Tag Archives: Travel

Back to School

My son Eric started first grade last week. You’ve all seen the funny memes, gifs, and videos of parents doing a gleeful happy dance when school resumes at the end of summer. For some reason though, I really don’t feel that way. So I thought I’d break it down a little to understand why.

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First  –and I know I’m speaking as an at-home parent–  I like going at least a few weeks with absolutely nothing structured to do. I loved lazy summers as a kid, loved them as an adult before parenthood, and love them still as a parent. We get to sleep in and take a long time eating breakfast, no lunchbox needs packing, no running out the door, we travel, go out for the day or stay home … we just get to hang out. (And yes, there’s also a lot more TV. So what? It’s summer!) Why would I be in a hurry to be in a hurry every morning again? For the most part, I’m really, really not.

There’s also the part where I miss him and feel nostalgic, plain and simple. I’m sure it’s not unique of me to feel occasionally sentimental about the passage of time. You’ve heard it before: It goes so fast. And the feeling tends to hit me the hardest at the start of a new school year. When we turn a year older or mark the beginning of a new calendar year, we do celebrate, but then we go back to our relatively unchanged routines. A lot more changes with each new school year.

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Kindergarten graduation in June.

For instance, Eric graduated kindergarten in June. But it’s not until I see the new crop of kindergartners and their parents at school now that it really sinks in. There are new teachers and new classmates. He has a locker now instead of a cubby. He’s literally moved up one floor in the school building. He knows he’s one of the bigger kids now and very proudly displays a lot more independence in many different areas.

So between laziness and nostalgia, I love summer and feel less than thrilled about back to school.

And yet …

If researchers were to conduct studies on when even the most well-meaning parents are most likely to lose their patience with their kids and, shall we say, speak to them in a slightly raised tone of voice, I suspect they’d find a correlation between this phenomenon and summer, particularly its final weeks. I think both kids and parents get stressed knowing school’s about to start. No matter how much we love our school, there’s anxiety over change and the unknown.

Obviously, it’s all the togetherness, too. Let’s face it, Eric’s used to not being with his parents 24/7. And that’s a good thing. An important thing. My kid honestly doesn’t want me around all the time, and by the end of a few weeks of that, he’s probably ready to spend several hours a day where I don’t see or mediate most of his actions.

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Hugging it out in Venice, Italy this summer.

From my end, the more we’re together at home in the context of a daily routine, the greater the danger of me believing the terrible delusion that I can control all the influences my kid is exposed to, and that in the degree to which I control that, I can rest assured that he’ll mirror back and validate me and my values. I think plenty of parents, stay-at-home moms especially, are vulnerable to this. In the first week of school alone, Eric has come home saying some things that make me want to ask him where he heard it, who said it and in what context, what he said in response, and what he thinks about it all. In other words I’d thoroughly dissect everything with him. Then I’d tell myself it’s so that he has a chance to discuss and process it. But I’d bet that a good eight times out of ten, I’m doing it just so that whatever he’s exposed to goes through the filter of Mom, and I once again have the illusion of control.

So with everything Eric says that comes from school, I try to stay aware, and check myself first. If it’s something that could compromise his safety or ethics, I pursue it. If it just threatens me and my delusions of control over my kid, I rein it in. His knowing I’m not a needy hovering parent is at least as important as knowing I’m there whenever he needs me.

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More summer fun!

So, do I celebrate back to school? Yes and no, I guess.

Parenting someone so young and sweet is so much more precious that I ever imagined. And the separation we experience every year at back to school, more so than at birthdays or New Year’s, reminds me all too keenly of how crazy fast these years are moving. My heart aches a little. The tug is real.

But there’s something to be said for making it through another school year and summer together. It’s not a flippant reveling in having him “out of my hair” again though. Yes, there’s relief that the end-of-summer jitters have passed and the year has started out well. Yes, I do better when I have some time to myself for a few hours five days a week, and he does better when a portion of his time and interactions with people and with information aren’t controlled by his mom. Most importantly though, my boy is slowly yet assertively making his own way in the world. I honor that. That, I celebrate.

 

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Hungry in Paris (Ask and it shall be given, part 5)

The following is a true story about one of the most randomly extraordinary things that’s ever happened to me. I want to share it with you here, to the best of my recollection.

I was 16 years old in 1992 when I went on a student trip from Puerto Rico to Oxford, England for a 3-week intensive English course followed by one week travelling in France and Spain. While I’d already been bitten by the travel bug years earlier, this was my first time away from home without my family or friends. That was its own big deal.

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The view from atop Carfax Tower in Oxford

The host family assigned to me in Oxford was an elderly couple living in a tiny house on a street almost identical to the Dursleys’ Privet Drive in Little Whinging.

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Left: the house I stayed in outside Oxford. Right: a photo I took of Privet Drive during a visit to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brother Studios (London) this year.

The woman kept a padlock on the house phone, presumably to keep us student boarders from making long distance phone calls for hours and hours. She never hid her dismay when I turned down constant offers of tea throughout the day. “How can you not want a hot drink?!” (I lived in Puerto Rico where it’s 85 degrees year round!) And the sandwiches she gave me for my school lunches were either cheese and tomato, or tuna fish with butter and cucumbers. One time she asked me what I normally ate cheese sandwiches with, and turned her nose up when I answered ham.

But I digress.

When the three weeks in Oxford ended, my fellow students and I were revved for the upcoming week of straight vacation, starting in Paris. We grabbed our last packed lunches from our British host families, and hopped on a bus to London, where we boarded a train to one of England’s southern port cities (I think it was Plymouth) for the ferry boat crossing over the English Channel into France. I’m pretty sure I ate my sandwich (was it tuna and cucumbers or cheese and tomato? I can’t remember) well before I got on the ferry, and had basically no more food for the journey after that.

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Starting the journey

To say that the waters were choppy that day is an understatement. Though I was mercifully spared the miserable seasickness, I did witness a good number of my fellow travelers running to toilets with pale, drawn faces.

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The ferry boat ride

After that was over, we still had to take a train to Paris.

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Train ride to Paris … by this time in the day I would’ve given anything for a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Finally, it was a drizzly early evening when we arrived at our Paris hotel. It was, in fact, dinner time, and just a few minutes too late to exchange money at a bank or at the hotel’s front desk. This was a time before you could go to any cash machine and withdraw money. Most people still traveled with travelers’ checks, the currency was francs, and none of us had any. We had a few British pounds left over, which did us no good whatsoever. Since most of us were high school students, we didn’t have credit cards, and I have a sense (my memory on this is a bit fuzzy) that some of the restaurants where we asked didn’t even take plastic.

What could we do? A group of about four other students and I started to walk around the city, trying to figure something out. We were wet, exhausted, and hungry. So we came up with a plan to approach someone who looked local, and ask them to withdraw cash for us using their bank card in exchange for pounds and travelers’ checks. It was a long shot, obviously, but we were starting to feel desperate. The first few people we asked –wait for it!– said no.

Right as we were about to give up, someone looked up and noticed the names of the cross streets where we were standing: they were Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance.

