Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

When it comes to travel, the people make the place.

“The people make the place,” I told my nephew J.J. during our two-week trip to Greece last summer. He seemed to grasp this intuitively, loving Athens for the warmth of its inhabitants as much as the magnificence of the Acropolis. Yet I felt compelled to voice the thought anyway, because it encapsulates a travel and life philosophy I hoped he might adopt.

I’ve lived in the D.C. area for nearly all of my 46 years, and I have a long and dynamic list of things I love about the physical place, including: jogging the length of the Mall, strolling through the Cherry Blossoms in the spring, singing along to the likes of Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap, taking in any of the Smithsonian museums, having a lazy brunch somewhere on 8th Street and then wandering around Eastern Market, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at the Air Force Memorial, or driving 90 minutes west to hike Old Rag. It’s all familiar, in the best possible way.

But I also have a long-running list of beefs about this area, such as: traffic, soulless sprawl, politics, short-timing posers (you know the archetype: a windbag who isn’t actually from here and kicks off every conversation with, “What do you do?” as a way to gauge whether you’re worth talking to), short tempers, total inability to deal with more than three flakes of snow, and a ridiculously high cost of living. It’s all familiar, in the worst possible way. But even when the D.C. area serves up its very worst, it still has the greatest concentration of what matters to me most: my family and friends. Without those relationships, this place, while full of beauty, culture and history, would feel empty to me.

I take the same view when traveling: the way the people make me feel when I visit a place matters as much to me as the surroundings, if not more. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do the people enhance the enchantment of stunning scenery as they do on Crete. I wrote that Cretans are so genuinely friendly they make Athenians seem aloof, and it’s true. But of the people we encountered on Crete, my two favorites weren’t even from Greece, much less Crete. They were a pair of New Yorkers, Jennifer and Scott, who happened to be relaxing at our hotel’s seaside pool when I settled into an empty chaise lounge right next to them.

Jennifer said a friendly “hello” immediately, a scary opener to an introvert like me, who doesn’t always relish small talk with strangers. But after nearly two weeks in the company of an 18 year-old, I felt a bit starved for peer conversation and engaged without hesitation. It soon proved to be one of my better decisions. When I explained that I was traveling with my nephew, she wanted to know all about J.J. and listened intently as I gushed about how lucky I feel to be his aunt. Then we got to talking about the market near the hotel and discovered we both love to go to little local stores like that and shop for regular stuff, like toothpaste.

“I just like to see how it’s different,” I said.

The words were barely out of my mouth when she said, “Me too!”

Scott heard this, shook his head, and chuckled. We were off to the races.

Jennifer and I soon learned we also share a love of  handwritten letters and beautiful paper. When I write a letter by hand, I choose the writing surface carefully, the thoughts I place on it even more carefully, and the recipient most carefully of all. It takes time and effort, making it one of my favorite and most heartfelt ways to express affection. I cranked out letters weekly until the early 2000s, when the digital age nudged most of my correspondents, and me, in the direction of emails and texts. Jennifer bucked that tide. For her entire adult life, she’s been writing letters, notes and postcards to let people know that she cares about them, that she cherishes their connection.

In 1988, while traveling with Scott in Malaysia, Jennifer wrote a thank-you note on a postcard of New York for the kindly rickshaw driver who’d taken them on a tour through a town called Melaka. The impact of that note rippled beyond the driver, who saved it, and extended all the way to Rolf Potts, an accomplished travel writer who encountered both driver and postcard nearly twenty years later. Rolf relays the story, and its significance, beautifully:

Early in 1988, a newlywed couple from the States was traveling in Malaysia. While in the ethnically diverse, historical treasure-trove of a town called Malacca (Melaka), they hired the services of a 60-year-old rickshaw driver named Peter Ong. Thanks to a simple act of thoughtfulness on their part, Peter remembers them still today.

I met Peter myself in late 2007, when he also offered his rickshaw services to me. Pulling out a handful of postcards from previous customers, he seemed particularly happy with one from New York and invited me to check out the back, which read:

Dear Mr. Ong,

You’ve been a wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide through Melaka. You were kind and thoughtful (thanks for the bag of bananas!).

Thanks for recommending Chang Hoe Hotel.

Best Wishes,
Scott & Jennifer Ingber
New York USA

The card was dated January 30, 1988, and friction had so worn the front cover that New York’s skyscrapers seemed to be chain smoking. Though I didn’t take Peter up on his offer—I needed to stay on foot to get the pictures I was after—we did talk for several minutes while waiting under an awning for a rain shower to pass. I learned that Peter was born in January 1928, that he’d been driving a rickshaw for 40 years, and that he had seven grown kids living in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.

Months later I would google Scott and Jennifer and see their 1987 wedding announcement in the New York Times. Other than what I read there—he was a doctor and she a nurse—I know nothing about them. Except, I suppose, that their tangible thoughtfulness is still remembered two decades later by a man in Malacca, and has probably helped that man grow his business.

When Peter Ong holds up his postcard, then, he is not just showing us New York; he is reminding us that in travel, even when we give in small ways in a town through which we are so briefly passing, it matters.

I read the blog post while sitting next to Jennifer, its insightful last lines completing the lesson I hoped to impart to my nephew. I told J.J. the story over dinner that night.

“Are you serious?” he said, his face a study in astonishment. “That’s pretty damned amazing.” J.J. had liked Jennifer and Scott –they were the rare adults who managed to show interest in him without being nosy –and I could tell the story raised their stock in his eyes exponentially.

I pulled up Rolf’s blog post on my phone, read the final paragraph aloud, and said, “Remember what I said about how the people make the place?” J.J. nodded. “Well, those people who make a place special won’t know they did that for you unless you tell them. So whenever you can, find a way to let them know they made a difference.”

I resolved to redouble my own efforts in that department. After Jennifer and I became friends on Facebook, we cemented the connection by going old-school and exchanging home addresses. Since July, a trip to the mailbox holds the prospect of not just another $5 coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond but also one of Jennifer’s wonderful notes. Any time one arrives, I’m transported to Crete for a few happy moments and reminded that friendship borne out of travel is an incomparable souvenir.

A recent gem...

