Fascination With Fireworks

I know the exact moment when my fascination with fireworks began, it was in June of 1972 and I was seven years old. A few months prior, we were celebrating Christmas and my father announced that we were going on a family trip to Disney World as a summer vacation. After hearing the news, I could not contain my excitement. Even though it was a few months away, I was dancing around the living room in jubilation imagining what it would be like to come face to face with my favorite Walt Disney characters. The entire trip was a series of firsts for me. It was my first time on a plane, my first time heading to Florida, and my first time ever to visit a theme park as big as the Magic Kingdom. As a little girl, getting to go on a trip like this was mind-blowing. We went on rides, stayed in the Polynesian Hotel and rode the futuristic monorail. I couldn’t wait to wake up every day and visit the park to see my idols and get their autographs. We would go on rides, watch parades and then leave to swim in the pool during the heat of the day. Even with all obvious amazing experiences, I was thrilled to ride that monorail back and forth to the park. I even got a special pin from the conductor and a ride in the first car.

Just when I thought that vacation could not get any better, we were allowed to stay up late the first night and EVERY night that entire week to watch the fireworks from our hotel balcony. We would get in our pajamas and watch the spectacular light show that lit up the sky over Cinderella’s castle. I marveled at the beauty of the colors as they burst over the top of the spires and didn’t mind the booming and crackling noises as they rose high in the air and burst open above the park. It was then and there that my adoration of pyrotechnics was sealed.

I love to watch fireworks at any time, but especially during the summer and definitely on or around the fourth of July. Since I lived right by the George Washington Bridge from New York, I regularly saw the fireworks over Lady Liberty (a highlight of my life). These days, I make sure to locate where the fireworks will go off every time I am away for the 4th of July and I have seen fireworks in several cities across the United States. The shows never disappoint. It is comforting to know that many Americans enjoy the ritual that plays out across the nation as we celebrate our independence. It is similar to lighting the candles on the biggest cake ever – from sea to shining sea. I celebrated by observing fireworks over the Delaware River and lighting sparklers in your honor.

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Brunch Vibes

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I love going out for brunch on a Sunday. It doesn’t matter if I am at home in my own surroundings or if I am away on a vacation, I figure out where we can go to grab brunch and enjoy the ritual of dining on both breakfast and lunch at the same time.

It must be a throwback from my twenties when I had my first apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. My friends and I went out every Saturday evening, enjoying the nightlife until the wee hours. Slowly and painfully, we would wake up the next morning around lunchtime, hungry and hung over. In short order, we would plan to spend the late “morning” eating the greasiest, heaviest food we could find. If you wanted breakfast, you ordered breakfast, and if you wanted lunch, you ordered lunch. We loved the concept because it was a meal that combined the best of both menus. After a Bloody Mary or Mimosa, and a strong cup of coffee, we would feel human again. The food would fortify us to tackle the business of afternoon napping between loads of laundry and any other residual work or chores we had to accomplish to be ready for the long work week ahead.

In honor of those days, I try to brunch whenever I can, wherever I can.  First, I conduct some research on the latest and greatest place that serves up the all-day feast. If I am home, I reach out to friends to see who would be willing to get up on a Sunday and start their day eating for a few hours. It isn’t hard to find someone who adores the ritual as much as I do. Brunch is a meal that demands that you take your time. It is an event where you slow down, enjoy civilized conversation and a great cup of coffee while easing into the day. If I am traveling (and after my research) I nab a reservation at a popular spot. I am rarely disappointed because it seems that every culture loves to linger over a lazy Sunday meal. I find that brunch in a different city adds people watching to an already glorious experience.

These days, the hangover may be a thing of the past, but the reluctance to dive headlong into the end of the weekend still lingers. I want Sundays to wind down slowly, enjoying great company, great food, and great coffee.

 

Summer is Coming

pexels-photo-348520.jpegWhen April turns to May, I realize that my favorite season is coming around. I love summer. I love it because it means that my family will spend more time together, either outside at home or on a vacation. It is the time of year where invitations to barbecues and impromptu get-togethers spring up. A season when neighbors and friends make more time to connect by sitting outside and laughing over shared memories and everyone slows down a bit to enjoy each other.

Being from New Jersey, I love taking day trips to the shore. As a child, we always visited the beach but it was for a week as a vacation. Now that I live closer, I can make a day trip out of it. On Saturdays or Sundays, we get up and put the chairs and beach towels in the trunk and start the short drive to our favorite sandy spot. The familiar smell of sunscreen and the delicious salty sea air restores me and I feel more like myself than at any other time of the year. I love to travel but some of my favorite memories have been right in my own backyard (so to speak).