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So we figured, since we were literally standing on the corner of Hope and Providence, maybe we shouldn’t give up … surely someone would help us! That’s when we saw a pregnant woman exiting an apartment building. We approached her and quickly explained our situation.

To our shock and delight, she told us yes, she would withdraw francs for us in exchange for our travelers’ checks and pounds … on one condition: that we sit and have a drink with her before heading off to dinner. Starving as we were, we agreed. The woman went to an ATM, got out cash, and together we found a bar and sat down for a drink. I have only a very vague recollection of what she looked like, and she didn’t tell us much about herself. Funnily enough, we did learn that she was headed to the UK the following day, so she’d been on her way to the ATM machine anyway, and she was happy to take our British pounds.

She was also lonely. I got the strong sense that her baby’s father was not in the picture. Then she said something like this: “How funny that we met each other on the corner of Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance, and that we were able to help each other. See, it wasn’t just me helping you get your money, but you have also helped me by sitting with me these few minutes and talking to me, keeping me company. So in a sense, we needed each other.”

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Paris the next day

I think she declined to join us for dinner. Soon we completed our money transaction and parted ways, wishing each other all the best. Then my friends and I took the money to a Chinese restaurant where we had the grandest and finest Chinese feast I’ve ever had in my life. At least that’s what it seemed like in my 16-year-old mind, and who is my 40-year-old self to tell that girl otherwise? Mistaking our jadedness for wisdom is such a common blind spot among us grownup types.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the kindness of strangers in France. In fact, I’ve shared the stories here, about the incident with a cash machine in Paris and the time a few years later when my husband and I were hungry in a tiny French village. Isn’t this trend kind of mysterious and amazing? But all these things really happened. And remembering them touches a place deep in my heart where my own pure goodness lives alongside my faith in the goodness of others. Call me crazy, but I think we could all stand to tap into that place more often.

This is my favorite one of these stories, though. I have no idea if the woman would remember the role she had in helping a group of hungry Puerto Rican students get money for food on a drizzly Parisian evening 23 years ago, or that the thought of her poignant generosity and vulnerability still moves me deeply and lifts my spirits every single time. I especially think about the power of asking. It’s not just that you might actually get what you’re asking for (which in itself is pretty awesome), but it’s how the act of asking for help opens the door to keep kindness flowing. And to think it happened on the corner of Hope and Providence!


 

Note: A new friend I made on this trip was a law school student, (I believe) at the University of Puerto Rico. By the time we made it to Seville, I had all but run out of money, and she lent me money so I could buy souvenirs for my family at the World Expo. I promised to pay her back, but then we lost touch completely after coming home from the trip. I don’t even remember her name! But I did circle her face in the only two photos I have of her. I would love to track her down, to thank her again and to pay her back. Please help me share this blog post, so we can keep up the spirit of pay it forward! (Or in my case, in the spirit of paying her back…)

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Grace (Ask and it shall be given, Part 4)

Confession: I, like roughly 9.9 out of 10 of you, suffer from feelings of unworthiness. Thankfully, I also believe in grace. It’s because of grace that I ultimately rarely let such feelings run the show. (There’s a reason why people always talk about saving graces.) I’ve had good reason to count the extraordinary blessings of my life in recent weeks, and I’d like to share some of them with you. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. I assure you, it’s nothing more than overwhelming gratitude. It’s a short (very short) list of some the past month’s gifts, and a story about how these gifts are helping me heal the feelings of unworthiness.

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I’ve spoken before about my love for Elizabeth Gilbert, and for my 40th birthday, I decided to try to see her again at an event. After a very quick search, I saw she was going to be one of the speakers at one of my favorite places ever (the Omega Institute), just ten days after my birthday. Done, and done!

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I also learned she’d be visiting DC one week after the Omega Institute retreat, to promote her new book Big Magic. Obviously, I bought a ticket for that, too, just for good measure.

The weekend of the retreat arrived, and two minutes after I checked in at Omega, I ran into one of its co-founders, a personal beloved hero, Elizabeth Lesser. I was tongue-tied and in hindsight feel silly and shallow (see how easily the self-berating happens?) that all I did was ask for this photo. Thank goodness I did also remember to tell her I love her and that it was an honor to be there.

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Saturday morning Liz Gilbert took the stage. It lived up to every expectation. One of my favorite quotes from her talk was, “No creative act can take place until you stand in the arrogance of your belonging … against the terrorist inside your head that says, ‘Who do you think you are?'”

Later on … can you believe it? I ran into her and got to give her a hug and snap this photo!

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It then seemed like an embarrassment of riches that I’d be seeing her again in DC just one week later. That week, my mother was coming into town, and I decided to try to take her with me. I felt that if I at least shared it with her, then I would feel more deserving. But the event was four days away, my husband was headed to Morocco, and we didn’t have a babysitter. It would have felt pretty lousy to go by myself and leave Mami behind, but even if I tried changing my ticket to her name, I doubted she’d go by herself. And by then I really wanted her to go. My first step was to go online and see if there were tickets left. There were, and I bought her one. (Later that same day I looked again out of curiosity: Sold out!) You know what else? I found a sitter just two days before! So, Mami and I went.

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And she was as inspired and energized by Liz Gilbert’s talk as I knew she would be. My heart swelled with gratitude that things had fallen into place so perfectly.

One of my two favorite quotes from that evening was, “You need magical, mystical thinking to do creative things because it’s an absolutely irrational thing to do.” That I possess such weird and irrational ways of thinking is without a doubt one my graces in this life.

The other one was, “When someone tells you they are brutally honest, it’s rarely about real honesty; they’re asking for permission to be brutal to you.” Holy crap. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true. I can’t stand snark disguised as sophistication; you know … that person with a mean streak who tells you you can’t take a joke? Oof. Steer clear, folks, steer clear. I know I do!

But my favorite moment of the evening came when a cancer survivor got up to speak, and offered Elizabeth an engraved bracelet (sadly I forget what word(s) it was engraved with) as a gift. Elizabeth accepted the gift, and said something like this: “I used to say no to these types of things. Then I realized, they are grace, and I don’t want to stop the unfolding of grace.” Boom. Wow. A few minutes later, Elizabeth gave the bracelet to another cancer survivor who stood up to speak. I cried.

And there it is: Grace. If nothing else, grace is what definitively inspires me to overcome thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Because it’s not about me. None of this is about me. It’s about something so much bigger than me.

I’m not really sure how to stop the cycle for myself. The script of unworthiness seems so deeply and irrevocably embedded in me, it’s like my constant annoying companion. It happened just a few nights ago when I visited a book club as the guest author. The awesome women who asked the read my manuscript described it with words like “page-turner … a great sense of place … deeply-developed characters … ” and most importantly said, “don’t give up, you’ve got something good here.” I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t spend most of the drive home telling myself they were just being nice. Two days later, the night after some details for a new family project in the works for 2016 (which will likely involve stamps on our passports and shedding a few lbs in preparation) began to fall into place –I’m not exaggerating– thoughts of undeserving ‘who-am-I’s kept me awake for hours.

