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Travel 2016: Day Fifteen – Back to the USA

Time to say goodbye to Europe and head home. Whirlwind trips like this are so rewarding and overwhelming at the same time. Here, on the last day, I was full of mixed feelings: sad it was over, anxious to see my pups, and needing a vacation to recover from vacation. But– what an incredible experience!

Bernini columns surrounding St. Peter's Square.

Bernini columns surrounding St. Peter’s Square.

When I got up, I walked back over to St. Peter’s Square. The sun was rising as I watched the nuns and clergy making their way to work. People were already lining up at the Holy Door, waiting for the first service at the Basilica.

I just took a moment to breathe it all in….. Absorb it….. Memorize it….. Knowing it was time but not quite ready to file it away.

The four of us had breakfast (Michael, Mary, George and I)– which opened a little late– causing us a bit of a rush before our transportation to the airport arrived.

By the time we got our luggage downstairs, our transport was waiting for us. I took one last look at the grand columns surrounding St. Peter’s Square as we climbed in the van, bidding Rome a fond farewell. Ciao!

We got to the airport quickly and easily, then said our last goodbyes to George and Mary. (In all likelihood, we wouldn’t see them again for seven months– in Paris!) Then we proceeded to get checked in and head to our gate.

Everything was pretty much on time. We got settled in on the plane and shortly after take off, I watched the tearjerker, Me Before You. I thought it was really well done. It’s one of those sad, schmaltzy, romantic films that can easily be done wrong– but it kept its edge and believability throughout, without getting too sappy.

Over the course of the ten hour flight, I dosed on and off. My head was full of all the places we’d been. Growing up I’d never thought I’d ever see the world like this.

When we arrived at O’Hare, we breezed through customs with our Global Entry clearance and the new, automated ‘self serve’ kiosks that definitely sped up the process.

Peggy had picked the kids (Belle & Dudley) up from their vacation– and took them home before she came to get us. If she hadn’t, we’d have had to wait two more days (Monday) before we could get them.

We pulled in the driveway and it was overflowing with fallen leaves– just the first reminder of all the fall projects still ahead.

We were home.

Looking back, Michael and I had shared another truly amazing journey. We’d expanded our travel log: adding 5 West End shows, meeting nearly a dozen Broadway pros, visited 4 more countries and 18 cities, in addition to sailing the Mediterranean Sea. And– we still have so much more of the world to experience! We made new friends, created memories with old friends and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

I can’t stress enough the value of traveling and seeing the world. The history, different cultures and most important– seeing how others live and adapt– really help put the big picture in perspective.

 

(Original Travel Date: October 1, 2016)

Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor

Southeast Asia Travel Day Three: We arrived at the beautiful Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor at 11 AM, November 1st, not expecting to be able to check in until 4 PM. We’d packed a carry on so we could use the pool while we waited– but as luck would have it, we were able to check as soon as we arrived.

IMG_1554The historic 5-star hotel first opened in 1932. It welcomed the beginning of travelers coming to the region to visit the ancient Angkor temples.

It is situated on 15 acres which includes several classic French gardens and boasts the largest swimming pool in Cambodia.

We couldn’t have selected a better place to call home for the three days we’re in Siem Riep. Everything about it is classic. It has the desired modern amenities while maintaining all of its original, traditional charm.

The entire staff is very friendly, helpful and perfectly accommodating. They truly go out of their way to make you comfortable and welcomed. It’s a luxurious experience without the pretense.

We checked in, briefly settled into our room; then did a little exploring of the grounds before returning to our room for a much needed nap.

Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor.

Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor.

 

Raffles pool is the largest in Cambodia.

Raffles pool is the largest in Cambodia.

 

The working, vintage lift.

The working, vintage lift.

 

Our Room facing the balcony.

Our Room facing the balcony.

 

Our room in the original 1930's building of the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor.

Our room in the original 1930’s building of the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor.

 

The view from our balcony.

The view from our balcony.

Stockholm

We arrived in Stockholm late afternoon Saturday and after checking in to the Sheraton Stockholm, decided to just set out to explore the city with no clear destination. We were both pretty exhausted after the long flight but quickly got our second wind and set out to experience our new surroundings.

Stockholm is such a beautiful city full of history and art. For all the people out and about, it was still so quiet and relaxed. Old Town is full of the charm and quaint beauty I hoped to experience on this trip.¬† There are so many squares and open areas just to sit and relax and take in the ambiance. Old Town is full of restaurants, bars and unique shops; combined with the eclectic mix of people, giving it an artsy, romantic vibe. I think I might have found the second place in the world I’d like to live (after NYC).

