travel

Holiday from real.

Lisa got laid off exactly three weeks before I did. My best friend lost her job after 15 years at the same company; it had been only three months since I joined the company I recently left, and I was…jealous of her. The best break from work I could hope for at the time was a long weekend away from the city.

And then I got my wish.

 

Holiday weekend rental rates in the city were astronomical, but apparently no one in the suburbs needs to travel; they have backyards and grills and municipal pools and dogs and fences, and plenty of family to visit in the next town over.

So we rented a red sedan in Des Plaines for $29.99 a day, threw our bags in the trunk and loaded the navigation app on our phones, and started out toward Door County, where my mother had invited us to spend the weekend.

 

My family spent many summer vacations in Door County, the Midwest's answer to Cape Cod or the Outer Banks or Lake Tahoe (or so I'd imagine). It's a peninsula dotted with beautiful, quaint resort towns and flanked by Green Bay and Lake Michigan, connected at the northern tip by Death's Door.

I know my grandparents' condo like the back of my hand; I have a favorite spot in each sweet little town. We have our traditions — the buying of the fudge, the eating of the cheese curds, the laughing about "that time Paige sent Holly flying off the teeter-totter in Baileys Harbor" — that are fairly unwavering. But this trip was different. I knew it would be. Once we crossed the state line, Lisa and I became tourists of the lowest order. If there were a ball of twine big enough to warrant a sign, we would have stopped for photos.

If you find yourself driving through southern Wisconsin, it would behoove you to stop at the Jelly Belly Visitor Center (oh.my.god.candy.), which I didn't even know existed until that weekend. I will never be the same because of it. We skipped the video tour and went straight for the rainbow wall of death by sugar. I bought a pound and a half's worth, a quarter of which was gone before we hit Sturgeon Bay — and all of which were gone by July 5. I had to throw the entire bag in the backseat to keep from making myself completely ill as I drove.

(Whatever you do, do not buy the Coldstone Creamery–branded Jelly Bellys. No matter how brilliant the concept of ice cream in candy form seems. Birthday Cake Remix is your enemy, even if the little beans do look like tiny Funfetti bombs. They are bad. Just don't.)

 

We also had lunch at a Kenosha gem known as the Brat Stop, which has some of the best bratwurst I've ever tasted, plus an arcade game that's actually only kind of an arcade game in that you're trying to catch a live lobster with the big metal claw. And if you get one, they'll cook it for you for dinner.

That's not weird at all.

 

This is a hard weekend to write about because I feel as if I remember every second, and every second is part of this big story that I want to live (and tell) over and over again, but it's more the feeling I remember and not what actually happened. And feelings are harder to describe well.

It's not our sunny Saturday afternoon at the beach that I'll remember, but the hysterical laughter and woozy lightheadedness we couldn't shake after blowing up the cheap rafts we bought earlier that day at the drug store. The slimy slide of seaweed on our skin and the warm sun and frigid water washing it away.

It's not our trip to Washington Island that I'll remember but the gleefully spontaneous decision to run from the visitor center and down to the dock, where we bought tickets and boarded the ferry just minutes before it pulled away. We never considered that biking 12 miles might be a bit more difficult in sundresses and flip-flops, and we didn't care once we got started. (And it's not the bike ride around the island that I'll remember but exhilaration of the first 360-degree view of the island after climbing 200 steps — we counted — to the top of the observation deck.)

It definitely isn't the fireworks show in Egg Harbor on July 3 that I'll remember — we wound up on the wrong side of a huge building that blocked most of our view anyway — but the squeal of the children behind us, the barking of two obnoxious feuding dogs, the smell of kettle corn and the chill of the air setting in after a third glorious sunset over Green Bay.

 

Lisa and I are so different. She's tropical pink and purple; I'm red and navy. She's silver; I'm gold. She's platform wedges; I'm ballet flats. She's Stoli Blueberi and lemonade; I'm gin and tonic. But we shared a good friend we lost before we were ready. We've both had our fair share of pain but never stop looking for the good in people. And on this trip, we discovered we both loved the sky of a Door County sunset, which turns tropical pink before fading to star-studded midnight navy.

 

We also realized the best soundtrack to a impromptu weekend away can't be found on an iPod playlist or a single radio station.

