Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

I spent two weeks in Croatia and all I brought back was a few flowery blog posts

 

Every morning began simply, just like this.

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Breakfast, prepared by my mother-in-law, served at the long wooden table in the family’s apartment in Split. Vin’s dad, usually in a soft white t-shirt, thumbing through the local paper, following the World Cup with a kind of fervor that’s difficult to describe. A white ceramic plate stacked with slices of prsut, salty and substantial, sliced a quarter-inch thicker than its delicate cousin prosciutto in neighboring Italy. Triangles of sharp, hard cheese made from sheep’s milk, the one Vin’s mom calls “heavy duty cheese”, stacked next to a tiny mound of a softer one, wetter and more tangy, like feta. There’s always a basket of bread (torn, never sliced) and an assortment of insanely fresh fruit– strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelon– sold by one of the old Croatian women five minutes away in the market, the ones who’ve lived through it all and have no time to charm you. They fill your bag with seven tomatoes instead of the three you’ve asked for because it’s already 2pm and they need to get rid of their produce. They charge you more than you intended to pay because they have earned the right to survive.

fruit market in Split Croatia

traditional Croatian bread

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Every morning at breakfast, we discussed plans for the day. I didn’t create an itinerary for this trip because I knew the agenda wouldn’t really be my own, and it shouldn’t be, because I will never know this place they way my mother and father-in-law do—from experience, from weekly Skype calls with their siblings and nephews and sisters-in-law, from sense memory.

We drove two and a half hours, near the coast of Bosnia Herzegovina to tour Plitvice Lakes, the spectacular national park where you cross the front gate and are immediately greeted by God’s grandest waterfall. We puttered like a flock of ducks behind thousands of tourists over rail-less wooden runways, crossing over open streams of water so unimaginably blue it’s hard to believe they belong to this world. The 16 lakes change from aqua to cerulean to sapphire throughout the day depending on the minerals floating around them, the particular way they’re struck by the sun.

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

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We spent a late morning and an early afternoon at the local’s beach in Split, where my mother-in-law and I seemed like the only women wearing one-pieces in a universe of string bikinis. Everyone there looked liberated and relaxed, unencumbered by age or size—they all simply chose to wear the least amount of fabric because they liked the way the sun felt on their skin. The water was crystal clear and freezing cold and no matter how far you went out you could still make out the floor, lined with miles of smooth beige pebbles. Mothers called out to speedoed children—“Dodi ovdje! Dodi ovdje” (come here! come here!) when they swam too far and older women gathered beneath the shade of an olive tree, chatting like birds and smoking long, skinny cigarettes. No one was reading quietly or “laying out”; the local’s beach was a social place, like a bustling seaside café.

beach in Split Croatia

At night, Vin and I broke from the parents and walked through the narrow stone corridors of Diocletian’s Palace or along the restless water of the bustling Riva. We tucked into dark corners and got lost in its winding alleys. We watched young locals sing from barstools in smoky konobas, perched behind metal gates on tiptoe to hear opera singers rehearse within the palace gates. Every morning at 5, every night at 9 and basically every hour throughout the day, every church in the city synchronized their bells, a distant clang and din lasting up to five minutes. A lot of people reviewing hotels complain about the bells, but I loved them. I’m not a religious person, but it’s one of my favorite sounds. Late in the evenings, Vin and I would go on our nightly trip to buy gelato from the same tiny stall where a little girl tugged at her mother’s apron from behind the long white counter. We’d get two cones and walk around for an hour or so more.

Split Croatia

Split Croatia

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We took an early morning ferry to a tiny paradise island called Hvar, where fishing boats and chartered yachts line up like childrens’ toys and rock gently from side to side. Vin’s mother visited with a distant cousin while Vinny and I explored the island on our own. We decided it was too hot for climbing stone steps so we parked ourselves at a patio table overlooking the incomparable Adriatic, drinking frozen pina coladas because no matter where I’m on vacation, eventually I will want one. We leaned back on bent elbows with bare dirty feet, watching young boys jump from the back of suspended sailboats and sunbathers coat themselves in cream, blathering on and on to each other like we’d just met on holiday. We talked about our families and our future and the bizarre new stage of life we’ve both stumbled in. We had the kind of conversation that’s only possible when there’s limited WIFI and you’re just a little bit drunk.

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hvar croatia

Hvar Croatia

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We borrow the parents’ car and sneak away to Dubrovnik for a few days, which proves far more touristy than Split but equally spellbinding. We heave and pant walking up and down the narrow stone stairwells leading into Old Town where we snoop around 400-year-old churches and eat lemony sea bream and charred octopus grilled in an outdoor stone fireplace. We pull the brims of our hats over sticky, perspiring faces to shield them from the three o-clock sun while up high on the defensive stone walls that surround the ancient city. We spend an evening hearing a piano master shake the walls of a palace built in the 1640s, where there weren’t enough seats for everyone, so a group of children peered from the balcony above, gossiping in whispers, tossing shadows on stone walls. We spend a transformative six hours at a beach so refreshing and calm it changes my opinion of beaches forever.

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dubrovnik

dubrovnik Croatia

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Dubrovnik beaches

Later that night we eat dinner on the outdoor patio of a well-known Bosnian restaurant called Taj Mahal. They’ve hired musicians to enhance the atmosphere—a cellist with long brown hair and a classical guitarist; we realize during their 10-minute break they are not just music partners but lovers too. They shuffle around a bit before playing and I brace myself for something Baltic and folksy. To my surprise, the first note is soft and immediately familiar, one of my all-time favorite songs—La Vie en Rose—which floats quietly in the background nearly every morning at home as I stir milk into coffee or dab concealer in the arc beneath my sleepy eyes.

I lift a forkful of our appetizer into my mouth— a warm, soft dish made of cornmeal served with a tiny cup of clotted cream and a salty liquid pool of fresh European butter– and between its warmth and the swell of the music, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of utter bliss and total comfort, like the universe has wound itself around me, holding me in its sublime embrace.

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I’m so happy that I start to cry, because that’s what my body does when it’s truly relaxed and at peace—my shoulders drop, my eyes well with tears and before I can stop them—out they come. I look around at the other patrons chatting and smoking and eating grilled meats served on pillows of hot bread as big and round as baseball mitts. I’m the only person who’s crying, and I don’t feel strange about it at all. I actually find it odd that they’re not.

Look where we are.

HRVATSKA.

Dubrovnik

Croatia

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Dubrovnik Croatia

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There’s too much! Too much!! More stories from my trip to Croatia…to be continued.

 

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Good Morning from Croatia

It’s not like he didn’t warn me. For years he said, “If we go to Croatia, we’ll need a month. You won’t be a regular tourist there. You won’t get to see it all. A lot of the trip will be spent in relatives’ living rooms, visiting. And they won’t all speak English.”

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And it’s true—I haven’t felt like a “regular” tourist here. We’re staying in the basement apartment of the house his great-grandfather built for the family, right before it was taken by Communists. It’s literally steps from the center of Croatia’s second biggest city—Split—and backs into an enormous maritime museum. The family finally got a small portion of the house back after years of legal battles and his parents have been staying in it since May. They share it with Vin’s sweet aunt and uncle in New York, who also stay for months at a time. You can tell the acquisition is bittersweet—just the bottom floor of a very large house. Every time my mother-in-law comes around the back and sees plants and flowers on another floors’ patio she shakes her head, says, “Breaks your heart.”

