One Year Later: Remembering Italy

One year ago today, I was speed walking down the endless halls of the Vatican Museum — past hundred-year-old tapestries, the colorful Gallery of Maps frescoes and the ornately gilded painted ceilings — hoping my four kids wouldn’t kill me.

It was the second time that morning we’d traveled the endless corridor until we reached the Sistine Chapel. We’d arrived for our guided tour at 8am to meet inside a storefront just outside the Vatican’s walls. As fellow tourists poured into the office, we were separated by the language that we spoke — French speakers take this purple ticket and wait over here; Spanish speaking folks with the orange tickets over there, and so on. Finally, we were sent outside to meet our tour guide with what seemed like a million other Americans, and we slowly pushed out way through the crowds and through the gates.

It was our first full day in Italy. We’d arrived at our hotel in Rome late morning the day before and I had planned for us to roam around and check out the Trevi Fountain and Piaza Navona — plus dig into big bowls of pasta — before a tour in the afternoon touted to take us off the beaten paths of the city. We were joined by a friendly mother and daughter from Norway, and our guide — an endearing 20-something Italian hipster — showed us a flower market, took us for cappuccinos and introduced us to the narrow streets of Trastevere. It was late afternoon by the time the tour was through and we were exhausted from the time change and all the walking and asked our guide to recommend a nearby place for us to eat an early dinner.

So that’s how we came to eat hot dogs and sauerkraut for dinner on our first night in Italy. By the time we realized the type of cuisine served at the restaurant the guide had suggested, we were too tired to go look for something more “Italian.” Instead we slid into the roomy booth, order big mugs of beer and wolfed down traditional German food before the long walk back to our pensione.

Day 2 had us hitting the Vatican first thing in the morning and then a tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum in the afternoon. I know, ambitious. But I knew that my kids were not good wanderers or spur-of-the-moment travelers. I knew they needed an itinerary and preferably a steady low blood alcohol level to keep them happy.

But the Vatican tour was boring (even I agreed), our guide — a middle-aged Italian woman who ran her tour like a classroom lecture — was humorless and was required to stretch her spiel out in the museum a little more than usual as our tour fell on the Thursday before Easter and the St. Peter’s was off-limits to us as the pope was holding a mass.

I was crushed.

I’d visited the cathedral 30 years earlier on a whirlwind European jaunt with a high school girlfriend and the day we visited the Vatican, was after a night in a Trastevere bar were we learned Italian beer was much stronger than the Coors Light we were used to at home, and that the locals could get frisky — like, aggressively follow you into the bar’s bathroom for a groping — if given the opportunity.

We arrived at St. Peter’s hungover and covered in hickeys and took pictures of each other pretending to enter the confessional, gauzy scarves draped around our necks in deference to our Catholic upbringings.

In the late 1980s, you were allowed to walk up narrow windy steps to walk around the interior of the cathedral’s dome, which is the first time I realized I suffered from horrible vertigo. To this day, I dream of sliding my way around the dome’s circumference, my back pressed against the wall and trying not to look at the knee-high wall separating me from the church’s abyss. Later, we made our way to the top of the dome and recreated the horror of circling the dome, only this time from the outside and — since it was at the tippy top, a much smaller diameter to slide around. I also learned that day the Italians weren’t keen on safety measures.

Aside from the vertigo and hickeys, my long-ago visit to St. Peter’s inspired such awe — and it’s such an iconic Roman landmark — I just couldn’t leave without at least trying to get my four children to see it.

Our guide had told us that the only way into the cathedral, without having to stand on the long line snaking outside, was to enter from the Sistine Chapel. There are two doors there to choose from: one that leads you back into the museum and the exit, and the other into St. Peter’s.

Since we weren’t going to be allowed to go into the church once we were through with the Sistine Chapel the first time, the guide said that once we got back to the main entrance, we should turn around and walk down the approximately 7 miles of hallway back to the Sistine Chapel, and then try getting into the cathedral from there.

When I asked my kids what they wanted to do, they were like: “We’re good.” They were ready to move on from the Vatican and go get some pasta and wine for lunch.

But then they saw my face.

It was like all those times I’d start to count to 3 to get them to do something, and even though — once they were old enough — they knew nothing was really going to happen once I hit 3, they complied. They were just conditioned to do, or stop doing, whatever it was I wanted by the time I hit 2.5.

