTimes) – then to the subway to take it up to the Natural History Museum, which was…packed. As was everything over those three days. It made sense: Christmastime in the City has its appeal, plus it was so bloody cold, any attraction that was indoors was…attractive.
  • I stood line to get tickets – me and many Russians. We paid extra to see the Mummy exhibit, and probably shouldn’t have. It is part of this museum trend to just bring in extra $$$ with special exhibits that have a particular appeal – you think, “Oh, we want to see mummies!” and so you can…but for a price! Anyway, we’d seen many mummy displays all over the world, so I’m not sure why I gave into the pressure on this one (from the sales clerk, not my kids), but I did and was irritated. There wasn’t a lot to it that we had not seen elsewhere.
  • But I did see Mammoths and mastadons, which interested me because I’d just read this book. I find these early mammals much more interesting than dinosaurs, perhaps because they are closer to us in time, and in fact inhabited the planet with us.
  • We’d been here before, but it was several years and a couple of trips ago, but it was worth a revisit. I like the Field Museum in Chicago better, though….
  • Then dinner with my son and my friends Ann and Paul Engelhart at this very good French restaurant..and then Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera.
  • I need to think a bit more about this production, but I’d say that it was interesting, worth the time and money, and captured an aspect of the thematic essence of the piece while missing another part of it. Let’s put it this way: it’s not a light holiday confection, but honestly, who thinks of Hansel and Gretel this way? It’s a dark tale of suffering, temptation, exploitation and revenge or justice – or both. The German Expressionistic tone of much of the production brings out this darkness effectively, but what was muted was the spirituality of the piece, which is pretty strong: Hansel and Gretel are protected by angels, and in a sense, their journey to the witches’ house is a journey they’re led on for the salvation of others – the children the witch has turned into gingerbread who are freed by Hansel and Gretel, brought to that place by their own suffering.
  • The weird thing about the evening was this: a friend of mine from Alabama was in NYC at the same time. We’d said we’d meet on Wednesday or Thursday, but we came very close, without knowing it, on Tuesday night: she and her group ate at a restaurant on the same block as ours at the same time…and then they went to The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center…as we were at Hansel and Gretel. 
  • Small world, again.

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When you imagine traveling abroad, is food a part of the picture? Do you imagine yourself lingering over long dinners in Paris bistros or Italian trattorias, discovering humble geniuses creating marvels on hidden Tuscan roads?

Yeah, well. I like food – most food – and look forward to eating adventures when I travel, but really, most of the time, I end up hacking up a roast chicken and boiling some pasta for overtired kids in a kitchen where I’m never quite sure if I turned the gas off properly or not.

Obviously, children – and the constraints of time and money – impact the experience of food when you’re traveling.  Mine are not the pickiest eaters in the world, but nor are they the most adventurous, although there’s been a lot of growth over the past couple of years on that score. Palates are definitely maturing.

But what that has meant is that dining has never been a focus of travel for us, as it is for some. We need to eat, we eat when we can (I always tell them  when we’re traveling: When there’s food in front of you…eat as much as you can. You never know when your next chance for a meal is going to come. )

We’ve had some good meals, but we’ve also eaten a lot of street food (which is almost my favorite) and plates of cured meats and cheese and bread in the apartment at night (which is my absolute favorite and why expensive plates of charcuterie offered in American restaurants irritate me – I can get the same and more of better quality from any Italian grocery store for a fraction of the price…). It’s a challenge (and expensive) to depend on restaurants as the focus of dining when you’re traveling, especially with children. Especially in southern European countries, where dinner is late – oh, my.

The first time we went to Spain, I knew they ate late, but I didn’t know how late until, starting about 8, I would descend from our Barcelona apartment and take a walk down the block, looking in restaurant windows – is anyone in there yet? Not at 8, not at 8:30. All still empty. Finally, at 9, I decided that this was ridiculous. I had a teenage daughter, an 8-year old and a 3-year old. The kids had to eat. Nine pm? Still no one in the restaurants. We finally settled on a Chinese place, where there were indeed a few occupied tables – perhaps we wouldn’t feel like complete idiots there. Except when I asked the server for napkins and she returned and tossed a stack of paper napkins on the table. Still in the plastic package. Um, gracias? 

