Inspiration, Travel

Unexpected Reflection

On Friday I was on a plane heading home and deciding how to fill the time when I noticed a Brittany Spaniel service dog, Bella, in the row ahead of me. Her owner told me they were returning home to Atlanta after months of being away, and it was clear Bella was a seasoned traveller. As we all got settled in, I decided to watch The Whale, which I found in the critically acclaimed films category Delta offers. The main character, Charlie, gives up on himself and ends up obese and alone, and the film is shot entirely from his apartment with a handful of characters coming and going. The movie has received its share of criticism—narrowly depicting the grossness of obesity, unlikable characters, and so on—but I find this single room filmmaking interesting much like I found My Dinner with Andre. The two movies couldn’t be more different, but this cinematic style works when you’ve got a smart script and exceptional performers in the room.  

There were stories within this story, and I was taken aback by its triggering effect, and after the credits scrolled off the screen, I was left choked up and teary. What was it? Isolation, loneliness, being different, tasting love and then losing it, the memories that haunt us from sweeter times, or estrangement and painful family relationships? It then dawned on me that seeing Charlie’s struggle to breathe and with tubes in his nose flooded me back to my mother’s battle with emphysema. At the end, she was on oxygen 24/7, and I still wince seeing photos from those days with her breathing paraphernalia so in focus. Most days she sat on her couch at an angle with her elbows resting on her knees to take in what precious little air she could. Her medication left her a swollen blown-up version of herself, and her long, beautiful legs developed permanent elbow-sized divots above each knee. I always thought things would get better despite her deteriorating health unfolding before me. 

It was in December a month before she died that I took her to the Fox Theater to see the Nutcracker. Her breathing was now regularly labored, but I thought a little Christmas cheer might bounce her out of this slump, or at least table it for a few hours. She looked festive when I picked her up and we made our way south down Peachtree Street. As I pushed her wheelchair down the theater’s incline, groups of people making their way to their own seats parted ways, opening our path. Here, my mom appeared less like my mom and more like some hunched over woman on oxygen I’d begun wheeling into the theater. She graciously smiled away this worst kind of attention, occasionally interjecting that she can walk but this is more convenient, which wasn’t a lie. 

It seemed as if the incline’s momentum grew exponentially, and my slight frame strained to grip the resolute runaway wheelchair. I never wanted her to see me struggle on her account, so I locked eyes with an usher who kindly stepped in to get us to our spot and the chair into park. I was enormously proud of our efforts to even be here and for our festive girls’ night out, but my mother’s self-consciousness was real. Perhaps sitting higher up in the aisle separate from those in the rows below, each unaware of their glorious bottomless breath, she thought about earlier times here with her husband on her arm at Christmastime. Here now did not align with where she imagined she’d ever be, yet for me she’d always be the creative, spirited woman who squeezed the most out of each day, all the while talking up a storm but with breath to spare.  

The Nutcracker performance was predictably good, but I was distracted, forcing a smile when she’d look my way, and focusing on the logistics we faced leaving the theater. I noticed there were side exits, and after the show we negotiated our way outside where an attendant stayed with her while I got the car. Among other things, her illness brought incontinence, and these hours with no bathroom break left the car seat underneath her damp. I doubt she even knew, and I didn’t dare mention it, and honestly, to hell with the seats in this convertible I bought with my inheritance from my father’s passing. In a matter of weeks she would become the second parent I’d lose in a span of two years when I was all of 31.  

The film’s central character confined to his home with his best years behind him, brought memories of my mom’s last years living in her apartment. Her decorating flair accompanied her everywhere she went, in health and in sickness, and though the apartment complex seemed a bit dowdy to me, she made her space warm and elegant like she did all her homes. It was the right price and in the perfect location, but there was one detail she decided to overlook. The lease stipulated no pets, yet her gorgeous orange tabby, Izzy (short for Isadore), was coming with. Full stop. The work around proved more work keeping Izzy away from the windows and sequestering him when management occasionally knocked, and in time, Izzy grew bored and craved an outside view. And so my mom began to give him one. Eventually either it was a resident who snitched or an apartment staffer who discovered him, but in any event, Izzy had to go. Amid her declining health, witnessing my mother’s lonely longing for Izzy and defeated tears brought me to my knees.  

