Keukenhof Gardens: A Floral Fantasy Come to Life

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Tulips have long been my favorite flower. Among the first to grace shops and sidewalks, their brilliant hues brighten the gray days of winter like gemstones and foretell of warmer days to come. I relish the ritual of buying that first bunch every year! Although the tulip originally hails from central Asia, it is most associated with Holland. In the 17th century, the Dutch became enraptured with the exotic tulip and a buying frenzy of bulbs caused prices to skyrocket. Thus “tulipomania” was born, the flower forever embedded within the fabric of Dutch culture. There is no better place to experience tulip fever than Keukenhof Gardens.

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What began as a small kitchen garden of a 15th century countess has grown into an annual extravaganza featuring more than 7 million bulbs! 800 tulip varieties are on display, along with a multitude of spring perennials such as daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths. Flower beds flow through the park like the rivers of candy in Willy Wonka’s factory. Swans and ducks ply the actual waterways, while a traditional wooden windmill pirouettes through the sky. The whole place is pure magic.

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Pink tulips in bloom at Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands

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Springtime in Holland

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Large pavilions host an assortment of floral shows throughout the spring season. I was most impressed by the tulip exhibition inside the Willem-Alexander Pavilion. Delighted visitors were greeted with row upon row of vibrant blooms and I could easily have spent several hours admiring them all.

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Every year Keukenhof Gardens boast a new theme. When I visited in 2016, the theme was the “Dutch Golden Age,” a period of history in which Holland achieved great artistic success and economic prosperity. This was supposedly demonstrated by a mosaic made of flowers, but it wasn’t well marked on the map and I missed it completely. However, I did stumble upon a sweet little garden created using broken bits of Delft Blue pottery.

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So when is the best time to visit Keukenhof Gardens? Well, that depends. The park is open every year from late March until mid May, but the weather of the preceding months can greatly affect the blooming season. I went once during the first week of May and sadly most of the tulips had already been cut; a heatwave had caused all the bulbs to blossom much earlier than normal. I overcompensated on my next visit by going the first week of April; the weather was chilly and many of the buds had yet to open. When I eventually return, I’ll aim for the the middle of April – hopefully third time’s the charm! (For those planning a visit to Keukenhof, the blog Tulips in Holland provides a weekly bloom forecast.)

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All photos in this post were taken April 6, 2016

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A flower carpet in Keukenhof Gardens

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The Keukenhof Express bus is a convenient way to travel to the gardens from Amsterdam. Buses depart from Schiphol airport, outside arrivals area 3-4. (Look for the inflatable tulips.) The ride to Keukenhof took about 30 minutes, and the combination ticket included entrance to the gardens at a discounted rate.

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If you want to tiptoe (or bike) through the neighboring tulip fields of Lisse, give yourself plenty of time. I was exhausted after many hours wandering through Keukenhof and so had to content myself with blurred glimpses from the bus window on my way back to town. Had more fields been blooming, I would have made them a priority.

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Is a spring visit to Keukenhof Gardens on your travel wish list?

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Norway in a Nutshell Fjord Tour – Is It Worth It?

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When my friend suggested we travel to Norway to see the fjords, I was completely on board with the idea. Norway boasts some of the most stunning scenery in Europe the world, with two fjords included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. But what’s the best way to enjoy them? My friend and I didn’t fancy strapping on heavy backpacks and hiking through the mountains, but we also wanted to see as much of the country as possible. I looked into different cruises and tours and ultimately decided the Norway in a Nutshell fjord cruise from Bergen was the best fit for us.

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Norway in a Nutshell isn’t a conventional tour with a guide. There is no cumbersome headset to wear. Rather, the company prearranges various means of transportation, leaving you to free to enjoy the scenery without worrying about buying bus or train tickets at the next stop. Norway in a Nutshell makes the process so easy! I loved that the only thing I needed to do was get myself to the next departure point on time. (And when it turned out a family of four had gotten on a train going in the wrong direction, the conductors worked to get them straightened out.) Could you manage the same tour route on your own? Probably, though you might not see as much in one day.

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Riding the Bergen Railway through the morning fog.

Bergen Railway View

Where does the earth end and the water begin?

We did the standard route in reverse, riding the lovely Bergen Railway to Voss and quickly hopping a bus bound for Gudvangen. Part of the trip took us down the impossibly steep Stalheimskleiva road which boasts a total of 13 hairpin turns; the talented bus driver paused at bends to give everyone a chance to appreciate the engineering feat.

Norway in a Nutshell Tour

How would you like to have this waterfall cascading in your backyard?

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A perfect mirror image captured through the bus window.

