Thoughts on visiting Europe

Eight countries, 170,000-plus steps, planes, trains, boats, subways and cars. We pretty much conquered Europe over 16 days.

I’m just going to take it one thought at a time.

  • At the risk of sounding like an ugly American, my wife and I could have never used local money or spoken a foreign word if we wanted. Everybody speaks at least some English and most seem fluent. Indeed, the hardest people to understand were the British. As for Copenhagen, Denmark, Helsinki, Finland, St. Petersburg, Russia, Gdansk, Poland, Stockholm, Sweden, Reykjavik, Iceland and a small seaport in Germany, communicating was not hard. And, everybody takes euros, even the Russians. Some took U.S. dollars, though I never tried it. Mostly, everyone pays by credit card for everything. A Swedish friend said, “The only people that pay cash are old people and criminals.” And, uh, tourists.  
  • My third-grade teacher said we needed to learn the metric system because the rest of the world is using it. Well, yes and no. You need to know meters and Celsius on a broad level. A sign saying a train was 1,300 meters away left me uncertain and it was a whole lot farther than I thought. But otherwise teach, we’re still good with feet and Fahrenheit.
  • Europe loves American music, but mostly it’s from either the 1950s or about 10 years ago.
  • A couple people asked me about the Redskins totally out of the blue.
  • A couple people commented on Trump. But, whatever, I’m on vacation.
  • I didn’t get a chance to try caviar in Russia. I later saw it in a tube in Iceland and figured that can’t be good. No one else at the hotel breakfast bar tried it, either.
  • A waiter in Iceland suggested I try horse on the appetizers. I said, “Like the ones you ride?” Yes. Hard pass on that, though I tried horse once about 40 years ago. Really didn’t try much for new foods since we ate on the cruise ship a lot.
  • The Baltic Sea is cold, especially over open waters. You need a serious jacket even in the cities where it’s 50s and 60s because an icy breeze will cut you in two.
  • Passing through Russian customs was no big deal. I was more worried about telling U.S. customs agents I visited Russia and being spirited away to an interrogation room. Passing through customs in England, Denmark, Iceland and the U.S. was so much quicker than my last international trip years ago. Dulles International Airport was a breeze.
  • Everywhere we went, the people were nice, streets were clean and cities seemed safe. Nothing bad to say.
  • I heartily recommend Hop On, Hop Off busses to get a good feel for a city. We rode them in London, Copenhagen and Reykjavik.
  • What was our favorite experience? Just too hard to pick, but the one city I’d like to see again would be Stockholm.
  • Ranking the cities is tough. The top three are clear favorites, the rest are pretty even.

1. Stockholm. Our old friend Marit made it more fun despite 17,000 steps and the only rain we saw on the trip. It’s a nice blend of old and new.

2. London. It was our third trip and we found new things like Henry the 8th’s castle. Not as big as I would have thought, but gave a real feel for what it was like.

3. Copenhagen. There are more bicyclists than cars during rush hour and bikes get their own lanes. They say the Danes are the happiest people on earth. It was a fun town. Don’t miss Tivoli Gardens, the world’s oldest theme park. Eat dinner on the pirate ship.

4. Helsinki. The Fins keep life simple and it’s an easy city to get around. The church of rocks, blasted right out of boulders, was very cool.

5. St. Petersburg. The Russians tried to beat Paris at its own architectural game and seemingly did so, but also lots of parks and music.

6. Wandemunde, Germany. A little seaside port for cruise tourists that frankly bored me.

7. Gdansk. It’s like seeing what happened to abused Soviet satellite countries left behind. Seeing Lech Walesa’s house was cool, though.

8. Reykjavik. Sorry, it’s no more than a day’s layover. The Golden Circle is nothing you can’t see here in the U.S. with geysers, volcanic areas and waterfalls. The Blue Lagoon is cool, but after a few minutes you wonder what’s the big deal. Insanely expensive, too.

Well, that’s a start for now. Let me know if you want to see the eight-hour slide show.

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A champion in the ring – Joe Louis

Joe LouisYou’re busy trying to make the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns so you see an interesting grave but don’t stop. Well, stop on the way down the hill at Arlington National Cemetery because if nothing else one of the few water fountains on the grounds that work is nearby.

Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis is buried at the bottom of the path in Section 7A by the benches and water fountain just below the Tomb of the Unknowns. He was heavyweight champion from 1937-49, including a 1938 victory over Max Schmeling to avenge a loss two years earlier.

Louis joined the U.S. Army in World War II, but didn’t see combat because military leaders feared the propaganda by Germans if the boxer was killed or captured. Instead, Louis raised millions of dollars while fighting for the troops.

Louis died in 1981. The large marker was partially funded by singer Frank Sinatra. Buried next to Louis is famed actor Lee Marvin, the tough colonel in “The Dirty Dozen” movie. “Pappy” Boyington, the World War II ace of the Pacific theater, is nearby.

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Happy 4th of July

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The memorial FDR really wanted

Name the five greatest U.S. presidents and Franklin Delano Roosevelt should make the list. Ironically, he received the least striking memorial until a second was built in 1997.

