News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Why Asheville?

When I told people I was taking a trip to Asheville, NC, I was surprised by the blank stares. It seems that the little mountain city is not on everyone’s go-to list. Not everyone has heard about the “Paris of the South.” Given that their climate is not that different than our own, I was starting to question my choice of destinations for a long weekend in late March. Well, I’m glad I went. Here’s a top ten list for a visit to Asheville:
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Whistler weekend

My first stop while in DC last weekend, was the Freer Gallery, which intrigued me because of a connection with our own native son, James McNeil Whistler (I believe Whistler only lived in Lowell for the first two years of his life and, as a Bohemian artist, always denied his industrial revolution roots; however, he was born here, so we get to claim him). As an aside, his birthplace, the Whistler House Museum in Lowell, features a copy of his most famous painting, “Arrangement in Grey and Black”, also known as “Whistler’s Mother” as well as some charming contemporary art work and many of his etchings, and tidbits of Lowell history. What I was particularly interested in at the Freer though, was “The Peacock Room.” This was a dining room that Whistler took over decorating for a wealthy friend and patron, Frederick Leyland. Whistler got carried away and, while the businessman was absent, painted the walls a beautiful rich blue-green, gilded the shelves, painted golden Peacock motifs on the panels and changed the entire look of the room. The two had a falling out over the cost, as well as the artist’s presumption, and Whistler added two fighting peacocks on one of the walls. After Leyland’s death, the entire room was purchased by a wealthy American businessman, Charles Lang Freer, another friend and patron of Whistler’s who also collected Asian art, along with Whistler’s paintings and etchings. Freer had the room installed in the DC mansion that he was having built to house his art collection. In addition to the dining room, we viewed a range of Whistler’s paintings and etchings (he was ranked right up with Rembrandt in etching), and gained a new appreciation of his art. At my next stop, the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art, we saw a few more Whistler’s, including the rather strange “Symphony in White, No 1.” I’m sure there are more Whistlers to be viewed in DC, but all in all, it turned out to be quite a Whistler weekend in Washington!

posted in Art, Local People, Travel | 0 Comments

Go the speed limit, please

Junior drivers (under 18 years old) must travel the speed limit. If they don’t, the consequences they face are excessive and expensive, such as losing their license and being required to retake tests, courses, and fines costing more than a thousand dollars. Yet, drive on any of our highways and you will find most adults travel much faster than the posted speed—typically at least 10 miles faster. This presents junior drivers with a difficult choice: Travel with the flow of speeding traffic and risk losing your license, or travel at the posted speed and deal with cars (and trucks!) tailgating so close it’s terrifying as they pass you on both sides, all of which are very dangerous.

My son will take the road test for his driver’s license in two weeks. This test culminates a substantial financial investment as well as months of work to become a proficient driver, knowledgeable of state driving laws. The process entailed passing a written exam to get his driving permit ($30), completing a driver’s education course ($699) that included 30 hours of classroom instruction, 12 hours driving with an instructor and six hours observing another student, as well as 40 hours driving with an adult. My husband also had to attend a two-hour parent education class. The road test, which will be held at the Lowell RMV, will cost an additional $70. All told, the process of becoming an under-18 driver in the Commonwealth requires a significant investment of time and money (about $800, not counting gas). I’m not complaining about this. I’m also not upset about the state’s excessive crackdown of youthful violators (see this post). Whether it’s speeding or unlawfully carrying passengers before the required six months, junior drivers must know we are serious about these safety rules and that violators will be punished. Yet, it is difficult for them to follow the posted speed even by staying in the right lane, where cars are entering and exiting our highways at fast speeds. When general highway traffic is travelling at 70 mph, and people are speeding by on both sides and tailgating, how are young drivers supposed to follow the rules? Unfortunately, in another example of “Do as I say, not as I do,” these driving rules (similar to attitudes about alcohol) do very little to change harmful aspects of our culture. As adults, we all share some guilt and loss in that.

posted in City Life, State Concerns, Travel | 2 Comments

Politics, history, life and luck

I was lucky enough to go to Prague last month (tagged along on a business trip). The city has a magical, melancholy beauty, built (like Rome as our tour guide pointed out) on seven hills around the winding Vltava River. Coming so quickly on the heels of the presidential election, I thought a lot about politics while visiting some of the major sites. In the Jewish quarter, one can learn of the oppression and fluctuating fortunes, often depending upon who was Emperor, of Czech Jews from the 10th century on up to the horrors of World War II. (Particularly moving is the exhibit of children’s artwork from the Terezin Concentration Camp). The Czech people themselves, being central to Europe, have been caught in a kind of crossroads between differing ideologies for centuries (on a map of Central Europe, Germany looks like a mouth about to devour the Western, Bohemian, half of the country). Protestant reform movements were shutdown by the Hapsburgs in 1620, leading to a dark age of religious intolerance as well as the oppression of Czech language and nationalism. The 20th century saw the betrayal of the Czech people by the West as Germany was permitted to invade and occupy the country, succeeded in 1948 by the Communist coup d’etat and 40 years of totalitarian government. We were there very close to the November 17 anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when Wenceslas Square filled with peaceful demonstrators. They were waiting for the tanks that never came until at last the playwright Vaclav Havel appeared on a balcony to announce the end of the Communist regime. The horrors of that and other insults to the human spirit is summed up in the haunting Memorial to the Victims of Communist Oppression by Czech sculptor, Olbram Zoubek. The series of statues placed on steeply slanted steps depict a paralyzed and slowly disintegrating human figure.

