Getting from Camp David to Amsterdam last month was a comedy of errors, minus the comedy. There were delays, downgrades, rerouting, and some truly horrendous customer service.
But two good things happened.
First, I got to enjoy a cheesesteak at Chickie’s & Pete’s during a much longer-than-expected layover at Philadelphia International Airport.1 I even struck up a pleasant conversation with another traveler who had been delayed, which helped distract me from the raucous Phillies fans watching the playoff game.
Second, since I couldn’t sleep on the plane, I had plenty of time to scroll through my music library and rediscover songs I hadn’t heard in a while.
Here’s the playlist. You can listen to it now — you don’t have to wait until you experience your own travel nightmare.
This was my immediate reaction when I discovered there’s an entire museum in Amsterdam dedicated to street art and graffiti:
So what did I think of the museum, STRAAT?1 I’m a bit conflicted.
On the plus side, STRAAT is undeniably a well-curated museum of the best work from the best artists on the planet. The collection was immense and incredible, featuring a wide range of styles and themes. The building (a converted shipbuilding facility) was roomy, uncrowded, and quiet, so I had plenty of time and space to reflect on the art.
One thing that stood out to me was the size of the art. Here’s how I measure up to a mural by Ox-Alien:
So, with so much to see and enjoy, why did I feel nonplussed? Ironically, the answer was right there in the STRAAT collection — this mural sums up everything I felt was problematic about the museum:
The Real Thing?
STRAAT is a zoo for street art. It’s an artificial, organized, viewer-friendly environment with an admission fee and a gift shop. It can’t replicate the experience of finding street art in the real world.
In the wild, street art isn’t curated — no gatekeepers are deciding who gets to create art, and whether it’s noteworthy. It’s integrated into its surroundings. Artists have to deal with constraints like space, time, and weather. Their work is open to criticism (in the form of spray paint) from other artists.
And you never know what you’ll discover around each corner.
Consider these two murals by Cranio, a Brazilian artist who uses art to criticize how capitalism corrupts native values. The Complimentary Spouse and I saw this near Brick Lane in London in 2016:
And here’s the Cranio mural at STRAAT:
The mural at STRAAT is larger, more complex, and much easier to stand back and appreciate. But the mural in London is more meaningful and authentic — it’s a public statement in a public place, not a piece of art under glass.
I Have Come to Praise STRAAT, Not to Bury It
I don’t want to sound too dismissive about STRAAT. I enjoyed and appreciated my visit, and we must recognize the value of street art just as we would any other art form.2
STRAAT might be a zoo, but zoos play an important role in education and preservation.3 We need more places like STRAAT to validate, catalog, study, and share street art with the world.
The next time I visit a city with a street art museum, I’ll be first in line. But I’ll also look for street art where it was meant to be seen: the streets.
More STRAAT Photos
___ 1 I visited on October 13 during a business trip, so I got to share the experience with my colleagues (and expense the tickets). I always propose a street art-related outing for company meet-ups, and they are always a hit.
2 STRAAT has shifted my opinion of Wynwood Walls in Miami. Now that I’ve seen STRAAT, it’s easy to recognize that Wynwood Walls is pretty much the same thing without a roof. By elevating and drawing attention to street art, Wynwood Walls has attracted more artists to the area — a win-win for everybody.
3 And STRAAT doesn’t keep living beings in captivity, which is one of the things about zoos that really disturbs me.
The hand-off was supposed to go down late at night on November 8, 2019, on Calle Compostela in the old part of Havana.
There he was, resting in a doorway, indifferent to his surroundings. The street wasn’t too busy or bright, so I didn’t have to worry about attracting attention. I dug into my pocket, pulled out a small Ziploc bag, selected one of the items inside, and gripped it carefully.
I didn’t expect what happened next.
I extended my hand and offered the item to him. He ignored me. I waved it under his nose, hoping the smell would convince him it was the good stuff from America. He didn’t care. He wasn’t interested in the slightest.
He didn’t even wag his tail.
Operation Treatos Para Perritos was off to a bad start.
Our Plan Went to the Dogs
A few weeks earlier, when the Complimentary Spouse and I were planning our third trip to Cuba, we were discussing the homeless dogs we’d seen on our previous visits. They were friendly and happy, but clearly weren’t getting much food.
We decided to put a box of Milk-Bones in our luggage for the dogs, along with gum, tennis balls, and other little presents we always bring to give to kids.
I named our plan Operation Treatos Para Perritos. We thought the dogs would love it. But, as we leaned quickly on Calle Compostela, they couldn’t care less.
We approached about 30 dogs over three days with Milk-Bones. They loved the attention from Britt and me, but had no enthusiasm for the treats. Just one accepted a treat, but only after a long period of confusion and uncertainty. Instead of eating it in front of us, he took it in his mouth and slowly walked away. I’d like to think he ate it, but it’s more likely that he spit it out.
The only taker for the Milk-Bones was a woman who saw what I was doing and asked for a few. I explained they were dog treats, and she said she had a dog at home. I gave her a handful.
