Category Archives: usa travels

In the South

usa travels

Though I lived the better part of my younger life in the suburbs of Atlanta, returning to the U.S. –  particularly the South – after many months away always comes with a heapin’ helpin’ of reverse culture shock, especially now that my family is stationed in the town I went to college in – “Poultry Captiol of the World,” Gainesville, Georgia.

I started snapping photos here and there, when I saw things that stopped me, or made me think, “only in the South.” It looked a little like this…

We ate all the things.


That up there may be THE most Southern burger on the planet. A bacon cheeseburger with pimento cheese and a fried green tomato. With a “side” of sweet potato fries.

This is the famous Waffle House waffle. The looming yellow Waffle House sign is one of the most ubiquitous sights in the South, particularly in Georgia. It’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can get your hash browns “scattered, covered, smothered, topped, and diced.” You can nurse a never ending cup of coffee for HOURS, and no one will look at you twice. Just ask any college student. south3

south5When Yanks say that we can’t find a decent Mexican restaurant in Sydney, ^^this^^ is what we’re looking for.

Fried macaroni and cheese bites. I just feel like you should know that these exist in the world.

We also drank “small” frozen margaritas (glad I wasn’t driving)… south2

…and “small” milkshakes that could have been a meal unto themselves. south6

And, it was all cheaper ‘n’ dirt. 

Sometimes things got a little weird.

That’s a ceramic crocodile. Naturally.

Mouthwash station in the Chick Fil A… … ?

A wall of giant hair bows in a ladies clothing store. $2 each. Sorority ball, anyone?

And, sometimes they got really weird.Buy 1 knife, get 1 free. Sold by Elvis.

We saw a lot of trains.

Little ones …

…and big ones.

…and we petted a lot of goats.

Baby goats!

The South needs cows this big to make sure we don’t run out of butter, y’all!

The South is nothing if not Patriotic. 

And devoutly religious.

Seen in a restaurant bathroom.

south9Hushpuppy scored this in an Easter basket.

 

It was also in full, glorious bloom during our visit.

Dogwood.

 

And though you can’t escape Fox News while you eat… 

“People are scared,” Meghan McCain bellows, as I eat my tacos.

You also can’t escape these views.Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee.

 

 My beautiful alma mater.

 

Flower Child: A Family Visit to Gibbs Gardens

usa travels

A Visit to Gibbs Gardens, Ball Ground, GAThank goodness for the big dreamer-doers – the ones who want to do something bold, and can’t be bothered about the reasons why it shouldn’t work: Something bold, for instance, like purchasing nearly 300 acres of land to live on, and spending three decades turning it into one of the country’s largest private gardens. And, calling your well bedazzled home “The Manor House.” And then, opening the whole thing up to the public (for a fee, of course – dreams are free, but reality comes with bills!).

Such is dream turned big, green, leafy reality that is Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground, Georgia, the home of landscaping company owner Jim Gibbs.

I got on a kick to see it after my Mom flashed me a picture of a field just bursting with daffodils. I hesitated briefly because I wasn’t sure if it was something that Hushpuppy would enjoy, but I finally decided that every adventure we have doesn’t have to be expressly for the 3 year old, and we picked a gorgeous Saturday to drive over. Then, my Mom decided on the very reasonable season’s pass, so being budget minded, I thought she ought to get her money’s worth, and we went back a week and a half later.

It is an impressive place. We were lucky on the first trip to hit it at the height of daffodils (half of Georgia had the same idea on that day) because even 10 days later, “Daffodil Hill” was far less emblazoned. But, in return, we were canopied by the most beautiful cherry blossoms on path to the Japanese Gardens, which hadn’t been nearly as spectacular before.

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It would seem that the season pass really is the way to go, if you life close enough, because the show is a little different every time.

On our first day, we took the tram ($5 for a day pass) to see the daffodils, then came back down and explored the Japanese Garden, which they advertise as the largest in the United States. On the second outing – a pretty big day – we took another look at the daffodils, then walked the trail down for lunch at the cafe (get the chicken salad sandwich), hiked up to the “Manor House” (sorry, I have to put that in quotes – I can’t say “Manor House” seriously), and then came down for one more look around the Japanese Gardens.

The whole place is just lush, with something to look at around every turn. I like that you’re still immersed in a good bit of the natural forest, and a creek with a few installed waterfalls dots the landscape. There’s enough variety that you never get fatigue over one type of  flower or style of garden. A large crew of volunteers are gushingly friendly (this is the South, y’all) and know a lot about the plants.

As for Hushpuppy, well it wasn’t a day at Disney for her, but I think she enjoyed herself, especially running on the trails and taking the trams. Her favorite were the “grandchildren” sculptures, based on Gibbs’ grandchildren, and really sweet for children.

I’d call the place “child-welcoming,” but not specifically catered to children. The volunteers all made Hushpuppy feel welcome, asking her if she liked flowers or making little jokes with her. However, I’d advise parents that the paths are not paved, and while I did see people with strollers, I’d want a sturdy one – you won’t get far on the gravel with a cheapie umbrella stroller. Kids will also need good supervision, especially around the ponds and creek, as well as the sculptures in the Japanese Garden.

If that all sounds manageable, then my recommendation is, by all means, make a day of it. Or, two days, like us. It’s a verdant dream come to life.

The “Manor House”


 

If you go…

Gibbs Gardens – Website 
1987 Gibbs Drive, Ball Ground, Georgia
Regular adult ticket: $20
Children under 6 are free
Optional tram ticket: $5
No outside food or drink (aside from water) allowed. 
The cafe serves sandwiches, salads, drinks, and snacks.

INK – Interactive Neighborhood For Kids – A Hidden City in Gainesville, GA

Little Aussie, usa travels

Tucked away behind the train station and across from the Hall county’s recycling center is a hidden little city, and one of the most wondrous places I’ve ever taken my child.

