Archive for April, 2008

Sea treasures yield all-natural art show

April 24, 2008

Rialto Beach is a magic, mystical place, pulsating with energy from wind and waves. When we got out of the car, the pounding of the surf was almost scary. drift wood on Rialto BeachAnd, yes, conditions are ripe here for tsunamis. There are even signs warning of them. The beach is part of Washington state’s Olympic National Park, a sliver that hugs the coastline, while most of the park is a few miles inland. Rialto is littered with driftwood, but not the branches and limbs I’m used to from my childhood vacation days on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. While some of the wood here is smallish, much of it is huge, including whole trees that have washed down the Hoh River and other tributaries and, finally, into the Pacific Ocean.

drift wood on Rialto BeachThere are fewer big ones now than there used to be, because the logging areas keep being moved. In the old days, we learned, there were a good number of hollowed out trees you could walk into! That’s no longer the case, but you can still poke your head in a few. Have you ever put your head up in a tree? It’s quite special. I love the look of rocks and pebbles being stuck in the wood with the surf. It’s like the tree is accessorizing.

All the wood and pebbles, from tiny to golf-ball size and bigger were glistening in the surf and the omnipresent rain. We walked and walked, but didn’t have time to reach the famed Hole in the Wall. Another time, perhaps.

Wessel with heart of woodI’ve collected heart-shaped stones for many years, and on the beach here not only did I find a perfect one, but Wessel found me a small heart of wood that is a bit of a stretch for a heart, but just qualifies. Then he found a massive one. It was so beautiful that it clearly belonged to nature, not me, so we took only photos, not the heart itself. Oh hell, the truth is that had I been driving instead of flying I would have carted the thing home. It was a beauty. But I have my two smaller samples to gaze at and relive our wonderful walk on Rialto Beach.


Seeing green at Olympic National Park

April 22, 2008

I was lucky enough to have a story assignment for Ode Magazine that took me to Olympic National Park in northwest Washington state. About Ode: I first discovered it as a reader and am now thrilled to be writing for them. It’s probably the first glossy magazine I’ve written for that totally reflects my personal ethics and political leanings, which makes it now my favorite publication to write for.

I won’t give away the story, which will be out in the July/August issue, but I’m writing a profile on someone who has a strong connection to the park. This is the sort of story Wessel would not usually accompany me on, but he was dying to come to the park as well, and who could blame him. Of course he took his usual amount of photos (like 150 a day or so) and hopefully can sell a few.

Entrance Olympic National ParkMost of our time was spent in the stunning Hoh Rain Forest , the stunning park’s most popular spot. Because it was early April and the snow had only recently stopped falling, there were very few visitors, making it all the more special. Did it rain? Of course. But we never were subjected to downpours. The most spectacular aspect of the rainforest is the green – every shade imaginable and in all shapes and sizes, from giant log covered with moss to a carpet of frilly ferns. A rainforest is such a visible place to see life and death or the form of plant birth and decay.

Trees on top of remains of nurse logWe hiked the Hoh River Trail, which was quite muddy at many points. We passed towering trees here in one of the Pacific Northwest’s largest old-growth forest, including Sitka spruce that topped 200 feet and were 9 feet across. Wessel was most fascinated by the “nurse logs” that give tree seedlings a place to flourish before one day rotting away. We were often walking along the Hoh itself, a large river that is rather quiet this time of year. It carries logs from the forest all the way to the Pacific, where some become driftwood on the beaches we later visited. Quite the voyage!

Hall of MossesIf your time is limited, at least walk the Hall of Mosses loop from the visitor center. In less than a mile you’ll get a good sampling of most everything the Hoh Rain Forest has to offer.


Deciphering rental-car ‘dialogue’

April 18, 2008

Ever since I first rented a car some 30 years ago, I’ve been doing battle with car-rental companies. I think they have some of the most blatantly unethical consumer practices in the country. (Enterprise is the only company I sort of trust.) I’ve given the industry dozens of opportunities to disprove that, but so far that hasn’t happened. Here’s a recent example:

On April 3, I rented a car through Budget at Sea-Tac (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport). Here’s part of my exchange with the Budget counter clerk regarding insurance coverage for the car.

Budget: Would you like full coverage or just on the car?
Me: What about no coverage?
Budget: So you’re declining coverage?
Me: Yes. You didn’t give that as an option, did you?
B: You’re declining coverage?
Me: Yes, but I’m asking, did you offer me that option?
B: It’s not part of my dialogue.
Me: What do you mean?
B: It’s not part of the dialogue we’re told to use.
Me: That seems wrong to not give people the option because some people would think they have to buy insurance coverage through Budget, which of course they don’t.
B: It’s not part of the dialogue.