About half an hour later, we saw her trying to sell the Milk-Bones to people in the street.
Free enterprise will always find a way.
So, what went wrong? At first, I thought the dogs didn’t like Milk-Bones — but I quickly realized that was a stupid idea.
Homeless dogs in Havana are not pampered pets like Lucy and Linus. They’re not holding out on the cheap treats because they know there’s leftover steak from Bern’s in the fridge.
No, the most likely explanation is that these dogs wouldn’t recognize any dog treats as real food — from ordinary Milk-Bones to the gourmet $5 biscuits at the dog boutique near our house.
If you were used to scavenging for scraps of leftover food, you’d probably be perplexed by prepackaged, processed, or custom-made dog treats too.
Accordingly, I’m adjusting my strategy for the next Operation Treatos Para Perritos. I’ll test out things like jerky, freeze-dried treats, and rawhide chews.
And, if that doesn’t work, I’ll round up all the dogs and take them home with me. I’ll just have to figure out how to convince Southwest Airlines that I need two dozen comfort animals.
Last week, my company’s revenue team1 descended on New Orleans to talk strategy, share information, and knock back a few hurricanes. We also did some team-building events, and the one I was looking forward to the least — an airboat ride on the swamps of Louisana — turned out to be one of my favorites.
I was anticipating sweat and bugs. Instead, I got to get up close and personal with a few of Louisiana’s three million alligators.
Here are some of the things I learned on our excursion:
Alligators Like Candy
I was shocked to learn that alligators like marshmallows. Yes, marshmallows — the things you put in s’mores and hot chocolate.2
The next time I head out to the bayou, I’m going to bring a box of Peeps. I wonder if alligators would prefer chicks or bunnies.
The Swamp Is More Beautiful Than I Expected
I’m the sort of guy who thinks roughing it means staying in a hotel with less than four stars. It’s no surprise, then, that I have never visited a swamp. I expected an ugly, sticky, godforsaken place with banjo music playing in the background.
The swamp was actually more pleasant than I anticipated. It was a comfortable day with low humidity, and we got to experience the golden hour right before sunset.
On our way from Lafitte to Lake Salvador, we saw quite a few large homes. We also saw one boat that was less than seaworthy:
About an hour into our trip, Captain Danny opened a blue cooler under his chair and introduced us to his buddy, Little Ed. He was adorable.
The trick to holding a baby gator is to grasp the tail firmly with one hand and put the other under his belly.
Airboats Are Pretty Damn Fast
I estimate we were going about 30 mph (18 kph). Perhaps a little more.
I used the Action mode on my iPhone to take this video, so it looks somewhat smooth. Actually, going fast in an airboat is choppy. I’m glad we had seat belts.
Would I Do It Again?
I had more fun than I expected on our airboat ride. I wouldn’t go out of my way to do it again, but I wouldn’t rule it out either.
___ 1 I can hear you saying, “Hey, Dave, you’re in marketing, not sales!” Yes, you’re right, and thank you for following me on LinkedIn. Since my company is small, marketing and sales are combined into one team and report to the Chief Revenue Officer. This is the first time I’ve worked somewhere that doesn’t have siloed marketing and sales teams, and I love it.
2 Marshmallows are also the form Gozer the Destroyer took when he attacked New York:
My eyes light up when people tell me they’re headed to Madrid. The short time I lived there as a kid gave me a long-lasting and deep connection to the city. Like a true Madrileño, I root for Real Madrid and get very defensive when someone suggests Barcelona is a better city. (It’s not.) I still speak with a Castilian accent because that’s what I learned. (The fact that it makes me sound pretentious is just a bonus!)
Last fall, a friend said he and his husband were heading to Madrid. I started firing off suggestions of what to see and do. Then I sent about two dozen texts as more ideas popped into my head. It was a deluge of disorganized information — like giving someone jigsaw puzzle pieces with no picture to help them.
In December, someone else was headed to Madrid. My recommendations were once again a useless jumble of names and places. Not very helpful.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. A colleague told me he and his wife are headed to Madrid this spring, and again I offered to provide some suggestions. This time, I’m going to do it right by writing everything down and providing some structure. Not only is this a more useful approach, but I can use it again when people say they’re going to Madrid.
In true Daily Dave fashion, this list is more verbose than it needs to be. Hey, it’s my blog and I’ll write as much as I want to!
Eating and Drinking
I’m not a foodie, so you might want to check TripAdvisor for tips. Here are a few things I enjoy:
Casa Mingo: This is an old restaurant known for two things: cider and roast chicken. The cider is made in-house, and it’s unprocessed and unfiltered (which means it’s cloudy). The Complimentary Spouse and I both enjoyed the chicken, but he was a bigger fan of the cider than I was.
Iberian ham (jamón Ibérico): You’ll find this all over the place.