Norway in a Nutshell

Stalheimskleiva Road

Stalheimskleiva Road Norway

From Gudvangen, where we picked up a boat, we cruised through two breathtaking fjords (Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord) as the morning fog just began to lift over the soaring snow-capped mountains. Even in June, there was snow on the ground in places and a chill in the air. As we sailed through passes carved over millennia, we marveled at small towns and villages that must be cut off from the world for half the year. I wonder what it’s like to live in such a remote place!

Norway in a Nutshell Fjord Cruise

Norway in a Nutshell Fjord Cruise

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Norway in a Nutshell Fjord Cruise

Norway in a Nutshell Fjord Cruise

Norway in a Nutshell Fjord Cruise

Food wasn’t included in the Norway in a Nutshell tour price, but there was time built into the schedule to eat along the way. We enjoyed a tasty lunch at a cafe in Flåm, facing the water and surrounded by craggy mountains. I had a brief pang of regret that we hadn’t planned an overnight stay in Flåm. The sun was shining brightly and I could have soaked up the view (and warmth) for hours!

Lunch in Flam Norway

Instead, we took an unforgetable ride on the Flåm Railway to Myrdal which surely must be one of the world’s most magnificent journeys. Snow cover increased as we climbed higher and colorfully painted farm houses appeared like toy models in the vast landscape. To everyone’s delight, the train stopped at Kjosfossen waterfall so that we could disembark and be duly impressed by the spectacular sight.

Riding the Flam Railway

Can you spot the houses?

Kjosfossen Waterfall, Norway

A viking spirit commands the power of Kjosfossen waterfall.

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We changed trains in Myrdal and headed back to Voss, the so-called “adventure capital” of Norway. As we waited for the next connection in the sunshine, brave souls paraglided far overhead of those of us who kept our feet firmly on the ground. I’ve since read that it’s possible to go horseback riding in the mountains surrounding Voss and I would love to go back and do that one day.

Myrdal Train Station, Norway

Myrdal Norway

Norway in June

Norway Mountain Scenery

The final train ride from Voss to Bergen was spent in sleepy silence as we watched the ever-changing landscapes pass by, returning in time for a scrumptious seafood dinner at the waterside Bergen fish market. All told, Norway in a Nutshell was one day and US$145 (1200 NOK) well spent!

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The picturesque town of Voss, Norway.

Voss, Norway

Norway in a Nutshell Tour Review

Now for the most important question: where to sit on your Norway in a Nutshell tour for the best views? I Googled this same question before my own trip and took copious notes (and photos) en route. While there is no bad view, some sides do afford more dramatic sights than others. Here are my recommendations (reverse them if you are traveling in the opposite direction):

Bergen > Voss // Train – sit on the LEFT

Voss > Gudvangen // Bus – sit on the LEFT

Gudvangen > Flåm // Boat – sit on the RIGHT

Flåm > Myrdal // Train – sit on the RIGHT

Myrdal > Voss // Train – sit on the RIGHT

Voss > Bergen // Train – sit on the RIGHT

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Is Cruising the Norwegian fjords on YOUR bucket list?

Dubrovnik, Croatia: Three Days of Bliss

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Often when I travel to a new destination, I try to see and do as much as possible in the time available. I want to get to know the place, try it on, and see if it fits. I’m usually asking myself questions: Could I live here someday? What would that be like? But every once in a while, I arrive somewhere and simply want to absorb its beauty. Koh Lanta, Thailand, Santorini, Greece, and Dubrovnik, Croatia are a few of those rare places where I was content to do nothing. I didn’t go to a single museum or palace. Rather, my three days in Dubrovnik were spent relaxing by the sea, eating all the Croatian food, and admiring the medieval city from every possible angle.

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Thick stone walls have encircled Dubrovnik since the 9th century, protecting it from invaders. Visitors now patrol the ramparts, searching for ships on the horizon and perfect photo ops, of which there are many. It’s possible to walk the entire length of the Dubrovnik City Walls, which continue unbroken for 1,940 meters. Watch towers punctuate the fortifications and afford a dramatic look at the city’s jumble of red rooftops. Damage incurred during the 1991 siege and bombing is noticeable, though the city has mostly been restored thanks to UNESCO support.

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Dubrovnik’s walls provide a dramatic backdrop even from ground level as visitors slink along their perimeter like so many ants. One of my favorite ways to pass the time was people watching at a harbor-side cafe, ice cold beer in hand. Others soaked up the late summer sunshine atop a small jetty or from rocks at the base of the walls, jumping gleefully into the blue water to cool off. Those in the know relaxed at a secluded bar that clings precariously to the city’s foundation.