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We do a lot of visiting between sightseeing. Uncles with names like Slavko and Jakov, aunts who bring out plates and plates of food, old friends from his parents’ village, the best man from his grandfather’s wedding, cousins—there are so many cousins! I swear, Vinny has 50 cousins in Croatia and they are all seven feet tall. Most have spoken at least a little English so I smile and nod and eat and eat and eat proscut proscut proscut while occasionally tossing out a casual “hvala!” (thank you), dobro (good) or Sretan Bozich (Merry Christmas) when I want to make them laugh at how little I know.

On Sunday, before the World Cup game, Vin’s cousin Marinko and his pretty, tall wife “made a dinner” for us at their home, out in the country close to the villages where my husband’s parents grew up. As we drove through their very small farming towns, my mother and father- in-law describe what it was like growing up in a Communist country and point out things along the way.

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“See that?” says Vin’s mom. “That church was built by my grandfather…” “Over there? That hill is where I would meet my girlfriends to sing or look for cute boys while I was walking the sheep.” My father-in-law points to a small house—the school he attended until fifth grade. Then we drive past a big hill set behind a large field. “See those rocks on the hill? That’s what my father hid behind to escape the Nazi firing squad. It was dark, and my grandfather said, “You’re young—run.”

I’ve been hearing these stories for years around their kitchen table in Queens, but having them told in their setting has helped me understand so much more—about their land, their history, their family, their religion, their culture, their values. This has, by far, been the most poignant trip I’ve ever taken in my life. Beyond that, it’s been an education, and I want to learn so much more.

We have a little less than a week left on our trip, and Vin was right. We needed a month.

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Three Days in Charleston

 

When Vinny asked me what I wanted for Christmas last year, I replied “nothing”. Then I said, “Wait. I take that back. I want you to plan a weekend away together” because I am wise and all-knowing and pretty much always itching to get out of town if time and finances allow. On Christmas morning I opened an envelope with an itinerary he created– a few nights each in Charleston and Savannah, with print-outs of the most expensive hotels in each city because Christmas mornings are for wildest dreams and looming debt. We delayed booking until we filled our vacant apartment, but once we did, we hopped online and decided to go away for our 15th anniversary. We didn’t end up staying in the pricy, dreamy places he’d originally picked out, but that’s okay because Charleston and Savannah are pretty dreamy on their own.

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WHERE WE STAYED:

The Ashley Inn: We stayed in room 5 of this cute pink bed and breakfast very conveniently located in downtown Charleston. We booked it last minute on bedandbreakfast.com, and were very pleasantly surprised by its location and the fact that it lead out to a slightly more private section of the home’s wrap-around porch.

PROS: Clutch location! Around the corner is one of Charleston’s best breakfast spots (The Hominy Grill) and just past that are two really great restaurants– Xiao Bao Biscuit (I’ll circle back to this!) and R’s Kitchen, which we wish we could have tried. The b&b is about a 10-15 minute walk to King Street, which is the main shopping/restaurant row in town. Also, I gotta give props to that four-poster bed. It’s rare that I sleep so comfortably when I’m not in my own home.

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CONS: B&B purists will be none too thrilled at the check-in process. No one greeted us, and we never met an innkeeper. Rather, our keys were obtained from an envelope in a property down the street. Breakfast was also served down the street, but I never ended up going for it since Charleston is known for its food! But the biggest drawback (and it’s a big one frankly)… there was no coffee in the building! Not one sweet, sweet drop! Who could live like this? Seriously, this place needs to set up a keurig or something in the main area, because that’s just bad hosting, in my opinion. On the brighter side, the lack of in-house brew forced us to get up early and beat the crowds for breakfast:). Another thing to know before booking is that the hotel is a few blocks from the medical center and we heard emergency helicopters hovering overhead a few nights which scared the shit out of me until I realized what was going on.

NEARBY: The Hominy Grill, R’s Kitchen, Xiao Bao Biscuit, Sugar Cupcakes, Candy Shop Vintage, King Street

 

HOW WE GOT AROUND: By foot! If you stay downtown there’s really no need to rent a car. If we weren’t able to walk, ubers were plentiful and inexpensive and every single driver was so sweet and friendly we couldn’t get over it. Charleston is a super quick flight from NYC (I think it was less than 2 hours!) and a great weekend destination for people on the East Coast. We went in March, which was perfect timing since we’re about at the end of our ropes with winter weather.

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house in Charleston

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WHAT TO DO:

Our intention in heading down to Charleston and Savannah wasn’t to “do” much, but to stroll, soak up a little spring sunshine and eat until our top buttons cried uncle. We met all these goals. We didn’t really do that much in Charleston except wander around and explore, punctuated by feedings. Downtown Charleston is super walkable, and there are a million guides on the internet to lead you toward the most popular areas to walk around in. South of Broad, Rainbow Row, the Battery, King Street, down by the water. It’s all very photogenic, clean and charming. That’s what we did the first day and a half– walked around, dipped into little stores, ate.

We also visited a plantation in nearby Mt. Pleasant, and I certainly would recommend that as well. There are a few to choose in the area; we chose the one that offered the most insights into what life was like for the slaves on the plantations. Boone Hall Plantation is the only plantation in the S.C. Low country to present a live presentation of the Gullah culture adapted by African slaves and they have eight former slave cabins you can walk through to learn more about the conditions for slaves on the plantation. (and yes… I suppose some people will choose this one over others because The Notebook was filmed here).

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MOST IMPORTANTLY…WHAT WE ATE

Poogan’s Porch– Recommended!

We tried: Country Fried chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes (very much like the Chicken Fried Chicken I grew up eating in TX), Lump Crabcakes with creamed corn (super generous with the crab, but they could have punched up the flavor a bit), pimento cheese fritters with green tomato jam (the real MVP), and she-crab soup–very tasty but realllllly heavy. This soup is basically on every Charleston menu, but this was the only time we tried it so it’s hard to say whose is best. Very good food, super charming atmosphere, lovely service, a little on the pricier side. Oh yeah… great cocktails too!

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Hominy Grill– Highly Recommended!

We tried: Bread Pudding French Toast with Bourbon Caramel Sauce (as good as it sounds) and their classic Shrimp and Grits with scallions, bacon and mushrooms over cheese grits (like heaven, but seriously). I just loved this place, and it was literally a five-minute walk from our inn, which was perfect to beat the morning crowds. On our second visit, I had the grits bowl topped with mushrooms and leeks (and side order of bacon I got to crumble on top:), and Vin got smothered eggs over biscuits. Fantastic and inexpensive. Get there early for breakfast because it gets totally packed, but there’s lots of good reasons why. I wish this place was in my neighborhood.

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Sugar Bakeshop- Recommended (pop in if you’re already walking toward King Street)

We tried the Lemon Curd and the Raspberry. Small, light, lovely little place. Definitely worth a stop if you’re already in the area but I wouldn’t necessarily go out of the way unless you’re a total cupcake fiend (I’m not. I’m more of an ice cream gal).

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Fleet Landing- Recommended, especially for atmosphere

We tried: Fried Green Tomato Stack layered with tarragon crab salad (for $8.99, this is an amazing deal and it was delicious!), Lump Crab Cake Sandwich with Red Pepper Remoulade (we’re used to paying through the nose for any dish whispering the word “crab” in NYC, so we ordered crab at almost every restaurant in Charleston!), the fish special which was served with a tomato relish, black-eyed peas and Charleston red rice (twas just ok). Great spot downtown, very popular and super nice if you’re looking to eat outside by the water. Not my favorite meal of the trip, but did the job.

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams Highly Recommended!

I’m an ice cream gal, and this place is indeed splendid. If you’re ever in a town that has a Jeni’s shop, you must pop in to sample their excellent flavors made from premium ingredients. Top billing goes to Wildberry Lavender and Brown Butter Almond Brittle.