But I have now amended my script from ‘who am I to receive such gifts?’ to ‘who am I to stop them?’ Who am I to stop grace? Who the hell is anyone to dare mess with the ever unfolding poetry and dance that is grace? That’s what your “friend” is doing when s/he wants to be brutally “honest” or tells you you can’t take a “joke.” It’s what I’m doing when I dwell on feeling undeserving. Why don’t we stop the cycle, or at least turn it around? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about keeping grace in motion. Seeing Liz Gilbert for my 40th birthday taught me this. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. And what the world needs is love.

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A short to-do list, because YOLO (sort of)

It’s been a month of milestones in our little familia. My son started kindergarten at a new school that we’d been hoping to get into since before he was born. He’s been adjusting well and we are loving the community. I turned 40, and have returned to teaching (college Spanish) part-time. But I want to share with you two “smaller” parenting firsts that happened yesterday, and the things they made me think about.

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Yesterday was the first time since starting my new day job that my husband wasn’t home in the hectic final minutes before we have to be out the door in the morning. I had to get my son to school, and had to be at my job by 8:40. After being a stay-at-home mom for 5 years, this made me feel like quite the independent working parent: It was So Damn Stressful. And that’s with an only child and teaching just two mornings per week! More importantly? I believe with all my heart that single working parents who still manage to be present with their children are the greatest unsung heroes of our society. Hats. Freaking. Off. I bow to you. That’s all I will say about that for now, even as I acknowledge that no words can do justice to my deep and abiding awe for these superheroes.

Yesterday was also the first morning I dropped my boy off for school at the curbside, instead of parking the car and walking him in. The school’s driveway is a few feet away from the entrance, and there are adults lined up to help escort the kiddos from the parent’s car into the school. Full disclosure, I had trouble sleeping the night before. What if, in those few feet between my car and the school entrance, someone intercepted him? What if, once inside, he didn’t go straight where he was supposed to go? Are kindergartners really ready for curbside drop-off? What if it made him upset, and made me late for class?

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When we finally pulled into the school driveway in the morning, the school principal happened to be there. She walked over, opened his car door, and with a huge warm smile, offered her hand. He went so happily and proudly with her, I had to call him back just to give him a kiss goodbye and wish him a good day! (I also wanted to give her a hug.) I drove off to work basking in a soft wave of relief and of pride in my big boy, and only the slightest stirrings of “he did make inside, right … ?” It was a small milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.

As a fervent believer in reincarnation, I don’t subscribe to the old adage of You Only Live Once in a literal sense. That said, this lifetime is the one that matters to me now, and boy is it a precious one. After delving into deeper questions on the passage of time in my previous post, this time I got to thinking about more practical aspects of the question, what do I really, really, really want?

I prefer talking about to-do lists over the idea of one big bucket list. For example, I’ve started thinking about an empty nest to-do list. Oh sure, that’s roughly 13 years away. And you know what? I remember 13 years ago like it was earlier this morning. So I have a good sense of how fast the next 13 will go, and I want to at least have a plan when the time comes. Part of the plan is to travel more with my husband. Also, if I haven’t had the opportunity, to learn/perfect more foreign languages. I will research and write more books, hopefully (in theory at least) at a faster pace than now. I’m also looking forward to binge-watching all the TV shows I keep hearing about which I never have time to watch. (Was Mad Men really that good? What about Downton Abbey? No spoilers please!)

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Our little familia riding the London Underground from the Natural History Museum to the British Museum (April 2015)

But enough about stuff down the line. Assuming good health, what do I really, really, really want in the years ahead of me now? Here are some things, in no particular order.

  1. Research and write more stories (and be less scared about pursuing publication)
  2. See Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher
  3. Eat “freshly” smoked salmon in Alaska (and Norway)
  4. Learn to make handmade pasta … in Italy
  5. Have a Thai massage in Thailand
  6. See the Danube River separating Buda from Pest
  7. Shower my family with crazy wicked fierce lovin’
  8. Eat street food in Vietnam (my palate is more excited about this than my heartburn-prone gut is)
  9. Amsterdam: Pay my respects at Anne Frank’s hiding place, and ride a canal boat … and a bike
  10. Learn to knit?
  11. Eat a Belgian waffle purchased from a street vendor in Brussels
  12. Dance more
  13. Sydney Harbor
  14. African safari
  15. Learn more about wine
  16. Walk on the Great Wall
  17. Edinburgh …

Sensing a trend here? Yes, with me, it often comes down to travel. Beautiful, restless, put-a-stamp-on-my-passport-NOW-please, Wanderlust. By the way? I hope to do most of these things with my beloved husband and our sunshine boy. And I’m leaving a lot (like, all of the Americas) out. Not to mention the many places we want to take him where we’ve already been! It’s okay if we don’t do all these things. But I believe we can do some –even many– of them. What’s not okay is to not even dream them. I’ve never been shy about dreaming big, and it has never led me astray. Dreaming big and loving big, that’s the plan.

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This brochure for a trip to Thailand and Bali came in the mail recently. My son and I spent that afternoon poring over the details, and it was the best day-dreaming conversation we’ve had … so far!

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Ask and it shall be given. Part 3, Theater!

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(Here are Part 1 –Paris– and Part 2 –Alanis Morissette and Elizabeth Gilbert–  of Ask and it shall be given.)
Do I always believe this quote by Maya Angelou? Please. Does anyone, besides maybe Wayne Dyer? The truth is no one always gets what they want. It’s also true though–cliché alert!–that we never know unless we ask. Here are two stories I present to you as evidence.

London
The first time my husband David and I went to London together was in 2007, years before parenthood. For our next-to-last night there, we bought tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof in the Savoy Theater. He and I have always loved this musical, and were so excited for the opportunity to see it.

Geeking out in front of the Rosetta Stone. (My background is in historical linguistics.)

When the night of the show came, we first had dinner reservations at a famous restaurant nearby called Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in Britain. And may I say, it’s quite the experience. (Can’t believe I couldn’t find photos from our dinner there, sorry!) A gentleman who I’m sure had been around since at least Shakespeare’s time pushed a silver domed trolley around. Under the dome was a huge piece of prime rib, to be carved with flawlessly executed olde English flair directly beside your table, and served with boiled potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. The man was as delightful as he was ancient. He only scoffed a small amount when I ordered fish instead of beef, and he happily posed for pictures with diners like a bonafide celebrity. The meal was so enjoyable in so many ways, it felt like an embarrassment of riches that the main event of the evening was yet to come when Fiddler on the Roof started at 7:30.

Shortly after this delightful dinner, we strode into the vestibule of the Savoy Theater, so excited, but surprised to find that we were the only people there. Hmm. David hurried to find someone we could ask what was going on, and returned with an usher, who very nicely escorted us into the theater, right after he told us the show had started at 7!! Oh … HELL no. To this day, we don’t know how we made that mistake.

The usher then assigned us temporary seats until intermission. Because the seats we’d bought were so good and close to the stage, it would have disrupted the production to let us take them right away. The song we entered to was To Life-L’Chaim. A favorite, to be sure, but what about Tradition?! Matchmaker?! If I Were a Rich Man?! I was close to tears. During intermission, when I saw just how wonderful our seats were, I shed a few. I told David we had to come back the next day and see it from the beginning. “Let’s at least ask!” I may have even suggested we buy a second pair of tickets for the next night, or that we propose standing somewhere in back. But the plan was, first, to explain what happened, and ask if they’d just let us sit through the first few numbers the following night in whatever seats they had. David was hesitant. It was embarrassing, of course. And why would they say yes? Finally though, he agreed that the worst that could happen was they’d say no.

