Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Making peace with Madrid; exploring the barrios

August 3, 2015

Like a defiant, self-absorbed bad boy who refuses to follow the rules, Madrid has always seemed to be wrapped up in a sort of Bacchian narcissism that’s not entirely interested in you unless you go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do. And that typically means partying all night, until seven in the morning, drinking pacharáns and grazing tapas. Unfortunately, I go to bed at eight (and don’t drink much), which makes it rather difficult for me and Madrid to find common ground, let alone get to know each other more intimately.

But try I do. And, as with any strained familial relationship, I visit each year, with slight reservation, always trying to see the good, for the sake of getting along.

Why I try so hard is simple: it’s the home of my kids’ grandparents. And if it weren’t for them, whom I love dearly, Madrid and I would have parted ways back in 1997, when I packed my bags and said, good riddance.

I used to live in Vallecas on calle Monte Igueldo when I was first married. We lived in a two-bedroom piso on the forth floor of an apartment building with no heat or hot water due to an empty butane tank that took a good two months for the butane company to fill. It was December and it was cold as hell. It even snowed.  I used to percolate hot water in my coffee machine (we did have electricity) and mix it with a bit of cold water so that I could wash myself. We were so broke that McDonald’s was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

Poverty gave me a very limited and rather working-class understanding of the city.  I knew key tourist spots that you could visit for free–the Plaza Mayor, where Americans and Brits would sit at cafes that lined the inner courtyard, the Retiro, Madrid’s version of “Central Park,” the Rastro, a huge Sunday flea market in Lavapies, and Casa de Campo–another big green space that includes a pool, tennis courts, and a park. But other than that, I worked every day as an English teacher and commuted with the throngs of Madrileños, heading to Recoletos, up the Castellano or other parts of the city. And because I had no set location, no office or classroom–I took an English teaching job wherever one was offered–I probably spent more time underground than above it. Pair that with a hubby who didn’t exactly have friends that I could relate to or socialize with (he and his childhood friends would meet once a week to play Dungeons and Dragons, or drink at Irish pubs). And so, I never experienced the deeper Spanish roots of the city–or found any of those unwritten-about places that are not discovered, per se, but shared like a secret, among friends.

I think I may have actually said, me cago en la leche, when I finally left Madrid but who knows.

Yet, I keep coming back. As often as I can. And if I am to be brutally honest, I have to admit that it may be partly for selfish reasons. There are, after all, the warm and embracing Spanish people. And the amazing food. And the dry, desert climate I love so much.  The European experience is well-preserved in Spain. And Madrid, itself, while lacking in aesthetics, has the potential for deeper exploration. And so, each time I come here, I have the best intentions: to see a side of Madrid I never knew, overlook our rocky past, and once and for all learn to love this untamed rebel.

Lodging

Last year, was a giant leap in that direction. I finally decided to rent an apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana as opposed to my usual– staying in Vallecas with my in-laws. What a difference!

We were able to explore more of the center instead of just taking the train in for a few hours. We were free to dine out at night–though it kills me to miss anything my mother-in-law cooks. And we were able to connect a little more directly with the vibe of Madrid, as we were right there in the heart of the city, living la vida, as opposed to being insulated in a touristy hotel, or isolated in an outer barrio.

Foregoing a hotel to stay in one of the new-style super modern luxury apartments has other benefits too. There’s far more space for less money, it’s far more modern than any hotel in Madrid (with the exception of Only You a sleek, modern hotel at $350 a night, or  Oscar, in the gayborhood, which is beautiful, including the naked men on the walls, but not the best spot for two teen boys and their mum; basically a sex hotel in Chueca, easily identified by the banner over it’s front door “Do You Want to Sleep With Me?”) Leon II, Madrid

Check out Spain Select. They offer fully-furnished two, three and four bedroom luxury apartments in the heart of Madrid. Ours this year is a two bedroom, two bath apartment with a fully equipped kitchen (including washer and dryer),  living room and views galore for the price of € 135 (that’s roughly $150 a night based on the exchange rate on 7/21/15). It’s located on Calle Leon on a quieter street than the Plaza Santa Ana, which can be a party plaza.

Keep in mind, normal hotel rooms in Madrid are small. So, if you’re traveling with two rather large teenagers, or children in general, you’d most likely need two rooms or a suite. Apartments solve that problem. Of course, you will have to cover your own bed. But, I think I can handle that.

Barrios

Years ago, I would do my usual loop around the center: Sol, then the Plaza Mayor, a little of the Gran Via, Atocha, Retiro, maybe the royal palace, and that was pretty much it. This trip is all about branching out. And if you’re no stranger to Madrid, my guess is you already know about this gems.

Malasaña: I have since discovered the hipster Malasaña district, with pleasant delight, never knowing it existed. Duh. With cool cafes like La Bicicleta, that offers amazing coffee and French croissants, and a pretty well thought-out “workspace” (tables have drawers with keys so that you can leave your laptop locked up without losing your space when you go to the W/C), and Lolina Vintage Cafe, a thoroughly mesmerizing cafe popping with color and design (and a kind of quirky menu), it’s hard to resist this bohemian, vibrant district. The Plaza del Dos de Mayo is its center and it has great vintage and trendy clothing shops, fabulous bars and hip cafes.  Use metro Tribunal.

