Friday, December 28, 2012

A Grammar Checklist

As 2012 draws to a close, you're bound to read all sorts of top-ten lists. I will leave you with Grammarly's Top Ten Grammar Peeves. There are no celebrities on this list, but it's still good, so be sure to give it a read. Feel free to add your own grammar peeves in the comments section.

Happy New Year, everyone!

UPDATE: Sorry, the original article is no longer available.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Wine’tastic Mile Is Baltimore’s Latest Attraction

The Wine'tastic Mile sign was unveiled 12/12/12.

Many cities are known for a street that has become a tourist attraction: Broadway in New York, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the Champs-Elysées in Paris. When Derrick Vaughn thought about all the fine restaurants along Baltimore’s Pratt Street, the road that runs along the Inner Harbor, he decided to take on the project of marketing the area as a wining and dining destination, giving both visitors and locals another reason to visit the downtown area of Charm City.

In June of this year, Vaughn launched the Wine’tastic Mile to promote the 1.3-mile stretch of Pratt Street from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Harbor East with a wine walk and the approval of the City of Baltimore. The organization’s activities include setting up events, such as wine tastings and food and wine pairings at participating sites for individuals and groups.

Vaughn, who has extensive experience in fine food and wine, has a vested interest in making the Wine’tastic Mile a hit. He owns and operates the charming and popular Corner Bistro and Wine Bar in Ridgely’s Delight, where the Wine’tastic Mile begins. 

Based on his success with the restaurant, things are looking good for Downtown Baltimore diners and wine lovers. I’m looking forward to swirling down Pratt Street.

Friday, December 14, 2012

There’s More to Coffee than Meets the Eye … and the Taste Buds


The Jimmy Kimmel Show recently ran a taste test to compare Starbucks’ new product that costs $7 per cup to a standard brew. There was no general consensus as to which was the higher quality cup, although most testers chose one or the other as the finer selection. One blue collar type admitted that he couldn’t tell the difference. The guy was actually right. Both samples were the same bean, and it wasn’t the fancy Starbucks variety.

Sampling the new coffee flavors. 
So why are we paying so much for coffee if there seems to be no difference? Is it the branding, or is there really a difference in coffee beans? To find out, I headed over to the Sidewalk Espresso Bar, the new coffee shop in my neighborhood, for a coffee cupping. That’s the term the pros use when referring to a formal way of evaluating coffee without a filter.  

Ronnie, an expert at Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis, Md., which supplies Sidewalk, educated us on the finer points of coffee. He explained that there are differences in coffee beans depending on where they are grown. Farm altitude, harvest time and weather conditions are some of the factors that influence the taste. Ronnie noted that all specialty coffees are picked by hand.

As a specialty roaster, Ceremony wants customers to have the finest possible experience with every cup, just as a connoisseur feels about his wine. The buyers acquire an eight-month supply of the best beans available because they lose their superior flavor if used after that point. The experts at Ceremony roast a small supply of each bean three ways, choosing the best profile to process the rest for sale.

The cupping process
Just like wine tasting, there is a method for tasting coffee. The entire process should take no longer than 15 minutes. Following are the highlights:

Step 1: Place the ground coffee in the cup, sniff it and evaluate the aroma. Is it roasty, fruity, floral, etc.?
Step 2: Pour the hot water into the cup. It should be about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. When the coffee has settled, put your head close to the cup, use a spoon to break the crust that has formed on top and push the spoon away, inhaling the aroma of the coffee.
Step 3: Scoop the remaining grounds from the top of the cup.
Step 4: Taste the coffee by taking a spoonful at a time from the top of the cup and slurp away so that the coffee covers your tongue.     

Tips for killer coffee
If you’re not a coffee connoisseur, and you just want your morning java jolt, Ronnie offers these tips to help make it tastier:
  • Use a clean cup.
  • Drink coffee when it’s freshly brewed, before the aromatics escape into the room.
  • While water should be 200 degrees for pouring, wait a few minutes for it to cool off. If it’s too hot, you won’t be able to taste the full flavor. Scalding your tongue isn’t fun either.
  • Use filtered water, not tap or distilled. Since 99.6 percent of the drink is water, using the proper type makes a huge difference.
  • The type of filter you use affects the taste of the coffee. Paper filters provide more flavor and less body. A French press offers more body and less flavor.

I don’t know too many people who would be willing to pay $7 for a cup of coffee, but after the cupping, one taster said he’ll never buy generic again. I’ll drink to that.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sweet Holiday Treat: The Union Square Cookie Tour


Like every large city, my town of Baltimore has its holiday traditions: the lighting of the Washington Monument, the Mayor’s Parade, the Santa House and the nationally acclaimed Miracle on 34th Street. This Sunday, December 9, the community of Union Square will hold its 27th annual Holiday Cookie Tour at which guests will tour about 20 homes throughout the neighborhood, receiving a homemade cookie at each house.

Scene from the Cookie Tour
Walking through this southwest Baltimore neighborhood, which is on the National Registration of Historic Places and was once home to H.L. Mencken, is a special experience on any day. The Victorian streetscape is comprised of huge houses in Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate architecture. During the tour, visitors have the opportunity to enjoy the true creativity of homeowners, which is exemplified inside the houses. With styles ranging from traditional Victorian to ultra modern, all of them look like they are straight out of a magazine. That makes each house a must-see, even for those who aren’t in it for the cookies.

If the stunning architecture isn’t enough, meeting the friendly folks of Union Square is a treat in itself. All the hosts are happy to welcome guests and answer questions about the history of their houses, the renovations and the neighborhood in general.   

The Cookie Tour is a major event in Union Square. Participating homeowners spend months making repairs and updates to their homes, and they bake enough cookies to serve each of their 500 guests. All of the proceeds from the tour go to the community association, which plans neighborhood beautification projects, including the recently restored fountain and community Christmas tree in the park.   

A lot of work goes into making the Cookie Tour a successful event that both the neighborhood and visitors are happy to continue, from recruiting volunteers to open their homes to printing the guidebooks to promoting the event to setting up the ticket office. Surprisingly, Chairperson Fran Rahl says that he and his committee of only about a half dozen handled it all after only one meeting.

Tickets for the Union Square are $20 per person and are available for cash or check at 1401 Hollins Street, beginning at 11:30 on the day of the tour. They are also available online at a discounted rate until Saturday. If you buy online, bring your receipt to 1401 Hollins to pick up your guidebook, which includes a map of the houses on the tour and serves as your ticket.