As we sailed in our red rental car down the only road that led away from the ferry dock, back toward the condo, the music flickered in and out between townships as we impatiently scrolled through the frequencies. We caught the last half of "Summer Nights" from Grease and all of "Hotel California" before we gave up on the static.

 

Then we rolled down the windows and just enjoyed the breeze.

Helter-skelter.

Café Maude is Kellee's Friday lunch spot.Everyone knows her there. They laugh when she pulls in at 10:58 a.m. and waits for them to open two minutes later, orders her first glass of wine and sets up shop for the afternoon. They take good care of her.

It was only Thursday, but Kellee wanted me to experience Café Maude.

So, after a short, lazy morning spent working on a lush leather sofa — side by side, feet on the ottoman with blankets draped over our laps — in front of a crackling fire with CNN on mute, filling up on freshly brewed coffee and rye toast with organic butter, we pulled ourselves together and piled into a MINI Cooper named Moxie, bound for Café Maude. It was nice to be the passenger after my seven-hour drive into the Twin Cities the day before, which included me careening through downtown St. Paul after dark in a blind rage, unable to find my destination or a decent parking spot. (That I can't afford the payments is only the tip of the iceberg of why there's no absolutely reason for me to have a car.)

Minnehaha Parkway — I dare you to say it and not feel a twinge of glee — becomes 50th Street after a certain point, connecting bike trails and a few of those 10,000 lakes and winding through residential areas dotted with sweet little bungalows and beautiful vintage stucco homes.

Minneapolis is pretty glorious, actually.

Moxie handled Minnehaha's curves like a racer, and Kellee knew those roads like the back of her hand. We whipped over the rivers and through the woods, the previous weekend's foot of snow melting into mere inches, mostly grey slush, but still enough to delight me. My tummy rumbled as we approached Nicollet Avenue.

Then an old woman in a red sedan with not a care in the world — including what color her light was — blew through the intersection, straight toward us. Kellee saw the other car first; I didn't even get the customary string of curse words out before we'd made impact. She braked hard, swerved and hit the back end of the sedan with the front corner of the MINI, sending the sedan careening, spinning, across the intersection until it came to a stop, 180 degrees later, facing the right way in the wrong lane. Kellee and I were both strangely calm; she flipped on the emergency flashers and got out immediately to assess the situation. The other woman, who must have been at least 80, stayed in her car, barely rolling down the driver's side window when Kellee approached to ask if she was all right.

No one was hurt.

But the other woman didn't even know she'd been speeding toward a red. Thought we were in the wrong; thought we'd hit her. The police came a few minutes later and set her straight; they decided not to ticket her for the signal violation, but they found her at fault for the accident and ordered a physical to determine whether she's still fit to drive at all.

Talk about a wake-up call.

Another woman, an innocent bystander who almost became less so when the sedan nearly spun into her, had stayed nearby to write out an account for Kellee to use in court if it came to that. Lord help us if it had; she was less of a help than she might have been. In her version of the story, she was waiting for a green arrow that didn't actually exist, and the woman who ran the light came from the opposite direction. It may also have been a different day in her version. I think she was more shaken up than both of Moxie's passengers combined.

All told, things that day could have been much worse. Moxie got towed to a body shop later that day, after we picked up my rental car and took to the mean streets once again. We finally made it to Maude and drank much-needed glasses of wine, and ate warm soup and fries with creamy truffle sauce.

But in the course of conversation, I realized that if we'd hit that intersection half a second later, that old woman would have plowed straight into the passenger-side door, and I'd have ended up in the hospital with broken bones, a concussion or worse.

Or worse.

A fact that didn't shake me up as much as it did shake a little sense into me. They say near-death experiences will do that to you. But they also say these things happen in slow motion. In my case, they — whoever they are — would be wrong.

I'm not sure slow motion even exists for me, though. In large part, life runs helter-skelter at me and I rush right back at it. Two linebackers at the line of scrimmage. If anything it's elastic, accelerated to dizzying Hadron Collider rates then stretched like Silly Putty until I'm dangling precariously, spread too thin, barely holding together.

But I'll happily accept that over being crushed inside a car on the way to lunch. (Is it better to burn out than to fade away?) I'm not sure where this leaves me but grateful that I did live to drink celebratory wine at Café Maude, help cobble together information for insurance agents and body-shop employees, bask in the lovely pre-winter glow of a charming new city and rush headlong into another ordinary day.

