An open love letter to the city of Aix-en-Provence

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In my mind, Aix-en-Provence is a city created for the way people should live. Should really live. I am finishing up a too-fast week in Aix but I feel pretty confident in my statement. Now it’s true I’m probably inadvertently, unavoidably comparing it to the city I’m currently living in back in the States. (A Facebook friend posted on my timeline yesterday the fact that north Florida was experiencing three digit temperatures and an outburst of yellow flies. She kindly didn’t even mention the humidity.) I’m not sure there’s even a word in French for humidity. (Well, I guess there’d have to be because of Tahiti.) The weather for mid-summer in Aix is probably described most aptly as pleasant, warm and breezy but more succinctly as perfect. I sat out evenings here in weather that just didn’t exist. It wasn’t hot or cold, wet or dry. It was exactly right. It was so perfect you didn’t have to think about it. It just was.

I’d have to say the key reason I think Aix is a city made for how people should live is because of the daily food markets. The idea that you can wake up and take a quick (and gorgeous) walk to an outdoor array of the freshest, best possible choice of seasonal food—is something we Americans have largely given up on and the French wisely would never.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

When did we Americans decide that we don’t need fresh-baked bread? Or to have strawberries that taste like strawberries? Or vegetables in season? When did we accept the fact that the way food should taste—succulent and specific—was something we could live without? (I have a French friend who did an internship at the advertising agency I worked at and she used to bemoan the fact that all American food tasted basically the same—like it was coated with a light caramel coating: sugar and salt but no real distinct flavors. Live a week next to an open air produce market and you’ll know exactly what she means. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my palate this week.)

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Not surprisingly, I haven’t seen a single seriously overweight person since I’ve been here. Could the availability of delicious, fresh food ingredients combined with a beautiful walking city have something to do with that?

Yuh think?

Okay, so now Aix has seen to it that you’ve gotten your cardio in such a way that you’ve window shopped and wound around and through ancient alleyways and streets. It’s de-stressed you by insisting you stop every now and then in your daily round to sip a cup of coffee (which everyone knows is good for you) and maybe nibble on a hand-made pastry (balance! Everything in moderation.) It’s made it practically impossible to find processed foods so you’re stuck with the real thing—ten kinds of olives harvested from the area, olive oil so pure it will make you weep even if you use only a dribble on your salads, tomatoes plump and red that make your plate look like a work of art (this is France after all) and that really taste like tomatoes.

Now on to the social aspect of this city. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time alone. When I finally break away (or come up for air as my husband puts it), I go to the grocery store or drive to a restaurant to meet with friends for an hour or so or maybe wander around St Augustine to find an art gallery.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In Aix in the summer time, because it doesn’t get dark until after ten o’clock each night, and because the city is made up of French people, the city markets are taken down and the cafes are re-erected so that people can come together—to eat, to drink, to laugh, to talk. It is such a healthy, amazingly fun, exquisite way for people to commune and connect that I literally found myself longing for anything similar in my life back home.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

How can you not relax and unwind in a café setting? You’re outdoors, the waiter is unobtrusive but ever-there, all the food tastes better, the warmth of the day has hardly dissipated but the most soothing of breezes has been added, and you’re surrounded by your friends. As I watched café life from my own café table, I noticed over and over again how people in the café were joined unexpectedly by friends or family members wandering by (usually with ice cream cones or Nutella crepes in hand). I couldn’t help but think how it would change a person to be enjoying the evening air with the expectation that they might well see, unplanned, a loved one or friend.

Community. Food. Beauty. And on that last note, I have to add one more thing: I travelled with two men this trip and one of them a photographer. I am sure he’ll be doing his own page about the beautiful young women of Aix but even I could not help notice them. I loved watching all the city life saunter by my café table—or balcony—but the exquisite Aixoise in their inimitable fashion and style, their confidence in their beauty and youth added a intensified sense of panache to the trip. In a phone conversation with my ninety-year old mother, she asked, “Are the French women still beautiful? (We lived in France in the sixties.) How do they wear their hair styles? Their clothes?” I was happy to tell her that while plus ça change, the facts were clear when it came to French women and style that plus la meme chose too.

I leave you now until next time, mes amis. I am off Googling immigration possibilities…

Vive la France…where food meets style

In excited anticipation of my upcoming Provençal research trip, I’m going through my cookbooks and scanning favorite recipes to be uploaded to my iPad. I expect to live in the daily food markets in Aix and environs and–if just for a few weeks–live the life I write about and love.

I  stumbled across a recent article that said the French were annoyed because there was a grass roots movement to close some McDonald’s restaurants in France. And while granted, if you read the piece you’ll see that their Mickey D’s are nothing like ours, it was still a shock.

IMG_4348I hate to think that our American way of eating is leeching across the Atlantic to the land of food and style, but there are some things that seem to be the same no matter where you live and the combination of holding down a job and raising a family while attempting to bring good nutrition (and taste!) into the equation seems to be one of them.

I don’t think it’s  impossible to eat healthily and work full time, but it’s hard. That’s because here in the States our “convenience” foods—frozen processed foods and snack-packs (which tend to be tasteless and generally bad for you) are often the only things we have time to “make.”

