Back From Abroad!

Back From Abroad!

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We’re home!! And it was wonderful, magical, challenging, expensive, enchanting, familiar, exotic, and as always, life-changing and perspective-changing. It was a terrific adventure.

But first things first, my apologies for being extremely quiet over the last two months. The updates dwindled because of extremely challenging, very precarious events taking place at work which came to a head, spilling fourth drama the likes of which I have never seen in my professional life before. It caused anxiety and stress that I also have never experienced in my professional life, and a lot of uncertainty regarding the future. HOWEVER. It seems the storm is passing and things are really looking up, so now that the flurry of crazy has died down, I’m looking forward to directing my mental energy back to the things that make me really happy, this blog being one of them!

OK. With that out of the way…

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It was marvelous, guys. I could write about the wicked financial hangover we’re nursing (…we knew it was coming, and feel it was worth it, but it still hurts!), or the inevitable let-down of returning to every day life (not as bad as last time!), or the very real challenges that the three of us encountered that make up the experience of travel…but I won’t bother, because all of those things pale in comparison to the graces upon grace that we were given daily, and the seeds that have been planted in our souls from these experiences, preparing to bloom and ripen over the coming months and years. I sincerely hope you don’t get terribly bored of seeing travel pictures and hearing travel stories, because that’s going to be a major theme of my blog for a long time to come!

We started our trip in London, staying in a beautiful apartment in an award-winning, eco-friendly building in Elephant and Castle, a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that won our hearts immediately. This was the view from our bedroom:

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We stayed in London for four days, and it was fantastic! We did a lot of sightseeing, catching up on sleep, walking, riding the busses and the underground…but the downside was that London was in the middle of the the worst heatwave they’ve ever had and we were hot as HELL. Poor London just doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with heat like that, and our apartment, the busses, the tube, basically everywhere, didn’t have adequate air conditioning. We were sweating buckets and remained sticky the entire time. Still, we did the best we could and saw some glorious sights:

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Possibly our favorite London experience was getting to eat at St. John, a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by renowned chef Fergus Henderson. Who I met. Who I got to thank. Who I kind of fangirl-fawned over as I gushed to him, and who graciously thanked me and told me he hoped we enjoyed our lunch. Guys…it was basically the highlight of the entire trip. I almost cried several times after returning to my table, but forced myself to hold back the tears remembering I was wearing mascara. Oh, the food was outstanding, by the way! I’m planning to do a second food retrospective post for this trip, so you’ll get to see what we ate!

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We visited Stonehenge and Bath:

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Both were lovely. This was the most touristy thing we did, and it was fun but I wouldn’t do them again (at least not by chartered tour bus). This was a challenging day because we were all very tired and Sister was worn thin, but we still got many fun memories out of it and I will definitely remember it fondly.

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Husband and I got to do a day exploring London on our own while Sister rested, and we had the best time! We visited ancient tea shops and ancient perfume shops (surprise, surprise, Husband bought his very first grown-up cologne and it’s MAGICAL). We visited the London Transport Museum, to Husband’s delight, and we visited my beloved Twining’s tea shop, to my delight.

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Then in the evening we ate at this lovely place, a beautiful pub. There is so much beauty in the U.K., it’s almost unbelievable. Everywhere you look there is something ancient, eternal and charming looking back at you. The details make all the difference, and we were constantly looking at each other and saying things like “This is REAL! It isn’t Disneyland…it’s REAL!” It sounds so silly, but the beauty, the details…they fed us. They fed us right up, filling starving parts of our souls that we didn’t even know needed nourishment.

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After London we took the train to Holyhead (home of the Holyhead Harpies, for you Harry Potter fans!) and stayed in a lovely B&B. I took an evening stroll by myself and was rewarded with these vistas.

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The next day we took a ferry to Dublin and, after a near-disaster regarding return-ferry scheduling that Husband heroically solved, we spent seven hours in this remarkably and stunningly beautiful city.

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We decided immediately that next time, Dublin is where we’ll be coming, sorry London! We’ve had enough of you! Dublin was just…comfortable. Next to the hustle and bustle of London, Dublin was like your grandpa’s easy chair…we felt we could sink into it with a hot drink (a real Irish coffee, perhaps) and just stay indefinitely. Alas, we had to return to Holyhead…but thankfully we got a stateroom on the return journey, and one with a fantastic view:

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Mostly we slept, though. Then, of course, we got to Conwy. OH, CONWY.