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Between the walls, a grid of steep stone staircases forms the backbone of the old city. I loved wandering beneath hanging laundry and the profusion of plants, watching locals carry on with their daily life inside a medieval fantasy world. The alleys were lined with apartments and guesthouses, restaurants and shops, and yet they never felt loud or crowded. Perhaps this was because it was late September and most of the tourists had moved on, but I still felt like I was in on a wonderful little secret.

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One evening I came across d’vino wine bar and took up residence at an empty table tucked along an alley wall. Unfamiliar with Croatian wines, I opted for a tasting of three refreshing whites from different parts of the country. While all were tasty, the most memorable was a full-bodied Posip from the island of Korcula.

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To fully appreciate the Pearl of the Adriatic in all her glory, I headed to Panorama restaurant atop Mt. Srd. Reached via cable car (€15 round trip), the umbrella-shaded terrace is the perfect spot to marvel at the sweeping view (over wine and cheese, naturally).

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My rental apartment was located in the neighborhood of Gruz, some two kilometers from the Old City. The daily climb up and down the hill was strenuous, but it provided a fascinating glimpse of workaday life in Dubrovnik. And the gorgeous scenery more than made up for the effort.

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Is Croatia on your bucket list? How would you spend three days in Dubrovnik?

50 Incredible Photos of Riga in Winter

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I never liked winter until I moved to Riga. Sure, playing in the snow was fun as a kid, but digging out my car and commuting to work was another matter entirely. Teeth chattering behind the steering wheel, I dreamed of warmth and sunshine and planned my vacations accordingly. To say that I was worried about the long dark months of Latvian winter looming on the calendar was an understatement. I stocked up on gear and hoped that I’d survive the below zero temperatures. Then I arrived and found one of the most achingly beautiful Old Towns in all of Europe. Rain, snow, hail, or even lightning couldn’t keep me from its charms! And once that first dusting of snow fell and turned the medieval city into a pastel fairy tale – oh, be still my beating heart!

Still think it’s crazy to visit Riga, Latvia in the winter? These 50 photos should convince you otherwise!

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I passed through the seven levels of the candy cane forest, through the sea of whirly twirly gumdrops…

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A snow-covered view of Riga from the spire of St. Peter’s Church – my favorite spot in town!

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Riga’s Three Brothers brace one another against the cold.

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Riga castle sits on the banks of a frozen river.

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Could this display be any cuter?

Riga Black Cat House

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But there’s more to the city than Old Town! Central Riga boasts a wealth of UNESCO-protected Art Nouveau architecture, elegant theaters and churches, and vast parks just waiting to be explored.

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If you’ve ever wanted to feel yourself inside a snow globe, head to the Skyline Bar atop the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvia in the middle of a snowstorm.

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The domes of Riga’s Orthodox cathedral glisten gold in a field of white.

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In winter, my favorite park is picture perfect.

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The show goes on at the Latvian National Opera House no matter the weather.

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The top of the Latvian Academy of Sciences peeks above the Spikeri warehouse district.

Riga’s railway bridge glows electric blue in the dark.

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One sunny afternoon I rode tram 7 to the end of the line at Dole and strolled along the Daugava River. Locals were out enjoying the warmer temperatures and the city’s flock of swans glided effortlessly through the ice floes.

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Across the river in Riga’s Agenskalns neighborhood, residents slide through a cross-country skiing course in Uzvaras Park and take refuge from the chill in the Latvian National Library.

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riga pictures winter

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The moon rises over the Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army, one of the city’s more controversial monuments.

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But of course we always come back to Old Riga.

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With a candy-colored Old Town fronting a frozen river and vast parks perfect for skiing, Riga, Latvia is an ideal winter travel destination!

Are you ready to plan your winter getaway to Riga?

Snapshot: Cleveland’s West Side Market

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Whenever I travel to a new city, I like to visit the market to get a taste of the local culture. This is easy enough in Europe and Asia, where nearly every town has a market. I’ve sampled fresh honey in Portugal, cured meats in Madrid and langos in Budapest; bahn mi in Vietnam, miso katsu in Japan and murtabak in Singapore. My mouth waters thinking about all those delicious treats!

It can be hard to find a comparable market in the U.S., where Wholefoods and Walmart still reign. This is slowly changing, as some shoppers switch from big suburban grocery stores to weekend farmers’ markets or have farm-fresh produce shipped directly to their homes through services such as The Fruit Guys. Another shift is taking place in the cities, where old indoor public markets are being revitalized. One such building is the West Side Market in Cleveland.

