appetite, Food, Taste the Season, Travel

On Holiday

I plunge into deep observation mode when I find myself visiting a different culture and country, noticing it all–how people move, what they wear, eat, buy, and say (though often the language is lost on me but for little bits I know). You can learn a lot through body language, intonations and hand gestures. The magic is watching them savor foods, friends and the festivities wrapped up in the two. I sometimes feel as if I’ve walked onto a movie set or in on a game of jump rope, the outside observer waiting her turn to join in. Drinking the coffee in cafes, nibbling on a sliced baguette and watching a city strut by reminds me how much I want to extract that strain of community and mindfulness, practice it over and over and then take it home with me to live. I want the rich dreams too that I’ve had on this vacation, thick with activity and layers and real as can be, but which fade the second I wake.

Often when you vacation, there are the obvious things you don’t want to miss–historic sites, parks, beaches, museums, etc.–but sometimes what you most vividly remember are the small things that gave you a flavorful sliver of a place. These are some of those bits from recent travels to the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, and France. Adventures are best when you share them, so thanks for coming along. 

Halfway to the Atlanta airport our Lyft driver proudly brought up his no vaccine and no Covid status, crediting his good fortune to Jujutsu and eating right for his blood type, and it was in that moment, preserving my own no Covid status, that I slid my mask back on.

Come to think of it, I’ll have a Heineken.

AMSTERDAM: Our Amsterdam hotel had a big breakfast buffet including “cloudy apple” juice, the opaque kind with murky apple goodness settling on the bottom. The Anne Frank house tickets were sold out, but there were cafes at which to enjoy a Heineken. When the smiling server asked if we were American, I sarcastically remarked, “Please don’t hold it against us,” adding that we didn’t vote for the last guy, and he laughed. I can feel myself trying a little too hard to not land myself in the ugly American category, those travelers who get annoyed when there are no English menus and other conveniences that they believe they deserve. I further joked, “Please don’t spit in my beer,” and he said he would, his friendly smirk telling me otherwise. You could sense a slight upper hand and pity in his How’s it working out for you all? I’m sorry for you sentiment in the air especially given all the mess the US is juggling these days. Or maybe it was my imagination.

Not even a block from our hotel entrance was a small Red Light district with a succession of a half dozen or so windows of caged women on display in compromising positions and sexy underwear. Like a tantalizing Macy’s storefront with lots to consider, but here it’s simply sex they’re selling. I almost wished I could pay one of them for her time and in lieu of sex I’d rescue her with a “Let’s get you dressed and out of here” take charge encouragement, go for a coffee and have a not red, but green lightbulb drop revealing an easier path toward making a living. “On the practical side, prostitution in the Netherlands has been legalized since 2000. Also, prostitution is considered as a regular job. Sex workers have the same rights, protections and obligations as any worker in the Netherlands. Since 2011, they even pay taxes on their earnings.” See full article here: https://dutchreview.com/featured/prostitution-in-the-netherlands-what-is-really-happening-here/

Ghent Festivities pulsing outside

GHENT: We arrived early evening at our modern hotel in the middle of old Ghent. As it turned out, our stay coincided with The Ghent Festivities, an enormous festival (https://visit.gent.be/en/calendar/ghent-festivities) attracting two million visitors to the city. From our hotel restaurant window table perch we caught a glimpse of the gigantic and growing party outside, surely a Covid super spreader event, but great music and revenue for a city elated and proud to welcome after the two-year break Covid brought. We meandered outside after dinner on the edges and soaked in great music and the happy vibe. 

This sweet couple in back smiled throughout the meal

When in Belgium, you ought to have yourself a waffle. I tried at our breakfast buffet, but they went too fast, but a chocolate croissant, oversized Bing cherries and coffee hit the spot. (I did later in Bruges get myself a waffle and it tasted similar to a cake ice cream cone, far less sweet and rich than the States’ version, but good with just a light dusting of powdered sugar). I noticed two elderly couples at their sunny window table–regulars I sensed from their familiar banter with the maître d’–who were thoroughly enjoying themselves, their joyful laughter on display and champagne bubbles rising up in their flutes gave this morning’s breakfast a special celebratory feel.

Checking out, we used our expiring drink vouchers for a post brunch champagne and beer over which the bartender, all of 18, told us about his family and education. In Belgian schools you choose a route of study around age 12 and that choice affects the classes you’ll take through high school. Good for churning out career ideas, but this structure sure boxes you in should you later want to move in another direction. As with several other European countries, healthcare and education are covered in your taxes, so it’s wonderful that everyone gets the same chances. 

BRUGES: Our hotel in elegant Bruges was on a lively canal with popular tour boats loading up outside. Checking in on a Sunday meant few open restaurants for dinner, but our hotel found us one. The occasional horse drawn carriage clopped past our outside table where we feasted on beautiful homemade foods that a friendly husband/wife team churned out. Simple, attractive decor inside included sweet photos of their children on the wall. As with Ghent, Bruges is a stunning medieval city by night and charmer by day.

I would have gladly settled for a so so dinner so long as I could sit and listen to the sound of horses clopping by.
Presenting pea risotto and roast chicken

CAMBRIDGE: Arriving late to this bustling college town, we found downtown dinner places full so walked back to our hotel for dinner. A generous portion of pea risotto with roast chicken I ordered arrived piping hot and was divine, and the staff were attentive and friendly, almost uncomfortably so. Our waitress thanked us profusely as she went about tending to our every need, setting out additional forks and knives each time we used one. It was to such an extreme, I actually wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d knelt into a curtsy before us. All this fuss made me want to hop up and help clear the table as I’m unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with this level of royal treatment. I began thanking her as well, grouping plates for clearing which began to make her uncomfortable–surely not my intent. It turned into one big thank you fest, the politeness easing up by dessert when she became relaxed enough to realize it was okay for her to chat with us. She told us she was from Latvia but wasn’t sure if we’d heard of it and was delighted to learn Joe’s mother is also Latvian, a reminder of this small world we all share and how connected we actually are. A little walking around the next day around an enormous campus field with a Ferris wheel and we were on the road again.

