North America

 Quebec

Forget France

             France is far away. It takes too long to get there, and jet lag ruins the first few days. Airports and the desire of security to see you nude is annoying. Besides, who has a spare grand to hop the Atlantic now? And let’s not mention how the dollar compares to the euro. If you want something French, but Paris is impossible, an excellent alternative is just six hours away – Quebec City.

            
        You can speed across the border in Vermont using 91. Or relax, take 93 through the White Mountains, follow 3 through the wilderness of northern New Hampshire, say “Bon Jour” to the lone border guard, and leisurely go through the farmland villages of southern Quebec. Stop at an antique shop. Have a crepe and coffee. Maybe spend a night. Soon you’ll be across the St. Lawrence River to the shores of Quebec City.

            
        Quebec is the oldest city in the U.S. and Canada, and that’s where its charm is. Around the time the Pilgrims came ashore, the French built a fort on a site that would become Quebec, and today the city’s Old Town is still surrounded by this wall. Inside the walls is a beautiful, quaint European city, packed with tight cobble stone streets, restaurants, shops, and cafes. It’s as if a rural French town was uprooted in Europe and dropped into Canada. Many roads are for pedestrians only. Horse-drawn wagons transport lovers and families about. And the city is small enough that all you need to get around is two feet, and a willingness to explore well-lit alleys and steep stairs that always seem to lead to a cozy, hidden café.


            
        La Citadelle, a fort built in 1750, deserves attention. Its thick walls sit high above the St. Lawrence River, which in winter can be heard churning with massive blocks of ice. Nearby is plenty of open parkland, where people are able to ski and build snowmen within walking distance to the Old Town.

            
        La Chateau Frontenac is the iconic, castle-like hotel that has become the symbol of Quebec’s skyline, and is definitely worth visiting, even if you’re unwilling to spend a month’s salary for a room.

                                 

        Accommodations inside the Old Town can be expensive, but if you’re willing to walk fifteen minutes the areas of St. Roch and St. Jean are attractive neighborhoods where, unlike in the Old Town, the locals outnumber tourists, and prices drop. A diverse collection of authentic cuisine can be found in these areas – French yes, but also Moroccan, Ethiopian, Cambodian, Indian, Mexican, Thai, Japanese, and more.

            
        Just outside the city are many worthy sites, especially in winter. There is the Ice Hotel, constructed almost entirely of ice – the floors, walls, sinks, railings, and dishware are all ice. The Chute Montmorency is a waterfall higher than Niagara Falls, and in winter most of it freezes, making for a very impressive and beautiful sight.



            
        This is yours for a few hundred bucks and a few days of time. Go!

 Washington, DC

                                                                    Our Capital

            Destinations within 500 miles are easily reached by car. With two tanks of gas, that radius contains many opportunities; one is Washington DC. The shortest route is not the quickest since 95 plows through several cities, but if these and rush hours are avoided, DC is yours in seven hours.

           
         Hotels in central DC are expensive, so sleep further out. DC’s subway provides easy transportation. We stayed across the Potomac in Alexandria, which is a clean, bohemian neighborhood full of shops and restaurants, and a train ride that offers excellent views of the Pentagon. Georgetown is also a good area for visitors. I prefer staying outside downtowns, not just for finances, but because it gives a more authentic understanding of a place.

       
         It’s the heart of the most powerful nation, but DC does not intimidate like many capitals. It has a slow pace, a subtle southern charm, and a pedestrian friendly environment. DC was designed, and nature was key to that design – the April cherry blossoms along the Mall are indeed beautiful.

              

            
        The sites are infinite, and most free. Absorb the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the new World War Two Memorial. The Korean War Memorial is unforgettable, with its life-sized platoon of troops on patrol, draped in ponchos, each face unique. Read the original Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Recite the Gettysburg Address while standing with Lincoln. The Smithsonian waits, as do dozens of other museums. The US Capitol, Supreme Court, Washington Monument, and Library of Congress deserve visits. Walk through Arlington National Cemetery and see the eternal flame flicker at President Kennedy’s grave. If you’re lucky, watch the President’s helicopter land on the lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, as snipers stand guard on the White House roof.