Opened in 1912, the beige brick Cleveland landmark was fully restored in 2004 and has become a major tourist attraction in part thanks to features on cable television. In fact, I first learned about the market through an episode of “Man vs. Food” where the host enjoyed a gyro at one of the 100 stalls.

After browsing the outer arcades packed with gorgeous fruits and vegetables, we wandered the aisles and marveled at the diversity of regional specialties on offer. While we wanted to sample one of everything, we limited to ourselves to two dozen handmade pierogi and some Irish soda bread to enjoy at home. Then we queued up with several dozen others for lunch at Steve’s Gyros; the lengthy wait was forgotten within the first few bites. The pillowy pita was stuffed with succulent hand-carved lamb and beef and doused with a tangy tzatziki sauce that took the gyro from great to extraordinary.

Before leaving the historic market, I couldn’t resist an Ohio Buckeye cupcake, a fun twist on the popular candy. This place would be trouble for me if I lived any closer!

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Note: Most of the photos in this post were captured with my new camera – my very first DSLR! Just three of the photos were taken with my old point and shoot. Can you tell the difference? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments!

What are some interesting markets you’ve visited around the world?

 

Snapshot: Miami Beach, Florida

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As we prepare for our impending move to Riga, Latvia, I’ve been trying to spend quality time with my friends and family. We’ve happily hosted some here in Washington, DC, but I’ve also been gallivanting up and down the east coast. Last weekend I visited a friend in Pennsylvania and went with her to the botanical wonderland that is Longwood Gardens. But I’ll have to tell you about that trip at a later date since I didn’t have time to edit my photos before jetting down to Florida to see another friend. Even as I write this, I’m packing once again – this time for a last hurrah in New York City.

While these trips are more about nurturing friendships than taking a holiday, it certainly doesn’t hurt that my pals happen to live in some pretty great places. Miami Beach, Florida, for example. I was greeted with temps in the upper 80s, blue skies and sand so white it was positively gleaming. Florida is nicknamed the Sunshine State for a reason! The water, an impossibly pretty shade of turquoise, is blissfully warm even though it’s just the beginning of May.

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The things I do for my friends. This is hard work, I tell you!

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I stayed at the Collins Hotel, mostly because of its proximity to my friend’s apartment and affordable price. The lovely pool was just a bonus. My room was clean and functional, which was all I needed given how little time I spent inside. The more expensive hotels may provide an airport shuttle, but that is an unnecessary luxury since the Miami Flyer public express bus (#150) services Miami Beach and costs just $2.65 each way.

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The Collins Hotel is located across the street from the beach, though public access is just two blocks away via a palm tree-filled park. A paved walkway runs between the ocean-front resorts and the sand. It’s lined with lush vegetation, but there is very little shade; that doesn’t stop dedicated locals from running its length in the mid-day heat. Dogs technically aren’t allowed on the beach, though you are sure to see some very happy pups frolicking in the surf during the morning and evening hours.

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There are food options aplenty in Miami Beach and fortunately my friend had already identified the best. The first night I enjoyed a scrumptious seafood risotto at a fabulous old-school Italian restaurant near her apartment. The burgundy walls of the restaurant were bedecked with signed photos of the celebrities who had dined there. One of said celebrities (sadly, unrecognizable to me) caused quite a sensation when she walked in and was seated at the table next to ours.

The next night, we visited the neighborhood Mexican restaurant and were treated to guacamole prepared table-side by a distractingly handsome young man. The tacos al pastor and pomegranate margarita were pretty good too. Ahem. I was on my own for lunch one afternoon and made my way to the Cuban food stand across the street from my hotel. Apparently the locals line up for coffee there every morning which means it’s legit. My handmade Cuban sandwich, loaded with pork, ham, cheese, mustard and pickles, was certainly delicious. Not pictured are the croque madame, eggs benny and Nutella croissant (!) I enjoyed on three separate visits to the local French cafe. Friends don’t let friends go hungry.

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Where’s the nicest place you’ve gone to visit a friend?

 

Snapshot: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Of all the iconic landmarks in New York City, none stokes the flames of my wanderlust quite like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The beautiful Beaux-Arts building contains some two million artifacts from around the globe, making it possible to travel from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe in the span of a single afternoon. But just like the dilemma of choosing a travel destination, the sheer size of the collection is enough to throw one into a state of indecision. Near Eastern or new American art? Medieval armaments or 19th century musical instruments? Do I return to the beloved and oft-visited French Impressionist gallery or seek out a new corner of the art world I’ve yet to explore?

Having just returned from two years in Asia, where we delved into the treasures of Korea, Thailand and China, we were eager for something a little different. We started in the wing dedicated to Roman and Greek sculptures, taking in elegant busts of Athena and towering likenesses of Hercules, elaborately carved marble sarcophagi and colorful mosaic floor panels from ancient villas. It was almost like being transported to the Eternal City, circa 50 B.C.