Swans galore

STRATFORD: Stratford-Upon-Avon as it’s called here or Stratford-On-Avon as it’s referred to in the US is a lovely small village on the banks of the river Avon. Swans flutter by and theatrical playhouses dot the town, and you can almost imagine Shakespeare walking these very streets so many years ago (he was born here and died in 1616 at just 52). Surely with paper and pen in hand, he sat on these very riverbanks watching swans and churning out sonnets. We walked past his old schoolhouse and childhood home, which you could tour, but with less than 12 hours here, our stay was of the check in to hotel, wander around, find dinner and press on the next day variety.

Sorry to disappoint, but rumor has it that this magical place churned out only ho hum cafeteria fare

OXFORD: Oxford is another bustling college town which was bigger and busier than Cambridge and where we came to see our studying abroad son, Evan. Oxford and Cambridge are the Yale and Harvard of the UK, or is that the Harvard and Yale? I’m afraid I’m the wrong person to explain these rivalries, because I feel certain none of these places would have admitted me. Evan toured us around his dorm and academic building and dining hall, which appeared straight out of a Harry Potter novel. In fact, I’ve read the inspiration for Hogwarts’s dining hall came from nearby Oxford’s Christ Church College Great Hall.

Leaving hotels, we tend to empty our room of the soaps, coffees, creamers and biscuits, but unlike the Grinch we do stop ourselves short of the lightbulbs. In our defense, they all get used along the way and back home, the soaps find their way into shelters. For some reason on this last day, I took some extra Walker’s cookies (you know, the shortbread folks?) from the unattended housekeeping cart in the hall.

Driving past cows and farmland, with windows rolled down and music turned up is highly underrated.
Minding the chevrons

With our England travels wrapping up, France was up next, and we drove toward Kent, UK moving through the backed-up queue for the Eurotunnel. Ever reminded from pavement signs on the road before us to keep apart the length of two chevrons, we began to notice evil looking thick red lined roads on our iPhone maps route ahead, which felt like one of those miserable contractions you see coming, but don’t yet feel. (I speak from experience having naturally birthed an 8 lb. 12 oz-er.) In England, and definitely France too, people don’t let you in in traffic, but when you open up space for them to cut in, they seem super grateful and pleasantly surprised.

Stoplights in England are interesting, too. You can be waiting at a red light (stop) and instead of the nothing before the light suddenly turns green (go) and you’re free to go, you may get a red and amber light (prepare to pull away) or flashing amber (give way to pedestrians; go if it’s safe to do so). It’s sort of a courteous, “Here’s a little preview of what’s to come, you’re out of the red do-nothing zone and your light is about to turn green. We just thought you’d want to know.” 

The most gorgeous of days… spent in the car?

The extraordinary traffic pile up and 9+ hour wait in the car to inch along the less than two miles to the Eurotunnel was quite a thing to behold and be in. We’d prepaid these Eurotunnel tickets and now caught up in the line, it wasn’t an option for us to simply turn around and hope the ferry fifteen miles away in Dover could accommodate us. And so we sat in the standstill, unable to properly enjoy the spectacularly gorgeous day and scenery outside. Rumor was the cause was Brexit or workers on strike, but the net effect was a traffic pileup of a magnitude we’d never seen, and one that was all over the news in the UK. As our dwindling luck would have it, we’d skipped breakfast knowing we’d grab something later, but there was never a “later,” except those cookies from the housekeeping cart. Several hours in, I had to pee so badly so I found some trees to duck under and go behind. A lady was walking her dog by these same trees and I hoped she’d sense my urgency and get her dog to take his/her crap by the side of the road instead giving me a little privacy. Surely the dog wasn’t self-conscious like me? However, I waited it out for my turn. Out of the woods now, I jogged to catch up to our car which had advanced ahead by ten or so cars. 

PSA: Always travel with nail clippers.

Hours later, having consumed more water (thank god we brought along three enormous full water bottles) but without the benefit of trees to go behind, we had to get creative. Weren’t those nail clippers we brought in our luggage in the trunk? These clippers would begin the tear into the plastic water bottle I needed to carve out a W/C. I ripped the rest by hand, freeing the torn top from the base.

Nearing the end of the 4:30pm-2am nuisance

It’s not so easy, this dropping your self-consciousness and jeans in the backseat while people, bored from hours of sitting in their cars, walk by yours with dogs and strollers, as headlights and streetlamps illuminate the 8-lane queue we find ourselves in as midnight approaches. Somehow, I perfectly aligned with the jaggedy edged bottle opening and got my relief, then dressed and walked across four lanes, cradling the sawed-off bottle in my sweater, before emptying its contents onto the grass. The day improved considerably after this and also since Joe soon after successfully got a bag of chips and a Twix to release from a nearby vending machine, salty sticky empty calories we inhaled in seconds.

The Colonel gets around

Speaking of calories, the colonel seems to pop up everywhere in Europe, particularly where we were in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK.  I read Dutchies, as they are called, in particular enjoy their fried food and it seems, their KFC. In Paris, it was an especially sad sight to pass a homeless man and his dog with a large chicken-less KFC bucket at their feet accepting coins. 

Isn’t she sweet?

