Travel to Iceland

This continues a series of travel blogs. I have shared this with others who have said this made it seem like we hated Iceland, but I really loved it! It was among the most peaceful places I have ever been, and likely will ever go.

April 12-April 19, 2017

Getting There and General Tips

  1. We flew WOW Air overnight from BWI on April 12–direct. WOW has a handful of hubs in the US and for whatever lucky reason, one of them is BWI! Woot! We arrived into the Reykjavik Airport around 5 a.m. The flight was easy but you will want to bring your own water as everything including water costs money on WOW. I would also pack snacks because the food in the Reykjavik airport is basically a $23 pizza or dried, packaged cod–this is also true for much of the country, unfortunately. 
  2. If you rent a car (which I HIGHLY recommend), don’t buy into any of their American-targeted bull about sand and wind insurance. Say no to all of it. We never felt like we were in jeopardy and we took that little car to literal mountaintops–and it was a stick. Sure, we challenged that little transmission, but we weren’t being bombarded by any sand or wind. Also, the car had heated seats and a heated steering wheel–sound superfluous but it was indispensable. 
  3. Pack everything you think you will need. Do not go to Iceland with the attitude of “We will get one when we get there,” it is way too expensive for that. Bring what you need. I shudder to think of the cost of a toothbrush.
  4. I would just pack all layers. Layers all day and good hiking socks. If you fly WOW on which you pay for bags, here’s a sneaky little tip. Chas and I each took a “handbag” which is just a backpack. We paid for one carry on and crammed everything into that. We also dressed like Joey from Friends on the plane.
  5. Stop at a grocery store to save money on breakfast and lunch. Icelandic food is not very good so why spend so much on it? Bonus with the picture of the pig seems to be the cheapest.
  6. On your way to your first stop, find a Vinbuden. There are a limited number and they are the state-owned liquor stores. They have very weird and very limited hours. You’ll want to do this as beer and wine, like everything else, is obscenely expensive.
  7. Our first host (American) told us not even to bother with Icelandic. It’s absurd and everyone speaks English. Usually I’m not about that life but Icelandic is no joke. I did use this page when necessary.IMG_7205

Exploration

We picked up our rental car from Budget and headed for Snori’s Pool. Please skip this completely. It’s stupid and not worth a single second. Skip anything involving Snori other than reading his story somewhere, and it’s everywhere. They really love Snori. 

We stopped at a gas station in Akranes and got free coffee and a sandwich. Some gas stations have free coffee. Cute little town–not a ton going on. But, it seems like people wake up much later there. We were in the center of the town and maybe saw two people, aside from the gas station worker. 

We hit the road for Borganes. We putzed around the town, stopped in the museum shop, we did not pay for the museum. We are happy we skipped it as it was expensive and other things seem more worth your money. Borgarnes has some historical significance and a really neat little coastline. There’s a legend that allegedly took place right here…something about an eagle and man…I don’t know…read the plaque…I was too jet-lagged. 

We went to our bed and breakfast called Borganes B&B. The owners were adorable and I instantly loved the house and felt snuggled. They had robes for us to take to the hot springs and a great guide to hot springs in the area. The owner (husband, American) told us that if we were looking how to spend the afternoon, we should go to the Sportlaug which is their term for a sports and community center. It was $8, indoor pools and outdoor pools, hot tubs, water slides. This is how Icelanders spend their free time! It was neat to see. They had three different temperatures of hot tubs. The water slide water was cold AF but it was a “When in Iceland…” situation so we took several rides, then found respite in the hot tubs of varying temperatures. There was a steam room in the bathroom for the end of the workout. 

We ate at the Thai Restaurant–good food, best deal in town. Back at the place we met a Swedish couple we sat and talked to for maybe two hours. The B&B had a huge bay window in the living room through which we could see every star that ever existed while we chatted about education and politics in Sweden vs. the US. Then we bid them goodnight and slept the best sleep ever.

We woke up, ate our breakfast from the grocery store and hit the road for the Snaefellnes Peninsula. Amazing. There are so many places to stop along this drive. There’s also basically only this one road so it’s easy to navigate–honestly, you don’t really even need to navigate. The stops are otherworldly, but so is the drive itself. 

Along this drive we:

    1. stopped at a mountain and did a little climbing and viewing. We could see the water from the vantage point. Although it was freezing, it was gorgeous. 
    2. went to the Vatnshelllier Cave. Totally worth it. Maybe around $20? Cool tour, 45 minutes. We learned a lot about the volcanic nature of the island. Vatnshellier is a lava tube created by a volcanic eruption. When the lava receded or dried or does whatever lava does, an empty space was left. We had headlamps and were able to walk along the inside of the tube. 
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      Steps inside Vatnshellier.

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      Tube down to the Lava Tube. 

    3. climbed to the top of a crater along the road–can’t remember the name. There were actual steps on the crater to get to the top. From the top, just desolation…but in a good way, I think. Iceland Scene
    4. walked into a canyon, also just along the road. The canyon contained rushing water and some were climbing inside of it (and coming out with soaked/frozen feet). The climbing was a little challenging because of how slippery it was but we saw some incredibly epic falls (not waterfalls, people falls). 
    5. took a long soak in Landbrotalaug Hot Spring in the middle of an abandoned farm. For sure do this one or one similar. Here’s the obscure book where we found it. Another great thing about this natural spring is that you could choose your temperature. Closer to the flow was hotter and farther away cooled off. Our B&B allowed us to borrow the robes from the room which was really helpful. You’re basically changing into your bathing suit in the middle of a field at 30 degrees Fahrenheit so a robe is useful. Most Icelanders just do this openly and in the buff so don’t be shocked to see some butt cheeks. 
  1. LandbrotalaugIMG_71986. stopped at other random things along the way–just let our hearts guide us. All cool. 

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The next day we drove to Hof. It is a town, population 20.

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The “town” of Hof.

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All of the people who’ve ever died in Hof.

We stayed at the Hof Hotel. It was good enough for us! Barebones. I do not recommend eating here though. The breakfast was free but get dinner at the gas station about 15 minutes west on THE ROAD. We stayed in our little cabin for two nights. It was basically just a box among a few other boxes, next to a cliff, in the middle of a field. The Hof Hotel did have a jacuzzi and men’s and women’s saunas. BUT the first night we bought dinner which was cream of asparagus soup and bread…$21. It was more or less a bowl of butter and cream with a lone asparagus stalk…for $21. The next night, we ate this…IMG_7370 (1)

The drive to Hof was gorgeous and various and it was an adventure in its own right. We just stopped whenever we felt like it. So isolated and beautiful and strange. The landscape changed every few miles from rock to moss to rock to ice to snow to water to mountains and back again. We also listened to S Town on this drive which kept us super occupied. 

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Chas doing “Kev’s Bird” in moss.

Just before checking into the hotel, we went to the Skaftafell National Park and did a few hikes. Very cool. Go to the little abandon mountainside town and hike to the edge of the glacier (only a 2 mile round trip). We also hiked (easy) to the Svartifoss Waterfall.

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From Hof, we visited the Jokulsarlon Glacier and its glacier lagoon. This was incredible. We saw maybe 60 seals here.IMG_7351

We started hiking around the perimeter but it is deceitfully large and it would have taken all day to go around the entire glacier so we did about a 3 hour round trip walk. Definitely go here and watched the seals. They’re basically just fat + faces. We ate at the gas station beyond Hof. Better than food at Hof Hotel for sure. Again, we stayed at Hof Hotel. We explored the little churchyard and graveyard a little bit, I think it was Easter. Chas woke up four-five times in the night to try to see the Northern lights but we never did.

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The next day we ate the breakfast and left Hof to head back west. We drove to Vik, a tiny little town. We stayed just east of Vik in a fine hotel. It had a huge outdoor hot tub where we got wrinkly with some Americans for a good hour of chat. In Vik we explored the beach but the weather SUCKED. We went to the top of many things while driving west of Vik. I have never experienced wind like this. By the end of the day we were soaked and freezing. We stopped at the Black Sand Beach and did each climb and drive in this area. We spent a lot of energy looking for puffins–no dice. If it’s late April and beyond you can see puffins along this coast. Vik is cute and an interesting look at Icelandic life. We ate at the gas station in Vik. It has a cafe in the back. Don’t get the Icelandic stew–not worth it.

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Black Sand Beach. Cold and windy AF. 

First stop the next day was Skogafoss. It’s an incredible waterfall that doesn’t look that impressive from the road. Go here. Go to the top of the waterfall and then hike back at least for 30 minutes. It’s amazing up there–more views, waterfalls, and unusual beauty. It looks like Lord of the Rings scenery–maybe it is?

 

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Above Skagafoss.

