Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 or What and Who I Will Remember in 16 Years

Sixteen years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.
All these years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.

Sixteen years ago, my ex and I took our first overseas trip together – to Spain for the Christmas holiday.

While moving to Madrid is an experience all mine, there are moments when my past and present collide. Strangely, mostly in regards to food.

Walking up Gran Via, I stumble upon the neon sign of Museo Chicote — Madrid’s oldest cocktail bar, a place Hemmingway used to frequent.

I had circled it in our Frommers’ guide and we sought it out upon arrival. Dimly lit and cool in a retro kind of way. They served potato chips with their drinks, scooping them from wooden drawers that looked like library card-catalog files.

Knowing in my bones that I am close to the anonymous third-floor walkup hotel where we stayed for $30 a night – the one with the ridiculously comfortable foam mattress — and having that feeling confirmed when I spy the Nebraska Cafeteria, the name as surprising to me now as it was then.

Shopping for food at El Corte Ingles– like Sears when it carried everything, even houses — but better, higher end.

We picked up smoked salmon, baguettes and wine on our final night in Spain and spread it out for a picnic on our bed at a boutique hotel recently purchased by Best Western. An over-sized room by European standards, with a deep, tiled bathtub and television which ran CNN – creature comforts at the end of 10 days of traveling, most of it while fighting the flu.

It was raining and cold…and truth told, we couldn’t bear to do battle with Spanish restaurants one more time.

Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 – sometimes the seemingly simple act of ordering a meal in a country where you do not speak the language is overwhelming.

For the better part of our trip we wandered the streets of Spain until way past hungry, and when we finally decided upon a restaurant, were often baffled. Do we just sit down? Do we wait to be seated? Do we order at the counter? Do we pay now? Do we pay later? Do we ask for the bill?

What do these words mean on the menu?

We pulled out our translator – a charming and antiquated apparatus by today’s standards – and were met with responses like “spoon of the world.” Useless.

Eventually we found our rhythm, often opting to sit at counters and order tapas – pointing to what we wanted rather than risking another menu fiasco.

I had forgotten about this until a little over three weeks ago, when I arrived in Spain and tripped over myself at restaurants – again uncertain whether to sit or be seated, and often disappointed with what I thought I had ordered. Seems Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 also applies to new expats.

I quickly found myself shopping at the CarreFour for yogurt and thinly sliced cured meats, and picking up figs, tomatoes, melon and salad greens at any one of several produce markets on my street. My classmates marveled at my healthy looking salads, fruit, brown rice and chickpeas.

What I didn’t mention was dinner often consisted of gelato, eaten on the street. That at the end of a 10-hour school day, navigating a restaurant – coupled with the cultural norm that it is highly unusual to eat alone here (“A waiter will bring a glass of wine to a woman eating alone because he pities her,” a friend of a friend told me.) – was often more than I could take on.

It is both humbling and frustrating to experience and to admit — as are many things about being an immigrant.

And I find myself incongruently grateful when sharing a meal with someone who has lived here longer than me — who knows how to wrangle us a bowl of gazpacho for lunch when it is not on the menu.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those awkward meals my ex and I shared 16 years ago. And how all these years later we remember the beautiful food – a simple tortilla Espanola eaten outside of the train station in Sitges, and a feast of fresh crustaceans in Barcelona on Christmas night – but not the disappointments.

And more than that, we remember the quest — the journey, the experiences, the people. The girls in Santa caps who served us tuna sandwiches. The waiter who rescued my ex when he got locked in the restaurant bathroom, who learned English on a kibbutz in Israel and who pointed this Wandering Jewess to the synagogue across the way after dinner.

The what’s and who’s I imagine I will remember in 16 years.

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Artist Date 30: Among the Flora, Invited Out

Stephanie
Stephanie

One of my readers invited me on an Artist Date.  Number 30.

Actually, she’s a friend…and a reader.  Her name is Stephanie.  Last week, she sent me an email inviting me to the Bucktown Tree and Garden Walk.  Hers would be among the 80-plus featured.

I was touched, delighted that she had somehow become “involved” enough in my story, in my process, to join in, to help me along.

So Saturday morning I pedal my vintage Raleigh to her neighborhood.  The day is sunny and hot, but not humid.  A Chicago miracle.

I tie up my bike at Club Lucky and buy a ticket for the walk. In exchange for $5, I receive a map of the gardens with descriptions of each, access to a complimentary trolley, and a coupon for $10 my next meal of $35 or more.

I hear my name called.  It is a woman I used to know.  I didn’t recognize her.  She isn’t surprised to see me.  She heard I moved back to town.  That I am divorced.  Chicago feels like a small town.  It is comforting.

We embrace.  And I jump back on my bike, headed to Stephanie’s, forgoing the trolley.

Her partner Errol is on the porch painting, plein air.  She is inside sautéing onions and baking a pizza – snacks for the other artists expected today.