The Gourmet Experience at El Corte Inglés (Princesa location): This is a high-end food hall on the ninth floor of a department store. The food is expensive but good. The views are good too. (This El Corte Inglés location spans three buildings. I can’t remember which one the Gourmet Experience is in, but there will be signs.)
Gazpacho: The best gazpacho in the world is made by my mom, but you can’t go wrong ordering it in Madrid.
Sangria: You can get this practically everywhere, from cheap bars to high-end restaurants. I am a purist, so if it’s not red, it’s not real sangria. The word “sangria” comes from “sangre,” which means blood, so why the hell would it be white? Who has white blood?1
Churros y chocolate: Churros are small and folded, unlike the massive sticks you find in the U.S. The chocolate should be so thick that you can float your spoon on top. The most famous place is Chocolatería San Ginés, but there’s usually a line, and you can get good ones elsewhere.
Helpful tip: Download the Fork app. It’s like OpenTable for Europe.
El Prado: This is where Spanish art, history, and culture come together. We had many a field trip there when I was in school! Two paintings to check out:
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez is the most famous and well-known painting here. I like it because it tells a story about palace life, instead of just being a typical royal portrait. My favorite detail is the mirror: That’s the king and queen, but if it were a real mirror, the viewer would be in the reflection.
Saturn Devouring His Son by Goya will haunt your dreams. It’s really, really, really fucked up. You’ve been warned.
Museo Reina Sofía: This is Madrid’s modern art museum. I think it’s right up there with MOMA, the Tate Modern, and Pompidou Center. Picasso’s Guernica is the most famous painting here. It’s huge and there are always crowds milling in front of it, so don’t expect to take a good picture.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: Along with El Prado and Reina Sofia, this is part of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art. It’s not as impressive as the other two, in my opinion.
Museo Sorolla: Well outside the Golden Triangle, this is a small and interesting museum dedicated to Joaquin Sorolla. The building is his former home, which is nicely preserved and has a cute garden. If you visit, you can easily walk to the Salamanca neighborhood and check out Calle Serrano (which I’ll write about below).
Temple de Debod: This is an old Egyptian temple that was dismantled and rebuilt piece by piece in Madrid. (There’s no Elgin Marbles controversy here. It was part of a legitimate program to preserve historical monuments.) I haven’t been there at sunset, but I’m told it’s magical then.
The Royal Palace: There are more than 3,000 rooms, which makes me wonder if this happens.2
Plaza Mayor: This is a large historic square in the middle of the city. Since it’s a tourist magnet, you should probably skip the restaurants here. If you do a walking tour, this is probably where it will start.
Helpful tip: Do a free guided walking tour on your first day. You’ll hit all the historical sites around Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. There are just too many historical things for me to list.
Casa de Campo: Casa de Campo is huge. Like, really huge. It’s twice the size of Central Park (I think). The area closest to the city center still feels natural and unspoiled, with lots of walking trails and great views of Madrid. Further away, you’ll find an amusement park, zoo, aquarium, soccer stadium, and more things like that. We went on a field trip to the amusement park, and all I remember is that the rides seemed worn out and creaky. I imagine they have been fixed up since then.
If you go to Casa de Campo, check out the area around the lake, which is directly east of the Royal Palace. It’s a great place to stroll around, do some people-watching, and even grab a bite to eat. You can also rent a kayak, which Britt and I would not do because we’re landlubbers.
El Retiro: Whereas Casa de Campo has size, El Retiro has charm. It’s still pretty darn big, but it feels more like a proper European city park, with formal gardens, sculptures, a colonnade, fountains, and such. There are also plenty of places to eat.3
Be sure to look for el Palacio de Cristal (The Glass Palace), which is built out of glass and cast iron. I imagine it was what the Crystal Palace in London looked like before it burned down. If you get there late in the afternoon, you’ll be able to see the sun streaming through the windows.
Fun side note: The Plaza de la Independencia is located at one of the entrances to el Retiro. There you’ll find two incredibly important and historically significant landmarks: the beautiful Puerto de Alcalá and my dad’s old office building.
A related fun side note: When I took my AP History test in [year redacted], the surprise essay question was about the Spanish Civil War and there was a picture of fighting at the Puerto de Alcalá. I aced the shit out of that essay.
Rio Madrid: When I lived in Madrid, I didn’t even know there was a river running through the city. It was completely blocked in by the M-30, which means my family drove near or around it too many times to count and I never noticed it.
Now, the river is hard to miss. That long stretch of the M-30 has been moved underground, opening both sides of the river to development. It’s now a beautiful linear park with lots of places to walk, run, rest, and have fun. Britt and I first explored Río Madrid on Segways, and went back later that day. We can’t wait to go back.
Quick note: The actual name of the river is Manzanares. And it’s really a stretch to call it a river. It’s more of a dried-up creek. Still, it’s an awesome area to visit.
