Category Archives: North America

A Weekend in Queens in Pursuit of the American Dream

This post is my entry into the TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corporation.  UPDATE:  On July 18, TBEX tweeted this announcement that I was one of the three winners!  Thank you to TBEX and Choice Hotels! 

In honor of Independence Day (July 4th) in the United States, I want to celebrate one of the many things that makes this nation great:  its people.  All of us who have ever lived in this country can trace our histories back–even the Native Americans, who crossed on land over what is now the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia–to that first arrival in America from a different shore.  Some came of their own volition while others by force.

For centuries, New York City has been the destination of choice for explorers, traders, immigrants, and tourists.  But a visit to New York City today is too often limited to the borough of Manhattan.  Even people who live here are hard pressed to explore the vast city they live in!  So hop on the subway, bus, or ferry and cross the East River to visit Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States!  Below I have tailored a special weekend itinerary in Queens that celebrates New York City’s past and present, and honors the people who have settled here in search of the American dream.

Strap on your walking shoes, prepare your senses, and come on an empty stomach!  Queens will enthrall you.

SATURDAY:  WESTERN QUEENS
Ride the N or Q train to the first stop and walk to the remaining destinations.  Travel time is built into the itinerary.

8:00 am – Breakfast at Artopolis Bakery (Greek)
[23-18 31st Street, Astoria]

As a teenager, all my high school Greek friends hailed from Astoria.  Before the Greeks arrived in the mid-20th century, the area had previously been settled by the Dutch, Germans, Irish, and Italians.  Since those high school days nearly 20 years ago, people from the Middle East (particularly Egypt), Brazil, Japan, the newly formed Eastern European countries, plus whites escaping escalating rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn all flocked to Astoria, due to its close proximity & easy access to Manhattan.  Despite this diversification, Astoria is still synonymous with Greek immigrants.  For the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, the Olympic Flame first traveled all over the world before arriving in Athens.  As one of four US cities to host the Olympic Torch, it only made sense to commence the NYC relay in Astoria, in Athens Square Park.

Start your day off at what is arguably the best Greek pastry shop in the neighborhood!  Your eyes will be bigger than your stomach when you see the seemingly endless displays of cookies, pastries, bread, and delicacies.  Remember to order a coffee!  The bakery is located in a mall, just follow your nose.

Coffee at Artopolis - Photo Courtesy of Petit Hiboux (Flickr)

9:00 am – Steinway Piano Factory Tour (German)
[1 Steinway Place, Astoria]

Walk through a residential part of Astoria to get to the industrialized northern tip of the neighborhood.  The famous piano maker still creates and refurbishes Steinways in its original Queens factory.  Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later anglicized to “Steinway”), emigrated from Germany with his family in the mid 19th century.  Shortly thereafter, Steinway started manufacturing pianos and by the 1880s, the Steinway family built its new factory and village in Astoria.  The Steinways were influential in the development of the neighborhood, hence a major thoroughfare is named after them.  The three-hour tour highlights the history of the family and the neighborhood, the one-of-a-kind quality of each instrument, and the craftsmanship of the workers past and present reminding you that historically, Western Queens was a major manufacturing area as a result of its close proximity to the East River.

1:00 pm – Lunch at the Bohemian Beer Garden (Czech & Slovak)
[29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria]

Established in 1910, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden is the oldest beer garden in the City.  Munch on grilled kielbasa or bratwurst and wash it down with one of the Czech or Slovak beers on tap.  My personal favorite?  The Krušovice tmavé (dark) for its roasted, malty flavor.  The scene is always packed on weekends and it is not uncommon to see families enjoying themselves while they let their young children run round.  Many of the outdoor picnic tables are shaded by old trees, allowing for a relaxing and refreshing afternoon break from the summer heat.

