Bangladesh or Bust 7

Tea in Dhaka

 

Why?

 

That was the response I got every time I told someone I was going to Bangladesh. And it usually came after an awkward pause where the person would squint their eyes and try to figure out if I was telling the truth. I had a feeling this might be the case when I booked my flight in May the previous year and so I waited for months before I actually told anyone besides my husband. My response to the question would always depend on the day I had and what remained of my patience level at that particular moment. On a good day I would say that it was a long story but that it had to do with a friend whose parents were expats in Chittagong many years ago who had built a play park and rec center, recently passed away and I was going back with her to check on the school and find an NGO in country to help manage the day to day finances. And sometimes, when I was feeling unsure of the decision myself, I defensively said I was going on an adventure. The first answer received some ah’s and oh’s and some head nodding although you could tell what they were thinking was “I never quite pegged Lisa as a 3rd world volunteer” but the second answer was almost like a throw down, challenging them to respond in a negative way to a 48 year old mother of four in Rye, New York who wanted more adventure in her life. I could only imagine their internal dialogue. “Was she having a mid-life crisis? Who goes to Bangladesh for an adventure? Why not run the marathon or start to row crew?”

 

I wasn’t always an adventure traveller; in fact my first trip to Europe wasn’t until I was in college. We took vacations when I was growing up but never venturing further afield than a Caribbean island or the ski slopes of Vermont. And when I had my own children, I wasn’t the type of mother who with four small children would plan trips to Thailand or The Great Wall or even California. We spent our school vacations in Florida or Windham, sometimes skiing out west. The thought of running after children in the Louvre didn’t hold much appeal. Our first family vacation to Europe didn’t happen until the summer of 2007 when my oldest child was 16 and my youngest was 9. But then in 2008 my husband was transferred to Tokyo and as we passed through immigration and the officer opened my fairly empty passport to stamp my entry to Japan, the portal of change opened wide and the possibilities for adventure unfolded.

 

Living as an expat can be highly lucrative as most of your major expenses are covered by your company like rent, utilities, education, club membership, flights home, … so in theory, if you were a savvy and responsible adult, you could return to your home country years later with a very comfortable bank balance. Instead, my family returned with double thick passports due to the extra pages we had to add to hold all the stamps and visas we collected in our four years in Asia. Something happened to my husband and I living so far away from our normal existence, it was like a wake up call to our lives. We were in our mid-forties, we were healthy and we’d made it through the tough, physically demanding baby raising years. And we were living in Japan! The proverbial rainy day had come and it was time to see the world.

 

We returned to Westchester in the summer of 2012, four years and a lifetime later. The transition for my husband seemed to me, effortless. He returned to the same company he worked for in Japan only it was better because he was back in the home office where all the action was. My two oldest children were in college and the two youngest started in the local public school. There were the usual new kids on the block issues but within a few months that was mostly resolved and they seemed happy and excited to be back in New York. I was the one who kept looking longingly at my passport in the drawer of my bedside table. So when the call came from my good friend who I’d met in Tokyo, who also moved back to the US the same time I did, to accompany her to Bangladesh I knew I had to go. One of those once in a lifetime opportunities that you just can’t pass up. Luckily I have the sort of husband who also knew I had to go. The trip was planned and put in my online travel folder and I filed it away mentally as well. Having that on my calendar a year away was both an opportunity for personal growth and a source of uncertainty. Bangladesh?

 

Why?

 

And then, quite suddenly the day arrived. I had spent the weeks before departure getting shots, debating the pros and cons of different malarial pills and buying every drug for every possible ailment I might experience. The expected temperature for Chittagong was over 100 degrees and it being a Muslim country, where showing skin was not looked upon favorably, long linen pants and tops were purchased. My suitcase was half filled with games like Twister and Memory Board, gifts for the children in the school, which require no English to be able to play, and one very large toiletries kit jam packed to meet any emergency. It would take four flights for me to arrive in Chittagong from New York, one of which was 15 hours long. Did I have doubts and second thoughts? Big time.

 

My supportive husband kissed me goodbye, my girls gave me the “see ya” not hiding their lack of enthusiasm for my leaving for parts unknown. Sitting in the back of the taxi, as the car left Rye and drove over the bridge, the feelings of doubt and uncertainty about my decision melted away and the realization of why I was going in the first place came back and flooded me with excitement and anticipation. It was finally here, it was real, and I was going to a country on the other side of the world I had only read about in disastrous headlines in the New York Times.

 

Why?

 

Why the hell not.

