Vacation vignettes — Deadly explosions, Syrian refugees, urine streets

My short vacation gave me food for thought about explosions, Syrian refugees, urban decay, Broadway stars, and good things about cruises.

New York CityI’m baaaack!! And before I go anywhere, I have to say “thank you” a million times to Wolf Howling who kept this blog lively and informative with his wonderful posts. Thanks too, to all of you, for coming back every day. I appreciate that more than you realize.

My vacation took me to the Northeastern seaboard, from New York to Canada, so I thought that I would share with you — in no particular order — the things that stood out for me.

Norwegian Cruise Lines is fun. On past cruises, which always work well for our family given our different interests and energy levels, we’ve traveled on Holland America. These have been wonderful cruises. The ships are immaculate, the food delicious and very high quality, and the service exquisite. We’ve also been to fascinating ports all over the northern hemisphere, from Mexico to the North Sea to Tunisia. If I were to compare our Holland America cruises to a car, I’d compare them to a Lexus.

Norwegian Cruise Lines is more like a Honda Accord: it’s fun, reliable, but not too fancy. On Holland America, the decks were teak; on Norwegian, they weren’t. Also, on Norwegian, while the food was very good, it wasn’t great, and the service in the restaurants was a little less polished than on Holland America. These are not negatives; they are simply indicators of the “fanciness” of the cruise.

What Norwegian has that our other cruises didn’t was fun and lots of it. Since the cruise left from New York and headed north, a lot of the passengers came from the Eastern seaboard (New York and New Jersey all the way down to Florida). For the most part, they were people who were committed to having fun and the cruise made that easy. Norwegian offers something called “free-style” cruising, which means eating where you want, when you want, and wearing what you want, when and where you want. Little girls dressed like princesses for the dining room while their parents were in casual clothes. This made it a completely relaxed experience.

Where Norwegian really stood out, though, was the entertainment. That’s not where Holland America put its money on the cruises I’ve been on. The productions on Holland America were like good quality high school performances.

The Norwegian cruise productions, on the other hand, were like mini Las Vegas reviews: talented performers singing and dancing, wearing lavish costumes, singing and dancing on stages with incredible and sophisticated sets. There were four all-cast musical reviews, one very funny comedian, a juggler who veered between very funny and children’s birthday party (but was quite skilled), and an aerial duo who did one of the best aerial acts I’ve ever seen (and that’s after watching just about every Cirque du Soliel show that’s come around). After we returned to New York we saw a Broadway show (more about that later) and I felt that the performers on that stage were no better than the ones on the ship.

It helped that on this cruise I had adult children with me. Mr. Bookworm is an early bird, so when he turned in at night, the kids and I sang Karaoke, listened to cabaret shows, and went dancing. A good time was had by all (including Mr. Bookworm, who slept well).

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The last time I was in New York was more than a decade ago, when the site of 9/11 was still a gaping hole in the ground and the “museum” was a makeshift assemblage of items recovered from the building’s collapse, as well as many of the heart-wrenching “have you seen” posters from the days and weeks after the attack. This time, we got to see the new World Trade tower, the memorial, and the museum.

I didn’t particularly like the new tower, which is just a big glass thing, a style I’ve never liked since it started popping up in the late 1970s. However, its height is definitely an “F-You” to the Islamic terrorists, and I appreciate that.

I also wasn’t thrilled with the memorial. The names engraved on dozens of granite slabs were both moving and derivative, because the concept is pretty much a copy of the Vietnam Wall. I thought that, given the money available and the time it took to come up with a memorial, the Port Authority might have found something just as moving but more original for an entirely different kind of American tragedy.

Aside from copying the Vietnam Wall name theme, the Port Authority installed two deep pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers, with each holding an endless fountain flowing downwards into a pit. That’s a lousy description, so this video might help:

I found the whole thing sterile, rather than moving. I think that was because it reminded me of a cleaned-up version of the quarry at Mauthausen, which was yet another horrific site of death at the hands of totalitarians. This video makes the site look peaceful and pretty, but Mauthausen was a place of tremendous suffering:

I don’t know. Maybe I was grumpy (it was hot) or picky, but I just didn’t feel the memorial resonated with me.