PARIS: The couple of Old Navy and H&M fast fashions I bought for the trip rolled up small and served me reasonably well in this, the city of the well-dressed. On Parisian women, fluttery tops skimmed wide leg trousers worn over Chuck Taylors or generic white tennis shoes, and expensive short-strapped leather handbags completed their look. Slim brown flat strappy sandals were everywhere and worn with pencil skirts and mid drift tops in this, the land of the tiny waist. I never once saw any of these women eating a pastry.  Older women well into their 80s also looked sharp, with their tanned bony knees on display below the hem of their mini-skirts and modern stylish frames on their faces. Surprisingly, cigarettes in Paris are still all the rage especially between young women’s pale pinkish nude polished fingers. French men glide along, tieless, in form fitting suits and leather dress shoes with slim toe boxes. Ten euros cash will get you a cute blouse on the streets in Paris, but it won’t get you that blouse if you want to pay with a card or try it on– you’ve got to spend fifteen for that.

Our Paris hotel’s lit makeup mirror extended off the wall, the rectangular illuminated magnifier it seems I’ve been waiting for. This common hotel convenience I took particular notice of as if seeing one for the first time. For years I’ve stretched my torso over a sink at home and occasionaly at hotels too to apply unsharpened eye liner in poor light, but for a few mornings in Paris I invested the ten minutes with newfound precision. Enlisting the usual players in my makeup bag, I took great care to paint the canvas, with nothing but time to get it right. There’s always the someday idea that when everything is done, every dust bunny swept up, clapboard painted, and any and all decluttering complete that once and for all, I will enjoy some of these conveniences. What am I waiting for?

Found this online and find it absolutely true.

On our last full day in Paris we walked 22,000 steps (or 9.7 miles) up and down stairs, across tree lined boulevards, past cafes with people enjoying a simple cup of coffee or glass of wine at day’s end as they watched the city walk, bike and drive by. Every time I move this much, I’m impressed I’m permanently attached to legs that can get me this far and thrilled with the magic eraser effects all that movement brings, shifting my mind into neutral with little time for annoyances and disappointments, self-criticism or boredom. 

I will always love you

That same morning, I had a croissant from a Paris boulangerie, my first on this trip. On afternoon walks I’d passed windows with cases of croissant and other glorious gluten, but by then, the bees had begun noticing them too and were hovering. I’d determined I’d hold out for a morning one, freshly made and for when I was hungry and could focus completely on it alone. This particular croissant I bought looked tasty enough and I began of course at one of the pointy twisted ends. Instead of shattered flakes releasing from layers and raining down onto the wax paper sleeve or even worse, the pavement below, with each bite, this roll held firm. It had the soft layered pillow texture of a popover, but without dark crisp edges or hollowed out insides. Bite after bite, the magnificence was simply butter soft but stable, holding its shape until the very end. Each morsel quietly melted in my mouth–rich, flavorful and lovely–and true to true Parisian croissant form, it left no butter residue on my fingers. Pausing after that last bite to process the loveliness I’d just devoured, I knew I’d never duplicate that particular moment, standing on the sidewalk, cars rushing by and me, tasting a simple croissant and changing my life with each bite. 

Just a reminder…

We passed a “Periph Fluide” sign on the road to the airport as we motored along pre-sunrise at zero dark hundred. A fluid periphery (similar to the UK’s term, “Ring Road,” a city’s perimeter roadway) is a lovely thing especially when you are up at that magic sunrise hour and hoping to reach the airport in plenty of time. In France, the street signs look similar yet slightly different. For instance the speed limit sign, in lieu of being rectangular with the words “Speed Limit” floating above the numeral and both inside the sign, France’s are a red ringed circle surrounding the numeral, and there’s a second sign below it, somewhat of an afterthought, “Rappel,” French for reminder, which comes across as a gentler, “Excuse me, but we’re just suggesting this as a speed limit, a little reminder for you to consider as you move along” friendly little nudge. 

In flight back to Atlanta, I was abruptly awakened by a Delta flight attendant’s announcement which began: Ladies and Gentlemen, I have bad news. The announcement it turned out was about an IT glitch, which resulted in no screens, no TV, no flight tracker, nada, and no seat adjustments either. Even though the verbiage bad news brought with it an initial jolt, I rather liked no tv, not knowing the progress, and instead experiencing other ways to fill the time and adopting the blind trust that we’re moving in the right direction. I’ll take practically any disappointment or inconvenience over a nose dive into our collective ruin, which still groggy from sleep I only assumed that “bad news “announcement would detail. 

The Delta jet bathroom sign stated: “A wipe of the counter goes a long way for the next guest. Thanks for keeping the counter area clean and dry.” Of course, I had to now wipe the counter and by the looks of things when I walked in, the previous passenger had done the same. My mother had the same idea years ago during her girls’ bath time when she’d consistently provide my sister and me with little sponges and a can of Ajax to wipe away the tub ring when we were done. Brilliant! Imagine if these little signs were posted everywhere pushing us along to each and collectively clean up and be better for it. They’d go a long way.

Cafe pour deux

Obviously, I don’t live in Europe nor do I have hours to while away at a cafe table, but neither do the people living there. Yet when they share a table with someone, it seems they do that and only that. Electronics don’t join them or newspapers either; it’s just the cup, the company and street for entertainment. Like us all, they have their own frustrations and bad days, but then the simple sweetness of a summer day returns.

Coming out of this trip where good quality coffee is poured into small cups with saucers to be enjoyed now versus reheated throughout the morning, I hope to rethink my oversized mug stirred with healthier “milk” slurped hastily as tv news drones in the background. Here, back home in this country even with all its many challenges, there are tables to sit at and silence to listen to. 

The Delta croissant wasn’t even close to that other one, which in my mind I can still taste, so it only took one bite for me to decide to leave it on the plate. I did, however, keep the mini Bonne Maman Fraises preserves that came with it, mostly for that iconic sweet miniature red and white checked lid. Maybe it will sit on the kitchen counter for a few days and I’ll pass by it and remember, or it’ll join the other jams in the cupboard. Or maybe I’ll break its seal and spread it over some crusty bread and make myself a moment.