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Xiao Bao Biscuit Very Highly Recommended!

All the in-the-know gals who travel to Charleston (thanks Victoria!) rave about this place and for good reason– it’s incredible! On the website, it’s described as “Asian Soul Food -  Select dishes from China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam prepared locally & inspired by kick-ass grandmothers everywhere. ” We tried the popular cabbage pancake topped with bacon, an octopus tail and a crazy beautiful spicy salad (the menu has already changed for the season and I can’t remember what any of the dishes are called). But trust me, when you need a quick break from heavy home cooking, this place really hits the spot! Charleston truly is a foodie’s paradise, and not just for Southern cuisine.

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Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit Very Highly Recommended!

Line up early because this place is small, popular and fantastic! Vin had a breakfast sandwich on a biscuit (which was bomb) and I just tried two little guys (cheese & chive, which was really good and Black Pepper & bacon which was utterly mind-blowing). On King Street, so if you’re already shopping around, pop in! This one qualifies as an absolute “don’t miss”.

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Circa 1886 - Very highly recommended (for a splurge). We went to Husk in Savannah, and I have to imagine this place beats Husk- Charleston. If you’re looking for a romantic and special meal for your trip, this is the spot! The restaurant is in the carriage house of the Wentworth Mansion (one of the fancy printouts Vin made on Christmas morning) and serves some really exceptional high-end Southern cuisine.

We tried:

Appetizers: BUTTERMILK FRIED ARTICHOKE HEART  with Parsnip Puree, Tomato Marmalade, Black Truffle Pesto, Basil, Baby Spinach, Prosciutto (good, but not as awesome as it sounds)

NIMAN RANCH PORK CHEEK  with Spaghetti Squash, Pickled Green Apple, Crispy Kale, Herb de Provence Glacé (very very good, very tiny)

Main Courses: COFFEE BRINED ANTELOPE  with Sorghum Sweet Potato Mousseline, Braised Greens, Pineapple Relish, Shishito Peppers, Coconut Crema (Amazing!!! So many flavors– everything was covered)

BENNE CRUSTED DUCK BREAST with White Peach Grits, Broccoli, Carmelized Shallots, Sour Vanilla Tea Demi Glacé (I will dream about white peach grits for a very long time–such a subtle flavor that worked perfectly with everything else on the plate. Really fantastic!)

Dessert: CHOCOLATE BENNÉ CAKE Jivara Mascarpone, Ganache, Benné Butter, Lace Cookie

This was the best dessert I’ve ever had. The chocolate was practically unsweetened and the benne seeds (which are popular in the Carolinas, and are basically sesame seeds with a more toasted flavor) added lots of texture and crunch. My life’s mission is to recreate it. Plus, how pretty is this thing??

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What we Missed: Husk, FIG, Jestine’s, R Kitchen, Leon’s Oyster Shop ( I hear the fried chicken sandwich is spectacular and I’m still sad I missed it!).

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I Like Home Too.

 

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Vin and I have this game we play every time we get out of town. He’ll ask, “Can you imagine growing up here? What do you think you would have been like?”  “Do you think you’d be different?” Vin has only lived in New York City, and I think he has a difficult time imagining life any other way.

Whenever he asks these questions, we’re usually in a car whizzing by houses that are much, much larger than ours or walking down an impeccably clean street that smells like jasmine or gardenias. Sometimes we’re in a charming local store sniffing woodsy paraffin candles or admiring jars of rosemary-infused jams. On rare occasions we’re in a place so different from home it’s almost impossible to imagine a life there– on a bone-white patio perched on the edge of the bright-blue sea in Greece, or sweating in late December on the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.

We think about how our lives could have turned out differently if we’d grown up in really small American towns like Saugerties, New York or Fredericksburg, Texas; if we’d have liked the same music or had the same types of friends. I wonder what kinds of jobs local kids have in the summertime and what their parents cook them for dinner. I wonder what dishes are becoming the blueprint for every future memory associated with home. If I’d grown up in New England maybe I’d reach for a bowl carved from soft bread and filled with clam chowder when I was having a bad day. If Cincinnati was home, I’d put chili on a plate of spaghetti and cover it with cheese instead of pour it inside a bag of Fritos and top it with raw onions.

And because I live here, I often wonder how different I’d be if I’d spent my childhood in New York City. Would I be a little tougher, a little quicker to assert myself? Would I have spent weekends touring museums instead of laying out in the sun? I sometimes look at my husband and think he would have been exactly who he is no matter where he was. Or maybe I just have a hard time imagining him any other way.

After a while we flip to, “What do you think? Think you could live here?”

Vinny always answers no. Sometimes in calmer, smaller towns, I picture myself in my 60s and answer yes. The only time I answered “Absolutely! I could move here right now!” was in Barcelona. I cried after our last dinner there because I wasn’t ready to go home. That’s the only place that ever happened in, and I think it means something, but I’m not sure what. At the very least I should probably start brushing up on my Catalan.

 

 

Last week we took a trip to the American South, starting in Charleston then driving our way to Savannah, and I don’t know why I never realized before how beautiful that part of our country is. The buildings are old and ornate with long skinny porches that creak underfoot and host hanging baskets of pink and yellow begonias and climbing trellises of ivy. Black wooden shutters frame windows and delicate iron gates tiptoe around small front yards and walkways. Narrow alleys are lined with cobblestones and history and the scent of very old money. Fathers take their boys to fish for bass and bream in the shallow salt marshes and tidal creeks. Majestic live oaks arch overhead and drip with Spanish moss like some kind of gothic fairytale dream, and just when you think the entire world has turned green an azalea bush erupts in a riot of hot pink.

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We check into our candy-colored bed and breakfast in Charleston and take a deep breath of fresh spring air on our side porch. We dress for dinner, which we’ve already decided will be fried chicken and crab cakes, served in a wallpapered room in the back of a restored Victorian house.

We carry our craft cocktails to the table and the waiter says to us, “I knew you folks were from New York City the minute you walked in, and I mean that as a compliment.”

“Thank you, “I say. “We take it as one.”

We spend the next few days walking around, taking our time, sleeping in formal old homes where we sip peach tea on swinging benches and cutting quick paths to our next restaurant. Once we start eating we don’t stop. We eat like our time on earth is running out. We slurp she-crab soup thickened with heavy cream and sweetened with sherry, stand in line for tiny buttermilk biscuits we coat in butter and sticky honey, dive into bowls of collard greens seasoned with ham hocks and tangy vinegar.  We swipe fried pimento balls through a river of green tomato relish and swirl a tiny pool of butter into a bowl of creamy hominy grits, topped with tiny bits of bacon and shrimp the size of my elbow. We did this for five nights and six days, until our wallets and waistbands quietly whispered, “Go home. ” Vinny demolished half an apple pie in the uber on the way to the airport.

We take our quick flight, eager to land before the impending snowstorm. We’d given ourselves a quick glimpse of springtime, but were headed back to our cold New York City winter. On the plane I read a book about traveling that I’d borrowed from my friend and dream about all the delicious places in this world I’d be lucky to see.

Eventually we begin our final descent and I look to my left at the familiar skyline unfolding beneath me. A smile spreads across my face like softened butter. Vin is asleep, so I nudge him gently in the arm. “Wake up, Vinny. We’re home.”

“Yay”, he says, and rubs his eyes. “I’m glad we’re here. I like home.’

“I like home too”, I say, and reach to get my bag.

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A long-ass post about Montreal, married life and general minutiae

 

Friday morning, 7:30am: We hop in a cab. The driver is laughing his head off, the kind of laugh where you worry a little pee might come out. We start giggling along with the radio program he’s listening to and it instantly becomes one of those New York moments you hope for. The cab doesn’t smell and the driver is delightful.

