Tag Archives: travel

Rome is where the heart is

I recently returned from an eight-day Italian vacation. I went by myself. And it was heavenly. 

Planning proved a challenge. With no constraints and no need to compromise or collaborate, it was hard to drill down on where and when I wanted to go, how to split my time, in which neighborhood to stay, Airbnb or hotel, activities… Faced with so many decisions, I became paralyzed.

Months of inaction yielded insight. It struck me how seldom we get to do whatever the hell we want, within budget and reason, of course. And even more rare is actually following through on our dreams. I met people on this trip who moved to Rome for a short stint or the long haul because perché no? There are a lot of things in this world that are hard to navigate but figuring out how to live abroad is certainly worth the effort. I’m not planning on moving, but I am certainly going to start planning my next solo adventure. 

In addition to all those choices large and small, the unknown causes me anxiety—even renting a car in an unfamiliar city can cause me mild panic. I have flown solo to Europe many times, but usually with someone waiting at the other end of the journey to stay or pal around with. 

To calm my agita, I read guidebooks, practiced Italian with Duolingo, booked tours in advance, and checked out train timetables. I heeded a million well-intentioned warnings about pickpockets and scam artists, and worried about being out of contact with work for a week-plus. 

All of my preperations faded into the background and my worry melted away like gelato on a hot day after my first walk around Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. My body was so filled with joy and wonder that there was no room for negative feelings. Why spend the money to fly around the world if you aren’t going to utterly juice it up? 

With my leg looped through my handbag strap, I dined al fresco that first night with strangers, a lovely couple on their honeymoon. A gay couple from New York, they immediately felt like home. Rome felt like home, actually. I walked all over the city, often at night and often licking gelato, completely at ease even though my international roaming didn’t work and I had to rely on a paper map and my own sense of direction on Rome’s twisty cobblestone streets. Getting out of my comfort zone, I found a preferable kind of comfort that comes from curiosity and expansiveness. I even reached out to my crypts and catacombs tour guide and asked if he wanted to get together later in the week. Okay, I might have been a little day drunk, but he was from Maryland and Philly and was wicked funny so he felt a little bit like home, too. But it could have been the vino bianco…

I had dinner with a bald novelist another night, an ex-pat from Canada. He walked me around to all his favorite spots near Piazza Navona, mostly churches which were all closed for some reason, but we happened upon an ancient library, musty with the smell of precious books and handwritten ledgers. We ate at Armando’s, a legendary restaurant next to the Pantheon. Again, it felt like home, and not in the “global citizen” kind of way. The tiny restaurant, with its 70s wood paneling and friendly waiters, was reminiscent of a hole-in-the-wall gem you might find in Chicago or Philly, and totally my jam.

I spend a lot of time in solitude but still worried that I might be lonely on vacation without someone to nudge when my Vatican tour guide says “In peculiar” instead of “In particular” or to share a sight of such singular beauty that I’m brought to tears. I noted all of these things by myself and my experience might have been richer for it. I later shared some of these moments with friends on social media or via text. It was a lovely ritual, actually. At night with wine-stained teeth, I’d fall exhausted into bed, edit my photos and reach out around the world to the people who anchor me. As my stepmom Pat said about one of my Facebook posts, “I’m really enjoying your trip.” Yes, I felt she was on the adventure with me. 

While in Florence, I met up with Joe and Ken, the newlyweds I met on my first night in Rome. I joined them on a rooftop bar that overlooked the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio and the Ponte Vecchio. I hope to see them again the next time I’m in New York.

I celebrated my love of my own life this week. I am generally a snarky person and hate the whole #blessed sentiment. However. This week as I dragged my 51-year-old body to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica and down into a chapel made of the bones of Capuchin monks, as I walked 79.8 miles through the streets of these two glorious cities, I was profoundly thankful that my body and my life allowed me to have all of it. Including 14 flavors of gelato. More of this, please.

So this is a bit of a call to action. Don’t wait for your person or the perfect opportunity or the right time. Don’t let anxiety slow your roll. Do it now, for no other reason than because you and your body can. Find more places out there that feel like home, be it an OG Italian restaurant, strangers who show you kindness, ancient ruins that provide sanctuary to cats, the top of a church or the cool dark of ingenious catacombs, the smell and suppleness of a leather shop, art that transformed the world. Let your senses run amok. And, yeah, always keep an eye on your wallet.

My vacation “homes”: Finding your tribe, finding yourself, in the unlikeliest of places

Sometimes I want to go where everybody knows your name. And (if you’re lucky) they’re always glad you came.