Sweet summer moment: darling girl in her bright red shoes running ahead of her mother, who’s carrying flowers
breast cancer, Family, Food, hope, Travel

It’s fall, y’all.

Fall assembled outside our hotel

Sometimes you have to leave to come back home. We had a little weekend getaway, something new. That you must fly six states away to enjoy daily walks, yummy dinners, and family time together is nuts, but turns out I needed it and I’ll take it. The cats notice the suitcases when they come out and each time deliver a fuck you side eye as they collapse on the floor watching the inevitable unfold. I turn on the radio to NPR so if nothing else, they’ll have good radio to listen to. Often as our vacations wind down, I’m tempted–and have actually done this before–to call the house and reassure the cats through the answering machine’s speaker, “We’re coming home soon! Hang on!”

Dahlias in the northeast think it’s still summer

I’m not so good at letting go and delegating, and it’s hard to leave these nests we’ve loved on for so many years. As it turns out, our new pet sitter has it together and even checked in with a newsy and thankfully uneventful update while we were away. Peace of mind goes a long way. The tenants at our other house are happy to water the newly seeded lawn for a few days. With the recent collapsed sewer line replacement there, things are now smooth and humming along, and they now get to use both toilets as often as they’d like. (It really is the small things.) At our own house, the tarps over the new spaces are neither secure nor numerous enough, and a heavy rain brings little trickles inside. Seems there are fair skies ahead, but until the contractor returns, we’ve got pots and towels and the hum of dehumidifiers in place to absorb it all. 

Just before leaving, there’s always that final rushed sweep of the house, giving surfaces a quick once over, cleaning out the fridge, even watering the ferns again–the same ones you lovingly tended all summer, but days earlier callously left for dead, justifying Kimberly Queens don’t do winter inside. The anticipation often is even better than the trip. Like a new year rolling in, for me it’s always a reset. Instead of habitually pulling leggings or jeans off the chair to slide on for a new day, travelling with a single suitcase, you arrive with actual outfits to wear and a few unpredictable consecutive days to unfold as you wish.

Taking off with Evan by my side

On the plane there’s still that slight apprehension at takeoff and landing, so you text family that you love them because should, heaven forbid, flight #DL0431 not reach its destination, you’ve at least said your peace.  And, of course, for take-off and landing, you grab the hand of family next to you. I’m thankful they are willing to humor me in this superstitious ritual. 

After settling in with a beverage, you invariably make your way to the toilette. That cortisol-spiking jolt you get in those few seconds after flushing is the stuff heart attacks are made of. You must wait a bit and then it comes on quick and loud, surprising you each time. The lavatory has a gentler song, and the door lock performs as you’d expect, that reliable solid securing sound as you slide the lever, but, oh, that toilet!

A little magic out our hotel window

This last trip, along with the usual negotiations about how we will fill our time, where we will eat and whether a taxi or Uber or walking is most cost and time effective, brought some simple unexpected high notes. Seeing your older son in his own apartment nesting with his girlfriend in a space they found and made into a home sure makes a mom proud. Full of bright light, modern mostly found furniture, and an older sweet rescued cat, it’s happy here, and with a deli, laundry and the subway a block away and a straight shot to school, it’s perfect. Plus there’s a hatch in the hall outside his door and a twinkling rooftop to enjoy. Having your younger son visit too and stay there gives your boys that unscripted time together we’re all short on. Using hotel points, Joe managed to score free nights at three different hotels for this three-night stay, so we moved around a bit this trip, but got the variety of experiences in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. 

New York requires proof of vaccination and an ID if you want to eat at a restaurant here.  As far as I’m concerned that’s the way it should be–no drama, no whine, no politics. Just smart, fueled by the science, and might I add, effective. No soup for you if you leave that vaccine card back at the hotel, so bring it because the soup and everything else is consistently good. The Thai restaurant on our last night was fantastic and as I often do, I documented the entrees and their eaters in this video, below. 

Biking in Brooklyn

We rode Citi Bikes this trip, the regular vs pedal-assist kind, which are more plentiful and less expensive, and the four of us meandered around Brooklyn following Benjamin, who toured us around his old and new neighborhoods. There are numerous bike lanes and despite the many cars, scooters and people, I felt safer riding here than I do in Atlanta because motorists and pedestrians expect to see you and make room. The boys eventually rode back to the apartment, and Joe and I to our Brooklyn hotel to check out before heading to our Manhattan hotel.

The yellow basket

On the way there, whizzing past a park on the right, I noticed a basket vendor set up on the sidewalk. A gorgeous yellow basket caught my eye and I couldn’t stop looking at it, still cycling and now craning my neck to study it. We turned around and I went and bought the thing for a price the seller reduced, and after he bagged it, I flung it over my handlebar for the bike ride home. It’s here now home with me, and I love its story and the happenstance of finding it. It has notes of yellow, my favorite color, and against the blue wall in my bedroom, it feels like a happy summer day. 

Sure was fun while it lasted!

The season is changing and so is my hair. For six months, I’ve had the hair I’ve always dreamed of. You can feel it in the shower, that thick plumped up cuticle, that cocky energized hair follicle oozing oomph in spades. The only downside is it takes forever to dry, yet when it does there are loose ringlets forming exactly where you want them (in the very places chemo left bald). You can go to bed with it wet and wake up with natural tousled tresses requiring zero brushing, and if you bother to pull out a hair dryer, there are countless more versions of goodness you can create. 

That gorgeous soufflé that’s been rising on my head for months, however, is now falling. Not sure who opened the oven door, but suddenly gravity has pulled that light spirited dollop of a do down. There are plenty of strands still but seems we’re back to my former head of hair, to the scalp and ears peep show behind the whisper soft strands hanging close to my head. I’m told those chemo curls eventually go away, and by my December haircut or the one after that, they will be nearly gone. 

