What I Know

Two years ago, I rode in a minivan along the narrow streets of a Brazilian favela (shantytown) en route to a community center. Upon arrival, I learned about how adolescents were learning skills - boxing, juggling, and aerial arts among them - to stay off the streets and, hopefully, out of gangs. I saw artistry, grace, and a passion to learn and create beauty.

Around the same time, I listened to a Serbian woman describe how she and her fellow Romani (gypsies) were slowly and methodically working to break down prejudice. As a woman and a gypsy, she knew that she faced double the challenges. And that it wasn't going to come easily. But she'd seen moments of success, of traction. And so she and her fellow advocates were going to continue to break down the stigmas, moment by moment.

Eighteen months ago, on the island of Java, three generations of a Muslim family welcomed me into their home for dinner. The meal was sensational, and our hosts sweet, welcoming, and funny. My group asked about daily life in Yogyakarta. Family members had questions about the United States. One of the grandsons discussed his dreams of becoming a pastry chef. As we walked about their neighborhood, one of the women took my hand and squeezed it. I squeezed back.

A year ago, I made my first introductory strolls along the streets of Paris. Life unfolded all around me: Couples walked with their arms around each other's waists, friends exchanged kisses on the cheek as they sank into outdoor seats at neighborhood cafés. Six months after gunmen tried to cripple the Parisian lifestyle, that legendary joie de vivre was on full display.

About eight months ago, I marveled at the confluence of cultures, languages, scents, and sounds that make up everyday London life. History and innovation came together all around me - in the food, the architecture, and the philosophy. And while I was delighting in how exciting it all felt, I loved most the fact that the vibe was straightforward. Of course London was an ever-developing tapestry of experiences. It was and would always continue to develop, adapt, and grow even richer.

What I know of the world is that there is good. Amazing people looking to connect and learn about themselves and about others. And no matter what happens, and no matter who tries to instill fear and a thirst for isolation, we should get out there and experience it. Build relationships, not walls. Create connections rather than discord. Travel instead of hide. Feel, not fear.

Five Flavors Worth the Flight

Over catch-up drinks a few weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing her upcoming trip to the Czech Republic, a country that ranks high on my list of places to which I'd like to return. I thought it worth mentioning to her a particularly notable local dish – so that she could either seek it out or make sure to avoid it entirely, depending on her travel objectives.

“It’s beef served with a creamy gravy and dumplings, which is pretty familiar, right? But then you have the condiments. There’s cranberry sauce and … whipped cream.”

The puzzlement on her face perfectly matched the expression my travel companion had in Prague, as the dish – known as svíčkováwas set down in front of her.

For the record, the dish wasn’t terrible – unfamiliar to my American palate, for sure, but certainly worth trying – but it wasn’t one that would rank among my top travel picks. But the conversation did get me thinking: What are the dishes that I’ve loved most during my international travels? After some time to contemplate, I’ve compiled them below, as well as information about how you can experience them for yourself should you be giving your passport a workout.

Honorable Mention:
Grand Marnier Soufflé
Chez Dumonet Josephine, Paris, France

I relished every single morsel and moment of our dinner at Chez Dumonet, from the warm and welcoming service to the last sugar crystals of this incredible soufflé.

Number 5:
Beef Rendang
Jakarta, Indonesia

I’ve never felt quite so out of my element as when Matt and I arrived in Jakarta. After nearly 27 hours of travel, I didn’t know what day it was. What time it was. Where within Indonesia’s massive capital city I actually was. But I did know that I was excited to explore and sample the local cuisine. Rice. Sambal. Fruit. Yes to all of it, please.

The only reason rendang is at the lowest spot in this list is because I only experienced a small bite of it while in Indonesia itself. Our tour group popped into a small Indonesian restaurant – the kind with the white bowls and servers of deliciousness stacked in the front window to entice passersby – and were given a brief chance to sample the goods. Rich, smoky, spicy, and decadent, the flavors unleashed a slow burn in my mouth that left me wanting to come back for more and introduced me to the incredible food I would experience for the next two weeks.

