Notes from our Hawaiian Vacation

I will start at the end. Ed and I were watching the sunset from our table of the beautiful St. Regis Kauai Grill on our last night on the island, and he asked me if Hawaii was everything I hoped it would be. My wonderful husband was so excited to be fulfilling my lifelong dream, and I wanted so much to give him the answer he wanted. But I couldn’t lie, so I chose my words carefully.

Hawaii is unspeakably gorgeous and pure and breathtaking, and all of the clichés you ever heard about it are true. However, as a 44 year old woman, I have been fortunate to see a lot of the world, and the thrill was no doubt diminished by experience, age and privilege. In economics, this is called the law of diminishing marginal returns. In grandmother-speak, it’s called being spoiled. Life has, blessedly, given me many wonderful experiences, and as a result, the wow factor of Hawaii will never have the same impact as when I first saw it on tv in the 1970s. Those Bradys ruin everything! Nevertheless, it is an experience I will cherish forever.

For those of us living in the northeastern United States, Hawaii was almost like visiting another planet — a planet where everyone is unhurried, laid back, wearing flip flops and smiling for no reason at all. It is so far from our daily reality of rushing and traffic and deadlines and stress, and Kauai, especially, doesn’t resemble anything close to what we know as Real Life. It felt like dessert for dinner seven days a week. It was nice, but it didn’t feel real, and part of that is due to my uptight east coast breeding. Dessert for dinner can feel unsettling after a couple of days. So wrong and yet so right.

Hawaii’s natural beauty far exceeded my expectations. The feel and smell of the air, the temperature of the ocean, the exotic flowers blooming casually from the road like they’re no big deal, the beautiful birds, the crayon box of fish…all perfect. The food, on the other hand, was a bit of a disappointment, even with my low expectations. We had some decent meals (see link above), but I can say with certainty that I’ve eaten much better food right here in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

If you pick any recipe at random from my blog, chances are it will be something with strong flavors, often with a bit of heat. I’m not a lover of bland, boring food and definitely not afraid to go heavy handed on the spices, so keep that in mind while reading this criticism. I found the flavors used in Hawaii to be so strong, so in your face, that the taste of the food was lost altogether. The food didn’t make sense to my palate. As I told my mother, it was as if a child opened my refrigerator door, pulled out all of my condiments and salad dressings, poured them in one large bowl, then emptied my spice rack, mixed everything together, spooned it over fish and topped it with a pineapple. Voila!

The only thing worse than unappealing food is obscenely overpriced unappealing food. We went into this vacation knowing food would be expensive, and that’s just part of vacation we’ve come to accept.. As people who always appreciate a good meal, we don’t mind paying for one. We do, however, resent paying a lot of money for crap. Knowing what I know now, I would do more research about the best places to eat before going back. Don’t get me wrong, some great places do exist, but we chose badly more often than not.

We didn’t travel halfway around the world just to sit on a beach, even though sitting on the beach is one of my favorite activities ever. We planned four main activities for the week: a helicopter ride, a surfing lesson, a Catamaran sail and snorkel, and a luau. Every one of these activities was well worth it and enhanced our understanding and enjoyment of Kauai, and I’m glad we did them, but these are not the experiences I will remember when I’m old.

I will remember my boys playing in the stunningly blue Pacific ocean, hiking some pretty scary trails right out of a Jurassic Park set, eating Hawaii’s famous shave ice (and Nate attempting to order the disgusting flavor combo of pickles and grandma’s apple pie — he certainly got into the Hawaiian spirit!), playing the coconut instrument bought at Foodland while hula dancing in the living room. I will remember my boys chasing peacocks and chickens, and petting the sweet rescue dog wearing a lei in the t-shirt shop. I will remember the kindness of all the people and the waitress singing Happy Birthday to Andrew in her beautiful voice. But there were other times, too, where we were That Annoying Family. There was a fair amount of bickering and disharmony and snippiness. That’s part of vacation, too, and not a part I enjoy. Like overpriced dried out hamburgers, I accept it’s part of the package, especially with kids aged 16, 11 and 9.

I hope when they look back years from now, they will forget the bad stuff and only remember the sunshine and rainbows. Mahalo, Hawaii. You were worth the wait.

The daily rainbow

Napali coast from helicopter.

I took this picture above especially for my friend Marykate.

Surf school. One of these people didn’t graduate.

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My Brady Fantasy Vacation Coming True After 35 Years of Dreaming

Now before y’all start throwing rotten tomatoes at me, I fully realize it should be against the law to go to Paris and Hawaii in the same summer. Let me assure you that this is due to an unusual amount of star alignment in my life, and only a fool would pass up the opportunity, even though I do feel slightly Oprahesque in my level of self indulgence. But as Ed’s farmer ancestors would say, “Make hay while the sun shines.”