The following week, once I was home, I followed up with Budget about this “dialogue.” Here’s the answer I received via email from corporate spokeswoman Alice Pereira:

“Budget customers always have the option to accept or decline additional coverages at the time of rental. If you were not given the option to do so, it is contrary to our company policy. We will look into the matter and take necessary steps to ensure that employees adhere to the policy.”

So, the company line is that Budget tells customers their options. Yet my clerk said he was following “the dialogue we’re told to use.” Someone somewhere is not being honest. What I fear most is that my guy (who can be tracked by my paperwork) will be reprimanded for doing what he likely was being told to do by his boss, and nothing else will happen.

I figured I’d also check with the Washington Attorney General’s office to see if Budget’s failure to give me an option of declining insurance violated any consumer laws. For that I turned to Kristin Alexander, media relations manager in the office of Attorney General Rob McKenna. Here’s what she said:

“All businesses are obligated to inform consumers about their products in a fair and non-misleading manner. If a product or service is optional, it should be represented as such. If Budget (or any similar company, for that matter) has a pattern and practice of misleading consumers to believe that they cannot decline the option of additional insurance, its practices may violate the Washington Consumer Protection Act.

“Assumptive sales techniques are common in car sales, insurance, telecommunications – situations where the seller assumes you want the additional product or service. Consumers should be alert and be willing to pose questions of salespeople who offer additional products or services in conjunction with a sale.”

So, dear readers, stay alert and please complain to the company and the authorities if you feel your rights are being violated. Let me know too!

Weigh-in Two for Biggest Loser: Wiener-Dog Style

April 15, 2008

You can see it in her walk, you can hear it in her bark; Sabrina is proud of herself. Sabrina does her yoga exercise on the deckAs she should be! On March 21, she weighed 17.6; on March 31, she was down to 15.2, and today, drum roll …… Sabrina weighs in at 14.4. The dawg is going down! And speaking of down, check out her amazing “downward-facing dog” yoga pose. If a dog can’t do it right, who can? (I know, I know, there’s no “right way” in yoga.)

I was a bit concerned that when we were in Washington state last week for five days that our dog-sitter, Gator (hey, it’s the South), would fatten ‘Briner the Wiener up. Gator has been known to spoil the pets a bit, though I must qualify that she is way into animal health. But the last time we returned from a long trip, even our skinny little Q-Kitty had porked out! But Gator does take her job seriously, and when I told her we were on a mission, she readily obliged. As it turned out, I was the only one to gain weight while away — a blubbery 3 pounds. Ugh.

As for Sabrina, stay tuned for more (or less?) of Biggest Loser: Wiener-Dog Style. Meanwhile, Brina has some more yoga postures to work through. You should hear her “ommmmm….”

Which airport line would you choose?

April 14, 2008

RDU - Raleigh Durham International AirportOur local airport, Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) just became the seventh in the country to sign up for a new TSA (Transportation Security Administration) program that I think is oh so ridiculous. So does a TSA officer I spoke with before flying to Washington recently. It’s called the Diamond Self-Select Lane program.

The deal is that now some security-checkpoint lines are marked for the level of traveler — “expert,” “casual,” and “family.” Why not call the lines “I’m so savvy,” “I’m so slow” and “We’re those annoying people with kids.” Bottom line about the lines: people will go where the line is shorter. The security guy I (anonymously) chatted with said he and his co-workers think the self-selection system is useless.

Wessel and I didn’t get to witness the new lines firsthand because the program is in effect only in Terminal C and we were in Terminal A.  Get this: at RDU, there are two Terminal A buildings, one Terminal C building and NO Terminal B. What a joke. The good-for-nothing self-select lines are not in A, apparently, because the A checkpoint space is severely cramped.

An interesting local aside: while I was chatting with said TSA employee, he went off on a little tirade railing against the airport director and how “he won’t let us make improvements, even though we’d pay for them. He doesn’t like us messing with his airport.” He said the TSA wanted to take over a store space next to the checkpoint area in order to expand, on the TSA’s dime, but the director wouldn’t hear of it. According to this employee talking about Terminal A: “We have the worst security setup in the country.” Hmmm, guess I’ll pass that little nugget on to the local paper, just in case they care.

Gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag, Guido!

April 9, 2008

If you’re a regular reader, you know that the Dutchies go bonkers for their birthdays. You have to congratulate not only the birthday recepient but his or her family, extended family, and pets. OK, not pets. They don’t care so much about the pets.