Photo Courtesy of WallyG (Flickr)

3:30 pm – The Noguchi Museum (Japanese/American)
[9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City]

If you are not a lover of sculpture, a visit to the Noguchi Museum may just change your mind.  Born to a Japanese father and a white American mother in 1904, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan as a child and moved to America as a teenager.  By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was in his late 30s living in NYC as a sculptor.  He created the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942, a group dedicated to raising awareness of Japanese-American patriotism.  He also asked to be interned as an act of solidarity with his brethren Japanese-Americans.  He spent 7 months in an internment camp and his work during this period clearly reflected his personal turmoil and sadness.  The gallery, which includes an outdoor garden, was created by Noguchi.  His primary studio was across the street, which he often biked to from his Manhattan residence; he also maintained a studio in Japan.  His pieces are strategically placed so that you sometimes feel like they belong in the “natural” landscape.  Somehow, serenity manages to envelop you during your visit.

Photo Courtesy of RocketLass (Flickr)

7:00 pm – Gantry State Park at Dusk
[Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue, Long Island City]

View the Manhattan skyline while strolling along the now refurbished waterfront piers of Long Island City, where the landscaped park offers you welcoming chairs to take in the scenery.  Watch as the sun sets behind the skyscrapers, feel the last rays of the day hit your face, and listen to the river lapping on the shore.  If you’re lucky, sometimes hammocks are there.  Snag one, close your eyes, and take in the silence.  Burn this memory into your brain:  you are swinging in a hammock, by the water, in NEW YORK CITY!

Manhattan Skyline from Gantry State Park

8:30 pm Dinner at Manducatis Rustica (Italian)
[13-27 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City]

On the outside, this squat Flatiron-shaped building looks like a residential house with a non-descript white door.  The only possible clue offered is its big bay window with curtains pulled shut and a sign.  Blink and you could miss it.  Once inside, you still feel like you are entering a residence, since in many ways, you are.  Couple Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone, have been feeding artists and working-class folks from the neighborhood for approximately 20 years, well before the arrival of the sleek luxury condos and chic, hip restaurants that now inhabit the area.  Let them and their staff welcome you and help you pair the right kind of wine with your Neapolitan meal.  Try to resist the urge to plant a kiss on each check when you say good-bye, but if you can’t, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

If you still have some energy left and want an after-dinner drink, there are a bevy of bars within several blocks of each other, including Domaine Wine Bar, Dominie’s Hoek, Dutch Kills, and LIC Bar.  You could even stroll back to Gantry State Park to view the lights of the Manhattan skyline at night.

SUNDAY:  CENTRAL QUEENS
The second day, you’ll ride the 7 train and hop on and off in both directions.  Again, travel time is built into the itinerary.

8 am – Breakfast at Ihawan (Filipino)
[40-06 70th Street, Woodside]

Filipino food reflects the countries that have heavily influenced the culture,  usually China, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States.  It comes together clearly in a typical Filipino breakfast, consisting of a cured meat or fish (tapa), garlic-fried rice (sinangag), and eggs over easy (itlog).  Combine each underlined portion of the Tagalog words and you come up with its name: tapsilog.  Ihawan is run by the Bacani Family, who hail from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines, widely accepted amongst most Filipinos as the home of the best cooks in the country.  Fuel up now, because you’ll need it for your next stop.

Photo Courtesy of Kitakitts (Flickr)

9:30 am – Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Once the site of the “valley of ashes” as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby, a rush of urban beautification measures in the early 20th century created this 1,255-acre park, and site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.  Today, the park offers many outdoor activities.  Walk, or even better, rent a bike to cover more ground.  You’ll definitely want to see remnants from the World’s Fair such as the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion observation towers, more recently made famous in the movie Men in Black as the place the aliens apparently hid their spaceships.  Be sure to stop by the Queens Museum of Art where you’ll see the Panorama of the City of New York, a 3D model of the city’s buildings and structures since 1992.  See also the memorabilia from both World’s Fairs and the exhibit on Tiffany glass, produced in neighboring Corona.  The park is also home to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, host of the US Open and Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets.

