Travel–Times Two

In February, my mother called to tell me a surprise party was being thrown for my grandmother’s 90th birthday the following month. It was to take place in New York, where she lives. That meant, in order to attend, I would have to hop a plane or drive twelve hours.

I called my boyfriend, Michael. “So Grandma is turning 90 and they’re having a surprise party, so I’m going to New York that weekend, whether you go or not.”

“Do you want me to come?” he asked.

“Well, yeah, but I don’t want you to feel like you–”

“Then ask me like you want me to be there!” he said.

So I started again. “Hi Michael. My mother just called and told me Grandma’s surprise birthday party is on March 22nd. How about we go up to New York that weekend?”

“That would be great,” he said. Since he had lived in New York City for nearly ten years and had talked about going back for a visit, we decided to spend a few nights in the city prior to the party, then head up to the mid-Hudson Valley for a few days with my family.

I opened my computer a few hours later and saw quite a few e-mails from Michael. He had already booked our hotel in the city. He had also sent flight options, leaving from the three airports closest to us. And he priced out a rental car. I could have cried I was so happy.

As a woman who has spent the better part of the last fifteen years traveling on her own, having someone else do the planning was monumental.

And it’s not just travel. Men who have a plan for a first date (how about we go to X restaurant at X time?) automatically score lots of points in my book. As a single woman, I have to decide everything in my life, so when someone else makes the choices for me, ah, that’s how I spell r-e-l-i-e-f.

That same joy overtook me again today. After hiking nearly seven miles, my friend and I reached the car. I checked my phone and noticed I had a few messages. Eurail passI opened one from Michael to see a picture of–what? Is that . . . yes, it is! Our Eurail passes! There they were, in his possession, and I didn’t have to do a damn thing to get them there. He has also booked our first month’s apartment in Aix-en-Provence, and checked us in for our upcoming cruise. And has documented all of this in an app we both have on our phones.

Well, now I feel like I’m bragging. And I am, of course. It is a good idea to give thanks for at least five things each day. And Michael is on that list most every day, and for that I am grateful.

Ode to a Porch

I sit on the porch, rain lightly falling around me. The roof over my head, the eaves hanging down, protect me–allow me to sit in the midst of nature, without the threat of bee stings, mosquito bites, or rain. I sit at the table facing one corner–the corner that looks out at the yard next door. The white picket bridge over the creek, a red leafed tree behind it, and beyond that a cherry blossom covered in white blooms.

The rain means outdoor work has stopped, so this afternoon I will not be bothered by the yard workers revving their motors to maintain a lush green lawn that no one ever uses. The renovation on the house across the alley has also stopped, the sounds of their machines replaced by the sound of rain falling into puddles.

I remember when my landlords first showed me this cabin. We entered the living room where a round wooden table dominated one corner. “That’s where you’ll eat during the winter,” my landlady said. I was a bit confused until we got to the porch.

porchI recall last summer spending mornings in the chaise lounge out here, eating a bowl of yogurt and muesli, my glass of water on the green shelf next to me. I didn’t sit at the table mindlessly eating while reading a book. Breakfast was the meal I ate mindfully–or at least tried to.

I recall packing lunches to bring to work, so I could eat quickly in the office, and thereby leave earlier in exchange for taking so little time for lunch. As spring blossomed I realized I needed a break at midday and drove home (a mere two miles) for lunch each day. I had time to cook if I wanted, or I simply took leftovers out to the porch. At the table birds provided my soundtrack, a book my entertainment, with commercial breaks provided by the squirrels.

I recall those work days when my lunch hour just wasn’t enough, when I wished I could spend the whole afternoon out here. Indeed I did on weekends, when I spent entire days moving between the chaise lounge, book in hand, and the kitchen: eating and reading the only tasks on my agenda.

There were entire months I ate every meal on this porch.

“So you’re going to lose the cabin . . .” my mother said when I told her of my plan to head to France for three months.

“Well, yeah. They’re thinking of selling the property in the spring,” which meant I could possibly be given one month’s notice to move anyway.

I was thinking how sad it is to leave this place. Of all the homes I’ve had since leaving my parent’s house, this, by far, has been my favorite. When I first moved in I would often stop what I was doing to reach out and lay my hand on a log. I loved that I could see so clearly what my house was made of. No insulation or sheet rock hiding its bones.

