Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sharks, Reptiles & Fish....A Whole Lot Of Fish

I've always loved aquariums. The minute I step inside I become a big kid who is fascinated by everything around me. I've visited aquariums of all sizes, from those that are barely more than a few fish tanks to ones of epic size. My favorite by far is the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. So when we found ourselves passing through Maryland recently I made spending a day at the aquarium at top priority since I couldn't wait to introduce Sidney to this wonderful watery world.

It had been years since I last visited the aquarium and a lot had changed. It was bigger and better than I remembered with new exhibitions including a steamy rain forest. But my old favorites were there as well; who doesn't love the multi-floor tanks where you can walk both up, over and down taking in the schools of swimming fish of all sizes. And the shark tank filled with those dangerously beautiful animals? Sidney was simultaneously entranced and scared by what he saw. As an adult I appreciated the educational aspect of so many of the displays. Aquarium educators stood by many of the tanks, waiting to explain their contents to visitors. Written narratives explained others and I loved the connection that was made between what we were seeing, how we live and how it all effects the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

But as is the case with so many things, pictures simply say it better than words. So here are a few of my favorite pictures that give you a sense of how wonderful this aquarium really is.

If you go:

National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor
Baltimore, Maryland
Open 09.00-18.00 most days but hours vary
Tickets- $34.95 for adults, $21.95 for children over age 3, $29.95 for senior citizens

Paid parking at nearby Lockwood Place Garage
124 Market Place

Monday, July 28, 2014

Connecting Two Shores: The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel

NASA image of the bridge and tunnel connecting the two shores

Road trips. It seems as though our family spends a lot of time in our car traveling from one location to another. In recent years we've driven throughout the well maintained highways and back roads of Scandinavia and we've explored the narrow and winding roads of Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia and everywhere in between. With both of us growing up along the east coast of the United States, we are all too familiar with the Route 95 corridor that snakes its way from Maine to Florida. I'd like to say that it is a pretty drive but it really isn't. Mile upon mile of multi-lane asphalt peppered with strip malls, industrial complexes and only occasional peeks of nature gets old fast. Add in the traffic that inevitably clogs the road regardless of when you travel and the trip is less than pleasant. Whenever the chance arises to actually bi-pass any of it, we take full advantage of the opportunity. And our favorite bi-pass is by far the rural stretch that is the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) peninsula.

While much of the coastline of the Eastern Shore is nothing but nature preserves and small fishing villages, the interior route is almost as dismal as the 95 corridor. Here rural poverty is real and in your face; abandoned farms, dilapidated yet inhabited trailers and businesses doing triple duty as auto garages, bait shops and tourist traps with the occasional fast food joint are all you pass for miles. Here you can buy your tobacco, fireworks and Virginia hams at a single stop. And if you are passing through at the right time you can even throw in a church service or two. I can never decide if this area of Virginia, close to the beltway as the crow flies but miles away in culture, is trapped in time or simply forgotten by the rest of the world. Perhaps it is a bit of both. But the realities of the Eastern Shore aren't what this post is really about. Rather, it is about the highlight of the trip which is the drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Those views more than make up for what is to come.

The series of high rise bridges, gracefully winding causeways and two tunnels that spans the 23 miles across the Chesapeake Bay between Virginia Beach and Cape Charles is what connects this remote part of Virginia with the rest of the state. Built on a series of artificial islands, it was completed as a two lane route in 1964. In the 1990s portions of the route were expanded to four lanes and today it remains one of only ten such bridge and tunnel systems in the world. To engineering fanatics, this roadway system is a modern marvel but to lay travelers like myself it is simply beautiful.

Whether you drive across the bridge at sunrise, sunset or in the middle of the day, the views are breathtaking. For drivers with time to spare, there is a small restaurant and pull off area midway across the Bay where you can stop to take in the views. And while the road itself may seem busy the waterways below are even more so. Cargo ships filled with containers, commercial fishing vessels and small dories and even kayaks are always moving about in the water. And the sight of a Navy vessel and even an aircraft carrier, making its way up the bay towards the base in Norfolk is not an uncommon sight.

It really is a pretty view and I've known many people who simply drive across the bridge and back just to see what they might see. Personally I've never done that but I can understand why one might. So last week as we made our way north from Hampton Roads we joined the long train of travelers and made our way across the Bay. We stopped at the pull off area and took pictures through the early morning summer haze. I looked back onto the sandy shores of Virginia Beach that were dotted with condos and then northward towards the winding expanses of the causeway that seemed to dip and disappear right into the water. Heading north feels like you are driving off into another time and place. And in a sense you are. But since getting to your destination is half of the fun we enjoyed our small piece of serene beauty while we could. After all, there are very few places in the world where you can do this.