If we had a little more time here, I’d definitely be heading back to one of the squares, just to sit, read, and take it all in. It’s just beautiful here.

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How Do You Measure… A Day in New York?

125th Street, Harlem, New York City.

125th Street, Harlem, New York City.

The Marquee at the historic Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

The Marquee at the historic Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

How do you measure a day in New York? Sixteen Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixteen (16,816) steps according to my fitness tracker. I’m not sure how accurate it is but I’ve been wearing it for about three months now and that’s my one-day record. I got the tracker to help measure my weight loss and work outs. Even if it’s not completely accurate, it has definitely been a motivating factor in my daily activities, measuring my work out progress, calories burned and daily steps taken.

Yesterday morning was our time to explore New York, this trip. Every trip to the city, we try to explore some place we haven’t been before. Having friends here gives us a chance to get a New Yorker’s view of the city and things to see and do. Yesterday we explored Harlem’s 125th Street and then worked our way down past Columbia University.

The world famous Cotton Club in Harlem.

The world famous Cotton Club in Harlem.

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Honoring a legend– outside the Apollo Theater.

Harlem isn’t the supposed frightening place it was years ago. In fact, it looks pretty much like many other parts of New York and even Chicago. Of course no other city has the legendary Apollo Theater or the Cotton Club. We got to see both of them on our rather frigid walk.

The men's room at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.

The men’s room at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.

We stopped at the end of 125th where it meets the Hudson River, at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and met friends there for lunch. We shared smokey wings, pulled pork and brisket… all were absolutely delicious! (I know it may seem like I’m starting an obsession but I had to post a picture of the unique men’s room.)

After lunch, we walked down through Columbia University and past The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. I played there (with the youth orchestra I mentioned in the previous blog) when I was in high school. Then we jumped on the subway to head to our matinee performance.

Chicago, the Musical. I got a special deal on tickets so we had great house seats to the show. In all the years it’s been running, Michael and I had never seen Chicago on Broadway. I have to say I prefer the movie to this long-running revival production. Still, it’s a solid production, strong performances and the choreography is still executed with tight precision– something that could easily be missing from a show that’s been running for so long. (I’ll be seeing it again in January when I come to New York with a group of students from school.)

Subway Train Tracks near the Hudson River.

Subway Train Tracks near the Hudson River.

Chaplin the Musical. What a surprise treat! The reviews of Chaplin weren’t good and partially as a result, it is closing next week. Michael and I both found it to be our favorite show this trip, so far. Everything about the production is good. The staging, choreography, sets, costumes and performances are all top-notch. Rob McClure as Chaplin is a whirlwind of talent and fully embodies the character. Definitely a Tony contender. Even though Michael and I both agreed Billy Porter (Kinky Boots) will probably give him a run for his money in a very tight Tony race, McClure deserves the prize.

Chaplin’s story can be considered part tragedy but was skillfully told in a way that didn’t become too dark and focused much of the show on the good that existed in Chaplin’s tumultuous life. It has a great score with a number of songs, sure to become standards in the musical theatre repertoire.

After the show, we headed over to John’s Pizza on 44th street for a quick bite before midnight. Delicious as always, John’s is one of the top rated pizza restaurants in New York.

My friend Amee met us in Times Square for my birthday countdown and then Michael headed back to the room, while Amee and I went to the Cranberry Deli next to our hotel for a red velvet cupcake. Even though I was pretty wiped out, I still stayed up until almost 3 AM, responding to early morning birthday wishes on Facebook, Twitter and email. It was a pretty terrific day.

The Library at Columbia University

The Library at Columbia University.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Cathedral Window.

Cathedral Window.

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Statute in the park next to St. John’s.

The REAL Christmas Vacation

We started planning our two week vacation, six months ago. Five days in New York, a seven day cruise on Norwegian to the Bahamas and finishing back in New York for one final full day of shows. Pretty straight forward. We booked our cruise, flight, hotel and also booked all our shows in advance. Done.

Michael spent hours watching all the YouTube videos people posted of the cruise ship, rooms similar to ours and read all the reviews of the ship the possible excursions, etc. We both lost a lot of weight so we had some fun shopping for new clothes. Everything planned ahead, ready to go… simple, right? Then the real fun started.