The theater manager wrote down David’s name, and told us it could be arranged for us to attend the first half hour of the show the following evening–for free! She told us there would be a different manager on duty, and that she’d explain the situation to him, so he’d know what to do. David and I were excited … and skeptical. Show up and tell a different manager that someone had promised us the previous night to let us in for free? Um, no.

Picture from our last day, most of which we spent wondering if we’d get to see Fiddler on the Roof from the beginning…

Imagine our surprise when the manager on duty the following night sprung into action with what seemed like crystal clear recognition the instant David said his name. He didn’t wait for further explanation. Hell, he didn’t even ask for I.D. He just went to the ticket window, and produced an envelope with two tickets for us. They were for two pretty decent seats, together! Fiddler on the Roof became the definitive highlight of that entire trip for us. It’s a story I love, and love telling.

New York
I don’t have to tell most of you about my long-standing love affair with New York. Being a fan of Sex and the City as a single gal in the late nineties probably had a little bit to do with that. A couple of years ago, it was announced that Sarah Jessica Parker was starring in a play called The Commons of Pensacola with none other than Blythe Danner. I decided I just had to go.

As soon as the tickets went on sale, I tried to buy one online, but kept getting a message about no tickets available. Next, I called the theater, The New York City Center. The guy explained that theater “members” get first dibs on all shows. Once members have purchased their tickets, a limited selection of seats becomes available for “the rest of us.” They had no idea when that would happen, only that it was very close to performance dates, at which point they expected tickets to sell out pretty fast.

Through a series of circumstances that included family obligations at home and hotel reward points, I soon narrowed down the dates when I’d be in New York to one night. I’m not usually this brazen in my wishing and hoping, but at this point, I had to see the play on that very specific night. So I started to check Every. Single. Day. Sometimes more than once a day. Still nothing. Everything was in place for me to go see the play … I just didn’t have a ticket for it. Yet. The quest got to be a bit of a joke between David and me. Then one day, the heavens parted, and voilà. Tickets available for online purchase! I bought one on the spot. And when, out of curiosity, I checked back for a few consecutive days afterwards, I once again found nothing available. Lo and behold, it’s a tiny, intimate theater, and I had a seat very close to the stage.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, I know this type of wish-come-true seems pretty trivial, even shallow. I get it. Theater is a privilege. And with everything that’s going on in this world, life is about so much more than enjoying a performance from an awesome seat. But I think valuable lessons can also be learned from things going right, from something wonderful that you almost gave up on, but didn’t. I’m not always going to get what I wish for, and sometimes that’s where the blessing lies. Sometimes, though, if I pay attention and know what to tune into and keep at it, enough of the important factors can align perfectly. And the answer is yes. And it then occurs to me that if this can happen, what else can I dream into reality? May you have many such moments. Just remember, you’ll never know if you don’t ask!

Oh yeah, the following morning, I got to listen to Wayne Dyer talk about manifesting dreams. And did I mention I got to stay in New York for free that night? I’m telling you … !

I had one of the best pizzas of my life the night of the play.
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Wanderlust

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Of all the unexplained compulsions in human behavior, wanderlust has got to be my favorite. I blame my parents. In my early childhood in Puerto Rico, when my father was in medical school and my mother was the sole bread-winner for our family of five, they still managed to scrape together enough money to take us to Disney World a couple of times.

Orlando (1977 & 1979). I’m the youngest.

Later, in the three years we lived in Albany, NY while Dad was a resident in rehabilitation medicine, we’d pack the five of us into the family car, and set off for Manhattan, Toronto, DC, and many other places. There was never a lot of money, but my parents understood well the importance of expanding our horizons. So I learned early on, for example, that eating food from a grocery store–rather than a restaurant–for at least one meal a day is an excellent way to save money on a trip.

Roadtripping in the early 80’s

Upon completing his residency, my father moved our family back to Puerto Rico, and made a vow: That one day soon, he’d take the five of us to Europe. The year was 1985.

In summer 1987, la Familia Falcón embarked on a three-week tour of Europe. And that was it. THAT WAS IT! Before the trip, I thought historic sites in Europe were these boring, abandoned places, visited only by a handful of rich eccentric types. It was confusing that my parents wanted to take us there. But I quickly “got it.” There’s a whole world just beyond my own, awaiting exploration. There are people very different from me … and ultimately not that different. The world is terrifically big and wondrously small. It’s okay to see things differently, and to think and be different from my previous beliefs. Magic is real, and wealth isn’t a pre-requisite for it. It’s possible to be many miles away from home and still experience a powerful sense of belonging. These were just a few of the lessons learned.

The Falcón’s at the Roman Colosseum (1987)
My parents have made good on that 1985 promise many more times than their children or grandchildren could have dreamed.
Madrid (2006)
And they sent each of us on plenty of solo adventures, too.
Clockwise: A summer in England (top two on the left -1992); semester abroad in Spain (1994); camel ride in Egypt (1999); eating pizza sold by weight in Verona (1999); Santorini (2000).
Imagine my delight when I met my husband David, and learned that he suffers from the same travel restlessness as me. Soon, we were engaged, and the adventures continued. Which brings me to the present(-ish), and to my point. Mark Twain said it best.
Oh please, please-please, SEE the world as much as possible. It’s one of the best things you could ever do. And with enough planning and flexibility, it can also be done on a budget.
After we had our son Eric five years ago, our travels definitely slowed down. We are now a very frugal single-income household. Last year we had hopes of visiting Spain on the 20th anniversary of my semester abroad there. Alas, the expense would have been unwise; we didn’t go. Yet David and I continue to agree that any extra money is set aside so we can see our country and the world as a family. Both he and I count travel–and a love of reading books–as the most profoundly enriching experiences of our formative years. This is precisely what we dream for Eric during his childhood. Not surprisingly, he is a natural little wanderer like his parents.
This world map with color-coded pins for places dreamed, planned, and visited is one of the best Christmas presents David has ever given me. (2013)
When we returned from a 12-day roadtrip to Canada and New England last summer, the moment Eric realized we were done travelling, he sat down on the family room floor, and cried, “But where are we going tomorrow?!” Here’s a picture from our trip to London when he was a year old.
Did you know you can fit your stroller–opened, with your baby strapped in–into the backseat of London’s famous black taxis? He loved that! (2011)
Guess what? We’re thinking of taking him again in just a few weeks. David has a work trip. Eric and I could tag along. This trip has been over a year in the making, and we have never thought longer or harder over a travel decision. Among the factors to consider? 1-I’d be alone with Eric in London, not seeing David until the very end of the day. On the other hand? 2-I could be alone with Eric in DC, doing our routine stuff, not seeing David for an entire week. Only one of these options gets me eating scones with clotted cream and jam … in friggin’ England. Yeah, I like what’s behind door #1 better. Do I still wonder if it’s the 100% sensible thing to do? All the time. Our finances are a far cry from when we had two incomes and no kids. Just in case, don’t tell Suze Orman on us, alright? Not to mention my anxiety-prone self is coming out full force, conjuring fantastically awful mental scenarios about things that could go wrong. (I am a superior catastrophizer.)
But we’re still seriously considering it. With David’s expenses covered, the trip would be a fraction of what it would cost for the three of us. There’s this wonderful phenomenon called tax refund. The curiosity and wonder of a five-year-old child are like lightning in a bottle. For me, besides the chance to give my boy an invaluable experience, it’s also an opportunity to overcome an anxiety. And a priceless reminder that the world is still within reach and a relatively safe place, no matter what dire news stories tell us; that it is ours to experience and love; that I can go on travel adventures long after my carefree “younger” years, this time, as the mom. I still don’t know how my parents took their three kids on all those trips. Sometimes, it occurs to me, they must have decided to just go for it. Life is short. There’s a time for prudence … and a time for scones. This time I want the scones. I hope you will find whatever your metaphorical “scone” is, and go after it. Dream it, map it, plan it, and go. I’m telling you, it can be done, and it is WORTH IT.
You see, I’m not kidding when I say we love to travel. Here’s a sampling of some of our pre-parenthood trips. Clockwise from top left: Toledo (2003); Grand Canyon (2003); Paris (2004); Ireland (2007); Innsbruck (2008); and Maine (2008).
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Why am I doing this again? Aspiring author journeys back to New York, NY.

“Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs. Don’t … Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs!” The woman stood a few feet away from the hot dog cart. With the unmistakable rasp of a heavy smoker, she warned frazzled-looking tourists as they walked up to it to buy lunch outside a subway entrance near Manhattan’s Herald Square. “Big fuckin’ cockroaches all over the fuckin’ hot dogs.” And yet folks kept buying their hot dogs from the vendor, who looked disgruntled but otherwise unfazed. The woman recoiled and turned her head in dismay, as though there was someone beside her in support of her crusade. “Ugh!” Her face conveyed the distress of someone whose sincere concern for the greater good of another goes unheeded. “Can you believe this? They’re buyin’ the fuckin’ hot dogs!” she lamented to no one in particular, before taking a long drag from her cigarette.

This was last Saturday at lunch time. I was in the City on another one of my research trips for my first historical novel, set in New York City in 1911. My train from DC had pulled into Penn Station less than an hour earlier. New items on the agenda this time were seeing some of the buildings where workers at the Triangle Waist Company once lived, visiting the Brooklyn gravesite of the six victims of the fire who remained unidentified for nearly a hundred years, and hoping to meet with Triangle historian Michael Hirsch.

I had made an inquiry about the victims of the Triangle fire on Facebook, when I heard from someone named Michael Hirsch. Where had I heard that name before? Oh, right, I’d seen his name here:

And here, as one of the producers of this HBO film:

And oh yeah, he was the researcher who single-handedly uncovered and confirmed the names of the six once-unidentified victims. You could say I was pretty excited at the prospect of meeting him.

Nevertheless, this time I was significantly less exuberant than I’d been on previous trips. Gone was my I’m-writing-a-novel! cockiness enthusiasm, ironic given that this was my first trip after actually completing the first draft. The enthusiasm had given way to a raging why-am-I-doing-this-again? funk. The past weeks had been spent waist-deep in novel revisions, and at least elbow-deep in the funk.

More and more people asking me if I have a publisher (no), an agent (no), or if I have “workshopped” my novel (no) or am “working with someone” on it (um … no). Then I talk about self-publication with enough people to realize that the stigma around it is still very prevalent. Don’t think I haven’t thought that these beloved, passionate projects of mine may never really see the light of day, let alone earn enough money that I can be a writer full-time while also affording to take my kid on a few trips during his growing-up years, then send him to college one day. Besides (whines the funk), does the world really need another novel about the Triangle fire? What makes me think I have anything to add to the stories that have already been told? Finally, I was bogged down, as I often am, by the knowledge that while I am not earning a paycheck, each one of these trips costs my family money, and I–still!–feel a degree of guilt about leaving my 4-year-old son for a couple of nights away.

I slept less and less in the nights leading up to the trip, until I barely slept the night before. This was the state in which I was confronted with the woman and her anti-hot dogs tirade. It bothered me. I hurried past her and down the stairs into the subway. Two minutes later, I got stuck in one of these damn things.

(Photo from http.nybydzine.tumblr.com)

This time I didn’t even have luggage!* After swiping my MetroPass twice (and feeling a little ripped off), I was finally in. It was after 1PM, breakfast had been in DC around 7AM, and I was lightheaded from lack of sleep and the train. The wait felt endless, and the ride was cramped and sweaty. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable my beloved City can be during summer. And I was starting to fear that it was my beloved City no more, that I was turning into one of those people who find it to be too much.

Lemme tell you about a glistening, sweaty subway ride.
I was on my way to historic Seward Park Library in the Lower East Side. It was a place where immigrant women (men, too) living in New York one hundred years ago had access to books, and I’ve set a scene in my novel there. But first, I needed lunch. And finally it came, at a place called Cafe Petisco, across the street from the library.
Falafel pita with fries: Extraordinary in both flavors and textures. The pink dipping sauce was especially inspired. And when the check came for a whopping $8, I knew I’d found a new favorite place in the City.

And it came with a side of interesting conversation. Cafe Petisco is the sort of place where you sit thisclose to the person at the next table. The woman next to me was an Australian living a couple of blocks west from where we were, apparently, in the heart of Chinatown. “I am the only English-speaking round eyes on the entire block.” Her words. For the past two years, she has rented a room in a 5-room apartment full of Chinese people, including entire families. I wasn’t certain of the number of people in her apartment. But she did tell me that when her flat mates stock the fridge up with fresh groceries, she has opened the door to find seafood so fresh it’s still moving, and has been startled by chicken feet falling out of one of the refrigerator shelves. I wanted to hear more, while also wanting to reserve the right to hit the Undo button if it got too weird. I asked whether she can have friends over–mostly, my curiosity had to do with a specific kind of guest … the type that might be inclined to spend the night, tú sabes. She said she probably could, but hasn’t felt the need to these two years. All she knows is she pays less than $700/month (utilities included) to live in Manhattan and she is saving loads of money.

In the 30 minutes we sat together, my new friend drank two Bloody Mary’s and a coffee. I paid my check and headed across the street to the library in a bit of a haste, realizing only too late that, at least in the context of my mildly weary state, I had indeed crossed into too-weird territory in my conversation with the friendly woman, who was now probably tipsy (if caffeinated).

Left, Seward Park Library at the turn of the 20th century (photos courtesy of New York Public Library). Right, the library as it looks today.

From the library, I made my way up to the East Village on foot to meet Michael Hirsch. No tequila was involved, and I had plenty of cold water to keep me hydrated. (*See previous blog post for a bit of context on the topics of subway with luggage, and tequila.)

