A Little Story for Father’s Day…

A few years ago I ran a marathon, as I wrote about here. It was the Marine Corps Marathon, and my dad is a Marine, so it felt a little special, and I was so grateful that my parents drove four hours to Washington, DC to cheer me on, running around the city to wait for me and hold up homemade rally signs.

I found them somewhere around mile 18 or 19, and by that point I was in bad shape. I had taken a walking break which gave my body time to seize up and decide it didn’t want to do this marathon thing anymore, and every time I tried to run I had a shooting pain from my left hip to knee. I was feeling slow and mad at myself and embarrassed that my parents had come all this way to watch me hobble.

So I walk up to them instead of running and my dad is proudly snapping pictures of me the whole time even though I’m crying. I apologize to them for being such a disappointment and they just tell me over and over how impressed they are and how proud and how I am going to finish and it is all okay.

I stand with them for a little while, but know I have to get going again. I’m about to cross a bridge back into Virginia, and the crowds along the route are pretty light along that stretch. As I am about to leave, my dad asks me if I’m going to run or walk. In my whimpery messiness, I say I don’t know.

He says, “Well if you are going to walk, we will walk with you for a while.”

I hadn’t thought about this story in a long time and then I told it recently and immediately started to cry. That is my dad. He is always willing to walk with me, to do for me, to help me however he can. He would move mountains if there was something he could do to ensure my happiness. I am positive that I don’t tell him enough how grateful I am for that level of unconditional love and support. There is nothing I can do to repay it, and the crazy thing is, he doesn’t care.

So today I just want to thank my dad for always walking with me. I may not always act like I see him there beside me, but I do, and I feel so lucky to have him for my father.

IMG_7774

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

My Favorite Place in London

No, it’s not a museum or a pub or a restaurant.

It’s my nail salon.

Getting my nails painted is one of my life’s great guilty pleasures: it is a bit of a wasteful way to spend money. It makes me feel pretty in a way that indicates perhaps my self-esteem is not as deeply-rooted as it should be.

Mani/pedis are the one thing you can get cheap in NYC. I liked to go sit in the great big massage chairs getting rolled and kneaded while an Asian lady worked away at my feet. There is something uncomfortable about it, but that’s where the guilt comes into the pleasure, right? New York nail salons work with anonymous, military precision. My nails always looked perfect: trimmed short and round, shiny with evenly-coated polish. I could sit under the hand dryers as long as I liked, and I rarely left with a smudge or a chip (sometimes I did. I’m a klutz.) The Asian ladies asked me to pay before my hands were painted, decreasing the chance of digital imperfection (see what I did there?).

None of that is my experience in London.

The salon I go to costs about as much for a manicure as the combo cost in New York – and it’s the cheapest place I have found. There are no massage chairs. The women never file my nails as short as I’d like (I ask them to go shorter three times and then have to give up and accept I’m going to have a lady nail). The polish is a little uneven and doesn’t extend all the way to the edge of my nails. And without fail they tell me the polish is dry and I’m smudged by the time I take out my wallet to pay.

Still, I love it.

First, the salon is called “Your Beautiful.” It’s on the sign that hangs outside, it’s embroidered on the girls’ aprons. As a deep lover of the English language and champion of its proper use, this should probably irritate me, but I find it endearing. The people who work there are from non-English speaking parts of Europe: Italy, Hungary, Poland. They speak two languages and I don’t, and if they don’t quite have their contractions down yet, I forgive them.

I sit in a plastic chair shaped like a hand: my butt is cupped in the palm, my back rests against the fingers – the nails of which are, of course, painted.

I could sit through my sessions in NYC and not be expected to make small talk, but here I am trying to embrace asking questions. These girls want to practice their English, and I need to practice talking to strangers without feeling terror. It’s a win-win. The Italian girl has painted my nails a few times. She told me she is from a small town where everyone is shocked that she moved to London. No one there can imagine a life more idyllic than that of the Italian countryside, but she wants to see the world.

She gets some words confused: “outside” and “upstairs” are hard for her to remember correctly, and sometimes she inverts them: “upside” and “outstairs.” She told me she was planning a barbeque for her day off; until she moved in, all her flatmates ate their meals alone in their individual rooms. Now she has created a friendly group dynamic where they share time together. I believe she has the power to do it. She is incredibly sweet and smiley. She always remembers me and says hello when I come in, even if she isn’t doing my nails.

