A Taste of Holiday at Home

I took a cooking class in Bali when I was there in September. I love to cook, I love food, and I loved Bali. It like seemed a good way to spend three hours.

As it turns out, I also really love Balinese food. The prominent use of lime and ginger—coupled with the sweetness of palm sugar, the subtle tanginess of tamarind, and just enough heat to make you sweat—hit all my foodie sweet spots. The cooking class was one of the highlights of my trip.

Anatomy of a cooking class, Bumi Bali Cooking School in Ubud. September 2011.

However, I have yet to cook a single Balinese dish at home. Why haven’t I put my fancy culinary skills into practice?

I met a young Belgian bride at my cooking class who told me she and her husband learn to cook the cuisine wherever they travel. They then plan monthly date nights to make the food from their holiday destinations. “It’s little taste of holiday was once you go home,” she said. What a great concept.

I thought of her the other night as I ate Turkish takeout out of an aluminum bowl. It turns out that New York, in all its international culinary glory, has spoiled me from ever bothering to create international culinary brilliance on my own.

The best Turkish food I’ve ever had? Not in Istanbul. In Queens. Mangal Kebab in Sunnyside got me through grad school. I can also score a bottle or two of Efes, a Turkish pilsner, at the deli two blocks from my apartment.

Istanbul via Queens: lamb adana, home bread, some of the best baklava I've ever had. Washed down with the beer I was too ladylike and respectful to drink in Muslim Turkey.

I became obsessed with palak paneer in India. Minardirectly across the street from my office, does some of the best—complete with Bollywood music and Hindi newspapers. Check.

I’ve even found a pretty close match to the elusive Singaporean/Malay laksa. FoodParc’s new Mr. Wong’s Noodles does a red coconut curry broth that, with some pho, fried tofu, and add-on bamboo shoots transported me back to that first happy meal in Asia.

Fresh lime juice and curry laksa, my first (heavenly) meal in Singapore. Well, if you don't count the quiche at the Changi Starbucks. And I don't.

And at home in New York: Mr. Wong's red curry coconut broth. Not exactly laksa. But pretty darn close. And deliciously indulgent in its own soupy rite.

I will cook Balinese food. I will. I’ve even going to try to beat Mr. Wong at his laksa. I gloated to my cooking class compatriots that I didn’t need to smuggle back exotic spices because, in New York, we can get everything—even galangal root and kaffir lime leaves (Asia Market on Mulberry and Bangkok Center Grocery in Chinatown, if you’re wondering).

But, as any New Yorker will tell you, there’s a big difference between having it all and having time for it all. Even in the hustle of the holidays, I hope to set aside some time to sink my teeth—and my Santoku knife—into some sayur urab and a big steaming pot of opor ayam.

If I can’t find time to cook it all in New York, I have a plan. I will trudge around town, procure the ingredients, wrap them ever so carefully, and smuggle them in my luggage to a faraway land where they can’t be found. Iowa, where I will spend nine relaxing days at Christmas, is exotic in its inactivity, and I’m looking forward to sharing the taste of my holidays with the family I love.



I love the way the light of the sun plays off the Hudson, plays on my shoulders, saturates those who play on its shores. The smell of the river, the sound of bikes whizzing by, the sight of something open, something free. Potential exists in the gaze forward across the open space, at the space between the here and the there. Chaos is restrained—unnoticed, insignificant—behind me.

I love that as the sun sets behind the Hudson, the people along it arise. The sun slowly descends, the people finally emerge. From stifling offices or high-rise apartments or subway trains or ivory towers. To move. To breathe.

Those green patches along the water are vision to me. They are healing. They are solace. They are bathed in light that warms my head, dries my tears, inspires my hope, and bears my doubt, as the light of the sun plays off the Hudson.

Creation Interrupted

As I walked today along the border of the LES, Soho, and Chinatown, in that gritty area where neighborhoods converge and diverge, I realized how inspired I am creatively by Manhattan. I think it’s akin to the resilience of a cactus—when something has to overcome harsh conditions to flourish, it will use what little resource it has to grow strong, bright, and feisty.

Then I saw this palette on Lafayette Street, deserted. Void of art, but bearing evidence of its presence. Is the work still in progress or was it abandoned for something new?

Either way, that flash of color stands as an altar to me, a marker of a place where the process of creation managed to survive.


Madrid 2009 - Parque del Buen Retiro

I studied in Spain in the summer of 2000 and fell utterly, hopelessly, wonderfully in love. I grew up in such a small town, so far away from, well, anything, that until that summer my perspective of who I was and who I could become was boundaried by the borders of the farm state in which I had spent my whole life. Going to Spain was the beginning of a stretching process—as if the piece of my heart built for dreaming was a balloon, each day abroad breathing a little more air into a slowly expanding capacity to see something more for my life.

