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Postcard from Niagara Falls

12 May

If you find yourself traveling in the Buffalo area, you might think, Hey, maybe I should duck over and see Niagara Falls while they’re so close. And that’s a good thought to have — they’re pretty spectacular. But if you’re not from around the area and trying to find parking, you’ll probably end up in the official State Park parking lot, which costs $10.

Seems like a decent chunk of change to go glance at some water, right?

Not to worry! The State Park parking lot gives you 20 minutes of free parking, which is plenty of time to get a Niagara Falls experience.

Take a parking ticket, and park in a spot that gives you easy exit access. This is important because if you’re running short on time, the last thing you want to do is coast through the parking lot and get stopped by tons of cars pulling in and out of parking spaces.

Now, you book it.

The main access to the Falls is through the visitor’s center. Walk in and go down the stairs that are either on your right or left. Avoid the store at the bottom and walk to the back and out the door. Viola! The falls are right there!

Head over to the railing and look to the left. There’s the falls! Marvel at them, wonder what they look like from the Canadian side (sorry, but they’re better), take some pictures and selfies. Head back quickly–your 20 minutes are almost up and you want to be able to walk like you’re a normal person and not on some non-existent Amazing Race.

That’s it. Head back in, avoid the crowds, head back up the stairs and out of the visitor’s center. What? You wanted a souvenir? Pull four quarters and a penny out of your pocket and make yourself a pressed penny (I know, pressed penny aficionados. Four quarters). The machine is downstairs, next to the door that goes out to the falls. You’ll have time for that.

Once you’re out of the visitor’s center, start walking quickly back to your car. Check your parking ticket–are you still in your 20 minute window? Good! Don’t even bother trying to pay for parking. Even if you’re under 20 minutes, the machine will try to tell you that you owe money. Don’t let it confuse you.

Get back to your car–even if you have to run at this point–and hightail it to the gate. Stick your ticket in the card reader, and congratulations, you’ve just gotten a free quick side trip to Niagara Falls.

 

Postcard from Argentina

28 Apr

A couple of weeks ago, I got to go to Argentina to teach an officiating clinic and officiate at a tournament. Argentina hadn’t been high on my list of places to visit, though the Boy and I often joke that we are Argentinian because we tend to eat dinner around 9 or 10PM. But I didn’t really know why else one should go to Argentina–and from what I read, there’s not much touristy about Buenos Aires. You really go there to live it.

This is also fine with me, as when I travel, the ratio of museum visits to everyday activities skews heavily toward the latter (if you pit a high quality museum against a trip to Carrefour, 9 times out of 10, I will pick Carrefour. That 10th time I’ll visit the museum out of guilt). But it did very much make for a lot of pre-trip confusion and concern about what it is that I’ll actually do with the couple of days I had off–and because my Duolingo lessons had focused heavily on horses and military titles, I wasn’t quite convinced that I’d be able to figure out much.

Needless, to say, I had a lovely time, although I just barely scratched the surface of a complicated part of the world. I stayed in Vicente Lopez, a nice suburb of Buenos Aires, but did spend a bit of time in the city too. But “nice” is relative, and Vicente Lopez–to me, at least–was a good example of the juxtaposition I felt was likely a characteristic of this area. Nice houses and apartment buildings lined dirty streets with randomly patterned cracked sidewalks. A fantastically huge park with a great walking/biking path and playgrounds and fitness stations and more butted up against a river full of trash.

But for all the layers of pollution and graffiti, there was also inventive, colorful art and architecture that I’d randomly come across, when I was not looking down trying to avoid the piles of dog crap dotting the sidewalks. This element of surprise and discovery (along with a late dinner hour) really made this place captivating–and one I’d like to revisit.

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Postcard from Dubai

24 Mar

Meet the abra. Riding one of these boats just might be the most fun thing you can do in Dubai–but take that with a grain of salt, as I haven’t spent more than 20 hours in a stretch in the city and am the farthest thing from an expert on the place. Still, for the short time I was there, this topped my list of things I did.