There is another girl (I think she’s from Poland but I’m not sure) who does a lot of specialty nail work – the women who come in wanting two inch fang-like fingernails (when did this become popular? It’s totally creepster to me). She can freehand tiny intricate paintings on each individual nail, and call me sentimental, but I think she’s an artist. Anytime a person has a talent and can create beauty – even of the miniscule and ephemeral variety – I envy their joy at their own creativity. We should all be lucky enough to have the confidence to embrace our gifts.

It’s just a friendly, relaxed place, and I genuinely enjoy the time I spend there. It’s nothing fancy, but there is good energy, and I always leave smiling, smudged nails or not.

I wonder that this sweet Italian girl traveled so far from her home – in a country I personally love and can’t imagine wanting to leave – to do this rather menial job so graciously. Everybody wants to be somewhere else. I’m here as an immigrant too, right? I guess we all go to great lengths to make our dreams come true.

Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

I am a Domestic Goddess

In my coursework studying creative nonfiction, my classmates and I often discuss what is “truth” and how frequently “truth” gets wiggled in order to create a good narrative arc, or pretty prose. It’s kind of a fascinating question. I have recently been disappointed to learn that some of my favorite writers have blatantly made things up in order to create a good story. It seems like everyone does it – creative nonfiction is NOT journalism, so whether it is allowed in this genre is a great, debatable issue.

Ultimately, it’s all about the narrative. And narrative is a malleable beast.

And that’s how I get to be a domestic goddess.

Last week this happened:

I was home alone but it was Saturday night. I did not have a single soul in this blessed city who wanted to hang out with me all weekend.

I was feeling blue. I couldn’t shake the heart crunch of a break up. It wasn’t a particularly serious relationship, but I was wallowing.

I was swamped with work but my blueness was making my mind run in circles rather than towards productivity. I was procrastinating.

My baking, usually something I’m reasonably good at, did not go smoothly. First, I didn’t read the recipe carefully and mixed the flour and sugar. I was not supposed to do that. If you have ever tried to separate out grains of sugar and flour once they have been mixed – well, you’re a better man than I. I just dumped it in the trash, wasting over 3 cups of good product. I didn’t have *quite* enough butter – damn you, metric system, I was about 20 grams off. I tried to realign things to use margarine instead but I didn’t have quite enough of that either. I decided it would be fine.

It was not fine.

I then tried to soften the butter in the oven (I live in a house without a microwave, and don’t get me started on it). The butter melted way faster than I expected, making is liquid-y instead of soft.

All this added up to create some cookies of mass destruction. You could bruise people with those cookies if you had a good throwing arm or a slingshot.

I unscrewed (yes, unscrewed) a bottle of wine and proceeded to drink the entire thing. Drunk and alone on a Saturday night.

I listened to the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” musical soundtrack and sang along to every word. This is possibly the reason I’m single.

I called a friend and whinged at her about my sadface problems.

***

So that’s the “truth” of what happened.

But with a little bit of editing:

I was home alone, a rare blessing in my house of three where someone is always around and using the communal space.

I poured myself a glass of red wine and blasted my iPod, another rare treat when you share living space. I belted along at the top of my lungs while I turned on the oven and warmed up the kitchen. I baked sugar cookies, perfect for dunking in a cup of milky tea.

While home for Christmas, I only got see see my childhood best friend briefly, so I called her up – it’s so cheap to add international minutes to my mobile phone. We caught up in an edifying, deeply satisfying way. I love knowing no matter how long we go without talking, we can always pick up the phone and talk like we still converse daily. She will always be a part of my life.

***

In that version, I overcame an obstacle and succeeded in having an excellent night, embracing my domesticity and some me-time. If my life were a chick flick, I’d probably add the baking mishaps back in for a bit of endearing, slapstick humor.

And the cookies did genuinely taste good, they were just very, very hard.

Both versions are true. But the tone of each is pretty different. It’s all about shaping the narrative. Which is another way of saying it is all a matter of perspective.

Which is another way of saying fake it till you make it.

I am a domestic goddess. Come, drink wine and eat cookies with me.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Adventures with Vouchers: You will be the falcon and I will be…

Birds!

Birds!


I don’t have any great affinity for birds. When the voucher popped up for a Birds of Prey Experience at the English School of Falconry, I basically thought: why not? The English School of Falconry sounds like one of the most English things you can possibly do. Bonus: it was in a town called Biggleswade, and oh wow did I want an excuse to say the word “Biggleswade” as many times as possible. I had visions of Harry Potter and Hogwarts and Hedwig. I want a self-sacrificing owl, you know? Plus, I always loved that tagline from the silly SNL sketch starring a falcon named Donald.
Barn owl

Barn owl


Now that I think about it, I don’t think we even hung out with any falcons.
Eagle

Eagle


My friend from Manchester drove down with her husband and met me at the Biggleswade train station (the town is so small and off the beaten track it is only open in the morning, shut and locked by 3pm). Driving through Biggleswade was sadly unimpressive. Arriving at the GPS-directed address, we drove through a strange world of hangars and muddy fields before arriving at a none-too-well marked lawn parking area and a further muddy walk to the school’s office. My friend’s husband just wanted to observe, having come as chauffeur and photographer for the day, but they made him pay GBP15 for the privilege. He’s a good sport, so he ponied up the cash and we raced to meet our group, having arrived a squinch late.
No, I'm not scared. (Yes, I am.)

