Nonfiction

10 places not to see before you die

Slide Show: From Euro Disney to Mount Rushmore, the attractions that should never make it on your bucket list

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    Reuters/Darren Staples

    The Gloucester Cheese Rolling Competition

    Certain activities make me question how the human race survives. For example, the Cheese Rolling Competition, a yearly festival in which scores of people gather at Cooper’s Hill near Gloucester, England, for the chance to chase a piece of cheese off a cliff. Bones are broken. Joints are dislocated. Contestants are carried off the field on stretchers. This might be understandable for a sufficiently large prize, but in this particular contest, runners are risking life and limb for the glory of winning a 7-pound round of Double Gloucester cheese.

    Fans of the Cheese Rolling Competition will accuse me of oversimplifying things, so let me take a step back. The proud tradition of cheese rolling dates back some 200 years (die-hard fans insist it comes from the Romans) and follows a strict order of proceedings. First, competitors line up on the top of Cooper’s Hill, a rugged, uneven pitch so steep that from the top of the slope, it appears concave. A master of ceremonies, wearing a white coat and a silly hat, escorts a guest “roller” — the person responsible for releasing the cheese — to the edge of the hill. On the count of three, the roller releases the cheese; on the fourth count, the runners throw themselves down the hill after it. Originally the point was to try to catch the cheese, but given that it can travel more than 70 miles per hour and has a one-second head start, the winner is usually just whoever crosses the finish line first.

    It’s a painful race to watch. Most people lose their footing almost immediately and begin violently tumbling down the hill, bouncing onto shoulders, ankles and heads, occasionally landing back on their feet before being thrown forward again. Lucky runners make it to the bottom intact, where volunteer rugby players known as catchers try to intercept them before they crash into the safety barrier of hay bales. Unlucky contestants are taken away by ambulance.

    The 2009 competition alone saw 59 injuries, of which only 35 were competitors. The rest were catchers and spectators, some trampled, some wounded when hit by the wayward cheese. One particularly unfortunate man held up the entire contest when he fell out of a tree. But regardless of its inherent dangers, history dictates that the competition must continue. When World War II rationing forbade using a real round of cheese, contest organizers fashioned a cheese-shaped piece of wood with a token piece of Gloucester stowed inside. And even when the contest itself has been canceled, as it was during the foot-and-mouth scare of 2001 and again in 2003 when the contest’s volunteer Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters teams were called off to help victims of an Algerian earthquake, organizers rolled a single piece of cheese off the hill anyway — a symbolic act to ensure that the tradition would remain unbroken. If only the same were true for contestants’ bones.

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    Wikipedia

    Euro Disney

    I’ve never liked Disney World. As a child who was terrified of mimes, Santa Claus and any larger-than-life stuffed animal, I hated the giant mice that roamed the streets of the Magic Kingdom, holding children hostage until their parents took a photograph. Huge, unblinking eyes; garish smiles; swollen, cartoon hands — this was the stuff of nightmares. When my parents brought me to a special event called “Breakfast With the Characters,” I took one look at Pinocchio and dived under the table.

    So perhaps I was biased against Euro Disney from the start. But really, who wasn’t? Opened in 1992, it was an attempt to bring Mickey Mouse to Europeans — an audience that tends to be skeptical of American culture to begin with, especially when it tries to steal the hearts and minds of its children. Convinced that parental disapproval was no match for their offspring’s love of “The Little Mermaid,” Disney pushed forward with its plans and eventually settled on a spot in the rural town of Marne-la-Vall

  • BART

    Let’s start with the carpet. Why would Bay Area Rapid Transit, one of the country’s busiest commuter rail systems, decide it was a good idea to upholster the floor?

    The result is Eau de BART, the stomach-turning scent that hits you in the face every time you board a train to San Francisco. It’s a blend of spilled coffee, greasy hair, body odor left by vagrants who take naps on its blue cloth seats, and the aroma that arises from substances trapped on thousands of commuters’ shoes. Thankfully, there’s a movement afoot to rip up the rug from some of the cars, but this still leaves the question of the fabric seats unresolved. Perhaps my allegiance to the New York subway system makes me biased, but I believe that all public transportation systems should be built with materials that can be hosed down with bleach.

    BART was honored as one of the Top Ten Public Works Projects of the Century by the American Public Works Association. But despite this accolade, its problems don’t end with its odor — or with the questionable decision to refer to a major public transportation system with an acronym that rhymes with “fart.” BART is the main transit link between the East Bay and San Francisco, and yet its trains don’t run between 12 and 4 a.m. Berkeley residents looking for a night on the town therefore find themselves in a public transportation version of Cinderella — except when the clock strikes midnight, BART doesn’t turn into a pumpkin; it disappears entirely.

