Underneath Your Clothes

I never see naked people.

I don’t remember when it was that I started keeping my eyes peeled in the hopes of seeing flashers or exposed body parts in public. I became intrigued by the lack of modesty in others, in great contrast to maintaining my own modesty. I’ll be the first to layer a camisole under a V-neck blouse, because, well – you never know. Whether years of Catholic schooling or something else entirely is to blame for my decorum, you just won’t find me out and about in my birthday suit. Instead, I try to find people that are out and about in theirs…

Memory serves that my quest to find naked people may have begun in England. While we were still dating, my British husband John told me the slightest hint of sunshine brings his fellow countrymen out in droves. They descend upon green spaces and laze upon the grass to tan English rose complexions in whatever glimmer of rays mights be shining down upon them. Some of the women, John added matter-of-factly, are probably topless. So, I’d scan the fields of sun-soakers but it was always to no avail – I never laid eyes upon any half-naked sun-worshippers.

In Britain, you didn’t need a copy of Playboy to find photographs of nudity. Images of bare-breasted women were readily obtainable Monday through Friday for less than 50 cents in newspapers “The Sun” and “The Star.” For more than 40 years, the “Page Three Girls” as they were known were as much a part of the British culture as fish and chips. And yes, there were also the naked torsos and skimpy skivvies of the “Page Seven Fellas” on display. Alas, the fellas, not nearly as popular as their female counterparts, only lasted about seven years.

It was April 2007 and we were back visiting John’s family in England for the first time since we’d been married. One night, my mum-in-law told me about Studland, a village and beach on the Dorset coast. Turns out Studland is the best-known official naturist beach in Britain and there was no question I had to see it for myself. We took full advantage of the car we rented and drove off to the coast. Again, this was April in England. The spring air must have been too cold for even the naturists. There were a handful of beachgoers out and about, all of them sadly clothed. Disappointed, all I could do was take a photo next to the sign advising I might encounter naturists. Naturists, I was ready for you. The naturists may not have been ready for me. There were none in sight.

the Cerne Abbas Giant

the Cerne Abbas Giant

On the way home from Studland, we stopped in the village of Cerne Abbas. Here a formidable nude male figure is carved into the hills of the Dorset chalk downs. At over 180 feet tall, the Cerne Abbas Giant or Rude Man is an impressive sight to behold – and the only nudity I saw that day.

So it continued. Where naked people appeared, I was absent, distracted or unawares.

It was fourth of July 2008 weekend. John and I boarded a fast ferry from Boston and jetted off to Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod for the day. After exploring P-Town and taking a tour, we walked back down to the beach. While I always appreciate the beauty of Chicago situated on Lake Michigan, it was so much more exciting to be by the ocean! We splashed in the water and returned to our spot in the sand.

“Take a picture of me on the beach!” I commanded of John.

Several pose adjustments and snaps later, he put away the camera after I gave my resigned approval of the photo he took. Strolling back into town, John confessed that it was tricky business taking my beach photo. “Why?” I asked.

The girl behind me had been sunbathing topless and John didn’t want her to think he was taking a picture of her.

I stared at him. Topless girl and I didn’t see her?! I made it explicitly clear that moving forward, John would be expected to send up smoke signals should another naked person be in his line of vision and not mine. Or, I proposed we develop a secret code so I wouldn’t be left out. I couldn’t believe he’d seen her and I hadn’t. She was right behind me!

It was 10 degrees below 0 one pre-dawn morning in February and John was on the Chicago “L” headed to the airport. The train pulled into a station and a woman, unfortunately not of sound mind, boarded John’s train car and sat down. It took a moment for him to register that she was completely stark naked. Thankfully, help arrived rather promptly to bundle the woman up in blankets and wheel her away on a stretcher. Where was I at the time? I was at home, sound asleep and had to be told the story second-hand.

For our 10th wedding anniversary in 2013, John and I cruised to the Caribbean. Dutch St. Maarten was one of the ports of call with the option to also spend time on a beach on the French St. Martin side, just down from Club Orient, a nudist beach resort.

This was my chance! We relaxed on lounge chairs for a bit before leisurely strolling – in our bathing suits – towards the resort.

And…I found my naked people. While the group I came upon happened to be fellow travelers with Royal Caribbean-branded towels and not vacationers from Club Orient, I saw naked people!