What to make of it all? When I found myself fresh off of chemo and radiation and with a bald head in places (which surprised me how cold that would feel in winter), I think the Universe decided to give me a little boost with thicker hair. The same thing happened after birthing babies, when lost in the haze of fatigue, a colicky baby and breast pumping, there was that gift of cleavage, a “Here’s the cup size you thought you’d always be, happy dressing with your new look” little bonus. When you’ve had enough time with this new do and physique and gotten caught up on your sleep and distanced yourself from treatment, the Universe reminds you, “I’m gonna take it back now because you don’t need it anymore. Someone else could use this little perk.” I chalk it up to it is to better to have had curls and cleavage and lost them than to have never had them at all. Besides, in the midst of so much change, returning to who you were physically is surprisingly reassuring. 

Show me a better lunch.
Waiting on a show, and the show is the street below

We made the most of our last day away walking miles around Chelsea and up on the Highline, followed by lunch at Chelsea Market. It was in the 50s and windy on our long walk and we earned that lunch, one of those decadent meals you shouldn’t splurge on, but you do, because why not? The Lobster Place Fish Market had it all and we had the lobster roll, a folded crispy buttery bun chock full of lobster meat tossed in a light lemony mayo, clam chowder and lobster bisque, and Zapp’s chips. I swallowed mine down with a glass of champagne. A delicious finish to this little getaway as we headed toward home. 

View below from the High Line. Hopeful.

Birthdays, Family, Food, hope, Sunshine, Travel, Uncategorized

Up With The Sun

Never once have I regretted waking up early to see the sun rise. It’s your own private preview to the day before the world begins to stir, your chance to discover what awe, sparkle, brightness and hope look like. Sometimes there’s a dramatic sky previewing the show, other times, a cloud cover has settled in so thick you’re certain you won’t see anything. Once, years ago, I walked away from waiting on a sunrise to begin, assuming I’d either woken up too late and missed the show, or there was no show at all, since the clouds wouldn’t let the sun out, only to turn around to find a giant orange ball had risen, tiptoeing in just when I’d stopped watching. Today’s clouds parted and presented us with a shimmering gold nugget, actively stretching and spreading its molten wonder. Everyone quietly found their seats – some on yoga mats in the sand, others climbing on overturned chaises, some standing still, reverent and expectant – each of us humbled and respectful, talking in hushed tones. 

The hot glittery gold began to spread out and thin yellow rays extended across the sky, reaching out to each of us there looking up. It’s real, these golden tentacles which stretch from the center. They’re like the sunshines I used to draw as a little girl, when I’d carefully select colors from my Crayola box: orange, yellow-orange, orange-yellow, goldenrod, yellow, lemon yellow and gold, and if you were lucky enough to be coloring in 1972 as I was, you had access to the new fluorescent Crayola collection debuting that year, adding chartreuse and ultra yellow along with other colors to the mix. Those rays aren’t just in a child’s imagination, they are real – real enough for an iPhone to capture and so much more engaging in person than in any stock photos or inspirational motifs. They’re as real as those smoke curls I used to draw which spiraled out of the chimney of my house.

As the performance heightened, seagulls circled, perfectly picturesque and swooping into every frame. The sun broke out of its gold shell and rose up quickly, spreading a bright yellow haze all around. The crowd then shifted and scattered, and we moved on into the day, filled up from the performance, and my sister and I agreeing it was well worth setting the alarm. The show would resume tomorrow, but by then, we’d be back home in different cities, returning to the less interesting routines we’d left.

Afterward we went for coffee at a large Starbucks nearby. From our table outside, we watched lots of people – singles, couples, joggers and partners with their dogs – and talked for hours, a pair of sisters full on conversation, caffeine and celebration from this rare birthday getaway. This week she turned sixty, my warm, beautiful slender, forever-young sister, and me, just two years behind. For four days, we walked, sunned, swam and shelled. Lizards darted across our paths, a pair of parakeets flew overhead, pigeons cooed nesting on the hotel’s roof, and a bright green iguana even appeared, jumping in our pool for a quick swim across.


The four of us – my sister, her daughter, my husband and I – got along well, and it was easy making plans from our rooms directly across the hall from one other. Nearly identical, one room felt like a girls’ dorm with The Food Network on TV running in the background, bikinis hanging out to dry and no shortage of chatter. The other doubled as a couple’s room and workplace, since Joe needed to dedicate time each day connecting with his office. The rental car stayed parked throughout our stay and we instead explored the area on foot – past successions of royal palms in street medians, pastel Art Deco buildings, stark Miami-hot streets, Cuban sandwich shops and stylish cafes with lush outdoor seating. 

We discovered a quieter beach away from the center of things and sprung for chaises with umbrellas, a first for each of us. Accustomed to hauling beach umbrellas from home, we’d typically find ourselves frustrated from their tilting or pulling up out of the sand and blowing down the beach, leaving us little choice but to bake in the sun or else call it a day. Esteban’s, our beach chair place, set us up, their drill boring a perfect narrow hole in the sand for our umbrella, creating an afternoon full of marvelous choices – sun or shade, surf or beach, walking the beach or lounging on cushioned chaises. I even fell asleep for a short while, infant-style arms overhead. Delicious. 

Meals were consistently wonderful except for dinner the first night when we got stuck in the middle of the largest, tackiest, rudest crowd we’d ever seen, who were constantly everywhere we found ourselves, blaring music and twerking, yelling, racing in cars and weaving on bikes around us. The restaurant was expensive as expected but unremarkable, feta noticeably absent from our Greek salads, canned California olives (c’mon, no Kalamata?), and tiny minced romaine, with a tasteless dressing on the side. It was loud and rushed – a sudden downpour contributing to the mood – as we all moved inside, bringing this crazy party uncomfortably closer. As we all fought fatigue from early morning flights and the rushing around you do before a getaway, this first night gave us a distasteful preview to our stay which luckily, four days in, faded like yesterday’s news. The rest of the time was quieter and what we’d been looking for and desperately needed – our soundtrack of tides, birds and our own spontaneous laughter. 