This event is a win-win situation. Not only do you get to spend the afternoon getting into the Christmas spirit, but you can get a pile of delicious homemade cookies without setting foot in the kitchen. Count me in.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Finding the Heart of New Orleans Outside the French Quarter


Last week, I took a trip “down yonder to Old New Orleans” after finding great deals for travel on off days during the holiday week. I am happy to report that this vacation spot is better than ever after Katrina. With the Super Bowl coming to the Crescent City this February, the city is hard at work repaving roads, upgrading the streetcar system and making other improvements to infrastructure. The shops and galleries of the French Quarter, the main draw for tourists, are open now that most of the proprietors have returned after the storm.

Heart NOLA
When I first visited New Orleans, the main attraction for me was the historic architecture of the Vieux Carré, which reflects the French, Spanish and Caribbean people who originally settled in the city. If you visit during the week, especially after Mardi Gras or in the fall, it’s possible to take a pleasant stroll down quiet streets and enjoy the mild weather. After having my fill of café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde as well as the stumbling drunks and cover bands of Bourbon Street, I decided to venture out of the French Quarter to discover what goes on outside the tourist zone. That’s how I discovered that the true strength of New Orleans is its people.

Cross the border of the French Quarter at Rampart Street, and you’ll enter Tremé, which is considered to be the first black neighborhood in America. Many famous musicians were born in the Tremé, and it’s even considered the birthplace of jazz. It’s also the site of the recently renovated Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square, where slaves used to gather on Sundays to play music and dance. If you ask anybody in the French Quarter, they’ll warn you not to go to the Tremé. Maybe they say that to keep the visitors spending money in the tourist area, or maybe it’s because I’ve lived in Baltimore for so long, but I felt completely comfortable walking around the neighborhood during the day. Everyone I passed said hello or made friendly conversation, making me feel welcome.

Backstreet Cultural Museum
If you are uncomfortable visiting Tremé alone, French Quarter Phantoms offers a wonderful two-hour tour. My guide was Emelie, who provided a wealth of information on the history and culture of the area and seemed to know everyone we passed. Since I was the only one on the tour, I felt more like I was hanging out with a friend than playing tourist.

After finishing the tour, I returned to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which tells the story of the Mardi Gras Indians and other groups that make the culture of New Orleans so interesting. Mr. Francis, who founded the museum, is a delightful man, who enjoys telling personal tales about the people who donated the memorabilia. Although the museum only has two rooms, I spent more than an hour there, fascinated by the intricate work of the Indian costumes and his stories.

Wanting to experience the true music of New Orleans, I visited Kermit Ruffins’ Tremé Speakeasy at 1535 Basin Street after reading about his new restaurant in a local entertainment magazine. On Monday nights, this cozy restaurant offers a delicious, affordable meal and an amazing set by Kermit and friends that starts around 6:30 p.m. Etiquette in New Orleans calls for any musicians in the house to get up and play with the band, so a long list of people were called onstage to perform, even some of the servers.  Since there are only about ten tables, early arrivers invite the late-comers to fill in the empty seats, making it a great way to meet people. By the end of the set, everyone in the room was dancing together and tossing balloons around like old friends. It felt more like being welcomed to a house party than hanging out in a bar. You don’t find that friendly, laid back attitude in the North.

A typical night on Frenchmen Street
After all that fun, it was barely 9:00, and the night had barely begun. The couple next to me invited me along to hear more music on Frenchmen Street, the area next to the French Quarter where the locals go to hear the best jazz. How could I refuse? I suddenly found myself in a cab with this former scout for the Texas Rangers, his newly divorced girlfriend, Kenny Terry of the Tremé Brass Band and several other groups and his lady friend Raynette. While I normally wouldn’t get into a car with strangers, Raynette assured me that if they were murderers, she could stop the bleeding because she is a registered nurse. I had nothing to worry about because we had a blast popping in and out of clubs and dancing while Kenny joined the bands onstage. Kenny and Mike, the guy who invited me along, seemed to know everybody and introduced me around like they had known me for ages, or at least more than a few hours. I felt like a regular, and I liked it. When the night finally came to an end, Mike and his girlfriend even walked me back to my bed and breakfast.  

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Check out more of my photos of New Orleans.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Eat and Drink Your Way Through Old Nice

As the days grow shorter and colder at my home in the mid-Atlantic, I fondly reminisce about my time in my tiny apartment in Old Nice just a few months ago. I miss feeling like a part of the neighborhood and  wandering through the tiny streets, discovering new shops, galleries and cafés along the way. If you are lucky enough to visit Nice yourself, be sure to make time to visit Vieux Nice, the old town, where you’ll find some of the tastiest food and wine in the world. And a lot of it is even good for you.

When someone refers to Niçoise cuisine, you probably think of Niçoise salad; however, that’s just one dish on a long list of this city’s specialties. While Nice is located in the heart of the lavish French Riviera, its cuisine evolved when the region was controlled by Italy, and the majority of its inhabitants were poor. Therefore, the primary ingredients are grown or caught in the area, and they are always fresh. Local olives and olive oils, cheese, zucchini, tomatoes, herbs de Provence and fish are easy to find at the daily market on the Cours Saleya.

Where to go
Beside the market, here is a list of some of the can’t-miss spots that will give you a true taste of Niçoise cuisine.

Alziari
Alziari Moulin à Huile, 14 rue St. Francis de Paule (near the Opera)
This shop is known for its olive oil, which has been produced for more than 150 years. In addition, you can find honey, spices and wine here.

Coté-Vin
This wine shop is next to Alziari, so be sure to stop in and buy a few ice bags, a thick plastic bag that doubles as portable wine chiller and is perfect for picnics and parties. It makes a great souvenir for friends who like wine, and it’s easy to pack.

Bistrot Antoine, 27 rue de la Préfecture, (0)4 93 85 29 57 (past the Palais de Justice)
This small restaurant is frequented by the locals, which usually means you can’t go wrong. The menu is definitely not geared toward vegetarians, but there are some fish dishes. Prices are reasonable, and it’s always crowded, so reservations are a must. The restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday.

Les Distilleries Idéales, 24 rue de la Préfecture
This is one of the best happy hour spots in Nice. Small tables outside are the ideal place to sip on a draft beer or a glass of local wine and watch the world go by. Inside, you’ll find large televisions airing sports in a pub-like atmosphere.

Caves Caprioglio, 23 rue de la Préfecture
If you’re looking for a great bargain, visit this wine shop. Bring in your own bottle, and have it filled with the house rosé or red for only €1.90. Speaking of rosé, this isn’t the rosé that’s considered undrinkable by connoisseurs. In fact, it’s a specialty of the region. If you like wine, be sure to try some while you’re here.  