Madrid, for me, was the epitome of Spain. I was enchanted by the city’s bustle, its grand boulevards, its unbelievable concentration of art, and its Metro. (Oh, the irony of being charmed by public transportation, considering all the tortuous hours I’ve spent locked in its delayed-by-signal-problem claws in the decade since.)

About four years later, living in New York, I started having dreams, both waking and sleeping, of a park with a lake. The park with the lake was familiar, but I didn’t recognize it until the image flashed again one night in a prayer.

El Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s equivalent of Central Park. Directly translated, it means “the park of good retreat, or refuge.”

When I arrive in Madrid on June 21, I want to stroll through El Retiro; to let my spirit catch its breath in this place of retreat. I want to be refreshed—reminded of who I am and who I can become. I want to stretch, just a little bit more. Just a little more capacity to dream.

Then, renewed, I want to invite others to do the same. To know the power of true refuge.

Barcelona & Madrid: What to Read? Watch?

Most of my travels in the last few years have been to places undiscovered. I keep coming back to London, and will again this year, but Istanbul, India, even France, Switzerland, Ireland — all new to me in the last year or so.

But this year I’m going back to the place where the wanderlust began. I studied abroad in Spain the summer of 2000 and am meeting up with an American friend for six days there before visiting friends in Lausanne, Amsterdam and London. I have been thinking of, dreaming about, expressing my love for Spain for the last 11 years. To go back… a gift. I feel something in my bones about the trip. I want to start soaking it all up—now.

My traveling companion and I have talked about putting together a “reading” list, to which I’m adding time-efficient film, to be steeped in culture before we go. My preference is for great art that illuminates Spain, its people, its places, its history and its culture. I’m particularly keen to read a great engrossing personal-drama-focused historical novel about the Franco era, a la La Fiesta del Chivo, which I pored over while in the Dominican Republic five years ago.

Here’s my list so far. Add your suggestions in the comments, please. I’ll update accordingly.

Spanish History: Film

  • The Spirit of the Beehive: made while Franco was still in power in the 70s, set in the post-Civil War days. Watched part of it last week. Fell asleep. This is not a comment on the film, but on last week.
  • Salvador: A 2006 film I stumbled on at some hotel site that tells the story of an anarchist executed during the last days of Franco’s reign. Anyone seen it?
Barcelona: Film
  • L’Auberge Espagnole: saw this years ago and want to soak it all up again. I want to spend as much time at cafe as they did.
Madrid: Film
  • I got nothin’. Other than Almódovar films, of which I’ve seen many, is there anything iconic? Browsing the Wiki page for Films Set in Madrid, I’m interested in Esa Pareja Feliz, a 50s film, mostly for its in-the-moment look at what Spain was like under Franco.
Spanish History: Books
  • I found this list of the 40 best novels in Spanish, collected on someone’s blog. I’ve been interested in La sombra del Viento … uh, though I will probably read it in English. Probably. I read Allende in Spanish once upon a time.
  • Also very interested in Nada, a novel called once of the best written during the Franco regime about a young female protagonist.
  • And, this list wouldn’t be complete with a little lament that I studied Spanish literature in college, and I’m still struggling to compile this list. I got a great overview of the 16th-19th centuries, I suppose…

My Heart Cries Out for Art

Late at night my heart cries out for art.

During the day? I’m not sure. Too busy with making a living, too afraid of what people might think, too concerned with meeting expectations, I float through the days. Some happy, some exasperating, but honest. Productive. Legitimate. This is how I spend my days. But at night… My heart cries out for art.

Tears well up in my eyes as I pass a windmill and ragged pieces of metal wrapped around a chalk board on the streets of the Lower East Side, declaring, challenging, boasting facetiously, “This is not art.” A smile plays across my lips and my heart physically warms as the clock nears midnight and I walk past a wall of six video screens displaying an Andy Warhol film on a quiet stretch of the Bowery. My eyebrows arch but I am inspired as I encounter mannequins with teddy bear heads and cafes that beckon on the streets of downtown.

Late at night my heart cries out for art.

It’s as if the inspiration wells up all day. Though I am distracted, my creative mind records the stimuli I encounter hour by hour. At night, when my rational money-earning people-pleasing self finally gives herself permission to rest, my heart can be heard, at last, crying out for art. I need to consume it, desire to create it, weep at the deficit of it, and vow to make room for more.