Meals were highlights and our hotel was our favorite place for good ones; it’s so easy opting to stay in when you can dine alfresco in lush outdoor rooms surrounded by tropical vegetation and cute critters minding their own business. Our hotel’s Caesar salad was a thing to behold: Crispy butter lettuce replaced romaine and bread crumbs stood in for croutons, with tiny Parmesan curls scattered all around the top, and a smidgeon of bacon, all of it minimally bound in a refreshing dressing. Grilled shrimp tacos came with soft white corn tortillas, cotija cheese, finely shredded cabbage and jalapeño mayo, another hotel homerun.A friend recommended an authentic Cuban sandwich shop, and a couple by the pool, a place for lobster rolls, so we checked out both, which were authentically delicious. 

The birthday – and reason for the trip – was full and fun. I got up early that day and slid a card under Anne’s door with a gift inside – a happier paper surprise on your floor than the usual hotel bill signaling the end of your stay, always a downer. Instead, the party was just getting started. We gathered for brunch and I brought down her bag of gifts – little nothings but each wrapped carefully with love. We got good coffees that day in lieu of the lobby’s free stuff and once more, sat outside in the early June heat. The four of us each found our thing – cappuccino, croissant, eggs and avocado toast – and reveled in it; I love how everyone gets to share in the same fun as the birthday person. 

Another beach day, more beautiful weather, and reliable Esteban’s set us up again. Red and purple flags flew like the day before, warning us of rip tides and Japanese Man ‘o War, so we lazily floated close to shore. Five o’clock brought happy hour to our hotel lobby every afternoon, and we patiently stood in line hoping the sauvignon blanc wouldn’t run out. Little clear plastic cups were stacked next to a serving tray and the hotel front desk person turned sommelier for the pour, another plastic cup set out for tips. One day there was only chardonnay and our faces fell, but I politely convinced the pourer to check in the back for more and, spared the dreaded oakiness, the party continued. 

We frequently coffeed and happy houred on our favorite patio on the side of the hotel with its snappy striped awning rolled up for evenings, revealing lovely strings of lights woven and stretching across the canopy of vegetation overhead. Lizards darted in and out of the plants surrounding us and one of them who came around every day was missing the tip of its tail.

A bizarre looking caterpillar appeared one morning as well, slowly motoring along a table top where we sat for coffee. An animal lover and learner, Hannah kept saying it might be poisonous, and a quick Google search revealed it was indeed. We had before us the puss caterpillar, a strangely beautiful creature born saddled with a horrible name. My search produced this: their wig-like hairs are actually spines that can cause intense pain, swelling, vomiting, and fever if touched, and with this, our fascination was over. Hannah held out a wooden stirrer for it to climb onto and then moved it far away into the vegetation where it leisurely dismounted and carried on.

It was during one last swim in the pool in the hours before check-out that we each admitted that we’d miss this place. I asked Anne and Hannah if at the end of a nice vacation they make little resolutions like I do, and they admitted they do. One such resolution, especially on the heels of that morning’s sunrise, was to get up earlier and notice the day when it’s its freshest and quietest. Another was to get outside and exercise more. Both ideas we carried with us as we boarded our plane for home, and even though the new season has barely begun, I think this sunny reset is firmly planted inside each of us. 

appetite, Food, pets

Whetting The Appetite

My mom used to pack a few fun-sized Milky Ways in our lunchboxes on test days. You know, “for energy?” The idea of treats accompanying challenges started a long time ago in my family, and seems I’ve perpetuated the tradition. Today I needed a similar salve, for reasons detailed below and having left the house quickly this morning with nothing but a cup of coffee and slice of pear in my belly. 

The larger of our two cats, Bo, had been scooting across the rug for weeks, and if you’ve ever owned cats, you’d know this as a sign of clogged anal glands and time to schedule an anal sac expression. It’s an awful visual, I know, but how do you think the poor techs feel who get to drain these squirming felines out their back end? A love bug at home, at the vet Bo is a member of the “Possible Caution” patient group, since crossing the threshold, he morphs into a monster, with fangs and bad breath to boot. 

Bo is a member of the “Possible Caution” patient group

Preparation for today’s appointment was a series of steps. You can opt for twilight sedation during the procedure which costs more and leaves your cat pissy and groggy much of the day, or you can take the edge off his anxiety with a few strategically timed Gabapentin pills, the night before and morning of. I took the latter route and last night after dinner started crushing a few pills into wet dog food, Bo’s favorite. In retrospect I should have pulled his dry food and left him hungrier so he would have finished the pea sized meatballs I’d made. Once he tired of the dog food, I rolled bits of cheddar around the Gabapentin dust, making little balls which I hoped would also tempt him. Bo found this impressive energy for an atypical après dinner snack suspect and left the room, likely already full from the dog food he’d inhaled. We added in a little turkey to the mix thinking over the course of the night he could nibble on this extravagant smorgasbord and by morning, transform into a floppy ragdoll, ready for his final two chill pills and a successful sac expression.

For ingesting his breakfast pills, I had the bright idea to tear open a pouch of solid white tuna, which I typically reserve for my tuna fish sandwiches. I twisted the two remaining Gabapentin capsules on a plate and cut their dust into ¾ tsp of tuna. A little tuna juice for binding and you’ve got yourself quite a breakfast, with a nice slice of calm on the side. As I had pulled Bo’s food during the night, he awoke hungry and lapped up every bit of the tuna and juice. At sixteen pounds, Bo can pack in a lot, and feeling sorry for him with the upcoming anal attention, I brought his kibble back out and he continued with the eating.

