This past weekend, Ewan was baptized (which is worth a whole separate blog post, given what a mess he was during the service) and my dear friend Karen was in town to serve as his godmother.
I don’t see Karen very often because she lives in California, so when I do see her, we try to make the most of our time together. This usually involves doing something active and then sitting around talking (and, duh, drinking wine). So, the day after Ewan’s baptism, we got in my trusty 2002 Camry and drove two hours southwest to Shenandoah National Park. I’m ashamed to say that in the almost-decade that I’ve lived in the DC area, I’d only gone to Shenandoah once before (and that was, like, three weeks ago). Boy, was I missing out. It is REALLY pretty, with tons of gorgeous views of soft green hills, forests, and rivers.
Karen and I chose the Whiteoak Canyon trail for our hike. It’s a 4.7 mile out-and-back loop, with the option to tack on an additional 2.7 (very challenging) miles at the bottom. We ended up hiking 5 miles — 2.5 miles downhill, passing a series of beautiful waterfalls, and then 2.5 miles back up. Obviously, the way back was a bit more challenging, but the thundering waterfalls kept things refreshing.
After our hike, we drove through the park and stopped at a couple of overlook points, then stopped at one of the many wineries in the Shenandoah Valley, Gadino Cellars. I told Karen that wine-tasting in Virginia is not so much about the wine as much as about the views, which helps to set expectations. (Sonoma this ain’t.) But the wine at Gadino was pleasant, and we got to drink it while sitting outside and looking at lush, green hillsides dotted with vines.
After our tasting, we made our way to Sperryville, the cutest little hippie river town you ever did see. First, we stopped at Copper Fox Distillery. Neither of us are big whiskey people, but we sampled four of Copper Fox’s products and I actually liked them all. (Who knew?) Next, we wandered around the corner to Wild Roots Apothecary, which sells “herbal products, herbal pantry products and beautiful botanically based natural beauty products.” I ended up buying two oxymels, delicious, vinegary-tasting syrups that supposedly cure inflammation and a whole host of other health issues (sure), but mostly just tasted like yummy salad dressings. (I blame the whiskey for these purchases, by the way).
Oxymels in hand, we headed for our Airbnb and got cleaned up before going to dinner at Tula’s Off Main in Washington (just up the street from the very famous Inn at Little Washington). Apart from the great quality time I got to spend with my friend of 15+ years, the best part of the evening was crawling into bed at 9:30 and getting ten hours of uninterrupted sleep. HEAVEN.
Can’t wait to get back to Shenandoah for some more hiking — and so glad I got to spend some precious time with my friend!
Al and I have been lucky this summer to have lots of loved ones visit us here in DC. As a result, I’ve gotten REALLY good at giving tours of the National Mall, even if I don’t know the history of any of the monuments, buildings, or memorials and am completely ignorant about most important things about this city, other than where you can get good fro-yo. Hey, historical details are what iPhones are for.
First, my mom visited for one night at the end of May and we got some good museum visiting and pool lounging in! We made sure to hit the National Gallery and checked out the Andrew Wyeth windows exhibition, as well as the Cassatt/Degas exhibition. Very cool.
Then, for Fourth of July weekend, my cousin-friend Catie visited. It was her first trip to DC, so I felt it necessary to pull out all the ‘Murrica stops. First, we went to the National Mall and gazed at the monuments (at least, the ones that weren’t closed in advance of the fireworks) and watched various military service-members in their dress uniforms doing drills.
Next, we checked out Georgetown and stuffed our faces at the excellent Good Stuff Eatery. I highly recommend the turkey burger and onion petals (drool). Catie and I decided that we are definitely going to buy a house in Georgetown, just as soon as we become multi-millionaires (any day now).
That night, we went to the roof of our building and watched the fireworks over the Mall.
The next night, we went to see Counting Crows (a long-time Steph-Catie favorite band) at Wolf Trap, an amazing outdoor concert venue (and national park!) in Virginia where you’re allowed to bring in your own food and drink, including booze. We brought a picnic, sat on the grass, and aurally revisited the mid-1990s as we listened to Toad the Wet Sprocket warm up the crowd. Counting Crows, by the way, were awesome. This is the second time I’ve seen them this summer (I’m a super-fan) and they never fail to disappoint. Catie and I sang along to every single song (except for the stuff off their new album) and even Al got into it. SO FUN.
Overall, it was a fantastic weekend and I’m glad Catie finally got to see DC.
