Portugal

We took a sunset hike

up the Algarve cliffs, sincere

and ancient and strong like our grandmothers.

Red clay marked up our legs

as proof we didn’t stop climbing,

all just to see the azure 

from a new angle.

We were told secrets by seabirds,

perched on the eyelids of the ocean.

We gazed down into a cavern 

as seawater pumped blue blood into the heart

of the cliff. 

The sun, midday and sleepy 

looked bigger than I remembered,

steady.

And I stood like the seabirds – 

The beauty of how small we are.

Good morning, Mom

20160105_072602 I woke up at 4 AM like a shot. The February wind beat on my window, and I could feel the cold at the back of my neck, which prompted me to sink further under my blankets. It rained the night before, the temperature dropped and the unforgiving Long Island winter called to remind me that, even after five years, I still wake up missing my mom. My eyes slowly adjusted to the room, the moon lit one corner, and my dog stirred while I turned over on my side and checked the weather to see sunny and cold, a favorite of mine. A yin and yang of sensation that I always looked forward to; a balance of beauty and bitterness.

Sunrise wasn’t for another three hours, and now that my mind was on, I threw on my clothes and made coffee. The winter woke me up more than my drink. There was something that comforted me about a dark house, lit up only by the sound of wind and my own thoughts. I thought of my mother the night before, I thought of the pain, and the memory of her face the day she died. It did not look like her. She wasn’t smiling, her hair wasn’t done, she was gaunt and tired and done with this world – her light gone off to somewhere else. I couldn’t remember it actually leaving, I just remembered the day it was no longer there. I remembered the long painful journey, endless days, and her last breaths and how bittersweet of a release they were to her and I – how I felt the silence between us, the devastation of death coupled with the final acquittal of her soul. It was 5:30. I looked down at my dog, who looked up at me, ready for command of the day. I fitted him his sweater, and headed for Montauk.

With my insides wrapped up in hot coffee, and my shih tzu wrapped up in blankets, we embarked through the darkness, destination eastward. The moon dropped beyond the pines as the stars showed themselves, if only for a moment, as the sun prepared to make its debut. I took comfort knowing that I would reach it once I reached the end. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had no need to rush. I belonged to the schedule of no one, I only belonged to that morning’s sunrise. Everything was cold and baron and quiet, except for the wind, which breathed through empty trees and stirred litter and leaves over quiet weekday streets. My dog rested his head on the cup holder and slept, unaware of my mission, unaware of my impassioned memories.

****************

Montauk was empty. The wind was violent and unforgiving as it raged across the baron parking lot and the outside temperature read negative six. I shouldn’t, I thought. This is a terrible idea – I’m the only one here. I could see the morning glow beyond the lighthouse, the water crashing against the jetty rocks, coated in ice and mist. There was a fog in the far distance and a tower of clouds with a halo of pink and orange, gulls flew defiantly against the bitter February wind. I left my dog in the car with the heat on and made my way down the steps towards the beach. As I came around brush cover, a gust of wind caught the inside of my hood and shocked my senses as my whole body went cold. I pushed my way towards the water’s edge, cursing the wind and the gulls and the drive and then, without warning, my anger was silenced as I looked beyond the cloud cover at the sudden manifestation that was the sun.

I watched it rise so bold and gently up higher and higher into the morning sky, warming my spirit while the wind battered my face. It climbed over the mist and quieted the last breaths of night. My mind was stilled. I couldn’t remember the evening or when my world became light; it just was. I stood stoically against the wind as the closest thing to my mother’s love illuminated the horizon and bid me “good morning.”

 

I am a Speck

FB_IMG_1457514094169    Often times, as tiny people on a big planet, the world seems unjustly overwhelming. We get so bogged down with problems, and snags, and hitches, and tragedy, that we feel like there is nowhere to go except under our covers. We bury our heads in the sand, we isolate, we brood, and we wait it out to try and make that feeling pass. I recall overhearing conversations between my dad and grandpa,

“She’s depressed. She needs to see a therapist.” They would agree and I would just listen, never going to therapy and never wanting to speak about my problems. As far as I saw it, what was a third party going to tell me that I didn’t already know? I was depressed, I missed my mom, I had PTSD, I wasn’t suicidal, I was binge eating, I was sad, lonely, frustrated, emotional, numb, regretful, angry, grieving. I knew everything that was going on inside of my head, inside of my soul, and the last thing I wanted was to hear it repeated back to me. I was twenty-one years old, and less than two months earlier, I watched my mom succumb to the damages of alcoholism. I grew up only to watch her suffer more and more, year after year, and feel increasingly helpless and she became increasingly more destitute of hope.

