Two Librarians (Plus One!) in Kansas City, Day Three (8/4/2012)

16 Oct

Our Saturday got off to a relaxing start. Some local friends of mine hosted us for brunch in their home, allowing Sarah a brief glimpse of the Kansas side.* As a Missouri native, I naturally designed an itinerary emphasizing the pleasures to be had on the eastern half of the divide.

Then we pleasantly wasted an afternoon puttering around the hotel and its environs, including the Crown Center shops and Union Station. These are connected by a series of covered bridges and walkways known officially as The Link, but I have always called them the “gerbil tunnels.” Mainly because I kept gerbils as a child and constructed elaborate tunnel systems for their entertainment. As one does.

Union Station in Kansas City, MO

Does it not look exactly like something a small rodent would crawl through? I ask you.

On our way to Union Station, we happened to spot on the ground a stray photograph of a cat. No one else was around who could’ve dropped it. Being in a weird mood, I decided to keep it. After seeing a display of local artists’ works and a quaint model train expo, we traipsed back through the gerbil tunnels the way we came. This time Sarah’s keen eyes noticed another photograph perched up on top of a support bar near the ceiling. I couldn’t resist climbing up the side of the tunnel to confirm my suspicion. I was right. I now had two matching Old Family Kitty photos! Someone didn’t lose them. They left them for other people to find, scavenger hunt-style. God only knows why, but I approve.

Two cat photos in a single image

Our own little “found art” exhibit

 

And now, the barbecue…

You can’t come to Kansas City and not have barbecue. Sorry, vegans. It’s the law.

Photo of Sarah's Meal at Jack Stack

Luckily, Sarah required no convincing. Brisket was one of her primary motivations for coming on the trip.

I fretted endlessly about which purveyor(s) Sarah just had to sample. If we’d been on a longer trip, I probably would’ve made her eat at more than one barbecue joint, so that she could have formed her own educated opinion. But that just wasn’t in the cards. Finally, I bit the bullet and planned to take her to my personal favorite: Jack Stack. For the record, I understand that many proponents of Gates, Arthur Bryant, and Oklahoma Joe’s will consider this blasphemy.

We were joined at dinner by local librarian (and my buddy and mentor) April Roy. We talked a lot of shop that night, and April filled us in on her commitment to overcome digital divide barriers related to the introduction of Google Fiber to the area. It was the first I’d heard of the issue, and it was fascinating.

Afterwards, April packed us into her car for a driving tour of Kansas City. Her involvement in approximately a zillion committees and action groups (community networking is her raison d’etre as a librarian) has given her a deep familiarity with local history, so it was a real treat.

Next we experienced another Kansas City staple – live jazz. Kansas City’s 18th and Vine District is recognized as one of the original cradles of jazz music, and there are still lots of clubs across the city where you can partake of the modern jazz scene. We decided to go directly to the source, getting tickets to a performance at The Blue Room, the club run by the American Jazz Museum.

Sign at The Blue Room in Kansas City, MO

Where magic happens

The featured performer that night was a lady called Darcus. And she was a force of nature. Admittedly, I have more of an appreciation than a great love for jazz, but she swept up this neophyte whole-heartedly in her spell. Also, there were two extra special moments during the show, both of which had to do with Darcus’ group of friends who had come to see her perform.

The first was that one of her friends happened to be fabulous comedienne Adele Givens. Darcus bullied her into giving the audience some love – not a full show, not even a full bit, but still some love. Brief, but fantastic.

The second (and my favorite moment of the whole night) happened when an audience member requested a song, “Misty.” Darcus was uncertain of the lyrics, and when one of her friends, another professional singer, badgered her about it, but she turned the tables on the friend. She demanded that her friend perform the song instead. Her friend did reluctantly take the stage, and her rendition of the song was absolutely lovely and powerfully emotional in a way I didn’t fully comprehend until she after she finished. After she sang, the friend announced that she had spent the last year battling breast cancer, and this was the first time she had sung in public since undergoing treatment. She was overwhelmed in the moment.

“I ain’t got no hair, but I’m still here.”

And, I’ll tell you all straight up, my stony heart cracked. Sarah is typically the weepy one, but my eyes were not dry that night. It was so special to be there to share that and to applaud for her. I wish I knew her name.