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If you read my (long) post about Wales you’ll know my love for Conwy. I can’t possibly reiterate it here, but suffice it to say, Conwy is my most favorite place on earth. If any place feeds the starving parts of my soul, it is north Wales, and Conwy might as well be the capital.

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Of course, there are other stunning towns in north Wales, like the almost absurdly picturesque Llanwrst:

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We spent a few days in the north just taking in the splendor, and then said goodbye to Conwy at it’s lovely little train station:

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Now we are home, jet lagged, still needing to do laundry, unpack, prepare for the work week (I return tomorrow!). But I’m going to ease back into the grind, and I have a handful of changes that I’m going to be making to improve my quality of life. Last August I wrote a post called “First Fruits,” discussing the “fruit” that travel bears in the weeks after returning home. I’m already seeing these first fruits, but I’m looking forward to the harvest, which will come in time. Of course, it feels so good to be home. Traveling is exhausting and it’s wonderful to be in my own bed again, with my own sweet kitty curled up next to me. We are so lucky and so grateful, and we’ll definitely bask in this glow for weeks to come.

 

 

Remembering Anthony

Remembering Anthony

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We were bumping down a mountain road, bracing ourselves in the back seat of my aunt’s car as she and my uncle screamed at each other in English and Spanish. The day was overcast, the road was decrepit, and my stomach was rumbling, ready for the treat that awaited us. This was my husband’s first trip to Puerto Rico and his first time eating this particular island specialty. As we pulled down the main strip (such as it was) of Guavate, we began to spy whole roasted pigs in lechoneria windows.

A few minutes later the four of us sat at cement picnic tables, our Styrofoam plates piled high with lechon, morcilla (blood sausage), plantain, rice and avocado. I was thrilled. I had wanted to visit this place (the “lechon capital of Puerto Rico”) since I’d seen Anthony Bourdain visit it on his show “No Reservations.” Now I was there enjoying the food he talked about, sitting amongst the people he spoke warmly of…I was following in the footsteps of someone I respected, and finding the “good stuff” was a tiny dream come true for me.

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals of one’s life.”

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In the early-2000s, Mom came home from the library with a book-on-tape. She popped the first cassette into the tape player (yes, it was literally a book-on-tape) and listened to it while she single-handedly renovated our entire home like a one-woman army. One afternoon, as she was making dinner, I wandered into the kitchen and heard a New York accent issuing from the old, grey boom box that had once been mine.

“This is a great book!” Mom told me, “It’s about a chef who travels around the world in search of the perfect meal!” Intrigued, I perched on a step stool, soaking up “A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal.” Some stories were exciting, some disgusting, some enthralling…but what struck me was the fervor with which this man wrote. I was in my mid-teens and came from a family that appreciated good food, that cultivated my adventurous palate. But I hadn’t heard anyone outside of my family speak with such palpable excitement about food…food and other places. Other cultures. The way Anthony spoke about Vietnam, the reverence, the love, the obsessive level at which he described eating phở for example, was totally fascinating and exciting to a teenager just about to embark on the great adventure of leaving home.

“The world is amazing,” he told me. “The great big world that you are about to step into— it is full of incredible foods, and people, and adventures. I demand that you enjoy it.”

“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

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When I moved to San Francisco, I listened to this book (again, on cassette) as I painted my new bedroom. His enthusiasm was infectious. I had never sampled much of what he rapturously spoke of. I’d never eaten Vietnamese food, never had a bowl of phở. I’d never eaten Indonesian food, and didn’t know what bun cha was. Until now, I hadn’t cared. I was planning to enroll in the local community college, complete two years of general ed and then transfer to U.C. Santa Cruz to study environmental science. My family members are currently laughing, I’m sure, but as an eighteen-year-old with zero self-awareness, that was what I thought I’d do. My first semester at City College was a disaster. I hated academia, and knew immediately that pursuing a four-year degree wasn’t for me. Eyes streaming, I stood on the steps of the science building, talking to Mom on my cell phone, explaining that I just couldn’t go on.