My favorite vacation spots are places that somehow manage to feel like home. During my 20s and 30s, I drove to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware whenever possible. My friends Ken and Richard took me under my wing when I was fresh out of college and let me crash at their pad more times than I can count.

Richard grew up in Rehoboth and his family operates the beach concessions, including chairs, umbrellas, and food shacks. This means he knows EVERYONE in town. Ken used to wait tables and now manages the best restaurant in town, where people dine on sweetbreads and tiramisu while perusing the current art exhibit on the walls. (Richard, a fine artist, has a show there every other summer.) Ken knows everyone as well. They are a serious seashore power couple.

I consider Rehoboth my home away from home, and I’ve felt that way ever since my toes touched sand, my teeth sank into a Thrasher’s fry, and I met all the colorful and warm people who live in and visit Rehoboth. Everything just fit into place and it’s now one of the few places where I can truly relax and feel right at home.

Living in the northwest, I’ve come to feel similarly about a handful of places—Whidbey and Orcas islands, in particular. But I never thought I’d feel that way on a tiny island in the South Pacific. For all of my waxing rhapsodic about Rehoboth, I’m not a warm-weather person. I will usually choose the chill of the Northwest to the humid beaches of the tropics. But on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, I’ve come to feel right at home, even as I swat mosquitos and dart in and out of the sun.

And it’s because of the people. Cook Islanders are Maoris and slip back and forth between their native language and English. But their welcoming nature is constant. Carl and I just returned after almost a whole month on the small island. That much time allowed us to ease into the relaxed pace of the islanders. Rather than overscheduling due to a massive case of FOMO that many vacationers experience, we were able to pick and choose activities, based on how we felt and the invitations that cropped up. We decided on dinner based on what Carl caught when he went out fishing with Black Jack. Usually it was tuna but we had a killer dinner of fish and chips made with fresh wahoo. Black also gifted us a haunch of pork, hoof still attached. The Boat Shed or Tupuna’s didn’t stand a chance in the face of pulled pork.

Black invited us to his home for a barbecue, which we found out was a birthday celebration for his 18-year-old daughter. We were the only Caucasians in attendance but I’ll tell you what, I quickly relaxed because I realized I was experiencing the alternate version of my Midwestern upbringing. It all was comfortingly familiar: the men told tall tales and railed against Trump while knocking back bottles of beer and Black Jack carefully tended to the grill, cooking up marinated fish rather than burgers and hot dogs. The table was laden with what I think of as standard “American” picnic fare: potato salad and cole slaw. Those dishes were joined by ika mata (the island’s signature dish of tuna in lime and coconut milk), bananas, and boiled arrowroot. We said grace and sang happy birthday (that awful song is the same even in the southern hemisphere). It was as if I met a swarthier version of my own family. In a word, lovely.

With Onu, owner of Bubbles Below

A photo of myself I never imagined I’d see

And then there was Onu (the Maori word for “turtle”), a sturdy, good-natured man who owns the diving company on the island. He talked me into a “Discovery Dive,” an idea that would never float in the U.S. because of the liability concerns. But to my surprise, I found myself swimming 13 meters underwater while a sea turtle and manta rays wafted by. It was enchanting.

Not so magical was wiping out on my scooter. But Miles, the manager of our bungalow turned into the driveway right after I managed to park the scooter. He got me a first-aid kit and bent bits and pieces back into the place on the bike. Between my accident and our constant issues with wi-fi, I suspect we were pretty high maintenance but he was always kind and accommodating. Sonja, who owns a café and garden market, added some fresh aloe to my tomatoes, basil and starfruit basket so I could tend to my road rash. Jean, who runs a fresh fruit ice cream stand, took out a giant mud crab from her freezer to show me.

These were all people we can’t wait to spend time with during our next visit. The thing is, when I was on Aitutaki—as in Rehoboth—I’m a person I can’t wait to spend time with. I stop and talk with strangers, I listen to their stories, I’m curious, I’m spunkier. Everyone acknowledges that travel widens your perspective but I’d also add that it helps move you closer to your best self, something that gets lost in our daily schedules and routines. And when you find a tribe at your travel destination, your best self is reflected back at you.

Michelle Obama once said that it bugged her when people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up because that assumed that we arrive at some sort of fixed state when we are actually always becoming. I hope your summer travels take you to a place where you can continue becoming an even more astonishing version of yourself (minus the road rash).


Food issues

I don’t think of myself as high maintenance, but rather mildly OCD. I like straight corners and tidy piles. And I like to know where my next meal is coming from.