 

 

 

 

Nothing To Do circa 2013 2

Full length of young men and women holding cellphoneThis is the first time I’m raising teenage girls in a suburb.  And its starting to bother me.  When my boys were in high school we lived in Tokyo, a city of 20mm people and plenty of trains, buses and taxis to get them where they needed to be.  Which meant their dependence on me was minimal.  It was also a city where teenagers didn’t drive – as in never.  The cost to get your license in Japan is prohibitive, not to mention you need to have legal proof of a parking spot in order to get a car (again, prohibitive) so teenagers JUST DON’T DRIVE.  And, they don’t need to or want to.  Bikes are another huge method of transportation for kids of all ages.  And even though there is a drinking age in Japan (20) its not anywhere near as strictly enforced as it is here in the US.  Most likely because they don’t have a lot of underage DUI.  So no one’s beating down the doors of their government demanding stricter laws on underage drinking.  Which means there is MUCH MUCH less binge drinking for teens.  Why binge when you can sit down at a club and just place an order?  And drugs are so illegal in Japan that being caught sends you right to jail without the American phone call – your kid could literally rot in jail for a week and you would have no access to them.  So that pretty much puts a big damper on the drug thing.  So, I had it easy.  Boys, big city, transportation, very few barriers to entry for having a good time, independence, etc…

Now, back to the American suburbs.  All I hear from my teenagers is there is nothing to do on weekends.  Very few parents allow parties because they either end with the cops coming or kids leave when they find out there are rules and there won’t be any alcohol or drugs.  And when a kid is stupid enough to throw a party at their house when their parents are away (you would think they would learn from their friends’ past mistakes) it ALWAYS ends with the police as it did a few weeks ago in a neighboring town.  Not only did the police come and shut it down, they made the parents of each kid come and personally pickup their child.  The line was down the block waiting to get in.

I try to make suggestions: go for dinner with a large group of boys and girls (boys don’t do that).  Go ice skating (no). Movies (anti-social).  So what happens is they end up walking through town, hanging out on the corner of Starbucks and basically doing nothing that resembles fun.  And the weather is getting colder which will make it even less fun.

And yes, we did pretty much the same thing when I was in high school however there is a big difference – technology.  Back in the 80’s if you wanted to have a few friends over to your house it was fine.  It hardly got out of control because NO ONE KNEW WHERE YOU WERE.  No cells, no texting, no apps that track your every move.  Once you were out for the night, you were out.  You couldn’t find anyone unless you happened to randomly bump into them.  Now, our kids can’t go anywhere without everyone knowing where they are.  This makes it very hard to have people over with limitations.  So, parents, fearful of having the entire 10th grade milling around their backyard, just say no to parties and friends.  And then there are the lawsuits.  I just don’t remember anyone threatening to sue if someone drank my father’s stoli.

I’m not sure what the answer is or if there even is one.  I imagine this situation is pretty common in many small towns in America.  If you have any good ideas, i’m all ears.

Old Dog Learns New Tricks 3

As cliched as the title is, it really fits in this instance.  Last week, as part of a final project before I graduate from Manhattanville College’s MFA in Creative Writing program, I went back to high school to spend a day teaching.  I’ve never taught before and I never had the desire to do so either.  But, the class I am currently taking, Advanced Seminar in Creative Writing is a teaching course.  An MFA is the terminal degree in Creative Writing which means that once I graduate, I am qualified to teach in a college.  I never intended to use my degree as a pathway to a new career but the option is always there.  Our final project was to create a curriculum on any type of creative writing and then, if possible, teach it.

It didn’t take me long to come up with my project idea.  For the past several years I’ve written for CNN and now Hometown media.  In both cases, I write creative non-fiction under 1000 words, which maps very nicely back to the college essay.  And with four children, two already in college, I find I can relate to high school seniors more so than any other group of students.  And over the years, I’ve helped many a friend’s sons and daughters on their essays.  It’s fun and gives you a window into a child’s life that you may not have had access to before.

But this was going to be a little different.  My classroom would not be filled with the children of upper middle class dual parent households.  I was to teach at the Bronx Academy of Letters – 339 Morris Avenue, South Bronx.  If you haven’t been in that part of New York city, mapquest it and you’ll see what I mean.  I chose this school for a reason.  Last spring I was invited to their school’s fundraiser by a friend who helped start the school and sits on its board.  The fundraiser was unlike any other I’ve been to because many of the children who would benefit from the funds raised were actually in attendance.  And they weren’t shy.  In fact, they made it their business to come up to the guests, introduce themselves and tell us why the school was making a difference in their lives.  The desire to help was contagious – I wanted to get involved and do a little something besides donate money.

This fall, when my teacher announced the final project, it made perfect sense.  I would come up with a curriculum to teach high school seniors how to write a great college application essay.  And I would teach it to the seniors at the Bronx Academy of Letters.  Within a few days of contacting the school with my idea, I had a date on the calendar, September 26th.  It had to be early in the semester because college essays take time to write and re-write and there are different deadlines depending on the school you are applying to.  It was very early in my semester but I really didn’t have any other choice.