No, I’m not scared. (Yes, I am.)


So then we held some birds. They were big and heavy and pretty. They were species of eagles, I believe, but I wasn’t paying that much attention. They were just big and heavy and pretty. Then we went to a little fenced in area where we got to catch some kites (maybe?) and owls, little ones. By catch I mean we held out our gloved arm, and one of the trainers called the birds (each bird has a name, like Trevor) and they came and landed on us, knowing they would get some food for obeying. Some birds were less obedient than others, and at one point I had two little owls on my arm. Which was pretty cool.
Two for the price of one

Two for the price of one


We moved to a bigger field for some hawk catching. At this point I got a close-up look at what they were feeding the bigger birds: torn up pieces of tiny, fluffy chicks, their yellow down smeared with blood. I didn’t want to think about that too much.
IMG_8754
We watched a flying show, in which our tour guide, a cheerful and well-versed young Englishman who seriously looked like he was 12 years old, gave a running commentary on the different types of birds he showed off – egrets and pelicans as well as more owls and eagles. Maybe a falcon.
IMG_8790
We went into a caged in area where we go to hold, bare-handed, little five week old owls. Four of them perched sleepily on a diagonal wooden rod, and it was awfully rude of us to disturb them. But they were very cute, sitting on my friend’s shoulder and nibbling her hair and ear, burrowing into the furry hood of her sweatshirt (as usual in this glorious land, it was late April but cold, cloudy, and windy.)
It tickle-hurts.

It tickle-hurts.


We were then free to wander about looking at the caged birds, most of whom were lazing about for their midday siesta. Birds are tremendously pretty. Who knew?
IMG_8786
I actually had a lot of fun – it was great to see my friends for a couple of hours, and I fought off my terror at allowing birds to fly at my body (I have walked through New York City on more than one occasion and felt an imminent pigeon attack strategizing around me.)
Blue eagles are awesome

Blue eagles are awesome


I got some fun photos, which is, unfortunately the point of the experience. Despite our well-educated guide, who could spit out facts at the rate of four a minute, I didn’t get a sense of why the English School of Falconry exists. Why do they train birds? What purpose do the birds serve? A glance at their website listed “conservation” as one of their goals, but conservation from what? I imagine if I had read the little placards near each bird station I would have a better understanding of which birds are endangered, and how the centre helps breed and repopulate them.

But do they ever free them back into the wild? Could they even survive? These birds are so dependent on humans for treats, why would they even want to leave? I know I wouldn’t. Is that good, or bad? Ecotourism in a paradox. I’m just not sure if I agree with it. Near the beginning of the day, as we waited to hold some of the bigger eagles, we watched a bunch of enormous birds nestling in their feathers. Occasionally one of them would start to flap its wings and launch itself off the perch where it rested. Inevitably, they landed two feet away, their feet tied with rope to that same perch. There was something sad about watching birds try to take flight and failing. It was a terrible living metaphor.
IMG_8730
Still, I had a good day. Does that make me a bad person? I pushed the metaphors out of my mind and just enjoyed the beauty of the birdies. I am uneasy with myself for this unthinking submission to a photo op. The twenty or so cheery English who were part of our group didn’t seem to be overthinking the moment, oohing and aaahing as the birds sailed around us. It’s just hard to know if the centre does more good than harm.

Baby!

Baby!


But how else was I going to pretend I was Harry Potter for a few hours?

What do you think? Is this kind of “interactive” nature experience good or bad for, you know, actual nature?

Scorecard: Vouchers – 1 Me – 1

Categories: London, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Adventures with Vouchers: Acupressure Massage

I should really read through voucher offers before I buy them.

This week I got an acupressure massage.

I had just seen the word “massage” and the cheap price and thought, “Sign me up!”

Ordinarily, I would have spaced out the acupuncture and the massage, but please see previous post about procrastinating and facing expiration dates.

I knew I was in for a different kind of experience from the acupuncture as soon as I walked through the door: there was my soothing fountain, resting on a mat of fake turf.

