That’s how coming back to New York feels. It was business as usual all day at work in Rockville. After work, Metro back into the District. Then the walk from the Metro to my apartment, from the door to the kitchen and the kitchen to the balcony to watch planes take off into the sunset (and yes, that sounds corny as hell, but I swear that’s what we do every evening).

From apartment to Metro to airport. That’s where the transition begins. Eric, a friend from college had a delayed flight to Chicago, so we met up and entertained each other while wondering when Eric’s 7:35 flight would leave (ended up being around 9). On my almost-empty DCA-ALB flight: a magician, a child who kept claiming to be a Mexican jumping bean and my seatmate, a woman from Las Vegas who had undoubtedly spent a bit of time at the terminal bar during the last layover.

Eric hard at work at DCA.

The Albany airport, the baggage claim, waiting for my dad at the curb. The hour-long drive home, figuring out plans for the next few days, secretly praying we don’t crash as my dad swerves back and forth between lanes. (And I quote: “There was nobody else around, so I figured ‘What the hell?'”)

We exit at Saugerties and drive the dark, windy roads to Sawkill. Or Ruby. Or Ulster. Or Kingston. Even after 23 years, still not entirely sure where I live. Technically all of the above?

Home, into the house, hugs from my mother. I’ve only lived in Washington for three months, but for some reason, they now seem longer than the five months I lived in Prague or the 14 months I was in Asia.

Leftovers from Rosh Hashana dinner make their way into my stomach: matzah ball soup, salmon, turkey, quinoa (and we debate how to pronounce it constantly), and to throw some Italian into the mix, zucchini lasagna. Then, migration to the deck. I look up and there are stars. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions. They blanket the sky and I make a comment about how many there are. My mother looks up and tells me the night, with its partial cloudiness, is not a good night for stars. But that’s why I have three more nights here.

I fell into bed, exhausted after a full day of work…followed by travel…followed by lots of turkey. I’m ready to take on this new year with its surprises and lessons and whatever it wants to throw at me. I’m ready for the new apartment. I’m ready for new adventures. But first, I’m going to enjoy a few days at home with my family. I’ve slipped out of my DC world, with its 40-hour workweek, constant overstimulization and full schedule of happy hours and dinners. Now I’m in upstate mode — driving my car around town, making plans to meet at a local brewery for mason jar night and hanging out on the deck. When I’m in one, the other seems like something out of a different life.

When I was getting ready for work Wednesday morning, I stood on the balcony as I brushed my teeth and watched the people below head to work. I thought about how happy I am in Washington, how settled and content I am and how I didn’t think that would ever be a reality. And right now, I’m just as happy to be in Kingston, though I know that’s a short-lived feeling. The six months I lived here when I moved back from Korea were good, but after awhile I stopped being happy. The move to Washington was good and healthy because it gave me the best of both worlds. My goal for the next year is to learn how to combine the two so that it feels less like slipping between two worlds and more like joining them together. With that, I wish you a shanah tovah, a happy new year, and head to synagogue.

Now that Labor Day is over, it’s time to get back to laboring. But first, I hope you all had a good holiday weekend. It’s so nice to be able to celebrate an American holiday in America — that’s one of those little things that I have really come to appreciate over the past few years.

This weekend was about relaxing, hanging out with friends and decompressing from the week. Usually, weekends are chock-full of brunches, shopping trips and going out with friends, so it was nice to take it easy this time around. Read the rest of this entry »

They say food unites the world. I’m not sure who “they” are, but they’re damn right. Last night, Charles (my lovely host when I went to Beijing last year), had a group of friends over for a potluck dinner on one of the nicest nights this summer.

Ah, but the eternal question: What to make? Since moving into my kosher apartment, cooking has been an adventure, and an expensive one at that. Finding decently priced kosher cheese and meat requires patience and time (since most grocery stores only carry the very basics in terms of hekshered food items). But then, enter Trader Joe’s. Ah, my good friend TJ, provider of kosher cheddar and mozzarella. And $3 wine.