The museum itself, though, was very well done and, to me, deeply moving. The kids, who have no memory of 9/11 or a pre-9/11 world, were interested in what they saw, but not as upset as Mr. Bookworm and I were. The worst thing for me was finally hearing the answering machine recording that Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas left for her husband from United Flight 93. I’d read the transcript years ago, but it was wrenching to hear Lauren’s voice again. She was so calm and loving — even though it’s clear she knew that this was the end for her and the child within her.

Halifax offers a weird symmetry to 9/11. If you’re not Canadian, you might not know that, on December 6, 1917, the small town of Halifax, in Nova Scotia, experienced the largest man-made explosion before the atom bomb was dropped. It happened when a French cargo ship laden with explosives collided with a Norwegian ship in the harbor. As with 9/11, the ships burned for a while and brave men rushed towards the disaster to try to rescue people and control any further damage. And as with 9/11, the fires, rather than burning themselves out, or even burning “normally,” resulted in a cataclysmic event — on 9/11, the Twin Towers collapsed and in Halifax the French ship exploded with such force that it instantly killed 2,000 people and left a landscape that looks exactly like Hiroshima or Nakasaki.

This is Halifax less than 20 years before the explosion:

This may be a picture shot within 30 or so seconds after the explosion:

And this is Halifax after the explosion:

I know that 9/11 resulted from murderous malevolence and Halifax from carelessness, but the parallels still struck me with some force.

Syrians are not model refugees. In St. John, New Brunswick, the big attraction is the magical Bay of Fundy, which has such a high tide it makes the river flow in both directions. It’s also a pleasant region to visit because the town is clean and pretty despite being a huge port city (the Irving family, through its businesses, apparently owns much of the town, and the company makes sure things look nice).

What I found most fascinating, though, had nothing to do with the Bay of Fundy, the Irving family, or other typical tourist attractions. Instead, it was something I learned from our tour guide, a delightful Afghani woman who immigrated to Canada 20 years ago. She and her husband are dream immigrants: grateful for the opportunity to be in a free, thriving country; hard-working; maintaining their culture at home, while making sure to assimilate outside of the home in order to give their kids the best opportunities possible. They’re obviously religious, but having seen both the Mujahadeen and the Taliban in action, they are pluralists, not fanatics.

Our guide told us that the Canadian government settled 5,000 Syrian refugees in St. John, a city with a population of less than 70,000. I asked, very tactfully and neutrally (at least for me), “How’s it working out with the Syrian refugees?” The answer I got surprised me:

“They’re terrible. They’re freeloaders. All they do is take, take, take.”

According to our guide, when her family came to Canada, they got a loan to settle in and one year of welfare. During that year, they took English classes and the husband looked for any work he could do, so that they could repay their loan and get on with life in their new country. They now have a thriving family business.

The Syrians, however, demand more and more money, as well as high-end housing, and they refuse to work. Instead, said our tour guide, the Syrians pop out babies every nine months, which increases their demands for money and housing. When she cooked food for 300 for an Eid al-Fitr celebration to mark the end of Ramadan, the Syrians were so greedy the first ones in line ate all the food.

My guide’s remarks reminded me that the current crop of Islamic immigrants around the world are not like past groups who came in smaller numbers and were not radicalized. Today’s Islamic immigrants aren’t like any immigrants since the barbarian hordes descended on the tottering remains of the Roman Empire. Culture matters and culture suggests that most of those coming to the West from the countries on Trump’s reinstated travel ban come, not to work hard and assimilate to constitutional values (or whatever else passes for a constitution in non-U.S. Western nations), but to conquer. We’re not useful idiots; we’re useful dhimmis.