The waiting room was spacious, white walls and melon-colored faux leather armchairs. Expansive and generically inspiring nature shots hung on the walls: a mass of trees in blossom, a clifftop view across misty mountains. A very different vibe from the acupuncture place.

I was gently asked to put on some little white slippers, which these spa-type places should realize is not particularly relaxing, at least if you’re me and wondering who else’s funky feet have tred in these slippers previously.

I was introduced to G., my qi master. The staff wore white gis, which I imagine is a comfy work outfit, even if it did make me think of The Karate Kid.

G. spent a good ten minutes talking to me about qi/chi, or the body’s energy system. It all does make a lot of sense, really. That the body and mind and spirit are actually interconnected and one affects the other. Why is that an Eastern philosophical idea? Why isn’t it just a human philosophical idea? Why are Westerners so cynical about this intermingling, why are we embarrassed by talk about the spirit, why can “New Age” ideas only be considered with irony?

Of course, I couldn’t help but think how disappointed I would be if I ever saw G. in a Starbucks. So I guess I’m just another cynical, overly-ironied Westerner, a revelation which will come as no surprise to anyone.

Acupressure massage is not a medical, physical kind of massage. It’s all about unblocking blocked-up qi. It is performed fully clothed (me – well, and him too), and involved deep fingertip-rubbing over the entire body, head to toe, sternum to butt.

As part of the qi stimulating process, G. made noise while he worked me up. It is supposed to be a cosmic noise, a sound that encourages qi flow from master to client. The best I can do to describe it is as a prolonged “shhhh” except it was “chhhh.” It was the sound an aerosol can makes and it would be really bad for the environment if you continually sprayed a can as long as G. had to make this noise.

I get the meditative qualities of chanting, and I have an album of Tibetan Singing Bowls that is supposed to hit different bodily chakras, and I get that too, I can feel the vibrations in various parts of my body. This just sounded like spraying an aerosol can. I may have mentioned that.

But bless him, G. motored his mouth through my massage and dug his hands so hard into every inch of my body that two days later, my sternum still hurts. There is obviously no way this kind of rubbing can be bad. It might be painful at the time, but it does loosen up all your muscles and tensions, and I felt pretty nice afterward.

We chatted again after my treatment, and G. told me that I have huge blockages in my kidneys, which are the body’s battery packs of energy, as well as my stomach, which blocks energy from getting to my lower half. Maybe that’s why my feet are always cold. (G. repeated several times that he is not a licensed medical professional and there is nothing physically wrong with me. Phew.)

Seriously, I don’t want to be cynical. I want to believe in magic. If we don’t think our own bodies are capable of something mystical and special, it’s really hard to expect it from any other part of the world around us. Qi could just be another part of physics: atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, it’s all swirling around inside us. The idea of energy, positive and negative, is the best way to describe any sort of spiritual views I have.

I want to believe in qi, I want to get in touch with my qi, but I didn’t have any sense of energy release or free flowing radiance in my body. I enjoyed the treatment, but. Sometimes it’s just nice to get poked and prodded. Realistically, I can’t have expected all my qi to start cheerfully flowing after one forty minute session. (But I probably did expect that because I am not realistic.)

G. did a soft-sell for the center’s holistic chanting/movement/meditation class. And I will really consider it. It’s just sort of a pain in the ass to get to the center from where I live. If I’m going to harness my qi and unblock my energy, which sounds like a lot of work in and of itself, I’m really going to need it to be superconvenient.

G. was too genuine and sweet for me to feel that this voucher was a scam, but I don’t know if I really got all that much out of it either. So here’s the new scorecard: Vouchers – 1, Me – 0, Qi – 1

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adventures with Vouchers: Acupuncture and Cupping

Since moving to London, I’ve signed up for some mailing lists through Time Out London and Amazon. I get daily emails with a ton of vouchers for different things, basically like a Groupon. Being new to the city and looking for unique experiences, I’ve purchased a whole lot of these vouchers. Then generally I wait until they’re about to expire before I scramble to get an appointment. Typical avid wanna-go-do-see! procrastinator.

Today I went to a…spa? clinic? place for my first experience of acupuncture and cupping.

I walked in and immediately knew it was not going to be a “spa” experience. The waiting area was clinically pedestrian. There was no small tinkling fountain in the corner, just a line of claustrophobically jumbled bamboo chairs that ended with a tired looking white leather armchair, slightly slashed on the seat. Just as I handed over my voucher, three police officers walked in on a “routine inspection” which clearly terrified the staff, as no one wanted to admit they were the manager. The police asked about insurance policies and client records (the staff claimed to keep lists of clients’ names, birth dates, and procedures, but nobody even asked my name, let alone made me sign any liability release forms). The lady officer in charge asked if there were locks on the doors to the “exam” rooms, to which the Chinese girl responded no, no locks, because that would be…unsafe? (she asked, hoping it was the right answer.)