Inspired by Alex’s brunch quiche last month, I was fairly confident that I could make one myself. But have you ever shredded an 8 oz. block of cheese on your own? It’s tiring as hell, but makes the end result that much better. It also makes you that much more invested in the end result, which my roommate Jo will testify to. We’d lose ourselves in conversation/hookah, only for me to remember the food in the oven, jump up from the couch, run into the kitchen, fling open the oven and yell out, “Oh my god, the quiche!” This happened three or four times over a 15-minute period. The quiche was fine. Every time.

And then, the moment of truth. The quiche, with its golden brown top and flaky crust, was a hit. To be fair, everything at the table was a hit — pesto pasta, homemade dumplings, zucchini challah, guacamole, eggplant parm. With Charles’ permission, I stole a few of the photos he posted from last night.

And lastly, my baby.

Stuffed and happy, we carried the party from Charles’ house to nearby Wonderland. It was nice to spend an evening with strangers, who over the course of food and wine became friends. We’re trying to convince Charles to make this a monthly thing. After all, it’s almost autumn and I’m going to need people to eat my pumpkin spice cupcakes.

Oh, she’s in Washington, D.C. Apparently moving here has severely impacted my ability to blog. So what have I been up to the past two months?

Well, my first week here, I had all the evils spirits in me sucked out by a Mexican shaman.

Read the rest of this entry »

When I was a kid and school was canceled because of snow, my mother would take me into work with her. At the time, she worked at the county courthouse, in the heart of uptown Kingston. I remember parking in the lot behind the courthouse, dodging around mounds of shoveled snow, walking in through the side door, past the metal detector and the old county bar association photos, up the elevator and into my mom’s office, where I’d tap away on a typewriter all morning. (Oh yeah, foreshadowing much?) Around lunchtime, we’d head down the elevator, past the photos and the metal detector, out the door and down the bluestone sidewalk, already wet with melting snow, to Nekos, the luncheonette that everyone uptown went to, where a man I called “Eggy Eddie” stood at the grill and made me lunch as I spun around on the wobbling stools at the counter. Nekos had something for everyone — for the attorneys who worked uptown and came in every day for lunch, for the poor souls on jury duty down the street at the courthouse, and for annoying little children like myself who just wanted some candy or a homemade chocolate rabbit the size of my head. (Yes, “size of my head” is a completely accurate measurement. Leave it to the little Jewish girl to completely devour the milk chocolate Easter Bunny. Yum!)

So naturally my heart skipped a beat last week when I got a text from Tori telling me that Nekos Luncheonette was closing up shop after 109 years of cooking up lunch for half of uptown Kingston.

A few summers ago, hoping to save up money for Prague, I swung by Nekos and asked Eggy Eddie if he needed any extra help. The next week, I was pouring cups of coffee, serving up eggs and chatting up the regulars who sat at the counter. As the summer went on, I learned that Ed (apparently you can’t call your boss by your childhood nickname for him) had been trying for ages to sell Nekos, started by his grandfather and now a Wall Street institution. Owning Nekos meant that Ed never had a free moment. He couldn’t go on vacation, he couldn’t get the surgery he badly needed, he couldn’t ever sleep in. Ed lived and breathed that business, something that I really respect about him. I didn’t make a whole lot of money that summer, but I got something different out of the experience. Kingston isn’t a big town — some of the regular customers had known me since Joanna and I were those little kids spinning on the stools. When I turned to the sink to wash dishes or restock the creamers, I’d hear Ed telling a customer, “That’s Marsha and Jerry’s kid” and before you knew it, I’d have a stranger telling me some story about my parents or about myself as a toddler.  Nekos didn’t have flashy decor or an exciting, ever-changing menu, but it had that homey, familial feel. When you were there, you belonged. Day after day, year after year, Ed chatted up the folks eating at the counter as he worked the grill. I cleared plates and listened to him talk. He knew everyone and everything that went on in that town and found a way to relate to every person who walked through the front door. The food might have been cheaper and quicker at the diner down Washington Avenue, but at Nekos, everything had a personal touch.