      

            
        DC is yours, and you deserve to see it.

Greenland 

65˚ North

                My father found a human finger bone off the path. Kulusuk was half an hour walk from the dirt runway airport, and we stopped at a small cemetery to absorb the view of truck-sized icebergs floating in Ikaasaartik Sound. Their underbellies turned a bright turquoise before vanishing into the cold black water. Greenland’s soil is shallow so many graves were piled with rocks. An arctic fox had probably borrowed beneath and pulled up a few morsels from the local dead. White crucifixes contrasted with the stunning, barren brown landscape. Here and there were tufts of grass. Moss hid between stones. Behind was a wall of jagged, snow-capped mountains.

     

                In July the temperature was in the low 40s, and large snow banks would remain all summer, preserved in the shadows of boulders. The path was lined with 15 foot orange poles to guide people home during the sunless days of winter, in a land where ten feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures are expected.

                In the distance the brightly colored houses of Kulusuk appeared, home to some three-hundred souls. Most were blue and red, some yellow and green; their colors brightened by the harsh terrain. They were positioned between hills as protection from the wind. Some had entrances a dozen feet above the ground, which October snow would bury. It was quiet; the sounds of vehicles absent.

    

                Red-cheeked Inuit children chased each other, screaming and giggling.  Some waved shyly at us. Some adults smiled and nodded in greeting, but most didn’t pay attention to us, as they were probably accustomed to day visitors flying in from Iceland. I wandered off on my own to the sea. Along the shore were giant seal skins, with thick layers of yellow fat, tied to rocks to dry. When I returned, my father was smoking cigarettes with three toothless men, all of them laughing. One of them, Axel, took us to his home where he introduced his mother and wife. Inside it was cozy, especially when I imagined that contact with the outside world in winter was seldom, except for the occasional Danish supply plane. Above the stove was a framed black and white photograph of a man wearing a thick fur hood on a dogsled – Axel’s grandfather.

    

                Most homes had sled dogs tied outside, which, along with snowmobiles, would provide winter transportation. In the town center was a small church and a supply depot organized by the Danish government. A few teenagers stood about, bored, kicking stones.

     

                Returning to the tiny airport we picked some wild flowers which I still have today, pressed and framed behind glass. The Inuit language does not have a large vocabulary; beneath the sign stating “Departure” is the Inuit equivalent, a long sentence translating something to the likes of, “The place you must go to before you leave home.”

                The pilot had to climb up to the propeller engine himself with a wrench to tighten something. From the air Kulusuk disappeared into the icy mountains and black sea.


     
                                                                      Lowell, Massachusetts

                Where you from? I wish I could say Lowell. If you’re from Lowell, from any generation, you’re tough, period. Instead I say Woburn, and people respond, “Oh, that’s a nice place.” No one wants to hear that.

                I never thought about Lowell much. A hundred and fifty years ago no American city had Lowell’s industrial might. Europeans ignored Boston and visited Lowell, marveling at its productivity, returning home hoping to recreate it across the Atlantic. Lowell prospered for a century, then after the Second World War it started a steep decline, lost 20% of its population, and has only recently showed signs of recovering.

                Recently I’ve made a point to spend time in Lowell, especially downtown, where there are an abundance of diverse restaurants and bars. It’s a nice place. Walking along the canals and waterfalls with a coffee in hand I wondered why I never came before.

