How I Almost Became My Mother

28 03 2008

My mother is a worrier. She worries about everything, especially everything having to do with her children. And with five children she’s basically spent most of the last 42 years worrying. Being the youngest, and probably the most adventurous, I seem to give my mother the most to worry about these days. She nearly drove herself to insanity with worry when I chose to drive across the country with friends at age 20, and when I moved to New York by myself she almost took my siblings with her.

Funny side note: On a rainy day when we were in Venice together I left breakfast to use the restroom and decided to retrieve my rain jacket from its holding place with the rest of my backpacking gear under the bus. When I stayed on the bus while it drove around to pick up the rest of our tour group, my mother (of course) noted my absence and jumped to the logical conclusion that her healthy 22-year-old daughter had fallen in the bathroom and couldn’t get up to call anyone.

Needless to say, Mom’s worrying has given her children a lot to laugh at over the years. And by the time I was heading Argentina on my own I was used to it. I, it seems, am not a worrier. Not usually at least…

I am typically of the “no plan is a good plan” travel mentality, and have accordingly experienced much hilarity from simply going with the flow. But every once in a while the planner in me comes out, and it did just that in Northwest Argentina. In San Salvador de Jujuy I met another girl, Da, and we decided to head up to Humahuaca for Carnaval together. Given the festival weekend, there was a lot of talk about the inevitable scarcity of beds there. This hasn’t stopped me in the past, but for some reason it made me nervous. Da, however, was ready to go.

I determined that I couldn’t miss out on experiencing Carnaval and next thing I knew I was on a bus to Uquía, which we thought would be a better bet since it is outside town. We arrived around 7 p.m. and knocked on the door of their ONE hostel. The man didn’t even open the door all the way before telling us they were too full. Much to my chagrin I soon found myself following Da around while she asked people if we might sleep on their couches. Then we clambered across the river, where we’d heard a woman had cabins. After wandering a while in no man’s land we came upon two houses, and a man outside the first pointed us even further up the road to the woman.

When we reached her house a young girl came out and asked us to wait, which seemed a good sign. But the proprietor’s face said all. We tried to make ourselves as pathetic as possible, and pointed at the vast empty room behind her, begging for even a tiny space on the floor there just so long as it was sheltered, but to no avail. The thought of two young women without a place to sleep didn’t bother this woman one bit. Clearly she is not my mother, who not only worries about her own children but everyone else’s too. I, on the other hand, found myself becoming increasingly more like my mother as the situation became more dire. I started hearing her worry voice in my head, and kicking myself for not following my initial instincts. My “fearless female traveler” self was waning, and fast.

I kept repeating to myself my former travel adventures: arriving in Bacharach, Germany and hiking half an hour uphill in my heavy pack to the castle hostel that had told me over the phone he had no rooms and then convincing him to lay out mattresses in his conference room (and we got a discount), driving around Bordeaux, France unable to find accommodations and ultimately sleeping in our rental cars (only to find out the next morning that our “safe” hospital parking lot” was right under the helicopter landing pad)… But my previous adventures did nothing to ease the gnawing feeling in my gut that something was going terribly wrong.

All this worry snowballed into yet another strain of worry: worry about my worry. Unlike my mother, I’m not usually a worrier. Or at least not in the same way. I often make myself crazy with thought, but that (I always tell myself) is not the same as worry. And especially in travel adventures I’m not the one to worry, so what was wrong? Am I getting old? Am I turning into my mother? Am I losing my sense of adventure?

Luckily, I never found out, because my planless plan (however worrisome) turned out to be one of the most rewarding adventures of my trip. Da and I went back to the “cabins” on the lady’s property to ask the man who had last directed us to her house if we might stay with him. He gestured to the five children playing in his yard and suggested the cabin next door. Again we were pathetic and pleaded with the man who answered the door for a sliver of his floor. He hesitated but was definitely considering.

Finally he left to ask his wife, and after ten agonizing minutes returned and invited us inside. The cabin (which they were renting from the lady who is definitely not like my mom) afforded barely enough space for the family of four, but Patricio and his family welcomed us in, offering us mate and chatting with us about our respective countries (Da is from China). When the time came they drove us into Humahuaca for the evening’s Carnaval celebrations. The whole way their eight-year-old twins, Octavio and Julia chattered away about their vacation and asked us question after question about America and China.

Upon arrival in Humahuaca we split up (it was at this time that I split my toe), and as we left them for a delicious meal and revelry I laughed at myself for ever having worried. In the course of our wanderings that night Da and I found a woman with two beds for let in her house, and promptly paid her for them, not out of want to escape our family but in hope of making their last night of vacation a little easier.