Sunset view of the bridge that
leads right into the water

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mermaids On Parade

Mermaid on the rise
Norfolk, Virginia is a city of juxtapositions. Her grand old homes situated along crepe myrtle lined streets are reminiscent of the genteel old south while neighborhoods filled with scruffy tract housing are a reminder of her less than polished post World War II days when the Navy was the strongest, but least welcomed, influence in town. Newly built condo high rises and pre-fab cookie cutter houses are like the fourth face lift to a city that is past its prime but refuses to give up. Norfolk is home to the largest naval base in the world as well as PETA headquarters yet has the Pat Robinson religious empire in its Virginia Beach backyard. Religion is worn on one's sleeve and politics here are conservative. Being a local is valued while being an outsider is viewed with suspicion. Being a graduate of their failing public schools and attending a local university carries more weight than an Ivy League education. No government decision is made without an extensive series of debates with costs, morals with hints of race relations being a part of every equation. There is a desire to become a world class city but the a fore mentioned traits seem to really be holding the place back. Its a place that wants to be really nice but doesn't want to pay for it. This critique may seem harsh but I feel as though I can say it with some authority; as someone who definitely wasn't a local, I spent several years living in Norfolk and working for the city and after being away for awhile, my recent return visit reconfirmed all of these thoughts for me.

So given this backdrop, it has always amazed me that Norfolk embarked upon a forward thinking  branding and marketing campaign that revolved around public art. Mind you, this is the same community where city council members would unilaterally declare some pieces of work as art and others not worthy of the designation simply because they didn't like it or didn't get it. And this is the same city where a painting in a private gallery window had to be removed after a public outcry because a female breast was shown partially bare. (Opponents claimed that such an image would traumatize our children, cause them to ask questions and cause impure thoughts all around--I kid you not). Given all of this the fact that the city embarked upon a branding campaign where mermaids (yes, partially clothed creatures that are half fish and half woman) became the city symbol is particularly noteworthy. But I think it is probably one of the best things the city ever did and I absolutely love it.

The mermaid campaign first appeared fifteen years ago as the city struggled to revitalize itself yet again. Local civic leaders, influenced by Chicago's popular Cows on Parade, suggested that such an effort could help sell Norfolk to tourists, residents and businesses alike. The mermaids paid tribute to Norfolk's long relationship with the sea. One hundred and thirty mermaid forms were cast and artists were commissioned to create these life sized statues which were placed in various locations around the city. Business and community groups were able to "adopt" a mermaid whose design reflected their particular interests. Although the sizes and shapes were uniform their decorations were anything but. From American flags to glitzy gold sequins, from the realistic to the abstract and everything in between, the designs were varied. I personally loved the black and white cow one that for awhile found a home at the end of our street.

The Pagoda's mermaid
Even today, fifteen years after they first landed, the mermaids still reign supreme; their likeness is woven into the terminal walkways at the airport, plastered on flags and banners at all of the main intersections and discretely graces all of the neighborhood signs. And the mermaids themselves, they are everywhere. During my recent visit I spent quite a bit of time walking through some of the city's neighborhoods and spotting the mermaids. I found them in neighborhood parks and private yards, gracing the entrances to businesses and government buildings and traffic islands. These works of art are found in areas of the city-- affluent and lower income residential neighborhoods alike, in front of government buildings and commercial centers. This graceful symbol of the sea seems to be the single thing that unites this city of contrasts and I think that is pretty darn cool. And the funny thing is that I thought I knew the locations of so many of the mermaids. I do but then I would take another look and see one that was completely new to me. Because they really are everywhere.

So if you ever find yourself in Norfolk, be on the lookout for the mermaids. They are everywhere and are perhaps the best thing that happened to this city in a long time.

The education mermaid at TCC

Mermaid in a neighborhood park

Mermaid at the federal court house

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Boy & A Boat

Sitting in his dad's old chair
Being all boy my son is obsessed with everything involving transportation. From planes and trains to trucks, buses and boats he loves them all. He already owned an extensive collection of toy airplanes before the Pixar movie Planes was released and was over the top with excitement the first time he saw the movie. While he loved the airplanes he was amazed at airplanes landing on boats (or in this case an aircraft carrier). He just thought it was so cool and his fascination lead to his being gifted with his own miniature aircraft carrier. And, more importantly, this gave Glenn the perfect opportunity to explain that landing airplanes on aircraft carriers is what he used to do before Sidney was born. This lead to Sidney wanting to learn everything he could about aircraft carriers. We checked out library book on the topic and watched documentaries on television but this only added to his obsession with them. But living first in Albania then in Belgium, we never had the opportunity to show Sidney one in person. Until we visited our old Norfolk stomping grounds that is.

As luck would have it, a good friend made a series of phone calls and the next thing we knew a personal tour of an aircraft carrier had been arranged. And it wasn't just any aircraft carrier; it was the last carrier that Glenn had served on. Now I've been aboard carriers on several occasions so they are no longer a novelty to me but I knew Sidney was going to be thrilled when he found out what we had planned. We managed to keep him in the dark until the last minute so he was beyond excited when we told him that not only was he going to see the carrier but he was going to be able to go aboard. His pace quickened as we walked up the brow and into the expansive hanger bay. If you've never seen one they are cavernous affairs. Void of aircraft we felt dwarfed by its size. With Sidney standing by his side and listening intently, Glenn explained the ins and outs of the hanger bay. Then we moved up into the tower, climbing up one ladder after another. I had been a bit worried that Sidney might be hesitant to do all of this climbing on steep ladders but he scrambled up them like a pro only pausing to ask questions about what he saw.

