A Travellerspoint blog

Close Call in Whistler

You are at the top of an Olympic ski jump hill. You lean up against the starting gate and look down.

You are at the top of an Olympic ski jump hill. You lean up against the starting gate and look down, nearly straight down. What would it feel like to actually descend down the insanely steep decline only to have it abruptly propel you skyward with nothing to help you land except two boards strapped to your feet? That is exactly what I was wondering when I saw the police car.

It was April vacation, 2009. We were in British Columbia, the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Only eight months from the Opening Ceremonies, preparations were underway everywhere. As we drove to the mountains along Highway 99, the famed Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver, we passed many turnoffs for the different venues in the various stages of preparation. There was still plenty of snow and the ski resorts of Whistler and Blackcomb were in full operation.

I woke up early and everyone was asleep so I figured I would drive out to the Whistler Olympic Park, located about 11 miles from our mountainside base. This area would host the Nordic events: ski jump, cross country, biathlon, etc. Seeing the site first hand would increase my enjoyment of watching later on TV.

I drove up the long mountain road and was pleased to find the gate wide open and the security station unmanned. I was surprised by the open access. I was able to drive right up to the various event areas.

The Ilanaaq rock formation that served as the logo for the games was represented prominently in the middle of the sprawling outdoor complex. I parked in a lot nearby and began walking around. As I walked on some of the snowpacked cross country trails I noticed a path that led to the ski jumping hill.

When I got to the base of the hill, I could see a sort of gate house on the opposite side near the smaller hill. It was unattended. No chance for a guided tour. Where I stood, on the left side there was a metal stairway. I didn’t see any signs that said the area was off limits so I started to climb. The stairs hadn’t been shoveled. I trudged through the snow, held on to the cold metal railing and climbed and climbed and climbed.

Every now and then I would stop to catch my breath and the view become more elevated and more spectacular. It would be exhausting to make it to the top but it had to be done. Step by step I made my way.

I finally made it. I was at the starting gate, alone in a spot that in a few short months would be the center of a global sports celebration. Dressed in dark jeans and a black jacket, I was a dark contrast against the white backdrop. I grinned as I pictured myself tumbling down the slope like that unfortunate individual immortalized as the symbol of “the agony of defeat” on the opening of Wide World of Sports.

As I looked out down among the winding roads that looked like mere trails I could see a small moving speck at the base of the complex. Slowly it was twisting its way up. It was a police car.

Needless to say, I looked highly suspicious. It was shortly after sunrise. I had no official business there. I had no identification. I didn't even have my wallet. This was not going to be good. Maybe they would accept my truthful story that I came to look around and kept encountering open gates. Then again, maybe they were under strict orders to make a big deal about any person they determined to be sneaking around. How was I going to explain this one to my wife?

Although not intentional, my car was parked behind a massive snow mound from where the lots had been plowed. This meant the car would not be visible from the road. I could only hope that the officer was making his early rounds and wouldn’t notice the dope from New England, perched at the top of the ski jump with nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.

I just sort of slouched a little and waited, and watched. The vehicle kept moving slowly. He didn’t stop, he didn’t turn. Having driven the route earlier, I knew the road went a good distance further. As soon as he was out of sight I paused and admired the view one last time and hastily retreated. I had to be careful not to slip on the cold snowy steps. I would guess that I went down ten times faster than I went up. I just wanted to get off that man made hill on onto firm ground before he returned on the back side of his rounds.

When I stepped back on the cross country trail, my heart was pounding from the climb and the thought of explaining myself from the back of a foreign police car.

The complex was springing to life as I exited. The security area was now staffed. As I passed through the gate, I thanked the officers and I wished them good luck with the upcoming Olympics. Then I exhaled a massive sigh of relief.

Posted by EuropInFebruary 06.09.2013 07:21 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Experiencing Tiffany's Vision of New York City

When I get off the train at Back Bay station in Boston in winter I often walk by numerous oversized Tiffany ads that portray images of New York City as some sort of idealized winter wonderland. There are beautiful people doing wonderful things in perfectly snowy cityscapes. It gives the impression that we can all experience some sort of dream life if we merely buy pricy items bundled up in a Tiffany Blue bag.