Cool Neighborhoods and Streets
Chueca: It’s the gay neighborhood in Madrid. Hell, it might be the gayest neighborhood in the world — and I’ve been to San Francisco and Provincetown! There are so many Pride flags here that you’ll think a rainbow threw up. All that aside, it’s an awesome part of Madrid with great restaurants and bars. Check out Mercado San Antón, an indoor food market with restaurants and a cool bar.
Plaza del Sol: This is literally the center of Madrid. It’s kilometer zero for the entire highway system — all distances are measured from this spot. Look for:
The Oso y el Madroño statue: The image of a bear pawing at a strawberry tree has been associated with Madrid for centuries. By the way, guess what no longer lives in Madrid? Bears and strawberry trees.
The Tío Pepe sign: Tío Pepe is a brand of sherry. This sign has been there forever.
Lavapiés: This is a really cool neighborhood with an alternative vibe. It’s where you’ll find tons of street art. I highly recommend taking a guided street art walking tour.
Gran Vía: This is the main road in the middle of Madrid. The architecture is gorgeous. Britt and I usually try to stay somewhere on Gran Vía because it’s centrally located.
Calle de Preciados: This is a pedestrian street between Gran Vía and Plaza del Sol. A lot of other nice pedestrian streets branch off of it. You’ll find a huge El Corte Inglés department store here.
Calle Fuencanal: You’ll find a little bit of everything on this pedestrian shopping street. It’s often crowded, which makes for great people-watching. It branches off Gran Vía.
El Rastro: A massive flea market is held here every Sunday. Keep an eye on your wallet.
Calle Serrano: This is the ritziest shopping in street in Salamanca, the ritziest neighborhood. Basically, it’s the opposite of el Rastro. Here you’ll find Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry, and so on. It’s considered to be Madrid’s Fifth Avenue or Champs-Élysées, but I don’t think it’s particularly picturesque.
From Madrid, you can get nearly everywhere quickly on high-speed rail. Here are two places about 30 minutes away:
Toledo: This is a beautiful old city with a gothic cathedral (still in use) and a historic synagogue and mosque (not surprisingly, not in use). The synagogue is now a museum, and the mosque is a church. Toledo used to be known for making steel weapons, so everywhere you go, you can buy full-sized souvenir swords and knives. My brother bought a whole bunch of swords, and I have no idea where they are now.
Segovia: Come for the Roman aqueduct. Stay for the cathedral and fortress! Each of these would be worth a trip on its own, so seeing all three in a day is incredible.
Here’s a video of Segovia I made on the 30-minute train ride back to Madrid that took forever to make because I am an artiste.
If I had to recommend just one place, it would be Segovia. There are plenty of cities with cathedrals and castles in Spain, but only one has an aqueduct like this.
I hope you enjoyed my unnecessarily long Madrid travel guide. If you didn’t, you only have yourself to blame. You could have stopped reading at any point.
_____ 1 I’ve just learned that Antarctic blackfin icefish have white blood. Those guys are allowed to order white sangria. Humans, on the other hand, should be drinking red.
2 What, you thought I wouldn’t be able to work a Simpsons reference into this blog post? You underestimate my powers.
3 There’s also a statue of Satan somewhere in el Retiro, but I don’t remember where.
When I was a lad in London, there was only one way to see the city: from ground level.1 And I never gave that much thought until the Complimentary Spouse and I visited my ancestral homeland in 2004 and took our first spin on the London Eye.
It was a revelation.
I knew all the landmarks — the buildings, the parks, the major roads, the Thames — but had never seen them from this perspective. New shapes and patterns emerged. The scale and sizes of buildings appeared to change, especially the train stations. Who knew they were so big?
Since that first experience on the London Eye, I have gone out of my way to seek out observation decks and wheels. The higher, the better. Here are my thoughts on the places that took me to new heights.
The London Eye
No need to repeat what I’ve said above. Let’s jump straight into some photos and videos!
My take: After three whirls, I have little interest in going on the Eye again, but I always recommend it to people visiting London for the first time.
Rockefeller Center (Top of the Rock), New York
I vaguely remember visiting the Empire State Building as a child. I remember there were long lines to get in, and it was crowded, cold, and cage-like at the top. So, I’ve never been eager to return.
In 2006, I found another strong reason to avoid the Empire State Building. That’s when Britt and I went to the observation deck at the top of Rockefeller Center. It was a cold and windy day, so we didn’t stay outside long. We had a great south-facing view. The space where the World Trade Center once stood was still vacant. So, the only major landmark was the Empire State Building. It was beautiful: Not just an architectural masterpiece, but a symbol of resilience in a skyline transformed violently by terrorism.
I realized then that if you go to the top of the Empire State Building, you can’t see the Empire State Building. And what is the New York skyline without the Empire State Building in it? With so many other observation decks in New York, I don’t see the use of visiting that one.
Top of the Rock wasn’t crowded. Tall, clean sheets of plexiglass kept us safe without compromising our views. It was a good experience, but not so amazing that I feel compelled to go back.
My take: In any other city, Top of the Rock would be a must-see. In New York, there are better observation decks.