L.L. Bean gets so fatuous and banal I can’t stand it. L.L. Bean and Maine are pretty synonymous. I have no quarrel with L.L. Bean’s products (although they don’t make my size in either shoes or petites) or with the fact that they are a thriving business that brings lots of money to Maine. Good for them. What made me irritated was an ad in a bus in Bar Harbor saying “L.L. Bean believes that nature has all the answers” (or something pretty close to that).

The banality and ignorance behind that statement would always have annoyed me, but it came on the heels of my reading a fascinating book called The Plague and I, which Betty MacDonald wrote. If MacDonald’s name sounds familiar to you, it might be because you read (or read to your children) the marvelously wise and whimsical Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. Or perhaps you saw the movie The Egg and I, which MacDonald wrote and which introduced Ma and Pa Kettle to American movie audiences.

Before she became famous author, though, MacDonald was a struggling divorced mother in Seattle. It was there, in 1937, that she got diagnosed with tuberculosis.

In a pre-antibiotic era, tuberculosis was one of the world’s great killers. According to a documentary I watched, the disease, which has been found in 4,000-year-old mummies, has killed more people than any other disease in the world — more even than malaria, which was a surprise to me.

By the turn of the last century, 1 in 7 Americans was afflicted with TB. Sometimes the disease killed slowly, and sometimes swiftly, but it always killed horribly. If you ever want to know how miserably some peopled died in a pre-antibiotic era, read about the death of Edward VI (Henry VIII’s) son, who died at 16 of what was probably spinal TB. He basically rotted from the inside out.

By the 1930s, the sanitariums had figured out that, if people moved as little as possible, their lungs might encapsulate the disease before it spread and killed them (either with hemorrhages or rot). Other treatments involved collapsing the lungs, removing parts of the lungs, and creating air pockets outside the lungs to put pressure inside the lungs — all in an effort to stop the disease’s spread to aid with encapsulation. Even with these treatments, though, 50% of all sanitarium patients died, some after spend years bedridden in those institutions.

Because MacDonald was destitute, she was admitted as a patient to the Firland Sanatorium, a charity hospital in Seattle. Her nine months there were something else, characterized as they were by boredom, rigid rules, cruel nurses, fear, pain, death and, for some, like MacDonald herself, eventual recovery. She was to live another 20 years, eventually dying of uterine cancer.

The end for tuberculosis, of course, wasn’t pure, sweet Nature, but human intelligence, knowledge, patience and ingenuity. Robert Koch identified the bacteria, Pasteur helped lessen the risk of transmission, and, in 1943, Selman A. Waksman, after decades of work, found an antibiotic that was effective against Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Sadly, thanks to AIDS, homelessness, drug abuse, and prison population transmission, we are seeing a resurgence of antibiotic resistant TB. What will save us, if anything does, isn’t nature but (again) human ingenuity and hard work.

I am not a New York kind of gal. We ended our trip with two-and-a-half days in New York. Let me start by saying that we hit a heat wave, which is not a nice way to see the city. That heat wave may account for the fact that, wherever we went, the city stank of urine and garbage. That’s the same way it smelled the first time I visited in 1994, a very short time into Mayor Giuliani’s term. When I visited again in 2003 (or maybe 2004), while Mayor Bloomberg was still continuing many of Giuliani’s policies, it no longer smelled. Now it smelled again. Maybe it was the weather; maybe it was De Blasio. I don’t know. I just know that my olfactory senses were not happy in this giant pissoir.

Aside from the stench, though, the city looked much as it had in 2003 or 2004. There were more homeless, but they were nothing compared to San Francisco’s homeless. What I also noticed was an astonishing building boom. Everywhere you looked, New York was being rebuilt and remodeled. New Yorkers may hate Trump, but they’ve got to love the Trump economy. There’s a little of “other people’s money” out there to fund De Blasio’s communism for a long time.