My heart is made for art. Not merely at night, but from dawn until dusk. Though it cries out for it at night, I will choose to nourish it more each day. My soul was made to create by the creator of all. I will honor him by creating, by writing, by committing.

Because my heart is not the only one that cries out.. So many hearts cry: for art, for beauty, for hope. What answers their plea? What have I to say to those hearts, those insomniac hearts, crying out for art?


Thanks to my aunt, who reminded me to tell this wonderful story from December 2010.

As I took my aisle seat on the tiny plane from Minneapolis to Sioux City last year at Christmas, I was greeted by a great big smile and a hopeful set of eyes from the older woman seated next to the window. That woman was Shirley.

I endeared myself early on by helping her out of her jacket and stashing it in the overhead compartment for her. We had plenty of time to get to know each other, as our flight sat on the runway for twice as much time as it spent in the air.

Shirley is a 78-year-old woman from Yankton, South Dakota, though, as I told her, I honestly would have guessed her in her late 60s. She has that spark that my grandmother had; that glint in her eye that betrayed the reality that life had not always been so easy and comfortable, but the fire that assured her if she could overcome that, she could face anything.

She, as they say, had me at “hello.” But I truly fell in love with her spirit at her description of her sister-in-law, who had been born and raised in the north of England before moving to the U.S. “She was real stylish, real stylish. Oh, kiddo… she knew how to dress, she did. And she knew how to use makeup!” Shirley always wished she had gone to visit her, but young children at home in South Dakota had made the trip seem impossible. She has since passed away, Shirley told me with no small pang of regret.

When we found out our tarmac-bound plane was to be even further delayed, we both called our loved ones to let them know to delay their trips to the airport. After Shirley hung up with her son, she started relaying to me every word he had said—while I remained on the phone with my parents and tried to make sense of the little bit of conversation I could hear through the cacophony of voices. She told me about the son who was picking her up, about her daughter, and about another son, the one she had lost. He had a heart condition, the seriousness of which he kept from them as long as he could—until the day his father found him dead in his bed. “That was real hard on Charlie,” she told me. “It was real hard on him…”

Charlie was Shirley’s husband. “Oh, he was an absolutely wonderful man. Just a wonderful man,” she declared, a smile on her face that was full of equal parts gratitude, pride, and sadness. Because he, too, is gone. He died last year, two days after Christmas, while shoveling snow near their farm. They were married 53 years. She told me that he loved to brag to their friends that they never fought once in all their decades of marriage. “But then I’d say, ‘Tell ‘em why, Charlie.’ And he just told ‘em, ‘Anytime Shirley starts to get a little off kilter, I just smile and walk outta the room. No one for her to fight with then!’”

My paternal grandmother grew up on a homestead in South Dakota. Her childhood, and for the most part, her life, was defined by austerity. She was a child of the depression, no doubt. But she could laugh. And she could love. Both my grandmothers shared those two wonderful qualities. Shirley was cut from the same fine Midwestern cloth—her hardships had only made her stronger. I was moved to tears as she spoke about loss after loss, and told her so. She simply smiled and said, though it had been tough, she was “real blessed.” Real blessed.

She was also real talkative. I got precious few words in during our hours together, as I learned about her job at a print shop in South Dakota; how lovely the dress she wore to her granddaughter’s wedding had been (“You shoulda seen me, kiddo. With earrings, and everything. Oh, it was a real pretty dress, honey. I was a sight.”); how she was a 20-year veteran of her hometown’s sensible eating support group, and how now, in her 70s, she mentored newcomers of all ages (“I teach them how to cook some nice vegetables. I’m a great cook.”)

As we got off the plane and my parents rushed up to meet me, I watched out of the corner of my eye to ensure Shirley found her son. I was attached to her now. If her son hadn’t shown up, I would have made my parents give her a ride to Yankton or take her to lunch. Three hours together in a prop plane, and she had become my newly adopted grandmother, adorable in her collared sweatshirt and admiration for well-dressed British women.

At baggage claim, I introduced her to my family, gave her a hug, and wished well to Snickers, her “sweet little dog,” whom she said had kept her company since Charlie’s death. And then we were off, both going our separate ways.

But I’m still thinking of her, all these months later. Spring will be coming soon to South Dakota. She’ll have fresh grass in her yard and leaves on the trees in her backyard that overlooks the river. I hope she’s traveling again soon; maybe that trip to the UK that she had always regretted not taking. I hope Snickers is well.

But more than anything, I pray the people in her world realize how blessed they are to have a mighty woman like Shirley in their midst.


Where I’ve Been

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