Bo can pack in a lot

When it was time to leave, Bo was that very ragdoll I envisioned, and it was a cinch to lower him into his vinyl mesh carrying case. I think he must have slept the nearly entire 6.5 miles there, drifting in and out of catnip dreams as my Spotify Christmas playlist hummed along. With ¾ of a mile left to go and in the exact same location on Amsterdam Avenue where my previous cats have also decided to call it quits, Bo let out a loud grown or two and then vomited up an impressive pile. He had the wherewithal to step back from the shocking regurgitation mound and I pulled over quickly figuring out a plan. Obviously, there was a mess in his carrier to clean, but at least it was contained on the fleece pad liner which I could easily pull out. With my trusty roll of paper towels I always keep in my car (and which I instruct my husband and sons to also always keep), I formed a wad to both blot and slide the mess to the outer edge of the mat, all the while trying to keep this slowly but steadily waking lion from climbing out of his cage. It was too much to clean parked on the side of the road and approaching our appointment time, so I zipped the carrier closed and finished the drive. 

Once at the vet, I called them to alert them to my situation, being that there was a pile of vomit, a crazy cat beginning to wake up and they’d best come quickly to the passenger door and grab him if we’re to pull off this scheme. Meanwhile, I continued to try and clean the mess, soon realizing the cat needed to come out of the carrier. I pulled him out and by some miracle, his fur was vomit-free (cats are remarkably clean creatures) and he snuggled in my lap settling in and resuming his nap. Some fourteen minutes later a tech emerged at my driver’s side window, and despite the detailed instructions I already gave, I had to lower my window letting in gushing cold air and retell the story trying my best to speak in a whisper (waking cat, remember?) and instruct them on what to do: walk over to the passenger side, lift the soiled mat out of the carrier so I can lower Bo in it and run like hell inside and get moving on his butt procedure. At this point, Bo is awake and coming out of that sleepy sweet mode, lifting his strong curious periscope head with a “What? Who is this? Where are we?” alert mode I know all too well. I released Bo to them, and they came back out three minutes later – still carrying him in his carrier – to find me scraping cat vomit from his fleece liner and into their outside trash can, to ask what time he last had his Gabapentin. I quickly answered, “8:15am,” and satisfied, they turned around and headed in, leaving me to continue with my cleanup.

Autumn merges with Christmas in downtown Decatur

I felt encouraged as I waited some 15 minutes in the parking lot, busying myself with my Spotify Christmas playlist, alternating songs and marveling at my great memory of Henry Mancini childhood carols and nice variety of current favorites to mix in. I then noticed the vet tech walking toward my car, and I’m feeling good about it all. I’d done the tough work, gotten all the sleepy pill dust in this crazy cat and the vet did their job, the routine expression of yet another cat’s bile. With a new lighter load, we’d head back home together joyfully noticing holiday lights along the way. 

Instead, all I got was “It was a no go,” the tech shaking her head at my optimistic naivete and handing over the carrier, lopsided from the 16lb orange bundle cowered in one corner. I couldn’t just drive off defeated so instead I pleaded, “Can’t you then just drug him and get it done? Can I come inside to the back and hold him for you while you do it?” She half-heartedly said she’d go check with the doctor. Another ten minutes in the car, trying not to look Bo in the eyes because Mommy at this point, was livid, and the phone rang, the tech’s voice returning an, “I’m sorry I talked to the doctor and you can’t come back, no one can unless they’re saying goodbye to their pets (don’t tempt me). The doctor will call you and discuss next steps.” 

At this point it’s well after 11am and I’m not going to just drive home defeated. I needed something for all my efforts – multiple unsuccessful attempts at pilling a large stubborn pet, swirling wet dogfood into bb sized balls, the interminable wait for the water to turn hot so said dogfood smell, after intense scrubbing with soap, can leave my skin, the tearing of beautiful Tillamook cheddar into bits for rolling into Gabapentin dust, the morning’s pre coffee tuna juice wafting over the kitchen, the victory of the tuna disappearing into the cat’s belly and the confidence I had pulled it off. The smooth roller coaster ride followed by bottoming out in ill-fated vomit, from which we would never recover. 

Flat white and egg bites.

What I needed was a Starbucks cheddar ham egg bite and a short flat white with one raw sugar stirred in. Intent on avoiding the Ansley Mall Starbucks which hasn’t a drive through, I began yelling into the air, “Starbucks near here!” and then found myself understandably pissed that no one’s answered me. A few more times, and still nothing, and it dawns on me that Siri’s requisite “Hey Siri” salutation had not occurred, and therefore she wasn’t going to do squat. I then greeted her appropriately and she obliged. We found another Starbucks a mile away. The map showed a few crazy hairpin turns and if one were a map reader, they would simply understand to turn around on Piedmont and proceed in the opposite direction. However, if one is map challenged, that person might make a slew of wrong turns only to aggravate Siri who is trying her damnedest to stay level-headed. Finally, as if mocking me like some mirage across the dessert, a Starbucks shop appeared on my right and I followed its signs to cue up in the drive-through. Big orange on my right at this point is realizing he is trapped and is determined to throw his weight around in hopes of breaking free. I, meanwhile, have placed my order and am beyond excited to now have it in hand. The cheddar bacon egg bites, their virtues long ago extolled in a magazine interview by Hoda Kotb which turned me onto them, are nothing short of sublime. And my Turkish friend introduced me to my now favorite coffee there, a flat white. I ordered the smallest, an 8oz short, with a packet of raw sugar (a treat I reserve for coffee out). I pulled out of the parking lot and into a neighborhood to park and enjoy it all. Bo lifted his nostrils smelling the lusciousness overtaking the car, but I ignored him, turned up my Christmas carols and savored every morsel and drop. I still haven’t heard from the doctor, but I know it’s going to be a good day.