Huertas: This year, we will be staying in the Huertas neighborhood, which is the literary quarter:

Also known as Barrio de las Letras, Huertas was once home to prominent literary figures, Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega among them. Calle Huertas itself is inlaid with quotes from celebrated authors, street names pay homage to them, and second-hand bookshops pervade. neighborhood, everything becomes a little more cramped and slightly less refined, and takes on more of an underground feel. Live music is at the heart of Huertas: by night, its subdued bars are ideal for meeting friends, sipping cocktails, and chatting quietly while enjoying jazz or singer-songwriter performances. –TripAdvisor

Be sure to stroll down the narrow calle de las Huertas, which has the Plaza de Angel and Plaza Santa Ana on one end, and the Paseo del Prado on the other.  This area is also known for its jazz clubs, live music venues like Cafe Central, neighborhood bookstores, The Teatro Español, and yes, more cafes and restaurants. Best people-watching spot: an outdoor cafe on the Plaza Santa Ana.

La Latina: 

While I’ve known about La Latina for quite a while (it is, after all where the Palacio Royal and a part of Plaza Mayor are located), I have never explored it as thoroughly as I’d like, nor have I done so knowing its history. La Latina is the oldest quarter in Madrid, and one of the most beautiful. It is here you will find the best concentration of tapas bars, including Café Bar DelicCasa Lucas, and Casa Lucio, the latter two located on calle Cava Baja, one of the oldest streets in Madrid and a popular cafe street in La Latina. Interestingly, the Cava Baja (and its twin street, the Cava Alta) were named after caves or “moats” that allowed subterranean access to Christians and Moors who could enter and exit the city even when the doors of the walled city were closed. In later years, merchants who would come to the city to trade would stay on these streets, which were lined with inns and taverns. 

Also in La Latina is Madrid’s oldest street, the calle de Grafal, which, according to historians, dates back to 1190. But stick to the calles Cava Alta and Cava Baja where all the action is. And only long after dark.

La Latina’s main squares are the Plaza La Cebada and Plaza La Paja. And you can also find the Rastro, a huge flea market open on Sundays in La Latina. 

To read more about Madrid’s neighborhoods, TripAdvisor has a great page devoted to them.

 

 

 

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Rail trip across France, Spain

May 23, 2014

“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Trying to get back to Europe is no easy feat (lorsque le temps viendrait!). Airline tickets can cost, at the cheapest, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,800 per person. Decent hotels in big cities like London, Paris and Madrid are usually over $200 a night. Forget about hotels by the beach in July and August. And while rail travel is still relatively inexpensive, it’s not what it used to be. Of course, you can definitely do Europe on a budget. Staying in hostals and sharing a shower with a bunch of backpacking twentysomethings is probably your top best budget saver. But, really? Not for a family of four.  So…bide your time, save your money and try to devote a few hours per week to perusing TripAdvisor for deals and tips and soon enough, you’ll have a realistic idea of how much you’ll need for the trip of your dreams.

Style, budget and space, check!

A rail trip across France and into Spain not only requires money but time. Reasearch time, in particular. Hours of Google searching went into each of these hotels, painstakingly trying to find ones that fit into my budget, without compromising that one commodity I just don’t ever want to give up: atmosphere.  Being the hotel snob that I am, any place I stay must have that certain je ne sais quoi, that ambience that delivers a true “I’m in Europe” feel. And believe it or not, that “feel” is not easy to find. Many hotels across Europe are plain, simple, and at best, functional. They may have a stunning reception area, but rooms oftentimes can be barren (a bed, end table, TV and bathroom), and lacking in what I call an American idealized version of what we think a hotel in Europe should be. Worse yet, is that in certain cities the hotel fashion at the moment happens to be all-American, New England, circa 1982 (ahem, Madrid, I’m talking about you. You go from the sublime to the ridiculous). The worst though are the hotels along the coast in France and Spain. Little seaside resorts that are inundated in summer with European travelers. Booking three months in advance isn’t soon enough. You need to grab some of the better hotels six months to a year in advance, or get stuck with the typical highrise hotel room that makes you feel more like you’re in Wildwood, NJ than on the Costa Brava.  Lastly, and most importantly, is that when you travel as a family through Europe, it’s almost impossible to find big rooms with a separate living area. Many times what they offer are quadruple rooms, or “quads” which is basically two double beds smushed together in one small room. And while that may save you money, you just may end up killing each other by the end of your trip. I hate to be a whiny, privileged American girl, but — when you’re traveling together for 18 days straight, you need your space. So, all of the rooms I booked either had connecting rooms, a separate bedroom area or, we simply rented two rooms.

OK, so…the particulars… This particular itinerary is an 18-day rail trip, consisting of  seven stops, beginning in London and ending in Madrid. Because my kids’ grandparents live in Madrid, we saved it for last, where we will stay for five days in an apartment, not a hotel (I’ll get to why, below). Every other stop along the way will be a two-day stop. Had we not extended our stay in Madrid, we probably would have gone from Barcelona over to Pamplona (one day) then to Bilbao (two days) and then Madrid. Each hotel is in walking distance of public transportation, either directly walking from the main train stations, or by connecting Metro stops. The only time where this is not the case is in Annecy, France, where we plan to rent a car from Paris and drive to Annecy (in the French Alps). We are doing this for two reasons: once in Annecy, we would like to take what we believe is a 45-minute car ride to Geneva, Switzerland (a train ride from Annecy to Geneva apparently takes three hours, due to a gazillion stops and layovers along the way), and so that when my husband has to go back to Paris the next day, to head home, he can simply take the car back, and drop it off at Charles du Gaul airport. If you would like actual cost of the trip, or hotel recommendations, please feel free to comment. And of course, when I get back, I will give my firsthand account of how it all panned out!