8:00: We’re headed to Montreal for 3.5 days to celebrate our third anniversary. We almost went to Niagara Falls until we realized I could only look at falling water so long before my bladder yells uncle. I’m very excited to visit Montreal, and am still amazed we can go to another metropolitan city in another country speaking ANOTHER language and it’s only an hour away. They speak a lot of French in Montreal which should be interesting for me since I sound like Clark Griswald on his Pig in a Poke European vacation when I try to pronounce French words.   It’s kind of like my dad in Spain, when he just added an “a’ to the end of every word and called it Catalan.

I have always been intimidated by people who speak French, and have been known to look at French toddlers with befuddlement, for how can someone who can’t toilet independently understand the nuances of such a beautiful and sophisticated language? I always assume French children are smarter than me because they already know something I don’t. I’m pretty sure my sister-in-law is teaching our twin nephews a bit of French and I am already bracing myself for future intimidation. They already dress better than me, and they’re only one.

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8:40am: I’m wearing a Montreal appropriate outfit because I try to imbue my clothing with local flavor wherever I go. Texas, I bring boots. California, tank tops. I’ve never visited Montreal, but in my head the locals are tidy and very chic. I am basing this simply on the fact that some of the buildings in Montreal look a bit like Europe, and Europeans can dress. As such, I’ve taken care to outfit myself in a way that suits the weather and my location for the next four days– distressed jeans, a cream cable-knit sweater, tall black boots and a beige trench. My trench is snug and a bit too short in the waist because I bought it in the children’s section of ZARA to save 30 dollars, then shrunk it in the dryer because I am both fiscally conscious and domestically incompetent. 

The real star of the show is my new tan fedora, which lends me the appearance of both a sophisticated North American traveler and my mother shopping for pork chops in 1983, when she could often be found at our local Kroger’s hiding a head full of sponge curlers with a glamorous wide-brimmed hat.   

8:55am: We have checked in at La Guardia, and are now at our first authentically French stop for the day—the airport Au Bon Pain.  There are six women at the counter getting lattes; one is wearing a bachelorette sash and all six are wearing floppy wool hats in a variety of colors ranging from eggplant to cocoa. I look like their cast-off friend, the one who didn’t get invited to the party and is now stalking them at the airport. I get myself coffee and a chicken noodle soup which I accidentally ladle all over the formica counter, then attempt to sop up with those flimsy plastic sheets you’re supposed to use when picking up corn muffins. I hide my eyes under the lip of my hat, leave the mess there and scoot away quickly because I’m supposed to be better than this. I’m dressed neatly and traveling to a city where the dominant language is French. I am supposed to be an urban sophisticate.

9:30 am: On the plane, Vin and I joke about our imaginary second spouses–the people we’re leaving behind as we run across the Canadian border together. I don’t know why we find this so amusing, but we do. Vin is married to a lovely Nigerian woman named Gwendolyn with three children; they spend most Saturdays at the farmer’s market in the country. Gwen loves Sports Center and can stay up all night playing video games and listening to old records. My alternative husband is Persian and extremely wealthy. I never greet him by name, referring to him only as “The Sultan”. We don’t fly coach and my closet looks like Mariah Carey’s. I wear expensive lingerie and lacy corsets but sleep on the other side of the house because I hate him. I assure Vinny that our marriage is based purely on love, which is why I sleep in the crook of his arm wearing dollar-store underwear and pajama pants with a hole in the butt. 

10:25 am: The flight is over in 55 minutes and I’m in another country. That’s amazing. My friend Aimee’s recent trip to the DMV took longer than this (sorry Aimee, that le sucks).

10:40 am: We scoot through customs into an airport so bright, airy and modern it looks like we just stepped into a dystopian movie. Everyone is completely silent. Everything is sterile and ridiculously clean. I can hear my own footsteps. It’s kind of freaky. We step into our own little kiosk and essentially check ourselves into Canada. We no longer have to wait in a long line to scan the paper ensuring the country we didn’t smuggle in firearms or bushels of fresh produce.

“This is the greatest machine in the world!” says Vin, who loves technology only slightly more than me, and quite a bit more than that whore Gwendolyn. “It’s a thing of beauty,” he marvels. A woman in her mid to late sixties is at the kiosk next to us, talking herself through the frustrating process that used to be handled by a real person in a metal booth. She mutters: “Ugh, why is everything computerized now? I hate this.” Vinny helps her scan her passport, and she flashes him a wan, tired looking smile. She looks grateful, but sad.

11:40 am: We check into the hotel. Vin locks our passports in the room’s safe. Adding this detail means nothing now but will make perfect sense later.

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12:30pm: We walk from our downtown hotel into Old Montreal. The buildings are cute and predictably old, but there’s nothing to indicate that this area isn’t strictly for tourists, which is a shame because Montreal residents should get to enjoy this pretty street but I’m fairly certain they have little use for tiny grizzly bears and decorative bottles of maple syrup. I refuse to eat on the main street here because I know how the world works and assume this area involves mediocre, overpriced food cooked up special for suckers. Here’s a tip for people visiting New York City. Never get duped into eating in the following places:  Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Jekkyl and Hyde Club, Serendipity 3, Sbarro pizzeria, the Times Square Olive Garden (or anywhere in Times Square PERIOD), the M&M store, Manhattan’s Little Italy, Restaurant Row, from a kiosk in Manhattan Mall, or anything on or near South Street Seaport. Cancel your reservations and tell them Jenn didn’t send you.

1:00pm: Vin finds a real local’s joint called Olive & Gourmando, where everyone is speaking French and eating pressed cheese sandwiches. This place bustles with energy, and makes us excited to see what the rest of the city has to offer. We finish up then walk around, smiling, sun on our faces, nothing on our agenda. A nice change.

The first thing I notice about Montreal is that it is almost unbelievably clean. I don’t see trash anywhere. I don’t see trash cans or street cleaners anywhere either. I think the people of Montreal are so clean that they don’t even produce trash. I slipped on a piece of pizza coming down the subway stairs last week. I routinely dodge puddles of vomit and old chicken bones on my walk to work. Where am I?

cute guy in pumpkin patch

2:15 pm: I twist Vinny’s arm until he agrees to pose in a small pumpkin patch. Vinny’s signature season is autumn and he dresses for it all year long. V’s a team player and complies. An older lady walks up and smiles at Vinny, “Do you come with the pumpkin patch?” She asks playfully. He replies that he’s only visiting the patch, then she asks if she too can take his picture. Vin grants her wish, so if you come across this photo on your aunt Helen’s Facebook wall, now you know how it got there. The woman’s husband walks behind Vin, grabs an apple and takes a big bite.

2:30 pm: We turn a corner and spot the six girls from the bachelorette party on bicycles, pedaling one by one down the narrow street. One girl take her hand off the handlebars, points at us and yells “Hey! You were on our plane with us!” 

“I recognize you too!” I yell back. In hindsight, this seems like a pretty dumb thing to say, but really, what was I supposed to say? “Hey guys! Wait up!”? None of us are wearing hats now because the wind is too strong. I chased mine down the street twice before I finally gave up and stuffed it in my tote bag. But we recognize one another all the same because we are more than just dumb Americans in floppy hats. We are English-speakers in a French-speaker’s world. We are bonded.

 Basilica Montreal

3:00 pm: We check out the Basilica. It’s stunning, gorgeous, overwhelming. Its size is humbling and the detail in the architecture is just remarkable. Half of the people are snapping away with cameras;  the other half look annoyed by them. Some pray, some genuflect, many send text messages. Suddenly, someone begins playing an organ from up in the back and it’s not a religious song, it’s a dark, haunting classical piece that boomed though the alley of the cathedral like a thunderstorm. It was amazing.

