This One’s for the Girls

4 02 2016

After years of “retirement,” I’m returning to this blog to document a brand new “wander”: six weeks traveling through Hong Kong, Macau, Myanmar, and Cambodia. It occurred to me last week, while making the final preparations for this journey, that this adventure, perhaps more than any I’ve undertaken thus far, is steeped in “girl power.”

This whole thing started because of a dear friend from New York, one of the fiercest, most fearless ladies I know. Gina D’Ambrosio owned the studio where I established my salsa obsession: Her energy and commitment (and gorgeous dancing) created a wonderful community of New York dancers, of which I was so grateful to be a part. Now, it’s her courage (in picking up and moving across the world) that has allowed me to come to Hong Kong for a visit. I admire her greatly, I’ve missed her a lot, and I am excited for some good long conversations and many new adventures with her.

I should note, though, that my resolve to visit is also a result of some serious feminine intuition. When Gina initially invited me for a visit, I had recently returned to California, and was getting ready to begin my apartment search. While the adventurous side of me recognized the opportunity in taking off (while not having the burden of rent), the practical part of me (that was not feeling awesome about being a grown woman back with my parents) was hesitant. Then, my sister Denise (who had no idea that I was grappling with  this decision) insisted on giving me a birthday gift a month before my birthday, because she was too excited to wait. My only explanation was that this was some kind of feminine intuition, because that gift—a wall hanging with the quote “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”—was just the reminder I needed that I must live b my favorite word, and that embarking on an adventure did not make me “flaky.” It just made me who I am.

With the decision made, I could turn to a project: Seeking out my deceased grandmother, who grew up in Hong Kong. Gaga was the stuff of legend around our house when I was growing up. This is a woman who grew up in Hong Kong, spoke seven languages, threw extravagant parties, married my sea captain grandfather in Japan, and (when he returned to his ship) set sail all alone to set up house in the distant world of San Francisco. As a child, I was always envious that my siblings knew here and I did not, but as an adult I realized that she’s in me too. I am the grandchild who seems to have inherited her sense of adventure, and she has certainly “accompanied” me on some of my other travels. But this trip is about returning to her roots. I’ve been researching our fascinating ancestry, and though I don’t know a lot of specifics I’m going armed with a few details and hoping to suss out a bit more of this larger-than-life woman, in her own place of origin.

But this trip is also turning out to me about girl power on a bigger level. One of the things I”m most excited about is Phnom Penh, where I will  have the privilege of working with the bright young women who form the next class of SHE-CANS (Supporting Her Education Changes a Nation). This incredible sponsors bright young woman in developing nations, helping them to attain admission and scholarships to U.S. universities, so that they may gain education, internships, and other experiences that will allow them to return and make a difference in their nations. All the way, each scholar has the support of her own team of mentors, made up of brilliant and caring professional women, who guide through the application process and act as safety net and support system for young women very far from home.

I get to meet the newest scholars, to tell them about the college common application, and to lead some writing exercises that will get them thinking about their college essays, and when I met last week with Barb, SHE-CAN’s fearless leader, I was overcome by this incredible sense of the female capability. Women are creators and nurturers and connectors. We’re also fearless and tenacious, sassy and empathetic, and most importantly able to come together to support, whether it’s through a close female friendship or a mentorship across the world.

And so, I dedicate this trip to all the mothers and sisters, girlfriends and grandmas, teachers and role models—to all the girls!

 





Origins – and Aunty Mame

25 01 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about my origins lately, specifically about Gaga, my maternal grandmother. She passed away the year before I was born so I never knew her personally, and yet I know so much about her that she sometimes seems a real memory. I know, for example, that she threw amazing parties, parties during which she threw glasses into the fireplace, parties that lasted for days. She loved music, always had a purse full of lemon drops and her favorite Christmas song was “Oh Holy Night.”

My siblings−and pretty much everyone else who knew her—speak of Gaga with what can only be described as reverence, and I suppose I tell her stories in much the same manner, perhaps even more so since I have created this vision in my mind of what I imagine her to be.