When we found the family again Octavio instantly took my hand and began chattering away about his night, firing questions about mine in rapid Spanish. (I was smitten.) After Da and I had retrieved our things there were hugs all around and Eugenia, the mother, made us each promise to call her when we were back in Buenos Aires. She would cook for us. And so I reluctantly left my new family with the realization that the very adventure that made me “become my mother” for those few short moments actually allowed me to find her (in Argentina).

And even better than that? We discovered that my new littler brother and I had the same sweater:

“Siblings” in their Sweaters

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Unexpected Happy Ending(s)

27 03 2008

Today’s post was supposed to be the first of my book(s about travel) review series. It will be, but not in the way I’d intended. It seems I got sidetracked.

Yesterday’s New York Times UrbanEye email alerted me to the Happy Ending reading series, which held a reading last night at (surprise) Happy Ending Lounge in the Lower East Side. Yes, the bar’s name refers to its seedy past, when it was an “erotic massage parlor.” I’ve never been downstairs but imagine that the self-described “1960’s Las Vegas” vibe must pay more homage to its former incarnation than the sophisticated red velvet booths on street level. Either way its sign-less facade on a deserted street feels a bit speakeasy-esque.

But last night was about the reading series, which was not only phenomenal but particularly apropos given my upcoming (as in—yikes!—next week) writing group meeting, for which I’ve done nothing, except decide (another yikes! for good measure) that it’s finally time to let go of those novel chapters I’ve been hanging onto since college. But the evening was brimming with talent, and, as luck would have it, inspiration. Happy ending number two. But enough about me…

Amanda Stern hosts the music and reading series at Happy Ending on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month (summers off), where readers gather to sip complicated (but delicious) cocktails from Happy’s long list while singers sing and writers read. Each reader must take some sort of public risk while the singer of the evening has to get the audience to sing along to one cover song. (Supple-voiced folk singer Kelley McRae, whose own songs render chills, sang En Vogue’s Giving Him Something He Can Feel but the audience was a little shy—or just too entranced by her voice.)

Artist Matthew Bokkam read from his 2006 project “The New York City Museum of Complaint,” a tabloid/newspaper he created of letters of complaint compiled from the New York City municipal archives. The gist of his findings: New Yorkers complain. About everything. Just last night we heard from a man requesting that Mayor LaGuardia champion the right of burlesque dancers to be more, well, burlesque, and from a woman who had a list of complaints longer than my ever-growing to do list (odd thing was many of her would-be outlandish hardships—like not having heat—were things I’ve experienced). Bokkam’s risk, as an act of sympathy for said women, was to read her letter with a quarter stuck up his nose. Well done. (Un)happy ending number 4.

And now for the book review portion of this post, even if it’s not the book review I initially intended, nor even one I’ve yet read. Tod Wodika read from his newly published novel with the elaborate title, All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well about a mixed up historical re-enactor who takes his re-enacting a little too seriously. Not only well-written but utterly hilarious. I was so excited by the 10 minutes he read that I can promise a more thorough review to come. In the mean time, suffice to say it’s travel enough in its jumps from modern to Middle Age worlds. And if it has a happy ending, all the better.

And one last thought that proved to be an unexpected delight of an evening. I got to speak with Amanda afterward about my latest project, and not only was she excited but willing to partake. The project being that of bringing a part of my beloved Litquake, otherwise known as San Francisco’s amazing, stupendous literary festival, here to New York. More on that one later. For now, it makes yet another happy ending (so many that I’ve lost count).





Short List: Forgotten Fourth Passion

26 03 2008

How on earth could I—with the completion of MA in literature and the madness of December’s paper writing (which, frazzled though I was, I must admit I oddly enjoyed) in my so recent past—forget a fourth, and oh-so-important passion in my About page?

I can’t really figure it out actually, but I neglected to note a lifetime obsession with books, which ranks (gasp!) even above my love of shoes. The bookshelves in my tiny apartment as well past the point of being overstuffed with books and that’s to say nothing of all those that were left behind at my parents’ house. And yet I still enjoy trips to the bookstore whenever possible. Bookstores are actually, in my opinion, a key aspect of travel. Many cities have famous or historic bookstores that are just as important as churches and more conventional landmarks.

So because I haven’t done a list in a while, a short one featuring my top three bookstores in great destinations. (And no, Barnes and Noble has not made the cut.)