The next weekend, Al’s mom and step-dad, Carol and Gerald, visited. Neither of them had spent much time in DC, so we took them to the Mall and did a long walking tour of many of the monuments. It was approximately one billion degrees outside (Celcius) but we persevered and saw a lot of stuff, including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, reflecting pool, World War II Memorial, a bit of the National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum. We ate lunch at the cafe within the National Gallery sculpture garden and admired the outdoor art.
We also did some wine-tasting in Virginia (Loudoun County), which is always lovely. It’s so peaceful and beautiful there.
All in all, it was another great DC visit with family.
THEN, the following week, my parents came back into town to look at houses in Virginia, since they’re moving back East next year. We checked out Winchester (which was just okay) and then made our way up to Leesburg (which was charming and adorable). We had a nice time walking around the historic district of Leesburg and eating lunch at the Wine Kitchen. The weather was hot but beautiful.
So, the last month has been a whirlwind of visitors, and it’s been great. But for the rest of the summer, we aren’t expecting any more guests. Therefore, I feel confident saying that Al and I won’t be stepping foot in a museum until the next round of visitors shows up, whenever that may be. Hey, we never claimed to be cultured.
I’m writing from my new apartment in DC where, for the past 48 hours, I’ve been a virtual whirlwind of activity: unpacking and breaking down and throwing away boxes, putting away clothes and shoes and dishes and glasses and books, directing movers, getting groceries, doing laundry, driving, walking, scurrying — yes, there has been a lot of scurrying going on.
And now, 48 hours after repatriating, all of my furniture is in my apartment, I have an internet connection, and the majority of the stuff is put away. The apartment, which 48 hours earlier was an empty series of rooms, finally feels like the place where I live. Now all that’s missing is Al, who’s coming back from the UK next weekend, and the belongings we shipped from South Africa, which are going through customs at the moment. Whew!
Finally settling into an apartment that’s ours — not a corporate apartment, or a hotel, or some other form of short-term housing — has made me feel very happy. It’s also energized me practically to the point of mania (hence, the scurrying), which only began to peter out this afternoon, after I finished color-coding my bookshelves. Tomorrow, I think I’ll start to settle into my life outside the walls of my apartment: I’m trying out a new yoga studio, going to the Walmart a couple of blocks away, and having dinner and drinks with friends.
It’s been a whole year since I wrote my first post on this blog, in which I fretted about moving to South Africa while recovering from a bout of typhoid fever and an über-traumatic last week at the law firm. In the intervening year, as with most years, a lot has happened. We’ve moved from the US to South Africa to the UK. We’ve traveled to a bunch of new countries. I’ve launched a fledgling writing career. We’ve made new friends. I’ve discovered sewing and rediscovered knitting. Overall, my life is a lot better than it used to be, and I wake up most days looking forward to the day to come.
But when I stop and think about it, it actually doesn’t feel like a whole year has passed. Perhaps this is because all of the big life changes over the past year — quitting my job, moving abroad, starting a new career — happened in rapid succession, and I’ve just spent the rest of the year adjusting to a new routine. The year marker also feels a bit arbitrary, because we’re still in the midst of our big International Adventure, and it doesn’t seem appropriate to do any real retrospective thinking until I’m back in the US and can look at my time abroad with some remove.
A year in, though, here are a few things I can say that I have learned so far:
I like routine. And I like feeling like I have a home. I wrote about this here and my feelings on the matter have only become more acute, because Al and I have had to pick up and move within London several times since then. We’ve been in our current apartment for less than a week and we’re moving again tomorrow. It’s a giant pain. When you move so frequently, and with such short notice, it’s not even worth unpacking your suitcases. I hate that. As much as I love seeing different parts of London, I long for a settled place in the city, somewhere I can use the drawers and closets and get into a comfortable routine. I guess there’s nothing like living like a (reasonably well-to-do) vagabond for an extended period of time that makes one appreciate the comforts of home. Also, it teaches you flexibility. And flexibility is good, right?
South Africa was a mix of good and bad, and that’s okay. Just the other night, I was telling Al that there are certain things I miss about South Africa. The weather, for one. The intense, clear blue of the sky. The vivid sunsets. That wintry wood-smoke smell. Our big, roomy apartment with the little balcony and barbecue. Our car, as unreliable and beat-up as it was. The cost of living. The steak. The wine. But, I realized, it’s possible for me to miss all of that and still never want to live in Joburg again. It’s also possible to say that I disliked Joburg as a city but liked our life there. Life is tricky like that.
