Have Love Will Travel

I brought back a ton of jars like this, filled with honey... one was for My Honey
I brought back a ton of jars like this, filled with honey… one was for My Honey

“Ma’am,” the airport security officer said, with a thick eastern European accent. “Honey must go in checked baggage.”

I groaned. As a well-seasoned traveler I knew better, but in order to avoid over-weight baggage fees, I convinced myself the small earthenware pots would act as camouflage. Those pots were loaded with honey, one of the things Bulgaria is most known for producing. Damn these new x-ray machines — I couldn’t hide the fact that each of the half dozen clay jars actually contained twice the legal limit of fluid for carry-on bags.

I returned to the ticketing counter. Checked my carry-on. Paid 75 Euros and nearly punched Mr. TSA when, once through security, I realized I was allowed to buy and carry-on a life-time supply of honey from the terminal gift shop, if I so chose.

#SecurityFail

One of those folk craft jars of honey was being carried home for “My Honey” — the tall, blue-eyed, Ivy League Senior Project Manager who sneaked into my life a few months earlier. As per his requests, I had also secured a magnet from Paris for his collection and also from France, a “very little something lacy ” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

image

Frank Hampshire (a nickname he earned at my friend’s birthday party) and I had only become “official” a few days before my departure for a two-week sojourn in France and Bulgaria. I didn’t expect there’d be much in the way of communication for the next 14 days — is there internet near the Black Sea? But when I finally touched down on European soil, I found an email  waiting for me. He wanted to make sure I’d had a good flight and wanted to offer some google-inspired dining suggestions for when I finally made my connection to Sofia, Bulgaria.

I admit, I was quietly pleased with myself for landing such a good guy who seemed to like me so much. That started a daily email exchange, our rapport acting as a kind of diary of my travels as he recounted all the things he wished he could tell me in person. It was like we were traveling together. Of course, until he asked why was it that on his one good hair day in 30+ years, I was 3,000 miles away?

It’s easy to travel the world when you know someone is missing you at home.

I was bemused — the two weeks and 3,000 miles apart had codified our relationship. A year earlier, two weeks abroad brought about the end of a relationship, and I couldn’t help reflecting on how a break from life as usual had produced such different outcomes.

It was taking in views like this from Durnstein, Austria, that made me realized I needed someone different.
It was taking in views like this from Durnstein, Austria, that made me realized I needed someone different.

I flashed back to a cold windy October night and a street corner in Manhattan’s theater district. A passionate kiss and a promise we’d work things out before we headed separate ways. I had suffered delayed trains and Times Square crowds to break up with The Admiral (my Ex with a capital E), but when he took my hand at dinner and told me he didn’t want to lose me, I chickened out. We agreed my vacation would be a geographically-imposed break from our relationship, and we’d talk things over when I got back. We agreed that if we decided not to stay together, we’d stay friends… we’d leave the door open. We just needed time to think and lighten up. I left the States convinced we’d stay a couple — we loved each other, after all, and we owed it to ourselves to try to make it work.

As I wandered through Austria’s wine region, meandering along the Danube, pausing in hillside medieval towns to lunch on farm-fresh goats cheese and Apricot brandy, it all became clear. I imagined retracing the same romantic trip in the future with a different travel companion. He had a face and a name, and neither belonged to The Admiral.

I touched down in New York the morning Hurricane Sandy swept through the region. It would be another week before the Admiral and I finally spoke, in the cocktail lounge where we went on our first date, and agreed to shelf the romance.

And now, here I am two years later, a few days away from another two weeks in Europe. Frank Hampshire faded away into the history books, and the Admiral and I are “just friends.” I’m in the early stages of a new relationship and I’m not sure how 14 days off-line will affect the course of things. One way or another, my time abroad will help us decide our next step, if there’s to be one. Maybe, we’ll miss each other and hurry to make things more serious. Or, and this is more likely, one of us will move on. But, of course, this is what vacations are for — taking the requisite break from reality to help us decide what’s really real… in life and in love.

lovers locks paris 2013

 

 

 

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The Ticket

Let’s go to France together.

We’ll walk along the Seine, counting the bridges and lampposts we pass. Then maybe we’ll take the train down to Aix where lavender and honey sweeten the air.

And then, when we’re tired of David, Delacroix, and Manet, coissants, fromage, and crepes, we’ll pack our valises, roll the top down and head to Madrid, Spain, for tapas and Velazquez.