We stopped to see some horses! IMG_7453

From Vik the next morning, we drove to Geysir National Park. This is a must do. It’s why a geysir is called a geysir. Like a Kleenex, they called this Geysir and then the word became a common noun. The eruptions are frequent and surprising.

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There’s a bourgeois food hall there and fancy shopping thing. Also a bathroom. Driving here was a little confusing for us–make sure to figure out ahead of time.

We made car sandwiches and then went to Pingvellir National Park. Another must do. Lots of history here. You can read all about it in the guidebooks. Also, it’s pronounced TINGvellir. This was one of my absolute favorite sites to explore. Here you can see a spot where the earth’s crest is literally splitting–kind of a bummer but the park is gorgeous. I would have LOVED to have camped here for a night or two. 

We then drove to Reykjavik. We stayed at the Reykjavik Downtown HI Hostel. I liked it there. They had a guest kitchen which was a good way for us to eat our hikers’ breakfast the next morning.

We explored Reykjavik that night. It’s meh. Not my favorite city. IMG_7536

We did eat an incredible seafood meal and just shelled out the money for it. We stopped at a few neat off-the-beaten-path bars. There actually are a couple of really cool ones. I would say a lot of Reykjavik felt tourist-targeted but look a little closer, walk a little longer. You won’t necessarily pay less but you can avoid the kitchiness. We also went to the Lebowski Bar because Chas loves Lebowski–it was kind of stupid though and I have no idea why it’s in Iceland. 

The next day we walked around Reykjavik, ate hot dogs, and visited one more Bonus Pig, until it was time to head to the airport. Again, pack food. 

I think one thing that is a tiny bit frustrating (aside from the cost when you arrive) about Iceland is that there’s no perfect time to go. All times of year have their benefits and you just have to choose what’s important to you.

Things we wish we could have done:

  1. Seen puffins. (late spring/summer only)
  2. More seals. Infinite amounts of seals.
  3. A ice cave tour (winter only)
  4. A glacier lagoon boat ride (late spring/summer only)
  5. Driven to the West Fjords
  6. More hot springs–not Blue Lagoon
  7. Seen the Northern Lights, trust me, we tried!

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Travel to Greece

In June 2017 Chas and I had the absolute joy of attending Kevin and Angeliki’s wedding inside and outside of Heraklion on the island of Crete, Greece. Not only are Chas’s friends from college among my favorite people on the planet, we had a reason to go to Greece. I had been to Athens for a weekend and a smattering of islands on a day trip in college. During that weekend, Mary and I stayed in a dicey red light district hostel and someone stole my wallet. That was not how it was supposed to be according to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (books and films). Kev and Liki’s wedding was a chance to right that.

Here’s that trip.

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Crete:

We flew into Heraklion using Jet2 which was a budget airline that flew there for reasonable prices. I can no longer find Jet2’s website which indicates to me that it may no longer exist. Kind of a bummer but there must be other ways to get to Crete. We flew through Reykjavik, Iceland then Manchester, England then onto Heraklion. Not a short journey but…

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We stayed outside of Agia Pelagia which was about 30 minutes away from the airport, and extraordinarily fun to say aloud. We stayed in this villa which overlooked the Aegean Sea. The villa was huge (there were about a thousand of us) but I am sure there are smaller options with similar accommodations. A few groups we were with rented cars. That seemed to be maybe the best thing to do.

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The Heraklion airport is kind of a mess but it’s fine. You can take a short cab into Heraklion or take a longer ride to one of the nearby villages. You can drive down to the town of Agia Pelagia and visit the beach and the town cats. There are plenty of grocery stores around down there to load up on everything you need up top, which frankly, is everything. The rental car places allow you to park in their lots while you are in the town–quite useful. We only went to the town once, because honestly, we were our own town within our villa, but it was a cute little place and then it was nice to go back up top and leave it behind.

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There was also a bus to travel down to Heraklion from Agia Pelagia which I remember being reasonably priced and more like a charter bus situation than regular public bus. This was helpful for us because we were rolling so deep and cabs were long and pricey.

Goats scale the cliffs–you just have to look closely.

Heraklion is pretty cool. It has a European feel including all the drinking, eating, and grunginess. It’s actually a decently big city but the center of it is manageable on foot and the surrounding areas aren’t necessarily something one would want to visit (from what I saw). The harbor has a fort and some ancient sites. We didn’t see them because we spent so little time in Heraklion but they were a neat backdrop and I am certain, historically valuable, etc.

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You cannot drink the water in Crete and we just didn’t drink it in any of the Greek islands out of caution. Big bottles are reasonably priced. I’d recommend just buying a 6 pack of 2 liters and carrying them around. Apparently, the tap water is safe for our systems but tastes salty because of their de-salination process. It also contains more minerals than we are accustomed to so it could bother a gringo tummy. 

Aegean Sea:

From the harbor in Heraklion, we took a two-night sail on a chartered boat with Greg, Beth, and a captain. It included all meals and really just cost as much as a “normal people” hotel would have. There are plenty of charter boat situations in the harbor in Heraklion. The idea is that you participate in the sailing. Our skipper Jiannis taught us different aspects of sailing and included us in the process. (Most were very gender specific and assumptive in terms of what a woman can/cannot do.)  Jiannis also prepared our meals with foods he had brought on board. We had fresh fish, Greek salads, oregano from the island we visited, yogurt and fruit, and just beautiful Greek foods. Also wine. 

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We sailed into the Aegean Sea and around the island of Dia. Dia is covered in oregano plants and is completely uninhabited by humans. There are thousands of seagulls who are constantly making noise. Such a unique thing. It’s like a sensory bombardment in the middle of the sea where there are zero other people.

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We stayed a night docked off the coast of Dia. This was a gorgeous experience in terms of stars, solitude, sounds. We walked around Dia during the day, went to the abandoned tavern, the church. We got to swim, relax on the boat. We spent the second night sleeping in the harbor in Heraklion. We were able to walk around Heraklion. The boat that night was really hot and I found it difficult to sleep. That said, I took 4 naps that day and I might have had a hard time sleeping because of that. I would think you could take a cruise like this from many of the islands and I would recommend it. These were among the most peaceful days of my life. It was cleansing, relaxing, and just really special.

This is essentially what we did but I can’t remember the company. The organizer was great and very responsive. His name is Nicos. Our skipper was Jiannis and we loved him. 

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We woke up the next morning in the harbor and took the ferry to Santorini. The ferry is within walking distance of the spot where we docked the boat. I was extremely impressed with the timeliness and reliability of the Greek ferries. Way to go, Greece!

The ferry between Heraklion and Santorini wasn’t cheap but it was very comfortable. If you have the choice I would take Hellenic Seaways. It’s the same price as the rest but it was much better than Blue Star. It was only a little over an hour.

Santorini:

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Santorini is stupidly gorgeous immediately from the time you arrive. It is an island created by the remnants of a volcanic caldera. You can see this imprint, in a way, from above. 

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Do not take a cab or private bus company from the port. Walk a little to the left of the boat and grab the public bus. It’s really nice and about 2.50 euro. It will take you to the top and variety of towns. We stayed in Imerovigli. It was after Fera which was the main bus hub at the top. Weirdly, the port down low is also called Fera or sometimes Thera. This is confusing but they seem to have it under control.

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If you stay in Imerovigli you take the bus to Fera and then transfer to a bus in Imerovigli. I would highly recommend Imerovigli. It’s absolutely gorgeous and well-positioned for the view, height, walkability to everything you want to see, visit, purchase on that side of the island, etc. We stayed in this stupidly fantastic Air BnB and loved it. It was one of those houses that’s been carved into the volcanic rock which helps with climate control. Our patio which lead out from our bright blue doors was next level. We didn’t eat out, just got the amazing provisions from the grocery store and sat on the patio where we could see the view of the volcanic harbor. From what we understood restaurants could be pretty expensive. We just loved the cheeses, breads, olives, and spreads so much that the grocery store was perfect for us.

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There’s an urban “hike” from Imerovigli to Fera which you should do. You can see everything including the town. It’s touristy in most parts but so breathtaking. That night we went to Oia (pronounced Ia) to see the sunset. It’s crowded but it’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. I’d concur. You can take the bus to and from Oia to Imerovigli. It’s cheap too. I’d go a little early because from the bus stop there’s some confusing navigation to get to the top of Oia to see the sunset and a trillion tourists.

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Naxos:

From Santorini, we took another Hellenic Seaways ferry to Naxos. This was a little longer—maybe 3 hours? Our hotel (Chas found it on Hostelworld) was ideal for us. It was the Korali Garden Hotel. The owner, George, picked us up for free from the port. He wouldn’t even accept a tip. It was really cheap per night (around 30 euro) but had everything we needed and George was like the best human. We had about a 1 km walk to the center of the town from Korali Garden. We ate that night at Maro which was awesome and so reasonable. Try the grilled octopus and moussaka. A liter of house wine in a metal pitcher is around 6 euro.