  1. City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco is a North Beach mainstay and the icon of an era. Founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, the bookstore and publishing house earned notoriety in 1956 when Ferlinghetti was caught up in (and won!) an obscenity trial for printing Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl & Other Poems. Since then City Lights has been a San Francisco institution. It stands proudly on the corner of Columbus and Broadway as a memory of the tumultuous and controversial Beat writers and all the great literature that has followed.
  2. New York’s Strand is a booklover’s heaven. It takes up most of a the block of Broadway and 12th St. in the East Village (with another location downtown) and boasts 18 miles of books. As if this weren’t enough, the books are cheap. The Strand has a huge selection of used books, but even most of the new ones are discounted. I know I’m a nerd, but I could spend hours there.
  3. El Ateneo (the Santa Fe location) in Buenos Aires has retained the architecture it had in its former incarnation as the Grand Splendid Theater. Its four stories of books, music, and movies are as exciting and lovely as the ornate theater in which they reside. There is something remarkable about having a coffee where the stage once was (and Carlos Gardel once performed), but I may just prefer cozying up with Neruda in a box seat.

And last, since I’ve already established that my talents (and passion) don’t lie in counting, I’m throwing in a bonus, since I just happened upon it again the other day: McNally Robinson Booksellers in Nolita, a cheery independent bookstore that is as much about edifying as entertaining. It’s a friendly community space that alternates its front displays based on community and progressive statements, not bestsellers. I had the pleasure of wandering through again and didn’t want to leave, especially when I found a small table with a set of beautiful books I have never seen before. It seems Penguin has a series called Great Ideas, with reprints of books that have “changed the world,” from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, all in pocket-size with simple but lovely covers.

All this book thought gave me a great idea of my own. I hereby start a new Around the World in Gold Stilettos category: book reviews. For EuroCheapo’s blog I regularly posted reviews on books relating to Europe, books that gave a sense of culture or history, so I’m reinstating that on my own blog (starting tomorrow). 





The Other St. Patrick’s

25 03 2008

Last week was all about St. Patrick’s Day debauchery (and a very winsome horse). This week I have a different St. Patrick’s in mind, the one I visited over the weekend.

On Friday afternoon, I’d just dropped off my last “waitressing resume” of the day at a cute Nolita cafe, where the somewhat frazzled and very grumpy manager gave it a cursory once-over, and then asked my availability before brusquely informing me that he’d be calling people on Monday for interviews (translation: “I’m not interested in hiring you so get out of my sight.”) After much the same success all day, and with aching feet and whirling head, I self-pityingly plodded my way along Mott street on the way home.

But my dreams of a nice glass of wine and some self-indulgent chocolate came to an abrupt halt when I saw a lovely church in the middle of Mott Street. Still not having decided where I would go for Easter Mass, I decided to get closer and see if it was Catholic. Not only was it Catholic, it was Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a landmark about which I’ve been curious for a while. The facade is nothing much as far as cathedrals go (St. Patrick’s having burned down in a fire in 1866, was hastily rebuilt in two years and thus gave up its grand facade), but the inside is lovely. It’s similar in style, though not in scale, to the larger and more famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral and there is something so warm and welcoming about it that I decided I would attend Easter mass there.

On Sunday I journeyed out of my way to attend mass at the new special church, and was not disappointed. Not only did the priest give a beautiful (and well-appointed given my weekend bout of self-pity) sermon, but the music was lovely (some unseen and very rich male voice) and the church itself a friendly place. It was a stark contrast from my experience when my mother visited last year and requested that we attend mass at the lovely, sacred St. Patrick’s. The awe-inspiring interior and spectacular sense of place waned a good deal with the lector gave a speech before offertory about how much one should pay when the basket came around. Not only was the “price” of mass exorbitant, I found it slightly distasteful to have said anything at all: yes, there were many tourists in the church who may not understand mass, but it almost felt like this mass was yet another overpriced trip to the top of the Empire State Building.

Not so at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, where the vaulted ceilings and ornate altar are augmented by a larger sense of community and history. At the final blessing, the priest welcomed all those Easter-only attendees and told a little about the church, mainly that its cemetery and crypt house the ancestors of those in the area, and probably many of those among us in the congregation. This was particularly apropos given that entering the church that very morning I had noticed a plaque on the door memorializing someone named Louis Russo, possibly of no relation but I like to ponder some distant bloodline.