A major part of my presentation was focused on “show, don’t tell.”  High school seniors spend most of high school telling.  They are constantly asked to tell what they know about a particular subject.  First person narratives are rare.  I put together a 50 minute lesson plan that I thought would highlight the difference and why it was so important.  I was fairly nervous on the drive down to the Bronx, mostly because I have NEVER taught before but also because one of my biggest fears in life is getting lost, especially in neighborhoods that are not exactly safe.  But I arrived without incident and the college guidance counselor was waiting for me in her car with a parking permit and a smile.

After a few words of advice from the counselor and the teacher whose class I would be teaching, I walked into the class and stood in front of the 28 high school seniors.  I’ll admit I was definitely intimidated.  With advice from my MFA teacher, I introduced myself by saying I wasn’t a teacher, I was a writer.  That helped.  I also used examples from my own children’s experience with the essay including the one my son wrote about the 9.4 earthquake in Japan that we lived through.  That woke them up a bit. With an eye on the clock and my lesson plan in hand, I was able to come in right at the buzzer the first time.  That was a huge relief.  But then it dawned on me.  I’d have to do the  entire presentation again in 3 minutes.  I was so focused on getting it right the first time, I didn’t even think about the fact that I’d have to make it fresh all over again.  And again…

I don’t know how teachers do it.

For most of the class, I spoke, or read out loud.  A few of the students would raise their hands to read out loud too.  There were some questions, not many.  During the lesson, I gave them time to work on their essay and free write.  I walked around and asked if anyone needed help.  Some of them asked me to read what they had written.  The common application prompts are extremely personal as its the only way that colleges have to really get to know someone.   The first paragraphs I was shown were raw and honest.  The lives these kids have led were all challenging.  I wanted so much to help them tell their stories.  There was a theme throughout all of them – don’t judge us by our circumstances or the lives we’ve lived so far, or the fact that we live in the worst congressional district in America (this from an actual essay).  We are more than our stories.

It was truly a learning experience.

Bronx Academy of Letters – for more information on their school go to: bronxletters.com

Teaching in 7th Period

Teaching in 7th Period

Two Weeks In Italy + Four Cities Visited = 6 Happy Family Members 3

Walking the streets of Florence

Walking the streets of Florence

It had been ages since our entire family had been together for more than a night or two – with two kids in college and one on the west coast and the other playing sports at college, our schedules just never seem to blend.  But with a lot of planning and promises from my kids, we carved out two weeks at the beginning of July to take our first family vacation to Italy.  I hired Insider’s Italy, a bespoke travel agent based in Rome to help me plan our trip.  After filling out an in-depth questionnaire about our families’ likes and dislikes I was happy with our 16 day, four city visit.  The day before we were scheduled to leave, i received a voicemail message from Delta apologizing for canceling our flights but that there was nothing they could do.  You can imagine my reaction.  I quickly called them back and after an hour of negotiation (trying to find 6 seats from NY to anywhere in Europe on June 28th is almost impossible) I suggested we look at flights out of Newark.  This came as quite a surprise – I guess the Delta manager had no idea that Newark and JFK were sort of interchangeable.  Regardless, we had 6 seats leaving at almost the exact time as our old flights.

We arrived in Florence on a Saturday around 11am and went directly to the first “hotel” we would stay in on our trip.  I quote hotel because it was called a Residence and that’s exactly what it felt like.  Since there are six of us and we are all large people, we always need three rooms (the boys, the girls, the parents).  We stayed at Residence Hilda  and the rooms were actually like one bedroom apartments.  They were nicely furnished with big bathrooms and even a small kitchenette.  But what we gained in space, we lost in service.  They have one person on duty from late morning to mid-afternoon and so for the most part, you are on your own.  As this was the first stop on our trip, I would have appreciated a front desk and concierge to help with some of my questions.  Thankfully Florence is small and easy to navigate and we quickly settled in.  The best part about the Residence was it’s location.  Once outside the front door, you looked to your left and the Duomo loomed large overhead.

I’ll skip the obvious stops in Florence but we had a few off the grid experiences that are well worth writing about.

Food Related Recommendations:  Carapina for Gelato – yes there are thousands of places to go for Gelato, but not like this one.

Dinner: Il Quattro Leoni – very cool neighborhood on the other side of the river, waitstaff had tattoos, dreads and lots of piercings but don’t let that get in the way of a very good meal.  Clientele also super cool.

Cafe Italiano – sounds like a pretty obvious name but its known for it’s Florentine steak and it lives up to its reputation.  There was a literal butcher standing in the middle of the room with a cleaver and a meat counter and you could hear the butchering all through dinner.