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Also walk to the Temple of Apollo. We missed the main museum because it was closed already but heard it is cool. The center of town where the museum is located is remarkably confusing. But, if you’re not pressed for time, just wander it and get lost. It’s gorgeous. Also, gelato.

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The next day, George called a rental car company for us and we rented a car for 30 euro for the day–this felt really reasonable. It was a stick so make sure you ask if you can’t drive stick. The car was perfectly shitty. We drove around the center, saw the Kouros which are massive ancient sculptures of human bodies, and walked some of the ancient paths. Chas really loved the marble mines which you can very clearly see. We took some marble with us as well–don’t tell customs.

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We also visited to a town in the center of the island, called Apiranthos, and walked around during the day. I really liked this. I bought stamps at their “post office” which was just two old ladies in a living room who spoke no English. The streets which are entirely made of white marble are super confusing, but in a good way. We wandered the streets, got lost, it’s just a very different life and I think this was the perfect town in which to see that. There were goats and a raised cemetery and just an entire life that exists here in the very center of this Greek island.

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After driving around the center, we drove to a few beaches and relaxed. You can have your pick of beaches. (The beach in Naxos Town is pretty lame, very shallow water and crowded so renting the car was a good idea if only to see the other beaches.) It’s really pretty small so you can drive the whole island in a day. Chas burned the soles of his feet on one beach. Beware! 

Toplessness and total nudity are all over these less dense beaches. If you need an escape from the sun, be prepared to pay for an umbrella.

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Naxos is an incredibly diverse island. They do have buses that take the same trips with similar stops that we made but it was great to have control with the car. One party-party-looking beach town where we had a drink was Agia Anna. It looked like a fun enough place to stay but maybe not for more than a night or two. Another one (can’t recall the name but it might have been Mikri Vigla) didn’t have much going on, but not in a good way, in my opinion. The beach was absolutely gorgeous but the surroundings in terms of amenities were a snooze, and not necessarily in a charming way. Just research your beaches first before choosing. The second night we ate at Kastro which was a neat place. The table was on a patio with an excellent view. The whole dorado was great, as was our lamb meal—some type of pot that they cook in the oven along with the food. I’d definitely recommend Kastro. This is also the night we visited the fish spa and did a 15 minute foot treatment—neat thing to do just once.

Athens:

The next morning George took us for free again to the port. We had a ferry to Athens booked on Blue Star. Wifi costs and there are far less seats than Hellenic. Since it was a 5-hour ferry, you actually want some comfort. Upon arriving in Athens, there was immediate chaos.

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You should know that I hate Athens and I know it’s not fair. We found our way to the subway and almost immediately, there was a guy trying to pickpocket. Keep your eyes peeled, for sure. We took one of their 3 subway lines to our hostel and wandered around until we found it. The Acropolis was closed because it was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. I was really glad I’d already been because it is an incredible historic site, but I was sad that Chas didn’t get to wander it. We had to settle for seeing the Acrop from a distance and spending our time in the air conditioned museum which is pretty impressive and was not there at all the first time I went. Budget some time for it for sure. It is also air conditioned AF which was a necessity considering the temperature outside.

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We then met some friends for dinner which was fun and got the hell out of there in the morning. We flew from Athens to Brussels early the next day. We flew Aegean Air which surprisingly fed us. Their lines are a pain in the ass though so I’d recommend getting to the airport earlier than usual. They’re kind in the customer service sort of way but extremely inefficient.

General Information:

I was pleasantly surprised by how “together” Greece was. The last time I went there I perceived it as a mess. And, from what you hear in the news, it seems like it’d be struggling in terms of timeliness, reliability, etc. I know they’re struggling financially. Anyway, aside from Athens being the worst place ever, everything was on time. Everyone was friendly and helpful. We walked away with an incredible impression of the islands. It seems like Greece knows that its tourism is its bread and butter and it’s got its head on straight. In addition, prices seemed reliable everywhere and I never felt duped. I’m happy for Greece! The ferries are a really incredible way of getting around–can’t say that enough.

Giasou – hello

Kalimera – good morning

Kalispera – good afternoon

And that’s the limit of my Greek!

This is Chas’s Google sheet that guided the more logistical parts of our trip. (It’s also a great example of differently our brains work.)

In sum, go to Greece.

Travel to Italy

For these next few installments, I am thinking of presenting trip notes for different places Chas and I have loved. These are notes compiled over the course of 8 years, about traveling to Italy. If you have thoughts to add or amend, please comment! This is obviously extremely incomplete and just my opinion. But Italy is my favorite. Hands down. In case you can’t tell from this, you should go there (even if you’ve already been, go back).

Shout out to my Rome roommates: Deb, Chelsea, and Lauren, who remain my friends to this day.

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Chas and Kev in Siracusa after a boat trip with a guide named Cico (chee-cho). 

Italy

    1. Basic Italian Terms for Right off the Plane
      1. Italians just appreciate that you’re TRYING to use Italian. Always greet in Italian and then you can ask, “Parla Inglese?” (Do you speak English?)
      2. Buongiorno – Good day/morning
      3. Buenasera – Good evening
      4. Arrivederci – Goodbye
      5. Ciao – informal hi/bye
      6. Prego – You’re welcome/ Can I help you?/Go ahead
      7. Grazie – Thank you
      8. Grazie Mille – Thank you very much
      9. Vorrei – May I have/I would like
      10. “Ci” = ch sound
      11. “Zz” = ts sound
      12. “Ch” = k sound
      13. “Ll” is NOT y like in Spanish
    2. Food
      1. My first advice is to eat everything. The food their is SO fantastic and of such great quality, even the shadiest looking place, you can’t go wrong.
      2. If somewhere feels touristy, IT IS. Run. As in any place, try to eat off the beaten path. You’ll pay less and get better quality. You CAN find this in Trastevere, just walk away from the major attractions.
      3. Get gelato EVERYDAY. It’s SO much better than it is here. Also, the seafood is incredible. Eat things you can’t pronounce. Try squid ink risotto (it’s black!).
      4. Know that water and bread will be offered for a price. Tip should be 1.50-2 euro. In Italy “euros” is NOT a word. It’s just euro like “three deer,” “three euro.”
      5. Try the tiramisu – I couldn’t believe their tiramisu.
      6. Go into a small vegetable and fruit stand and get blood oranges. Their produce is SO good and they have some cool stuff we don’t so take advantage. Definitely go for the blood oranges.
      7. Meals to Italians last like 3 hours. Don’t expect your waiter to be fast. They think you want to enjoy your food and when you’re in Italy…you do. Just be relaxed about it. You’ll enjoy the meals more if you’re low stress and you take it slow.
    3. Transit in Rome (and much of Italy)
      1. I used public transit all the time. You can use cabs but they will know you’re tourists and they will take advantage. Years ago, 75 minutes on any transit was 1 or 2 euro. You buy the tickets in Tabbachi shops which are everywhere and marked with black signs with “T” on them. You stamp the ticket when you get on and it’s good for 75 minutes on any type of transit: bus, tram, metro.
      2. The metros are GHETTO but the bus and tram are great. The tram basically cuts Trastevere in half and you’ll spend a lot of time in that neighborhood for sure. Use this website: http://atac.roma.it/ before you go somewhere in Roma. You can map out a route and you can do it in English.
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    Inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