At the end of our lives what is it we most want? Is it to know we were loved, made a difference, felt supported by our body which remained strong, or is it possibly simpler? Maybe it’s nothing more than to have a creature to love and live with and hold close. The Whale dove into deep waters of sadness and longing and life’s meaning and cravings, but it also hovered near sunnier themes of strength, connection, and triumph.

I had simply wanted to while away a few hours and get lost in a movie, but I got much more. With perfect timing and a nose for just what I needed, Bella came by twice for kisses. And then we touched down.  

 

Travel

Roots & Vines

I was in it for the little visits in the front room, rocking in the chairs on the porch, swirling my spoon in a bowl of local clam chowder and noticing how fresh clams aren’t uniformly shaped like the canned ones I use. Each turn of the spoon churned up bits of skin pulled away from potato—or is that a clam or bit of bacon?— all of it luscious, velvety goodness.

I envisioned cool mornings at the kitchen table with a pot of coffee on and banter about how we slept, plans for the day, or nothing at all, which was everything. I had hoped to get a lobster roll, the warm kind on a crispy buttered bun, full of meat drizzled with butter. The days didn’t disappoint.

I didn’t expect someone would bring a frisbee and there would be the ideal side yard for tossing it. Or how much I’d delight in my son’s familiar energy—which always reminds me of my own—and repeated invitations to throw it, and how wonderful it would feel to toss a frisbee together in a quaint little side yard of a weathered shingle cottage in a coastal Massachusetts town. 

The calm of a tiny airport

I didn’t expect the layers this big life brings to peel away so quickly and usher in a simplicity I’ve been craving, one I think I must have given up on, or relegated as being from a time long ago. It’s not the lobster roll that I will most remember and crave again, but the little moments that added up. I allowed myself to wander more and move in the direction of things I enjoy. I was back to being that little girl who loves walking ahead in an airport to the luggage conveyor belt to see if she can be the first to spot everyone’s bags.

The one who would have the chance to follow a sign for fresh eggs, walking on foot one afternoon and meeting the egg purveyor himself, who presented a dozen eggs collected that morning, plus a tour of his backyard, refurbished coop, outdoor shower, and deck. People take pride in their homes. As well they should. That person who is filled up by farm stands, as if seeing them for the first time, bursting with gorgeous vegetables neatly stacked, homemade pies, breads, and flowers scattered around. But wait, do those heirloom tomatoes have a grown in Canada sticker on them? No matter, their beauty travels and looks and tastes divine here, and besides, I’m all in.

Getting away demands that the noise of the city and the rooms in your house and in your head, the ones that yank your attention this way and that, take a break and make space for whatever pops up or nothing at all. This place and its cool temps were ripe for coffee in a warm robe and fuzzy socks. Always pack your robe. 

I didn’t expect the intermittent toothache I brought with me some 918 miles as the crow flies to ramp up and bring a suffering so intense that my memories of natural childbirth would seem like the cake walk it most assuredly wasn’t. Warm coffee and chowder consistently set the tooth off, awakening it from the many-Advil-a-day slumber I’d worked so hard to achieve. I was left instinctively cupping my right cheek, as if turning my palm into some form of dental brassiere would cradle the pulsing tooth and lessen the pain. It did zero. Weeks earlier, I’d seen both an endodontist and ENT, and neither could definitively diagnose me with a sinus or tooth problem, but the ENT at least sent me off with an Augmentin script in case of infection.

On the plane, the tooth reared its ugly head, leaving me in a puddle of tears, a real spectacle. There is no crying in airplanes, but the pain had nowhere to go except out my eyes, and so I let it. A flight attendant and woman in the row in front of me offered mothering eyes which said, oh how I wish I could help you, you poor dear, but they had to ride it out just like I did. I didn’t want them to also carry this slice of hell and assured them the Advil should kick in soon. 

Weathered and wonderful

The front door of the weathered shingle cottage opened into the living room, and a screened door brought in early June breezes and sounds of people walking by and cars passing. The adjacent sitting room had a small TV mounted up high in the corner (fortunately perched bottom of mind as we have visiting to do, not shows to watch) and a space heater we could wheel between these rooms. The yard was simple—a few chairs and a table, fire pit, outdoor shower, and picnic table. The bird bath was popular and we were delighted it had occurred to someone to fill it. If this long joyful bath time was any indication, Martha’s Vineyard birds might be better bathers. 