It was such a great night, and by the time we got back to the hotel late, I was done apologizing for bringing my friend home (not that Sarah ever asked for such a thing; she was 100 percent on board from the start). Screw all the haters. Kansas City is an awesome city. And this is an awesome vacation. You wish you were having this much fun.

 

*Note:  Understand that Kansas City residents gaze at each other across the state line with – at best – affectionate eye-rolling exasperation and sometimes genuine animosity. As a teenager, my motto was “Kansas side bites it.” My karmic payback is that most of my friends remaining in the area have since settled there. On purpose even. So I can’t talk smack about it anymore.

Two Librarians in Kansas City, Day Two (8/3/2012)

7 Oct

I’ve grown to love living on the East Coast and all the wonderful people I’ve encountered since I moved there. But their sense of geography can be a little… well… Let’s just say it:  snobby. They seem to give a pass to Chicago and New Orleans, but otherwise my impression is that they don’t really believe anything of any real cultural relevance happens west of the Appalachians.* Needless to say, that’s simply not reality.

True Fact:  I have yet to go to an East Coast art museum that tops the elevating spectacle of the one I grew up with.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Main Building

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Main Building in Kansas City, MO

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is one of the area’s genuine can’t-miss attractions. And so it was a no-brainer to schedule it early in our itinerary, a great start to our second day in Kansas City.

To beat the heat, we began by strolling all around the the extensive sculpture garden in the surrounding campus (the humidity made the chill of the galleries feel that much more delicious once we went inside).

Holly walking towards a silver tree sculpture

“Ferment” by artist Roxy Paine

Of course we had to take the obligatory Shuttlecocks photos. The museum commissioned the installation of four badminton-themed Claes Oldenburg sculptures when I was around 13 or 14 years old. I’ll never forget how terribly controversial the whole thing was. Do not underestimate how much people detested the thought of such ridiculous fare besmirching the dignity of the gorgeous neoclassic building. However, within the blink of an eye, they transformed into one of the city’s most beloved landmarks. Funny how that kind of thing happens.

Sarah sitting inside a shuttlecock sculpture

Sarah and Shuttlecock

Now I’ve been to this museum more times than I can count, so I was mainly showing off for Sarah bringing her here. That said, the trip was a treat for me, too, because they’ve built a new contemporary wing – the Bloch Building – since I moved away. I loved seeing how much the museum has changed and grown while also getting to visit old favorites.

The whole museum is a lot to take in, and it can easily consume a whole day. We ended up seeing less than half before adjourning to lunch. We transitioned directly from one quintessential Kansas City experience to another – Winstead’s Diner.

Winstead's Diner

Steakburgers and shakes since 1940

Calvin Trillin once wrote that Winstead’s serves the best hamburger in the world. Sarah was suitably impressed by her meal. I remember the big thing in high school was for my classmates to dare each other to try to finish single-handedly a “skyscraper.” This is a traditional malted milk shake that serves up to four people and is served in a glass that I remember being at least three feet tall. I didn’t order one because I was afraid it would look smaller when not filtered through nostalgia, but I’m sure it’s still pretty ginormous regardless.

From there, we walked the outskirts of the Country Club Plaza Shopping District to reach the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. It’s a beautiful library with lots of art, fabulous spaces for various audiences and purposes, and a terrific view.

Holly in KCPL Plaza Branch Lobby

Recycled book art

Although I personally never worked for KCPL (I worked at Mid-Continent in the ‘burbs), I was always impressed with the level of innovation displayed by the system, particularly in regards to youth programming. This excellence obviously continues today as evidenced by this sign for an awesome teen program that I wish I could’ve attended myself.

Placard advertising the Zombie Lock-In Event

This makes me wish I still worked in a public library. I miss teen programming.

After a busy morning, some relaxing by the pool was in order. It was a bit rainy out in the afternoon, which made Sarah and I think would our run of the place. We thought wrong. The Westin Crown Center pool was jam-packed with families. It made it difficult to follow through on our plan to work out some of our travel kinks with some laps, but the pool is still quite large (especially for a rooftop pool), and it has some enjoyably interesting features, such as being able to enter the pool from inside the building and being able to swim outdoors.

