July 23, 2012
I have a big glass jar full of foreign currency; bills and coins left over from trips gone by. When I get ready to leave a place and have a substantial amount of local money, I get it changed to U.S. dollars at the airport, of course. But you always lose a couple of bucks that way, and sometimes it just takes too long to queue up at a currency exchange booth. Then, too, I generally intend to use leftover cash on a later trip, though I tend to forget I have it the next time I head to the same place.
A better way to clean out your wallet on departure is to give spare foreign currency to Unicef’s Change for Good program, which uses it to help children around the world. One big way the organization does that is with its immunization drive. Each booster costs only a few cents. “It’s an incredibly cost-effective way to save lives,” says UNICEF Senior Vice President of Private Section Partnerships and Ventures at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Rajesh Anandan.
Change for Good is supported by American Airlines and foreign carriers like Aer Lingus, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Finnair and JAL, whose employees take on the job of collecting currency in-flight and at airline clubs. Many are deeply-committed to the project, helping to decide how Unicef will spend the donations and then visiting Change for Good projects. In March, for instance, four American Airlines employees traveled to the Dominican Republic to see how the $1.34 million collected by AA Change for Good “champions” last year went to work on birth registration and HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. Program revenue from 2011 also helped earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan and drought sufferers in the Horn of Africa.
Twenty-five years ago it seemed like an idea whose time had come to journalist and educator Howard Simons, who died in 1989. He proposed the plan in a Wall Street Journal editorial that was noticed by Unicef, which teamed up with Virgin Atlantic to try a pilot version of the project in 1987, raising $10,000 in just three months. Change for Good was officially launched in 1991 and is now one of the organization’s signature private sector partnerships, along with Gucci’s annual Unicef product line (kicking in up to 25 percent of an item’s price) and pro bono logistic support donated by UPS to streamline aid distribution.
So now I know what to do with my jar of foreign currency, provided I can get it through security. Actually, Change for Good accepts donations by mail, but posting the heavy jar full of Turkish liras, Cambodia riels and Irish 50-pence pieces (still accepted even though Ireland has adopted the euro) wouldn’t be cost-effective.
July 5, 2012
The thing is, there’s just too much art in the Louvre Museum—35,000 pieces, and that’s just what’s on display. There are also too many people, some eight million a year tromping past the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory.
Enter the Louvre-Lens, an outpost of the great Paris museum, scheduled to open in December. Other landmark museums have already opened satellites: the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain; the Pompidou Center in Metz, capital of the Lorraine; even a baby Hermitage in Amsterdam. But the rising Lens museum marks the Louvre’s first foray outside the City of Light.
Strictly speaking, overcrowding is not the reason why the Louvre is building a $200 million facility in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. It has more to do with the accessibility of the town of Lens—which can be reached by train in two to three hours from Paris, London and Brussels—and a deep need for urban renewal in an old coal industry center that lost its last mine in 1986, pushing unemployment to 15 percent.
Also driving the museum’s creation is an effort to attract French people to the Louvre; as it stands now, foreign tourists chiefly flow through the I. M. Pei Pyramid at the threshold of the Louvre in Paris, so it’s hoped to attract les Français at an offshoot outside the capital.
The infant Louvre in Lens was designed by the award-winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA with a long, low entrance building lined in glass, underground display areas where visitors can see behind-the-scenes conservation and storage, and a Gallerie du Temps housing a regularly changing collection of 250 masterworks ranging across 5,000 years of art history (including at the time of opening Eugène Delacroix’s La Liberté, a French national icon). The side by side arrangement is a vastly different approach from that at the Louvre Paris, where you’d have to walk six miles to visit every room. Having worked off several pounds in past visits to the Paris mother ship, I welcome a more compact experience in art appreciation at Lens. Don’t tell the curator, but I think of it as Louvre Lite.
May 23, 2012
Hold on. Before you buy a new Audi, Fiat or BMW, take a look at a Volvo. Never mind the style and engineering. They’re giving away vacations.