The Unisphere with Observation Towers in the Background

1:30 pm – Flushing (Chinese, Korean, Dutch, English)
[137-16 Northern Boulevard, Flushing]

Wander around the neighborhood that is home to Queens’ Chinatown and Koreatown.  If you are feeling peckish from your time at the park, you could get some cheap street food to tide you over to dinner.  You’ll find the majority of storefront signs here not in English, and perhaps you’ll start to wonder if you’re in another country.  Before your mind starts playing tricks on you, stop by the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built near the end of the 17th century, and considered to be the oldest house of worship in New York State.  Even back when Flushing (then known by its original name, Vlissengen) was a Dutch colony, residents clamored for religious freedom in response to rampant discrimination by the colonial Dutch government.  This vocal protest resulted in the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance by local residents in the mid-17th century, a document that inspired the right to freedom of worship as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.

Signs along Union Street between Northern Boulevard & 37th Avenue

4pm – Louis Armstrong House Museum (African-American)
[34-56 107th Street, Corona]

Catch the last tour of the day at the home of jazz legend Louis Armstrong.  He and his wife, Daisy, lived in their modest Corona home for nearly 30 years, from 1943 to his death in 1971.  No one has resided in the house since then and the interior decorations have been preserved to show how the Armstrongs lived.  Listen to audio clips as you walk through the home and wander through their Japanese inspired garden.  See photographs and learn about the man whose career spanned a time in American history when racial discrimination blatantly segregated blacks and whites in society.

5:30 pm – Dinner at Rincon Criollo (Cuban)
[40-09 Junction Boulevard, Corona]

In recent decades, Corona became the home to people from all over Latin America.  And while you may have your pick of cuisines from Guatemalan fast food to Mexican chain restaurants, I recommend Rincon Criollo because it has been around for 30 years and the story of the family who owns and runs it exemplifies the American Dream realized.  The Acosta Brothers opened the original Rincon Criollo in Cuba in the 1950s as a modest room consisting of four wooden planks for its floor and palm branches as its roof.  Years of hard work led to the restaurant’s successful growth and expansion, while becoming a favorite of Cuban celebrities.  However, life changed dramatically in Cuba as the brothers had their restaurants seized following the Cuban revolution of 1962.  Fourteen years later, the brothers re-opened Rincon Criollo in Corona, Queens.  The restaurant walls are lined with photos from the old country, a reminder of their past and their roots.  Regular patrons of Rincon Criollo have been coming with their families for years, savoring the tastes of a home that exists today only in their memories or in the stories of their [grand]parents.

The Acosta Brothers and all the people and families who have been highlighted on this tour of Queens are living testaments to what we celebrate most visibly on July 4th:  the American spirit of innovation, creativity, hard-work, determination and hope.  Regardless of their backgrounds, immigrants have come to America with a dream for a better life for themselves and their families, and millions have started that dream right here in Queens.

Artopolis Bakery
23-18 31st Street
Astoria, NY 11105
(718) 728-8484
www.artopolis.net
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard

Steinway & Sons Factory
1 Steinway Place
Astoria, NY  11105
(718) 721-2600
http://steinway.com/
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard
Call in advance to schedule a tour.

Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
29-19 24th Avenue
Astoria, NY  11102
(718) 274-4925
www.bohemianhall.com
N, Q train to Astoria Boulevard

The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road
Long Island City, NY  11106
(718) 204-7088
www.noguchi.org

Gantry Plaza State Park
Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11109
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue or
G Train to 21st Street/Jackson Avenue
http://nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/149/details.aspx

Manducatis Rustica
13-27 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 729-4602
7 train to Hunters Point Avenue or
G train to 21st Street

Domaine Wine Bar
50-04 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 784-2350
www.domainewinebar.com

Dominie’s Hoek
48-17 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 706-6531
www.dominieshoek.com

Dutch Kills
27-24 Jackson Ave
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 383-2724
www.dutchkillsbar.com

LIC Bar
45-58 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 786-5400
www.longislandcitybar.com

Ihawan
40-06 70th Street
Woodside, NY  11377
(718) 205-1480
7 train to 69th Street
www.ihawan2.com

