Sparkly Silver Salsa Shoes

20 01 2010

The gold stilettos are pouting. There is a new addition to the shoe rack, and they are getting a lot of attention these days—a lot more than the stilettos are (especially in light of the frigid weather of late). For some months now I have been meaning to properly introduce these snazzy new (and highly alliterative) shoes, so here they are…

I’ve been enamored of salsa for a long time, officially since I first took lessons in Spain during my summer abroad in Granada. Since then, I’ve tried to no avail to convert countless friends, until finally I met Liz in Buenos Aires. As regular readers know, we bonded instantly over our mutual love of travel (specifically Latin culture) and sweets (specifically alfajores), but even more fun—and perhaps a little surprising—was the discovery that we both loved salsa. This led to the infamous night early in my Argentina trip where I (and my poor feet) learned painful lesson that dancing shoes should not be purchased in a hurry (cue silly Arthur Murray song, which really has no relevance, but I like it).

On Liz’s visit to New York, we of course went dancing, but it was a major struggle to find a place. I searched Salsa New York until my head hurt, but it was simply too overwhelming to figure out where to go. We ended up at a club called Latin Quarter, but only managed to get a few dances in. She left, and I continued to say I was going to find places to dance (shouldn’t be hard in the city that is said to have coined the name, right?), and continued to fail in my pursuit.

Finally, this past September, I gave up on trying to cajole friends into coming with, and started taking classes at Salsa International. Fascination quickly turned into obsessed, and soon I was shopping for my very own salsa shoes, which have now been in the family for a couple months and are already very well loved. Their suede bottoms slide easily on the dance floor (though require that I periodically brush the soles to maintain the suede) and they’ve been getting so much use they’ve started to feel a bit like a second skin. I’ve also made a whole new set of friends as equally obsessed with salsa as I, so I’m no longer strapped for people to go dancing with.

The lesson learned here is twofold: 1) don’t wait around for friends to develop the same interests; if you want to do something, go out and do it; and 2) the shoes make all the difference. (Just don’t tell the stilettos that.)





The Travel Tools That Make You Crazy (and How to Prevent It)

22 11 2009

I’m coming to realize more and more how terrible it is to be a procrastinator. And yet I continue on that path. Mostly, I think, it’s a fear of committing—something else may be just around the corner that is better, cheaper, or what-not.

This is how I got into the mess of not buying my Christmas ticket until far later than I should have. I, who pressured my sister two months ago to let me know for certain if she was indeed going to be in the Bay Area for the holiday so that I could get to purchasing a ticket if I needed (I’m terrible, I know).

But things happened: work and not knowing how much time I’d have off, and then there is this little thing called Bing, and its blasted flight predictor. I warn you now: use at your own risk. It looks innocuous enough, charming even, with its little colored arrows pointing every which way, notices telling you “Buy Now, prices are going up!” or, worse, “Wait! They’re going down!”

This is how I fell. I waited, trusting Bing. And then I began the game of obsessively checking every flight search engine Bing had to offer, plus several more from BookingBuddy, which links from Bing but is a beast unto itself. I could count the number of flight search engines that BookingBuddy links to, but I’ve already lost countless hours checking over half of them for flights to California, so I really don’t want to sacrifice any more of my time to such silliness.

And so, since I went slightly insane before finally settling on a ticket (after, of course, thoroughly evaluating the timing, price and mileage earning possibilities of I’d say thousands of flights over the course of several days), I feel my readers should benefit from my new-found wisdom. So here it is:

1) Trust Bing, to an extent. They tell you right on the site to way your risk tolerance (mine, it appears, is rather high). I find that for the most part, in the past at least, it’s been pretty accurate, though over the much-fluctuating holidays it kept telling me to wait when prices were steadily creeping up. There comes a time when you go with your gut, but Bing is a good place to start.

2) Compare a few search engines, but not to many. Pick five good ones (max!) and stop there. I’ve found I have the best luck with Expedia and Cheap Tickets. But Orbitz, my old faithful friend, remains my favorite, for the crucial aspects of flexible date searches and the ability to include nearby airports. (With the others I found my “must know all options” side trying every possible combination of airports in New York and San Francisco. I’m not a mathematician but I know I don’t like that probability.)

3) Stay away from Priceline. I tried multiple times to book the different versions of a given flight, always to get the answer that it was no longer available no matter how many times the screen refreshed to show my desired flights still there. All the while I lost valuable time that I could have been trolling other search engines.

4) Make a decision! At the end of the day, whether it’s because you took too long in evaluating your options or waited too long for something better to come along, you’ve ultimately wasted time, and likely lost the original best case scenario flight in the process. (Some day I will learn to take this piece of brilliant advice myself.)