My meeting with Michael Hirsch at Veniero’s Pasticceria, and our stroll around the East Village, did not disappoint. Talking to him is like getting the inside scoop on the garment workers’ strike, Triangle, and the fire, with plenty of nuance and countless poignant details about the lives of the workers.

Piragüero outside the site of the Clinton Street building where a 35-year-old widow from Russia named Julia Rosen lived with her children in 1911. She and her son, Israel, worked at the Triangle Company. Both perished in the fire.

An after-dinner stroll around Bryant Park and the New York Public Library brought the day to a close on a decent note.

But when it came time to leave the hotel Sunday morning, I suddenly didn’t want to. There was a Harry Potter movie marathon on TV, and I thought, how often (not counting illness) do I get to just lie in bed and watch TV? I could take a mini-vacation! I just didn’t feel like dealing with the City. Could New York’s energy, which I’ve always so proudly reveled in, be getting the best of me? And what if I got lost on my trip to Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn ?

Still, I couldn’t not go to Evergreens. If I did nothing else, I would go to the cemetery and pay my respects, then I’d spend the rest of the day in the hotel if I still felt like it. So I got over my boo-hooing self, and hopped on the L train to Bushwick Avenue and Aberdeen Street. The cemetery was deserted. It was beautiful, sprawling, old … I got lost about 5 minutes in. It was also very overcast and windy. I tried my best to keep various points of reference in sight so that I wouldn’t become deeply scary-lost.

I also tried flagging down the lone security guard making rounds in a large white sedan; no joy. A small voice inside my head taunted that I should never have left my hotel. Yet I knew even then that I was exactly where I needed to be. I felt at peace, and I knew I’d find the gravesite. After several more minutes (with my husband on the phone reading from Google Maps), I did.

It had started to rain; this brought to mind accounts I’ve read of the burial of the victims in 1911. Countless stones sat atop the base of the monument, placed by previous visitors, and I instantly felt less alone, even though there was no one else there. The only sound, aside from the rain drops, was the subway rumbling in the distance every few minutes. It was a powerful, unforgettable moment. I said a prayer, and felt duly ashamed of my self-pity earlier in the morning. As more people began to arrive to visit other graves, I made my way back to the subway for the ride back to Manhattan with a very full heart. The rain cleared, and the Manhattan skyline came into view.

The rest of the day was spent in the West Village. I stood at Greene Street and Washington Place a good long while, making notes of different details I hadn’t noticed before about the building that once housed Triangle.
I like to think that talking to myself while pacing back and forth and taking notes on this street corner confirmed my place among New York’s eccentrics.
Afterwards, I visited Our Lady of Pompeii Church, where I’ve also written a scene–and where I took the chance to say a quick thank you. The final stop was the Merchant’s House Museum, taking more notes for my novel, in addition to snapping photos of mirrors throughout the home. Why? Read my book!  🙂

Crossing Broadway that afternoon, I overheard a man say to his friend, “My mom always says you can have comfort or courage, not both.” I knew I’d heard that phrase before; two minutes later, Google told me where. Of course it was Brené Brown! The quick search revealed another really good one.

I only headed back to my hotel to get showered and dressed for dinner. Along the way, I noticed a disheveled woman on the subway fighting with an MTA attendant about her MetroPass. It seemed she had swiped it, but hadn’t been able to enter. “It’s unlimited!” she insisted. Then, to no one in particular, she loudly decried, “They’re trying to stop me because I’m bringing people to Christ!” I smiled to myself. Not in the spirit of mocking the poor woman. One thing I love about the Big Apple is the keen reminder it offers that we are all the same. I may not be bringing people to Christ, but I have plenty of experience getting stuck entering a subway station. I did not hurry uncomfortably past this woman. That’s when I knew I got it again, that we’re all the same. I was back on track. At dinner, I treated myself to an outstanding mofongo at a Puerto Rican restaurant called Sazón.
Tried so hard to finish it …
Upon returning to my hotel room at the very end of the day, I got really comfortable, and watched the final installment in the Harry Potter movies. Afterwards, I had my first real night’s sleep in several days. It had been a good day. A very full, fast-paced New York day. I no longer felt ashamed of the discomfort I’d had previously. After all, one of my fears was realized; I did get lost by myself in the big old cemetery on a gloomy day. And yet, I was okay. So instead, I blessed my vulnerability and the realization that it hadn’t been the end of the story. I had walked through that vulnerability and come out stronger on the other side. Noted. I still have no publisher, no agent, etc., but I’m going to keep walking through it…!
An ad on the subway … Really?! Ah, I love this City.
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Tips for New York City

I’ve booked another trip to New York–brace yourselves for an all new parade of selfies! (Here you can find previous accounts of NYC trips.) Planning whole new places to visit next month in continuing research for my novel. Oh, so excited! Plus, it recently occurred to me that maybe some of the things I’ve learned throughout my many visits could serve others who are less frequent visitors to the City. Somehow I’d generally assumed that everyone I know knows loads about the Big Apple, typically more than me, and I’m the only one excited to learn more and talk about it. Because I sometimes love it when I’m wrong, I hereby humbly present my bits of NYC wisdom on what to expect, what to do, and what not to do.

While in New York City, I highly advise against trying to enter the subway with rolling luggage of any kind or size. Oh man. Can you say stuck? I’ve tried putting the luggage in front of me, pulling it behind me, and Googling the words “NYC Subway turnstile with luggage” in anticipation of a trip. Something else I’ve tried is passing the luggage over the top of the turnstile ahead of me, placing it on the ground on the other side, then I go through the turnstile.

(Photo from Subwaynut.com)

But even then I risk holding up the never-ending stream of hordes waiting behind me to get through, and then I’ve worried that in the time it takes me to get through, someone on the other side will run off with my luggage. Strange fear? Maybe. The only thing that works when entering the subway this way is avoiding the turnstile altogether and using the gates. Sometimes this means the emergency exit gate. The worst thing that can happen then is sometimes you set off an alarm. Sure, I’ve worried that this will get me arrested, but so far it hasn’t, and I always have a story ready for the cops about how I have a Metro Card that I swiped, I’m just trying to get my luggage through. And in the spirit of pay-it-forward, any time I am using one of those gates to exit the subway and see folks struggling with their luggage on the other side, oh yeah, I routinely, happily, hold the gate open for them.

Don’t worry, the subway is nothing to be afraid of!
On the subject of what not to do in the Big Apple, here’s another doozy. Picture it. Barrio Chino–Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side (LES). Memorial Day Weekend 2013. I never (or very rarely) travel by myself, and I wasn’t driving, so I decide, what the heck, I will treat myself to a margarita with lunch. First, I couldn’t finish the margarita; motherhood has rendered me a lightweight. Second, I should have known better. My plan for after lunch was to walk to the Washington Square area. It isn’t extremely long, just over a mile.
I took the route along Bowery.
And I wanted the full experience of turn-of-the-20th-century LES immigrants walking up to their jobs at the Triangle Company off Washington Square Park. Well, I got a full experience alright. It was the first day that temperatures in the City were upwards of 80 degrees. I have an extreme sensitivity to heat and sun–as in, I faint. (A tradition going all the way back to waiting in line on a sidewalk in Puerto Rico circa 1980 for the movie Empire Strikes Back: Before I knew it I was coming to, on my back, and I was being fanned with a piece of cardboard that my poor freaked out father had scored from worried onlookers.)Also? Tequila is very dehydrating. By the time I made it to the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in addition to the emotions of thinking about the Triangle fire tragedy, I was queasy, and very shaky on my legs. I knew the odds were pretty good that I was going to lose consciousness and/or get sick. Miraculously, neither happened. I wobbled all the way to the park, and collapsed on a bench, with my head between my legs. A nice gentleman sitting nearby engaged me in conversation. From his concern for me, which was appreciated, he moved on to sharing a few personal details about his life that I really could have done without. Not sure which part of nearly passing out due to excess heat and low alcohol tolerance, combined with the tears, conveyed, “I am dying to know your life story.” But he meant well enough, and he pointed me in the direction of the nearest place where I could re-hydrate and recover a little.