“We can tell you’re gonna be disappointed,” said their spokesperson, my younger daughter. “So let’s just get this over with,” and they turned from the Vatican exit and began to speed walk down the hallway that earlier that morning took us about 2 hours to traverse to the Sistine Chapel at the end. And the place, as you can imagine 3 days before Easter, was mobbed.

I am by far the shortest person in my family, so every once in a while the kids would have to pull to the side to wait for me. Back in the Gallery of Maps, I tried to stop and admire a fresco of Sicily, but was quickly pulled away by my oldest son and told to keep walking. Even when we hit the Sistine Chapel and I tried, just one more time, to look up at the majesty of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, I got snarled at and told to move.

The whole time, I worried about what would happen if we got back to the cathedral door and found it was still locked for the pope’s mass. I wondered if the children murdered me, who would tell them what to do next that day?

Luckily, as we approached the 2 doors, the entrance to St. Peter’s was opened to the public and we strode through and I said a silent prayer of thanks. But by the time we entered the holiest of spaces, my kids were completely over it. We speed walked down the aisles and past the Pieta. We stood and looked up at the soaring dome, but I didn’t even dare to suggest we see if we could go upstairs for a walk around. Without an official tour guide, we were probably through the church and walking through St. Peter’s Square towards lunch in about 10 minutes.

Yes, my children were kind of dicks. But also, kinda sweet for not wanting me to be disappointed. I probably should have just been happy they went along with the museum tour and let them rest up before the tour that afternoon. #hindsight

The next morning we’d be on a bus to Siena to explore the Tuscan countryside for 2 days before taking a train to Florence for Easter and then back to Rome to fly home Wednesday.

There were plenty of highs — the meal we had the second night in Siena and the rooftop of the place we stayed in Florence overlooking the river, with the Duomo in the distance — and lots of lows, too (the fight two of the kids had in Florence while I tried to eat the best pizza of my life and ignore them).

I guess that’s what family vacations are all about: the good, the bad, and the irreplaceable shared experience. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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Girls Weekend Getaway: North Fork of Long Island

Continuing with tradition, my trusty Ladycation squad took a late-summer getaway to celebrate yet another 50th birthday in yet another off-the-beaten-path location.

Last year, we rented a fabulous Airbnb in Woodstock, NY and ate, drank and hiked our way around the Catskills. The motto of that trip was “Whiskey & Boys” and I have it embroidered on my wall to prove it.

The year before, we flew up to St. John’s in Newfoundland where we made lots of friends, danced to Irish music and kissed a frozen cod. The slogan for that trip was, “What happens in Newfoundland, stays in Newfoundland.”

This year’s birthday girl chose the North Fork of Long Island as our destination and we drove out one Friday morning in September for our three-night stay and got out there in no time, which is a bit of a miracle.

Okay, some thoughts about Long Island: I really love it. But if you’re not already on Long Island, it is a bitch to get to from New Jersey. The traffic can be daunting, trying to navigate your way around New York City.

But the North Fork is so special – especially after the summer crowd has left – I’d be willing to brave driving there during a Friday rush hour. It’s so worth it.

Geographically, Long Island kind of juts east towards the ocean, with the ends splitting into a fork. The bottom half is the South Fork (the Hamptons, Montauk) and the top is the North Fork (Greenport, Orient) and they are two different worlds.

As you drive towards Orient Point, at the end of the North Fork, you can feel all the space. Farmland for as far as the eye can see. Farm stands. It’s not honkytonk or touristy. Having lived in New Jersey forever, I’m impressed with how much undeveloped land remains out there. Undisturbed stretches of waterfront. Really beautiful.

We stopped for a late lunch at Case’s in Southold, which we found down a long road off the highway that didn’t seem right and just when we started to doubt our GPS, we saw the water and the sign for the restaurant. We sat outside on the patio looking out at the water and drank icy cold local rose and decided it couldn’t get any better. And then it did.

If I could have the honor of marrying the lobster roll that I ate for lunch, I certainly would. But that would mean I couldn’t have devoured every last bit of big mound of perfectly dressed lobster meat on the perfectly toasted top-split roll. At the end of the weekend, we all decided it might have been our favorite meal, of a lot of fabulous meals.

 BEST LOBSTER ROLL EVAH (look, I even had to take a little nibble out of it before I could take a picture of it)


Other weekend highlights included our perfect Airbnb in East Marion, our day spent driving around Shelter Island and gawking at all of the to-die-for houses and the all-rose vineyard in Southold that made up feel like we were sitting in the South of France.