After her passing, more than anything, I wanted to escape. I was living between Massachusetts and New York, driving countless miles, finishing my bachelor’s degree on time, and wondering if life was worth it anymore. I felt singled-out, small, and useless. I felt like I was out of my body, floating above my friends and family, jaded and undeserving of the “normalcy” they all seemed to possess. It was like the sensation of drowning, without being granted death. I longed to just run away, back to Oxford, back to an unfamiliar place to make me find myself again, and as if it were an omen, my best friend Candice entertained the idea of traveling to Portugal.

Eighteen hours of travel and limited sleep mattered very little when we arrived at the empty resort in the empty resort town. I liked the isolation. I liked the solitude. I was with my friends but part of me wanted to stay alone. I wanted to get lost in the streets, and sit in cafes and exchange eye contact with people I would never see again. We walked up and down the piers and beaches, drinking cappuccinos and eating traditional food. Quickly, we were acclimated to the slow and steady drum of that coastal ghost town.

One morning, walking towards the beach, we noticed a sign, and a beaten down foot path. When we could have gone straight down to the water, three of us hooked a right and, single file, began walking. We didn’t know where the path was going to take us, and we didn’t know where we were going, but we could see the whole oceanfront from where we were, and the sun was high and the breeze was inviting. We passed old leaning trees, towering succulents, and rigid dips in the cliff-side. The view was amazing. The ocean – so blue – and so massive from where we were. I strained my eyes as far west as I could, but I only found the bend of the horizon. My friends and I stopped to take photos, inspect the flora, and snoop around fences of houses lucky enough to line the cliff. We walked for what seemed like hours, as if we were headed towards that bend I kept looking to. Red clay dust kicked up, and the earth switched from dirt to grass to tree covering. On the far side of the trees was a large opening, and a sign warning us of where the ocean tore into the cliff, telling us to stop; we didn’t have to go further.

I looked at the midday sun illuminating the world before me. Seagulls perched along the rocks, and I was jealous of them to not have the luxury for myself. I breathed in the salty air – the air that tasted like home. In that moment, I felt like a speck. I was so overwhelmed by the size of my surroundings, I was so far away from home. And yet, I was breathing in the same salt air, and standing under the same sun.

53 Kinds of Cow

Candice and I took our next international adventure in September of 2013 throughout the hills of Ireland and Scotland. Upon our return from Portugal in November of 2012, our flight home was cancelled and we were forced to stay over an extra night in Dublin. We fell so in love with the accents alone, that the day after returning to the states, still jetlagged and marginally broke, Candice threw a trip for two to Dublin on her magical American Express card.