My family and I soak up the sun and the dive into the waves. If I feel energetic, I take walks along the water’s edge or if I feel less inclined, I love reading a great book under a beach umbrella, all along taking in the sound of the crashing waves. And, after a few hours of idyllic seaside relaxation, we make plans to get provisions for dinner. The first stops always include dropping by our favorite soft-serve ice cream stand. Then, the route is always the same, the seafood market to purchase fresh fish to grill, the farmer’s market to select softball-sized Jersey tomatoes and ears of delicate, sweet, white corn as a side dish for dinner, and juicy peaches for dessert.

It is an idyllic time and I cannot wait for the warmer temperatures and my summer routine. I love to travel, but staying local in my corner of the world ranks up there as a great get-away and one I long for as April turns to May.

Spring Fever

I don’t know why, but for as long as I can remember, every February, I get the urge to plan a trip somewhere. It happens like clockwork, and it has become sort of tradition. Sometime around mid-February, I start looking online for destinations and then travel deals for those destinations. Once I start the process, I start sliding down the rabbit hole and inevitably, I make the plan to make the arrangements. I check in with my family and secure dates around schedules, and then I set up the trip.

My husband laughs at me every year because he knows that as soon as the cold weather hits and the holidays are over, that the vacation planning phase of my life begins. I can’t help it, the idea of travel away from New Jersey pulls me. I don’t even have to go somewhere warm. It needs to be a get-a-way to explore and enjoy a place I have never been.

Something weird happened this year that changed the typical vacation planning phase. I had not been thinking about a vacation because we decided to sell our home in February. I was so wrapped up in the details of getting the house ready that I did not feel that pull to plan a trip. Instead, it was my husband who, when planning a business trip, noticed that fares to Florida were low. He pointed out that we could go during our daughter’s spring break so that she could get some much-needed sunshine during a particularly cold New York State winter up at college. I was caught off guard and asked, “Who are you, and what have you done with my husband?” We had a good laugh and got to work making arrangements that very night. I put him on airfare duty, and I began to look for hotels in the Miami area. Before the night was over, we had a trip planned, airfare and hotels booked and had called our daughter to share the good news that she would be traveling to Miami for the week.

I teased my husband and reminded him that he was usually the one to hem and haw about spending money and going away, but in the end, he always relented. This time it felt so weird to have a partner in crime and be of like-mind to plan a spontaneous trip during the deep freeze of winter. When the day came to fly away, we looked at each other with a sense of eagerness and excitement about getting to the sunshine state and avoiding the blizzard that was going to descend on the northeast while we were basking in the warmth. I told him that I had indeed changed him because my habit had rubbed off on him and now he was forever in the spring fever cycle with me. Just another perk of being married to a travel junkie.

Living Like a Local on Spetses

We made a split-second decision. Should we choose the house for ten days in Greece? Or should we spend a week in Italy? The school auction had the most amazing items to bid on, so it was tough to decide. We had spent our honeymoon in Italy and wanted to go back, but the idea of traveling to Greece was appealing because we had never visited there before. We decided to put our names down for Greece and hoped for the best. As an elementary school teacher, the only chance to have a family vacation was over the summer break. My husband and I loved to travel and fortunately, so did our ten-year-old twin girls. To our surprise, our bid was the winner, and in a flash, our summer plans were set. Our family was going to Greece.

When the plane wheels touched down in Athens, I knew that our family was going to experience a transformation. The girls and I didn’t sleep a wink on the plane, but we looked past the jet-lag and focused on the palpable feeling of excitement for the adventure that was about to unfold. I had high hopes for this family trip, as it was the first one we had taken outside of the United States with our girls, Emma and Katie. For my husband Tony and I, it was the first one we had made abroad since before the twins were born. We landed in Athens that steamy, July morning and headed to an island called Spetses.

Our driver, Michele, picked us up at the airport and drove us two hours to the port in Costa, where we could catch a water taxi to the island. After traveling over an hour by car on the windy roads past Corinth, I stopped marveling at the scenery and began to regret drinking the orange juice served on the plane that morning. He drove those switchbacks like a professional racer, chatting in perfect English about his country and his friendship with Robert, whose home we were about to occupy for ten days. Robert and I were coworkers at school. He generously offered his house as an auction item at the annual fundraiser. After we won, Robert spent an hour on the phone with me helping sort out details, arranging for transportation (Michele) and explaining logistics about how to get to Spetses. He was my personal concierge, and I was in for something incredible.