To be honest, Dubai wasn’t on my list of places to visit in 2017–or ever. I’d never really considered going to the Middle East, but when the opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t resist.

I was fortunate enough to be selected to teach at the WFTDA Officiating Clinics in Australia this year. With a non-profit, we need to be pretty conscious of the money we spend on travel. Usually, I’d be flying some form of American/Qantas, which is generally pretty reasonable, but then I saw what Emirates had to offer: A much cheaper flight with long layovers in Dubai on each end of the trip. How much cheaper? A good $500, and that’s with adding a one-way ticket for intra-Australia travel. And I had one fewer flight on each end. And I didn’t have to travel through LAX, one of my least favorite airports spawning one of my least favorite flight paths, the coast-to-coast trip.

On top of that, getting to and from Australia took only two legs each way–two very long legs, but if you’re traveling six hours, you might as well be traveling 12. Both are long, but at least with a 12-hour flight, you’re in a huge plane, you definitely get fed, and you have a really good entertainment system.

While I did have 12+ hour flights, they were broken up by getting a day on either end to explore Dubai. Win-win!

Granted, I just scratched the surface of what Dubai has to offer, but I was seriously enchanted with the place. It’s like a conservative Las Vegas–massive architecture, some of which is gaudy;  obviously a lot of money in some places, but the old section of the city was less-than-opulent; and conservative attire, but everyone thought to follow those guidelines (guidebooks advised women to cover their shoulders and knees. I saw one woman wearing a top with cut-out shoulders. Really?).

Anyway, one of the things I did do–and could’ve done for hours–was to take an abra across the creek. The creeks separates Deira and Bur Dubai, both of which are old parts of the city, with tiny roads and souks. The easiest way to get across the creek is to hop on an abra, a small boat that holds maybe 15-20 people. There’s no set schedule for when they go–once one is full (which generally takes a few minutes), the driver collects everyone’s 1 dirham (about US 30 cents) and hops into a small pit in the middle of the boat and takes off.

Chugging down the creek in a tiny boat that’s spewing diesel fumes and pretty much has no safety measures might not sound relaxing, but I loved it. I liked casually hopping on board, sliding down the bench to make room for as many people as possible, and then taking off randomly. No fixed boat schedule? No worries! You’ll get there! Need to feel free? We don’t need rails on this boat!

For a city that offers a lot of manufactured swank, riding an abra felt really authentic. What a way to connect with a culture I hadn’t really experienced before. It’s interesting how a short boat ride really gave Dubai a heart that I hope to continue to explore some day.

 

 

Postcard from Victor Harbor

10 Mar

Ladies,

Let’s have a talk about childbirth. I’ve never been pregnant, so I don’t know what it’s like to put your body through pregnancy and childbirth. Nor do I have 24/7 hands-on knowledge of what it’s like to rear multiple children. So maybe I’m a little more wowed about what our kangaroo counterparts manage to do when it comes to reproducing, but perhaps you might be impressed as well.

The above picture is adorable, right? The classic roo with a joey in her pouch. So cute! Baby with mama, hanging out until it becomes an adult. But that’s only one-third of the story, as I learned from one of the keepers at Urimbirra Wildlife Park. Here’s the rest of the story:

When a female kangaroo is able to have children, she gets pregnant. She has the baby, and the baby (called a joey) hangs out in her pouch. It may leave and explore the greater world, but it’ll hop back in head-first, giving mom this lovely look:

 

For which joey won’t apologize until two decades later when on Kangaroo Mother’s Day, it sheepishly gives mom a “sorry I made you look like an alien” card.

Anyway, after it dives into the pouch, it’ll turn around at some point to be able to stick its head out and look cute (and make it easier to get out), even if it’s getting bigger and is more to lug around. While mom is carrying around joey #1, she gets pregnant with #2.