LONDON, ENGLAND • HOTEL: The Academy Hotel,
 21 Gower Street, Bloomsbury 
London
WC1E (Tube Goodge Street- Northern Line 6HG)(Two night, family room) I chose this hotel (instead of the Think Apartment Hotel, which I had originally booked) because it was a little cheaper and it was a little more central to where I wanted to be. This hotel is in the literary Bloomsbury district in walking distance to Covent Garden. Their family room consists of two separate bedrooms and a living area. It doesn’t look too fancy, but London hotels are extremely expensive. We’re lucky to have found what we hope will be a nice place. • TRAIN: Aprox. 2 hours, EuroRail Train London-Saint Pancras to Paris Nord (four persons $459)

PARIS, FRANCE • HOTEL: Villa Pantheon, 41 Rue Des Ecoles 5th arr. – Quartier Latin Paris, 75005 (Metro Maubert Mutualite) (Adjoining rooms) Also pricey are hotels in Paris. This is a British-style hotel supposedly in the Latin Quarter, but it’s if it is, it’s on the very edge. It’s much closer to the Saint-Germain-des-Près area, farther south-east. But the area itself is another favorite area of mine–right by the Pantheon, and of course, in the heart of Paris, on the left bank. Here, we reserved connecting rooms. • Rental Car Company: Auto Europe. Picking up a midsize car at the Gare du Lyon around the corner and heading to Annecy (aprox 5h 30m )

ANNECY, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Les Tresoms 3 Boulevard De La Corniche Annecy, France TELEPHONE: +33-450514384 I wanted to splurge a bit at this location. When will we ever be back in the French Alps? Why not have a hotel room on Lake Annecy? A bit over budget, but hopefully worth it. • TRAIN to Aix-en Provence (aprox 3h39m)

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Aquabella 2 Rue Des Etuves, Aix-en-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhone, 13100 This hotel is right in the center of town 11 minutes walking distance from the main train station. I can’t forget to have some ratatouille while here, and of course, a little bit of red wine de Provence. We reserved two separate rooms at this hotel because of their size. And unfortunately, there is only one late night train to Aix from Annecy, so we will pretty much lose a day here. Quel dommage! • TRAIN: (About 2h30m to Sete)

Update: this hotel was a huge disappointment–very unclean and definitely not as up-to-date as the photos would have you think. However, it is very close to a charming plaza right off the rue Merindol, before you hit the the Place Forum de Cardeurs where we had a great Moroccan dinner in an outdoor cafe, called Le Pe’tit Tagine. My suggestion: if you want to experience Aix, rent a house in the countryside

SETE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Le Grand Hotel, 17 Quai Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, Sète, France. This is one of those places that has probably become far grander in my imagine that it is in reality. I say this because the hotel looks amazing, yet the town looks completely lacking. In fact, it looks as if it’s just a canal town. And yet, it’s Provence. I’ll make the best of it. • TRAIN: (aprox 3h3m)

BARCELONA, SPAIN • HOTEL: Hotel Duquesa de Cardona 4* Sup.Passeig Colom 12 – 08002 (Metro: Jaume 1 or Drassanes) Barcelona (España). This is another stuning hotel with a roof top bar and pool overlooking the sea. Here, we will be staying in their largest room, the Junior Suite La Duquesa, with double balconies and a separate bedroom. Once I arrive in Spain I believe I can finally relax! I speak Spanish far better than French, and I am far more at ease here as I know the customs much better. Además, este es el país del padre de mis hijos. • TRAIN: (about 3 h 5 m)

MADRID, SPAIN • HOTEL: Apartment Plaza de Santa Ana 1, 2º Dcha B, 28004, Madrid (Metro: Anton Martin. Apartment arrivals can be made between 4.00 pm. and 9.00 pm. Last but not least! Madrid, my old home! Because we normally stay with my in-laws, I have never had need for a hotel in Madrid. However, now that my sons are so big, and we all take up so much room, it’s time we got a place of our own. When I looked into hotels in Madrid, I was greatly disappointed. And then I remembered apartment rentals for a similar price. Bingo! For under the cost of a hotel room with two double beds and a bath, we will be renting a two bedroom apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana (one of the most popular plazas in the center of town), a huge living room, kitchen two bathrooms and a dining room. Outrageous. It’s also right near the Tirso de Molina metro stop, which means it’s a direct line to my kids’ grandparents’ house in Vallecas.

Feel free to share this itinerary. And if you have any questions, comment below!

24 hours in Paris

July 17, 2012

If you see one city in Europe in your lifetime, let it be Paris. It’s one  of those places that you can continue to discover and rediscover for years. Ten days, two weeks, a month is often not enough. But,  if you only have 24 hours for the City of Lights the below itinerary might be just enough to give you a decent feel for what Paris has to offer.