Brodie

A few blocks from our cottage was The Crossroads Gallery. Owned by Michael Blanchard, former CEO-turned addict-turned photographer-and writer, the gallery displays Blanchard’s stunning photos he’s taken around Martha’s Vineyard and sells copies of the two books he’s written. We were greeted by resident labradoodle Brodie and soon after, around the corner appeared Michael. The space was welcoming and warm like Michael’s smile. With his dog Brodie and cat Rocket Man, Michael now calls the Vineyard home, but life hasn’t always been this storybook existence. Michael’s past struggles with addiction took a toll on his work, family, and livelihood, and he doesn’t mind talking about it. We talked about how life brings many of us challenges that change us but connect us with one another too. Talking with Michael was like chatting with a good friend, and he exuded a comfortable familiarity free of judgement or fear. I talked of my own health challenges and another person mentioned a difficult time they’d also experienced. Also, we loved his photos and bought three.

Michael and me

His book, Through A Sober Lens, artfully captures scenes and insights from his experiences, and three quotes in particular spoke to me: 

  • “A shared human experience may be the only point.” 

(Amen and what I am increasingly finding feeds me the most.) 

  • On speaking of his addiction, “The only way to stop is to starve it.” 

(Think of all the ills we feed knowingly or not, and how putting the brakes on their fuel is how we not only survive but thrive.) 

  • “Above all else, don’t die with your music still in you.” 

(Please, no! This may be the greatest injustice any of us could face.) 

Over the course of our five days, we saw sailboats and ferries, rabbits and wild turkeys, and of course, plenty of The Black Dog swag. The cliffs and beaches and lighthouses and window boxes and pickets and farms were bursting with charm, and my ailing tooth danced in and out of pain through all of it. I never knew what it would bring—sometimes the heartbeat and heavy pulsing ache, and other times it was as if someone with a serrated knife had made little slits all around the tooth’s gumline and squirted lemon juice (or was that battery acid?) in the cuts. At times, both things happened at once, and then my hand rose to cup my cheek and I went radio silent. My silence a rarity, it became clear when I was mid-flareup, so people knew to just leave me alone.

A few more bowls of chowder later and I was back on a Delta flight. “Ladies and gentleman we’ll be saying goodbye to you at echo 31. E as in echo.” Nothing to watch on TV, but I’d brought books, two I’d been trying to finish for months. It was dark in the cabin, so I lifted my window shade to find an explosion of color stretched out before me on the horizon. It was a show I’d nearly missed, like one of those beach sunrises you give up on and walk away from, but when you turn around to look just in case, you are stunned in the best of ways. So much is not reliable, but nature? She just goes right on doing her thing. 

Morning Glory Farms bouquet

Maybe I should have brought home some big takeaways, but instead I’ve got little ones:

Getting it done

Find some stillness. Listen for the quiet. Go to more farmstands and eat a huge salad every day. Take lots of pictures and buy some photos from a small gallery owner if you can. Keep calling your doctor if they don’t call you back, and if your tooth feels as I’ve described, schedule yourself some relief. The root canal happened the day after I got back, and the pain is now gone.

One last takeaway: if you find yourself at dinner overlooking the water, look up because something spectacular might be sailing by. Happy 4th !

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
Fur babies, Kitten, Lost pet, pets, Travel

Eat, Play, Love

Recently I’ve been walking with a friend on the Atlanta Beltline where there are loads of people out with their dogs. With no dog of my own going on nearly a year, I’m on a “soft” hunt, stopping walkers with cute large dogs that smile at me to learn where they got theirs.  One such golden retriever encounter sent me to a website where I saw similar smiling pups and cats, too, and I soon landed on an image I couldn’t unsee. 

I’ve already got Bo, an oversized big-hearted orange tabby who recently lost his buddy Louie, also a ginger, but who now seems bored living with just us humans. Adding insult to injury, the vet suggested he slim down and switch to wet food, so his days sans kibble have grown noticeably duller.