A recent Jennifer gem…

 

You never forget your first apartment…

I’ve been thinking about my first Big Girl apartment a lot lately.
I rented that place, a one-bedroom unit at the Dolley Madison Apartments complex in McLean, in the Spring of 1997, after I’d ended an engagement and before I’d thought of applying to law school or even knew what a tort was. Until then, I’d been living with my parents and saving money so my then-fiancé and I could start our new life together on decent financial footing. As soon as I realized I didn’t want that relationship, or that life anymore, I decided to start my own life in my own apartment.
I paid $800 a month for 800 square feet of garden-style living. At the time, I was earning an entry-level salary as a Spanish language interpreter for the federal government, and was able to afford the place only because the first month was free. Yet it still seemed a small price to pay for a lot of independence. My apartment was nothing to write home about architecturally, but it had a stacked washer/dryer right in the unit and a balcony, two features that lent it a more grown-up feel than the apartments I’d rented with friends in college. And unlike one of my college rentals, I never had to contemplate flea-bombing this place.
Because I had no income to dispose of, my friends and family donated nearly every piece of furniture in that apartment. I had my recently deceased Nana’s country-style kitchen table, my friend Marvin’s futon sofa, my parents’ Archie Bunker-style recliner, and the dresser from my childhood bedroom. If those items wanted for luxury, they more than compensated for it by making me feel loved and comfortable.
I had also gotten a cat to keep me company in case I got lonely. T.C., a fully-grown Maine Coon with a smoker’s voice that he used liberally, was a big, loud, affectionate, lump of fur. Part dog and part Elvis, he loved butter, biscuits, sausage, and drinking from the toilet. A couch potato, he made what I called “impact noises” every time he completed the two-foot leap from futon to carpet, as if encountering solid ground were a continual, and not altogether pleasant, surprise. T.C. kept me company and kept me in stitches, except for the time he caught fire (please, don’t tell me your pet hasn’t set itself ablaze a time or two). Because that just stunk. Literally.
Though I had T.C.’s constant companionship, I didn’t want to spend too much time at home. I envisioned leading a social life similar to that of the single heroines in the sitcoms I spent way too much time watching as a kid. In an effort to maximize my going out budget, I bought groceries on the cheap. I shopped the sales and tried to emulate my mom’s coupon-clipping skills, though I usually presented expired coupons or forgot the blasted things altogether. I thought nothing of eating cereal for dinner, although most nights found me on a date, meeting friends for happy hour or dinner, or embarking on a long night in D.C. (In fact, if law school enrollment hadn’t intervened, I might still be driving around Adams Morgan, looking for parking.)
Every now and then, I invited someone over for dinner, undeterred by the fact that I didn’t actually know how to cook anything. Mom had helped me fake my way through a meal with a foolproof recipe from the High Museum of Art cookbook (never mind that nothing that came out of my kitchen belonged in the same sentence as the word “art”). And I trusted myself to assemble a salad competently, but everything else came out of a box or bag. No matter how it all turned out, we always had fun.
Twenty years later, I have a better job, a nicer house –my washer and dryer are side by side, thank you very much –and I no longer cook from a box, yet lately I find myself longing for my days at Dolley Madison.
One need not to be a psychologist to understand why: I’m not reaching back for the balcony, the stackable appliances, or the recliner. (Okay, maybe the recliner, because I’d take that thing back in a heartbeat.) I’m pining for a time when my days were mainly about having fun. The days when I barely knew what Parkinson’s Disease was, much less that it would hit my family. The days when 9/11 wasn’t loaded with sad significance, and when it seemed like people just got along better. The days when my biggest worry was a triviality like how to rid my apartment of the stench of scorched cat hair.
But I don’t kid myself: I’m well aware those days weren’t necessarily better; they were just simpler for me. Self-absorption and naiveté spared me from knowing too much about what was happening around me and from thinking too hard about what might lurk beneath our country’s seemingly placid surface.
Twenty years of living later, I know more and I pay more attention to the world around me. That knowledge and awareness can feel heavy and exhausting at times (like pretty much everything in middle age does), but I’ve come to believe they are ultimately for the good. Knowledge and awareness can help plant the seeds of change, in yourself and in others. They can make you do things like show up for a women’s march, call your Congresspeople regularly, and use your platform for good.
Knowledge and awareness can also fuel perspective and appreciation. I couldn’t have known twenty years ago, for example, what it would feel like to be an aunt to seven kids. I couldn’t have known that having those kids in my life would be everything, or that I’d care far more about their futures than my own (though it was certainly in my immediate self-interest to instruct my eldest nephew, while we were traveling together in Greece recently, to brush his teeth before breakfasting in public).
Because I know more, I can do more. And I care more. And though I feel a bit tired lately, I’ll get right back to all of the knowing and doing and caring…just as soon as my mind finishes this bowl of cereal and hauls itself out of the recliner.

Have nephew, will travel (Part III)

J.J. and I did very little the day after we hiked Samaria Gorge.

“We need a day off” I said. He probably thought I was referring to physical recovery, but I meant mental, too, because we were about to embark on the rental car portion of the program. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Richmond and whose only experience on the roads in Greece consisted of a couple of cab rides, J.J. didn’t know what awaited us, but I did.

When Mom and I went to Greece in 2002, we had rented a car without a worry in the world. We were seasoned veterans of Beltway combat who’d seen it all and knew how to react. A driver cuts you off? Yawn. Tailgates an ambulance to get a few hundred feet ahead? Cast a disgusted glare and move on. Eats tomato soup while steering with their knees? Roll down the window and hurl a grilled cheese at them. We couldn’t be fazed, or so she and I had thought until we picked up our rental car in Athens.

I expected getting out of the city to be tough, and it was — if not for Mom’s calm and stellar navigating skills, we might still be there –but it wasn’t the hard part, it was only a hard part. Driving through the outskirts and into the countryside, where there aren’t highways so much as two-laned roads, I soon learned Americans do shoulders all wrong. In the U.S., we treat the shoulder as a place to pull off and do something, like change a tire or switch drivers. In Greece, it’s the slow lane. Why waste a perfectly viable driving surface? You also need not waste a moment worrying about getting stuck in the slow shoulder. In Greece, you don’t have to commit to one lane-ish or the other at all, you just lazily straddle the two. This leaves plenty of room for motorcycles to pass you on both sides simultaneously. And lines are neither the preferred driving formation nor boundaries painted upon a road: in both cases they’re just suggestions. All of it had taken some getting used to, but by the time Mom and I left, I was almost enjoying it.

I wasn’t sure how J.J. would feel about the driving, but I had no such worries about the car we’d rented: it cracked him up. No wider than his wingspan and just a few inches longer, it had all the sex appeal of a hair dryer, and a far less powerful engine. As I merged us into an amoeba of traffic of downtown Chania, the lack of order left my nephew aghast. I gave a dismissive wave.

“It all works out somehow,” I said, “so get used to it and watch the phone.”