On the balcony of our small apartment in Florence, we’ll sit and I’ll write about my artist while you read your Dickinson and your Thoreau. Maybe I’ll pick up the violin again and maybe you’ll finally write that novel, the one about the couple and the war.

We’ll fill up albums with the black and white pictures we took outside the Coliseum and the Vatican, the Parthenon and the Acropolis. We’ll buy postcards of the paintings that captured our hearts and miniatures of the sculptures that shook us to tears. I’ll pen a note for my folks back home and tell them about the weekend in Venice and the gondola that nearly sank.

Our plane leaves on the 28th. Maybe we could leave tonight, my bags are already packed. It’s a round trip ticket with a return date stamped in the corner. But I know I wouldn’t mind if we decided to stay a lifetime.

 

Note: Once upon a time, I was a romantic. I was a graduate student when I wrote this… I don’t remember if it was a kind of unwritten letter to the boy that inspired me to start this blog, or an open-ended request to the boy I hadn’t met yet. I was also an optimist. An optimistic romantic — the most nauseating kind. Sometimes, I think I miss that girl.

Je comprends mieux que je parle, or How I Always Get Free Breakfast I’m in France

My high school French teacher friended me on Facebook. In case the gray hair and lack of tax refunds wasn’t enough validation that I am officially an adult, this settled it. Like any good educator, her first order of reconnecting was to inquire into the current proficiency of my second language.

When preparing for a day exploring Paris, all you need is a good lipstick.
When preparing for a day exploring Paris, all you need is a good lipstick.

“These days my French is only good enough to get me through the morning ‘Le Monde’ which came with the free breakfast I earned for being si charmant the day before,” was my response… but it’s not how you think…

By the fall I drove from Paris to Madrid, I’d been studying French for 10 years and had been many a time lost in Marseilles and on back streets in Paris. While I was far from fluent, I had a cache of useful phrases that usually won over important people like concierges, bell hops, and bakers.

The sun drenched entrance to Le Saint-James in Brodeaux
The sun drenched entrance to Le Saint-James in Brodeaux

Our rental car rolled into the drive way of Le Saint-James, a Relais and Chateau “gourmand” hotel nestled above the city of Bordeaux, on a mini vineyard. It was a one night stop for the food — the restaurant was hailed as one of the best in France. The bell man/valet/Mr. Fix-it was a broad-shouldered, dark-haired man who was a real-life incarnation of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, complete with the red polo shirt. I giggled when I saw him. He instantly became sour when he realized we were American.

I realized that if I didn’t want him to smash all the porcelain mugs I’d just scored in Limoges, I was going to have to act fast.

Limoges is known for its outstanding porcelain. I picked up a lot of it.
Limoges is known for its outstanding porcelain. I picked up a lot of it.

I threw out a few quick directions and asked a few location questions in French. He paused.

“Parlez-vous Francais?” He asked with surprise.

“Un peu. Je comprends mieux que je parle.” (a little bit. I understand better than I speak.)

He smiled and repeated what I just said. “That is excellent! Your French is excellent!” he said back, in French, before happily carrying my bags to our room and offering to park the car for us.

As he walked me to our room, he chattered away at me. Talking about what to see in Bordeaux if I had any time and then carefully instructing me on how to work all the high-tech functions in my new age white-from-floor-to-ceiling room. The bed was on the floor and every light and blind and tap was operated from one remote control.

Le Saint-James was the ultimate blend in space-age and old-world design. I just couldn't work the blinds.
Le Saint-James was the ultimate blend in space-age and old-world design. I just couldn’t work the blinds.

I didn’t see him again until the morning, when I was on a hunt for some advice on breakfast. Le Saint-James is the kind of boutique hotel that can get away with charging 40 Euro per person for a basket of breakfast breads. Our indulgence had been dinner the night before — a luxurious multi-course tasting menu of nouveau French cuisine. A. MAZ. ING. For breakfast, all we wanted was a roll and coffee… and not to spend another fortune on a meal.

I saw Gaston sitting at a counter outside the restaurant. He was reading the paper and I paused to scan the headlines and pictures over his shoulder. There was a snapshot of a local rugby game. I asked if he played and told him my father had played for South Africa. It was a replay of a chat I had a few years ago in a college level French conversation class.

“Is there a bakery in town I can pick up some a roll for later? Maybe a cafe?”

He quickly turned to the fancy coffee machine next to him and rolled out a petite cafe — the French version of espresso and ran down the hall. He came back with two of those 40Euro bread baskets and dumped them into a paper bag for me.

“Shhhh,” he said with a wink. “There are always ones for the garbage, any how.”

