Archive for October, 2009

Wines Are A Pleasure

October 15th, 2009 at 3:49 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

And it was even more of a pleasure to find that our cousin, Patrick Dubsky,was profiled this week in the Boston Globe. Patrick runs an excellent wine shop called Winestone in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. He also runs great wine tastings every Saturday. If you’re in the Boston area, drop in and see him.

 

More Berlin – Nazi Terror, Bavarian Food, and Chocolate Delight

October 14th, 2009 at 5:57 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Tuesday, October 13, 2009 – Breakfast at the Hotel Adlon was included as part of the Fine Hotels and Resorts hotel package we had booked through our American Express TeamOne travel service group, and what a breakfast it was! A dozen different kinds of cold cuts, a half dozen kinds of French soft cheese (including several family favorites), a handful of different Meuslis, fresh fruit juices (such as pineapple, coconut, and ginger blended together), eggs to order, different sausages, and all sorts of fruit, as well as carb-evil pastries and breads. Champagne, coffee, and tea were available too.

By 11am we were finally on our way, with the intent to see the famed Checkpoint Charlie, and more specifically the museum there.

A performer dressed as a statue shills for for tourist tips at the Brandenburger Tor

A performer dressed as a statue shills for for tourist tips at the Brandenburger Tor

We started by tracing the path south from Brandenburg Tor where the western part of the Berlin Wall used to be, and found ourselves at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a memorial created to remember the Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.

Cement blocks of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Cement blocks of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The memorial consists of 2,711 blocks of cement of identical width and depth, but varying height. These blocks fill a plain of undulating brick, spaced equally apart, thus creating walkways. The feel is that of a cemetery when you first enter it, but soon you feel like you are in an oddly symmetric warren as the rectangular blocks start to reach the height of your head and beyond. Disconcerting and eerie, which was no doubt at least part of the intent of the memorial’s designer, Peter Eisenman.

A Berlin Wall exhibit at Potsdamer Platz

A Berlin Wall exhibit at Potsdamer Platz

By the time we hit Potsdamer Platz a bit to the south we were so cold we needed to warm up, so we chose a local café for some Café American, tea, and a cookie for Bas, as well as free Internet service. After waiting through a massive rain storm, we continued on towards Checkpoint Charlie, stopping at an outdoor museum entitled “Topopgraphy of Terror”, dedicated to provided a history of the prison and torture facilities at that location, run by the SS, Gestapo, and Reichssicherheits Dienst (Empire Security Service) during World War II.

Part of the exterior exhibits at the Topography of Terror museum

Part of the exterior exhibits at the Topography of Terror museum

However, the exhibits at the Topography of Terror covered much more, explaining the evolution of the Nazi party and their plans for systematic deportation and killing of Jews, Gypsies, and other “lower races” (pretty much anyone that was not Aryan German) in order to claim their lands and property for German expansion and resettlement. It was a frightening and sobering exhibit, as well as violently graphic, picturing hangings, executions, and many photos of people being marched off to certain death. More astounding was that the Nazi bureaucracy maintained meticulous records of all their actions, and many of the ledgers and memos used to both record their actions as well as direct those actions were shown (with translations for English readers). A number of the Nazi leaders were profiled, as were dozens of victims of “Nazi justice” who were interned in the prison at the site on Prinz Albrectstrasse at the behest of the so-called “People’s Court”, a bureaucratic body used to justify arrests and executions in the name of the people of Germany, but truly to simply further personal and political goals of the Nazi leadership.

Documents at the Topography of Terror show Nazi plan of conquest by extermination

Documents at the Topography of Terror show Nazi plan of conquest by extermination

The exhibit also covered the atrocities the Nazis carried out in the territories they captured. For us, with our Czech ancestry (Jake’s parents were born in Czechoslovakia shortly before the invasion by the Germans leading up to World War II), it was particularly poignant, as the exhibit documented how the entire Czech village of Lidice was slaughtered and then taken completely apart, leaving virtually no sign that there ever had been a village there. And all this in retaliation for the attempted assassination of a high ranking Nazi officer.

The Traveling Richters pose with Maximilian the Bavarian

The Traveling Richters pose with Maximilian the Bavarian

Jake’s brother Mike joined us as we finished going through the exhibition and we proceeded to Checkpoint Charlie, passed it by to get on the U-Bahn (Berlin’s subway) for one stop and then have a late lunch at Maximilian’s, a Bavarian restaurant. We gorged ourselves on Bavarian food – Schweinshaxe (pig knuckles with crispy skin), wurst (sausages) of all kinds with both sharp and sweet mustard, leberkäse (a slice of a loaf of meat made with liver), and goulasch of two sorts. And beer, of course. For Jake, this brought back memories of his childhood, growing up in Munich. We finished up with coffee and tea at the Café Einstein (a coffee shop chain which appears to be Starbuck’s main competition in Berlin) next door.

