Germany, travel

Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Hidden soul in “Meinhattan”

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I arrived in Frankfurt am Main on my 21st birthday, and I didn’t know a soul in town.

IMG_7514But my friend Andreas, a native of Bremen, and currently living in Stuttgart, drove over to show me around “Meinhattan.”

 

The Manhattan nickname stuck, because this is Germany’s city of skyscrapers, the economic heart of the country, and banker for the whole EU.  Andy described a sleepy river town, suddenly grown into a huge commerce center, and into the most expensive city in the country.

 

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I’d already visited a number of other German cities:

Mainz – old, historic, and charming, nestled among vineyards along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine.

Hamburg – impressive seaport, impressive industries

Cologne – a university town with a fun atmosphere

Dusseldorf  – giving off a feeling of establishment and security.

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So perhaps because I was so impressed with these other cities, my first impression of Frankfurt was not favorable.  A glassy and tall city with no soul.

IMG_7524We walked along streets of investment firms, Deutsche Bank, IG Farben, the Stock Exchange, and the European Central Bank.

Companies, corporations and conglomerates.  Businessmen in expensive cars and suits, emerging from skyscrapers at lunchtime to be served kebabs and doner by the poorer working people.

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Euro-World, the corporate amusement park

Even the old center of town felt like a designated meeting place for ad execs and CEOs;  the old buildings surrounding us, were now converted into offices for Lufthansa, etc. or stores selling watches and clothing.  The riverfront was peaceful and beautiful, but felt devoid of real personality.  Among the half-timbered buildings of the Altstadt (the historic district) or inside the Frankfurter Dom (their cathedral), the modern city felt far away. But the medieval-looking buildings were all post-war reconstructions, and looming over them were the skyscrapers of European capitalism.  The crowds of businessmen and the tourists, many from Eastern Asia, taking pictures of currywurst and pseudo-antique buildings made the city center feel hollow.

 

IMG_7502It was only after Andreas left for his home in Stuttgart, that I crossed the Main river and began to feel the place had an actual soul. Here, a bridge away from the hubbub of the central city, you can walk among modest homes, little shops, cafes, and a beautiful park with old buildings, now housing museums.

I visited the museums, and then went into a small grocery to buy water, and just sat down in the park for a while, after a day of walking on cobblestones, on the hottest day I experienced during my trip.  It was April, I had just survived a winter in Yorkshire, and I’d dressed for Hamburg and frigid Copenhagen, and to me, Frankfurt felt like the Costa del Sol.

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IMG_7516This was the last day of my spring break, and I had loved everything about both Germany and Denmark, but the whirlwind of trains and meeting people and seeing places, had left me unable to assemble my thoughts.  Finally at rest, sitting there in a small park with people chatting pleasantly, and a few dogs playing, I was able to realize how much I loved Germany, and my entire experience of the country and its people.

Frankfurt is what I remember best of my time in Germany, even if I liked the other cities better.  I can clearly remember details of the port of Hamburg, the lock bridge of Koln, the taste of a currywurst in Dusseldorf, walking along the old walls of Mainz, etc. But Frankfurt always is freshest in my mind.  I was no longer worrying about trains schedules, finding my way to meet up with friends at a specified hour, finding hotels, etc.  I could just relax and take it all in. And, after I realized that Frankfurt, like everywhere, has a character or soul, just hidden under the mighty corporate piles, I was able to enjoy the city more, feeling it’s subtle vibes, and finding the old city in among the new.

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I have often been critical of cities that seem soul-less (Washington, D.C. being the sterilized poster boy), and have always appreciated the cities that have maintained a unique character and an infectious vibe.

Frankfurt surprised me, and in a good way.   Despite its steely, glassy look, it turned out to occupied by human beings.  I looked down at it from the cathedral tower, looked up at it from the river, watched it go by from a park bench, and somehow fell in love with Germany.

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Norway, Telemark, travel

Driving in Norway-The Telemark and the Land of the Imagination

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DSC07692For those unfamiliar with Norway and it’s scenery, descriptions of it may seem a bit “out there”.  People tend to use the word “magical.”

 

 

And after all, almost everywhere has been described as “magical” by someone, at some time.  Especially here, within the often-imaginary world of the internet.

Even North Koreans, impervious to ridicule, advertise their Land of Make Believe as a little slice of Nirvana.