      1. You will probably want to stay in Trastevere. We used Air BnB when we went back most recently and it was super cool. Loved it. Place was fine. Street was magical. Very classic. Trastevere is the best mix of amazing attractions and in some parts, actual Roman experiences.
      2. My favorite attraction is the Trevi Fountain for sure.
      3. I would suggest though going into ANY church. They’re all old and they’re all beautiful.
      4. The Spanish Steps, I think, are best right around sunset, so magical.
      5. Behind the Spanish Steps there is a giant gorgeous park–see below re: Villa Borghese.
      6. The Keats and Shelley Museum as on the right at the bottom. I don’t know how much you like classic British Literature but I loved that museum.
      7. There’s also a great Spanish Steps Pub Crawl but I think I am remembering it as “great” in a rosy retrospection kind of way. Let’s just say, I did it more than once and one of those times, I may or may not have pulled my pants down and peed on the street.
      8. Definitely cross the bridges. They ALL have stories and so much history. One is called the Ponte Sisto (ponte means bridge) and it was built on the taxes citizens paid on prostitutes in like the 1600s.
      9. Over one bridge you’ll find the Castel di San Angelo. I don’t know if it’s necessary to go inside–I never did–but it’s a gorgeous building from the outside.
      10. When you go to the Vatican if your trip doesn’t include the Catacombs – GO! I don’t know what it is I’m not that religious but when I saw the grave of JP II I immediately started crying. It was very touching and there are a million dead popes there. Inside St. Peters, make sure you look to the right immediately when you walk in to see the Pieta. It’s like the most famous statue in the world. It’s okay I guess :). BOOK YOUR TICKETS ahead of time BUT do NOT use the touts outside of the Vatican. They’re full of shit. You’ll wait and that’s okay. The Cistene Chapel and everything leading up to it are worth it. Don’t talk yourself out because of a line.
      11. This is the kind of thing that’s off the beaten but very worth doing: Near my old apartment there is a walk that allows you to see the entire city. It’s a fantastic vantage point. It’s just outside of Trastevere (the neighborhood where most of the touristy stuff is). It’s probably technically in Monteverde (my neighborhood). It’s called the Gianicolo (Janiculum in English). There are like 7 major hills in Rome and that’s maybe one of them. Along this walk, you’ll see a lot of statues of heads (really, really old) haha but it really is SO cool and the view is AWESOME. It’s the kind of view of a city you’d see on 60 Minutes or something.
      12. There’s a really amazing art museum called the Borghese. It’s in the center of a park called the Villa Borghese. This was an old family that owned everything. There are a LOT of cool public parks in Rome. I heard it was because wives weren’t allowed to walk the streets so husbands (with money) had to buy huge plots of land so that their wives could walk on the family’s property instead of in the street. Of all of these types of parks that I saw, my favorite was the Villa Borghese. It’s HUGE and gorgeous. This will definitely be reachable by public transit. My second favorite was right down the street from my apartment called Pamphili. I used to run there a lot and it’s a great place to see real Roman life. Near the Borghese is the Museum of Modern Art which I had to go to for a class. It was pretty amazing but my suggestion is to choose ONE museum in Rome to see and appreciate. This way, you’re doing as the Romans do and you’re not spending all of your time in museums. Just pick allegiance to one.
      13. When you go to the Colosseum, get your tickets at the Roman Forum and do that first. The line at the Col is long but the ticket from the Forum is not and the ticket is good for both.
      14. There are two airports in Rome.
        1. Fiumacino/Leonardo daVinci is the larger one with international flights and actual runways.
        2. Ciampino is the smaller one. This is where Ryan Air flies out. It’s “fine” but literally nothing extra. I don’t love it but it’s a necessary evil for some flights out of Rome to smaller cities. You’ll live.
  • Sicily
      1. Sicily is incredible, gorgeous, delicious, and probably should not exist.
      2. Eat many servings of gelato in brioche buns. We called them ice cream sandwiches. I never saw them anywhere else.
      3. We flew RyanAir from Rome to Palermo. Chas rented a car. It is NOT easy driving. People are very aggressive and roads can be very tiny. Nevertheless, I do not know how we would have gotten around so easily without it. So I guess I’d recommend renting if you go there. Most of the driving is pretty desolate, and mountainous or rural.
      4. We drove right into Palermo. It’s kind of a grungy city but I lived in Rome for 4 months so I loved it. IMG_2818
        1. We went to the Cappucini Catacombs–MUST DO. It’s like 3 euro and there are over 8000 skeletons on display. Amazing.
        2. The markets in Palermo are incredible too.
        3. It’s a great city to just walk ALL over and soak in. So much to see. So busy. Look for mafia signs–it still has a presence there. We stayed one night in Palermo–that was probably enough as long as you spend a good full day or two in your walking shoes.   
          IMG_2856
      5. We drove to Cefalu (above). I insisted because my great grandfather was born there. Baltimore’s Little Italy used to be called Little Cefalu. It’s a gorgeous drive (they all are) and maybe an hour from Palermo. Cefalu’s streets are TINY. It’s such a cute town. We might be on the other side of the tipping point as it’s gotten kind of touristy.
        1. Climb La Roca. You can’t miss it. Fairly easy hike. Incredible views.
        2. Walk out to the end of the pier. WOW.
        3. Go in the main cathedral.
        4. Walk the entire town–easy.
        5. Look for the Baltimore sign in the main square.
        6. Park near the train station–FREE–but you will need to walk to where you are staying.
        7. Plan to spend a beach day.
        8. From Cefalu we took some day trips which were awesome.
          1. Segesta–Greek ruins.
          2. Erice–Arab ruins. You can a funicular or cable car to get to it.
        9. From Cefalu we drove through the mountains (holy shit kind of beauty) to Siracusa, specifically Ortigia. It’s one of the most ancient places in the world. Ortigia is where you want to stay. It’s the scenic part of town and is located on an island. You won’t know you’re on an “island” but don’t try to stay in main Siracusa–not charming.
          1. Go to the ruins which are outside of Ortigia. We walked there easily from Ortigia.
          2. Go to the church in the largest piazza. It has Turkish columns in it that you won’t believe.
          3. Take a boat ride! We got to see the island from the water, swim in the sea, and see some very cool grottos, and rock structures. I can’t remember our company but we LOVED our guy. His name was Cico (chee-cho). It was pretty cheap too. Maybe $40 for the three of us (we were with a friend) and we were the only ones on the boat.
          4. We stayed in a guest house here which was awesome and large. It was $60 per night which I am sharing because I think you can stay pretty affordably here. Cefalu too–we did Air BnB there and it was cheap. 
          5.  Then we drove to Mt. Etna. Expect the drive to take a while because you will want to stop along the way as you watch the landscape change. Among the most amazing things I have ever seen. We did a guest house there too. Sweet sassy molassy, I wish I could remember the restaurant where we ate. It was in the town and soooooooooo good. It must be in the guidebook. We did NOT do a tour in Etna. There is NO NEED! We hiked it. They tried to talk us into special boots, a special coat, and the bus ride. I wore sneakers, yoga pants, a scarf, and a jacket and I was FINE. The walk was unbelievable. Loved it. It was like we were on the moon, seriously.
          6. Wished we could have….gone to Taormina, Agrigento, and more of the middle. Nevertheless, it was an incredible trip. I recommend Sicily to everyone.
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Mt. Etna, which is the closest I will ever get to walking on the moon.

  • Cinque Terre
      1. Cinque Terre (Sara can probably guess) means 5 towns. You can take an easy and cheap train from Rome. You stay in one of the towns.
      2. It takes 4-5 hours to hike between all of them. And, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Lemons like you wouldn’t believe.
  • The South: Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, Amalfi Coast
      1. I did not go to Naples, heard it’s a dump. I stayed in Sorrento and went to Pompeii for the day (all you need), Capri, Anacapri, and road along the Amalfi Coast. I also spent a day in Positano.
      2. Pompeii is absolutely incredible. Worth it. Look for the “signs” pointing to the brothel (penises!)
      3. Capri and so chic: beaches, shopping, limoncello’s home. In Anacapri you can a chair lift the to top–holy shit. Yes, an actual CHAIR. Just one. So cool.
      4. Sorrento was cute–not as special as these other places.
      5. Positano is gorgeous. Black rock beach. Lovely!
    1. Florence (Firenze)
      1. I really liked Florence. It’s small, walkable, and approachable.
      2. Amazing architecture–orange/pink and green.
      3. A shopping city for sure. Go here for leather goods.
      4. It’s west of Rome, easy and gorgeous train ride. This train is a good way to see the middle of the country which has gorgeous landscape.
  • Assisi
    1. A day trip, not far from Florence I think.
    2. You can SEE St. Catherine’s “preserved” body.
    3. Mainly, I’d go if you want to see the beauty of the rolling hills of Tuscany.
  1. AUBREY went to Lake Como and to Venice. I have not been to either but would LOVE to have gone. Ask Aubs to put in her two eurocents (sneaky little coins that no one actually wants).

The “Things” We Leave Behind

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There’s a small table in the second faculty restroom at school. It has a plexiglass top that displays an old classroom directory that looks like it was typed 35 years ago. For a while, we didn’t use that bathroom because the sink was broken, no-water-broken. Someone from the city must have come and declogged an old shoe from the pipes because now the lead water run-eth free-eth. And just in front of the toilet, those names are frozen in time on that table. There’s not a bathroom trip that goes by that I don’t think about them. Who were they? Did they like each other? What were their educational philosophies? How did the classroom list end up in the bathroom? Did Mrs. Littlejohn and Ms. Smalls bond over their names? What about Mr. Trueman and Mrs. Truedale? Was Officer Downing kind? What did the engineer even do? Which ones are still alive?

I also get stuck in my head thinking about how the people in that list have no idea they’re still sitting there, a modern-day Ode on a Grecian Urnmemorialized for decades on a table meant for tampons.