INK (Interactive Neighborhood for Kids) in Gainesville, GA is an interactive museum set up to resemble a town – but a perfect little village where everything is just right for children. It’s quickly become our favorite stop when in town visiting Grandma, though Hushpuppy and I can only go when we have a minimum of three hours, preferably more, to get lost in a day’s worth of work.

When you enter the play area, you step onto a main street with rooms on either side, each one a different work space. There’s the diner, the bank (with an actual ATM), the dentist’s office, the animal hospital, the hairdresser, the courtroom, the ever-popular grocery store, and a “Broadway” stage with costumes. Each room is full of items from real offices and shops, and many have outfits that the kids can wear, like doctor’s coats or chef uniforms.

Hushpuppy is partial to imaginary-transporting herself from one shop to another on a motorcycle that sits in the middle.

A little further in town is a section devoted to all things train (important in Gainesville). There’s an old fire engine. And, on the outskirts, is a farm with a cow that you can milk and a talking chicken.

Then, there’s the real police car. With lights and the whole thing. 

And, tucked away in the back room is a post office, a Red Cross shelter, a city building room, and … wait for it … an airport with an actual airplane. I know, right?

And if all of that is not entertaining enough (as if), there’s also a toddler room chock full of toys for under 3’s and a climbing structure for older kids.

The kids are free to explore every nook in any (safe, non-destructive, reasonable) way that they see fit.

I read online a criticism that someone found the toys to be “old” and “dirty.” Well, listen, they’re not new, everything is well loved, and the space is clearly an old warehouse, but I’ve never seen anything that’s dirty, unacceptable, or in any way unsafe.  My kid has plenty of new toys at home that she professionally ignores, so previously used items that spark her imagination for hours on end are more than acceptable for my standards.

I wish we had something like INK in Sydney.
Truth be told, we do have something like this, but truly, it’s *nothing* like this, if you catch my tone.
They just need real coffee – for adults – and it would be the world’s most perfect town.


 

If you go…
INK – Website
Location: 999 Chestnut St, SE, Gainesville, GA
Admission: $8 per person (including adults)/ $6 on Sundays
Bring your own food and eat in a designated lunch area inside or at picnic benches outside. 

The Tale of the Child Who Cared Not About Instagram: A Visit to Babyland General Hospital

Little Aussie, usa travels

I do love posting online all those whimsical moments to cherish that I just happen to capture in photographic form while my kid and are are, oh, just out and enjoying our everyday life. And, I so totally never go in thinking, “I need to get a picture of my kid doing XXX because that would make a great photo to post” (instragram.com/betweenrootsandwings). Nobody (especially bloggers) does that, right? Just so fortunate when I have my camera on hand at that lucky, lucky moment…

So, I definitely did not have any images in mind when, as part of our Great Tour of Northeast Georgia (AKA – “visiting Grandma”), we took a drive through some beautiful sub-Appalachian scenery to arrive in Cleveland, GA at the storied birthplace of the inscrutably and profitably uncomely Cabbage Patch Kid – Babyland General Hospital.

Babyland General Hospital is not so much a “medical facility” as it is a “store” masquerading as a “museum,” hidden inside the great walls of a manor that may as well sing  a synthesized version of “Tara’s Theme” as you roll onto the estate. The staff all wear doctor’s uniforms to assist in their work of tidying up the toys kids have dragged around the store caring for newborn dolls. And, every hour or so, they make a show of the most bizarre ritual of “Mother Cabbage” “giving birth” to a new doll. Like much of great world mythology, it’s a spectacle you don’t want to think too hard about or wonder what it might do to your child’s future understanding of science and human reproduction. photo 2

I have a complicated personal history with the Cabbage Patch doll. I must have been 6 or 7 when their dimply plastic heads stumbled onto the world stage of “must-have” toys. It was the perfect age to be completely overtaken by “All-My-Friends-Have-One-itis,” and so began my very first sustained campaign to obtain something popular that my parents didn’t want me to have.

My parents thought the dolls were ugly (correct), overpriced (true), and faddish (ding-ding-ding), and so on moral grounds, refused to part with their good American dollars in exchange for one. I felt heartbroken and left out every time my friends paraded out their beloved “Annabelle Sues” or “Ezekiel Marks.”. At some point, my grandmother got her hands on some fake Cabbage Patch doll heads and actually made me a couple of impostor dolls (in retrospect, a pretty massive effort to appease me while following my parent’s moral imperative). But, they didn’t come with a birth certificate or ridiculous name, and I never felt they were quite right. This feeling of injustice carried on in me for literal years until my 10th birthday when, gifted with some spending money, I bought myself my very own red-braided Cabbage Patch doll, which I treasured as a victory of my impending adult freedom when I would, not only buy all the dolls, but eat sugar covered cereal and watch every forbidden episode of The Simpsons.

I give you this background so that you’ll understand where my mind was when, a quarter century later, we trotted my own child off to the actual home of The Cabbage Patch doll. Though my rational adult mind could see how nonsensical this entire operation was, my 7 year old heart wanted my girl to fall deeply in love with some curly haired “Bernice Alana” best friend or bald baby “Henrietta June” that she might care for with self-refilling baby bottles. Her grandmother – she of the ethical high ground – even offered to shell out 70 of her generous Grandmother Dollars to procure one for her beloved granddaughter from abroad.

Twice now, a year or so apart, we’ve taken this child to the abundantly fertile Patch. And, twice, my cooing attempts at building a kinship between her and one of these bloated kewpies have been met with a determined indifference.

I’ve chased her around with my camera ready to snap a moment of adoration between herself and any single one of the multitude of doll-babies, doll-toddlers, doll-schoolchildren to reside within the walls of the Plastic Plantation.

Alas, maternal, she is not…

babyland1

“Can you sit and smile at Mama?”
“Eggs!”

“This would be cute and hard to mess up.”
“Here, let me cover up the logo with my arm.”