Joey #2 is born. Joey #1 gets pushed out of the pouch, and joey #2 takes up residence there. Joey #1 is still kind of a child though, so it’s also still feeding on mom. Meanwhile, mom gets pregnant again, so she’s got a bun in the oven, a joey in the pouch, and another on the teat.

When joey #3 comes along, it’s time for joey #1 to make its own way in the world, so no more teat for it. Joey #2 moves to the teat. Joey #3 gets the pouch. And mom becomes pregnant again.

This cycle continues for all of mom’s childbearing years. Yes, for the entire time you can bear children, you’re running this cycle of three at pretty much any given point in the year. [To be fair, I was so blown away by this that I didn’t even think to ask whether or not kangaroos can miscarry or if some are infertile, and believe you me, those questions are definitely on my mind now that I’ve processed the basics. If you have answers, I am all ears.]

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

The female kangaroo also possesses some magical superpowers that can determine whether or not its joey-in-the-oven is getting enough nutrients, and if there isn’t enough food or water around to allow for proper incubating, pregnancy will halt and remain in suspended animation until there’s food and water again. At that point, pregnancy resumes like nothing ever happened.

Did you get that? The female can put its pregnancy on hold. On hold! What if you were 20 weeks along, and suddenly there was a drought and you couldn’t get enough food or water? Would your body just turn off the pregnancy until it rained again? Would you want to have some suspended animation action all up in your uterus for who knows how long?

You let me know because right now, the kangaroo has earned my mother-of-the-year award for life.

Your pal,

Jill

 

Postcard from Indianapolis

17 Feb

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We were in Trader Joe’s, picking out some wine for the weekend, when it hit me: Indiana has blue laws. We need to buy more!

Recently I was in Indiana for College Girls’ Weekend. It’s me, my college roommate, and our across-the-dorm-hall neighbor. One weekend in winter, rotating cities. We hole up in comfortable clothes with plenty of wine and snacks and spend a few days catching up–or just hanging out in silence. For those of you who have this type of weekend in your life, you know it’s pretty sacred.

This year we’re in Indianapolis, and as usual, we were adhering to one of the early weekend rituals: The-stock-up-so-you-don’t-really-have-to-leave-the-house ritual. We opted for Trader Joe’s, which in my house is called “the snack store,” and we were stocking up. Everyone was having a good time, until we turned the corner into the wine aisle.

A panic set in. “Oh my gosh, there are still blue laws here, right?” I asked. I couldn’t even enjoy the fact that I was in a Trader Joe’s where you could get some Five Buck Chuck–many of them around me aren’t allowed to sell alcohol–I freaked out about having one day a week where buying alcohol was completely verboten.

My friend looked at me like that was a problem.

“No!” I continued, my words getting faster. “Do we have enough? What will we do if we run out and can’t buy any booze on Sunday?” Never mind that we were getting a box of white, a bottle of red and two bottles of bubbly. That could surely hold three people over for three days.

“Tomorrow’s Saturday, Jill,” my friend reminded me. “We can always go out and get more if we need it.”

That was enough to assuage me, but by Saturday night, when we’d gone through most of the box and one bottle of bubbly, I was panicking again. “We didn’t get the vodka and amaretto for that one drink you wanted to make!”

“You know, Jill, tomorrow we can go to a bar and drink if we need to.”

Also true.

But yet, the panic persisted.

The sad thing is I know that if I didn’t drink on Sunday, I would be OK. There are many days where I don’t drink at all. But take away the possibility…and I freak out and want to stock up like blue laws are suddenly going to seep beyond Sunday, and prohibition will reign again.

Therein lies the problem with blue laws. Restrict something, and people just want it more. I never feel this panic in Massachusetts, even though stores can close up early on Sunday. I don’t notice because I don’t usually feel compelled to buy liquor on Sunday. But with blue laws firmly in place, taking away the option to buy liquor for home consumption on a Sunday, makes me want to buy way more liquor than I really need. It’s the opposite intent of the law, really, and ends up putting so much more focus on this “bad” thing that the restriction ends up causing more harm than good. I wish our society could change that–maybe someday they will.

