my food journey (weeks 8-9) chowing gluten + dairy free in spain (a lamentation)

Restaurante Campanario Granada
If you love (and I mean, LOVE) fresh bread, red wine, cured sausage, seafood and cheese, you will hole up in your AirBNB apartment in Spain and never leave. You will slice into your chorizo and lap up all the spice and grease happily with a chunk of warm bread. You will worship at the altar of the mollusk and you will eat cheese into the gloaming. Or until you pass out, whichever comes first.

However, if you don’t drink, can’t consume gluten or dairy for fear of a full-body hive blitzkrieg, and the idea of fondling a crustacean gives you vertigo, Spain can be challenging. While I was away I didn’t bother with a food diary because you people didn’t even want to know the amount of sausage and patatas bravas I managed to Dyson in one sitting. You don’t want to know that my meals were a rinse, lather, repeat, because everything, everything, contains gluten. That fried eggplant with drizzled honey? Flash-fried with flour. Ah, that’s why I broke out in hives! The salad that I thought would satiate arrives on a childlike plate, and the greens are actually nearly white because cruciferous greens are not as abundant in Spain. While it was easy to stockpile food in Barcelona (and La Boqueria provided ample offerings in terms of vegetables), Granada was a real challenge. I’m sure eating gluten + dairy free can be done, however, it requires research and preparation. You can’t just walk around, fancy-free, without analyzing the menu, without alerting your server that you have an allergy to gluten and dairy, and inquiring, este tiene gluten?

Because EVERYTHING CONTAINS GLUTEN.

The other day I was reading Twitter and a woman upbraided a group of women who inquired whether there was gluten in a dip. The woman tweeted about rolling her eyes, and perhaps a few months ago I would have done the same, however, now I know what it’s like (unfortunately so) to treat every meal like it’s a miniature inquisition because gluten isn’t just about BREAD, it’s a thickener, a binder; gluten delivers perfect texture and heft to a sauce, marinade or dip. Plus, it’s cheaper. And while wheat processing in the EU is markedly different than the Food, Inc. of the U.S. (wheat in the EU is a smaller protein, less abrasive to your system), it still creates an inflammation for someone like me who can’t chow down on roasted bread slathered with Spanish olive oil and crushed tomato (a breakfast staple in Spain, one which made me weep with all my bread-adoring envy). Gluten is in soy sauces, ketchups, beef stocks, off-the-shelf salad dressings, even in gluten-free rolled oats, and you’ve got to be a food-label sleuth in ensuring that your meal won’t make you sick to the point where you feel as if your appendix might burst, which is how I used to feel when I overdosed on gluten and dairy on the regular.

Lucky for me, I love pork, most vegetables, potatoes and rice, but after two weeks of a restricted diet, I started to actually crave vegetables. Since veg constitutes about 80% of my daily diet, I actually ached for cruciferous greens. I didn’t want pasta or pizza or bread–I actually desired brussels sprouts and roasted cauliflower. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s this:

1. Do your research: Before you leave, make a list of restaurants that specialize in gf/df or vegan/vegetarian food. I didn’t do this in advance and I’m a moron because of it. Even though I can’t have gluten or dairy for another seven months, for the rest of my life I have to be cognizant of my intake. I can’t ever go back to how I used to eat, so I’ve decided to make my life easier and live gluten/df 95% of the time. Going forward, I’m making it a point to consult travel magazines, blogs, WIKI pages and other resources so I have a handful of restaurants/food markets that will keep me sane during my trip. Next month I’m going to Thailand, and while everything thinks that this is easy, breezy, I have two words in response: soy sauce.

2. Rent an AirBNB, if you can: Having the ability to make breakfast (eggs every day, friends!) and dinner in an apartment saved a lot on my budget and gave me some sanity in terms of meal balance. Most supermarkets in the EU will show items that are gluten-free or dairy-free, which is awesome. Food shopping was a cinch, and I found that nut milks were pretty abundant in Spain. In advance of my trip, I asked my hosts if they could provide me with a blender so I can make my morning smoothies and protein shakes to offset the egg situation.

3. Learn how to talk about your allergies in the country in which you plan to visit: My Spanish is pretty decent, but I made sure that I learned how to correctly address my allergies in the Spanish. Most countries in the EU know about food allergies, although I didn’t even bother saying that I have a sensitivity, which would create a host of confusing questions. When in doubt, I went extreme and said I had celiac because most people in the food industry know what that means. Not only did I explain my situation up-front, but I asked about the ingredients (and how the meal is prepared) in my dish, even if I didn’t think they had gluten or dairy based on the description. I mean, do those eggplant slices look like they touched flour? Clearly I was wrong, assumed that they were safe, and paid for it in hives later than evening. Thank god I’m not celiac.

4. Bring back-up snacks: While I fervently believe that you should always eat local food, I’m finding that it’s easier to bring a bunch of bars and pre-made snacks, especially when traveling to smaller airports. I know it doesn’t seem right, but I need to plan for everything.

Now I’m back, chowing on all the veg a woman can get her hands on, and I have exciting news to report: my itch is nearly GONE and I’m at the twenty-pound weight loss mark. I couldn’t be more thrilled, humbled and excited for this marked shift in the way that I eat.

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Restaurante Campanario Granada
Restaurante Campanario Granada
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relishing in architectural wonders in cordoba, spain + some thoughts on losing faith

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For someone who no longer believes in god, I’ve been spending time in many places of worship. You have to know that for the great portion of my life, I wanted so desperately to believe that a god was real, omnipotent, that I would be among the flock that will inevitable be warmed by his presence in the afterlife. I wanted to be believe in an afterlife, because the idea that our bodies would be cindered and ashed, or withered to bone felt unbearable, lonely. That first punch of air, that great push out in eighty, ninety years time (if we’re one of the lucky ones) becomes a crawl, an acquiesce, a slumbering home to the darkness from which we’d come. And to think that the bookend of this one life is only black felt wrong.

