Hawaii: Party Like a Millennial

Photo Hawaii

You’ve got to love those millennials. They work hard and they play hard. They are fiercely loyal to family and friends. I’m not sure when they actually sleep, but they always look as if they have just walked out of the pages of a trendy fashion magazine, with not a hair out of place. They have an air of confidence about them and are sometimes blamed for being a bit too self-absorbed. Given the fact that they are the first generation to have so much technology at their fingertips, they are not entirely to blame.

According to Forbes Magazine “…No generation has been as publicly reviled, praised, misunderstood and analyzed as the millennials. And, with good reason. By 2025, millennials (also known as Gen Y or those born in the 80s and 90s), will make up the majority of the workforce…”

Having a millennial for a son and getting to know his wonderful group of friends so well, I feel as if I can speak with knowledge and can safely say that they are a powerful force to reckon with and that I would like to be a millennial when I grow up.

So, it was with much excitement and delight that we (Mr. Wiz*, JC* and I) accepted the invitation to join Big A*, his best friend, Casey and his wife, Hannah, on a trip to Hawaii. The trip would coincide with the Maui Invitational, a basketball tournament in which their alma mater, Marquette University, would be participating. As luck would have it, Casey had lived in Hawaii for a time while growing up, so he would be our official tour guide.

I have to say that I felt flattered that they would want to include us on their adventure. But, then again, JC (aka Nanny and affectionately renamed Nene during this trip after the state bird, the Hawaiian goose) was the titleholder at the beer pong championships held during Marquette’s Family Weekend, back in 2011. Mr. Wiz and I were just riding along on her coattails.

Never having traveled together, we soon found that we were all on the same wave length and really enjoyed each other’s company. The six of us were a well-oiled machine, flying from island to island, making our daily plans and then heading out each day.

In Oahu (Honolulu), we strolled Kalakaua Avenue (Hawaii’s answer to New York’s upper Fifth Avenue) and stopped for a drink at the Moana Surfrider, the island’s elegant, historic hotel. As we listened to the live Hawaiian music, we watched the lovely dancer and the palm trees sway in unison. We toured Pearl Harbor and shed a tear for the lives lost that day. We left our hotel at 6 a.m. to hike Diamond Head and watch the sun rise. Nene opted to explore around the hotel instead and we teased her that she missed all of her favorite things: uneven terrain, plenty of steps and drizzle once we reached the top. Big A did all the driving in our rental car, Casey was the navigator and Hannah was the culinary consultant, making sure we did not miss any of her favorites. We shared in Casey’s excitement as he made sure we saw all the sites, including where he had lived and where he went to school. We jumped in the waves at his preferred beaches, ate at his favorite restaurants and gasped at the amazing views from the lookout points he liked the best.

Kauai is known as “the garden isle” and our hotel, the Kauai Marriott Resort, lived up to its expectations. The exquisite art and sculptures shared the peaceful harmony with the lush grounds and gardens. We fed the koi fish at their early morning feeding in the hotel’s pond. We toured the island by car and agreed with Casey that the charbroiled burgers at Dwayne’s were the best we’d ever had. After visiting the lighthouse and another of his favorite beaches, we strolled through the little town of Kapa’a. We snorkeled off a catamaran and were surprised to hear Capt. Jim thank Hannah over the loud speaker for reminding him to play the theme from Jurassic Park when we passed by its filming locations. There was not a peep from our fellow passengers when the captain asked if anyone could name the state fish of Hawaii. Big A enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame and won a T shirt when he was able to answer the question correctly and respond with humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa.

In Maui, while Nene and I stayed poolside (I actually broke my own record, making 12 consecutive trips down the big slide), the others were up early to attend the Marquette basketball games. Fortified with a breakfast of champions, POG Mimosas (passion fruit, orange and guava juices with Champagne), they cheered for their team, who ultimately came in third. We met more of their friends later at the Marquette luau.

On our last day, back in Oahu (Honolulu), we started our turkey less Thanksgiving with a bloody mary brunch, one last swim at the beautiful Lanakai Beach and a short drive to some last spots on Casey’s list.

I’m still not sure how we were able to keep up with the younger three of the group as they ate and imbibed their way through each day. Casey made sure that we tried all of his favorite Hawaiian specialties. I may have shied away from the Musubi (Spam sushi), but I eagerly ate the poke (seasoned raw ahi tuna), edamame (seasoned soybean pods), purple sweet potatoes, butter fish and pork. Casey made a special stop to make sure that we all tried one of Hannah’s favorites, Meat Jun, a thin, batter fried steak. At breakfast, I tasted the Loco Moco (rice, beef patty, eggs over easy, brown gravy and avocado) and feasted on macadamia nut pancakes and fried rice with eggs and Portuguese sausage.

Sometimes forgetting that lunch had already presented itself with a mai tai opportunity, it was Nene that would remind us each day that cocktail hour was approaching. Our biggest dilemma was where and when. We finally realized that we should be buying some wine in order to save on expenses, especially when most of the group were gathering around the fire pit for nightcaps each evening after dinner.