Good PR just takes a bit of imagination (“The effusions off the waste-treatment plant, back lit by the glowing fumes from the refinery next door, created a misty effect that was almost magical…”)   

 

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So when Norway is called a winter wonderland, you’ll only accept the truth of this when you witness it firsthand.

 

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“Vinter” Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1902

 

DSC07509Well, I’m writing on the internet, you don’t know me, and you have no reason to trust me on this.  But, sorry, it really is kind of magical.  My pictures here don’t do it justice, and quite often, we just enjoyed it, and didn’t photograph it.

 

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My father used to ridicule the trees and hills in landscapes by Asian artists.  He thought they looked absurd, like illustrations by an opium-addicted Dr. Seuss.  That is, he says, until he saw Japanese gardens and bonsai in real life, and photographs of the karst mountains in China’s Guangixi Zhuang region, and realized the Asians weren’t following some weird artistic license, but were painting these fantastical sights because that is simply how they actually look, misty and bizarre.

DSC07691There are mountains in Norway like this, in a way – illustrations from a storybook.

 

 

 

And that is how this outdoor story of Norwegian mountains begins — indoors, in the city of Oslo, with some storybook pictures. 

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“Palace – Soria Moria Castle” Theodor Kittlesen, 1900

 

Oslo is a a very pleasant city, and very beautiful in parts, but it’s never been one of “The European Capitals” on the Grand Tour that draw flocks of fervent American tourists, like Amsterdam, Paris, or Rome.  These are cities with Romance in their names.

Or at least, Paris has the romance thing, and the other two have pot and pasta, close runners-up.  (Is it a bad sign that I think of pasta as a close runner-up to romance?)  London and Berlin may be Europe’s most important capitals, and Prague and Budapest have amazing architecture, but Oslo is undoubtedly in the most beautiful setting, nestled among mountains full of pine trees and beautiful water.

 

DSC07345The city’s harbor is clean and handsome, and the nation’s waters are among the purest in the world (tied with Finland, Sweden, and Iceland — no surprise, I think these are wise people).  You can see ski-slopes from downtown.

 

 

 

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What prompted us to leave the city was a visit to the National Gallery.  It is much, much smaller than the Louvre or the Prado, the palatial, overwhelming showcases of Paris and Madrid.  Oslo’s collection is far more modest, and the building definitely not palatial.  When we walked up to it, it looked to be a disappointment — a dull, almost industrial-looking building– we could have been at a typical city museum in the U.S. rust belt.  It turned out to be well worth a visit.  Oslo displays a modest, but still excellent, collection of Impressionists.  And of course, a lot of works by Edvard Munch – some communicating dark moods, sadness, despair.  Hanging on the wall for a century, they should be harmless, but still seemed baleful and disturbing.

"And then they heard a noise..."

“Afraid of the Dark”  Gerhard Munthe, 1906

And then a real stroke of luck.  The current exhibition was “The Magic North” — Norwegian artists and illustrators, and it seemed to have drawn in a crowd not of tourists, but locals.  A fantastic showcase of fantasy, talent and imagination.

 

"It's Snowing" 1903

“It Snows, It Snows” Theodor Kittelsen, 1903.

Wonderful paintings of nature, Norse mythology, folk and fairy tales, legends of trolls… as well as a large picture of some lumpy and very bluish mountains, which seemed to keep drawing the attention of the natives. I was critical of this painting, thinking the lumps of mountain looked childishly drawn. As my father had felt about the trees and mountains in Asian paintings, I would come to feel about the blue mountains.

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“Winter  Night in the Mountains” Harald Sohlberg, 1914

Having sworn to take only day-trips out of Oslo, on their excellent trains, we now decided to rent a car.  We had to go find the countryside depicted in those paintings.  Our rental was a Volkswagen, a model not sold in the U.S., called a “Polo.”  (It is tiny.  A sticker on the dash warned us against running the radio and headlights simultaneously.  Another notice suggested limiting passengers to one, and no baggage, when driving on roads with grades exceeding five percent.)

The car rental office had no maps available, and was staffed only by Swedes for some reason, who could tell us nothing about the Telemark, apparently did not drive, and thought it sounded like an odd idea for anyone to rent a car and drive there.  But we rented a GPS unit and off we went.

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DSC07545The Telemark is a region known for it’s natural beauty and its lack of development — if you’re a New Yorker, it’s similar to the Adirondacks, except on a larger scale.  Norway’s total population is only five million, with 1 million concentrated in the Oslo area, so there’s a lot of fairly empty spaces in this country.