Rarely do you have to tell a modern 18 year-old to pay more attention to an iPhone, but I was depending on that device, and my nephew, for navigation. He couldn’t have guided us on an actual map as Mom did — he, like most of his peers, has no idea how to read one in real time– but the kid knows his way around an iPhone. So I put him in charge of directions and holding down the A/C button, which seemed to believe it had signed up only for shift work.

He did both with calm and aplomb as we made our way out of Chania and toward Knossos, home of ancient Minoan ruins. Though only 150 km away, the drive involves a fair amount of winding and climbing. The car approached these ascents with the alacrity and land speed of a cow, leading us to dub it “Bessie.” Two hours later, J.J., Bessie and I pulled into the parking lot of the ruins.

Said to date back to 7000 B.C., the site draws mixed reviews. On the one hand, you feel real wonder as you walk on stones that remain from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and learn how advanced those ancient civilizations were, as evidenced by water and sanitation IMG_3415 (2)systems. On the other, the early 20th century work of archaeologist Arthur Evans included not just excavations but elaborate reconstructions of the palace as he imagined it would have been, so it doesn’t necessarily feel authentic. That ruins the ruins for some people, but we knew to take it with a grain of salt, and the controversy seemed to intrigue my nephew. We spent the night in Agia Pelagia, a charming seaside village where we stayed at a hotel that resembled Melrose Place and ate at a restaurant that had what we needed: good tzatziki.

The next day we drove back to Chania. This time we established our base at Agii Apostoli, a pretty beach area about 15 minutes from the center of town. Though the area lacks the charm of old town Chania, our hotel more than made up for it: situated right by the water, its terraces offered gorgeous views and its staff incomparable hospitality, and a refreshing swim in the Sea of Crete awaited mere steps away. During our stay, we also had the good fortune to meet Scott and Jennifer, two wonderful New Yorkers who made a big impression on me and J.J., and about whom I’ll write more later. We could have wiled away our last few days at Agii Apostoli in perfect contentment, yet I wanted to make sure my nephew (and I) didn’t leave Crete without seeing at least two more of the world’s most fabled beaches.

After breakfast the next day, I told one of the hotel staff what I had in mind.

She smiled and said, “Ah, you’re adventurous. This is good!” I hoped to prove her more than half-right. She set me up with a map, snacks, towels and an umbrella, all of which my nephew and I loaded into Bessie as we set out for one more road trip. Two hours and many (many) windy roads later, J.J. and I arrived at Elafonissi beach, whose allegedly pink sands I needed to see for myself. We encountered a crowded parking lot, not my favorite sight, but one look at the beach told us why: it’s dazzling. A swath of crushed shells colors the sand coral as you step into perfect turquoise water. J.J. and I couldn’t get enough of it. When we were’t swimming, we lazed on one of the many rocks that dot the sea, never tiring of watching the water flow over and around us.

Though we could have looked in amazement at the scenery forever, after a few hours we set off for Kendrodasos, a nearby and more remote beach the hotel staff had mentioned. A crow could have flown there in moments but took us more than half an hour. Bessie struggled over dirt ruts meant to pass for roads –what would we do if we blew a tire here? –and then we ditched her to walk the remaining several hundred yards to a beautiful and nearly deserted cove. We laid our towels on low-hanging tree branches and headed straight for the water, which somehow looked even bluer than at Elafonissi. An open water swimmer’s paradise, I once again had to drag us away after a few hours so we could start our trip back. We returned to Agii Apostoli by way of a glorious waterfront meal at Sunset Tavern in Sfinari, a pebbly but lovely beach area. After dinner we paused our drive one last time for a pit stop at Falassarna, yet another famously beautiful shore.

As I was lamenting that we didn’t have enough time to truly appreciate it, J.J. said, “I guess we’ll have to come back.” I like the way the kid thinks.

The sun had set by the time we pulled into the hotel parking lot. Tired but happy, we agreed that we’d gotten our money’s worth out of Bessie, whom the rental agency picked up the next day.

We didn’t miss the car, having planned to spend our last day on the island enjoying the beautiful beach right in front of us. Instead of going out for lunch, we walked to the mini market at the end of our street and cobbled together a very respectable picnic lunch of bread, feta, cold cuts, olives and tzatziki (what else), which we enjoyed on our terrace in between swim sessions. And then there was our last sunset in Chania, which I could not miss. More than just an everyday miracle, sunsets there are a reliable but ever-changing tableau of orange, pink, magenta, purple and blue. I tried to capture a few of them with my camera, but I just watched the final one, cementing its place in my memory.

As J.J. and I cabbed to the airport the next day, my heart felt heavy. I loved the people, the food, the scenery, and the incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences I shared with my nephew (because who wants to go on a barf-inducing hike twice?), and I didn’t want to leave. Sure, I missed my people at home, but couldn’t they just come and meet us on Crete?

I guess it was too much to ask just then, but here’s hoping that question won’t always be rhetorical.

Have nephew, will travel (Part II)

[When last we left our heroes, my nephew J.J. and I had spent a few days in Athens…]

My favorite dialogue of the entire trip happened while J.J. and I were riding in a cab for the second time. We had left our hotel in Athens before 6 a.m. –hours ahead of my nephew’s normal wakeup time –and were headed to the airport to catch an early morning flight to Crete.

As we whizzed through the city in the dark, J.J. said, “Will the airport have someplace where I can brush my teeth?”

“Yes,” I said. And because sometimes you ask a question when you already know the answer but want it to be different, I said, “Why, though? Didn’t you do it already?” He shook his head.

“I never brush my teeth before breakfast. I don’t see the point.”

I understood his logic: he was just trying to be efficient. Why brush your teeth and spoil only your breakfast when, by not brushing and merely exhaling, you can jeopardize meal enjoyment for everyone within a five-foot radius?

At the risk of making the kid feel like he’d been sent not to Greece but to finishing school, I laid down the second rule of our trip: If you’re gonna have breakfast in public, always —always –brush your teeth first.

That stinker had the nerve to say, “And don’t forget your napkin.” Apparently I’m the only one who cares if the kid ever lands a second date.

He brushed, we boarded, and an hour later we had landed on Crete. It didn’t take us long to discover that Cretans treat you with such warmth they make Athenians seem aloof, and that Crete’s natural beauty rivals the manmade magnificence of the Acropolis. We once again began with a taxi from the airport to the old town of Chania. We might have found the lack of traffic-related excitement disappointing had we not been so busy gawking every time we got a peek at the turquoise sea framed by mountains and rugged rock formations. Though we’d only just arrived, I already knew I wouldn’t want to leave.

