Thursday, September 3, 2015

Best of 2015 Travel, Part 1: Spring Break in Starved Rock

This weekend we are headed to our last trip of the summer—Michigan.

And I have been remiss.

I now find myself having to quickly rewind and review for you the Travels of 2015. I could try to excuse myself or explain that summer went too fast, or that keeping up on blogs and having a kid home during the day don’t mix, or that I neglected to take any decent photographs, or that Facebook was a much more expedient version to use to “report back” on where we’d been…and all of that is true. But, at the heart of the matter is the fact that although I enjoyed our travels, I somehow believed that our little domestic trips this spring and summer were pale and anemic compared to 2013’s seven weeks in Europe, or 2014’s Costa Rica and New York City trips. Not blog-worthy. No one wants to hear about our trip to Starved Rock, a tiny park perched on the edge of the Illinois River. Right?

But, it suddenly dawned on me that, although the trips weren’t to exotic locales, the experiences we had were important, noteworthy, even. Starved Rock in mid-spring gave us a much-needed break and a glimpse of warmer weather after winter’s blahs. Little Columbus, Indiana was a surprise jewel, and afforded us a great opportunity to see how the dog travels. I attended my first Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City (see previous blog post). And after that, my son dipped his toes in the Atlantic (in Florida) and the Pacific (in Washington) in the same summer. How cool is that for a 12-year-old?

So, at the risk of underwhelming you with 2015’s travel so far, I bring you, in chronological order:

Best of 2015 Travel, Part 1: Spring Break in Starved Rock

Over spring break, we decided to take a few days and do something I’ve always wanted to do: stay at the Starved Rock Lodge. Starved Rock is the most visited state park in Illinois. According to Wikipedia, it is so named because “after the French had moved on, according to a local legend, a group of Native Americans of the Illinois Confederation (also called Illiniwek or Illini) pursued by the Ottawa and Potawatomi fled to the butte in the late 18th century. The Ottawa and Potawatomi besieged the butte until all of the Illiniwek had starved, and the butte became known as ‘Starved Rock’.” Of course, standing on the butte itself over the Illinois River, one has a hard time accepting the reality of this story, but it does make the experience of climbing to the lookout and gazing down over the river and surrounding landscape more thrilling. After checking into the lodge, a sprawling resort overlooking the river and hillsides, we took a long hike, first to the butte, then on to the other trails. The peak gave us a view of the dam and locks that now sit directly below.

The binoculars gave us a detailed view of all the garbage that people dump in the river, everything from thermoses to mattresses to construction materials. Depressing. Perhaps the most exciting part of the hike was watching thrill-seekers trying to climb the ice-covered waterfalls in the many canyons nature has wrought out of the limestone. (I was wondering how rescue vehicles would get there, not doubting that at least one or two of those climbers would slip on the melting ice and fall off the precipice.)

It was a gorgeous, warm day, and we started to shed our jackets as we climbed; the first swarms of little gnats signaled the new season.

Dinner was at the Lodge, and overpriced, of course. My son, ever in a growing period these days, ate an appetizer, an entrée, extra bread, and dessert. I sampled a local wine; it wasn’t terrible, but there’s a reason Illinois is not known for its wines. Later that evening my son was glued to the Cartoon Network (we generally don’t watch TV at home, so hotels are a cartoon-binge-watching opportunity for him), and my husband and I went for a stroll outside. We watched a raccoon boldly search for human throw-offs while guests taking a break from wedding festivities milled around on the patio. A young musician started chatting with my husband, and we were actually invited to the reception, or at least a drinking sing-along at a neighboring campsite after the reception died down. We respectfully declined.

The next day was sunny, but colder. After eating an overly greasy breakfast in a locally esteemed diner (named Joy and Ed’s, I believe; no relation), we drove a bit of the countryside, looking for fun and interesting antique stores. My husband bought a pair of Civil War-era eyeglasses. We ate ice cream for lunch, a sure sign that we felt we were on vacation. A longer drive to find another store (that was hardly worth the effort) was putting my son in a bad mood (ironically, he chose an antique-y looking sign at one of the stores for his trip souvenir which stated, “Attitude is Everything; Pick a Good One.”), so we headed back to the lodge to spend the rest of the afternoon in the pool. Not a big hiker nor antiquer, my son probably would recount the time in the pool (and his introduction to the sauna) as his favorite part of the vacation. 

That evening we drove around even more to find a good restaurant. OK, even a decent restaurant. The nearby towns of LaSalle, Peru, Ottawa, and North Utica were our best bet (and frankly hard to figure out which one you’re in, as they seem to run into each other). Eventually, after what seemed like ages to our empty stomachs, we found a pizza restaurant called La Grotto (which seemed more truck stop than cave) with a very full parking lot. Luckily, they were able to seat us right away. It wasn’t the best pizza, and the televisions were blaring, but we were less picky the hungrier we got.