Michele drove us to the port where we boarded a water taxi that gently motored across the sapphire blue waters of the Saronic Gulf. The shimmer of the gulf was sparkling in the morning light. I breathed deeply and let the feeling of anticipation begin to swell. I surveyed the coastline, and I remarked that Spetses looked lovely but extremely hilly. We all looked over at the island and studied the houses dotting all the way up to the top. We wondered aloud how the people got up to their homes. The journey we started twenty-four hours earlier was about to come to an end; we had reached our destination.

Stepping off the water taxi onto the dock, I noticed that the downtown area was teeming with people. It was joyfully noisy and hectic as boats arrived and departed from the landing. The fact that I didn’t speak Greek occurred to me, but I ignored it. I felt dizzy with excitement about setting foot on the island that Athenians loved but few tourists had taken the time to explore. Robert arranged for his house-sitter to meet us on the waterfront promenade, dotted with street vendors, shops, and café’s where the locals sipped coffee and observed the daily arrivals at the dock. A tall blond woman and her young daughter waved to us from the street. She introduced herself as Robert’s contact, Sophie, and she welcomed us with open arms. I noticed that she had an English accent. She explained that she immigrated from England to Spetses after marrying her husband who had grown up on the island. I thought her story was romantic and I was enchanted and comforted by her ease and warmth. Emma and Katie thought her daughter Anna was adorable. They spoke to her as the adults chatted about the flight and the drive. Sophie spoke fluent Greek and swiftly made arrangements for our luggage to be brought up to the house. We took a taxi up the steep hillside and finally stopped at a white-walled compound that surrounded two homes.

Robert’s house faced the gulf and was about as high on the island as you could get. His sister owned the second home on the property, and both places shared a small courtyard filled with flourishing lemon trees and potted plants brimming with bright fuchsia flowers. A tiny, but deep plunging pool was situated right off the stone patio beside the house. My girls, hot and tired from travel, ran upstairs with Anna to change into swimsuits. They couldn’t wait to splash in their very own pool. Sophie gave us detailed instructions about the house and the activities that we could experience locally. We toured the rooms, and the girls picked their favorites. Our master bedroom had a patio that we could access through the French doors. We stepped outside and saw more of those dazzling flowers whose vines crawled up the trellis and across a wooden pergola. The view of the gulf was astounding from that vantage point; almost dreamlike in its perfection. She made sure that we had some small provisions and let us know about “siesta,” the time when the locals shuttered their shops from 2:00pm to 6:00pm. They would return home to enjoy a long lunch with family and an afternoon nap. After a siesta, the shop owners would return to work until 9:00pm and then close for the evening and head out for dinner. She gently suggested that since we were living among the locals, we should be respectful neighbors and be as quiet as possible during that time. She left us with hugs and an offer to help again with any questions or problems. Then she was on her way, wishing us a relaxing and restorative vacation. I was thrilled with the house, but the wealth of information Sophie shared left me reeling.

That first day we unpacked and sat by “our” pool. We weren’t sure what to do, and of course, we were exhausted. The pool was so deep, and the water was so frigid that the girls shrieked when they jumped in, leading to a fit of giggles. I noticed that one of the neighbors peered out her window and closed her shutters. I remembered what Sophie said and realized it was siesta. I reminded the girls to keep their voices down, but it became clear that we should head inside. We stayed close to home for the day and decided to go out for an early dinner. We started walking down toward the town not exactly sure of where to go. We noticed a simple restaurant that had their menu posted on a sandwich board. It reminded Tony and I of those out-of-the-way places we visited while traveling through Tuscany. We were all hungry, so we decided to go in and have an early meal. We were the only patrons there. We managed to get our orders in with the waitress through hand gestures—she didn’t seem very friendly. We were starting to wonder what ten days would feel like there, especially with the language barrier. The food was rustic and authentic, which Tony and I enjoyed, but my girls were picky eaters and found it difficult to finish what they had ordered. They settled for bread and butter, and we decided it would be best to explore in the morning.