So yes, when traveling, we eat lunch out, but dinners have been mostly takeaway eaten in the apartments we’ve rented, and that’s fine. Cheaper, too.

But this was different. Part of the reason was undoubtedly the guide. It’s not that he took us to every single meal, but with his help, we were guaranteed that at least half of our meals would be interesting and we would understand what we were eating, and do it right.

And it was also different because of the food. It was mostly just….good. Dependably good. It was fresh and freshly made, from the tortillas to the steamed or lightly boiled vegetables. The vegetables had not come out of a can, the meat had not been thawed from Cotsco bags. The meals were prepared, not warmed up, and the kitchens were in sight. It was farm-to-table, mostly open kitchen, but it was simple, not self-conscious, normal, not trendy, and offered with a sense of care and pride just because that’s the way you treat food and eating in this culture.

So, the week of eating. It started out fairly average then greatly improved as the week went on.

Sunday

On a Sunday evening in San Ignacio, there wasn’t a lot open. Actually, as I think about it, it was late Sunday afternoon, not evening – we hadn’t had lunch, so this was filling that gap as well. We ate at Tandoor Restaurant and Bar – Indian-owned, with a mixed menu. (There is a large population of Indians and Chinese in Belize. In fact, most small retail is owned by Chinese now, which is a whole other, interesting story) The place is on Burns Street, which has been closed to traffic, and as a pedestrian walkway is clearly party central. Buckets of beer on offer everywhere and so on, ready for the student/hipster/hikers back from their day of adventures.

I had escabeche – a traditional Belizean onion soup, that was..full of onions. Which it’s supposed to be! But they weren’t that strong, and the soup was very filling with good spice. My son had a chicken quesadilla, which he said was good.

Monday

Monday lunch was at El Sombrero, which is an ecolodge near the Yaxha ruins. We ordered lunch, and then took a boat ride out to the Toxopate ruins on a nearby island, then returned, where lunch was quickly presented to us. I honestly don’t have a vivid memory of the meal – it was late in the afternoon, we’d had a very bumpy ride in the morning in an unsuccessful bid to see one set of ruins (the roads ended up being impassible), then toured Yaxha, then the island ruins, with the drive to Tikal still to come. I’m pretty sure I had grilled chicken, served with the usual sides. It was tasty.

Dinner was at the Jungle Lodge, which, as I mentioned yesterday, has a very mundane menu. I had an antipasto plate which was well prepared – the eggplant clearly just grilled and so on – I don’t remember what my son had. I was mainly irritated at the menu. Onward!

Tuesday

Tuesday was Sunrise Tour day – meaning we rose at 4 am, met our guide at 4:30, walked through the jungle, and climbed up Temple IV for sunrise at 5:30 or so. So yes, by 11, it was time to eat.

Neart the hotel area at Tikal are several comedors or small, informal restaurants. We had a little bit of back-and-forth about the exchange rate, but that didn’t mar the experience of the food, which was very good. I had a chicken dish and my son had beef of some sort.

Here you can see the typical plating: the protein, rice, vegetables (carrots and a kind of squash), with tortillas and pickled carrots/onions/jalapenos.

 

The place, as they all are, is basically open air – there’s a roof, but no walls. One woman serving, the other in the kitchen. There’s a wait because they’re cooking the food, not warming it up. Very, very good.

The comedors aren’t open for dinner, so you’re stuck with the hotel restaurants. We ate this one at the next door Jaguar Inn, and the food was a little better than it had been at our hotel. I had a fruit plate – the best pineapple I’ve ever had and excellent other fruit.

Wednesday

We slept late on this day – rising at 6 am, not 4, so that was exciting. After a morning at Tikal and a bumpy ride around the edge of the park, we arrived in the village of Uaxactun, which features ancient ruins on both sides of the modern-day village which in turn is centered on a now-unused airstrip, built for the time when the surrounding jungle was harvested for chicle (the natural gum that was the original chewing gum – hence, Chicklets). Now, the forest is managed to harvest two resources: a type of fern that is exported to Holland for use in flower arrangements, and hardwood. We went into the small, quiet restaurant with chickens and pigs roaming around outside the door – quiet but for the moaning and chanting of prayers from the evangelical prayer meeting next door – placed our order for lunch, then toured the first set of ruins.

We had two choices: chicken or deer (hunted from the jungle). Of course we chose deer!