She gives me a tour of her home, its walls spilling over with her artwork, Errol’s and that of other creatives.  Her first still life hangs in the stairwell.  It is a pear.  Or is it an onion and ramps?  There are several, grouped together.  I don’t recall.  In some ways it doesn’t really matter.  Her raw natural talent is obvious.  It is the kind that makes me wonder why I bother.

Stephanie and Toulousse
Stephanie and Toulouse

I meet her cat Toulouse, and a black one whose name escapes me.  He is missing some bone in his head, which makes his face appear somewhat smushed.

I leave my helmet and my basket with her, and receive explicit directions to stop by Sam and Nick’s.  She points out their location on the map.  “Just tell them we sent you.”

On the way I stop at my first floral garden, (Stephanie and Errol’s was planted with art – some framed and hanging.  Other funky and environmental.  A striped sidewalk created with a power washer and wood planks.  Painted sticks growing out of the soil.  Their colors “changing” from orange to green depending on your position.  Like a painting by the Israeli artist, Agam.)

Marsha is watering plants.  She seems surprised to see me.  Actually, many of the garden owners do.  As if they have forgotten that the garden walk is today.

She shows me her zinnias and her tomatoes.  Nothing remarkable, but lovely. Sweet.  Growing.

Walking into the private space of a stranger, I am reminded of being in Amsterdam.  According to my Frommer’s guide residents intentionally keep their shutters open – proud of their homes, inviting a peek inside.

This is Marsha’s first season in the garden.  She moved in recently, leaving the suburbs and joining her husband in the city.  Her house is on the market and she is keeping her fingers crossed.  She gives me hope – seeing her in this new space, putting down roots, with a partner.  And also knowing that she had a life all her own before this change.  And I assume, to a certain degree, still does.

I don’t tell her any of this.  Instead I tell her about my recollections of Amsterdam, how I recently killed a cactus, and about being invited on an Artist Date by her neighbor.  I run my hands through a tomato plant and bring them to my face.  I love the smell.  I rub my hands on my neck, as if putting on the earth’s fragrance.  I thank her and say goodbye.

2013-07-13 12.31.31

A wading pool is set up at the corner of Hoyne and Moffat, along with a glass bubbler filled with ice water, cucumber, melon and strawberries.  A few chairs are perched in the shade of a tree.  There is a note, “Relax and Hydrate.”  I fill up my water bottle and keep moving.

I stop at Nick and Sam’s.  Sam is wearing a white bee keeper’s hat.  I go inside and talk with Nick about his artwork.  Striking etchings using photos from the Kinsey Institute.  He points out the racy elements because I don’t see them – not at first.

I admire his collection of roller-skate cases lined up on a shelf, each with a tag hanging from it – letting him know what is stored inside.

I visit more than a dozen gardens.  Some consisting of little more than sod on a double-wide lot – one with a basketball net and cement court, another with a large inflatable swimming pool.  Two toddler girls in matching hot pink bathing suits and white sun hats are wading in it.  Their limbs, deliciously chunky.

Others sit on top of garages, tucked behind homes.

I follow arrows and stairs climbing up.  Water spills out of the wall and is caught in a ceramic bowl, a chalice.  Suspiciously clean, striped pads sit on top of teak furniture.  Several blue umbrellas block the sun.  A man, presumably the owner, offers me a bottle of water from a cooler.  I feel like I am at a spa.

At another, an intruder.  I am greeted by a man eating his lunch under a wooden canopy covered with vines, listening to the radio.  His daughter hangs shyly behind him, swaying side to side, her head following her hips.

Most of the homes are noticeably without “hosts.”  Only a laminated card, with a number corresponding to the map, identifies them as part of the walk.

I had expected storybook gardens, like something from the south.  Manicured.  Dense.  Sweetly pungent.  Or wild and overgrown, with tall, smiling sunflowers – like my favorite one in Mendocino, a sleepy resort town on the northern California coast.  A sign implores visitors to photograph, but to refrain from picking.

Instead I encounter mostly neatly trimmed hedges, modest groupings of plants and flowers that clearly thrive, creative use of small space —bringing nature into the city.

2013-07-13 12.54.05I remember moving to Chicago the first time, in 2007.  I was heart-sick for San Francisco.  For pastel-painted Victorians, rolling fog and rolling green hills.  I made it my mission to take the most beautiful path I could wherever I went.  The one with the most trees, prettiest homes.  I had forgotten about that.

Eventually I settled into Chicago.  My surroundings ceased to be new.  And I ceased to notice them.  Until today.

I return to Stephanie and Errol’s to pick up my things.  A few of Errol’s painter friends are here.  They ask if I am a painter.  I shake my head.  I tell them that I am a writer, a dancer, a frustrated potter.  A girl on an Artist Date, being reminded of the loveliness all around me.