Wandering Venice

The hubs and I spent a lovely weekend in Venice celebrating a friend’s wedding. Afterwards, we had some extra time to spend sightseeing. I originally had a whole itinerary planned, with every minute accounted for, but a last minute visa problem cut our trip shorter than we had planned. As I flipped through the guidebook trying to figure out a new itinerary, I suddenly remembered the way I used to travel: Show up and wander. Get lost. Take in all the sights and sounds and smells of the city. And so, aside from an obligatory Saint Mark’s Basilica visit, because you can’t really go to Venice for the first time and not do that, wander is what we did. We meandered though narrow streets and across bridges, no deadlines or specific destinations, just exploring Venice. And it was lovely. Here are a few snapshots. Venice is a destination we definitely plan to return to with more time to spend, but this weekend was a lovely introduction to a gorgeous city!

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So many beautiful bridges and canals everywhere!
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A gondola! No cars in Venice. Walking and boating are how you get around.

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Saint Mark’s Square: Eternally packed with tourists, but if you want an empty plaza for picture-taking, try going before eight or nine in the morning: it’ll be surprisingly calm and empty.

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Charming little courtyard where our hotel was located. Breakfast on the terrace was a lovely way to start the day.
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Canal-side dining on the Fondamenta della Misericordia. Spaghetti al nero di seppia, spaghetti with cuttlefish and a sauce made from cuttlefish ink, is a Venetian culinary specialty. Although it may sound strange, I promise you it’s delicious! Try it!
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Brightly colored glass dishes, jewelry, and decor, made on the Venetian island of Murano, are on display in countless shop windows in Venice. Glass earrings and coffee were the two souvenirs I chose to bring home. (Mmm… the coffee… don’t even get me started on the coffee.)

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Cooking and Booking II

Woohoo! I can check Goal #10 off my “30 before 30” list, and I’m two thirds of the way to Goal #9! Since making the list last summer, I’ve cooked 30 new recipes and read 20 books. For the first 10 recipes and books, see this post. And here are the latest!

Recipes #11-30

* = yuck, ** = meh, *** = okay but nothing special, **** = pretty good, will probably make again, ***** = yum, yum, delish, will definitely make again

11. Couscous with spiced zucchini, from Epicurious ****

12. Cheddar Chive Drop Biscuits, from The Pioneer Woman ****

13. Mussels in White Wine and Garlic Sauce, from food.com *****

14. Red Lentil Curry, from allrecipes ****

15. Tomato Herb Rice with White Beans and Spinach, from Budget Bytes *****

16. Classic Beef Stroganoff, from Betty Crocker ****

17. Chocolate Hazelnut Spirals, from my grandmother, similar to this recipe *****

18. Baked Brie in Puff Pastry, from food.com. I used apple butter instead of raspberry preserves. *****

19. Chicken Tikka Masala, from food.com. I reduced the pepper and used half and half instead of heavy cream. *****

20. Chana Masala, from Minimalist Baker. I used fewer peppers and replaced the coconut sugar with regular sugar. *****

21. Lobster Risotto, from NYT Cooking *****

22. Spicy Roasted Chicken Thighs, from NYT Cooking *****

23. Salmon Burgers, from NYT Cooking *** (Flavorful but fell apart)

24. Asparagus, Goat Cheese, and Lemon Pasta, from Smitten Kitchen ***

25. Boeuf Bourguignon a la Julia Child, from food.com *****

26. Picadillo, from NYT Cooking.*****

27. Falafel, from Epicurious ****

28. Hummus, from NYT Cooking *****

29. Mushroom Risotto with Peas, from NYT Cooking *****

30. Monterrey Chicken Skillet, from Budget Bytes ****

 

Books #11-20

11. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. (Nigeria. Biafra War. Love affairs. Impossible to put down.)

12. Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages. (Really wise marriage advice.)

13. Haruki Murakami, What I Think About When I Think About Running. (Will inspire you to get out there and finish those distance runs.)