“Well what DO you want to do? You can’t do nothing,” she said, in a sympathetic tone. I gazed over to the cafeteria, to the buildings that housed the award-winning culinary arts department.

“I want to join the culinary program.”

“But I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill, should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.”

And so I embarked on my culinary journey which was life-changing, formative, and essential for the person I would become. Part of that transformative experience was formal education, but part of it was something happening in my personal life which I attribute to Anthony. After “A Cook’s Tour,” I received “Kitchen Confidential” as a birthday gift and devoured it. It was overblown and full of bravado, but I loved what he had to say about restaurants and I loved hearing the story of his life.

I kept returning to “A Cook’s Tour,” though. Again and again I returned to chapters Anthony wrote about finding “the good stuff.” Until then I had been intimidated by a lot of the good stuff. I hadn’t tasted dim sum, Vietnamese food, or Korean food (which I was convinced I’d hate). I had no memories of eating Indian food. I didn’t want to eat offal, I wasn’t attracted to stinky, sinewy or weird things. I didn’t like oysters, and I hated blue cheese. And I didn’t think any of this was a problem.

But Anthony, in his strident, sarcastic, and genuinely buoyant way admonished me. With my attitude, I’d be the schmuck eating McDonald’s in France. Ok, maybe not that bad, but almost. I was never a picky eater, my parents saw to that. But I wasn’t as adventurous as I’d thought, either, and I didn’t yet see a reason to be. I hadn’t yet fallen deeply in love with food, and Anthony was changing that. He was teaching me chapter by chapter what the good stuff was, where to find it, and why.

“Bad food is made without pride, by cooks who have no pride, and no love. Bad food is made by chefs who are indifferent, or who are trying to be everything to everybody, who are trying to please everyone… Bad food is fake food… food that shows fear and lack of confidence in people’s ability to discern or to make decisions about their lives.”

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After reading the chapter on Vietnam in “A Cook’s Tour” about seven times, I ventured out into the city alone one evening, ending up in a Vietnamese noodle joint on Clement street where I had my first bowl of phở. It clicked. I got it, Anthony. You’re right. Chase the good stuff! The real stuff. It is always worth it. The stuff that grandmas make. The stuff that poor people feed you if you visit them in foreign lands, offered with a generosity of spirit that underscores the emptiness of corporate greed. The stuff that white Americans shy away from. The things you’ve never heard of. The good stuff! Make your life rich with it! Share it with others! Don’t settle for anything less.

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

This moment in a relatively dingy Vietnamese noodle shop on Clement street didn’t just change me, it changed my family. Case in point: every time my Dad would visit San Francisco, and I’m talking every single time since we moved to the Sierras in 1998, he’d make a lunch stop at a beloved burrito place. This ritual was iconically Dad. We teased him about it, his burrito obsession, feeling that we could all never eat another burrito again and die happy.

Anthony changed this. The next time Dad visited, I asked him if just maybe we could get Vietnamese noodles instead of a burrito? Dad was gracious. We drove to Clement. He had never had phở, and instantly adored it as much as I did. The next time my sister visited, we took her. She too fell in love. And just like that, the decade-long burrito ritual was usurped, wholly and completely, and Dad has seemingly never looked back. We developed a new ritual, a new tradition for the three of us that lasted for years…it continues to this day! It was Anthony who urged me to try the good stuff, and to share with bubbling, surging enthusiasm the joy of the good stuff with the ones I love.

There are many things I began to love because of Anthony, and many things I learned. I learned to love blue cheese, oysters, and Korean food. I learned to love the challenge of surprising or intimidating foods. Yes, kimchi smells like compost, but I learned to devour it. It was the good stuff. I learned the names of chefs, like Fergus Henderson, who had changed food culture. As I planned an imaginary trip to Wales, I penciled in a stop at St. John, Henderson’s London restaurant and the birthplace of nose-to-tail eating. I learned why nose-to-tail eating was significant, and that Henderson’s bone marrow and parsley salad revolutionized food. This summer, along with my sister and my husband, I will eat at St. John because of Anthony.