I mean, really! Doesn’t preparing, then cleaning up after evening meals (if you bother to do it before slumping  in front of the TV set) wear you out? You work hard all day and then there’s all that chopping and prepping in order to put out a seasoned, cooked piece of meat—hopefully with some kind of sauce on it—a vegetable (better make it two, we didn’t get anywhere near our quota of fruits & veggies today), a salad, a starch (rice or risotto—both of which take at least forty minutes to cook), a piece of bread or a roll to help move it all around the plate with, and something to drink. And it’s all eaten in less time than it takes to change the channel.IMG_3209
If you have  a full time job, any kids at all, and maybe a spouse  who expects your occasional participation in his/her life AND you have the least desire to stay up with current events, friends, extended family, a clean house, and keeping your family’s shirts and shorts laundered, not to mention possibly writing a chapter in your latest murder mystery, you will be, without question, no two-ways-about-it, totally crunched for time all of the time.

I  love to cook  my family’s favorites: cassoulet, chicken and dumplings, etc. But if I do it on a weeknight, I end up agitated and grumpy—if I’m able to pull it off at all. So I reserve the creative cooking for the weekend when I have a little extra time (in between soccer games, birthday parties, church, and yard work!) and during the week I take a page from how the French dine when they dine simply and perfectly.
30770518It doesn’t take an elaborate morney sauce or a counterful of mise-en-place bowls to make an exquisite, satisfying meal, (and I’m not leading up to take-out here). Sometimes the simplest meals are the best. If you can get your hands on really good tomatoes, for example, you needn’t do any actual cooking.

The French can do wonderful things with a cold plate of pickles, a little pâté and a hunk of fresh bread. It takes seconds to assemble. (Be sure and give everything a finishing drizzle of your best quality olive oil.) Set a pretty table, open a decent rosé wine and voila! Nothing simpler.
Come to that, it’s hard to beat a good couple of cheeses (say a Brie or Gouda with a blue cheese, varying the hard and soft cheeses) with a salad, fresh bread and maybe a simple tapenade.  All of which you just pull out of the fridge and put on a plate.

Now, if you want to do a little something ahead of time—say, on the weekend when you have all that extra time— roast some peppers or shred a bunch of hard cheese or pre-bake some eggplant and store them in the fridge. Then, come Tuesday night, you can get a little jiggy with dinner without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. You’re still just assembling, but some of your ingredients have been pre-assembled.

I guess I hate the thought of anyone longing for McDonald’s–even if they do have McCamemberts instead of Monster Macs–but especially not the French!

At least not until I have one more perfect summer in fantasy land.

Why do we love Europe so?

19007453Is it weird that Walt Disney, among his fantasia rides and fairyland worlds, also re-created Europe at one of his theme parks? I try to imagine what I would think if I found out that a bunch of Europeans created an amusement park where bears talked and pirates roamed, cartoon mice and castle princesses cast spells and in the midst of all this fantasy was a replica circa 1975 of my suburban neighborhood in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. I think I might be a little insulted.

Is it presumptuous to think of another culture as our idea of an amusement park? I think some Brits and Europeans come to New York City on holiday and I’m not quite sure why. The bagels, maybe? It can’t be the history, like us with Europe. New York is, like, five years old compared to what they have back home. It can’t be the friendly natives or the pastoral vistas, the geological landmarks or the food. I’m frankly stymied. Is it just to be someplace different?39194840

The last time I visited London, I was disappointed to discover it looked and sounded a lot like the US. (Come to think of it, Paris last year felt a little too much like Epcot Center for my comfort too.) I found the charming English accents blunted by watching too much American television. I found the architecture modern and attractive—but hardly English. I found the pubs, for the most part, a strident attempt to be pub-like for all the tourists, and the department stores, although fun and attractive, devoid of everything that had set them apart—except for their names—from American retail.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the Internet is turning us all into one big homogeneous blob of diluted Americana. But I didn’t think it would happen this fast. The last time I was in Germany, my husband—who is fluent in the language—never found a single opportunity to speak it. Everyone spoke English.

37743092Even the bathrooms have done a tip of the hat to the Americans. A few years ago, one was always challenged, especially in France, with public toilets and usually had to take a moment to negotiate even hotel room bathrooms. No longer. Europe now out-Americans the Americans for modernized bathrooms. There even seems to be fewer and fewer bidet sightings.

Not that Europe’s charm was all in its bathrooms, but it did help make the whole experience feel foreign. And that’s partly the reason I travel—to jump outside my comfort zone, to struggle to order from a menu, to snap out of the somnolent death-march that marks much of my daily round in the States, and to find the unexpected around every corner.

Jeez. Is that too much to ask?

A Change of Philosophies

When I was young, I had two fairly insipid philosophies that I lived by.

Home is where your clothes are,” and “Being afraid of something is not a reason not to do it.”

Now they sound idiotic to me at this age but I understand my point of view at the time. I traveled around a good bit so after living out of a suitcase for awhile, I’d inevitably bask in the pleasure of having all my clothes around me. (If I was somewhere long enough to have them sent to me.) Clothes are really so much more personal than furniture for defining who you are, for comforting you and for providing familiarity.

Especially when you’re young, your clothes announce to the world how you hope to be seen: sexy or too-casual-to-care or Marian-the-librarian or what have you. Your wardrobe contains your special party clothes (the ultimate costumes for projecting how you wish to appear to others) as well as seasonal clothes. Like Christmas ornaments, when you pull a sweater out of storage after not seeing it for a year, you not only feel like it’s somewhat new again, but it has a few memories attached to it, too.