A group meeting was called one late morning before a flight to discuss what was to become of the two bottles of wine somehow leftover. While ideas ranged from pouring the contents into plastic water bottles, drawing straws and having the loser pack the wine and check their bag to just giving it away, Casey came up with a simple solution: let’s just drink it. We all stepped into action as Hannah, who, after asking for plastic cups each evening had a special relationship with the bar staff, ran for cups, Nene and I secured a lovely table with a view, Big A found us six chairs and Mr. Wiz retrieved the ever-present corkscrew from his shave kit. As luck would have it, we were three white wine and three red wine drinkers. We toasted to Casey and the fact that his MBA was important, not only to his career, but to his cognitive decision-making skills in the cocktail category. Nene slept all the way and said it was the fastest 45-minute flight she had ever experienced.

During this trip, we were introduced to some interesting millennial rituals. One night at dinner, we shared a novel experience called credit card roulette, whereby everyone at the table throws their credit cards into a bowl. Then, with lots of fanfare, the waitress picks out the cards one by one. The last one left pays for dinner.

Based on my personal observations, these bon vivants live fast and get all they can out of each day, only slowing down for social media updates. They are hard wired for this life and consider its pace natural. And while I need complete silence in order to concentrate, I know that we all share that same joie de vivre.

While we all wished we could just keep island hopping until our credit cards exploded, all good things must come to an end and our airline tickets dictated that it was back to reality for us all. As we said our goodbyes, I couldn’t help but smile to think that the only Gap that existed between our generations was that we would choose to shop in-store, while our three millennials would always purchase online.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Girls Only: Nashville

Photo Nashville

It was actually JC’s* Idea. Since Mr. Wiz* and Big A* would be totally absorbed in the Formula One Races in Austin for the weekend, she thought it would be a great idea to introduce my sister, Maria, and me to the Nashville she had fallen in love with on her first visit.

The capital of Tennessee, Nashville, seems to be changing its tune. Still known as the Country Music Capital and as Dolly Parton’s stomping ground, there’s now an energetic hum to the city.

It was one of seven U.S. cities to be chosen to begin a Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub Network. Innovative companies are finding its environs a less expensive, friendlier alternative. Foodies flock there in search of the next great new restaurant. New luxury hotels are springing up while historic buildings and neighborhoods are being revitalized. The city’s new slick sophistication remains in harmony with its long-standing southern charm and welcomes you with open arms.

We can’t wait to put on our cowboy boots and see the town, but it’s too early to check in to our hotel. We leave our luggage at the front desk and decide to reconnoiter in the lobby and plan our day. As we are chatting, we notice a well-dressed woman walk toward two of our suitcases, grab their handles and start walking out the front door of the hotel.

JC and Maria sprang to action! They jumped up and ran after the woman, who halted immediately when she heard Maria yell “…Hold it right there! …” There is something about a New York accent that means business. As little girls growing up in a suburb of New York City, we were trained to always be attentive to what was going on around us and to take care of ourselves. On our 18th birthday, our dad gave each of us Mace spray in the size of a lipstick container to carry in our handbags; an emotional right of passage that gave my dad great comfort in knowing that messing with his daughters would result in stinging eyes and being splashed with blue dye.

Apparently, I was the only one that noticed the well-dressed woman’s name tag. So, as the third member of this Keystone Cops comedy, I began running behind them to make sure that they did not tackle the hotel’s manager.

While it took us two days to be able to make eye contact with the hotel staff, our convulsive laughter set the tone for a great time together. Surprised, yet undaunted to find out that neither Maria nor I had any sense of direction (what other sisterly secrets would be revealed?)  JC took over the navigating and we were off.

We enjoyed a free outdoor big band concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. We were startled by the sweet-faced youth of Johnny Cash while he was stationed in Europe during World War II in a special exhibit of private photos shared by his family at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Germantown, originally established by European immigrants, has the same vibe as New York’s Greenwich Village and we still cannot decide which entrée was our favorite at Henrietta Red: the braised lamb with pole beans and polenta, the scallops with pistachios, beets, Granny Smith apples, kale and couscous or the cauliflower steak smothered with hazelnut, scallions, shitake mushrooms and nicoise olives.

According to JC, there were two things not to be missed while in Nashville: a mansion tour and an evening at the Grand Ole Opry and she surprised us by planning both. How President Andrew Jackson progressed from a 14-year old orphan to a man of so many accomplishments made his mansion, Hermitage, even more impressive. Though built around the same time, its décor was so much more modern than the Victorian design of the Belle Meade plantation. Known for its horse breeding, racing and deer farm, the original 5400-acre estate became a tourist attraction. So much so that on occasional Sunday mornings, the lady of the house would sneak out and post a hand written closed sign on the front gates for some needed peace and quiet. Touring the homes, then having the time to walk the grounds made the docents’ stories come alive.

It was a Tuesday night and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house at the Grand Ole Opry. A new band, Lanco, was introduced and we wondered how they felt playing for the first time on that famous stage. We tapped our feet and sang along with Trisha Yearwood and Kelsea Ballerini and were surprised to see all 4 foot 6 inches of special guest, Brenda Lee “strut her stuff” around the stage.

One of Nashville’s biggest draws are the country music honky-tonks on Broadway. While many cities have an area where bars and restaurants line the streets and the musicians play loudly on a stage, open to their patrons inside and to the street, Nashville does it with a style all their own. It’s more fun than seedy and everyone from families to seniors to bachelorette parties and every age group in between share in the revelry.