IMG_0722Show Tickets. You have some options if you want to see Broadway shows, you can purchase your tickets in advance, get better seats depending how early you buy– but you pay full price for most of them. Sometimes you can get discounts in advance and we got a few but for the most part, we paid full price. Your other option is the TKTS booth in Times Square. You can get tickets for up to half price based on availability but we would be in NY, Broadway’s busiest week of the year. So instead of taking chances, we booked all our shows in July. Done.

Or were we? Turns out, one show never opened, we re-booked it, that show closed quickly after opening, we booked another, that one cancelled that specific performance, so re-booked it again. Then the show the were to see that same night, open and closed and we found ourselves re-booking shows five times on the same day! (Wednesday, December 26th, 2012)

Packing or “Do you two communicate?”. Thinking we were ahead of the game, we started packing two days before we left, only to discover two things: 1) Packing wasn’t as easy as it seems and 2) We kind of had our wires crossed about what we intended to wear in New York. Oops!

Michael bought us new luggage: we each had a large suitcase and a new carry on sized bag. In the first sound of packing, we found the large suitcase easily held way more than the 50 pound limit of the air and cruise lines. So, we had to unpack. Then, somewhere in round two, we discovered. somehow we had different ideas on clothing for New York.

Usually we go to New York for five to seven days and each just take a carry on and re-wear what we have, dressing comfortable, casual the whole time. Usually jeans and whatever else we threw in the bag. This time, since we would be gone two weeks and needed to dress for both warm and cold weather and needed to have at least some dress clothes for the cruise, we knew we’d be checking luggage and taking more. I had commented several times how it would be nice to dress for the theatre for once BUT I guess it didn’t translate. Michael didn’t hear that and had planned on dressing as we normally did– casual only in New York. I, on the other hand, planned to wear suits and sports coats to the theatre and casual during the day.

It may not sound like a big deal but it was. We went through what we had, what we needed to swap out and what we needed to buy. After a quick analysis, some hair pulling and stressing out, a quick trip to the store Christmas Eve morning….. <sigh> we were back on track. We crammed as much of the weight into the two smaller bags, relieving some of the weight from the big bags and we were ready to go. We were sure we’d crossed our T‘s and dotted our I‘s …. and of course, we were even more certain we were forgetting things. Folks, I actually brought FIVE pairs of shoes!

Unedited self portrait in the bathroom of Cafe Bar in Astoria. I could resist the mirror tile of unusual wallpaper and lighting.

Unedited self portrait in the bathroom of Cafe Bar in Astoria. I could resist the mirror tile of unusual wallpaper and lighting.

Off we go. We made the decision to travel in style and were flying first class. When you figure in the additional checked luggage costs, early booking advantage and convenience…. and the fact this was my 5oth Birthday trip…. it all made sense to add this luxury. We got to O’Hare early, breezed through the Priority security line and the rest of our travel to New York was as smooth as possible. No delays, traffic was light from the airport to the city. Perfect.

We checked in to Hotel St. James (where we stayed in March) and got a surprise. Our room was slightly bigger than last time and they old-style hotel which previously was still using actual room keys, had upgraded to scan keys.

Christmas Night. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Our first show. It was a good, strong production but the first act was much stronger than the remaining two acts. Instead of building to a final climax, I felt it lacked, or failed to build and maintain the intensity needed to sustain a powerful ending. The acting was good but I’ve never been a fan of the ‘Chicago-style of acting‘– you are always aware they are actors playing parts, as opposed to actors assuming roles and becoming the characters. I’m pretty sure Tracy Letts will be, at the very least, in the running for a Tony for his portrayal of George.

Wednesday 12/26. In the morning, we headed out to Astoria, Queens for brunch with a friend of ours. Always a favorite part of our New York trips. Then back in to Manhattan for our first two-show day. This was the day that gave us all the problems with our show tickets. The matinee was Golden Age Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club. All I really can say about it is: Not interested. I thought it would have a similar feel to Amadeus based on the description and subject matter– mostly, I was just bored.

The Other Place with Laurie Metcalfe was our wild card show. It was one of our replacements and has turned out, so far, to be our favorite. Metcalfe is sure to be Tony-nominated for her role of a 52 year old woman slipping quickly into the grips of Dementia. The play is well crafted, beautifully acted and emotionally devastating. I’ll be anxious to see how the critics review it after the official opening.