I’ve always loved tiny details or relics that reveal more. “It’s the little things” is such a cliche that it’s practically meaningless at this point. Even just “little things” feels that way. But, I really do love the little things, especially the ones others leave behind whether physically or just in my own head.

In some ways, it’s actually a real burden to be painfully observant person, though. I get caught staring at people, I notice things I shouldn’t, I read things in people’s faces I wasn’t supposed to read. I observe and then carry around my new knowledge and sometimes it weighs a lot. But more often than not, I find that I am privy to things that others aren’t. Overall, I love collecting these tiny tidbits and putting together a story, fiction or non, that makes sense to me.

There’s a guy in my neighborhood I call “Falkenhan’s Guy” because he works at Falkenhan’s Hardware (didn’t say my stories were complicated). He has two dreadlocks on either side of his head and then luscious curls in the middle. I see him walking often. He has a very confident gait. I always hi to him when I catch him face to face. He’s really in his own world and only speaks when spoken to but when I greet him, he seems pleasantly surprised. Yesterday, I found myself walking behind him and watched him effortlessly slide down a 20-step railing at the shopping center across the street, like he’d done it dozens of times. It made my afternoon. I mean just think of all of the underlying personality traits for a grown man who slides down a steep railing holding a French baguette and bottle of kombucha. I just tingle at the possibilities! I imagine he goes home and makes gourmet soups with ingredients like leeks and bay leaves and orzo.

Just like an old school, an older house like ours is full of relics. Old floor patterns, a window frame fragment in the garden bed, glass doorknobs, and unclaimed bricks out front. I wish we hadn’t lost so many of them in the remodel.

When Chas and I first moved into our house the remodeler, a male named Loren, showed us a door hinge he found with five different colors of paint on it. To me it was like five generations of families represented by paint chips. I still have it. It feels like a poem, in a piece of metal.

How would you feel if you attended a meeting in a building that greets you with this sign? Would it seem official? Organized? Cared for? If this doesn’t matter, does that mean that the things of substance matter more, or does it mean they matter less?

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I took the above photo at the Professional Development Site for Baltimore City Public Schools. This is immediately visible when one walks into this building for a training. Did someone set this up 10 years ago? Maybe that person was fed up with Baltimore and fled for somewhere easier, simpler, more predictable.

 

Baltimore’s blight includes so many remnants of people of the past. I know I talk about this a lot but I will never get over it. What strikes you about the photo below? IMG_1058

I took it for a lot of reasons and I see even more power looking at it months later. But really what gets me is the railing and the evidence of what used to be staircases. And then I spin a story about a family with lots of kids and maybe a German Shepherd and how that outside space used to be inside space. Sure “No Shoot Zone” is notable. But someone used to climb those stairs to go to bed. A tired old woman might’ve used that railing for support. And on and on.

When I see an old staircase or invent a story about a stranger, when I attempt to rewrite the past I don’t know or see something minor that indicates something major I wonder what messages or stories I will leave behind. What will people who don’t know me remember about me? What’s my version of sliding down a railing? What relics will tell future people who lived on 38th St. a hundred years from now? Will my name be on some list on a bathroom table? What’s the story we tell with the things we leave behind?

What Heals You?

 

impressionist car wash

Read to the end to find out what this is. Or guess.

A slow drum beat mixed with a cymbal tap,

Soft lyrics crooned over electric guitar,

Or is it a slow piano entry?

 

When I’m at the pearly gates
This will be on my videotape, my videotape
 
 
 
Does this blare through the speakers of your car?
 
Or ripple from your laptop?
 
Do you hear every note like it’s the first time?
 
 
Mephistopheles is just beneath
And he’s reaching up to grab me
This is one for the good days
 
 
A loud, rib-cage-felt cry,
 
Hugs and shoulder rubs and unsure assurances.
 
 
And I have it all here
In red, blue, green
Red, blue, green
You are my center
When I spin away
 
 

Do you talk it out? Gush to a friend or to anyone who will listen,

Pour out your heart’s thoughts and your brain’s feelings,

Blurt and ramble and blab and let it all go.

Out of control on videotape
On videotape
On videotape
On videotape
On videotape
On videotape
 

Or do you keep it wrapped up,

In your belly like your sternum is made of ace bandages?

Say, “Oh I’m fine,” and “No, nothing’s wrong,” and “Yes, I’m sure,” and “No, I don’t need anything.”

Hold it together for your sake or for theirs, or maybe it’s for no one’s and you don’t even know why you do it.

Maybe you find some mixture of the two. You cry silently while someone asks repeatedly, “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

Does it eat away at you because you do want to talk about it but you don’t but you do but you also don’t?

This is my way of saying goodbye
Because I can’t do it face to face
I’m talking to you after it’s too late
No matter what happens now
You shouldn’t be afraid
Because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen

-“Videotape” by Radiohead

 

That’s my healing song when I need to cry it out to my Corolla–but I also demand to listen to it on every road trip, right, Lochdawg?

Also, I’d say I do all of the above at one point or another. I spent the end of the school year hearing my 8th graders discuss their growth, both in character and in academics. Along with their growth, strengths, and struggles, they discussed their coping mechanisms, and how they expect to deal with the pressures of high school. They can actually articulate, “When I am mad, I….” and “If I get angry, I…” It’s something that many adults would not be able to do, like ever.

What I also realized is that they really know how to deal with their feelings, or at least how to present they do so that a room full of adults believes them and rates them highly on their rubrics. When I was 13, I don’t even know if I realized I felt feelings. I can’t imagine being able to verbalize my character growth and my methods of dealing with my emotions.

The past week has been oddly full of incredibly difficult things happening to people I love. And in each case, the person going through something hard has been absolutely graceful and strong and vulnerable when she or he needed to be. (I’m fanning myself in amazement at my friends–though not at all surprised.)

Follow a loss, an illness, a disaster, a break up, an economic hardship, a legal hurdle, or any other awfulness, there’s such a wide variety of reactions.

For some people it seems like the healing process just happens automatically, they just face it, do it, done. But I’d argue that without some really deep dives, those quick and seemingly peaceful recoveries can lead to eruptions or latent bubbles of anxiety, fear, or melancholy later on. And I’m sure there are those rare people who just become okay after sad things and they really are just okay. I am not these people.

Being an adult is significantly easier, or at least more smooth, if you know what heals you, know how to accept help, and know how to pursue help. Twenty-five year old Amandy was a collection of fire, tears, intense anxiety, joy, and chaos. My only coping mechanisms were getting angry at my mom or Chas (though they were faultless), listening to sad music, crying, and running.

Now, at 30, I have a portfolio of healing tools. I have therapy, acupuncture, a strong yoga practice, Cymbalta (does that count?), significantly improved communication and apology skills, meditation, a backyard garden, and an assembled team of the best human beings on the planet, including the most loving Chas. But I’ll still blast “Videotape” when I really need to.

I think if there are just a few things I have taken away from this and can give out as unsolicited advice (you must know by now that I love giving unsolicited advice), it’s that we are dynamic creatures. What heals us will evolve with us and it’s crucial to allow oneself to be open to healing in various ways. We also have to recognize that other people heal in different ways and to respect others’ processes. Very selfishly, I immediately want to act to “fix” someone’s issue. I’m working on it–we’re dynamic, right?

 

Here’s a list of recommendations you didn’t ask for.

  1. Meditation in Baltimore. The Shambhala Meditation Center in Charles Village has meditation classes that last about a month in which one can learn different methods of meditation. Classes are donation based. They also have drop in meditations called “group sittings.” Many are free. The Kadampa Meditation Center in North Baltimore City offers guided meditations daily. It’s a buddhist temple but don’t be intimidated. They’re wonderful.
  2. Therapy. Psychology Today has a great search engine in which you can search for therapists by zip code. I left everything up to chance, called a bunch of people and left messages, and went with the nicest person who actually called me back. I’ve been going to Erica for five years now (hey, girl!).
  3. Acupuncture. If I had a nickel for every time I told someone that I receive acupuncture and he/she replies, “Ooohhh I’ve always wanted to try that!” I’d own my own wellness center. I started acupuncture for general anxiety and my acupuncturist has really become a life coach for me. I know that’s an extremely first-world sentence and for that, I am sorry. She just makes my whole world better. There are plenty of acupuncture sites in Baltimore, including sliding scale pricing for acupuncture and acupuncture through Johns Hopkins Medical. You can get as crunchy as a homemade paleo granola bar or as sterile as a white room.
  4. Put that energy into helping others. 
  5. Yoga. I know. I know. You’re sick of hearing about yoga but seriously, it just makes things better. The first week is free at Core Power but if you have eyes, you know that there’s yoga all over the place. Here are some other options in Baltimore with varying levels of fitness, spirituality, crunch, and diversity of classes.
    1. YogaWorks super diverse set of classes.
    2. Yoga Tree good variety (now) and right in Hampden.
    3. Lift is in an old church. It’s brand new, super cool, woman-owned and run. And they have a very restorative Yin class I’d highly recommend.
    4. Baltimore Yoga Village is a more wholistic experience for breath, meditation, and crunch. Warning: if you click on the website, you will hear monks chanting.
    5. Here’s Baltimore Magazine’s Wellness Guide. 
  6. Run. Here are some ways to run or work out with a group.
    1. Baltimore Running Festival. Ranges from 5K, to relay, to half marathon, to full marathon. It’s Christmas Day in Baltimore.
    2. Back on My Feet. Running group that meets four times per week (you don’t need to go all four days). Non-residents run with residents of shelters or treatment programs. This should also be part of #4 above. Run between one and four miles on weekday runs.
    3. November Project. Work out with a zealous group of people on Wednesdays at Rash Field and/or Fridays in Patterson Park. Free, no judgement, no need to sign up, just show up.
    4. Call me. I will run with you.
  7. Create art. Pinterest some shit and just get to work.