I am curious to try the food in Hawaii, but I’ll admit my expectations are low. It seems like all of the fresh fruit and seafood would make for wonderful dining, but I am still traumatized and slightly insulted by the notion of Hawaiian pizza. I truly can’t imagine anything more disgusting to do to pizza than top it with ham and pineapple. What’s up with that, Hawaii?

I have been fortunate to travel a bit in my life, but I have never set foot in the Pacific Ocean. We briefly considered Tahiti for our honeymoon, but settled on the much more “sensible” for east coasters St. Barth’s. And somehow I knew that if I didn’t make it to the Pacific on my honeymoon, I wouldn’t get there until I was much, much older. Even as a starry eyed soon-to-be newlywed, I knew how life worked. Flights are long and expensive, vacation days are limited. I was hopeful that eventually my day would come.

I still remember being in second grade, watching the Brady Bunch gleefully hit Hawaii on our crappy old staticky TV. It was my very first Liz Lemon “I want to go to there” moment; I didn’t even care that all kinds of horrible things happened to them there. Hawaii was propelled to the top of my list of places to visit, where it remained for the rest of my life (unlike Disney World, which was removed from the list by age ten). Alas, going to Hawaii was about as feasible as owning my own horse, which is to say only slightly more feasible than my anti-gambling mother hitting the lottery. When I tell you this is my dream, I am not being melodramatic. This really is my lifelong dream. And here it is! I don’t even mind that I’m closer in age to Alice than I am to Marcia.

Aloha, friends!

The Food Groups of Paris

Writing about the food of Paris is almost as overwhelming as writing about my wedding day or the birth of a child — so filled with wonder, joy, sublime layers and feelings, but I can barely manage to choke out more than tired cliches when attempting to describe it, and those tired cliches will never do it justice. What shall I include? What shall I omit? Anything I write will be woefully inadequate, but I feel compelled to try.

How was the food and dining experience in Paris? Spectacular. Wondrous. Magical. Artistic. Satisfying. Fresh. Delicious. Loving. I am so happy that my fancy, dress-wearing events occurred at the beginning of my time in Paris and not at the end, because I’m pretty sure none of my dresses would have zipped up by days 5 through 10. Needless to say, we ate well. Very, very well.

I am intrigued, almost to the point of obsession, about how a country can remain so slim and chic, yet eat like they do. After careful study, I have concluded a few things. One, like many city dwellers throughout the world, they walk a lot. Lydia estimated that she walks about five kilometers a day (about three miles), and I believe it. They are not a sedentary people and yet most do not seem overly occupied with le sport and working out, as we do.

Two, they are not snackers. French people savor every meal, eating slowly, always putting down their forks between bites. Meals are never rushed. That was one of my favorite things about my time there — the ability to feel like I can sit, relax, eat, and converse through multiple courses. The fact that much of the country is still eating multi-course dinners at 9:00 pm does not seem to hurt their waistlines, so our old American maxim of “no eating after 7:00 pm” is heartily disproved in France.

And finally? Portion, portion, portion control. I loved eating an appetizer, main course, salad, dessert or cheese, followed by coffee or armagnac, and never once feeling like Miss Piggy because it really was a little bit of everything and most places did not serve giant American portions. I was satisfied without feeling like a glutton. Considering how well I ate, I really didn’t gain that much weight — about two and a half pounds. I am quite sure most Parisians would struggle maintaining their weight if they ate twenty-seven restaurant meals in row, too. I have a feeling if I ate as many American restaurant meals for ten days straight, that number on the scale would be much higher. In any event, only an idiot would go to Paris and attempt to keep any sort of diet. The food is as much a part of the landscape as the museums and monuments, and missing out on that would be missing out on Paris itself.

I love escargot so much that it hurts. It is truly one of my perfect foods, and having escargot in Paris was one of the greatest experiences of my culinary life. I think I ordered escargot four times during the course of my visit, and they were spectacular every time. The picture above is from a lovely restaurant in Le Marais called Carrette. Most of the time, they were served as pictured above, but I did order them once in puffed pastry, too. The simple preparation using garlic, wine, butter and herbs is my favorite.

Croissants are a big part of daily life in France, and even though I am not a big bread-in-the-morning fan, skipping croissants seemed like skipping the Eiffel Tower. This picture of my daily French breakfast was taken from my neighborhood cafe, a spot which was cordial but not especially friendly. However, the price was right — under 4 euros for a coffee and croissant, while my hotel charged three times that amount for the same plus cereal and fruit. It was a nice start to my morning, sitting outside with my leisurely croissant and coffee while planning my day. I will miss my daily croissant, but my jeans will stop fitting if I continue this tradition.