In 1989 I lived there, in a little flat in Les Halles and got to know the city quite well. It took me 23 years to get back and sadly, I only had one day. Here was my list of mandatory stops…

Arriving at night

  • 7PM Arrival by train at the Gare du Nord (nearly all trains from the north, including ones from Charles du Gaulle airport lead to Gare du Nord. It’s also the most central of the stations).
  • 7:25 Follow signs for the Metro (M) and take the dark purple/brown line (#4) to Les Halles. From Les Halles, connect underground and and get off at the Tuilleries.
  • 8PM Drop your bags off at the Hotel Lotti on the rue Castiglione where you’ll be staying (go ahead, splurge. It’s only one night). Le Lotti is a fabulous, old world, (expensive) hotel where you can truly get a sense of what it must have felt like to live in Paris circa 1792. We opted for the bigger room with sliding doors in between a bedroom and a sitting room with a writing desk. How can you spend a night in Paris without waking up to a writing desk, especially when it overlooks the street?!
  • 8:30 Freshen up and then head out, down the rue St. Honore. Aside from all the luxury window shopping you’ll want to do (Hello haute couture!), you’ll need to eat. So, grab a typical cafe-style dinner at Le Coupe D’Or. Le thé glacé est magnifique!
  • 9:30 The Louvre. Head back toward the rue du Rivoli and cross the bridge. You may need a map; my own recollection of how to get there is a bit sketchy. Street signs for major attractions are everywhere. Then again, wandering around Paris is half the fun.
  • 9:45 They don’t call Paris the city of lights for nothing. If you see any part of Paris by night, let it be the Tuilleries, the Louvre, the Place du la Concorde  and the Palais Royal. On a clear night, you can also see (gasp!) the Eiffel Tower from this location.
  • 10:30 Walk north along the Seine (heading toward Notre Dame), past the Pont Neuf (possibly the most famous bridge in Paris) and back into Les Halles for a taste of the more flirty, and dirty side of Paris. By this point, you should have walked off the steak frites you had for dinner. It’s time to try a chocolate crepe. No need to sit unless you need a rest. You can buy crepes from the street vendors in Les Halles (ancient markets). While here, check out the hundreds of cafes, the Georges Pompidou center of modern art and the Saint Eustache, one of the oldest churches in Paris (Mozart’s mother’s funeral took place there). If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the sound of street musicians around this area.
  • 11:30 You’re sleepy! Start heading back to your hotel. If you can, try to take the rue de 4 fils and then cut through Place du Vendome for one last spectacular site.
  • Midnight. If you’re anything like me, this is way past your bedtime. Go to sleep! You’re getting up early tomorrow.

Your One Day in Paris

  • 7AM Wake up, throw something on and go downstairs to the restaurant and order a coffee. Don’t bother with room service. Bring the coffee back to your room and do something truly, deeply Parisian. WRITE at that little desk and sip your cafe au lait.
  • 8AM After you wake and pack up your bags and head out, stop along the rue de Rivoli and have breakfast. Definitely order a croissant, and of course, another coffee (don’t worry, you’ll detox later), and try a plat du jamon (ham).
  • 9:30 Take the Metro (there are choices all up and down the rue de Rivoli) and head to St. Michel. Last night was the rive droit, today, it’s the rive gauche (left bank). Saint Michel is the indisputable heart of the left bank.
  • 11AM Head down the quai toward Notre Dame. Depending on time of year and hour of arrival, you could be waiting in a long line to get in, or you could wander through the doors as though you were the only tourist in town. Before you hit the famous church, you will most likely pass the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. This is a must stop. Go in. Buy something. The history is astounding, especially if you love to read. You’d be amazed at who waltzed through those doors and hung out upstairs amid the bookshelves.
  • 12:45 Give yourself time to wander back through the Latin Quarter, back to rue Saint Michel and all the way down the Boulevard Saint Germain. Before you leave the area of Saint Germain des Pres, you absolutely must have lunch (or at least a coffee–yes, another) at the Cafe Deux Magots. Hemingway, Fitgerald, Dororthy Parker, Picasso and Gertrude Stein were all regulars. And no matter what the season, I suggest eating outside and people watching. Another Parisian custom you can check off your list.
  • 2PM Keep walking down the Boulevard Saint Germain and head toward Montparnasse. You should be able to see the tower in front of you. If your feet hurt at this point, take a little detour to the left. The beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg is hidden a few streets back. The Palais Luxumbourg is worth the detour. At certain spots within the garden you can see the Pantheon.
  • 3pm In Montparnasse you can catch a glimpse of two more mythic cafes: La Rotonde and Le Dome, the latter of which is now a seafood restaurant. In the 1920’s, however, they were the stomping ground of some of the most famous American Expatriate writers and artists.
  • 3:30 The clock is ticking! Hop on the Metro and head to the Eiffel Tower. Any stop near “Le Tour Eifel” will do, but I believe Bir-Hakeim is your best choice from Montparnasse. Get out of the metro, turn a corner or two, and Voila! One of the most legendary edifices on the planet.
  • 4:30 From the Eiffel Tower I suggest taking a taxi to Sacre Coeur by way of the Arc du Triomphe.  No taxi driver in his right mind will want to go around the Arc because it’s a traffic nightmare. But plead with him (S’il vous plait!)  You can’t say you’ve really experienced Paris unless you’ve survived the insane traffic jams around the Arc. And besides, you get to go down the Champs Elysees. Then again, you’re short on time. You might need to save the insanity for a future visit.
  • 5PM Your tour of Paris isn’t complete until you’ve wandered around the Basilica of Sacre Coeur to the little neighborhood of Montmartre. Unfortunately, you can’t take your time. But you do have enough to spare for a quick dinner on the square. Again, sit outside and watch all the artists selling their art and painting. If you’re lucky, you’ll get harassed in French for taking a picture without consent.
  • 5:45 Take the long walk down the infamous steps of Montmartre until you’re in Pigalle (the red light district). And while you most likely can’t catch a show, you can at least pass by the Moulin Rouge right on the Boulevard de Clichy.  Again, watch that you don’t snap any photos around this area. You could get your camera snatched.
  • 6PM Catch a taxi back to Gare du Nord. You’re not far, but you want to make sure you have time to find your track and wander one last time within the confines of this grand train station.
  • 7PM Au Revoir Paris! A bientot!