       

                I also like its rough American aura. You can eat well in Brookline or Lexington, cross the street without looking, make friendly eye contact with people, and talk loudly about the greatness of the UN and how humanity needs to do more about endangered insects, but I always feel like a goldfish in bowl in such places, like I’m walking in a theme park. In Lowell, you can eat well, but the crosswalks mean nothing, and you keep your eyes and your opinions to yourself. I lived in East Boston for a decade and I miss – I do – the fact that getting mugged while walking to a fancy restaurant, or threatened for saying the wrong thing aloud, was a possibility. Lowell’s like that – it takes you down a few notches, puts you in your place.

                I judge a city’s character on two things – whether or not kids wear helmets while riding their bicycles, and if pedestrians wait for the “WALK” signal to cross a street. I wouldn’t have bought a house in Billerica if I saw herds of helmeted children waiting to cross at intersections when there’s not a car in sight. I was riding my bike in Winchester once, and a bunch of nearby kids shouted at me, with actual concern, “Where’s your helmet?” That remark disqualified an entire town from my home search, for eternity. In Lowell people are beat for wearing helmets.

                                   

                When foreign friends visit I bring them to Lowell, and I explain that if the Russians ever invaded, Lowell would never fall during a siege. The citizens of Lowell would fight for decades, like Chechen guerillas. Lowell could be carpet-bombed, nuked, but some would hold out and resist. Enemy headquarters, on the other hand, would be built somewhere along Massachusetts Avenue on the first day of the war, right in a Starbucks or an organic grocer. I’m not saying that latte prone people would be enemy collaborators; I’m just saying that they couldn’t resist a Russian armored division – Lowell could.

                                                 

                In addition to be tough, Lowell is also richly diverse. It has an enormous Cambodian community; perhaps the largest in the United States. A third of its population is from the Asian nation. And until I traveled to Cambodia, I never understood what it meant.  

                Across the Vietnamese border we spent an hour in a nameless town where fruits unknown to me were sold. Spiders, the size of children’s hands, were being fried, put on sticks, and eaten like kebobs. It was hot, and so humid breathing was a chore. The main road was mostly unpaved, and barefoot women and children walked along rice paddies, carrying sacks of crops on their heads. Shacks with tin roofs stood high on stilts beneath palm trees. Black hairy pigs and smooth gray cattle with humped backs and enormous horns lazed about.  

       

                In Phnom Penh, the capital, the buildings were French architecturally, but old, broken, and covered in dust. Mini-vans with loudspeakers slowly idled down streets, spewing political slogans in every direction.  It was an injured place, but one bustling with energy. Mopeds zoomed about like angry bees. With few street lights it was dark and eerie at night. The sounds of generators and their exhaust filled the air. Children pushing legless children in carts paused every so often to beg. They were victims of mines and unexploded bombs, remnants of wars fought before the birth of their parents. Along the Mekong River families sold fresh fish, rice, and delicious mee katang noodles.

       

                Outside the capital are the killing fields, where two million Cambodians, a third of the nation, were murdered by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. There is a stupa nearly 100 feet high, in which are over 5,000 human skulls, a reminder to the cruelty and madness of man. All have bullet holes or horrible gashes where axes met bone. Nearby are mass graves, where the bones and rags of those killed are scattered. It is a very raw place where you do not leave undisturbed. Those who could escape did, and many call Lowell home today.

        

                Cambodia’s recent history is horrible, but it is not a horrible place. It is the opposite. I met generous, wonderful people. Smiles were more common in Phnom Penh than in Billerica. The countryside is beautiful, and the food delicious. Golden Buddhas and temples are exotic and mysterious. There was no reason to swallow nervously as the sign “Welcome to Cambodia!” passed by.

                When I go to Lowell and I see the Cambodian markets and restaurants, I now understand, as much as a person from suburban America can, why people have come so far to call such a tough place home. When I sit in one of the restaurants on Middlesex Street in Lowell with a mouthful of mee katang, I think of the Mekong, and all I can say is “This is so good.” Cambodia is far away, but Lowell is not. Whether it be for mee katang or other ethnic meal, a beer, a coffee, or just for a good ole' mugging, there is certainly plenty of reasons to go to Lowell.

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