As the days unfolded, we walked up and down the hillside. Like the locals, we hiked up that steep mountain daily. Only a few lucky townspeople owned cars or drove small motorbikes to reach their destinations. As we trudged up the incline, we gained a respite by stopping in the fruit stall, local grocery, and the bakery along the way. At first, we pointed to the items we wanted to purchase, but after a few days, we exchanged smiles and simple greetings with the proprietors. I attempted to learn some phrases, and when I shopped, I asked about the Greek names of the fruits and vegetables. By the end of our trip, I was able to ask for the items in Greek. The shop owners and my family shared our languages back and forth as we started to feel like a part of the community. We adopted the culture and the rhythm of the island. We strolled downtown and ate dinner at 9:00pm with the rest of the local people. Our kids didn’t love the food, but they loved dessert. We allowed them to eat ice cream at 10:30pm every night. Sugared up and raring to go, we all stayed up late playing board games or cuddling on the comfortable sofa, watching VCR movies on the TV. We had no set schedule so, we woke up when we felt like it. We abandoned our regular routines from home.

Our days consisted of coffee and breakfast by the pool in our bathing suits and then down to town to catch a local boat which would stop at various beaches along the coast of “our” island. Each day we made plans to explore a different beach, which were all unique in mood and offerings. Many locations filled the entire stretch of sand with people. Most of the beaches had shacks where you could rent a lounge chair and a much-needed umbrella. Some had stalls where you could order food, buy beach toys or hire a motorboat for tube rides. Others were deserted and natural. My favorite swimming area was blissfully empty. Ligoneri Beach with its diving board bolted into the cliff, and the deep blue water lapping the white sand below it stole my heart. The dive off the board and the gigantic splash that followed was refreshing. It was the perfect antidote after hiking from the beach up the cliff to climb the ladder of the board. By one o’clock, the afternoon sun was blazing, so we went back to the comfort of our house, high up on the hill. We dined on the patio overlooking the gulf, munching on our lunch of softball-sized peaches, tomatoes, bread, and cheese. After a quick swim in the icy pool, we adopted the custom of taking a siesta. When we got sleepy, we either grabbed a book and found a nook to crawl into or lounged on our beds with the windows open, letting the breezes billow the gauzy curtains in a melodic dance. The lack of chores or appointments was heaven. The hustle and bustle of our life back home, the carpool, the work day, the after-school activities were just a blur.

One day we rented quads to cruise around the town. Tony’s quad was blue, and mine was red. We consulted our trusty map and planned a route to some of the out of the way places we couldn’t reach by foot or by boat. The kids hopped on the back, and we hit the road. We found a beachside restaurant that was off the beaten path. It had an upscale feel, with couches grouped on the grass and pop music playing on speakers. The crowd of people there seemed extraordinarily modern and young. The music and the energy intrigued us, and we made a group decision to check it out. We dined in the restaurant just off the beach underneath a pergola draped with white cotton fabric. The kids ordered burgers, but Tony and I had the most delicious grilled salmon skewered on sprigs of fresh rosemary. The smell of the rosemary that had been charred by the grill was earthy and gave the fish a smoky flavor. Both of the girls decided to try a bite, and the next thing I knew, my lunch was devoured.

Another day we jumped on a hydrofoil and sailed to a neighboring island called Hydra. Hydra was unique because there were no cars on the island. If you wanted to get to the top, you had to hire a donkey. We all rode them to the top, and the sight of us atop the mules made us laugh until our sides split. After walking around, having lunch and stopping in the local stores, we came upon a cliff where adults and children were jumping off into the water below.  We hadn’t anticipated a swim, so we didn’t have suits. We noticed that plenty of people just jumped in with their clothes on, so we figured why not? The cliff had different levels, so the kids and I chose the lower cliff and Tony climbed up to the top to the cheers of the other bathers. We splashed and laughed the day away.

After ten days, our idyllic vacation ended too soon. We planned to visit Athens before we left for home, to see the Acropolis and tour the city. We arranged to travel by high-speed ferry to the Port of Piraeus. We were sad to go. It had begun to feel like we were a part of the island that seemed so foreign when we first arrived. We made connections with the local people. As we passed each other on the street, we wished each other good morning or good evening (in Greek of course). We gave each other huge smiles and shared pleasantries. We adopted the practice of taking naps during the sweltering heat of the afternoon. The siestas gave us the energy to walk into town to enjoy the cooler evenings and nightlife of the island. My children began to appreciate the culture of a new place, and as the vacation progressed, I observed how much they had grown. The girls, who were such picky eaters, wanted to taste the local cuisine. They came away with a new appreciation for seafood because it was so prevalent and delicious. We couldn’t wait to start our daily adventures by reading maps and selecting what beach to visit, making detailed plans and explorations. They began to absorb the notion that experiences are more significant than material gifts and that pieces of destinations stay with you long after your return home to regular routines.