The more I chased her around espousing the virtues or potential doll matches, the more she looked at them sideways and then picked up toy watering cans or admired the plastic crystals adorning the baby garden. It was as if, by some magical spell, she could see everything in Cabbage Patch land aside from the Cabbage Patch dolls.

Eventually, she did find a friend – a stuffed Rottweiler sitting on a bench, keeping some “kids” company.
This is my baby,” she told me.

She put him in a stroller and pushed him around the whole store, taking marvelous care of him.

Grandma, naturally, was more than happy to make the canine adoption complete with a swipe of her Visa card.

Later at home, I made one final fleeting attempt at glory. “What’s his name? We could call him Cabbage Patch so that you remember where he came from.”

“His name is Dog,” she replied, and trotted off, satisfied with having the final word.

And so it was that a girl and her Dog reminded me that it’s not her job to mend the little sadnesses of my childhood by stepping into an image I’ve mentally crafted. That’s not her job any more than it will be my job to satisfy her every future dream of having the doll/game/machine/clothing item that “everyone else has.”

It was certainly, as her grandmother puffed proudly, also a testament to our girl’s superior aesthetic sense and good taste – something, she was kind enough not to say out loud – that must skip a generation.

Mom in Mum’s World: Toddler Approved Activities in Northeast Georgia

Little Aussie, usa travels

Never having been in the U.S. with a child before, and with six weeks to fill with the non-stop energy machine known here as Hushpuppy, finding toddler activities in and around the town in Northeast Georgia where we were staying was a high priority for my trip to the U.S. I’m happy to report that we discovered some winners. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, all of these activities are approved as seriously-super-fun by my nearly-two year old.

 

INK, Gainesville

Where do I even begin with INK (Interactive Neighborhood for Kids)? Tucked away in an industrial part of town, I wasn’t expecting much when we walked into INK, and in fact on our first trip there, we spent most of it in the “Under 3” playroom without exploring much further. Oh, how much more there was to see! Across a giant warehouse space, room after room unfolds inviting children to play imaginitavely in a grocery store, a diner, a bank, a hair salon, a vet clinic, a dentist office, and more. There’s also a train section, a dairy “farm” with a cow sculpture that you can actually milk, and Hushpuppy’s favorite, an actual police car. Grandma took Hushpuppy one afternoon and reported back that there was a section I’d never even made it to with an actual airplane. It was so many hours of entertainment and creative play, and it was suitable for young toddlers all the way through school aged children. If I lived in Gainesville, I’d be there once a week. It was magic.photo 3 (10)

 

Babyland General Hospital, Cleveland

photo 1Babyland General Hospital is the “birthplace” of the Cabbage Patch doll. Quite literally, they have a “birth” every hour or so. It’s honestly a pretty silly display, grown women dressed as nurses and taking their role as midwife to a glowing cabbage tree quite seriously (maybe it’s a tree? Cabbages don’t grown on trees… But then, babies don’t grow in cabbages … I’d urge you not to overthink the exercise). The whole place feels a little old fashioned, but in that marvelous way when you find something that’s still devoid of flashing lights and computer monitors, and holding on to a simple charm. They haven’t gotten the memo about the days of gender segregating toys being over (Hushuppy’s favorite section was labelled something like “no girls allowed!”), and the dolls really are a little creepy looking, but it was still a lot of fun to see.

The true story of our visit is that my daughter went to considerable effor to display less than a modicum of interest in the babies. Grandma wanted to buy her one as a souvenir, and I chased her around with one baby after another, saying “do you like the baby?” “Here, feed the baby!” She was still entirely entertained by everything else on display, including a toy kitchen, a little bedroom, and numerous stuffed animals. Dogs yes, babies no. I think we’ll go back on the next trip when she’s a little older.

 

The Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta

photo 1It rained on the day that my dear expat friend came to visit, so we decided to spend our day together indoors at the Georgia Aquarium. Hushpuppy had loved her visit to the Sydney Aquarium, so I had a feeling that this adventure would be a hit, and I was right. It’s a world-class aquarium, and we saw one incredible display after another. The tunnel with a moving sidewalk on the ground and sharks, rays and other fish swimming next to and above you was a highlight, as were the sea otters, and the little tunnel for children to go through and get a special view of the penguins. There’s something about the close up views and bright fish at aquariums that seems particularly appealing to toddlers,  even more so than zoos. The aquarium offered plenty enough entertainment for a full day of fishy fun.

 

The Children’s Museum of Atlanta

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust across the way from the Aquarium is The Children’s’ Museum of Atlanta. A fellow toddler mom came to visit, and we took the kids to the Children’s Museum. Hushpuppy immediately jumped on the John Deere tractor and also got a lot of use out of the truck-to-grocery-store interactive play area. She made a Christmas craft with the help of a friendly staff member and was mesmerized by a train set with plenty of buttons to push. She got her hands dirty in the kinetic sand station and managed to get both of us wet in the toddler fishing pond. The neatest exhibit, in my estimation, was this giant Rube Goldberg machine for ball play with dozens of levers to crank and buttons to push, with the balls going through any number of paths on a conveyor belt. In some ways, the museum reminded me of INK (they even had the same milking cow), and for my money, I’d choose INK any day (INK is also considerably less expensive), but if you’re closer to Atlanta than Gainesville, this was certainly great toddler fun.

 

Centennial Olympic Park, Atlanta

While I wouldn’t make a special trip to Centennial Olympic Park with a toddler, if you do visit either the Aquarium or The Children’s Museum (or even the World of Coca Cola), and you find yourself looking for a way to spend a little extra time, Centennial Park is a good stop. It has two playgrounds and plenty of good run around space. One of the playgrounds is specially designed to be accessible to children with special needs, which is quite interesting, as that aspect of it doesn’t make it any less challenging or appealing to children with no special requirements. It’s very well designed, and both times we went to Centennial Park, it was the preferred of the two playgrounds for Hushpuppy.

