Taking flight to Russia on Thanksgiving

by Sonja Stark on November 27, 2014

Tula

According to Lonely Planet, you need “a sense of humor and bucket load of patience” when visiting Russia. By the same token, both traits are equally important waiting for this stateside Nor’easter to pass. To help defuse the stress of international holiday travel, I overdosed on an early turkey dinner today. All this tryptophan should kick in around the time I board.

ATA board member Jack Aernecke and I are flying to the Russian Federation as chaperones for two Capital Region high school students who won an essay contest earlier this year. The Albany-Tula Alliance or ATA, for short, is a sister-city organization between Albany, NY and Tula, Russia. Each sister city holds a student essay contest every other year, on a topic related to the other country. The two winners of each year’s contest travel to the other city and visit a bit of that country. On this trip, we will be staying with host families in Tula and hotels and hostels in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Next spring, two Russian students will win the essay contest and come in the fall to visit the Capital Region.

For travelers brave enough to visit Russia during the coldest time of year, there’s plenty to embrace. Not only are the flights half as costly, but the Winter Wonderland evokes festive activities in the imagination: horse-drawn sleigh rides (troika), ice breaker cruisers on the Neva River, or ice skating in a Gorky Park, all the while bundled up in traditional fur hats (Ushankas).

And, while it’s cold in the streets, it’s warm in the Slavic banyas. For centuries, bathing has been a vital component to surviving harsh temperatures in Russia. The ritual includes swimming in an icy-cold swimming pool, hopping into a steam room and receiving a soft birch leaf massage. The health benefits include increased blood circulation and softer skin.

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Exploring Vermont’s kissing bridges

by Sonja Stark on November 25, 2014

Scott Bridge

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New York State has covered bridges, many listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but nothing tops Vermont when it comes to the ubiquity of these treasured relics. There are over 100 to be found and photographed throughout rural Vermont.

While passing through Townshend, Vermont (20 minutes north of Stratton Mountain), I came to a screeching halt at the sight of this romantic beauty. The 1870’s Scott Bridge spans 277′ over the West River making it the longest covered bridge in Vermont. It’s not open to the public and the tight meshing of steel that surrounds the opening frame makes it difficult to take pictures. Still, I was able to fire off a few photos and marvel at the old wooden trusses.

Covered bridges were once known as “kissing bridges” because they provided privacy for a few precious moments to young couples riding through on horse and buggy. It’s unfortunate that this one is shut off from exploring, but others remain open. There are tours by bike, foot or car to dozens across the Green Mountain State, with history and engineering lessons explained at each location.

For further reading on this subject, enjoy the Fall issue of North Country Living magazine (volume 3, number 3) written by Lou Varricchio.

A few years ago, a story by Margot Page was published on GoNomad: Battenkill Valley, Cows and Covered Bridges.

For a listing by county, town and bridge name: Virtual Vermont.

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A trio of celebrations in Beantown

by Sonja Stark on November 21, 2014

Birthdays are for celebrating, and my gal friends wasted no time finding places to party with me this weekend. Whether you’re into dancing, drinks, or, um, donkeys, it’s best to keep an open mind when the entourage is treating. Here are three hotspots (of many) that will make your moment memorable when in Boston, Mass.

Donkey Show
1. The Donkey Show
No, this is not a political assembly with a bunch of Dems queuing at the door. It’s an outrageous drag-queen show that rivals anything you’d find in NYC. Residing inside the Oberon theater on the fringe of Harvard Square, the award-winning smash hit is set in a world of glittery freaks, fairies, flesh and fantasy. We danced ourselves dirty all night to 70s disco hits while watching scantily clad libidos boogie about on stage. We wore sequined halter tops, polyester pants and platform shoes found in local consignment shops. How the hustle queen managed to keep her pasties pinned to certain body parts, I will never know!
Link: http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/donkey-show