Flushing Meadows Corona Park
7 train to Mets-Willets Point

Flushing Quaker Meeting House
137-16 Northern Boulevard
Flushing, NY  11354
718-358-9636
7 train to Main Street
http://www.nyym.org/flushing/hmh.html

Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th Street
Corona, NY  11368
718-478-8274
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza
www.louisarmstronghouse.org

Rincon Criollo
40-09 Junction Boulevard
Corona, NY  11368
(718) 639-8158
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza

My Top 5 Highlights of TBEX 2011

I attended my first travel blogger conference in Vancouver, Canada last weekend. The Travel Blogger Exchange (TBEX) held its third annual North American conference, TBEX’11.

© Kirsten Alana Photography / Galavanting

As a first time attendee, my goals were simple: network like mad, learn a thing or two, and experience a little bit of the host city. Not only did I accomplish all of those goals but I did so with 5 hours of sleep a night, coming home late from a networking event and getting up early to strategize and prep for my day. Here are my top five highlights from the conference (really wishing I attended that non-narrative writing workshop as I write this):

#5: Face Time with Members of the Travel Community
Despite the power of social media, the best way to connect with a person is, well, in person. It took a 3,000 mile plane ride to meet fellow New Yorkers Leslie Kohen (@leslietravel), Annemarie Dooling (@TravelingAnna), Kelley Ferro (@kelleyferro), Brian Peters (@brianepeters), Aaron Shapiro (@adventurousness), and Rosina Shiliwala (@rosina_s).

I finally put faces to Traveler’s Night-In (#TNI) friends Erin Halvey (@ehalvey), Janice Waugh (@solotraveler), Jade and Bob (@Vagabond3Live), and Catherine Sweeney (@TravelingWithS). We regularly came together on Twitter at 1530 hrs ET on Thursdays to talk travel.

Trailblazer Evelyn Hannon (@Journeywoman), the intrepid Vogel family who biked from Alaska to Argentina (@FamilyOnBikes), and visionary Tracey Friley (@OneBrownGirl) whose Passport Parties provide young American girls with their very first passport, all inspired me.

I shook hands with John DiScala…err…Johnny Jet (@JohnnyJet), Benny Lewis (@irishpolyglot), JD Andrews (@earthXplorer), Mike Barish (@mikebarish), Jodi Ettenburg (@legalnomads), Beth Whitman (@Wanderluster), Sean Keener (@SEKeener) and Jessica Spiegel (@italylogue) of Bootsnall.com,  all bright stars in the travel blogging firmament.

I had meaningful conversations with Melanie Waldman (@travelswithtwo), JoAnna Haugen (@joanna_haugen), Crai Bower (@craisbower), and Elyse Mailhot (@ctccct) who shared their tips on work-family/life balance. I thank them for their generous advice.

(l-r) Me, Leslie (@leslietravel), Tina (@crozul), James (@nomadicnotes)

Oh, and I also discovered that I had fans! James Clark (@nomadicnotes) was the first to spot me at the kick-off event at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Besides travel, we discussed our mutual admiration for Fountains of Wayne. Later, I met Tina Rozul (@crozul) of Go2it.com, Lauren Nicholl (@WanderLoz) and Anis Salvesen (@anis_salvesen) of Tripping.com, and Shana Zheng of Triptrotting.com. Thank you all for your encouragement and making me feel validated!

Before arriving at TBEX, I made a list of the people I wanted to meet. I managed to meet all but two on that list. As I talked to people at the conference, I discovered more people I wanted to meet.  I knew it would be impossible to chat with everyone but I am certain opportunities to cross paths in the future will present themselves.