 

Hippo Hop, Atlanta

hippohopI love meeting up with friends with children, as they understand that you can’t just go to a sit down lunch and expect to have any kind of a catch up. You need a great place for the kids to run around if you have any hope of talking to each other for more than 36 seconds at a stretch. So, when I was meeting up with a friend I hadn’t seen since a year or two after college, I loved her suggestion of Hippo Hop. It’s a play center with several inflatable jumping houses and a number of other toys and activities. Both Hushpuppy and her son (nearly 4) were busy working from one end to the other for nearly four hours. I also liked that the snack bar was both reasonably priced and offered a number of healthy options, which you don’t always see at play centers.

 

Thrasher Park, Norcross

I grew up in Norcross, so when we were meeting up with a friend from high school, it only made sense that we returned to the old stomping grounds. She’s a proud auntie, so knows the area parks well and suggested this one. It’s a gorgeous neighborhood park in downtown Norcross, and the playground takes its theme from the railroad tracks and depot that are next door. Not only was the playground adorable, but Hushpuppy was completely entranced by the trains that went by periodically. “Choo choo!,” she kept saying

It was absolutely freezing the day we played there, so I didn’t get around to taking any pictures, but I really wanted to show you the cute playground, so I’m including this photo from citymomsblog.com. They have a description of this park (and lots of others here).

 

Chestatee Wildlife Preserve, Dahlonega

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFull disclosure, my kid was an raging monster the day we took her to Chestatee Wildlife Preserve, but on one of her better days, this would have been a great outing. The preserve acts as home to a variety of animals, many of which were rescued from being exotic pets or other bad situations. They came to national attention a few years ago when one of their donkeys and zebras got together to have a rare zedonk (truth!). They now have two zedonks, as part of the menagerie, along with bears, monkeys, wolves, birds, and a number of others. It’s very casual, and on the weekday we were there, we were the only visitors around. It’s the sort of place you could easily bring a picnic, hang out for the afternoon, and spend as much time observing the animals as you wanted without feeling pushed by crowds.

The zedonks were grazing in the field and didn't come close when we visited this time, but this is a photo I snapped of Pippi on an earlier trip a few years ago. She's bigger now.

The zedonks were grazing in the field and didn’t come close when we visited this time, but this is a photo I snapped of Pippi on an earlier trip a few years ago. She’s bigger now.

 

Zoo Atlanta

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHushpuppy loves our frequent visits to Taronga Zoo in Sydney, so I was excited when her Uncle and Auntie suggested we take a day trip to Zoo Atlanta. We went early in the morning when it wasn’t busy at all, so we gave Hushpuppy free reign to run around without the stroller. She loved it. I do think that she was at least equally as interested in running up and down ramps and watching the zoo’s train  as she was in the animals, but in terms of wildlife viewing, there were a couple of highlights. The zoo has a marvelous petting zoo with sheep and goats. Hushpuppy wasn’t entirely sure about petting them, but when she discovered that they have little brushes, she loved the idea of brushing the goats. And, the highlight for me was the giant pandas, which we don’t have in Sydney. It was cool weather, which apparently is the pandas’ favorite. We watched them from an uncrowded viewing area where one wandered in circles, making rounds right past Hushpuppy several times. They were delightful.

On the way out, we treated ourselves on a ride on the beautiful carousel and took a stop by nice fenced-in playground. It was a perfect toddler zoo experience.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Six Weeks at Home in Four Photos

expat issues, usa travels

On Thursday, I left the U.S. after a six week trip, and on Saturday morning, I arrived in Sydney. Friday was lost to time and space. Hushpuppy and I, dressed in winter clothes,  were welcomed by a blazing Australian summer and our sorely missed Partner-in-Crime.

It had been my first trip home in three years, so as expected, I faced a whole range of emotions from high to low.  All of the things I love and hate about both countries came into clear focus, leading to the never-ending “who am I and where do I belong?” existential acrobatics.

As I reflect, I think that I can sum up my thoughts in four photos.

1.

cupSo so much … We went to Waffle House for breakfast. I over-indulged. My coffee cup was refilled every time it got below half full. Still, I thought I’d take an extra caffeine boost home with me because, why not? So I asked for a to-go cup of coffee. The waiter asked if I wanted the “small” or “large.” I said small.
“The large is the same price,” he tempted.
“Large,” I agreed.

This is the large. It is literally a coffee as big as my head. Why would anyone need a coffee this size? And why would a large be the same price as the small (which I doubt was honestly very “small” at all)? Because … More … This is the American way. You see it in everything. It’s unsettling after you’ve stepped away from the abundance for a long time.

2.

cart

The extra mile: Yes, there’s too much of everything, but next to the overflow is also an abundance of extra care and thought. Everywhere you look, you can see people and businesses working just a little harder and more thoughtfully to create an experience that is friendly, comfortable, and nice to look at. Take this awesome racecar shopping cart at Publix. Hushpuppy was beside herself with joy to do the shopping in this contraption, which in turn made life easier for me. Grocery shopping suddenly became a fun adventure. Not necessary, but one of those little things that exemplifies how pleasant and easy life in the U.S. can be.

3.

Ideological differences: There were a few instances where my philisophical differences with American (Southern, in particular) culture smacked me squarely in the gut. Driving in town one day, I saw a car with this sticker on it (I wasn’t fast enough to snap my own photo, but it looked just like this). It is the perfect representation of the ideological differences I have with my homeland. Not only am I disgusted by the number of guns that Americans seem to feel it necessary to own, but then to want to flaunt it like this? This is the country that brought you Columbine. Aurora. Sandy Hook. When I was there, a two year old shot and killed his mother in a Wal Mart with her own concealed handgun. Do we really need to be so proud of our guns? Some will disagree with me, which is fine. This is one part of life about which the U.S. and I are never going to see eye to eye.