The property is going to be turned into a sustainable diner, and the new owners, who currently own an organic butcher shop next door, have said that they hope to incorporate aspects of the luncheonette into the space.

I did some shopping uptown when I got back from India. In a rush to get back to my car before the meter expired, I didn’t poke my head into Nekos to say hello. I slowed down and glanced in the window. Ed stood at the grill wearing a white apron over a white t-shirt, head turned over his shoulder, talking to a couple sitting at the counter. His daughter poured coffee for someone seated a few stools down. It was a scene I’d seen hundreds of times over the years, something I never thought I wouldn’t see again.

Two months ago, in an attempt to escape the midday heat in Goa, Mimsie and I tracked down the local Cafe Coffee Day, India’s answer to Starbucks and one of the only places around with A/C. In the course of conversation, one of us mentioned bucket lists. In general, I’m not a list-maker, something that stems from a long history of misplacing things. I used to make lists and then lose them, only to find them weeks, months or years later when I didn’t need them anymore. The general frustration at finding so many half-written lists turned me off of the idea as a whole. But on that hot afternoon, amped up the iced coffee and good company, I decided to go for it. I grabbed my e-ticket — the only paper I was guaranteed not to lose while I was traveling — flipped it over and started writing. As our trip went on, the list grew. And grew. And grew.

This weekend, I noticed one of my roommates had her own bucket list tacked up in a corner of her bedroom. Inspired, I dug through the bag I traveled with in India and found the dirty, crumpled e-ticket with the list scribbled on the back. I’m almost guaranteed to lose the list again, so before I do, I’ll post it here, so there will at least be some record of its existence.

1. Be in a Bollywood movie

2. Live on a boat

3. Go to Italy for the food

4. Go on a safari

5. See Victoria Falls

6. Adopt a child from a foreign country

7. Attend the Kentucky Derby

8. Own an antique pasta-maker

9. Dogsled in Mongolia and take the Transsiberian Railroad back through Russia

10. Tend my own vegetable garden

11. See the Northern Lights

12. Ride in a hot-air balloon

13. Go on a blind date

14. Own a potter’s wheel

15. Write a Modern Love column

16. Hang-glide

17. Bake a wedding cake

18. Meet a Korean pop star

19. Own a hammock

20. Get a tiger dog

21. Go to Cuba

Not a bad list, if I do say so myself. Obviously some of these are reaches, but some seem pretty doable (hammock? pasta maker? dogsled?). And yes, I am aware that most of my goals revolve around food and/or travel. Totally legit.

What’s on your bucket list? I hope not “rob a bank,” like this unfortunate woman.

OK, not really. But let the record show that I’ve been planning my mansion-on-the-Hudson-River wedding long before she showed up. Granted, we’ve chosen opposite sides of the river — I, the Cordts Mansion in Kingston; Chelsea, Astor Courts in Rhinebeck.

I first visited the Cordts Mansion two years ago. I was doing PR for Kingston at the time, and a producer was looking to film some scenes in the Hudson Valley. My boss asked me to drive up to the mansion and talk to the owners about using the property as a filming site. I drove down Delaware Avenue, past houses that had seen better days, and wondered if the mansion was in as much disrepair as its neighbors.

It wasn’t. It was beautiful. The house was in great condition and the grounds were well-maintained. The view of the Hudson River through the trees was breathtaking. I couldn’t believe that I lived only a few miles from this my whole life and never knew it existed.

via OldHouses.com

Dear poor sucker who will someday marry me, I hope you like this view. In the least crazy way possible, I have had my sights set on this mansion for two years. Cordts is now under contract, so here’s hoping the new owners won’t trip up my wedding plans.

Anyway, back to Chelsea. Through Facebook friends still upstate, the local newspaper (though, sadly, a lot of potentially awesome local coverage has been supplemented by AP reports) and People.com, I’ve been able to follow the events up in Rhinebeck. Last night, Bill and Hillary made an appearance at the Beekman Arms, America’s oldest inn and one of the best Sunday brunch spots in the Hudson Valley. (Try the bananas foster. Seriously.)