 

 

 

So, we set out in our tiny car, chosen in part because this oil-rich country has obscenely expensive gasoline, and not thinking to spring for something with four-wheel drive and snow tires.  We had a tiny map, also, from our guidebook, which lead us to believe, that if we got lost, we were sure to get our bearings by hitting either the Swedish border, or the Atlantic Ocean.

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IMG_0839What struck me first was how well everyone drove.  Unlike Americans, the Norwegians seem to follow laws, and not use cars to express frustration or machismo, making driving there safe and pleasant.  Outside of the capitol district, a lot of the roads were small, and sometimes bumpy.  Very quickly the countryside reminded us of a largely unsettled frontier, with deep woods, unnamed (as far as we knew) lakes, and rapid shifts  in weather, which I thought made the region seem even more mystical.

 

 

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DSC07545We stopped at a famous “stave” church, from 1204.   These stave churches are like no other church you’ve ever seen, not suggesting Christianity somehow, and a bit eerie and unearthly-looking, more suited for a mead hall for Odin and Thor.  So that was an almost unsettling starting place to begin our journey into the mountains.

 

 

 

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DSC07680At first, we stopped along a dam where we walked in some beautiful woods, with little snow, although very icy trails.  The mountains were far off, so the natural element of Norway felt pristine but rather familiar and American, even if the trees were different. But as we neared the mountains, I knew I wasn’t home anymore.

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Suddenly, before my eyes, were the same lumpish blue mountains that I had silently ridiculed in the art museum. They looked exactly the same, only much bigger. And colder.  Even though the mountains were only in the six to eight thousand foot range (which is still bigger than Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks), they were imposing and huge, with the countryside dominated by them.  I did not take a picture.  I don’t know why.

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DSC07704I’ve been in the Adirondacks and Catskills (getting an impressive vibe from the former, and always feeling a bit uneasy in the latter, as if feeling haunted by the old Dutch spirits) and I’ve spent a bit of time in the Wasatch Range in Utah.  I have even had the good fortune to ride a narrow gauge railroad up to Silverton, Colorado, right through the most beautiful scenery I have ever laid eyes on, with pristine mountain lakes and dense evergreen forests, juxtaposed against impossibly clear mountain streams and cool temperatures, next to the giant Rocky Mountains. Still, the Rockies felt less imposing, and there was some sort of sensation generated by the Norse mountains that made them feel very ancient, far older than the rocks in Colorado.

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At once, I felt like I was in a fairy tale, in an adventure story, one of the old Norse sagas perhaps. Danger, excitement and beauty and calm all descended on me. The drive was so gorgeous, with tiny winding,empty roads going by mountain lakes and forests.  Arriving at a pull off, we could see a large lake and hiked up the mountain overlooking it, in the very snowy woods. Up until that point, we’d seen no snow in Norway, making the mountains seem all the more magical.

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Soon, we were walking in woods which apparently were full of moose.  We didn’t encounter any, but their hoof prints and droppings were everywhere.

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Back down the mountain and we returned to driving, a bit unsure of where exactly we’d fetched up on the tiny map.  The GPS was switched on, but had become delusional, possibly treacherous in the cold, or perhaps, far from Oslo, had developed a death wish, trying for hundreds of kilometers to send us back farther and farther north.

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It began to get darker, and we could see streams of ice crystals blowing over the mountain at the head of the valley.

 

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The beautiful countryside, beautiful but starkly empty. faded as the light disappeared and the temperature dropped.  The roads had been clear, but were now drifting over in places, and we drove on packed ice.  Our tiny Volkswagen, not a rugged car and without snow tires, suddenly felt too small and scary as we drove by lakes frozen over, snow piled six feet high or higher and blowing towards us, as we passed buried trees, summer houses, cars, and bodies of water.  The engine seemed to be making a bit more of a high-pitched whine.  What appeared to be abandoned ski centers were the only marks on the map, which was  becoming less and less helpful.

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“The Ash Lad and the Wolf” Theodor Kittelsen, 1900

The way back was the most terrifying, driving alongside dark lakes with no cabins or lights, through the same mountains where people died in an avalanche only the week or so before. I was feeling elated the entire time, my dad not so much.  I was pumped to be seeing this preternatural wintery and rocky landscape, that seemed straight out of Middle Earth. Had the varied and exotic locale of New Zealand not been used for the Hobbit movies, Norway could’ve done a fine job, at least for most of the scenes.  At some point, we took a turn into what appeared to be an alpine Christmas village, and saw welcome signs of human life, except the roads had only a few ski junkies roaring down the road in hulking four-wheel drives, and we began to feel hopelessly out of place and lost.