Soothing.

I then had a “consultation” to discuss my procedures. A very stern Chinese lady doctor, who did not speak English, took the pulse in both my wrists (could they be different?) while another lady translated for us. There was no talk of chi or energy or mental state…I don’t know what I was expecting. Mysticism, something inexplicably magic, I suppose. I said I carry tension in my back, particularly my right shoulder blade. After this two and a half minute in-depth discussion, we moved to the procedure room, where the lady doctor told me to “Take it off” before leaving the room. As I was still wearing my jacket and purse, I was unclear on what to take off. She told me to “take it off” again when she returned, and I finally figured out my shirt had to go.

I laid down on a table, face down…down down, my nose smashed into the table because there was no face hole. As she began applying the needles, I couldn’t really breathe because of my smooshed face. The needles were barely noticeable as they went in, but it was a mildly strange sensation once they were all inserted. She turned on a dim, delicate paper lamp, shaded with a sunflower pattern, pressed play on a CD of generic new age music and left me alone.

I skooched my face up in order to avoid asphyxiation, and noticed the lovely cut out wallpaper, patterned with trees and reeds. The CD started to skip immediately. As I find nothing soothing about faux Native American sounds, I didn’t mind, though it was an abrasive sound and I almost got up to get my iPod out of my bag. I didn’t want to disturb the needles, however, so I stayed still and concentrated on finding a comfortable position that allowed breathing. With my arms up under my head, my shoulders started to cramp.

Relaxing.

I eventually discovered there was in fact a face hole in the table, it was just covered by the hygiene-maximizing paper sheet running down the table.

I lay like that for about forty-five minutes, not feeling much of anything except my rapid heartbeat. Through a fluke of timing, this appointment came on the heels of being broken up with by a very nice man, and I suppose I had been hoping for some real external pain to mitigate my broken heart. What I wanted, I imagine, was a tattoo, the grinding sound of the needle gun drilling into my red raw skin.

Comforting.

Unless I concentrated very hard, I barely felt the needles. Every now and then a wave of tingly giddiness would pass over my head, the same feeling as children get when they pretend to crack eggs over each other’s heads and run their hands down their hair, simulating a drippy yolk (did anyone else play that game as a kid?). It’s a feeling I enjoy, but it didn’t ebb and flow as neatly as the ocean, just sporadically, beyond my control.

I don’t know anything about acupuncture – I like to jump into these situations uninformed so the magic can really hit me full force – but I thought there was supposed to be more doctor involvement, or needle manipulation. Maybe that’s a different voucher.

Eventually a not-doctor came back and removed my needles, and set about suctioning cups onto my back, drawing my skin up into puckers. This is supposed to draw out toxins and promote healing by stimulating blood flow. It hurt more than the needles, so I liked it. The woman couldn’t get the cups to suck on to certain parts of my shoulders because of my tight muscles.

Tranquility.

I laid there for another fifteen minutes with the cups, and then after a very aggressive hard sell to buy further sessions or some nice smelling body oil (it’s not like I can reach my back to massage myself) I was out the door, my back pockmarked like I’d been attacked by a lazy octopus.

It's hard to take a picture of your own back.

It’s hard to take a picture of your own back.

The woman asked if I felt the toxins being released, if I felt the stress being pulled out by the needles. Oh yes, I said.

But I did not.

Still my back might feel less tense, a little looser. Maybe that’s just because I got off my bed where I sit getting gouged by my wrought iron headboard when I write.

So does anybody have any experience with acupuncture or cupping? What are they supposed to do?

Scorecard: Vouchers – 1, Me – 0

Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Dutch Dining

My last trip to Amsterdam, ten years ago, had been predicated on the whims of my travel buddy, Tom; it was his trip, I just invited myself to tag along. It was my first time in a non-English speaking country, and I was more than happy to let him take the lead.

But when I went again last October I tried to do a little more planning, have a more in-depth experience.

Well, sort of.

I mean, I guided my friend to the same exact restaurant Tom and I had stumbled upon near the Anne Frank House, the Pancake Bakery. But that’s because I remember that meal vividly a decade later. Though, it turns out I remember it wrong; I had this vision of a giant plate-sized stack of pancakes, slathered in ice cream and chocolate sauce (because I was twenty, and a grown up, so I could eat whatever I dang well pleased for dinner.) But actually, Dutch pancakes are flat, like a crepe, and the size of a small pizza. My possibly maturing taste buds led me to the savory Hungarian pancake, piled with chorizo, salami, tomato, cheese, paprika, onion.