It’s been weird to watch the coverage from afar and to know that all this commotion is going on where I grew up. Rhinebeck was where my childhood best friend lived and where the county fair was held. It’s the town I drive through on my way to get to my grandmother’s house. Now, suddenly, it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

River Road in Rhinebeck -- Astor Courts is just down the road

If nothing else, I hope this provides a necessary jump-start to Rhinebeck’s economy. For such a small town, Rhinebeck’s got a lot to offer. My best bets if you’re not celeb-watching this weekend: take in a movie at Upstate Films, browse the selection at Oblong Books or enjoy a chocolate-covered fortune cookie at Millhouse Panda.

A view of Rhinebeck's main drag in the winter. Somehow, this is the only photo of the town I have saved on my computer. Out of the shot on the right is the town's only stoplight.

This morning, I noticed I was about to hit Inbox 1000. That’s just too much. If every other aspect of my life is in freefall, the least I can do is reign in my e-mails. Deleting, archiving, responding, etc. I’m now down to Inbox 379 and hoping to get to 100 before noon. I was on a roll until I hit e-mail #295, sent from my college mentor just prior to graduation. Ken, who was the associate director of College Park Scholars, was known for sending out funny, engaging e-mails that were on par with his funny, engaging personality. When he passed away suddenly last year, I didn’t just lose a mentor — I lost a friend. I don’t know why today happened to be the day I found the graduation e-mail, but it was perfect timing. Funemployment is the most misnamed thing in the world, and it has been a struggle to keep my spirits up. If it’s been that way for you recently, read his e-mail, especially the last few paragraphs. It certainly made my day better.

Subject line: One more e-mail before you graduate

Body: … of course, that’s not to say that I won’t be bothering you with an occasional email after you graduate.  Anyway, there are a few things I can almost always count on when graduation rolls around.  First, some of you will invariably ask about the Media freshmen (“Are they as good as we were?”).  Second, I can always count on seeing lots of you in Cumberland in the weeks just prior to graduation as you come by to get your Scholars medallions (without a doubt, something I look forward to the most during May).  And, finally, I can count on one of you to ask if I’ll be sending out one more email with some final words or some advice.
I thought I was going to escape that last one this year, but somebody stopped by Cumberland just this morning, asked about the current group of freshmen (“Are they as
cool as we were?”), picked up her medallion, and then asked about the farewell email (she will remain anonymous so that nobody will attack her for prompting me to write this).  Seriously, folks, I don’t know that I’m somebody people ought to be taking much advice from, but I guess I can say a few things.
Before I get started though, let me just say that this promises to be somewhat sappy and nostalgic, and perhaps even a bit avuncular (yep, I took the SAT’s at one point in my life, too).  Oh, and as I’m sure you all anticipated, it’s not going to be short.  So, if you’re not in the mood for that type of stuff, you can stop reading now, delete this email, and continue with your life knowing that I wish you the best.
Okay, for those of you who actually stuck around, I’ll continue.  As I’ve told many of you before, this time of year is always bittersweet for me.  Of course, I’m incredibly proud of everything you’ve been able to accomplish so far, and I’m in awe of the potential I see in each of you.  However, it’s always a bit sad to reflect upon the fact that you’re leaving the university after what seemed, to me, such a brief period of time.
That being said, you’ve accomplished a great deal in the short time you were here, and I have no doubt that you are all going to accomplish even greater things in your future.  You are an incredibly bright, charismatic, talented, and fun group of individuals, and I consider myself fortunate to have met you and to have known you in the time that you’ve been at Maryland.
I love my job.  I enjoy the work that I do, I get to work with some incredible people (uh, that would be you folks), and on a daily basis, in working with students such as all of you, I get to see tangible evidence showing the value of the work that we do in Scholars.   Sometimes it’s kind of difficult to believe that I get paid to do this (and yes, I’m certain that many of you find it amazing that the university pays me to do what I do).
That last paragraph actually has a point (yes, folks, occasionally there are “points” to be found in my email) — it sort of serves as a transition into the advice portion of this email.  Again, I don’t know that I’m in a position to offer you advice, but here goes.  My first suggestion concerns money:  don’t take a job just for the money.  I made more money in my first post-college job than I ever imagined I would, and I absolutely hated the job.  I actually knew that I wasn’t particularly interested in the job itself before I accepted it, but I thought the money was too good to turn down.  I couldn’t have been more wrong — it wasn’t worth the money, it was hell, it was absolutely the worst year of my life.  While it was nice to have lots of disposable income, I was too miserable to really take advantage of it.  Find something you enjoy doing rather than focusing on something simply because you’ll make lots of money.
I guess the only other piece of advice I have would be this:  don’t let others define success for you.  Ultimately, success is self-determined.  If you’re happy where you are in life, and happy with who you are, does it really matter if you don’t fall within the parameters of somebody else’s subjective definition of success?  Don’t worry so much about what others feel you need to do in order to succeed.  Figure it out for yourself and work toward achieving goals that you feel are going to lead to whatever it is that you define as success.
Okay, so I think that’s all I’ve got.  It truly has been a pleasure getting to know you, and I sincerely hope to hear from you later.  Good luck and take care!  (Oh, and if you happen to have a dollar on you the next time I see you, I would be more than happy to accept it as a donation toward the charity softball tournament … it’s for the kids, after all.)