I realized today marks thirty days until my departure from this place. And today I am trying to change my thinking from “I only have thirty days” to “I have thirty more days!”

Chopped: Rebecca Style

With five weeks left before our departure, I have become just a wee bit obsessed with using up things. Why? Because I don’t want to pack them away for three months and have to deal with them upon my return. Travel-size bottles of lotions swiped from hotels sit upside down on my bathroom shelf. The goal: have none of them left before I go. As I brush my teeth each morning and evening, I silently curse the friend who left a full size tube of toothpaste at my house. I pride myself on being able to live off a travel size one for months at a time. (As I said earlier, just a wee bit obsessed. And perhaps a wee bit crazy.)

But it’s figuring out how to use up the food that brings me the most challenge–and the most fun.

I feel like I’m in my own episode of Chopped–the TV show where three people open up mystery baskets to reveal a seemingly unrelated group of food items they must use to prepare an appetizer, entree, or dessert. One of the best parts of the show is the look contestants give when they see some of the ingredients.

That same look crossed my face when I was handed corn grits as part of my winter CSA share. Having not grown up in the South, I had not the slightest idea what to do with them. I had tried grits a few times in my travels, and found only when combined with goat cheese did I like them. (And that’s not saying much. You can combine anything with goat cheese and I’ll like it.) So this past weekend’s mission was to find something to do with them. With no goat cheese on hand, I thought, How about polenta?

The only time I’ve ever seen polenta made, let alone eaten it, was at a retreat center in Rhode Island where I served as sous-chef under an Italian woman. I remember being quite impressed at how good polenta was, but apparently not impressed enough to try it since then.

I wasn’t even sure corn grits were what one used to make polenta. After entirely too much time on the internet, I learned there is great debate on the merits of using corn grits versus corn meal. Not much debate for me though: all I had were the grits, so I decided to give it a shot.

Making polenta is a bit like making risotto: once you pour the grits into the water, you have to keep stirring. And stirring. For a half-hour my recipe said. “Until you can swipe a spatula through it, and the polenta doesn’t fill back in.” Which actually took fifty minutes.

I pulled the pile of mush off the burner, my arms exhausted. It didn’t look very appetizing, but I wasn’t going to eat it like that anyway. The Italian woman had baked it and then doled out slices of it. So I poured my grainy cake-batter-like substance into a loaf pan, covered it with some Parmesan, and tossed it in the oven.

The recipe warned that it was best to eat it right after it came out of the oven, and not to even think about eating it the next day unless you were going to fry it up in some oil, in which case they said it made one of the best breakfasts you’ll ever have.

So after it finished baking, I cut myself a slice. I wasn’t impressed. I should have known better. If that Italian woman was anything like my own Italian grandmother, she threw in some other things when I wasn’t looking. Darn. I hoped frying a slice in oil the next morning would improve things.

But it didn’t.

So what did I do? What all Italians do with food they don’t necessarily want to eat as is, but don’t want to waste: I dipped a slice in egg, then breadcrumbs, and then fried it up.

Ah, now I was getting somewhere. But I forgot to flavor the breadcrumbs, so there was room for improvement. (Yes, I know one can purchase already-flavored breadcrumbs. And I do. But Grandma Gallo taught me they’re never flavored enough, so we add to it.)

The next day, I cut another slice off the loaf. I added basil, parsley, fresh ground pepper, and a little garlic to the breadcrumbs, and voila. Divinity. A wee bit of polenta covered in fried deliciousness. And Rebecca remains the Chopped champion of her own kitchen.

My Third Thing

“A choice between two things is not a choice. It becomes a fight between right or wrong.” I read the sentence again. As the afternoon sun warmed the page, I pulled out my pen to underline it. I had never thought of it like that. No wonder I hate making decisions.

“We need a third thing, a way to step out of the conundrum.” I pulled my pen across the page again. Natalie Goldberg is brilliant, I thought. I sat on a park bench reading her book, “The True Secret of Writing” hoping to get my creative juices flowing again, and it was working. What I didn’t expect was to have so many life lessons pop out at me.

The chapter went on to explain that this “third thing” is not something that we will come up with. And it won’t present itself overnight. But the idea is that if we open ourselves to the possibility of a third thing, it will show up.

So I got down to writing, as the book instructed. What decision was I struggling with? Work. Duh. Six weeks earlier I quit my job thinking I had the perfect idea of what to pursue next (travel writing) only to find myself stymied. By what? I wasn’t sure. So I looked at other options. And though I had many, it was really a struggle between two lifestyles: that of employee–my work life dictated by someone else–or that of the self-employed.