Food

Hearts Wide Open

Maybe it’s this pandemic or the end of my cancer treatment, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to improve things — my outlook, my sense of hope, tapping into more curiosity and creativity and connection, and not wasting any more of this precious time we get. When I started this blog a few years ago, I titled it Hindsight because I realized it captured so much of what I’ve been doing, thinking about the past and noticing patterns so I can learn more about myself. I hope to collect the best parts of the past and reuse and refashion them for these times, because those bits are the ones I want and need more of.

I’ve been thinking about not wasting any more of this precious time we get.

There are plenty of traditions I’d like to resurrect. For instance, I’ve been wanting to go on picnics again, remember those? Growing up, we had a red checkered tablecloth and four of us would grab the corners and lay it down flat, smoothing out the wrinkles. Then the real fun began, unpacking the basket full of delicious things our mom had packed. Usually we were by a creek or a lake, so along with great food, there was a beautiful backdrop.

Other than packing a meal to enjoy on a car trip, or dining alfresco somewhere, the last real picnic I had, the kind where you make and pack up all the food and sit outside on a blanket, was a surprise one my husband pulled off over two decades ago. It wasn’t fancy or somewhere out-of-town. Instead it was in Ansley’s Winn Park here in Atlanta, and he’d cleaned out our fridge and created a lovely spread, with salami and baguette and artichoke hearts and some sweets and nice beers too. I think he even brought a blanket to sit on. He’d stolen a few hours in the middle of his workday at Colony Square, and the two of us lying under midtown’s twinkling towers in my favorite park was perfect. I don’t know if it was the surprise, the delicious meal resulting in a cleaned-out fridge, the loving company or the magical backdrop that blew me away, but am thinking what touched me most, is how thoughtful he was to plan and prepare this.

Remember visiting with people, before the Internet and answering machines and DVRs, and when we spent an enormous amount of time outside? Times when you would walk to a neighbor’s and knock on their door unannounced and while away an afternoon just being together? My recent visit with my friend, Karen, while planned in advance, felt much like one of these. She greeted me at her door with one of those hugs you never forget: big open arms that pull you in tight and hold you there. I haven’t had one of those hugs in maybe ever, nor had I seen her since my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Her hug communicated so much – such happiness and relief to see me smiling and healthy. We drove to Stone Mountain and walked the five-mile loop, and then returned to her house where she gave me a wonderful tour . She pointed out memorabilia and told stories about special items she and her family had collected. Afterward, we had tea on her deck and with lovely Lake Kenilworth in the distance, visited some more.

One of those hugs you never forget: big open arms that pull you in tight and hold you there

Recently my sister and niece came down from Chicago, their visit timed with my last chemo treatment. After the excitement of picking them up from the airport and settling them in, I remember us hanging around my kitchen table nibbling on snacks and catching up. In my usual self-conscious, self-deprecating style, I was poking fun at my various bald spots on my scalp, out of my control of course from the chemo, the ones where the cold cap didn’t fit well, a visible sign I was now different from them: I was the cancer patient. They assured me I looked fine, and after I joked some more, my sister looked up with her kind loving eyes and said, “Susie, we love who you are no matter what is going on with your hair. You’re still you and we love you like we always have.” In that moment, I saw the truth. All my jokes aside, these two wonderful women before me in my kitchen knew me and loved me all the more. My eyes well up just retelling this.

You’re still you and we love you like we always have.

I’ve always said food is love and I still believe it is. It’s my way of showing I care, that I want to nourish you and delight you with something delicious, and it’s others’ way too. This simple act of preparing food for someone is so intimate and layered and loving, and whether complicated or simple, it’s a recipe that keeps on giving. Over these last few months, I’ve had a half dozen or so friends bring me delicious things — soups, stews, seafood and chicken, all healthy and homemade with love. I’ve frozen extra servings and reheated them weeks later tasting and receiving the love all over again.

I’m finding these times are further connecting us as we isolate. With much of the background noise of our busy lives gone, it seems our conversations, Zoom cocktail hours and texts are stripped down to their essence: how are we each doing and how can we connect, how can we help one other? I’ve got a few friends who thoughtfully tell me when they’re headed to the store and can pick up an item or two I need. And these days, I surprise myself by letting them. In turn, I’m already thinking of what I can do for them, maybe something special to eat or helping to solve a problem they’re struggling with. Or maybe it’s just staying in good touch.

How can we connect, how can we help one other?

The other night our power went out, unfortunately timed precisely during our return from a particularly large grocery run. As I knelt on my front porch, flashlight strategically propped and Clorox spray in hand, wiping down the contents from endless plastic bags, a rush of gratitude spilled over me at this sweet assembly line: I wiped down the items, one son took them from me at the front door and brought them to the kitchen where, by candlelight, the other son and my husband organized them and planned how they’d refrigerate and freeze it all with 1-2 limited refrigerator door opens. These hundreds of dollar’s worth of groceries were our livelihood, our next week to ten days of preparations and conversations over nourishing meals and yes, our share of Haagen-Dazs and chips, fried chicken tenders and other empty calories, too. The candles and oil lanterns I’d rounded up lit our hall, dining room and kitchen, so for the next hour until the power came back on we mostly hung around those areas, all of us hovering near all the food we’d scored and safely stowed.

Today the lights are on, the sun is shining and it’s a new month. It’s also the start of my new and final cancer treatment, the daily ten-year pill I started today to keep this long-gone tumor forever in my rearview mirror. This medicine is known equally for its effectiveness and side-effects. When and if the joint pain or night sweats or doldrums hit, I hope I’ll remind myself that these are signs that it’s working. I hope these annoyances will actually lessen or else become something I absorb and get used to, and that they begin to seem like the helpers you’re supposed to look for in times of need.

So, here’s to more picnics and visits and helpers, and to loving each other with hearts wide open. xoxox