Luckily the rain cleared off beautifully for a perfect evening of Royals baseball at Kauffman Stadium with some local friends of mine. My home team and “the K” earned some extra attention this year what with hosting the All-Star Game and all.

Sarah holding a beer at Kauffman Stadium

Sarah in her natural element

They were able to show off the recent stadium improvements, which I hadn’t gotten an opportunity to enjoy before this trip. Everything from the seats to the concessions now seems so upscale and modern, but I only really cared about two things:

  1. Are there still fountains? Answer: a resounding YES! This is important because fountains are kind of our thing in Kansas City. Kansas City has the second-largest number of fountains in the world. Only Rome beats us.
  2. Do they still do the Hot Dog Derby (also known as, my favorite part of the game)? Answer: Not only do they still perform this ritual, they’ve actually improved it!!!

Allow me digress momentarily. The Hot Dog Derby used to consist of a digital video clip where a ketchup dog, a mustard dog and a relish dog hop around the diamond in a race played on the JumboTron at some point during the game. Most other stadiums around the country have similar gimmicks, but I guarantee you that it doesn’t mean even close to as much in other places as it does in Kansas City. Because when you have one of the most losing-est teams in baseball, you grasp and claw at whatever taste of victory you can just barely reach. And so Royals fans have embraced the Hot Dog Derby much in the same way a socially awkward man embraces a hooker. When your preferred condiment wins the Derby, you revel in your reflected glory. Seriously.

Kaufman Stadium

But now OMG THEY HAVE ACTUAL GUYS IN ACTUAL HOT DOG SUITS RUNNING AN ACTUAL RACE! This is deeply satisfying in a way Sarah can’t really comprehend because she actually knows something about baseball as a sport, not just as some place to go because they have a fireworks show on Friday nights (whatever; it’s an awesome fireworks show).

For those curious, I am a die-hard Relish supporter and will remain so until the last breath leaves my body.

Holly in a "Relish" t-shirt

I display my Relish pride at every game.

Why? Mainly because it’s the underdog both in terms of crowd support and win-loss ratio. Also because I genuinely feel that while ketchup and mustard are both absolute necessities when devouring a stadium frank, it’s the relish that reaches above the necessary and into the luxury. And because it’s not really just a condiment; it’s a philosophy of life in brief. I consider rooting for Mustard an acceptable if ill-considered choice, but never Ketchup. If you root for Ketchup, you might as well just become a Yankees fan while you’re at it.

* Note:  They also seem to believe that the Midwest is the Land of the Perpetual Deep Freeze. For the record, it does get quite cold. In winter. FYI, there is also a summer when it gets quite hot. Kansas City does not lie above the Arctic Circle.

Restaurant Review: Piropos Grill, Parkville, MO

28 Sep

Oh, guys. You have to eat here. I’m serious when I say that Piropos is actually worth the cost of a plane ticket and hotel room. Until it closed, my ultimate international fantasy food travel was to spend a night at elBulli. I dream about a weekend at French Laundry. Piropos might not carry the status of an ultra-fancy, exclusive eatery, but it’s got the chops. And the service.It’s an impeccable experience, and I’m so happy that Holly scheduled it as our first meal because it was such a highlight. If you live here, or near here, and haven’t been, shame on you. I’ll make your reservation for you.

Piropos is best visited after a little time exploring Parkville, the world’s cutest little historic, artsy area ever. Think sidewalk cafes and tiny independent art shops and super nice people. EVERYONE is nice in Kansas City. I haven’t recovered my cold DC demeanor since visiting Kansas City (although mine never rivaled many of my friends. I am a librarian, after all.) At this one little shop, we walked in after closing time, and not only did no one give us a dirty look, the owner let us poke around and chatted with us. AFTER closing.  Amazing.

So, ideally, you get good and thirsty. Maybe you’ve walked down by the river, or up to the college nearby with an awesome bell tower.  Or both. Find your way back to the main drag and look up! There’s the little alleyway that leads to Piropos. Climb the stairs and try not to get distracted by the mini-golf signs, because the mini-golf you really want is at Cool Crest. (We’ll talk about that later!) When you reach the front patio, spend a couple of minutes with the owner, a kind, outgoing man who is clearly concerned that his amazing business isn’t faring all that well. Walk in through the front door, and you’ll find yourself in a kind of iconic dining room. Lights are low, the wood is dark and the beams are exposed, it is mercifully, deliciously cool, and the table cloths are white linen. The service is kind, polite, and old-fashioned without being outdated. Your waiter believes in his business, believes in the product the chef is producing, and wants you to have an amazing time.