We spent our first day in Chania at the Venetian harbor, where we ate breakfast by the docks, walked along the rocky seawall to the lighthouse, and refined J.J.’s bargain-hunting skills in the shops that line the cobbled alleys of the old city. IMG_3198Though my nephew had loved everything we ate in Athens, the food on Crete blew his mind. Our first meals were unfussy but beautiful and delicious, expertly prepared with ingredients that had been freshly picked or fished from someplace nearby. And, just as we had done in Athens, we continued to eat our body weight in tzatziki at every meal but breakfast.

To increase the chances that our clothes would still fit us by the end of the trip, I signed us up to hike the Samaria Gorge the next day. I’d heard it was spectacular and that the 16-kilometer hike, while taxing, is pretty much all downhill. Both rumors turned out to be true, though the people who recommended the gorge so highly had said nothing about the bus ride to the park entrance. To get there, you have to pass through, around and over a whole bunch of mountains, and there’s just no easy way to do it.

We were still in the relatively flat part of the bus ride when the guide, who had a heavy accent but looked like a middle-aged Jeff Spicoli, mentioned he had plastic bags on hand in case the last part of the ride made anyone feel queasy. I gave J.J. a “don’t you dare” look. I love my nephew, of course, but just a year earlier I’d gotten stuck holding the proverbial bag for my niece, Emily, as my sister Lynne sped us to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I had no desire to repeat the experience with better scenery.

Thirty minutes of hairpin turns followed and the bus pulled into the park entrance. My equilibrium felt a little off, but J.J. looked positively green. Small wonder, then, that his immediate reaction to the gorge was to disgorge: the poor kid threw up everything he’d ever eaten. Future meals, too, from the sounds of things.

Though glad he’d managed to avoid tossing his cookies on the bus, I felt terrible for subjecting him to such misery. I immediately offered him an out, but he insisted he wanted to do the hike. With some reluctance, I agreed, and we proceeded slowly.

After we’d stopped for three barf breaks in the span of 45 minutes, I began to worry about dehydration and said, “I think I’d better tell Spicoli.”

J.J. got no further than “Aunt Wheat, please…” before he hurled again. I knew he didn’t want me to say anything, but I faced a true aunt’s dilemma: on the one hand, my sister Suzi would kill me if I let anything happen to him. On the other, I understood that J.J.’s ego might suffer a mortal wound if word ever got out that he traversed Samaria Gorge on the back of a donkey, which happened to be the only form of rescue transport available. I agreed to give it a few more minutes, but only a few more minutes.

My nephew used those few minutes to marshal his life forces and mount the most miraculous rebound I’ve ever witnessed. By Kilometer 5, the color of his face had improved from lime green to chalk. By Kilometer 7, he was nibbling a Clif bar, sipping Gatorade, and remarking that the way the sunlight changed the color of the rocks as we went made the gorge “magical.” My nephew is not given to Thoreau-like observations, which made me think he was suffering from heat stroke after all and that I should hail the next donkey. But he managed to convince me he really was just impressed.

IMG_3252.JPGAnd who wouldn’t be? Wild, immense, and majestic, Samaria Gorge is enchanting. It offers spectacular scenery, with towering walls that at times stand 1000 feet above you and only 15 feet apart. Lovely greenery abounds, and a near-constant stream of spring water means endless and refreshing refills.

The hike ends just before the village of Agia Roumeli, where the perfect reward awaits: a swim in the sapphire waters of the Libyan Sea. IMG_3271.JPGWe cooled off, stretched our limbs, and then relaxed on the sand for a while before taking a ferry and then a significantly less-nauseating bus ride back to the Chania harbor. We arrived in time to catch our second Cretan sunset, whose colors and resplendence overwhelmed me to the point of tears.

“Can we go eat now?” my nephew said, breaking my reverie. He was well within his rights, because there was more tzatziki to be eaten, by God, and this time we had earned it.

[To be continued…]

IMG_3205

 

 

Have nephew, will travel (Part I)

Years ago, in a fit of fantastical thinking, I promised each of my nephews and niece a trip for their high school graduation. It was the sort of idea that seemed so far off in time and financial viability that I treated it as a mirage, kinda like my retirement. But late last fall, my nephew J.J.‘s college acceptances started rolling in and I realized the conversion of the trips from dream to reality was not only happening, it was imminent. (My retirement remains a mirage.)

During Yanksgiving, J.J. and I talked possible destinations. Taking into account his love for great scenery, physical activity, and good food, as well as my unwillingness to fly more than 10 hours one way, I offered him three choices: Iceland, Costa Rica, and Greece. I’d never visited Iceland, but Philippa and other friends had, and they assured me it wouldn’t disappoint. I’d been to Costa Rica and Greece, the former in early 2016 and the latter in 2002 when I took a post-bar exam trip there with Mom, and I had loved them both.

I tried not to weigh in as J.J. debated the possibilities with my sister Suzi, yet I couldn’t help but hope he would choose Greece. The two weeks I spent there in 2002 gave some of my favorite memories ever, such as watching Mom go snorkeling for the first time in her life at age 60 in the Aegean Sea. She and Dad had given me that trip as a law school graduation present, an experience so life-changing it inspired me to do something similar for my niece and nephews. On top of that, Greece played a pivotal role in developing democracy and western civilization as we know it. That last point, and the fact that no country stays on top forever, seemed worth emphasizing at a time when disturbing political chasms have formed in our own country.

“How ’bout Greece?” J.J. said, reading my thought bubbles perfectly.

Before Suzi had a chance to remember that I’ve never chaperoned competently for a day, much less two weeks, I booked an itinerary consisting of two-and-a-half days in Athens, eight days on Crete, two days in London on the way home, and a travel day at each end of the trip. It looked perfect, but I wondered how it would go. My nephew and I love each other, of course, but we’d never spent more than a day or two together at a time, and always with other people around. I encouraged my parents and siblings to warn J.J. about my quirks, and they never got further than my enormous affection for napkins. (They refer to it as an obsession, because they are cave people, but I know it’s just a healthy attachment to the fabric of civilized society.) No one bothered to tell him I snore, because anyone who’s ever slept within a two-mile radius of me and has functioning ears has already picked up on that.

He packed that knowledge into the one carry-on suitcase I allowed him to bring, and on the evening of June 30, we boarded our Virgin Atlantic flight at Dulles. Once we settled in to our seats, the flight attended handed out overnight kits containing red-eye essentials: an eye mask, a tiny tube of toothpaste and paper-thin socks.