4.

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Family and dear friends: For all the things that make me uncomfortable about the U.S., it’s the place where my family and so many friends are, which is a perk without parallel. This photo of Hushpuppy was taken as she was holding her Grandma’s hand on the way to her uncle’s (my brother’s) wedding. On our trip, we got to experience Thanksgiving, the wedding, and Hushpuppy got spoiled by family at Christmas. I also spent some real quality time with friends from high school, college, and other parts of my life. I saw a show at my old University’s theatre department and caught up with some former professors. Her Uncle and new Auntie took us on a trip to the zoo. We spent an afternoon with her relatives from Partner-in-Crime’s side of the family, the first ones Hushpuppy has met. Hushpuppy played with some of my old toys and met the offspring of people I was once a lot younger with. When I look back, these are the pictures that I will always treasure about this trip. Everything else is on the periphery.

Devil May Care: A Summer of Travel

memoirs, usa travels

In my last post, I wrote about my internship and eventual job for a theatre in Florida. I was offered the job during my internship, and I accepted it on the condition that I could leave for the summer before beginning work. I had a season of travel planned, and I didn’t consider it optional to not go. I had been gifted a bit of money and I had a dream of getting out and about. In hindsight, asking for three months off before I even started work was a pretty bold move, and such a 22 year old thing to do. Thank goodness for being 22 once in your life.

My first adventure was a long weekend trip to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit my best friend from high school. I don’t have any pictures or mementos from that trip, and that’s mostly because we had a pretty lousy time. We didn’t fight or have a dramatic scene, we just didn’t do much of anything or have a lot to say to each other. It was on this trip that it became evident how far apart our lives had drifted, and that we no longer had almost anything in common. I couldn’t wait to go home.

My summer of travel was off to a particularly inauspicious start.

photo 1 (16)

Been there. Done that. Got the mug.

I followed this trip with a wild hare. I was besotted with Andy Warhol since doing a project on him in my Art History class in college, so I decided to fly to Pittsburgh to visit the Andy Warhol Museum. As I didn’t know a soul there, and the museum was the only item on my itinerary, I booked the first and last flight of the day to do the whole trip in less than 24 hours.

I loved my day at the museum, in part because of the art which I simply melted into, and another part because it was the first time in my life when I was completely anonymous and beholden to no one. I’d get a sense of this feeling again years later when I started my expat journey and I had days and days on my own to just wander Sydney while Partner-in-Crime was a work, and before I knew a soul. For a vacation, it’s an empowering feeling, but as a lifestyle choice, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Later that summer, I met my recent Yellow House roommate Julie in New York for a few days. This was my first time back to New York since my high school trip, and certainly a new experience as we were on our own, and this time I actually knew a number of people who lived there. I was lucky enough to have an old friend who was working in theatrical marketing who gifted us comp tickets to several shows, as well as gave me a whole bunch of swag, which made me feel terribly swanky. Most memorable was the Steppenwolf Theatre production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Gary Sinese and the Off Broadway bio of Janis Joplin, Love, Janis.

photo 4 (10)I’d planned the trip to coincide with Madonna’s concert at Madison Square Garden. At one point I’d been such a huge Madonna fan, and my love for her carried on enough at this point in my life that I was willing to drop a princely sum on tickets off Ebay. Honestly, I remember the concert being OK, not everything I’d hoped and dreamed. But, it was a tick off my must-do list. photo 2 (16)

Julie and I visited friends we knew from Florida, lunching, brunching, dining, and museum-ing our days away. I made my first ever trip to the Museum of Modern Art, the only visit I’d make in the old building before it moved to its new and current digs. Julie and I struggled our way through picking subway lines and hailing taxis, imagining what it would be like to be full time residents like our friends.

The big trip of the summer was my three week trip to Germany to visit my best friend from college, V, which I’ve already written about in my post about catching the “travel bug.” In that post, I mentioned that I’d love to find the pictures from the trip, and lo and behold, here and my Mom’s house, I laid hands on them. I thought I’d share just a few (I’m sparing V and myself from splashing on the world wide web photos of our nearly 14 years ago selves).

We were based in Cologne, whose most prominent landmark is the towering and grand Cathedral.

photo 4 (11)

We spent a couple of days in Berlin, a city that I loved (does anyone go to Berlin and not love it?). V’s aunt worked in the Reichstag, so we got a personal tour. photo 2 (17)

 

We also took the train to Amsterdam. I could write pages about our shenanigans, none of the involving drugs. Our tour of the Anne Frank House was a somber and memorable affair, of course, no shenanigans there.

photo 3 (9)This was also the summer that I bought my car, which I memorialized during the Expat Blog Challenge – shinier here than when I sold her.photo 5 (1)

In September, I returned to Florida. The day after I started work, the New York I’d visited six weeks earlier ceased to exist forever in an act of terrorism no one ever saw coming.

On the homefront, it wouldn’t be long before my friendship with the person I’d visited in Raleigh would be over, ending with a silence when both of us just stopped calling.

I’m happy to report that V and I remain dear friends to this day. We’d see each other again – in New York, as it happened – and again in Paris, and at now at least weekly on Facebook messenger. And as far as I know, the Andy Warhol Museum is still alive and well and living in Pittsburgh, enjoying its ongoing fifteen minutes of fame.

So, some things remain, some grow stronger, some change, and some perish altogether. We never know until time reveals it what will befall which fate. I can see from many years on from these travels I embarked on for no other reason than to fill my soul that there can be no greater argument for following whatever part of your 22 year old spirit exists and visit the people and places you long for whenever you are able.

 

 

Sarasota Dreaming

memoirs, usa travels

Back to the “throwback” posts inspired by all the memorabilia I have stored here in the nooks and crannies of my Mom’s house, I thought I’d make a nod to my dear adopted home of Sarasota, Florida.