“Are you on Expedia? Yeah? OK, I’ll check Kayak.”
“A castle.”
“What?”
“We can stay in a fucking castle in Dublin for ten days and it’s $1,400 each with the plane included.”
“Give me the link.”
We flew Aer Lingus on the way home from Portugal, and when they had to cancel our flight, the airline was beyond accommodating, and refunded our flights for the 600 Euro it would have cost normally to fly home. An extra $728 in the bank made us a little cheeky in our plans, and within minutes Candice and I had European takeover 2K13 in the books via Skype conference from our kitchens.
We had some extra money leftover, which is why Scotland was thrown into the middle of our excursion, as well as a side trip to Limerick, about a two hour bus ride from Temple Bar in Dublin, to have lunch with my friend Christina. She and I met at Bridgewater State when I was a junior in college and she was visiting for a semester as an exchange student. We played rugby together for a short amount of time, and shared an Irish Literature class. Christina was tough, had a raw sense of humor, and enjoyed whiskey, which made me believe that yes, every Irish resident must like whiskey. Which later proved to be true – at least at UL.
We arrived on a soggy Tuesday afternoon, tired and excited to be greeted by Christina and taken to lunch. Coffee and a lamb cheeseburger with rosemary steak fries….college food. No wonder she complained about our cafeterias so much. Candice and I toured UL – the gyms, the rugby pitch that the Munster Rugby Team practiced on. Swoon.
“Why go home? Stay here for International night. Pizzas and Jameson.”
Sold.
We sat at a table, low-light, taking turns paying for pizza and Jameson and Cokes. The wonderful thing about having international friends is, if you are open-minded, the potential for deep, multi-faceted conversation is very real. We spoke of foreign policy, student loans, welfare, and 9/11. Whiskey and genuine expression from Christina made me emotional to see how affected she, a foreigner to the United States, was when the Twin Towers fell. Conspiracy theories aside, judgments aside, lay the undeniable fact that thousands of lives were lost, and the hand of humanity reached many countries who had compassion for the families, and the victims. Brought together, and bonding with someone from a different country on a subject that ultimately affected the world drunkenly restored my faith – even if only for a moment – where I first truly experienced how good food, good drink, and good conversation united people.
“Let’s take this into town.”
The three of us hopped into a cab and met with Christina’s friends at a pub in the heart of Limerick, where the population was minimal, middle aged, and sloppy.
“It’s usually busier than this.”
It’s usually busier than this…on a Tuesday?
 
On downing what I believed was my ninth Jameson and Coke, Candice and I were soon engulfed in a conversation with a tall, portly, jolly young man, an acquaintance of Christina. No older than twenty, he smiled wide and his eyes brilliant with passion as he spoke of the farm his family had, and the fifty-three (of fifty-five) different breeds of cow he could recite. Maybe even in alphabetical order, but I was drunk, and this kid was crazy.
“Shut. Up.”
Drunken disbelief pulled Candice and I closer to this stranger. He spoke of his favorite cow, her name, what breed she was, why he liked that breed so much.
What in the….
She and I mouthed this about a dozen times over and over, ten Jameson and Cokes in at this time, while one by one this kid named cow after cow. I discern cows by color. Black, white, white with black spots, black with white spots, brown, chocolate milk…but I learned quickly my whole life-long cattle knowledge was a lie.
All of the cow talk made us hungry, and that led to Chicken Hut, AKA the KFC of Ireland, but worse. By worse, I mean worse for you. By flavor, I mean the tastiest thing my drunk self has ever consumed in my entire life.
Fried chicken with gravy that had the consistency of lard (amazing), fries, a soda, all washed down with impending regret and the continued disbelief that this kid was still talking about cows.
Drunk and tired, Candice, Christina, and I made our way back to Christina’s dorm, and arranged ourselves like drunk little piggies horizontally on her bed. I lay on my left side, facing the wall, knees tucked up, teeth un-brushed, still in the same clothes. Candice was in the middle, flat on her back, arms spread like a little drunk starfish. Christina, cocked diagonally and already unconscious lay at the head of her own bed. I tried to count my breathing in an attempt to make myself sleepy, but the Chicken Hut sat like a brick and I too, now, found myself trying to recall fifty-three or fifty-five types of cow. Candice, I assumed was dancing in a dream, because her jazz hands leaped out at my side, and my knees jerked over and over against Christina’s wall. To break the silence, Christina, in her drunken sleep, methodically ripped the loudest, yet odorless farts from six feet away from me. And thus was the night, a symphony of tickles, wall knocking, and gas, until we rose the next morning for our walk of shame back to the bus, and our hungover ride back to Dublin, penniless, nauseous, and educated in Irish bovine.

Cattle and a Unicorn

Candice and I saved a decent amount of money booking our trip to Dublin, and about three months after setting our dates and planning our excursions, I suggested a side trip to Edinburgh.

“I’ve never been to Scotland. It’s a bucket list. And Ryan Air is stupid cheap.”

“Great. And we can find a bed and breakfast or something.”

Our Skype meetings were frequent yet efficient these days. I would say “hello” to her mother in background, who never met me in person, yet knew me as the girl from New York who traveled the world with her daughter. I looked at flights, while Candice hunted down a website that wasn’t suspicious and also had low enough rates for a bed and breakfast.