A model of the Titanic in chocolate at Fassbender & Rausch

A model of the Titanic in chocolate at Fassbender & Rausch

Instead of actually going back to Checkpoint Charlie, our intended destination for the day, Mike instead gave us a personal tour of other nearby parts of Berlin (and we managed to hit Checkpoint Charlie a couple of days later instead). We visited Berlin’s biggest chocolate shop, Fassbender & Rausch, followed by a walk around a plaza called the Gendarmenmarkt (police market). The Gendarmenmarkt features a number of large historic buildings from the 19th century, including a church, a performance hall, and a government building, surrounded by “plattenbau” apartment buildings. These were apartments built by the East Germans using a modular construction methodology which allowed for buildings to go up very quickly. Functional but rather unattractive.

From there we moved on to a collection of three buildings known as the Galeries Lafayette. These buildings feature high-end fashion shops and a delicatessen area, all connected via an underground shopping passage.

Tne New Synagogue in Berlin - note the Moorish archictecture

Tne New Synagogue in Berlin - note the Moorish archictecture

Mike then took us to Oranienburger Strasse, an area featuring a synagogue with Moorish architecture, as well as an artists’ commune and numerous coffee shops and eateries. At a small Italian restaurant in one of the many small courtyards, we enjoyed some Glühwein (hot spiced wine – great in cold weather) while we waited for Mike’s son Mat to join us. Mat is 21 and is training in the field of event management, and also has his own band called “Danke” (“thank you” in German).

We continued our walking tour with our personal family guides, exploring more courtyards and sights, including an old dance hall that is still in use today, ending up for dinner at Pan Asia, a restaurant with Asian-themed food. Quite good and enjoyable, with a great ambiance.

Unter den Linden in Berlin lit up during the Festival of Lights

Unter den Linden in Berlin lit up during the Festival of Lights

We walked all the way back to our hotel, enjoying the lighting of various buildings and objects as part of the Festival of lights that had just started in Berlin that night (and running for a full week). Again, as we strolled, Mike and Mat both gave us some history of the parts of Berlin we were walking through, helping feed our ever present desire for knowledge about the places we visit. We arrived back at the Hotel Adlon full (both food and information-wise), tired, and happy.

Brandenburger Tor lit up at night for the Festival of Lights

Brandenburger Tor lit up at night for the Festival of Lights

Our final achievement for the day was discovering that our shower in the Hotel Adlon also featured a steam bath button, allowing us to thoroughly warm up after freezing all day long. What a brilliant feature for showers in cold climates! (Note: The kids’ shower did not have this feature – something we teased them about incessantly.)

Note: Larger versions of the above photos as well as a dozen additional images can be found at Jake’s Flickr Page.

 

Travel Peeves – Being Nickel and Dimed at Hotels

October 13th, 2009 at 5:57 am (AST) by Jake Richter

I have spent over 180 nights in hotels this year so far, with another 30 nights still planned. Those stays have been at dozens of hotels around the U.S. for the most part, ranging from Marriott Courtyard and Homewood Suites on the lower end to high end hotels like Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, and Ritz Carlton as well as a number of unique boutique hotels.

Note of the hotels are particularly inexpensive, which is why I find myself puzzled and frustrated by special add-ons and hidden prices a number of properties charge on top of their already noteworthy hotel rates. It’s not so bad when I have the option of not using these extra services, but it frosts me to be socked with basically unavoidable additional fees that by all rights should be included in the hotel rate.

Perhaps the top extra cost item I find at many hotels is having to pay for Internet access, at rates ranging from $9.95 to $14.95 a day. And even then, the Internet service tends to be slow and flaky. The places offering free Internet are frequently not much better, however. I get around this by using a Sprint USB wireless data adapter which plugs into a special mobile router from Cradlepoint and lets me share the Spring data connection among multiple computers. The cost is about $60/month, and I signed up back when they truly had an unlimited data plan (nowadays everyone seems to provide only 5GB of data a month under such “unlimited” data plans and then charge ridiculous amounts beyond that level of data). So, while many of the hotels I stay at charge an Internet access fee, I can always opt out using my own connection (which is frequently faster and more reliable). (Addendum: Here at our hotel in Berlin it’s $37.50 a day for Internet service. Eek!Fortunately they provide 30 minutes a day free access at the business center.)