J.J. looked surprised, as if he’d been honored with a great gift, and said, “I get to keep this?” If this normally nonchalant kid was impressed by an airline freebie worth $0.14, I could hardly wait to see his reaction to the Acropolis.

It was late afternoon on July 1 before we landed in Athens, where a countrywide heatwave made it feel like Hades. I grabbed a taxi to take us downtown, allowing J.J. to experience baptism by cab ride. For 30 minutes we rode in a car that responded to the pressing of the A/C button by sending smoke and hot air through its vents. To distract us from the fact that we were riding in a toaster, our driver kept things exciting on the road: he pulled up to an automated toll gate only to realize his transponder had no funds on it, rocketed backwards and across four lanes of traffic in reverse, and then shot forward to a manned booth. I glanced at my nephew, expecting panic, and saw instead the face of someone trying desperately not to laugh. I knew right then and there we were in for a great trip.

Though exhausted, we summoned enough energy after checking in to our hotel to stroll through Plaka, eat an early dinner –J.J. pronounced his gyro delicious despite the fact that it bore no resemblance to the dish that goes by the same name in the U.S. –and marvel at the nighttime view of the Parthenon from our hotel’s rooftop terrace.

We woke up the next morning on Greek time and spent a lazy Sunday wandering the maze of the Athens flea market, where my nephew was in his element. He never tired of hopping from shop to shop and stalking bargains with the patience of a seasoned predator, unlike his aunt, who’s perfectly happy to shoot the first thing she sees and call it a day. The heat wave still gripped the city, sending temperatures up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and forcing the closure of the Acropolis for long stretches of time. We decided to conserve our energy and take a low-key tour of local landmarks by way of a hop-on/hop-off bus that we hopped off exactly once, when it stopped right by our hotel.

The next morning, our last in Athens, dawned a good 10 degrees cooler. It felt downright pleasant as we spent the morning on a food tour, eating our way through the city’s neighborhoods with the help of a local. That afternoon found us with with an archeologist who took us through the incredible Acropolis museum –something that didn’t exist during my and Mom’s trip –and then through the complex itself, offering expert insights along the way. Over dinner that night, J.J. told me he didn’t want to leave: he liked the city’s density, appreciated its sights, and loved the food. Most of all he enjoyed the people, who, though visibly and deeply impacted by a financial crisis with no apparent end, still seem to look for reasons to laugh and who treated us with unwavering warmth. The kid was Paying Attention: he noticed the Greeks put people, and especially family, first.

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I couldn’t pass up the chance to wax philosophical about money and happiness to a kid who’s just beginning to build his life as an adult. I told him I want him to become self-sufficient, of course, but I also hope he won’t be self-centered, and that he’ll make nurturing his relationships just as important as nurturing his career. Because let’s be honest: someone’s gonna have to take care of me when I’m 92.

[To be continued…]

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The kids are all right, despite my being their chaperone

If you’re considering a trip to Kings Dominion theme park and wondering whether it has first aid facilities, I’m pleased to report it does, and they’re quite nice. I had a chance to hang out there last Friday with one of the kids I was chaperoning on my twelve year-old nephew’s chorus class trip.

Readers who remember my previous chaperone stint, a dress rehearsal-like experience during which I drove behind the bus like a groupie and lost my nephew within four minutes of arrival, are shaking their heads and thinking, “Did they not check her references?”

To you people, I say two things: 1) My nephew Will requested me; and 2) the statute of limitations for losing a kid on a field trip is three years and I cleared it a month ago. So there.

Will and I arrived at Moody Middle School (isn’t every middle school moody?) in Glen Allen, Virginia, at 8:15 a.m. and were engulfed by the uniquely high-pitched cacophony of a pubescent herd. We made our way to the auditorium, where I reported for duty and received a sheet listing the names of nine (9!) teenagers in my charge. I thought it best not to point out that nine kids totaled eight more than I’d ever managed before, or that, except for Will, I couldn’t identify any of them in a lineup. But I began to sweat under the maroon Moody Middle School Music Department t-shirt I’d donned with the goal of improving the kids’ chances of spotting me in the wild.

At 8:40 a.m., and just as my eardrums verged on perforation, the teachers performed the Miracle of Adolescent Organization and we boarded the buses. With Will’s help, I was able to account for all nine kids: a promising start. When we got to Kings Dominion, the chorus director, Mr. Drummond, got the whole group checked in and set us free to wander the park for the forty minutes that remained until our assigned warm-up time.

To my utter astonishment, all nine of my kids showed up at or before the appointed time. They and the other thirty-ish chorus kids huddled under a big tarp designated for rehearsing and began to tune up while all of us chaperones but one waited on benches nearby. The last chaperone, an actual parent, was busy chasing down a kid who’d gone on walkabout.

There I sat, basking in a self-congratulatory glow after getting all of my kids to appear on time, when the warm-uppy sounds trailed off and I heard a kid say, “Someone fainted!”

Without even looking, I knew the fainter belonged to me. My glow thus extinguished, I rushed to the tent for confirmation and to offer assistance in the only way I knew how: by filing a lawsuit.

I’m kidding, of course. Some person who’d been blessed with common sense rather than a law degree had already alerted the park’s first aid unit. Within moments, a young and rather hunky paramedic appeared, which, as remedies go, seemed to beat the heck out of smelling salts. Our girl began to perk up as the medic and his dimples eased her into a wheelchair and rolled her off to the first aid clinic, with me trailing behind, sherpa-like, with our belongings. While my fainter hydrated and rested in the clinic, I sat on a neighboring cot and battled the temptation to nap, because that’s the kind of heroic chaperone I am.

Mr. Drummond showed up shortly thereafter, at which point it dawned on me that my heroics did not include giving my kids an afternoon check-in place and time like I was supposed to.

Just as I was about to blurt out, “It’s not my fault! She had The Vapors!,” Mr. Drummond, who’s undoubtedly no stranger to lame excuses, said, “Your group came up with a check-in, so don’t worry.” I was equal parts ashamed and reassured to learn I leave a leadership void than can be filled by your average twelve year-old.

The patient called her parents, rested a bit longer, and then decided she was ready to get a bite to eat and take on the park. We met up with Will and four of his friends just as they were about to start riding roller coasters, and I debated whether to join them. On the one hand, I was a roller coaster veteran –my brother, L.J., and I had season passes to Kings Dominion in the late ’80s and I rode a coaster with the Roommates two summers ago –with a cool aunt reputation to uphold among a notoriously tough demographic. On the other, I knew a person’s ride tolerance could change without notice, especially if she’s had a somewhat recent bout of vertigo.  I settled it by adopting the park motto: ride on.