Sound like one of those annoying TV ads? Hyperbolic. Too good to be true. Appended by fine print that makes the deal a loser.
In this case the offer is as sound as a Volvo, made to safely handle the ice and snow of the homeland.
The carmaker’s Overseas Delivery Program is for people who buy Volvos directly from the factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Volvos have been produced since 1927. Along with free shipping of the vehicle to a U.S. dealer, purchasers get two round-trip plane tickets to Sweden on Scandinavian Airlines and a one-night stay at a hotel in Gothenburg, giving them time to tour the Volvo Museum, where visitors learn that the brand’s name means “I roll” in Latin and that since 2010 it’s been owned by Geely Automotive, headquartered—where else?—in China. Gothenburg also has a city museum with Sweden’s only surviving Viking ship and some of the freshest seafood in Europe.
Once you get your car, which comes with European vehicle registration and insurance, you’re free to hit the road along the west coast of Sweden with its fishing villages, traditional folkways and scattering of islands. There’s Marstrand, guarded by 17th-century Carlsten Fortress, black dolomite-fringed Gullholmen and wild Hallo, where people who can tolerate cold water swim and snorkel.
Or you can head south over the Oresund Bridge to Denmark, the gateway to mainland Europe, driving the autobahn to Berlin, back roads in France, even over the Alps to Italy. Great destinations, all of them, especially in a new car. If you return the vehicle when you’re done to the Volvo factory in Gothenburg, shipping back to the U.S. is free, though a fee is charged from Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid and other drop-off points across the continent.
When I heard about the plan, I couldn’t figure out why the company would make such a generous offer. But it turns out to be a good deal for Volvo, too. “Our Overseas Delivery customers are among the best ambassadors we have for the brand,” U.S. manager Anders Robertson told me. Moreover, it saves the company money by not tying up capital while a car sits on the lot waiting for purchasers.
Too bad I’m not in the market for a car. But I may go window-shopping at a Volvo dealership, where I’ll ask a few questions about standard features before taking a seat behind the wheel, not for a test drive, but to fantasize about a trip to Europe.
March 30, 2012
Centre Street in the town of Ashland, Pennsylvania (population 3,091), rides a hill in the coal-rich northeastern part of the Keystone state. To the south is 1,420-foot Mahanoy Mountain, its flank amputated by strip mining, its innards coiled with mine shafts; to the north the abandoned site of Centralia where a trash fire set in May, 1962, spread to coal deposits underground. Fifty years later, the fire is still burning though the state spent millions trying to put it out, then moved some 1,000 people out due to concerns about toxic gas emissions and subsidence in home-owners’ back yards.
I detoured to this lost corner of America on a recent road trip across Pennsylvania, stopping first to see the Museum of Anthracite Coal in the Ashland borough hall. They had to turn the lights on for me when I got there, but the displays proved to be a comprehensive primer on the industry that shaped a region with the world’s highest concentration of low-ash anthracite, a prized kind of hard, clean-burning coal. It was discovered around Ashland in the 1850’s when Henry Clay, then a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, promoted the imposition of tariffs that made it profitable to replace imports from Wales with coal from the United States. Surveys revealed that northeast Pennsylvania had 75 billion tons of bituminous coal and 23 billion tons of anthracite, resulting in the growth of mining operations and small towns to serve them.
Ashland is a classic with its own Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine Shaft and Steam Train tourist attraction and Whistler’s Mother Monument, built in 1937 for the annual homecoming of the Ashland Boys Association. It looks like a scene from the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, with modest workers’ homes, shops and bars that have good bones, but an air of dilapidation stemming from the failure of the industry after World War II, when coal fell out of favor as a fuel source. It’s estimated that 58 billion tons of bituminous and 7 billion tons of anthracite remain, but natural gas deposits are now more attractive, tapped by the environmentally-contentious technique of hydro-fracking.