For seventeen years I sold myself on a god even when logic (and my heart) was telling me otherwise. When I think about it now, it makes sense why I cleaved so much to a figure that was a blanket, an embrace, a warmth I desperately needed after losing my mother. Having just graduated college, I was on the precipice of a new life but when I turned around there was no one really behind me. There was only me. So maybe I needed that blanket, that cold comfort that carries you through the night because I wanted to feel loved, protected, and cared for in the larger sense of the word care.

I often think of the body of a house and our world as the country to which it belongs. I spent the greater part of my life rebuilding my house, which had fallen to blight, disrepair, ruined by drink, grief, and fear of being truly vulnerable. I did this privately, slowly, laying down brick by brick, and over time, as I outfitted my house with furniture and shutters, I saw houses sprout up around me. I saw hands waving out of open windows. I felt the tickle and warm embrace of the gardens. Blooms that broke ground and started to grow. I no longer cared about having volume, rather I thought about personal velocity. A party was no longer a failure if sixty people didn’t show up. A short story wasn’t a mess because the “right” people didn’t talk about it. And being with people just to have someone to sleep next to in your bed, no longer sated me. I said to myself that I would rather be alone for the right reasons then with someone for the wrong ones. I became confident, quiet, pensive, and present for myself and relationships with people. I traveled more, read more, became more curious, and started to question everything I thought I knew.

And I started to see the world unravel around me, and the magnitude of hate and inequality, and for me, all signs pointed back to religion–how man had managed to pervert and interpret the teachings of god as justification for segregation (gays are suddenly an other, rather as human beings who deserved to be treated with dignity). How women were second rate because of the fact that they were born women and the word said it so. How simple, fallible creatures think they know the whole of the world, regardless of whether a god has a hand in controlling it. Suddenly, there are groups of people who feel chosen while others are considered other, and death, that once great equalizer, suddenly becomes this frightening place where people are banished to burn and suffer because they chose not to believe.

All of this is a very abbreviated summary of what I’ve been thinking about privately over the past two years. While I believe in a spiritual life, while I can marvel at wonder and man’s propensity to create great art, I no longer believe in a single man (or being) who will usher me into the afterlife.

So you’d think that I wouldn’t spend the great deal of my holiday in churches and mosques, however, as an artist, I was rendered speechless over their magnitude of devotion, and how it can drive greatness in man. Yesterday, someone told me that in Islam man cannot create perfection because the only perfection is god. There is always a flaw in a painting, or a millimeter misstep in a mosaic, and I didn’t interpret this line as something limiting, rather I thought it a celebration of being flawed. We live in a society that has morphed into something strange in its obsession for curation, order and perfection. Everyone is desperate to architect the idea of a perfect life–that image of sunglasses perched on a gleaming silver laptop. The body, and all exteriors, preened to perfection. The bruise of a lip on a coffee cup. How we relentlessly edit, delete, refine, re-edit, publish, course-correct–and I want so much for imperfection, for fuck-ups, for people wearing their flaws on their skin as a badge of honor. I don’t want all this whitewashing because suddenly you become the pure definition of the color white, which is the absolute absence of all color. I rather you be like Anthony Bourdain, flawed, raw, strange, bringing all of his passions into one place and redefining his art by not succumbing to being what a food writer should be.

Today I stood in The Cordoba Cathedral centered in a mosque (Madinat al-Zahra), the creation of which found its origins in a King’s ego, how the reconquesting of the city should reflect the Cross. But in this flaw (and all the ones that have come before), as you see in the pictures, comes great artistic juxtaposition and awe-inspiring beauty.

I don’t believe in perfect. I believe in the remarkable nature of our flaws and people who love and respect beyond borders and books. Visiting places of worship didn’t feel odd as someone who doesn’t believe, rather it gave me faith in man and his ability to perpetually ferret out the light even in the midst of darkness.

I haven’t fully reconciled my feelings toward faith, but I’m open and eager to learn and love.

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the alhambra, granada spain (and tips for getting in!)

Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain

I’m Type A in so many aspects of my life with the exception of travel and writing. I don’t plan; I don’t have a grand design. Rather, I simply go where the takes me and I play my hand as it lays. Doing so has created such an incredible sense of balance in my life, and has allowed me to artistically and mentally go to places I would never have imagined going. Allowing my novel to unveil itself, in degrees, has allowed me to create a story of which I’m truly proud–using techniques in language and line that have created this sort of nesting doll effect when it comes to my novel. Independently, every layer is wholly satisfying, but when they merge it’s this magical symphony that I’ve composed that sometimes shocks me.

The same goes with travel. I used to plan everything to the letter, and I never fully enjoyed my holidays, or allowed to go off itinerary. Deviations were unacceptable, and I think about how many opportunities or moments I’ve lost simply because I’ve an obsessive need to control.

Over the past few years, I’ve loosely planned my trips (air, hotel or AirBNB, and a short list of places worth seeing/chowing), and my experiences have allowed me to befriend extraordinary people and understand a country in a more fundamental and richer way. So when folks told me that The Alhambra was a must-visit, I only half-listened, told myself that I’ll figure it out when I get there. And then I arrived in Spain and realized that visiting this site is like getting into the Pentagon. I spent hours trawling websites for information and tickets, and I nearly gave up hope until a local travel agency told me to try Ticketmaster, and boom, a tour was booked.

I’m glad I breathed through all of the logistics involved in procuring tickets, waking before daylight and making the trek, because The Alhambra not only gave me trespass to a wealth of information about Islamic architecture and fundamentals of the Koran, but it allowed me to admire a fusion of architecture (Roman: Doric/Ionic/Naves and Islamic: minarets, the impossibility of creating perfection as only Allah is perfect) and a deeper understanding of the origins of many Spanish words are rooted in Arabic. I can’t explain it, but there’s something wholly simplistic (not meant in the pejorative) about Islamic architecture in design, but the layers of meaning are complex, fluid and powerful. In the Palace, a simple line is written over and over on the walls: There is no victor but Allah. The calligraphy is entertwined with images of vegetation (in reverence of a kingdom meant to be Paradise) and geometric shapes, as images are not allowed in Islam.