Rejections are tough. Enough said.
Having a support network is important. Duh.
I miss the US, but I’m not desperate to go back. I think maybe in the spring, or even after New Year’s, I’ll feel really ready to go back to the States. But right now, I’m content to stay in London a bit longer; I really like it here. (It would just help if we could nail down the housing situation.)
I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone but Al. The thing that no one tells you about having an international adventure is that it’s full of annoyances. Living abroad, it turns out, requires juggling an immense amount of logistics. And logistics are a pain in the ass. It helps to have a partner who you like when you’re trying to figure out how to not go bat-poop insane when you have to move for the fourth time in a month, or when your power goes out, or when you get not one but two flat tires in a foreign country, or what have you. Living abroad, even in a cushy, convenient place like London, is always a challenge. If you and your partner come out of it still liking each other and wanting to travel together, so much the better. Being here with Al has reinforced what I already knew about him: he’s patient, adventurous, and flexible. He also listens to me when I whine about having to pack up my knitting stuff. He gets it. Getting it is important.
Being abroad makes me more aware of my Americanness. There are two sides to this coin, of course. Occasionally, I’ll see something that will make me feel smug and superior because I know my country has its s**t figured out on that issue. Walking on one side of the sidewalk, for instance. America has that DOWN. England? Not so much. Another example: Chinese food. England, please take notes on this. And don’t even get me started on Mexican food. But then, there are other things that make me realize how a**-backwards certain things are in my beloved country. There are the obvious examples (healthcare! education! Miley Cyrus!) but there are also subtle things. Like, in London, MOST movie theaters that I’ve been to serve booze. In DC, I can only think of one movie theater off the top of my head (The E Street Cinema) that does that. What gives, America? Also, London’s public transportation system is great, the post office is quick and efficient (which, as an American, is mind-blowing), and they have double-decker buses. Makes me think America needs to get on the ball, and fast. But then I’ll watch an episode of Hens Behaving Badly or see a drunk girl peeing in the street at ten o’clock at night and I’ll go right back to feeling smug and superior. So, it’s a mixed bag.
I am officially too old to stay in hostels with shared bathrooms. There, I said it.
I’ve probably learned other things along the way but those are the big ones. So, I’m just going to continue enjoying my time abroad and figuring things out. Maybe I’ll check back in a year from now and tell you what else I’ve learned.
Last night, we got back from our whirlwind trip to Ottawa, DC, and DF, and boy, were we tired. Al calculated that our total flying time for this trip was 54 hours, with at least six additional hours of airport time (looking at you, Dulles, you monster), which means we traveled an average of five hours for each day of our trip. Yikes. But you know what? It was SO worth it. We had so much fun, and we packed each day to the gills with friends and family, which was the whole point of this North American adventure.
Here, in brief, is what we got up to on each leg of our trip.
In Ottawa, we attended the lovely wedding of Tom and Kristy. Tom is one of Al’s closest friends from high school in Canada, and Al was a groomsman in the wedding, which ended up meaning zero responsibilities and lots of perks for him and his fellow groomsmen, since the bride and her attendants were totally on top of things. Lucky guys.
We were lucky enough to hang out with the newlyweds and some other friends after the wedding and we also got to spend quality time with Al’s brother Calum and his adorable cat, Mick Jagger. This cat is seriously The Cutest. Look at these photos of Jaggy and her lion haircut and look me in the eye and tell me she is not the CUTEST cat in the world. I dare you.
All in all, Ottawa was fun and relaxing, and after five years of visits to the city, I finally got to see it not covered in a solid foot of snow and ice. It’s much nicer in the summer (and I can go running without my ipod literally freezing!).
In DC, our main goals were to see as many of our friends as possible, and to buy things. Well, maybe that second one was just my goal, but I succeeded handsomely! I pretty much raided Forever 21, snatching up anything vaguely nautical, including a pair of not-so-vaguely-nautical sailor shorts. I wore them to the bar to meet our friends, and as we were walking there, I asked Al, “Am I too old to wear these?” He said no, but I’m still not sure. I sort of just choose to ignore the whole “21” admonition built into Forever 21. I think it should be renamed Forever 30-ish, so ladies like me can feel good about buying cheap clothes there. Anyway. DC was great! We saw lots of people, ate lots of good food, and enjoyed the hot, muggy weather and low-level chaos that makes DC DC.