I can’t imagine what staying in the North Fork would be like during the summer season, much less trying to get out there. I highly recommend a late summer/early fall visit when you can rub elbows with the locals and feel like you’ve kinda got the place to yourself. One caveat: getting Uber or Lyft rides was a little dicey and another reminder that we weren’t in Jersey any more.

If you’re thinking of going, here’s what I recommend:


Airbnb: Our rental was pricey but fabulous. It sleeps 8 comfortably with 4 bedrooms, so would be great for a few couples or families to rent. Stylish décor; all the amenities you could ask for and cool outdoor space to hang.


Fork & Anchor (East Marion): Get the #15. It will change your life.

Love Lane Kitchen (Mattituck): We stopped here on our way home Monday morning. Totally charming. Awesome coffee. Put poached eggs on anything, I am a happy girl but on top of kale with avocado on the side and I just might start talking dirty to you.


Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market (Greenport): Unassuming set up on the dock in Greenport that’s pretty cool inside. Oysters. Rose. Cheeseboards. A little old xxx guy preparing it all who took a shine to me. On the menu, it says you can shuck your own oysters if you’re feeling adventurous, and one of our ladies asked the server, with a straight face, “Is it hard to shuck yourself?” which, as you might imagine, became the weekend’s catchphrase.

The Halyard (Greenport): We ended up here on Sunday night as a kind of consolation spot when we showed up to a nearby vineyard that had already closed and we couldn’t believe our good luck. Brand new. Insanely stylish. Perched on the sound. Killer sunsets. Ditto the cocktails. Would love to see what the rooms look like in the adjoining hotel and think dinner watching the sun set on the outdoor dining area would be beyond romantic.

Flying Goat (Shelter Island): At the Shelter Island Golf Club. Great place for cold local beers on tap and French fries after a morning hiking through the meadow (see below).

Four & Twenty Blackbirds (Orient): I don’t LOVE pie, but I would kill for this pie. All kinds to try. We had a savory pocket filled with mushrooms and a little cheese, a stone fruit number and a custardy baby pie. We sat at a table outside and said we were just gonna nibble and gobbled them all up.


Brix & Rye (Greenport): Another one of our top weekend faves. We stopped for pre-dinner cocktails and ended up staying to eat. A little dark and not a lot of tables but being there in off-season helps.

American Beech (Greenport): We sat outside on a very quiet night. Chic. Delicious food.

Noah’s (Greenport): Also chic and delicious.

To Do:

Croteux Vineyards (Southold): You would think that four women heading out to the North Fork of Long Island would mean that we’d being hitting up all the wineries but we only made it to one. If you can only go to one vineyard, I cant recommend this one enough. It really does feel like you are sitting in the South of France and the wine is delicious. Plus its owner, who was pouring the rose and working the register the busy day we were there, was super easy to look at. Plus, he was featured on Mo Rocca’s “Everything’s Coming Up Rose” piece on CBS Sunday Morning this summer.

Lavender By the Bay (East Marion): According to its site, one of the largest lavender farms in the country. Our Airbnb had baskets of dried bundles around the house lending just a hint of lavender to the room, so I knew I needed to go. Fun to walk around and just see all the flowers going on forever. Shop lets you buy it in all manner of shapes and sizes.

Mashomack Preserve (Shelter Island): Covers one third of Shelter Island and run by The Nature Conservancy, the preserve offers a variety of habitats – fields, woodland, marshes and tidal creeks. What most struck me was the ingenious way that have woven technology into the experience. Along one of the trails there are stops with barcodes you can scan with your phone and listen to commentary specific to where you are. Not to mention, the scenery will knock your socks off.

Dam Pond (East Marion): Directly across the street from our rental, we mosied over to get one last look at the sound, which we did from atop a cliff at the end of a path. Cool.


Old Orchard Farm Store (Orient): Charming little shop westopped into roaming around Orient, where I found two really awesome Christmas presents.

Mercantile North Fork (Greenport): Okay, the real reason we didn’t make it to the three vineyards we planned on hitting on Sunday was that we got sidetracked here, wondering how we could ship the entire store home to New Jersey.

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Letting It Go

Two of my kids embarked on very different adventures recently and all I could do was hope that one of them posted a photo or two on social media so that I knew he was still alive. But, this being 2017, if the kids did post anything on social media, it would be on Snapchat – where I’ve been blocked from seeing either’s Snap story – or on their Insta story, where I have also been banned. So basically, I was just hoping for the best for a few days.