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was the second Catholic Church in the U.S. and has a long and tumultuous history, which includes persecution of its people (who fought to protect it), a fire in 1866, and a cameo in one of America’s favorite movies, The Godfather. In its cemetery are buried many of the heroic men from its early Irish parish, who fought in the 69th regiment of the Civil War Battle of Bull Run (the only regiment that didn’t flee). Over time Italian immigrants populated the area and the parish became less Irish, but today it is a mix of all, mostly Italians, Dominicans, and a large enough Chinese following to warrant a Chinese-language mass.

Whatever its parish, it is a lovely landmark with a rich history, and perhaps one of the most overlooked attractions in the city. For more on the church’s fascinating history, check out this very thorough (and entertaining) podcast by my friend and former employer Tom and his partner Greg, otherwise known as New York’s history podcasters extraordinaire, The Bowery Boys.

Lesson learned: The St. Patrick’s on 50th is breathtaking, and definitely a sight to see, but next time the parents visit I’m taking them to the original. (For those also wanting to visit, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is located on the corner of Mott St. and Prince.)





Capital (with a capital C)

20 03 2008

New cultural capital.

A NY Times travel article called Argentine Nights caught my eye (not surprisingly) on Sunday and then I received a NY Times event email the following day, announcing a Zizek Urban Beats Club show that evening at SOB’s in the Lower East Side. Unfortunately after Ginobli’s eventful St. Patrick’s Day I didn’t make it to the show, but this sudden influx of Buenos Aires renewed my obsession with the city, an obsession that began when, a little over a year ago, I edited and rewrote (the original was too painful for words) the BsAs destination guide for Classic Travel’s newly launching website. Just writing about the sprawling cosmopolitan city had me fascinated and determined that the free ticket I earned with Classic Travel must be used to go there.

And the trip there met all expectations and more. And it occurred to me that I have never once written a blog entirely about the city in which I spent the most time. Perhaps because it would require so much more than just one post. That being the case, I will limit my thoughts for the day to a response to the Times article, which, by comparing BA to Prague in the 1990s, essentially positions it as the modern day version of Bohemian Paris. At once sophisticated and gritty Buenos Aires to the creative set today is what Paris was to Stein, Picasso, and the rest. Creative types from all around the world are taking advantage of the cheap prices in BA and setting up shop (often literally: the Times article talks of new galleries, leather shops, and hotels).

The Times article goes on to talk about a buzzing art scene, inspired filmmakers, and budding writers, all of whom have found a place in the sprawling metropolis. Buenos Aires, it seems, is not just the capital of Argentina any more; some may say it’s the creative capital of the world, at least today. And being there I saw this in action. In my travel writing class alone, six (out of 12) of us were Americans who had relocated to BsAs for some period of time, to learn Spanish, to teach English, but mainly, to write. Because there is something about the pulsing with life city that just inspires.

And I was not immune. In fact, it had me wishing I had thought of that, because, to me, BA is the (much cheaper) New York of the southern hemisphere. It’s just as vibrant, just as cosmopolitan, and just as full of interesting people, most of whom have taken some sort of risk and followed some sort of dream to get there. All the things I love about NYC in fewer letters (and for fewer dollars).

So for those creative types out there that need a new bohemian surge (whether contemplating a move to “the new Paris” or not), a few popular BA resources for expats:

  • What’s Up Buenos Aires: a site that describes itself as “connecting the emerging arts and culture scene in Buenos Aires to the rest of the world” and a source for BA events, culture, and incredible photography.
  • BA Insider: a hip, glossy, and highly portable (read: the size of a thin book and easy to throw in a purse or even pocket) bi-monthly English-language mag with informational and witty insights for the expat (or foreign traveler) in the new cultural capital.
  • The Argentimes: Need I point out the obvious? I will anyway: all my talk of BA being the NYC of South America and then their English paper goes and has the same (well, close enough) name. Way to be a prophet—or something like that—me (and modest too).

There is so much more to say about vibrant, amazing Buenos Aires, but I stop at saying it still has a hold on me.





Horsing Around

18 03 2008

Ginobli mingles with some furry friends on the way to the parade.
Ginobli mingles with some furry friends on the way to the parade.
It’s amazing how much joy a stuffed (pet) horse can bring. The horse, Ginobli belongs to Libby, and I’ve come to think of myself as his honorary aunty.

A few important things to know about Ginobli (or Ginobs as his friends know him):

  • Libby “won” him (but he’s a free horse so we don’t say that around him) at Dave and Busters two years ago and he’s been part of the family ever since.
  • He’s named after NBA star Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs. (Another fact of interest: Manu is from Bahia Blanca in southern Argentina.)
  • He’s not just a stuffed horse, and he’s certainly not a dog. He’s a Clydesdale.
  • His favorite song is Crazy Horses by The Osmonds. And…
  • He makes friends everywhere he goes.