Vin was captivated. He also looked a bit like Jesus in a fedora, just hanging out in the middle of a church in Canada on a breezy Friday afternoon. I keep waiting for the lady from the pumpkin patch to pop out with her Samsung and ask “Do you come with the organ music?”  The guy behind Vin is all, “Eh, is okay, I’ve heard better.”

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7:oo pm:  Lipstick, concealer, cab to another part of town for dinner. The cab driver is wearing a beautiful wool blazer, a nice hat, a lovely scarf and a smile. “Bonne soirée”, he greets us, then turns on the radio and begins listening to opera music at a completely pleasant volume. The cab smells like a Strawberry Shortcake doll, not takeout Chinese or Halal meat, and I’m again reminded that I am a foreigner in a foreign land.

We are dropped off on a cute little street with a few tiny cafes. Our table is sandwiched between two very young couples. Vin orders a delicious and attractively presented goat cheese salad that the average 22-year-old would have Instagrammed. I leave the phone in my handbag because I’m 38 and starving.

The couple on my right and Vin’s left is on their first date together. The girl is so loud, and the guy is so bored. She is the queen of questions: “How many dates have you been on?” “How did they go?” “Why haven’t you dated more?” “Are your parents still married?” “Do you think they still love each other?” “How did they meet?” “What does your Dad look like?”

The guy chews his steak. Drinks a sip of water. Drinks a sip of wine. Nods. Dies inside. Dreams of going back in time and swiping left.

“Do you think your parents settled for one another, or were they like, actually into one another?” “Can I give you some advice? Don’t go for the hot girl all your friends are into. You need to go for the girl you actually, like, really really like. Life’s too short, you know? Never settle, never ever settle.” I glance over at my husband, and feel gratitude for having reached the point in our relationship where we can easily sit in silence at a dinner table, where the only truly important question left is, “You gonna finish that?”

9:30 PM: Uber, hotel, yadda-yadda, bedtime. 

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montreal chinatown

 

DAY TWO:

8:50 am: I run downstairs because when we checked into the hotel the lady at the front desk smiled and said they serve free coffee from 6-9 am. I pull my little paper cup to the lip of the dispenser and it comes out in sad, tired little drips as if to taunt me and say, “Really? Ten minutes before closing? Get your shit together and come down earlier next time if you want a piece of this.”

“I’m on vacaaaaaaaation”, I whine inwardly. “I need coffeeeeeee.”  I am happy to note that no fewer than three gentlemen are furious on my behalf. Two of them are members of an (English-speaking!) couple, and another is the French-speaking gentleman in a wool blazer who works in the fancy men’s suit shop in the lobby.

“Oh my God– is it gone?” one of the English-speaking guys says. “Are you sure? What do we do? You’ve gotta get your coffee!” Without having said a word, these people understand me. I feel loved.

“Ugh, I really do. I tried tipping it forward to get the last of it out, but the handles were really hot. It’s not worth scalding myself for. Or…maybe it is?” I try tipping it forward again and almost cry it’s so hot. But then someone runs to me with a tiny silver pitcher full of coffee and we embrace and I can start my morning like a kind, benevolent person instead of one with a withdrawal headache and a heart full of hate.

9-9:50 am:  I hang in the lobby writing and drinking coffee while Vin is upstairs showering. I’m always ready to go earlier than Vin, but my new system is to just wait outside doing something else rather than waiting in the house and getting impatient chanting, “Vin are you ready yet? Vin are you ready yet?” This way I get to enjoy my morning and people-watch in a lobby where many people speak French and several will literally run toward you with hot coffee. These are good people. I may stay here all day.

10:30 am: Before we do anything today, I have to buy a coat because it’s freaking freezing here and I didn’t bring the right clothes. I did this somewhat intentionally since the American dollar is stronger here, so anything I buy will essentially be 30% off, right off the bat. I find a coat at a Canadian store called Simon’s which Vinny compares to JC Penney but I’m thinking more like Macy’s and will tell everyone is the Canadian Saks Fifth Avenue. We walk through a few blocks of construction and down some back alleys to a place Vinny has located by phone to eat our breakfast.

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10:50 am: We land in a café that’s so us it’s scary. The walls appear distressed to the point of almost crumbling. The tables are heavy old wood. There are plants hanging from the ceiling. Brass fixtures. Oh, my…we love this place. I am served what is probably the best breakfast I have ever eaten. A perfectly poached egg with a light hollandaise sauce served on top of a huge hash brown cake atop a mound of roasted brussel sprouts and chunks of thick, salty bacon. If this sounds as good to you, come over next Sunday for brunch because I will be recreating this dish every weekend until I outgrow all of my pants.

12:00: We take our first trip on the Metro. I will never become impatient with NYC tourists again for not understanding how metrocards work because it takes two different pe0ple for us to figure out how to purchase cards and where to put them in the turnstile. All the directions are in French everywhere, so we are mostly going by context clues, which we apparently suck at.

12: 50 pm:  We enter the Botanical Gardens because I saw on pinterest that they had these unbelievable topiaries of dragons and wizards and shit and it looked completely magical. When I ask the ticket girl about the magical dragons in her yard, she informs us that those were part of a traveling exhibition that hasn’t been here since 2013, and if we really want to see them we need to go to the Ottawa Botanical Gardens in 2017. We mark our invisible calendars–next Sunday: brunch with poached eggs and hash browns, 2017–Ottawa.

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Montreal botanical garden

Montreal botanical gardens

1:15- 3:30 pm:  We traipse around the gardens learning more about plants. I am genuinely surprised by how much Vin seems to be enjoying himself, as taking a walk through nature is not generally his idea of a good time. “Jenn, look at that tree. What kind of tree is that? Wow– look at this plant. I love it. ” He wants to continue walking, taking the long route. This is typically my role in the relationship, and things are completely off-balance cause I’m ready to go roll up in a ball in front of a Canadian TV program. Is You Can’t Do That on Television still on? My feet are just killing me. The tall black boots were a terrible choice, and my occupational hazard of day- long sitting has not primed me for this much continued walking. Also, I’m just not sure what’s happening here. It’s as though I married a stranger. This event opens up a lot of questions for me. Do we ever really know who we’re sleeping next to in our cheap underpants and threadbare pajamas? Maybe Vin is a wealthy Persian and I don’t even know it. That would actually be awesome.

3:45 pm: We’ve arrived at the Jean-Talon food market. Stop the presses. Hold the phone. Jump back, honky cat. Drop me off here, leave me forever, I’ll make out just fine. Aisles and aisles of gorgeous, impeccable, abundant vegetables and fruit. Broccoli in four different colors– FOUR!, piles and piles of luscious leeks, bushels and barrels of juicy red and orange tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, herbs, garlic. A woman snapped a fresh okra pod in half and gave it to us to try and I wanted to take a bag of it home with me to make a fresh salad but I couldn’t because I was staying at a hotel with $20 club sandwiches and no kitchen access. This place was my heaven, the kind of utopic wonderland that makes me want to hug freely and pass out high fives. I feel suddenly homesick. I want to go home and play with my cookbooks.

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fresh garlic

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5:00 pm: Head to the Mile End neighborhood. Eat an authentic Montreal bagel, different than New York bagels. Less puffy, not chewy. I’m not going to tell you which one I like better (cough, cough, of course I am… NEW YORK BAGELS RULE); the only thing I’ll say is that they both beat Lender’s by a landslide. 