If you cast your line out, that cork is eventually going to bob, and while I do like fishing, be careful what you fish for. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the kitten became an obsession, and of course I emailed Jessica, owner of the kitten’s mama who, as it turns out, lives on a farm several states away in Pennsylvania. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work, but from our exchange I’d learned that the kitten is super sweet, great with people and dogs, and in a week will be weaned and ready to go. Despite the highly impractical deterrent, my husband agreed this was one cute cat. Fast forward a few days and several thousand SkyMiles later and we found ourselves on a plane to Baltimore.

ATL => BWI

My suitcase held a collapsed cat carrier, a dish tub litter box, small bag of litter (which security flagged) and other assorted kitten things–toys, towels, food and water bowls–and in my carry on some reading, a toothbrush and change of clothes.  With so much already invested, in flight my brain kicked into worry mode: With Samantha sleeping outside, what if coyotes get to her before I can? Or as many new adoptive parents fear and experience, what if this family changes their mind? 

Typical Annapolis street

Putting worries aside, we landed and made our way to our Nissan Rogue. The way back held luggage, the middle seat, which I draped with a shower curtain, was dedicated kitten land, and the humans called front. We made our way to Annapolis, Md., every bit as beautiful as I’d heard, and walked around past old houses and the waterfront, which felt equal parts Virginia and New England, all of it quaint, historic and oozing charm.

Faidley’s, Lexington Market

Next stop was Baltimore and lunch at Lexington Market, home of Faidley’s famous crab cakes and every type of seafood imaginable. The baseball-sized crab cake we each ordered was delicious, not too eggy and with barely any filler, and we stood at one of the small round tables to eat, airport style. 

After lunch we headed to Millersville, Pa., passing rich farmland with stripes of green, brown, and gold rolling hills and into Lancaster (pronounced “LANG-ki-ster”), the oldest inland town in the U.S. We stayed at an inexpensive Airbnb in Bird-In-Hand, Pa., and our room was in one of several non-descript buildings behind a pretty Victorian house. Simple enough, it had a double bed, a Bible on the nightstand, two bars of soap the size of foil wrapped pats of butter, and zero Wi-Fi. Driving in we noticed an Amish-owned market selling pies, but arrived too late to sample any. We did see several Amish families traveling via iconic horse and buggy, tops up and wipers going in the mist, and with surprising bright red blinking turn signals illuminating the rainy road. 

Former train depot now Lititz Welcome Center

Dinner was in an adjacent town, Lititz, and we struggled pronouncing it: Le Tits? Luteetz? Leatitz?  I asked a woman on the street who could only offer that she knew it had “tit” in its name, but shrugged her shoulders saying what did she know, she was from Jersey. (It’s LIT-itz by the way.) Lititz was a cute town that reminded us of Decatur, Ga., where the parking meters stop running at 6pm and there are blinking crosswalk lights so cars stop and let you cross. The 18th- and 19th-century houses and shops are well-kept, the restaurant menus fresh and modern, and there are even local wines from Pennsylvania vineyards, so dinner was surprisingly good.

Vines overhead enclosing brunch patio

We got up early and checked out, which meant putting our room key in a bowl on a desk in the main house’s living room, where it seems no one ever goes. A few steps to the car and it was on to Lancaster for breakfast. Google gave On Orange 4.7 stars, so we put our name on the list and waited on Orange Street for a patio table. Swedish oat pancakes, peasant omelets, and attentive, amicable staff made it a memorable spot. Afterwards we saw the Soldiers and Sailors monument in Penn Square and peered inside Central Market, the oldest (1730) continuously running public farmers’ market in the country, but unfortunately, it’s closed Sundays.

Next, we headed to Jessica’s in Shippensburg, Pa., over an hour’s drive, but passing more picturesque farmland. We drove down a long driveway to the back of the house where we saw little faces inside peering out at us. Jessica and her daughter came outside, the daughter holding the tiny kitten they had named Samantha. Mom and daughter both wore long dresses, and on her head, Jessica wore a sheer white net stiff cap which appeared to be in the Amish Mennonite tradition. I read that “The Beachy Amish and Amish Mennonites are the car-driving, outreach focused cousin of the more broadly known horse-and-buggy Amish” (www.beachyam.org), and I thought I’d spotted a Honda Odyssey in their driveway. Her menagerie of cats and dogs greeted us too and Jessica, a mother of five, reminded me of my friend Martee with her similarly pretty face, relaxed countenance, and warm heart she wore outside her body.