Pizza Pili, rue du Collet and 24 Rue Benoît Bunico 
Nothing goes with cheap wine like cheap pizza, and Pizza Pili doesn’t disappoint. For €6.50, you can get a large pizza loaded with toppings. There are about a dozen varieties, including my favorite, the Provencal, which overflows with vegetables. Like other pizzerias in Italy and France, this dish has thin crust and creamy cheese, and I find it more delicious than the American version. If you plan to go to Pizza Pili, be sure to avoid the rush around 8:00, the traditional French dinner time. Also, there are only a few tables on the street, so it’s best to count on taking the pizza back to your hotel.

Fenocchio, Place Rosetti
Known as the best ice cream in Nice, Fenocchio boasts more than 100 flavors ranging from the everyday chocolate and vanilla to the exotic, including basil, cactus, oregano, beer and zucchini. Enjoy your treat and the view of St. Réparate cathedral, which dates back to the eleventh century, in this bustling but beautiful square.

Chez Juliette
Chez Juliette, 1 rue Rosetti, (0)4 93 92 68 47
The food at this tiny restaurant off Place Rosetti is only matched by its charm. I passed this place quite often since it was around the corner from my apartment, and it was always packed. When I stopped in to eat shortly after it opened one night, the outside dining area was already full, so I settled for a table inside, but I was not disappointed, thanks to the shabby chic décor and impeccable service. The menu included local favorites, including petit farcis, a dish made of vegetables stuffed with meat. Whether you’re with friends or on a date, Chez Juliette this is a delight in dining. Just be sure you arrive when it opens at 7 or make a reservation.

Local flavor
You can find several restaurants in Old Nice that serve local dishes. Here is what to look for:

Petits farcis: vegetables, such as red peppers, eggplant and zucchini stuffed with ground meat, parmesan cheese and olive oil.

Tarte aux blettes or tourte de blettes: tarte made with swiss chard, a vegetable similar to spinach and kale. You can order it either sucré or salée. Sucré means that it’s sweet, which makes a delicious dessert. Salée is salty, making it a delicious appetizer or main dish that is similar to spinach pie found on Greek menus.

Socca bread: made of chickpea flour and olive oil, it’s simple and filling.    

Pissaladière: an appetizer similar to pizza, it is topped with anchovies and caramelized onions.

Tapenade: puréed or finely chopped olivescapersanchovies and olive oil. Spread it on bread and serve as an hors d’oeuvre. A similar recipe is caviar d’aubergines, which is made of puréed eggplant and olive oil, but has no caviar. 

Bon appétit!

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Non-communicator’s Guide to Creating Effective Communications

If you work for a small organization, you will probably have some involvement in a publication or a website at one time or another. Sure, you know your organization inside and out, so this should be a snap, right? Hardly. To do it right always requires work, but if you follow these tips, you can create a more professional looking piece, which will give your organization more credibility. It will also increase the chances that people will read your piece and take the actions that you intend, which is the goal of your project.

Do your research.
photo of beach
Creating effective communications is no day at the beach. 
Before you begin, find out as much as you can about your audience. Consider education level, age, level of knowledge about your product or service. What benefit will you provide to them? Keep in mind that the reader wants to know what’s in it for him, so develop your material accordingly.

Interview members of your target audience. They are your best resource for developing effective materials. If several people offer similar comments, incorporate them into your piece.

Write active, effective copy.
  • Write copy based on your research. 
  • If you are writing to the general public, do not use technical terms or industry jargon. If you can’t avoid certain terms, define them clearly.
  • Use active voice rather than passive.
  • Write concisely, deleting unnecessary words. This is especially important if you are writing for the Web.
  • Don’t try to impress your reader by using big words and long sentences. This is not a term paper, and people are too busy to invest their time in reading a document that requires effort.
  • If you are trying to engage the reader, do not ask him to do anything that requires work. For example, I recently wrote a flier for my neighborhood association to present to new residents as a means of engaging them in caring about the community. In it I listed the social activities as well as the online resources that provide more information about the community. I purposely did not mention the monthly clean-ups because telling people that they have to go to work as soon as they move in is only going to turn them off. We’ll save that until they hang out with us a few times and begin to feel an obligation to help.  
  • Do not include more than two to three central messages because research shows that people will not retain more than that.
  • Avoid exclamation points, parentheses, underlining, bolding and all caps.They are distracting.
  • Use spell check and ask someone else to proofread your work because people tend to miss errors in their own writing. Also, someone else will be able to tell you if something you wrote is not clear.
  • Use short paragraphs, bullets and subheads to break up the copy.

Form follows function and budget.
Design your piece to fit its purpose. For example, if you plan to mail a short message to present to your reader, consider a post card, which has a lower mailing cost and increases the odds that your reader will look at it since he doesn’t have to open an envelope. However, if your piece will be part of a packet of materials that is stuffed in a folder, a letter-sized flier is more appropriate.

At this stage, you also need to make sure that you have enough money to create what you’ve envisioned. Don’t waste your time working on a booklet for mailing to hundreds of people if you only have a budget of $100. Determine mailing and printing costs now and adjust your project accordingly. If you don’t have a lot of money, consider what you can do on your website or on social media.  

Follow design principles.
Make your copy as easy to read as possible. If you have to use a decorative font, save it for large headlines. Do not use justified copy, which is copy that extends from margin to margin. This is especially distracting with larger fonts. For printed pieces, use a serif font, the type with the curly tail, like Times Roman. For a website, use sans serif, a font without a tail, because the tail is harder to read on a monitor since the resolution is lower than that of a printed piece. It’s also important to choose a font that most people have on their computer, such as Arial.

Use callout boxes, photos, illustrations and lots of white space to break up your copy.

Be consistent throughout your material. Use your corporate colors and try not to deviate. Do not use too many fonts. Usually, two font families are enough. Make sure all of your photos are of a similar style, whether black and white, color or altered with a filter.

Speaking of photos, make sure they are good quality if you are going to use your own. Make sure they are 300 dots per inch for printed pieces, and don’t enlarge small ones. Also, keep in mind that photos found on the Internet are only 72 dots per inch and should never be used in printed pieces. The same goes for cell phone photos. If you are going to use photos of people, make sure you have their permission. Read this article to find out when you need a photo release form.   

If you don’t have your own photos, you can buy them from a stock photo agency. Some of the better known stock photo companies are Photostock, iStock, Veer and Bigstock.

Review with care.
While it’s important that others in your organization review the work for accuracy, avoid writing and designing by committee. Since everyone has a different opinion and style, the piece gets watered down and becomes less effective when everyone starts making changes.