13. Mai Al-Nakib, The Hidden Light of Objects. (Kuwait. Short stories. Heart-wrenchingly beautiful.)

14. Pam Munoz Ryan, Esperanza Rising. (Kid lit. History. Mexico and California. Immigration story. Coming of age.)

15. Binyavanga Wainaina, One Day I Will Write About This Place. (Memoir. Kenya. Occasional stream of consciousness.)

16. Janet Wallach, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. (History. Herstory.  The Middle East.)

17. Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem. (Lebanese Civil War. Israeli-Palestinian conflict. History book meets journalist’s memoir.)

18. Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis. (Graphic novel. Autobiography. Young girl growing up in Iran in the 1980s.)

19. Atul Gawande, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. (Inside the mind of a surgical resident. Doctors as humans. Challenges and difficult decisions in medicine.)

20. John Grisham, The Whistler. (You think you’re too sophisticated for this one, but you secretly know you’re not.)

30 before 30: The most empowering thing you can do is the thing you think you can’t do

Intelligence is malleable. You do not have an innate, fixed level of intelligence. You can make yourself smarter. You’re not born good at math or good at writing or good at science. You can make yourself good at any of these things. You just have to work hard and believe in yourself.

As a young teacher, I was told to impress these ideas upon my students, and I understand why. Expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies, and for kids to be successful at school, it is crucial for them to believe that they can.

But do we, as teachers, live out these ideas in our own lives? I don’t think we do. And I think that’s problematic, because kids learn by example more than anything else.

See, we think we buy into the idea that anyone can be successful through hard work and persistence and believing in oneself, as we repeat that mantra over and over to our students. But we’re forgetting that many of us, as teachers, have always been more or less “good” at school. We’ve never really struggled to believe that academic success is attainable to anyone through effort, sticking with it, and never giving up. But when it comes to other things, outside of academics, we all absolutely do buy into the idea that there are certain things we just inherently can’t do.

For some of us, that’s art. I can’t draw. I can barely draw stick figures! I’m not artistic.

For others, it’s foreign languages. Never been my thing.

Or music. I sing in the shower, but that’s it, and just be glad you’re not around to hear that!

Or sports. I’m slow and clumsy.

We tell our students they can be successful in math class if they work hard enough and believe in themselves, then turn around and tell our adult friends that we can’t draw or swimming’s just not our thing or we just don’t have the such and such talent or we’re just not made for blah blah blah.

For me, that thing was running. For most of my life, I firmly believed I was incapable of running more than a mile without stopping. Shaking that mindset in my twenties and running my first 5k was one of the most exciting, freeing, and empowering things I’ve ever done, and a few weeks ago, I ran my first half marathon.

So here’s my challenge for my fellow teachers: Identify one of those things you always casually say you “can’t” do, and resolve to do it. Not only will you get a huge confidence boost when you soar past your own self-imposed limits, but you just might be able to inspire a few reluctant students.

30 before 30: Breaking out of Comfort Zones

For most of my life, I was very much a comfort zone sort of person. It all boiled down to wanting to feel in control over my life. I remember signing up for a very popular political philosophy class back in college. I opted to take the class pass-fail, because the content was totally outside my comfort zone and I didn’t feel confident that I knew how to write a successful philosophy paper. So I chose the safe route. Several times in college, I turned down opportunities to go on ski trips, paintball excursions, and other activities I’d never participated in before. I thought I’d fail and make a fool out of myself. So I stayed home. And stuck to whatever I already knew how to do well.

Studying abroad midway through college turned me into a more daring and confident person. There’s something about traveling and living abroad that just does this. During that semester in Paris, I took a giant leap outside my comfort zone one day when I saw a 25 euro plane ticket to Morocco. I bought it before I had time to convince myself not to, something the me of a few months earlier would never have done. That trip changed my life. It made me start to realize that stepping outside my comfort zone, despite all the uncertainty and lack of control that it brings, can be immensely thrilling and rewarding and ultimately make me a better person.

Shortly after college, a friend invited me on a ski trip. I had never been skiing before in my life. A younger me would have turned down the invitation and stayed home in my comfort zone, but I hesitantly agreed to go. I fell on my butt approximately seven thousand times on the bunny slope, then tried to tackle a “real” slope that I wasn’t ready for, panicked and fell getting off the ski lift, fell a lot more times, and finally took off my skis and hiked down the hill. I was cold and frustrated and sore. But you know what matters? I tried it. I said yes. I was scared, but I went out there and I did it.