Another extra add-on that I find quite annoying is the so-called “Resort Fee”. This is a separate fee, typically in the $5-20 daily range, which a hotel may charge to cover bell service, maid service gratuities, and other things that should be optional or at least discretionary. Most recently we were charge a resort fee at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, where a little note card hailed all the great services that this fee covered (including “free” Internet service which was exceedingly poor). And, ironically, in terms of service, comfort, and overall ambiance, the Peabody was the most disappointing hotel we stayed at during our four week tour of middle America (with the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, and the Mansion on Peachtree in Atlanta being the best). I understand that places like the Opryland Resort outside of Nashville charges a $25 resort fee. And the Renaissance hotel in Curacao that I stayed at last week charges a 15% “service charge” (for pretty spotty service at that). At hotels were I get good service, I typically tip quite well – more than a resort fee usually, but a resort fee would dissuade me from leaving a gratuity for the housekeeping staff or giving a tip to the bellman

My final peeve with respect to extra charges at hotels is the fee some larger chain hotels, most notably Westin and W Hotels, are dinging their guest for when they receive packages. In fact, I was recently quoted in the Chicago Tribune about this type of nickel and diming. As someone who travels a lot, I will frequently ship luggage to my next hotel, and in any given week, may well receive a dozen packages from Amazon.com at my hotel with various items ranging from sundries and food to batteries and computer hardware. As I discovered last March when I checked into the Westin Buckhead in Atlanta, I was being charged nearly $50 to receive three pieces of luggage I had sent myself. I had no advance knowledge of these fees, and it was a shock to find that at a minimum, the hotel would charge guests $5 to $50 to receive a single package, depending on its size and weight. Furthermore, this was chain-wide for Westin and W Hotels. This surprise fee, combined with the lack of personal service and recognition as a Starwood Platinum guest, got me so incensed that I checked out of the Westin after only two nights, and moved across the street to the wonderful Mansion on Peachtree (which I previously confirmed did not charge a package receipt fee). I also canceled a 17 night stay I had booked at the W in Minneapolis in boycott and protest of this blanket policy, and have not stayed at a Westin or W hotel since, nor any other hotel which charges package receipt fees.

I even sent Westin’s corporate management a letter expressing my disgust with their short-sighted policies on trying to squeeze every dollar from their guests, and while I got a heartfelt apology and sympathetic phone call from the manager of the Westin Buckhead, I never heard from corporate management.

In summary, I would suggest that anytime you plan on booking a hotel and don’t want to be surprised by excess fees beyond already high local taxes in most locations, contact the hotel and confirm that they do not charge resort fees or package receipt fees, and also carry a backup Internet connection to avoid being dinged for daily Internet access. That’s what I do now, and I’ve been a lot happier with my hotel stays as a result.

 

We Meet In Berlin

October 12th, 2009 at 5:05 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Monday, October 12, 2009 – After some hearty coffee, tea, and hot chocolate in Schipol airport, we had a leisurely hour long flight to Berlin on a half empty plane.

Hot chocolate on a stick at Cafe Chocolat at Schipol Airport

Hot chocolate on a stick at Cafe Chocolat at Schipol Airport

All of our bags made it and we grabbed a taxi to our hotel while Jake conversed in German with our taxi driver, learning about various sites we were passing as well as other local color.

Rain awaits us as we arrive at Tegel Airport in Berlin

Rain awaits us as we arrive at Tegel Airport in Berlin

We got to our hotel around 10:30am, and our rooms were not yet ready, so the guest relations manager showed us to the spa, had our luggage delivered and we were able to take a swim (only Jake, since he was the only who brought his bathing suit on this trip) and showers to freshen (and wake) up.

Krystyana and Bas collapse from jet lag at our hotel in Berlin

Krystyana and Bas collapse from jet lag at our hotel in Berlin

Our rooms still were not quite ready an hour later so we grabbed a small (and unbelievable pricey – a 200 ml / 8 oz. diet Coke was about $11!) lunch in the lobby lounge, and then finally settled into our rooms. The kids were so exhausted from jet lag that they collapsed in bed and slept before even unpacking. We followed their lead a short while later and enjoyed a couple of hours of blissful sleep.

View from our hotel window of the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

View from our hotel window of the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

Krystyana, Mike, Linda, and Bas before the Reichstag in Berlin

Krystyana, Mike, Linda, and Bas before the Reichstag in Berlin

At 4pm Jake’s brother Mike, a Berlin-native for more than the last decade, met us at the hotel and gave us a short walking tour of the surrounding area, which includes the famous Brandenburger Tor (gate), the Reichstag, the Bundestag, and more of the Unter den Linden street our hotel is located on. We were not quite prepared for how cold and wet Berlin was, so we found it necessary to stop for tea and coffee, as well as some “kuchen” (cake) at a local café.

Bas cannot wait to eat the poppy seed tart at the German cafe

Bas cannot wait to eat the poppy seed tart at the German cafe

Mike had to get back to work after that, so we parted ways and grabbed dinner at the first available non-Italian restaurant we found. That was at the Bollywood Restaurant, purveyors of fine Indian cuisine, just a few blocks from our hotel. It was a great meal, albeit not particularly German in nature.