IMG_7930IMG_7938

Then we went to a street fair in Dam square, gorged and waddling, and had tiny profitjes, bite-sized pancakes slathered in whip cream and chocolate sauce. The best of all worlds, pancakes for dinner, pancakes for dessert.

Okay, sure all you see is whipped cream. But there are delicious tiny puffy pancakes under there.

Okay, sure all you see is whipped cream. But there are delicious tiny puffy pancakes under there.

But seriously, I wanted to broaden our horizons and steer clear of endless meals of carb-laden comfort foods. I had bulked up a bit on Dutch history, and learned that the Netherlands had colonized Indonesia in the seventeenth century ergo (direct link, right? We can skip the four hundred years in between) there are a lot of Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam.

We were up for trying this untested cuisine, so I asked our walking tour guide for suggestions about a good Indonesian restaurant. Terry was an Irishman, married to an Australian, whose kids spoke better Dutch than he did. But after eight years in country, I figured he would have some good local insider tips.

As he mulled my query, he mentioned that he could point us in the direction of the Hard Rock Café.

My friend and I were offended. Obviously our request meant we were trying to get off the beaten path, to eat like the Dutch. We weren’t your typical tourists.

Anyway, we’d eaten at the Hard Rock two nights before.

After that suggestion, we began to worry Terry wasn’t as familiar with life beyond the tourism industry as we had hoped. He couldn’t remember the name of the Indonesian restaurant he’d eaten at recently with his wife, but he knew it was just off the Leidseplein, in the direction of that shiny neon landmark, the Hard Rock, and it was up a set of stairs.

Later that evening, my friend and I wandered the cobbled pedestrian alleys around the Leidseplein, following my hastily scrawled directions from Terry. Our frustration mounted as we crisscrossed streets with nary a glimpse of anything Indonesian. A name would have been really helpful. Thanks, Terry.

We stood at an intersection, peeking to the left, which is what Terry had told us, and then to the right, because Terry clearly had no idea what he was talking about. Back to the left, a green neon sign suddenly stood out in relief against the mass of culinary advertising.

It simply read “Indonesian Restaurant.”

We approached it, and yes indeed, it was upstairs.

We found this pretty funny.

After all that, we decided not to eat there. Upon inspecting their menu, we realized Indonesian cuisine is far spicier than either of us cares for.

We meandered some more until we stumbled upon a restaurant offering traditional Dutch cuisine called De Blauwe Hollander. We each got a “hotchpotch,” a comforting meal of potatoes, veg, and meat, all smushed together and drowned in sauces. My friend ordered a bacon/endive/meatball/mashed concoction that you could well crawl into and hibernate for the winter. And then we had traditional Dutch apple pie for dessert. So much for avoiding carbs.

IMG_8115

I don't know if it's actually traditional. It seemed a little fancy to me.

I don’t know if it’s actually traditional. It seemed a little fancy to me.

Moral of the story: Terry knew exactly what he was talking about even when he didn’t know what he was talking about, and if you’re ever in Amsterdam, I highly recommend you book a walking tour with him. (And the Hard Rock has really good nachos, so lay off.)

Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Serenity/Courage/Wisdom Mixtape

Here’s a short and fun interactive piece for your Friday afternoon, ready for the weekend state of mind.

You know that old chestnut: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”?

Well for a long time I have been trying to come up with a soundtrack to accompany this saying, a way to pump myself up with serenity, courage, and wisdom.

I had started a playlist once in a notebook that is now buried in the wilds of my storage unit, so I’ve had to start from scratch. It’s actually harder than I thought it would be, as there is some overlap with my “Redemption Songs” list, which you can read about here.

Here’s what I have so far:

Serenity:

Let it Be – The Beatles

This Too Shall Pass – Ok Go

Hang On – Dr. Dog

Nothing to Worry About – Peter, Bjorn and John

Let Go – Frou Frou

Float On – Modest Mouse

Hold On – Alabama Shakes

Courage:

Blackbird – the Beatles

Uprising – Muse

Zero – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Shake It Out – Florence + the Machine

I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty

There Goes the Fear – Doves

Make Light – Passion Pit

Wisdom:

Rain – Bishop Allen

Nothing But Change Part II – Harlem Shakes

Heart of the Matter – India.Arie

Troubles Will Be Gone – The Tallest Man on Earth

Little Talks – Of Monsters and Men

Learning to Fly – Tom Petty

You Can’t Always Get What You Want – the Rolling Stones

So what do you think? Good or bad? Do you have any ideas? It’s so hard to think of things when you’re actually trying to. But I would love more suggestions. Happy weekend!