-k-

I was eager to escape Varanasi’s heat and dive into the belly of India — Delhi. Everyone I met along the way loathed Delhi. “It’s dirty, it’s hot, it’s really just awful.” I hadn’t heard even one good review of the city. Suffice it to say, my expectations were low.

My train ride from Varanasi to Delhi dropped my expectations even further. I was sold a bad ticket at the booking office in Agra, and instead of getting a spot on a sleeper, I was waitlisted and made to stand on a platform between cars while the conductor tried to find me a spare bed. I ended up in the bunk closest to the bathroom, which is basically the last place you ever want to be on an overnight sleeper train. Instead of dwelling, I popped my malaria pills, plowed through my copy of Three Cups of Tea and drifted off to a dream-filled sleep. (Malaria pills FTW.)

The train arrived in Delhi late the next morning. To be frank, I don’t know what all of my friends were complaining about. Delhi was no more overwhelming than any other city I had been in. It was dirty, sure, but come on — this is India. I grabbed a rickshaw and headed into Pahar Ganj, Delhi’s tourist mecca, to search for a cheap guesthouse.

I only had a few days in Delhi, done on purpose because I had heard such terrible things about the city. I figured three days was enough time to see the government buildings, visit the residences where Mohandas and Indira Gandhi were assassinated and do some last-minute shopping before catching my flight home.

But first, the requisite coffee shop laze to wait out the heat of the day. Cafes in India, particularly ones that serve as non-profits and contribute to a humanitarian cause, are awesome places to meet other travelers, bounce around stories and find new friends. I’ve met more solo travelers sipping coffee in these kinds of places than I have anywhere else, which explains how I met Lukas, a student from Prague who also had a few days to kill in Delhi before heading back to my beloved Česká Republika.

Lukas and I met up later that day to do some more sightseeing. We started at the North Block, an impressive set of buildings built during the colonial period. Because the block was designed by a British architect, the buildings have the look of London infused with Indian detailing.

Near the government buildings stands the India Gate, a memorial built to honor the memories of the 90,000 British Indian Army soldiers who died fighting under the Union Jack. We walked around, made the acquaintance of a young Indian guy who then followed us for the next hour and managed to get kicked out of the Supreme Court. (To be fair, don’t let us in if you’re only going to tell us we have to leave.)

Lukas had heard about an evening sound and light show at the city’s Old Fort and figured I’d be interested as well. We got to the fort just as the spectacle began. The hour-long show was a nice way to see one of Delhi’s major tourist attractions in an innovative way, far from the day’s crowds and heat.

The sheer size of the fort is what first got me, but once we were inside, the beauty of the gates, towers, tombs and mosques blew me away. Despite being half a millenia old, much of the Old Fort is still intact, and not in an about-to-fall-apart sort of way. India’s earliest architects were bomb at doing their job, I’ll say that for sure.