I also want to acknowledge that some wounds will never completely heal and that’s okay too. We just find new ways of living with our scabs and scars and when all else fails, there’s always Radiohead.

 

PS: The photo is the triple foam phase of the deluxe car wash on Falls Road at Cold Spring Lane. But it looks like an impressionist painting, doesn’t it?

Paint Baltimore Kind

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Baltimore Rooftop on the Fourth of July. Lookin’ to the future of our city. roof credit: Stacey Williams, Adam Blickenstaff, and Angelo (I don’t know his last name). photo credit: Lauren Svrjcek. feet: Sierra Smith. Legs: Shar Hollingsworth.

Have you been watching Queer Eye on Netflix? A.K.A. Have you had a conversation with me in the past week? The answers are either “yes, yes” or “no, no.” Because I straight up cannot. stop. talking. about. it. 

For the not-yet-enlightened, Queer Eye is a reboot of a 2001 show on Bravo called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. In it, five incredibly attractive, hilarious, and talented men (who happen to be gay) assist a previously hopeless man get his life back on track. The Fab Five cover grooming (beard oil, hair cuts, eyebrow shaping, and beautification routine), food and wine (moving away from the microwave), fashion (throwing away some horrifying things such as Crocs and bowling shirts), culture (helping the man believe in himself and also treat his partner right by caring for himself), and design (renovation of a space that’s important to him to make it reflect his personality and be more functional). 

I think something I love about Queer Eye is that these men (the clients) are a blank canvas. At first glance, a lost cause. They’re underdogs, they’re humble, they’re open books with blank pages, at least in the Fab Fives’ categories. When each episode is over, I’m laughing, I’m crying, I’m laughing again. I believe in growth! I believe in…anything! 

Generally, being a lifelong Baltimorean, I’m already rooting for any underdog. Who should win the World Cup? Hands down: poorest country (or the one Trump hates the most). World Series? For sure: the most crime-ridden city (come on, Orioles!). Superbowl? Duh: whatever team has the most Cinderella stories. Stanley Cup? Absolutely: Detroit. 

I’ve been all over East and West Baltimore lately. And I feel like I’ve been seeing my city in a new light. Instead of just the place I’ve lived for 30 years and where my friends and family are and where I live, work, and play (not always in that order), it’s been looking more and more like a canvas. Here are some reasons:

  1. The Daily’s Baltimore mini-series
  2. The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir by D. Watkins
  3. My kids.

     4. through 937.IMG_1054938. Humanity.

So enough proselytizing about why you should love Queer Eye and why the Yankees are irrelevant. In the words of Jonathan (in charge of grooming), reapplied to Baltimore: “There is a diva in there, but all she needs is a little bit of a bold lip.”

Another list. So here’s how you can help with that bold lip. 

  1. Read the first version of this blog.
  2. See the first list above. #1 and #2. Listen. Read. Trust.
  3. Join. The. Ceasefire. Start by watching Erricka Bridgeford’s Ted Talk if I didn’t already convince you blogs ago (or in person). Listen, I’ve got posters in my trunk–one has your name on it. Follow the movement on social media. And then tell other people. Yes, I know most of you reading this don’t need to be told, “Nobody shoot anybody.” But. Peeps gotta talk about this. That’s how movements thrive. So be a peep. Talk about it.
  4. Donations.
    1. Make Space.
    2. How to Donate Almost Anything in Baltimore.
    3. Donate men’s suits!
    4. Professional clothing drives.
    5. Check out THIS wish list for Baltimore Outreach for women and children. 
  5. Volunteer at Club 1111 to benefit adults with physical disabilities. Bonus points: The League for People with Disabilities is where I early vote and where Nancy and Dick met. There are a slew of ways to help The League.
  6. Here’s a place where you can do all of the following: meal service, educational tutoring, professional services, and one-time events. Also hot damn! Helping Up Mission for the win!
  7. Paul’s Place is a catalyst and leader for change, improving the quality of life in the Southwest Baltimore communities. Paul’s Place provides programs, services, and support that strengthen individuals and families, fostering hope, personal dignity and growth.”
  8. Run with Back on My Feet. This is a nonprofit located in cities across the U.S. Through the empowerment of running, Back on My Feet helps clients re-launch their lives through addiction services and job placement assistance.
  9. Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment) has a wide range of volunteer opportunities. For example, if you’re hosting an event (a gathering, book club, sex toy party, whatever), why not also turn it into a mini-drive? Project PLASE, House of Ruth, and AWE are always seeking donations of simple items such as diapers, personal hygiene products, feminine items, and much more. How simple would it be for everyone to bring an item? Plus, hello, advocacy and spreading the damn word! 
  10. AWE is also seeking tutors, drivers, and space to host tables at events. 
  11. As usual, selfish plug, help a Baltimore City school! Such as: Lillie May Carroll Jackson Charter School! But there are schools all over this city that need your love. Such as Reading Partners.
  12. Here’s a way to prioritize your own comfort (in your car), while making a difference. Best car wash in Baltimore is at McVet every Friday and Saturday from 8a-6p. Regular cars are $10. Right near the Farmer’s Market under 83. 
  13. I may add to this list above, in which case, this one would be moved down. Doesn’t matter. Please feel free to send me suggestions. #13 is blank for YOU. The coolest thing about Baltimore is that it straight up is your canvas. Drive around. Look around. Walk around. Choose your own mission here. Paint something. 

We want Baltimore to be the opposite of, in the words of Jonathan, “Struggs to func. That’s struggs to function.” And we’re far from perfect.

So in the words of our criminally convicted former mayor Sheila Dixon, “Various things have to happen in Baltimore that are not just related to police reform. How police deal with the public is one variant, but we also have to deal with how we treat each other. We need to look at taking more responsibility for ourselves.” …and each other. 

Say No to Fear

Even typing this piece feels a little scary, a little close to the vest for me. It’s less scary to write about topics that are not controversial. But I don’t want fear to guide me. And I don’t want it to guide you either.

If you say the line “be not afraid” in a room that contains at least one Catholic or recovering Catholic, expect that person to burst into song. If you say it in a room full of Catholic school kids, current or former, you’ll get a chorus. I dare you to try. Be not afraid.

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Throwing these in to soften a tough subject. Why not?

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

I first heard the above line from Marianne Williamson’s poem in the movie Akeelah and the Beea movie that’s much more about spelling than it is about fear. I saw Akeelah in the theatre and I remember going home to google the source of those lines. I don’t think I fully understood Williamson’s message at the time but I knew I felt it in some deep way in my heart. I honestly, and this will sound melodramatic, didn’t start to stand in my own greatness until very recently. And the cause? I would say that it was fear. Fear of rejection, of looking weird, of being perceived in some way I didn’t want to be perceived, of not being taken seriously, of being taken too seriously. Just fear. Amanda four years ago wouldn’t have taught yoga or written her own job description or driven all over Baltimore City to take kids to birthday parties or sung karaoke or written a blog or done a lot of things I’ve leapt into recently. So fuck fear.

More than ever, I am now realizing just how much humans are driven by fear and I don’t exempt myself from that. But I’m working on it, and this isn’t about me, for once. No, this is about Mitch McConnell. Kidding–sort of.

Lately our nation and our world have seemed utterly obsessed with what haunts us. Maybe “lately” isn’t even right. But fear feels like it’s running higher than usual. This fear bubble, and that could be a hopeful way of seeing it, feels sweaty and hot and there are mosquitoes inside and and we’re trapped. Rather than the people in power in our country recognizing that they are being driven by fear and that they’re playing on the fears of constituents when they campaign, they’re pretending that their decisions are based on ration and logic and law.