We found a bottle of Sekt (German sparkling wine) waiting for us in the room, along with a few treats, compliments of hotel management, all of which we enjoyed while winding our way down to try and sleep through the night and sync up our body clocks with the local one – a six hour time difference from home on Bonaire.

The champagne, along with a nice bath, helped Linda and I quickly fall into restful slumber, and amazingly we all slept until mid-morning the next day, with no ill jet lag effects.

 

Note To Self… Bring Proteins For Long Flights

October 12th, 2009 at 10:59 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Our departure from Bonaire yesterday was uneventful, except for the realization after we were already in the boarding lounge that we had forgotten all of our trip snacks in our fridge at home. For most folks this would probably note be an issue, but since our whole family follows a low-carb lifestyle, it was pretty significant.

For those not familiar with what a low-carbohydrate lifestyle entails, in a nutshell it means that we generally don’t each anything with refined sugar (fresh fruit in moderation is okay) or starches (e.g. no rice, bread, pasta, or root vegetables). Meat, eggs, cheese, cream and other animal fats, nuts, and green leafy vegetables are all great however, in whatever quantity we want to consume.

However, airplane meals are pretty much as carb-laden as can be, featuring pasta, beans, bread, and sugary desserts. And there’s generally no way you can pre-order a low-carb meal. If you order a diabetic meal for your flight they still serve you starches (which they really shouldn’t) and if you order a gluten-free meal, you get rice and other non-wheat starches. So your best option is to bring your own food. And if you forget it you starve for the most part.

We managed by eating a mere fraction of what we were served, including peeling the eggs and cheese off our breakfast croissant and leaving everything else in our meal box. Fortunately water and diet sodas are plentiful on planes so we remained hydrated.

Once we landed in Amsterdam’s Schipol airport we had hoped to use the KLM lounge and feed ourselves there. The lounge was promoted as accepting Delta Gold Medallion members (which Linda and Jake are), but reality disagreed with signage and we were told that only Platinum level elites could access it (and those on business or first class tickets, which sadly did not include us).

We found ourselves saved from total starvation by finding a shop at Schipol airport when we landed which featured cheese and cold cuts and smoked fish, which we bought at shockingly high prices (even a cup of coffee there was about $7.50 – ouch!) and wolfed down once we found a place to sit while waiting for our connection to Berlin. We were finally well sated and ready to continue to Berlin.

 

A Rant on Flying and Electronic Devices

October 10th, 2009 at 5:13 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

One of my current frustrations with modern air travel on commercial aircraft is the blanket requirement that all electronic devices be turned off during take-off and landing. I have no issue with the idea that those are the most dangerous times during a flight and that the crew wants to make sure passengers are not needlessly distracted by their iPods, PDAs, and computers.

However, the argument posited for why electronic devices need to be turned off is that they may interfere with a plane’s navigational system. Bullpucky. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be possible to offer in-flight WiFi service. Non-commercial aircraft don’t have the electronic device requirement either. For example, Divi Divi, our wonderful local charter airline service between Bonaire and Curacao (which has schedule flight times, but doesn’t operate as a commercial airline), has no restrictions on using cell phones during take off, landing, and flight. For that matter, I understand that private jets don’t either.

So, the whole “electronic device” restriction seems to be nothing more than a convenient lie to achieve an alternate goal, namely keeping passengers undistracted. However, at the same time, passengers are welcome to read whatever they want during these critical times. Unless, of course, the reading source is an eBook, such as a Sony Reader or an Amazon Kindle. Nevermind that these devices don’t consume any power except when you’re “turning” pages due to the way eInk/ePaper functions. And while you can actually shut off a Sony Reader, a Kindle is always on (unless it’s run out of juice) (although you can shut off the wireless capability pretty easily).

Flight attendants have recently started adding the phrase “anything that has an on/off switch” as a criteria, presumably because people were trying to figure out how to temporarily shut off their watches and pace makers. And, I will point out that in all of my thousands of flights, I’ve never seen a flight attendant ask someone to shut off a camera (an electronic device) when they were taking pictures during take-off or landing.

That said, all I would really like to see changed in the current policy is airlines not lying to their customers about the reason for not using electronic devices, as well as not discriminating between permitted media formats for people reading standalone text. If my seatmate can read a paperback book, magazine, or newspaper, I should be able to read my Kindle or Sony Reader.

Or if the airline is truly serious about wanting passengers’ undivided attention, they should ban reading, talking, sleeping, and all other distracting actions during take-off and landing. Of course that would make things like the 45-minute wait on the runway for a departure slot I just experienced earlier today in Atlanta a true ordeal.