    If you do manage to get on a train, be prepared to ponder several engineering questions such as: Why did no one predict that thanks to some unfortunate confluence of acoustics and friction, BART cars would emit an ear-piercing shriek for their entire 3.6-mile passage underneath the water through the Transbay Tube? Or, alternatively, what would happen in an earthquake? The BART Earthquake Safety Program has identified areas that are particularly vulnerable if the ground starts to shake: the Transbay Tube, the stations and the aerial guideways that prop up the tracks when the train emerges above ground. In other words, pretty much all of it. One can only hope that if and when the big one comes, it does so between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m.

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    Countdown Entertainment, LLC

    Times Square on New Year’s Eve

    There are only two circumstances where a dropping ball can qualify as a noteworthy event: male adolescence and New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Having had no personal experience with the first, I will instead skip to the second and say that if you value your sanity, your extremities and your bladder, you should find a different place to celebrate the new year.

    The tradition goes back to 1904, when Adolph S. Ochs, owner of the New York Times, threw a party on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the opening of the newspaper’s headquarters at what is now One Times Square. With an all-day street festival and a thrilling fireworks display, Ochs’ party was so successful that it quickly became New York’s premier New Year’s Eve party.

    The New Year’s ball didn’t come into play till 1907, however, when Ochs commissioned a 700-pound iron-and-wood ball with 100 25-watt lightbulbs to be lowered from the tower’s flagpole to celebrate 1908. Since then it’s been replaced several times — 1920 introduced a 400-pound ball made of wrought iron; 1955 saw the debut of a 150-pound aluminum sphere. In 1980, red light bulbs and a stem turned the ball into an apple for the “I Love New York” marketing campaign, and the millennium celebration was graced by a ball made from Waterford Crystal. In 2009, the co-organizers of the celebration unveiled the latest ball: 12 feet in diameter, it’s covered in crystals and more than 32,000 LEDs. At around six tons, it puts previous balls to shame.

    But even a 6-ton ball is not enough to justify spending your New Year’s Eve in the Square. Back in the good old days, drunken revelers packed themselves behind wooden barriers, partied their hearts out, and then hopped back on the Long Island Railroad. Nowadays the event is heavily guarded by the NYPD, with each partygoer treated as a possible member of al-Qaida. Backpacks and large bags are forbidden, and every would-be reveler has to pass through a metal detector before being allowed into the Square.

    Once inside (and get there early, since people start arriving by midday), you’re stuck: In order to control the crowd and prevent people from pressing to the front, the police herd visitors into metal pens, which they’re not allowed to leave until the clock strikes 12. If you do desert your fellow livestock partygoers, don’t expect to get back to your original spot — by midnight, the streets are packed to Penn Station, eight blocks away.

    And trust me when I say you’ll have plenty of reasons to leave. First, it’s freezing. January in New York is cold, and midnight in January in New York is even colder. The event organizers recommend dressing in heavy layers, but I’d go a step further and suggest wearing everything you own.

    It’d be nice if you could warm up with a cup of soup, but don’t get your hopes up: Food vendors aren’t allowed in the Square on New Year’s Eve. So unless you packed your pockets with Clif Bars or feel like paying a cover charge at a restaurant (and thus losing your place in the pen), you’re going to be ringing in the new year on an empty stomach.

    You’re also going to be celebrating it sober — at the world’s most famous New Year’s party, no alcohol is allowed. Some people choose to booze it up ahead of time — like at 10 a.m. — but be careful: There are no bathrooms. That’s right. Nearly a million people crowd into Times Square every New Year’s Eve, some of whom arrive 12 hours before the ball drops, and yet the city provides no additional facilities. In the words of a former NYPD cop, if you want to survive New Year’s in Times Square, “you’d better have the bladder of a camel.”

    If you still insist on spending New Year’s Eve in Times Square (perhaps you also enjoy spending long periods of time in MRI tubes), then do yourself a favor and get a room with a view of the festivities. It’ll be expensive, and you’ll have to book far ahead, but when you’re standing in your toasty room, looking down at the crowds with a private toilet just steps away, there’ll be no doubt it was worth it.

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    Daniel Modell

    The Grover Cleveland Service Area

    I’d actually recommend not seeing any of the rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike, each of which is named for a notable person who was born or lived in the state. The Thomas Edison Starbucks, the James Fenimore Cooper Burger King — call me un-American, but I think there’s something inherently depressing about Walt Whitman being commemorated by a Cinnabon franchise.