For a few hours, we got to experience this version of New York and we didn’t even have to buy anything. On the day after Christmas in 2010, we had Central Park virtually to ourselves. A legendary storm that would cripple the northeast made it all possible.

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The forecast for the entire east coast was dismal but I felt like we could beat the snow if we headed out of our southern Massachusetts town early enough. The hotel was already booked and paid for. The agenda was mapped out. As a family, we decided to go for it.

We hit the road at 6:00 AM. The snow wasn’t supposed to start until late morning. The original plan was to drive straight to Manhattan, park on Fifth Avenue, catch the 10:00 mass at St.Patrick’s Cathedral and then spend the Sunday after Christmas in one of the great cities of the world. What could be better?

As we were driving through Rhode Island the radio newscasts made it clear that the storm was as big and bad as they were predicting, if not worse. Knowing that there was no way I would turn around, my wife proposed a sensible alternative plan. We decided to park the car at out hotel in Stamford, Connecticut and take the train into the city. We had no idea how important of a decision this would be. New York would be brought to its knees for days in the aftermath of the storm.

Our side plan worked. We made it to St. Patrick’s in time for the next mass and by the time they opened the massive doors a little after noontime, Fifth Avenue looked like one those aforementioned Tiffany ads.

After checking out the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Plaza we headed over to the Museum of Natural History (the Night at the Museum place). When we were done we got to experience something that no amount of money could buy.

We walked directly across the street and into Central Park. It was basically empty. Most of New York was either still somewhere else for Christmas or hunkered down for the storm. It was incredible. We had snowball fights, we saw some random cross country skiers, there were a few families playing with sleds. That's it.

I think back at all the times we used to try to make the kids birthday parties special when they were little. If you wanted space, you had to pay. There was no way around it. By contrast, here we were in one of the most beautiful parks in one of the most densely populated places on the planet. It was perfectly accented with snow and it was empty, and it didn’t cost a penny.

From that point on the trip became a lot more of a harrowing adventure complete with a meteorological phenomenon called thunder snow, cab rides that were more like sleigh rides, and barely catching the last train out of town. Like the Tiffany ads, I’ll block that part out of the frame and choose to remember our time in Central Park living in a snow globe.

Posted by EuropInFebruary 30.04.2013 10:51 Archived in USA Tagged snow park st. city new york cathedral christmas manhattan central tiffany's patrick's Comments (0)

The Fresco

Why I'll Never Ask For Directions Again

A two night trip to Paris without kids is supposed to be romantic, right? Somehow I managed to turn it into a 48 hour episode of The Amazing Race except we weren't racing against anyone. My wife is used to that kind of thing by now.

In the middle of our annual trip to Ireland, we left our kids in my mother's safe care and hopped over to France on a short economy flight (picture that bus scene in Romancing the Stone without all the chickens).

Time frames on my Paris itinerary were so tight that we went straight from the airport by train to the famed Catacombs with luggage in tow. We got there fifteen minutes before closing time. They have no coat room or storage area so I had no choice but to carry two cases and two back packs down 130 windy stairs to access a half mile track through passages and chambers referred to on a stone sign as "the Empire of Death". The ossified remains of a staggering estimated six million Parisians line the passageways. I had to use extreme care to not interfere with the arranged bones lining each side. It was an amazingly overwhelming experience to think that all this lies belows the bustling streets of Paris. At the end of the route I had to lug the cases back up from deep underground up to ground level before finally checking in to our hotel.

From there it was non-stop for two days from one site to another, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Musee D’Orsay, Sacre Coeur, etc. Of course, we mixed in the occasional wine bar along the way to stay hydrated.

Our visit took place in 2006. The D'Avinci Code was about to leap from blockbuster best seller to blockbuster movie. There were posters all over Paris celebrating the upcoming release of the film. This added another layer of interest to our trip.