Thursday 12/27. Four shows in one day! Okay, one movie, two shows and a cabaret act. I’ll try and be brief with my descriptions and reactions here. Michael had been insistent on seeing Les Miserables while we were here. I’ve been skeptical since I saw the first previews. The power and beauty of the stage production, brought to the big screen, was… to put it kindly, disappointing. I think it was poorly directed and filmed. The way it was filmed really annoyed me. Despite the dedicated efforts of Jackman and Hathaway, I felt their performances were hindered by the way they were filmed. The only two actors I thought came across well were Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveits as Enjoras. Russell Crowe neither acted or sang in the film. I cringed every time Marius and Cozette were on screen. It was actually worse than I expected.

Our matinee performance, Grace with Paul Rudd and Ed Asner, was also a disappointment. It had an interesting framework but failed to deliver any real content. Just a meandering conversation about Christianity and Faith that really didn’t go anywhere.

In 1979, I was lucky enough to be invited to go to New York and perform with the Florida Camerata and then join the Winter Haven Youth Orchestra in several Manhattan and Long Island concerts. It had a huge impact on my life. It was during that trip that I saw my first professional concerts, my first Broadway show and… The Nutcracker. I can still vividly remember the moment in the Nutcracker when it began to snow on stage. I think it was that moment that hooked me on the stage for life. The first Broadway show?….. was Annie with the young Sarah Jessica Parker. No matter what the show, or how good it is… I think your first always holds a special place in your heart.

So last night, 33 years after my first encounter, I saw the new revival of Annie. I think its a good strong production. I can’t say it’s phenomenal but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I appreciated that all the bells and whistles were blown early in the show and it felt like it continually built to a big finale. My favorite moment in the show, one that could easily be boring or ignored; was Daddy’s Warbuck’s song, Something Was Missing. It was very well staged and beautifully performed, creating one of the shows most touching moments. Even though it wasn’t over-played (or over-staged), I still couldn’t help but get a big old lump in my through when Annie made her first appearance at the top of the stairs after her transformation. It still gets me, even after all these years. Annie remains on my short list of must-do shows to direct before I die.

As if three weren’t enough, I had made reservations to see cabaret performer, Sirius XM host, and my Facebook friend, Christine Pedi’s show, There’s No Bizness Like Snow Bizness at the West Bank Cafe. It was the perfect end to the day. Pedi’s blend of humor and holiday reminiscing was just what I needed. Michael and I had a delicious meal and really enjoyed the performance. Pedi was a part of the Forbidden Broadway franchise for years with her amazing ability to accurately impersonate dozens of performers. Her final number, The 12 Divas of Christmas, in which names of 12 stars were drawn at random from a hat, was hilarious perfection.

I apologize in advance if my editing is bad. I started this post yesterday morning and just don’t have enough time to write all I’d like. Today we’re off on a Harlem adventure and lunch with friends… then more shows of course! Until next time.

Day Seven: Last Full Day In New York

Thursday was a huge day for us, to say the least. It’s hard to believe how fast the week has gone and I can’t say I was looking forward to returning home.

The South Tower Pool at the 9/11 Memorial.

I’d gotten our passes for the 9/11 Memorial prior to our trip and we were the first group of the day. You have to go through all the same security procedures as you do when you fly, so the process takes a little while and you can not enter the site without passes.

Having had my play, September’s Heroes produced by Bartlett High School last Fall, this visit held a special importance to me. I will be forever emotionally tied to the tragic events of more than ten years ago and needed to pay my respects and hoped it would help my ongoing grieving process.

Currently the memorial is surrounded by construction on all sides. The new World Trade Center is quickly climbing into the sky adjoining the memorial and the 9/11 Museum which is set to open later this year. Right now, you can visit the two mammoth pools that mark the footprint of the original North and South Towers of the original World Trade Center. Surrounding both pools are all the names of those that lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks, including those at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

Kevin Cosgrove perished in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

The moment that hit me hardest was finding the name of Kevin Cosgrove, who’s devastatingly powerful 911 call from the South Tower, up to the moment it fell, was the inspiration behind one of the segments of my play. Seeing his name brought back all the memories. I walked around both pools, trying to read all the names, never wanting to forget that moment. It will always be a part of me.

When we left the memorial, we headed down to Battery Park and decided to take the ferry to Ellis Island. I hadn’t realized that Michael had never been to the park. The damaged Sphere from the World Trade Center Plaza is displayed there and you have a great view of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.