    According to Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike — which itself might qualify as a Book Not to Read Before You Die — several rest stops have reputations that go beyond just convenient places to grab a cup of coffee. The Vince Lombardi area was once known as a hot spot for cruising gay men; anecdotal reports suggest that the Joyce Kilmer service area used to be frequented by prostitutes (they’ve now been supplanted by a Sbarro).

    Graced with branches of Popeye’s, Pizza Hut Express and, in the case of Woodrow Wilson, a Blimpie, what does impress me about these rest stops is their ambition; it’s hard, after all, to build a service area that really captures the essence of Alexander Hamilton. But with a Roy Rogers and a Carvel, no one can say they didn’t try.

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    Wikipedia

    The Blarney Stone

    No one is really sure where the Blarney Stone came from. Some say it could have been part of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, brought to Ireland during the Crusades. Others claim it’s a piece of the Stone of Scone given to Cormac MacCarthy in 1314 to thank him for his help in the Battle of Bannockburn. Some even think it’s the rock that Moses struck with his staff to provide water to the Israelites. “Whatever the truth of its origin, we believe a witch saved from drowning revealed its power to the MacCarthys,” the Blarney Castle Web site announces, simultaneously dodging the question and discrediting itself as a reliable source of information.

    Regardless of which, if any, of these rumors are true, there’s still no explanation for why a stone of such importance would have been inconspicuously incorporated into the exterior wall of a 15th-century castle. But that’s not the point. Set into the battlements of Blarney Castle, about five miles from the Irish town of Cork, the block of bluestone is said to bestow anyone who kisses it with great eloquence and talent in empty flattery. So for over 200 years, pilgrims from around the world have been planting wet ones on the stone’s surface in hopes that they too will be blessed with the so-called gift of gab.

    Unfortunately for would-be orators, the stone does not lend itself naturally to public displays of affection. Reaching it requires climbing to the top of the castle, leaning backward over a parapet, and dangling much of your body in the air, angling for a kiss as you gaze at the ground looming several stories below. In the good old days before liability waivers, visitors were held by the ankles and lowered headfirst over the wall. Now there are metal rails to help support and guide you, and a protective grate that prevents uncoordinated tourists from falling to their deaths.

    The stone’s actual powers are debatable, but one thing’s for sure — the Blarney Stone is a germaphobe’s nightmare. Kissed by more than 400,000 people per year, it’s covered with trace bits of spit left behind with every pucker. Smooching it might not give you the gift of gab, but you could take home a different souvenir: a saliva-transmitted affliction like herpes, warts or glandular fever. At least you’re safe from meningitis — to get it from kissing, you’d have to use a lot of tongue.

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    Wikipedia

    Fucking, Austria

    In 2004, the residents of the small Austrian town of Fucking took a vote on whether to change their village’s name. Our town can’t be mentioned on international television, argued the proponents of a switch. And besides, it wouldn’t be the first time a group of people abandoned what they considered an embarrassing moniker: the Canadian village of Gayside is now known as Baytona. But the good people of Fucking decided that no, they did not want to change the name. They were proud of their home, this hamlet of just over 100 people, founded in 1070 and named after a man named Focko. Besides, a good part of their annual GDP came from T-shirt sales.

    There was one problem, however: the town’s road signs. Long considered tempting trophies by immature tourists, they have been stolen more times than the town’s budget could afford. So Fucking’s leaders came up with a plan. They commissioned new signs, bolted to steel posts that were embedded in a concrete block — a creation so sturdy that according to Fucking’s mayor, it would take all night to steal. And in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, they decided to address another local nuisance at the same time: speeding. So right below the town name they hung a different placard that says, bitte, nicht so schnell, accompanied by a picture of two cartoon children.

    “Fucking,” the signs now announce. “Please, not so fast.”

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    Groper’s Night on the Tokyo Subway

    For a nonconfrontational person, I have some pretty aggressive daydreams. An example: When I’m standing on a crowded bus or subway, I like to imagine what I would do if a man tried to grab my butt. In my fantasy, I take hold of his hand and pull it into the air. “Whose hand is this?” I’d shout. “Was it yours? Because it was just on my ass.” The offender would slink away in shame as my fellow passengers commended me for my wit and courage. Suffice it to say, that has never happened.