After four hours wandering the palaces, gardens and medina of this sprawling site, I spent the rest of the day in the city, in the brief rain, and came home to revise two chapters of my novel. Perhaps it’s no surprise that an awakening (and education) in the morning yielded creativity in the evening…

How to Buy Tickets to the Alhambra: You can either plot your trip months in advance by purchasing tickets directly from the Alhambra website, or you can live your life like a person (as my friend Amber has been prone to say) and purchase a terrific tour, complete with an Alhambra guide, on Ticketmaster. If you simply want to roll out of bed and live your life all laissez-faire, very few people know that Ticketmaster has a hidden kiosk (beyond the entrance Pavilion, across from the cafe), where you can purchase same-day tickets, albeit with a few Euros tacked on to the normal 14 EUR price. Or you can wait in the Odyssean line (the queue when I arrived at SEVEN A.M. was monstrous) as tickets are routinely set aside for tourists, students and seniors who aren’t able to pre-order online.

How to Get to the Alhambra: If you love a good walk, the Alhambra is a 35 minute walk for those on the opposite side of town (read: me). It’s a quick, lovely walk from Plaza Nueva (although I’m not sure I’d walk to do it in the dark as you’re winding your way up the hills to the entrance gate, even though Granada is quite safe), or you can get a bus at Calle Pavaneras, which takes you to the Alhambra (bus tickets are 1.2 EUR). If you prefer a taxi, you can phone at 011-1-958280654, but if you don’t speak Spanish, you’d better take one at the roundabout of Avenida Constitución, the one with the Spanish flag. I speak decent Spanish, but combined with the early morning call, the terse, rapid barking from the dispatcher, I’d only advise this option if you actually can carry on a conversation in Spanish. This isn’t a se habla ingles kind of party. Apparently, I did something right since a taxi was outside my door within 10 minutes. And if you’re obviously staying at a hotel, tra la la, your problems are all solved by dialing the concierge.

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Medina, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Puerta de Siete Suelos, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Palacio de Charles V, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Palacio de Charles V, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Palacio de Charles V, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Facade of the Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
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when every street is a photograph worth taking: granada, spain

Alcaicería, Granada

There was a moment of anxiety under the bridge of the River Darro. The journey across was precarious as the rapids were fast and furious, and a crowd gathered to watch the journey. Many whispered, Ay pobrecita!, and all the while I was transfixed as if I was in the midst of a night terror. My journey was interrupted, and nothing would be resolved until I knew this little one’s fate.

You should know that we gathered to watch a scraggly cat cross the bed of one side of the river to another. We watched its many attempts to find different rocks as a means to cross, because can you imagine the current carrying the kitty downstream? I mean, I can’t. Don’t ask me to. I would’ve had to fly home to hold Felix for an uncomfortable period of time. That cat eventually did make its way across to then rest on a Panama hat someone must have lost, and all of us who were watching on Plaza Nueva thundered with applause.

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In the midst of this, I was speaking to a group of college kids, in Spanish. Granted, my Spanish was appalling and halting, but when I heard them speak–all rapid flash in their native tongue–words careened back in a way that I can only describe as an assault. Words I could understand in context with other words. I guess this is what makes comprehension and reading easy for me because I become a sleuth in figuring out the meaning of the sentence once I know the verb (my strong suit) and some other words which will help with the pile of nouns of which I don’t know or remember. Or perhaps the easy way of Granada, a city that reminds me Of Biarritz with its lazy cafe culture, minus the sweeping cliffs, barnacles and the ocean. The water is replaced by towering majestic mountains, rendering a certain kind of calm I only thought I could have when being by water.

The Cathedral in Granada
The Cathedral in Granada
Main front gate of The Cathedral, Granada
Plaza directly facing the front part of the Cathedral
Fuente de los Gigantones fountain
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Granada
Parque de las Ciencias de Granada
Cartuja Monastery (outside)
The Cartuja Monastery (inside)
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Granada (loosely translated to “Hill of Strangers” in Arabic) is a small city, easily navigated by foot, and the furthest point clocks in at 34 minutes. Unlike Barcelona, the Arab influence is pronounced here–from the famed Alhambra, a Moorish citadel and palace, to the Andalusian fare and colorful silks and jeweled slippers in the souks, to the Islamic architecture, which oddly (and beautifully) complements many of the Baroque, Gothic, and Roman pieces to the slight shift in how Spanish is spoken (clipped, with the ‘s’ excised)–rendering this city rich in culture and flavor.

Today I took over 200 photos because every street is a photograph waiting to be taken. I didn’t have an itinerary, just a book, a ticket for a hop-on, hop-off tour (since a great deal of sites (and food markets!) are closed on Sundays, and a bottle of water. I wandered through the famed Cathedral, spent a great portion of the day in the two predominant Arab districts, The Bib-Rambla (famed for its gastronomy–I had an unforgettable lunch at Restaurante Campanario Granada–and the Alcaicería market, which occupies a half-dozen small, winding streets and alleyways) and the Albayzín (a UNESCO site) (the ancient part of the city, home to a slew of small shops, tapas bars, artists). From violet perfumes to teas (I’m bringing home SACKS of them) and hand-sketched drinking glasses to iridescent lights, I got deliriously lost weaving in and out of the small streets, which was such a sharp juxtaposition to the ornate churches, cathedrals and monasteries.

Restaurante Campanario Granada
Restaurante Campanario Granada
Restaurante Campanario Granada
Alcaicería, Granada
Alcaicería, Granada
Alcaicería, Granada
Alcaicería, Granada
Incredible teas at Herbolario Esencias de Granada
Incredible teas at Herbolario Esencias de Granada
Alquimia Pervane. I scored a gorgeous violet fragrance
Iglesia de Santa Ana
Puerta de los Tableros, Granada
Casa de las Chirimias, Granada

Later, I walked from the Plaza Nueva (where I encountered the cat in the midst of an intrigue) and climbed the steep hills to the Sacromonte, a district that offers breathtaking views of the Alhambra as well as cave apartments, home to gypsys who started flamenco dancing. The steep, pebbled hills offered quite the workout but also a great deal of quiet and calm after spending a day in markets and immersing in Spanish.