London calling.

I leave for the UK this week.

Seems I was preparing for another transatlantic journey this time last year.
Oh, wait. I was — almost to the day.

Last year, I flew to Paris.
A year later, this Thursday, I'll be getting on a direct flight to Amsterdam, where I'll transfer the next morning to Edinburgh and eventually fly back out of London.

Last year, I thought a trip would change my life. I traveled alone because I couldn't imagine a better travel partner than myself. In the end, I spent most of my savings on shabby hotels and mediocre meals, wandering aimlessly through the city I imagined I'd fall head-over-heels in love with. I was petrified of getting too lost in a tangle of streets that felt more like alleys, or being taken advantage of by some smooth-talking Parisian. (That almost happened a few times.)
To make matters worse, my flatiron shorted out in one of those crazy continental power outlets.
I was disappointed in the city of my dreams, my sanity saved by Skype and my trusty laptop.
(And the life changing actually happened the day after I returned, when the Knight and I stayed up all night talking, laughing and essentially falling in love. We've been inseparable since then.)

And then there's London. Which has never been the city of my dreams. The only other time I visited the United Kingdom, I was disappointed. To say the least. I was 14 years old, shunned by the other high-school freshmen I was traveling with, stymied by the second "toilet" in every bathroom that spewed water upward, sick to death of churches and history after a few days, rapidly losing weight from the terrible food. On my one free afternoon, I navigated the Tube like a pro, but there was nowhere I wanted to go.
So I'm managing my expectations.
But this year, I'm traveling for work, and the stops have officially been pulled out. I'm traveling with a group of Master Gardeners from Orange County, California. We'll stay in four-star hotels and visit the great gardens of the United Kingdom. (Want to read more on the gardening side of things while I'm gone? My work blog is here.)
I have my evenings free and have been researching restaurants and sights to see in my down time. Gordon Ramsay? Brick Lane? Piccadilly Circus? West End? Harrods? Yes, please. The only time I will spend my own money: shopping. And one fancy meal.
I bought a better power converter. My flatiron will not fry. Not this time.

The best thing that came out of last year's trip: a month of inspired writing and 67 glorious photos that now all but cover the walls of my apartment. Sparkling memories of a lackluster trip.
Who knows what this year's trip will bring.


Take me to the airport
And put me on a plane
I got no expectations
To pass through here again

P.W.B.

I have been known to complain. From time to time.
In certain circles, in fact I am known as P.W.B.: prissy, whiny baby. A label I may have assigned myself in a fit of bewilderment that any mature, emotionally stable male might ever, in his right mind, want to be involved with me.
My reaction to missing the last 7 a.m. Metra to work? Prissy. Whiny. A moment of blubbering until I realize I can get on the bus to placid, quiet Park Ridge and wait at Panera with a nice cup of coffee until the 9 a.m. train comes through.
How. Ever.
My reaction to missing the last flight out of Philadelphia? As the result of an inexplicable two-hour delay in Ithaca, my own personal hell? After dodging propellers and running from the tarmac to the shuttle from terminal F to terminal A, roughly 48 miles apart, and blocked by not one but five departing planes? All calmly en route to their destinations and completely unaware that I had less than 10 minutes to get to my flight? After running, practically dry heaving on the moving walkway, through the international terminal (for a domestic flight) only to see the gate agents playing a celebratory game of Parcheesi at the desk, the door already closed and secured for departure? My reaction? Hysterics. Prissy, whiny babies: Fear me.
By the way, U.S. Airways is the devil. Do not fly with them. Ever.

So now?
It would seem I am simply collecting pens from exotic hotels.
Currently in my purse: Hampton Inn — Columbus, Hilton Garden Inn — Ithaca, random clickie pen of unknown origin. Furtively obtained, to be sure. (I'd say I stole it from the guy who delivered my Thai food last night, but I had to lend him my Garden Inn pen because someone else had stolen his. The nerve.)
Soon to be added to the collection: Quality Inn — Essington, Pa.
Which is where I am now, stripped to my underthings in a plank-stiff, king-size bed. My suitcase is somewhere at the Philadelphia airport with all my clothes in it. It is possibly carrying my dignity and the final shreds of my sanity as well.
I may never get home to write on my little dry-erase kitchen board again. I am doomed to an existence marked by tiny logo notepads and cheap logo Bics.