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Having read the book a year before, I wanted to see as many of the key Paris locations as possible before seeing the movie. It would make watching it that much more interesting. We visited Ste. Sulpice Church, site of a pivotal and quite gory scene. We found some of the brass markers that form the Rose Line in the Paris Streets. We were politely tossed out of the lobby of the Ritz because of the “jean bleu” we were wearing. Even our obligatory trip to the Louvre was going to take on an extra dimension because of all the thrilling action that takes place there in the story.

I meant to scan the book on the plane and make a list of the key locations and artworks in the Louvre but I think "researching" French wines in flight may have distracted my effort.

So we went in to the Louvre, winging it. I definitely remembered the famous glass pyramid, Madonna of the Rocks, the Mona Lisa (of course), and finally D'Avinci's, The Last Supper played a critical role in the plot.

The Mona Lisa is situated in the back of a massive gallery. I don't know what I was expecting but first of all, the painting is small. It could easily fit above a fireplace. To handle the crowds it is in a space about the size of a gymnasium. From a distance the sense of scale I felt of the painting in the gallery was like a stamp on a large envelope. Secondly, when viewed up close it looks exactly like the hundreds of images I had already seen of it. Go figure.

After we saw the Mona Lisa that only left The Last Supper on our list. I didn't see any signs or directions for it anywhere throughout our visit. I always like to have a plan, know where I'm going, and I definitely don't like to ask for directions. The Louvre is beyond massive. We had more stops to make and didn't have time for a goose chase. So I figure I would swallow my pride and ask one of the staff. Yes, we would look like typical American tourists, but since that's what we were I rolled with it.

Standing to the far right of the Mona Lisa stood a nice enough looking gentleman smartly attired in a blazer and museum badge. I said to him, "Hello sir, I'm sorry to bother you, but could you point me in the right direction to view D'Avinci's Last Supper?"

He cleared his throat. He smiled. He paused for effect, bounced up a little on his toes, and in a voice loud enough for most of the large crowd assembled around the Mona Lisa to hear (make sure to adopt the most condescending museum curator tone and accent possible in your head as you read this), "But of course Monsieur, to view the Last Supper, you will need to take a left as you leave the gallery, go back the way you came and board a flight to Italy. For you see Monsieur, the Last Supper is a fresco adorning a wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan." All the while the little punk had his hand outstretched directing us to the exit like a flight attendant.

So in summary, Paris was great and I’ll never ever ask for directions again.

Posted by EuropInFebruary 19.03.2013 11:48 Archived in France Comments (0)

Il Sacerdote Brontolone (The Grouchy Priest)

Tuscany, 2011

Tuscany lends itself to photography. The countryside is eternally patient as you attempt to frame the perfect scene. The olive trees and the grape vines quietly, slowly, patiently mature in the sun as they have for centuries. If you want to take their picture, they don’t care. They have work to do. The cypress trees stand proud and tall like soldiers refusing to flinch as you click away.

In total contrast, scenes of everyday life in the ancient Tuscan hill towns appear and disappear in an instant, like fireflies. Three elderly women haggle with the produce man in the outdoor market, a butcher carefully inspects his delivery in the front door of his shop, a wine master expertly holds his Chianti into the early evening light to admire the color. We want to capture these images forever. To do so, you need to be quick and you try to be respectful.

On our trip to Italy, we chose to stay in San Gimignano, a beautiful town known for its well preserved medieval towers. Perched high on a hill, these towers create a magnificent skyline when seen from a distance. San Gimignano is sometimes referred to as the the “Manhattan of Tuscany”. We found a very quaint apartment that was actually partially located in one of the smaller towers, La Torre Useppi.

Most of the windows in the apartment looked out into a cramped little courtyard. One of the windows, the one located in the tower part, looked out directly on to the Piazza del Duomo (Church Square). Looking left and right provided a view of the town’s main road (pedestrian only), Via San Matteo. If you looked straight ahead you had a beautiful view of the Collegiata, the largest church in the town.

San Gimignano is half way between the major Tuscan cities of Florence and Siena. As a result, it is a very popular day trip from both cities. We had been told that the streets are packed wall to wall with tourists in the summer. We were there in February and it was quite the opposite. It seemed only a few buses pulled up to the gates of the town each day. We could hear a mixture of German, English, and Japanese from the tourists as they moved in a sort of loose pack through the town on foot.