When you step out of your comfort zone, sometimes you realize things like “Skiing really isn’t my jam and the cozy fire in the ski lodge is where it’s at.” Other times, you discover a new hobby or passion because you weren’t afraid to take that first leap and give it a try.

There’s still a small part of me that tries to push me back into my comfort zone and hold me there whenever new opportunities arise. Here’s how I fight it! My four tips for breaking out of the comfort zone, “daring greatly,” and living life to its fullest:

  1. Think of specific things outside your comfort zone that you wish you were brave enough to do. Write them in a list of goals and set a deadline. Something like a 25-before-25 or 30-before-30 list is perfect!
  2. Commit yourself before you have time to second guess. Buy that skydiving ticket. Register for that 10k. Sign up for that art class. Just do it. Now you’ve signed up and paid: You can’t back out now!
  3. Recruit friends to go with you! If your friends are also new to whatever new adventure you’re pursuing, you won’t feel so self-conscious if you’re terrible at it. If they’re not, they can give you suggestions and support. Plus, including other people means accountability. No backing out or quitting!
  4. Be kind to yourself. If you come in last in your first 5k or paint something hideous in your first art class, so what? You tried! You put yourself out there and did something outside your comfort zone. That’s so empowering. And you can always try again.

Personally, I have three comfort-zone-defying items on my 30 before 30 list that I am currently pursuing:

  1. “Run a half marathon.” I was a swimmer growing up and running was never my thing, but I got into it recently. Thirteen miles is far more than I’ve ever run, though! It’s scary! But I’ve signed up for a race this spring with my husband and family, so I guess this half marathon thing is actually going to happen.
  2. “Learn how to do yoga.” I am probably the most inflexible person in the world. I can’t even touch my toes!! And because of this embarrassing fact, I’ve turned down invitations from friends to join them in yoga classes in the past. But no longer! I tried a series of free sunset yoga classes by the river last summer and loved them. I’m now taking advantage of a “30 days for $30” deal at a yoga studio down the street. I’m slowly becoming more flexible, the instructors are very patient and wonderful, and it’s helping me a lot with stress reduction and self care. And it’s fun!
  3. “Learn to salsa dance.” Okay, I’m a klutz. I am not graceful at all. It takes me a LONG time to figure out and follow dance steps. But after some free community salsa classes in a park last summer, some lessons at the Havana Club this winter, and the company of my awesome hubby, I’m starting to actually get it! I’m realizing that dancing, like pretty much every skill, can be learned. You’re not born with it or without it.

Well, that’s my latest 30 before 30 update! Alright people, let’s go out there and break out of some comfort zones!

 

Twelve Grapes at Midnight

December 31, 2014, aboard an Emirates aircraft somewhere between Madrid and Dubai, I experienced my strangest and most unforgettable New Year’s Eve.

First of all, I was alone.

Well, not exactly.

I was smushed in an economy cabin with three hundred other people. Across the aisle to my left: a cute, wide-eyed, curly brown haired toddler. It must have been way past her bedtime. I tried to guess which language of babytalk she was happily babbling to her parents in. Was it Arabic? Seated next to me on my right: an elderly Chinese man who said one word- “Whiskey!” – to every flight attendant who passed by, until I started furtively gesturing at them to cut him off. In front of me: A row of twentysomethings, clearly friends, wearing giant glittering party hats and brandishing sparkling wands, chatting excitedly in Spanish and trying to see out the windows even though we were in the middle row.

But I wasn’t with family or friends, and that was odd. I felt like an observer, peeking into someone’s house, watching strangers’ New Year’s Eve festivities through a snow-frosted window.

Time zones were muddled in my mind as they always are on international flights. But I guessed the time in Madrid was approaching midnight, because the Spanish friends were adjusting their party hats and passing out plastic champagne flutes and noisemakers. How they managed to bring a bottle of bubbly on this plane I do not know. I guess they bought it at duty free.