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After admiring relics from Caesar’s time, it was only fitting that our next stop should be Cleopatra’s Egypt. Here, a whole temple carved with hieroglyphics stands next to the intricately painted mummies that were once sheltered inside. Decorative murals adorn the walls just as they did two millennia ago while stoic stone gods look on. It’s easy to get lost in the maze-like chambers filled with treasures from the royal tombs, but just as all roads lead to Rome, all of the Met’s hallways seem to lead to the French Impressionists.

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I simply can’t visit the Met without appreciating the distinctive brushstrokes and layers of color used by Monet, Renoir and their contemporaries. Looking at the dreamy European landscapes, I’m amazed that the initial reaction to this revolutionary style was so unenthusiastic. But thankfully the Impressionists persevered and even inspired the next generation of artists. Did you know that Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers are the result of his attempt to copy an earlier work by Monet? As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

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Have you been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Which pieces are your favorites?

 

Snapshot: Central Park in Winter

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I adore New York’s Central Park. Like so many Manhattanites, I used to jog around its Reservoir after work, listen to opera and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra while picnicking on the Sheep Meadow with friends, and get my cute animal fix at the Central Park Zoo. On dates with my now-husband, we’d go for long walks to yet-undiscovered corners of the park. Because, really, is there anyplace in New York City as romantic as Central Park? Jane Fonda ran Barefoot in the Park with Robert Redford. Michelle Pfeiffer frolicked in the rain with George Clooney on One Fine Day. When Harry Met Sally for a stroll, the leaves were golden in the autumn light. And I know I’m not the only one who shed a tear when Kate Beckinsale tossed her glove to John Cusack in a moment of perfect Serendipity.

So on our latest jaunt to the Big Apple, we spent as much time wandering around Central Park as we could, in spite of the freezing temperatures. One morning even a heavy sleet couldn’t keep us away! Here are some of my favorite scenes, from the skaters at Wollman Rink and often-whimsical statues to the gracefully curved branches of the American elms and now-quiet ponds covered with ice.

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Have you been to Central Park? Which wintry scene is your favorite?

 

china pajamas public

Snapshot: Pajamas as Shanghai Streetwear

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As I have previously shared, the Chinese have a penchant for making bold fashion choices. Ladies teeter around in stilettos and bedazzled from top to bottom while men mix plaids and stripes with aplomb. But they are not slaves to fashion either. In Shanghai, people young and old will wear their pajamas anywhere. I’ve seen folks in pj’s riding their bikes around town, strolling the aisles of a grocery store and enjoying dinner in a restaurant. I’ve even spotted a few gentlemen taking an evening stroll in their silk bathrobe and slippers – Hugh Hefner style!

Given the over-the-top colors and trimmings of their daytime looks, the Chinese are much more restrained in their sleepwear. (I did come across one family in matching cobalt blue silk and lace but was too stunned to get a photo, alas). I’m more than a little envious of how comfortable this lack of fashion looks!

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A true friend won’t bat an eye when you show up for a day of shopping still wearing your pajamas.

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Even movie stars are wearing pajamas in public, so it must be cool.

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Would you wear your pajamas in China in public?

Snapshot: Shanghai’s Perilous Carts

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The sight of carts, bikes and trucks piled to overflowing with precarious cargo loads is relatively common in China, even in modern Shanghai. Capturing footage these gravity-defying feats of packing can be a bit of a challenge as you often don’t see them until they are already passing. Several times I found myself standing open-mouthed on a Shanghai sidewalk while some outrageously towering cart rumbled by.

Among my favorites were the industrious local recyclers who often had a coworker ride atop the day’s haul of plastics and cardboard. Shanghai’s loads often weren’t as stupefying as those we saw in Vietnam, but they still brought me no small amount of amusement. Here are a few of the best I managed to photograph during my two years in the city. Let me know which ones you find the most astounding in the comments!

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As you can (barely) see, there is a bicycle under all those boxes. And the driver was nonchalantly talking on the phone while driving through speeding traffic! Even local Chinese stopped to gape at this one.

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A modest amount of recycling.

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Just so we’re clear, there are two people, some boxes and a bicycle in the back of this cart.

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Can you imagine the outrageous noise all that bubble wrap would create if dropped onto the highway and run over?

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I actually saw several of these massive loads of chairs while in Shanghai. At least the guy pulling the cart has a place to sit should he get tired.

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Okay, this isn’t a cart, but it’s certainly perilous!

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It’s a mobile toy store!