While I can’t recall the name of the specific restaurant we popped into, I can tell you that those in the Boston area should keep an eye out for what Kaki Lima is up to. This incredible team is in the midst of a six-month residency at Wink & Nod, and up until recently, the menu included rendang. We've been twice already since they kicked off the residency in March. I'd love to see rendang back on the menu, but everything they create takes me back to Java and Bali.

Indonesian food should be a bigger deal in the U.S. than it is. Don’t waste time. Get a taste of it now.

Number 4:
Soft Pretzel
Salzburg, Austria

I’m a pretty equal opportunity bread lover. Rolls, baguettes, croissants … whatever it is, I’m on board. Warm it up and I’m done for. But I’ve always had a particular soft spot for the large soft pretzel. I keep mine simple – big grains of salt, please – and love to save the twist in the middle for the very end.

I happened across the motherload of soft pretzels while exploring an outdoor market in Salzburg. And while there were many covered in cheese, dusted with poppy seeds, and other pretty adornments available, I went for the classic.

I took a bite and then went back to buy another one for later, when I’d returned to my Danube river ship. Hearty without being dense. A good crust to bite into, but soft and satisfying inside. Big flakes of salt that melted on the tongue.

These pretzels are the reasons I’ve stopped buying pretzels at sporting events. They can’t even compare.

Number 3:
Shopska Salad
Arbanasi, Bulgaria

By the time I sat down to try one of Bulgaria’s most-celebrated national dishes, I was convinced that it had been over-hyped. For at least two days, I’d been hearing about it. Shopska salad this, shopska salad that.

Fast-forward to my return from Eastern Europe, when all I could do was talk about shopska salad.

This seemingly simple combination of four ingredients – roasted red pepper, tomato, cucumber, and sirine cheese – is a near-perfect marriage of flavors. The brightness of the sirine (the Bulgarian version of feta) enhances the sweetness of the red pepper, which plays nicely off the tomato, which makes the cucumber pop … if I was limited to eating only one kind of salad for the rest of my life, this would be it.

Number 2:
French Onion Soup
Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie, Paris, France

During a return visit to Paris in December, I embarked on a one-woman quest to find the city’s best onion soup. And while this required me to sample bowl after bowl after bowl of delicious soup – the struggle was real – I persevered until I found it.

We’d planned an indulgent dinner (ok, fine, one more indulgent dinner) for our final night in the city. While I’d thought that the meal was intended to celebrate another wonderful visit to our favorite city, it turned into something else: Since Matt had proposed earlier in the day, it became our engagement celebration dinner.

Perhaps my mood – giddy doesn’t even begin to describe – influenced my dining experience a little, but our evening at Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie would have been magical even without that element coming into play. Nestled in the 1st arrondissement, the small space embraces its cozy quarters with gusto, with accents of red velvet, a quirky assortment of non-matching chandeliers, and shelves that encourage a visitor to look up and around.

The restaurant is known for some of its more decadent main courses, and Matt still raves about the foie gras ravioli served in a truffle cream sauce. But I continue to lust after the onion soup. The broth was light, but packed with an incredible depth of flavor that I hadn’t quite found anywhere else. The cheese was just the right kind of salty and inviting, and the crouton had a bit of sweetness to it that kept me going back in for more.

Other takes on the soup that I’d experienced – in Paris and back home – were all delicious, but also super rich and filling. This was perfect: flavorful, exciting, and a wonderful introduction to the meal to come. And it left me wanting so much more.

Number 1:
Strawberry Juice
Bali, Indonesia

The best thing I’ve ever tasted during international travel is a tall glass of strawberry juice that I drank during a lunch on the Indonesian island of Bali.

My tour group had just finished visiting Ulun Danu Bratan temple and stopped by a nearby restaurant. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to order strawberry juice had our guide not recommended it – the man had good taste and had yet to steer me wrong. When the thick juice arrived in a large glass and straw, evoking thoughts of a ‘50s diner-style strawberry milkshake, I couldn’t help but smile.

Then I sipped. Total gamechanger. It was sweet, but accompanied by this incredible punch of tartness that woke up my entire mouth. I could feel and taste the pulpy bits of the fruit – hear it even, as it made its way up the straw. The simplest possible thing – a glass of juice made from a fruit I’d eaten every year for my entire life – was making me think of strawberries in an entirely new way. Familiar yet fresh. Exciting yet comfortable. I had consumed a third of the glass within two sips and couldn’t get enough.