If possible, have a few members of your intended audience review your work before publishing it. Ask the readers how your piece makes them feel, whether they are motivated to take the action you intended, whether anything is confusing and what would make it better. This is valuable feedback, and although it may require a lot of adjustments, your extra work will pay off in the long run.

Call any phone numbers and tests any email addresses or links to websites one last time before publishing. I know from experience how embarrassing it is for a reader to tell you that he called the number in your magazine and reached a sex line.

Find a good printer.
If you are creating a printed piece, make sure you go with a good printer. With advances in digital printing, this task has become much simpler and more affordable for small organizations that have little experience in printing and don’t need large quantities. Before printing, ask the printer what kind of file you should submit. Usually, it’s either a print quality PDF or original design files, such as Quark or the more commonly used InDesign.

Some tips on dealing with communications professionals
If you are working with a writer, designer or web specialist, keep in mind that your expectations are probably not be the same as theirs. At the beginning, it’s essential that both parties clearly define their roles, production timelines and other conditions that will affect the project to ensure the best results.

One of the most common misconceptions about working with designers is that they can just push a few buttons, and a masterpiece will appear. The best design does look simple. It facilitates the reader’s experience rather than detracts from it. It takes time to make a professional peice. It’s important to settle on a schedule at the beginning, and remember that just because you need something tomorrow, that doesn’t mean that it’s possible to do an effective job in your time frame, especially when there is a lot of text, or if there are many photos to process. Agree on important milestones such as the following due dates:
  • sending copy and images to the designer
  • first proof from designer
  • providing changes to the designer
  • second proof from the designer
  • date to printer
  • due date from printer

The easiest way to create a production schedule is to work back from the due date.

It’s also important to define the specifications for the designer, such as:
  • whether the work will be printed or published online
  • for printed pieces, how the piece will be distributed and any required format, such as trifold brochure or post card
  • whether the piece will be black and white or color
  • budget for producing the piece
When requesting changes from the designer, mark exact corrections on the proof. For example, if you have to change the wording of a sentence, cross out the words on the proof and write the correct words next to them. Don’t give general comments, like “this is too confusing.” Unless you’ve contracted with a designer to provide copywriting services as well, it’s not his or her job to figure out what you should say.

Remember that the designer is not a miracle worker. If your copy is not well written, or if your photos are of poor quality, your final product will not be successful. In addition, some changes are impossible, such as adding photos to a page that is completely full.

Finally, if the designer tells you that your changes aren’t going to work, don’t ignore his advice. Just as you are trained in your field, so is he or she. 

Communications professionals, feel free to add your tips and advice.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Get Credit for Foreign Travel


If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I recently returned from a fabulous trip to the South of France. One of the best parts of staying in Nice is that the train runs along the coast, so it’s easy to visit the many beautiful villages on the Côte d’Azur. One of the worst parts is waiting in the long lines at the station’s ticket windows. 

photo of Villefranche
It's easy to visit the villages near Nice. 
If you don’t have time to spare, there are machines that dispense tickets for the regional trains if you have a basket of change or a credit card. The problem for most Americans, though, is that they usually can’t come up with enough coins, and the machines won’t accept their credit card.

While the U.S. is known for advanced technology, we are way behind when it comes to credit cards. The chip and PIN cards, which are standard in Europe, are virtually unknown here. Chip and PIN is supposed to be more secure because like the name says, there is a small chip on the front, and users must often key in a security code to complete the purchase. Foreign merchants still do accept American cards, so don’t worry if you want to use yours overseas. However, be aware that standard cards aren’t accepted in certain cases, like at the ticket machine and at toll booths. You might also come across some people who don’t know how to process your card, as I did. Luckily, her boss was able to handle it because I would have been really disappointed if I had been unable to buy that cute top.

Knowing the difficulty I would face when paying at certain places in Europe, I was pretty excited when I heard that Bank of America introduced a card with chip technology this summer. I had to learn more. When I spoke to the sales rep, he told me that the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card offers some other nifty benefits. There is no foreign transaction fee and unlike British Air’s chip card, there is no annual fee. While the card doesn’t offer the PIN that European cards do, I decided to take my chances.

The third weekend of September is the weekend of patrimony in France, meaning that most of the cultural institutions offer free admission to encourage the French to discover their culture. You can also buy a Carte Isabelle train ticket valid for travel all day throughout the region for a mere 5€; it’s usually 14€. That Sunday, my friend and I had decided to take the train to St. Raphael, where we would take a ferry to St. Tropez. With the line for the ticket agents stretching out the door, I crossed my fingers and joined the line at the machine. When it was my turn, I punched in my request for two aller-retour tickets, inserted my credit card and held my breath. Accepted! I was ready to go. Unfortunately, the train wouldn’t leave for another hour, and we’d have to wait another hour for the ferry, but at least we spent that hour relaxing in a café rather than standing in line, so I was glad for my card.

This is not an endorsement of Bank of America, nor any of its credit cards, and I have received no compensation from any credit card company for this article. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Leaving on a Jet Plane, Didn’t Know When I’d Get Home Again

Old Town Nice

Like all good things, my dream vacation in the South of France had to come to an end. As it turns out, however, my journey lasted longer than I had anticipated. On Monday morning, I bid adieu to my charming little hovel and the old couple who used to call “bonjour madame” from the window below my apartment when they saw me leaving, which made me feel like a regular part of this vibrant quarter of Vieux Nice. I dragged my bags full of French books, chocolate and savon de Marseille onto the bus and gazed at the sea like a convict headed to prison as the vehicle made its way to the airport.

When I arrived at the British Airways desk to check my bag, the perky agent informed me that my flight to London would be very late, but if I could wait for a bit, she’s check to see if there was room on the prior flight. A few minutes later, just as cheerfully as she had offered to help find me another flight, she informed me that it was full, so she’d  just check me in for my original flight and I could speak to Customer Service to figure out my options.

Next stop: Customer Service. After waiting for some other disgruntled customers from my flight, I put on my best polite French voice and asked the agent how I could get back to Baltimore since I’d probably miss my connecting flight. This woman was not so cheerful. She told me I’d just have to take the later flight to Dulles because after all, it’s still Washington.   

I guess someone with a long line of tired, frantic customers who has never been to DC doesn’t understand, or more likely just doesn’t care that when you live in Baltimore, flying to Washington-Dulles instead of Baltimore-Washington Airport is just as inconvenient as going to Philadelphia, New York or Atlanta. I tried to explain that you just can’t land at Dulles at 9:00 p.m. with no prior planning and expect to find your way back to Baltimore in fewer than several hours and for less than hundreds of dollars. She was already tired of me, and she told me to just ask British Air to get me a taxi when I landed. Clearly she done with me, so I figured I’d just wait for my flight to London and hope for the best. Maybe they would hold the plane for me in London or pick me up in an airport vehicle and rush me to the runway like they do in the movies.