Nearly a year ago now, back on the island of PSV, I got into a random, very deep conversation (with a total stranger) that somehow made its way around to Gaga. Suddenly there I was telling story after story about this woman I never really knew, stories that may as well amount to folklore given the way I seem to have romanticized him. But my new friend was fascinated, and insisted that I go home and rent the movie Auntie Mame, since Gaga and her parties and their craziness sounded so much like this lovely creature in that movie.

Well, it’s many, many months later, but I’ve finally seen this treasure of a movie, a late 1950s classic starring Rosalind Russel as the eccentric, entertaining aunt who breathes life and amusement into the life of her sheltered nephew when he’s entrusted into her care after being orphaned. Mame is a spirited woman to say the least, a flamboyant flapper type in the 1920s who makes her way through the hardships of the Depression with strength and grace, and who is strong-willed and spirited to say the least.

I don’t know that Gaga was really much like her, but I like to think she was, a fun lady who’s just a little bit crazy in the best of ways, a woman who knows how to live and who is fearless and unflappable. That’s how I envision Gaga, and perhaps why I idolize her so much. It’s certainly, at any rate, the way I’d like to be.





Good Luck Foods and Traditions for 2010

2 01 2010

I’m back from a lovely holiday in California. It was sunny and comfortable and full of family and laughter. And food. Lots of food. Remember all those holiday cookies? Mom didn’t make those, but about a million others, and I certainly did my share of indulging. My sister Kristen made our favorite cookies (made only, oddly, at holiday time): Almond Crescents. This was a Gaga recipe, and for kicks I did a little digging, but was unable to find any information on a traditional almond crescent cookie, at least one that looked like ours.

However, since I seem to be so focused on food these days, I thought I’d share this fun little tidbit I found on Delish: Good Luck Foods for New Year’s Day. It’s a little international inspiration for starting a new year off right. My favorite is the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight, but mainly because it came out of a surplus of grapes one wine harvest.

Some other fun non-food traditions I found:

  • In Venezuela, it’s tradition to enact on New Year’s Eve what you want for the year. If travel is the thing, go out carrying a suitcase, or, even better, if love is what you’re after, you should wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve. Check out this Venezuelan video.
  • In Italy the red underwear is for luck (noticing a trend) and items are thrown out of windows out midnight as a sort of “out with the old…” thing. Sounds like fun, if you watch out for flying nightstands.
  • In Suriname it’s all about loud noises (think horns honking and drums banging) and the burning of effigies to symbolize a fresh start.

And here in New York we have the thrilling tradition of freezing to death and bumping into millions of strangers while we wait for a shiny ball to drop. (And then there are the smart ones of us who just find a warm place to watch thew whole fun spectacle on TV.) It seems there is a little insanity in every culture when it comes to ushering in the New year.





Thoughts on Origins

31 08 2009

In the past on this blog, I’ve  credited much of my obsession with travel and cultures to my maternal grandmother, Gaga. But, while Gaga did speak seven languages and travel extensively, it’s not entirely fair not to give some of the credit to my Grandma Russo, my paternal grandmother, and the grandmother I actually knew.

For my whole life, Grandma Russo was a little old Italian lady (my mother tells me that, even long before I was born, and perhaps for her whole life, Grandma Russo was a little old Italian lady—and I’m inclined to believe her). She spouted crazy old adages like, “You eat mushrooms when your body craves wood” and was constantly “God willing” she would be around to see whatever event was coming up in a year, month or even a day. In a sense, she may have been Gaga’s polar opposite.

And yet, though she didn’t move to the U.S. on her own at age 22 or throw crazy 48-hour parties, Grandma Russo was fascinating in her own right, a real window into another time and another world. Not only was she a traditional New England woman but a representative of the “Old Country,” carrying on the traditions of Italy and passing them on to her children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, Grandma Russo was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was young, and by the time I was old enough to really appreciate and want to hear all her stories about Italy and Rhode Island, she wasn’t all there to tell them. But I still managed to retain a lot from her, including an obsession with our culture, through the songs and the food and the little sayings. All this came back this past week when I walked into Trattoria del’ Arte to have dinner with a friend, and there by the host stand were long strips of powdered cookie, curled and bubbled in the frying process, a cookie that I used to make with my grandmother. We called them Wandi but the host at the restaurant called them Guanti (I’ve since learned that the words are somewhat interchangeable and translate to something like “gloves.”