I think it interesting that I saw my clothes—something so innately portable—as the thing that attached me to a place or  made me feel at home. Because I’m not nor have I ever been much of a clotheshorse or fashionista. I certainly never invested any real money in clothing and when I finally got to a certain age (and financial level) one of the first things I told myself was that I’d never buy clothes out of season again. (So smart and frugal, but such an exercise in delayed gratification.)

The second philosophy—and the one I hope my own son never thinks of let alone follows—was no doubt created because I’d made up my mind to do something and didn’t want a little thing like better judgment or second-thoughts to derail me. (Come to think of it, this also goes along with the idea of being my own worst enemy but that is another post.)

I did things in my youth that took me waaaaaay outside my comfort zone and I did them because I knew I’d be glad somewhere down the line that I did (and I was right BTW). I likely also did them because I knew someone else had done them first (so I wasn’t totally crazy), but I knew that without that little push from myself, (the philosophy chanted like a mantra at particularly scary moments) I wouldn’t open the doors that I needed to open.

My Dad used to say when you’re on your deathbed, it won’t be the things you did in your life that you’ll regret but the ones you didn’t do. I have to say I took that way of thinking to its limits most of my life. I tend to be a tad shy (and lazy) and I’m definitely more comfortable wrapped up in an afghan in front of a gas fire with a cup of tea than I am reaching out to people or accepting invitations or pulling on my boots and going out into the chilly night.

I think a lot of the promises we make to ourselves when we’re young have to do with the idea of freedom or staying true to ourselves, even if we don’t consciously put it into exact words like that. I also think, at the end of the day, that it’s fear, generally, that keeps us from fulfilling those promises. I was always determined that I wouldn’t let being afraid—even justifiably so—get the best of me.

That whole concept pretty much came to a screeching halt the day I found out I was pregnant.

I swear I don’t think I was ever really very anxious about anything until I had a child. And then, a whole new world of things to worry about opened up to me. Forget traveling on a whim to Bahrain as a single woman with a backpack and no permanent address—try watching your sixteen year-old drive off alone in the family car for the first time.

It comes down to what you value most. I’m not saying I didn’t value my safety when I walked through Little India (in heels) alone and at dusk in Singapore in the late eighties. But the reassurance of “what are the chances?” doesn’t really give any comfort at all when it’s your own precious child whose taillights you’re watching go around the curve as he heads toward I-285.

These days, when I wave him off to wherever his road takes him (currently that’s back to his dorm room an hour and half away), I realize that my old mantras or “philosophies” were really just tools to help me go forward—to get my bite out of life without letting it pass me by (all too easily done).

Nowadays, I don’t worry about taking chances or staying open to surprises and opportunities. My current codes-to-live-by are all different variations, pretty much, of the same “please keep him safe” prayer. I know “safe” isn’t a great way to live if it’s your life. But from a mother’s point of view, it’s exactly spot-on.

Again, it comes down to what you value most. I know I’ve still got a lot to do in this life—but mostly, I don’t think it’s stuff that will require much bravery anymore. I figure I’ll deal with whatever’s coming with the tools I’ve already gathered and honed from a lifetime of living experiences.

As far as suggesting philosophies-to-live-by for my son and the world he lives in, I have to say that while I’m impressed that my own parent was brave enough to tell me I’d regret not doing things worse than doing them, I’m just not quite that unselfish –or brave—to pass the same philosophy along to my own child.

Not yet anyway.

 

The places travel really takes us to

I write a lot about travel and how it affects us because of the perspective I think it allows us when we get away from our own little corner of the world. I always re-enter my daily round with a fresh way of seeing things after I’ve been outside the US. It’s easy to construct a simplistic mental picture of what “out there” looks like from the vantage point of our front porches and I think a lot of us do that because it helps to manage day-to-day stresses  if we can just compartmentalize and reduce the larger world. To that end, I find I often fall into thinking of certain countries in stereotypes in my mind—until I visit them again and am reminded how basically alike we all are after all.

One of my favorite memories, and one that I hope I will keep vivid in my mind until I’m an old bent-over crone with pins in my hips, is the forty-five minutes I spent in Venice between midnight trains one night many years ago.

The forty-five minutes is a bit of an exaggeration but not by much. I was traveling Europe with my mother and my paternal aunt and I’d miscalculated the timing between trains for our trip from Nuremberg to Prague. A five-hour layover in Venice was the result. Later,  I realized I should have just booked us a couple of rooms and gone with the flow but at the time, staying to our schedule seemed important.  I parked my elderly companions at the restaurant, where we later had a memorable pasta dinner watching the cold drizzle  (it was October) from our table, and trotted the half-mile back to the train station to grab tickets for the next train. It was only a few blocks but it was already dark when I left the restaurant and the fog had dropped heavily onto the streets like a wet drape.

19212830I slipped down an alleyway that looked to me to be a short cut to where I remembered the train station was and when I came out of it, I saw I was standing in front of one of those arching stone bridges that crisscross back and forth over Venice’s canals. I took one step onto the bridge and stopped, for what reason I can’t imagine since I am nothing if not single-minded, needing constantly to be reminded to look around me. I realized that I was totally alone although it wasn’t late. I stood on the bridge, stopped in my mission and just needing to pause and look into the murky fog that blanketed the water below. As I watched, a single gondolier emerged from the mist—his back straight, his hat at an angle, the pole fluid in his hands. He began to pass beneath me on the bridge and just before he did, he looked up at me and languidly blew me a kiss.