When we hear the cries of the children ripped from their parents at the Mexican-American border, when we see Trump’s random and polarized (both ends) tweets about nuclear war, when we hear Mitch McConnell say…anything, all we’re hearing is fear, fear, fear. When we block human beings pleading for asylum from entering our country because a tiny faction of them are potentially dangerous, when we say “Nope, not you” to those fleeing war and things we cannot fathom here, when we look in the eyes of someone saying “My husband is beating me” or “A gang is trying to kill my family,” and say, “Nah, maybe some other time,” this is fear, fear, fear.

So that’s the macro level. I could write dissertations on the fear that is driving our country and our world in 2018. But on the slightly more micro level, fear is powerful here too.

I found this from Psychology Today: “In 1971, George Johnson, a New York City policeman, arrested a man who was in a Times Square office building rifling through coats looking for money. Rather than call a paddy wagon, Johnson walked the man ten blocks across town to his precinct. The suspect accompanied him peacefully. As they walked, they smoked cigarettes and talked amiably. When they arrived at the station, Johnson learned that his arrestee was a wanted criminal with a history of attacking police officers. When asked by fellow officers how he managed to get the man there, he attributed the perp’s placidity to having been treated with respect.”

The author says he can’t imagine that happening today. And frankly, can you? Imagine the decline in police involved shootings if cops were able to take a beat and just talk it out with the person before shooting. In almost all of the cases I’ve heard about, fear is the officer’s reason for shooting. Some may have been legitimate threats–albeit no judge, no jury, no due process, no weapon–but overall is it fair to let one’s personal fear drive a decision? Whether or not that fear is grounded in reality, people are dead. Cops are sometimes shot for the same reason, but the fear’s on the other end.

One of the podcasts I’ve been listening to lately is Embedded. The host, Kelly McEvers, has been featuring police officer body cam videos recently. In this episode, a patient in a mental health facility is sitting in the middle of a street in Miami holding a toy truck. His caretaker, a black man, is trying to get him to return to the facility and get out of the street. Why on earth would that end in a shooting? Well, it did. I’ll let you guess, or just listen.

Some of the stories we hear about over and over again are the exception, right? So they’re broadcast and repeated and analyzed by talking heads because they’re rare or they’re “out there” rendering them interesting and useful for the news cycle. But let’s admit that these exceptions are becoming pretty freaking common.

Well, here’s another exception. In Toronto a police officer is face to face with a perpetrator he believes is holding a gun. And he talks him down. Peacefully. He takes his fear, just guessing, and prioritizes life.

On more micro level, how often does fear guide our lives, even our daily lives? Does it guide where we live, whom we befriend? Does it guide the interactions we have, the people we greet, whom we’ll let in?

Sure, there are times when fear is important. Maybe a security system is a smart buy, a car with certain safety features, avoiding suspicious people, not walking alone at night. Fear is part of our biological make up for many reasons. Our fight or flight response is part of the sympathetic nervous system because we need it to be. We needed it when we were hunters and gatherers dodging lions or any range of now extinct creatures with sharp teeth. And now we’ve taken that physiological need and applied it to one another–yes, sometimes for good reason.

But.

I think it’s worth stopping and thinking: Am I avoiding this person because he/she/they is different from me and that scares me? Am I saying no to this opportunity because it’s not something I’m used to and that’s freaky? Have I said no to a tough conversation because I’m afraid of what I might find out? What am I missing out on because of fear? What power is there inside of me that I keep there because I’m afraid to let it out?

From the perspective of humanity and being a member of the community of planet earth, I think fear serves us much less often than compassion and love do. But it’s up to us which to listen to.

Why I Love Women

When Aubrey was little she had a large collection of stuffed animals and gave them all names. They each deserved her love, equally (except for Simba and one of the Ernies, they were slightly more special). She made a list of the animals because she found that she was unable to snuggle with all of them in her bed at the same time–not enough room and I’m sure she didn’t want to risk someone falling out of bed and then feeling even worse. The list was the order in which she’d snuggle with her animals so she could keep track and make it fair. Aubrey’s the most empathic person I know and she was already at it when she was a tiny little thing. When I’m staring at and cooing to my one month old niece who looks like a tiny doll version of Aubs, I half expect her to look at me with those Aubrey doe eyes and say, “And how are you?” 

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Empathy is obviously not limited to women. Nothing is. None of the traits and wonderful things I will discuss are. And I’m not trying to make some statement about gender roles imposed by society or not imposed by society. I just wanna tell you about the reasons I love the people I know who identify as women. And really because my women blow me away so often, this blog is limited to those I interacted with in just the last week.

Last Friday I cried in a room full of women (and just one man who has seen me cry countless times). To the room, my tears were probably a little confusing, maybe a little much or strange. But that afternoon, two of the women in that room came to take my yoga class and checked on me. Three texted me to check to see if I was okay and coach me through my bizarre episode. And I had one wine-assisted emotional conversation that evening with another. Women don’t shy away from feelings. They face them, embrace them, and then follow up later on.

Last Saturday I happened upon a post online announcing Houndmouth‘s tour and that very night they’d be in downtown Baltimore. Impulsively I went for it and bought three tickets. Within two hours I had Sierra and Emily to attend with me and they’d already Venmo-ed me for their tickets. The show was fantastic and all hovering just above five feet tall and tiny-footed, we were able to wiggle up right in front of the stage. Women say “yes,” pay you back right away, and then easily wiggle up to the second row.

On Sunday I got to see Emma’s great grandmother, Chris’s Nan, cradle her and was able to take a four generation photo. Longevity.

Four Generations

Monday was Chas’s and my two year anniversary. Almost all of my female relatives and several of my girlfriends wished us a Happy Anniversary. I have male friends and male relatives and while I find pretty much all “Happy _________” pretty meaningless and I appreciate people remembering, I do not judge people based on remembering wedding anniversaries. Still, women are thoughtful, have great memories, and want you to have a “Happy ______________.”

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On Tuesday I met with the Education Committee of the Baltimore City Women’s Commission. Six of us maximized 90 minutes, totaling three pages of minutes that plan out our goals for the next two years. We deferred to one another, spoke openly, explained things when someone had a question, complimented one another, laughed, and created a list of 9 priorities that quite frankly, if carried out (when), Baltimore will actually change. The meeting was invigorating.

NPR once aired a fictional radio drama in which all of the world leaders were women (can’t find it online). In it, the leaders go around the table and say things like, “China, how’s everything going?” A female voice says something like “Peace and prosperity over here.” This repeats throughout the entire group. And the point is made. Women know how to get things done.

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After my meeting, my mom, Pilar and Diana came over for beers and conversation. In two hours we covered the world, each of our lives from Baltimore to Colorado to South Dakota and back again. We covered love and procreation and school and I went to bed with the fullest heart. We build each other up.

On Wednesday I taught two women-filled yoga classes and then hosted the 38th Street Book Club. Six of my neighbors came over. We tackled I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and the murderer and his ripple effects. We talked about the problems in our city and our world. We gracefully discussed and emoted and didn’t shy away from tough conversations. Women have real talk.

Thursday morning began with a “Women on the Run” run. Becky and I started our day off on the pavement and beginning my day with exercise and conversation sets me up for three things: feeling energized, an awake brain, and a promise of a nap later on. We support one another.

After work, a pretty boring first stint at campaigning for a state senate candidate, and my pre-destined nap, I headed to the meeting of my other book club: The Book Blub. Now it’s not typical to have two book club meetings in a row but that’s how things shook out. Book Blub is comprised of essential women in my life. We typically spend about 12 minutes on the book that some of us have read some portion of, 1:37 on life, and 11 minutes selecting the next book. There’s wine and there are snacks and bodily issues and love conundrums and immigration issues and the most laughter. And this time, there was Emma.

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Another highlight of this meeting was following Erin Drew’s journey to find true love via video. Erin tried out for The Bachelor last night. To learn more and hear her marvel at the 22 year olds who “have so much hope,” follow her on Instagram @eedrew. One of the best parts about being a woman is that we laugh with one another.

This is a very incomplete list, because it’s really just seven days of being a woman among women and it doesn’t include all of the incredible women in my life. But in just seven days, I can see my good fortune in being born female and being surrounded by a set of strong, intelligent, caring, and hilarious other females.

 

 

 

What’s in a name? (by my dad, Dick Doran)

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In my 14 months of writing this blog, this is a welcome first. My dad has been asking to “guest blog” for months–I won’t reveal which one of us procrastinated until this week, not important–so here we are. I am particularly excited about this because my dad comments on my blog faithfully and many people tell me that they look forward to reading his commentary. 