Stairs up the hill to Piropos

Stairway to Heaven

You probably don’t come to Kansas City expecting much seafood, given that the Midwest isn’t really known for it. I had planned to spend my time exclusively eating steak, but I just am not that much of a red meat eater, especially when it’s hot. So I went for a seafood platter, and Holly had skewers of beef and chicken. Everything was perfect. My seafood came with fresh fish, shrimp, scallops, jasmine rice and asparagus. For $29.99! I have paid almost double that for good salmon in DC. It was a huge platter, sauced with a butter-lemon reduction that was so feather-light I never felt full. It was an absolutely beautiful meal, in a perfect location, overlooking the horizon as the sun sunk behind the bell tower. If it had been a date, it would have been one of those dates you remember forever. As it was, it was a perfectly thoughtful best friends on holiday opening meal.

It’s hard to top a vacation that starts so well, but we did. Over and over again. Kansas City is a town full of surprises, a mid-sized city with amazing depth and history for miles.

Hotel Review: The Westin Kansas City at Crown Center

28 Sep

I care about a lot of things when it comes to vacation, but hotels are my favorite. I am an unapologetic and proud hotel snob, which does not mean that I only prefer expensive ones. On the contrary, a well-priced, high-quality hotel experience is like hitting the lottery, and I am always happy to buy a ticket. I do exhaustive research, and when Holly and I travel we make a list of potential hotels and debate until we’ve reach some kind of consensus.

Room with a View

When it comes to chain hotels, I love a Westin. They have amazing beds, the concierge service is usually top notch, and the bath products they provide are amazing. Holly hoards all their green tea shampoos, and I’m still using bottles of the lotion. The Crown Center location is  well placed downtown, with a direct connection to Crown Center, a large shopping center. It is relatively new, offers decently priced parking, and includes perks like a swimming pool, and a gym with a small spa. The central lobby gives way to a beautiful indoor courtyard replete with a waterfall and vegetation. It’s apparently a regular stop on the Kansas City wedding circuit, with lots of ball rooms and plenty of space.

Sarah in the Atrium

Sarah in the Atrium

I was happy with the important things at this Westin. The room was big, with those amazing beds and pillows so comfortable I honestly considered dropping $75 for one. The water pressure in the shower was good, the soaps are awesome,  and there is solid counter space in the bathroom. The room came with a small fridge, but no mini bar, although there was a convenience shop in the lobby. The lobby bar offered a few a la carte options for breakfast, but we opted to hit the attached Crown Center, where I discovered that Einstein Brothers Bagels has an amazing skinny iced hazelnut vanilla latte. Access to that shopping center was super great, especially because they had a Topsy’s Popcorn outlet and that stuff is amazing.

I ended up fairly disappointed in hotel service, though. We arrived in the evening, after an uneventful flight and a delicious meal at Piropos in Parkville. Admittedly, we were a little worn out, and I think that’s totally why we accidentally agreed to their new “green program”. Nice idea in theory–if you agree to the green program, you skip housekeeping on all but one of the days you stay. As a reward, you get $5 vouchers for food at the lobby bar. Which, like I mentioned before, is a couple of meager breakfast offerings, or drinks in the evening.  Holly nodded her head, more in recognition that she understood what the desk agent was telling her than in agreement, and voila! Just like that I was signed up for a vacation that included no housekeeping.

I’m eco-friendly. I believe in recycling, my husband drives a Prius, and conservation is important to us. But, selfishly, when I’m on vacation, I don’t want to clean my own room. I don’t want to make my own bed. I don’t want to have to track down housekeeping every day, anyway, to get more of the body lotion that was a factor in my hotel decision. We didn’t even get to pick what day housekeeping DID come–so they came the last day. As we were getting ready to check out. Is there anything more satisfying on vacation than coming back after a long, touristy day to a totally clean room? With those amazing beds made up with precision hospital corners? No. There isn’t. I’m still mad at that front desker for not making it clearer exactly what we were sacrificing.