“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”

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In 2006 I flew to Philadelphia for a trade show with Mom and our family friend, Abby. On the flight, I had the (somewhat breathtaking and intimidating) fortune of being seated next to a tall, blonde, very long-haired, astonishingly handsome man in his twenties. In her bubbly way, Abby introduced herself to him, shook his hand over my lap, asked what he did, and was delighted to discover he was a chef. “OH! Vanessa’s in culinary school! You should talk!” Heart aflutter, I acknowledged that I was indeed in culinary school. With some prompting from this kind and stunning man, I admitted that my current inspiration was Anthony Bourdain.

“Hah! Well, I like him. He’s interesting! He’s no chef, though. And that’s why I like him. He doesn’t claim to be.” My face fell. Talk about a backhanded compliment. It was instant disappointment. Gone was any flutter of intimidation. I wasn’t about to argue the point with someone clearly more experienced than me, so I said something like “Hah…yeah. He…doesn’t.” We went quiet for the remainder of the flight. I declined to exchange contact information.

A few days later I found myself, breathless once again, being seated with Mom and an old family friend named Ashok, at the Manhattan restaurant Les Halles, the restaurant Anthony Bourdain had headed as Chef de Cuisine for many years. Mom had orchestrated this surprise with Ashok knowing that I loved Anthony, and I was taken totally by surprise. By this time Anthony was no longer at the helm, having hit the big-time with a Food Network show four years prior. However, I thought there might be a chance that someday I would meet him, and if that came to pass I didn’t want to embarrass myself by having to admit that I ate at Les Halles and ordered a burger. How embarrassing! I scanned the menu for a dish to be proud of…and bingo, there it was. The tripe Les Halles. I’d never had tripe and Anthony himself said that he thought it tasted like “wet sheepdog,” but *this* was the good stuff! This was the kind of eating he encouraged!

It was sensational. I loved it. Five months later at Christmas, I opened a package to reveal a photo in a gold frame. It was a picture Mom took of me standing in front of Les Halles, the gold lettering shining on the window behind me, a moment of delight on a wonderful day. I still have that photo Mom kindly framed for me. I was so proud of that experience, and so grateful for it.

No relationship is perfect, and my relationship with Anthony (such as it was) waxed and waned. Around 2007 I dabbled with vegetarianism, venerating the example Mom had set for me with her two decades of vegetarianism. The strident, somewhat ignorant and utterly obnoxious opinions about vegetarianism Anthony was famous for spouting began to grate on me, and by 2010 I’d heard one too many of his hypocritical criticisms for vegans and vegetarians. A friend who was opening a restaurant in San Francisco called me offering two tickets to a talk Anthony was giving in the East Bay that evening. I refused them. Despite my gratitude for his significant influence on my life, I accepted that Anthony was just a human and that I was beginning to lose respect for him over this issue alone.

Don’t get me wrong. His vocal, often obnoxious ad hominem attacks on other food personalities never failed to delight me. Because you see, he had shaped my food values. He had taught me that good food takes time. That hard work and honesty make a good cook. That gimmicks, and corporate interest and phony people aren’t to be idolized. That chefs endorsing huge corporations can’t hold a candle to your grandmother’s cooking, and never will. And with his razor wit (or perhaps ham-handed wit) he eviscerated the likes of Paula Deen, Rachel Ray, and Guy Fieri, all soulless slaves to their Food Network corporate overlords. He refused to bow at the altar of Alice Waters, something I commend him for to this day (having myself worked for chefs who did time at Chez Panisse under Waters and confirmed his claims), wrote a blistering but accurate critique of her in “Medium Raw,” and hosted an astoundingly good documentary on the real talent behind the Chez Panisse phenomenon, Jeremiah Tower, which aired in a “Parts Unknown” time slot. He detested dishonesty, cults of personality, and undeserved accolades. He was quick to call out people he felt were phony, or who used anything other than authentic food or culture as their primary motivators. In this era of the “celebrity chef,” I applaud him for this. It didn’t make him a lot of friends, but it earned him a lot of respect.

As the years went on I, and millions of others, enjoyed his many international adventures on “No Reservations.” But his chief achievement, in my opinion, is the show that came after this: “Parts Unknown.” It is the single most beautifully produced television show of all time. Certainly the most sophisticated travel show of all time. With “Parts Unknown,” Anthony used cuisine less as a central theme and more as means through which the culture, spirit, and experience of people are made known. He is always gracious to his hosts. He is always generous with his deep, poignant commentary. He is always gentle with his questions, that in their simplicity seem to evoke answers painfully genuine, answers that could never be scripted.