5:30 pm: My feet are in agony. It feels like someone took a cheese grater and rubbed it against my toes. They hurt so badly I am no longer enjoying myself, and that’s a shame because it’s a lovely day otherwise. I don’t know exactly what’s going on inside my shoes, but I’m terrified to find out. I am picturing a podiatric apocalypse, like maybe there’s not even feet in my shoes anymore, but shrapnel or a quarter-pound of ground hamburger. In the meantime, poor Vin is researching places we can sit and hang so I can drink coffee, rest my patties, and spend the majority of the late afternoon whining.

5:45 pm: He finds a tiny cafe called Croissanteria, which is charming and adorable and looks like it could easily fit into any Brooklyn street. We sit, we eat pastry, we rest. An older woman with a cane walks in with a younger, attractive man. It’s evident that the man is not her son or nephew. The waiters look nervous, and rush to get her to her favorite table, currently occupied by a sweet-looking family with  a young daughter. The lady with the cane shoos them out of her table, and the family moves to some lowlife booth in the back of the restaurant. The cane lady slides into the bench with the handsome man, then leaves for 15 minutes, so he sits there bored and alone, gazing out the window at the rustling leaves. I don’t know who this lady is, but assume she is either the cafe owner or the mayor of Montreal.

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9-11 pm: We have one of the best dinners of our lives at a chic Italian restaurant called Impasto. Vin has porchetta with pear and broccoli rabe, and I enjoy a pasta with lemon and cream that shaves two years off my life but is completely worth it. The dessert is a homemade ice cream with strawberries and pistachios and it feels like an angel is kissing me square on the mouth when I eat it. There are two guys next to us–one looks like a miniature version of Joey Tribiani; he is tiny, tan and muscular, and has come to a great Italian restaurant to only drink black tea. His friend, however, has an incredibly robust appetite in every sense of the word– he orders a charcuterie platter and two pasta dishes for himself while chatting endlessly about his social life. You’d think hearing the phrase “anal sex” no fewer than six times would make me less hungry, but you’d be wrong. I’m happy for this guy’s active sex life, but my one true love is food and I hope we get to spend many happy years together. Unlike him, I do not fear commitment.

 

DAY THREE/  FOUR

10am- 4:30 pm: More walking, exploring, crying about my feet hurting. I feel as though I have shin splints and I am scared to see what’s lurking beneath my sock. Every step hurts. Somewhere in there we eat poutine at an open air spot in Old Montreal. Poutine is apparently the official dish of Canada and it consists of french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. I find it utterly gross, and am also weirded out by the fact that there’s an enormous sculpture of ET lurking in the corner of the room.

4:45 pm: Return to hotel. Take off boots. My poor precious little baby toe has an enormous bubble on it. It is tender to the touch and looks very much like a planetarium. There is no tub in our room, only a fancy shower, so I climb up onto the bathroom counter and give my feet a soak in the sink. I will not tell you what I do next, but will explain that it involved some very hot water, the hotel sewing kit and gentle, rolling tears.

I crawl into my fluffy hotel bed and read. It’s a book called 12 Patients, and it’s an inside look at the inner workings of Bellevue Hospital in NYC. Reading about real medical problems makes me feel like a baby complaining about my toe blister, but it also doesn’t stop me from whimpering softly to myself. Vinny has left the hotel and is combing the streets of Montreal searching for emergency supplies to cushion my aching foot.

5:30 pm:  Vin comes back with a spool of gauze, medical tape and a package of three little wraparound bandages designed to cushion corns. He takes my left foot in his hand and begins to gently bandage me. My heart swells even bigger than my toe, and I gaze at my husband with pure love and bottomless gratitude. “The sultan would have never done this for me,” I whisper. I have always known that I married up, but it’s acts like these that show me how far.

8:30 pm: We have scored a reservation at a place made quite famous by Anthony Bourdain. They specialize in things I don’t eat like liver mousse, pickled tongue, and foie gras served about 20 different ways. Our waiter looks like a character actor, the kind that would be cast as a jaunty but evil villain who sneaks around in a silk scarf and black beret while twisting his thin mustache and making creepy shapes with his mouth and eyebrows. I am fairly certain he is high on cocaine because no one is this excited to yell meat specials. The restaurant’s specialty is “duck in a can”, literally two pieces of duck and foie gras shoved in a soup can, boiled, then poured onto your plate at the table in a river of sauce and vegetables. It sounds repulsive and costs nearly $50. A place like this is sort of wasted on us. Vin orders the Happy Pork Chop (it’s covered in sauerkraut, that doesn’t sound happy to me), and I order an endive and apple salad with an entree of tuna tartare. The waiter says “Yes! Perfect!” but is probably thinking, “Why did you come here?” The table next to us has just acquired their meal– it’s an entire hen, resting on a bed of raviolis swimming in cream sauce, and it is served in a full-sized dutch oven. My stomach hurts at the sight of it.

the next day:  We check out, and head back to our favorite cafe where we start off with pastries and end with lunch. We cab back to the hotel, pick up our bags, and jump in our last cab to head to the airport.

“Bon voyage! Thanks for visiting Canada!” says our lovely driver, before disappearing into the clean, litter-free street of Montreal.

We pull up to one of the kiosks and begin checking into our flight. It asks for a credit card, so we swipe. It asks how many bags we are checking in, so we hit ‘none’. It asks us to swipe our passports and I yell “FUUUUUUCK! We forgot our passports!!!”

We quickly discuss our plan of action. We almost hop in a cab to go back to the hotel and procure our passports in person, but instead decide to call the hotel and ask if they can help us skip a step, go unlock our safe and have someone bring the documents to us here at the gate.

We call the hotel, explain the situation and they send a cab driver to our arrival gate with our passports in a manila envelope. “Fast! Fast!” the driver says to Vinny when he finally makes it. We breathe a sign of relief, and go check in. Anxious and overwhelmed, we almost enter a secured section of the airport instead of proceeding forward to our gate. A guy at a table eating a hoagie calls over to us, “Read the sign, guys”, and I already feel like I am back in America. Ah New York sarcasm, how I’ve missed you!

New York City view from sky

We exit Montreal, and 45 minutes later fly over our own city again, the place where Vinny was born and I have grown. From up here, the whole place looks like a Lego set, a movie scene, a Woody Allen love letter.

Now we’re in New York. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. The concrete jungle where dreams are made of. We have made it here. We can make it anywhere.

But we really wouldn’t want to.

 

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Our quickie trip to my new favorite place– San Juan, PR!

It’s a busy time of year. Not too many words here. Many pictures. Enjoy.

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After getting bounced off our flight to Texas last Christmas, Delta gifted me and Vinny two $400 travel vouchers. They were expiring fast, so I started punching in locations to see where we could go for under 400 bucks in December. We never had plans to go to Puerto Rico last week, but that’s where we ended up. Sometimes life is serendipitous that way, because Puerto Rico is my new favorite place.

Turns out, a trip to PR is CHEAPER and FASTER than a flight to visit my parents in Texas. Plus, because we traveled in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, our resort’s rooms were slashed by a whopping 40% and the place was nearly empty. I felt bad for the single 20-somethings who clearly came to party, but it was absolutely lovely sitting by a practically private beach and pool. We stayed at Gran Melia and it was fantastic.

Resorts are lovely, but it’s Old San Juan that really sold me on the place. With the old buildings, narrow alleys and cobblestone streets I felt like I was in Europe! (A three-hour flight to feel like I’m in Europe? Sold!!). The people were warm and lovely, and there were tons of cool shops and artisans selling homemade goods. It was extra cool to visit San Juan during the Christmas season, as it is clearly a very sacred and special time of year in Puerto Rico. There is a clear emphasis on the religious rather than commercial aspect of Christmas in Puerto Rico, and that was very refreshing and lovely to see. We ended up stumbling on a free concert to kick off the Christmas season in the middle of town, and people were dancing and singing in the street. It made me so happy I cried.