A few weeks ago, I told my mama I might write about my encounters – or lack thereof – with naked people. She raised her eyebrows and asked, “why would you want to write about that?”

I shrugged. “Why not? It sounds ridiculous but public nudity fascinates me. I’m in awe of their confidence and the courage it always takes to bare all – be it your flesh or your emotions. I certainly couldn’t bare my flesh, so I’m curious about those who don’t have my same inhibitions.”

Mama wasn’t convinced, but I felt strangely reassured. Even in my 30s, I can still manage to confound my parents.

And, I might add, I’ll still be on the watch for more naked people.

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Wanderlust Queen

I stay on the run/Let me out/Let me be gone – “Wanderlust King” by Gogol Bordello

In January, the restlessness crept into my soul like the tide rolling onto the shore. Once in, there was no turning back and I knew it.

I was just done. I’d had enough of the unending, bitterly cold Midwest winter and the questions about life and the future I couldn’t face or couldn’t answer. I waited for some sort of change, but the change alluded me.

The restlessness took root and I wondered if this time it would never leave me.

I searched for an escape to quash the unsettlement. Where could I go to get away?

Running away somewhere in the world has been my remedy, my lifeline. Traveling, the unease is made easy and the unsettlement settled. Back home afterwards all seems quiet and more like right with my world – enough that I think it might never come back. Who am I kidding? It always comes back.

In my early 20s, I was fortunate to travel a bit in Europe. I was living in London for school and loving it. In England I was a hop, skip and a jump from so many countries and cities I’d only seen on a globe or studied in world history class. Now was my chance to see them for myself and I leapt at the opportunity! I’d make the most out of my four-day weekends with visits to Paris, Scotland, Wales, Switzerland, Ireland and later, 14 days through the continent by train.

My heart hummed with the excitement of discovering all these places and that, for the most part, I traveled and figured things out all on my own. I treasured that independence.

It was after I returned to the States, after my husband John and I got married following more than two years of travel back and forth to England from America that I first became aware of the restlessness. In the subsequent summers, I’d book three or four day camping trips, quick trips to Midwestern destinations like Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. I wanted to show John this country he agreed to call home and it was reassuring to have a plan to get away in June, July and August.

In my 30s now that time of freedom I lived to the fullest potential in my 20s seems so long ago. Worse, I’d seen some of the world but not enough of it and the world felt like it had been shut away from me. I’m held prisoner by both time and resources.

So I say yes when I can.

I said yes to go to Dallas with friends Crystal and Adam in early February. On the day of departure, a furious winter wind off the lake whipped up a frenzy of fat snowflakes. I dragged my suitcase through an inch of white already covering the ground as I trudged to the train. By contrast, the Texas sun was a warm welcome with its rejuvenating rays.

I booked a flight to New York City on the pretense of surprising my friend Alison for her son’s birthday at the end of February.

I dreamed about Mexico and the Riviera Maya. I wanted to see some Mayan ruins, maybe even sit on the beach. I’d never been to Mexico, so why not now?

But Mexico was not meant to be this time. Rather, I booked a trip to Milan, Italy by way of New York City. All told, John (who would be taking the trip with me) and I would be gone for seven days and in Milan for not quite five full days. It seemed ridiculous and extravagant, but wonderfully and awesomely so.

Of course, leading up to the trip, I fretted that it was too far for such little time. In the meticulous amount of research I do before any trip, I tempered my expectations of what I should plan or what we could see and do. Better to be ignorant of what I might be missing out on and silence the cries of “if only we had more time, we could have seen…”

This wouldn’t be my first time in Milan. During that 14-day rail journey through Europe all those years ago, Milan had been the last Italian city I visited before crossing into Switzerland. I spent a little over a day and a night in the city – not nearly enough time to get to know a place, its people and its rhythm. My original assessment of the city said that compared to Venice, Florence and Rome, Milan felt too modern. While I marveled at the Duomo illuminated against the night sky, I didn’t readily praise much else. The fact that it was cold and a little snowy in Milan after coming from Rome which had been in the 70s probably didn’t help. I was also coming to the end of my train excursion then and my existence was ruled by train timetables, train stations, a Kelty backpack and advice from my Let’s Go! guide.

That train trek was meant to give me a taste of the countries I passed through so fleetingly. I always hoped to come back someday and re-visit those places. This trip to Milan gave me the chance to do exactly that.