My dad is one of those really instantly likable people and that seems to bleed through his comments too. He’s friendly, kind, thoughtful, incredibly smart, and as you’re about to read, quite funny. As I am typing this, I am just remembering that this weekend is Fathers’ Day, making this a very appropriate time to force one’s father to write one’s weekly blog in her stead. 

Take it away, Dick…

 

Diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiickie Dickie dambo,

Oh so Rambo,

Air air buschke,

Mische mische pom pom…

-Anonymous singsongy chant*, possibly a Detroit/Michigan anomaly (spelling entirely a guess).

OK, let’s get this out on the table right away…I was not born a dick.  Some of you, hopefully not all, may choose to disagree but my full given name is RICHARD Patrick Edward Doran.  Don’t ask me how Richard birthed the nickname “Dick” but it’s a tradition that is at least 64 years old, since I’ve been called Dick all my life.

Two exceptions.  When Mom was mad at me it loudly became “RICHARD P!!!!”.  Confession: sometimes it did, because she was fierce when in anger mode.  And when I went to college I told the first people I met that my name was Rick.  I’d just spent high school enduring every dick joke ever conceived and thought I could avoid that ignominy.  Rick didn’t stick, although there are a few old college buddies who still call me that.

Let’s go back even further to three famous Dicks.  Search for “Richard Tracy comics” and what shows up is all about Dick Tracy, a comic strip launched in 1931 by Chester Gould.

100 BONUS POINTS FOR GUESSING WHICH RICHARD IS ACTUALLY A DICK

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Talk about your heroic visage!  Tracy couldn’t have a squarer jaw if Chester had used a T-square to draw it.  On the other hand, ski-slope nose Richard “Tricky Dick” Milhouse Nixon is infamous and in my view, hugely responsible for the negative connotations of Dick.  He took the 800+ years of the 12th century noble name of Richard the Lionhearted and dragged it down the toilet.  I do have to admit I’m stretching things a bit there.  It’s unlikely anyone called the latter Richard “Dick.” He was the king after all and his subjects would never risk the wrath of Dick!

By the way, did you know detectives were called “dicks”?  Maybe some still are but certainly not as a name when they catch the culprit.  The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces the noun “dick” in the detective sense to the 19th century (around 1864) criminal underworld slang verb “to dick,” meaning “to watch.” This “dick” came in turn from the Romany (the language of the Gypsies) word “dik,” meaning “to look, to see.”  Give me lionhearted over being a creepy watcher.

These days I often try to confront the issue head on.  When I introduce myself, depending on the social situation and participants, I say to people “Dick Doran, or if you that makes you uncomfortable you can call me Richard.” If I’ve read the situation correctly I’ll get a few chuckles and sly glances.  That’s when I add, “No worries, I’ve heard every dick joke ever uttered”.  If I get it wrong the conversation gets stilted and ends quickly.  The latter happens most often when I inadvertently meet Christian conservatives.  They have no sense of humor when it comes to body parts.

And there’s my own family.  Nancy, my lovely wife, bless her heart, never uses either Dick or Richard.  She just starts talking to me and then complains that I don’t listen to her.  So I tell her that if she starts with my name I’ll listen better because that will draw my attention and immediately open my ears.  Thirty-two years and we’re still having the same discussion/argument.  When forced, she will use Richard though.  Does that mean she doesn’t use Dick because it makes her uncomfortable?  Or more worrisome, does the person who knows me best harbor secret thoughts about the relationship between my nickname and my personality?  We’re still married so I’m left to guess.

My male siblings use Richard when talking directly to me unless they introduce me to someone.  Then it’s Dick.  Are they sending a subtle message to the introductees?  Whereas my sisters only use Richard when they are flabbergasted by something I’ve said to them.  Which happens quite often since we have widely differing views on many things.

Thankfully my daughters call me Dad, Pops or Popsicle (don’t even go there!).

What’s in a name?  From my point of view certainly not inherent personal characteristics.  However, many nicknames are descriptors.  Think Squinty, Four Eyes, Scarface, Big Man, etc., etc., etc.  Others are anti-descriptors such as the seven-footer who is called Shorty or the XXXXL guy called Slim.  And some people do look and/or act like their name/nickname.

For anyone named Richard/Dick though, please do not make the obvious association.  All the Dicks I know are great, kind, hard-working people with a well-developed sense of humor.  We’ve learned to laugh with you and at ourselves.  We cultivate those qualities by choosing to believe people calling us Dick are using it in the anti-descriptor sense.  In fact, I have yet to meet a Dick who is also a dick (I never personally met Nixon).  The truth is the rest of you with less pejorative names are much more likely fall into that category than those of us who have thrived despite the potentially negative associations of our name.  It’s a little-studied but well-known survival mechanism.

Now I’m wondering.  What if all parents gave their kids names that have humorously negative connotations?  I think we might be able to achieve world peace because everyone would learn to laugh at himself or herself.  Do I dare hope…?

*The longer you drag out the first Dickie the happier you are to see me.

The Rose that Grew from Concrete (Dear Young Lady…again)

I told you to be patient
I told you to be fine
I told you to be balanced
I told you to be kind

– “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver

Dear Young Lady,

Here we are. It’s June. And you’re in 8th grade. This is the bottom of the 9th inning. The 18th hole. Fourth quarter with two minutes on the clock. The last horrah. Farewell is Tuesday and there will be music and laughter and words and hugs and tears and final remarks. And we’ll say bye for now and maybe you’ll say, “Thanksss” like you do with more than one S and it’ll bother me because I will want you to say so much more. But I will take it and I might watch you walk away just to torture myself a little because I’m extra like that.

Yesterday when I overheard that mean thing you said about me, it felt you’d taken a sword through my chest. And then I cried the whole way back in from the fire drill and after that too even. You apologized but I still don’t know if I believe you. I think it hurt so much more because this is it. This is really it. I’ve had my chance to lift you up and to teach you not to say mean things about people, especially not when they can hear you and especially not when they care about you. I’ve had three years to show you how to be and how to act and how to get to school on time. I’ve been able to model forgiveness for you and also how to apologize because I do it all the time. And with all of this time, it’s not enough. But I don’t know if it ever would be enough.

Part of me wonders if you wanted me to hear, “Fuck, Ms. Eby,” because then you get to push me away and maybe get me to back off, get me to care less, get me to ask less questions, expect less answers. Deep down, though, I don’t think you want that at all. What a piece of work is a [young lady], how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals– and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Don’t worry, you’ll learn that play someday and you’ll probably hate it.)

Today when I watched you leave the school building and you left crying after the conversation we had, I wanted to rip my heart out of my chest and toss it to you and say “Here take this one, it’s much more whole, and you need it more than I do.” I wanted to run after you and keep giving you advice, keep telling you it would be okay, even though I don’t know if it will. I wanted to remind you of everything you’ve been through and we’ve been through in three years and assure you of your resilience and your support system and your inner light. But instead I just watched you walk to the bus stop and it felt like you were walking away from me for always.

The other day when we talked about your sister’s boyfriend and how he’s in the Rollin’ 60s Crips, I said like a privileged idiot, “Aren’t there other things he can do? And his mom knows? Can’t he find something better that would help the world?”

Then so quickly, I knew we both realized it. So I beat you to the punchline, “I know, that’s not fair to say because I was born with opportunities.”

“Right,” you said. Like you were being interviewed on 60 Minutes and I’d fed you an answer you already had and you knew absolutely everything but you didn’t want to make me feel bad. Because in just 14 years, you’ve lived 100. But at the same time, you’ve lived maybe four or five of the life you’ve actually deserved.

So when I ask you if you’re worried he could get shot or she could or something could happen to the baby, you answer like a 100 year old and tell me, “Of course.”

But I stop there. I don’t tell you that I’m so worried about that for you, too.

It was crushing to watch you be sad today because your future is so uncertain. And I can’t help pointing a finger at myself, even when I don’t know what else I could have done. When I saw your tears, I thought, this is what it must feel like to be a mother and to watch your baby hurt. Because although you’ve got 9 inches on me and the equivalent of 70 years, I can’t help but feel maternal.

So I will just hope you know in your head all the things I’ve been saying for three years–I hope my annoying voice is your inner broken record. I will hope you know I’m here even if I’m not there. I will hope you still call me, even if it’s just because you need a ride from one place to another. I will hope that it all clicks and that you “get it” one day soon. I will hope with my whole heart that you keep holding your head up and stay out of the mess our city tends to pull people into. I will hope you get through high school with your degree and college credits to boot, and your intact dignity and an empty uterus, with a smile, and with a “look what I just fucking did” attitude. And I really hope you invite me to see it. I really hope you invite me to see you bloom fully as that rose that grew from concrete. Because even if you don’t see yourself as that yet, that’s who you’ve always been to me. The rose that grew from concrete.

Love,

Ms. Eby