We were to leave the next morning. We had been lucky with unseasonably warm weather. Our luck would change. We awoke to this outside our window.

Ah, March in Illinois. Ever a surprise. We spent the morning reading in front of the massive fireplace in the almost empty hall, sipping coffee. 

As luck would have it, friends I had not seen in almost 20 years (and my husband had never met) would be passing through Starved Rock the day we were planning to leave on their way from Arizona to a family wedding in Chicago. Scott and I used to work at the same café and drink at the same bars a lifetime ago, and have recently reconnected, to my delight. His wife Judy is a veterinarian, and they have a smart, sweet daughter a little younger than my son. We were planning to check out and leave that morning, but agreed to stay and have lunch together at the lodge. It was wonderful to catch up a bit, but way too short. Guess I’ll have to add Arizona to my places to visit!

Fortunately, the snow had mostly melted by the time we left, and we made great time getting back. We were anxious to rejoin our big ball of fluff, Persimmon, and relax a bit before returning to work and school the next day.

And, there you have it. The beginning of travel season. A beautiful hike, decent food, great weather, swimming, shopping, ice cream, meeting up with friends. What more could one ask for on such a short trip?

Part 2, coming soon.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Iowa Summer Writing Festival

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of my friend Glenn. Seeing all the tributes on Facebook for this remarkable, lovable man made me reflect on the things that are most important to me:  my family and friends, writing, travel. Glenn would never pass up an opportunity for a new experience. He would have spent his last dime on adventure in an exotic locale, or having fun closer to home with family and friends. I realized that the best way to honor his memory—and the memory of all my loved ones who have gone before—is to stay true to my goals:  to write and to travel, and to grab each and every opportunity which comes my way. 

To that end, last weekend’s travel adventure was not far away in actual distance, but represents a dream that was many years in the making. I have always wanted to be a part of the world-renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop somehow, ever since I knew that it was such a well-known and distinguished program. And then, I found out that they have a summer writing festival where you can attend short workshops. Oh, joy! But even though my friend Rebecca has lived there for several years—which meant free room and board—I never had the time at that time of the year or the money to attend. I promised myself that once I quit my job and started writing, I would make it a priority to get to at least one workshop.

And 2015 is the year it finally happened.

I signed up for a workshop entitled, “An Illustrated Field Guide to Nonfiction.” I had feared some sort of competition, some sort of writing sample to be submitted, but no! All I had to do was sign up and pay! The workshop promised to whip into shape and form any rough draft or idea we had generated for a nonfiction project. I had three such rough ideas in the works. Perfect. When I discussed this with my writing group, as luck would have it, my friend Umeeta would be going there the same weekend for a workshop, and she and I would drive to Iowa City together. Perfect.

Unfortunately, my friend Rebecca wouldn’t be in Iowa that weekend, so no free room and board; it worked out for the best, however, because the Iowa House where I stayed was in close proximity to the workshop classrooms, and all the shops and restaurants of downtown. I could pop back to the room quickly between sessions to get freshened up or take a quick nap; I could also close myself off from other humans without guilt when it was time to do homework, which others had warned me about. The Iowa House was reasonably priced and right on the river, making for nice evening strolls. Perfect.

The drive to Iowa was delightfully uneventful. Umeeta is a charming chatterer, but also a good listener, so the four hours melted away. She was attending a weekend workshop, then a weeklong workshop, after which her partner would be joining her in Iowa City to see the town, and then driving back together. She asked me if it was OK that we were meeting Carol Spindel for dinner; Carol is a good friend of hers, a writer, and also the teacher of my workshop! I was excited to meet her, and hoped it wouldn't be weird. I shouldn't have worried. We met at the hotel, and then walked into campus to a sushi restaurant, and the conversation was easy; we talked about books, vacations, her children, cars, yoga, and a myriad other things. Afterwards, we walked to the local co-op and stocked up on breakfast items, since Carol told us that the hotel breakfast wasn't great. After coming back, I was so wound up it was hard to get to sleep, but I knew I should save my energy for the next day.