Here’s the other way they went wrong. It was Holly’s birthday during the trip. I have stayed in some amazing hotels in my life, and my favorite thing, possibly ever, is to let concierge know what I’m celebrating while traveling. Birthdays have netted special deliveries of sparkling wine and strawberries. When my husband and I stayed in DC’s Park Hyatt for our anniversary, we received a cheeseboard and an amazing bottle of a Virginia red, with a butler at the door to serve it for us. So, when I went to the concierge and asked them to send something up for Holly’s birthday, I assumed that we’d get something nice. I asked for flowers, or something similar, since Holly doesn’t drink.

When we got back to the room that evening…there was a metal bowl from the bar, filled with vending machine snacks. Like pretzels.  ENDLESS. DISAPPOINTMENT. There wasn’t even a birthday card.

It was a really nice hotel. The important stuff was well-managed. But it’s the extra perks that make a luxury hotel, and I don’t think the Westin can count itself in that category. Stay there, happily, if  you just want a nice hotel. Go in without expectations about high quality service, and you’ll be totally happy. Oh-and be prepared to pay to use the gym. It costs $5 a visit.

Two Librarians in Kansas City, Day One (8/2/2012)

26 Sep

Sarah and I landed in Kansas City in late afternoon. I was so impatient to start vacationing that we drove immediately from the airport into one of my old haunts, Downtown Parkville. It was time to steep Sarah in all things Missouri while flirting dangerously with an overdose on quaintness.

White Chevy Aveo

Our Chevy Aveo, a perky little rental car and a necessity. You must drive in Kansas City, as we have not mastered public transit yet. And parking is mind-boggling easy.

If you use the word “antique” as verb, Parkville has a lot to offer you. I used to take my mom there to spend afternoons rummaging through the many junk shops. Because of that, I was a little worried that Sarah – of the more cosmopolitan tastes – would have trouble killing time there until our dinner reservation. But I needn’t have worried. Although my memories painted Parkville as a one-note town, it actually displays several different hues of local color. Sarah loved exploring local art in the tiny galleries dotting the main strip. The proprietors of the Northland Exposure Artists Gallery even let us wander around even though we walked in just as they were closing up shop. There were also plenty of unique boutiques with unusual fashion and jewelry options, even though we didn’t indulge in any purchases.

And we had to stop by an old favorite:  the HMS Beagle. It’s a specialty science shop and a wonderland for kids and science geeks of all ages. You can find the best little odds and ends here, and if I’d thought ahead I would’ve left room in my suitcase to carry home some unusual stocking stuffers for this Christmas.

Old-fashioned glass beakers

Old-fashioned glass chemistry set

The only problem is that the store hours for the shops can be a bit erratic. Lots of places were closed on Thursday afternoon, so I would recommend checking ahead before driving to Parkville for a shopping trip, particularly if you have your heart set on any particular location.

After getting our fill of window shopping, we walked. It’s a beautiful area, quite close to the river. And the historic buildings of the Park University campus up the scenic quotient.

Park University Bell Tower

Gotta love a bell tower.

We wandered around for a quite a while because I didn’t want to create hassle by showing up too early for our reservations at Piropos. As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry about that either. It was heart-breaking to survey the completely empty dining room. Apparently, this lovely restaurant has fallen on some hard times. And for no good Goddamn reason, I tell you.

The Argentinian cuisine is still delicious. Everyone working there is still completely solicitous. They still offer a gorgeous view of the river, which (I happen to know from past experience) is especially romantic at sunset. They still have the adorable little cards on the tables that list “piropos,” otherwise known as elegant compliments or pick-up lines. It still is an exceptional restaurant, and I took Sarah there on our first night in town specifically because she is a foodie and I wanted her to be impressed.

Anyway, after dinner we drove into the city to settle into our hotel, the Westin Crown Center. I talked Sarah into staying at this hotel for three reasons:

  1. It offers a convenient location.
  2. It provides an incredible view of the Kansas City skyline.
  3. Most importantly, it stocks my all-time favorite shampoo: Westin Heavenly Spa White Tea Aloe. I want to live inside that smell forever. Many, many tiny bottles were smuggled out of the hotel in my luggage.