Guido and his son OliverGuido is my zwager, or brother-in-law, and today is his 41st birthday. He’s the baby of the three children of the Family Kok. Gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag, Guido! Gefeliciteerd met de verjaardag van Guido, familie Kok!

I can just hear you Americans chortling to yourself while saying “Yo, Guido!” Well, NL ain’t NJ, and they don’t say GWEE-do, so drop that “W” and make it GEE-do, with a hard G.

I know that Guido loves me because he allowed me to drag him around to all the cool design stores in De Negen Straatjes (the Nine Streets) district of Amsterdam a couple years ago. He enjoyed himself until about the sixth shop, then I could tell it was time to wrap things up.

Guido's artwork; CLICK TO OPEN WEBSITE AvondwandelaarGuido’s talents include writing, drawing, sculpture, and, recently, video making, which he does from his home in Arnhem. Check out some of his work here. Wessel will get to give in-person birthday greetings this weekend, when he visits his homeland for a week of work and a day of play.

A tip o’ the glass in Scotland

April 8, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published April 6, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: Too much booze, not enough sleep for me. Now if it were wine…. 

WHO: Massachusetts residents Scott Anderson, 43, of Groveland; John Mather, 61, of Groton; Gary Sannicandro, 43, of Hopkinton; Dave McCormick, 31, of Wayland; and Chris Hughes, 44, of Westford.

WHERE: Scotland.

WHEN: Three days in November.

WHY: After going there for business for several years, Anderson, Sannicandro, and Mather, who grew up in Scotland and is now a US citizen, developed a friendship with Scottish colleague Bill Smith, who lives in Edinburgh. “Two years ago we decided to go strictly for pleasure, and it’s become a yearly thing,” Anderson said.

HOPS AND HISTORY: “John plans out the cultural things, and I do research on pubs and brewery tours,” Anderson said. “I usedGary Sannicandro, Chris Hughes, Dave McCormick, John Mather, Scott Anderson, and Bill Smith lift pints at Cumberland Pub in Edinburgh ‘The Good Beer Guide,’ which lists breweries and all the pubs that serve real ale, beer with live yeast and no artificial carbonation.” The men base themselves at Holyrood apartHOTEL in Edinburgh. “It’s a fantastic place at the end of the Royal Mile, which is the central street that runs from the Palace of Holyrood to Edinburgh Castle in the central part of the medieval section.”

Tour and sampling of traditional Scottish ales at Stewart Brewing; CLICK TO ENLARGEHARPOON LINK: The trio hit the ground running with a tour at local start-up Stewart Brewing. “It was started by Steve Stewart, who once apprenticed at Harpoon in Boston,” Anderson said. “He’s within 15 minutes of central Edinburgh. We made an appointment to visit. He’s on a real budget, but he’s won a lot of awards.”

SINGULAR SENSATION: At the invitation of Smith, they visited the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. “Bill is a big single-malt fan and a member,” Anderson said. “The club is in this beautiful neoclassical building. They have all their own casks and a restaurant that serves traditional Scottish gourmet food. They have a full menu of single malts from all over Scotland, with all the different flavor profiles.”

John Mather (right) with a tour guide at Stirling CastleSETTLING IN: A day trip took them to Stirling Castle. “It’s one of the country’s largest and most important castles. It’s where Braveheart had his famous battle and where Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned.” They had lunch and ale at the historic Settle Inn in Stirling, popped into a few other pubs along the way, and later that day toured the Glenturret Distillery in Crieff, home of The Famous Grouse.

INSIDE OUT: At the Edinburgh restaurant Stac Polly, Anderson ordered a gourmet version of haggis, the traditional dish made of sheep organs, oatmeal, and spices and cooked in the animal’s stomach. “They put it in phyllo dough and deep fried it and put it on a bed of raspberry reduction. It was just fabulous.” Another standout meal was at the Cloisters. “It’s a gastropub, a traditional pub with good food.”

Scott Anderson (right) meets regular visitor at the Edinburgh pub the Guildford ArmsGO HIBS: Smith took the Americans to a local soccer game, a cultural eye-opener. “Edinburgh has two teams, the Hibernians, which are Catholic, and the Hearts, Protestant. The rivalry is very intense. On the day of the match, police were out in force in all the pubs; you can’t wear club colors in pubs. Coming into the stadium they separate the fans onto two roads. I have to say I was shocked. It’s like the Red Sox versus the Yankees times 10. We were for the Hibs, the home team.” They ended the night, as always, at Whistlebinkies. “They have excellent live rock music, and they’re open until 3.”