For the record, we never touched the bottle of red.

 

 

 

Postcard from 29,000′

13 Jan

gold-status-expiring

Near the end of 2016, I started to get this email, which, as a frequent flier, sent me into a bit of a panic. See, I’d had Gold status on American for four years, and I rather liked it. Oh, I know what some of you might say–Gold doesn’t have a ton of perks and you can get most of those with a credit card that only has a $95/year annual fee–but why should I pay that if I’m doing the travel anyway? And if I’m traveling at least 25,000 miles a year, getting a free checked bag, early boarding, better seats and the possibility of upgrades is pretty nice (and I can usually snag an upgrade on a shuttle flight to or from Boston, which is sweet).

Extending my status wasn’t supposed to be a problem this year, but due to some family circumstances, I had to drop out of officiating a roller derby tournament in Vancouver–and that trip would have given me the mileage/segments to put me over the top for one more year.

Instead, I started getting the “extend your status now!” emails, and I did what anyone who has decent status in anything does: I worried. It’s not fun to lose perks, but it really wasn’t worth $399 to keep my status (nor was it worth opening up another credit card either).

However, with all problems, there is a solution, and for me, that was the mileage run. I quickly realized that I could fly to Dallas before the holiday travel season started, hang out in the airport for a couple of hours, and fly back to Boston for a fraction of the status renewal price.

This idea did not go over well at home. “You want to do what? Why?” asked the Boy. The Boy doesn’t like flying because he is very tall and doesn’t fit on airplanes very well. He doesn’t understand why people willingly fold themselves up into a tiny seat with Deep Vein Thrombosis-inducing amounts of legroom in the first place, let alone do it just to get miles.

I don’t bother to tell him that people will spend full weekends taking several segments through multiple countries in order to get Executive Platinum status. Even I think that’s a little extreme. I get it, but it’s extreme.

Needless to say, the Boy wasn’t thrilled about my plan, but I decided to spin it by calling it my very own writer-in-residence program. I’d have a quiet space and several hours for nothing but creative writing. It would be fine, great even!

And it was. I wrote about 3,500 words each way, banging out whatever came into my head. I have some short-short pieces and some beginnings to longer pieces–and likely a lot of garbage that was floating around my imagination. However, the goal was to write, and I did–I put my nose to the grindstone and cranked out some material, and that alone felt great.

I also wandered around DFW for a couple of hours–I actually had the faint idea that I could take the train downtown and get back in time, but I soon realized that where I needed to catch the train was too far away from my terminal to make that particular journey. Instead, I gave the Boy a status update while standing in the middle of a parking garage; I stumbled upon DFW’s chapel; and then went back through security. Then I decided it would be a good day for office holiday lunch, so I had a lovely sandwich and bubbly flight at Vino Volo before checking in with a client and getting back on the plane home.

Not that long after, I got this email:

gold-status-achieved

Achievement unlocked! But really, I had a fun, productive day that made me feel professional rejuvenated. Except now, I need to go back to that work, see what’s actually worth saving (Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” comes to mind when I think of what gems this file of random writing might contain). Hopefully there’s work that’s worth exploring and expanding. But then I’m going to need more time for editing and sending out pieces, which I could do at home, but obviously, as I proved with this experience, when it comes to creative writing, I get more done when I’m on the move. Maybe it’s time to schedule some more writer-in-residence days. More air travel? Or should I see how well I work on the train next time?

Postcard from Portland

18 Nov

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If you’re flying to Portland, get the window seat that faces the mountains because if you’ve got decent weather, you’ll spend your descent looking at mountain majesty. In terms of going to Champs, it’s a pretty good way to start a weekend that’s all about majestic performances.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I’d be leading a non-skating officiating crew at WFTDA Champs, my third time in this role at the top tournament in the roller derby calendar. One of the fun things about being a crew head is that each crew you lead is completely different, and in my experience, the tone of the crew has been completely perfect for that particular tournament.