Two hours after my scheduled departure time, I boarded the plane. A very nice Brit who had permanently traded in the grey skies of London for sunny Cannes told me it was in the pilot’s hands now. I figured he was right, so I stopped worrying and started taking note of his opinions on the economy and tips for buying property on the Riviera. Investors beware: Avoid the super exclusive area of Cap Ferrat, which is now overrun by Russians building garish houses designed to show off their wealth.

When we landed in London, I rushed off the plane ten minutes before the gates were due to close for my flight to Baltimore. There was nobody waiting for me, so I rushed to fast track at passport control only to learn that the flight was closed. My heart sank. The agent directed me back to the connecting flights desk, where I waited for what seemed like an eternity while an African lady yelled repeatedly in French at a companion and the agent that she knew a better schedule for getting to Marseille through Paris. My head was screaming and all of the calm that I had found in France was gone for good.

When it was finally my turn, I explained my problem to the next British Air representative, who told me she could put me on the flight to Dulles. Here we go again. I recalled the words of the Brit on the plane telling me to get what was best for me. Dulles was not the best option, not even close. Trying to be work with the agent, I explained that I had no way of getting home from Dulles, and I suggested booking me to New York because surely there must be a flight to New York, where there should be a flight to Baltimore. Sure enough, there was a flight to New York and to Philly as well, but nobody was flying to Baltimore that night. With £3.70 in my wallet and no authorization to use my credit or debit cards in England, I started to panic at the thought of wandering the streets of London until I could get on a flight the next day. Luckily, Sandy, the only helpful British Air employee I had met that day came through for me. Not only did she give me a voucher for a place to spend the night, she put me up at the Sofitel luxury hotel connected to the airport and gave me vouchers for breakfast and dinner. She even provided an overnight kit with a t-shirt to sleep in and toiletries since it looked like I wouldn’t be getting my suitcase that day – or ever if somebody didn’t figure out that my flight had changed.

So off I went to my hotel, which had the comfiest bed I have ever slept in and the most sparkling bathroom I have ever used. I had a pasta dinner served by a Polish waitress who asked me if I needed help reading the menu as if I didn’t understand English because I didn’t have a British accent.

It was strange to be in another country on an unplanned visit while none of my friends or family knew where I was. With no financial resources, I couldn’t go out on the town, but I figured out that I could use American dollars to buy a small bottle of wine in the airport and enjoy a drink in my room. I started to enjoy my little adventure.

The following morning, I made my way down to the restaurant, where I was treated to a huge English breakfast, although the Middle Eastern host was so hard to understand that I had to ask someone in the restaurant what my breakfast voucher entitled me to eat. I was starting to wonder if I had been away from the States for so long that I was forgetting how to understand English.     

After breakfast, I gathered my few belongings and checked out of my hotel, almost sorry to leave. On a side note, I noticed a sign by the elevator indicating the location of the “Victorious Ryder Cup Press Conference.” Is it me, or does adding the word “victorious” make it sound a little arrogant? Seriously, every station in England was going on about this amazing comeback by the Europeans. Anyone attending the press conference should have been prepared enough to know who won the tournament.

No time to worry about golf tournaments when I only had five hours until takeoff. Instead, I watched cricket while I waited, and in all that time, I couldn’t figure out the game. Sorry fans, it seems like baseball for sissies to me. I’m sure that match went on long after I left London, too.

So now I’m back in the US of A and my house feels like a palace compared to my hovel in Nice. Still, I miss my tiny flat and the funky neighborhood that was my home during a most extraordinary trip. I wish that everyone could experience the beautiful villages of the South of France, and in my next few posts, I will share practical details on how to reach these towns and tips to make your euro go further should you care to make the trip. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Back to School

Wondering where I've been lately? No, I haven't been slacking off. In fact, I've been quite busy attending French classes in Nice. If you're looking for a great way to learn and practice a language, taking a vacation at a foreign language school offers many opportunities.

The school provides affordable housing options with a host or a family, which enables you to practice the language in an everyday setting and learn first-hand about the local culture. You even have the option to pay a little extra for dinner and/or breakfast with your host.

The schools screen hosts, but some can be a nightmare, like the one who had me sleep in the living room, or the one who would only let me come out of my room for dinner, which was usually no more than a bowl of green beans or a boiled egg. However, there are some great ones, like Solange, who included my classmates in family gatherings and even went out for dinner and drinks with some of us. If you are unhappy with your host, you can always ask the school to find you another place to stay.

If you don't want to take the risk, the school can also recommend a studio apartment or nearby hotel. After a few bad experiences in the past, I opted to rent an apartment on my own, mostly because I knew exactly where I wanted to stay, and because I planned to remain in Nice after the class.

If you want to look into classes, start with EF International or Apple Languages. Use their sites to select the language you want to study, your preferred city, housing preferences and any other options. For example, I chose the program that included morning lessons and afternoon excursions.

On the first day of class, you will normally take a placement test and be placed in a class, typically no larger than ten students, based on your level of knowledge. Generally, schools don't accept beginners, but you can always take an intro class at home before you go. Most community colleges offer non-credit classes for adults.

Besides learning more about French language and culture, I was also happy to find out more about the countries where the other students live. I also enjoyed going out with them for a glass of wine after the excursions and exploring nearby villages with them on the weekend. Since most students attend  the school on their own, everyone is looking for someone to hang out with, so there's no need to worry about being lonely or bored, even if you're shy. In fact, I actually made several new friends.

Oh, and according to my certificate, I am finally ready to proceed to advanced level French. C'est bon!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Getting to the South of France

Bonjour from the South of France, my favorite place to be. Aside from the wonderfully mild climate, the beautiful colors, the delicious food and the abundance of art, it's the ideal area for travelers. You can find all sorts of accommodations in many price ranges, and the transportation system makes it easy to visit the many small villages as well as get around my favorite base of operations, Nice.

It was a beautiful afternoon in Nice.
I'm currently renting an apartment in the delightfully charming Vieux Nice (Old Nice), which dates back several hundred years. I found this little gem on www.homeaway.com and described the process of renting it in a previous post.

If you're interested in coming to Nice yourself, you are probably wondering how to get to your destination. It's actually very easy. If you're coming from another area of Europe, you can arrive by train at the station Nice Ville. From there, make a left when exiting the station and walk down a block to the tram, which makes many stops around town. Several buses run from the front of the station throughout the city. You can also pick up a cab in front of the station.