I have often wondered where my obsession over future meals originated. I have pinpointed two reasons for this. First, I have two older brothers and growing up, we were always racing to the bottom…of the bowl. If I didn’t grab that extra slice of pizza, it would end up in John’s belly, not on my plate. When we had popsicles in the house, I would squirrel away one or two in the downstairs freezer, the one where Mom put up all her veggies for the winter in airtight plastic containers. I thought the white-sheathed popsicles would fade into the whiteness of the freezer but damn if my brothers didn’t ferret them out without comment.

When my parents split up when I was 12, groceries duties fell by the wayside and the cupboards became bare, except for an errant tube of barley soup starter that Dad liked to use.

But that was decades ago and I still eat my food too fast and while swallowing the last bite of my lunch, I’m already forecasting a dinner plan. As a privileged American, this is not usually a problem. Food is abundant, from stocked supermarkets to tasty takeout to fine dining.

The Cook Islands are another story. Located in the South Pacific (look at a globe, find Hawaii, and then trace a line south past the equator), it’s a popular vacation spot for New Zealanders. My partner Carl and I are on our second vacation on Aitutaki, the most beautiful of the islands, due to the large jaw-dropping lagoon that encircles it. For each trip, we have checked a bag full of food staples: microwavable rice packets, oatmeal, peanut butter, crackers, chocolate, olive oil, mayonnaise, tea and coffee, non-dairy creamer, gin, spices… This seems excessive but the “grocery stores” here are more like corner bodegas with erratic and limited supplies of fresh produce. One day you’ll nab a head of lettuce and that’s it: there’s nothing else to put in your salad. On our first trip, I bought a snack pack of nuts at the store, chopped them up, and sprinkled them on top of the greens. I thought I was a culinary wizard.

Initially, this scarcity of produce caused me agita. But I have learned to embrace the challenge of putting together a meal with limited ingredients, rather than dining at one of the few restaurants on the island. It’s basically a daily Top Chef challenge. Carl has gone deep-sea fishing a couple of times, bringing home a plastic bag of fresh tuna. We’ve grilled it simply, we marinated it in teriyaki sauce, and in the height of indulgence, Carl grilled the rest up and made the best tuna salad ever.

I scored some tomatoes and basil from Tauono’s, a garden market and café on the island owned by Sonja, an Austrian woman. There’s little to no dairy on Aitutaki because all the foodstuffs come over on container ships and dairy wouldn’t fare well. There are a few goats tied to palm trees but otherwise the only livestock on the island are pigs and free-range chickens who roam the beaches and cockadoodledoo all hours of the day and night. Anyway, I sliced those tomatoes, chopped some basil, drizzled olive oil and balsamic over the plate, sprinkled Italian seasoning, and had the healthiest “Caprese” salad in a 2,000-mile radius. Who needs fresh mozzarella?

Black Jack, the captain who takes Carl fishing, gave him a haunch of pork, hoof still attached. We popped it in the oven and roasted it low and slow, hoof poking out of the roasting pan. When that was done, Carl shredded it and made pulled pork. I took an eggplant I found at Sonja’s, diced it in large chunks and roasted it in a bit of the pork drippings. I diced a starfruit, added lime, red onion, and salt to make an island salsa. There was a milestone birthday celebration going on down the beach but the real party that night was in my mouth.

I feel like a French woman, letting the day’s offerings (as limited as they may be here) dictate the meal. But actually, maybe I’m just becoming an islander. I’m off to the store to see if I can get a red pepper (called capsicum here) before they run out. Maybe I can roast that with another eggplant tonight. I’m already thinking about dinner and it’s not even lunchtime yet. But at least I’m not panicked about it.



Dispatches from an unwilling wild woman: Going feral under protest

I forgot my tweezers.

This sounds like a minor to non-existent problem. But if you know me at all, you’ll get why this is causing me no small measure of agita.

Originally used to pluck a stray eyebrow, my Tweezermans have become a trusted partner in my fight against whiskers, nose hair, and middle age. As I march toward 50, my body is starting to betray me. It’s particularly painful because it’s been so good to me for decades—only a few gray hairs poke out through my brunette dye job. My skin, thanks to hats, sunscreen, meticulous skincare, and some strange deal with the devil I’m unaware of, takes a decade off my appearance. My body is pretty much the same shape, give or take 15 pounds, that it’s been since my 20s.

But I’ve been waging a daily war against facial hair in all forms for quite some time. I’ll be washing my face in the shower when I feel the beginnings of a stiff chin whisker. In front of a steamy mirror, I hunt and peck until I gain purchase with the slanted point of my tweezers. Muttering to myself like Jack to Rose as he freezes in the mid-Atlantic, “never let go, never let go.” If I lose my hold on the whisker nubbin or break it off, it will take another day or two to pinpoint it between my tweezers.