Then he disappeared beneath the bridge and back into the mist.

If I hadn’t  continued to stare after him as he retreated, I might have convinced myself I imagined it. The feeling that that gesture evoked in me—so cavalier, so Italian, so romantic—registered an emotion in me that made my heart ache.

I’ve thought about it so many times since then. Why did it affect me so? Was I longing for love? Was I needing an affirmation of my youth? My attractiveness? And more than just what I felt when he did it, what about why he did it? Who was he? He certainly wasn’t expecting me to throw him a tip. I couldn’t see that he did it for any other reason than just the fact that we were both alive and the night was young.

I used to try to imagine who he was. Was he a complex man? Did he have  a wide range of deep emotions? Could he be the sort of complicated  individual who could have a fight with his wife that morning, maybe worry about paying an electric bill in the afternoon and then coast through the eerie mist and spontaneously blow a kiss to a lone woman on a stone bridge? Or was he simple-minded? Did he blow kisses to everyone he saw?

GondolierI honestly don’t know why the experience arrested me so. Or why I still think of it to this day. I just know that sometimes when we travel away from our own streets and subdivisons, we can find ourselves  mindful of the world around us in ways that we aren’t normally, and magic—unexpected and potent—can come drifting by in front of us where, for once, we actually see it.

The Merits of Losing

There’s this building on Peachtree Road in the neighborhood of Buckhead in Atlanta. It’s a very old apartment building called the Al Hambra. I lived there in the mid-eighties. The Al Hambra was all hardwood floors and Mediterranean-styled rounded doorways. My apartment had a stone balcony that faced Peachtree Road and I could sit out there with my friends, drink beer and watch the Peachtree Road Race every year, or just sit out and drink beer.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I've set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I’ve set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I’d wrap up in a comforter and sit out there and watch the night life happen right in front of me and I always felt perfectly safe. The sounds of sirens and horns honking were background noise to my life  for the three years I lived there.

Because the Al Hambra is located in Buckhead near Garden Hills, I could walk to the neighborhood restaurants, mom ‘n pop grocers, pubs and outdoor cafes. The city’s first Fellini’s Pizza opened up next door to the Al Hambra and although in the beginning it was tattered and dark and bare bones, it was also exotic and earthy and quickly became popular. I liked meeting friends there to sit outside, eat pizza (and drink beer) because you could feel the hum of the busiest street in the city as it flew by. Living at the Al Hambra made me feel alive. It  made me feel like something exciting was about to happen.

I loved the Al Hambra. And I loved living there. But more interesting, I think, is the story of how I lost it. And how losing it became a major turning point in my life. In fact it became the final event in a series of four events that happened over a six-week period that changed my  life for good.

The first event that happened was when I lost my job as Creative Director at the ad agency that had the Hardee’s Hamburger account. It was the only account we had and when we lost it, we closed the doors. Like most out-of-work writers, I just turned my hand to freelancing with no real financial hardship.

A week later, the second event happened when I saw the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Seeing that movie was significant because it lit a fire under me that helped push me over the line right when things needed to happen. That movie illustrated to me that I was young and free and there were adventures in the world to be had if I would just tap into the courage needed to find them.

The third thing that happened was that a good friend of mine introduced me to a man who was visiting him from Auckland, New Zealand. We hit it off and as I didn’t have a job to worry about, I made plans to come “down there” and visit him. I bought a round-trip ticket to Auckland for a month’s visit. I began to view my coming visit to the South Pacific as the Big Adventure I was looking for.

My parents weren’t thrilled.

Auckland is a long way away, even for a visit. It was in fact the furthest point on the globe, except for Adelaide, Australia, from where they lived in Jacksonville, Florida. In those days—before computers, before cellphones, before LOTR—most people I talked to didn’t even know where NZ was on the map.

As it happened, my folks were right to be worried. And that’s because two weeks before I was to board the jet to LAX that would take me to Auckland, I got a letter from the management company of the Al Hambra telling me to vacate the premises. They were turning the building into condos. If I—and everyone else—would clear out within thirty days, we’d get our deposits back no questions asked.

This was the fourth and most crucial event. With no job and now no apartment to come back to in ATL, there was no reason not to stretch my visit as long as I wanted to stay. With my stuff safely in storage, my plants donated to friends, a hunky new love-interest with a really cool English accent waiting for me, I was able to turn away from all the security, comfort, and familiarity of my life in Atlanta—in the States for that matter—and prepare to embrace the unknown and experience the thrill of discovering the larger world that was out there.

My parents nearly went nuts.

But it was one of the very best things I’ve ever done.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my living room window in Parnell.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my balcony in Parnell.

If I hadn’t lost my apartment at the Al Hambra, I wouldn’t have taken that last step—to find a job down there, which I did, or to spend the next two years living abroad and traveling the world solo—Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, Tahiti, Fiji, London, St-Tropez. The experience changed me fundamentally—as travel always does. The things I saw, the people I met, helped make me the person I am today.

My grand adventure came together in a series of coincidences combined with lucky kismet over a six-week period. But I was ready for it. I was looking for it.

I didn’t make it happen. But I knew to let it happen when it came.

I’ve recently moved away from Atlanta—my home for more than thirty years—but when I used to drive down Peachtree Road—to take my son to some piano competition or football practice, or to meet my husband for lunch (not the same fellow I should add)—and pass by the Al Hambra, I always felt a rush of gratitude when I saw it.