The Beauty of Solo Travel Returns in Portland, ME

23 09 2009

On my recent visit to Portland, ME, I found myself, through a series of debacles with the friend who was meant to accompany me, on my own at the last minute. I haven’t traveled by myself for over a year now, and don’t believe I’ve ever traveled this way within the United States.

Oddly, solo travel in the U.S., where at least I am fluent in the language and fully proficient in the cultures, is far more daunting than travel in the same manner in a foreign country. Perhaps this is because citizens of other countries tend to be more welcoming, or perhaps because in America one often feels a stigma about finding oneself alone, as though all eyes are looking pityingly upon you. Perhaps it doesn’t help that knowing the language also means being surrounded by conversations you can understand but not partake in. Whatever the combination of forces, solo travel seems less liberating at home than it is abroad.

Not so this time around though. Whether it was the gorgeous, can’t-be-in-a-bad-mood weather or simply the beauty of Maine itself, traveling Portland on my own was as rewarding as any solo trip I’ve taken in the past, perhaps more so because it was unexpected. Wandering the narrow streets, savoring the sights and smells and tastes and sounds on my own time was a simple thrill, but even better (and more surprising) was the thrill of dining at some of Portland’s loveliest restaurants all by myself. I even relished in the pitying (and curious) glances I received from a neighboring party one night at dinner, but ultimately found that, in true Portland fashion, most were less likely to stare and more likely to share.

That’s because the beauty of Portland, above all else, lies in the people. Everywhere I went, whether to a gritty pub or fine dining establishment, historic landmark or pretty boutique, the people not only welcomed me but took the time to talk and share their own excitement about the city and all the amazing things that are happening there. And all this discussion made it even more vital that I was traveling solo, since it meant more time to open up my own mind and really ponder all I was hearing and learning. The sum which is too much for one post…





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





Election Day Chocolate

3 11 2008

Tomorrow is the big day, the day we’ve all been waiting for, and the day that could change the course of our country’s future. Dramatic, yes, but true nontheless. And I couldn’t be more excited. And more nervous. I have been frenetically checking FiveThirtyEight all weekend, and though it appears we have it in the bag, my stomach is in knots and I’m desperately afraid that something might happen to change it up at the last minute.

The upside to all this nerves is that I’ve made a new discovery. There is nothing better to calm the jitters than a little bit of chocolate, especially when it’s creamy, rich, eco-friendly and Fair Trade. The other day I stumbled into the Whole Foods chocolate aisle, which is a dangerous place to be if you love chocolate as I do. And there, on the shelf, was Alter Eco chocolate, all Fair Trade certified and made with natural ingredients. The bar I chose was made with cocoa harvested from the Bolvian Amazon, and my purchase directly supported “a better life for farming families through fair prices, direct trade, community development and environmental stewardship.”

And it was delicious to boot, honestly, the Dark Velvet Chocolate was the creamiest dark chocolate I’ve ever tasted, with a kick at the end. They have a great selection of interesting flavors and it turns out Alter Eco has a whole line of Fair Trade food items beyond the chocolate, from quinoa to coffee. But I’m still stuck on the chocolate, at least until victory time tomorrow. And if that doesn’t come, you can find me harvesting cocoa in the Bolivian Amazon…





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.





Paying it Forward (Part Dos)

31 07 2008

A few posts back I marveled at the rewards that come from that aspect of travel that has to do with passing it on, and the best part about it is when you know it’s made an impact. I knew this not only from the excitement that my brother’s girls had while looking at the photos, but from what came to pass after.

Alyssa, who had studied Peru in school and started this whole thing, told me about her project, and about how they had to make food when they presented. They were supposed to make “a…al…alfa-somethings” (she couldn’t remember). Of course I knew what they were supposed to make and didn’t. I knew firsthand. They were supposed to make alfajores. (Yes, that sounded right.) Well they didn’t make them after all, but she wanted to.

The next 20 minutes were spent trawling the internet for the alfajor site her group had found, and then we decided to give it a go ourselves. When I suggested this, Alyssa was thrilled, so off we went to the store, and we spent the afternoon (and the next morning) baking.

Having found several recipes, we wound up, for reasons I cannot now explain—nor can I now even find the recipe—using one that suggested making dulce de leche from evaporated milk. The recipes I found to this end (none of which I can recover currently) involved boiling the milk, in the can, for four hours. While this seems simple enough, it is actually a taxing project, since you have to continuously monitor the pots to ensure there is enough water that the cans don’t explode (we popped a hole in the top of the can, which helped, but then meant we had to take care that water didn’t hit the top).

My brother, who was visiting, got impatient and opened one can before it was quite time, meaning we had to pour the almost dulce de leche into a pan, then place that pan in a pan of water, and stick it in the oven for another hour (yet another recipe I can’t seem to find). All in all, the dulce de leche took nearly five hours to make. But in the end it was delicious.