Checking out the view from the tower
Sidney loved exploring the Pri Fly (a.k.a. the tower) where he plopped himself down into his father's old chair and took his turn using the binoculars to check out the water below us. (And true to form, he was also impressed by the large bottle of ketchup sitting by the coffee maker!). By this point in our tour Sidney had a broad grin stuck on his face and kept saying how "amazing" it all was. Down on the flight deck Glenn explained how the catapults worked and Sidney was quick to say that his aircraft carrier also had them. As we walked the length of the flight deck Sidney checked out the various lines and stopped to look at each light that was imbedded on the surface. While the F-18 was impressive Sidney said that he had seen bigger airplanes before and it wasn't the Concorde (a reference to our earlier visit to the Air and Space Museum in Washington).

I was momentarily forgotten as I followed along behind the two of them but that is OK. I loved watching my two boys, my husband and his little mini-me exploring the carrier. Glenn was excited to be sharing such an important part of his life with Sidney and Sidney was eating up every one of Glenn's words. After the tour Sidney said he couldn't wait to go back to Belgium to tell all of his friends about being on an aircraft carrier. And hours after leaving, Sidney was still grinning broadly and as he said "thinking about the aircraft carrier". It really doesn't get much better than that.
Exploring the flight deck

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Airplanes, Spaceships & Other Flying Wonders

In the Boeing hanger at the Udvar-Hazy Center

I love the Smithsonian museums. Located in the heart of Washington D.C. they play tribute to the best of all aspects of American history and society. Whether it be a visit to the National Museum of American History to see the First Lady's gowns, the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs or the American Indian Museum to learn about America's first residents, each museum is impeccably organized. (And is the case with all of the Smithsonian Museums, entrance is free). And because I love the museums, no visit to Washington D.C. is ever complete without paying a visit to at least one of them. So because we had an airplane loving little boy with us, on our most recent visit we spent a day at the Air & Space Museum. I had been to this museum as a teenager but during my first visit as an adult Glenn gave me a guided tour, taking the time to explain everything we were seeing better than any docent could. It was a memorable visit and I knew Sidney would love it as well. And he did.

Sidney excitedly darted from one display to another exclaiming at how big each airplane was. From the very first airplanes that more closely resembled bicycles to modern day aircraft we saw it all. Sidney immediately identified the military aircraft from both World Wars and more modern times and even went as far as spotting the planes that had been flown by the German army. (Perhaps we have visited one too many World War II battlefields....). We toured a model of an aircraft carrier where Sidney took his turn at steering the ship, looking out of the tower, and exploring the ready room. Afterwards he even rode in a simulator where he flew as though he was the Red Baron. He loved it. So much so that following the advise of several people we spoke with, we went to yet another air and space museum the next day.

A very small airplane

The Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia is adjacent to the Dulles airport and is the most recent addition to the Smithsonian air and space family. It was a first visit for all of us and even I, the least enthusiastic airplane fan in the family, was looking forward to it. Set in two large hangers on the edge of a runway, the museum is indeed impressive. Visitors can take an elevator up to the mock control tower where you can see the planes landing and taking off at the nearby airport while listening to the communications between the pilots and air traffic controllers. I always forget how busy the airport is the number of aircraft flying by reminded me that it really is a busy transportation hub.

Back down on the ground floor we saw airplanes. And more airplanes as well as helicopters and other flying apparatuses dating back to the start of human flight. Visitors can circumnavigate the largest hanger on a catwalk which puts you both at eye level and above the numerous planes that are suspended from the ceiling. There were big planes and small planes, military aircraft and commercial jets. A Concorde jet anchored one section of the bay and visitors were able to walk directly under the plane's nose. Standing underneath it, you realize just how large (and fast) this jet was. The Udvar-Hazy Center is also home to the Enola Gay. But not all of the aircraft are large; we saw planes so small I would never even think about stepping foot inside of them. And as was the case with the museum in D.C., so many of the displays were interactive. There was even a Cessna where visitors of all sizes could sit in the cockpit and go through the motions of flying the aircraft.

But for me, the most impressive exhibit was the aircraft that filled the second hanger bay. NASA's retired Discovery Space Shuttle is the most recent tenant in the museum. From its first flight in 1984 to its final flight in 2011 the Discovery flew 149 million miles over the course of 39 missions including carrying the second American woman into space (Judith Resnik), being piloted by the first female captain (Eileen Collins), being the first shuttle to land at the International Space Station, and launching the Hubble Space telescope. And now the shuttle is spending her retirement in Virginia.

So if you are in the greater Washington D.C. area, make it a point to visit the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Better yet, visit both of them. You won't be disappointed.

As Sidney said, its a plane from the movie Planes!
The Discovery, the centerpiece of the
Udvar-Hazy Center
If you go:

Washington DC location:
Independence Avenue at 6th Avenue SW
Open 10.00-17.30, extended hours on some days
Admission is free

Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, VA
Open 10.00-18.30
Admission is free but parking is $15.00 per vehicle