While it’s just a weird coincidence that the trips overlapped, I’m beginning to understand that I compensated for not having any control over one of the trips by crazily micromanaging the other. I don’t think my youngest child – a boy who taught himself to tie his own shoes and ride a bike when he determined at a young age that everyone around him was too distracted to step in and help – had received that much attention since the time he fell as a toddler and knocked his tooth back up into his gums. You can always count on blood to get me to sit up and take notice.

My oldest left for an overnight flight to Barcelona for a week’s vacation with a friend, and I didn’t even know what airline they were flying on. I mean, I know he mentioned it at some point, but I was busy trying to memorize other details, like arrival and departure dates and where they were staying. So I guess that fairly major one slipped through my mental cracks. I tried Googling it but didn’t have much luck finding a flight that left Newark bound for Spain at 11 p.m. the night he left.

After about 10 minutes of searching, I realized I was running behind schedule if I was going to prepare the special breakfast I’d promised – a porkroll and egg sandwich – for my 14yo who was leaving early for the iconic 8th grade trip to Washinton, DC for three days.

I’d gone on that same trip with his two older sisters years earlier and had hoped to continue the tradition this year with my baby, my one-last-middle-school-hurrah. Alas, the administration did not feel equally nostalgic about inviting me to come along. In an uncharacteristically organized and prompt manner, I’d sent an email to the principal on the first day of school announcing my desire to chaperone the trip and enumerating my many qualifications. I hit SEND and then sat back and waited for my anointment.

Instead, I got a note from the school secretary about a month later thanking me for my interest but informing me that there just wasn’t enough room to accommodate all of the requests they received.

“Don’t they know who you are?” my 20yo daughter asked in horror when I reported my rejection over glasses of rose.

“Apparently not,” I told her, taking a long sip. “It seems I’ve been running on fumes these last few years and I got passed over.”

Note to younger parents interested in nabbing a future spot as a school trip chaperone: you’re only as good as the last fundraiser you ran. Or race you organized. Or three-years spent on your school board (that was my golden ticket for a number of years).

I’d run into other moms of other 8th grade boys at our local Bilabong store where we all flocked after learning our sons needed to wear collared shirts for touring, and we agreed that boys were so easy to dress. I ended up buying my guy three pairs of shorts and two shirts and honestly, I won’t have to buy him any more clothes until he transitions to longer pants in, like, December.

I brought his bag of new clothes into my room for safekeeping, so the crisp new shorts and shirts with tags wouldn’t get swept up into the detritus littering his floor or, one of his favorite tricks, stuffed into his dirty laundry hamper. Later that night, I laid them all out on my bed and added underwear and socks to create an outfit for each day, which I then showed my son before packing into his suitcase.

“Should I get post it notes?” he asked, obviously getting into having a mom who does things like, pack his suitcase and create outfits for him.

Earlier, we’d gone to pick up some snacks and beauty items for him to take and we unwrapped the zit cream from its package and popped it into his dopp kit along with his deodorant and sunscreen. I could tell he was taking it all a little more seriously than his usual slapdash packing jobs – you should see the crumbled mass of clothing he brought with us for a recent long weekend in Boston – because he was even packing a toothbrush. He didn’t bother to bring one to Boston.

In the meantime, I kept an eye on the clock and considered the best time to text my oldest to give him a speech about safety overseas without coming off as crazy or, worse, that I didn’t have faith in his decision making abilities.

I’d messaged him on Facebook an article I’d seen earlier in the week about what to do in the event you find yourself in a terror attack. Tips like “Don’t use the elevator, take the stairs instead,” and “Don’t play dead.” Useful things like that. But just six months ago, the kids and I had spent a lovely afternoon walking over the London Bridge and poking around nearby Borough Market – eating Scottish quail eggs over greens and crisp Asian dumplings – before we headed to a nearby pub for a pint. The same path terrorists recently took to attack innocent people. Tourists like us.

So of course, I worry.

This isn’t the first time one of my children has traveled to another country solo. Both my girls – who are bookended by their brothers – flew to Europe over spring break with their high school during their respective junior years. This spring break, my younger girl visited Italy as part of a class she was taking in college to study European hospitality. She initially balked at my request that she text from time to time to just let me know she was alive but in the end, we were in constant communication.