Right after college, I was on a quest to figure out how to actually use the education I’d just gotten, and on a hunch that dramaturgy might be my path, I accepted an internship in the literary department of a theatre in Sarasota that produced contemporary plays. I eventually took a job there and stayed for three years, and when I finished grad school, I returned for another three years to run the literary department before moving to Australia. As you can imagine, with so much history at such pivotal points in my life, I can’t begin to say everything I want about Sarasota, and I certainly can’t mention all of the people I met there who have impacted my life in a profound way … mostly for the better.

Instead, I’ll scratch the surface with a few pieces of evidence I’ve unearthed in boxes, most of them relating to my early days in the old SRQ.

The most important place in my early Sarasota life was the Yellow House. I’ve talked before about the Pink House, and across the street, is a big yellow house that’s divided into four apartments known as the Intern House or the Yellow House. I actually have no idea if the house still stands, but for many classes of interns, it was the most important landmark of our time in Sarasota. One member of the intern group after mine even wrote a song that we can all hum to this day … “In our little yellow house/barely big enough for a mouse…”

photo 4 (9)

This picture is cut straight out of my beloved scrapbook, as you can probably tell.

I lived in the top left apartment. We shared a phone with the apartment across the hall. Luckily, I had a cell phone, but in 2000, that wasn’t a given. My roommates were Kristin, Kara, and Julie, all interns in various departments at the theatre. We usually kept the door open and wandered back and forth between the apartment across the hall and ours. We were silly, noisy, liked to stay up extremely late, and had occasional personal dramas amongst ourselves, which were usually resolved by having one-on-one time out at one of the downtown restaurants, or Perkins if it was late. For awhile before Kara moved in, we had a male roommate from Brazil. He was a terrible misogynist and hated us in particular (can’t exactly blame him – see above). He cooked rice and chicken breasts at every single meal and designated himself one pan, plate, fork, knife, and glass, which was necessary as we girls almost never did our own dishes.

My room was great because it opened up onto little balcony that went out onto a very sketchy alley, and it also had a built-in ironing board that folded out from the wall. The back porch was where we kept the contraband neighborhood cat and her kittens that we fostered until we adopted all the babies out.photo 2 (13)

The house had a front porch, which we used for endless parties almost every night of the week. Or, we’d have “classy” parties in our apartment where we’d drink sangria or boxed wine and eat brie. Always with the brie. We were so broke, living on $75 per week stipends, yet somehow we always had brie money.

Class.

Class.

There were several of us in my intern year and the following year who shared an abiding love for folk singer Dar Williams. When she came to town, my friend Kristin and I went to the show and stayed afterwards to meet her. Because we were the only ones who didn’t have to work that night, given the theatre schedule, we had her sign a poster for “the Yellow House kids.” We made copies, and I found what I believe is the original in my photo album.

photo 3 (7)

It’s true that my early years in Sarasota centered around the theatre’s communal housing, and all of my favorite people who came and went from there, but Sarasota is such a special town, I have to devote some space to talking about it. It’s located on the Gulf Coast about an hour south of Tampa. It’s one of those towns that is large enough to have amenities, but small enough that I was always running into people I knew at the weekend farmer’s market or at The Sports Page sports bar (a moment of silence for the demise of The Sports Page a couple of years ago … thank you). It has this amazing quality of being both a beach town and an arts destination. When I lived there, Sarasota had three professional theatres, as well as professional opera, ballet, and symphony, and a performing arts touring house. When I would do stints in the box office, people would come up with their calendars and say, “I can’t go that night, I have the symphony. No, not that night. I have the opera.” There are two colleges that keep it funky, the determinedly offbeat New College and Ringling College of Art and Design where I would eventually do three years of adjunct teaching. The Ringling Museum stands on the waterfront on property once owned by circus magnate John Ringling. There is an art museum, a circus museum, and the Ca’ D’Zan (“House of John” home). When I arrived, the Ca’D’Zan was actually closed because it was undergoing reconstruction after being used as the degrading mansion in the Great Expectations film. A circus town, Sarasota is also home to a lot of circus legacy, including the incredible Nik Wallenda. One day, we watched him from our office windows tightrope walk between two buildings, just a humble warm up to his Niagara Falls and other feats ahead.

The balcony of the Ca'D'Zan was always a favorite spot.

The balcony of the Ca’D’Zan was always a favorite spot.

The water, of course, is a vital part of Sarasota life and we were never very far from it. Downtown where we lived, we were literally one block from the water, but it was about a 10 minute drive to Lido Beach (or a 40 minute walk that took you over the beautiful Ringling Causeway bridge, which was one of Partner-in-Crime and my favorite weekend activities). During my intern days, the second most important spot in our social lives was Azure Tides, a little tiki bar right on the beach where big groups of us would go after work to drink rum runners and sit in Adirondack chairs to watch the sunset. It was a heartbreaker when Azure Tides closed down. It’s also a 15 minute drive to Siesta Key, which is often voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. During my intern days, we used to spend the day on Siesta and then go to the nearby oyster bar where we’d eat raw oysters and drink cheap beer. Ah, to be young again.

Sarasota sunset.

Sarasota sunset.

Given how delightful Sarasota is, it’s no wonder that a number of celebrities have homes there. Like Jerry Springer, who came to one of our shows when I was an intern, and was an exceptionally good sport.jerryjerry

I realize that I haven’t yet said anything about the work that I did in Sarasota, which was obviously the most important part of my life there. However, because it was so consuming and large, I’m at a loss as to where to even begin talking about it. Instead, in the continuing spirit of “just scratching the surface,” let me share three things I found in a box.

photo 1 (15)This picture I found in a frame, and I hope my friends and colleagues will forgive me for posting it here, as I don’t usually post photos of other people. It was taken at the opening night party for Brassy Broads, which was the first show I helped to develop at the theatre. The theatre’s Cabaret space features musical reviews developed in-house, and over the years, I would go on to work on a number of them. For Brassy Broads, I was a research assistant, and also got to sit in the development meetings, even having the chance to offer my opinion now and again. For someone who aspired to work on the development of new plays, it was a thrilling moment in my young career.