Lady Liberty

We got tickets and went through security (again) and boarded the ferry. The Statue of Liberty is closed for renovations at the base level, so we opted to stay on the boat (you can still walk around Liberty Island) and just go to Ellis Island. I’d been to the statue before, walked up to the crown, in fact, but in all my trips to New York, I’d never visited Ellis Island.

I believe most of the buildings surrounding the main building are being renovated. The main building houses Registry Hall where new immigrants to America waited for processing. There are a lot of exhibits in rooms surrounding the great hall, full of pictures and information about the many years when Ellis Island was a working, entry point into the United States. As far as I’ve been able to research over the years, none of my ancestors came through here. There are many ways you can search, by computer or with assistance (and an appointment) for records of those that arrived.

Ellis Island

One of the reasons I chose to visit on this trip, is my work on the production of RAGTIME at school. I hoped visiting would give me some additional knowledge I could bring back to the students of Bartlett High.

There is a scene in the show that depicts the immigrants arrival and I found a lot of good information about how the immigrants lived once they had been processed and struggled to survive in their new world.

A funny side note– while we were waiting for the ferry back to Manhattan, one of our New York friends sent Michael a text asking him if we were ready to slit our wrist yet… knowing we’d seen two heavy plays the day before, and then visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Ellis Island (maybe you had to be there).

Jesus Christ Superstar

We had enough time to stop at our hotel and freshen up before our final show, number twelve… the Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar.

This was not a good choice to end our trip.

The best way I can describe the show is a huge mish-mash of costumes, time periods and effects… or a big conglomerate mess. From hip hop and Glee to time lords (or Star Wars) and leather…. it didn’t appear anyone could make up their minds what to do with this production. I felt that with all the technology they were using, this was the worst lighting of any show we’d seen. They didn’t even use their CNN-style scrolling ticker effectively. Just a mess. I won’t even get in to the casting or the switching of who sings what… Just an emotionless mess. I’d wished we’d seen Godspell instead.

As is our tradition, we stopped on the way back to the hotel and picked up a pizza from Famous Famiglia in Times Square and called it a night.

The new World Trade Center under construction.

Tuesday Day Five in New York

Another day spent exploring and wandering the culturally rich and diverse streets of New York. Some neighborhoods that have survived more than a century are shrinking and others are swallowing them up. We took the subway down to SoHo in the morning and then walked  around many of the historic neighborhoods. Little Italy is now only about three blocks long, having been overtaken to a large degree by Chinatown.

Lombardi's in Little Italy.

I found it interesting to see representatives from each of the Italian restaurants, on the street, enticing customers to come in for lunch. This was done in a much classier way than what we’ve come to expect from street marketers. Keep in mind these are all white linen table cloth establishments, not fast food.

We wandered out of Little Italy, into Chinatown and leisurely walked along Canal Street. Most tourist know Canal Street as the knock-off shopping meca. Not much has changed. Although, the strip we walked seemed less claustrophobic¬† then I remember from the past. Stall after stall of scarves, purses and perfume. Jewelry and watches galore… but many people were offering to take you to secret rooms for most of the knock-offs. A few years ago they were out on the open street– everywhere.

We had an enjoyable lunch, back in Little Italy at the historic Lombardi’s Coal Oven Pizza. It was very good. I have a fondness for New York pizza over Chicago pizza. I’ve never had bad pizza in New York. Lombardi’s was good but I still think I prefer John’s Pizza the most.

A view of the High Line.

After lunch, we stopped for dessert at a little shop called Rice to Riches, with an amazing array of rice pudding options. Who knew?

Our target destination for the day was a relatively new attraction called the High Line. First, we explored the world famous Chelsea Market. Michael ended up buying an interesting array of handmade soaps there.

The High Line was a unique and new find for us. It is basically a reclaimed strip of historic, elevated freight train track, re-purposed as a park and green space. It runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues on the west side. It’s an excellent relaxing alternative to Central Park with some excellent views of the city. There are spaces for concerts, benches for relaxing and viewing, and miles of peaceful walking.

We headed back to the theatre district for our Tuesday night show, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. This was not a show we’d originally put on our list but after several friends had recommended it, we added it to our schedule of shows. Its been running for a while and we thought we should see it now rather than taking a chance of missing it, if it were to close before our next visit.

My quote: “With a four foot mirror (disco) ball and flying divas… how can you go wrong?” Adapted from a movie of the same title, Priscilla is an entertaining production full of tunes from the 80’s and 90’s. It’s a jukebox musical– with a plot. High Art– it’s not. This is just pure, good, foot-tapping entertainment.