Kitten backseat snuggling with stuffed cat

There was no catfishing going on here, and the kitten looked just like her photo. Haphazard patches of orange, black, and white fur wrapped her tiny body accented with a miniature pink nose and pads. We attempted to let Samantha’s cat mama have a final moment with her baby, but instead she walked away tired in the way mothers sometimes do. Samantha slept most of the 9-10-hour drive next to a stuffed cat I got her, which had a battery beating heart inside. Her wake time was typical cat–nibbling on kibble, playing, and even breaking in her first litter box, which “gift” we promptly disposed of. Riding along the highway at night with the inside car light on and me twisting around to observe and applaud our barely 1lb creature’s first litter box elimination, we screamed new kitten parents, but in that moment, I was a proud mama.

The Wild West

To better acclimate Samantha to life at home with Bo, I’ve been watching videos from Jackson Galaxy, an internet cat behaviorist my son’s girlfriend told me about (www.jacksongalaxy.com). His “Eat, Play, Love” approach to successful feline introductions recommends that both cats stay busy and entertained, eat well and get plenty of love and attention. The introductions need to be strategic and slow so each cat associates positive feelings around the other, which Jackson marks as one giant step toward successful catification. By letting them eat together with a door initially between them and then a screen, they’ll realize that spending time near the other brings good things, like tasty meals. Orange tabbies are usually males and calicos usually females, so at least Bo and Samantha have that in common. When the walls eventually come down, to avoid a standoff you should give each a fun focus, distract the kitten with toys and the adult cat with a special treat. Soon there will be a face-to-face, but for now, these cats will snack and stare, a screen between them.  

My sister has remarked, “I can’t believe you’re doing this,” and in many ways neither can I. The house is cluttered and under renovation and things aren’t settled, yet the nagging feeling my current cat is bored out of his mind is disconcerting. What if I occupied a home as the only human surrounded by cats and besides, losing two pets in nine months has left a gaping hole and the house, achingly quiet. 

I weighed 1.24 lbs. at the doctor today!

Only a few days in, I alternate being ready for this sweetheart to grow out of her infant kitten stage and just snuggle with Bo already, to her sidling up beside me and rubbing her sweet face against my leg, and me melting there on the spot. These early new pet days don’t feel the same as when the kids lived at home since their excitement camouflaged the extra work. Instead, it feels a little what dating after a divorce or death might feel like–a little premature, contrived, and unusual to be hanging out with a stranger–but Samantha’s friendly nature and face, which I can hardly take in for all its striking beauty, has won me over and soon will Bo as well. 

Did I need to travel all this way to find a kitten? Absolutely not. Did I need to hurry and barely three weeks after losing Louie go and add another pet to this house? Again, no. None of this involved logic, just extra love that needed somewhere to go. Welcome to our house, Samantha. 

Anxiety, Skiing, Travel

Adventures in Skiing

Along the road to Beaver Creek, CO

Do something every day that scares you. We’ve all heard that phrase, but who the hell came up with that advice? I am here to attest it yields mixed results. We are in Colorado where we began skiing a few days ago. The boots fit even nicer here than the ones I wore in North Carolina recently at a much smaller place where I went for a skiing test run. There I stuck to the singular baby slope and graduated to skiing two runs down a green. Here, the hotel will hold on to your skis and boots, which makes life far easier. No lugging snowy equipment to your car where freezing wet boots await you the next day. 

Ready for the slopes

It all started off pleasant enough, the four of us making our way to the lift. Lifts and I historically haven’t worked well together the five or so times I’ve skied in my life, and despite my family’s assurances and advice–“lean to the edge of the bench and just stand up, let the seat nudge you off and just slowly ski away from the lift, watch that you don’t let the next lift hit you in the head, you won’t fall”–I fell off the lift in a weird way, way over to the right, a spectacle, really. The toxic cocktail of performance anxiety, coupled with extreme fear can only yield the type of result we got, me, plopped down in the snow before us. 