If you fly into Nice's airport on the edge of town, you can take a bus to several towns in the area as well as the buses that go to the train station and the bus station with several stops along the way. The cost is a mere 4€, and you can use the ticket for the rest of the day on the Nice tram and any Lignes d'Azur bus. If you don't want to deal with the bus, taxis cost 35-50€. Or if you're one of the many jetsetters who frequent this area, and you're heading to Monaco, you can hire a private helicopter.

Speaking of the bus, it's clean and reliable, making it the most convenient way to get around Nice and the surrounding villages. It's also remarkably cheap at only 1€ per ride, 4€ for a day pass or 15€ for a weekly pass. These passes are also valid on the Nice tram. Buy bus tickets from the driver, and buy tram tickets from the machines found at every tram stop.

Monthly passes are also available for 40€ at a Lignes d'Azure office if you are going to be in the area for more than a few weeks. For these passes, you have to bring a passport and a passport-sized photo as well as a photocopy of the passport, which you can make at the office. Why you need these items is a mystery to me because the clerk scans your passport, throws away your copy and returns the photo to you. I really wanted to ask the clerk why I had to go all the way back to my apartment for the extra photo, but I didn't want to make her mad at me, so I just kept saying merci to avoid engaging her in a conversation that could lead to a question that I was unable or unwilling to answer.

Now that I have my bus pass, I'm ready to venture out int the Sunny South. So why is a region that boasts 300 days of sun each year forecasting rain for the next six days?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

5 Items You Need to Pack

photo of people on a beach
Bring some plastic flatware so you can have a picnic.

You probably have a list of standard items that you pack when you’re taking a trip. Add these small items to save time and aggravation on your next journey.

Plastic flatware
When you have forks, spoons and knives, you can pick up some local bread, cheese and other goodies and have a picnic in a scenic area.

Corkscrew
What’s a picnic without some nice local wine? Just make sure you pack it in your checked luggage because corkscrews are forbidden in carry-on bags.

Grocery bags
Extra bags have several uses. You can place your dirty clothes in them to separate them from the clean clothes or use them as a beach bags or tote bags.

Medicine
You may feel fine when you leave home, but that doesn’t mean you won’t catch a cold or have an allergy attack or headache during your trip.  If you’re going to a foreign country, and you don’t speak the language, it can be a real hassle to get the medicine you need. Many countries keep any type of medication, even non-prescription, behind the counter, so you will have to explain what you need to the pharmacist. In addition, medication is different in other countries. When I went to France last year, I came down with a terrible cold, and I was frustrated to learn that there was no Ny-Quil in the entire country, and the strongest medicine available did nothing to ease my symptoms.

When you pack the cold medicine and pain reliever, be sure to throw in an extra supply of prescription medication in case your return home is delayed. Make sure you pack it in your carry-on luggage so you won’t have a problem if your checked bag is lost.

Small flashlight
As the daughter of a fireman, I learned to locate the emergency exit upon checking into a hotel and to make sure I have a flashlight in case of fire. My flashlight has also come in handy during a power failure. Sure, the light from a smartphone will help in a pinch, but if you run the phone's battery down, you will lose your phone service in addition to being stuck in the dark.   

Do you have a must-have travel item? Please share.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Joke’s on Me


If you receive my blog posts by email, you probably thought it was a bit ironic that my last post talked about proofreading and using spell check when the post was full of typos. Although I followed my own advice and did just those things before posting, it seems that Mr. Google wanted to prove that he knows more than I do because he removed the spaces between several words after I clicked on the Publish button.

Despite all your planning, sometimes you just can’t control the way things turn out. So you make adjustments, offer an apology and move on. I just hope Mr. Google hasn’t put a hex on me.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mistakes That Spell Check Won’t Find


When I ran into one of my friends last week, she suggested that I use my writing skills to help guys create presentable online dating profiles. She told me that most of the ones she’s read are full of typos, and she is turned off by anyone whose first obvious trait is poor writing skills. Whether you’re trying to get a date, writing a report for work or school or sending an email, taking the time to correct the errors can make a big difference in the way your reader perceives you. Even if you have edited carefully, be on the lookout for these common errors, which spell check won’t detect.

Desert or dessert? 
You’re vs. your
You’re is short for you are. Example: You’re going to win.

Your is possessive. Example: I have your jacket.

S or ’s
Add an s to make it plural. Example: The dogs are outside.

Use an apostrophe followed by s for a possessive. Example: The man’s jacket is on the chair. 

An apostrophe followed by s is also used as a contraction for a noun followed by is. Example: The girl’s going out.

Another point of confusion is how to form the possessive of a family name. For example, if you are going to give the Smith family a sign for their new home, it should say The Smiths’ and not The Smith’s because The Smith’s means that the house only belongs to one person named Smith.  

Its vs. it’s
While the above rule tells you to add an apostrophe and s to a noun to make it possessive, its is an exception. Therefore, you would say that the house lost its roof. 

It’s is short for it is. Example: It’s going to be a great day. 

Whose vs. who’s
Who’s is another exception to the rule that calls for apostrophes for a possessive. Who’s is a contraction for who is. Example: Guess who’s coming to dinner.

Whose is possessive. Example: Whose life is it anyway?

There, their or they’re
There is a preposition. Example: There is a place I love to go. I often go there.

Their indicates possession. Example: I like to go to their house.

They're is short for they are. Example: They’re going with us.

Too or to
Too means also or excessive. Example: I am going, too. That is too much.

To has several meanings. It refers to a direction, as in I’m going to the store. It also refers to a limit, as in six to nine hours. To is also used as part of an infinitive, which is the basic form of a verb. Example: I am going to run in the race.

Loose or lose
When did mixing up these two words become the norm?  Lose is the opposite of win. If you forget whether it's one o or two, remember that it is the same as the past tense, lost.  

Loose is the opposite of tight.

There are several other words that have similar spellings, but have completely different meanings, such as dessert, which you eat after dinner, and desert, which is a dry area, like the Sahara.

When in doubt look it up. It could mean the difference between a hot date and a being stuck home alone watching reruns.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Live Like a Native on Vacation: Rent an Apartment


In a recent episode of Househunters International, a woman was hunting for a Paris flat that she and her husband could rent to tourists after using it for a long-term business stay. If you were wondering who would ever rent a property in another country and why, I will be glad to tell you.