The guilty drink. It was tasty enough, though, more so than the fish tacos. This was the sort of place that was more cool vibe than solid good food.

My husband David was not amused, after I finally felt well enough to text him, when he learned that I came thisclose to being sprawled unconscious, alone, on a New York City sidewalk, while he and our son were in DC, completely powerless to help. In truth, it was scary. No more half margaritas at lunch for Mama right before an NYC summer hike.

Here are some criteria I use in selecting a restaurant, out of–seemingly–countless options in the City. I don’t want an obvious tourist trap, if at all possible. Realistically, many places will have tourists and lots of them, but I try to stay away from the ones that scream magnet for out-of-towners. That rules out about 95% of Times Square and the Theater District, and that’s okay. Proximity (walking distance) to hotel is ideal; a bit of a loose concept with me because I’m usually willing to walk a fair amount. On the other hand, I’ve also made a few exceptions, particularly being happy to ride the subway for mofongo.

Mofongo with shrimp at Puerto Rican restaurant Sazón in Tribeca. Nowhere near places where I typically stay, but worth the subway ride!

I also want to be able to make a dinner reservation online ahead of time. And if they are too exclusive to allow reservations 1) online, 2) for only one person, or 3) well in advance at the time when I’m looking (I’ve only ever encountered these restrictions in New York), I typically conclude that I’m probably not sophisticated enough for them, and move on. Lunch is more flexible, though I still often map out a few options in advance. I get that this sounds way rigid, it probably is. But my typical trips involve no more than 48 hours in the City. There are many things I want to get done. By dinnertime, I am really tired and hungry. When you factor in getting lost and near drunken fainting, among other things, that leaves very little time to spontaneously find a conveniently located hole-in-the-wall restaurant with decent local reviews and plenty of pescetarian food options, that isn’t wildly expensive, crap, or just plain scary. Trust me, that’s when you realize the options are actually far from endless. I’m flexible, but having a safety net for a decent dinner allows me to relax and focus on the day’s activities.

Katz’s Deli, on East Houston, is an institution. It is packed no matter what time of day, most of the folks there are likely tourists, and the food offerings aren’t great for non-eaters of red meat. Still it’s worth a visit, if nothing else, to see where the famous “faking it” scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed, and to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of a historic NYC Jewish deli where 9 out of 10 members of the wait staff are Dominican.
Affordable places where the food is delicious, clockwise from the top left: 1) Tuna melt with outstanding tater tots at Big Daddy’s Diner near Madison Square Park. 2) Inspired grilled shrimp pita and tzatziki at Souvlaki, in the LES. 3) Fish taco and potato flautas at the place to eat Mexican in the LES, Taquería Lower East Side. Taquería is my favorite of these three, although Souvlaki is a close second.
Pricier, snootier places that were nevertheless worth it: 1) One of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, at Pizzarte, near Carnegie Hall. 2) Endive and beet salad with cheeses and fries at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, in the Murray Hill area.
Hotels? Simple. I’ve enrolled in a hotel points/rewards program. Whichever one of their Manhattan properties is cheapest at the time of my search, that’s where I stay. And I know exactly what to expect. Breakfast will be included, it will not be high end, and I will have my own bathroom–no, a private bathroom is not guaranteed to folks visiting the Big Apple on a budget. Being near a subway station isn’t too hard to achieve, but it isn’t guaranteed either, and it’s absolutely imperative.
Clockwise from top left: 1) The smallest room I’ve had to date, but it was clean, perfectly located, and quiet! 2) The view from one of the windows. 3) The nicest room I’ve had, it was also the farthest from the subway; I won’t be returning to this one. 4) Yes, sometimes I add a little extra to hotel room safety by putting something in front of the door.
I know so many people who have lived in New York City, I forget that I also know many others who know very little about it. And there are also the ones who find the City to be a bit much. I get that. The driving is crazy and aggressive (fasten your seatbelt when riding a taxi!), the subway smells like urine, and there are horns honking and sirens blaring at all hours of the day and night. This is also the only city where, at the end of a day, I have dirt underneath my fingernails even though I’ve done zero work with my hands. Someone near you shouts motherf**ker? You just witnessed an arrest? Sounds about right. These are just some of the things one can expect. Obviously this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This City is impatient, unforgiving, in its unvarnished aliveness, and that can be overwhelming. But if you swim in its energy rather than resist it, it makes you part of it and injects you with its vibrancy. I love it truly, and true love lasts forever!
Some favorites: 1) The Flatiron Building. 2) Old tenement buildings in the LES. 3) A view of historic Cooper Union from one of my favorite intersections, Bowery and East 4th Street. 4) Washington Square Park.
One more thing. If you are going through Penn Station, which I affectionately refer to as one of the top ten hellholes to see before you die, I’ve got two words for you: Don Pepi. It is the best, consistently good deli there, with fast, friendly service. I always get a bagel and lox from them, even if there isn’t a mealtime in sight when I’m waiting for my train. It’s that good.
Now go.
You’re welcome.
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You won’t know if you never ask. Part 1, Paris.

I hate being told no as much as anyone, and sometimes I’ve chosen to play it safe and haven’t bothered asking for something. But I’ve realized I regret not asking more than I lament being told no, and some good stories have come from the times I’ve been brave enough to ask. One of these times was ten years ago–this week!–when my boyfriend David and I were on vacation in Paris. It was Easter weekend. David and I had been dating about a year and half.

We took a red-eye flight from DC to Paris and arrived in the late morning. After a long taxi ride and a good nap and shower in the hotel, we headed out to dinner, stopping at the nearest ATM to withdraw Euros. The bank was already closed for the day, but with a machine right on the sidewalk, that was fine. David got cash first, then I swiped my card, entered my PIN and desired amount of Euros (300), and waited. The machine gave me 200 Euros. Then the receipt printed, indicating that the machine had given me all 300 Euros, and that the transaction was complete.
Well … !
Shit!
Right?
Obviously we’d have to come back the next morning and try to get the rest of my money. It felt like a long shot and I was already feeling self-conscious about it, but 100 Euros, then and now, is a lot of money. What was the worst they could do? Say no, right? But I also had this bizarre fear that they’d arrest me and throw me in a French prison like Jean Valjean. (I have weird fears like that.)