“Ryan Air. We can leave Wednesday, middle of the trip, come home Friday. We’ll have a full day to explore. I want to see the Edinburgh Castle.”

“I want to see King Arthur’s Seat.”

“OK done. Booked on my end.”

Just like that, we were headed for Scotland…as if we were to become bored with having to spend ten whole days in only one country – one castle – what first world problems. We desired so much to hit as many places as we possibly could, and that’s what I loved about traveling with Candice. I had control issues with always being on time, booking trips, and Candice just smiled and trusted me to make sure we didn’t get kidnapped and there was always a pint of something in front of us. We had this strange, calculated way of moving around foreign places, where we booked the trip, but once we arrived, we had no concrete idea of exactly what we were to do. Everything in the country was decided generally the day before it happened, and we just rolled with it until we hit our next adventure. It took off the pressure of travel, and also made us feel less like tourists, and more like explorers.

******

Our flight to Scotland was booked for the part of the morning where it’s blacker than what nighttime should be. We didn’t sleep at all the night before, and thankfully the hotel was accommodating enough to book us a car to the airport, so all we had to do was make sure we had enough euros for the cab as we slumped into the back seat, and a very pleasant older gentleman zipped us off through the chilly morning.

Wow. We were so very tired.

“We should have slept.”

Candice gazed at me over a cup of coffee while we sat on the floor at the gate, putting our shoes back on, watching equally exhausted people wander like a herd of cattle, disheveled and regretful of their time choice to fly. Suddenly, I saw a unicorn among the cows. Tall, thin, wild curly blonde hair, his face looked like a Ken doll – almost perfect – and his style was amazing. Donning all black everything, wearing heavy black boots and a black jackets with spikes on it, Candice and I turned to one another and had a telepathic moment of recognition. How did he get through security with that jacket?  I could see it across as I struggled to figure out how this man was so well-dressed for 4:30 AM. He was so much his own style, so strange, so pretty.

Get a load of that guy. With our luck, we’ll be sitting next to him on the plane.” We both shared a laugh, and deep down, we both knew we so wanted to sit next to this man on the plane.

The cattle and the unicorn and the only two American people were herded down across the tarmac in the dark and up the stairs onto the airplane. We were told the flight would be about forty minutes, a first for Candice and I, who were used to anywhere between six and eighteen hours of travel to get to our destinations.Walking hurt. We were so unbelievably exhausted from not sleeping the night before, that our tiny airplane seats were the La-Z-Boys we longed for. People trickled in slowly, sleepily placing bags above them, slumped over in walking comas, when the unicorn stepped onto the aircraft and bee-lined for our row. Candice and I both tensed up and screamed a little on the inside when he sat beside us, gave a half smile, and we were sent into an immediate bout of giggles as she and I narrated the emergency instructional photos on the seat in front of us.

The safety demonstration began and a pleasant Irish girl unconsciously moved her hands along with the audio instructions of what to do in case of emergency. I could barely pay attention as Candice held back her slap happy laughter and the unicorn looked about like he was about over with us and with the emergency instructions. I leaned forward to my backpack on the floor, and in the process smashed my face into the seat back in front of me. I grabbed my forehead, and Candice, no longer able to contain herself, burst out in laughter. It wasn’t the hearty har-har type of laughter when a good joke is told, but rather a desperate wheeze of a person trying not to laugh at an obviously inappropriate time. Her face was changing color. I began to cry. The unicorn looked over the both of us, and chuckled.

Yanno, I’m doing this for your safety, you best not laugh.” The flight attendant was moved from her demonstration to scold us, threatening our removal from the aircraft, and I fought through my own laughter to explain I wasn’t laughing at her, I just hit my face into her close-quartered seats. Candice affirmed that I really did, in fact, hit my face, and we passed through the rest of the demonstration like elementary school children who were caught doing something naughty.