But that’s the way Roosevelt wanted it.

Shortly before his 1945 death while barely into his fourth term, Roosevelt told Justice Felix Frankfurter to erect a basic white monument the size of his desk. It wasn’t erected until 1965, but still sits by the National Archives along Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. The white marble cost $12,000 and paid for by admirers.

Ironically a commission began planning the larger memorial in 1955, 10 years before this memorial opened.

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‘Heros of the Independance’ at DAR

Heros of the Independance

This bronze bas relief hangs at the Daughters of the Revolution in Washington. The ‘Heros of the Independance” is by David D’Angers in 1905. It was donated by his daughter Helene.

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National Cathedral Bishop’s Garden

Bishop’s Garden

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The ‘Price of Freedom’ is never cheap

Price of FreedomIt doesn’t take long to encounter the first example of Arlington National Cemetery’s reason for being.

Steps from the visitors center’s west doors most people use to see the cemetery lies “The Price of Freedom” sculpture. The 12-foot, 1,800-pound bronze marker was moved from the middle of the visitor’s center.

The three-year-old sculpture by Greg Wyatt includes a globe, guardian angel caring for a dying soldier, five soldiers depicting different armed services of World War II, a World War II nurse, Rosie the Riveter and 20 plaques of the biggest battles of the World War II.

Wyatt’s work is commonplace around Washington. The New Yorker has eight Shakespearean sculptures in the Folger Shakespeare Library, four in the Georgetown University Medical Center and “Soaring American Eagle” at the State Department.

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The Watergate Steps to nowhere along the Potomac

It was supposed to be a staircase to heaven, but turned into a  helluva waste.

The Watergate Steps between the Potomac River and the Lincoln Memorial was built in 1932 as part of the Arlington Memorial Bridge complex. According to a Historic American Engineering Record for the National Park Service, the steps were to be a watergate where boats could tie up and dignitaries welcomed to the city.

It never happened. By July 14,1935, concerts began on a floating barge with the National Symphony Orchestra the first to perform. Crowds as large as 12,000 watched on the steps until 1965 when noise from planes approaching National Airport proved too overwhelming.

The 40 granite steps are 230 feet wide at river level and 206 feet at the top. You’ll often see joggers running the stairs and bike riders resting.

Ohio Dr. separates the stairs and river. Seems there was a big fight over the road with some thought to a tunnel, but eventually the road was kept.

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Wordless Wednesday: National Cathedral

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The Warren Court

Supreme Court

Sculptor Phillip Ratner once taught school in Washington for 23 years. Now he’s one of the nation’s more respected multimedia artists.

Ratner has five sculptures at the Statue of Liberty, 40 at Ellis Island and others at
the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and U.S. Supreme Court. Shown above is his clay sculpture of the Warren Court shown on the ground floor of the Supreme Court.

A plaque next to the sculpture reads:

“I moved into a little house in Takoma Park [in 1964] and had no room to set up a studio so one day I got to playing around with clay and the first thing I did were the Warren Court heads.”

According to Ratner, he depicted Justice Potter Stewart with his hands clasped together and looking upward in reference to his sole dissent in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp 374 U.S. 203 (1963) in which the Court had found that prayer in public schools was unconstitutional.

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Volta Bureau remembers Alexander Graham Bell

Volta LaboratoryIt has been known as the Bell Carriage House, Bell Laboratory, Volta Bureau and Alexander Graham Bell Laboratory.

No matter. The Volta Laboratory is a National Historic Landmark for helping the hearing impaired.

Built in 1893 by Charles Summer Tainter and Bell’s cousin Chichester Bell, the towering yellow brick and sandstone building at 35th St. NW in Georgetown, was created for the creation of technologies to help the deaf.

Alexander Graham Bell gained the first patent for the telephone in 1876, but the son and grandson of speech teachers also trained teachers for the deaf. Bell used 50,000 francs awarded by the French government to found Volta Associates that concentrated on recording and transmitting and recording sound. The group then built the Volta Lab for the business.

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Buffalo Dancer II offers prayers

Buffalo Indian IIGeorge Rivera described his bronze statue of a Buffalo Dancer as showing Native Americans showing respect to the buffalo that provide their sustenance through dance. It’s the first statue of an American Indian on the National Mall.

The Pueblo of Pojoaque governor created four 12-foot statues with one coming to the National Museum of the American Indian in 2009. Located to the side of the main entrance, Buffalo Dancer II took eight months to create and came 10 years after Rivera made the first model.

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Strike up the band for John Philip Sousa

You may not know the man, but you know his music.

John Philip Sousa was known as “The March King” for his snappy marching music like “The Stars and Stripes Forever (official march of the U.S.) and “The Semper Fidelis” (official march of the U.S. Marine Corps.)

Sousa2Sousa apprenticed with the U.S. Marine Band at age 14 for seven years after his father feared Sousa would join a circus band. The Washington native spent his life conducting and writing marches, including 12 years conducting the Marine Band, and inventing the sousaphone that’s like a tuba. Sousa served in the Navy during World War I and later led the Sousa Band to 15,000 performances until dying in 1932 at age 77.