I feel better about the world knowing that Balinese strawberry juice exists. And yet there is a little part of me that despairs that there are 10,045 miles standing between me and the single best thing I’ve ever tasted while abroad.

Yes, I mapped it. It was that good.

Updates & Miscellany

With a site redesign comes an opportunity to reflect ... and update on what has proven to be an extremely eventful past six months. So let's run through it quickly, shall we? Since crossing Abbey Road last fall, I ...

  • Returned to Paris, as I couldn't (and still) can't get enough.
  • Got engaged. In Paris! (I told you, that city is ALWAYS a good idea.)
  • Said goodbye to my sassy, wonderful grandmother (one of the most influential people in my life).
  • Transitioned into a wonderful new position at a new company.
  • Got back into running.
  • Kicked off wedding planning.
  • Redesigned this site.

So there's been much to catch up on, and there are stories to be told. I look forward to sharing them and more with you in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, I'm presently available for select freelance opportunities, so don't hesitate to reach out via my LinkedIn profile and let's make some magic happen.

A Barefoot Moment on Abbey Road

The Beatles and photographer Ian Macmillan had about ten minutes to shoot the cover of Abbey Road on August 8, 1969.

As the story goes, Macmillan stood on a ladder as the four musicians walked back and forth along the crosswalk. A police officer blocked traffic. Because the street surface was hot in early August, Paul alternated between wearing sandals and walking barefoot.

They managed to get the perfect shot: mid-stride, full of style, and incredibly relaxed.

My group of four—my father, uncle, aunt, and me—had about 30 seconds to recreate the cover of Abbey Road on October 11, 2016.

No stepladder. We handed our camera to a lovely guy in his mid-twenties, who stood on the studio side of the street; we followed up by photographing him doing the same thing with his girlfriend.

No police officer. It’s a busy intersection, and occasionally taxi drivers would honk at pedestrians. (How a driver could not anticipate Abbey Road traffic escapes me.)

Because Paul went barefoot, I went barefoot. The street surface is chilly in October.

Somehow, we managed to get as close to the perfect shot as we could: all four of us in the frame, full of excitement, and incredibly optimistic that we weren’t about to be run over.

End result? Brilliant.

abbey-road

Steve

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.
—The Sandlot

Last night's Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway was the kind you tell stories about. On a warm September evening, with playoff dreams on the line, a crackling energy was shared by a sellout crowd during Sunday night baseball. But my favorite moment of the night came early, before Hanley Ramirez blasted two home runs, and well before Mookie Betts wowed us in right field.

It was when a photo of my friend Steve appeared on the jumbotron, accompanied by the words "We Remember."

For so many of us, the first step in becoming a Fenway Park tour guide was very simple: Follow Steve Meterparel around the ballpark and try to keep up. 

My first Meter masterclass came in April 2008. High off the previous season's World Series title, giddy about the return of a strong team, crowds descended upon Fenway to see for themselves the park that Ted, Yaz, and Papi had called home. Having moved to Boston the previous September, I was living out a dream as a brand-new member of the Red Sox front office on the weekends. And Steve was our ringmaster, the self-proclaimed "Matt Damon at 77" who would round up crowds of 100 people every hour and welcome them to the park with a stand-up set of puns, quips, and old-man humor.

What did one hot dog say to another hot dog at Fenway Park? CATCHUP. What? You're not RELISHING any of this are you? Man, I thought I was on a ROLL here.

If at first you don't succeed ... if at first you don't succeed ... skydiving may not be for you. No, let me say it how Vickie says it. If at first you don't succeed ... try playing second.

The second step in becoming a Fenway Park tour guide was very simple: Realize that you would never be able to get away with 75 percent of what Steve was doing every hour of every day.

The jokes were terrible. They were marvelous. By June, I could perform every bit in his routine. I knew well that the crowds absolutely adored groaning their way through every line that he had in his arsenal. And my fellow tour guides and I knew that he had each joke written on a carefully maintained, folded piece of paper that he carried with him every day. He took the work seriously, and he was brilliant at it. The stories he told were nuanced, informative, and delivered with an incredible energy and panache, and the crowds were mesmerized.