I’m going to do a food post too, because the eats there are OFF THE CHAIN. Mofongo–you’ve ruined other foods for me forever.

Also, don’t be surprised if you get an email from me next November inviting you on an early December trip to PR. I’m bringing everyone with me next year. I drank the coquito, and I liked it.

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A Long Weekend in the Life: LA Trip (Part II)

 

Friday, July 5th

8:00 am: Callie’s husband  goes to work.  So today, we shop. And eat. Cause that’s how we do.

10:00 am:  Drive past exceedingly beautiful houses and well-tended lawns on the drive to Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimming pools. Movie stars. Except today, we don’t see any. Spoiler alert.

bev hills

10:15 am: Park car in garage (free for the first 2 hours, can you imagine New Yorkers?) and cruise Rodeo Drive. Sorry L.A.–it underwhelms. 5th Avenue — 2 points for you.

10:20 am: We see paparazzi. Callie asks who they’re waiting for. They clam up. I pretend it’s Beyonce, Hova and Blue Ivy. Cause that’s who I want to see.

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10: 35 am:  We both have to pee;  might as well do it in fancy hotel. Pretty Woman fans know the Reg. Bev. Wil. They have nice chairs so I sit in one.

10:55 am:  At Barney’s; checking out shoes. Even on sale they’re $500. Chuckle to self. Current sandals cost 8 bucks and are mad comfy. Plus, they give my bunions the attention they deserve. I worked hard for those.

11:05 am:  Sweet saleswoman Harriet gives us skin cream samples. She tells us we have pretty coloring and calls our weekday outing a “Girls’ Day”. My friend and I look at each other and ask: How much longer till we’re ladies?

12:00 pm:  Tasty grubs at popular Urth Cafe. I order a Thai red tea latte and it’s huuuuuuuge. I tell Callie there’s no way I’ll finish it.

me and big tea

12:20 pm:  I finish it.

thirft shop

1:15 pm:  Hit Melrose for vintage shopping. Everything I know about Melrose I watched by watching Clueless. $30 for old stained t-shirts= wrong.  Acid-washed trench coats, rayon-polyester blends, 80s florals= Wrong again. Still, we both find cool stuff at American Vintage.

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3:30 pm:  Pit stop at Joan’s on 3rd. It’s like every attractive person in L.A. just dropped in for a snack. It’s just pretty everywhere. And I’m not just talking about the cheese counter.

6:30 pm:  Dinner in Malibu. Fish tacos. Mojitos. Mountains. Callie–you’ve got a good thing going out here, lady.

Saturday, July 6th

9:30 am:  Brunch at uber-trendy Gjelina.  This place is unholy. I order Morroccan baked eggs and they are a breakfast miracle. But this picture is of coffee. No one really wants to be the girl taking pictures of eggs with her Iphone.

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11: 30 am:  Walk around area, stopping in fun little shops. Hit a too-cool surf shop with real retro vibe. Why is everything cool expensive??

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2:00 pm:  Commence park chilling in Santa Monica.

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2:30 pm:  Kicked back in beach chairs. Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy. Guy on bike rolls past and shouts, “Livin’ the life and lookin’ good!”  My friend and I look at each other and know: We’ve still got it.

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2:40 pm:  Stare at ocean with old best friend Callie and new best friend Clancy. This little pup is the sweetest, most cuddly dog ever and I am obsessed with him. Clancy, you’re my new best friend. Call me every ten minutes.

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3:40 pm:  Head back to Callie’s place. I fold chair, wrap straps around shoulders and wear it as backpack. Underestimating new gerth, I smack chair into rear-view mirror of big black Escalade with suited driver inside. Driver shoots me a look that says: “Whatever it is you thought you had, you just lost.”

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3:42 pm:  I brush. that. sand off  my shoulders.

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6:00 pm:  Hit hip consignment/vintage store Wasteland on way to airport. Very alternative staff is playing Nicki Minaj album loud enough to trigger earthquake. I turn to Callie and ask, “Is it just me, or is this the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” Callie mentions she’s had a headache all day and is this close to asking them to turn it off. We both share that if we were our mothers we’d have left the store by now.

6:06 pm:  Briefly reminded of the time mom asked gym receptionist to turn off rap music and play something nice, like Billy Joel.

6:45 pm: We check out. A salesgirl is enjoying the music and folding t-shirts. She is pantless. Just underwear, or something resembling underwear, and a t-shirt.

6:46 pm:  My friend and I look at one another and know: We are ladies.

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A Long Weekend in the Life: The L.A. Trip (Part I)

 

Wednesday, July 3rd:

9 am: Catch cab to JFK. Driver somehow confuses “Visiting a friend in Los Angeles” with “Going to visit family in Pakistan”. Driver seems disappointed I’m not visiting Pakistan. He is projecting.

next 5 hours:  En route to LAX. Uneventful. Uneventful always good.  First aisle seat ever in life. Not the last. That’s a flight game-changer.

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2:37: I made it to California. California knows how to party.

4:00: Drop off bags at best friend Callie’s condo in Santa Monica. Natural light. Wood floors. Lots of plants that aren’t dead. It looks so California. I love it.

5:00: Happy hour dinner with Callie and husband Nile in hip hotel restaurant called FIG. Valet park. Naturally.  Half off everything but steak from 5-6. Giddy-up. I drink this:

war and peas

It’s called “War and Peas”. Made with sugar snap pea vodka, mint syrup and ginger, with a skewer of crispy prosciutto on top. Not the tastiest cocktail ever, probably the ugliest, definitely the most interesting. Our view is a sparkling pool and palm trees. La-la Land.

6:05: Big boob-job alert.

6:30: Nile chooses “Plate of Warm Cookies” for shared dessert. Well played, sir. Thankful none made with sugar snap peas.

7:00:  Nile goes for evening bike ride; girls shop Santa Monica Promenade. I spot a $30 Zara trench and Molly Ringwald.

Thursday: July 4th

7:00: Up before everyone else since I’m on NY time. Relax on Callie’s porch, hanging with the succulents. It is sooo quiet here.

10:30: Take Callie’s dog Clancy for morning walk. It goes like this:

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10:17:  I’m 93% sure I want to move to Los Angeles.

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10;30:  I decide I’ll be living on the other side of this door. Yes. This will do just fine.

11:00:  A tall, beautiful woman flashes her best “Welcome to California” smile. We’re 97% sure it’s Brooke Shields.

 1:00: Lunch on the patio at “The Rose”. Holy fish taco heaven.

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2:30: Walk to Venice Beach.

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2:45:  I buy some cool street art from this fellow. And then we do some people watching. It’s like whoa.

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2: 49: Middle guy yanks camera out of my hands shortly after this picture’s taken. He’s holding it ransom. Payment is 10 bottles baby oil and 4 dozen eggs.

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2:50:  I’m kidding.

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Real Time:  You probably knew that already.

DSC_0277Dude-man-bro. That was siiiiiiiick. 

4:00:  Back to Callie and Nile’s place. Fire up the bbq. Skirt steak, chicken, salad, baked potato. Righteous meal. Callie notes that she has done her American duty by putting something on a grill today. I salute her.

8:30:  We hop in the car and head to Sweet Rose Creamery for ice cream. Callie goes horchata (yum!), Nile picks mint chocolate chip;  I go with salted caramel. Ice cream dude asks if I want it in a chocolate waffle cone.

Me: “YES”.