After seven hours, I made my way back to my apartment. But first, I picked up a lemon Fanta (!!!) and noted that the pup game in Granada is pretty strong and the Spanish are incredibly kind, friendly and chill in a way that makes coming home to work on a novel a retreat rather than an escape.

A few bits of touristy bits:
*Tours + Getting Around: I’ve been booking all of my tours via Viator, and I highly recommend the service. They aggregate tours for most European countries, and offer a one-stop shop system, and their app is pretty awesome. However, as I learned today, some tours don’t accept mobile vouchers, which made me fleeing to find an internet cafe quite an adventure. The hop-on, hop-off (red bus) tour was pretty meh, so I’d recommend Feel the City Walking Tours (free!) and The Grayline Tours. Though, most of the city can be viewed by foot with a guidebook, or navigated using their convenient bus system (1.20 Euro/trip).

*Language: I’ve noticed that most people who own businesses speak Spanish, Catalan, French and English. Although most people (except university students) don’t speak English, so when I asked for directions I used Spanish.

*WCs/Bathrooms: Free toilets aren’t abundant, so you normally have to buy a drink to get access to the bathroom code.

*Tapas: The cool thing about Granada is the FREE FOOD. Most bars offer free tapas with drinks (wine, beer, coffee, tea, refrescas, or sodas!) They’ll vary in terms of allowing you to pick your tapas or eating what they serve. The drink + tapas deal is normally 2-3 Euro.

*Museums/Tourist Sites: Most churches and cathedrals are closed on Sundays, as are the food markets (which are only open in the morning, Mercardo San Augustin is the one I plan on hitting this week). The Alhambra is open, most restaurants and smaller attractions are open, and the Cathedral is open at 4pm on Sunday.

*Cost of Goods: WHOA. Compared to Barcelona, Granada is CHEAP. I went to the supermarket yesterday to load up on groceries, and a pile of greens, fruits, gluten-free goods, sundried tomatoes, almond milk, etc, ended up costing me $22. The same sack of food would’ve costed me double in Barcelona, same in New York. Overall, the cost of things here is fairly inexpensive, unless you hit the tourist spots or fancier restaurants.

*New Food Obsession: Tortilla Espanola. As my friend Amber so sagely says, GET INVOLVED.

*Choice Finds: Herbolario Esencias de Granada (for teas), Alquimia Pervane (for extraordiary oils, essences, and fragrances), Antigua Bodega Castañeda (tapas/bar), Exceliente Comida Sin Gluten (great shop with loads of yummy GF foods)

The Climb to Sacramonte. View of the Alhambra, Granada
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The Climb to Sacramonte.
The Climb to Sacramonte. View of the Alhambra, Granada

the salvador dalí theatre museum + dalí’s jewels, figueres, spain

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I might have fallen in love with Salvador Dalí the first time I saw Un Chien Andalou, his masterful short film collaboration with another famous Spanish surrealist, Luis Buñuel. The film opens with a score befitting a circus–very pomp, parade and the like–and then you see a man (Buñuel) casually smoking a cigarette while he sharpens a blade. A woman, practically muted, endures the severing of her eye by this man and this blade and so the film begins. It’s not really a real eye, rather it’s the eye of a calf, no less horrifying, but the optical illusion will become one of Dalí’s many talents.

From sadism, confused priests, the peanut-crunching crowd, rotting donkeys and ants pouring out of a severed hand, the film is less a meditation of the grotesque and more of a celebration of a mind left to its own devices. You imagine the unfathomable and make it come to pass. You imagine a voice smothered rising above the din to a shout to a curdling scream. I remember watching the film while I’d started reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and watching Weimar films. I was young then, 23 or 24, and I felt a strange kinship with these oddballs. Poets talking about people spouting out of the dead land as if they were harvested, and a piano being hoisted up in a living room as if this was the sort of thing that happened.

What I loved about surrealism and the poetry and films of the teens, 20s, was that it challenged our perception of what was normal. We are trained to believe what we see. We’re realists, pragmatists–we look for the plain and simple, yet some of us look beyond what is in front of us and see something altogether different. You see a woman walking down the street and she’s a woman, but I see her as a container, a vessel, a house filled with drawers and windows–some whitewashed shut, others flung open, and so the story begins.

The story always begins when you dare to venture just beyond your reach. Beyond what your mind instinctually tells you what your eye sees.
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barcelona, spain: just when you think you can’t fathom having mas jamon, spain invites you to rise to the challenge

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The first time I flew to Europe my plane ticket cost $250 and was procured through a travel agent. Back then we carried our paper tickets, accordion maps and guidebooks in our hands and changed dollars for pounds. This was 1996, and my friend and I flew across the Atlantic to visit our roommate studying abroad, and my god, British food was terrible and everything was expensive. Little did we know we booked what we thought to be a fancy hotel in a posh neighborhood when really it was a hovel where we paid a pound an hour for heat and a communal bathroom was located on every other floor.

We took an overnight flight and I remember the cab ride to the hotel–how we pressed our faces to the glass just to see everything, and we did the thing we weren’t supposed to do: we dropped our bags and collapsed into a deep, uninterrupted sleep. Come nightfall we woke, ate and drank, and we proceeded to do that for the days that followed; our bodies never really adjusted to London time.

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of saying that after 18 years you would’ve thought I learned something because the first thing I did when I arrived yesterday morning in Spain was SLEEP. I’d sleep for two hours, walk to the supermarket, ramble in Spanish, walk home, eat, sleep, edit my novel (how?) and sleep again. I woke at seven to darkness and I spent thirteen hours combing Barcelona and falling in love with a city that reminds me of Paris, minus the caustic attitude.

If there’s one thing I hate doing is planning an itinerary before I go on holiday. While this may sound odd for someone as Type A and methodical as me, however, vacation is the one time I have when I can play my days as they lay. I can wake to a new city waiting to be discovered and there’s a thrill in that, moving amongst strangers and navigating a language that isn’t your own. Yet, I booked two AirBNBs (one for Barcelona and another for Granada), and I decided the day before I left New York that I would book a couple of excursions and I’m glad I did.