Raising the dead

November 11, 2011

I cried this morning. No. I sobbed.

Pernille sent me an email regarding D and I being picked up at the airport upon our arrival in Amsterdam. We’ve known for quite some time we’d be going; we already have our tickets. So Pernille’s email was simply relating a few particulars on how we’d get from the airport to the hotel. Amsterdam is still very much happening! Within the email, however,  it listed the ways in which the others in our group would be coming into the city on or around the 21st. We would be coming in from Philadelphia. C would be flying in from London. And E would be taking the train in from Germany, I believe, and didn’t need any help getting to the hotel. It was this last bit that reminded me of trains. And this last bit that reminded me I needed to look at a map of Europe before heading to The Netherlands. It’s been a while since I’ve needed to know where anything was in Europe except Spain. Ergo, I’ve forgotten much of my geography. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s the isolationist mentality of the American who knows very little of the world save how to get to Disneyland.

Google maps. Zoom in: Amsterdam on the Markermeer sea, across the North Sea from Great Britain. To the east of Germany. To the north of Denmark, Norway, Sweden. To the south of Brussels.

To the south of Brussels. Zoom out. Draw an imaginary line with finger below Brussels. Bingo.

There it was. Staring me in the face. The proximity of Amsterdam to France, and more importantly, Paris. I sobbed with happiness and release. Twenty-two years of trying to get back to a place I could never emotionally give up. Like a torchbearer for a lost love. Four and half hours by car; three hours and nineteen minutes by high-speed train. A six a.m. ride from Station Amsterdam Centraal will get us to Paris-Nord by 9:35. Petit dejeuner at Les Deux Magots. A stroll through Les Halles.  Notre Dame.  Saint Michel. Jardin du Luxembourg. My old flat on rue Rimbuteau. Le Violon Dingue. Lunch at La Closerie des Lilas. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Henry Miller. Ezra Pound. James Joyce. Dorothy Parker. Camille Claudel. Kiki. Picasso. Ford Madox Ford. DH Lawrence. Rodin. Anais Nin. Gertrude Stein. John Dos Passos. The Louvre. Sacre Coeurs. Dinner in Montparnasse.

The Eiffel Tower.

In the years that followed my father’s death I kept having dreams that he would come back to life. I would know he was dead in the dream and then suddenly, I would walk into a secret room that I never knew existed in his house, and he’d be there in front of me, smoking a cigarette and saying something casually obvious like, “See! I’m not really dead. Just hiding out.” I would cry hysterically and hug him, and think, the nightmare is over; I have my father back. It’s that feeling of raising the dead, that it’s as simple as booking one simple train ride, on the right website, from the comfort of your home. You only have to know how to figure out the puzzle. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. I’ve always had the power to “go back.” And yet, if somebody told me it was that easy, I wouldn’t have believed it. I had to figure it out for myself.

But alas! Perhaps this is all too good to be true. I am waiting on Pernille to get back to me, regarding whether or not we are free to travel that day or have events that I might need to be present for. I am hoping for the former. I’ve come so far. I would hate to think I was given supernatural powers to resurrect the dead only to have them taken away and be turned back into a human. I may have to remind myself that the dead are long buried and there is no bringing them back. That Paris is still very muchly out of reach. At least in this lifetime. Quelle injustice!

The woman who attached herself to food with a string

August 10, 2011

Part I

It made no sense to spend the night driving from Ouarzazate to Agadir, considering that we would have to go through the Tichka pass with which neither of us were familiar. Besides, Paul wanted to take pictures and I wanted one last glimpse of the desert before reaching the coast. But another night at the Ksar Ighnda was not an option, and so we packed our bags and found an older room at a riad about two miles from the center of town.

We had no set schedule. We were itinerants addicted to the unfamiliar. And as such, we had to impose customs on ourselves within the confines of our peripatetic lifestyle. Where once our children and the daily grind of work and home dictated the entire structure of our New Jersey existence, now we were living gratis. We had returned to innocence, like free-floating kids without a lick of responsibility. On this particular night, like every other, Paul took his thé à la menthe at the café or lobby alone, while I stayed back in the room to read or nap or simply linger on my own mindlessly, doing nothing, save stare at the architecture and decor of the four walls surrounding me. At 10ish, I would join him for dinner at whatever restaurant the hotel offered. But the longer I lingered in our tiny room, the more apparent it became that the Hotel Nord offered little more than a bed, a broken air conditioner, and two open windows that looked out over the N-9 in Tabounte, a noisy suburb. I was restless. And so, despite needing the order of my alone time, I decided to join Paul early.

