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When Passports are Passé

April 1, 2009
Little did we know that today the world economic situation would make travel abroad even more difficult for many people.
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Five years ago in this column we wrote the following:

In the high-Dow Nineties Americans were taking pictures at the Parthenon, tasting haggis in Scotland, watching windmills in the Netherlands. That's changed now. The value of the Euro makes travel to Europe expensive and the world situation makes it uncomfortable. Many people are opting to toss the passport and still explore the continent without leaving the United States.

Little did we know that today the world economic situation would make travel abroad even more difficult for many people.

Therefore, here are some more places where you can see the world without a passport. After all, falling portfolios dampen our wallets, not our curiosity!

Boston's Beijing Accent

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You can't get much further from Beijing than Boston. It doesn't matter whether you travel east or west, cross the Atlantic or the Pacific, you're in for a trip of about 8,500 miles. How much simpler to experience China by going to downtown Boston.

The Chinese came to the Boston area in the early 1870s, a good 20 years after they began settling on the west coast of the U.S. Now, Boston's Chinatown is the third largest such enclave in the United States.

The main entrance is heralded with a paifang, the traditional wing-topped archway, and flanked on each side by a statue of a protective foo lion. As one of the most densely populated areas of Boston, the streets are crowded, but this only heightens the sense that you're really in Beijing.

People converse in Mandarin, read Chinese-language newspapers, shop for bitter melon and bok choy (chinese cabbage), and buy strange-smelling powders that the herbalist says will work better than the medicine dispensed by the nearby Tufts Medical Center.

Inside the restaurants, waiters assume that people know how to use chopsticks (although forks are available for the asking), fish swim in tanks before being plucked for cooking, and dim sum (small taste treats) feature everything from steamed buns to duck feet. It's all ting hao (very good).

For more information: Contact the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau at (888) SEE-BOSTON or see

Kansas' Swedish Heart

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"When a heart beats in Lindsborg, the pulse moves in Sweden," says Norman Malm, speaking of his hometown in central Kansas. It's easy to see why. Nearly half of Lindsborg's 3,200 residents say their ancestors came from Sweden.

The town works hard to maintain its image as "Little Sweden." Twenty-eight large-scale dala horses — the stylized, tail-free horse that is widely considered to be a symbol of Sweden — stand on downtown walkways. Local shops feature imported crafts from clogs to sweaters, and restaurants offer kottbuller (meatballs) and ost kaka (cheese pudding topped with lingonberries). Also available: Swedish pastries to go along with strong Swedish coffee.

Those interested in architecture can visit the Swedish Pavilion, designed by Swedish architect Ferdinand Boberg to resemble an Old Country manor house, and Bethany Lutheran Church, fashioned after a rural Scandinavian church.

Folk dancing takes place year round but especially during the three annual festivals — one during Easter, one in June and one in December. These festivals often include an authentic, homemade smorgasbord. If so, remember that smorgasbords were originally used to greet returning Vikings — huge men who were inordinately hungry. Go with a big appetite!

For more information: Call the Lindsborg Convention and Visitors Bureau at (888) 227-2227 or see

San Diego's Sunday Celebrations

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Balboa Park is so big and so beautiful that it's easy to miss the 21 small cottages tucked into a hollow off a main road. Overlooking them would be a big mistake.

Every Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m. these cottages and nearby buildings introduce visitors to the culture and traditions of 32 nations, from Ireland to Iran. Volunteers cheerfully explain exhibits, hand out brochures and urge folks to sample native cuisine. It's a veritable international buffet, with hot cross buns from England, potato pancakes from Israel and, yes, hot dogs from the United States.

During the summer there's also a lawn program at 2 p.m. that highlights the music and dance of the host nation. On one Sunday volunteers from the Israeli cottage watch Iranian children perform traditional dances; a few weeks later the situation is reversed. "This," said one onlooker, "is the hope for the future."

The cottages were originally built for the 1935-36 California Pacific Exposition. While they are still called the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, their mission has expanded to foster international understanding the world over.

For more information: To learn about the International Cottages and receive a complete schedule of lawn programs, call (619) 234-0739 or see

San Francisco's Russian Quarter

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The Richmond area of San Francisco — Geary Boulevard between 15th and 23rd Avenues and surrounding side streets — is home to a large and diverse Russian community. The stores have signs with Cyrillic lettering in the windows, the delis feature borscht (beet soup) and blinis (pancakes), and gold onion domes make the Russian Orthodox church a landmark for the entire city.

People from what was once the Soviet Union came to California in four waves: in the 1800s when Russian trappers settled the area north of San Francisco, in the early twentieth century after the 1917 Russian Revolution, in the 1970s and 80s during the Cold War, and more recently to work in the Bay Area's high tech industry.

To learn more about all things Russian — including the similarities between Emperor Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln — stop by the Russian Center, which has a wonderful small museum, a dance studio and the offices of several community organizations. You'll find a host of people eager to talk and explain their culture.

The best way to taste the variety of food available in the Russian Quarter is simply to poke into the various shops, grabbing a snack here, tasting a pastry there. Gastronom Deli features salads, the Moscow-Tblisi Bakery has superior poppy seed cake, while Katia's serves hearty dumplings in a delicate, tearoom atmosphere.

For more information: Contact the Russian Center at (415) 921-7631 or see

Ohio's Swiss Charm

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When folks think of Switzerland, four "Cs" come to mind: clocks, chocolate, cheese and cowbells. Visitors will find an abundance of all four in the rolling hills of central Ohio.

In the early 1800s, religious intolerance caused many to flee their homes in the foothills of the Alps. These people, the Amish, came to Ohio where they raised dairy cows, as they had in their homeland. Other émigrés from Switzerland soon followed, this time forced out by economic hardship. These non-Amish used the unpasteurized milk of the Amish to make superior cheese. Today this area of Ohio, where approximately 95 percent of the people are of Swiss or Swiss-German heritage, is a big player in the cheese industry, specializing in — you guessed it! — Swiss cheese.

The Guggisberg Cheese Factory, located in the perfectly-named village of Charm, is immediately recognizable because of the tall Swiss clock tower that adjoins it. Inside visitors can see cheese being made and taste-test some of the factory's most popular varieties, including a mild and creamy Baby Swiss.

Next door there's a small garden with a mini-Matterhorn, waterwheel and chalet, while across the street a restaurant features Swiss cheese fondue.

The Ohio Swiss Festival takes place the first weekend in October in nearby Sugarcreek, a small town with two blocks of chalet-style buildings and an Alpine Museum that's filled with a variety of items brought over by the original settlers.

For more information: Contact the Village of Sugarcreek Office at (303) 852-4112 or see In addition, contact the Holmes Country Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau at (330) 674-3975 or see

Click here to see our previous column that spotlights international enclaves and festivals.

Photos by Irv Green, DDS; Story by Andrea Gross.
In addition to travel writing, Irv and Andrea have founded LEGACY PROSE™, a company that helps people pass on their stories and values to their children and grandchildren.