After that, we tucked in to a restful night of sleep in preparation for busy weekend of sight-seeing.

Vignette from an Airport Food Court

22 Sep

My thought processes…

Holly 1: I’m thirsty. I want a Diet Coke from one of these restaurants.
Holly 2: Cinnabon has the shortest line. They appear to serve soft drinks.
Holly 1: Oh. My. God. That smell! That glorious smell! And look how delicious everything looks!
Holly 2: Don’t even think about it.
Holly 1: That smell is the world’s best marketing campaign all by itself.
Holly 2: Nope. You already had lunch. You’re on a diet. Even if you weren’t, eating that still wouldn’t be a good idea.
Holly 1: It smells like heaven!
Holly 2: That’s because you’ll die if you eat it.
Holly 1: It can’t be that bad.
Holly 2: Look at how skinny the people behind the register are. They clearly don’t eat their own product. They know something you don’t.
Holly 1: Sigh.

Amazingly, I walked away with just the Diet Coke.

Travel lust

13 Aug

We’re working on getting a ton of high quality Kansas City recap goodness over here. Holly is in the middle of a move and I am gearing up for another year at the high school, so things are moving a little slow. But here is something I am thinking of always:

I have travel lust. Forever and endlessly. I don’t think it’s wanderlust because my stable homebase is so insanely important to me. I don’t think you can meet your husband at 18 and buy a house at 25 and be wanderlusty. At the end of a trip I ALWAYS want to be at home. But as soon as I’m home, I’m planning another trip, thinking about the world through the huge lens of possibility, imagining getting caught up and lost in a new experience. It’s important to me, and I am forever glad that Holly and I have the kind of friendship that allows for these explorations.

I think the best thing for travel lust is a good set of tools. The internet, and the world, can seem overwhelming when you’re trying to figure out what you want to do next. Sometimes googling ‘unusual travel destinations’ gets you something amazing, but other times, you find yourself knee-deep in ideas without a safety net and no starting place.  Here are a couple of my favorite tools for nascent travel planning, from the realistic and soon to happen, to the ideal and dream vacation.

I LOVE Oyster. So much. Oyster.com is an online only service that offers you extremely detailed hotel reviews for destinations all over the world. They send undercover agents into each hotel they review, and they take hundreds of pictures of everything. From the facility itself to every level of room and all the amenities, you’re going to get the detailed information you need. Especially if you love hotels as much as I do.  Access is free and the destination list is forever growing. I like that you can look at hotel collections for any given location–I especially prefer to focus on “boutique hotels” and “hidden gems” when I’m hotel hunting. So amazing.

The New York Times Travel Page  is so beautiful and useful. My favorite feature is the “36 hours in…” column. They always feature interesting and unusual places, include a variety of price ranges, and this feature helps me easily map out at least a weekend of travel in a way that is sensible and exciting.

I think Lonely Planet is an awesome starting place for people who aren’t sure where to start. Unusual locations, a focus on insider information, and inexpensive options with tips on how to upgrade all speak to Lonely Planet’s success in transferring from printed guides to an online presence. I think they’ve been much more successful than Frommer’s, although they’re obviously targeting a different audience.
And finally, the books that launched, and continue to sustain, my need to travel. I’ve been reading travelogues since I was a kid growing up in a small Maryland suburb. This is just a handful of my favorites.

Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign, Pico Iyer.   Boy did this book change my life in high school. Pico Iyer writes a peerless, lyrical travelogue that carries you into the most foreign and complicated places in the world.

Alice Let’s Eat, Calvin Trillin. Oh, do I love Calvin Trillin. I think my favorite contemporary novel might be Tepper Isn’t Going Out, but let’s talk about Trillin’s take on traveling the world for the perfect meal. You drool and cry and laugh throughout the whole book, usually at the same time.

Under The Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes.  Forget the movie, although the movie is cute and delightful. This is the wistful story of an uprooting, filled with food and renovation and discovery. So completely beautiful.

In A Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson. There isn’t a Bill Bryson book I don’t love, but this spare, thoughtful novel on Australian travel gets me every time. Bryson shows us all the stages of travel–joy, fatigue, isolation, contentment, fear, homesickness–and sets it in the endlessly alluring Australian outback. Fabulous.