I saw her on Instagram sitting with the hills of Tuscany in the distance and she texted photos of amazing meals she was enjoying . Thanks to SnapChat, I also saw her holding one of those giant drinks – you know, the kind that comes with a bunch of straws – late at night surrounded by a bunch of other kids. Apparently, hospitality was alive and well in Tuscany.

I was happy she was having fun but also couldn’t stop thinking about that Amanda Knox documentary I watched on Netflix and tried to slide in texts to her like, “Fun! Don’t leave the bar with a stranger!” and “TTYL! Oh, and pay attention if you wake up and there’s blood all over your bathroom!” I tried to be cool, I threw in some emojis for good measure, but it’s hard as a mom not to worry about your kids getting, like, implicated for murder in a foreign country and shit.

When my older daughter went to Italy during high school, things were pretty chaotic at our house. By then I was divorced and working full time at a relentless job and had four kids in four different schools and – as an added bonus – three teenagers living under my roof. This was probably around the time that the baby took matters into his own hands and learned to do things for himself.

After my daughter left, I realized I had no idea when she was expected to return. I mean, I knew the day – thank God – but not the time the buses would pull back into the high school parking lot. School was closed for the break and I didn’t really know any of the other parents well enough to call up and make a joke about the whole thing. No one who would laugh and be all like, “Been there.”

No, instead I had to call the parents of a boy with whom my daughter had gone to grammar school. The kind of parents that really seems to have their act together. The kind of family that sends all three of its children to Ivy League schools. The dad, who I knew even less well than the mom, answered the phone and had a hard time hiding his dismay when I confessed my sin. “It’s in all the paperwork,” he told me.

“LOL. Paperwork,” I thought, wondering how I could still have in my possession Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons that expired three years earlier and not papers containing vital information for this Italy trip.

The dad gave me the arrival time and then assured me it was accurate as he’d confirmed when his son called the day before. Then it was my turn to hide my surprise that he’d actually heard from his child on the trip. All I got was radio silence and then some some slightly stale biscotti upon my daughter’s return.

I mentioned all this to my friend Dan, how I worried about my oldest navigating a foreign city and whether I’d taught him everything he needed to know to stay safe.

“That’s how we learn,” Dan reminded me, and I thought about my own maiden voyage overseas. How, following a terrible breakup, I enlisted a pal to travel super-low-budget to Europe for 10 days and, having only been on a few jaunts to Florida during high school, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And that was 100 years before the Internet and cell phones.

We were so clueless, we even got on line as soon as we entered the International Terminal at JFK to have our baggage searched, not realizing it was for people flying to, like, the Gaza Strip or some shit. And I packed an actual suitcase for the multi-city journey, which was sans wheels, and ended up lugging that thing through train stations in Milan and Paris and up and down the cobbled streets of Trastevere and Nice looking for cheap hostels.

My friend and I learned the hard way that beer in Europe was much stronger than the Busch beer we were used to drinking at fraternity parties, and that Italian men were good kissers but terribly persistent (we had to dodge a pair for a few days who’d come back to take us to the beach that we’d drunkenly agreed to visit the night before).

Upon our return to New York, tired and pretty broke, we discovered that the subway back into Manhattan from JFK could get a little dicey, circa 1990, making stops in Bushwick and Bed Stuy. But we survived with nary a scratch (but maybe a few hickies that we tried to cover up with our new Parisian scarves) and learned going forward to always go easy on the Italian beer and – for the love of God – pony up the extra 20 bucks for a cab out of JFK.

I ended up texting my oldest guy after work the night of his departure and reminded him to call so I could wish him a bon voyage. When he called a little while later, he quickly got annoyed and told me he felt like I was judging him, which I probably was. He was leaving for the airport way later than I would ever leave to catch an international flight. (Interestingly, the only time I am never, ever, late is when flying.) But my son sensed my vibe, the one I tend to put out when people aren’t doing things the way I think they should be doing them. I get a tone. For those who love me, it makes them nuts.

But I apologized and asked a bunch of questions and we got back on track. After a few minutes, he told me he was going to finish up eating dinner and get ready to go.

I wanted to say, “Watch out for terrorists,” or “Keep your wits about you” or at the very least, “Can you send me your travel itinerary?” but in the end, just told him to have a great time. And then, because I just couldn’t help myself, asked if he’d just text me when he got to his gate. And maybe again when he landed.