 

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Avocado and refried black beans also on the plate, in addition to the usual rice and vegetables. 

Dinner was in Flores that night. We wandered around a bit, saw a few possibilities, and then studied the menu outside of this one tiny place. My son was hankering for a hamburger, and this menu featured it. I have no idea what the restaurant was called. There were maybe five tables inside, and no customers. The cook/server/owner was an older woman sitting at a table with a newspaper, watching a telenova. She was very friendly to us, and didn’t seem to mind being interrupted – after she took our order, she changed the channel, presumably for Michael’s benefit, to some weird game-show type show featuring Vin Diesel in which cars were driven from second story windows and smashed up.

Anyway, Michael got his hamburger, and I got a very fine chicken soup. I’m pretty sure the vegetables had been prepared just for the soup – after our order, I heard the chef chopping away up there in the kitchen.

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In the corner of the tiny restaurant was this:

(Forgive the size – you can’t resize videos on WordPress, unfortunately.)

Thursday

Thursday was another adventurous day involving much boat riding. After seeing the Aguateca ruins, we returned down the creek to the town of Sayaxche to the Cafe Maya. No written menu, but five or six choices presented to us. I chose the local whitefish – Michael had shrimp.

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The cafe was filled with workers on their lunch break, most of them either medical people or telecommunications employees, judging from their uniform polo shirts. No McDonald’s for these folks, lucky them.

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On our way across the river to Sayaxche. It was a small boat. Two women with a motorcycle crossed with us. 

This was a long, tiring day, and lunch had been late, so when we returned to Flores at 7:30, neither of us were interested in a lengthy dinner, so we settle for tacos at a bar/cafe – no photos, but the chicken and pork tacos were very good.

Friday

Friday was our last day with our guide  – he’s been taking us to the Ixpanpajul nature preserve outside of Flores, then onto the Belize border. On the way, after the park, we stopped at El Porta del Yaxha – a restaurant built originally to serve the crew of Survivor Guatemala when it filmed at Yaxha for three months in 2005. It was a lovely, open-air restaurant right on the highway, complete with hammocks if you needed a power nap.

The food was great. We started with a simple soup served in these cups. Then I had pepian stew – a chicken stew with a spice and ground pumpkin seed base that was rich and fabulous. Accompanying the meal were the usual pickled vegetables, black beans, tortillas and fresh cheese. Our guide said I should be able to find the base for pepian in a good Hispanic grocery store, and since we have one of those, I’m hopeful.

Dinner – well, I had wanted to go here for dinner, but the kid was again hankering for a hamburger. It wasn’t just being an American kid – he was hoping that he’d have a hamburger made with Guatemalan beef and it would be amazing. So we stopped at this place – Ko-Ox Han-Nah (which means “Let’s go eat” in a Mayan dialect, I think.) I don’t know if what he got turned out to be exactly amazing, but he liked it. And he saw chili cheese fries on the menu, and wanted those. I had thought I’d go to the other place after he finished, but by then, I was tired and full from a cucumber/yogurt appetizer I’d had, so I decided against it.

Oh- one more thing from San Ignacio – the first night were there (Sunday) we’d had a bit of street food – a bit of meat and cheese freshly fried between tortillas. It was great. I could have eaten a lot more of those…

Saturday:

Time to go home! I wasn’t going to eat anything really, but when we got to the Belize Airport there was a sort-of cafe setup  – you ordered it from a woman standing at a booth, they cooked it somewhere, and then brought it back in take-out containers. They had some Belizean dishes on the menu, so even though it wasn’t in my plan, I thought it was my duty to try something – grilled chicken (I had wanted shrimp, but the woman said, “The shrimp is finished.” Poor shrimp.)

Look at this!

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A lot of chicken filets, rice and beans under there, good fresh vegetables, a grilled/baked plantain….excellent and a ton of food.

So there you go. I’m sorry I didn’t get to that restaurant in Flores, and our food explorations were limited by the fact that were in Tikal for two days, and food is not the focus of the Tikal experience. But I was struck by the food I was served in Guatemala and Belize. It was carefully and thoughtfully prepared. It was fresh. It was pretty balanced and healthy. In just those few days, what I think I experienced was a confident, authentic culture that is centered on the idea that if I’m going to serve you something to eat, it’s inhospitable to give you anything less than the best I can offer at that moment.