We seemed to be drawn to Nudie’s Honky Tonk daily. Named after Nudie Cohn, a famous clothing designer (think Elvis’ gold lame suit), the historic building houses many of the costumes Nudie designed, rare music memorabilia and Nudie’s $400,000 Cadillac El Dorado hanging from the wall. But, it was the music and the great bands that transfixed us. We danced and sang at night and then found ourselves back during the day. By the way, each time we’d arrive, JC was quickly led to the dance floor by another admirer!

Only in Nashville can you be sitting on a park bench one minute and then see Kenny Rogers ride right by you in a golf cart the next. We agreed that was a great way to end our visit. We chalked up our newfound feeling of relaxation and our mother/daughter/sister bonding to all that dancing and to singing “Sweet Home Alabama” multiple times together at the top of our lungs. Those southerners really know how to have a good time.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

Visiting Bryan/College Station: Trendy with a Texas Twang

Photo Bryan Coll Sta

I’m feeling a bit confused. I’m still not sure how I went from wishing for a place the four of us (Mr. Wiz*, Big A*, JC*and I) could go over the July Fourth holiday that was not in the $500 – $700 per night price range and landing at The Stella Hotel, a five star, Preferred Hotel with Frette sheets for a little over $100 a night. I think it was a combination of my positive thinking and JC’s suggestion that we take the lead from a recent Austin Monthly article and visit Bryan/College Station.

The home of Texas A&M University, over 66,000 students swell the city’s population during the school year. We wondered why these two neighboring cities were all of a sudden exploding with all types of development; why now? Apparently, social media had opened the doors to all of the campus sporting events and the general public accepted its invitation. Lucky for us, we were visiting offseason.

The Stella Hotel just opened in April and still smells new. The décor has that wow factor. The mixed use of materials, the textures and the interesting touches (saddle bags and iron I-beams mounted on the walls) all send out a sophisticated, yet edgy vibe. We were greeted by the sports jacket and jean clad staff who all had names like Parker and Morgan (no need to apply here if your name is Joe or Sue), who worked from their iPads, rather than standing behind the usual counter; very cool.

Outside was a man-made lake, two swimming pools, a golf course and a series of paths that led to a residential development of mega homes. The sprawling lawn was so welcoming, set up with assorted games, a fire pit, chairs and tables. Complimentary bicycles and paddle boards awaited our use at the front entrance.

JC acted as the official judge, as we filled our afternoons with pool races and seeing who could do the best hand stand in the water (some things never change). In preparation for the Scrabble championship (with a money prize to make it more interesting) and paddle board competition that I had planned, I tried to psych out Big A by boasting that I had trained on a paddle board while reading a dictionary. It didn’t work; he was the big winner of both contests.

In between, we visited the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and the Messina Hof Winery. Though the Campfire Restaurant at the hotel was in the running, we all agreed that our favorite dinner was at Christopher’s World Grille. The renovated historic home was rated one of the top 100 romantic restaurants in the U. S. by Trip Advisor. The next day, the fans and misters kept us cool as we listened to live music on the porch of the Hullabaloo Diner, a transplanted 1940s New York diner. As we waited for our table, we agreed that this was what Sundays were made for.

I’m not sure what Texas’ secret is; it could be the warm weather or everyone’s laid back style, but it has a way of reminding you to slow down. It gave our little family the chance to enjoy each others company and regroup. We all left feeling relaxed and pampered. I felt a bit more hip and happy to have another family adventure to tuck into my memory belt.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

Helping to Keep Austin Weird  

Photo Weird.jpg

I’m too excited to sleep. I blame you for this, Austin; you overstimulate me. You work hard to maintain your city’s official slogan “Keep Austin Weird” by tantalizing me with the bizarre, the off-beat, and you keep peaking my curiosity. And now that you have recently been named the best place to live in America by U.S. News and World Report, there will be no stopping you.

As I reflect on my first year of living here, it’s been a great ride, made up of interesting experiences that I am not sure could or would have happened anywhere else:

Central Market
On arrival, we need to get our bearings and Mr. Wiz* has a plan. Having visited a Central Market in Houston (shop at this gourmet marketplace on steroids, then dance to live music at night), he logically reasons that locating the Austin store will lead us to a great neighborhood, so he’ll ask at their information desk. Pointing out that the staff may be more prepared to locate a product by aisle than to relocate us, I decide to wait in the car. A few minutes later, I am surprised to see a woman in a cowboy hat and boots walk out of the store with Mr. Wiz and shake his hand. He had seen her on line at the information desk and perused her shopping cart. Noticing an excellent wine selection, he decided to ask her where we should live. He was not surprised at all that she enthusiastically lauded her neighborhood and pointed him in the direction of a new building. We signed a lease there 2 days later.

Pints and Poses
The Hyatt Hotel and I have accomplished the impossible; we got Mr. Wiz* to attend a monthly yoga class. Studies have proven that if you offer a guy a free beer, he will happily execute a downward dog pose, no questions asked. In the spirit of community (turns out that yoga and beer are great conversation starters), the hotel offers complimentary parking, a yoga class and a glass of craft beer.

Chicken S**t Bingo
The unassuming Little Longhorn Saloon is a tiny place that looks more like a church with a steeple than a bar. The band is loud, the beer is cold and the place is packed, both inside and out. It’s a Sunday afternoon and my family is still shocked that this was my birthday destination of choice. I explain to them that this is a famous venue and we’re going to be experiencing a bit of the original Austin. While we visit the chickens and chat with Ginny, “the chicken whisperer”, we learn that the afternoon will include “chickens, chicken feed and what happens after chickens eat.” The $2 ticket has a number on it and will get you one chance on the giant plywood bingo table. I’m sure that these chickens have their SAG cards; they are real professionals. They strut around the table, working the room into a cheering frenzy. As luck would have it, the chicken leaves her “mark” on my number and I am the winner of $115 in cash!