(See here for a sample. It's no surprise that Steve dominates the Fenway Park tour YouTube videos.)

I worked at Fenway for four years, from that first spring through summers, falls, and winter mornings with heavy snow and light crowds. He rarely missed a day. During that span, I became one of the innumerable people who came to love Steve. I became part of his Fenway family, and he came to know mine. And when my tour guide tenure came to a close, I continued to stop by when I could.

He was a treasure. And when he passed away last October, at the age of 84, one of the most remarkable and distinctive voices within Fenway Park—a place that has been home to more than its fair share of characters—was lost. And I hope he does become what he always joked about with his tour groups: the first Fenway tour guide immortalized in the Red Sox Hall of Fame. The man has got my vote, and hundreds more.

Last night, the Red Sox said thank you to Steve. And while the game was one for the books, that moment was the greatest of them all.

steve-meterparel

Let's Go to Italy

I've got to get my hands on a bottle of Malvasia.

It's a well-regarded sweet white wine grown only on the island of Salina, one of the eight Aeolian islands on the waters between southern Italy and Sicily. I tend to be more of a dry white drinker, but the chance to sample something only created in one place on earth? Count me in.

How did I learn about Malvasia? I recently wrote the content for a new cruise vacation that makes a stop at Salina, as well as number of other spots along mainland Italy, its islands (I'm looking at you, Sicily), and Malta. Check it out here.

Top 10: April 2016

Listed in no particular order, ten things that have been shaping my landscape this month.

1) The West Wing Weekly: Thank you, Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway - with the creation of your new podcast, you have enabled me to get right back into my endearingly obsessive love affair with one of the single greatest television series of all time. Each week is devoted to a single episode of the show - the content is broken down, analyzed, discussed, and revered, unique perspectives and special insights are added to the mix. I, like many other listeners and devotees, am making a point of watching the featured episode each week to relive it again and keep everything nice and fresh for the discussions. It is absolutely delicious - and we're not even anywhere near Season 3 (the single greatest season of episodic television ever created).

2) Paris: In two weeks, I will wake in a small hotel in St. Germain. This doesn't feel real, nor do I expect it to until I walk through the doors to enter the airport. Travel never feels real until it's actually happening. In the meantime, I'm been working on my French, reading up, and getting extremely excited. For years, I've held onto a very simple dream: to enjoy a small piece of cheese, a fresh baguette, and a glass of red wine in France. It's going to be a moment.

3) Barre: In 2015, I got into the boxing ring. For 2016, it's all about stepping up to the barre. I'm about three months into regular classes at The Bar Method, and I'm finding the practice hugely beneficial physically and mentally. It's not just about the workout, it's about applying feedback in the moment, pushing oneself that little bit more, and making sure to take time to show up and focus on the practice.

4) Calm: I'd stopped and started guided meditation several times over the past year, but I've found the Calm app (and desktop platform) to be the right gateway platform for me. There's a fantastic assortment of programs available, with a lovely interface and an approach that clicks with me. It's even made morning subway commutes kind of pleasant. (I KNOW.)

5) Hamilton soundtrack: I'm hardly alone on this one, but it's important to note. Nine times out of ten right now, if I'm listening to music, I'm listening to Hamilton.

6) Yvonne's: I finally had an opportunity to check out the supper club now frequenting Locke-Ober's former Downtown Crossing space, and was absolutely delighted. It's a decadent space with an irreverent menu, but it comes together in lovely fashion. My French 75 was perfect, each of the small plates we ordered (including the Angry Carrots, a standout in both name and execution) were on point, and the service was warm and attentive. I look forward to return visits in the near future.

7) Postseason Hockey: While my postseason experience would be greatly enhanced with the presence of my beloved Boston Bruins, I'm enjoying the chance to celebrate the sport of hockey without the tension and stress of an emotional investment. Give me multiple overtimes! I say yes to puck luck! While my bracket was smashed the moment Anaheim was eliminated, I'm making the most of being along for the ride.

8) Steve Martin and Martin Short: A key item on my bucket list was achieved this month, as I saw two legends perform live. More than worth the wait.