I felt gratitude for the joy I had living there, once upon a time when I was a single girl in Buckhead, unfettered and alive.

But also for the thrill I once had leaving there, too.

In defense of an unbalanced life

30358445I have believed for years that balance and moderation were the ideal way to live my life. I haven’t necessarily always lived it that way, but I always strove for balance and I always bowed to the wise ones among us who preached it as the roadmap to a sane and happy life. For too many years, I accepted as law and right the idea that your diet should be balanced—not too much chocolate or bacon, just the right amount of greens and protein—your work/family life for sure should be balanced: you might work the odd weekend now and then but you always had it drilled into your head that your kids’ after-school events were at least as important and needed to be put on the scale right up there with the thing that paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

I read somewhere that you should keep your writing schedule consistent in your writing week and if you missed a day, it would be noticeable in the absence of flow in your prose and your storyline. I believed this! I would create these complex schedules that squeezed a good ninety minutes a day of writing into a schedule that contained a full time job and all the stuff I’ve already mentioned and even so no matter when I scheduled it, I rarely made it there two days in a row. And because conventional wisdom said my writing would suffer as a result, I would become discouraged and think, well, what’s the point? YOU try continuing to get up at five a.m. every day to create magic on a page when ALL the experts say if you miss a day you might as well not bother!

For years, I had trouble going to my fulltime job and then coming home and writing novels and setting the table for dinner and properly feathering the nest for my one and only child the way I wanted to. My solution to it, after years of frustration and outright failure, was to throw one of the balls in the juggling mess out of rotation and when you’re a writing parent with a paycheck that’s needed, the ball that gets tossed is writing.

When my fledgling flew the coop last fall and I was concomitantly catapulted from my latest adventure in corporate communications, I thought I would have an easier time fitting in all the things I needed to do in order to have a balanced life: exercise, my writing, time with my husband, keeping an eye on my elderly mother, maintaining my friendships and all of that.  But I was wrong. Even without the annoying full time job hanging around my neck, I still struggled to get the daily word count done for my writing projects.  And the laundry? Fuh-ged-about-it.

Which is why I was stunned to discover that, for me, the key to my productivity was not a matter of balance. Never was.

I learned this last year when I came off a week’s vacation with my husband and son and, without knowing what I was doing, plunged myself into an impromptu writing marathon. We even got a brand new puppy to add to the mix and it made not a whit’s bit of difference to the fact that I was compelled to sit down and write and did so pretty much nonstop for about three weeks.

16342405For three weeks there was no exercising. No grocery shopping. No making meals. No TV. Half the time, I didn’t even climb out of my pajamas before three in the afternoon and wouldn’t have even then if my husband hadn’t started to look worried. I didn’t write to a word goal, I just wrote until my back hurt and I couldn’t sit up at the desk or until my husband called to me to mention it was after one in the morning. I wrote without any sense or desire or attention to balance of any kind.

And I loved it.

When the book was finished, I did laundry and made lasagna and drove my son to his college and visited with my mother in Florida and picked up the threads on a few other things that had gotten dropped during those three weeks.  I didn’t write a single word during this time. And when I was all caught up and the house was clean again?

I sat down and did it all again the very same way: in one exuberant, happy, obsessed gush of words and story, tumbling out of me with no time to mind yoga schedules or laundry or any other so-called necessities to maintain a balanced life.

I figured it out way too late but at least I know now: for me, a balanced life is overrated.

I grant you she's balanced, but she looks miserable.

I grant you she’s balanced, but she looks miserable.

I know if I added an hour of yoga to my daily round, I would likely add health and see diminished pounds on my 5’3 frame. I know the merits of balance and moderation, I do. But I now see that it’s not the full story. It works sometimes and for some people. But there’s something very big to be said for indulgence and impulse and immoderation and being at the mercy of your passions and your drives.

I like living this way. Bottom line, it makes me feel alive. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the best kind of balance there is.

The View from Auckland to Shanghai

As I am beginning the critical week before taking my son to his dorm at the University of Florida and all that that entrails—mega laundry, packing, last minute wellness checkups, and of course freelance assignments that I was told wouldn’t be needed until the last week in August—I am once more punting to family friend and all-round Uber Traveler Adam Jones-Kelly to bring a smile to your lips (especially since it’s not you that has to endure the 17-hour flight or the hairy crabs) until I return next week. Enjoy!

You’ve heard the old adage “going around your ass to reach your elbow?” Apparently I view this as the most direct route.
When my colleague Sia heard I was going to be in New Zealand he asked if I’d pop over to Shanghai for a couple of days of meetings.
“Sure,” I said, “that sounds perfectly reasonable!”
I don’t recall being drunk during this conversation, or having suffered a concussion recently, so I’m left struggling to explain this decision.
I like to think I’m fairly well-versed in world geography, and moderately informed when it comes to travel times between countries. For some reason I still can’t quite fathom I really did manage to convince myself that China and New Zealand are right next door.
The trip from Auckland to Shanghai took 17 hours.
Soo has stopped speaking to me.
Before making the day-long trek north to China’s largest city Soo and I enjoyed one last day with our friends in New Zealand’s largest city.
We left Rotorua bright and early, getting us into Auckland just after lunch. Soo checked us into our hotel, the fantastic Westin in the Viaduct Basin, while I returned our rental car. After freshening up and grabbing a bag of dirty laundry (Jo had graciously offered to let us do some much-needed washing at her place that night) Soo and I headed to Mt. Eden, an extinct volcano in the middle of town.
Mt. Eden offers some rather stunning panoramic views of Auckland, as does One Tree Hill, which is where Jo mystifyingly went to pick us up for dinner.
One Tree Hill is another extinct volcano, on the other side of town. Jo clearly believed we’d gone there because we only said “We’re at Mt. Eden” about 27 times. Our fault entirely.