The toddler giggled and bounced on her mother’s lap. The flight attendant and her cart glided slowly down the narrow aisle. The gentleman to my right called out, “Whiskey!” She told him her cart had only tea and coffee. He looked confused.

What time would it be in Dubai? Or in Morocco, my home of the moment? What about in Nairobi, where my fiance’s family was waiting for me? I thought for a brief instant, then gave up on the math. In the air, time is suspended. On a thirty hour trip spanning three continents- Tangier to Madrid to Dubai to Nairobi- it doesn’t matter what time it is. There’s nowhere I could possibly go other than this plane and where it’s headed, no appointments I could possibly make other than our projected landing time, and my only clock, my cell phone, is turned off anyway. Until the wheels touch the runway, there is no such thing as time.

Except on New Year’s Eve, when wherever you are, even cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet, you are pressed with a need to know what time it is, down to the very second, and so you latch on to the nearest time zone and find a way to count.

Diez… nueve… ocho…

The Spanish friends were standing on their seats, leaning on each other, touching the ceiling of the plane for balance, standing in the aisles. A blonde girl was passing out green grapes- to her friends, to strangers, to everyone who would take them.

Midnight struck. Not in Dubai, or Nairobi, or Boston, or Tangier, and probably not even in whatever place we were currently flying over, but in Madrid, it was midnight, it was January first, 2015. The Spanish friends were popping grapes into their mouths. Twelve green grapes, one for each stroke of midnight, twelve grapes for twelve months of good luck. Champagne glasses were clinking, people were hugging and kissing, a stranger hugged me, the elderly Chinese man was filming the Spanish revelers with one hand and waving one of his empty mini bottles with the other, a wide grin across his face, the baby was laughing, people were dancing on the seats of the airplane, cheering, laughing, dancing in the aisles. Flight attendants were telling everyone to sit down. No one was listening.

I wished my fiance was there so we could kiss on the stroke of midnight-in-Madrid and share this moment. I wished my friends and family were there so we could dance on the airplane seats and laugh together and tell each other happy new year thousands of feet above the ground. But I was also somehow strangely content. There was something peaceful about looking through the figurative windows at this moment of happy reveling, sparkling hats, green grapes, and joyous disregard for the concerned flight attendants urging everyone to sit down.

At last, the pilot’s stern voice over the intercom put an end to the reveling, at least the dancing on seats part of it.

This year, I celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends, on the firm ground, six hours later than Madrid. But as we huddled together under umbrellas in Copley Square, too excited and full of good food and drink to care about the light drizzle, watching the glowing clock projected onto Boston Public Library, I had a bag of green grapes in my hand. Twelve grapes for twelve strokes of midnight. Twelve grapes for twelve months of prosperity, or at least, for the non-superstitious, twelve grapes to bring people together- whether friends in Boston or strangers on a plane somewhere between Madrid and Dubai- in a moment of newness and anticipation and hope.

Welcome, 2017!

 

Story time! Strangest moments in airports around the world

We’re leaving for the airport early tomorrow morning. Home for the Holidays, here we come! Boston Logan is typically a relatively calm and uneventful airport, but around the holidays, traveling is like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. While I procrastinate on my packing and present-wrapping, here are my all-time best airport stories, a sequel to my weird stories on trains and buses. Moments in airports that just made me do a double take and think to myself, “Wait a minute, did that actually just happen?”

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Grading papers in a near-empty Zurich airport in the middle of the night. Ever wonder where in the world your homework has been?

Cairo International Airport, March 2015

With my cohort of fellow Fulbrighters, I boarded an EgyptAir flight from Casablanca to Cairo to Amman for a spring conference. Here are some highlights from our EgyptAir experience:

  • The plane food looked very questionable, so I did not eat it and was starving by the time we got to Amman. But that was okay because…
  • Everyone who did eat it got food poisoning.
  • The plane was dirty.
  • The pilot said a prayer over the intercom before we left, and I had very mixed feelings about this because on the one hand I entirely support praying for safe travels and often do so myself, but I also want some reassurance that the pilot has confidence in himself and the plane, you know?
  • We flew home in three separate groups (as some left directly after the conference while I and a few other stayed to wander around Jordan). The second legs of ALL THREE flights were canceled, no explanation given, and we all got stranded in Cairo overnight.