Experience: Santa Croce Church.  There are literally thousands of churches to see in Italy but for the next few months if you are in Florence you should put this one on your list.  It’s very famous for the people who are buried there – Michaelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli to name a few superstars but that’s not why you should go visit before October.  Santa Croce has the most amazing frescoes that are in the process of being restored.  The paintings were done by Agnolo Gaddi at the time of the renaissance.  You actually get to walk up the five stories of scaffolding and look at the brush strokes and stare directly into the eyes of the paintings.  Our experience was even more special because our fabulous tour guide Paolo Vojnovic (you can find her on linked in) works at the church and the day we were there it was closed to the public so we had our own private tour of the church.

Experience: The Palio Race in Siena.  Siena is a gorgeous place to visit at any time of year, but go for the Palio and you are in for a very unique experience.  I had some inside information about going the day before, to the dress rehearsal and so we planned our visit for July 1.  I had read a lot about the race beforehand and part of the dress rehearsal events included dinners that each neighborhood threw to celebrate the

Setting up for one of the contrada dinners the night before the Palio

Setting up for one of the contrada dinners the night before the Palio

next day’s race.  I wanted to go to one of those dinners.  When I asked my travel agent she said that she’d never had that request before and she thought it wasn’t possible for foreigners to attend.  But I didn’t give up.  I kept reading and found a few posts by tourists saying they were able to score some tickets.  Finally, after enough emails on my part, she was able to find someone who worked at the Inn we would be staying at in Tuscany who had a cousin who lived in Siena and could score some tickets for the dinner.  The entire night was an experience I will truly never forget.  So if you happen to be in Siena the night before the Palio race make sure you beg borrow or steal tickets to the dinner.

Tuscany:  We stayed at Il Borghetto, an agriturismo in Tuscany only about 40 minutes outside of Florence near Greve.  Our rooms were separate from the main farm house with a patio that overlooked the olive groves.  The inn was situated perfectly up a hill and the famous landscapes of the tuscan hills were everywhere.  There was a small pool to cool off in and there was even an etruscan tomb on the property.  In addition to making their own olive oil and wine there was a large organic farm where much of the food that was served to us originated from.  It was in this inn that we had our best meals in Italy.

One of the best meals we ate in Italy

One of the best meals we ate in Italy

Platters of fresh fruit and salumi, followed by homemade papparadelle pasta with fresh zucchini flowers and a creamy pesto sauce.  Then a salad of garden vegetables finished with homemade peach ice cream.  And a few icy bottles of white wine grown in the region.

Experience: We spent most of the three days in Tuscany visiting the small hill towns that dot the area, each one a little bit different.  Our favorites were San Gimignano, Greve, Castellina and Radda.

Experience: Do not miss the outlet shopping.  It’s simply called the Mall and its not far from Florence or most places in Tuscany.  It’s unlike any mall I’ve ever been to.  Bring your passport so you can get the tax back forms filled out.  We had a ton of success in the Prada store as well as Loro Piana.  Make sure you have a few hours to see it all.

After three long days and nights in Tuscany we took a train to Amalfi where the vacation part of the trip began.  We had rooms at La Luna Convento which was a former monastery but had been transformed over two hundred years ago into a hotel. Its perfectly situated a few minutes walk from town but it also has its own fabulous pool from which you can jump off the rocks right in to the ocean.

The hotel pool at La Luna Convento

The hotel pool at La Luna Convento

Dinners: Eat at La Luna’s restaurant in the saracen tower across the street from the hotel.  Eat at da gemma in Amalfi. Request a table outside on the terrace.

Experience: La Fontelina Beach Club in Capri.  Call ahead and make a reservation for beach chairs (or mattresses which are very comfortable) and umbrellas.  Also book a table for lunch.  Take the ferry from Amalfi, or wherever you are on the Amalfi coast to Capri.  Ten minutes before you arrive in Capri, phone La Fontelina and they will send a small wooden skiff to pick you up at the Capri dock.  The boat will take you ten minutes into the ocean, around a curve and there, tucked into the rocky cliffs of Capri is a magnificent private beach club where you get to spend your day.  Even though its quite small, they have set it up so that you have your own private spot where waiters will bring you drinks (try the white fruit sangria) and you can jump in and out of the ocean all day long.  The restaurant is under a thatched roof with a magnificent view.  Just make sure to take the boat back in time to get the ferry back home.

La Fontelina Beach Club

La Fontelina Beach Club

Experience:  The Ruins of Pompeii: we hired a car, driver and guide to take us to visit Pompeii.  Just be forewarned.  Take motion sickness meds before you get in the car.  Several of us had a big problem with the twisting winding roads that you must traverse in order to get to Pompeii.

Experience: Rent a private boat with a guide and tour the area from the water.  Ask to have a meal in a restaurant not frequented by tourists.  Our guide for this excursion was Giocondo, a jolly 60 something man who was born and raised in Amalfi.  He can be contacted via the staff at La Luna Convento.