View of pedestrian street and
Place Masséna from Ajoupa
apartment in Nice, France. 
I have rented four apartments in Paris when my stays lasted a week or more. For the same standard of living in hotels, I would have spent a lot more. My apartments offered amenities that a hotel did not, most notably a kitchen, which was a huge convenience at breakfast time or when I was too tired to eat out or just trying to save some money. It also gave me the opportunity to enjoy one of my favorite aspects of French life: wandering through the markets in search of fresh vegetables, cheese, baguettes and other goodies for meals. I didn’t even miss the maid service.

How to Find a Flat
You’re probably wondering where to find a list of apartments and how to avoid getting ripped off. I found my on the following websites:
  • HomeAway is a reputable site recommended by several travel magazines. Renters can search the site based on all sorts or criteria, even whether the property has Internet access. If you register, you can create a list of favorites, and the site records which properties you have contacted. Best of all, the site provides protection against Internet fraud.
  • HomeAway has some sister sites, including vrbo.com and Homelidays.com. While most of the properties are the same, it’s worth looking on them because you can sometimes find some additional ones.
  • New York Habitat offers properties in New York, Paris, London and the South of France. Unlike HomeAway, which is not involved in agreements between renters and property owners, New York Habitat is a leasing service, so you will deal with an English-speaking agent who can provide a list of apartments based on your criteria or simply facilitate a rental agreement for an apartment you find on the website. This company also handles long-term rentals.
How to Choose the Perfect Property
A reliable website will provide an ample amount of information about the property as well as plenty of pictures. Following are some of the most important factors to consider when making your choice:
  • Location: If you’re staying in a city, you don’t need to pay high rates to be in the tourist area. As long as you are close to public transportation, and it looks like a decent neighborhood, you should be fine. Beware that some listings show the center of town on the map rather than the property’s actual address. Be sure to verify the address and look it up on Google maps. You can also research the neighborhood on tripadvisor.com or other travel forums.
  • Language spoken by the owner: If you are not using an agent, check the listing for languages spoken by the owner. Many of them speak English, but you could run into problems if you don’t speak the local language and the owner doesn't speak English. If the owner speaks English, the contract could still be in his native language. In that case, use Google or a free translation website to translate to English.
  • Floor: Since many old buildings in Europe do not have elevators, I learned the hard way that you should always ask which floor the apartment is located on if the listing doesn't mention an elevator or indicates that it’s unsuitable for the elderly or infirm. Dragging a heavy suitcase to the fifth floor is one thing I will never do again. Also, what Europeans call the first floor, we call the second, so add one to the number you’re given.
  • Floor area: Space is limited in other countries, especially in the cities, so it’s important to check photos and floor area to make sure you’ll have enough space.
  • Beds: This is an important issue, especially if you are traveling with other people or a person who is not your significant other. If you’re looking at a studio, the bed may be a sofa bed. Again, check the photos closely.
  • Noise level: If you’re staying in the city, it’s convenient to be close to a lot of commercial activity, but it could also make for some sleepless nights. Find out if the double glazed windows (double vitrage in French). It could make or break your trip. I always bring ear plugs just in case. 
  • Air conditioning: While most American buildings are air-conditioned, this is not the case in other countries. Check the average temperatures for your destination and decide whether this amenity is necessary.
  • Payment form: Most rentals require a deposit of 25 to 50 percent. Before signing a contract, make sure you can pay in the form requested, typically PayPal or a bank wire. Some apartments accept credit cards. Note that some banks don’t offer wire services. If they do, they usually charge a fee of $30 to $45 and a currency conversion fee of one to three percent of the amount wired. Owners may charge an additional fee for PayPal or credit cards.
  • Security deposit. Most owners require a security deposit when you sign the lease. The amount will be mentioned in the listing. Be sure to find out how you will recover the deposit at the end of the trip. Typically the owner will give you cash when you leave. You’ll probably return to the United States after renting the apartment, and if you’re splitting the deposit among several people, it shouldn't be a big deal to spend the foreign currency on cab fare to the airport and last-minute souvenirs or to save it for a future trip. However, if you are footing the bill on your own, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth it to hang on to the cash or lose a bit of it when trading it for greenbacks.  Note that owners sometimes send a check to the renter a week after the rental, which is not convenient for foreigners.
  • Additional fees: Is there a cleaning fee? Are utilities included? Are sheets and towels included?
A Few Tips on Contacting the Owner
  • The best places go quickly, so find a place well in advance, especially if you are going during peak travel times, like summer, Christmas and local holidays.
  • Contact several owners because some places may have been recently booked for your preferred time although the schedule says they’re available. Also, some owners don’t respond if they are busy, or if  they have booked the property.
  • Don’t book with the first owner who responds if you’re not absolutely sure you want the property. It sometimes takes a few days for owners to respond. Allow at least a week for a response on a property you really want.
Another Option: Apart’hotels
If dealing with the foreign language, security deposit and payment to a stranger is too much for you, but you still want the apartment experience, try an apart’hotel, which is basically a hotel room with a kitchenette. Apart’hotels don’t offer the local charm of most privately owned apartments, but they usually accept credit card deposits, they don’t require a security deposit and there is usually someone on staff who speaks English. In addition, you can stay at most of them for a few days.

To find an apart’hotel, just do a Google search for apartment hotel in whatever city you want to visit.  If you are visiting Nice, I can recommend two:
  • StudiosFloreal: located next to the tram by the main train station in the middle of the main shopping area of Jean Médecin. It’s a very lively area, but double-glazed windows block the noise. 
  • Ajoupa Baie des Anglais: in an ideal location on a pedestrian street just off the beautiful Place Méssina. It’s very clean and reasonably priced, so book early because rooms go quickly.
Renting an apartment isn't for everyone. If you want to live like a native, though, it’s the best way to go. 