This second time around, I did it right. In those not quite five full days, we made the most of our time. First, there was the gelato – a religion in and of itself in Italy.

In my daily humdrum life, I have been known to skip a meal or two. When I travel, it’s a different story entirely. I become possessed by what can only be described as a wild-eyed, hunger-crazed crazy lady. On one trip to Des Moines, I made John eat about four meals in one day because I had to visit old haunts from my college days.

Here in Milano, the wild-eyed, hunger-crazed crazy lady had to have as much artisanal gelato as she possibly could. On the day of arrival, we stopped for a scoop at a place in the neighborhood where we were staying. All other days, we ate it twice. Once day, three times. This is Italy. You make room and time for gelato. My wild-eyed, hunger-crazed crazy lady was over the moon.

For those five days, we tried to live like the Milanese. We stayed at a marvelous Airbnb owned by a delightful lady named Ele, rode buses, trams and the Metro, strode alongside canals in the Navigli District, logged at least 15,000 steps a day walking everywhere and getting lost here and there, day-tripped to Lake Como surrounded by the Alps and their peaks drenched in cloud cover and mist, stood breathless before Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” inside Santa Maria delle Grazie and soaked in the city views high atop the rooftop terraces of the Duomo.

On top of the Duomo in Milano

On top of the Duomo in Milano

We sipped Campari cocktails from the Camparino bar in the Vittorio Emanuele II Gallery, drank coffee at Italian coffee bars and relished the happy hour culture of the “aperitivo” – drinks with food included starting around 6 or so in the evening.

And, yes, there were things I wish I could have done, like seeing an opera at La Scala, a football match and a maybe a museum or two. Or seeing the breathtaking Alps on a scenic train from Italy to Switzerland. Next time there will be time.

This time, I learned to appreciate Milan.

Sure it was a whirlwind trip, but I loved every moment of it. Best of all, the world is waiting for when the restlessness returns.

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Love’s Not A Competition, But I’m Winning

It all started with a boy named Brian.

I was in the fourth grade when we were asked to choose a poem or an excerpt, memorize it and recite it in front of the class. Those identified to be the best would present again at the school’s Speech Contest, complete with judges and recognition for first, second and third place. That year, my selection was Shel Silverstein’s “Bear In There,” a poem about a polar bear living in a family’s frigidaire with his seat in the meat and his face in the fish. I was chosen to be one of the representatives at the school’s contest.

So was Brian.

It went on like that in grades five, six, seven and eight. There were always four students per grade but every year, it was always Brian and me. One year Brian won, another year I won, one year we both might have placed.

On two occasions, I employed props: a red mirror and a stuffed pig. The handheld red and gold mirror served as the magic mirror from which I, Belle, looked into to find my father. Seeing him unwell, I implored the Beast to release me so that I could go to him and help. My stuffed pig Henrietta was the chosen stand-in to play the runt of the litter Wilbur, whom I held in my arms and, playing Fern, beseeched my dad to spare Wilbur’s life and prevent him from being slaughtered.

Brian and I didn’t just compete upon the stage. We were academic equals, too. We’d take it in turns to gloat with smug satisfaction whenever we’d learned that one of us had bested the other in History, English or later, Spanish.

This rivalry with Brian was the foundation of my competitiveness. Once unleashed, this streak has known no bounds ever since.

From the perceptively ridiculous…

After years of hiding, I suppressed my fear of being found and created a Facebook account.  Of course, I immediately bemoaned the abysmal number of friends I had in comparison with others. Responding to my discouragement, my friend Ali offered matter-of-factly, “it’s not a competition; it’s a relationship builder.”

I smirked. Nice try, Ali. Everything is a competition.

Except yoga. Yoga is not supposed to be a competition. Everyone practices and progresses at their own pace. Stay in tune with your body and its limitations. What you can expertly do today may be a complete struggle tomorrow. Don’t concentrate on your neighbor. Concentrate on your own breath and where you are at today.

I’ve heard countless yogis speak some variation of those words in every single class. While I appreciate the sentiment and deep down, some part of me wants to believe that the teacher’s words are true, I cannot accept it. I want to be the best and it pains me when my body and my flexibility – or lack thereof – limit me. For a long while, I practiced frequently after work with a friend. I had a few setbacks that prevented me from a regular practice; all the while she thrived and eventually outpaced me in this certain type of acrobatic yoga. I couldn’t ignore the tug of competition pulling me to be better. I stopped practicing not only to heal my broken back, but to search for a way to silence that need to observe everyone else and just be OK with me.