Experience: Ravello is a great town to walk around and have lunch.  We ate at the Hotel Parsifal with a spectacular view and an unforgettable meal.

After five nights of sun and fun in the water, we said goodbye to Tom and Tom – work and school were waiting for them.  The three kids and I boarded a train for the last few days of our vacation in Rome.  Our hotel was Albergo Santa Chiara which was situated perfectly behind the Pantheon.  There is so much to see and do in Rome that it seems silly that I would have anything to add.  But i’ll try :)

Experience: All of our custom tours were booked with Context Tours which is a company founded by Americans that hires experts in their fields of art, architecture and food to serve as your bespoke travel guides.  We had several and they were all amazing in different ways.

Experience: We did the Vatican museum on Friday night.  It was not as hot as it would have been during the day and it was a lot less crowded.  I would highly recommend going at that time.

Lunch: Cul de Sac.  Al Piccolo Arancio.

Rooftop Cocktails: Hotel Minerva.  Hotel Raphael

Hotel Raphael for rooftop cocktails

Hotel Raphael for rooftop cocktails

Dinner: Pompierre in the Jewish Ghetto.  Order the artichokes and arancini rice balls.

da baffetto for pizza

Gelato: We were in Italy for 16 nights.  We ate gelato at least twice a day.  But there was nothing that could even come close to Gellateria Del Teatro in Rome.  We built our days around it.  Just go and go often.

The best gelato we had in Italy

The best gelato we had in Italy

On the night before we were to leave Italy and return home, I asked the kids when they thought they would return to Italy.

Hayden said when he was 20.

Sophie said 22.

Annie said 35.

I said 53.

Let’s hope its not that long… Arrivederci Italy!

Vieques – The Perfect Vacation Spot No One’s Ever Heard Of 1

You are going where?  I heard that a lot the week before I was leaving for my trip to Vieques.  It seems that although everyone has heard of San Juan and Puerto Rico, almost no one knows anything about a small island named Vieques which is off the coast of San Juan.  I highly recommend you get to know it.  It couldn’t be easier getting there – Jet Blue and Delta both fly direct to San Juan several times a day from New York and the flights are short and inexpensive.  Once in San Juan you have a choice to either hop on a Cape Air 20 minute flight to the island (also not expensive) or take the ferry – $1.  I’m pretty sure the lack of knowledge about this place is due to its origins.

From Wikipedia: Vieques is best known internationally as the site of a series of protests against the United States Navy‘s use of the island as a bombing range and testing ground, which led to the navy’s departure in 2003. Today the former navy land is a national wildlife refuge, with numerous beaches that still retain the names given by the navy, including Red Beach, Blue Beach, Green Beach and others. The beaches are commonly listed among the top beaches in the Caribbean for their azure-colored waters and white sands.

We decided that since this would be our second trip to Vieques (we had been five years previously with the same three couples) we would spend the first night in Old San Juan before venturing on to the island.  None of us had ever stayed in the old city and we were curious.  This blog post is not about that part of the trip but lets just say we stayed at a very cool boutique hotel (Hotel Villa Herencia), ate extremely authentic puerto rican food, shopped for $15 espadrilles and toured a few forts.  Well worth the overnight.

The following day, we returned to the airport and boarded the small plane (a 10 seater I think) and we landed on the island of Vieques in less than 20 minutes.  The weather was a beautiful 82 degrees with a light wind.  There is no rush upon arrival to get to your hotel as there is a great outdoor bar at the airport (you can’t miss the signs) and there is just no reason not to sit and have a rum punch while you call a cab to pick you up.  It’s called the Isla Nena and its run by a true salty dog and his Chinese wife.  If you happen to be there on a Tuesday you must get an order of her homemade pot stickers.

We stayed at the Bravo Beach Hotel which is one of very few boutique hotels on the island.  There is a W that we heard is quite lovely but we didn’t go and take a look.  We were more into going native then going upscale.  There are plenty of home rentals as well and I suppose most visitors to the island rent houses.  The last trip we took, we stayed in a private home and so we decided this trip to shake things up a bit.  The BBH is very close to town and on the ocean but the beach is pebbly.  But that makes no difference at all as there are so many wonderful beaches to discover on this island its actually better that the hotel’s beach isn’t perfect – it forces you to not be lazy.  The hotel is run by a young couple from Minnesota.  We actually came across quite a few expats on the island looking for a more subdued (and warmer) lifestyle.  The room we booked was called the Villa and we shared it with my sister and brother in law.  There were two bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, dining room and living room, an outdoor patio with a dining table and steps to the pebble beach.  The entire villa cost $325 per night (that’s right – about $160 per couple).  We rented an SUV for the week which I would say is a must and the hotel provided chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards, coolers and beach towels.