“Mom,” he said, “I’ll text you when I can.”

So I woke up early the next morning and remembered my child was somewhere in the air over the ocean and that’s when I tried to figure out what flight he was on before making breakfast for my other guy. While I was flipping his egg, my phone dinged and I looked down to see a text from my oldest son. “Just landed. Here safe.”

And that was that. I’ve seen daily photos on Instagram and a whole album on Facebook, but haven’t really heard from him again.

In the meantime, I received an all-points bulletin when the 8th graders’ buses departed and my girlfriend got a text from her kid reporting that they’d made it to Maryland.

Ten years ago, when that same boy who is in Barcelona traveled with his 8th grade class to D.C., there was no communication until the buses pulled back into the school’s driveway three days later. There were no CODE RED texts and emails and he certainly didn’t call or text. I don’t even think they were allowed to bring cell phones with them back then.

So maybe I’ve just become conditioned to be able to contact my children at any time of day or night over the last decade. And, thanks to location sharing technology, I can even stalk three out of the four kids to see where they are at any given moment. But the person I really want to keep track of – my wily 14yo – is the hardest to pin down as he’s usually blown through his allotted amount of data about four days into our Verizon billing cycle, rendering him unable to text or be tracked until the 20th of the following month.

And maybe I should be glad for that. Maybe in the end it helps me let go of trying to control and monitor his every move. Give him some latitude to figure things out on his own. Kind of like he’s always done.

I’m thankful I didn’t have the technology available today around when my oldest child was still in the grip of my highly-involved parenting style. Back then, I would have put a chip in him if that was an option. And I think I was so up his butt when he was younger that by the time high school rolled around he spent a good deal of time trying to shake me loose. It wasn’t pretty.

Ten years and three kids through high school and two kids through college later, and I’ve managed to reign in my desire to micromanage my kids’ every move. (Almost.) I’ve learned to have faith in their decision making and, more importantly, to learn from their mistakes. (Pretty much.) I’ve decided it’s much healthier to adopt a “let it go” attitude. (Well, not so much.)

But I have my limits. I still want to know when their plane lands after a long flight or they’ve arrived at their destination following a lengthy drive. I’m not a worrier in general but do fret when they’re in transit. I need to know when they’ve dodged the travel bullet.

I guess everything else is gravy.

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What to Wear on Your Flight to London

London Tourist

Following a recent trip to London I took with my four kids between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve decided that I totally spend as much – if not more – time obsessing over what to wear on the plane than when I’m on the actual vacation.

Unlike most other outfits I’d need to pack for our vacation – clothes for touring the Tower of London or enjoying an elegant tea with my daughters – my travel ensemble needed to serve a number of functions.

First and foremost, it needed to be cozy enough for a seven-hour overnight flight in coach that would allow sleep. Critical. The outfit also had to take me through a day of sightseeing once we landed. And finally – and most importantly – I obviously also wanted to look cute and not like I was a crazy person walking around in my pajamas.

No problem.

The other critical piece to the travel puzzle – because it is a puzzle, n’est-ce pas? – was figuring out what accessories would help facilitate my goals. I needed a bag and shoes that would encourage comfort whilst preventing me from looking like the Ugly American (and I was already planning on walking around with my camera around my neck for most of the trip).

In the end, I think the weird amount of time I spent thinking about these things paid off. I slept a good amount of the flight (thank you, Valium), spent a day hopping on and off the Big Red Bus and a spin around the London Eye at dusk, and – because we were so exhausted by the end of that first day – stayed in my travel outfit for dinner at a gastropub around the corner from our hotel. At the end of our meal, the owner sent us over glasses of champagne to celebrate our first night in London and I can’t decide if it’s because he was delighted with how chic we all looked or felt sorry for our sad state of affairs.

Needless to say, I peeled that 24-hour outfit off that night and thanked it for its service. It had done its job.