Keep Austin Weird Festival
We had so much fun last year volunteering to assist with the 5K check in, that we decide to do it again. Known as the “Slowest 5K Race on the Planet”, everyone is welcome to participate and a bizarre costume will win you a prize. Young, old, babies in strollers and dogs all strut their stuff and stop along the way at different stations for beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), ice cream and activities. At the festival, I cheered on aardvarks as they raced and chatted with a woman in a mermaid costume, who explained the story of her tattoos to me.

Weird Homes Tour
I am very excited for tour day to come and even more so now, since I am the winner of 2 VIP tickets that include the tour and the after party. By the end of the day, we will have driven 90 miles all over Austin, investigating homes that range from a bucolic wonderland in a nature preserve, with quotes from Emily Dickinson poems written over the doorways and pastoral views out every French door to a series of domes lovingly pieced together into an artist’s retreat, rumored to have special healing powers to a traditional home on the outside and a Feng Shui inspired home on the inside with a red velvet lounge room and a royal blue cosmic room featuring a 100” flat screen TV (most guys did not get past this point and just stood, gaping at the TV).

The owners of the next group of homes, self-confessed pack rats, delighted in the fact that they were living in a never to be completed work of art. Whether it was a police car hood with working sirens on the ceiling, doll heads under glass, a wall of salt and pepper shakers, a lamp made from a 1950’s salon hair dryer or a hollowed-out armadillo containing guest washcloths, each treasure had a story. Chatting with the enthusiastic homeowners, who were so warm and welcoming, I left the day wondering if there was any room in my perfectionist personality for a little eccentricity. Sensing Mr. Wiz’s concern over the souvenirs I collect during the day, I ease his worries and announce that I am not adopting hoarding tendencies any time soon.

We arrive at Indra’s Awarehouse for the after party. It’s a large metal roofed warehouse, filled to the brim with the owner’s art and collections of oddities. The surreal setting is right out of a Fellini film: a barefooted band plays on a carpeted stage; as if on cue, a dog drops a deflated ball at the feet of guests, prompting them to throw it on to the stage for him to chase; scantily dressed acro-yoginis glide up yards of silk fabric and perform above our heads. A cocktail seems in order, even though the professionally dressed bar staff looks out of place. We laughingly imagine that this is probably just another day for the owner; waking up to coffee in the morning and greeting some hangers-on at the bar (with bar staff still in uniform) and waving to the overhead performers that continue all day long. Hungry, we peruse the snacks. While, protein is always welcome, tonight it is in the form of bags of flavored crickets and mealy worms. We grab some regular popcorn and eagerly await some daring guests to taste them and offer a critique. We learn from the more adventurous that anything crunchy with a BBQ flavor is edible after some of Austin’s handmade Tito’s Vodka.

Austin, you give me the same feeling that I experienced whenever my grandmother would open her coat and let me snuggle in with her. You opened up your big, warm, wonderful, weird arms to me. Your people are so friendly and so welcoming. Sure, the temperature heats up, but living here makes me feel so cool. You have that big city vibe with the twang of Texas mixed in. You seem to bring out the best in me and I feel like this is where I am supposed to be. I only hope I can continue to do my civic duty and generate the accepted level of weirdness.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

Doing the Big D with Big A  

Photo Big D

Happy Birthday, Big A*!

One month after his 28th birthday, our Bon Vivant was finally going to be at home for a weekend, so we (Mr. Wiz*, JC* and I) head to Dallas to celebrate. We take our festivities seriously; after much research and many emails and texts, we come up with our food-centric itinerary. Here are some of the weekend’s highlights:

Friday

The driving rain on our arrival does not deter us and we opt for a visit to the Dallas Museum of Art. We’re already impressed that the general admission is free, but then Jack, the elderly greeter at the entrance, quickly sizes us up, suggests we go see the Coco Chanel exhibit and we are transfixed. Five rooms from Coco Chanel’s Monaco home, Villa Pausa, have been painstakingly recreated in the museum. Once she married the Duke of Westminster, this was to be their home. When plans changed, she kept the house, but always felt a twinge of sadness for what could have been. When she finally did sell it, the home was reborn when Dallas art collectors, Emery and Wendy Reves renovated it and hosted their most famous guest, Winston Churchill, who adopted it as his second home. Investigating all the nooks and crannies and reading all the personal letters and detailed descriptions of their lives there made for a lovely afternoon.

Big A’s furniture looks great in his new apartment. I particularly like his bedroom barn door. He surprises us with hors d’ oeuvres and serves us our favorite wine. A few toasts later, we’re off to Stampede 66 for dinner. We enjoy the braised beef short ribs and honey fried chicken as we peruse the décor, a mix of Texas whimsy and sophistication. Metal horse sculptures surround the TV monitors that feature a rodeo. I’m fascinated by a wall of wooden plaques with the names of Texas towns such as Looneyville and Dicey.