This brought back memories of visits to Grandma’s house, visits characterized by what might be everyone’s (Italian or not) stereotype of the Italian grandmother: little old lady rushing around whipping out a feast, all while saying she had nothing to serve you. But more importantly it brought back memories of cooking with Grandma, and with my father: pizza, pasta and, of course various types of cookies, including Wandi.  Our family’s English word for them was “bows,” because after cutting the very thin batter into strips and we tied them into knots before frying them and sprinkling the powdered sugar. Whenever I’d make them with Grandma, she would re-tie all my bows, to the ever-increasing anger of my father.

This never bothered me, though. For me it was all about the process of making cookies with my grandmother, and today it’s all about the inspiration that experience instilled in me: a love of my heritage, which has translated into a love (and desire to explore all aspects) of Italy.

 Grandma Russo and her legacy

Grandma Russo and her legacy





Oh the Places You’ll Go

15 06 2009

I realize I’ve yet to write about my mother’s recent visit to New York. I love having visitors because it means not only that I get to play tour guide, but that I get to see the city in a new light. And often I get to see new things altogether. This time around it was ladies only, my mother and her best friend, Aunty Bee, who was introduced to my mother through Gaga, much like my mother found me a good New York friend.

This trip we covered much ground, and found entertainment in some unexpected places Our travels started out at the tip top of the island, with  visit to The Cloisters. We didn’t do the museum itself, but wandered its gorgeous grounds and the lush woods that is Fort Tryon Park, so quiet and serene it feels worlds away from the city in which it resides. We made our way back on the M4 bus, which is a fabulous (and economical) way to see the city. We rode it down to Columbia, where we hopped off for a stint, only to jump back on to ride down Fifth Avenue past the parks and museums.

Other highlights included the stunning views of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a few hours at the Chelsea Market and a couple more (no joke) ogling the dish heaven that is Fishs Eddy (this is what I mean about unexpected entertainment) and sundry incredible street entertainers. For more of the fun (and lost of street entertainer video), see here.





Queens Towers (by special request)

18 10 2008

I was recently chided for having written about two of my nieces and not their sister, my darling Olivia.

And so, without further ado, a post especially for Olivia, in two parts.

I may be belaboring the point but I love being an aunt for the simple joys of passing on knowledge, joy, enthusiasm, and for cultivating those female bonds which I think are so special. At home in California this summer I had several opportunities for just these things, some already noted and others soon to be forthcoming. The added bonus of all this, I found, is that I get to learn in the process as well. And thus, part 1…

We have a tradition when my brother Gregg brings his girls from Colorado to California for visits. We head to Oakland’s Jack London Square and take the East Bay Ferry into the city. From there the routine is pretty generic and pretty touristy, usually consisting, in random variations, of lunch at Johnny Rockets, playing and shopping on Pier 39, and a long time marveling at the famous sea lions who lounge there. Then we make the long walk along the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building, where the rest of us wander the markets waiting for my brother to spend an inordinate amount of time purchasing wine before we catch the ferry back to Oakland. It’s always a great day and the kids look forward to it every visit.

This summer, however, we switched it up, especially for Miss Olivia. Last year, on the walk to the Ferry Building, I pointed out Coit Tower to the darling and she has been obsessed ever since, determined that we must visit the “Queen Tower” and also the “other Queen Tower,” which happens to be San Francisco’s other most distinctive building, the Transamerica. So this year, we diverted from the usual plan and took Olivia to the Queen Tower, no small feat given that I have not lived in the city for more than two years now and have become a little rusty on my geography, not to mention there’s that massive hill to climb (we cabbed it).

Once up there, however, it was well worth the trek. For my mother, who had visited often with her own mother (my Gaga), it brought happy memories of growing up in San Francisco. For Olivia, who for a year had been talking about the Queen Tower, it was a thrill, nearly equaled but not overshadowed by the joy of seeing “Alcatrax.”

The Princess in front of the Queen Tower

The Princess in front of the Queen Tower

And for me, who managed to grow up in the Bay Area, live in San Francisco for two years, and only see one of its most iconic landmarks for the first time on a visit from New York, it was a reminder of what we take for granted when we have easy access to some of life’s most amazing places, and a reminder that you don’t have to travel to travel. Often the best things to see are in our own backyards. Or at the very least just a ferry ride away.