So there we were in the Cairo airport late at night, in need of visas to leave the airport and go to a hotel. We’d thought this through beforehand, as we’d heard about the cancellation before our flight left Amman. While we were waiting in the Amman airport, we had traded our leftover Jordanian dinar for Egyptian pounds rather than Moroccan dirhams. So we all had enough Egyptian cash on hand to purchase our visas.

An airport officer pointed to six currency exchange kiosks surrounding the baggage claim area and told us we could get our visas at any of them.

So we approached the closest kiosk.

“Hi, could I get a visa, please? Our flight was canceled. We’ll just be in Cairo till tomorrow morning.” (hands over passport and form)

“Certainly. That will be twenty-five dollars.”

“Actually, can I pay in Egyptian pounds?”

“No, just dollars or euros.”

“I don’t have dollars.”

“You’re American.”

“Yes, but I’ve been outside the U.S. for the past seven months. I don’t have any American money.”

“How about euros?”

“I don’t have euros. I only have Moroccan dirhams and Egyptian pounds- how much does the visa cost in Egyptian pounds?”

“I’m sorry, I can only accept dollars or euros. You can try one of the other kiosks.”

So we made our way from kiosk to kiosk, and this conversation repeated itself at every kiosk, and when we finally desperately tried the sixth and last kiosk, I lost it and yelled, loudly enough that everyone in the baggage claim area could hear me- “You’re telling me that I can’t purchase an EGYPTIAN visa with EGYPTIAN currency IN EGPYT?!???”

The man behind the kiosk looked around nervously, slid an Egyptian visa across the counter, and said in a hurried whisper, “Ok, ok, just this once, and just for you. You can pay in Egyptian pounds.”

So, PSA, if you’re going to Egypt, bring your dollars.

Mohammed V International Airport (Casablanca), March 2015

As I sat in the domestic terminal, waiting for my flight to Ouarzazate, a stray cat wandered calmly through the departure gate waiting areas. People reacted exactly how they should have: They glanced at the cat, shrugged- just a cat- and went back to their newspapers or cell phones or coffee cups. A totally normal response that felt excessively strange to me because, let’s be real here, in an American airport this cat would have caused a terminal-wide code red freak-out. It’s a terrorist cat. There’s a bomb inside it. It’s an improvised explosive cat. It’s a cat full of drugs. Where is its passport? Where is its owner?  It’s about to detonate! HELP! Run for your lives!

Marrakesh Menara Airport, April 2015

This is the story of how I learned a very valuable life lesson called you get what you pay for.

A friend invited myself and two other girls to go to Italy with her to spend Easter with her cousins. We all readily accepted. We found a $16 flight from Marrakesh to Rome on an airline called Vueling. A deal almost too good to be true. We snapped it up. We’d never flown Vueling before, but we knew Ryanair pretty well and we were cool with those super-cheap no-frills European airlines. We bought a second (and equally cheap) flight from Rome to Lamezia- our final destination in southern Italy- on Ryanair.

Marrakesh was a ten hour train trip away from where I lived, but trains in Morocco are inexpensive and comfortable and I had no problem making such a long trek if it meant that $16 flight and being able to travel with my friends. I took that ten hour ONCF journey, meeting up with one of the girls in Rabat along the way and traveling with her for the final four hours, and we all ended up in the Marrakesh airport by midnight to catch our 2:00 a.m. flight.

Yes, you heard that right. Our flight had a two a.m. departure time. Whatever, it was worth it for $16. And ours was the only flight departing from Marrakesh at anywhere near that time, making a delay less likely.

Oh, wait. Take that back. Two o’clock became two thirty, two forty-five, three… and we were still waiting at our departure gate. No explanation was given. Just as we were starting to get worried about missing our connecting flight in Rome, we were finally allowed to board.

So we boarded…

…and proceeded to sit on the runway for another hour.

Once again, no explanation was given for the delay.