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Taking Taxis in London

When I arrived at Heathrow in September, with eight-five hundred bags and no place to live, a guy at a counter booked me into a hotel, and got me a shuttle to boot, cheaper than the cab I assumed I would need. I don’t really remember what the shuttle driver looked like, but I have this vision of him as Hal Holbrook in the old English man uniform: golf cap, cardigan, baggy trousers. In my jet-lagged memory he is smoking a pipe, but of course he didn’t smoke a pipe with a dozen bleary-eyed passengers swaying behind him, did he?

This old gentleman loved driving his shuttle and talking to the tourists aboard, pointing out the sights. Driving from West London into the City, there aren’t really many sights: neutered motorway, exhausted, dark brick row-houses. It was raining, an appropriate baptism for my rebirth into British life, but there was even less to see as water streamed down the windows in defiance of the semiotics of “drop.” As we drove through Chiswick, our driver told us not to pronounce the “w.” He pointed out the Mercedes headquarters. We passed a pub as we honed in on the western edge of London proper (near the West Kensington Tube; I started my painful reckoning with London’s geography a week later when I returned to this intersection to look at a flat). The pub was called the Famous Three Kings. He made us guess which three it referred to, and told us one was Elvis. I don’t think that was true.

We drove through central London, dropping various passengers at various hotels. As we puttered along the northern border of Hyde Park, I knew we were close to my undergrad housing on Edgeware Road. Out the window artists sold their wares against the park fence, huddling under tarps, deflecting the blood-letting-ish streams of rain from their paintings. Finally Marble Arch rose to our right and the Odeon cinema on the left and I had such a strange feeling of familiar and unfamiliar rubbing elbows in a way that was bound to produce an Indian burn.

The driver mentioned to someone directly behind him that the “Arabs” had taken over Edgeware Road recently, and he didn’t seem too happy about it. Later, when it was just me and him, and he motioned me forward so he could chatter and entertain me the final few minutes to my hotel, I didn’t mention that when I lived on Edgeware Road a decade ago, it was already full of fluorescently-lit shwarma shacks with their spinning spits of meat, as well as more elegant Lebanese restaurants. The guys running the front desk of our student flat building, who always smiled at me as I passed, were certainly “Arab.” I told the driver why I was in London, to study, to travel, and he wished me well, helping me lug my eight-five hundred suitcases through the sepia puddles and up my hotel’s eleven unnecessary steps.

Several days later, admitting defeat in my magic plan to magically find a magical flat, I switched hotels for the duration of the search. Apparently I wasn’t going to avoid that monstrously expensive taxi ride after all. It wasn’t a proper black cab, either, not the quintessential London taxi experience, but just a car, a compact silver everyday car with a reasonably sized trunk.

My journey west to east across the city continued with those eight-five hundred weary bags, concluding at a small hotel in Walthamstow, all the at the end (or the beginning?) of the light blue Victoria Line in Zone 3 – but I had a private bathroom. This time my driver was a thirty-something Iranian dressed in business casual: white button down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, black pants. The same questions came up: why was I in London, what was I studying.

I asked him about himself; his English was excellent but not quite inflected with Britishness, despite the twelve years he had spent in the country. He had intended to stay for five, to study finance, but the economy had collapsed. He warned me to be careful or I’d find myself with a mortgage, as if mortgages were insidious grass-covered pits hidden throughout the city, something I might fall into unawares and find myself trapped for life.

He had friends who were doctors, and he claimed even they couldn’t save money in London. He drove the taxi part-time while also working at a gym; he wanted to become a personal trainer. We reinvent ourselves, then reinvent ourselves again.

As we continued east, far beyond the edges of everything I had ever seen of this urban sprawl, the Olympic Stadium loomed up on the right. It gave me a little thrill; Michael Phelps and the Fab Five still danced like sugar plums in my memory. But no, no, the stadium was a mistake too. My driver didn’t understand why “they” had built it here, in this part of East London, where no one comes. People don’t even go to all the casinos in East London; they prefer betting on dog fights.

I didn’t say that the gentrification “they” were hoping to attract around the stadium probably didn’t include him anyway.

He lived on Edgeware Road. He hated it there.

He dropped me off just around the corner from the hotel’s entrance, and helped me carry my eighty-five hundred bags to the door. I was once again hunched over against an implacable rain. My luggage begged me now to stay still, to unpack, to lighten their load. But not yet. For all our journeying, we still weren’t home.