I made my way down this green slope well enough, forming the slowing pizza shape with my skis and turning this way and that, my glutes, still sleeping, waking with a startle. Next, I took on a second lift, this time with a stranger. Poor thing had to listen to my lift fall story, but she assured me I won’t fall this time. We exited the lift, her sweetly bracing me, and I emerged standing! No sooner did I begin to ski to the left to go down this other green than a man called out to let me know my glove had fallen off the lift below. Making my way down, I soon realized this green slope was far steeper than the previous and any others I’ve ever attempted. My boys and husband were just ahead and said they’d help me down and also would find my glove. Super sweet of them, but for me, the steepness of the slope rendered this impossible. I urged them to just go on and ski on their own, convinced any lessons they had to offer wouldn’t take, and why not release them instead into this sparkling new ski day in lieu of the stress fest that was unfolding? They insisted over and over, but so did I, and they ended up skiing on down. Well aware of my skiing challenges, I initially wasn’t going to go on this trip, but I suppose fear of missing out on this time with my family changed my mind. I didn’t want to slow the group down, though, and also didn’t want to get talked into super scary stuff I wasn’t ready for.

So it was me and the crazy hill, and the only thing I could do that made any sense at all was remove my skis, cradle them under my arm and hoof it down that hill. Mind you, this is Colorado, and these runs are not short, but my legs are long and strong and so we, my legs and me, began walking it. On seeing a lady walking her run, kind skiers stopped and asked me if I was okay and if they could carry my skis down to the Ritz. The Ritz? Evidently this luxury chain was at the base of this run. Along with this daunting task, I didn’t want to relinquish my skis, only to struggle locating them later, and so I continued. Other skiers came by with similar concerns, some having passed me once and now on their second run. I found a few plateaus where I attempted to put on my skis and ski a little so as to shorten this never-ending hike. Remembering the advice of my son, “Make sure the levers in back of the skis are in the up position when you put your boot in,” (advice he would later recant as amiss), I kept trying to get my skis on, but they wouldn’t cooperate–no clicking, no nothing, even after I thoroughly whacked all the snow off my boots with my poles. I continued the sojourn with skis tucked under my left arm, and made my way down to find a hefty timber lodge, branded as a Ritz-Carlton.

Fellas outside the Ritz keepin’ it classy

Everyone was outside in groups cocktail-ing and beer-ing themselves silly. I found a water cooler and paper cups, and filled up a time or two. I assumed my family’s trails, wherever they had taken them on blue or black slopes, would feed into this one and spit them out at the base where I now was. With all that walking, I worked up a sweat, and with temps dropping, I went inside to sit by the fire. I wasn’t of course going to get the $30 chicken Caesar salad or the $20 Prosecco everyone seemed to be ordering without hesitation. I was content to just be inside by a fire, and thankful the server didn’t nudge me to order something. After another 45 minutes or so and with night about to fall, I asked about the shuttle or gondola back to the hotel.

As it turns out, you must ski down to the gondola, surely this was a joke, and the last one was leaving at 5pm, so I needed to get a move on. The guy giving me those directions assured me it was only a “catwalk,” which in ski speak, I think means a meandering, mostly flat trail. In disbelief and feeling deflated, having sworn off skiing for today, this longest of days, I soldiered on toward the trail. A gentleman was heading there, too, and assured me he would help, and so we began. It was lovely and somewhat flat and meandering, just as I’d hoped, and my skis magically popped on and I glided along, thrilled that around each bend I was that much closer to home. The man I was following was a fast skier and I hustled to catch up, flying around a hairpin turn until there before me it appeared, a huge slope down, the man halfway down it waving at me. I approached as far as I could and then came to a halt.

“I can’t do this,” I yelled. Echoing my family from hours earlier, he retorted, “You can!”  After a few more “No, I can’ts” and his same response, he offered to reach for me and take my hand. We both fell and then my skis wouldn’t go on. He began yelling at this point, both of us needing to make the last gondola stop of the day, “Get up,” and try as I might, I just couldn’t, skis crisscrossed underneath me. I urged him to please just ski on and I would be fine, and after much back and forth, he disappeared down the quiet hill leaving me the only person in this stunningly silent winter wonderland.