When I arrived, he was talking with an American, a man about our age, with grayish sandy hair and a peculiar, vapid smile–the kind you might see on a glassy-eyed, cultish Jim Jones, or Claude Vorilhon. He was dressed inappropriately for tea, and too wealthy looking for a budget hotel. He was in the midst of going on and on about the company he owned, Southern Bio Technologies, LLC., which improved bean and other crop production technologies in Central and Southern Africa. I didn’t have the patience to find out what he was doing in Morocco, let alone Tabounte, so I assumed he was here on business and like us, couldn’t find a better hotel on such short notice. I remained on the periphery of the conversation. Paul was such a good listener and so, it wasn’t uncharacteristic of him to get stuck chatting with someone he had literally nothing in common with. He was a small town, county attorney—think Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird—kindhearted and fair like Atticus too, who despite making a good living for himself and his family, had never voiced an interest in bean farming, that I know of. And yet, to his credit, he genuinely found something interesting in everyone.

But, I was burnt out on listening, or for that matter, talking. It seemed to me that most tourists were not used to the isolation of travel and so when they’d meet up with someone who spoke their language, they would incessantly ramble on about nothing— superficial, braggy stuff—where they’d been, what they owned, how they managed, “knock on wood,” to stay afloat during the economic downturn, how many kids they had in what Universities, where they were going next. If we’d mention our trip to the south of Spain, they too had been there, plus the Canaries, plus Portugal. If we mentioned we had four kids between us, two of whom were at State Universities, they had five: two in Harvard, one in Princeton, another at MIT. It got to the point where I simply didn’t care to meet or talk to anyone anymore as a method of self-preserverance. Where once a stranger was a lifeline, now he was a source of encumbrance.

Instead of socializing, I kept my head buried in a book. While in Morocco I felt as though I had no choice but to read everything by Paul Bowles, and the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo. Presently I was reading Makbara, by the latter. A chapter entitled, The Cemetery—but still catching tidbits of the American’s pontifications.

“SBT disseminates technologies to and educates thousands of bean farmers all across Africa for the purpose of transforming their subsistence farms into local, national and potentially international-selling cash crops…”

I was bored with him, until, “One of my favorite charities that SBT is involved in at the moment is assisting the little guy in his endeavor to forge a relationship with the big guy.”

“For what purpose?” I asked, placing my book on the bar. “What would the little guy want or even need from the big guy?” I already didn’t like his arrogant tone.

“So that they can buy more seeds, more readily, so as to handle the increasing demands of their crop.” He smiled.

“So basically you help make it impossible for local farmers to feed their families because suddenly they can’t afford the cost of their own crop?”

“No, my dear,” his odd smile remaining, “We are improving lives.”

Paul interjected, “my wife loves a good conspiracy.” The American laughed and invited us to his place for drinks, just across the N-9,

“I’d like you to meet my wife,” he said, looking at me in particular. “I think you’d both get along quite well.”

I assumed he meant he had a house. It’d been a while since I’d been in one and so I looked at Paul, he looked at me, and we agreed. I grabbed my book and a sweater and the three of us  headed away from the safety of hotel life into the dark, unfamiliar street.


Winter blues

January 11, 2011

"Beyond Repair"

Day two of severe mood flop. January dragging on too long…Need a distraction…Drowning in my own boredom….Help!

I’m not sure if this is the winter blues or the fact that I’m coming down from a one-month coffee high. Whatever the case, I’m miserable around this time of year. Any new and exciting stimuli is a ray of sunlight. Trouble is, I’m usually too depressed or unmotivated to actually go out and look for stuff to stimulate me. When I’m really withdrawn (hours of watching Cold Case Files and Dr. Phil) I tend to wait for someone to knock on the front door. That’s about the only thing I’ve got going for me from January until late March. Well, hello UPS guy! That package for me? No? Wrong address? But, I’m sure I ordered something online. Wait…come back..!

Of course there’s my perfect guy, and the kids, and a couple events coming up, and if I’m really in the mood, there’s always planning for a summer vacation. But I suppose it’s just my circadian hibernation rhythms taking over making all that seem, well, a little, dare I say it, bland. So while the seasonal affective disorder makes its yearly round, I’ve come up with a plan. Only read happy websites. Instead of letting the brain atrophy and the heart sink, I’ve found some interesting websites to help draw me back into the world of the living. Let’s hope these do the trick. If not, there’s always shopping online.

  • Jason Shen’s blog is, well, fun. Even though it’s a little media/corporate driven he’s come up with really inspiring blogs. One in particular is something called a “Rejection Challenge,” which, if I were single, might be a huge motivation for me to get off my arse and go ask someone out on a date. I’m a sucker for challenges, and for taking calculated risks.
  • The Happiness Project: “Happiness, many people assume, is boring – a complacent state of mind for self-absorbed, uninteresting people,” says Gretchen Rubin on her highly acclaimed website. And yet we all want it. Well, if this site doesn’t offer a nugget of how to be happy, I don’t know what else will. Peruse the site. See if you can’t find a dozen uplifting concepts. Either that, or be happy you don’t have to visit that site every day. Even for me, Gretchen can be a little too much.
  • Global Good News: This is one of my favorite sites, especially the Maharishi’s funkadelic fashion. And while it’s an India-based religious website, the designers have done a great job collecting positive news around the world.
  • TED: I was surprised to learn that not many people know about “TED,” (“Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”), so I’m posting it here as one of the greatest resources for learning ANYTHING. I could spend all day here.
  • Horse Pig Cow: Powerful woman, uplifting, inspiring, funny, brave. Subscribe. I did.
  • My Marrakesh: Simply beautiful website on Moroccan design and living. I waste time here every winter, dreaming about the desert.