I barely filled up a page. I had debated this so many times I was sick of hearing myself. I closed the notebook.

Four hours later, my third thing showed up.

Well, let me clarify. Yes, four hours later Michael and I decided we were moving to Europe. But like Natalie described, this decision had evolved over time.

Michael first showed up at my door five months earlier, homemade key lime pie in one hand, a mystery box in the other. Had he shown up empty-handed, I still would have been intrigued because I knew he had just returned from nine months in Central America. The majority of men in my dating pool have settled into a work life, a family life, a home life. I tried to fit into that, but, as my friend Jen said the other day, I am “a beautiful square peg” and I should stop trying to smooth my edges to fit into a round hole. I had a feeling Michael wasn’t a round peg either.

***

I don’t have many regrets in life. In general, I feel like I made the best decisions I could with the information I had. But there is one: I wish I had spent a year living in another country. It was part of my plan. After spending six weeks living with a French-speaking family in Switzerland the summer before my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted more of this experience. I’d heard college was a place where one could do something like this, so instead of doing a “gap year” (taking a year “off” between high school and college to do something incredible), I followed the crowd.

To this day, I can still see the moment my dream crashed and burned: I sat with my parents in the auditorium of Jefferson Hall at the University of Scranton. The fifty of us who had been accepted into the physical therapy program sat with our parents while the chair of the department explained what we was ahead of us. “Does anyone have any questions?” she asked.

I raised my hand. “Can we study abroad?”

She paused and looked at me like I had three heads. She explained the rigorous program, how we were not required to take all the general education courses because we had so many PT courses to take, how we had to start those courses in our junior year. Junior year: the year most students study abroad.

I don’t remember anything else after that. Recalling that conversation still brings tears to my eyes twenty years later.

Michael was twenty-seven when he moved to Paris. He spent three months at the Sorbonne before deciding to move back to New York. He’s regretted it ever since.

What was brewing here was a perfect storm.

***

Michael’s mother planned on him joining the family on a Mediterranean cruise this summer. Since the day I met him, I knew he didn’t want to go, and I understood. We’re not cruise people. If we’re going to visit a place, we’re not going for a day or a week.

Four hours after I finished writing about my two choices, Michael and I sat on the patio of a coffee shop, the sun pouring down. His mother had finally canceled the deposit on his room (or so she said).  But he’d also learned that, now, both his brothers were going. “Well, now it’s becoming a family trip,” I said. “No wonder your mother wants you to go.”

“Are you saying we should go?” he asked.

“We?”

“Of course ‘we.’ You think I’d go without you?” Well, frankly, yes. This was the first time the idea of me going had ever come up. I stumbled over my words. I wasn’t a cruise person either. This wasn’t something I budgeted for when I quit my job.

But I figured the ports in the Mediterranean wouldn’t be the tourist traps I had seen in the Caribbean. And I had frequent flyer miles–enough to get us both to Europe.

“You know, if we’re going to go, we should go earlier,” he said. Yep. If we were going to Europe, we were going for at least a month. Hell, why not a year? And with that, my third choice appeared before me.

————

(Note: Per the Shengen Agreement, we can’t spend more than three months of every six in most of Europe. Unless we buy property there, have a job there, marry a native, etc. So we’re going for three months. At which point we’ll return to the US to attend some family events happening in September and October. And from there, who knows where we’ll go next. What on earth will I do over there? Well, that’s for another post. In short: I’m sure I’ll figure it out.)

 

Being Catholic: A Reason, A Season or a Lifetime?

It is hard to walk a 500-mile pilgrimage trail without thinking about religion. In 2012 (the year I walked the Camino) 93% of pilgrims who arrived in Santiago reported that their reason for walking was, at least in part, religious.

I was part of that 93%. Having been born Catholic, I knew it would always be part of my past, but I had long been wondering: would it be part of my future?

Click here to read more.

A Belated Christmas Gift

Jessica was the second sibling to receive a hand-made crocheted blanket from me. As she pulled her Christmas gift from its wrapping, the family ooh’ed and aah’ed.

“How long did it take you to make that?” Meg, my youngest sister, asked.

“Forty hours,” I said, without hesitation.

“How do you know that?”