SkyTower isn’t just the tallest building in New Zealand. At more than 1,000 feet, It’s one of the tallest buildings in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s so tall that it seems incompatible with the rest of Auckland, standing out like a sole redwood in a field of shrubs.
Britt and I visited in 2005 on our first trip together to New Zealand. It was a little overcast, which was disappointing because you can see up to 50 miles away on a clear day. Even with limited visibility, the views were incredible. I walked away with an appreciation for the balance between urban development and natural beauty.
One thing that’s not visible from the observation deck: how hilly Auckland is. I’d say it compares to San Francisco, Lisbon, and Istanbul regarding steepness. I was very out of shape at the time and had to catch my breath every few blocks.
Oh, I forgot to mention that you can go bungee jumping from the observation deck. This is because Kiwis are crazy.
My take: Me haere koe ki reira mena kei Aotearoa koe.2
The Eiffel Tower, Paris
Je suis un crétin!3 When putting this list together, I only remembered the Eiffel Tower at the last minute. I don’t know why. Perhaps the building is so unique that it’s hard to lump it in with anything else.
That being said, the Eiffel Tower has not one, not two, but three observation decks. Britt and I went up one night in the spring of 2008. It was cold and dark. By the time we reached the top level — which is tiny — it had started to rain. Teenagers visiting from Spain were running amok. I was worried about slipping on the wet, slick floor. Honestly, I don’t remember anything about the view. I didn’t even take any photos from up there.
Britt and I have been back to Paris several times since then, and I simply haven’t had an interest in going back up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, even though I know the views on a clear day would be spectacular. I think I’ll just continue to appreciate the Eiffel Tower from ground level.
The gist: Go. You’ll probably have a better experience than I did.
The Space Needle, Seattle
I live 8,000 miles from Auckland but only 2,500 miles from Seattle.4 It’s surprising then that I had been to Auckland twice before my first trip to Seattle.
When Britt and I went to the Space Needle in 2016, it felt like an older, shorter, slightly more run-down SkyTower. The two buildings look alike at first glance, but SkyTower is more than 400 feet taller and is much roomier at the top.
I’m not knocking the Space Needle. The views are incredible. You can see Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, the Cascades, and the Olympic mountain range. But, as an experience, it simply doesn’t measure up to its successor in the Southern Hemisphere.
My take: Definitely worth a visit in you’re in Seattle.
The High Roller, Las Vegas
I gambled on the High Roller — and I lost big. Not long after this observation wheel opened on the Strip, I went to Las Vegas for a conference and made plans to check it out. As soon as we cleared the hotels, I knew I was in for disappointment. There is simply no benefit to being 550 feet in the air in Las Vegas. Casino roofs are indistinguishable from warehouse roofs. The mountains look about the same as they do from the ground — far-off and unimpressive.
On my visit, I shared my capsule with a couple who was clearly hoping they’d be by themselves to make out. I wish they had. At least there would have been something interesting to see.
Actually, I take that back. It was a straight couple. Nothing disgusts me more than heterosexuals flaunting their lifestyle in public. Think of the children!
My take: Not worth the time or the money … and you might end up being a cockblocker.
The Shard, London
I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was to visit the observation deck at the Shard. I was anticipating an experience like my first spin on the Eye — this time, seeing entirely different parts of London from a new perspective.
And do you know what I saw?
Grime. Streaks. And my reflection.
The windows were filthy — they hadn’t been cleaned in who knows how long. And instead of using matte glass, they installed reflective glass. It was such a disappointment.
If only the Shard had a window washer and non-reflective glass, the views would have been spectacular — even on the somewhat gloomy day in May 2015 we were there. To the north were all the new towers of London, such as the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, and the Cheesegrater. A little to the east was the oldest tower of London — i.e., the actual Tower of London — as well as Tower Bridge and the H.M.S. Belfast.
What a dirty shame.
My take: I won’t go back until someone assures me that the windows have been replaced and cleaned.
The Summit One Vanderbilt, New York
This was so in-fucking-credible that I will save it for a blog post of its own.
John Hancock Center (360 Chicago)
Once, in Havana, Britt and I went to the bank to exchange dollars for pesos. We spent forever in line, the building was run down, customer service was terrible, and we ended up getting nothing of value.
The only difference between that experience and our trip to the observation deck at John Hancock Center is that the observation deck also had overpriced, lukewarm beer for sale.
Really, it was terrible. We were there on a family trip with my brother, my cousins, and all our spouses. After grabbing our tickets, we waited in line in a dark basement for an hour before we even got a glimpse of the elevator. The staff was unfriendly and unsympathetic, even when we asked for a chair for someone in our group who needed to sit down.
When we got to the top of the building, half of the observation deck was closed off for renovation (so much for a 360-degree view at 360 Chicago), and the other half probably hadn’t been renovated since the ’80s.
What about the views? Who the fuck cares? After that experience, all we wanted to do was go back down and find something to drink.