…To both literal and figurative world domination.

I was ready to take over the world. In the company of three friends, I sat cross-legged on the floor of a flat in London, surveying the armies on the board game before me. I’d never played Risk before. In high school it was a group of boys who loved to play; I’d always stayed away. This was my first time playing and I was pleased to realize that I was winning! The thrill of impending victory prompted me to be ruthless in destroying any remaining armies that stood in my way. After I won, Tom, who sat across me, eyed me warily. Risk was his game and I, a newbie, bested him. Our eyes met and an unspoken dialogue passed between us in that moment, a knowing subtext of what made each other tick. I know what your game is. I recognize the competitor in you. You’re my competition. I need to watch out for you. 

The obligatory hole in one victory shot

The obligatory hole in one victory shot

I turn to the map of the world hanging in my kitchen. I’m proud of that map because it reminds me of the places I’ve been and all of the places I still have to visit. The map is marked with black pins for my husband John and pink pins for me. I begrudgingly agreed to add white pins that indicate places we’ve both visited, albeit together or separately. I’m proud of my “crimson tide” as it’s been called, a stronghold in Europe. Since he’s British, I’ll tease John about it. How is it that I, the American, have beat him at his own continent?

I’m fiercely protective of my “crimson tide” of pink pins.

All in a day’s healthy competition, I think.

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Depths of Despair

This past Saturday, I was flipping through my feed on Facebook and stopped the scroll short when I read some sad news: the actor Jonathan Crombie died. He was only forty-eight years old.

If you read that name with a blank stare and quizzical look upon your face wondering “Jonathan who?” then you must not be a girl who fell in love with him as Gilbert Blythe. Anne Shirley’s Gil. Anne of Green Gables.

Anne first came into my life when I pulled a book down from the top row of my bookshelf titled Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. The version I had was a rather large and heavy hardcover edition accented with illustrations complementing the text every few pages. I opened the book and took a chance.

I was immediately captivated by the “Anne girl.”  I will unabashedly admit that she is my favorite literary heroine and childhood role model. I admired her spunk and flare for romanticism and how she could be headstrong and proud, sometimes to her detriment. It felt like she and I were one in the same, or to borrow a phrase from Anne herself,  “kindred spirits” at the very least. As she grew older, she was a teacher with ambitions of being a writer. How my young heart leapt – I wanted to be a writer, too! She taught me about friendship and I longed to have a friend like the one she had with in Diana – a real bosom friend.

Anne became more real to me when her world jumped off the page and onto the television screen. Generally I frown at the books made into movies. If I’ve read the book, I watch the movie skeptically and critically dissect it afterwards. It’s inevitable that something you thought was important in the book is never filmed or lands on the cutting room floor. The actors cast don’t quite align with your vision of the characters as how you imagined them. The screenwriters take liberties with the book text and edit some more. Books into movies are usually a disappointment to me.

However, this live action adaptation of Anne’s story hit all the right notes. It was released in installments and I’d be glued to every episode that aired. In those early days, I seem to remember watching it on the Disney Channel and later it would pop up on PBS when they were collecting for pledges. When it was released on VHS, the box sets were purchased for me: two tapes in each of the two boxes – four glorious tapes – to watch my Anne whenever I wanted. Eventually, two DVDs replaced my four VHS tapes. Regardless of how and where and on what device I watched it, Anne of Green Gables was better than Christmas morning.

Jonathan Crombie was cast as Gilbert Blythe and I was absolutely smitten. It was his mischievousness and charm that reeled me in, while it repelled Anne. Sure he teased her, but he loved her. I loved that they became friends. I loved that he supported her and her ambitions. I hated her for turning him down and saying she didn’t love him. I worried that she might marry someone else. I breathed a sigh of relief when that didn’t happen. My heart broke when Gil appeared to be dying and told Anne that she was always the one. My heart sang when Anne finally came to her senses and tells Gil: “I don’t want sunbursts or marble halls. I just want you.”