At orientation in the Old Capitol building the next morning, there were probably about 150-200 people taking workshops that weekend. That was the only time it felt crowded. Iowa City has a beautiful campus and a lively downtown, but the summer pace is slow and relaxed. We met our group in our classroom, and what an interesting group they were. Mostly middle-aged white women, of course, but we also had two men--Hillel, an older neuroscientist from Israel, and Scott, a youngish commodities trader from Chicago (who we later found out is interviewed on CNBC a lot). I fully expect to see published works from at least a third of this cast of characters. An angular woman from Ft. Collins, Colorado, with gray pageboy cut, wearing Keens and knitting throughout the class, was writing about sheep and how the demise of various breeds reflects the homogenization of our culture. She unraveled everything she'd knitted for two days in the last 20 minutes of class on Sunday, which makes me think that knitting was more of a coping mechanism. A schoolteacher from Texas was writing about the lost literary works of a writer named Evelyn Scott; her name was Patricia, and she was a somewhat loud, boisterous character that often talked over others. A nervous, twitchy homemaker with incredibly fast, clipped speech (somewhat appropriately named "Edgy") from Kansas had written over a thousand extremely short pieces of her upbringing being the 7th of 9 children whose family was so dysfunctional they were almost separated into foster care several times. Another retired teacher wrote of her sexual assault in Zaire when she served in the Peace Corps in the 1970s. Her friend from Madison, Wisconsin spoke in that quintessential northern Midwest lilt (think, "Fargo"--that singsongy "you betchya" and "oh, how niiiice," with all those shortened, tight, high vowels), but I had no doubt that she could deliver some zingers in that sweet singsong. She used everyone's first name when addressing him or her from the first five minutes or so of class; unfortunately, I’ve already forgotten her name. She was writing about her great-great grandfather who was somewhat of a mystery in his little hometown in rural Wisconsin. A very young Indian-American woman named Priscilla who is an international social worker and therapist was writing the story of traveling the world then settling down with a boyfriend in Morocco while first exhibiting signs of her bipolar disorder. Scott was writing about being able to predict the next financial crisis, and Hillel was writing about his two great-great-grandfathers (who were living in the U.S. at the time) who together formed an experimental agricultural community in the 1870s in Palestine, which may or may not have been the very first kibbutz, way ahead of its time. A retired Jewish attorney from Manhattan (probably in her 80s) wrote of her dilemma when her daughter met and married a Greek man whom she thought completely wrong for her daughter. She regaled us with stories over lunch about graduating from law school and trying to get a job in the 50s, and her new boyfriend she was living with in San Diego--an ugly man, dying of cancer, who has lived his life as a devout womanizer.

And I could go on...

Carol is an extraordinary teacher. Our assignment was to first workshop others' proposals and ask leading questions that would help them find their framework, story arc, and cast of characters. Then that evening our homework was to come up with our own framework, to make a table of contents or a visual representation of the organization. I discovered so much during this process! My story of our four-month “honeymoon” in Brazil is what I chose, and I actually was able to hammer out the organization, and choose the scenes I would use. Wow! But...I'm neglecting the chronology. I went by myself after class for a walk, then sat down at a tapas place with a glass of wine and some octopus that was delicious. I then walked across the street and met Umeeta for a poetry and prose reading at a café. Wow. I didn't read, but I heard some amazing poems, and Umeeta read a piece she'd read before at our writing group that I loved about childhood discovery and shame. I thought that maybe someday I'd have the guts to stand up there and read something that I'd written. Someday. Umeeta and I walked around the downtown, got some gelato, and then walked back to our hotel, which was on the river. We walked along the river and across the bridge, enjoying the sunset and the lights, and the clouds. We had a lovely talk about kids; although she doesn't have kids of her own, she has twin nephews that are a little older than my son, and they had been visiting the previous week, as they do every summer. She calls it "Aunty Camp;" they go for putt-putt and museums, and visiting campus, and doing things that 12-year-olds find fun. They sound like amazing kids, and I really missed my own then.

I returned to the hotel room energized. I had figured I'd be too tired to do the homework, and since we wouldn't meet until 10 the next day, I could do the homework in the morning. But I started in, and couldn't stop. I finished it at about 12:15, and crawled into bed exhausted. We had to present our ideas to the class the next day, and since the previous day we didn't know each other and there seemed to be some tension in the class (such strong, opinionated players!), I was nervous about it. But the personalities seemed to gel a bit better, and the ideas flowed. I spent part of the lunch break at the Prairie Lights bookstore, a tiny, but impressive place where I wanted to buy everything. I stood looking for Carol's book in the Iowa Writers' Workshop section (it's called In the Shadow of the Sacred Grove, if you're ever interested; I’ve just started reading it, and it’s wonderful), and was just overwhelmed by the names I saw; Ann Patchett, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver....and others, like Carol, who were teaching there and had books out. It was humbling and awe-inspiring. I bought Carol's book, and a memoir just out from Tom Robbins, and then came across Terry Wahls' book. My friend Rebecca who lives in Iowa City had told me about this book years ago. Terry Wahls is a doctor and professor of medicine in Iowa City (there's a huge medical school there). A few years ago she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and it quickly progressed to the point she was in a wheelchair and unable to function, unable to keep up with work. Long story short, she researched many diets, and came up with her own diet, and has been able to reverse her symptoms! Now, as I’ve researched my own autoimmune disease, these claims, these stories are common; but Dr. Wahls decided to back it up with clinical research, and has done so in a very controlled scientific study through the University of Iowa. Her book (a signed copy) The Wahls Protocol, was sitting on the shelf, innocently calling to me just as I was ready to leave the bookstore. I had to take a look. (Her TEDx talk is worth a look-see, even if you don’t read the book).