Dear Abby: My spouse left me behind

April 3, 2008

Yesterday I was sitting on a Delta flight from Cincinnati to Seattle on the window side of Row 28A completely annoying my seatmatesAn annoyed Diane way back in coach because as soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off I popped up to visit the loo and see what Wessel was up to. And I do mean up. My dear spouse was upgraded to first class, leaving little old me behind, way behind, in coach. If the tables were turned would I have done the same thing? You betcha. All is fair in love and airplane seat assignments.

You’d think that me being someone who often writes for travel publications would have a gazillion frequent-flier miles. But in fact I don’t chalk up half as many as Wessel, who goes to Europe for work several times a year. I get more miles using my related credit cards than I do for flying. (Hence my saying: “I’m not spending money; I’m earning miles!”)

So now Wessel is a Delta big-time customer, while I’m a nobody. I can’t even manage to get published in Delta Sky, my favorite in-flight magazine, although last year I did get an exceeding complimentary rejection note from executive editor David Bailey.

Anyway, on the first leg of our flight from Durham, the ride was so rough that drinks weren’t served. Or so we were told. Turns out that first class folks got juice and coffee while the minions in coach were served nary a drop. Safety be damned when it comes to the elites. On the second flight, Wessel got a full breakfast, while we got nada, and free headphones, while ours went for $2. No thanks. It’s always eye-opening to see how the other half lives.

Diane's reward - A view of Mount RainierBut — not that it’s a competition — I happened to be on the side of the plane that gave a full view of Mount Rainier (active volcano in the Cascade Range).  Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. I mean, sorry about that, hon!

An Argentinian odyssey

April 2, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published  March 30, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: In her short time in Argentina, Nicole traveled to almost every region of that vast country. I can’t imagine that many exchange students do the same. Very impressive, Nicole!

WHO: Nicole Falzone, 22, of Stoneham, Mass.

WHERE: Argentina.

WHEN: Six months, July through December.

WHY: “I’d studied abroad in Spain in my sophomore year and didn’t think I was going to go overseas again,” Falzone said. “But in my junior year I switched from Spanish to international relations and I wanted to do a study abroad and focus on Latin America.”

NEW PERSPECTIVE: “I wanted to live in a big city because in Spain I was in a small city,” said Falzone, who is planning to graduate this spring from the University of Connecticut. She stayed with a host family in Buenos Aires and took classes at several schools. “I took one class at the University of Buenos Aires with all Argentine students. That was kind of scary. My other classes were all in Spanish but with students from all over. In the US, maybe they cover like a week of Latin American studies, so it was interesting to see things from Argentina’s point of view.”

Nicole Falzone at Salt flat in Jujuy, ArgentinaFAR-FLUNG: Along with exploring Buenos Aires, Falzone covered much ground away from home, traveling either with friends or on a tour with other US exchange students who were in the same program, the Council on International Educational Exchange. “My host family joked with me, ‘You’ve seen more than we’ve seen.’ The first tour we did was to Jujuy [province], in the northwest. There are several small towns with native people, very different than the city, where it’s very European. All the towns had little markets on the plaza with sweaters and jewelry. The landscape was almost like a desert. We went to the salt flats. You can see them for miles and it’s just flat and white. It’s difficult to get the concept that it’s salt settled there and you’re walking on it.”

Nicole Falzone (left) and Megan Carey at Iguazu Falls, ArgentinaTRIP TO FALLS: With a friend she visited Iguazu Falls, at the Brazilian border. “I didn’t even know they existed, but my host family said I had to go. We took an overnight bus, where the chairs recline. The falls are just incredible. We stayed at a hostel with a big pool. It’s a national park and there are trails that you take all around.”

Nicole Falzone (right) and Michelle Kuecker taste wine in Mendoza, ArgentinaWINE COUNTRY: With three girlfriends, Falzone went to Mendoza, in western Argentina. “It was the end of August so it was still cold. It’s near the mountains, and we did some things from the hostel we stayed at. They took us into the mountains for horseback riding and then we went on four-wheelers all around. The other day we did a wine-tasting tour. A lot of people don’t realize how much wine comes from Mendoza.”

Nicole Falzone in Ushuaia, Argentina in the Beagle CanalSOUTHERNMOST: Falzone even made it to Patagonia. “I went with another girl. We flew to El Calafate, where all the glaciers are, and went to Perito Moreno, the most famous one. I’ve just never seen anything like it. The glaciers look like mountains of ice and are this light-bluish color. Parts will fall off into the water as you’re watching, and it sounds like this huge explosion.” They went as far as Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. “That’s where we saw the penguins,” she said. “A little boat took us to an island and you get off and the whole shore is just lines of penguins.”