Ginobli on the wall.

Ginobli meets his twin.
Resemblance? I think so.

Yesterday, Ginobs went to St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York. He started at the end, on 86th Street and worked his way down to the Met at 82nd, charming many a spectator along the way.

Ginobli and the big green hat.

He was so popular, grand marshal Tommy Smyth was probably jealous. He even acquired presents along the way, like a glittery green bowler hat from a kind lady whose child refused to wear it.

Ginobli’s Marach calendar shot.
The parade itself was your usual parade fare: walls of firemen and law enforcement marched, along with a few school groups, several bag-piping troupes, and ladies and gents in antique garb. Far more amusing were the crowds that populated its sidelines. We’re talking hardcore Irish here: giant green hats, gold sequined pants, green hair, necklaces, anything you might think of. These New Yorkers love their St. Pat’s.

But the parade is only the precursor to the massive party that followed in Irish pubs around the city (specifically, as I noted earlier, on Third Ave.) After all the crowd entertaining, Ginobs was tired and cold and insisted on having one beer, so off we stopped at Pat O’Brien’s. Almost immediately we were engulfed by firemen cheering for Ginobli, taking photos with him, and insisting on buying his mother and aunt (whom I think they felt sorry for since we’re both jobless) beers, so that ONE beer turned into three or four, and Ginobli found himself crowd surfing.

Ginobli and the crowd.

All in all, an eventful day for Ginobs. And Libby and I learned a few things too…

  • Wandering around the streets with a huge stuffed horse will get you some pretty strange looks, unless you’re at the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
  • Horsing around gives you a whole new perspective on otherwise somewhat ordinary experiences.
  • Horsing around is a lot more fun with a real (stuffed) horse (er, I mean Clydesdale) around.




The Other Green Travel

16 03 2008

St. Patrick’s Day is not just a day in the tri-State area. The Irish set here really make the revelry last. As long as they can. The festivities start with the Hoboken Parade (usually the first weekend in March). Die-hard Irish and party devotees head across the river for a day of green beer and raucous parties. I’ve not attended myself, but have heard from friends that it’s chaos in the streets and there are lines to get into the bars.

Then comes St. Patty’s itself, which is marked by a whole weekend (whichever falls closer the the actual day) of green-clad Manhattanites, and many visitors, stumbling through Manhattan’s street at all hours of the night, and all hours of the day for that matter. These devotees aren’t messing around: the party often starts with beer over breakfast.

Though there are Irish bars and pubs all over the city, I’ve decided that Third Ave. between 18th Street and 30th Street is the Irish pub hub. Last night, decked out in my own green (and no, I don’t own green stilettos, nor even green shoes for that matter, though perhaps they should go on the list), I made my way up Third Ave. to meet some friends at the Mad Hatter. Along the way I passed Pug Uglies—where last year I saw a real Irish band, in full traditional dress, parade through the world’s tiniest (and most crowded) parade route—and several other Irish bars, all drenched in green lights and overflowing with the aforementioned green devotees, now barely able to walk due to the day’s long party.

The scene at the Mad Hatter was about the same as its pub neighbors, and after one beer my friends and I retired to the next likely St. Pat’s party place: Mexicana Mama’s, where we swapped guiness and U2 for the less traditional margarita and Mariachis. Somehow it was no less crowded, however. We waited an hour for our table, but the great food and the Mariachi serenade (we chose the ever-popular “De Colores“) made the wait worth it.

We ended the night with one last Guiness (which I only pretended to drink, ssh don’t tell) at O’Neill’s Irish Pub, also, remarkably, on Third Ave. but in the Forties (see, I must be onto something), where we listened to an Irish band and watched in rapture as the guy on the end gently tapped a large drum-like instrument (yes, that is the technical term). Over the crowds at this point, I didn’t enjoy the music for very long before I was ready to go home.

I’ll make up for it tomorrow when I visit the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade (the perks of not having a day job). It starts at 44th Street (at 11 a.m.) and winds its way up Fifth Ave., stopping near St. Patrick’s Cathedral where the Archbishop of New York, His Eminence Cardinal Edward Eaganwill watch and bless the parade. Given my penchant for partaking in parades, I’ll be avoiding the temptation this time around by watching closer to the end (86th Street), and then I’ll report back tomorrow.