“Well, I timed how long it took to make each piece so I knew how much I’d have to do each day in order to finish it in time for Christmas.”

“And at the hourly rate she charges, that blanket is priceless,” my father chimed in. At the time, I was a very-well-paid medical computer systems consultant.

“Well,” Meg said, with a wry smile on her face, “I want a sixty hour blanket.” We all laughed, but a few years later Meg got her wish.

Meg was the first–and last–person I ever said could pick out the blanket they wanted me to make. I handed her a pattern book from which I’d made some afghans previously. She picked a pattern of squares, each with a different color flower in its center.

I started that pattern and grew quite frustrated at how poorly it was written. I then realized that not all the patterns in this book were written by the same person, so though other afghans in the book were not hard for me to figure out, this one was much more challenging.

I finally gave in and told Meg I was sorry, but I couldn’t make the one she picked out. Ever the understanding sibling, she laughed about it and assured me that whatever I made she would be happy with it.

That Christmas morning, Meg pulled her blanket from it’s packaging. After the requisite ooh’s and aah’s, Meg donned her familiar wry smile and asked “So how long did it take you to make?”

“Definitely more than Jessica’s,” I assured her.

“Yessss,” she said, eyeing Jessica.

Some years later, my only brother mentioned he wanted a hand-made blanket from me. I never thought to make him one, let alone imagined he would ever request one.

“But you have one Grandma Gallo made you. And you have the one Grandma Doss had on her couch when we were growing up.”

“But I don’t have one you made,” he said. Jeffrey sure knew how to charm his sisters.

And so it was that I set about finding a pattern for Jeffrey. No flowers. No fringe. Certainly no lacy open-work. The first pattern I picked, once I got started, I found boring. If I was bored making it, I’d surely never finish it. So a mere month before Christmas I decided on a different pattern: the Vortex Afghan.

Looking back now, I wonder what possessed me to try a blanket with such a name. Indeed, I felt sucked into a vortex every time I sat down to work on it. With other afghans, I would eventually have the pattern memorized for having repeated it so much. I could then talk to people and crochet at the same time. But not this one. There was never a part of this blanket I could do without the pattern right beside me. More than once, while attempting to watch television while making the blanket, I had to pull out some of it and start again, having lost where I was.

Even if you don’t crochet, you can appreciate this: Each of the twelve blocks started as a circle, and when I was finished it was a square with a circle inside. Not only that, but each circle has two colors, spiraling around each other.

The pattern was so time-consuming that I knew there was no way to have it finished by Christmas. Though I felt bad, I knew Jeffrey would understand.

Jeffrey has always been the most easy-going of my siblings. The only boy among four girls, he learned early on that the easiest thing to do was step aside and let the girls to their squabbling, their demanding. He would just sit back, take it all in, and every once in a while, when things were getting a little too tense, he would step in and change the subject so smoothly that not a single one of us could pick up on it.

For Christmas, I pinned together the six blocks I had made and wrote Jeffrey a letter explaining the situation:

A Christmas Letter

A Christmas Letter

My parents were due to visit me in Asheville in February and my goal was to have the blanket finished by then so they could bring it back to Jeffrey in New York. On Groundhog Day, I noted on Facebook that I was happy there were six more weeks of winter: that meant there was a chance it would be cold enough for Jeffrey to use his afghan this winter.

By the time my parents arrived, all the blocks were completed but I still had some assembling to do, then a border to complete. While Dad drove us to visit a small town in South Carolina, I sat in the backseat crocheting that border. It was the easiest part of the whole thing.

A Work-in-Progress

A Work-in-Progress

My parents left five days later, the completed blanket taking its place in their car.

Last night, Jeffrey’s fiance texted me a picture of him with his blanket, wrapped around his face like a nun’s habit.

IMG959363

Jeffrey would never say how many hours he wanted dedicated to his blanket. He might think it, but knew better than to say a word to me, the super-sensitive eldest. He didn’t have to, of course. Jeffrey, without having said a word, won the prize.

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

Luck? “I think not,” she says.

I should take showers more often. Not for hygiene reasons (I think life is entirely too short to waste so much of it on such a silly daily ritual). I’d take them more often for this reason only: it’s under that flow of water that I come up with some of my best writing ideas. Tonight, it was this (with apologies for all the hot water wasted because I wanted to keep working on the idea):

Since graduating high school, I have never lived in the same home (or town) more than two years.  I’ve never lived in the same state more  than four. Never held a full-time job longer than sixteen months, a part-time job longer than five years. And this was all by choice.