He handed me a copy of the paper as he loaded our valises into the car and bid me bon voyage.

My je comprends mieux que je parle and canned convo about rugby had made me a friend for life.  I promised him I’d be back. He hoped it would be soon.

 

A wee (oui?) bit of French goes a long way if you want free breakfast.
A wee (oui?) bit of French goes a long way if you want free breakfast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Boy’s Weekend in Bulgaria

When it comes to bars, I have one simple rule: if its featured drinks are rainbow colored-shot flights, find another bar.

I'd come looking for a drink. I found rainbow shots...
I’d come looking for a drink. I found rainbow shots…

Sitting in the hookah-scented Graffiti Cafe, I saw a list of drinks I hadn’t seen since that college spring break on Playa del Carmen. I folded the menu and walked into a hotel lobby, scanned the scene and wandered into a restaurant. I ordered a bowl of cucumber-yogurt soup and a glass of rakia and made some notes.

I’m in Bulgaria.

Varna, Bulgaria, to be exact — a city perched on the Black Sea with a history older (and more complicated) than any other in the world.

No, seriously. It’s mad old.

Varna is know for it's spot on the Black Sea, and its 4km-long beach party
Varna is know for it’s spot on the Black Sea, and its 4km-long beach party

But that’s not the point — my interest, for the purpose of this post is in Varna today. Namely, in Varna as the party city of the Black Sea. Where dance clubs and open-air bars stretch for 4 kilometers across the beach, creeping up to the water’s very edge. It’s a city you go to to misbehave — a summer long spring break town where the drinks come in fanciful (unnatural) colors and the music blasts from every door opening (you never really know what euro-pop techno tune is playing in your club; it could just as easily be coming from next door.)

My first morning in Varna started lazily — I rolled out of bed at 9:15 and stumbled to get dressed, still “hungover” from the 2 days of travel it took me to get here. By the time I had my shoelaces properly (and safely) secured, I had 20 minutes left to grab my free Bulgarian breakfast.

Varna is a colorful city, to be sure
Varna is a colorful city, to be sure

I scurried down the hall, trying to ignore the South African-sounding man standing in nothing but his skivvies seeking direction on how to work his TV remote from the poor receptionist who had obviously accepted his demand for help unaware of what was awaiting him.

The hotel, an art nouveau gem, was reportedly full the night before, but joining us for yogurt and coffee were only a group of 50-something-ish British gents. Mr. Boxer Briefs joined them a few moments later.

“They’re Americans,” I heard one of them say, when they noticed I was laughing at their request for “brown bread” (meaning properly-toasted white toast).

“Yes, we are. I’m sorry.”

I learned the group of 10 burly British gents were on a weekend-long holiday. A sort of “let’s pick somewhere in the world to go and go” adventure.

They had go-karting in their future. I suggested the archaeological museum.

The exchange was short. I immediately began to fill in the missing pieces and write the screenplay…

I imagine it to be a sort of Hangover, Britainized, with a cast that includs Colin Firth, Hugh Grant and Ciarán Hinds (expected, I know, but easy sell).  They come to Varna hoping for a taste of the Orient and the semi debauched, only to find they’ve hit it at the start of the off-season.  Very few people understand any English. The only open bar on the beach is an underground gay dance club. The city that doesn’t have a wet season is all of a sudden hit with a weekend long monsoon. They go go-karting and discover the go-karts are decommissioned Cold War era military vehicles you push.

Hilarity ensues. They rediscover themselves. etc.

In short, it’s kinda like a Hangover meets Saw, but without the blood and sudden toddler cast member.

Obviously, I still need to flush this whole thing out, but if there’s one thing I have figured out it’s that Varna is a perfect backdrop for a Hugh Grant movie. Trust me. I’ll see you at the Golden Globes…

The rooftops of Varna as the monsoon approaches...
The rooftops of Varna as the monsoon approaches…

If You Give a Girl A Flower…

In my mother’s day, the flowers a boy would send you would become keepsakes…

A pile of flaky dust fell from the pages of my mother’s 1961 college student handbook and course listing as she pulled it from the shelf.

“What the hell is that!?” she cried. “I just vacuumed. Goddammit.”

“It looks like flower petals.”

She examined the bits more closely before brushing them into the dust pan and determined that they were, in fact, the fragments of a carnation.