    But my chances might improve if I were to ride a crowded late-night train in Tokyo during bonenkai season. Bōnenkai means “forget the year party” and is a December tradition similar to American office holiday parties: a professionally condoned excuse to get roaringly drunk. Unfortunately for female commuters, it also results in crowds of boozy men riding late-night commuter trains. Inhibitions unleashed, many of these gentlemen decide that there is no better way to ring in the new year than to grab a fellow commuter’s bottom.

    It’s not just around the holidays, though. A survey conducted by the Tokyo metropolitan government and the country’s largest railway operator found that 64 percent of women in their 20s and 30s reported being groped on public transportation. This became so much of a problem that in 2000, Tokyo’s Keio Electric Railway Co. introduced female-only train cars.

    Ladies-only cars make it easier to avoid having a stranger touch your boob, but they occasionally lead to a different problem: the assumption that any woman not traveling in the female carriage wants to be touched. Some critics say that instead of sequestering women, there should instead be groper cars, where like-minded men can congregate.

    This would never really happen — what’s the point of a groper commuting, after all, if he can’t cop a feel? But perhaps some of them could be shunted off to an imekura, a brothel with rooms decorated to simulate public places. There are locker rooms filled with horny coeds, doctors’ offices staffed by naughty nurses, and classrooms full of skanky schoolgirls. And, now, subway cars — conveniently stocked with sexy commuters just waiting to be fondled.

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    iStockphoto.com

    An Airplane After It Has Been Stranded on the Runway for Eight Hours

    People’s willingness to sit within inches of one another in a giant cigar tube with uncomfortable seats and stale air depends on a simple, but unbreakable, agreement: If you stay put and shut up, the plane will take you where you want to go.

    So if something goes wrong and the plane can’t take off — as was the case on December 29, 2006, with American Airlines Flight 1348 from San Francisco to Dallas/Fort Worth — airlines should take aggressive steps to avoid mutiny. In this particular case, strong storms in Dallas forced the plane to be rerouted to Austin, where American Airlines decided to keep it on the runway till the weather passed. Unfortunately, not only did the storms linger for hours, but they spread to Austin, making it impossible for the plane to take off.

    In retrospect, American Airlines should have found a gate for the plane to park, or at the very least trucked food and water to the stranded passengers. But none of this happened. Instead, concerned about the hassle of rerouting an entire plane full of passengers during holiday season, American Airlines kept everyone on the plane. As time dragged on, flight attendants began running out of water; the only food on the flight, whose 6:05 a.m. scheduled departure was so early that many passengers hadn’t eaten breakfast, was a box of pretzels. Despite the lack of beverage service, the plane’s bathrooms began to overflow, and even after an airport worker emptied them five hours into the delay, the stench lingered throughout the cabin. Parents ran out of diapers for their children; one man exclaimed loudly that he had reached his last piece of Nicorette gum.

    The plane languished on the runway for two, three, four hours. Finally, after eight hours of waiting, the captain, who admitted that he was “embarrassed” for American Airlines, made the executive decision to find a gate for the airplane himself. It took another hour for the plane to deboard. By the time the passengers got off, they had spent nearly 15 hours on the plane — and still hadn’t made it to Dallas.

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    Wikipedia

    Mount Rushmore

    Beautiful though it may be, South Dakota doesn’t have much in the way of manmade attractions. But what it lacks in number, it makes up in scale — the presidential portraits on Mount Rushmore, carved into the face of a mountain, are each over 60 feet tall.

    Peering out from the mountain, the oversize faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were designed to celebrate the first 150 years of American history. With America more than 230 years old and going (relatively) strong, Mount Rushmore still draws millions of visitors per year.

    That’s the part I don’t get, because while Mount Rushmore is an impressive achievement, it’s really not that interesting. There’s no jackalope or fake Tyrannosaurus rex; in fact, three of the people featured in the sculpture also appear on the bills you’ll be using to pay the park entrance fee. Take into account the fact that the sculptures were carved into hills considered sacred to the Lakota Sioux, and it starts seeming less like a testament to the American spirit and more like an example of us acting like jerks.

    But what really confuses me is the lack of creativity. Unlike many other historical sites, Mount Rushmore never had a purpose besides being a tourist attraction: It was built specifically to draw visitors to South Dakota’s Black Hills. So why not spice things up a bit? Mountaineering guides could lead climbing expeditions up Thomas Jefferson’s nose. An entrepreneurial company could rig a zip line from Teddy Roosevelt’s mustache. Each summer Mount Rushmore does offer sculpting classes, but still. Gazing up at the possibility that is Washington’s forehead, I can’t help thinking we could do a little better.