We finished with the workshop a bit early, and I was anxious to return, full of ideas; but the Wahls Protocol book was calling to me too, and I realized how much I was craving just cuddling up with a good book. Or three. Needless to say, after a similarly uneventful drive back to Champaign-Urbana Sunday night, I did just that. I've read about 160 pages of the book so far, and it has convinced me to try the diet. Because, while my brain was being fed with wonderful literary ideas, my body was being filled with a lot of carbs. I managed to eat decent meals, but I also managed to snack a ton--at midnight, while feverishly finishing up my homework; at lunchtime, when I was nervously waiting for class to begin again; after dinner, when I really hadn't eaten enough to satisfy me, or I'd had two glasses of wine I needed to "soak up;" in the car, in the car, in the car....bread, yogurt, chips, granola bars.  All the wrong things. And my body has been telling me this is a bad idea. The combination of sitting in a car then in a class for extended periods of time, with bad diet, with lack of exercise has ensured that I am in pain. I am tired of pain. I am tired of medication. I am tired of the medication/steroid cycle. I am tired of being tired.

So…filed under Things On My Mind To Do In The Next 30 Days:
1) writing the book I've mapped out
2) changing my diet

And…because I don’t do anything in a wise, measured manner, more travel!  It’s summer, so keep an eye out for our two (two!) exciting trips to come!  Hint: For one of these trips, I'm trying to ignore the recent New Yorker article predicting the destruction of the populated areas of the Pacific Northwest by earthquake and tsunami in the near future.

I leave you with some glimpses of Iowa City…
Iowa City is a very writerly city. These sidewalk scenes grace Iowa Street (avenue?)

I can never seem to wait to take a picture before digging in and making my food all messy on the plate; sushi dinner our first night

The Old Capitol

View from the chapel below of the Old Capitol building

Small chapel on the river next to the Iowa Memorial Union

Amazing architecture along the river; amazing to think that all these buildings were half under water in the flood of 2008

The lovely Iowa River at sunset, well within its banks

Friday, September 26, 2014

Yes, Chef! and Seven Women, or Making a Dream into Reality

So…my non-fiction book club took a trip to New York City last weekend, and I’m exhausted.  It’s only the second time I’ve been to this intriguing place; the first time was for a conference, which doesn’t really count.
Nobody from our book club remembers whose Very Good Idea it was.  All we can remember is the conversation coming back to Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir, Yes, Chef! at a meeting for another book, and saying how much fun it would be to go to visit his restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem.  We don’t remember who ventured  “well, we could take a long weekend out there.  Why not?”  But thus the Very Good Idea took root.Thank the heavens for planners.  I am usually the planner of my family, and as I’ve mentioned before, if I don’t plan the trip for my family, we will never get out of east central Illinois.  But this time I was content to have these wonderful women do most of the planning for me while I tried to maintain the rest of my life, which was becoming unhinged.  They called restaurants to make reservations.  They found cheap plane tickets, and we all purchased them around six months prior to our trip.  They found Broadway tickets online.  They sent out links to menus, maps, lists of prices, musical reviews, magazine and newspaper articles, accommodations websites, and so on.  They arranged taxis and tour guides, they researched, they haggled.  Occasionally we met after book group (as a subset of our larger club) to go over planning details.  I volunteered to research airport shuttles and call for our first night dinner reservations, but mostly I was content for once to stand back and enjoy the generous spirit and loving energy of our group.  I didn’t have to be in charge.  I didn’t have to herd anyone, or persuade anyone, or override anyone’s objections, as I usually have to do before a family trip.  I hoped my book club friends didn’t think I was letting everyone else do all the work….but, in fact, that’s what was the most fun for me, was for once letting everyone else do all the work when I most needed it.
And, suddenly, the time had arrived.  I would leave my sleeping son, stepson, and dog, and begin picking everyone up at 4:45 a.m. to drive to our local airport.  We were groggy, but excited, when we arrived.  The flights to New York’s LaGuardia were easy and the connection in Chicago was seamless.  Checked bags were picked up in New York before everyone had a chance to use the restroom.  Two yellow cabs shuttled us to 115 119th Street in Harlem’s beautiful, historic neighborhood.  The remodeled brownstone was between Malcolm X (Lenox) Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard. 