Anthony made himself the go-to man for how to see, and what to see, and where to see it. Before any trip, real or imagined, his shows are the first thing consulted to ensure nothing essential is missed…to make sure the “good stuff,” the places where the locals go, is included.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

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But for me, Anthony’s spirit, enthusiasm, and values have transcended the page and the screen. They came to rest in my consciousness, speaking to me subtly in ways I didn’t even realize until today when I learned of his death. Often when cooking a beloved family recipe, I’ve caught myself thinking “If I got the chance to host Anthony for a meal, which family recipe would I make for him? Which meal best characterizes our family? Best showcases our heritage? Which would he enjoy the most?”  When enjoying a meal in a hole-in-the-wall, locals-only restaurant in the Caribbean, or eating the thing on the menu that sounds alarming at first glance, my husband and I will look at each other and say, smiling, “this is so Anthony Bourdain!” Recently I suggested we eat at Swan Oyster Depot soon, not because it’s a San Francisco institution but because “Anthony Bourdain said it’s one of his favorite places in the whole United States to eat!” When planning vacations, we shun resorts. Because of Anthony, we know that you don’t go where everyone goes…where the hoards of doughy tourists flock, drinking cocktails with mini umbrellas in them. We avoid those places. We seek out the real, the overlooked. The good stuff. That is our value, and it’s a value we hope to pass on to our children.

His New York accent and attitude, his liberal use of sarcasm, and his love of 70’s punk bands like The Ramones all contributed to making him feel like a relative of mine. Indeed, this death doesn’t feel like a typical celebrity death. It feels like a friend dying. He was a friend, he just didn’t know it. My sister put it succinctly today on Instagram: “Our family’s love language is food, and he helped us love each other even more.”

He did. Whether we were griping about his unfairness to vegans, admiring his stand against fast food (with the notable exception of In-N-Out!), or laughing at his colorful descriptions of snooty food personalities (“Pol Pot in a muumuu” comes to mind, again taking aim at Alice Waters), we were always talking about him. He cropped up all the time in conversation, underscoring the fact that no matter how we felt about him at any given moment, we cared about what he had to say. We often respected it. We wanted him to keep telling us where to go, what to see, and why. We turned to him to show us the way to the good stuff.

Part of the shock I felt this morning when I read the headlines and burst into confused tears, feeling like a train had just run me over, was that I had believed he would continue to be there. I believed that the arc of his life was success. That the ex-heroin addict, ex-cocaine addict with previous suicide attempts, extreme depression and insatiable workaholism…I believed that the story of this man’s life was that he had transcended that. I expected that he would continue to comment poignantly on the lives the less fortunate, to turn white America’s attention away from itself and break down xenophobia one bowl of noodles at a time. I wanted that. I wanted this sarcastic, brilliant writer, teacher, and friend to keep going. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t.

“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying… If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.”

The irony is that the person who could provide the most poignant commentary on his passing…was him. That’s not true of everyone who commits suicide. He was able to cut through the bullshit and speak to the deep, dark pain always lurking in shadowed recesses of the human heart. I imagine what he would say now. There would be self-deprecation. There would be joking sarcasm. There would be commentary that makes you sit, silent for a long time after the credits start rolling. Would there be regret? It is maddening that we will never know. He has passed into parts unknown, where we cannot follow.

It’s very easy to react to victims of suicide with anger. Indeed, this cruel and misplaced response is often the reaction we turn to to protect ourselves from just feeling our actual pain..but in allowing ourselves to feel our actual pain, we remember the beauty this man brought to our lives more fully. We’ll never understand why it had to end this way, it wasn’t supposed to end this way! But it did. And I’m extremely grateful for the way Anthony shaped me, and the values he instilled in me.

“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

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*all photo credit to NPR and CNN.

To London, With Love

To London, With Love

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Sitting in the back of our MiniCab, we craned our necks to take in every detail of the landscape flying past. I hadn’t realized how far Heathrow was from London proper. Our driver, who had been so patient as we delayed and delayed, waiting in the endless customs line to enter the country, zipped down the freeway through construction detours, weaving carefully and quickly through traffic snares. I’m sure my eyes looked like saucers. It was like waking up and having the whole world as you know it reversed, the uncanny valley of familiarity meeting otherness.