We started with the Stunt Coaster, a ride that features Mini Cooper-esque cars rocketing around helixes and getting launched through billboards. I loved it, probably because it’s the sort of driving experience I fantasize about having on the Beltway.

From there we went to the Rebel Yell, a long, wooden, 42 year-old coaster L.J. and I rode thousands of times during our season pass days. It was rickety and bone-jarring back then, but we’d always loved its steep and glorious hill sequences. When I rode it on Friday, its hill sequences gave me the same thrill as before, whereas the wood, which may have aged in place, gave me a chiropractic adjustment.

Then we rode The Avalanche, as a result of which I have ruled out “Olympic Bobsledder” as my next career move, and decided to finish our day on The Dominator. Corporate amusement park types are always giving their biggest coasters menacing names like The Dominator, The Intimidator, and Talon: the Grip of Fear, I guess so riders feel like they’ve stared down a terrifying predator and didn’t blink. That marketing trick might work on the middle school psyche but it doesn’t faze those of us in our mid-40s. If you want our demographic to feel gripped by fear, you have to come up with something far scarier, like “Root Canal: Dig of Doom.”

Thus I felt unafraid when I boarded The Dominator, despite its 148-foot drop, cobra roll, five inversions and 65 mph max velocity. I felt fine as we made our way to the central meeting point afterwards, too. After all, it matters not if your spleen and kidneys aren’t exactly where they’re supposed to be, just as long as all nine of your kids are.

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What do you get a kid for his fifth birthday? An aunt in a box, of course.

I’m not claustrophobic. This has proven to be quite an asset at several points in my life, such last fall, when I got an MRI; or in mid-April, when I again donned the Easter Bunny suit; or this past weekend, when I went to Atlanta and let my brother tape me inside an Amazon box.

No, I was not belatedly fulfilling L.J.’s most heartfelt childhood wish: I wanted to surprise my nephew, B, who was celebrating his fifth birthday (though I’m sure my brother has waited his whole life for permission to stuff me into a box and tape it shut).

I had set a pretty high bar in the surprise department back in December, when I conspired with my sister-in-law and flew to Atlanta last-minute on a Friday so I could catch the opening of Rogue One with L.J., a Star Wars junkie. B and his little brother, C, had also gotten quite the surprise the next morning when they came downstairs to find me sitting on the couch. Now accustomed to the occasional random aunt sighting, I knew I would have to do something beyond just showing up and ringing the doorbell if I wanted to impress B.

My brother, sister-in-law and I started scheming and decided “your presence is your present” deserved to be more than just a goofy etiquette cliché. As luck would have it, the starter bike L.J. and Leslie ordered as a gift for B –the same gift I’d gotten on my fifth birthday, though my bike did not feature the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — had arrived at their home days earlier in a large box: perfect packaging for a special delivery aunt. 

I had booked a flight scheduled to leave National Airport at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. I can’t say that it looked good on paper — a 6 a.m. departure looks hideous on any surface –but I thought it wise to build in some wiggle room because, as regular readers know, I’ve encountered my fair share of travel debacles en route to Atlanta. I planned to arrive at the airport at 4:30 a.m. just to be on the safe side.

Regular readers also know I also have my fair share of sleeping struggles. Those tend to get worse if I have something on my mind, such as getting to the airport on time for a very important flight. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to bolt awake at 2:45 a.m., totally raring to go. I was packed and out of the house by 3:45 a.m., through airport security by 4:25 a.m., and standing in line for a vanilla latte at 4:30 a.m. (The airport Starbucks opens at 4:30; I think this makes them a very strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.)

I landed in Atlanta 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which was downright disconcerting. L.J. picked me up 20 minutes later. We spent the trip to his house discussing the details of our plan as if we were launching a rocket for NASA rather than a birthday surprise for a five year-old.

He told me Leslie would be watching the boys who, with luck, would be playing inside or in the backyard and away from any of the possible vantage points.

“You stay in the car while I get the box and some tape,” L.J. said. “Then I’ll walk back out with the box and you can sort of hide behind it and follow me up the steps to the door. You’ll get in, I’ll tape it shut, put the bow on it and ring the doorbell.”

It seemed foolproof, or at least reasonably likely to fool anyone who hasn’t graduated kindergarten, so I said, “Sounds good.”

Then I saw the box–estimated dimensions 4′ long x 2.5′ wide x 1′ deep —  and was instantly reminded of the “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene from Jaws.

This hunk of cardboard looked as incapable of fitting a great white aunt as that vessel did a great white shark, but we’d gone too far to turn back. My brother plodded up the stairs with the box in hand as I crouch-walked behind it. He put it on the stoop and held it open so I could get in.

When the situation is dire, people sometimes perform superhuman feats, and I pulled off nothing less than a triumph of human origami to get into that box. Had I not eaten a few too many peanut M&Ms the night before, the top flaps might have closed together perfectly, but it was close enough. L.J. started to put tape across the flaps, at which point the full absurdity of the situation hit us simultaneously and we were seized by a massive attack of the giggles.

We got ourselves under control – our plan only called for one five year-old, after all –and L.J. rang the doorbell. I heard him tell B he had a package and then read aloud the short poem-riddle I’d written for the occasion. The box flaps opened and I sat up, arms wide open in a gesture that would either give B a smile that would last forever or a lifetime of Zombie Aunt Apocalypse nightmares. He was surprised, and in a good way, once he realized what was going on and heard his mom and dad cracking up. B’s little brother ran off at top speed, which, in fairness, is what anyone should do if faced with a lawyer springing out of a box.

B, who was by now beside himself with excitement, grabbed my hands to help pull me the rest of the way out of the box and said, “How did you get here?”

“I came in the mail!” I said.Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 8.01.15 PM

When I told him I actually flew down on a plane, he seemed disappointed to learn even Amazon Prime has its limits. But our fun knew no limits on Saturday: we went to Legoland, partied it up with B and C’s friends and some superheroes, and knocked the stuffing out of a Spider Man piñata. It was pretty much perfect.

I have no idea how my brother and I will top this one, but I do know one thing: we’re gonna need a bigger box.

If you can’t follow your heart, try following some people on Twitter

I have really come to appreciate Twitter lately, but not for the reasons you might think. Sure, this social media outlet breaks vital news the instant it happens (#NewGrumpyCatVideo) and is the only medium that moves fast enough to keep pace with every newly hatched Trump election conspiracy in real time (#RiggedBigly). But that’s not why I’m on it. I love Twitter for “Who to follow,” the helpful feature that suggests other Twits, Tweeps, or whatever term the kids use for people whose feeds might interest you.