Salads are a popular choice for lunchtime, and I ordered a slightly different version of this carpaccio salad at least three times that I can recall. It was incredibly flavorful and satisfying without ever feeling heavy. I am going to attempt to make something like this at home very soon.

If I ate escargot every chance I got, Ed ate some version or another of salmon tartare: he had salmon tartare topped with avocado, he had salmon tartare topped with cream, he had salmon tartare topped with crab, and, shown above, he had salmon tartar topped with quinoa and herbs. Each version was delicious, but this one was probably my favorite.

Finally, no food post about Paris is complete without mentioning macarons, the petite French almond cookies filled with ganache. Macarons may have been around since the de’ Medicis, but they just came on to my radar recently. (Also, I recently discovered a hot new band from England called The Beatles, have you heard of them?) The two great places to purchase macarons in Paris are Laduree (pictured above) or Pierre Hermé, which was conveniently located around the corner of our hotel. I am still trying to process how I feel about macarons. For one, they are pricey — about $1.60 a piece, which is certainly one way to help exercise self control while eating cookies. This tiny box, which any of my children could single-handedly consume in one sitting, was about $28. Like many other delusional American home cooks, I think I will attempt to make them myself one of these days. Julia Child has taught me to be fearless in the kitchen.

I have so much more to share — I could easily go on (and on and on and on) for weeks more, but I do believe it is finally time to stop and focus on the present. I will leave you with one of my favorite pictures taken from a market in Le Marais, and it sums up Paris perfectly: the ordinary is beautiful, and there is beauty everywhere you turn. Everywhere. I am so incredibly fortunate to have had this experience, and I know it will always be with me in a thousand different ways. I have changed for the better.

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil. — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Postcard from Paris #1

I have found that it is the little things about Paris which have charmed me the most. We arrived and walked right to the massively overwhelming Louvre, where we saw countless Parisians and their little dogs on the beautiful grounds. Even the dogs have a delightful joie de vivre, frolicking in the shadow of the world’s greatest art collection with reckless abandon. I tend to keep a short leash on both my pets and my children, so I watched with wonder while a little Jack Russell terrier ran freely across acres of hundreds of people and their dogs, owner nowhere in sight and yet no doubt well cared for. He wound up at a fancy outdoor cafe near the pyramids, where a formidable older woman was dining with her dog, complete with a silver bowl of water on the ground. The Jack Russell waltzed right up and helped himself to the other dog’s water, and I shot the picture below. I don’t know why it made me so happy, but it did. It also made me question why I am so uptight. I would never allow my dog to do that, and yet is was such a joyful thing to watch. Maybe these Parisians are on to something.

We also witnessed a police chase. On rollerblades. We saw three African street vendors with their massive displays of Eiffel tower key chains jingling behind them, followed by three rollerblade-clad police officers chasing them into traffic where the vendors deftly jumped the concrete barriers the police could not pass with their rollerblades. Maybe you had to be there, but it was one of those funny, “Did we just see that?” moments. When your life is very predictable and orderly, the colorful characters of a city are a pleasant treat.

I could dedicate a whole blog to French children’s fashion alone. I have never seen such well dressed children in my life. Hats, scarves, wee little hipster glasses — I can hardly stand the cuteness. It almost made me want to have another child so I could dress him properly this time around. If it was socially acceptable to take pictures of strangers’ children, I would have many examples to show you. This little girl walked past Ed while I was taking his picture, so I don’t feel so bad sharing it:

My sense of direction is very poor, but I am at least able to follow a simple grid-like map for dummies in cities like New York and Philadelphia — the the kind of map you get in third grade when you learn basic map reading skills. While these cities have tall buildings, they also have a lot of unique landmarks among their gridlike plan, so I can usually bumble my way through. Paris, on the other hand, has street after street of beautiful but similar style limestone buildings, plus the occasional palatial museum, peppered with restaurants, cafes and brasseries. In addition, optical stores are everywhere — eyeglasses are a huge accessory in Paris, and I quickly learned using an optical shop as a landmark was a very bad idea. The glorious maze of quaint side streets caused me to walk in circles for 45 minutes all the while being a mere two minutes from my intended destination. Embarrassing and sad. On the plus side, it’s also a bit magical. If you’re going to get lost anywhere, I highly suggest getting lost in Paris. Nestled between the alleys, I would stumble upon the classy French version of a strip mall (picture below) and it reminded me a bit of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe — a totally unexpected world.

Based on yesterday’s “adventure,” I was hesitant to set out on my own for Palais Garnier, but I had no choice. I didn’t come to Paris to sit in a hotel room. I realized my modern life is filled with very few challenges. And even though finding a giant opera house less than half a mile from my hotel is not exactly Amazing Race material, I felt proud of myself. I met up with a group from the highly recommended Paris Walks, and I was able to enjoy the rich history of THE opera house which inspired Phantom of the Opera even more.