We sped past farmland, neon yellow with flowering mustard, football stadiums, and eventually row housing that looked alarmingly decrepit. Entering London, we pulled to a stop just as a pedestrian smashed in the window of the car next to us, shouting. The light turned and we sped away before we could see what happened. I hadn’t known what to expect, but what I saw wasn’t it. Ancient buildings filthy with centuries of grime shot past, miles and miles of hyper-urban landscape swarming with people who didn’t look at all like myself, more hijabs than I had ever seen in one place, above-ground trains, unfamiliar signage and crossing signals, and the sheer immensity of London intimidated me…in fact, it terrified me.

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Before we exited the cab at the Citizen M hotel, I was convinced I hated London. I was fearful, so nervous. Just the cab ride had given me real culture shock. I had expected something thoroughly Anglicized, romantic, quaint, something Victorian, something posh and refined. Maybe I expected a village, but instead I had gotten something like New York City—overwhelming urban sprawl that I hadn’t fathomed. I’d known about London of course—it’s types of crime, it’s population density, it’s demographics. That’s what’s so silly about my unexpected reaction. I knew London wasn’t those things I had been expecting! And it’s embarrassing to admit that I was at all taken aback by such things, but I’m being brutally honest here– I was. It was like meeting a blind date who’ve you’ve only seen a tiny, pixelated picture of. Suddenly you see them in the flesh and regardless of what they’ve told you about themselves, they are nothing like what you anticipated. I wanted to hide in my hotel. I was afraid of so much otherness, so much that was unfamiliar.

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Husband was ecstatic. He wanted to walk, to dig into this place and get to know it. Knowing I hadn’t traveled all this way to sit in my hotel being afraid, we walked to a tea shop I wanted to visit, and ate savory pies at a fancy restaurant. Following a route Husband made up as we went along, we passed the Royal Courts of Justice, the London School of Economics, strolled by Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square. We walked and walked and walked. And as we walked I relaxed a bit, amazed by the sights, sounds, smells, all the differences large and small that made this place “other.” Endless monuments, endless beautiful architecture, endless accents of many types. I was impressed by so much of what I saw, but I was also unable to form a real opinion—I felt like a toddler, taking the whole of creation in for the first time, with no frame of reference through which to judge it or to orient myself.

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And then, when it looked like I was beginning to soften, I had a bit of a meltdown. After many hours of walking, and after Husband’s thoughtful warnings that we had a long walk still ahead of us, I became very physically and mentally weary and began to crack. It was in the theatre district that I started to panic. Swarms of people were out on the sidewalks, ales in hand, enjoying the warm late afternoon sunshine. I perceived that it was growing late and I was exhausted, quickly getting hungrier and hungrier. Husband showed me how far we had wandered from our hotel—we were at least an hour’s walk back. I had had just enough novelty and suddenly felt overwhelmed, stranded, frightened, and alone for no good reason at all. I actually started crying a little (I’m not proud of this memory). I moaned and groaned, and was a thorough pain in the ass for poor Husband who was having a ball and couldn’t see what the matter was! Patiently, he led the way back to our hotel as I seethed in high dudgeon and anxiety that continued to bubble up, despite the good time I’d had over the last few hours. I can’t remember what we ate for dinner, but it was near our hotel. Our jet lag kept us up very late despite our exhaustion, and when we came-to it was noon.

I woke up knowing that I hated London. I had wanted to befriend it on my terms, ones I had imagined for it, and it had failed me. Nevertheless, I was willing to try again. I regretted sleeping in so late. Still, we had enough time to walk over to the Tower of London by way of Borough Market and take a tour, before meandering leisurely back to catch a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the nearby Shakespeare Globe theatre. This second day, rested and well-fed, the vastness of London—cobblestones, wide streets, enormous bridges and seemingly endless sprawl—was less of a shock.