Where would you like to immerse yourself? 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Olympic Facts for Those Who Can’t Get Enough of the Games




photo of Mini keychain
Official souvenir of the 2012 Olympics
The 2012 Olympics offer an unprecedented amount of coverage, with programming running almost around the clock on several television channels. In addition, fans can keep up online and with apps for smartphones and tablets. As the media scrambles to keep our attention, they continue to churn out obscure facts about London, the Olympics and specific athletes. Following is a list of some of the oddest and most interesting things I have learned during the first week of the Games. I'm not sure if it's all true, but it's what I've heard. 
  1. The London Tube is the oldest subway system in the world, dating back to the mid-1800s. It’s been around so long that a species of mosquito unique to the Tube has had time to evolve.
  2. London taxi drivers have to memorize the location of all of the streets and landmarks in the city, and they must pass a test to qualify for the job. The pass rate is only 50 percent.
  3. While tea is the most popular drink in England, with 156 million cups consumed per day, it was such a rare commodity in the 17th century that servants weren't permitted to touch it. The Brits give credit to the Duchess of Bedford for giving birth to the ritual of afternoon tea, but claim that the requirement of extending the pinkie is a myth.  
  4. The Olympic medals are stored in a vault in the Tower of London until they are awarded to the winners of each event. Legend has it that if the ravens leave the grounds of the Tower of London, the white tower will crumble, and the monarchy will fall. Therefore, London’s most popular tourist attraction is required to have six ravens on hand at all times. There are also two backups in case something happens to the official birds. A group of ravens is called an unkindness, not a flock. The opponents of Baltimore’s football team probably consider this an appropriate name.  
  5. Michael Phelps consumes 12,000 calories per day. That’s six times the recommended rate for the average man.
  6. London is hosting the Olympics for the third time, but Queen Elizabeth’s grand entrance in 2012 marked the first time she has attended the opening ceremonies.
  7. In another first, Wimbledon will not enforce the rule that tennis players wear predominantly white during the Olympics. Showing her true colors, Venus Williams is sporting a patriotic hairdo with red, white and blue braids.
  8. While, the governments of most countries fund the athletes who participate in the Olympics, the American government does not.
  9. The men and women who marched under the sign of Independent Olympic Athletes in the parade of nations at the opening ceremonies come from the former Netherlands Antilles and the newly formed South Sudan.
  10. While I can’t verify that volleyball is the only Olympic sport that has cheerleaders, I have not seen them at any other event in London, nor have I noticed them at a previous Olympics. Along the same lines, beach volleyball matches now feature dancers.
  11. Horses that participate in the equestrian events must have a passport and a microchip to travel. The American team’s horses were placed in huge containers and flown to London in FedEx planes.
  12. The marathon has been one of the most well-known events since the Olympics began, but the women’s event was not introduced until 1984.
  13. The Australian flag is red, white and blue, but the country’s athletes normally wear green and gold uniforms. The Australian athletic community adopted these colors after its country’s cricket team wore them during a British tour in 1899. Green and gold represent the golden wattle, Australia’s national flower, as well as the colors of the landscape.
  14. The last Olympic gold medals that were made entirely out of gold were awarded in 1912. This year’s medals, designed by British artist David Watkins, are the heaviest and largest in Olympic history. 
      photo of Michael Phelps
      This guy needs no introduction.
The following story was not discussed during the Olympics, but I heard it several months ago, and it stuck with me. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens famously humiliated Hitler by winning four gold medals. His roommate Louis Zamperini, although virtually unknown, was also a hero. A member of the Army Air Corps, his plane was shot down in 1943, and he survived 47 days at sea before becoming a prisoner of war for two years. Captain Zamperini won several awards for his valor.  He wrote “Devil at My Heels” and is the subject of the book “Unbroken,” both of which tell the story of his remarkable life.  

Please share the interesting trivia you have learned during the Olympics. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Culture Club: Asian Pop Comes to Town


While most of the world was focused on London this weekend, there was a whole lot of activity in my neighborhood, too. With the Orioles in town, an army of orange turned out to support the team in its bid to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Down the street at M &T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens, Tottenham and Liverpool drew a more international set for their soccer match. While it wasn’t always obvious which of these events people were attending, there was no doubt about who was in town for the third big affair, the Otakon convention.

I’m not really sure what Otakon is all about, but when 31,000 teenagers in strange costumes take over the streets around the Baltimore Convention Center every year, I know it’s time for the convention. According to the Otacon website, this event is for the otaku generation, honoring anime, manga, and all facets of Asian pop culture. I don’t know what that means, but I do know that the kids are well behaved, friendly and happy to pose for pictures, so they’re alright in my book.

You have to see it to believe it, so here you go. 
Otakon photoOtakon photo
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Otakon photo

Otakon photoOtakon photo
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Monday, July 23, 2012

Get Your Art on in Baltimore


If you’ve never been to Baltimore, your impression of the city has probably been formed by the television shows Homicide and The Wire, two gritty series about drugs, murder and corruption. After living downtown for 16 years, I can tell you that everything you see is accurate–broken families, failing schools, political corruption, gang violence, teen pregnancy, STDs and substance abuse. We’re known to many as the City that Breeds, the City that Bleeds and a few other titles that are nothing to be proud of.

Joanne Drummond Photography: Baltimore &emdash;
John Waters has made Baltimore
famous for its quirky characters.
But there’s a lot more to Baltimore than you see on TV. There’s also the Baltimore of John Waters, creator of the hit Hairspray and several other quirky films that accurately portray the many lovable, offbeat characters with big hair and strange accents who have earned us the name Charm City.   

Art Lives Here
If you scratch off the grimy reputation, you’ll discover that Baltimore is a cultural gem. The city is filled with so many museums and other sites that feature world-class art, music, literature, history and theatre that you’ll never have time to see it all if you visit. In fact, after all these years, I still haven’t.

This weekend, Baltimore showed off its finer side by putting on Artscape, the largest free arts festival in the US. For three days every year, visitors from across town and across the country try to take in as much of Artscape as they can cover. The festival features every form of art you could think of and then some. The most popular attractions are the hundreds of booths filled with unique treasures created by local artists and at least five stages that offer music of every genre. This year’s national acts included Brian McKnight, Clutch and Rebirth Brass Band. Artscape also offers visitors the opportunity to find out about what’s new at local museums, pick up giveaways from national sponsors, enjoy street performers and take in short features by local filmmakers.

Joanne Drummond Photography: Baltimore &emdash;
A walk down Charles Street is a surreal experience during Artscape. 
Welcome to Wonderland
Artscape’s borders have expanded to include Charles Street, which was converted into a fantasy land. In strolling the few blocks, I felt like I was living Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. I passed three stages, one of which was made of pallets; a knitted port-a-potty; a houseboat topped by a guy wrapped in a snake and a band; a rock opera performed by a cast of medieval punks; a turkey breast children’s ride; an enormous crash-test dummy; a large drawing of John Waters’ head, an art car exhibit and a fashion show. My favorite was a human exhibit that I think was supposed to be an artful interpretation of some down and out folks.

The most impressive part of the festival was that it brings together people of just about every race and economic class, and everybody gets along. Funny thing about art. It always seems to melt away the differences among people, yet it’s the first thing that gets cut when budgets are tight. Perhaps if we started replacing guns with guitars, our streets wouldn’t be littered with bullets and drug paraphernalia.

Dance more, sing more, make art more, Baltimore.

Check out more of my photos from Artscape.