The weather was perfect, and after we installed ourselves into the second floor apartment with 9-foot ceilings, carved fireplaces, antique fixtures, and gorgeous pocket doors, we were ready to hit the streets for lunch, then a walking tour of Harlem.
Our tour guide was Tom, a young, good-looking import from Florida who had spent the last six years getting to know his new home in New York City.  He had been an attorney, but then decided to abandon that lifestyle—with its income and promise of upward mobility—to try his hand at standup comedy, and to supplement his income with giving tours of his beloved city.  His knowledge of the architecture and history of the area were vast, and it’s clear he’s no slacker when it comes to research, both in the library and on foot.  We toured the area of the Harlem Renaissance, the rent parties, the hey-days of yore.  We saw the hotel where Fidel Castro had stayed with an entourage that included chickens.  We took a group photo in front of the Apollo Theatre, which has seen the performances of almost all the notable entertainers of Motown, Jazz, R & B, and even Michael Jackson’s pop. 

We walked the streets that had been renamed as Malcolm X Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, and past the Abyssinian Baptist Church where so much history had been made in the black community.  He gave us a brief but important history of the development of the island of Manhattan.  Though hot, sweaty, and tired at the end, we knew this was the best introduction we could have had for our trip. We revived ourselves with a bit of wine and conversation on the balcony of our brownstone.

Dinner was Ethiopian, at a place called Zoma.  This was my first experience eating Ethiopian food, and I loved every minute of the spicy, hands-on (literally) experience.  We shared a plate of meat and vegetable stews piled onto a large flat bread not very different from French buckwheat galettes, the savory crepes from Brittany.  Torn off pieces of the bread are used to scoop up the stews.  There’s something terribly satisfying about having to use your hands.
Too dark, but you get the idea
Friday morning we were refreshed, despite sharing a room (and one bathroom among seven women!).  After breakfast, we went our separate ways.  Molly ventured to the Morningside Park area; Linda and Casey met a niece for coffee; the rest of us followed Jennifer who knows the city well after having lived here for two years. 
We took the subway to the East Village and wandered around to the NYU campus, to a heavenly bakery for cannoli and pastries, to Soho, past an Italian festival, then finally to Chinatown to meet the others for lunch. 
My pork dumpling soup

After an authentic, tasty lunch, we wandered further south to City Hall, Wall Street, Trinity Church, then finally to Battery Park and the famous Staten Island Ferry.  The views of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the post-9/11 skyline gave me chills that didn’t necessarily come from the Atlantic breezes.

And then it was time to return to our lodging and get ready for the main event:  Red Rooster!

Reservations for Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem restaurant can be made no more than a month in advance, so until August we had been sitting on tenterhooks, hoping that our trip to New York wouldn’t be spoiled by not being able to eat at the restaurant.  We were so relieved when Linda emailed out the news in late August that we were in!  Our Red Rooster visit really made me realize the importance of atmosphere and perspective in the dining experience.  The food was wonderful, of course, but my appreciation of it increased exponentially by three factors:  the décor and environment, knowing the owner’s story, and—last but in no way least—the company.  Red Rooster is an eclectic combination of urban sophistication meeting home-cooked “grandma-made-with-love” meals. 
The interior; smaller than we imagined

Those who don’t know Mr. Samuelsson’s background would find it difficult to understand why Helga’s [Swedish] Meatballs (inspired by his own grandmother’s recipe) would be on the same list of entrées as Fried Yardbird and Shrimp & Grits.  I encourage you to read the book if you’re intrigued!  We shared cornbread, a watermelon and heirloom tomato salad, and chicken and waffles (with chicken liver butter and bourbon maple syrup—gracious!) for appetizers.  I had Helga’s Meatballs, with a side of mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam as an entrée. 
A table crowded with glorious food