The coal museum tells the anthracite story from prospecting and drilling to treating acid water, a toxic byproduct of the mining process. Disasters like the 1869 fire at an anthracite mine in Avondale, Pennsylvania, that killed over a hundred workers, are also described, along with deadly gas known as black damp. But to understand the dangers of abandoned mines I drove three miles north to the ghost town of Centralia.
A few long-time residents continue to live there, along with those at eternal rest in two sorrowful Centralia cemeteries. When weather conditions are right, visitors can see smoke billowing up from scorched patches of ground, but otherwise nothing marks the mostly-abandoned town site. Highway 61 has been diverted around Centralia and the old main street is barricaded by a litter-strewn berm, defaced by fresh graffiti that tells who to call for a time. It reminded me of visiting the ruins of Gibellina, a small town in southwestern Sicily, razed by a 1968 earthquake, then memorialized with a cover of concrete by Italian artist Alberto Bruni.
Obviously, no one’s celebrating Centralia’s semi-centennial this year and visitors are mostly curiosity-seekers like me. Its lack of markers is presumably intentional, given the hazards, but sad. I stood there in a cold rain wondering whether some stray, surviving dogwood would put out commemorative blossoms in the spring.
November 1, 2011
Reading murder mysteries used to be one of my guiltiest pleasures, pure entertainment for the couch potato. But then I discovered a multitude of crime novels set in Italy and realized they could be useful to the traveler. While on the trail of bad guys, mystery writers recount history and politics in an amusing way, set the mood of a place and sometimes even offer specific tips for tourists willing to track them down.
Take Rat King, Cosi Fan Tutti and nine other mysteries by the late Michael Dibdin, set all over Italy, featuring the suave, sharp, but emotionally adolescent investigator Aurelio Zen, recently played by Rufus Sewell in a BBC Masterpiece Theater. One of the books takes Zen out to lunch at a little pork restaurant near his office on Rome’s Viminale Hill. As it turns out, Er Buchetto (which means pork in an old Roman dialect) is still there, a cubbyhole dispensing slices of succulent roast pork from a carcass by the front door, served on wax paper, by weight. Accompanied by crusty rolls and excellent jug wine, it’s as cheap and tasty a meal as you’re likely to find around the historic center.
The mysteries of Donna Leon, an American academic who lives in Venice, feature Commissioner Guido Brunetti, a plain, old-fashioned good guy who helps his kids with their homework and goes home for lunch when the crime scene in La Serenissima allows. Every time I go to Venice I end up in some lonely cul-de-sac by a canal that I recognize from a Leon mystery. She’s on her 21st, Beastly Things, now.
Western Sicily is the territory of Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, so richly-rendered in 16 books (and an Italian TV series based on them) that tourism has spiked in Port Empedocle, the model for the mysteries’ fictitious town of Vigata near the island’s southwest coast. Camilleri’s gumshoe Salvo Montalbano has a taste for blondes and Sicilian food; ordering the local specialties he eats in the books won’t leave any gourmand disappointed.
Finally, there’s a mystery set in Tuscany by the late Sir John Mortimer who gave us the inimitable Rumpole of the Bailey. Summer’s Lease, published in 1988, is about an English woman who drags her family to a rented villa in the Chianti region of Tuscany (so popular with people from the U.K. that it’s nicknamed Chiantishire) where she noses into the absent owner’s secrets.
The book, made into a BBC Masterpiece Theater feature in 1991 starring Sir John Gielgud, is a little piece of fluff. But the story begins with a terrific piece of travel advice in the form of an itinerary:
The work of Piero della Francesca can be followed from the frescoes in Arezzo to the pregnant Madonna in the small chapel at Monterchi. Enthusiasts can take the trail to Sansepolcro and on, across the Mountains of the Moon, to see the sublime Flagellation in the Ducal Palace at Urbino, undoubtedly the greatest small picture in the world.
Based on nothing more than that, I followed the trail last spring and ended up grateful to Mortimer for leading me to its enchantments, especially Piero’s riveting Resurrection in the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro.