When in Rome….

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

(photograph: Chicago dog / Chicago, Illinois / Julie Cook / 2013)

Ok, so you’ve probably guessed I’ve been in the Windy City for the past couple of days. I had the pleasure of tagging along with my husband to a conference. I must admit I was a bit weary of Chicago. Growing up in Atlanta, I know life in the big city is not always as glamorous as tourist boards like to make out….lots of growing pains in the bigger cities—particularly the older bigger cities. Plus there’s that whole corruption and mobster business…starting with names like Capone and stories of Valentine Massacres and the infamous Speakeasies….yes, just a little apprehensive but secretly excited.

Chicago is, well, pretty amazing. Huge, yes! But there is something quite special about this city’s skyline—a plethora of eye candy to the architecturally minded among us. Yes, lots of steel, concrete, glass and granite… man made temples of commerce reaching for the sky… old, classic and stately intertwined with the sleek, trendy and modern. Does Donald Trump have a “tower” in every city? You must remember however that I’ve written a post concerning the natural wonders of this earth that reach heavenward verses the man-made egotistical monoliths that wish to compete…don’t know if that’s always a good thing….

Clean and green are two words that immediately pop into mind when I think of downtown Chicago. They have done a marvelous job with green space and parks. This city borders the Great Lake Michigan. The city meets the lake effortlessly–blending one into the other. It was not alway this way. Chicago, the Chicago River and the lake were once all filthy, dangerously so—but luckily the powers that be, long ago, realized that something had to change and change fast or an environmental death was imminent. When you’re the 3rd largest of the 5 Great Lakes and 4 different states surround you, growth and development spell disaster. And since Lake Michigan is the water source for not only Chicago but countless others around this lake, preservation was and is key.

It was one of our taxi drivers (and that is a story unto itself–my poor husband who is not accustomed to riding in taxis clung to the seat belt for dear life….) explained that it was actually Mayor Daley who is credited with all of Chicago’s beautiful parks, flowers and trees. This taxi driver, a man not born in this country but who came here many years ago to forge a better life for his family, spoke so kindly of the former mayor—how this mayor did so many positive things for this city…that “he was such a good man”….I think that is probably one of the best compliments to be given to any city politician.

And when one thinks of a particular city there is usually always something synonymous with that city—Chicago has yes, that whole mob thing but we won’t go there today—Chicago has the Cubbies, “Da Bears”, deep dish pizza, a Magnificent Mile, Madame O, and of course the Chicago Dog. A divine taste experience encased in a simple, yet understated, poppy studded bun.

Everyone who comes to Chicago must try their hand at a Chicago dog. There are numerous restaurants dotted throughout the city which sells these taste bud tantalizers or you can get one from the numerous hot dog stands located strategically around town. We opted to purchase ours from one of the stands then sit in the nearby park enjoying the beautiful weather Chicago has been blessed with this summer—for a southerner, the low humidity and 70 degree days were ideal.

You could have your dog however you prefer but I’m a firm believer of the expression…”when in Rome, do as the Romans”…so “Chicago style it was”. First you start with a steamed dog, not boiled. Place it in a steamed poppy seed speckled bun. Add mustard, pickle relish, onions, two hot peppers, a pickle spear, and two slices of tomatoes—voila. A melding of textures and taste sensations all within one’s hand. These dressed up dogs are so tasty that we actually went back the next afternoon so my husband could have another one.

We took our hot dogs, chips and cokes over to a park bench to enjoy them on this most delightful afternoon when suddenly a deluge of pigeons, red-winged blackbirds and sparrows descend upon us—I felt a little like Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcock thriller The Birds. As I was finishing my taste treat, not being a huge fan of buns on my burgers or dogs, I innocently tossed some of the remaining bread to the waiting birds. Don’t know if that was wise….for suddenly, out of no where, three raucous bullies land in the midst of the feeding frenzy scattering all of the smaller birds to the four corners of the world while creating a small dust storm. My husband starts uttering words I shan’t repeat.

Three seagulls begin taking charge of the situation as they begin taking all of the crumbs for themselves. A game begins—can I get crumbs to the smaller birds without these larger selfish bullies noticing. I discovered one important thing…Pigeons don’t like chips—and I suspect the whole salt thing is not good for then anyway. I figured out that I could give the gulls the chips and the smaller birds the bread—which made everyone happy …but my husband. Have I ever mentioned he’s not the biggest animal lover such as I am 🙂 I kept hearing something about “you’re going to get a disease if you don’t stop…”—this coming from a country boy—for heavens sake.