Saturday

It takes a lot to get Big A up and out early on a Saturday, so we are all in when he suggests we meet at 10:15am to stand in line for lunch at the Pecan Lodge. When lines started to form at their farmer’s market stall, the young business couple turned caterers knew they had an award-winning barbeque recipe and opened a restaurant. We eat a little of almost everything on the menu and agree the collard greens are the best we’ve ever had. Fortified, we walk around Deep Ellum, the revitalized warehouse district now full of shops, bars, restaurants and music venues.

With Big A as our guide, we get a tour of Dallas. Most people still remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot and the big X on the street, marking the spot brings back a flood of memories. We play classical music on the radio as we drive through the Turtle Creek and Highland Park neighborhoods to view the mansions.

Leave it to JC to be the life of the party when she announces that in honor of Big A’s birthday, we will be having cocktails at the Petroleum Club, a private club on the 39th floor of Chase Tower. How did she make this happen? It all started the month prior, when she danced with a spry, 90 year-old retired doctor who mentioned the Austin Club, a private social club housed in a historic building in downtown Austin. Before you could say “sign-me-up”, JC had researched the club, texted me to see if Mr. Wiz and I were available for a complimentary lunch and a tour of the facility (we were!) and then proceeded to join. Now, as a member, she receives reciprocal privileges at dozens of clubs across the country.

The evening continued with dinner at St. Martin Wine Bistro, named one of the top 10 most romantic restaurants by Trip Advisor. We dined on grilled rack of lamb under a twinkling chandelier as we listened to the live piano music and toasted to a great day.

Sunday

According to D Magazine, we are brunching at one of the best spots in Dallas. Boulevardier is a French bistro, simple in décor but complex in flavors. I still dream about the 2 dishes that JC and I shared: the Prospector’s Breakfast (crispy oysters and arugula atop an open face omelette made with house-made bacon) and the Legs and Eggs (a crispy duck leg with sunny-side-up eggs served on stone ground grit cakes with huckleberry preserves). Not wanting to miss anything in this eclectic neighborhood, we head out for a walk in the historic Bishop Arts District. The store displays are so incredible, we’re not surprised when signs ask that no photos be taken.

There is work to be done, so we head back to Big A’s. Mr. Wiz helps Big A hang some pictures, while JC and I head to the pool to relax. The boys find us one hour later, sound asleep in the shade. It’s Big A’s first time at the pool and I sense a look of panic on his face when I tell him that I’d be happy to introduce him to all of his neighbors that I’ve met (Millennials, no sense of humor!).

We head out on foot to explore Big A’s neighborhood, Knox-Henderson. The area is bustling; every restaurant, bar and shop is busy! Not sure if JC will want to climb all the stairs to a rooftop bar, I discreetly ask the waiter is there is an elevator (there isn’t). It’s then that I notice JC, who has already sprinted up the staircase, yelling down to ask me if I am all right. Big A is determined to have me taste a drink he thinks that I will love and by the end of the day, Deep Eddy Red Grapefruit Vodka (made in Austin), club soda and lime is my new fav.

Our dinner reservation is at a neighborhood restaurant, right down the block. Gemma has received rave reviews for the husband and wife team’s concept of sophisticated dining in a relaxed atmosphere. The blue and white décor combined with the professional wait staff’s control over the dining room create a tranquil setting. We liked the braised rabbit pappardelle and the chicken porchetta the best and were glad we shared 3 entrees (our secret for not overeating).

We say goodbye to Big A and head out of Dallas the next morning, determined to eat only lettuce leaves and ramp up our workouts for the next couple of days. We know we’ll be hungry for another visit soon. There are still lots of restaurants and sights we missed this time around and we want to check them off our list before Big A moves again.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

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Porto, Portugal: Oct. 22-25, 2016

 

Photo Porto 2

The Pilgrims do not seem to want to go home. Most are leaving Santiago and heading out in all directions. We are going to Porto by bus to meet up with JC* and Big A* and are anxious for our reunion.

Porto is one the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s location on the Douro River and its hilly streets (more days of inclines and descents!) make it an interesting city to explore.

We travel well together. Big A and I are armed with all the research we’ve done. I especially like the New York Times 36 hour city guide that Big A has provided. Oh, and he surprises us by being able to speak just enough Portuguese to get by (says it’s very similar to Spanish, so he brushed up using the free Duo Lingo app.). Mr. Wiz* is in charge of getting us where we want to go and JC provides the spunk and enthusiasm (she is first one up and ready each day).

You can always count on the NH Hotels for a trendy vibe and the NH Collection Porto Batalha delivers. I particularly like the ancient stone arches that grace the modern lobby and the old postage stamp theme in the elevators and on the carpeting. On arrival, we are given coupons for a port wine tasting in the bar. This will be the start of a wonderful relationship between us, the bar and the port, every night after dinner.

Those inclines and descents really help us work up an appetite and we foodies can’t decide what we like the best: bacalhau (salted codfish), grilled pulpo (octopus), cabrito (baby kid), suckling pig or Portuguese sausages. One of the more interesting meals was lunch at Pastel De Bacalhau. There was only one item on the menu: a large, egg shaped codfish fritter stuffed with cheese served in a plastic holder inset into what looked like an artist’s palette with room for your glass of white port and your thumb, so you could carry it all with one hand.

We stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the Ribeira District, the old quarter on the Duoro riverbanks, the beautiful gardens at the Palacio de Cristal and the Avenida dos Aliado, a lively avenue. We visit the Livaria Lello & Irmao Library, named the most beautiful bookstore in the world and rumored to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the Do Porto Cathedral, we delight in the story that a local resident painted the altar to hide its silver, so that when Napoleon and his troops entered the city to pillage it, they left it behind never realizing it was there.