In 2013 I had a “yes, and” crew, which was fantastic for the pre-tourney exercises I wanted my guinea pigs them to do. I’d been reading up on coaching and talent development and wanted to to prepare more than I ever had as a Champs official. They did me proud all month leading up to the tourney–mention a concept, and within two hours of group messages, you suddenly have a mascot and a t-shirt and a crew head who wonders what the hell is this awesomeness that is happening before her eyes.

Last year, my initial reaction to my crew list was “Champs! Champs! Awesome! Awesome!” which  played out all weekend. Getting to Champs takes work. Staying alive in Champs takes work. Being the Champ takes work. We experienced all of that over the weekend. After Day One, the crew needed focus, and it took one very long shower to figure out a potential fix: hot potato. Luckily, I had packed way more pairs of socks than I needed, and those became our hot potatoes for pre-game warmups. But when the crew found their focus, they insisted on continuing hot potato play before every game.

This year, with an all-female crew, our crew circle felt very nuturing, very welcoming and very caring. We wanted crew time together and were lucky enough to have assignments that gave us the opportunity to do that. Side note: Should you find yourself in Portland, have breakfast at Cheryl’s on 12th. Two words: complimentary beignets.

This crew was amazingly talented and came together nicely, which is impressive, considering we came from Europe and all points of the US. The teamwork we had was inspiring. We brought their best every game and then performed even better, which made me proud and a little bit wistful. This was a last tournament of sorts because change is coming: New rules and standard practices are around the corner, so this may have been the last weekend I officiated this way. There’s always a little sadness on closing the door on a rule set–another chapter in the history of roller derby is closing, and even though the coming changes are exciting, this moment of change as they all are, needs its moment of acknowledgement.

Rules may not be the only change. I recently started reffing, which is a whole different skill set that’s put me at the bottom of the reffing mountain in the range of officiating. Depending on the path I choose to take–and there are many officiating paths, so I need to map them out and find my optimal route–this could have been my last Champs for a while. Hopefully not forever though. The top of the mountain does have a nice view.

Postcard from Winnipeg

21 Oct

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You know those cities that just make you feel happy and delighted whenever you think about them? Winnipeg filled one of those slots in my heart this year.

I was in the unofficial Gateway to Churchill this August to teach at a WFTDA Officiating Clinic (more on officiating in a future Friday diversion). Churchill’s the Polar Bear Capital of Canada, and to get there (from the US at least), you’re likely flying through Winnipeg. But Winnipeg isn’t just a fly-through or flyover city, even though that’s the mantle it seems to wear.

I learned this from the minute I walked over the Hug Rug at the airport and met the clinic hosts, who took me on a driving tour of the city. Along the way, they apologized for the state it was in. “The city doesn’t spend much money,” said one. “Our roads are just horrible.”

I peered out the window. “You’ve never been to Boston, have you?” I said, noting the pretty dreamy condition of the roads we were currently driving on. I honestly never really saw what they were talking about the entire weekend. Sure, the roads weren’t brand-spanking-new, but they weren’t chock full of potholes either.

Perhaps it was their modesty–and it turned out to be the modesty of the city–that I found so charming, but after exploring for a little while, I wanted to scream, “Listen to that message on the garbage cans, Winnipeg! This place is great!”

Why? Perhaps it’s the idea that it’s this sizeable city smack dab in the middle of of the prairie, rising up out of the flat earth. Perhaps it’s the bustling Forks area by the rivers–and the really nice riverfront path. Maybe it’s the beautiful Legislative Building. Or the French Quarter with that chocolate shop that sells delicious Manitobars. Or the amazing collection of native statuary at the WAG. Or the delicious meal at Peasant Cookery that put the cap on a lovely weekend.

I had a day of exploration before the clinic, and during it I made the mistake of going to the tourist office and getting some brochures. This made me a little depressed about all of the places I couldn’t fit in on this trip (new polar bear exhibit at the zoo! The Exchange District! Baseball game!), but the bright side is that Winnipeg will just go higher up on my list of places to revisit.