My take: If you give me a choice between a root canal without novocaine and going back to the John Hancock Center, I’ll plug in the drill myself.
Willis Tower, Chicago
When I went here in 2005, it was still called Sears Tower. I guess it didn’t make too much of an impression on me because the only thing I remember is that we had to go down in one of the freight elevators because there was an issue with the passenger elevators. I don’t even have any photos from the top.
I wonder why I don’t recall anything. Perhaps there was a Men in Black incident.
My take: I wish I could remember my experience at Willis Tower and use one of those red flashy Men in Black thingies to erase my memories of the John Hancock Center.
One World Trade Center (One World Observatory), New York
Before Britt and I went to the top of the new World Trade Center in the summer of 2017, we revisited the tragedy of what happened there in 2001 by exploring the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
The museum part is underground, somewhat dimly lit but not gloomy. I left thinking it was too focused on artifacts and not focused enough on people. In hindsight, I was probably drawn to the artifacts because they are less painful to contemplate than the loss of life. A warped steel girder doesn’t have a name, a family, a career, a dream.
But L. Russell Keene III did.
Russell was Britt’s former student. He worked for KBW and was killed on 9/11. His office was on either the 88th or 89th floor of the South Tower. The plane hit several floors beneath him, which meant all the stairwells were cut off. He died, as did 67 other KBW employees in the office that morning.
Before we entered the museum, Britt and I found Russell’s name etched on the memorial. We stood silently for a while. And then moved on.
Not long after we visited the memorial and museum, we were in the elevator to the top of the new World Trade Center. The doors opened and … wow.
Observation decks at the tops of older office buildings usually feel like an afterthought — it’s just a regular floor they didn’t lease out to a tenant. The World Trade Center observation deck is nothing at all like that. It’s a thoughtfully designed, light, airy, multistory space that showcases and celebrates New York. You’re high above the city, and yet somehow feel closer to it.
We could see miles in all directions through the clean and non-reflective5 floor-to-ceiling windows. I stood for a while, just entranced by the cars on the Brooklyn Bridge and the boats on the East River. To our north, the Empire State Building stood proudly over the jumble of buildings in Midtown. The newly completed 432 Park Avenue struck out like a sore thumb. It was the supermodel of condo towers: skinny, tall, expensive, and arrogant. (Since 2017, more supermodels have moved into that area, which is now called Billionaires’ Row.)
One World Trade Center’s observation deck is one of the best. If you’re looking for deep meaning, you’ll find it there. If you’re looking for awesome views, you’ll find them there. If you’re looking for a Swarovski-encrusted necklace in the shape of the building, you’ll find it there (in the gift shop).
My take: Go there. It will take you less time to visit than it took you to read this rambling blog post.
Here are the observation decks I’m looking forward to visiting:
Sky Garden: A lush, airy green space at the top of the Walkie-Talkie in London? Yes, please! We wanted to go on our last trip to London, but we couldn’t get a ticket.6
The Edge: Hudson Yards in New York has the highest outdoor observation deck in the Western Hemisphere.
Gran Torre Santiago: The tallest building in Latin America wasn’t quite finished when we went to Santiago in 2013. The six-story mall at the bottom was open for business, but the rest of the building — including the observation deck — was not.
_____ 1 Keep in mind that, unlike New York, there were very few tall buildings in London at that time, and I don’t think any of them had observation decks. The only tall structure I can recall is the Post Office Tower, a communications tower.
2 That’s Māori for “You should go there if you’re in New Zealand.”
3 That’s French for “I am a moron.”
4 Or, if you prefer, I’m 17 time zones away from Auckland and just three from Seattle.
5 You paying attention, Shard folks?
6 Access to the observation deck is free, but you still need to reserve a time to visit.
My cousins and I recently descended upon Chicago for our annual reunion. Between all the drinking, eating, drinking, and more drinking, we went on a boat tour of Chicago’s architectural landmarks and marvels. I got some great photos of the buildings, but I don’t recall all the facts, so I have just decided to type up a whole bunch of lies.1
First, the famous Wrigley Building:
The first Wrigley building was constructed entirely out of Wrigley Doublemint chewing gum, which proved disastrous. Six people died when the building collapsed. They weren’t crushed; they got stuck in the gum and died of mandibular trauma trying to chew their way out.
Construction on a new Wrigley building began in 1920. Realizing their mistake, builders chose the hardest, densest, toughest material available — something even more rigid than steel or concrete. That’s right: they used Bazooka Joe.
Now, let’s talk about the 98-story building that replaced the Chicago Sun-Times headquarters — the one to the left of the Wrigley Building in this photo:
When this riverfront office and hotel tower opened in 2009, it was considered the most beautiful building not just in Chicago, but in the entire Western Hemisphere. Upon seeing it, motorists would slam on their brakes to stare in awe, causing a 450% increase in traffic crashes. Pedestrians would stop and look up, causing a 680% increase in neck injuries. Sometimes, parents were so distracted by the building that they didn’t notice when vultures swooped in and carried away their young children.