This was the lovely area outside our villa in front of the beach:

viewfromroom

The town itself is a bit sleepy and if you are looking for a cup of coffee before 7am, you’re just not going to find one.  But pretty quickly we got into a nice little routine.  A few members of our group would wake up early, walk into town and go to the patisserie where you could get amazing puerto rican coffee and a few baked goods.  On their way back, they would pick up some fresh empanadas that were sold on the corner.  By the time they returned, the hotel’s buffet would open (around 8) and we would sit out on our deck, have breakfast and plan our day.  The plan would include which beach we would hit, what drinks we would bring and where we would end up for something to eat later in the day.  As you can see from the photo below, we pretty much had the place to ourselves (except for a few wild horses which are everywhere on the island).

viequesbeach

This is what our beach bar looked like:

viequesbeachbar

There are plenty of places to eat and drink.  One of our favorites was a local expat hangout with amazing sunsets:

DSC_0089

It’s called Al’s Mar Azul but depending on how many drinks we had, we started calling it all sorts of things.  This bar was quite conveniently located a short walk from our hotel.   There’s not much of a night life in Vieques but we brought our own, so that wasn’t a problem.

Another to do list item is the Bioluminescent Bay (also known as Puerto MosquitoMosquito Bay, or “The Bio Bay”),which is considered the best example of a bioluminescent bay in the United States. The luminescence in the bay is caused by a micro-organism which glows whenever the water is disturbed, leaving a trail of neon blue.  You go at night with a tour but as we had already been the last time, we skipped it this time around.

There are plenty of great places to eat, one of our favorites was Tin Box and the last time we were there we loved Chez Shack although it was closed when we were there this time.

The only snag in the week was when the beach police lady told us it was illegal to sit in the ocean with our beach chairs.  The gallons of alcohol set up on our beach bar was fine though.  This only happened once at one of the beaches and we just didn’t go back to that beach again.  Good thing there are so many to choose from on Vieques; our beach chairs spent the entire week in the ocean after that.

Put this trip on your list – its well worthy of a week of your life.  Or even a few days…

A Long Weekend In Austin, Texas Is A Capital Idea Reply

I’m starting to think I’m a travel whore.  It no longer matters where the destination is (well, that’s an exageration – Newark, NJ is not an option), if someone asks me to come along, I’m the first one on expedia.com.  I found that one way of combatting the letdown of moving from a city of 18 million to a town of 15,000 is to make enough plans to leave said small town.  My husband made a list of where I was going in 2013 and it is the source of a few laughs around the office water cooler.  I’ve always been a bit of a wanderer – something that becomes more of a challenge with each child you conceive.  But at the apex of my motherdom, we lived in at least five different homes, on and off, while the kids grew up.  I just can’t bear to dig in and grow roots.  I’m not really sure what that’s about but it seems to work for me and thankfully it works for my husband too.  We are in the process right now of selling the last piece of real estate we own.  My current goal is to minimize the keys dangling from my key chain which brings with it a sense of freedom and relief.  And of course, the increased ability to say YES the next time someone asks me to go away.  For the next few years, my husband and I will have to drag a few teenagers with us but we’ve got a 5 year plan and we’re six months into it.  The not knowing where we’re going is the best part of all.  Carpe the freaking diem!

Oh wait, this blog was supposed to be about spending a weekend in Austin, Texas.  That’s what a nice large glass of white wine will do to you.  It seems I’m wandering right off the topic.

So, Austin, Texas.  I’m a big fan. I stayed in three different hotels in 4 nights and I loved them all. A brief synopsis:

The Driskell Hotel – right off 6th street – completely old and authentic – it’s even haunted.  Perfect place to stay right in the heart of it all.

The San Jose Hotel – this hotel is too cool for school.  It’s in the SOCO district (south congress) and it’s basically the Brooklyn of Austin.  Very hip – very cool – almost cold.  But worth staying in (for a night).

The Gruene Mansion Inn (technically not in Austin but in the town of Gruene which is pronounced Green but not by me or anyone I was with because – duh, there’s a u in it).  This was a little bit country, a little bit disney and a lot of kitsch.  But if you are going to a Jerry Jeff concert at Gruene Hall (which is next door to the Inn) there is no better place to walk home to.  And during the day, they have amazing live music for free in the parking lot.  They pass a jar around for tips and you can buy a cold beer (or nine).

One of the best meals I’ve had since I moved back to the US was a Japanese restaurant called Uchi in Austin.  I had a reservation, it was a Monday night and I had to wait about 20 minutes to be seated.  The lines were out the door.  And I swear it was one of the best Japanese meals I’ve eaten – even in Japan (i’m cringing because I’m sure there are readers that are throwing things at my blog) but seriously, I’ve lived in Japan for 6 years and this was OUTSTANDING.

So, as a card carrying wanderer, I highly recommend a visit to Austin, Texas.