Him: “No worries”.

He asks if I want salt sprinkled on top.

Me: “YESSSSS.”

Him: “Right answer.”

Me:  ”Thank you.”

Him: “No worries.”

I take my first lick.

No worries.

9:00:  We walk down the street to catch a few fireworks. We had a hard time deciding where to go, but managed to catch a few colorful blasts. God bless ‘Merica.

9:35:  Walk back to the condo. A distinguished gentleman stops short about 2 feet in front of me. Rips a cacaphony of farts. It sounds like fireworks. A few colorful blasts.

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Happy 4th of July from L.A.

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Hello from L.A.!

Greetings from sunny (well, overcast actually) Los Angeles! I’m busy marveling at all the sights in my best friend’s adopted hometown. Will report back Monday. Hope you’re all having a wonderful 4th of July weekend!

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Cheese, Baguettes and Paradise: What I Ate in Paris

Cheese, Baguettes and Paradise: What I Ate in Paris

I’m a person of restraint. I go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday, even on weekends. I am very mindful about what I put in my refrigerator and onto my plate. I’m generally careful, cautious and responsible, which makes me sound about as fun as a day of filing taxes.

But when I’m on vacation, specifically, when I am on vacation in a place renowned for gloriously indulgent foods, I am an animal just released from her cage. In a city where they sell crepes on every corner and serve baskets of perfect bread at every table, the word “restraint” does not enter my conscious or vocabulary. There is no “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” rationalization, no fear of clothes not fitting when I return home. There is only this moment in this place of which I have heard magical tales of baguettes painted with velvety brie, pastries arranged to look like art, rich meats afloat in rivers of cream sauce; a culinary castle built with premium chocolate and layers upon layers of flaky pastry. And butter. Sooooo much butter.

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When I tell you I’ve never in my life eaten like I did in Paris, you must believe me. I have never eaten so much, I have never eaten so often, and I have never eaten so well. You should have heard some of the sounds I was making at the table. You would have blushed. Then you would have looked at your pretty French waitress and whispered, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Have you ever seen the movie Defending Your Life with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep? To sum up, they both recently died and are in a “waiting room” where they have to defend their life choices to determine where they go next. Nights are spent at fancy restaurants where people can eat whatever they want without getting fat, and my favorite scene is the one where Meryl Streep giggles with pleasure while slurping endless strands of creamy pasta. That was me in Paris.

I ate two croissants a day. I had bread, literally, with every meal. I spread camembert on sweet wedges of apple and apricot jam on warm crepes. I had my first foie gras and country terrine. I drank Sancerre and champagne and cafe creme. I pried clams from their shells, then soaked up the broth with bits of torn bread. I ate lamb chops, duck, quail and a fish with the most decadently delicious orange-butter sauce I’ve ever tasted in my life. I inhaled creme brulee and eclairs and pain au chocolat. I ate like I was in the waiting room on my way to heaven, and I don’t regret one single indulgent moment.

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I’d like to share with you where we had our most memorable meals, in case you ever find yourself hungry in the beautiful city of Paris. Some were recommended to us by locals or people who have traveled often to the city, while others we just stumbled on while exploring different neighborhoods. There were obviously a few misses here and there, and I’ve left those out. This is la creme de la creme.

 

Le Cinq Mars (Invalides/ Palais-Bourbon)

This was our friend Chris’s pick for his birthday dinner, and it was an excellent choice, Monsieur! There were six of us at the table, and we didn’t leave a drop of food (or drink) on it by night’s end. I had clams as an appetizer (excellent), while others really enjoyed foie gras, country terrine, gazpacho, and eggs with mayonnaise. The lamb chops with zucchini was tremendous and the birthday boy’s steak was so excellent he wouldn’t share a bite of it:).

La Verre Vole (Canal St. Martin)

This charming (non-touristy) spot was recommended to us by the young man who rented us our Paris apartment. Kinda trendy/hipstery, this tiny restaurant doubles as a wine shop. They change the menu nightly; on the night we went, the offering was seared duck with squash blossom tempura, delicious eggplant with pork meatballs and beef tartare. Highly recommend (but prepare to wait).

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Chez Prune (Canal St. Martin)

This was a real neighborhood joint, a hip and casual bar/restaurant where you can linger for hours watching people stroll by.  We went for brunch on Saturday, and the place was packed 30 minutes before it even officially opened. Very popular spot for locals. Simple meals of salmon with rice and a delicious pasta. Definitely recommend.

La Rotunde (Montparnasse)

What a wonderful find this one was! Our group was hungry and tired late on Sunday night when we were scared off by the long wait across the street at the famous La Coupole and popped into this sorta-famous brasserie instead. So glad we did! We all loved this place–my fish with orange-butter sauce was one of the most memorable meals of my trip (my life?) and everyone else had the steak (and raved). Great atmosphere. Highly recommend.

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Cafe du Paris (St. Germain)

We loved breakfast here so much we went twice. This place is certainly for tourists (although there were quite a few locals in there too), but who cares? We were tourists! It’s right smack in the middle of an adorable, busy street with tons of little cafes and patisseries. Here’s how you do breakfast in Paris: You get your cafe creme, a basket of bread and croissants and a mixte omelette (ham/cheese). Then you sit on your little chairs facing the street and watch the world go by. This is it. This is the postcard. I loved it. PS: The omelettes in France are unimaginably great. I don’t know what they do to them, but they taste like cream and fluff up like pillows. You must have one. I insist.

La Bastille (Bastille)

Another great brasserie we stumbled into for lunch. This has a lively, comfortable atmosphere and is a great spot for people-watching coupled with delicious food. My risotto with chicken and mushrooms was so incredible I made my dining companions uncomfortable. It was great. Really delicious desserts too.

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L’Atelier de Joel Robochon (Champs Elysees)

I saved the best for last. This was, without question, the most memorable meal of my life (so far). Partly because it was my birthday meal in Paris, partly because it’s a Michelin-rated restaurant, but mostly because the food prepared there can not be described as anything but exquisite. And y’all know that’s not a word I throw around too often. After all, an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure. (Name that movie!)

The best thing about this restaurant is that you sit at a long counter– like a sushi bar– and watch the chefs prepare your dishes. They work almost silently, and with laser-like focus.

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Our amuse-bouche was one of the strangest, but most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. We were served a tiny shotglass layered with foie gras, port wine and parmesan foam. Oh my word. Incredible.

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What appears to be an unassuming brochette of eggplant, roasted red pepper and mozzarella is really the most marvelous thing to ever skewer a stick. Aside from the fact that the veggies are a dream when swiped through that basil sauce, what we really must discuss is the mozzarella. I actually don’t care much for mozzarella. It’s usually kind of bland and waxy to me. But this. This. THIS mozzarella was a revelation. A game-changer. It was so soft and creamy it was almost like butter. If I hadn’t been so greedy for it…if I had let it linger a bit longer on my tongue…surely it would have melted there.

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Vin’s appetizer was the baby quail with a side of the world’s best mashed potatoes. The portions are tiny, but they are exactly the size a person needs, which is probably why the French can eat like kings without becoming obese. That and the fact that they certainly do not eat as their tourists do. In the words of my Dad, this was “Ta die for.”

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For the main course, I had the lump crabmeat salad and Vin went for the lamb chops. Both outstanding.

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And for my birthday dessert, I skipped the cake and instead had this delightful raspberry tiramisu. Vin went for an insane chocolate souffle with homemade pistachio ice cream. We were served madelines fresh from the oven too.

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We ended the night by lying on the grass and watching the lights of the Eiffel Tower twinkle like stars. And then I died and went to heaven. The end.

 

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