Now that I’m back home, back to my ordinarily quiet suburban world, sans pigeons and gulls, concrete and steel, tourists and mass transportation, I’m settling back in, unpacking washing and cleaning, and thinking of the exercise I must begin to shed those extra pounds picked up from deep dish pizzas, hot dogs, prime steaks (remember Chicago’s claim to that hub of mid-west stock yards), thinking that lunch today most likely will be yogurt.

Unpacking always puts me in the mind of thinking about the next adventure…where shall life take me, what wonders shall I see and especially what goodies shall I taste???…
Until next time…always remember the importance of living like the locals—it’s the only way to fully experience and appreciate other cities, other cultures, other foods…
Happy trails and happy travels…..I’ll take mine all the way……

Taxi drivers, The Wall, and Hope

I can’t leave Berlin quite yet without relaying one last tid bit to you.  Remember we were in Berlin for really only one full day.  Remember I am a sponge—I’ve got to soak it all in as quickly as I can!  On this one and only day in Berlin, I had to see and do as much as I could, without exhausting my cohorts.  Hummm…

I had  previously made reservations at the Reichstag.  Our appointment was for 11:30. The Reichstag  was/is an absolutely cool thing, free admission, ( must register on-line prior to visit), as well as extremely informative but that will have to wait to another day—Remember, we’re soaking up…..

We had a great breakfast at our Hotel (Hotel H10 Berlin Ku’damm—great place, I shan’t get into the review here—see Trip Advisor).  After eating, we headed to the front desk to ask for a taxi and if they had any recommendations for, say, a driver we could hire to help with a bit of an impromptu tour (we had that in Vienna—SUPER, but I digress…) .

The lady at the front desk didn’t seem to have anything off the top of her head so we just asked for a taxi.  When the taxi arrived the three of us clamored in the cab all talking at once.  I’m certain the driver was already regretting picking up the three very American touristy women.  We try to blend in, being as inconspicuous as possible, but sometimes our accents give us away. (Hi Ya’ll). We inquire as whether or not he would consider, say, driving us around a bit, maybe taking us to see some of the highlights before our designated time to be at the Reichstag.  “Nein!”

Boy, that was fast.  Well okay then, whatever…

As we start driving we attempt making small talk (say what you will about Americans who travel but I believe in kindness—no matter where I may be).  And after just a few miles of warming up to these 3 chatty women, the driver turns off his meter and tells us he will take us the “see the sights”.  Ecstatic we assure him we will pay him his fare and then some.

Now mind you this is a quick little jaunt as our window of opportunity was limited.  The first stop—The Wall!


Now let me back up.  Remember how I told you in a previous post that I was a bit apprehensive about a trip to Berlin?  Well, I think in part, that all goes back to the fact that I am a tail end baby boomer.  Early on in elementary school, I was well aware of an East and a West.  The West was good, like us…the East was bad, not like us.    We lived with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation (same as today with, say, Iran or North Korea but people today seem to be a bit jaded or desensitized to the whole blowing up sort of scenario—but I digress).  That whole Bay of Pigs ordeal was still fresh in everyone’s minds.  Khrushchev had bammed his shoes on the podium at the UN and we all knew the Soviets were not our friends.  Those very people of the East.

I can still recall the very real fearful thoughts I would find myself having at school—always during lunch, as I would see that dreadful Fallout shelter symbol hung on our cafeteria wall.  Where would we hide when they bombed us?  Would they make us get up in those closets under the stage where they normally stored the cafeteria tables??  Where was all the food and water we would need?  But then my small mind would assure my nerves that it didn’t matter because at the first sound of any alarm I was running the mile home to be with my mother because she would be home alone, and I couldn’t let her be home alone during a nuclear bomb.  Made perfect sense to my 7-year-old self.  Hence the grown up apprehension…

And then came the better memories.  The time of triumph…. 1987

Remembering President Reagan’s immortal statement to Mr. Gorbachev “to tear down this wall” and having witnessed a world away, that joyful moment for not only the German people but also for the World community as a whole– was monumental.

I was thinking back about all of that as our driver whisked us past Check Point Charlie.  “Wow!  Need a picture!” ……  Next he’s speeding down a street pointing out on our left the new sports facility/Arena—it was however what was to our right that had my attention.  There is certainly no mistaking what it is.   For several miles, we drive past it.  “It” is The Wall.  Long sections of concrete that abruptly stop, suddenly opening up to green space and just as quickly, more concrete—and so it goes.  A graffitied, spraypainted canvas of cement wall—to me, it is but a wonder.