After scanning the web, I came across Julia Tours, a reputable, well-rated tour service that covers the basics and beyond. Today, I took a full-day tour of Barcelona, and I’m presently lying supine on the couch with my feet propped up on cushions they ache so much. But it’s a good ache, and today was a magical day.

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We started out wandering the medieval streets in the Gothic Quarter, where most of the buildings date back from the 15th century, including the Barcelona Cathedral. We headed toward Plaza Sant Jaume to view the political buildings, including the the Palace of Generalitat and the Town Hall. Most of the tour was on foot, and our expert guides were funny, deft, and shared little known facts about the sites we were seeing. We heard a story about a virgin martyr, Eulalia who was left naked in the city square and then the snow fell, miraculously covering her nudity. She was buried in the crypt of the Barcelona Cathedral and 13 geese are kept in the cloisters to honor her sacrifice.

Leave it to me to remember the macabre.

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Back on the bus to take in views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Barcelona Coast on the way to the Olympic Village, home to athletes during the Olympics, and the Port Olympic. Nearby, we took an aerial cable-car and I was in awe of such a beautiful, vibrant, yet oddly serene city. Perhaps it’s the fact that Barcelona is married to so much water. I’ve always been partial to the ocean. Finally, we visited the Spanish Village (Poble Espanyol) to see typical architecture and traditional crafts from different regions of Spain. I managed to sneak in some chorizo, potatoes with aioli, and copious amounts of dark chocolate.

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We broke for lunch, and I need to tell you that I nearly ran down to Las Ramblas–all to see La Boqueria in all its glory. And BELIEVE ME WHEN I SAY THAT THIS OPEN-AIR MARKET DID NOT DISAPPOINT. Yes, I used all caps because The Boqueria deserves nothing less than bold font. It’s a market I’ve never seen. Rows of tapas bars with hundreds of people pulling apart shrimp and oysters with their slicked fingers. Beer spilling, the quick slicing of raw fish, the sizzle and hiss of pork hitting multiple skillets, and throngs of people sipping on psychedelic-hued juices–the cacophony of the music the food made and the people who gathered around it was unlike any I’d ever heard, and I felt dizzy wandering the stalls, sampling scores of ham and ham, and oh by the way, the juiciest figs I’ve ever had. Cut open, they were practically violet.

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Some people travel to see architecture. I travel to fondle fruit. I travel to have six meals a day–just so I don’t miss a taste. I was so delirious I photographed a MUSHROOM. And you guys know how I feel about the WRETCHED MUSHROOM. Of course I didn’t touch it or taste it, but I did admire its composition. I was feeling generous, you see.

Later on, I boarded a bus to survey the façade of La Sagrada Familia (the line to get in was bananas foster, so I plan on returning so my photos don’t honestly do this basilica justice), and continued on to enjoy more of Antoni Gaudi’s masterpieces, including the sculptures, terraces and mosaic-embellished walls at Park Güell. To say I fell in love with the modernist pieces–many of which influenced a young Picasso and many other cubists–would be an understatement. I was particularly drawn to the Gingerbread House (shocker, the macabre fairytale I adored as a child) and how the roof was adorned with inverted coffee cups, symbolic of Gaudi giving up coffee in his 70s.

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After thirteen hours, I hobbled home, fixed a HUGE salad (salads, as we know it, aren’t really big here) and some gluten-free pasta with sausage, sundried tomatoes and fried chickpeas.

Tomorrow I’m off to Dali’s seaside hometown and museum. Bring me all the surrealism.

By the way, I’ve consumed more pork today than I have in the past year, and I’m not tired of it yet.

By the way, way, I’m posting a pile of my photos on Instagram. Follow me!

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you’ll never find me consuming airline food // the contents of my food bag revealed

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Unless TSA agents have confiscated my food bags in some underhanded attempt at mind control, or my bag mysteriously disappears into the abyss that is the seat pocket, I never, ever consume airline food. Packed with sodium and preservatives, airline meals are never a memorable event. Mostly you find yourself playing the role of an investigator, sleuthing through the contents of your tray–all the while wondering if that misshapen blob hidden beneath a layer of opaque sauce is indeed chicken.

Ignore the lies the flight attendants tell you. It’s never chicken.

Many of my friends make poking fun of my food bag a national pastime, however, invariably, they’ll crave a piece of my homemade cookie, beg for a carrot, or express heartbreak over not bringing aboard an almond-crusted chicken of their own. For international flights, I tend to pack a carry-on filled with snacks, a proper meal, fruits and cut vegetables. I also pack a couple of bars for when I’m walking around all day or I’m in a pinch between European meal times. And over the past year, I’ve booked AirBNB apartments so I have the option of either dining out or cooking up a dish with local ingredients from the market.

Today I’m leaving for Spain, and to say that I’m jubilant is an understatement. I AM OVER THE MOON. Two weeks without the company of people is glorious, and I intend to trek to Dali’s house and museum and eat all the gluten and dairy free tapas a woman can endure in one sitting. I’m all packed (one small rolling bag, a purse and one carry-on bag), with the small exception of gathering some fruits (apples, raspberries + blackberries) + cut veg (carrots, edamame) for the flight.

The contents of my food bag are abundant. I tend to overpack because you just never know if your flight might be diverted and you end up having an Odyssean layover in some airport where the main culinary attraction is the rotating hot dog (Exhibit A: Fiji’s airport). I focus on GMO + gluten-free snacks that pack a protein punch, teas, nuts, fruit, vegetables, treats (my lemon poppyseed cookie + some dark chocolate-covered almonds), as well as packing a full meal. Today, I’ve got these DELICIOUS sundried tomato meatballs, which are just as good at room temperature versus heated, and I plan to pick up a plain green salad at JFK. I always check the food options at the terminals in advance of my flight. Most places will sell a simple green salad.

Want to make these meatballs? Super simple. 1 lb ground sirloin | 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes | 2 tbsp parsley | sprigs of rosemary | 1 egg | salt/pepper. Blitz the sundried tomatoes, parsley, rosemary, salt and pepper in a food processor/blender. Add the mixture + egg to the meat, mixing with your hands, gently. Shape into meatballs. Add them to a large oven-proof baking dish. Cover with your favorite tomato sauce and cook at 400F for 25 minutes.