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a baguette each for David and me. This was the thinnest, daintiest baguette I’ve ever seen in my life, and it had about an inch’s worth of perfectly softened salted butter spread along the inside. It was easily the simplest meal we had that entire trip, and anything I write ten years later couldn’t do justice to the beauty and comfort of that perfectly fresh crusty bread and butter with piping hot café au lait for me and hot chocolate for David. The non-English-speaking waitress was also a delight. We spent our time with her shrugging and chuckling at our mutual incomprehension, even as we still managed to understand each other on a level that we knew counted for something. Encouraged by such a breakfast, and “armed” with my ATM card, the receipt from the previous evening’s transaction, and my passport, we were ready to face the bank.

“Parlez-vous anglais?” we asked.

“No,” they answered.

I knew only a little bit of French, and the situation wasn’t super easy to explain. But once English was ruled out, we knew that our only hope for communication lay in my multi-lingual abilities. My German in college was decent so I tried that. No dice. And I’d studied Portuguese in grad school.

“Pas de portugais.”

I should say that this entire time and despite our linguistic limitations, the folks at the bank seemed genuinely interested in helping. In my anxiety, I looked at David and said something to him in English that included a Spanish word or two, probably Dios mío.

Then I hear, “Espagnol? Oui. Un peu.”

So what’s French for “Duh!” No, it had not occurred to me to ask about Spanish. But there it was, one male employee who spoke very limited Spanish.

I explained what had happened to him as slowly and carefully as I could, and watched as he translated for his colleagues. A female colleague then got up and left the room with a large key ring. The keys to the vault? Do banks still have vaults? Anyway, I assumed she was in charge. While she was away, the rest of the employees kept talking amongst themselves in French. After enough time had passed, I grew nervous and said to David something along the lines of, “Either she can’t get the vault to open, or this is the part where they confiscate my passport, cut up my ATM card, and have us arrested for trying to rob the bank, you know, go all Interpol/Bourne Identity on our asses.”

A few minutes later, the woman with the keys reemerged. She was looking at a newly-printed receipt she had in one hand. In her other hand? My 100 Euros!  Honestly, for all the misgivings we’d had, it all seemed rather easy once it was over. Something in their system probably confirmed the truth of my story. We’d been so nervous, yet all we’d had to do was ask. To celebrate, I went out and bought this hat which I’ve never worn since.

Pont Neuf with new Parisian hat.
Know what else? After dinner at a tiny, ridiculously charming restaurant on Île Saint-Louis that night, David and I got engaged! Ah, Paris in the springtime. It was a very good trip.
 
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One French Mother’s Day

In early June of 2009, my husband David and I traveled to France, and rented a self-driven house boat on the River Lot for one week. We thought it would be fun and romantic. Even relaxing!

The boat’s exterior was extremely charming. Strangers in other boats would smile and run for their cameras when they saw it. It was also large and sluggish, and difficult to maneuver, compared to some of the faster, slick little boats we saw on the river … usually passing us. Inside the boat, the sleeping areas were cramped and moldy, and the kitchen/living area reeked of years’ worth of accumulated BO. The first night, we killed the boat’s battery after having too many lights on at a time.

The owner had to come rescue us the following morning. He scolded us for having too many lights on at a time. “Oui, oui, we get it.” Subsequent nights were spent in darkness, one dim bulb in use at a time. A few days in, we lost hot water just as I was going to take a shower. Some minutes after that, we realized we actually had no water. Thus we learned about refilling our boat’s water tank, and began to make a note of which mooring stations provided these facilities.

The River Lot also held a delightful surprise that we had not prepared for properly, and that was the locks. Operating each lock was extremely physically demanding, and “parking” the boat in order for one of us to get out and operate it was terrifying. The river’s current was strongest in these locations, and there were many instances when I was certain we were going to hit rocks and/or go over the weir.

So our boat trip was basically the opposite of relaxing. And though there were moments of fun and breathtaking scenery, it did not feel romantic.

One significant stressor that we had also neglected to anticipate when planning our little misadventure was that we happened to have a difficult time finding food. Turns out there were very few grocery stores in the small villages that we had access to on the river. Also, there were not a lot of restaurants, and some weren’t yet open for the official summer season. And the few stores and restaurants that were in operation actually closed for several afternoon hours a day, every day. That was when I learned that the siesta tradition is not exclusive to Spain.

We were hungry. And being hungry in a foreign country, under stressful circumstances, creates a unique feeling of vulnerability.  On the rare occasions when village business hours and our eating and boating hours aligned and we managed to eat at a restaurant, we resorted to always taking the bread, shoving it in our bag when no one was looking. A hot meal was a rare luxury. Bread, cheese, and chocolate became our staple foods, with wine at the end of the day.

So it was that one evening we came to a small, family-run restaurant in a secluded camping area, which happened to be open for dinner. A warm and friendly woman seated us. The tables and chairs were (cheap) plastic patio furniture. The woman told us, apologetically, that they were not completely set up for summer yet. But we were so relieved to find this place, and so comforted by her kind welcome, that we didn’t mind. We proceeded to inhale a basket of bread the moment it was placed in front of us, and promptly ordered two glasses of champagne to toast the occasion. We also ordered a bottle of water, and finally allowed ourselves to relax a little while browsing the menu.

By the time the friendly woman came back with our drinks, we were straight-up giddy about all the food we were about to eat. Before she could take our order, however, our new friend wanted to make sure we understood that it was cash only. The restaurant typically accepted payment by credit card, but because they were not yet set up for summer, they didn’t have the ability to do so that particular week. One week later, no problem. Just not that day.

David and I quickly realized that with the roughly 30 Euros we had in cash, we’d only be able to order one entrée for the two of us. We looked at each other, took one quick glance back at the menu, and settled on a plate of sausage and fries. It was all we could afford. The woman saw what was happening, and offered to split the entrée into two plates, so we each could feel like we were getting our own dinner.

When the two plates of food came out, each one had a whole sausage, and was piled high and heavy with fries. Our friend had a big smile on her face. The photo below shows David’s plate thoroughly cleaned, and mine well on its way, plus two empty bread baskets on the table; the second helping of bread we received—free of charge—had probably already made its way into one of our bags. On top of the other empty basket sits a red rose.

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When we first arrived at the restaurant, our friendly waitress had offered me a flower in honor of Mother’s Day (that day happened to be Mother’s Day in France). This was before we had our son. So I thought it was very nice of her, but I tried to tell her, “Thank you, but I’m not a mother.” It didn’t feel right to accept the flower. But she insisted, simply saying that she really wanted me to have it.

A few days later, we’d had enough of boating in France. We were sporting bruises and blisters. I’d wake up in a panic at night, with visuals of either the inferi from Harry Potter, or of our boat coming unmoored and drifting toward the nearest rock, which was sure to break us in half … right before the inferi came out for us. We’d been smart to plan our Paris stay—our real vacation—for after the boat instead of before. I contacted our hotel in Paris to ask if we’d be able to check in a day early; they said yes! So we cut our first and last boating vacation short, and gleefully boarded a train back to Paris, where we had a wonderfully romantic and relaxing few days. Nine months after that, I became a mom.

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