Crossed off my list for good

December 31, 2010

My kids and I recently took an 8 hour drive up to Canada, just for kicks. We had nothing else to do for three days and thought it would be fun to just drive and hop a relatively close border. And it was. We got pulled over at border patrol, our car was searched, and I was told I needed “permission” from my ex to leave the country, which I knew, but forgot to get. They let us cross anyway and so, we made it to Ottawa by dinner.

We wandered down Dalhousie Street to Byward Market and amid a grouping of rather cool pubs (which I would have preferred in a pinch if I were with D) I noticed the slumping facade of the Hard Rock Cafe. Oh let’s go here! I immediately remembered my youthful self, circa 1989, and the envy of all my friends when I told them I’d not only been to the Hard Rock Cafe in NYC, but in London as well (remember the eighties when you collected visits to the Hard Rock Cafe and that made you so cool? And then that goofy Planet Hollywood came out and tried to whoop up the same fervor, but never really did, and you suddenly weren’t cool if you liked that place?).

Anyway, I thought my boys would love the HRC. And they did! But the truth is, the food was horrifying. Everything tasted fake and enhanced. J’s burger had that fake char-grilled smoke flavor on it. The sweet potato fries had some weird aftertaste and the salad had rubbery fake chicken, diced perfectly into tiny squares and yellowish white iceberg lettuce (who makes salads with just iceberg lettuce anymore?). On the walls were Britney Spear’s blue sequined shirt, Eminem’s high top sneakers (and maybe even his stinky socks), a turtleneck sweater from Alanis Morissette and a pair of ripped jeans from Shania Twain. Back in my day they had Ringo Starr’s drum pack, Jimmy Page’s guitar and Prince’s purple overcoat. Hard rock memorabilia that hung on the walls where famous people sat down and had a Guinness at the bar. The crowds now? People like me with their babies screaming and their kids running around tables, knocking over trays of rubbery chicken and greasy fries.

So, this got me thinking, firstly, that I will never go back to any Hard Rock Cafe, no matter how big the guitar above their front door. And secondly, that I will probably never go back to a long line of other crappy places. And so, this morning’s blog is my top ten “Crossed off my list for good” list. What’s on yours?

1. Hard Rock Cafe
2. Chuckie Cheese
3. Sahara Sam’s
4. Miniature Golfing (any of them!)
5. Medieval Times
6. Planet Hollywood (does this place even exist anymore?)
7. Gillette, Wyoming
8. Hostal Pedregalejo, Malaga Spain
9. Mars 2112
10. Midtown Manhattan during the Christmas holidays
11. Albuquerque, NM
12. “The Pub” in Pennsauken
13. The Berlin flea market
14. A bowling tournament
15. Being 142 lbs
16. Anywhere (except locally) on New Year’s Eve
17. Getting my hair bleached
18. A football game at any stadium
19. The Mummer’s Parade
20. Any parade…
21. Friday’s
22. The top of the Empire State Building

Midtown Manhattan with kids and a neurotic, anxiety-ridden woman, filled with thoughts of imminent doom

December 18, 2010

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D and I are taking the kids up to NYC today; Rockafella Center, FAO Schwartz, etc. etc. What to any normal human being is usually considered a fun day trip in the city, to me, it is a day spent quieting the obsessive voices of imminent doom and certain death that run through my brain while trying to appear normal and “happy.” That’s not to say I won’t entirely enjoy myself. I will. But I’ll have to work hard for it. I’ll have to fight what many would consider a severe case of generalized anxiety disorder. For example, it’s not a stretch for me to believe that there will be a terrorist around every street corner. A tall building will fall on my head. We will be mugged, shot, victimized, kidnapped, beat up. A bridge will collapse. A car bomb will explode. Someone will get lost. I will die. We’ll all die.

Luckily, this type of thinking doesn’t keep me home. It’s not so severe that I am unable to overcome it and get out of the house. I’m used to it. My little neighborhood street in the middle of no where is about to explode into a million tiny bits too, while I’m naked in the shower, of course. And yet, New York City is a scary place.

So, wish me luck today. And if you read this, Shhhhh…don’t tell D or my kids what’s going on inside my little ol’ brain. I’m going to try my best to pretend that I’m normal. Oh lookie there! It’s the tree!

Sexy Montreal-Updated

October 21, 2010

Photo of old Montreal

The last time I was in Montreal I was 20. I went to visit five of my favorite guy friends whom I’d met the previous summer in Wildwood working at the T-shirt shops that lined the boardwalk– they were guys who lived in Montreal, but worked during the summer at the Jersey shore. When they invited me, in the fall of ’88,  I couldn’t say no. I booked a Greyhound bus, cut all my classes and fled the country.  Once there, I was entertained daily– all expenses paid– shopping, meals out, sexy hook-ups, and every night a new, trendy disco or bar like the Metropolis, Pow-Wow or Peel Pub. We hung out at McGill University, smoked Cuban cigars (real ones) and drank ourselves silly.