Gracias!

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Lunch for the tapirs and friends at the Belize Zoo.

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"amy welborn"

 

First, here are the links to all my London 2017 posts.

A general link.

Preparation

Day 1 – arrival, wandering and learning the city

Day 2 – Tower of London and the British Museum

Day 3 – Churchill War Rooms and more British Museum

Day 4 – National Gallery, the Globe, Lego-ish things, Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market

Day 5 – Greenwich, St. Paul’s and Harrods

Day 6- Wandering the city and then the Warner Brothers/Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 7 – Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, London Oratory, Tyburn Convent

Where we stayed and what we ate. 

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Now, some general observations about traveling to London, period, and specifically with kids – older kids, albeit, but still kids.

  • We can’t claim to be world travelers, at all, but we have done our share: Mexico (Yucatan Mayan sites as well as  a small town for mission work); Italy, both large cities and smaller towns, and Sicily; Barcelona and Madrid, Spain, France, both Paris and several small towns and some rural areas, and Germany – a small resort town in Bavaria.
  • I’d say that if you can deal with the size of it – if you are not intimidated by cities – London is one of the more comfortable experiences an American can have traveling overseas. The habits and expectations of living everyday life seem very close to what we know as regular life in the United States. There is, of course, the English language factor, but even aside from that, there just seem to be far fewer Secret Handshakes of Polite Living that the American tourist would be clueless about and be sniffed at for neglecting.
  • But London is ….big. Yes, it’s spread out, but it’s larger than New York City, and just as popular a tourist destination – if not more. There are areas of London that, in the last week of March, were chaotically crowded. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer.
  • London is a huge, metropolitan busy city, but really…the people I encountered here, both just in daily encounters and people working in shops, restaurants and attractions – were very, very nice. The level of politeness was extraordinary.
  • One of the reasons I had never put London on the top of my travel list is that I was under the impression that it was comically expensive. I didn’t experience that. Even doing the pound-to-dollar translations in my head, I didn’t feel I was paying even New York City prices for things. We stayed in an apartment, but I did look at a lot of hotels in my planning, and it seemed that there were very good values available, even for family groups. There is a lot of relatively inexpensive food available. Many of the big attractions are free admission, and there are deals (like 2-for 1) available for the others, and many have family admission rates, which helps.
  • Don’t be intimidated by the public transportation system – it’s easy to learn, and structured just like any other in any city – as long as you know the destination that’s at the end of the line you need to be on, you’re fine. Don’t be intimidated by the Oyster Card system either. It seems confusing, but once you get it – it makes a lot of sense, and is so much more convenient than all those stupid little slips of Paris Metro tickets. Just don’t forget to turn in your Oyster Card at the end for a refund of remaining funds and the card deposit. Like some people. Argh.
  • Also, as is the case in any city, the subways are best avoided during rush hour. Prices are higher, and crowds are insane. I for sure wouldn’t take a small child on the Tube at rush hour, if I could help it.
  • What should you do? It’s up to you and your family’s interests. My kids are experienced, patient and sometimes even interested museum-goers, so we do a lot of that, but London presents a good opportunity to do some relaxed museum touring, even if your kids aren’t keen on them– the major museums don’t charge admission and although they are not all right next to each other, as would be the case in Washington DC, it is easy to get around – so there’s no reason to declare a day British Museum Day! And spend five hours there…unless you want to. Do take advantage of the considerable online guides and offerings that all the museums have, decide what you want to see and don’t feel an obligation to meaningfully ponder every single object that is in front of you.
  • My blog posts outline what we saw – what do I regret that we didn’t see? We didn’t tour Parliament. We didn’t get to either the Tate London or the Tate Modern. We didn’t see any of the free concerts at St. Martin’s in the Fields. We didn’t see a play at the Globe, but that’s because I wasn’t thrilled with what I heard about the production of Othello then playing. Those are my major regrets, but I don’t regret anything we did do, so I don’t know how we could have fit all the rest of that in.
  • We enjoyed our time in London. We actually do prefer time in smaller cities – one of our best experiences was in Padova, Italy – but London is important, varied, interesting and is a great opportunity to experience a truly global, multicultural environment.
  • Just…..Mind the Gap!

"amy welborn"

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