Soo at One Tree Hill sans the one tree.

One Tree Hill, so named because of the distinctive solitary tree that once stood at its peak, doesn’t have the same deep crater as Mt. Eden, which is an entirely cool thing to see if you’ve never been inside a volcano. (Maori activists attacked the Hill’s namesake in 2000, damaging it beyond repair and causing its removal. It certainly seems like locals should now call the place No Tree Hill, but they don’t.)
During most of the dozen calls made back and forth while she was trying to find us Jo tried to convince us we really were at One Tree Hill. I can only assume she deemed us terminally incapable of identifying our own location.
She initially told us to meet her at Stardome Observatory, which she said was at the bottom of the hill.
We spent some time looking for it with no success, which made sense since Stardome is at One Tree Hill.
She then asked if we could find Cornwell Park.
We couldn’t, of course, because Cornwell Park is at One Tree Hill.
Soo and I walked around Mt. Eden for an hour, sweating in the hot sun while lugging around a big bag of dirty laundry and the two bottles of wine we’d bought for dinner before Jo finally found us.
When we got in the car Jo announced that she had pavlova, and I immediately forgot my frustrations. (My affections are easily bought.)
Jo cooked us one helluva Kiwi feast, including lamb, chicken skewers, steak and sausages. Soo pronounced it the best meal we’d had all week in New Zealand, and that was before Jo produced the pavlova. It was an absolutely perfect night with wonderful friends, and made us all that much more saddened to leave New Zealand.

Irvine, Adam and Jo enjoying the pavlova!

That dismay was only heightened when I told Soo that we’d have to be up at 2:45am to catch our flight. Seventeen-hour trips are bad enough. Seventeen- hour trips that begin well before dawn are downright miserable.
Upon arriving in Shanghai we had barely enough energy to slurp down some room-service soup before passing out.
On our last trip to China Soo was made sick by having to eat things like snapping turtle, king cobra, and crabs with hair. In an effort not to suffer the world’s fastest divorce I promised not to put her through that again.

The long-suffering Soo in Shanghai pre-pedicure.

Sadly, I kept that promise, which means I don’t have anything particularly extraordinary or gross to blog about. I worked all day, and the most exciting moment occurred when Soo sat down for what she thought was going to be a pedicure and instead had the otherwise-sane appearing man take a knife to her toes, chopping the nails right off. No pedicure for Soo.
She reported that she was so shocked by the sight of him coming at her with a sharp object that she lost her voice, and was incapable of even uttering the word “no!”
The toenail butcher did give her an exceptional foot massage, so this sort of made up for it, but Soo will probably stick to pedicures in English-speaking countries from now on.
We ended our brief stay in Shanghai shopping on Nanjing Road. Soo needed a few items for friends, and shoes for herself. (Open-toed shoes just won’t do when you have naked toes, you see.)

At least that’s what I’m told.

Incredible Beauty and Sheep Farts

I’m finding myself in a weird wedge of time at the moment where I’m fairly obsessed with the book I’m currently writing, a time-travel romance/suspense set in Heidelberg, Germany in the late 1600s. I find I am driven to wallpaper my world: house, website, blog, Facebook with images of Heidelberg. You know how it is when you’re obsessed with something, you crave seeing it  everywhere? Well, that’s how I feel when I see the silhouette of the ruins of Heidelberg Castle above the Altstadt or the Church of the Holy Spirit Domplatz or hell, even  cobblestone streets. While I am full into this other world (and loving it) I find I have little to no energy for creating a fresh blog post. (And frankly the new puppy hasn’t become any less demanding either!) Ergo, I am turning once again to Adam Jones-Kelly and his ever informative and vastly entertaining blog series OnSite: Eating, Sleeping & Coping Around the World.  Today’s post from Adam helps satiate another obsession of mine, all-things-NZ, and I’m confident you’ll love it as I did.

New Zealand is often referred to as God’s own Country or The Paradise of the Pacific. Make the three hour drive from Auckland north to the Bay of Islands and it’s easy to understand why.

New Zealand is a nature park that accidentally became a country. Her appx. 10,000 mile long coastline sports some of the most pristine beaches in the world. One fifth of the North Island and two thirds of the South island boast mountains so spectacular they jockeyed for attention with the special effects in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. New Zealand has an incredibly diverse landscape, home to a tropical paradise in the north, with glaciers and some of the world’s best skiing in the south.

Only 4.3 million people live in New Zealand, with a population density of about 13 people per square mile. (The number is 30 per square mile in the United States, 244 per square mile in Britain and a whopping 6,500 per square mile in Hong Kong.)

New Zealand’s citizens share space with an estimated 40 million sheep, and the country’s biggest pollution problem is the methane produced by sheep farts. In 2008 the government even proposed a tax on farmers whose sheep passed too much gas. (I don’t think they ever figured out how to measure this, but I’d sure love to have seen the debates in parliament!)

What this all demonstrates (besides the fact that politicians are all completely nutty) is that New Zealand is a remarkably untainted natural oasis. “God’s own country” is perhaps an insufficient description of this stunning land.