Friends of ours were staying in a hotel a few hundred feet down the Via San Matteo. We had set a meeting time of around 10:30AM to head out together for assorted adventures. After coffee I decided I would poke my head out of the tower window to see if we could locate our friends heading our way. At around the same time the piazza was filled with a bus load or two of the daytrippers. People posed in front of the church or were taking artistic pictures of the sun creating great contrast of light and shadows on the stone buildings.

As I peered down the narrow lane I couldn’t help but feel like I was being watched. I looked out into the piazza and no less than 20 cameras were all trying to capture a moment of authentic Tuscan life, a pensive local man alone in his tower. Nothing could have been further than the truth. I was an American tourist looking for my friends.

I sent my daughter down to the square to get a ground level view report. She said in my black sweater up in the tower I looked just like "a grouchy priest".

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We loved it. Posing in the window became a daily activity. Always up for a laugh, my mother even took a turn donning sunglasses and a scarf atop her head doing her best version of Sophia Loren. She was a big hit with the “paparazzi”.

We have dozens of great images of everyday Tuscan life in our photo album. I wonder how many of them are pictures of tourists, just like us…

Posted by EuropInFebruary 01.03.2013 09:03 Archived in Italy Tagged san tuscany gimignano Comments (0)

Harmony in the West End

London, 2007

It’s taken awhile to figure out, but I am at my happiest when the people that count on me are happy, all together, all at the same time. For simplicity sake, let’s call it harmony.

Disney creates great ads that depict the notion of “One Big Happy Family” on vacation in their parks. For those who have been there in a big group know that this portrayal can be more fiction than fact. Don’t get me wrong, we love Disney, but the commercials don't show the endless lines, the budget busting receipts or the soaring temperatures. How about the never ending family battle between the swimming pool faction versus the park loyalists?

For us, the best dining example of this harmony concept is the Town Spa in Stoughton. It may not be everyone’s first choice but there is something for everyone; mom, dad and kids. At home, a good steak dinner on a Sunday night makes us all happy, especially if there is a nice bottle of red wine involved.

The most satisfying example I can recall of traveling harmony occurred in London. A friend who visited not long before us told me his family had seen a live production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in London’s West End, England’s version of Broadway. By the time we were going to be there it was being replaced by a stage version of The Sound of Music. I grew up during the pre-cable days when you could set your calendar by the limited choices on TV. The Sound of Music was on once a year, and we all watched it together.

I was able to get tickets for our whole group all in one row, eight family members. The show was going to top off an action packed day. We saw the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, while being shuttled around via Double Decker Bus. We only had time for a quick bite at the hotel then we hit the streets for a mile plus walk to the famed London Palladium theatre.

After all of this traveling I wasn’t sure what to expect out of our group or the production.

As we got in the neighborhood we could tell it was a really big event. The theatre was beautiful. The atmosphere was electric. The lights went down and the show began.

I quickly became engrossed in the show. There was a contagious element about the performance. About half way through the first act, I looked down the row. We were all singing along, from my youngest daughter, right down the line to my mother. Then I realized it wasn’t just us, it was everyone. We were in a packed house, 2,300 people singing along, each connected to their own group. Everyone was experiencing their own tradition, their memories. We were all sharing it together. It was an incredibly harmonious thing to be a part of. It was a lot of effort to get there but everyone kept a good attitude and that made it all worth while.

Post Script – After the performance, we exited out of the back of the theatre. We realized that we were very near the stage door. I asked my oldest daughter if she wanted to see if we could get a glimpse of the stars as they left, most notably the young woman who played the lead role of Maria. My daughter was 9 at the time. Every now and then one of the minor characters would emerge. As they left they would get an ovation from the ever gathering crowd. After a while we tired of waiting so we decided to head back to the hotel. Since we were close to the stage door we needed to make our way down the same path as the actors. As we filed out, my daughter received a tremendous ovation from the bystanders who took her to be one of the Von Trapp children. It provided quite a laugh at the end of a very long day.

Posted by EuropInFebruary 08:56 Archived in England Tagged london end of music west sound palladium Comments (0)

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