All this accompanied by a “white sangaree”—sauvignon blanc, St. Germain liqueur, peaches, and sage.  Oh, my.  And then we splurged on dessert.  My favorite (always a peanut girl) was the black-bottom peanut pie with bourbon ice cream.  There was a green apple confection and some cookies to die for as well.  All of this with a visit from the manager who heard we were visiting from Illinois (a delightful woman from Cleveland who looked way too thin to ever have sampled these delectables), and who told us that unfortunately Marcus was away taping a television show in L.A., and couldn’t be with us.  Our tummies and palates were so happy, we took it in stride.
We returned to the apartment and were invited to have wine with the other guests, two older women visiting from Austria, on the lower patio.  Some of us (OK, maybe I will include myself in that) stayed up too late, but thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, and meeting new people.
Saturday morning we split up again, a couple of us to a museum, one to meet a cousin for brunch, and the rest of us on the subway to downtown again.  I desperately wanted to see the 9/11 memorial, though I knew it would be a sobering way to spend a gorgeous Saturday in New York.  No matter, it was necessary, and I knew I’d never forgive myself if I hadn’t seen it.  I could skip 5th Avenue, a glimpse of Grand Central (you just can’t do it all, can you?), and even strolling in my beloved “nature” in Central Park.  But I couldn’t miss the chance to see in person that place we all saw on television over and over that day in a beautiful September like this one in 2001.  I tried in vain to quickly find the name of my former student, an ESL student from Thailand, inscribed on the list; it is enough that I know her name is there, and that it was a life cut too short.
The new One World Trade Center
9/11 Memorial

Time and crowds were not on our side, and after a late-ish breakfast, we all had to be content with a pit stop at Starbucks in mid-town before getting in line for our 2:00 p.m. performance of Kinky Boots.
I haven’t seen the movie, and didn’t really know anything about the show, except that it had won several Tonys, and that Cyndi Lauper had done the score, so I was open-eyed and ready for a wild ride.  Kinky Boots did not disappoint.  To say that Billy Porter was amazing is a gross understatement.  What a show!

We had just enough time to fight the Saturday night Times Square crowds to get to our Italian restaurant, 44 Southwest.  It had been recommended by Linda’s dentist, and I would recommend it to anyone else in turn.  It would be traitorous of me to say that this was better food than Red Rooster, but let’s just say it ranked right up there.  It helps, of course, that I’m a sucker for almost any dish with pasta (low-carb diets be damned!); also, for almost any dish with seafood.  Combine the two, and put some garlic with it, and I’m in heaven. 
Is your mouth watering yet?

We had a sassy waitress, a friendly bartender, and a European feel to the restaurant open to the street.  It was here that we drank a toast to Glenn, my friend who passed away this summer before he had the chance to celebrate his 50th birthday.  I posted the photo on his Facebook page as one of hundreds of similar photos taken around the world; I hoped his twin sister was finding a way to celebrate their lives.  We also called Jan, our book club’s founder, and toasted her for starting the book group in the first place.
On to the next show!  Gluttons, we were, to think we’d have all this energy.It’s Only a Play was a bit of a letdown; despite the star-studded cast--Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Megan Mullally, Rupert Grint, F. Murray Abraham, Stockard Channing (for whom we saw the understudy)—the play, still in previews, was a bit slow and draggy.  Or maybe it’s just that we were slow and draggy.  We managed to find our way through the night-is-day Times Square again to get the subway back to Harlem afterwards. 
Times Square, a bit blurry; or was it my eyes?

We took turns in the single bathroom for showers, and packed up our belongings and our memories for the trip back to Illinois early Sunday morning.  Though tired and groggy once again, I experienced the bittersweet combination of regret of not seeing and doing more in our short time, and the relief of coming home.
That’s the thing about travel; you can always think of a million reasons why you shouldn’t/can’t/are afraid to go somewhere.  It’s expensive.  It interrupts your quotidian existence; you need to find pet care, childcare, someone to water your plants. You have to put up with the TSA and packing efficiently.  It’s tiring.  Your feet, your back, your head end up hurting.  Your digestive system may or may not cooperate.  But the benefits of travel ALWAYS outweigh the trouble, at least in my book.  And sometimes the momentum of a group of like-minded folks tips the scales, and you find yourself actually touching the thing you’ve only read about, seeing the show in person you’ve only heard about, tasting the food you’ve seen some expert chef preparing on television.  We started out not knowing each other very well, but found so much in common.  All seven of us are very different personalities with very different backgrounds, but we were united on one thing:  making a book-inspired dream into a reality.  And that, dear friends, is the essence of travel.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

La Comida Costarricense

Well, it’s been over a month since we got back from lovely Costa Rica, but in many ways it feels like a lifetime ago. School has started back up again for my son and husband, old friends have come to town for a visit, our dog has slowly become reacquainted with us, and life is starting to take on a predictable rhythm.  My garden is producing, despite ignoring it for three weeks, and it’s peach season.  I’m cooking and baking, and loving the season’s offerings.  In moving forward, though, I must finish recounting our summer’s adventure…

Apparently, in certain circles, I am what could be described as a “foodie.”  If indeed this is so, then I can be fairly certain to have given a fair judgment that Costa Rica is not a food destination.  If you’re looking for the food capital of the world, look to Italy, Thailand, France, Japan….but don’t look to Costa Rica.  That’s not to say that the food is bad in Costa Rica, far from it.  Every restaurant we went to had hearty, filling fare, and most was reasonably priced (although not a huge bargain).  It’s just a bit…repetitive, after you get used to the typical dishes, and…bland.  The focus is on freshness instead of flavor, and few, if any, spices are used.