2. Beerunch at Cambridge Beer Company
Beer for Sunday brunch? Of course, this is your birthday! There’s no reason why you can’t have a Malt Battered French Toast or Pumpkin Ale Spiced Bread Pudding Sandwich with a pint of their toasted Boomsquash. The nationally acclaimed CBC is located in Kendall Square and has been brewing high-quality crafts since 1989. Before you buy, always request a sip to see if the IBU (international bitterness unit) pleases your palate. Check out the mural of Bostonian faces painted on the wall. You can guess who’s who while you wait for your Beer Battered Fish and Chips.
Link: http://cambridgebrewingcompany.com/

Wahlburgers
3. Waiting at Wahlburgers
Hungry for 15-minutes of fame? Your birthday wish may come true if you dine at Wahlburgers restaurant in Hingham Shipyard. Actors Mark and Donnie with their older brother Chef Paul Wahlberg record monthly episodes of the A&E reality series at their popular eatery with the same name. We waited in line for 90 minutes (others have waited up to four hours) to try the $7.95 Thanksgiving Burger made with fresh seasoned turkey leftovers on a bun stuffed with cranberry sauce and roasted butternut squash. All burgers are topped off with Paul’s signature Wahl sauce, dill pickles and cheese from government stockpiles – yes, you read correctly – processed cheese that’s no better than powdered milk. The bright orange ingredient is a tribute to the federal assistance the brothers received growing up in a poor household in the 1970s. Kitty corner to the restaurant is Chef’s Paul’s higher-end hotspot, the Alma Nove, named after his mother, Alma, and her nine children.
Link: http://www.wahlburgersrestaurant.com/

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The Wilburton Inn; Museum of the Creative Process

by Sonja Stark on November 15, 2014

Curbside detritus is transformed into conceptual contemporary art sculptures and scattered about the grounds of the Wilburton Inn.

Curbside detritus is transformed into conceptual contemporary art sculptures and scattered about the grounds of the Wilburton Inn.

A tour of fanciful art delves deep into the meaning of life and the genesis of religion.

A tour of fanciful art delves deep into the meaning of life and the genesis of religion.

Psychiatrist and innkeeper Dr. Albert Levis has been bridging art and science with everyday rubbish for decades. It’s been a preoccupation his entire life, one that has culminated in dozens of outrageous, often obscure eccentricities that, to the untrained eye, resemble nothing more than abandoned piles of junk. But, as they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. His works have transformed the land around the Wilburton Inn into a sculpture park.

As I tour the grounds of the Inn, I learn that the sculptures are meant to depict the key existential issues of humanity. The museum is also a way for Levis to enlighten guests with what he calls Moral Science. He hands me his most recent scientific textbook, a companion written in 2011 to a book he wrote about Formal Theory. I’m at odds to provide a definition for either concept. This stuff is deep, folks!

Levis' Holocaust Memorial

Dr. Albert Levis

Born in Athens, Greece, in 1937 to a wealthy Jewish family, Levis witnessed resistance and conflict during his most formative years. First the fascists, then the Nazis. The Axis occupation of Greece inevitably played a profound role in the young boy’s quest for meaning and resolution. Being a holocaust survivor, Levis turned to studying several branches of science: physics, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy even religion, to better understand human aggression and contempt.

“96% of the Jewish community in Greece were exterminated,” said Levis. “And, that’s part of my reason for search and for meaning. It comes from trying to understand what happened in my childhood.”

Some of Levis’ installations deliberately fuel discomfort, even repulsion; the holocaust memorial is the most visceral. The head of Hitler peeks through a set of steel bars perched atop hundreds of safe deposit boxes stolen from the Jews during WWII. Other pieces baffle and bemuse, like the upright purple bathtubs that represent sex organs. All are contemplative, like the rusting cylinder head from an old Ford Escort transformed into a part of a metaphorical metal dragon.

When I ask Levis, “What do you say to people who just don’t get it?,” he replies, “Well, they have to take the time to look a little deeper.” I’m afraid it will take my simple brain a lifetime to comprehend his theories.