Gone are the guards, the no mans land in between the two sections separating West and East.  The towers of machine guns, the miles of barbed wire, all gone.  Gone is the jump from normal color to monochromatic grays when leaving the West while traveling to the East.  Brilliant color is now available to all Germans as is evident in Berlin.

Here I am and here “it” is— now, for me to finally see… “The Wall”.   I’m actually here in person!!!  This is truly one of the most moving experiences of my life… I can vividly recall watching the news as distraught frantic families were shown separated by a cement wall that represented so much more than a mere structure on the landscape.  It was both sinister and infamous.

The area now is almost “park” like with pretty green grass, a beautiful meandering river —a river, mind you, that witnessed many lives taken in a moment of an attempted escape to freedom. The remnants of cement barriers now painted, graffited and decorated with vibrant colors and statements in all sorts of languages. 
I think it, The Wall, almost pretty.  It is a must see for all generations—a part of that “we need to be reminded of our not so nice past” in order to keep our future bright and always hopeful.


WOW….. But as it was a very, chilly, blustery Autumn day, the picture taking was short lived, as we needed to hop back in the taxi and head on over to the Brandenburg Gate along with the Reichstag.

We tell our driver of how well Germany is perceived in the US.   But he tells us not so fast.  It may sound as if Germany is financially sound and doing so much better than the rest of Europe but that is not necessarily so.  He tells us of how he had worked in one of the major car manufacturing plants for 12 years.  Due to the poor financial times, it was closed and now he must drive a taxi in order to take care of his family.

It is at this point that he pulls out a beautiful picture of his wife and son.  His wife is expecting their second child soon.  He asks where we traveled from prior to Germany.  We tell him Prague, starting out in Switzerland and then Austria.  “Ah Switzerland and Austria, beautiful countries no?  But very expensive”— He shares a story.  His wife’s family, from Turkey, (they are Muslims) was gathering for a family get-together in Vienna.  They had all gone out for coffee— “just coffee, that was all we had and the bill was over 100€, do you know how much money that is for my small family now”.  That got us thinking.

He then asked when we had to be at the airport the following day.  We explained that our flight was around 1PM and we thought to leave the hotel around 10:30.  He then surprised us by saying that he would come get us.  We explained that we had a great deal of luggage (3 ladies, 3 weeks, do the math) so he opted to send a friend who had a larger cab.  We were deeply touched.

As we reached our departing destination we quickly gathered up 100€—thanking him for the tour, his time, his company and hoped he could use the money for his soon to be new baby.  He was noticeably moved.

The following day when it came time to depart Berlin, we made our way to the front desk for check out.  The woman at the desk asked if she could call us a cab.  She was not looking up.  We explained that our taxi driver from the previous day had promised to send a cab for us.  She suddenly stopped what she was writing and looked up at me, eyebrows raised.  In that rather sarcastic questioning way one does when one finds something being said quite incredulous, she slowly asks—“your taxi driver from yesterday said he would send someone for you here today?  She said it very slowly, word for word, as if I was suddenly hard of hearing.  Yes, that would be correct.  “Alright” she says with a bit of a sly smile, “Madam we will call you a taxi if this driver does not show up. It will not take long for another, do not worry.”  “Oh I’m not worried.  Thank you” I say with a smile and I make my way to the couch to wait.

A few minutes pass when a young man walks into the lobby and makes his way to the front desk.  I know immediately whom he seeks.  “I am looking for the Cook party,” he inquires in German.  The woman at the desk is almost dumbfounded.  We hop up and schlep all of our bags to his cab as he tries to help us.  As soon as we’re all loaded up we take off for the brief trek to the Tegal airport.  There is an incoming call. The caller is speaking German but I know exactly who it is and what he asks.  The driver, in broken English, tells us the call is for us.  It is our friend.  He tells us he is so glad his friend could be of service and that he wishes us well.  We are visibly moved.

Such a special send off.

We all seem to focus so much on what makes all of us different, forgetting what it is that truly makes us all more alike.  That is why I think travel is so important—makes such a big and diverse world a bit smaller and more familiar.  I will remember Berlin for so many things, but most of all, I will remember Berlin for the small gesture of kindness that was offered to 3 American visitors.