Postcard from Montreal

14 Oct

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Over Labor Day weekend I was in Montreal for a couple of reasons: to officiate at the WFTDA D1 Playoffs and to visit the Olympic sites for my Olympics blog, The Feverr.

I hadn’t been to Montreal in over ten years, so suffice it to say, I didn’t remember much, although a few places jogged my memory, which was nice. But even though Montreal’s surely changed in the last decade, I’m not sure it’s changed so much.

Montreal’s one of those cities that doesn’t have a je ne sais quoi; it has a je ne sais meh. There’s definitely something special about Montreal, and you can see that in the way design matters. So many times I turned a corner or walked out of a Metro station (like the one above) and saw something surprising, cool and unique. They make the city exciting, you want to be a part of that creativity.

On the other hand, while design matters, other things clearly do not. Like clean streets. Or urgency. At the tournament, one of the skaters had a bad accident and needed an ambulance. The ambulance was on its way, tournament staff was told, and they’d get there soon, unless, of course, there was a stabbing or something that they needed to go to first. Maybe translation and Franglish comprehension was bad, but it sounded like there was only one ambulance on the island on Sundays.

Twenty, thirty or so minutes later, one shows up. No rush, no big deal.  One of the women on ambulance watch thought maybe the delay was a Canadian healthcare thing, but one of the locals set her straight: No, no, no. It’s Montreal. Why the rush? Meh, you’re not dying.

And maybe that’s the reason I waited so long between visits. Why the rush, Montreal? You’re lovely, but eh, there’s the rest of the world too.

 

 

Postcard from Woodbine

7 Oct

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Recently, the Boy and I were driving back to Massachusetts from Florida, and we needed to stop for lunch. We mostly take the I-95 corridor when we drive, which means you have ranges of advertising for your roadside stops. There’s a Wawa range, a Cracker Barrel range, a Bojangles range, and your BBQ joint range. Not to mention South of the Border.

When you’re in Georgia, you’re definitely in BBQ joint range. Along the highway there are some chain-type places and not-so-bad buffets, but if you’re willing to take a slight detour, I’d recommend going to Woodbine and stepping behind the magic fence at Captain Stan’s Smokehouse.

Since the Boy was driving, I was in charge of finding the place. Anyplace with a magic fence certainly intrigues me, so I directed him off the highway through about four miles of nothingness until we got to Woodbine. The town isn’t that large, and Captain Stan’s is on the main drag. You’ll probably smell the smoked meat before you see the place though.

The magic fence surrounds a really funky outdoor patio and creates a cool hangout place. The yard has an enormous tree in one corner that provides shade for a lot of the area. Some of the tables are covered with porch-like structures; some are out in the open. There’s a fire pit for when it’s cold and fans for when it’s hot. Posters and random paintings that one could stretch and say are folk art adorn the wooden walls. Stan’s has a regular roster of musicians that play Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, Coke products (if you’re a loyalist, this will be a thing as you get into the Carolinas, which is Pepsi country), and meat. Oh, the meat!

When hitting up a BBQ place for the first time, I like to go with pork. It’s a basic. If you’re any kind of smokehouse (especially one with a magic fence), you know how to make a good pork sandwich. Boy, did Captain Stan’s deliver–and not just on the meat, but on the sauces too.

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The Boston Butt sandwich was smoky, rich in flavor and tender. I had a hard time choosing among the three sauces–there was a mild that was slightly sweet and tangy; a mustard-based one that wasn’t overly sweet; and a hot BBQ sauce that was spicy without being cruel. Even though I spread the sauce wealth around, I kind of wished I could eat three sandwiches so I could have a full sandwich with each kind of sauce.

Unfortunately, we could only make this a lunch stop, but it’s the kind of place where you could spend hours eating, drinking, listening to music and making new friends. It’s definitely on the list for a return visit. Put it on your list too.

****

Pro tip: Don’t eat too many of the in shell peanuts before your meal comes. You’ll need all that room in your stomach for the main course.

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