Twitter pays attention to the company I keep and often points me to writers, podcasters, and people promoting important new products like the Catterbox, a collar device that translates your cat’s meows to human speech. Those people are right in my wheelhouse.

(You just went to Catterbox.com, didn’t you? I don’t blame you one bit; I don’t see how you couldn’t. Perhaps you, like me, were disappointed to see that all it has are a bunch of videos showing the device in action. Nobody cares about that. What we really want to see is footage of owners trying to affix the Catterbox to their cats. Anyway, no need to thank me for bringing this to your attention in plenty of time for holiday shopping.)

But Twitter has also given me a bunch of less obvious suggestions. Those people seem to fall into one of the following five categories:

  • Mommy bloggers
  • Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs
  • Travelers
  • Psychics (is that a sub-genre of “Travelers”?)
  • Bots and Trolls

I have to say, I don’t quite get it.

The mommy bloggers seem to be lovely people, but once you get past the blogging, we don’t have all that much in common. Yes, there was that time recently when my niece’s eye scare gave me a whopping dose of vicarious parenting. Beyond that, though, I don’t write about how to make vegetables go incognito at dinner, nor have I ever lactated. And I doubt all that many mommy bloggers care to read about my niche speed-dating episodes gone bad. If these moms are following me, they’re probably keeping their distance.

I’m also not sure why Twitter thinks I should follow venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. I don’t want my capital to venture; other people’s capital can go wandering off like a high school student in a gap year, but I want mine to stay put. And while I admire entrepreneurs, given my ongoing and possibly unhealthy addiction to a regular paycheck, I’m more likely to start lactating than start a business.

As for traveling, I enjoy it very much, as evidenced by my recent trip to Italy with Mom. But most of the travelers Twitter suggests aren’t like me; they travel full-time and got their gigs by selling everything. I don’t know about you, but I travel to go on vacation. Traveling full-time while keeping an eye on my funds as they dwindle like hourglass sand sounds suspiciously like work, that thing that pays for the trips I take to escape it.

The psychics and paranormals are so entertaining that I don’t really care why Twitter thinks I should follow them. For example, here’s the profile for Adrian Lee, a guy who checks all the otherworldly boxes and then some:

Acclaimed author, founder of (TIPS) The International Paranormal Society, psychic, and host of the ONLY paranormal news quiz show – More Questions than Answers.

A paranormal quiz news show called “More Questions than Answers”? If there’s a better game show name out there, I don’t want to know about it. Though it would also be a great name for a show about my dating life. (You can find MQTA here. You know you can’t resist.)

And speaking of my love life, to the bots and trolls, I say thanks but no thanks. That’s what online dating is for.

 

The image of this happy cat is brought to you by Gadgetgo.com http://gadgetgo.info/2016/05/10/catterbox-is-a-cat-translator-collar/

The image of this happy Catterbox model is brought to you by Gadgetgo.com 

 

“Left holding the bag” isn’t always a figure of speech

[Welcome to Day 4 of a month-long, relay-style blog slog with my friend, writing partner and all-around instigator, Philippa…]

Before I launch into the story of something that happened a few weeks ago, I want you to know that the people involved are okay. I offer this assurance not because I’m a nice person, but because I don’t want concern for their wellbeing to keep you from laughing. Priorities!

The day in question, a Wednesday, began innocuously enough for me: I’d gone to boot camp, had a breakfast meeting with a young man I’m mentoring, and was en route to the office by way of my sister Lynne’s house. My brother-in-law, who normally works from home, was away on business so I’d offered to come by and walk Buddy, the family dog. Before I even reached the house, I’d gotten a distress call from Lynne: the eye infection my 13 year-old niece, Emily, had developed weeks earlier wasn’t responding to treatment. Em’s opthamologist had seen her that morning, dilated her pupils, and been unable to give a diagnosis. He advised Lynne to take her to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he knew more specialized testing could be done. The possibilities he had mentioned sent my sister on an ill-advised tour of Web MD, which did nothing other than qualify her to be Grand Marshall of the Parade of Horribles.

My sister tried to sound calm when she said, “Can you go with me?” but a crack in her voice gave her away.

I said, “Of course,” then made arrangements to work on the road, took Buddy for a quick walk, and executed Lynne’s instructions to pack a cooler for what was bound to be a long day.

Fifteen minutes later, Lynne and Emily walked through the door. My sister looked like she was hanging on by dental floss. Emily looked like a zombie, and a rather hip one because she was wearing a pair of sunglasses. The shades were meant to combat the photosensitivity that was making her nauseous, but they also seemed to mute her personality, and that worried me as much as anything. Emily’s not just the sunniest teenager I know, she’s the sunniest human I know. While waiting for Lynne and Em to arrive, I had given in to the WebMD temptation too, causing unhelpful phrases like “permanent loss of vision” to lodge themselves in my brain. But I knew I couldn’t telegraph my terror. I acted falsely upbeat instead, making lame jokes about this being just another of our wacky dates.  I grabbed the cooler and opened the door for Emily, who zombie-stepped through it. Buddy, who is nothing if not a team player, rocketed through the open door and into the un-fenced front yard. Saddled with the cooler, I was slow to give chase and didn’t see where he’d gone.

As I dropped the cooler and looked frantically left and right, I heard Lynne yell, “NOT THE BARF! NOT THE BARF!”

Using the powers of deduction that have gotten me so far in this life, I grasped that Emily, who was leaning against the house, had gotten sick and Buddy was headed straight for the sick. On the upside, at least we knew where to find him. As Lynne chased him away from the Superfund site, Buddy, inspired by the generally festive atmosphere, decided it was the perfect time for a game of tag. Five minutes and fourteen Beggin’ Strips later, Buddy was in the house and we were in the car. I got in the backseat with Emily and my sister proceeded to drive like she was auditioning for the lead in a “Dukes of Hazzard” revival.

Our trip to Baltimore suffered a second setback when Emily’s nausea returned. I scoured the backseat for possible biohazard containers and found only a lone plastic grocery bag. My hope that we wouldn’t need it was dashed even before I’d finished forming it, and then I found myself doing something that is definitely not in the Professional Aunt, No Kids contract: holding my niece’s hair and rubbing her back while she put the bag’s containment powers to the test. (No wonder my sister volunteered to drive.) In that moment, I discovered that I have a superpower –I am not a relay puker, hooray! –but this particular bag had met and exceeded its limits. So there I was, left holding not just a bag, but a bag that had sprung a small leak. Though we weren’t even 30 minutes into our trip and were just crossing the American Legion Bridge, my sister and I agreed we needed to exit.