I don’t have crazy nose hair but over time, tiny black strands have started to creep out like sentient beings looking for escape from my dim nasal cave. Those are a bitch to pluck, but at least I can see them.

The biggest problem these days, however, is my mustache. I’ve never really had to bleach or wax my lip because the hair was light and sparse. Not so much any more. Darker hairs have sprouted among the light fur that is coming in fast and making me furious. I do a daily check, tweezers in hand, to ferret out the biggest offenders. About once a week, I try to take out a lot of the lighter peach fuzz so I don’t look like a 13-year-old boy trying to grow his first ’stache. I stopped waxing a while back because I got a red rash and little white bumps all along my upper lip after the hair was ripped off my face. With my tweezers, I can control my pain and the aftermath.

This brings us to now. I’m on a four-week workcation with my bushy eyebrowed partner (another reason for the tweezers) on a remote island in the South Pacific. A week in, a screw came out, dislodging one of the temples on my prescription sunglasses. After panicking for a day, I put a paper clip through the tiny holes and temporarily fixed the problem. But I haven’t been able to find a lifehack for the tweezers.

I’ve thought around the problem, trying to Macgyver something. My partner pulls at his stray eyebrows like someone afflicted with trichotillomania. Nothing found in nature will dislodge my hair, however. None of the kitchen utensils are delicate enough to do the job. I wondered if the clip on my pen could clamp down on the biggest offenders but the angles are all wrong. Maybe nail clippers could mow down my mustache.

We joke that we’re going feral, but secretly I don’t find it that funny. I find it slightly mortifying. I embrace the wild woman within me, but don’t want to look like a savage on the surface. I planned on letting my hair go on the trip, knowing a color and cut would get trashed by the sun and watersports, and scheduled an appointment for the week I return home. I stopped wearing makeup here except for a little CC cream with SPF on my cheeks because everything just slides off in the humidity. But the hoary hairy signposts on my face suggest not acceptance of aging, but of a surrender. Vacation is a time for relaxing so I guess that means relaxing my beauty standards and giving myself over to the experience. But I’m not ready to wave the white flag just yet.

Channeling my inner Frenchwoman

My first trip to Paris was really before the age of blogs and smart phones took hold. I know; hard to imagine. It was 2003 and it was my very first trip outside of North America. I went with my friend Fil, a seasoned traveler, who gamely let me drag her all over the city. In a week, we hooved it to the top of the Eiffel Tower and L’Arc de Triomphe. We sped through the Louvre and lingered in the Musée d’Orsay. We ventured into a far-flung arrondissement to hit a flea market that snaked along a neighborhood street for a mile.

Then were there the churches. Notre Dame, Saint-Chapelle, Sacré Coeur. We ate pretty crappy meals because we didn’t prepare or research. We shopped, we sat in cafés for café au laits and pain au chocolats. We rode in a bateau mouche down the Seine, passing under one famous bridge after another in the soft dusky light. I took lots of photos with black-and-white film. Yes, film.

I was manic.

I had to see everything for fear that it might be my only time there, or anywhere for that matter. I was sightseeing out of fear. It was only when I stepped into the dark recesses of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, dotting my forehead with holy water, that I calmed the fuck down. I was in the oldest church in Paris, established in 542 with the present church dating to the 11th century.

“Perspective, Jen,” I told myself. “This moment, right now, here, in this holy place, is what matters.”

I left there altered, and walked to nearby Les Deux Magots for another frothy mug of café and started really breathing in Paris. I stopped feeling on the clock and started feeling in the world.

I hope I can set that intention here, now, at my layover at Schiphol Airport, so that I can savor every last morsel of ma belle vie.

After weeks of stress and preparation, I can feel anxiety ebbing away, being replaced with a lovely sort of “come what may.” Maybe my American energy is surrendering to the charm of French puttering, of a lingering pace and pulse of life.

All that’s left to do is to cue some Edith Piaf and peace out.

An obsessive-compulsive goes abroad

My friend Kathy asked me today what I need to feel safe and secure while traveling. I didn’t even have to think twice.

“I have to keep things organized. I have to stick to my rituals.” As an example, I don’t let anything stray more than a couple of feet from my suitcase (shoes get lined up next to the suitcase, toiletries are corralled into a tight formation on the bathroom counter). I just heard an interview with David Sedaris, who said he does the exact same thing when traveling to avoid leaving anything behind. I found this incredibly comforting.