“One day, when we were first dating, your father pulled off the side of the road on his way to pick me up and bought me a bouquet of carnations. I hate carnations. But they were such happy little things and I was thrilled. So I tried pressing them. We did things like that in those days. Pressed the flowers a boy gave us so we could have it as a keepsake if we ever got married. Of course, most of them turned out to be bastards. The boys, not the flowers. But I always did a shit job, totally mangled them, and usually forgot what book I used.”

“Case in point.”

When it comes to women, a well-picked bouquet from a fella goes a long way.

Which is why on Wednesday, along with my sneakers, a cluster of sunset-hued roses wrapped in damp paper towels and the cellophane from my 3AM room service order passed through the x-ray scanner at LAX.

An elegant birthday bouquet from a class act kind of guy.

My birthday had been only a few days earlier and these roses had been the feature of a bouquet that greeted me on that July 1st morning. Despite the resort’s legendary service, the elegant arrangement, I would soon learn, was not courtesy of my 5-diamond resort, which had also sent a cake. Even better – the flowers were from my new flame.

5-diamond concierge fail.

New flame home run.

The SoCal sunshine may have mellowed the east coast gallerist, but the roses from the boy who set my heart a flutter with just a glance put an indelible smile on my face for the duration of my “birthday week.”

“Did you go to a wedding while you were out here?” my flight attendant asked when she saw me wedging the roses gingerly into the seat pocket in front of me.

“No. They were a birthday gift.”

“From a beau?”

I nodded with a blush.

“Looks like he’s a keeper to me. Those are stunning.”

Thousands of miles and several changes in cabin pressure later, the roses looked a little worse for wear. Despite the suggestion, I elected not to press them. Much like my mother, home crafts and remembering where I put things are not my forte. I think for now, I’ll leave the act of preserving memories to my Canon… and a moleskin notebook.

… too elegant to leave to the cleaning staff, I valiantly tried to carry the roses cross county, neatly tucked into the seat pocket in front of me. Call it sentimental, call it futile, I call it a noble “thank you.”

And Here We were Worried About Tsunamis on our Vacation

We were heading into tsunami zone. Little did we realize there was more to worry about at home

“You realize you’re heading straight into the heart of tsunami country,” my mother warned when we finalized our bookings for a family vacation to Tofino, British Columbia.

Tofino is a small town perched on Clayquot Sound, on the far west coast of Vancouver Island. In March 2011, when we were starting to consider the area as the celebration site of my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, there was a tsunami warning. People were evacuated. My mother thought twice.

“There’s only one road out of the town — the road along the coast. Oh! And there could be an earthquake!”

Nevertheless, we decided that the first growth rainforests and the pounding pacific, ideal for sea-kayaking and surfing, were worth the risk of a tsunami. But my mother packed her flippers, just in case.

The night before we left, I wrote a note to a friend: “Providing my kayak doesn’t get flipped by a whale, I don’t end up in a back brace after my intensive yoga retreat, or my surfboard doesn’t get swept out to sea, I should be back by Aug. 27. We’ll catch up then!”

I was more worried about my surf board being swept out into the Pacific than a hurricane back home

In all the things we tried to prepare for, it never occurred to us that we’d have to leave the earthquake and hurricane survival kits at home for our house sitters. Even though we’ve had numerous flights cancelled due to inclement weather, it never occurred to us we’d be stranded on the far, far west coast because of a storm named Irene.

It’s true that there is only one road that cuts through the heart of Vancouver Island, taking people from the more populated cities on the east coast to the rugged, untamed, ancient west coast. If you want to get from Nanimo and Tofino, you have to traverse 125 miles of narrow, winding asphalt with a maximum speed limit of about 40 mph.

To get to that road, you have to take a 2 hour ferry from Vancouver.

To get to Vancouver from New York, you have to fly 3,000 miles.

This storm looked pretty serious, and we're stuck 3,000 miles from home

Basically, to once again quote my mother, if we’re in Tofino and something happens back at the ranch, “we can do fuck all.” But what were the odds that something would happen back home and we’d have to hurry back? Small, surely. And then Brian called to tell us about the hurricane baring down on New York.

For the first time in 10 days, we flicked on the television and logged on the internet. Panic quickly followed. Our flight was cancelled. There’s no way home until Tuesday. What will happen to the old willows by the stream, with their short roots and their overgrown limbs? What about the dogs? Will Brian and Cliff be able to find the leashes?

While the boys are readying the yard, removing anything that could become a projectile, and battening down the hatches, I’m sitting on a bench in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, catching my breath after a 12k run and taking in the sunshine. The sail boats pass by and the there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

From my bench in Stanley Park, it's a glorious day in Vancouver.