The Pilgrims do not seem to want to go home. Most are leaving Santiago and heading out in all directions. We are going to Porto by bus to meet up with JC* and Big A* and are anxious for our reunion.

Porto is one the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s location on the Douro River and its hilly streets (more days of inclines and descents!) make it an interesting city to explore.

We travel well together. Big A and I are armed with all the research we’ve done. I especially like the New York Times 36 hour city guide that Big A has provided. He surprises us by being able to speak just enough Portuguese to get by (says it’s very similar to Spanish, so he brushed up using the free Duo Lingo app.). Mr. Wiz* is in charge of getting us where we want to go and JC provides the spunk and enthusiasm (she is first one up and ready each day).

You can always count on the NH Hotels for a trendy vibe and the NH Collection Porto Batalha delivers. I particularly like the ancient stone arches that grace the modern lobby and the old postage stamp theme in the elevators and on the carpeting. On arrival, we are given coupons for a port wine tasting in the bar. This will be the start of a wonderful relationship between us, the bar and the port, every night after dinner.

Those inclines and descents really help us work up an appetite and we foodies can’t decide what we like the best: bacalhau (salted codfish), grilled pulpo (octopus), cabrito (baby kid), suckling pig or Portuguese sausages. One of the more interesting meals was lunch at Pastel De Bacalhau. There was only one item on the menu: a large, egg shaped codfish fritter stuffed with cheese served in a plastic holder inset into what looked like an artist’s palette with room for your glass of white port and your thumb, so you could carry it all with one hand.

We stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the Ribeira District, the old quarter on the Duoro riverbanks, the beautiful gardens at the Palacio de Cristal and the Avenida dos Aliado, a lively avenue. We visit the Livaria Lello & Irmao Library, named the most beautiful bookstore in the world and rumored to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the Do Porto Cathedral, we delight in the story that a local resident painted the altar to hide its silver, so that when Napoleon and his troops entered the city to pillage it, they left it behind never realizing it was there.

Before we know it, it’s time to head to Lisbon by train.

 

Pictured: view from the Duoro riverbank

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Porto, Portugal: Oct. 22-25, 2016

 

 

The Pilgrims do not seem to want to go home. Most are leaving Santiago and heading out in all directions. We are going to Porto by bus to meet up with JC* and Big A* and are anxious for our reunion.

 

Porto is one the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s location on the Douro River and its hilly streets (more days of inclines and descents!) make it an interesting city to explore.

 

We travel well together. Big A and I are armed with all the research we’ve done. I especially like the New York Times 36 hour city guide that Big A has provided. Oh, and he surprises us by being able to speak just enough Portuguese to get by (says it’s very similar to Spanish, so he brushed up using the free Duo Lingo app.). Mr. Wiz* is in charge of getting us where we want to go and JC provides the spunk and enthusiasm (she is first one up and ready each day).

 

You can always count on the NH Hotels for a trendy vibe and the NH Collection Porto Batalha delivers. I particularly like the ancient stone arches that grace the modern lobby and the old postage stamp theme in the elevators and on the carpeting. On arrival, we are given coupons for a port wine tasting in the bar. This will be the start of a wonderful relationship between us, the bar and the port, every night after dinner.

 

Those inclines and descents really help us work up an appetite and we foodies can’t decide what we like the best: bacalhau (salted codfish), grilled pulpo (octopus), cabrito (baby kid), suckling pig or Portuguese sausages. One of the more interesting meals was lunch at Pastel De Bacalhau. There was only one item on the menu: a large, egg shaped codfish fritter stuffed with cheese served in a plastic holder inset into what looked like an artist’s palette with room for your glass of white port and your thumb, so you could carry it all with one hand.

 

We stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the Ribeira District, the old quarter on the Duoro riverbanks, the beautiful gardens at the Palacio de Cristal and the Avenida dos Aliado, a lively avenue. We visit the Livaria Lello & Irmao Library, named the most beautiful bookstore in the world and rumored to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the Do Porto Cathedral, we delight in the story that a local resident painted the altar to hide its silver, so that when Napoleon and his troops entered the city to pillage it, they left it behind never realizing it was there.

 

Before we know it, it’s time to head to Lisbon by train.

 

Pictured: view from the Duoro riverbank

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Porto, Portugal: Oct. 22-25, 2016

 

 

The Pilgrims do not seem to want to go home. Most are leaving Santiago and heading out in all directions. We are going to Porto by bus to meet up with JC* and Big A* and are anxious for our reunion.

 

Porto is one the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s location on the Douro River and its hilly streets (more days of inclines and descents!) make it an interesting city to explore.

 

We travel well together. Big A and I are armed with all the research we’ve done. I especially like the New York Times 36 hour city guide that Big A has provided. Oh, and he surprises us by being able to speak just enough Portuguese to get by (says it’s very similar to Spanish, so he brushed up using the free Duo Lingo app.). Mr. Wiz* is in charge of getting us where we want to go and JC provides the spunk and enthusiasm (she is first one up and ready each day).

 

You can always count on the NH Hotels for a trendy vibe and the NH Collection Porto Batalha delivers. I particularly like the ancient stone arches that grace the modern lobby and the old postage stamp theme in the elevators and on the carpeting. On arrival, we are given coupons for a port wine tasting in the bar. This will be the start of a wonderful relationship between us, the bar and the port, every night after dinner.