I won’t make it to the South Island this trip, but I have been lucky enough to see much of the North Island, beginning with my drive up the coast from Auckland to Paihia in the Bay of Islands.

Encompassing some 150 islands, many of which still remain relatively unexplored, The Bay of Islands is a marine paradise home to whales, stunning beaches and lots and lots of playful dolphins. It was the latter Soo and I couldn’t wait to see. “Swim with the dolphins” tours are as intricately linked to the Bay of Islands as porn stars are to Tiger Woods.

The drive North from Auckland takes you past Ruakaka Beach, through towns like Waipu, Warkworth and Whangarei, and I think we stopped at every one.

In Warkworth we enjoyed an absolutely wonderful meal at a small café called Ginger. I had a traditional New Zealand mince ‘n cheese pie, while Soo devoured a steak sandwich she described as “to die for.” (I tried it, and agreed – I was almost willing to kill for another bite.) We also had a perfectly scrumptious “ginger crisp” for dessert, which was nearly good enough to make me forsake pavlova as my favorite kiwi treat.

The incomparable pavlova

From Warkworth we continued north to Whangarei.

Whangarei (pronounced “fongaray”) is a delightful little coastal town, but the Whangarei Falls steal the show. Passing through town without visiting the falls is like reading Playboy “just for the articles;” No one really does it. It’s described as the most photogenic waterfall in New Zealand, and amazingly there’s never anyone else there. I’ve visited three times, and almost always have the area all to myself.

But, beautiful as The Falls were, dolphins were our goal, so on to Paihia we went.

Paihia is a bustling, somewhat touristy seaside town known as “The Jewel of the Bay of Islands,” though this entire region is so gorgeous that this is much akin to pointing to one M&M in a bowl of M&M’s and confidently proclaiming “That, my friends, is THE M&M of M&M’s!”

We dropped our bags in our room at the Paihia Beach Resort (Soo and I both strongly recommend this wonderful boutique hotel) and headed for the wharf.

We choose the Explore New Zealand tour group for our dolphin adventure. They took us, and about 30 other eager tourists, out on the stunning azure waters of the Bay in search of the graceful mammals, and it didn’t take long to find them. It was almost as if the dolphins were looking for us. They couldn’t wait to swim up alongside out boat, and were literally jumping out of the water in anticipation of the happy tourists entering their world.

Soo and I were delighted, and snapped about 300 pictures. We took turns jumping in the water and swimming with the immensely playful pod.

The dolphins were thrilled when you’d dive down with them or try to keep pace as they raced along beside you. They’d dart, jump and splash along with all the energy of a 6-year-old kid. Their joyful innocence was contagious.

Soo and I spent about 30 minutes each in the water with them. The dolphins are playful and FAST – trying to keep up is exhausting. But it was the most fun exhaustion we’ve ever experienced.

There was nothing we could do to compete with the day we’d just had. We sufficed with going out for seafood (not dolphin) and talking endlessly about our wondrous day. We were on such a high from the swim that just about any food would do.

Regrettably we found 35 Degrees South, a place where depressed sea life goes to die. Our waitress, who spoke no English – not even Kiwi English – may or may not have brought us what we ordered. Whatever it was tasted like the inside of my colon. Soo’s pan-seared scallops could have doubled as rat poison, and they even managed to make my fish ‘n chips taste like sweaty foot. I’m convinced they fed us whatever had died in their filthy aquarium the week before.

We couldn’t eat it.

We tried instead Kava, across the street, and were rewarded with food almost as delectable as the view from this ocean-front eatery. Perfect end to a perfect day.

I’ve yet to be assaulted by one of the famed sheep farts, but I’m pretty sure one of those dolphins let one go while I was diving. Didn’t matter – this was one of the coolest days of my life. I’ll never forget it, or stop appreciating how lucky I was to experience it.

Being Kiwi

The combination of a new puppy in the family (relentless!) and the fact that my guest blogger today, Adam Jones-Kelly, is a wonderful writer, blogger and world traveler (since he was seven years old) has me handing over the helm of my blog yet again this week. For my readers who are drawn to all the travel-love I often indulge in here—plus any Kiwis in the group!—today’s post will be a total delight. I encourage you to follow Adam’s blog at OnSite: Eating, Sleeping & Coping Around the World. He really has a razor sharp take on the places he visits—always spot-on, VERY funny and insightful—and his photos are stellar. I’m partial to his Kiwi post, presented here, because of my love affair with that country. His photos in this post, fairly recently taken, had me fumbling for my Amex card until my husband reminded me of the likely effects of taking a puppy that hasn’t been housetrained yet on a 16-hour Air New Zealand flight. Enjoy!