DF (Mexico City)
The final stop on our North American tour was Mexico City, where we attended the beautiful wedding of Anna and Íñigo. Anna is one of my closest law school (and DC) friends, and she and Íñigo are some of our favorite people to go salsa dancing with. Their wedding was held at a gorgeous museum called El Museo Franz Mayer, in the heart of Mexico City, and included awesome food, tiny jugs of Mezcal, and lots of salsa dancing. So much fun.
While in El DF, Al and I also got up to some sightseeing. We were staying at a hotel in a very hipstery neighborhood called La Roma. Just how hipstery was it? Well, our first night there, we went to a Japanese restaurant where people sat outside on kegs and a wandering gypsy band played klezmer music as we ate, so… you tell me. Also, Al wore this, just to blend in:
We also spent an afternoon sightseeing near the Zocalo, downtown, where we wandered around the Templo Mayor, the ruins of a prominent temple in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (right on top of which the Spanish built Mexico City — how considerate of them). I was especially interested in seeing the Museo del Templo Mayor, where they keep such gory Aztec relics as “face knives” and other accoutrements related to human sacrifice. It was fun to celebrate the part of my heritage that involves ripping out people’s still-beating hearts and sacrificing them to the sun god. You know how it goes.
We also ate lunch at Pujol, number 17 on the current list of the world’s 50 Best Restaurants. We were expecting great things from Pujol, but we walked away a bit underwhelmed, for a few reasons. First of all, if lunch is going to cost $260 USD, you want it to be spectacular. Not just good, but spectacular. Lunch at Pujol, though, was just okay. Some of the dishes were superlative (for example, their reimagined tres leches dessert was to die for), but others were just meh, and still others were downright, well, gross. Okay, so maybe I’m not the most adventurous eater, and call me old-fashioned, but if I’m eating at a fancy restaurant, I don’t want to be eating ant larvae. Yet, guess what I ate at Pujol? An ant larvae taco. (Note to self: next time, after lunch, don’t google the taco ingredients you didn’t understand. Escamoles are not a vegetable, turns out). We also ate a soup made out of ants. Which begs the question: was there a sale on ants at the market that morning, or were they just messing with us? Or both? Also, I could have done without the fried frog leg, bone still in, which was one of the courses. Blech.
But, some of the dishes were nice (and photogenic).
After our Pujol experience, Al and I decided we’re kinda done with tasting menus for a while. Especially considering that the rest of the food we ate in Mexico was outrageously good (and affordable). I wanted to stuff tacos and queso fresco and frijoles in my bag and bring it all back to South Africa, the land where they think this is an example of authentic Mexican food:
So, now we’re back in Joburg, it’s freezing cold (I’m wearing a hat indoors), and I’m missing the sunny climes of my home continent. I’m really glad we took our trip, because it was a great reminder of the wonderful people (and food, and public transportation, and cheap clothing) that we have to look forward to when we eventually move back to the US. For now, though, I’m going to enjoy my remaining time here in SA by eating a lot of steak and biltong.
We’re back in DC after more than eight months away (holy moly!) and being here after so long is throwing this city into sharp relief for me. Suddenly, I’m remembering all the things that drive me bat-poop bonkers about this place (see, e.g., the Red Line), but also all the wonderful stuff that makes DC the place I want to live permanently.
Last night, after a great dinner with some of our best DC friends, Al and I walked back to our hotel and talked about what we miss about this place. We both agreed that we’re glad we’re doing this stint abroad (with more international adventures still to come over the next year!) but that we’ll be very glad to head back to Our Nation’s Capital when the time comes. There’s just a lot of things to love about this place.
So here, without further ado, is a short list of things I like about DC:
Weather. Yes, summers tend to be muggy and, one might fairly argue, swampy. Literally. Like, the city was built on a swamp. But you know what? It’s temperate! There are seasons. And Shorts Weather lasts for a long time, which is really all you can ask for from a place.
Monuments. I’m talking huge, in-yo’-face, impressive monuments. Every time I come back to DC after being away, I marvel at much the city looks like a movie set, with all of these big, famous monuments just crammed together. It looks fake — but it’s not. Although, contrary to what TV would have us believe, people don’t actually conduct business meetings at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial or while dipping their feet in the reflecting pool. Sorry.
Walkability. After being cooped up at home in Joburg for so long, there’s something deliciously liberating about being able to walk places, by myself, when I please. You know what I’ve really missed? Sidewalks.