9) The Celtics: Thank you, bandwagon, for scooting over and making room for me to jump aboard. I'll be sticking around. This team is fun.

10) Sushi Go!: My biggest takeaway from my first experience at PAX East was a fondness for this quick, easy, and downright fun card game. 

The puppet master

It was clear from the onset that he was born to tell stories. Each of his movements was deliberate. Every expression had purpose. His entire approach commanded attention and I was determined to ingrain to memory (and memory card) as much of the experience as possible.

We met the puppet master at his home, located a short drive outside of Ubud, Bali. It didn't feel like too many visitors from out of town - who seemed to largely consist of yoga enthusiasts, Elizabeth Gilbert devotees, and/or Australians on holiday - made their way out to this particular area. As he approached our group of 15 American travelers, and he took time to look each of us in the eye as part of his greeting, I realized that missing the chance to meet this man was their loss.

At 74, the puppet master had been devoted to wayang - shadow puppetry - for more than 52 years. After more than a half century of study and focus, the puppets he crafted and showcased were clearly still objects of incredible enthusiasm. After a short tour of his property, he led us to a table where family members were working on new pieces: punching careful and intricate holes through the leather and painting facial features on each puppet.

Through a translator, members of our group asked a few questions about the process, wayang performances, and his family. While I'd been quietly observing and photographing him, I had to add my own question to the mix.

"Which character is your favorite?"

As the translator relayed the question, the puppet master's face lit up. He held up one particular piece and spoke warmly. A particular servant, he said, was his favorite. Fun and funny, the puppet master enjoyed bringing him to life very much. Based on his reaction, it felt like it wasn't the type of question he was often asked, and we exchanged a smile as I thanked him.

Shortly thereafter, I watched him bring the puppets to life. Sitting cross-legged on a short stage, his son playing traditional gamelan instruments behind him, the puppet master gave us a quick taste of the wayang experience. He deftly jumped from one voice to another, held up to four puppets at a time, and wove together a story that I was able to understand despite the language barrier. And despite the fact that he'd surely told this story thousands of times over the decades, his face was full of so much joy and enthusiasm. He reveled in each exchange between characters. He laughed and shouted and scowled as needed. He seemed completely engrossed with the world he was creating and sharing with us.

Something else struck me, too, perhaps this struck me because I was in his presence on my birthday, and I had age on my mind. He looked so incredibly young. Back straight. Eyes sharp. Body responsive and quick.

Art clearly defied age. And this man was a wonder - an incredible birthday gift.


Life in the future

What was October 25, 2015 like for you? Was there anything exciting that happened? Any memorable moments?

What made that day special for me was the fact that I never really lived it. Due to the wonders of long flights, time zones, and the International Date Line, I never stood on solid ground that day. Instead, I traveled west to the future: Indonesia.

Stories and anecdotes to come, but in the meantime, here's a glimpse into the lush wonderland that I found during two incredible weeks on Java and Bali--in the shadow of volcanoes and during the dry season's last stand.


At the foot of Canal Street

With September comes an urge to head south and soak up some more of New Orleans - and I suspect that this will become an annual tradition, given the way the city captivated me at this time last year, despite the odds stacked against it, thanks to the Garden State Effect.

Despite fear of dating myself,  here's the breakdown: In the movie Garden State, Natalie Portman's character tells Zach Braff's that listening to the Shins is going to change his life. Upon doing so, she made it impossible for me to give the band a fair shake. It was immediately over-hyped. As a result, when I listened to the band (both in the movie and live), I thought they were perfectly good ... pleasant enough in that melancholy sort of way ... but my life continued on without some great cosmic shift. Whereas other bands that could be considered members of a similar sonic family tree (Rilo Kiley, Belle & Sebastian, etc) completely shook me to my core. Why? I wasn't waiting to be completely blown away.

I've encountered similar situations in travel. As I was preparing for my first trip to Europe, friends and acquaintances told me that I was going to be blown away by Vienna. The Austrian capital was going to provide a game-changing travel experience. By the time I got there, I was so ready to be that dazzled that the bar was set far too high. Vienna was lovely. I had a fine time there, delighted in the coffeehouse culture, and appreciated my introduction to delicious Sturm wine. But when I came home from the trip, was I raving about Vienna? No. I was thrilled by Prague and Budapest, the cities that had been underpromised ... and yet had overdelivered in the most sensational way.