None of the sculptures is supposed to be, necessarily, attractive, but at the end of the tour I do find one appealing. It’s a smooth, white, modern monolith that represents a bride and groom. It sits on a hill overlooking the beautiful Vermont Green mountains in the distance.

When you visit the Wilburton Inn, you’ll immediately feel the intellectual subculture that thrives here, all thanks to 77-year-old Dr. Albert Levis.

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Manchester, Vermont: Murder at the Wilburton Inn

by Sonja Stark on November 10, 2014

Fabio is found dead at the buffet table struck down by a stale baguette.

Fabio is found dead at the buffet table, struck down by a stale baguette.

The Wilburton Inn, Manchester, Vermont

It was death by baguette! The victim was “gluten” for punishment! Did the Hollywood Director “kill” for a chance to get rich?

Over 100 guests attended the 2nd annual post-Halloween Murder Mystery Dinner on November 9 at the Wilburton Inn in Manchester, Vermont. The flamboyant interactive mystery takes place in 1955 at a secret acquisition meeting between RKO Pictures and the board members of the General Tire Corporation. At the turn of the century, the Tudor style hotel was a popular summer home for Hollywood celebrities because it, indeed, was owned by the illustrious film and distribution company.

Several humorous characters set the stage for a suspense-filled scandal that includes internationally renowned German Director Eric Von Strobelight (“I taught Leni Riefenstahl everything she knows. Not much of a sense of humor but she was good in a rally!”) and the satirical motion picture dance duo, Fred Astaire and Pepper Rogers (not quite Ginger).

During dinner the plot quickly escalates into tragedy when a rampaging murderer in a King Kong costume chokes a linguine-loving Fabio Fortunato with a dangerously stale French baguette. A gasping audience is left to guess, ‘Who done it?’. The killer and the motive are revealed after several more comic moments.

“We’ve always been about celebrating creativity and its many forms,” said Inn co-owner Tajlei Levis. “Manchester is a very creative place and the Wilburton Inn is a part of this cultural community. Throughout the year, we have sing-alongs, play-readings, live music, farm night and interesting interpretations of contemporary art. We attract people who value art and creativity and fun.”

Levis, an off-Broadway playwright who wrote the Murder Mystery, joined her father and siblings to purchase the sprawling Wilburton Inn from RKO in 1987. More on the family in the next blog!

The cast of the Murder Mystery Dinner held at the Wilburton Inn, Manchester, Vermont.

The cast of the Murder Mystery Dinner held at the Wilburton Inn, Manchester, Vermont.

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Spend Veterans Day at West Point

by Sonja Stark on November 4, 2014

West Point Columbarium Not sure what to do for your beloved veteran next Tuesday? Having been there countless times with my stepdad, a decorated Vietnam paratrooper, I can say without reservation that West Point is the answer.

The idyllic military campus overlooks the Hudson river from what was once a strategically important position during the Revolutionary War. The fortifications date back to 1778, and West Point is the oldest continuously occupied military post in America.

Military cemeteries provide a historic connection to the past and few are as notable as this military campus. The somber burial ground pays homage to fallen soldiers and national heros, many who were West Point grads like Persian Gulf commander Norman Schwarzkopf, George Armstrong Custer (Battle of the Little Bighorn), Army Chief of Staff General William “Westy” Westmoreland and the first American to walk in space, Edward White II.

Directly behind the Old Cadet Chapel is a shiny, new, parabolic-shaped columbarium gifted by the Class of 1966. Inside the rear of the Caretaker’s Cottage Visitors Center is a helpful book with maps for grave locator assistance. May it be said, “Well done; Be thou at peace.”

Following a tour of the cannons and the great iron chain, head to a nearby town called Cornwall-on-Hudson to enjoy dinner set in an original 1897 savings bank called The River Bank Bistro. The restaurant opened under new ownership this past Mothers Day. Share generous portions of their Wild Mushroom Flatbread appetizer followed by the Lobster Mac And Cheese entree. Top it off with an eight-ounce glass of pumpkin beer.

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