Food. Over the last few years, DC has evolved into a great food city, and it feels like there are still new restaurants and new chefs popping up all the time. And dang, this city does a good lunch salad. I missed you, Chop’t.
Friends. Al and I have a great group of friends here and we miss them. Can’t wait until we can hang out with them again on the regular.
Location. DC is so convenient. You can get anywhere on the East Coast easily, either by flying or driving, and it’s midway between Europe and California. After having lived for the past eight months in a country that feels impossibly remote from everything and everyone, I now really appreciate DC’s accessibility.
Happy hour. This city runs on happy hours. It’s basically like one of those Brazilian cars that runs on alcohol. And now that I’m no longer chained to a desk at a law firm, I may even be able to enjoy the DC tradition of meeting for early drinks, often on a rooftop somewhere.
Culture. Gotta love a city that has the Smithsonian museums, the National Zoo, theater, and live music. You never have an excuse to be bored here.
International influence. DC has to be one of the most international cities in the world. Period, the end.
NPR. I’m a public radio junkie and I love that NPR is based right here. It also makes me think my ultimate life goal of becoming best friends with all of the hosts of Pop Culture Happy Hour may eventually become a reality. Here’s hoping.
Family. DC seems like one of the rare big cities in the US where you could theoretically raise children without them automatically becoming entitled, privileged monsters. Just my impression, although I’m not ruling anything out at this point.
Of course, there are things about DC, as I mentioned above, that make me want to wring its figurative neck. But that’s going to be the case for any city, anywhere in the world. Nowhere’s perfect. But DC is a pretty good match for me, and I’m looking forward to living here again, after our international sojourn. See you next spring, DC!
Al and I are the type of people who think, if we’re gonna live somewhere, we’re gonna have a neighborhood bar. We were roundly unsuccessful at finding a Neighborhood Bar in Woodley Park, where we lived for the past three years in DC. The closest thing we had to a Neighborhood Bar there was a foul little establishment called Medaterra whose only redeeming quality was the cheapness and largeness of their martinis. We went there maybe twice a year. Not exactly “Cheers” material.
But here in Joburg, it’s going to be different, by gum. Last night, in search of a good Neighborhood Bar here in Craighall Park, we traveled a block up Jan Smuts Avenue (which Al has taken to calling Jan Smut Avenue given its large number of sex shops) to legendary local bar The Colony Arms.
When Al first got to Joburg a month ago, numerous people stressed that he simply must go to the Colony Arms for a “John Deere,” which is a potent concoction of sugarcane alcohol (much like my beloved Brazilian cachaça) and – you guessed it! – cream soda.
(Side note: they LOVE them some cream soda here in ZA. Al points out that Canadians also love cream soda. Must be a Commonwealth thing? God bless the Queen and cream soda? According to the (highly essential) Wikipedia page on cream soda:
“In South Africa, Creme Soda is often referred to as the “Green Ambulance” (predominantly by students), as it is believed to alleviate the effects of hangovers. Creme Soda is also used as a mixer with cane spirit (an inexpensive alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented sugarcane). This is commonly known as a “John Deer” (cf.John Deere and its green logo), “Cane Train”, or “Green Mamba”. Cane spirit is chosen due its ability to go relatively unnoticed.
Gotta love that. All of that.)
Anyway, we popped into the Colony Arms expecting great things, given the amount it had been talked up, but it was pretty meh. Despite an advertisement promising two-for-one drinks on Foxy Ladies’ Thursday, we paid two-for-two for our beer and glass of wine. We stayed for the one drink and then trundled on home.
In doing some research today on The Colony Arms, to see if it had any storied history I should be aware of (it doesn’t), I came across this hilarious article, entitled “Where The Girls Aren’t: The Colony Arms,” which describes the feel of the establishment thusly:
The Colony Arms, or ‘The Colonic” as it’s known by to its denizens, is not high on atmosphere; it’s in a shopping mall for God’s sake. With its bland as tupperware interior, tiled floors and bare walls, the place gives you the impression it gets hosed down the morning after, not swept. The bar staff are friendly enough, and service is quick and attentive.
That pretty much sums it up. It was fine. But nothing life-changing. Not necessarily Neighborhood Bar material. Then again, on Saturdays they have karaoke, so I could be swayed. And, according to their website, they also have beer pong. Despite incorrectly conflating beer pong with Beirut, which is a DIFFERENT AND SUPERIOR GAME (just ask the entire West Coast of America), I like The Colonic’s attitude. This place could win me over yet.