Brendan Gill once wrote “Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.”
The Kiwis were apparently paying attention.
New Zealanders are an irreverent bunch, playful, adventurous, and happy, quite possibly the happiest people I’ve ever known. Kiwis don’t just live life, they attack it, with a wink and a grin.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour

The approach to the world’s highest cliff jump has a couple of somber warnings for wary visitors, carefully placed along the gravely walkway.
This is not surprising, since one side of the walkway is a sheer cliff, off which you’d enjoy a 300-foot plummet before face-planting into the canyon below at 100 miles per hour.
What is surprising is that the signs neglect to mention the certain and painful death lurking mere inches away, instead alerting passersby to be on careful lookout for gnomes.
Life here is not real serious.
My favorite all-time Kiwi billboard was selling itself, and proudly proclaimed that it “Stands out like dog’s balls.”
I love Kiwis.
Before leaving Queenstown we all agreed that a ride on the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak was in order, and a visit to Fergberger a must.
So, still peeling so extravagantly from my Bora Bora sunburn that I looked like a leper begging for coins, we queued up for the five minute ride up the mountain. Though shedding skin in such profusion does garner you a great deal of personal space, the line was long, so Soo and I amused ourselves by peeling large flakes off my arm and depositing them at the feet of horrified tourists.
Once to the top we quickly forgot all thoughts of tormenting fellow travelers, so magnificent were the vistas on display as Queenstown spread out before us, enveloped by the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps and kissing the shore of Lake Wakatipu.
It’s catch-your-breath beautiful, and we happily settled in at the bar at the Skyline restaurant to enjoy a drink while staring out the window. (The restaurant itself is a buffet, allegedly a really poor one, and costs a fortune. We failed to come up with any reason to eat there since lounging in the bar area afforded you the same views.)
That out of the way, our last Queenstown must-do was lunch at Fergberger. The hole-in-the-wall joint making the biggest, juciest burgers you’ve ever seen, started a decade ago because the owner, Ferg, believed that locals deserved a spot to eat when they were “drunk to hell.” Their website pleasantly notes that in the early days the restaurant was guilty of swapping “chips for tits.” Ah, Kiwis.
There’s always a line out the door, and once having ordered it takes 20 minutes to get your burger, but it’s mouth-watering oh-so-worth-it deliciousness. Among my favorite menu items are the Sweet Bambi, the Cockadoodle Oink, the Holier Than Thou, the Bun Laden (falafel, of course) and the Cock Cajun burger, which apparently has nothing to do with sex, though after eating one you’ll need a cigarette. I sure did.
We unhappily departed Queenstown on Air New Zealand. (Unhappily because we were leaving, not because we were on Air New Zealand. It is, in fact, one of the world’s top-rated airlines, winning the 2011 Air Transport World’s Airline of the Year award for the second time in three years, but one that, being Kiwi, doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it’s perhaps the only airline on earth capable of convincing me to pay attention to the here’s how you fasten your seat belt, put on your life vest and find the emergency exit in the unlikely event of a water landing routine. Air New Zealand accomplished this by presenting the airline safety features in a video that incorporates Richard Simmons, 70s dance music, flight crew in nothing but body paint and the members of the national rugby team.)
It’s hysterical, completely endearing and utterly Kiwi.
The first few minutes of our flight, however, were less endearing.
My wonderful friend Jo is one of those people practiced at supervising everything around her, even those things that don’t really require supervision. The pilots on our flight unhelpfully declined to allow Jo to manage things from the cockpit, so she was left to fret about how they were doing in the back with the rest of us.

The author with a few of the 40 million sheep that make NZ home!

Regrettably, they gave us plenty to fret about for the first few minutes.
It was terribly turbulent upon takeoff, apparently not uncommon for this little corner of the world. (Airfare Watchdog’s list of The World’s Most Thrilling Airports puts Queenstown #2, noting that “Queenstown… lies below The Remarkables, a jagged mountain range seen in The Lord of the Rings. On descent, passengers may feel a sudden drop in altitude caused by strong downdrafts. Bird activity by the runway, as well as frequent bad weather and poor visibility, also make Queenstown Airport a real knee-knocker.”)
On takeoff, we got the sudden drop.
The pilot, to his credit, was racing for higher altitudes, trying to get us out of the chop. But before he could get there we hit one of those downdrafts, and the plane plummeted. Screams could be heard from passengers all around us, and poor Jo, who’d brought two of her daughters on the trip, but left her eldest, Amy, behind in Auckland due to work constraints, was utterly convinced we were all going to die. Jo touchingly and tragically later shared that her one thought in the panic of the drop was that she was heartbroken to leave Amy alone in the world.
As you will have deduced by the existence of this blog, the pilots recovered, and we made it to Auckland just fine. I do think they distributed a wee bit more alcohol on that flight than is usual, however.
Auckland, where I lived as a child, is probably my favorite city on earth. Not because it’s beautiful in the way Paris or Venice are beautiful, and not because it’s exciting in the way Queensland was. (It is beautiful, this city of sails, and of course has its own brand of excitement. But that’s not what you take away from Auckland. It’s the feel of the city, the very Kiwiness, that makes it my favorite.)
When we first lived here 30 years ago my father used to rail at the impossibility of finding decent Chinese food anywhere in Auckland. Now, half the restaurants in town are Asian, and they’re scrumptiously authentic.
The city has changed, but it’s still Auckland. There’s still a family-owned fish & chippery on every corner, still a quaint dairy for every neighborhood. (A dairy in NZ is part convenience store and part old rural country store from our parents‘ early years. And they always have fresh, delicious ice-cream.)
On a typical Sunday afternoon in Auckland, the shopping malls are empty, the harbor full of sails. The landscape is dotted with extinct volcanoes, everywhere you look people are smiling and laughing, and it just feels like… home.
It occurs to me that so much of who I am today was shaped by New Zealand. For the past three decades, most of which I spent living in America, I’ve been busily being Kiwi, though I’m not sure I ever realized it.
And that’s made my life ever so much more fun. I’m so grateful for that part of me that never stopped being Kiwi.