The cookies, on the other hand, were a bit of a flop. I didn’t roll them thin enough, so making a sandwich was tough. We settled for slathering dulce de leche on individual cookies, which the kids loved, but it was incredibly messy. In all, though, Alyssa was happy, and I was happy, both because I had found another alfajor lover and because I had passed down yet another happy moment of traveling. As for the cookies, I’m still perfecting them.

We used this recipe for the cookies, and it was good, though a little on the dry side.





Paying It Forward

16 07 2008

The fun thing about travel is, of course, the meeting of new people and the seeing of new things. That part’s a given. But an equally important part of travel (and the part that keeps us travel fiends going in between trips) is the sharing of the travel experience. Even better, sharing the travel experience when the experience itself is a new thing.

Let me explain. While at home in California I got to spend quality time with my young nieces from Colorado, who, at ages 12 and almost 11, are finally old enough to understand the magnitude of international travel and actually be interested in it. (As opposed to six years ago when the little Flamenco fans I brought from Spain were cool solely for the pretty designs on them.)

Now, these girls have had their fair share of travel in the course of their young lives, but somehow trips to California or even the all-inclusive resort in Mexico (while it of course has its merit) does not quite have the same effect. Getting their hair braided doesn’t count discovering a culture.

So the fact that Alyssa (the older sister)’s eyes lit up when I mentioned my trip to Peru was fantastic. When she enthusiastically told me she’d done a project on Peru this year, I wasted no time in whisking her away to my computer and pulling up photos from the trek (a feat not all that easy, given that the pictures—which I finally had all organized and ready to send out—were lost when my hard drive crashed).

There we sat for nearly an hour, flipping through photos of the trail, the houses, the people, and, wonder of wonders, Machu Picchu. To my delight, Alyssa was riveted, as was her sister Nicolette. They were fascinated by the scenery, the dress, the trek itself. And the fact that their aunty (who, admittedly, they know to be a bit of a priss) went five days without showering. And, for my part, I loved reliving the experiences and the stories, and watching their excitement.

But even better was the fact that they were experiencing the wonders of travel (albeit armchair travel) for the first time. While I’ll never know the exact impact it had, by the looks on their faces I’d guess that these girls figured out that there are wonders out there, and that it’s within their reach to see them.

But more importantly, I think it sparked a desire to see them, and it was educational too. Later that day, when Alyssa and I visited the store and I didn’t take a bag for our cans of condensed milk (a preview of my next post) we talked about doing little things for the environment. And when I told her that Salkantay, the glacier she saw in my photos, was melting rapidly because of global warming, her response was, “That would be terrible if I wanted to see it when I grow up and it wasn’t there.” Check and check. New generation of female travelers (and environmentalists) officially recruited.





Downs and Ups

17 04 2008

This post is a combination of two categories I started and then neglected. It’s a list and book review in one. After a brief explanation:

Last week was a hard one for me. I have blogged before about the joys of travel writing, but there are many unjoys to it as well (and it goes without saying that being able to make up words goes under the joy column). Since I’ve been back in New York there have been many of both, and last week marked a period of frustration with the struggles of worming my way into the giant clique that is the editorial world.

I found out I had a connection to the Editor in Chief of my dream publication and immediately drafted an email to said editor, only to hear back the following day in a two line email that thanked me for my interest in the publication but unfortunately this editor was too busy for even the briefest of informational interviews. This was disheartening for many reasons, not the least of which being that part of the reason I love the publication so much is that the editor seems like such a cool person. Needless to say I ended the week feeling rather glum.

And so a list of things that are annoying and crappy:

  • Editors who don’t remember what it was like when they weren’t editors and knock your favorite publication down a rung or two.
  • Being a waitress with a Master’s degree.
  • Allergies.
  • Sitting next to a man on the subway who is picking his nose.

And to balance it out, a list of things that helped me out of the weekend blues:

  • An exceptionally warm and lovely Saturday with music, a saint bracelet, and the smells of spring.
  • The nice man at Barnes and Noble that let me exchange my large photography book (which I bought online for my thesis much longer than 14 days ago) for the three very exciting books I got instead: Swann’s Way, Up in the Old Hotel, and Poet in New York.
  • A surprise encouragement email from a friend and one of the most inspiring women I know (who, it should be told, has had her share of travel adventures, and also has a fantastic sense of style).
  • Lo Tengo Torrontes, the wine I brought to my own pity party. I bought it because it was $9 and from Argentina, but it turns out it was quite good, a little fruity without being too sweet. And it has a label with hologram tango dancers.
  • Friday Night Lights. (I’m obsessed. I admit it.)
  • My good buddy J.D.