My OCD starts way before I buckle into my cramped seat in coach. I think about this shit ALL the time as I prepare for a trip. My mind, when it sees an opening, beelines toward obsession. As you can imagine, a two-week trip to France with multiple stops is catnip for my OCD.

First come the lists.
My packing list, my “things to do before I go” list, my “things to do and see and eat when I am en France” list, my “people to buy souvenirs for and send postcards to” list. You get the idea.

I like everything about lists. I like to check and cross items off them. I like to revise and rewrite lists, creating various subheads and columns. The whole process calms and reassures.

Then comes the packing.
The shoes take precedence. Sadly, as I’ve marched on wobbly heels into the plantar fasciitis and brittle bones of middle age, I have to rethink my take on shoes that show off my figure and opt instead for sensible brogues that will suffer the cobblestones of Paris. #firstworldproblem, je sais.

I’ve added a new wrinkle to my packing plan. At this moment, I’m wearing three pieces that I plan on taking with me. As I dressed in this outfit of cargo pants, sweater, and drapey jacket, I had a sad epiphany. “Over the next week, I’ll try wearing all the items I plan on packing to see if they really work with each other and are worthy of claiming a spot in the rolly bag!” At this point, I realized I had ascended to a new level in my compulsive planning, much like Tom Cruise becoming an Operating Thetan Level 8.

In a word, crazytown.

But I own my choices, both in life and my wardrobe. So after I’ve roadtested outfits, I’ll turn my attention to actually packing the suitcase.

With the help of aforementioned friend Kathy, a world-traveler with impeccable taste and an enviable jewelry collection, I’ll lay things out on my bed to optimize garments’ and accessories’ mix and matchability. We will edit things down mercilessly, until we have the most versatile and practical garments, scarves, hats, and jewelry.

Once something makes the cut, it will get rolled up tightly and without wrinkles and put in the carry-on bag, starting with heavy items like jeans and shoes (stuffed with socks or small wrapped gifts) on the bottom and working up through t-shirts and unmentionables. I leave careful ruts for my makeup bag and stuff extra Ziploc bags in the suitcase flap. Over this glorious mess, I lay my empty duffle, deflated but full of the promise of Parisian purchases.

I close the top of the suitcase and then pray that I can shut the fucker. It’s expandable, but I only want to use those extra inches on the way back, when I plan on loading it up with French skincare and body products and perfume and checking the bag. At that point, the poor Samsonite will resemble my favorite pair of teenage Guess jeans, with all my stuff straining against the seams as I struggle to zip it closed. But in this instance, laying on the floor isn’t going to do much good.

Then comes the checking and rechecking.
Do I really have my boarding pass, passport, and all the other things that I find necessary to travel with these days without incurring massive anxiety? Did I really set my phone alarm properly? I always sleep horribly before every early morning flight, kept awake by the possibility of an iPhonefail, where my alarm—the one that I checked at least three times before I turned off the light—didn’t for once go off. Laying there in the dark, eyes wide open, I figure I can avoid caffeine and just sleep on the flight. Then I turn the light back on and check that I packed Ambien in my carry-on bag.

In addition to normal stuff like snacks and Ibuprofin, for this trip I’m also packing:

  • Febreze
  • Band-Aids
  • My vintage Pucci scarf (to pull the eyes up from those flat-heeled wingtips)
  • Empty nylon Sportsac duffle (for bringing back all my loot)
  • Some cash to convert (in the rare instance my ATM card doesn’t work at Charles de Gaulle)
  • Small guidebook and map
  • Digestive enzymes, Prilosec, Tums and green powder (acid reflux + wine + cheese = heaven on a plate, hell in the gut)
  • Stevia packets for all those cafés au lait
  • Lock for my suitcase (in case I store my bags at a hotel before check in)
  • Una’s wrist warmers (so my hands are warm while fingers can hunt and gather)

For the plane:

  • Antihistamines (after one stealth sinus infection mid-flight, I’m taking no chances)
  • Knitting project (small shawl pattern that fits in a quart Ziploc)
  • 1-2 books
  • Heavy clothing (While traveling, I wear my bulkiest items, like overcoat and knee-high boots, to free up room in the suitcase)
  • Shawl (doubles as a blanket or pillow)
  • iPhone (loaded with podcasts and the Learn French app to practice phrases and pronounciation when I have WIFI)
  • laptop & hard copy of my memoir in progress (in case muse strikes)

I’m obsessive, compulsive, and neurotic, but I’ve learned to use it for good over evil. Do you overthink your travel? What makes you feel safe and secure while traveling?