Friday, October 29, 2010

No Reservations Is One Thing. No Destination Is Another.

Traveling without a plan? C’mon now. If you know me well, or even if you know me a little, you’ll know I have never done such a thing. Or at least not willingly. I’m Type A, after all.

When I have a trip coming up, I research, research, research. Then I research some more. It’s partially out of some deep instinctual need to know what I’m doing (or ahem, shall we say be in control). But it’s also for pleasure. Honest. I love making lists of restaurants we might want to try. I like reading reviews on and I like getting oriented – and anticipating things.

(And, by the way, research shows that anticipation increases happiness – as well as what you gain from the overall travel experience. Don’t believe me? Check out this fascinating New York Times article called “But Does It Make You Happy?” The takeaway for me was that my alter ego Planny Plannerson is not something to be embarrassed about, but in fact a vital component to my happiness.)

That said, I confess that I have often longed to be one of those spontaneous travelers, the kind who just lets fate direct them. Who doesn’t stare at the map. Who doesn’t worry about where to sleep tonight – or at least not until nightfall. Who doesn’t use guidebooks. But who manages to find him/herself in the craziest situations. And thus, who comes homes with amazing stories that make jaws drop and bellies ache.

I guess all Type A’s long to be this person at times, and perhaps that explains the recent trend I’ve seen of “plan-less” travel journalism. In September, the New York Times began a monthly travel feature called “Getting Lost.” The idea is to plop yourself in a foreign destination with no maps, no GPS and zero research – and just see what happens. The first piece was “Lost in Tangier,” a seemingly perfect destination for confusion given its labyrinthine center. The problem? The writer ran into people he knew (and who knew Tangier quite well), and after that, he was no longer lost, I would argue.

But the second piece, “Lost in Ireland,” revealed greater challenges in the “purposefully lost” concept, given the isolation of traveling by car instead of foot. The writer barely interacted with anyone for the first three days and found loneliness setting in until he decided to just accept being alone. For me, this is the part I think I would really stink at. Being lonely on vacation sounds awful. I also don’t like the idea of missing out on something really sublime right around the corner – because I don’t know about it. This writer, for example, never found that classic Irish pub full of storytelling, singing men.

The Times series, however, invokes less anxiety than another article I read in Oprah magazine, which takes impulsive travel to a new extreme. It’s called “Traveling to Toyko Without a Map,” but it’s not just that the author took off without a map. She left home without a destination. She packed a bag, went to the airport and asked a stranger where she should go. The response was “Tokyo,” and thus, she bought a flight to Toyko. From there, she asked people on the plane where to stay, people at the hotel where to eat and so on. Every aspect of her trip was determined by the advice of others.

It’s a head-spinning idea, and of course, it’s only possible if you have the funds to buy a ticket anywhere last minute. But it really intrigued me. Would you find that elusive thing only a local could tip you off to? Is everything you need available from a random person on the street – and you just have to ask? Unfortunately, I doubt I have the cojones. I mean, what if your random stranger said a place where it might be dangerous to show up with no idea what you’re doing and no one around who speaks English? Those type of fears aside, there’s no doubt that kind of trip is going to be a story like no other. Maybe even a bestselling novel, later adapted into an award-winning film.

And that’s why I’ll always wish I could be that kind of traveler. And why I’ll always read these type of travel articles with keen interest and admiration. But let’s face it. I’m not that person. Which is why I have to run. I have research to do for an upcoming trip.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

It’s All Happening in Harlem

Boarding the shuttle from Boston to New York recently, I picked up a NY Times and settled in for the short flight. I was on the way to join my partner Kevin, who’s been working in Harlem on a renovation project. I’d become so jealous of all the fun he was having in this newly revitalized neighborhood that I wanted to check it out for myself. “It is so happening here,” he told me.

Well, wouldn’t you know, I flip to the Weekend section of the Times and spot an article called “Going Upscale Uptown,” a roundup of several hip new restaurants and bars that are bringing Harlem into the limelight. The excitement of Manhattan came flooding back, despite it being what I once called “the coldest of all my exes.” I hadn’t even arrived, and I was already plotting which spots to try.