 

IMG_0401Taking the next turn took us back away from any other cars or lights, on a narrow, dark road through forests.  Passing the mountains, now just black shapes in the dark, and alongside dark bodies of water, I knew that we were in a fantasy realm, no place on earth is actually like this. Suddenly, I could understand the Norse monster stories.  In an earlier era of superstition, violence, and illuminated only by firelight casting eerie shadows, it was easy to imagine things that didn’t exist. Trolls living in the hills could seem very real.  And the very real creatures, moose and elk, also posed a danger. An enormous pair of moose waded out of the snow to cross right in front of us, and had we not slowed for a sharp turn and a narrow bridge, we’d have hit those massive beasts.  Who would probably have been fine, while we would have turned to raspberry jam in our little tin can.

 

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DSC07516Magic is all based on perception of the audience. In this case, I was a true believer. There was life in these old hills and rocks; the dark  pristine lakes held secrets.  The Norse sagas materialized before my eyes. Even the quiet, intense austere nature of the local people supported the perception that we were in a storybook land and time. It was in Norway that I came to believe in the magic of travel. This trip  seemed to be more of an adventure than my other trips, even ones when I was alone, due to this drive into nowhere.

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Every fantasy and mythology story I’ve read seems to describe Norway.  While I’ve not ridden a camel across the Arabian peninsula, or hiked in Tibet, motorcycled across Vietnam, or bungee-jumped off a TV tower,  I drove in mountains straight out of Narnia, on roads too narrow for more than one vehicle, bounded by massive drifts of snow, with moose in the hills and spirits in the crags and dales. This trip, already fantastic, and ending in equally stunning and interesting locales later on, was highlighted most by this adventure. By the end, after nearly falling asleep when supposed to be navigating, and then talking about a great deal of things, my Dad and I both started laughing. A close call, with death, fatigue, or just being lost in an alien landscape can turn into something humorous. It was. We laughed the rest of the way home (to Oslo) where we finally turned in, exhausted but satisfied.

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travel

Overlooked and Underloved: Milwaukee

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Here’s a line from a song “The Bay” by the British band Metronomy.

Because this isn’t Paris. And this isn’t London. And it’s not Berlin. And it’s not Hong Kong. Not Tokyo….”.

IMG_5901This song fits Milwaukee.

It’s the kind of city that shouldn’t be nice, because that contradicts your preconceptions.

You don’t want to admit that you enjoy it, because it’s… Milwaukee.

Located…where, exactly?

It’s OK if you don’t really know.  “Somewhere past Chicago,” or “near the Great Lakes?” or “Yeah, it’s…oh wait, that’s Minneapolis” are all acceptable answers.

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If your brain does kick out a few random factoids, there’s an image problem.  The city was a byword for industrial decay, notorious for its massive rate of crime and poverty, and Miller Lite on culture.  Even the ball team was sub-par.

> Poster boy for the Rust Belt.

> Someplace dull where people talk about electric power tools.

> The City That Made Beer Famous” – but a lot of it came to be cheap, sticky, mass-produced “value beer.”

Growing up, Old Milwaukee, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Schlitz Malt Liquor were never seen in our house.  They only seemed to exist as empty cans in roadside ditches- the kind of beer drunk by people who drive rusty pickups with “Dixie” stickers and throw their empties out the window.  The pickups were driving by old rusted-out Allis-Chalmers hay-balers, also a symbol of the town.

The city was part of feeling embarrassed about living in the northern U.S.

Bad cars from Detroit.  Bad beer from Milwaukee.  Bad politicians from New York.

Last summer, I moved to Milwaukee.  Voluntarily.  I entered of my own free will.

The city continues to get a lot of bad press.  New Yorker magazine just ran an article about the thousands of evictions that take place yearly in this, the fourth poorest city in the country.

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The art museum on the lake. A fantastic creation by several architects. The central building by Eero Saarinen, an addition with a winged sunscreen that opens & closes by Santiago Calatrava

 

But Listen Up People —  I am here, and I am here to say, Milwaukee is a great city 

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City Hall. When it was erected, the tallest building in the country.