One of the highlights of my trip (and probably my life) was attending a reception at the US Embassy and meeting Ambassador Charles Rivkin and his wife Susan Tolson. The embassy feels like a country estate right in the middle of busy Paris. The interior was opulent (what isn’t opulent in France?) but the grounds and the gardens surprised me the most. The wine ranked up there with the best I ever drank, and the appetizers were innovative and — of course — beautiful and très petite. More on the food and wine in later posts, I promise.

I don’t usually share too much about Ed’s work, as it’s his story to tell and not mine, but I will say that I am so proud of the work he and his colleagues do, and so humbled by the sacrifice made by our military. I was honored to be mingling with such a fine group of people and didn’t expect the evening to inspire feelings of patriotism. I was truly impressed with every person I met at the embassy and walked away feeling like our country is in very capable hands. I realize I don’t get out much, but one thing living in Chester County, Pennsylvania has taught me is the ability to tell the difference between genuinely impressive people and people who just try to impress you. I was in a room full of genuinely impressive people, and not one show-off in the bunch. Très refreshing!

I have blathered on long enough for one post. If you are still reading this, merci! I will probably file two more trip reports (more for my own decrepit memory than for any other reason, but I will try hard not to bore you).

See also: Postcard #2, Postcard#3, The Food Groups of Paris

She Went to Paris, Looking for Answers to Questions That Bothered Her So

With apologies to Mr. Jimmy Buffett.

Tomorrow I am leaving for Paris for ten days with Ed. We have both been to Paris separately, but never together. This trip is part business for Ed, all pleasure for me. Our hotel is walking distance to the Louvre, a stone’s throw from Opéra Garnier, and not too far from the Mothership. A thousand thank yous to my part-time boss, full-time friend who has outfitted me with a king’s ransom worth of Hermès from her private collection. It is not every day that a friend insist you borrow scarves, shawls and handbags which retail for more than your first car. Of all the things I will remember about this trip, I am sure my friend’s generosity will rank right up there.

I was fifteen the first time I went to Europe. My single mother believed so strongly in the benefit of travel that she dipped into her hard-earned savings so that I could participate with my classmates. It was an amazing trip — Paris, Nice, Cannes, Monte Carlo, no drinking age, and minimal supervision. We flew over on Pan-Am, back when people still smoked on airplanes and wandered the aisles with full shampoo bottles in their oversized carry-ons large enough to fit a five year old child. I loved every single second of it, and I’m so grateful for the sacrifice my mother made to send me there.

Now once again, I could not be going without Mom. She will be staying in my house and watching my three kids and crazy dog for ten days, which is no small feat. Thanks, Mom! I wish you strength and a sense of humor, and please know that we realize this trip would be impossible without you. Thanks, too, for my wonderful Dad and his girlfriend, who are my designated relief pitchers as well as emergency back-up. I will sleep well knowing my kids are in such great hands.

When I was younger, there was no place I didn’t want to go. I had such a drive to connect with the rest of the world and so firmly believed the shift in perspective achieved through travel contributes to an understanding of what’s really important, what really threads together humanity. And then the years passed and I got more and more insulated in my safe little world. International travel — especially without my whole family in tow — seemed more scary, more of a hassle, more stress, less fun. There is still a part of me remaining who knows it’s a good thing to get away, but she’s buried deep.

And all of the answers and all of the questions
Locked in his attic one day
’cause he liked the quiet clean country livin’
And twenty more years slipped away

Jimmy Buffett, He Went to Paris

As I’ve told my friends, complaining about going to Paris is like complaining you’re too skinny to find a good pair of jeans. Not a lot of people are very sympathetic. And I’m not complaining, really. But I’m slightly worried and anxious about this trip, and I hate that I am. Travel is a leap of faith, especially for control freaks. However, I am determined to push through the fear and not let it stop me from doing something I really want to do. It’s what I would tell my children to do, and it’s what I need to do myself.

There are definitely two different people inhabiting me, and they frequently battle for dominance. Adventurous Me wants to travel the world and Safe Me wants to stay right where she is. Safe Me has been mostly winning the past twenty years and has developed into a bit of a hothouse orchid. She’s not that keen on leaving her perfectly controlled pristine environment and setting out for where Thar Be Dragons. But I realize that hothouse orchid is just a hop, skip and a jump away from agoraphobia, and I will not go there. I refuse. I am choosing Paris instead.

I can’t wait to share all of my adventures with you, culinary and otherwise. I am excited to stretch outside my comfort zone and return home to my loving family and friends with a fresh new perspective. And maybe a new scarf or two. Au revoir, mes amis. Je vous adore.

Never go on trips with someone you do not love. — Ernest Hemingway, A Movable Feast