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. 

Covid-19, Family, Travel

Go!

We got out. Out of our house, out of the city, out of the jetway and onto a plane carrying weekend suitcases and Dopp kits with regulation-sized miniature minutiae. I brought the best clothes I had. No pressure visiting your fashion forward son and his similarly styled girlfriend. Nope, none at all. 

We did get out, but not without a little drama first. Walking toward our gate at Hartsfield-Jackson International, we heard this most peculiar and disturbing automated announcement: “Beep beep beep beep beep. Attention! An emergency has been reported in the building. Please stand by until this is verified.” I asked the gate attendant if she’d ever heard such a warning and, scanning my face for a shred of insight, she shook her head no. Those of us ready to board couldn’t get off the jetway fast enough, rats fleeing this sinking ship. We’d each won a golden ticket and proudly filed out, but not before glancing at the gate attendant who looked a little jealous we got to leave, a steady rhythm of emergency alerts still sounding in her world. I never did learn what happened. Maybe it was just someone bumping an alarm that went off? Or maybe it was that escaped prisoner I read about in transit from one prison to another, or that other guy on the loose? These loose ends, however, faded aboard the plane. 

lt’s been a few years now of dodging disasters and I’m glad I am quick to move – getting in to doctors and out of airports. Double masked as usual, this time I strapped on a disposable N95 mask, a prehistoric black beak with its vertical seam jutting out from my own nose. I’ve diapered the beak with a floral Old Navy cloth mask, softening my air travel presentation. 

Uneventful flight. The best kind. My brilliant sky miles mixologist/points purveyor husband got us free flights to JFK and hotels, translating to single night stays at two different hotels. Going to see the older son and check in. He’s a man now, but we are excited as a kid at Christmas to see him and step into his world. 

Walking the city, we found people out in droves – masked and moving getting their bodies out in the sun in the spring air and into restaurants and subways and street parks. It’s like nothing ever happened, except for the masks they now wear, and they’re enjoying amazing New York food just like before, except at tables separated with plexiglass dividers. We’re all starved for new experiences, delicious foods and movement and in this city on this day we’re lapping it up.

Waiting on Ben to arrive, we ordered drinks and calamari, and moments later, he walked up wearing the coolest pants he’d made himself – grey with black piping and a front exterior pocket within a larger pocket. The pant legs had a tapered hem and laced up the back. We ordered all kinds of deliciousness – pizza, seafood stew, spaghetti a la vongole – and caught up on his life, his sewing, job, and thoughts on school resuming in the fall – a slice of life in the city through his eyes. 

Saturday was full. Up to get going and close out our room (that freebie Joe finagled with points) and stowing our things with the concierge. Hopped a cab to Brooklyn (west Williamsburg) and got to Ben’s place, a converted warehouse – so interesting it’s got its own Wikipedia page:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McKibbin_Street_Lofts  Flooded with light and enormous, the living room held a baby grand piano a neighbor left behind, a ping pong table Ben scored at Target, plus two couches (one found) and two sewing desks, all this and still, with room to spare. There’s an open kitchen, generous bathroom and three bedrooms. Unlike his previous neighborhood, here you don’t see the skyline, nor do you pass shops and restaurants outside your door; it’s industrial with stark graffiti walled streets and the occasional overpriced and understocked bodega or café several blocks away. Here, grocery shopping happens in Manhattan – at Trader Joes or Target. It’s all a tradeoff. The endless hardwood floors and enormous windows and tall ceilings produce a refreshing volume that gives you room to think and move and breathe.

Next it was off to brunch via subway. I was wary at first – Covid concerns – but everyone was distanced, masked and quiet. Subway signs promoting mask wear went a step further with a good => better image of a masked person talking and a silent masked person, silent the better choice. Next stop, Williamsburg, a super quaint Brooklyn area dotted with shops and restaurants, where everyone wanted a part of this sunny day. Outside, three of us ordered eggs and Ben settled on chicken and waffles. Brunch brought good energy and conversation. 

The day went on and on in the best of ways. Time spent outside on the Whitney museum’s sunny patio and walking on the city streets were highlights. Staring off into the distance down at the city to terraces and rooftops, I spotted children frolicking on a rooftop playground with abandon (literally, parents nowhere in sight), a guy smoking a cigarette, pacing, Astroturf carpets sharing outside space with living plants. Walking through parks and markets and concerts and past street corner vendors, we stopped to buy mangoes and cucumbers from a woman peeling and cutting them from her rickety sidewalk table. Refreshing and perfect. It doesn’t always have to be hotdogs and bagels.

This day, Saturday, brought the best dinner, the best weather, the best moods for all of us. The best exercise too, covering ten miles on foot. After dinner we broke off from Ben and Valentina as they caught a subway home. It was then that I heard a most peculiar squeaking sound which I realized was from those illusive rats I’d never seen here but ones I’m always expecting. There were four or maybe more, two under one trash can and two under another. Scared of us, they popped in and out of holes, squealing and making quite the ruckus. They were young, so not the famed house cat-sized variety, but still, true New Yorkers. We tried to catch a cab after dinner – which was the best meal I’ve had in forever (slow cooked salmon over whipped potatoes, spring vegetables and basil vinaigrette, which I’m going to recreate) – but they were all full and their lights off, so instead we walked the 45+ minutes back to the hotel. With just a few blocks to go we saw cabs with their light on. Isn’t that always the way?

Up Sunday to a blanket of clouds but warmer temps. A cab to Brooklyn brought us back to Ben and Valentina’s – thanks to Joe who had to navigate for the older cab driver lacking both a reliable phone and solid sense of direction. There they had hot mugs of coffee ready for us, ping pong paddles set up for play, and their roommate’s precious dog rested and ready for a game of fetch. Lunch at Roberta’s, their favorite neighborhood pizzeria, wrapped up our time. We debated leftover pizza – do you prefer it hot or cold? – and they were delighted with that full meal and leftovers to come. 

Forty-eight hours of this, and I am delightfully sated, though now back home, that magical swirl has given way to regular life, but not without a little resistance on my part. I am reset and going to get out more, look around and infuse these days with sparkle. No grey day, pile of bills, uninspired meal or person can take this from you. Wherever you are, wherever you’ve been or are walking or running to, you have a well of curiosity and strength and sunny surprises inside you just waiting to be tapped. 

All this wondering when will we ever travel again, is it safe to go or should we just wait. It’s like riding a bike and reassuring to know you can still do it. This pandemic has weaved a frightening path of destruction, but it’s highlighted what matters, too. In the rush to return to normal, it’s important to decide which parts of your old normal are worth returning to. Less is more. Quality over quantity. Family matters. That’s it, folks.

Also I am relieved to find that Word does not recognize Covid during a spellcheck, a sign that surely, this nasty virus is leaving us soon and will not be joining the lexicon. 

Wishing us all happy adventures in the days ahead. xoxo