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We had a wonderful time! I got a picture with the first female Beefeater, we ate sausages and cake, drank ale and tea, saw the burial sites of people like Anne Boleyn. As I stood in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula I closed my eyes and imagined– my soul remembering a time and place never seen, manifesting love for people never met, missing memories never had. So many sights in London make you feel this way. London holds the present in its palm, but gestures at the vastness of yesterday, reminding you that you are merely passing through…that it alone will remain. This experience was so different compared to the day before. Well rested, I was better oriented. I felt safer, I had a mental grasp on the place I was in. The crowds of people I felt were pressing in on me the day before were, today, just people enjoying the sunshine.

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That evening, we climbed into the balcony of an historic theatre, roof open to the warm night air, and spent the next four hours transported into another world—one of hilarity, beauty, and utter magic, the evening stars twinkling overhead. We left the theatre and grabbed huge bowls of pasta across the street, unable to find words adequate for what we had just experienced. “That was, hands down, the best performance of any kind I have ever seen in my entire life,” Husband proclaimed. I smiled in total agreement as I devoured spicy fusilli. Something had clicked that day. First impressions aren’t always accurate. I had given London a second chance, and it had wooed me. I began to “get” London. It was working its magic on me, but I had to approach it on its terms, not mine.

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We boarded a train the following morning and spent the next few hours whizzing through impossibly beautiful English countryside dotted with sheep, low stone walls and hedgerows bisecting green meadows spilling over with blooms. I realized why England is known for its lush greenery—every nook and cranny, where in America there would dwell a weed, here bloomed a flower. At the base of stop signs, sprouting from cracks in sidewalks, every growing plant turned a colorful face to the sun. We disembarked in Cardiff, Wales and in unseasonably warm sunshine we sat in the verdant and charming Sophia Park sipping tea, falling in love all over again—with Wales, with the United Kingdom, with traveling, with each other.

Wales was one of the best adventures of my life. I won’t go into it because I could write a novella about my love affair with Wales, so I’ll save that for another time.  Trust me when I say, we fell HARD for the Welsh people, the Welsh countryside, the Welsh language, and everything Wales had to offer. It was a visit to Middle Earth for us, and it nourished something deep inside the quiet parts of our sleeping souls we didn’t know we needed.

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I boarded the train back to London on our last day in the UK and sped back to the city that made me feel a thousand different things. For the second time, we walked. We walked to the Houses of Parliament, walked to the London Eye, walked to King’s Cross Station to visit Platform 9 ¾. We stopped for the second time at Twinings on the Strand (established 1706!) and spent a small fortune on tea. This time around, I wasn’t anxious. London, after such a short and volatile romance, had us both at its mercy. I accepted it on its terms, not mine, and its generosity overflowed. I teared up again flying westward, leaving pieces of my heart behind. I had always ached to experience Britain. Now I had, and despite my anxieties of various kinds, I had fallen as deeply in love with it as I always thought I would.

Some people hate traveling. There are several I know in my immediate family alone who could gladly die happy never having left home again. And after lifetimes of hard work, why should they leave home to spend money elsewhere and be uncomfortable for a brief period of time? Travel isn’t easy. It’s hard on the bank account and hard on they body. If you’re like me, travel can spark anxiety and strangely agoraphobic episodes! The unknown and unfamiliar can be legitimately terrifying, even when there isn’t any real threat present. Being in unfamiliar places can be threat enough to a person prone to nerves at the best of times. But here’s the thing…

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Stepping far outside our comfort zones forces us to adapt and reveals parts of ourselves we might not know exist. I didn’t expect to react to London so negatively. After that first day, I didn’t expect to ever thaw towards it, either. But in a remarkably tiny space of time, I not only had all kinds of preconceived notions quashed, but was forced to reflect upon what those preconceived notions meant about me, about what makes me uncomfortable and why. I got to reframe my discomfort, and ultimately let it go when I realized that much of it was baseless and silly. And that was liberating and rewarding.

The upshot is that I have absolutely zero qualms or anxieties about our forthcoming trip. London is far too old, far too big, and far too complex for me to ever fully “get” it, but I like to think that we are friends insofar as a person can befriend a place. I’m looking forward to introducing Sister to it, and to seeing Husband (London’s fast friend) reunite with a place he appreciated from the beginning. I’m excited to see parts of it I haven’t seen, taste things I haven’t tasted, and step once again outside of the familiar—the place where true adventure begins. We’ll reunite on its terms, not mine, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

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Things I Love Right Now: April Edition!