 

Those inclines and descents really help us work up an appetite and we foodies can’t decide what we like the best: bacalhau (salted codfish), grilled pulpo (octopus), cabrito (baby kid), suckling pig or Portuguese sausages. One of the more interesting meals was lunch at Pastel De Bacalhau. There was only one item on the menu: a large, egg shaped codfish fritter stuffed with cheese served in a plastic holder inset into what looked like an artist’s palette with room for your glass of white port and your thumb, so you could carry it all with one hand.

 

We stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the Ribeira District, the old quarter on the Duoro riverbanks, the beautiful gardens at the Palacio de Cristal and the Avenida dos Aliado, a lively avenue. We visit the Livaria Lello & Irmao Library, named the most beautiful bookstore in the world and rumored to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the Do Porto Cathedral, we delight in the story that a local resident painted the altar to hide its silver, so that when Napoleon and his troops entered the city to pillage it, they left it behind never realizing it was there.

 

Before we know it, it’s time to head to Lisbon by train.

 

Pictured: view from the Duoro riverbank

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Camino: Oct. 17 – 21, 2016

                                                 photo-parador

Oct. 17- Palas de Rey: 16 miles, six hours

The path is nothing but mud and it’s drizzling. I’m sweating in my rain jacket and trudging along. A fellow pilgrim, a lovely older woman traveling alone catches up to me and with a sparkle in her eyes, says “What a beautiful morning! I love the mist. It changes the entire perspective of the landscape.” As I’m listening to her, I unzip my jacket, pull down my hood and the light drizzle instantly cools me off. By the time she goes on her way, I’m feeling great and the rain has already stopped.

We’re up and down again, walking right through farms and past lovely old stone farm houses, catching a glimpse of daily life: an old woman humming to herself as she hangs laundry; a farmer out in the pasture tending his sheep; a woman picking raspberries who stops to offer us some; the cows lazily grazing in the fields; the dogs sleeping in the sun. I find I have acquired a new skill and though it may not be resumé material, it’s interesting to note: I am now able to differentiate an animal’s manure by its smell.

I laugh to myself as I coin a new phrase: “In Spain, what goes up, must come UP”! Walking in the forest always seems a bit mystical, especially the way the light plays on and around the trees, lined up in exact rows. The scent of the eucalyptus trees is even stronger when we crush some leaves in our hands.

The outside tables are still wet in the little taverna when we stop for a cold drink. A fellow pilgrim is wiping off his table with a rag from the owner and when he sees us, he wipes off ours too. I pass on the kindness by wiping the table for some other pilgrims that sit at the next table. It’s a small gesture, but speaks to the feeling of community.

The Pensión Palas is simple, modern and clean, but the town seems old and rundown. The big excitement of the evening is that I am served rice with my dinner, rather than the ever-present french fries.

Oct. 18- Castañeda: 13 and one-half miles, six and one-half hours

The temperature is in the high 60s and cloudy; perfect walking weather. We’re up and down, through forests, farmlands and towns. It seems it will be a fairly uneventful day until we come to a river. The bridge is made up of boulders covered in mud. I take a minute to access the route and see I have no choice. I feel more confident with my poles, until I realize that the last two boulders narrow and the poles won’t fit. I panic for a second, but tell myself I have to keep moving forward; other pilgrims are behind me and there’s nowhere else to go. It takes all I’ve got in me to slowly make my way to the end. I’m amazed at my newfound grit and it gives me a spring in my step.

Casa Garea, our Casa Rural for the evening, is located at the beginning of town on the main road. The shoulder is narrow on the road and the cars are zooming by at breakneck speeds. Our only option is to walk through a big field. Our boots are sinking into the fresh dirt, making the walking more difficult. On arrival, the owner greets us and asks if we enjoyed the walk through the forest. We realize that we were too quick to get off the pilgrim path; a few kilometers ahead there was a sign that would have led us right to our destination. Lesson learned: always refer to our map.me app. (which requires no internet connection), especially when tired.

The room is cozy with wooden beams on the ceiling and white, starched linen curtains on the windows. After we freshen up, the owner brings in some wood for the fireplace and we sit in the downstairs sitting room with a glass of wine and relax. It’s not that cold out, but the warmth of the fire feels good. We make sure not to fall asleep and miss dinner.

Oct. 19- Pedrouzo: 16 miles, 6 and one-half hours

I spend my morning saying a prayer for each of the pilgrims that we pass that are not well but keep plodding along: five limping; three with food poisoning; and one with an intestinal virus. I am humbled by their strength and determination and feel a bit guilty that I have made it to this point unscathed; me, with the weak stomach, who always thought of myself as clumsy. I want to hug them and tell them how much I admire them, but each of them seems to be in a type of meditative state, some even wincing with every step. “Buen Camino,” the usual greeting, does not seem appropriate. All I can think of is to give them a thumbs-up as I pass them by.

Pensión LO is brand-new, all white and very modern, but the room has one design flaw: there are no shelves or closets! We balance what we’ll need for the evening on our backpacks and hope for the best. There’s lots of traffic in this town, but it looks a bit old and bleak, so we head back to the Camino path to find a restaurant for dinner. After some hugs and catching up, a friend we run into suggests the place she’d just dined at. It’s very contemporary, with a wooden communal table in the middle and shelves lined with gourmet foods; it looks so out of place. The food is good and the service is slow, but the wine is served right away and we are entertained by a mother and her 15-year old precocious son from Finland traveling the Camino together.