This post was inspired by my friend Hitha, and her enormous propensity to make travel simply luxurious.
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the weight we carry

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I live in a city where women are impossibly thin and they can’t see it. They juice-fast, book back-to-back spin and bootcamp classes, and traipse around Manhattan in expensive gear. They are disheveled, deceptively so, with their hair a bit mused {falling out of that pony or bun} and a bead of sweat gathered at the brow. They are in the business of reduction, and the hunger for smallness is a constant, exhausting state. They say, You look great! Did you lose weight? They say, after they overhear a girl complain about the lack of double-0 petites, I don’t touch bread baskets. They say, covering their stomach with their hands, I’m on this new diet that I found on Refinery. They say, in a voice sonnet-small, How can I get small, small, small?

Mother of fuck. We can build magnificent things with the amount of effort we devote to reducing the size of our bodies.

I used to be that girl in the changing room whinging about the lack of negative integers. I was also someone who subsisted on 1200 calories a day and worked out seven days a week. I was also someone with a drug and alcohol problem, but it didn’t matter because people often complimented my tiny waist, my unwavering discipline. Looking at old photographs, it’s hard to not want to return to that country, a time when all the small sizes fit and my hip to chest ratio was the focus of other’s envy — but I remind myself of who I was then: a frightened girl, hardly a woman, who could only exert control over her body while the rest of her life fell asunder.

After a midday workout class, my friend and I fall into the elevator and I wonder aloud why we were the only women sweating. My friend says, You realize we were the fat kids in gym class. We talk about body shifts in our 30s, and tacitly agree that we aren’t who we used to be.

I read a post where a woman sees a rendering of herself and compliments the artist on the fact that she made her so skinny. The artist responds that she drew the woman as she saw her. I look at the drawing and the woman and understand wholly and completely why it’s hard for her to reconcile the two. Why is that skinny is the highest compliment many women think they can pay? I then flip through images of me from a decade past and wish I’d love myself more. I wish I knew that the body I had been given was enough — I didn’t need to go a decade-long remodeling project. I didn’t need to ruin what was already beautiful.

I still struggle with this. Every hour of every day. Age gives you perspective and knowledge, but it doesn’t make realizations, or any subsequent regret, any easier to bear. I talk about being strong, but then I find myself staring at the size of women’s thighs on the subway. This past weekend I see a friend and immediately cry out about how wonderful she looks. Did you lose weight? And as soon as the words leave my mouth, I want to pull them back. I want to rewind and delete. I say, fuck, no, you know what I mean, and she nods and I stutter, and I feel awful for not being more vigilant. For not believing in what I want to believe every hour of every day. For not buying into the line I’ve been feeding myself for the past two years. I believe but it’s hard.

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All of this puts me to thinking of India. I think about the juxtaposition of women covered in full-length burkas and women who walk with their flawed {at least from the perspective of an American} bodies on full display. They’re proud of their beauty, unapologetic even, and I look at the women with their midsections all out for the world to see, and how we constantly, unconsciously, pull at our shirts to cover and hide, and this breaks my heart. I live amidst abundance, but those who are abundant are also desperate for the minimal, the elimination, the whisper of a body rather than the shout of it. I envied the women in India, and wished for their confidence. I think about my childhood in Brooklyn and how Puerto Rican and Dominican women strutted proud in their plumage while my mother was constantly covering me up. If I was so healthy, as my mother kept telling me, why was she covering my body as if it were a thing worth being ashamed of?

This is a horror to which I’ve returned, and I can’t quite reconcile it. I’m back in New York, back to my fitness classes and brunch dates, and India is still a specter. The dichotomy of it, the largeness of it, and here I am, assaulted by one constant word, and that word being small.

everything you need to know about traveling to india: the logistics {monster post}

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Although I had such an incredible experience in India, I couldn’t be more happy to be sitting on my couch, Twilight Zone playing on the background and a cup of coffee brewing. Home feels good, right, and I feel as if I’ve returned from my trip with an arcane sense of understanding and clarity. I’ve got a separate post brewing on all matters Felicia and enlightenment, but for now know that things are good, although I’m a bit disoriented and tired, as in I’m trying to understand that I won’t see a camel on the way to the store — that sort of thing.

Anyway, a great deal of you lovely folks sent emails, tweets and comments inquiring about traveling to India. Everything from safety to hotels and that sort of thing, and although I can only give you my impression, know that India is HUGE. I mean, 1.2B people huge, and I know that saying this is patently obvious, but you don’t really understand how massive India is until you visit. Customs, dialects and logistics vary by region, so I’ll give you my take on having visited the following cities: Delhi, Agra, Ranthambore and Jaipur, as well as asking a ton of questions of our intrepid, and very patient, tour guide.

Itinerary: Through Jetsetter, I discovered Indus Travel’s Treasures of India tour, and I can’t recommend it enough. Only a year in operation, it feels as if they’ve been executing flawless tours for years. From precise and friendly airport pick-up and transfers to excellently-appointed hotels {I stayed at Vivanta by Taj — the most extraordinary hotel, ever, as evidenced by my photos below, Gateway, Vivanta by Taj – Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Trident}, to small group sizes {our tour was of seven} and an amazingly kind, smart and funny guide, Indus really made my experience in India a truly special one.

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Language + Religion: Although English is generally used for official and business purposes, Hindi is the official language and is spoken by about 30 percent of the population. There are in all 22 officially recognized languages. When I asked my tour guide about faith, he relayed that bulk of the population is Hindu, followed by Muslim and Christianity. For the most part, the relationships between the varying faiths are extremely amicable, with the exception of interfaith marriage, which is very much frowned-up culturally, but absolutely legal.

Visas + Travel logistics: Citizens of all countries need to have a valid passport and an entry, transit or tourist visa obtained from the Indian Mission in your country prior to departure. Visas are usually valid for either 3 months or 6 months from the date of issue and are valid for multiple entry regardless of whether you intend staying that long or re-entering the country. Since I’m still traumatized by my Russian consultate experience from a decade past, I opted to use a service to obtain my visa, Travisa. You’ll need to fill out extensive online forms, submit passport-type photographs {these can be uploaded online}, and submit copies of your recent utility bills. The process can take anywhere from 4 days to a month, so be safe — my Visa took three weeks and I spent, in total, $300 for all of the processing.