We found a flight attendant and asked her what was going on. We told her we had a connecting flight on another airline that we were likely to miss at that point- would Vueling be able to do anything about that? Could she give us a ballpark estimate of when we might be taking off?

The flight attendant simply shrugged at us- “like a sassy diva,” my friend said, and I can vouch that that is a very realistic description and no exaggeration.

It was now past 4:00 a.m. and passengers were getting very antsy and starting to complain loudly.

A man in an orange vest came on the plane and told us, and I swear I am not making this up, that they would have to turn the plane off and turn it back on again. He quickly ducked out of the plane before anyone had a chance to ask questions.

Rebooting a plane apparently takes at least half an hour.

So we continued to wait.

Some passengers got out of their seats and loudly demanded to get off the flight. They argued back and forth with the flight attendants and the man in the vest who reappeared out of nowhere and another airline guy in a suit. The guy in the suit and the guy in the vest disappeared, then reappeared, and announced to everyone that the mechanical problem had been fixed and the plan was ready for takeoff, but since some passengers wanted to get off the plane there would be another forty minute delay while their baggage was retrieved from the hold.

And that was IT.

Pandemonium broke loose.

Passengers were screaming and yelling in Italian, Arabic, and English. Yelling at each other, yelling at the people getting off the plane, yelling at the man in the suit and the man in the vest and the flight attendants, who were of course all yelling back. Babies were crying. Some guys shoved each other. Someone punched the back of my seat. It was nuts.

So the pilot employed an age-old trick passed down from kindergarten teacher to kindergarten teacher for generations. He turned off the lights for five minutes until we all calmed down.

We missed our connecting flight in Rome and had to cough up sixty euros for a train ticket to Lamezia and then sit on a train for seven or eight hours.

At least we made it in time for Easter dinner!

You get what you pay for. And sometimes what you get is a good story.

Abed Amani Karume International Airport (Zanzibar), July 2015

My husband and I flew from Nairobi to Zanzibar for the second half of our honeymoon. As we stepped off the plane, we were immediately greeted by giant, bright yellow signs: All travelers must show proof of yellow fever immunization. I had my yellow WHO card with me, but my husband did not have his, though he’d been vaccinated about eight years before. We were given two options. “You can wait here for the next flight back to Nairobi, or we can vaccinate you here.” My husband chose the latter option. So the TSA officer- and, I repeat, not a nurse, the TSA officer- opened a mini fridge, took out a needle, showed my husband that it was sterile, and proceeded to jab him in the arm right there by the baggage claim.

I like to end this story with “annnddd now he’s autistic.”

PSA, get your yellow fever shot before you go to Tanzania and don’t lose your WHO card cause they don’t play.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (Houston), August 2014

The man in line in front of me at Starbucks was wearing cowboy boots and a giant cowboy hat completely non-ironically. Maybe that’s normal in Texas, but I’m an urban New England girl. It was weird.

Philadelphia International Airport, May 2016

On my way home from a girls’ weekend away, I was strolling through the Philadelphia airport in the direction of my gate, casually looking around, when, as I passed an information desk, the woman at the desk called out to me, “Starbucks is over that way!”

Should I be amused or offended? Do I really give off that strong of a “basic white girl” vibe? Should I work on that? Siiiiigh.

(The worst part: I actually was looking for a Starbucks.)

(Cringe.)

 

There are some other good ones too, but that’s it for today!

 

 

 

My Two Favorite Recipe Hacks

In the spirit of goal #10 on my 30 before 30 list, here I am in the kitchen again! These are not recipes of my own, but rather, two easy and fast adjustments to recipes that already exist.

(1) Rosemary Cheddar Biscuits

Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried rosemary to the Food Network’s “Almost-Famous Cheddar Biscuits” before the kneading stage. I promise you, the rosemary will take them from almost famous to most definitely famous. These are easy to make and always a big hit.

(2) Best Ever Scrambled Eggs

Follow whatever method of egg scrambling you typically use, and just add a little bit of cream cheese when the eggs are almost done. Ta-da, the loveliest creamiest scrambled eggs you’ve ever tasted. Seriously, cream cheese, the secret ingredient to perfect scrambled eggs.