There were usually items included from typical Costa Rican cuisine at every restaurant.  Gallo pinto, pinto beans cooked with rice, is considered the national dish by many, although it’s shared among many neighboring countries. Casados  are a well-rounded plate with gallo pinto, some kind of salad, some kind of vegetable or fried plantains, and some kind of meat (grilled beef, chicken, pork chicharrones, or fish), sometimes served with tortillas on the side.  Almost everywhere you can buy ceviche, a cold fish stew that has been marinated in lime juice or vinegar and spiced with onions, peppers, and herbs.  My description is not terribly flattering, but if you like fresh seafood, you will love ceviche.  Costa Ricans eat it with crackers; sometimes a sweet ketchup-y sauce is added.  I’m not a fan, as the sweetness overpowers the delicious flavor of the fish.  Sometimes the ceviche is made sweet to start with, which I find downright criminal in light of the quality and freshness of fish that is being disguised for no good reason.

And then, there are the juices and shakes and smoothies…passionfruit, cas (some sort of green guava), guanábana (sour sop), chia seed, banana, mango, horchata (chia seed), guava, strawberry, blackberry, papaya, and watermelon, just to name a few.  My son enjoyed a full Tico breakfast of gallo pinto, eggs, toast, and fruit almost every day, then subsisted mainly on batidos (sort of smoothie, can be made with or without milk) and fruit juices the rest of the day.

Meals, of course, are also enhanced by the company we keep and the warmth and comfort of the surroundings.  Here is an incomplete list in no particular order of the most memorable meals we experienced in Costa Rica:

1.           Our first meal in Turrialba after Ray, Heidi and family met us at the bus station coming from San José; after dragging our bags down crowded sidewalks in the pouring rain, we feasted on simple carne asada, salsichon (sausage), and ceviche  at a restaurant called Betico Mata.  Little did we know what a wonderful introduction to Tico cuisine we were getting; the restaurant was reviewed favorably very recently in the nation’s most important newspaper.

2.          Our first breakfast cooked by our American ex-pat host Tommy after waking up in the tree house was pecan waffles, bacon, and coffee ground with cardamom seeds.  The only Costa Rican part was the coffee, but the breakfast was so delicious it must be mentioned.

3.          Ceviche in a Styrofoam cup at the market.  Perfect on a hot day.  Before that, we were introduced to the coconut seller whom Ray and Heidi had befriended.  There is absolutely no beverage better to quench your thirst on a hot, humid day than a chilled, freshly-split-open coconut.
Classic ceviche

4.        Our last meal in Sitio de Mata at Doña Rosa’s. I’m not sure what was more amazing, the meal or the view over the valley, dam, and reservoir (one of the many that Costa Rica uses to export power to other countries). Heidi had been a “guest cook” in the kitchen, learning how to cook a typical meal, and had gotten to know the family rather well.  We ate the best example of chicharrones—tender fried pork rinds—Costa Rica has to offer. We also met a young man visiting who was German with Costa Rican grandparents, and had a lovely conversation.  Worth the fairly scary walk on the unlit main road back to the house afterwards.
View of the valley from Doña Rosa's

Kitchen where our meal was made

Doña Rosa's

5. Breakfast at Minor’s in San Lorenzo, outside of San José in the Central Valley.  Simple, filling, with pleasant conversation with our jovial host who encouraged us to use our very little Spanish with him.
Fresh fruit, first breakfast course

Followed by eggs, gallo pinto, tortilla (and sometimes sausage)

6.         Dinner at an Italian restaurant in Heredia.  Felt a little Godfather-ish, except for the TVs and loud street noises.  The pizza and pasta were excellent and the portions were copious.  It was my only wine in Costa Rica; I had been forewarned about the lack of quality or variety of wine available.  It’s just not a wine culture, which makes sense.