The plane took off, and Candice passed a comment about how these types of things only ever happened to us, which caught the attention of our unicorn, who began to engage in conversation. We learned he was called Nikolai, and was a hair stylist from Dublin. His family, originally from Russia, lived in Chicago at one point, and now settled in Ireland. His carry-on was filled with hair styling equipment, and he was heading to Scotland to visit his aunt, which he did every two or three weeks. Soft-spoken and polite, Nikolai engaged us in conversation for the short duration of the trip, and as we parted, the herd of sleepy cattle, the only two Americans, and the unicorn shuffled off the plane into customs.

“Nice meeting you.” We trudged through the automatic doors of customs for the only two American people traveling that morning into Edinburgh, and came across an empty white room. There were no employees, the computers were off, and there was no one to stamp us into the country.

“Where the hell is everybody?” Candice looked around, I peered in corners thinking maybe it was a surprise party, and we stood listlessly in this room for about ten minutes before making the decision to exit. Half-upset at the fact that we didn’t get a Scotland stamp for our passport collection, we passed through the next set of large automatic doors, only to be greeted by a large poster of an old man offering up a lobster, and Nikolai! Our unicorn waited for us! He waited as we gave our Facebook information, and said he would request us, but we weren’t able to tell until we reached another Wi-Fi hotspot, so we went on faith that we would hear from our new friend again. Nikolai wished us luck, as his aunt alerted him of her presence outside the arrival gates, and we watched our unicorn disappear into the harsh Scotland rain.

 

Chinese Food is a Universal Language

There are a handful of comfort foods that I turn to depending on the situation. And comfort food can be different for anyone; some may prefer savory, some people sweet, some a combination of both. Personally, I get cravings for red meat, particularly cheeseburgers (my diet is voluntarily 90 percent poultry, fish and quinoa), or anything involving chocolate because, let’s face it, I’m a girl. Girls love chocolate. Fact.