Coit Tower, which can be seen from most places in downtown San Francisco, looms over the city from its perch on Telegraph Hill in North Beach. It was erected in 1933, and was commissioned to honor San Francisco’s firefighters by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric San Franciscan who often rode along with the firemen, despite this being considered unladylike behavior. For more information, click here.





Flashbacks (or Something More)

15 04 2008

I think Argentina’s stalking me. Or haunting me. Or calling to me in some strange mental telepathy sort of way. Or perhaps I’m channeling Argentina and making it all up. Whatever the case, it’s been cropping up a lot.

It’s going to seem hokey, but while there I felt I had some sort of spirit/force/what-have-you watching out for me. I’m pretty sure it was Gaga, my maternal grandmother who passed away before I was born but who, I’ve always been told, had a strong adventurous spirit and was in all an amazing woman. I grew up jealous that my siblings have Gaga stories and I never got to know her. In my recent adventures, it only seemed right to speak to a strong female force in my life—who, incidentally, came to San Francisco from Hong Kong (by herself) at age 22, knowing no one (and my mom was worried about my move to NYC).

In my recent adventures, I got to know Gaga. Just when I was feeling exhausted or sick or lonely, I’d get pulled into a parade at Carnaval or stumble upon a beautiful Ash Wednesday ceremony. And it always seemed that I’d recently asked her for help. Call it what you will, I think my grandmother was looking out for me.

Then I came home, and during the job-hunting struggles of late I’ve had the distinct feeling that Gaga is giving me the silent treatment. Last week was especially rough (a separate post all to itself), and I went into the weekend feeling particularly frustrated and all around glum.

Then on Saturday I sat in Washington Square Park to enjoy beautiful weather and a band playing the greatest hits of Marvin Gaye. The man on the bench next to me was wearing a bracelet, a wooden saint bracelet that just about every male in Argentina sports. I happen to have one of these bracelets. It was given to me by Dario, who I met on a bus to Buenos Aires at the end of my trip. This experience warrants a separate post in itself, but for today’s purposes, it’s only necessary to say that in a particularly weak moment I called on Gaga and then met Dario (which happens, in addition to everything else, to be my nephew’s name). He gave me not only interesting conversation and perspective but a bracelet by which to remember him.

I wore the bracelet the rest of my trip and periodically put it on now that I’m home. It’s not fashionable, but it makes me happy. I wasn’t wearing it Saturday (I put it on when I got home), but the sight of another wearing it here in New York gave me that same sense of happiness, and a sense of peace that this is indeed a small world and a good one. I didn’t talk to said male because he seemed to have lost that Argentine friendliness, but I vowed to email Dario and tell him about it. (I have yet to do this, but I will. And then I’ll blog about it.)

Since then, Argentina’s been all over. This morning in DailyCandy there was a deal for a Pachamama massage at the Iguazu Day Spa, and while I didn’t make it to Iguazu I am definitely simpatica with Mother Earth (as the Pachamama is also known). I won’t be getting the Pachamama massage any time soon, but it seemed a weird coincidence since I keep hearing about things from Argentina.

Perhaps more bizarre was my experience yesterday. After an afternoon of struggling through the headache that is taxes (yes I’m one of those brilliant people who waited until the last possible minute) I heard a street band on my way to work. This is not uncommon (see above), and yet yesterday’s band was different: something about the horns and the rhythms was distinctive. Though I was surrounded by tall buildings and fast-walking people, for a second I turned the corner expecting a group of brightly colored diablos dancing around on a dusty street.

Perhaps it was my tax haze, but it seemed so real I was almost there, and I really did expect a parade. Is it all coincidence? Wishful thinking? Or am I simply going insane? Or could it be Gaga telling me to hang in there and remember my adventures (and her)? The jury is still out on all that. In the meantime, however, I will continue to wear Dario’s bracelet and to remember my parade.

And for fun, this video I took in Tilcara which captures my diablo abduction. You’ll see the girl next to me be pulled into the parade, then I laugh before my diablo grabs me and chaos ensues as I get pulled into the parade. It’s like the Blair Witch Project (except much less scary… and real).