 

 

On a great lake.  Literally, the city is right on one of the “Great Lakes.”  Lake Michigan is impressive, one of the biggest expanses of fresh water in the whole world.  It doesn’t need the others to be a Great Lake.   You could drop Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut into it without a trace. And its the only one we don’t have to share with Canada, so it is an All-American lake.

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Mitchell Park Domes. Desert and tropical environments, and a nice break from winter

This isn’t the 1980 Rustbelt anymore!  Milwaukee is ready to be a new poster boy, one for new era, the re-birth of the American city. From Buffalo and Pittsburgh to Milwaukee, the revitalized Richmond and Louisville, and of course, NYC – all have stories of revival, comeback, resurgence, regrowth.  And unlike NYC or San Francisco, young people can actually afford to live here, and can afford to have some fun.

America’s comeback is, and will be, taking place in its cities.  A lot of this is change is brought about by an influx of young working people.  Young people who move in, work, and spend their money here.  There are still huge problems, but that just isn’t the whole story.

IMG_6515So it feels good to move to a city that is coming back to life, and showing people that “moving to the city” is still relevant and desirable.

It may be overshadowed by bigger, sexier Chicago, but Milwaukee is very much a worthy, interesting destination city on its own.  I know one Chicago resident, who comes up on weekends, because he loves visiting the local joints in our town.  Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, is prosperous and squeaky clean, and has earned the reputation of being the ultimate college town (though it will always rank below my favorite, Ithaca, NY) but Milwaukee can give them a run for their money — there is a vast population of students and recent graduates.

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You can have an apartment!  Not a cleaning supplies closet “artfully re-purposed into a Living Pod,” or a retro-engineered shipping container, or a squat where the coachroaches have names and their own little bunk beds.  You don’t need to live in a derelict loft with five roommates, and go dumpster-diving behind Panera’s; here you can live a good life on very little money. Beer is cheap, and it is good – Milwaukee’s old-time genetic coding has kicked in, after all this is Brew City, and they’re once again making great beer around here.  Microbreweries like Sprecher, Lakefront, Brenner  turn out ales and lagers as good as anything in Europe.  There’s lots of innovative stuff, too, like organic pumpkin beer, tangerine IPA, etc. and a really smooth black lager.  Bars are plentiful, friendly, and the “pub food” is excellent, and the nightlife is good.

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Where I live, West Allis, somewhere between a city neighborhood and a suburb, there are tree-lined streets, and you can walk along the Hank Aaron Trail to downtown, and then along the RiverWalk, which stretches right through the heart of the city.  You can walk on top of the bluffs along the lakefront, and they even have a lighthouse.

A quintessential American city — it’s a diverse population, mostly Germans, Poles and Mexicans, but with dozens of other groups and ethnic communities in the mix. There are African-American neighborhoods mixed with Hmong immigrants just up the road from an old Scandinavian enclave.  Maybe it is one of the last bastions of middle class America — as the new, monied elites grow richer on both coasts, leaving the poor and jobless to fill the spaces in between.

IMG_6331A world-class art museum on the Lake (the building alone is an architectural gem, in part a design by Eero Saarinen, who did the St. Louis Arch and buildings that still look futuristic at Dulles and JFK airports), authentic ethnic restaurants, hip lofts and desirable neighborhoods, full of hipsters, yuppies and yup-sters, a cool live-music scene and lots to do, this town is excellent.  To amuse tourists and local visitors alike, a stroll along one of downtown’s main streets takes you past a series of street poles with mini-stories told in ‘flip art’.   Milwaukee offers more green space than any major American city — parks abound along the lake. You can visit the Pabst mansion, the Mitchell Domes (huge geodesic gardens, one for desert, one for tropical), enjoy German food in the restaurant that has hosted four US presidents, celebrate “Pho-bruary”, and experience blue-collar America’s factories, with tours of Miller (and the other breweries too) and Harley-Davidson’s factory.

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“The Streets of Old Milwaukee” in the excellent, and fun, Public Museum

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Celebrating Men in Tights

This town may not have the fashion scene, but it has character. Here, people talk to you. They are sincere; they are friendly.  You can live on a reasonable salary. Housing prices aren’t outrageous. You have all the big city amenities, and none of the traffic. Sure, this town lacks the frenetic pulse and determined weirdness that enlivens places like NYC, but it instead feels like a big small town. You feel like you’re at home, even when you’re not from around these parts. I think it’s wonderful. But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself.

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