So when the time came to visit New Orleans, years after I'd fallen under its spell reading Anne Rice novels, I was nervous. I'd grown up wanting to visit New Orleans. I'd spent so much time daydreaming about what it would be like. New Orleans existed on a very short list, "Cities I've Wanted to Experience For Most of My Life." How could the New Orleans of my imagination actually live up to reality? Was this to be my Vienna of the Gulf Coast?

Thank you, New Orleans, for delivering. My partner and I ate po-boys prepared in the back room of an Irish bar, discussed the second-line culture at the tiny (yet mind-blowing) Backstreet Cultural Museum, and gazed upon Fats Domino's white Steinway. And by balancing time in the French Quarter and venturing beyond, we felt comfortable exploring and getting more of a sense of the local New Orleans experience. In fact, two of my favorite experiences were more off the beaten path: stepping around the tree in the middle of Cafe Degas, and dancing like mad as Rebirth Brass Band performed its Tuesday-night residency at the Maple Leaf Bar.

We were discussing a return trip during the second day of our first visit. It was that good. 

It's not to be this September - we're about to extend a wedding-related visit to Las Vegas for a few extra days, and otherwise preparing for our October journey to Indonesia. But we're planning, New Orleans. Since we were last with you, we've been dancing to your music, cooking your cuisine, and sipping your cocktails. And I'm freely and enthusiastically imagining the wonders that await in the near future.

We'll see you there real soon.


Three rounds, two weeks

In two weeks, nearly four months of practice, training, emotional challenges, and physical transformation will come to a head, as I wait to walk into a ring and fight.

I'll be clad in red - shirt, shorts, gloves - and trying not to look too nervous. I'll likely be wondering whether or not I should try to eat something light. I'll be visualizing each of the three rounds I hope to complete. I'll be mentally ducking, weaving, rolling, and unleashing combinations on a figure in blue. I'll be reminding myself to keep my hands up, my stance engaged, my core strong.

I'll be preparing to fight in a sanctioned USA Boxing match, one that will forever give me an official boxing record.

Most importantly, I'll be doing my part in the fight against cancer, as a participant in the 2015 edition of Lights Out 4 Leukemia. 

I've been chronicling my boxing journey at The Hummingbird Chronicles. I encourage you to visit the site to learn more about what prompts a person to decide to punch and be punched for the first time in her life.

A valuable pro tip

Back in May, I watched a small group of Brazilian youths demonstrate the boxing skills they had been developing at Grupo Cultural Arte Consciente, an incredible organization rooted in one of Salvador's favelas (shantytown communities).

As part of this special program, Arts Consciente's boxers had selected this discipline from several offered to them - the others being circus arts, percussion, and drumming. And over the course of about an hour, I'd been introduced to the results of all these youngsters' efforts. But given that I was about a week and a half away from dedicating four months to boxing (a sport I knew very little about), I found myself focusing my attention on the boxing group.

After about an hour, an opportunity for questions and answers arose, and I eagerly raised my hand right away.

"Hi, my name is Vickie, and I have a question for the boxers," I said with a smile. "I'm about to learn how to box when I get back to the United States. What tips do the boxing students have for me? What should I make sure to remember as I learn?"

My trip leader translated my inquiry into Portuguese, and I saw several inquisitive faces turn to me in surprise, including my favorite of the group - the lone young girl learning to box. She and I exchanged smiles as a young teenage boy, the seemingly group-appointed leader of the crew, thought for a moment and then answered.

I eagerly awaited the translation as my trip leader chuckled.

"He says that there are several things you should remember," he began. "First, always pay attention to the basics and remain disciplined. The basics are important. Second, always listen to your instructor, because your teachers will help you succeed."

The trip leader grinned. "And finally, just remember: It's really not that hard. You're going to do just fine."

I had no way of knowing at the time just how valuable this advice would be. Over the course of four months, I've reminded myself of each. ... and especially that last bit.

Relax. It's all good. You're going to do just fine.

Obgrigado, young man. Obrigado, indeed.