#4: Narrative Writing Workshop with Pam Mandel (@nerdseyeview), Don George (@don_george), and Andrew Evans (@WheresAndrew)
I had homework. Homework! Yes, I know I was supposed to learn a thing or two but these folks assigned homework and wanted me to turn it around in 24 hours. Where was I, graduate school? Of course, I reverted back to my usual MO when such assignments are due:  CRAM. An hour before the thesis story deadline, I went into seclusion in a conference center corner to write my 200-600 word narrative on how I got to TBEX. Under pressure, I managed to bang out a 215-word piece that I kinda felt good about considering the circumstances. We broke up into groups in the second session and Pam was my leader. I felt my face get hot and winced inside as I waited for the criticism. I got some good feedback from the group, which made me realize the things I needed to do when I got home:  write more regularly, find people to read my work and provide constructive feedback, and develop a thicker skin. Within the short span of an hour, I was astounded that homework assignments were now self-imposed.

Pam leads our group. Photo courtesy of Tina Rozul (@crozul).

#3: Getting shushed because I was a loud New Yorker and member of Robert Reid’s “Live Research Crew”

I was grateful to Robert (@reidontravel) for choosing me as one of a three-member crew to help drive his point home on the importance of research. It gave me the chance to not only work with Robert, Kymri Wilt (@kymri) and Matt Gibson (@xpatmatt) but also to present to the large crowd of attendees. I tried to improve a weakly written blog post on Niagara Falls by finding new angles on the story and attempted to get a quote through phone calls. Clearly people weren’t listening to Robert when he introduced us at the beginning of his presentation. Or maybe you couldn’t hear him because I was apparently speaking very loud on the phone. Attendees shushed me for my perceived rudeness! I was just doing my job as a jourblist, a new term coined by Robert. Um, can someone explain to me exactly what a jourblist is since I was too busy talking during his presentation? Oh wait, I should’ve done my research before asking that question.

(l-r) Robert, Matt, Kymri, and me. © Raul P of hummingbird604.com

What an opportunity! © Kirsten Alana Photography / Galavanting

#2: Favorite mascot and celebrity @Banff_Squirrel got star struck meeting me!

The feeling was totally mutual!  Usually, I can maintain my New York City cool but my excitement at meeting this famous furry little creature got the best of me.  I couldn’t help but let out a shrill scream…like a total fool.

@Banff_Squirrel Tweets Our First-Time Meeting

And my #1 highlight of TBEX?

Gary Arndt (@EverywhereTrip) said he would wear my ActionJoJo t-shirt to TBEX next year! Witnesses included Jodi Ettenberg (@legalnomads), James Clark (@nomadicnotes), and Shannon O’Donnell (@shannonRTW) so that I won’t let him forget it. I was so excited that I almost ran him over with my hug. Thanks for the vote of confidence Gary! I’ll be sure to have a few t-shirts ready for you before we arrive in Keystone, Colorado next year!

I wonder if Gary is thinking, "What did I get myself into?"

I echo Pam Mandel’s recent reflections on TBEX.  My ultimate goal for TBEX was to meet people and get my name out there.  I planted a ton of seeds that I hope will bear fruit in time.  I’ve still got a lot of learning to do as a writer and videographer and yes, a blogger.  I’m determined to work hard and with patience, determination, and focus, I hope to realize my personal and professional goals.

A special shout out and high five to Kim Mance (@KimMance), Joey Hernandez (@joeybear85), and Courtney McGann (@courtneyisneato) for the herculean task of putting together TBEX’11! Thanks also to our host city of Vancouver (@ctccct, @myvancouver and @tourismbc) for showing us a good time!

©KirstenAlanaPhotography/Galavanting

Aerial View of NYC

Welcome to the first week in a 12-week travel series on Queens, New York City’s most ethnically diverse borough!  This first week starts off with a bang!  Charged with viewing my city from above, I headed straight to the Queens Museum of Art for the very first time in my life…and I’m a Queens native!  Inside, I bee-lined straight to the museum’s permanent and most popular exhibit.

Behold, the Panorama of the City of New York!!!

The boroughs are labeled in this picture for your easy reference.

Without rising more than 20 feet, I saw the entire city’s five boroughs spread before me.  And I didn’t have to worry about wind conditions, precipitation, cloud cover, crowds, and steep admission prices!