This last is the book review part. Because, though I’m still in the middle of several other books, I dropped everything thing this weekend to return to Franny and Zooey. I’ve read it so many times there are parts I know by heart, but I keep going back to it. It’s a once a year thing, I guess, and it’s also what I do when I’m feeling really bad. And every time it helps, and every time I notice something new. This time, for example, I realized how ridiculously funny Zooey Glass is, and how much Mrs. Glass is my mother.

But mostly I just love it because it’s a story about love, about a family supporting each other and about loving what you do. Because I could never say it any better than Salinger, I’m just going to go ahead and quote what Buddy Glass writes to his brother Zooey (who is, incidentally one of those characters I wish were real because I’d like to be friends with him): “Act, Zachary Martin Glass, when and where you want to, since you feel you must, but do it with all your might.”

I have two fragmentary comments about this quote, the first being that only Salinger (or the Glasses) can over-italicize and pull it off, and the second is that if I replace “act” with “write” I have me some pretty strong inspiration, especially when you throw in the Fat Lady. (No, I won’t explain the Fat Lady. Read the book and find out who she is.)

And in addition to all these things that have always made this book great, there is the additional fact now that it is about New York, or a New York family. And it may sound bizarre, but I think it might be one of the reasons I always wanted to come to New York. I simply had to see the city that made the Glasses. So reading it this time around not only provided the above inspriation. but filled me with the distinct and comforting instinct that I came here for good reasons, and that I am in the midst of greatness, even if it’s fictional.

And on that note, a 1961 review I found from the New York Times—by John Updike, no less. It’s “cool factor” was slightly diminished by the fact that it’s a bit infuriating, but I still think it’s a fun find. Also interesting is that I never even dreamed that Franny might be pregnant. Those who haven’t read the book, I warn you not to think too much about what Updike says, because, frankly (and in my expert opinion), he’s way off. I have always liked “Zooey” better, and it’s because of, rather than in spite of, the great Glass world. And with that, I close my rant. In the words of Buddy (from my other favorite novel Seymour, an Introduction): “Go to bed. Quickly. Quickly and slowly.”





A Belated Thanks to Inclement Weather

28 02 2008

15000 Feet wasn’t looking pretty.
Is it me or do we look like those guys from Alive?

Last night in New York it was 24 degrees (feels like 11). I left a friend’s house and walked six blocks to the subway, my stinging lips cursing the cold the whole way. But then I realized: I wouldn’t be outside, leaving a Peru party, if it weren’t for the cold.

Flashback to one year ago…

At around this time last year, my amazing, will-do-anything-for-you (and from California) parents braved the frigid temperatures of a New York February, just to see me. At that time I had lived here about six months and, though I was happy, still hadn’t quite found my place. Despite having several close friends, I was far from home, battling miserable weather, and sometimes felt lonely. It may shock those who know her (note sarcasm here), but this worried my mother to no end.

Then the cold stepped in, with a little help from mom. While the parents were waiting for me to get out of my first day interning for EuroCheapo, the temps outside became unbearable, so they sought refuge in Aroma Cafe, just around the corner from my office. My mother couldn’t help but “overhear” the bubbly girl at the next table over, who happened to be talking about travel, and the more she overheard, the more she thought this girl would make a great friend for her daughter. And so my friendly mother struck up a conversation. (Neither remembers what she said.)

I met my parents after work and was surprised when my mother exclaimed, “I met the cutest girl for you!” I was slightly embarrassed that my mother was making friends for me, but decided to email Libby anyway. After months of email tag we finally met and were insta-friends. On our first “date” I told Libby of my plans to travel in South America and she immediately signed on to be my travel buddy. Before I knew it two of her friends, Rebecca and Tiffany, were talking about hiking boots and plane tickets with us.

After four “Peru planning” meetings—and having known each other a matter of months—we embarked on the most taxing journey any of us had ever before attempted. There were blisters, tears, freezing cold days… and that was just the beginning. There was also laughter, long chats, more tears (happy ones), and bonding. One thing there wasn’t: arguing. The stress of that trip, combined with the constant togetherness, seemed sure yield hurt feelings, if not out and out hatred. But we came off that mountain stronger as individuals and stronger as friends.

Now back in the comforts of New York, Peru is all we discuss. Last night, clean and warm, we held the first of what will be many Peru parties. On the menu was the fruit tea (with rum) that we drank on night two, toasted corn nuts, a Peruvian restaurant staple, and takeout Mexican (oops, how did that slip in there?). From the comfort of a couch in Brooklyn, we watched a hilarious, disgusting, and sometimes painful to watch, video about four girls who didn’t know each other all that well but became close friends at 15,000 feet. All because my parents needed to get out of the cold.

So one year after my parents’ visit, I am sending out a note of thanks to the cold, and one to my matchmaking mother who had to get out of it.