Realizing the public hazard they had created, the owners looked for ways to modify the building so people wouldn’t want to look at it. That’s why they slapped the word Trump on the side. When Chicagoans see the building now, they’re disgusted and look away.
The towers of Marina City are two of the most distinctive landmarks on the Chicago River:
Marina City was opened in 1963 as a mixed-use complex with apartments, offices, stores, and a theater, but its odd design was so off-putting that the entire center was abandoned by the end of the decade. Hippies moved into the buildings in the early 1970s, renaming the complex Freetown Chicagiania and declaring it independent of the city, state, and federal government. The government of Chicago has never recognized Chicagiania, describing it as a “social experiment.” The residents of Chicagiania banned all hard drugs in the late 1980s, but cannabis is still sold and used openly, especially along Pusher Street. Even though crime rates are low, police will sometimes sweep the area. Today, about 600 people live in Chicagiania. The area is one of Chicago’s top tourist attractions, known for vibrant street art, live music, and creative frozen yogurt toppings.
150 North Riverside is remarkable not just for its design, but also for its handling of Chicago’s famous wind gusts.
Many buildings have wind dampening features, like slosh tanks, but 150 North Riverside has perhaps the most innovative method for handling wind. As you will note, the building tapers at the bottom. This base contains a hinge so that the building folds 90 degrees and lies flat when wind conditions are dangerous.
Because of this hinge system, all the furniture is bolted to the floor, and loose items, such as staplers and coffee mugs, are secured with magnets. Office workers get around by using a building-wide system of pulleys. These workers say they don’t mind when the building folds down, but it makes going to the bathroom somewhat difficult.
Now, let’s turn to Chicago’s tallest building:
Most people know this building as the Sears Tower, but it has changed names twice since then. In 2009, after Sears moved out, the building became Willis Tower. In 2017, Willis moved out, and the naming rights were bought by one of its newer tenants, which relocated from Cypress Creek. It is now the Globex Tower.
On the south side of the river, you’ll find the third-tallest building in Chicago, Vista Tower:
The most interesting thing about Vista Tower is that it’s really three interconnected towers. The shortest tower is a hotel, the middle tower is condominiums, and the tallest tower — at 101 floors — is overflow storage space for RuPaul’s wigs.2
And now, a bonus building that wasn’t on the boat tour! The John Hancock Tower, located on the famous Magnificent Mile, is Chicago’s fifth-tallest building:
This building is 1,128 feet tall, which makes it 1,121½ feet taller than the Complimentary Spouse. The observation deck closed in 2014 and was replaced by the nation’s least conveniently located Pep Boys.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this informative and completely accurate blog post. Please check out my other travel-related posts, many of which are more truthful than this one.
“I’m going to eat well on this trip,” I promised myself as the Complimentary Spouse and I were packing for our vacation in London and Copenhagen. “Just three sensible meals a day. A dessert once or twice. No snacks.”
I broke that promise just a few hours after landing when I scarfed down a 99 Flake outside Lilliwhites in Piccadilly Circus.
Don’t judge me, Daily Dave fans. I had the best of intentions. But I also had the biggest of appetites.
Here’s what I ate in London and Copenhagen.
Traditional British Food
British food gets a bad rap. It doesn’t deserve it. High tea turns food into an event. The Brits have the world’s best chocolate and candy. Even pub food, done well, hit the spot.
While Britt and I have enjoyed tea in many places around London, we keep returning to the tea at the Great Court Restaurant in the British Museum. The quality is great, the prices are reasonable, and you’re not too far from 3,000-year-old mummified bodies! I mean, yum, right!?
Pub food has come a long way. At the Bear & Staff, I had a chicken and portobello mushroom pie:
Three nights later, at the Cambridge (a sister pub of the Bear & Staff), I had the steak and Nicholson’s pale ale pie.
My dad and Britt had both had the fish and chips.
On our way to Copenhagen, Britt and I had a fair bit of free time in Heathrow Terminal 3, so we found a pub called the Big Smoke Taphouse and Tavern. I helped myself to another steak and ale pie.
Traditional Danish Food
In the United States, people associate Danish food with pastry. There’s a good reason for that, I discovered — the Danes are wizards with pastry! Here’s a look at what Britt and I got for one morning at Lagkaghuset, right next to our hotel:
Of course, people in Denmark need more than pastry. That’s where smørrebrød comes in. These open-faced sandwiches on dark rye bread are something of a national dish. We tried the smørrebrød in the cafe of Magasin, a high-end department store.
I got the chicken salad sandwich:
Britt got the shrimp:
The smørrebrøds weren’t the only sandwiches we ate on our trip. In London, we made our usual visit to the Brass Rail in the Selfridges Food Court. As always, we split a salt beef sandwich slathered with English mustard, plus a gherkin.
In Copenhagen, I had one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life. It was at a nondescript sandwich place called Smagsløset on Vesterbrogade, not far from our hotel. I ordered the turkey and Emmentaler sandwich.