And yet.
This day could have been so much worse.
It was so much worse for a lot of people. I met a lot of them tonight.
The woman in Ithaca who was dealing with the same travel delays the fact that her husband had just left for Iraq. She was still smiling, somehow.
The man from Oslo who had missed his flight out for the same reason as me, only his was international. He has only a week back home, and he's going to miss one of them stuck in a Philadelphia airport hotel. The next flight out for him wasn't until 5 p.m. Wednesday. His cell phone battery was nearly dead; he just wanted to talk to his wife back in New Mexico. We had been in line for an hour at the point I abandoned him.
The family of seven who had been waiting two hours for a shuttle to the airport hotel where I'm now holed up. Who couldn't pile in because there were so many people who had been waiting just as long but had fewer children in tow. This prissy, whiny baby crammed into the front seat of the Patchouli-Vanilla Express to the Quality Inn with another similarly unfortunate soul: a long-haired rocker whose band is headlining a German music festival that starts tomorrow. He's the lead singer, and they can't go on without him. His guyliner was smudged.

And always: There are people who made my life bearable and then some, without even realizing their gift.
The horde of horticulture nerds I spent the day with, before this whole travel ordeal was on my radar. We joked about begonia freaks and traded plant-related snark for hours. (Who knew?)
Ryan, the Garden Inn front desk guy who: gave me directions to the ice cream parlor, retrieved my bags for me, drove me to the airport and chatted with me for the entire ride. He's just discovering writing, and I nearly assaulted him with my card
The TSA agent who told me the janitor's name (Dan) so I could get into the Ithaca airport's one bathroom quickly, who later brought me pizza from behind the security gate because I…well, I whined.
The aforementioned Norwegian man, whose broken English was so endearing to me: He kept telling me he'd lost his flight. We were friends for at least an hour, until I abandoned him. And yet? I never learned his name.
The woman at the information desk who called me "baby" in that "sweet child of mine" way, hell bent on making sure I was headed in the right direction. Red-rimmed eyelids will get you everywhere.
Two gate agents, just leaving their shifts, who stopped for 20 minutes at the ticketing counter to help me get my hotel voucher and boarding pass. Seeing the human side of an airline is equal parts shocking and comforting. Beyond the polyester uniform, there is a heart. Apparently.
Noah, the marijuana policy lawyer in town from D.C. to reshape American policy on the ganja (did you know that's Sanskrit?), was in front of me in line and wanted to hear my story. Because we live in the smallest of worlds, I found out he'd just stayed the weekend with a friend who lives about three blocks from me in Chicago.
Buffy, the vampire slayer. On DVD. Three times.

It's nearly 12:30, Eastern time. Why am I still awake?
Maybe because tomorrow, when I get home, this day of travel will be nothing more than a nightmare. Prissy, whiny fodder to fuel the infantile fire when I need it.
But a little perspective is nice, and something I tend to lose sight of.
Really? Life could be so much worse; to put all the great things in my life down on paper would take far more tiny paper and cheap ink than these hotels can provide.
So here I am.

Breaking my own rule*.

I dated a lot last summer.Date is not quite the right word, but that's what I'll call it. It was't Peter Pan–collar-and-poodle-skirt, two-straws-at-the-soda-shop dating. It was not-many-clothes-at-all, happy-hour-and-stumbling-into-the-night dating. There were quite a few men in and out of my life (five, at one point), and I called it dating because there was no boyfriend.

Dating was exhausting. Because when you're seeing five people at once, there are bound to be complications — scheduling conflicts, at least. And white lies told to avoid hurt feelings. And too much information floating around. As much as I like attention, especially from men — the more, the better, usually — I started to feel cheap, spreading myself so thin. Dating became emotionally debilitating. Which was as much thanks to the men in question as it was the overscheduled, oversexed madness and my psychological state at the time.

And so, after the chaos and folly of last year — culminating in the flaming destruction of not one but two disastrous relationships in the frame of about four months — this summer was to be a time where I simply did not date. I had grand designs of rediscovering my sanity and enjoying a bout of self-induced celibacy, beginning with my solo transatlantic journey. But then I met someone. A couple of weeks before Paris, I met someone. Who started as this faraway figure I admired for reasons I only sort of understood. Who became a friend. Who kissed me unexpectedly. And I'm now…dating him. Fluid and natural and unnervingly…simple.