Oct. 20- Santiago: 13 miles, five hours

It feels like Christmas morning! We’re up early and excited to get going, but the sun has yet to rise. It’s still dark when we head out, but we only need the flashlight for a few minutes. The path takes us through some suburban towns, past the airport and alongside some roads, with just enough inclines and descents to make us realize that just because it’s our last day of walking does not mean it will be an easy one.

All that’s separating us from entering Santiago is a bridge. As we draw closer, we notice that it’s an old, depilated, wooden bridge with missing, uneven slats. The guard rails are unusually low, so as the traffic speeds by both beside us and below us, it gives us the sensation of Vertigo. We try to focus on walking exactly down the middle, keep our heads down and watch every step we take as quickly as we can.

We’re standing in front of the Santiago city sign, but after what it took to get here, it seems like a bit of a lackluster greeting. Besides the sign to welcome us, there is a gas station and a row of restaurants. It takes another hour to get to the old section of the city. Just when we feel our energy waning, some local residents assure us we are almost there and give us a thumbs-up.

As we approach, we hear the faint sound of bagpipes. There’s a musician dressed in a cloak and a feathered hat playing in the tunnel. As we exit the tunnel, the Cathedral comes into full view, sparkling in the sunlight. Now that’s the dramatic welcome we were hoping for!

We hug longer than usual and both get teary eyed. Amongst the tourists who quite don’t know what to make of this, the Plaza de Obradoiro (known as the “golden square”) is full of pilgrims hugging, chatting, taking group photos, sitting cross legged in groups or just laying down on the ground in the sun around the Cathedral.

It’s time for lunch and we agree that some wine might be necessary to celebrate and to help us to sort out our emotions. We’re so grateful for a safe journey and not sure how we feel. Are we elated to have arrived or melancholy that it’s over?

We’re splurging and staying at the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, the famous five star parador (see photo at top of page). Paradores are a hotel network of government owned, restored historical buildings throughout Spain. This massive structure was originally a hospital built in 1499 by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (hence, the hotel’s name) and is said to be the oldest hotel in Europe. We explore every corner of the four courtyards, the church and the sitting areas. We read every historical sign that tells the story of each area and makes it come to life.  Our room is a lovely retreat with a feeling of Old World Spain that looks out onto one of the courtyards.

Santiago is a vibrant city with a bit of a carnival atmosphere, due in part to the large number of pilgrims descending on it each day. Streets filled with shops, restaurants and outdoor cafes twist and turn into narrow passageways that open to small plazas.

We had befriended a pilgrim couple early on in the walk and talked of sharing a celebratory dinner in Santiago in the hotel dining room. With the reservation now made, we now realize that our pilgrim clothes might not be suitable and some shopping might be in order. We laugh and wonder if we will recognize each other, all cleaned up. As we head back to the hotel, we join a group of fellow pilgrims for a celebratory drink. It’s a lovely evening enhanced by the gourmet dinner and the wonderful company. We end the evening with a toast to the continuance of our newfound friendship.

Oct. 21: Santiago

All Camino routes end at Santiago’s Cathedral where Saint James, the patron Saint of Spain, is buried. We head to the Cathedral early in order to get a seat for the noon Pilgrims’ Mass, a pilgrim tradition. We are disappointed that we are no longer able to place our hand on the column in the inner portico as a mark of gratitude for a safe arrival. After millions of pilgrims wore finger holes in the solid marble over time, the area is now covered by a protective barrier. The highlight of the Mass is the swinging of the Botafumeiro, a giant incense burner (featured in the movie “The Way”). It was originally used to fumigate the dirty and disease-ridden pilgrims. The eight attendants start pulling up and down until it swings as high as the ceiling. We lift our heads to follow it and realize it is right over our heads; a strange feeling.

Next, we head to the Pilgrims Office to obtain our Compostelo Certificate of Completion. All along the route, we have obtained stamps from hotels, restaurants, churches, etc. on our Pilgrim Passports, denoting what towns we visited. From Sarria on, we were required to obtain two stamps a day. The 45 minutes fly by as we compare notes with fellow pilgrims. We run into some pilgrims and agree that a last glass of wine together is in order. It’s hard to say goodbye…

Since I’ve arrived in Santiago I have not slept well. All the sights and sounds of the last 35 days are swirling around in my head and I am trying to sort them out. It is said that the Camino is divided into three parts. The first is physical, as your body gets used to the grueling daily regimen. The second is mental, as you walk the flat, somewhat boring paths of the meseta. The last is spiritual, as you near Santiago and the end of your long journey.

The Camino books and YouTube videos tell stories of pilgrims experiencing some sort of spiritual epiphany and I am hoping that I am one of them, but as I analyze each day and experience nothing comes to mind. I open our Camino book and start to flip through it, not sure why. We have owned this book for over a year and have referred to it many times throughout each day, but for some reason I have never turned to the last page until now. The words of a poem by Marianne Williamson (made famous by Nelson Mandela in his freedom speech) make the hair on my arms stand up on end and bring tears to my eyes. My spiritual gift was waiting for me in those last pages:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our Light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking.
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the Glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our Light shine,
We consciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

photo-lm