I wanted a Gil in my life. The way he pined for my heroine endeared him to me. The adolescent girl I was wanted to have similar experiences, a Gilbert-and-Anne type of romance someday. I shouldn’t be surprised that so many other girls saw Gil as the object of their affections, too. Since Saturday, I’ve read an article from The New Yorker and “25 Times Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables Melted Your Heart” on Buzzfeed.

It’s led me to consider that those carefree childhood days of mine are slipping further and further away. And I’m hoping that I can find some time soon to play those DVDs and lose myself in the world of my heroine Anne Shirley and her love Gilbert Blythe.

My current Anne of Green Gables collection: seven books and two DVDs.

My current Anne of Green Gables collection: seven books and two DVDs.

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Right Field

When you’re nearly six-feet tall, besides the customary “how’s the weather up there” quip, most people assume that you’ve played basketball. When they’re met by your blank stare or the shake of your head, they move on to the next sport and try again: Volleyball?

Unless you count the requisite gym class lessons of flag football, basketball and volleyball I endured from first to eighth grades, I shied away from joining organized sports.

I dreaded the moment when the instruction came to divide into two teams and a captain was named for each. The captains would alternate choosing the classmates they wanted to play on their team. As the classmate waiting to be chosen, I would fervently pray that I was not the last girl standing. Even if I, thankfully, wasn’t picked last, it was still all too easy to read the disappointment in the captain handicapped by me as a teammate. Eight years of repeating the same sports programs – flag football in the fall, basketball in the winter and volleyball in the spring – did little to improve my athletic prowess.

I started dance when I was three. For eleven years, I took ballet then pointe classes as well as tap and jazz. In my heart, I wanted to be the best dancer ever. But greatness alluded me even in the sport I practiced for over a decade. Unaware of how to handle my larger-than-life or larger-than-everyone-else stature at such a precarious age, I was not the prima ballerina I so desperately wanted to be. I was the gangly, ugly duckling and this ugly duckling had no chance of a solo in Swan Lake.

Sara - Crusader

Proof that I was a Crusader for a summer

All this said, my memory is foggy as to the reasons why I voluntarily joined a summer softball league. I managed to stick around for two seasons: the first, wearing a red uniform on a team named the “Blazers” and the second, a blue uniform on the “Crusaders.” You might be thinking to yourself: “Ah, this ugly duckling found her sport!” Bless you if you’re thinking that.

It was not so.

I’d often be marooned in the outfield, particularly right field. You went to the outfield if they didn’t know what to do with you. There were probably only so many innings you could be a bench warmer. In junior high softball leagues, not much happened in the outfield.

Yet one afternoon, I heard the crack of connection from bat and ball at home plate. That ball sailed through the sky and looked as though it was headed straight toward me, or my skull. This was it! This ball was destined to be my moment of glory. I could feel it!

Squinting in the sunlight, I knew what I was supposed to do. I’d lock eyes on that ball and position myself in its trajectory.

“Yes!” This ball and I are one! It is mine!” I screamed gleefully in my mind.

The ball connecting in my glove with a triumphant thud would startle me, but I’d hold on to that ball as tight as I could. I’d raise my mitt in the air, the ball safely cushioned in my palm, and my teammates would shout in delight and excitedly rush toward me. This catch – MY catch – would be the final out in the inning and we, the Crusaders, had held on to our lead. The game was over.

That was how it should have happened.

Here’s how it actually happened.

One afternoon, I heard the crack of connection from bat and ball at home plate. That ball sailed through the sky and looked as though it was headed straight toward me, or my skull. This was it…I’d have to make a play.

Squinting in the sunlight, I found the ball and positioned myself in its trajectory. Or, at the very least, the position where I thought the ball would begin its descent toward the ground.

“I hope I can catch this ball” was the mantra I repeated in my mind, staring at that ball. I hoped for the best.

The best did not come.

Instead of hearing and feeling the triumphant thud of connection from the softball and the mitt, I saw the ball drop, bounce and roll on the ground. I ran after the ball, grabbed it and threw it to the baseline. It was not enough. It was no good. I was no good.

I lost heart after that. When you’re six-feet tall, it doesn’t mean you can play basketball, volleyball or any sport at all.

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California Love

California. The word itself is as smooth as butter, as sweet as honey. It is my Shangri-La. My Bali Hai. Even as a young girl, I thought of California as a unique, special place. Some of my relatives lived there, including my great uncle, his family and my great grandma. I was fiercely proud that I had family out in California. I felt like it set me apart somehow. For years, my grandparents would leave Illinois and drive over 2,000 miles to Oxnard, California where they’d stay for a few months. The atlas they used to highlight their route west is one of my prized possessions.