India Local Time: The standard time for India is calculated from Allahabad and is common to all cities. Indian Standard Time (IST) is 5 hours and 30 minutes ahead of GMT. You won’t believe how many times I checked my watch, confused about the 1/2 hour situation.

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Local Currency: The monetary unit in India is the India Rupee (INR). XE.com is a useful site for currency conversion. For U.S. citizens, for every dollar I received around 58-60 INR, depending on the day. When I travel, I tend to use my AMEX for most purchases instead of cash so I can get an average value of the exchange rate. I do use cash for pocket money. Note that most folks don’t have change for large 1,000 notes, and torn notes, even in the slightest, will be refused. You can find ATMs in most hotels and large cities, however, in smaller provinces they are not as ubiquitous. Try to change a great deal of $ at the airport. I was in India for nine days and $500 American dollars was more than enough since larger purchases were made with my AMEX.

Of note, I do place global travel alerts with all my credit cards to avoid fraud, and to ensure that my credit card providers know I’m using my card (s) in another country.

Health + Medical Requirements: Two weeks before you leave for India, absolutely make an appointment with your doctor. Depending on your vaccine history, you may have anywhere from 2-6 shots. I had four {polio, Hep A, tetanus, and another one of which I can’t recall at the moment} and took a typhoid oral vaccine a week before I left. I also took malaria pills daily, and I was stocked with pills in the event that I got sick from any of the food {I did, twice}. I also brought sunscreen and DEET, although, quite honestly, the DEET didn’t work. Oddly enough, lavender oil, did.

Safety {Misconceptions + The Real Truth}: Okay, I’m going to take this head-on. Unless you don’t read or don’t care about world news, you’ve certainly heard about the very brutal rapes in India over the past year. From gang rapes in buses to captures during the daylight hours, the news has painted a very dark portrait of India, which is disturbing in a multitude of ways, yet shouldn’t be the reason why you don’t travel to one of the most beautiful, intense and spiritually attuned countries in the world. Rape, murder, sexism are prevalent in all countries in the world — some more than most — and if anything in the past year has taught me, it’s this: the U.S. clearly doesn’t view women as equals {rape and victim blame culture, anyone?}, even if we all like to talk a good game. The existence of social media has raised awareness about these atrocities, however, if you think that rape suddenly just started in India, you may want to rethink that. Without getting too deep into a rabbit hole {I’m also jetlagged and not thinking straight}, India is a relatively safe country if you’re smart about how you travel.

Groups of men {or a few in pairs} will approach you in an attempt to sell you things or talk to you — simply and politely ignore them and they’ll go away. Our guide relayed that these folks are looking for easy marks to target and don’t want to deal with complications. Personally, I don’t travel around at night as I tend to do most of my tours during the day and stay home and read, blog, or catch up with my new friends in a GROUP, in the evening.

People will stare at you, it’s a fact. Part of it has to do with the fact that you’re different. In many of the rural areas, many people don’t regularly see people who aren’t Indian, and it’s more out of curiosity than contempt. A few kids took our picture, and asked us whether we liked Obama. The harder part was dealing with men staring. I traveled with a tall blonde, who elicited quite a bit of attention, but it was extremely challenging to not feel eyes roving about your body. Nothing is ever said or insinuated — it’s just a feeling of disquiet. This was most prevalent in the markets and more rural areas {highway stops and that sort of thing} — less so in New Delhi, KOD, business districts, etc. While I didn’t like it, I dealt with it. 80% of the time I was greeted and treated with kindness, and I found folks to be curious, smart, and friendly in my interactions.

For all the people who had a heart attack that I was going to India, breathe it out. I NEVER ONCE FELT UNSAFE.

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Animals: On the regular, you will see cows. LOTS OF THEM, everywhere. They are like the stray dogs of the U.S., but most have owners. You will also see goats, dogs, camels and monkeys, everywhere. For the more exotic animals, you’d locate them at reserves. Of note, I saw several packs of monkeys with tourists trying to feed them and then grew shocked when a monkey bit them. Note, guys: these are WILD ANIMALS. These are not domesticated pets. Treat them as such.

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Getting Around {Transit, Street Navigation, Creative Honking}: This link is a great primer on traveling in India {I was either on a bus or car, so I didn’t experience it first-hand}. In Delhi, there were red public buses {sans air conditioning}, blue public buses {air-conditioned} and an underground subway system {most expensive of the three}. Most folks take buses and tuk-tuks {motorized or bicycle driven}. I did take a tuk tuk in Jaipur, and since the language was a barrier, my friends and I had our hotel cards with us at all times.

One thing you will notice is that EVERYBODY HONKS. ALL THE TIME. THIS IS A THING. There are no traffic lights or signs, so don’t be surprised by the very organized and brilliant chaos. Cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cows, people, buses — they’re all weaving in and out of a multi-lane traffic lane or intersection. Since I’m an avid jaywalker, it didn’t bother me all that much, but I had to be aware of where I was looking. This was most prevalent in Jaipur.

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WIFI: Before I left the U.S., I called AT&T and purchased my requisite data plan. Seriously, DO NOT BOTHER. While I can make calls anywhere in India, I wasn’t able to access data services until I was in major cities or at my hotel. High-speed internet isn’t like the U.S., and most folks, I’ve noticed, don’t use smartphones — unless they are in business or have more disposable income.

Shopping + What’s Good + Wear to Buy: As I’ve grown older, I don’t shop for souvenirs like I used to, so I mostly buy pieces that tell a story. India is pretty excellent, IMHO, for the following: textiles {rugs, blankets, shirts, embroidery, cashmere, wool, pashmina}, perfume oils {I purchased fifteen small vials and I’ve no regrets}, spices {do not buy loose spices; there have been rumors of ground-up cow dug as a mixing agent}, marble and jewelry {I purchased a 1 carat sapphire set in .8 carat diamond ring for $175, certified and verified}.