In 1939 and 1964, New York City hosted the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where the museum is currently located.  Commissioned by the city’s most famous urban planner,  Robert Moses,  the panorama was built for the 1964 fair and the project was spearheaded by an architectural model making firm.  It took 100 people to build it in 3 years.  At present, the model is 9,335 square feet and contains every NYC building built before 1992 to total 895,000 individual structures.  Sure enough, I even managed to pinpoint my own house built in the 1920s!

Midtown Manhattan with Queens & the Bronx in the background,all connected by the Robert F. Kennedy (formerly, the Triboro) Bridge

Lower Manhattan with the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges& the World Trade Center (RIP)

Islands in the Harbor (clockwise starting at top right): Governors, Liberty, Ellis

View of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn & Staten Island& the Atlantic Ocean beyond

The panorama has remained open to the public ever since its debut in 1964.   If you are an architecture, history, or NYC buff, you’ll definitely love this exhibit.  As a native New Yorker, it was fun for me to point out the changes that have occurred in the city since 1992.  For example, the building construction of the AOL Time Warner Center, 4 Times Square/Condé Naste, and the glass addition to the Hearst building, the rezoning and subsequent development of the Queens and Brooklyn waterfronts particularly in the neighborhoods of  Long Island City, Williamsburg, DUMBO, and more recently Red Hook, and the gentrification of the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Meatpacking District was yet to happen.  Heck, even Battery Park City, created by filling in an area of the Hudson River with the rocks and soil excavated from the World Trade Center construction site, was in the panorama but without any buildings.  The panorama certainly cannot keep up with the constant, fast paced changes of NYC yet it still manages to capture the incredible vastness and diversity of the place.  To see more pictures of the panorama, click here.

Before you leave the museum, make sure to check out the other worthwhile exhibits.  The small Tiffany glass exhibit is worth a stop.  Artist, Louis Tiffany had his studio and furnace in neighboring Corona.  And the World’s Fair memorabilia from both 1939 and 1964 are telling indicators of life within the United States and the world during those periods.


Queens Museum of Art
New York City Building
Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Queens, NY 11368-3398
Wed – Sun: 12 – 6pm
Suggested Donation: Adults $5; Seniors & Children $2.50; Members & Children Under 5 FREE
7 Train to either 111th Street or Mets-Willets Point

www.queensmuseum.org

Take Me to Queens at Once!

The title of this post is a line from a movie.  Can you name it?  Bonus points for character, actor, and scene.  You have until the end of this post to guess your answer.

Six weeks of the WordPress Post-A-Week challenge has been very good in getting me to blog regularly this year!  While I did say that would I write about travel, culture, food, New York City, and bikram yoga, I have yet to figure out the common thread(s) that would pull all these disparate interests together to make an interesting and worthwhile read for visitors.  Ultimately, I am trying to figure out what my unique contribution will be to the online community.

Last Thursday, I saw travel blogger Vagabond3‘s tweet on a current weekly blog feature:  a 12 week challenge centered on the theme of  traveling within your own hometown.  Immediately, I thought this challenge would be a perfect way to complement my Post-A-Week challenge and the goals I hope to accomplish!  So once again, I declare to the world my intent to participate in this excellent idea to write about New York City…but with a *TWIST*.   I’m going to focus all future articles for this challenge on only 1 of the 5 boroughs of New York City:  Queens.

A Manhattan-ite once wrote on her Facebook status update, “Only reason to go to Queens is the airport.”  While the borough does house the city’s two airports, as a Queens native, it absolutely PAINS ME to hear this statement!  Yes, Queens gets very little love in the hearts and minds of many people when compared to limelight-stealing Manhattan and trendy, hipster Brooklyn.  While the Bronx gets little attention too and Staten Island is barely on the radar for most tourists and New Yorkers alike, I believe Queens to be a real gem as New York City’s most ethnically diverse borough and arguably, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States.