I could write pages about every person in that picture, but to get us to the next found item, let me just mention the gorgeous woman in the white jacket on the left, Rhonda. Now, she deserves to have not just pages but novels written about her and her life, but I’ll just say that in the ensuing years, she became my collaborator on another Cabaret showed called Guitar Girls. That show was my first baby, and Rhonda and I worked on it passionately for months, becoming unlikely and dear friends in the process. I was so proud of what it became after the full treatment with a whole development team and some incredible cast members. We dubbed the show “Chicks With Picks” and Rhonda designed a little unofficial logo. The cast was kind enough to adopt me as an honorary guitar girl, even though I couldn’t play a chord, and this is the gift that I handmade for everyone for opening night.gg mug

The other person from the photo I’ll mention is the white haired gentleman in the back, Jimmy Hoskins. I’d been thinking about Jimmy this week when I found this piece.

photo 3 (8)While Guitar Girls had been “my” music, one of the most interesting things about working on Cabaret shows was that I got to learn about music I didn’t know, otherwise, and none more so than with A Vaudeville Cabaret. We dug deep to unearth a trove of songs and sketches from the Vaudeville era, and I think it was a gem. Jimmy was the choreographer, and another character about whom volumes could be written. For each show he worked on, he’d create an art piece like this one and give a copy to each member of the creative team. The theatre is full of framed copies, and with A Vaudeville Cabaret, I finally got one of my own.

Jimmy Hoskins passed away this week. You can read a tribute to him here. I am reminded of how many dear, creative, wonderful people passed through my life during my time in Sarasota. I may not have kept in touch with all of them, and admittedly, I didn’t know Jimmy well enough to keep in touch with him after I left, but I love so many of them regardless of how fleeting our time together was. I carry their indomitable artistic spirits and bravery with me, along with the feel of the Sarasota sand that will always be between my toes.

The Young Traveler: My High School Trip to New York

memoirs, usa travels

It’s been a busy time being back on the ol’ homefront, visiting friends and family, celebrating holidays, and keeping the child occupied. There’s a lot to process in being home and, honestly, I’m not ready to unpack on these pages, yet. I have, however, also been unearthing boxes from storage at my Mom’s house. These things have made it through my numerous moves and purges, so if it still exists at this stage, I know that there’s some value in it for me. To honor these things I see so rarely, I thought I’d do some “throwback” posts here featuring a few of the pieces from the past that are normally tucked in boxes, collecting dust and time.

photo 1 (10)Today, I went back to my hometown to visit a friend from high school. So, let me remain on that theme and “throw” all the way back to (I think) 1995 when my high school drama department took a Spring Break trip to New York City. This trip exists for me in these loose scrapbook pages, which must have been tucked in a notebook, at some point.

This collection is so earnest you can almost feel the teenage sense of importance radiating from the photocopied flyers, ticket stubs, and dreadful photographs I deemed worthy of saving and carefully preserving under plastic cover. Nowadays, I save nothing. These pages make me feel a little like I’ve lost something, my enthusiasm for absolutely nothing in this world is so high as to be preserved in 3-hole punch.

photo 4 (5)The pink page on top is the itinerary, and so I know that our week in New York included tours of all the biggies, including NBC Studios, Radio City Music Hall, Ellis Island, and stops at Rockefeller Center, St Patricks Cathedral, Trump Tower, F.A.O. Schwartz, Hard Rock Cafe (I’m sure I got the t-shirt), Greenwich Village and SOHO, the Met, South Street Seaport, Chinatown (I still remember the instruction to not buy any watches that “just needed a battery), and Little Italy. We saw Broadway shows almost every night – Tommy (that will blow a high school kid’s mind quick smart), Phantom of the Opera, Crazy for You, and Miss Saigon, and we did a musical theatre workshop where we learned a dance to “Magic to You” from Pippin. On an off night, I remember getting tickets to the Radio City Easter show and watching the Rockettes from the very last row.

The photos in this scrapbook are so painfully terrible, which I adore because they say so much about a different time in the world and in my life. The focus of almost all of the photos is uncertain, at best. I was a young high school student – what a metaphor for someone who didn’t know where to put my attention or make a bold statement. The only photos with a clear subject are the ones of my friends and me. And, some of the things I chose to photograph now just seem such arbitrary and funny things to select. I’m also reminded that this was an era when digital photography was ages from coming into common usage, so you got one shot, and you didn’t know if it worked until you picked up that packet of 3×5 magic from Eckerd drug store a week later. You certainly didn’t have Instagram to help you make works of art from your every snap. The page below is the perfect example of my 1995 photos. The top two pictures are me, and then my two best friends standing in front of the Plaza Hotel. Because the Plaza Hotel is, you know, fancy, am I right? The third picture is the marquee for the David Letterman show. Or, rather, about 2/3 of the marquee and the head of one of my classmates.

photo 3 (4)

 

This picture is my favorite one in the book:

photo 2 (11)I don’t love it because I think I look smashing, but because I remember that it’s the night we went to see Phantom of the Opera, and I’m wearing my Homecoming dress because going to a Broadway show was that special. This was also the night that our teacher, Ms Pev (what we all called her) loaded us all into taxis after the show (taxis!) and took us to Tavern on the Green where she treated us to dessert, which we thought was the most decadent extravagance. It was my first taxi, first coat check, and my first taste of creme brulee. Years later when I lived in New York City and I’d often decide on a whim to get rush tickets for a Broadway show, where I’d end up post- library studies in my jeans and stuffing my big backpack under my seat, I’d remember this trip, going to my first Broadway shows in the fanciest things I owned, and I’d give myself a little scolding for having lost some of that etiquette.

photo 4 (7)We had a couple of other experiences with Broadway that made that New York City trip very special for a group of young theatre students. First, as part of our tour, we had an afternoon seminar with a performer from Crazy For You. I know now that this is something that is pretty commonplace for Broadway performers, especially those who are in the supporting roles, but then it did seem otherworldly to be sharing space with the street clothed performer we’d seen tapping, singing and otherwise all shimmery and huge the night before. Our cast member was Beth Leavel, which didn’t mean a lot to me, at the time, other than having just seen her on stage, and that she was really nice to us, but the lovely Ms Leavel has gone on to an illustrious career, including winning a Tony for The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006. Here I am with her and her castmate Jill Matson, who she’d invited to join her for the talk.