That night, having forgotten all my city slicker instincts, I urged Kevin to hit up some of the places in the article. We walked over to Frederick Douglas Blvd. between 112th and 120th, the stretch featured in the article, only to find that everyone else in New York had read the article and decided to do the same thing for their Friday night. The places were packed. No tables open. Nowhere to stand. Yes, I should have known, but such things don’t happen in New Mexico. Crowds? Waits? Not things I think about anymore.

But in New York, you better think about it. So I did, and like a smart urbanite, we returned to one of the smallest spots, 67 Orange Street, in the middle of the week. Much better. We got seats at the bar (which actually afforded more room than the tiny table we tried first), ordered some appetizers and cocktails (the Brazilian Jig for me, The Emancipation for Kevin) and chatted with Karl Franz Williams, the owner, whose photo had been in the Times.

Life had been good for him that week – after the Times piece came out, he did four more interviews, he said. That’s good news for his two places – he also owns Society Coffee just a few blocks north, which has a very community-oriented vibe – and good news for Harlem. The word was out about the rebirth (depicted in the mural shown above), and everyone was showing up. Blacks, whites, Latinos, tourists. Lots of tourists. We kept seeing them everywhere we went.

In fact, we soon decided European tourists (particularly German) were more in the know about Harlem than we were. They had camped out at Yatenga, the very cool French bistro where we had planned to brunch on the patio and watch the African American Day Parade (pictured above), and they also knew about the Sunday afternoon Parlor Jazz series at pianist Marjorie Eliot’s apartment. A friend tipped us off and we arrived – along with all the Germans – to see Marjorie and a flutist/saxophonist make improvisational magic.

But I can tell you now exactly what the Europeans know. There is some seriously good eating and drinking to be done in Harlem these days. On the soul food front, I have to be a heretic, though. I say forget Sylvia’s, the famous restaurant where tour buses now frequent. I thought the Queen of Soul Food's Fried Chicken and Waffles were just okay. The cake-like cornbread was really the best part. Amy Ruth’s? Well, I can’t even say as the Sunday brunch line was so out-of-control, I refused to wait in it.

I can vouch for brunch at Melba’s (photo below), run by Sylvia’s niece. Melba serves chicken and waffles too, but she’s added a modern touch to everything from to her decor – sleek and sophisticated with a bopping jazz soundtrack – to her menu. She serves Mimosas and Mellinis, for example, and her cute mini waffles come with this insanely good strawberry butter. I opted for the Sweet Potato Pancakes, however, and I did not regret it. They were moist, heavenly and repeat-worthy. Kevin’s Salmon Croquette was also quite good (and better than Sylvia’s, he said.)

But the best meal I had in Harlem was at Zoma, an upscale Ethiopian restaurant next door to 67 Orange. We stumbled in without knowing anything about it. I’ve always thought Ethiopian food was interesting, and that the communal eating was fun, but this was my first experience with crave-worthy Ethiopian. Beside the delicious Doro Wett chicken, I can’t stop thinking about a vegetarian side dish we had called Shiro Wett – chickpeas, lentils and peas in a berbere sauce with “a multitude of spices.” The menu called it “Ethiopian comfort food,” and yes, it’s as comforting as mashed potatoes.

I know you don’t believe me ("chickpeas and lentils!?"), but it’s true. So if you ever find yourself at the top of Central Park, within five minutes walking distance of the many beautiful blocks of Harlem brownstones just to the north, stroll on up Fredrick Douglas Blvd. and see what I’m talking about. You will not leave hungry – nor will you fail to notice the incredible, diverse energy of this resurgent area.

Oh, and I'm sure you'll bump into some Europeans too (for proof, see the ones behind Kevin above). As a final parting shot, below is a photo of Kevin giving directions to some French tourists. They wanted to know where they could see some basketball being played. No, I am not joking. The racial cliché had us giggling the rest of the afternoon.