In my world, all of this added up to make California cool.

As an aspiring actor, by high school I decided California was the place I intended to live. Just before I was to leave for my first year of college, a rare business trip called my dad to Los Angeles. Even rarer still, my brother Dave and I were invited to come, too. I leapt at the chance!

For weeks before the trip, I visited the library and pored over guidebooks, writing down sights I needed to see like Mann’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood High, Pantages, Roosevelt Hotel, Formosa Cafe, Musso & Frank, Capitol Records, Hollywood Walk of Fame. By the time the calendar proclaimed August 6, I could hardly contain my excitement. The fact that Dave and I had to spend the first four hours or so of the trip stuck at LAX waiting for our dad to return from his meeting and pick us up didn’t much matter. It made us more anxious to get outside and explore. Bored, we wandered the entire airport and gazed outside the windows to waiting palm trees and the promise of warm California sun, wondering what treasures lay beyond the panes of window glass.

Our rental car was a Buick Park Avenue. In my mind’s eye, this was the height of luxury. Piling our bags into the trunk, I told my dad, “you are what you drive in LA,” quoting one of the guidebooks. “I am what they give me,” my dad replied in return.

Finally out and about, I was giddy, looking this way and that. I didn’t want to miss a thing! California was even cooler than I imagined. That first evening we drove to the seaside communities of Laguna, Newport and Long Beach. The smell of the salt water and the feel of the ocean breeze wafted through the car, casting a mystical allure. I was already enchanted by it all. Sadly, my dad less so. He wasn’t a fan of the smog and he’d had it up to heaven with the heavy traffic. When we all strolled down the Walk of Fame, I turned to my dad and told him some day, my name will be engraved in one of those stars. He looked at me seriously and teasingly said, “you want people to walk all over you and maybe spit on you?” I sighed. He was exasperating. He didn’t understand.

Five days later it was all over. I said goodbye to Los Angeles but I knew I’d be back.

Circumstances were such that I didn’t move to California after college like I’d intended. I didn’t transfer to a California university either, like I thought I might that Thanksgiving of my freshman year. Rather, it took me 15 years to return.

Always up to travel anywhere, I headed back to LA with my friend Crystal for her bridal shower in 2012. A California native, she took us on a tour of her favorite things for four days. We started with Rubio’s Fish Tacos and then into Hollywood and the surprise of my life. We were in Los Angeles a few days before the Academy Awards telecast. The streets around the Dolby Theatre were blocked, preventing vehicles from driving past, but there was nothing stopping pedestrians. So, I stood on the red carpet! Sure, plastic sheeting still covered it, but it was the red carpet of The Oscars. I stood next to the gold Oscar statues, also protected by plastic. This was the closest I’d come to my dream of going to the Academy Awards. I was on cloud nine. Leaving Hollywood, we stayed at a B&B steps from the ocean on Newport Beach, visited Balboa Island via car ferry, ate at In-N-Out Burger and Del Taco, drove to the desert and took pictures with Joshua Trees. All these years later, the enchantment had not faded.

In the fall of the same year, I was excited to be back in The Golden State, this time in the north, in San Francisco. It was different, but I loved it too, just the same. The redwoods, the beauty of the meandering Pacific Coast Highway, Monterey, Carmel, the bounty of fresh produce, the signs selling seven avocados for a $1, the vineyards – my Shangri-La, my Bali Hai was a fantastical, awesome place, north and south. It was magic.

In Hollywood, June 2014

In Hollywood, June 2014

In June of 2014, I booked a flight to Los Angeles for a quick vacation with my husband John. It was his first time to southern California and I was looking forward to showing it off. This time, we went to Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, a Dodger’s game, Randy’s Donuts, Pink’s, La Brea Tar Pits, Redondo Beach, Hollywood and Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘n Waffles.

In the car back to LAX, John acknowledged that he could see us living there. I just smiled. The enchantment had captured him, too.