The other special Broadway experience we had was after seeing Miss Saigon, which we were so blown away by (the flying helicopter, I mean come… on…). Someone in our group had the idea to stand outside the stage door to greet the cast as they came out. They were wonderful sports, especially as we told them that we were drama students. They signed autographs and gave encouragements. One of the cast members, however, went above and beyond, and invited our little group to come backstage for a tour. She took us around and introduced us to any straggling cast members who hadn’t left yet. She took us on stage and showed us the car and the helicopter, and we all got to see the view that Broadway performers had looking out into the audience. She even showed us her dressing room. I’ll never forget how dear that experience was to me. I had to do a bit of Googling to remember which cast member it had been, but found her name is Emy Baysic, and she played Kim three shows a week. Here she is in the blue sweatshirt in the middle with our group. Her kindness elevated the entire trip for me.

photo 4 (8)Aside from the theatre adventures, I remember everything about New York City being eye opening. This was pre-Giuliani days, and I vividly recall all the porn theatres and homeless on the streets of Times Square outside our Howard Johnson hotel, which is an experience of Time Square I’d never have again in subsequent visits. I remember being overwhelmed by the $14 pastrami sandwich at Carnegie Deli, which was very rich for my blood, as well as larger than any food I’d ever seen (and I was coming from the South, so that’s not for nothing). I recall being terrified when a panhandler asked us for money on the Subway. I remember finding every familiar site from movies and television something almost too astounding to behold.

I remember the first sight of this view (and there’s Ms Pev scolding someone in the front):

photo 2 (12)

 

And, I remember this view:photo 3 (6)

photo 1 (12)I also recall how silly we were, such typical high school girls, missing things that we should have paid attention to. My friends and I developed a crush our our amiable tour guide, whose name I still recall was Terry. We absolutely wasted a trip to Ellis Island by trying to chat up Terry and gain favor with him, which in hindsight, was probably barking up the wrong tree in more ways than one. We spent the whole trip to the South Street Sea Port following some guy who we thought was cute from one shop to another. On Wall Street, Terry surely told us important things that might have come in handy in the ensuing decades, but we were mostly interested in the attractive traders in fancy suits. Oh Terry, may I humbly apologize that you had to put up with us.

This high school trip to New York City was one of the first trips I took without my parents, and would prove an eye opening look at a place I’d previously only known in my mythology. It would be at least five years before I came back to visit, and more than a decade until I moved there, by then my viewpoint was far more jaded and worldly. I’d never see New York City or, in fact, any place with the big eyes and wide open heart I had on this trip. I love this loose leaf scrapbook with the off-focus pictures, typewritered itinerary, and treasured playbills for the story it tells about my grandNew York adventure.

 

 

 

 

Americana Remembered

expat issues, usa travels

After three years away, I landed Stateside on Friday for a six week visit home. As expected, home is a mixture of familiar and surprising, that continual pull and push of expat life.

The surprises are all little things forgotten or never noticed before. I’ve only been here three days, and haven’t embarked on any interesting adventures, yet, so my discoveries are rather of the mundane kind. But, let me share my first days mini-revelations:

  • Americans really are that loud: I noticed it as soon as I got off the plan in L.A.. People everywhere yelling – not in a rude or combative way, just as a means of communication. Top decibel levels: “This way if you’re on the 9:30 flight!!!! Everyone else this way!!!! Are you on the 9:30 flight???!!! This way!!!” “Take nothing out of your suitcase except liquids!! I REPEAT! Take. Nothing. Out. Of your suitcase except liquids!!!”  It’s effective, I’ll give you that.
  • Americans are also super friendly: I also noticed this right off the plane. People go to a little more effort to smile and add a little positivity to their tone of voice. The girl at the Best Buy counter just about knocked me over with her “Hiii! Did y’all find everything OK today??” So. Not. Sydney. I keep waiting to get the cold shoulder from a cashier, but it hasn’t happened, yet.
  • Ice!!!: Fill my cup, America. I’m in cold drink heaven.photo 1 (8)
  • Eggs: I was so surprised when I opened the egg container this morning. Oh yeah! Eggs are white!
  • Tipping is too complicated: We ate in a restaurant for the first time today (Mexican, naturally), and I did remember that I needed to tip. However, calculating and adding the tip just about did my head in. I know it’s not complicated math, but you know what’s even less complicated after you’ve had a nice meal and are enjoying some friendly company? Not doing math at all.
  • There’s so much stuff: I’ve made two trips to Wal Mart (judge away, people, I’m not ashamed), and I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of stuff. It’s a double edged sword for me. On one hand … ugh, so much stuff … the environment, the landfills, the waste. But, on the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of stuff that is seriously useful, stuff that solves all those everyday niggling little problems that you have. And it looks nice. Someone put some thought into the aesthetic and design. Being at my Mom’s house for a few days, I’ve been overtaken with this feeling that everything just works. It’s so indulgent. And rational.

Of course, all of these little things are secondary to seeing my family get to know my little daughter, seeing her sit in the little rocking chair I used when I was as tiny as she is, being back in the town I have memories of from my college days, and getting organized all the long overdue reunions with dear ones.

In this Thanksgiving week, may you all feel even a piece of the gratitude I will bring to the table this year.