So, when D mentioned a long weekend in Montreal, I was game.

But this time, things would be a little different. Instead of crazy, twentysomething drunken fun with five guy friends, this time it would be sophistication and love with one man. Add a spa, a Russian restaurant and maybe even a little something fringe, and well…You get the idea.

Here are some of mine and D’s plans…

1. First things first— the hotel. A Suite with French doors separating bedroom from living area and view of the street. D chose Le Saint Sulpice, whose name coincidentally is the same as a little Parisian cafe I used to frequent on my way to school.

UPDATE: Le Saint Sulpice was everything I hoped it would be. Service was friendly, room was big and cozy. We even lit a fire and candles. Shower was huge. Everything was immaculate. And decor was pure five-star.

2. The spa— We’re booked at Scandinave, Les Bains for hot stone massages. But too bad we’ll have to pass on this one. Studio Beaute du Monde is Montreal’s only traditional Hamman. Maybe next time.

UPDATE: I’m glad we didn’t pass on this place. But I need to make a clarification. This was more of a bath house or thermal spa than a traditional spa as there are no extended beauty treatments. You merely use the pools, sauna and steam room as relaxation and energy therapy; and then after, you can choose from a hot stone massage or a swedish massage. By accident, I got the hot stone and D got the swedish (it should have been reversed). I didn’t think a hot stone massage was anything more than clever marketing, and for the most part, I still believe that. But Brigitte was an incredible masseuse and I ended up falling asleep on the table.

3. Food— There’s a nice little oyster bar and bistro on the St. Lawrence River called Narcisse. We’ve made reservation there. But for some strange reason, I have a craving for Russian. Could it be because of my old friend Vladimir Ostrovski who was from Russia, moved to Montreal, then became a masseuse in Isreal? Who knows. But check out Troika. Looks very Dostoevsky. IzyskannyǏ

UPDATE: We never made it to Narcisse. They had too many eccentric menu items and I was really in the mood for something a little more down to earth. Besides, the atmosphere was cold and contemporary and we were up for warm and cozy. So, we chose Galianos instead. Atmosphere was great, service was outstanding, but the food was only OK. Rustic, Italian pasta dishes and heavy meals like chicken parm made it seem more like an Olive Garden instead. Then again, I think we’re both kinda burnt out on Italian.

As for Troika, it was not what I expected, and yet, it wasn’t half bad. The experience turned out to be something uniquely quirky. There was only one small, no frills dining room with Greek diner-style mirrored paneling. Red velvet booths around the perimeter. And a disco ball hanging loosely from the ceiling, throwing out light dots on all our faces. We sat next to an old Yiddish  family  who were drinking vodkas and wine and singing along with the violinist who played Russian and, I’m assuming, Baltic tunes from the old days; music these folks probably grew up with. At any rate, we waiting a very long time for the food. It almost seemed as if we were dining along with everyone else and had to wait for the others to finish their appetizers before they’d serve us our main plates. D had chicken and I had some pasta dish with salmon and caviar. I washed it down with a vodka and felt satisfied with my Russian experience.

4. Fun— What better way to experience sexy Montreal than stopping by (Don’t click this link with the kids aroundChez Parée with a few dollar bills in our hand?

UPDATE: Chez Paree was a big disappointment. All the girls looked like something from Jersey Shore; our drinks were watered down too. We bailed out early and went back to the hotel for some of our own sexiness. Ahhh…much better!

5. Shopping— As if all that weren’t enough…there’s shopping.  Sexy lingerie at Deuxième Peau. market shopping at Le Faubourg. And, of course, designer apparel on Ste-Catherine and Saint Laurent Streets. This place might just force me to start using my credit cards.

UPDATE: Never made it to the lingerie shops, but walked down St. Catherine’s Street (under construction) and into Eaton shopping mall. As I had feared there was nothing more than typical American mall stores– DKNY, Fossil, GAP, Marc Jacob, Zara, etc. etc. The most interesting shops were those on the opposite side of the street with kitchy tourist crap from Canada’s Inuit country. But sadly you had to weed through the furry Alpaca sweaters with airbrushed wolves and Indians on them to get to the good stuff. Who buys those things anyway?

Madrid al cielo

July 28, 2010

Look up, man. Not down.

A man with blood on his knuckles and his eyes on some weird kind of crack is riding the Metro. There is a homeless woman swathed in black who ask for centimes. A Peruvian immigrant down the calle Monte Perdido yells at her two sons, making them cry; neither of her children are  wearing shoes in a street with dog shit on every block, smeared in the crevices of paved lattice concrete. A Cerveceria strewn with rolled up, discarded napkins after the morning rush hour of cafe con leche and a bollo is quiet. Old men who gather on a bench infront of the Ajuntamiento, brown and wrinkled from the sun, discuss the end of the bullfight, and perhaps, how strange and foreign the world is now.

“Franco is laughing from the grave!”

There is a paradox here: there is the constant smell of bad sewage and body odor and cigarette smoke mixed with the smell of baking bread and olive trees, lemons and French perfumes on rich ladies who shop at the Corte Ingles. There is a deep, burning beauty in the eyes of a young gitana who wears a red flower in her hair and swooshes an abanico in her dark hand. People are hot from the sun in Madrid. They’re thirsty. Some are hungry, suffering. But the suffering is like a season that lifts when the air is cool and a family who loves gathers by a window open to the sky.