Okay, so not every girl loves chocolate – however my own love of it makes up for a large portion of those who do not consume it. Comfort food is great. It can be a safety blanket, in a sense. For example, when my mom passed away, I turned to chicken noodle soup and lasagna. Neither were particularly nostalgic of her cooking, but they were hearty, and made me feel better. Or, comfort food can be an accentuation to a good time like say, ice cream on a summer night with friends. Hot chocolate after shoveling your driveway, pop corn at the movies, all amazing snacks and treats tied to events that bring people together, or bring a happier feeling to that person indulging. Food is universal, and Chinese food, in particular, and in my humble opinion, is the most universal.
Sure, you have your chain restaurants that find their ways into the nooks and crannies of the globe, providing people with low-cost and “safe” choices. It’s why they’re so successful. What I like most about Chinese food, however, is that each dish in each restaurant, regardless of whether or not it has the same name, never tastes exactly like each other. Each restaurant kind of adapts its flavors to the surrounding environment but still manages to maintain a homely, familiar tone that comes with ordering Chinese food. It’s the whole, “I got full and in five minutes I know I’ll be hungry again,” feeling, and it can be found anywhere.
We knew when we booked our trip to Portugal that we were going to spend Thanksgiving there.
“I can’t believe you won’t be home for Thanksgiving.”
“Dad, I’ve been home for twenty-one Thanksgiving’s.”
“You’re going to miss out. Who’s going to make the fruit salad? Just your brother? There’s tradition.”
“Well, maybe it’s time for some new tradition.”
My dad rolled his eyes at me, but I really thought he was searching the banks of his brain, pulling as many excuses as he could for me to not go to Portugal and miss Thanksgiving. It’s too much money. It’s dangerous. I heard Portugal is cold in November. Their economy…the people…haven’t you seen the movie Taken?
Nothing deterred me. The trip was booked and paid for before it even passed my lips to him that I wasn’t going to be home for the holiday. I was determined and hell-bent and going and that was it.
And it was so worth it.
One of the most dysfunctional, yet memorable trips I ever went on, Portugal was top five. I learned so much about the people, their kindness, the natural beauty, history, and amazing Portuguese cuisine. Sure, I was almost poisoned by exterminators and almost drowned in a sea cave on the first day, but the next six were amazing. We took all of the public transportation, not once were kidnapped, were never bothered by anyone, and even made a couple of friends at a local pub. Portugal, particularly Portimao, was a dream. It was where we were tourists treated like locals – how I try to make every vacation go. These touristy-locals, however, had a holiday coming up, and needed to find a place to eat.
McDonald’s.
We almost did. Almost. Dear baby Jesus, if I could just have a quarter pounder with cheese…
“Guys, we can’t. We’re in Portugal. Americans. Getting McDonald’s. On Thanksgiving.” The three of us agreed that fast food was not the best course of action, but we still had nostalgic yearning for the tastes of home: turkey, stuffing, gravy, other miscellaneous items to make up a 4,000 calorie plate. They didn’t celebrate the overtaking of American in Portugal, though, so where could we turn?
Chinese food.
A small, welcoming Chinese restaurant sat along a line of stores, strip clubs, empty off-season hotels, and vendors. It was surprisingly busy, but we were seated right away, and the staff was friendly. Our menu was in English, and we picked out our favorite tid-bits from home, sipped green tea, and spoiled ourselves with a little dessert. I knew what I was thankful for. Even though we sat across the world, across from each other, we felt a little more at home that evening.
Not only was I thankful for Chinese food among Candice and Vicky but, it saved my life in Dublin.
Candice and I woke up hungover and possibly dying in an overcrowded bed at the University of Limerick, Christina already awake and at work, instructing us to use her toothpaste and whatever else we needed to freshen up before our bus ride back to Temple Bar.
Fresh underwear, a toothbrush, a hair brush, some leftover dignity, I thought.
We got ourselves put together the best we could. I lost my favorite owl necklace that I bought the year before from a street gypsy in Portugal, and my shirt was covered in coffee from lunch the previous day and we both felt equally disgusting. Doing the smart thing, and utilizing the magic plastic rectangles we had, Candice and I wandered the university in search of the gift shop, where we purchased men’s sweatshirts in sizes XL and XXL, grabbed coffee, and slumped into our seats on our bus back, as far away from each other as possible as to not nauseate one another.
Spice Girls was blaring, and I couldn’t see straight without seeing stars, double-digit Jameson and Cokes and two pizzas and Chicken Hut knocking on my uvula. Candice looked pensively out the window, contemplating what I assume was her own mortality and dipping in and out of a possibly still-drunken stupor. The bus stopped to allow more passengers, and a woman boarded loud, Irish, already drunk, and openly attending to the flask of vodka that lived in her breast pocket. Naturally, she plopped herself in the seat between Candice and I, and we made eyes at each other while this woman opened and closed her flask, the smell of alcohol reminding us of our horrible decisions and the fact that we were in the same clothes as the day before.
This went on for nearly three hours until the bus finally stopped near Trinity College and we leaped off out of the time warp of 90s pop icons and poor life choices and stereotypical Irish people.
“Oh my God I think I’m dying. How many buses till we get back to the hotel?”
“Just one.”
“We need to get there as soon as possible. I feel awful.”
“Me too.”
At the risk of projectile vomiting through our words, Candice and I spoke very little as we walked our way through Temple Bar, over the foot bridge, and towards the bus stop to Clontarf.
Suddenly, a rumbling.
Not of our agitated tummies, rather, of voices. Chanting together, we learned quickly that these individuals were protesting the injustices of the wealth. They were sitting down in the middle of a busy intersection. They were getting rowdy. They began shoving.
I’m way too hungover for this shit.
We walked along the sidewalk as the crowd came closer and closer like a wave, only threatening to pull us back into it with a rip tide of oppression. And that’s when we saw it. Unfamiliar characters, universal only to our appetites: Chinese. Buffet. We ducked into the building, now only concerned for our safety and completely forgetting that we were both terminal about twenty minutes earlier.
Well, when in Rome. Or China or….Dublin?
A lovely young woman seated us and gave us a pitcher of tap water with two shoddy glasses. We didn’t care. Our tongues were thankful. She gave us plates, and a fixed price, and said it was all we could eat. Well damn! We sat in that palace of MSG, that neutral zone of General Tso, that haven of noodles, and stuffed our hungover faces as if we never saw food before. Soon we forgot about the protests, the angry people, the two-day old clothes, the coffee stains, the Jameson permeating through our pores, and we reveled in the safety of our bottomless plates. Nothing could hurt us now.