So if you are a tourist visiting New York City interested in getting-off-the-beaten-Manhattan-path or a city resident hesitant to cross the river, check back here every week as I spotlight Queens.  I hope to inspire you to get out of your comfort zone and explore another layer of this wondrous city.  And as much as I love the westernmost neighborhoods of Queens — Astoria and Long Island City — that border the East River and are closest to Manhattan, I’m going to do my best to focus on lesser known neighborhoods in the borough that are equally interesting but don’t get very much publicity.

Eddie Murphy & Arsenio Hall in Coming to America* (Paramount Pictures)

“What better place to find a queen than the city of Queens?” Prince Akeem asks Semmi, his friend and cousin in the 1988 movie “Coming to America”.  In fact, this movie holds a special place in my heart.  McDowell’s Restaurant was, and still is, a Wendy’s restaurant in Elmhurst, where I grew up.  Filmed in 1987, I will always remember my elementary school classmates coming into school one morning excitedly talking about their bus ride home the afternoon before.  Apparently, they hollered and frantically banged on the bus’s windows to get the attention of Eddie Murphy & Arsenio Hall as they filmed on the street.  Little did I know that in 6 short years, I would hold a part-time job in high school at this Wendy’s.  The hallway was lined with black and white photos of the cast.  Heck, I eventually dated my first boyfriend who also worked there and took him to my prom.

Personal tidbits aside, name me another borough that has a major thoroughfare with the coolest street name ever.

Fountains of Wayne's sophomore album cover

*Movie still picture found on Slowly Going Bald.

Evacuate, Escape!

As the protests in Egypt continue, my heart goes out to the people.  What must be going through the hearts of Egyptians as their country remains embroiled and embattled?  What will be the outcome?  Will a new Egypt emerge out of these demonstrations?

But there are other people to think about too.  Foreign journalists in the last several days have told audiences around the world that they have been harassed, attacked, and detained.  And of course, there are other foreigners:  the tourists, the expats, the students, the volunteer workers.  What has happened to them?  What happens when events within a place occur without a moment’s notice and the decision between staying or leaving becomes extremely urgent?

The New York Times recently wrote an article about stranded Americans in Egypt.  The United States State Department created a public service announcement (PSA) and tweeted evacuation instructions for American citizens wishing to leave the country.  I travel overseas at least once a year and as I prepare for my trip, I always pause to consider registering my name with the US Embassy in the country I am visiting.  Then I usually shake my head and shove the idea aside because really, what could possibly go wrong that the embassy would need to know my presence in country X?

Well, Egypt has reminded me of the reason why I should do so.  It is an extreme case of what is possible.  Highly unlikely, yes.  But possible nonetheless.  Besides political unrest, I can think of other instances when the need to escape while traveling becomes compelling.

Natural Disaster: In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caught people completely by surprise along the coasts of several Asian and even African countries.  Devastating tsunamis struck and killed hundreds of thousands of people, most of them in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

Mechanical Difficulties: US Airways Flight #1549 departed from NYC’s La Guardia Airport and shortly after take-off collided with a flock of Canadian geese that resulted in a loss of thrust in both engines.  Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed the plane in the Hudson River.  All 155 passengers and crew survived.

Disease Outbreak: In 2003, an outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) began in mainland China and spread to other areas such as Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Acts of Terrorism: Sadly, this is the reality of the world we live in — the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2008 coordinated attacks in different parts of Mumbai,  and just last month a suicide attack in the Moscow airport.

I am so blessed and very grateful that I’ve not yet found myself in a situation where I’ve had to evacuate.  The closest I’ve come to civil unrest was in La Paz, Bolivia in 2003 when my bus was re-routed because a group of strikers blocked the roads.  Despite these possibilities, it has not deterred me from traveling.  In fact, it can be argued that these devastated places are precisely the ones we should travel to because they could benefit greatly from our tourism money.  I recall the Kenyan safari companies encouraging all Westerners to visit after ethnic violence erupted in 2008 due to the controversial outcome of the presidential election in December 2007.

In your travels, were you confronted with a circumstance that required you to decide whether to stay or leave?  What happened and where?  What factors led to making your decision?  Please share your story in the comment section below.  I look forward to hearing them.