Long have I wondered if I would ever find “it”: the place, the job, (or, for that matter the spouse) with which I would have a lasting love affair. Conversations with friends  have often centered on this very topic: my (at times exhausting) search for “it.” Ideas about what “it” could be. Where “it” could be. What I’d learned “it” certainly wasn’t.

And then one day I realized (or maybe I read it in a book, or heard it from a friend) that THIS is who I am. Right now, in this moment. It may or may not be my future. But really, who cares dear Rebecca? So what if I never find work I want to do for any length of time. I am, in this moment, someone who finds the idea a little boring. So what if I move every few years? Frankly, the idea often excites me (though my mother will tell you it also very often drives me insane). Because think about it: after just seven months of living in Asheville, I found myself exploring new territory less and less. I had found the places I loved to watched live music, to linger over a good meal with friends, to curl up with a good book. And I didn’t care to search anymore.

But as they (i.e. my mother) say, “The grass is always greener.” When I’m on the road, I often wish for the comfort of knowing exactly the place to go for that perfect meal, that soul-searching conversation, that hip-swaying music. But when I’m in place where I have all of that, my soul starts to whisper, “It’s time.” Time for a trip. Maybe to a new town ten minutes away. Or a country a plane ride away. Or maybe it’s time to move. Or take a sabbatical. 

I have lived a wonderful life, filled with incredible experiences, unforgettable people, some of whom passed through my life for just a moment, others who stuck around a bit longer, and every variation in between. I am damn lucky. Actually, no. As my minister said the other day, “Luck has nothing to do with it.” And a light bulb came on. “You bring into your life that which you put out there.” Oh. My. God.

  • I thought back to the conversation with my mother that very day about the new potential job I seemingly ran into. “Why is it that wherever you go people want to give you jobs?”
  • I remember the time I called a financial planner for advice. In between my contacting him and us having our phone call, his wife read my blog. When I asked his rates he said, “Oh – sorry I didn’t mention this earlier. My wife is completely enamored by you and the way you live your life, and so am I, so we’ve decided to take you on pro bono.” I recalled a friend’s reaction upon hearing this. “How is it you always manage to fall bass-ackwards into these things?”
  • Yes, I’m the girl that had two nights of couchsurfing turn into seven months of rent-free living in a town I loved. Oh, and did I mention my hosts were not only fascinating people, but also had a love of cooking and sharing it with me?

This may all seem lucky to you. Indeed long-time friends, upon hearing what I just “stumbled” into, often say, “Well, I’m surprised, but not really, because it is you after all. Of course it would happen to you.” And maybe that’s just it. Remember the film “It Could Happen to You”? I don’t either, but I remember the title. And silly me, I believed it.

But it turns out it wasn’t silly at all.

  • I’m working thirty-two hours per week these days. I can take those eight hours off whenever I so please. Luck? Nope. When I first took the job, it’s what I said I would do: make myself so indispensable that they couldn’t turn down my request.
  • That free housing in Asheville? Nope. That wasn’t “luck” either. I first of all believed that the world is full of good people, and found a whole community of them at couchsurfing.org. Then I put out to the universe (my friends, strangers) that I’d like to live in Asheville. I didn’t need to know how. I just had to put the idea out there. And the opportunity came to me in a way I never could have imagined.

Don’t limit your possibilities by telling the universe exactly what you want,” my minister said a few weeks ago. “Don’t say you want a million dollars. Because honestly, would you turn down the person who offered you a hundred million? Instead, put the idea of abundance out there. And watch what happens. There’s more out there than you ever imagined.”

Huh. This woman knew me. I’m the girl that thinks the question “Where do you want to be in five years” is so silly for this very reason. “There is no way I could know that,” I say. “Do you have any idea how many things exist now that none of us imagined five years ago? And you want me to limit my thinking to only what I know, only what I can envision? Five years from now I’ll be doing things none of us could have never predicted.” But they’ll be things someone put out to the universe at some point. And “by luck,” they showed up.

—–

Go ahead. Try it. I dare you. Put some outrageous idea out there. No need to figure out how it will happen. That’s not necessary. Just believe in the idea. Write it down. Tell a few people. Or not. Make a collage about it. Or not. Just put it out there, then hide it away or tell the world. And watch what happens.