*Full disclosure – I’m writing this as I pack for my trip tomorrow to Vieques.

My Eight Month Coma 1

Last week I travelled back in time to Tokyo.  You’re probably thinking that makes no sense because everyone knows that Tokyo is actually 13 hours in the future (from NYC).  Nevertheless, that’s what it felt like.  Or maybe I’ve just been in a really long coma.  Yes, some things had changed (many many friends were missing) but I could easily explain that away – they were off traveling.  What I’m trying to say is that even though its been 8 months since I left Japan, it felt like I woke up from a long sleep and I was right back where I started from.  My 100 words of Japanese returned and came flowing out of my mouth upon arrival at the airport limousine bus counter in Narita airport.  Directions to taxi drivers were a cinch, the staff at the American club welcomed me with open arms and a few shopkeepers in Azabu Juban were friendlier than they would have been to a total American stranger.  I had hoped that my time away would have given me perspective and that returning would give me the closure I really wanted and needed; the figurative final stamp in my passport sending me on my way.  I was too emotional when I left to really process the departure.  This, unfortunately didn’t happen.  There was no perspective, no closure.  I found myself pretending that I still actually lived there.  Looking back on those very very brief 5 nights/4 days, I’d say that I didn’t do anything any differently than I would have if I still lived there (with a few exceptions that I’ll get to later).  I went to the fundraiser of my children’s school, ate ramen (2x), had a foot massage (or 2) went to the supermarket, the American club, had sushi in Tsukiji, went to a shrine sale, took trains, spent the night in a ryokan, saw a fire festival and had a girls night out.  So, you’re starting to get the point, right?  What I did in that short period of time was not a vacation itinerary – it was my plain old vanilla life – or the life I used to lead.  Which was anything but vanilla.  Hence the lack of closure.  But i’ve returned home happy to know that even though I’ve been gone for 8 months my friendships lived on.  We picked right back up where we left off – if anything, I appreciate them more.  And, those exceptions I mentioned earlier… well, lets just say I was fortunate to have an opportunity I won’t ever forget.  I spent those five nights and four days happily ensconced in the MacArthur Suite at the US Ambassador’s residence.  Kisses to John and Susie Roos.  Maybe next time, the coma won’t have to be so long…

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I Went To Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (or did I?) 4

mercedesbenzFashion Week in NYC.  Iconic, star-studded, drama-laden and normally something I would read about in the Style section of the NY Times.  But this past Monday, I had a golden ticket!  A few weeks ago, I called my closest friend with fashion connections (JOM) and begged her to rustle up two tickets.  She said probably unlikely and then  a day later, like magic, the email invite appeared in my inbox for Carolina Herrera’s show on Monday at 10am.  My first response was sheer excitement followed closely by the dread of what to wear.  My closet is limited when it comes to anything with a name. I asked JOM what she was wearing and she said “when in doubt, wear black”.  I decided to rock my Buddhist Chant jeans and wore it with a long Japanese free form BLACK tunic.  But in the end, I shouldn’t have given it a moment’s thought.  Monday was a dreadful day weather wise and I was more concerned about the state of my hair (matted and wet) then what was under my coat which I never even removed.  After being whisked away from our small hamlet of Rye to Grand Central via fairy godmother (the Metro-North railroad) we waited in line for a taxi that never came  (NYC + bad weather = subway).   I say subway casually but truth be told I haven’t been underground since my NYU days and those are days LONG GONE BY.  After overshooting 66th street by a stop, we made a u-turn and raced back down to Lincoln center.  The show was scheduled for 10am but from experience JOM assured me the show wouldn’t start until at least 10:30 so even though we were late, we weren’t anywhere near FASHIONABLY late.  We had plenty of time to sit and scope out the crowd before the lights went out.  And it was a beautiful crowd.  My friend KOM was in the second row (husband of JOM) and I took a picture of him: he’s the cute one in the black suit.

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Carrolina Herrera is a style icon.  There were very few pieces that came down the runway that I wouldn’t want to own – and that’s saying a lot for fashion week.  The clothes are usually not designed with someone like me in mind.  I must say that fur is IN IN IN for Fall 2013 which I couldn’t be more thrilled with.  I’m sick of being made to feel bad about wearing my coat out in public. I did find the shirt with the furry chest a little off putting and I’m sure no girl going through the “changes” would EVER buy that – her internal temp would ratchet up to unsafe levels!

This is a picture of my favorite look that came down the runway:  It’s hard to see but it was a dress that looked like it was made out of gold kimono fabric with a very thick and beautiful band of chocolate fur at the top:

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While I was busy snapping away, I did manage to pick out a few of the uber BP in the crowd.