Things I Love Right Now: April Edition!

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Hello all! I honestly can’t believe it is now April 22nd. Work has been crazy busy, Husband is just beginning to breathe again after weeks of non-stop homework, and I’m finally getting around to posting again! I think time flying is great, because it just means we’re closer and closer to leaving for England!! The trip is still ages away, but all the finishing touches are almost completed, and mostly we are left to dreaming about all the fun things we’ll do and see, which is really getting me through any troubles at work or other places. 🙂 Not that there are too many of those, just the normal amount, for which I am grateful. Onto some things I currently love…

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1. The spring weather! Oh my gosh, it has been so gorgeous lately! Today was warm and almost summery, but the last few weeks have seen on-again off-again showers, and double rainbows like this one have been popping up all over the Bay Area. It’s really fun to see them! This is the second pair I’ve seen in the last month or so, and they’re just so magical.

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2. Veterinary medicine…and veterinary miracles! Puffy is doing so remarkably well, and we couldn’t be happier. Whatever was ailing her has stayed away, thank goodness, and we hope that it will continue to stay away for as long as possible. Her reprieve was so unexpected that her lovely vet was delighted but flummoxed as well, and all we can do is give her lots of pettings and cuddles and love, and continue to care for her in the time we have left. She is taking daily high blood pressure medicine, and we have her on a special renal diet to support her kidneys, which thankfully she seems to love. How lucky the three of us are that this little miracle was granted her. We do not take her for granted, and have been telling her non-stop how much we love her, and what a good cat she is. She respond with totally uncharacteristic licks, nuzzles and purrs…so really, she must have used up one of those nine lives, and clearly knows it! ❤

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3. New luggage! Yesterday I went to Marshall’s with the express purpose of obtaining two cabin-approved size suitcases for our trip. I found these beauties and couldn’t be happier. They had big “cabin-approved” tags on them, though when I measured they were one inch bigger than United Airline’s stated carry-on dimensions in the width…so, we’re going to try to bring them on and see what happens! If they make us check them, so be it. They looked like all the other suitcases marked “cabin-approved,” so hopefully they’ll be allowed. They’re really nice, good quality and can hold a TON. I pretend packed (yes…I really did) and I can easily fit everything I need into that left zippered side, leaving the right side empty for souvenirs…which of course, are going to be the priority! At $60 a pop, I’m quite satisfied. If you ever need luggage, definitely check out Marshall’s or Ross first! They have such a great selection and the prices are so reasonable!

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4. Healthy cooking! With the weather warming up, I’m getting a renewed resolve to cook (I had really been falling down on it in the last few weeks). Pictured is today’s breakfast and lunch/dinner: toast with avocado, greens and tomato and a salmon poke bowl with salad greens, rice and diced veggies. Both were just delicious! Additionally, I bought two of those big fat, flat bowls at the thrift store today. They were a bit steep in price at $2.99 each, but they are HUGE. You can’t really tell from the picture, but they are just perfect for making these kinds of “Buddha bowls,” as we call them. They’re wide and shallow (rather than deep like the noodle bowls we already have), just perfect for displaying a variety of toppings, so I know they will see a ton of use.

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5. Tea. I mean, it’s me, guys. Tea is always on my list of favorite things. This one is Twinings’ loose leaf Earl Grey tea in a teapot that my Uncle M bought for Grandma quite a long time ago, in the very late ’70s or very early ’80s. I just love it. The teacup flips over and lives upside-down on top of the pot when not in use. I don’t use it often, but I got it out today, gave it bath, and enjoyed three cups of tea while sitting outside on my deck, which brings me to #6….

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6. Sitting on my deck in the lovely weather, reading a great book. I know it’s not winter, but I’m four months into the year and haven’t done a proper re-read of C.S. Lewis yet. I think I’m averaging a re-read of Narnia about every six months! I should really branch out more, but if you saw my Goodreads list you’d know that I have in fact read many books for the first time this year, so I feel I’m entitled to a re-read or two (or…six).

Well, that’s all for now! Hope you’re all enjoying your April. May is right around the corner and May is both my birthday month and always feels like almost-summer to me, so I’m really looking forward to it. How is your April shaping up? Take care!