Gradually, I am learning a new, better definition of the word "date." (Related: The word "men" is taking on a more positive connotation as well.)

Date ˈdāt noun 1 a: the time at which an event occurs < the date of his birth> b: a statement of the time of execution or making < the date on the letter> 2: duration 3: the period of time to which something belongs 4 a: an appointment to meet at a specified time; especially: a social engagement between two persons that often has a romantic character b: a person with whom one has a usually romantic date 5: see also: Friday, May 29, 2009

At 7:15, my doorbell rang. After having changed my outfit four times, I gave myself one last glance in the mirror, nodded firmly and trotted down the stairs to meet him. Through the dirty glass of my building's front door, he stood waiting for me, shirt tucked in, cellophane-wrapped flowers in hand. Flowers. No one brings flowers. He brought flowers. I put them in water while he waited, then we walked to the Brown Line and rode downtown with our Trader Joe's bag filled with picnic food. At Millennium Park, night was beginning to fall, and Pritzker Pavilion was filling with Polish Chicagoans celebrating the fall of communism in their home country with music and dance. (We had no idea the concert was even happening.) We spread out our blanket — OK, a beach towel that was really too small for both of us — and made barbecue-pork sandwiches with cole slaw and carrot sticks and sparkling water. And chocolate-covered cookies (to die for) called Joe-Joes. We endured the music as long as we could then walked east to the lakefront and through the harbors. In and out of orange pools of streetlight, we kissed and talked about our families. Yachts (mine) and house painting (his) and grandparental quirks (both of us). We found ourselves looking across the Chicago River at Navy Pier, and I stared at the flashing lights on the Ferris wheel while we had a Very Serious Conversation about love and trust, and the past and moving on from it. I hope. Strolling along the river, I watched workers scrub down the decks and chairs of the tour boats from a long, sunny day full of tourists. Up the stairs and back to Michigan Avenue, we waded through a crowd of pedestrians and made our way toward the El again — it had felt like we owned the city, walking alone by the water. Maybe we still did, even with other people around. I nodded off on his shoulder and he brushed the hair from my forehead to kiss me as the train rumbled homeward. Fluid and natural and simple.

This is dating. Worth the wait to redefine.

"I'm scared to call you my girlfriend," he said. "Then don't," I said. "Wait until it doesn't scare you anymore."

* of no loveblogging.

Paris: Back in the USA.

DSC_0006

I still have a few more posts to write about my abbreviated week in Paris (I left Tuesday and returned Tuesday but really had only five days on the ground in France), but I'm sitting at the airport in Charlotte just happy to be home. And I'm not even…home, really. Flight home.But in less than four hours, I will be.

My "knight in shining Camry," as one of my friends calls him, is coming to O'Hare to collect me, and I am so excited to see my apartment that it's really…sort of ridiculous. Being homesick after just a week in one of the most beautiful cities in the world means one of two things: that I really love Chicago and have amazing, totally missable friends, or that I'm totally pathetic.

Maybe a little of column A and a little of column B. Either way.

I found out yesterday morning, when attempting to read a French newspaper (horoscopes, en français!) that rail workers on some lines, including the one that goes to the airport, were going on strike today. (They do that a lot; I think they get bored because they all have such great lives, so they have to invent problems and stage protests or strikes.) So I had to improvise a new route. Which meant: THE BUS.

The trip out of the city wound through more places I hadn't seen. But near the end, we climbed a hill that felt familiar: It was an area of Montmartre I'd explored on foot the first morning I was in town, totally delirious after a long flight and stinging a bit from the culture shock. Full circle.

My God, what a wonderful trip this has been. Rejuvenating and exhausting all at once. Yesterday was the best day of my entire visit. I will write about it later — in great detail, or as much as I can remember from everything I saw and did — but for now I'm just going to soak it up. After four hours of sleep last night (I'll write about that, too, oof), I wound up sleeping for almost my entire flight, waking up only to eat some surprisingly delicious chicken and watch Bride Wars, which made me cry and filled me with shame.

What a rude awakening, though: This morning, even the prerecorded announcement on the bus to the airport seemed beautiful and romantic; here in North Carolina, some people could read Shakespeare in their twangy, Dirty Southern accents and still sound common.

Still? Elated to be back on American soil.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's an iced chai somewhere in here with my name on it.