— Jenny Neill

Jenny’s A-to-Z of Travel: I Through M

A French country house transported to New York City. A palace made of corn. These are but two of the places the second installment of my A-Z of Travel series will take you. And I offer you a warning now: continuing to read this will get a song stuck in your head.

Intersection of Bedford and Downing Streets in New York City, courtesy of Delusion Productions

Intersection of Bedford and Downing Streets in New York City,
courtesy of Delusion Productions.

I: Incredible service you’ve experienced and where:

When I dined at Mas Farmhouse, located in Greenwich Village in New York City, what struck me as we entered was how well the space melded “country” with “sophistication”. The server and sommelier at Mas lived up to the expectations set by the décor. Fielding questions, seeking the chef’s clarification, and making responsive wine suggestions – all seamlessly part of taking care of our needs.

When it was time for food to arrive, it was delivered by multiple hands and achieved the dance-like delivery that many restaurants aim for. Our conversation was never interrupted as our water glasses were filled and flatware replaced for each of the several courses we indulged in.

The whole experience was one of understated elegance from being ushered back to our table to the moment our appetites had been sated and we were getting ready to go.

J: Journey that took the longest:

Keeping to the dictionary definition for journey of “traveling from one place to another,” the move we made from Boston to Seattle in the mid-1990s was my longest. It started on one end of Interstate 90, and ended just west of the other. We traveled more than 3100 miles to see friends and to take brief side trips along the way. It took us about a week to cover that distance and we spent nights in Cleveland, Ohio; Owatonna, Minnesota; near the Badlands in South Dakota; Billings and Helena, Montana.

While passing through Cleveland, we always visit Coventry Village in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I count myself as one of many who was first exposed to various countercultures, strong coffee, and other means to alter mood and mind along these three blocks. Much of the architecture surrounding this district remains as it was when I was passing from childhood through adolescence.

Gone, though, was the grassy park on the northeast corner where Euclid Heights Boulevard meets Coventry Road. All three of the old haunts we visited on that stop have transformed, with one no longer there at all:

  • The “Arafrica” (a nickname pronounced “ara-FREAK-a”), one of the first two shops in the Arabica Coffee House chain, is gone now having been replaced in 2003 by The Grog Shop, a concert club. Thankfully, live music still bounces off those brick-exposed walls. Before the ‘Frica left, I sipped on many sweet Mocha Cafes eventually graduating to gulping down coffee with cream. Today, I can still satisfy my caffeine cravings at a coffee “sanctuary.” Phoenix Café, is a few short steps away.
  • Tommy’s Restaurant has been a neighborhood favorite since the 1970s. I was first exposed to vegetarianism and the notion that food sourced locally was healthier to eat at Tommy’s. My favorite dishes include the Spiced Hummus and many of the spinach pies, all of which got named after regulars who frequented the tiny diner long before I started eating there. Now, in its largest space yet, it’s still winning raves for its casual atmosphere and being vegetarian-friendly.
  • Grumm’s Sub Shoppe has been making enormous sandwiches since 1977. It was the obvious choice when we needed to provide food for a crowd of friends and relatives who wanted to catch up with us before we continued the cross-country journey. We picked up some Grumsteers, a Turkey Ridge, and a couple hot subs for our impromptu “passing through” party.

When we left Cleveland, we still had a lot of ground to cover to get to Seattle in time to pick up the keys for our new apartment. South Dakota featured the rest of our more memorable side adventures. Though it was technically spring, ice and snow still made for slow-going through much of flat lands before we made it to the Continental Divide. We opted to spend the night near the Badlands, taking in the kitschy splendor of the Corn Palace on the way from Minnesota to the Badlands:

  • We stretched our legs looking at the maize murals at the Corn Palace in Mitchell. This showcase for local farming started in the 1890s.
  • We limited ourselves to a short trail walk close to Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the Badlands National Park because of my lack of decent winter hiking boots and that we had to leave our cats kenneled in the car.
  • How could we skip a stop at Wall Drug to see the “world famous” jackelope? Reading the signs to and from this odd tourist attraction are half the fun of seeing it.

It took us another three nights to finish our drive. We had left ourselves little time once we passed the Badlands. Stopping twice in Montana and then pushing on to Seattle, where we have lived for over 15 years.

K: Keepsake from your travels:

My main keepsakes from most of my travels are my notes. Where those notes reside depends on whether I am traveling for business, pleasure, or both. Often I record what I experience electronically. I do usually carry a journal or a notepad for those times it is inconvenient to pull out a smartphone or laptop.

When caught without any of those tools, I scribble on whatever I have on hand: a printed boarding pass, a ticket stub, or even in the margins of a full-color tourist map. Those paper souvenirs often get transferred into my journal or a scrapbook for safe keeping.

L: Let-down sight, why and where:

The Tower of Pisa was the biggest let-down sight I’ve never seen. Construction was still underway to stabilize it the year I last was in Pisa, in 2003.

Leaning Tower of Pisa, courtesy of Stephen & Claire Farnsworth

Leaning Tower of Pisa, courtesy of Stephen & Claire Farnsworth.

Our group was traveling on tight funds. The combined cost of parking two cars near the site didn’t seem worth it given this was a year that tours were either sold out completely or not being given at all because of the ongoing work. So, we opted not to bother going.

We were on our way to pick up a couple joining us for the next part of our adventure. Our route from Florence, having been strategically designed to avoid all toll roads, kept us on the south side of the Arno River. I tried to appease my tourist curiosity by looking for the famous lean as we sped to the Pisa airport.

Even if I’d had a clean line of sight, catching a glimpse from more than 3 miles away was just not possible.

M: Moment where you fell in love with travel:

Oddly enough, what leaps to mind is a Disney moment. I was 6 or 7 years old at the time. My grandmother was staying with us Neill kids while my mother and father went to Florida. I can’t remember all the reasons why I didn’t fly down with them, though I’m sure my parents did not want me to miss any days of school. It was still very wintry in Ohio when the official spring break holiday finally started and I could join them.

It's A Small World - Venice, Italy courtesy of Joe Penniston

It’s A Small World – Venice, Italy courtesy of Joe Penniston.

Though I was a little scared to let go of Grandma Neill’s hand at the gate, I was more excited to take to the sky. A tall, smiling blonde stewardess took my hand, led me through the breezeway and helped me get buckled in to my seat. I felt “butterflies in my stomach” (as I described it then) watching land fall away from the plane during takeoff. My little fingers stayed glued to the window for much of the flight. And the pilot gave me my first set of wings after I went up for my tour of the cockpit.

As mesmerizing as it was to look out over the clouds from inside an airplane the first time, the color and lights of “It’s a Small World” captivated me even more. So much so that I asked to go on the ride again and again. I sang that song incessantly for days. That much younger version of me plagued my parents with questions about where the animatronic dolls were from, why they dressed so differently, and if my parents had met any children who looked like them.

It was hyperrealistic travel, the only sort of around-the-world tour possible on a Disney World ride. But that slow-moving boat trip, listening to those catchy lyrics, and hungrily drinking in those stylistic cartoonish images of children from everywhere else? Yes, that’s the time and place I caught my first serious case of wanderlust.