7.          Breakfast at Café Milagro with all our friends.  We met the owner, Michael’s long-time friend Lance, as we were leaving (you can check out the story at  They served their own brew from the coffee business he owns to accompany a fantastic menu of omelets, crepes, and other breakfast items with a distinctly non-Tico flair. We spent a lot of time chatting with one another and corralling the children.
Erzsi, Heidi, Laszlo

Patrice, Erzsi, Heidi--hungry

Ale and Michael

Beckett, enjoying his own version of breakfast


Cousin Tati with Sophia

Ray and Gaël

Blackberry mango crepes

8.         Ceviche at the fancy beach restaurant on Playa Espadilla in Manuel Antonio.  Served in half a fresh coconut, it was by far the best ceviche I had in Costa Rica.  The restaurant was expensive, but it was a unique experience to eat a leisurely lunch while watching the waves crash on the shore and look up and see capuchin monkeys in the trees above our heads.
Ceviche in coconut with plantains

9.         Red snapper with green mango chutney.  This fish experience is what I came to Costa Rica for.  Michael, Ale and Patrice and I used to be part of a dinner club, and have often cooked for one another.  We wanted a reprise at the house in Manuel Antonio: to create a special meal together once again. We went with Michael to the port in neighboring Quepos, next to the warehouse where the fish is flash-frozen and prepared to go all over the world.  We stood at the window of a small hardware store and ordered about 10 pounds of red snapper.  Yellowfin tuna and seabass were also available that day.  Michael graciously did the grunt work of scraping off the scales while I made a paste of olive oil, salt, and garlic to spread on the fish; it made a crunchy exterior and simultaneously flavored and protected the delicate meat.  Michael was sweating furiously over the grill while we sorted through veggies we had in the fridge, and Patrice peeled the green mangoes from the tree in front of the house.  We made an impromptu chutney of mangoes, lime juice, red pepper, onions, and tons of cilantro to serve over the fish.  I have never had such fresh, tender, sweet, flavorful fish.  We compared methods for filleting, swatted mosquitoes, scrounged for something for the fish-phobic kids to eat, but when that first bite melted on my tongue, the world went away for a moment.  I don’t think I’d need to check with Michael to make sure it was worth all the blood, sweat and…more sweat; I know he would agree that it was.
Glowing coals--the perfect temperature for grilled fish


10.     Rainmaker lunch.  On our way from Manuel Antonio towards Arenal we stopped at a little park called Rainmaker, which had a delightful little hike with rope bridges, loads of tropical flowers and plants, and stunning vistas.  A simple buffet lunch was included in the price.  This was true, simple Costa Rican fare:  chicken-y rice, black beans, cabbage salad, passionfruit juice.  Absolutely perfect after a morning hike.
Typical fare

11.       Breakfast at Casa Amenecer.  We decided to spend the night before pushing another three hours to La Fortuna and the Arenal volcano.  The Lonely Planet didn’t have many choices in San Ramon.  We went to a slightly seedy hotel, then another which was even less appealing, while the kids grew hungrier and hungrier.  We finally called Casa Amenecer, a B and B outside of San Ramon, in San Juan de San Ramon. Miracle of miracles, they had two rooms large enough to accommodate our two families.  After settling in, we admired the amazing night sky with two layers of fast-moving clouds giving us glimpses of the brilliant stars beyond; all this from a hillside terrace with giant rocking chairs.  The next morning we got up to a smiling hostess and an enormous buffet breakfast.  She told us how everything we saw was grown or made locally, including the cheese, the jams, and the coffee.  Having hungrily gobbled up loads of pizza the night before did not prevent us from returning to the buffet two or three times for this extraordinary breakfast.
This counter was covered with dishes: meats, cheeses, eggs, fruit, veggies, breads, cakes

The terrace with a view

Our lovely hostess

12.      Michael’s Birthday meal and market in Heredia.  We went to the indoor Mercado Central in Heredia and saw every fruit, vegetable, cheese, fish, and meat possible, as well as raw spices (I guess someone uses them), clothes, shoes, and a stand selling juices and batidos, of course.  
Market fare

More market fare

Very eco, even at the market

And...more market fare

There's no end

This, I have to admit, was a little smelly

Afterwards, we drove for a couple of hours up a twisting, tiny road (even for Costa Rica standards) into the mountains above the Central Valley to Barva for a chilly, rainy lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, Chagos.  The restaurant was cozy, the food was good, hearty, typical Costarricense, the birds and squirrels on the balcony overlooking the forest were persistent.

The crew and the birthday boy

13.      Barbecue in Alajuela.  Our last night in Costa Rica was a sad parting.  We knew we would see Ray and Heidi again in the U.S. very soon, but we had no idea when or where we’d be seeing Michael and Alejandra and their beautiful children, Sophia and Beckett.  And agreeing on a restaurant for such an occasion is never easy.  We settled on one that was not a long drive from our hotel.  Coincidentally, I had noticed the restaurant on our way earlier that day and thought it looked interesting and cozy.  The food was wonderful, an excellent array of barbecued meats (and real hot dogs for the smaller kids), good company, and lively conversation in the open air.  It felt like an appropriate sendoff from the “happiest country in Latin America."