The next day, I invited Lukas along with me to see the residences of Mohandas and Indira Gandhi (who were, to eliminate confusion, not related). I’ve been to the grassy Knoll in Dallas and I’ve traced Yitzak Rabin’s last steps in Tel Aviv, but there was something so eerie about both Gandhi homes. The Mahatma and Indira, they weren’t going anywhere to give speeches. There were no parades or mass gatherings or thousands of witnesses. These were their homes. Can you imagine not even being safe in your own home? Though to be fair, I can’t imagine being an international political figure, either. Having seen so much of India over the previous six weeks, the assassination sites were a fitting finale to my trip.

Lukas and I parted ways when we got back to Pahar Ganj. I had the rest of the afternoon to shop, pack and ready myself for the long trip home.

So, Varanasi. Yes, it’s been weeks since I was there, but memories of the city (and its stifling heat) are still fresh in my mind.

Mimsie and I parted ways at the train station in Agra, but not before a fight against the masses to get our tickets. Even after a month traveling around the country, I was surprised by the number of people absolutely everywhere. In India, there is no such thing as personal space. It just doesn’t exist in a place with a population exceeding 1 billion. Just getting our tickets involved standing in a packed women-only line, being shoved and jostled as the line slowly inched forward. A soldier in the room noticed us, the two white, bewildered girls in a room of sweaty, yelling people and ushered us to the front of the line. We bought our tickets, though truthfully, nobody would have noticed either way — the trains were so packed that something as simple as checking tickets would have been absolutely impossible. Mims and I had a rushed goodbye before we ran to our respective trains. I pushed my way onto a packed train and leaned against my rucksack for support. I whipped out my camera and took what ended up being my last photo in India. (Dead battery. Lost charger down south. Sad story.)

Once in Gwalior, I connected to my Varanasi-bound train. Fifteen hours later, I was in Varanasi — tired, sweaty and overwhelmed — but in Varanasi. I checked into a guesthouse on the banks of the Ganges River and went out exploring.

Here’s the thing they tell you about India in June: It’s hot. Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about India in June: It’s so hot you’ll want to sit under a cold shower every waking moment. It’s so hot that because you can’t do that, you will alternate between taking a shower and sprawling out in front of the air conditioner (provided the power hasn’t cut out for the millionth time that day). And when all else fails, you will find a coffee shop, order a cold drink to try and keep your body temperature down and wait for the hottest hours to pass. That’s the thing about Varanasi. From 10 a.m. to  5 p.m., the city is at a standstill. Shops are closed, streets are deserted and rickshaw drivers nap in the shade. There is nothing to do but wait and shower, wait and shower, down a bottle of chilled water before it hits room temperature, wait and shower, wait and shower until 5 p.m. rolls around.

Once the sun starts the set, the city comes alive again. It’s like an Indian Brigadoon (OK, Melissa, stop being so dramatic.) It really is cool, though. Crowds gather by the ghats along the river. Some ghats are for bathing, others for doing laundry, some for swimming and one for burning corpses. Bet ya didn’t see that one coming, eh? The Ganges is the holiest river in India, and being cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat ensures that your soul will continue on to liberation instead of continuing the cycle of reincarnation.

The best way to see the ghats is by taking a boat up the river either at sunrise or sunset. On my last evening in Varanasi, I hired a guy to take me from Assi Ghat, where my guesthouse was, to Godolia, one of the main shopping areas. The whole ride took about 45 minutes and took me past half a dozen ghats.

(I apologize for the fuzziness -- my Blackberry hasn't got the best camera on it.)

Toward the end of the ride...what a difference a few minutes can make!

I put my Blackberry down as we paddled past the burning ghat. It was hard to wrap my mind around the idea that I was seeing actual bodies –real people– being burned and their ashes scattered into the water. While there is an obvious sadness to it, there was the more comforting thought that these people had achieved enlightenment, every Hindu’s ultimate goal.

After I stepped off the boat in Godolia, I wandered around the market, bought dozens of bangles and rejected the advances of half a dozen teenage boys before sitting down to enjoy one final dinner in Varanasi.