The grave has a marble bench at the top of a family plot in Congressional Cemetery along with with a marble stone for his plot.

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Wordless Wednesday: Zigzagging downtown

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Allies in War at American Indian museum

Allies in WarWar makes strange bedfellows.

Allies in War, Partners in Peace is a bronze statue by Edward E. Hlavka that is in the American Indian museum. Gen. George Washington is joined by Oneida diplomat Oskanondonha and Polly Cooper, an Oneida Indian who helped starving troops at Valley Forge in 1777-78.

The turtle, wolf and bear (not shown in this photo) depict the three Oneida clans. The statue was created in 2004.

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First U.S. president rests high on the hill

John Hanson

(Reprinting one of our favorite columns.)

Leaving the Gaylord National Hotel in Oxon Hill, I point to a lonely tree above the rising MGM Grand casino and parallel to the beltway and say, “That’s where the first president of the United States is buried.”

Wait, isn’t Mount Vernon the other way and across the Potomac River?

Yes, but George Washington wasn’t the first president. At least, not exactly.

John Hanson was the first president under the Articles of Confederation (which predates the Constitution from which Washington served) to be elected by delegates of the 13 original states. While third to hold the office, Hanson was the first elected, serve the full one-year term, chosen after the British surrendered at Yorktown to end the Revolutionary War and recognized internationally as head of state. (Washington remained commander in chief of the troops. Today, the president is both.)

Maybe it’s a tricky bar bet question, but you still win.

The son of a planter, Hanson was born in nearby Port Tobacco, Md. on April 14, 1715. He died on Nov. 15, 1783 at the nearby mansion of Thomas Addison. The house was destroyed in 1895, but the graveyard atop the hill has Hanson and a dozen Addison family members interned. It’s a private cemetery, surrounded by fences and locked gates and not open to the public. I photographed this grave marker from the fence. I’m not sure it’s Hanson’s, but you’d think a former president would have the only one in the graveyard.

It’s a nice location overlooking the Potomac River. More than two centuries ago it was probably a fine venue rather before becoming an island in a sea of traffic nowadays.

It would seem more befitting for Hanson to be relocated to Arlington National Cemetery than under a lonely tree above parking lots. Maybe one day someone will honor him so.

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Wordless Wednesday: DuPont Circle

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Washington 101 – Filomena is the best Italian restaurant

Filomena(Reprinting one of our favorites.)

OK, let’s start a fight over the best Italian restaurant in town. Maggiano’s on Wisconsin Ave. is a contender. Carmine’s on 7th St. N.W. is a fan favorite. But I’m going with Filomena in Georgetown.

I first heard of this small, intimate restaurant was from a local on one of my tours. Her parents are from Italy and will only eat at Filomena. The more I asked about the place just below the intersection of Wisconsin & Ms. Sts. N.W. near the bridge, the more people raved about it. One friend sent me five strategies to eating there like forget the bread, concentrate on the main course and save room for dessert. They were all good tips.

Filomena2I chose lasagna. The best one I’ve ever eaten was in a bar in Florence, Italy, but Filomena is a close second. It has both red meat and white cheese sauce that splits the lasagna evenly. The pasta is so light it’s like pastry and it’s still hard to eat the entire dish. In fact, half made it home for lunch another day.

As for dessert, my diabetes made me pass, but they sure looked good.

Out-of-towners ask me often of good places to eat. Filomena will be my top Italian recommendation.

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My 10 tips for Washington visitors (and locals, too)

I’ve seen tourists from dozens of countries visit Washington over the years. Now that I lead groups, I really have some advice for those coming in the summer. Since my blog is read nearly equally by out-of-towners as locals and from those in 58 countries this year, here are a few tips when coming to my hometown.

1. Wear light colors. Seriously, I know this sounds simple, but many Europeans come from cooler climates and don’t know a black shirt can feel 10 degrees hotter than a white one. They’re already dying from the humidity so don’t make it worse. Wear shorts, too.
2. Bring sneakers or sandals, but not dress shoes, high heels or clogs. You will get blisters walking around Washington.
3. If you want tickets to go inside the White House, call your Congressman or Senator six months ahead. They’ll need your social security number to run a security check. There’s no same-day line.
4. Don’t soak your feet in the fountains. I don’t care if you see others do it.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions from passersby. Washingtonians are used to tourists and don’t mind.
6. But, locals do mind if you stand on the left of subway escalators. Stand to right, walk on left. If you aren’t familiar with using the passes for the metro, pick one of the gates on the ends.
7. Spend the hot afternoons at inside attractions like the Smithsonians. Mornings and evenings are better spent at monuments.
8. Don’t talk politics with locals. We really don’t care what you think.
9. It’s pronounced War-shington. Not Wash-ington. I know it’s spelled like the latter.  We’ll smile if you say it like a native.
10. Tip your tour guide.

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Wordless Wednesday: Mount Vernon

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