Even in these uncertain times, one should pause to reflect on the sheer good luck of having been born in this country.

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Lowellians in the Eternal City

(This just in from Jackie)
Last night we were strolling in Piazza Navona during a spectacularly balmy Rome evening (the days have been brutally hot at 90+ degrees under a blistering sun but by nightfall there’s a lovely breeze), when I turned to see a surprisingly familiar face. “I knew it was you; I couldn’t believe it, but I knew it had to be you,” said the man, who I recognized as Mr. Brunelle, a math teacher at the Daley Middle School. He immediately introduced me to his travelling companions, some of whom were teachers at the Rogers and Sullivan Middle Schools and one couple who lives just blocks from us in the Highlands. Although it was 10 p.m. Rome time, the Lowell group had arrived that morning from Boston and were leaving the next day for a cruise to Venice. We were in day three of our Roman adventure and were able to share some tips with them, such as the three-block rule: don’t eat at a restaurant within three blocks of a major tourist site or you will pay top euro for less-than-the-best food. We’d learned this the hard way after 6 euro (about $10) each for sodas near the coliseum. This night, however, we had just finished our best meal in Rome at a pizzeria filled with Italian families. It was fun being the only tourists in the house, the food was exquisite although still a bit pricey (the dollar is weak after all), but reasonable and well worth it. Here we were, a few hours later, standing in the Piazza Navano surrounded by art, fountains, music, and strolling Romans as well as tourists from all over the world, having a chat with some folks from Lowell.

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Letter from Ireland

This just in from Jackie and her family:
In Ireland, even animals friendly

According to the guidebooks and general rumor, Ireland is filled with friendly, fun-loving people. This was certainly my experience in the six days I spent touring there last week. Some people, such as the hosts at our bed and breakfast in Cobh, were outstanding—going so far as to wash our clothes from the salty stench of being soaked in downpours at the Cliffs of Moher. Even the animals seemed more welcoming to strangers. For instance, we drove into Inch Beach on the Dingle Pennisula and noticed a band of three adolescent cats lounging in the parking lot—two orange tabbys that must have been siblings and a black one with white markings. I rolled down my window and made the universal cat sound. As I expected, they all immediately looked in my direction (cats can’t help but respond to that sound). What I didn’t expect was how they came running to meet me—not typical cat behavior. That same day, while walking back to our B&B, we encountered several dogs who simply wagged their tails and looked interested even as we strode near their property, a horse that ambled over to the fence for a personal hello, and sheep that bellowed a greeting (perhaps they just wanted dinner). Our hosts assured us there are barking, unfriendly dogs in Ireland and other unfriendly animals as well (humans too no doubt), but as far as our brief sojourn there, we didn’t meet them.

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Happy Travels!

As Jackie and her family set out for parts unknown:

When you travel
You find yourself
Alone in a different way
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eyes watching
You abroad;
And how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home

When you travel
A new silence goes with you
And if you listen
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing.

John O’Donoghue

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A trip back in time

Today we’re taking our kids for a trip into the past—most notably, key moments in our nation’s birth that occurred in Boston. (To say my teenager is reluctant to embark on this adventure with his geeky parents and younger sister is a major understatement. Fortunately, I have no problem dragging him to things he doesn’t want to do for his own good—he can thank me later.) Our schools do a fair job of exposing our children to Lowell’s unique role in American history (more on that in a later post), but my children have never had a field trip to Boston or walked the Freedom Trail. So, today is it! We’ll start with a free guided tour of the State House, and then we’ll walk the Freedom Trail, stopping at key sites such as the Park Street Church, Granary Burying ground, site of the Boston Massacre, Old North Church, Paul Revere’s House and the Old South Meeting House etc. I haven’t decided whether to have a guided tour, led by an18th-century-costumed guide, or do it on our own. We’ll definitely stop in Faneuil Hall for refreshments and end with a meal in the North End before heading home.

posted in City Life, Education, Travel | 2 Comments

An American in London

I was lucky enough to spend 5 days in London at the beginning of the month (the weather was quite mild for December and there is still a lot of green around, even some geraniums and cyclamens blooming in pots and window boxes). It rained off and on almost every day, but we had umbrellas and were often just dashing from the Tube (the London subway system) to a pub or museum.  I didn’t notice any overt anti-Americanism, in fact, most people were quite friendly; however, we did overhear an exchange about American politics, during which one referred to Guiliani as ‘an idiot’, another said, ‘they’re all idiots’ and the first finished up to general laughter, ‘well, they’re Americans.’ 

There was a lot in the news about the American subprime mortgage problems and housing market ‘collapse’ (see recent post from Dick Howe here) and a sense that because of better regulation, ‘it can’t happen here,’ meaning there.  However, the current liquidity crunch, largely caused by the problems in the US, may put some UK homeowners in jeapordy.  They seem to have a much higher percentage of balloon mortgages (called ‘endowment loans’) which need to be refinanced to avoid paying off the ‘balloon.’  With funds scarcer and harder to get, some of those balloon payments are coming due.  (I think the US only has about 7% of this type of mortgage). 

The biggest shock about being in London was the high cost of everything.  Two coffees and croissants cost us 13 pounds one morning, not that bad for a major city, until you do the math:  the pound was worth over $2 when we were there which means our light breakfast cost over $25! Ouch! So, we took the tube or walked, went to pubs and got half-price tickets to see a play.  The good news is that there is a lot of free entertainment in London – just walking around, the many beautiful parks, most of the great museums and you can walk around Harrods without buying anything.

posted in In the News, Travel | 2 Comments

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