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Empire State of Mind

Driving back to Illinois from Maine in the summer of 2012, my heart tugged a little when I saw road signs marking 100 or so miles to New York City. Just one little detour and I’d be there. That’s the trouble with road trips: those markers taunt and tease. It’s only a handful of miles, minutes more in the car to the next destination. Drive a little further, further…drive a little further…

In October of that same year, I went to San Francisco, the third of my three must-visit-soon cities in the States. The time had come to create a new list of three. Should New York City finally make the list?

That summer’s East Coast camping trip was the first time I’d ever been to the state of New York, the drive home the closest I’d ever been to the city. Growing up, camping vacations with my family only brought me as far east as Washington, D.C. It was senior year of college when my ambivalence about New York City established itself. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to visit. A number of the students on my London program called the East Coast, and specifically New York, home. That was fine. What bothered me was their derision towards any other city. They’d turn a deaf ear as I tried to proclaim the merits of Chicago and Los Angeles, equally major cities in their own right: one in the west, one in the middle. But these East Coast inhabitants refused to listen to reason. It was New York, New York and nothing else.

I thought I might visit after graduation, just to see for myself. But after college, I never found the opportunity nor a reason to go.

Until this past summer.

Sometimes it takes your best friend and her family moving to get you to go to a place. So, fifteen years on from London, I was en route to New York City for the first time.

As the plane’s engines roared to life, my anticipation grew. Traveling alone, I was even more excited to navigate the city by myself. I relished the adventure and thrill of impending discovery. There’s never any fear, only a curiosity for the unknown. It would be me and only me exploring this city, deciding which things I should see and which things could wait for next time. For the next four days, it was me versus the Big Apple. Would I love it or hate it? At the end of the four days, I was sure I’d know the answer.

Those September days spent in New York were warm ones. It stayed in the upper 80s all weekend and I was definitely overdressed for that first day. Minutes after I landed at LaGuardia, I thought New York might kill me. Heat blasted form the vents in the cab I hailed to take me to midtown from the airport. I searched for pockets of cooler air to breathe and while the cabbie fussed with the AC dials, he nearly rear-ended the cab in front of us when traffic slowed abruptly. With the accident averted and AC sorted, I could focus my attention out the window to the traffic, the scenery and the most expensive tolls I’d ever seen – $7.50 to cross a bridge. Whoa!

Deposited in Manhattan and armed with the knowledge that for the most part, avenues run north and south and streets run east and west and a time I needed to be back, I was loosed upon the city starting at 3rd Avenue, between 54th and 55th.

As I walked and headed through the Upper East Side, the pulse and pace of the city hummed around me: the hustle, the trash on the front stoop piled higher than I’d even seen in London, the mobile metal kiosks selling sausages, hot dogs, kebabs and ice cream everywhere you turned, union workers spilling onto the sidewalk for a noon meal and just so many people speaking so many languages. Everyone comes to New York, my friend Tim said on the way home to Queens. I believed it.

Selfie in the city, day one in Central Park

Selfie in the city, day one in Central Park

Those days in the city, I wandered Central Park and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, saw Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Plaza, Wall Street, World Trade Center Memorial and CBS Late Show studios. I rode the Roosevelt Island Tramway and the Staten Island Ferry to catch a glimpse of Lady Liberty. I saw my first Broadway show with my best friend Ali and stood steps from James Earl Jones as he excited the theatre and walked past us to get into his town car. I walked the length of the High Line. I took a spectacular two-hour walking tour of Greenwich Village. I ate some New York-style bagels and dined at Serendipity 3 where I indulged in a frozen hot chocolate confection about the size of softball that was apparently designed to be shared but I kept all to myself. Over the weekend we rented a car and headed outside of the city for a little bit of country, fresh air, shopping at one of the best outlet malls I’d been to and apple picking at $25 for a 25-lb bag. No, Dorothy, we’re not in the Midwest anymore.

Then, all too soon the trip was over. Back in Chicago on the ‘L’ ride home, I stared out the window and gazed upon the city as the train snaked its way around the Loop. I’d always been proud of this city and defended it fiercely against the East Coast naysayers. I would still defend it but I realized that my perception of it had altered. The city seemed a little smaller, but with wide streets, quiet trains, and alleys for dumpsters to contain all that trash. This city is so clean! I’m not sure I ever realized it before.

I thought about New York. There were parts I liked and other parts I liked considerably less. I’m not sure it’s the concrete jungle where my dreams can come true, but it’s one concrete jungle I’ll be visiting again soon.

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