I was hopeful that we would find one soon. A home. But my drivers had me wondering: the first, a native, cheerful, proud to show off his city. He was born here, he owned this town, he would never not have that deep sense of confidence inherent in belonging. The second, an immigrant, hoping for a better opportunity, a new life, a rebirth. Like me. After twelve years he still didn’t feel like he was home.

I wondered (I still wonder) if I ever would either. But still I dream. I burn myself to ashes and wait for something new to rise.

Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

On My Second Marriage

For twenty-five years, I was wed to theatre.

In second grade I saw Godspell in the high school auditorium attached to my grade school. My sister’s friends were in it, and I have a – probably incorrect – memory that they acknowledged me somehow as I sat in the audience. In any case, because I knew their real names, I felt somehow “in.” It’s an intoxicating feel, the giddiness of those who become intimately involved with the stage: the feeling that we belong somewhere. I developed a crush on theatre that day.

I saw Les Miserables on Broadway soon after that. Who knows why my parents let me go (I wasn’t even allowed to watch Doogie Howser). I guess they didn’t want me to feel left out, having missed so much family action because I was born much later than my teenage siblings. A need to belong permeates most of life, yes?

I didn’t understand half of Les Mis (French Revolution? Prostitutes?) But my god did I sob when it became clear Val Jean would die. I was hysterical for the last twenty minutes of the show, leaning into my sister and not even watching. Sitting close to the last row of the balcony, I had a visceral emotional experience such as I have only ever felt at live performance. I fell deeply, earth-shatteringly in love that day.

But last year, theatre and I broke up. The manic romance of the lifestyle was no longer enough.

Theatre is romantic: that determination of pluck and passion overriding limited resources. That group effort, a unity of direction and focus. That chance to touch a life, an audience member who feels the words and actions taking place in real time in a deeply resonant bone marrow place. That sense of belonging.

Nothing beats the high of these experiences.

On the other hand, theatre is like a bad relationship: it never pays the rent. At the end of every production, that manic high slides sharply into tears and soul-crushing emptiness. There is no stability; theatre is never satisfied with you. As you peddle yourself in one job interview after another, you get an overwhelming sense that you are never enough.

There is little opportunity to get ahead in theatre. Even after ten years of professional work, I had to fight like a newsboy to get paid fairly on one off-Broadway show. My experience mattered little in an industry that will cut corners by undervaluing people. While I loved my long-ish term part-time theatre gig in NYC, I was constantly looking for something else to survive. That job was a microcosm of a relationship you stay in too long: I loved it and appreciated it, but we were just meant to be friends. No matter how much of my heart I gave to it, I was just not the “one” for it. I would never be full-time.

Now I’m doing this other thing: narrative nonfiction. It’s why I’m in London, to study a craft I only became aware of a few years ago. Theatre is so obvious, it’s a crush on George Clooney. Any old seven year old can have an affair with theatre. Theatre is kind of a whore.

No seven year old wants to be the next Paul Theroux or David Foster Wallace. Complexity of thought and awareness of the wider world only come with age; you learn there are more career opportunities than doctor or ballerina or policeman.  Les Mis was broad enough that even my seven year old self could fall victim to its emotional manipulation. Narrative nonfiction is a personal, hard won discovery. It’s subdued, not flashy. It creates the same kind of life-transforming resonance, but in a private, eternal form: you can touch and carry a book. This writing is more satisfying: it suits my innate confessional need. I can write a story or essay or book and it will live fully on the page, a complete entity. When I wrote plays, I always needed a crowd of others to make my work live, and those crowds were hard to come by.

This is a typical second marriage. I’ve grown up and better understand what is important, what I want. I want a sense of gratification that is less dependent on others. This marriage involves sitting quietly alone in a room most of the time, and being content with being alone. How mature, right?

But I saw the Les Mis movie earlier this week…I mouthed every word to every song, stuck in the recesses of my memory from years of detailed soundtrack comparisons. My god did I cry.

I wish I could have been a part of that movie, to act as one small but necessary facet of group creation. I miss theatre. I ache for that sense of belonging, no matter how ephemeral and fabricated it may be.

My divorce was the right decision for my mental health. Theatre could never love me as much as I loved it. I love narrative nonfiction much less, and my smaller investment of emotion means there is less chance of getting hurt. There is a chance for a mutual and deeply satisfying, if reserved, relationship. Partners who sleep separately, I suppose, rather than having mind-blowing sex every night (a metaphor that is weird but appropriate).

But I guess I’m learning that clichés are annoyingly true. You never really get over your first love.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, New York City | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.