“How ’bout Carderock?” I said, referring to a stretch along the Potomac near the Maryland side of Great Falls. “It’ll take a few minutes to get there once you exit, but I’ve parked there to hike and I know they have bathrooms.” I was right on both counts. It took what felt like an eternity to get there, but the park did have bathrooms. Em could hardly wait to get out and I could hardly wait to get rid of our revolting parcel.

She and I got out of the car, and that’s when I noticed the “Trash-Free Park” signs. And sure enough, as I made a desperate scan for trashcans, I found only posters admonishing me to take my trash with me.

“But have you seen my trash?” I said, to no one in particular.

My niece and I went into the restroom, hoping it might be a Green Zone in the war on park trash. No such luck. The protections of the Fifth Amendment preclude me from telling you exactly what happened next; however, I think I struck a good compromise, in that it probably left every interested party unhappy.

An hour later, we had arrived at Hopkins.

Things had to get worse before they got better –every healthcare worker who asked Emily about her symptoms received a nonverbal and very colorful answer, villains like Multiple Sclerosis and lupus had to be ruled out, and my sister and I had to eat our bodyweight in M&Ms –but after nine hours the news was as encouraging as it could have been: a rare condition called nodular scleritis. As unlucky as Emily was to get it in the first place, she was extremely fortunate to be among the few people for whom the malady isn’t caused by an underlying and far scarier autoimmune disorder. With the application of medicine and drops, the doctor expected it to clear up over a couple of months and would monitor it biweekly in the meantime. A cheer went up from Team Yank, whose remote members had been keeping tabs on the situation and supporting us with a steady stream of funny, encouraging texts.

As we got in the car to go home, Emily sat in the backseat, exhausted but back to her sunglasses-free and sunny self. I volunteered to drive home. It was a nice thing to do at the end of a long day, sure, but it also guaranteed that I wouldn’t be left holding the bag twice.

Yes, my sister is wearing Em's hospital gown. In her defense, it was at most 12 degrees Fahrenheit in there.

Yes, my sister is wearing Em’s hospital gown. In her defense, it was at most 12 degrees Fahrenheit in there.

“What I Did This Summer,” in 1,000 words or less

The kids of Arlington County go back to school tomorrow. Some of them will undoubtedly be asked to write a “What I did this summer” essay, so I’ve decided to join them.

If anecdotal evidence and comic strips are any indication, kids loathe this assignment. I’m pretty sure the teachers of Orange Hunt Elementary and Lake Braddock Secondary never inflicted it on me, but now that I’m staring it down, I think I’m starting to understand the dread. Being forced to break up with summer—especially a really good one– is hard enough, but having to relive the relationship on paper while the wound is still fresh? That’s a special torture. Compounding the pain for these kids is the likelihood that I they probably haven’t written a full sentence for months, and now, like a couch potato drafted into a mandatory jogging program, they have to write a whole essay. Even if there’s some satisfaction once you’ve done the task, the actual doing can feel like a joyless slog.

I get it, kids, on both fronts. And I feel more than a pang of longing as I say goodbye to this particular summer, which featured adventures like:

  • Starting a new job. I’m 45, so changing jobs at this point in life is a bit like switching schools in ninth grade: exciting, scary, daunting, and invigorating. You’re not altogether new to the gig, so you have some sense of what your days will look like, but you don’t know anybody and you can’t find anything. Then again, maybe the new school analogy doesn’t quite fit here. I’ve joined a company loaded with millennials, so perhaps it’s more like Senior Citizens Day at the local high school. Regardless, I’m pleased to report the kids are all right, to say the very least, and I’d forgotten how much fun it can be to leave your comfort zone.
  • Storming Italy with Mom. We traveled from May 31 – June 10, and I meant to write about the trip the minute I got home, but like Donald Trump’s tax returns, my intentions somehow never materialized.  At this point, highlights are the best I can do. Our trip began in Naples, where my Aunt Caroline and Uncle Ed are living on a temporary assignment. Naples doesn’t get a lot of tourist love, perhaps because it’s let itself go a bit, but it’s situated in a picturesque location and is home to the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. As Ed drove us around town, I came to realize the official language of Naples isn’t Italian, it’s car horn. Ed’s not fluent yet, but I feel pretty good about his chances. Beyond driving, he and my aunt were incredible tour guides and hosts. Caroline chauffeured us to Gaeta – a lovely seaside town between Rome and

    Mom and Caroline in Naples

    Naples – and went on a ferry with us to the island of Capri, a place whose unique beauty I won’t diminish by attempting to describe it. Ed wins a special award for spending an entire Saturday driving all of us to various towns along the steep, curvy, incomparable Amalfi Coast (motto: “Where the sea is blue and the knuckles are white”). From there, Mom and I went on to Florence, where we art-ed it up at the Uffizi one day and hiked the Cinque Terre the next. That second excursion was my big idea, because the CT held the promise of spectacular, unique scenery. I hadn’t researched what the hiking would entail, but roving between the towns of this UNESCO World Heritage site on foot sounded right up my alley. At 73, Mom is very active and loves to watch her kids do things they love, so she gamely agreed. And boy, did the CT ever make good on its promise of spectacular. Not only did we get spectacularly beautiful scenery—the colorful hillside towns that look so charming in postcards leave you slack-jawed in person –but we also got IMG_1474spectacularly difficult hiking. The trails are clear but navigating them required taking lots of big steps up and down rocks and across streams. Had I realized up front that Cinque Terre is Italian for “blow a hammy,” I might have thought twice about subjecting Mom to it. IMG_1433But my mother, who was probably the oldest person in our guided group, powered right through it, a testament both to her fitness and her willingness to do anything for an Aperol Spritz. Our trip ended in Rome, perhaps my favorite city in the world and a very cool place to spend my 45th birthday. As I reflect on the trip, I think I liked the CT excursion best of all, and the memory of my mom hiking beside me along a cliff, wildflowers on one side and sea on the other, will always make me smile. Then again, when you’re hanging out with one of your favorite people, your favorite place is anywhere.

  • Trying standup comedy. I wrote about my first experience here. I did two more 5-minute sets, the second of which took place at a Georgetown Club called the Chinese Disco (which is neither Chinese nor disco, thanks for asking). I’m almost glad I don’t have video footage from that outing, because I’m not sure any of my material could compete with this photo. It has “Annual Christmas Card” written all over it.

Somehow this all just goes together.

So long, summer. I miss you already.