Once again, I found my poles and removed my skis, clutching them under my left arm and continued down the hill. I found a few plateaus ripe for putting on skis and trying again, but the damn boots wouldn’t click into the skis (that earlier piece of upside-down advice I unfortunately didn’t think to challenge), and so I walked. The very occasional person glided past me, a few of them asking the kind, yet predictable question, “Are you alright? Can I take your skis?” to which I always replied, “No, thanks, I’m good.” More walking and then my phone, now with 5% charge, began pinging, and it was my family texting me. Where are you? Want us to come get you? I wasn’t sure exactly where I was, but I knew it wasn’t much farther until I was at the base by the gondola stop. I noticed a road ahead on my left and a small stone structure, the size of a gate house. Using his Find my Friends app, my son soon located me, and shortly after, Joe called with the instruction, “Stay put, we’re coming to you.” I walked to the road, and within ten minutes, the trusty rented Ford Expedition pulled up. I placed my barely used spoiled, chauffeured skis in back and I climbed in front, the family all there and comfy heat blasting out the vents. 

Suffice it to say, the next day my ribs hurt. A lot. All that ski carrying on the left side had made turning over in bed, coughing, walking, pretty much anything I did, hurt. I took this as a sign to take the day off, and sent my family off into their day of invigorating blue and black runs. Besides, I’d learned our cat back home had escaped, and so I operated cat central from my hotel room, contacting neighbors and family for help. Eventually, I took a gondola to the village where the next day I would resume my skiing, this time at a beginner slope named Buckaroo Bowl, basically, KinderCare goes skiing. I assumed I’d get the typical experience I’d done before, short straight slope down, up with a magic carpet and repeat, however, this run looked different, curiously intriguing even, and tomorrow I’d experience it. For today, I wandered around the village dotted with shops and restaurants and with a lovely skating rink in the center, still on call and worried about the cat. When I least expected it, the text came. My brother-in-law managed to catch him and he was now safe inside. Big e x h a l e.

Who doesn’t love a hot cookie?

As the day was winding down, I made my way down several escalators toward the hotel shuttle stop, and in front of me saw a chef carrying an enormous tray of cookies, surely heading to some catered event. Instead he stopped, and a swarm of people rushed up to him, and he began handing out cookies. I stepped in line and got mine, an enormous, still warm chocolate chip cookie which took many many bites to consume. The cat was back and now this. Heaven. 

Sweet husky in the snow

Day three came, technically day two on the slopes for me, and with slightly healed ribs and sore calves, I climbed into the shuttle toward the slopes. The gondola took me up and I made my way down, sideling up to groups taking lessons and mothers offering little ones advice, absorbing it all, “Push your foot right, left, and turn, turn.” This run was delightful, offering something for everyone, bonafide doable inclines, winding paths and gorgeous scenery. Sweet little animal figurines dotted the path, and around a bend I saw a husky silhouette, which I pretended was my dog Lucie guiding my way, and I whispered, “Hello, sweet girl,” each time I rounded the bend. 

When disembarking the gondola, I decided to put my skis on while standing on the rubber perforated mat, versus doing it in the snow. This way, you don’t have to whack your boots over and over with your poles to get the snow off, and the boots more easily snap into the skis. Heading down the slopes, I discovered the key to success was turning often and not letting the skis face straight down, lest the fear creep back in. The fear was still there, but my turning overcame it, and I gave myself advice as I moved. Push right, push left, turn your toes, pizza brakes, bending my knees, now effortlessly gliding around groups and singles. I did this over and over again and on into day four (my ski day three), and on this day, when the snow began falling, oversized flakes rained down all around me as if I were in the center of a magical snow globe. 

The quiet grace of McCoy Park

Yesterday was the last ski day, and in lieu of taking a shuttle to Vail, we decided to stay put and ski Beaver Creek again. We booted up, and with skis in hand, took the gondola to an area where we took the first of three lifts, which would carry us high up to McCoy Park, a vast isolated and nearly empty of skiers 250-acre ski park, which opened just this year. It was on this first of three lifts where I put into practice the best advice I learned yesterday from an employee here. If you’re one of those who struggles departing ski lifts, as you approach the lift operator at the end of the line, you can wave your hand up and down, palms facing down, indicating a “go slower” movement, much like you get from a lady at her mailbox if you’re driving too fast through her neighborhood, and the lift will slow down to a near stop as you exit. Similar to the satisfaction of pumping your arms up and down so a trucker will see you and honk his horn, this is remarkably empowering and reassuring for us green skiers. 