As the wheels retracted into the plane and soared through the air back to home, I recalled how travel helps you form new perspectives. I was nervous about taking my children out of their comfort zone, and the country, but it was worth it. Our trip strengthened our family bond because we worked together to design our daily excursions and formed unforgettable memories. We grew closer because of our shared experience marveling at the beauty and the history of Greece. Living in Spetses for ten days changed us like I hoped it would.

 

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

NEW YORK ARTS-2Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a poem by Robert Frost that has always enchanted me since childhood. I thought of the poem last week when I went to New York City for a story I was researching. It was cold but warmer than it had been all week after a recent snowfall. I ended up in Central Park on a whim and I gasped when I encountered the sparkling scene in front of me. I closed my eyes and the words of the Frost poem came to me. I conjured an image of a horse confused by his rider’s reluctance to get from point A to point B quickly and I made a connection. I often feel that during my hectic days of getting somewhere to accomplish something that is (I believe) incredibly important, that there is, “No time.” Yet, there is something restorative about stopping and engaging in the scenery that can be worth the time it takes to do so. Even though it was not on my original agenda, I wandered along the path anyway. The beauty of the park was stunning, and even though I hate the cold,  I appreciate the beauty of winter. I almost didn’t take the time to enter the park, but when I did, My being was filled with the beauty of nature and the special something that is Central Park. Memories flooded my mind. As a younger woman, I would visit the park with friends during the summer to get some sunshine or some exercise. As a younger woman, I would visit the park with a date and enjoy a picnic on the lawn or the romance of the lake near the Loeb Boathouse. As a younger mother, I visited the park with my children, visiting the zoo or riding in a horse-drawn carriage to show them around the special oasis in the center of the city. Central Park is a special, magical place, and I am grateful that I  took the time to stop by and soak in all that light reflecting off the ground and the shadows cast by the trees and feel that nip in the air as I breathed in deeply the essence of a quiet place amidst the hustle and bustle. As I moved along the path, I reflected on the last lines of the poem: The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

Sunday Dinner, a Long-Standing Italian Tradition

I grew up in an Italian American household. My father was born in Brooklyn, but both of his parents were Italian immigrants. My maternal grandmother had a similar background, and even though her husband, my grandfather, immigrated from Cuba, he never shared his culture with us. He preferred to let my grandmother share her Italian heritage, so I considered myself Italian.

As an Italian family, we grew up knowing that Sunday was a family day. You never made plans outside of the house, because dinner was going to take all day. Sunday dinner was at least a four-hour food extravaganza. After church, we sat at the dining room table, stretched to accommodate fifteen, set with crystal, china, silverware, and cloth napkins on a red, damask tablecloth. I was always expected to set the table for the family. As a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do was to sit for several hours at the table, but it was tradition and it was expected.

You would not think of changing the way the meal unfolded or adjust the time spent at the table. Every course was served in order: soup, salad, pasta, meat, potatoes, vegetables, and then the break to stretch and wash the dishes. During our short recess, we prepared for dessert; the rich espresso gurgled and bubbled on the stove, the pastries placed on an enormous platter, and the table was set with baskets of fruit and demitasse cups. Then we all gathered once again, to close our meal. The aromas of the coffee served with a twist of lemon peel, and a small glass of Sambuca was a treat for the senses. When I smell it today, it immediately brings me back to my dining room table and all the people seated there.

The pastry platter was passed and we would choose a delicacy. I would never eat the cannoli; I thought the filling was strange, and the dried fruit was bitter. I usually selected the pignoli nut cookies and a tiny eclair frosted with chocolate. The pastries, had an essential place at the table because my grandmother brought them to New Jersey from the Brooklyn neighborhood where she lived. Apparently, they were authentic, and everyone looked forward to them with eager anticipation.

I never really understood why the meal had to be so long, why we had to eat the foods we always served, and why we had to put social plans on hold for the entire day, but as an adult, I wish I decided to continue the tradition to some degree. The modern family cannot seem to make enough time to sit for hours and linger over conversation and coffee. I guess that is why the holidays help me remember to be grateful for the family around the table; the laughter shared and of course the traditional foods that remind us of our heritage.