Of note, haggling is expected, especially if you’re buying more than one item. 10-15% discounts are standard, but I’ve managed to get items up to 30% off.

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Food: Crazy that I’m saving the best for last, right? Indian food is extraordinary. I’m pretty much ruined for it. Most of my meals were vegetarian, and the cacophony of spices, textures and flavors transformed simple rice and dishes from the ordinary to the extraordinary. I will pen a separate post on the cuisine, once I adjust to the fact that I’m not going to see a cow on the regular.

As I mentioned earlier, these are my general impressions. If you’ve got info to add, tips, etc, please leave them in the comments field, as I know of a few friends who plan to travel to India within the next year.

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amer fort: jaipur, india {the longest post, ever}

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Perhaps I was too ambitious. Maybe I thought the physicality of ticking off an item on a list was still a marker of achievement. I came to India with purpose — I would have the space, time, and clarity to bring my novel home {the physical} while at the same time finding out if I need to define what it is that I want to do with my life {the mental; line forms to the left}. And naturally, there would be time, oceans of it, to complete freelance projects, and make sense and shape of all that is India. I would navigate its streets, inhale its spices, feel its people.

I never conceived of that fact that India is both exhilarating and exhausting, and I’m again reminded that once you attempt to define something, that thing changes its form until it is something else altogether.

We’re closing out our trip in Jaipur, which is a city of three million people, but it might as well be thirty with its symphony of sound, color, taste and smell. Yesterday we wandered The Pink City, and I tried to ignore the way men looked at us, looked through and under our clothes. I tried not to feel unsettled by the fact that there were hundreds of women covered in black cloth with only a slit for their eyes to betray their identity. We wove in and out of a thoroughfare of chaos with the constant drone of a horn honking {this is the norm, it seems}, people shouting, women negotiating fruit and fabric, men calling — always the siren call of the sea nymphs turned land turned street turned petal pink — cows swaggering, camels sleeping, dogs nipping, cats calculating, and the seven of us wandering, making sure we were always, always together.

There was the hiss and spit of fire {The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf/Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind/Crosses the brown land, unheard./The nymphs are departed, writes Eliot}, the spark of turquoise and cobalt dyes, the men walking beside me, telling me, It costs nothing to look. Come look. Come over here. I do not follow because I think of the fire and charcoal and how it is possible that within eight short days I can bear witness to so many examples of following a loved one into the dark.

I was supposed to finish this book. I had a kind of idea of how I would end it. The novel is a triptych of sorts, a verse repeated three times — three generations of broken women — but finally broken {a new song sung, a new page being written} by a woman who starts off the story by setting a woman’s hair on fire, but ends up wanting the single thing she, and all of the women who had come before, had been missing — someone to follow her into the dark.

Believe me when I say that I see the pages. I see the words as I’m typing them, but all I can do is feel. All I can do is exist amongst these stories people whom I hardly know, tell, and I’m reminded of the fact that I am very much on the verge. I am on the precipice of something, and the idea of returning to New York to deal with all this shit is at turns thrilling and frightening.

I’m genuinely excited and frightened of a great many things, and this is okay to feel this. It’s okay to settle into the dark but not set up shop in it. To not lay your bricks down, but perhaps a little blanket that you can carry with you when you’re ready for the light.

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Today we spent a great deal of the deal at the Amer Fort in Jaipur. From the intricate fusion of Hindu and Muslim architecture and the iridescent embossed silver mirrors, walls and doors, to the cool pastels of the summer rooms and the the apartments of the 12 women the king kept, the Fort {Palace} is an extraordinary sight to see. One could wander the stairs and tunnels and complex irrigation systems all day. We also procured fragrant oils in cactus, lavender, jasmine, sandalwood, rose and grass, whose flowers were hand-pressed and melded with hands that come from three generations of fragrance manufacturing. We saw fakirs {!!!} and cobras and dogs on their backs, and monkeys, who, in one moment would eat from the palm of your hand and then attack it.

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All the while I think of an honest love letter a new friend of mine wrote to her childhood friend, who has slowly become more than that. I remember reading it over dinner and feeling the familiar ache of a woman who has the strength to risk plucking out her heart and laying it down to be received. I was struck by this love described so simply, so plainly, and it is the very thing in which I desire for myself and for my Kate, the center character in my novel.

I think of our tour guide, Raj, a kind man who regaled the story of he {a Brahmin} and “Sweetie” {his Sikh wife}. They were beloveds through high school and college, but they kept their love a secret to no one save the very fundamentalist family. So Raj would escort her on movie dates and drop her off around the corner of her house, and Sweetie would pursue three different degrees to defer the suite of arranged Sikh suitors her parents had dutifully selected. Sweetie went on her interviews, which were a constant play on what is said and unsaid, and after having told three families that no, she does not eat meat, and no, she does not cook, and no, she is not religious, Raj’s family met with Sweetie’s and told the story of two people very much in love.

In short, this meeting was a disaster. Raj’s family was escorted out before the chai had been laid down on the table, and the father blamed the mother for the catastrophe that was Sweetie’s digressions. Family members made the 10-hour journey from Punjab to discuss, for 15 days straight, the plight of Sweetie. There were tears, threats, anguish and despair, and finally Raj took a calculated risk and told the family that he and Sweetie had already signed papers to be married.

A family debacle is one thing. A legal one is quite another. Arrangements were made, concessions acquiesced to, and for seventeen years Raj and Sweetie made a wonderful home and life for themselves, and the families became whole with the birth of two very beautiful children.

I listen to this story on a moving bus, and parts of it are funny and other parts are heartbreaking, but the light, the love is palpable, and this was once a young man who would risk everything for the woman he loved.

I think: I have this. I have this story in my hands and what to do with it? I wait for the time when mind, heart and hand are ready to move. I’m excited for the velocity of this book. I’m frightened of my personal velocity {the life undefined, the financial insecurity that is real}, and I know right now that I can’t control any of it.

All I can do is breathe, be present, and hope that life and art intersect and the character gets her way and the woman gets her way, and everyone is followed into, and ushered out of, the dark.

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