If you look carefully you can spot Fran Lebowitz and Graydon Carter.graydonfran

And here you can see Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington (look for the red blur):

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And this is a shot of the runway finale when all of the models came out together.  It’s hard to see anything but you get the sense of the experience:

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And then just like that the lights came up and people started moving at a crazy pace to get to the next show.  JOM and I had a lovely invitation to meet KOM at the Hearst Building for lunch.  If you’ve never been, its quite a place.  The architect kept the historic landmark building base and then built this incredibly modern building right on top of it.  The company cafeteria is on the floor that separates the old from the new.   After lunch we got the million dollar tour of the building including the fabulous art collection owned by the Hearst family and hung in the hallways.  It was such a beautiful place it gave JOM and I thoughts of going back to work!  And then it was a quick cab back to Grand Central where the fairy godmother train was waiting to turn us back into suburban housewives, and I was in the carpool line in time for pickup.  As I went about the rest of my day driving the girls here and there, cooking dinner and hauling out the garbage I did have a moment when I thought “did it really happen or was I just dreaming?”

Ban On Plastic Bags in Your Town? You’re Killing Us – Literally 1

bagsI first started using the word incongreenient when I moved to Tokyo in 2008.  I wasn’t sure if it was actually a word but that didn’t bother me.  It suited my purposes well. Tokyo was years ahead of New York in terms of recycling and the process left me weary.  It was not unusual to see six different receptacles for sorting your garbage, hence the need for a word like incongreenient.  When I returned home to New York in 2012 I moved to a town (Rye) that had banned plastic bags.  I must admit to the huge eye roll and the reoccurrence of the usage of my trusty new word.  I shook my head each time I would run into CVS to buy a small box of tampons and be given a huge (grocery sized) bag to put it in.  This couldn’t possibly be a good thing.  So now the back of my car has at all times an assortment of reusable bags that I have purchased at Whole Foods, Stop and Shop and Trader Joe’s.  I don’t always remember them when running into the store which causes me to frequently buy a new bag or four.  But the term incongreenient has taken on new meaning and might not even fit the bill anymore.  A new study was done in 2011 in California and Arizona which tested reusable bags and found that 51% of them contained coliform bacteria.  Here’s how it gets there.  We shop, we don’t always separate meat from vegetables in our bags, we empty the bags without washing them and then we throw them back into our trunks where they sit and roast (depending upon where you live and the time of year) and voila! the bacteria grows ten fold.  The study reports that we can eliminate this risk by 99.9% if we wash our bags!  Excellent news.  However it goes on to say that only 3% wash our bags.  Immediately following the plastic bag ban in San Fransisco, the ecoli admissions at the area hospitals grew by 46%.  Sometimes, when lawmakers pass laws with knee jerk reactions to appease their citizens we end up with unintended consequences.  And by the way, those plastic bags that use too much oil to make and pollute our waterways and kill marine animals – they only represent .6% of our total litter problem.  Now that is incongreenient.

Tweet That! Reply

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Lately I’ve been taking a very unscientific poll – basically if I come in contact with you and I remember to ask, then you’ve been included in my data points.  The question is: do you follow anyone on twitter?  The answer for almost every single person I’ve asked over the age of 30 is No.  And sometimes the answer comes with angry emotion as if Twitter were a person and they hated them.  But mostly the answer is “I’m too busy”.  Which leads me to the point of this blog entry.  We are all too busy and it is this reason alone that people should use Twitter.  In 140 characters or less I get (for the most part) related information  on topics that I am specifically interested in – that involve people places or things that I want to know about.  In 140 characters or less!  Is there anything more time saving than that?  For someone who reads the New York Times daily, and pages through a lot of unrelated (to me) information to find the kernel, the golden nugget to take away for the day, I say Twitter is brilliant.  Just to give those naysayers out there an example, here are a few of the sources/people I follow and a few tidbits of information I picked up today:

New York Magazine @NYMag – The Sundance Film Festival starts today

New York Times Metro Desk @NYT Metro Desk – Joe Lhota is running for the mayor of NYC

CNBC @CNBC – S&P trades at the highest level since Dec 2007

Maria Popova @brainpicker – Researches estimate that if everyone washed their hands regularly, a million deaths could be prevented each year

Food & Wine Magazine @fandw Biscuit dough + thick-cut bacon = easy, DIY braised pork buns

U. of New Hampshire @UofNH Former UNH football player, assistant coach Chip Kelly named Philadelphia @Eagles Head Coach

Westchester Magazine @WestchesterMag Is that the sun?  Enjoy it, because after this weekend things will turn cold, cold, cold

Obviously I follow people I am interested in and that’s the point.  I go to twitter as a news source several times a day and often I have news way before other people do.  You might not care about that and then I guess Twitter might not be for you.  But everyone likes to know a little information before their friends and neighbors, no?

And if you are unsure of how to set up an account or find people to follow, just grab any 13 year old.  They are pretty much experts on the topic and that’s how I am able to keep up.