The boys were faster than Joe and me, and they skied on ahead taking the forest route, cutting through the trees with sharp turns before heading to another slope. Sticking to his promise to hang with me all day today, Joe slowly skied ahead, turning back every now and then to check my progress. The snow continued to fall, and instead of pelting us in the face as it did on the lift, it fell quietly over the thick blanket spread out everywhere. Cutting through this thick snow was like water skiing when you’re cutting through the wake of an inboard motor, and my skies effortlessly plowed the thick fresh powder. The sky was white, the ground was white, and my jacket was white, and without sun and shadows to reveal contour, everything looked rather flat. It was blind trust, the blind following Joe, who did his best to carve out the least steep route.

There was one short crazy steep area, and out of habit, I took my skis off and walked it until I found a landing to regroup and get my skis on. We made it through this run and went for a second, this time taking a different route past stunning snowy trees lined up majestically in this white winter scene. We took the green trails down to Beaver Creek Lodge via the Primrose and Intertwine trails, and I won’t lie, there was another short walking in ski boots stretch for me, my stubbornness holding tight against Joe’s assurances it wasn’t too bad. I know myself, but I also trust him. Still, on the edge of a steep precipice, my brain seeing it as the grinch’s sleigh about to tip over that edge, with the option of walking it vs facing a frightening fall, I’m choosing option #1. We pressed on until the end, signage pointing to the easiest way down, which turned out to be a steep and narrow and icy curvy mess, one we had to walk a short distance. Others behind us also were stunned to find this “easy way down” nearly impossible, and yelled behind them for others to go a different way. Nice to know it wasn’t just me.

We made it down and back to the village where I suggested we treat ourselves to a beer. Inside the Chop House, we scored a window seat, and instead of a draft, opted for bloody Mary’s, tall ones with a spear of those crunchy yummy garnishes you get–dill gherkin sized pickle, pepperoncini, and an olive–and a sprightly tall stalk of celery to stir the whole thing. Joe opted for the candied jalapeno bacon as an additional garnish in his. A lady next to me, also with a bloody Mary, was enjoying a huge bouquet of fries, which I couldn’t stop staring at. Five minutes until the kitchen would be closing, and I caved and ordered some. The seven dollar price tag proved worth it, and soon a basket arrived containing two enormous metal cones each with a splay of french fries, and two metal ramekins of chilled ketchup. As we settled into the hot fries and the cool drink, we both agreed we were done skiing, and we’d hang here leisurely, and take the shuttle back. A vehicle with wheels as the way home versus skiing it. Yippee! 

Can’t say this ski thing has actually taken and it now consistently feels more like pleasure than a somewhat nerve-racking task, but I had some fun with my family, am intact and am still learning. It IS beautiful scenery, and despite my not graduating to blue slopes or even a slew of green ones, I AM making strides. Baby steps folks (literally if you find you can’t handle deep inclines, or your skis won’t go on). 

My buddy, Javi

Our room is cozy and all you need, a bed and a sofa bed for the four of us, a microwave and refrigerator, too. The shower is hot and strong and there is self-serve good coffee downstairs each morning. The lobby is full of twinkly trees, a few two-sided roaring gas fireplaces, and a view of snow-capped Colorado Rocky Mountains in the distance. Dogs are welcome here and roam the hotel, and I find I am petting each one. The guys are having a blast and every day becoming better skiers, and making new memories together.

As for me, I’m fairly certain I will get more gutsy if I get another chance at this nonsense, but for today, I’m proud of my accomplishments. This trip reminded me how I’m risk averse, but that this precious body of mine is strong and capable, and for that I’m grateful. If I can get my mind to trust that people–in this case, my family–have lessons to offer and there’s a good chance I will be safe, I can tackle future outings like a snow plow, pushing aside fear to the edges to explore what can be a wondrous path ahead.