That’s a picture of me scarfing down this sandwich at the top of this blog post. The bread was firm and had the ideal texture and consistency for a sandwich. Between the bread was the perfect ratio of cheese, turkey, barbecue sauce, onions, and lettuce. There was a hint of chili sauce and one other ingredient I couldn’t quite place — it was creamy, but I don’t think it was mayonnaise.
I only had one hamburger on my trip. It was the Nakskov burger at Halifax — Danish beef topped with fried onions, cheddar, bacon, mustard, pickles, and remoulade on a brioche bun. (Britt got the same thing, but with beets.)
While we didn’t stop in Paris, my brother did, so we had a French meal in London in his honor. At Brasserie Zédel on Sherwood Street (one of the many arteries flowing into Piccadilly Circus), I had the chicken sauteed in mushrooms and cream:
Britt, my dad, and I split two desserts. The first, a lemon meringue tart, was tasty but not remarkable.
The pièce de résistance was the île flottante, which is very hard to find outside France. It’s meringue floating in vanilla custard, and it’s delicious. The version at Zédel did not disappoint!
Of course there was pizza! Here’s the delightfully spicy Diavolo pie Britt and I split at the Pizza Express near Covent Garden:
In Copenhagen, Britt and I discovered an excellent Italian restaurant named C’ho Fame. It was next to the Halifax burger place. I played pizza roulette and got a basic sourdough pizza topped with large slices of thinly-sliced meat. It was delicious. I also played beer roulette and was delighted with the Birra Moretti.
What’s a vacation without a little alcohol! We weren’t in London for more than 24 hours before stopping in one of our favorite bars, an LGBTQ-friendly place called Common Counter at Glass House on Brick Lane.
The cocktail menu at Common Counter is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The combinations are inventive and imaginative. Here’s me drinking my Lady Ezulle, which contains rum, orange liqueur, rose peppercorn, lime, and bitters:
Here’s a better look at the drinks. Britt’s Wine of Ergl — apricot mead, gin, lemon, sparkling wine, and bitters — is on the right.
Of course, Britt and I had to stumble through some famous gay pubs in Soho — Admiral Duncan, Duke of Wellington, Comptons, and more. We downed a lot of pints of Camden Hells.
All of the gay pubs were decked out for the Platinum Jubilee. This sign at Compton’s was especially appropriate:
In Copenhagen, I discovered a great new soft drink: Faxe Kondi. It’s hard to pin down the taste, but it reminds me a bit of Inca Cola. A bottle is currently in my fridge, being saved for a special occasion.
Pastry and Cakes
Our favorite Portuguese treat in donut form? Yes, please! Britt and I discovered these pastas de nata donuts at a place called Santa Nata near Covent Garden:
There’s a cake place in Copenhagen appropriately named Cakenhagen. Britt and I split these two beauties at the location inside Tivoli. On the left is a Fatamorgana, a crème fraîche mousse with apricot filling on a biscuit base. On the right is a Det Gyldne Tärn, caramel mousse with passionfruit filling and a dark chocolate base.
These little cakes were just as pretty on the inside as they were on the outside:
Ice cream gets its own section because, one, it’s delicious, and, two, it’s my blog and how dare you question me.
If you recall, I said it was a 99 Flake soon after arrival that derailed all of my good intentions. A 99 Flake was one of my favorite childhood treats, even though the soft-serve ice cream actually tastes like cold whipped cream and has a little bit of a chalky mouthfeel. When I was a kid, a 99 Flake cost 99p. This one cost £6! Inflation, right?
Another childhood memory is getting ice cream at intermission during plays. Here’s the ice cream I got at the revival of The Glass Menagerie, starring Amy Adams.
On our last night in London, Britt and I found a gelato place called Amorino, known for its distinctive flower-shaped scoops. This cone — with hazelnut, chocolate hazelnut, and pistachio — didn’t last long. London was experiencing a heat wave, and you can see that the gelato had already started to melt a few seconds after it was served up.
After we ate our gelato, we discovered that Amorino was a chain with locations all over the U.K. Then we found out that they’re actually all over Europe. And, just a few days ago, we found a new location at the mall five miles from our house. So, I guess the place wasn’t as special as we thought.
I’ve saved the best for last. I discovered an ice cream treat in Chinatown that I’m still talking about. I speak of none other than fish ice cream!
No, it’s not what you’re thinking. What I’m calling fish ice cream is really called taiyaki, soft serve in a freshly made fish-shaped waffle. A quick Google search says that taiyaki originated in Japan. No matter where it came from, I can tell you where it ended up — in our bellies! I had fish ice cream twice, both times with vanilla soft serve. Britt had the vanilla-and-green-tea swirl, which he loved.
I have never liked fish until now. Just make sure it’s a fish in waffle form and filled with ice cream.
One of the first things I did after coming home is search Google for the nearest taiyaki place. It’s in New York. Britt, let’s start planning a trip!