Apropos hating Trump, In Washington Square Park there was a woman with a little cart selling “Resistance” buttons. Although she’s apparently popular enough to get mentioned in Big Media and even has a web page, I thought she looked pathetic and lonely.

Mostly what I don’t like about NY, though, is just how big and busy it is. That is, I dislike what so many people love: the crowds, the store fronts, the traffic, and the general dynamism. Rather than being exhilarated, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I prefer the charms of more peaceful places.

A tired Kewpie doll. I don’t remember a time in my life when I hadn’t heard of Bernadette Peters. When I started loving show tunes, as a girl in the early 1970s, someone gave me a record with her singing from her first big hit, Dames at Sea. Here you can hear that slightly husky voice that was so unique to her:

With time’s passage, I started seeing her on television shows, at which point I realized that she looked like an adorable Kewpie doll:

I’ve always admired Peters’ talent, as has Mr. Bookworm, who loves her in Stephen Sondheim productions. When we got the chance to got half-price tickets to her star turn in a Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!, after Bette Midler left the role, we jumped. The show was in the Schubert Theater, which is a 1913 jewel box that has seen some of the brightest stars of Hollywood and Broadway perform outstanding plays and musicals. The production was lavish and polished.

Every time Peters came out, the audience (and it was a full house), went wild. Moreover, she did a very good job . . . and yet. . . .

Peters is 70 now and it showed. Not only has her voice lost that rough quality and settled into hoarseness, she didn’t have the same energy as the young cast around her. I saw Carol Channing perform the role 15 years after she first originated it and she knocked everyone’s socks off. Peters has the same star quality Channing did (and Channing must have been in her 50s when I saw her), but mostly Peters seemed tired.

After the show ended, we lucked into seeing Peters leave the theater for her waiting car. She’s tiny (maybe my height), has masses of auburn hair (beautifully dyed, I suspect), a perfectly smooth complexion — and looked exhausted, although she could not have been more gracious to her fans. I wonder if she’ll retire after this run.

The biggest disappointment of the trip. I have raved here for years about the Tenement Museum in New York which I visited in 2003 or 2004. Back then, I felt it gave a stunning insight into the European immigrant experience at the turn of the last century. The building itself is impressive, because it’s pretty much a time capsule, having been sealed off in the 1930s. The tour I took really described what immigrants experienced, from Stygian hallways, to unbelievably crowded living and work spaces, to death and to disease, to the true American experience of leaving the slums behind and rising up economically.

The new tours, though, are concerned with “feelz,” especially feelz aimed at making us support illegal immigration. The tour guide never came out and said that about today’s illegal immigrants, but after every factoid about the family who had once lived in one of the units, the earnest tour guide asked the group how we would feel as an immigrant in America. He also made sure to mention that one of the immigrants discussed came here illegally. It was not nuanced.

It was only due to my prompting about information I learned in the last tour that anyone on this tour heard about diseases, mortality and, most importantly, the upward economic journey these immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren made. The tour also failed entirely to talk about the circumstances from which these people were escaping. Again, I prompted by asking questions based upon information I gleaned more than a decade ago.

The dismay I felt wasn’t only because I’m so hyper-aware of politics. The kids also said the tour was boring too because it was all about emotions. They would have preferred more facts so that they could truly understand the immigrant experience, instead of just being told repeatedly to plaster their own experience over it.

The bookstore also disappointed me, primarily because it had too many (for my tastes) politically correct SJW, gender, race, and sexuality study books about immigrants. Of course there were good books thrown in — memoirs, cookbooks, and a groundbreaking documentary series of photographs: Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half: A Complete Catalogue of His PhotographsStill, I felt that there was a strong political viewpoint and it wasn’t about America being the land of opportunity.

While the museum is still worthwhile if you want to see the inside of an old tenement building, I no longer can recommend the Tenement Museum as a visceral, affecting look at how past generations of Americans came, suffered, and still thrived.

Image credit: New York City by Andrés Nieto Porras; Creative commons; some rights reserved.