Travel Essentials London

ONE: Cardigan/Garnet Hill; TWO: Blanket Scarf/Mark & Graham; THREE: Travel Blanket/Sac; FOUR: Leggings/Athleta; FIVE: Passport Holder/Cuyana; SIX: Boots/Clarks; SEVEN: Sports Bra/Athleta

  1. Cashmere Cardigan: As a 50-year-old lady who is prone to feeling like her hair is on fire at any given moment, I am an advocate of layering – with cashmere, where appropriate. Honestly, it’s like wearing a very cozy blanket. Throw over this cute tank and you’re ready for your nap.
  2. Blanket Scarf: I bought these big, soft scarves for my daughters for Christmas that doubled as cozy throws for the flight. I am also now completely devoted to the site because I not only nabbed them at Black Friday prices but the free gift wrapping they arrived at my door in seemed almost more expensive than the scarves themselves. Well-played, Mark & Graham.
  3. Travel Blanket/Pillow: I’ve had this cozy set for years and it’s come with me on all sorts of adventures like Greece and Hong Kong. Even though they hand out blankets in sanitized plastic wrap for longer flights, I’d still rather know where my pillow has been.
  4. Leggings: Okay, I currently work at the store but even if I didn’t, I’d still rave about these tights. They have just the right bit of compression, cute zippers at the ankle and the waist is nice and high and doesn’t cut into your midsection while you’re cramped in your seat mid-flight. Plus, it kinda just smoothes out the whole middle situation, if you know what I mean (see 50-year-old lady bit above).
  5. Passport Holder: I honestly didn’t know I needed a passport holder until my BF gave me this chic little number for Christmas. The soft leather has this wonderful pebbly grain and my initials embossed in gold on the bottom corner. It ended up being the perfect wallet for a trip abroad, where you’re really only carrying around your license, credit card and some currency. You can leave your Costco card at home.
  6. Black Suede Boots: At one point in early December, it looked as if my bedroom was doubling as a Zappos warehouse. I just kept ordering boots that I thought might fit the bill of being comfortable to walk all over London and yet not make me look like too much of a granny. I mean, I do have a reputation to uphold. In the end, these babies from Clarks made love to my feet all day long. There’s really no other way to say it. And their looks kinda grew on me throughout the trip, even after my younger daughter observed during our Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studio Tour that they somewhat resembled the Sorting Hat. Maybe that just makes me a wizard.
  7. Sports Bra: This should really have made it to the top of my list because I spent so much time thinking about finding the right undergarment for sleeping and sightseeing. I only wish I’d discovered this bra before my 16-hour flight to Hong Kong a couple of years ago because it’s so comfortable. In fact, now that I’m home, I still find myself throwing it on most days instead of a regular bra with wires and hooks. Imagine me like Oprah right now freaking out over bread: You MUST have this bra! GO GET this bra!
  8. Cross-Body Bag (Not Pictured): Need a great bag for sightseeing that’s also super-stylish? Go buy this bag from Madewell right now. Yes, I’m still talking like Oprah.
  9. Book a Trip!!: You say you have nowhere to go! It’s not too late to book a spring break getaway! You can still snag a fabulous rental someplace warm through, which is kinda like the Kayak  (my flight/hotel fave) of vacation rentals. It’s one-stop-shopping for rentals listed on all the top sites like TripAdvisor, VRBO and Homeaway. Don’t know where to go? We hear Florida is the hot destination du jour (in more ways than one). Get booking!

Stop being so greedy already! Share your own travel must-haves in the comments below. You’re the best. Sign up to get all of my latest posts sent right to your inbox by typing your email into the box below and new posts will arrive without you having to remember to look for them. Everything should be this easy. You can also follow me on FacebookTwitter, Instagram and (what the hell) Pinterest[wysija_form id=”1″]

Making Memories in London With My Kids


In the weeks leading up to a recent trip I took to London with my four (mostly) grown children, the most common response I got from folks when I told them about our upcoming adventure was, “You’re taking all of them?”

“Yes,” I’d tell the nice people, “every bles-sed one of them.”

But I was never really sure what any of them meant by that question.

Maybe the trip seemed like a big financial undertaking for a single mom. Or maybe there are age limits for family vacations. Maybe it’s weird to want to take your kids – 24, 22, 19 and 14 (two of whom have graduated from college) – away on a trip. Like, to pay good money to spend time with them when you’d just spent so much on tuitions in an effort to get rid of them.

But it had been about seven years since we’d all gone away on vacation together. Right after the divorce I took the four kids to the Bahamas for a few days and honestly, the trip was a bit of a disaster. A snowstorm botched initial plans to leave and once we finally got there, the weather wasn’t much better than New Jersey. We were running around in bathing suits one day hopping on and off the resort’s lazy river, our teeth chattering and extremities covered in goosebumps, when I made a quick pit stop in the ladies room and found a cluster of little Bahamian girls standing there wearing puffy winter jackets.

Aside from a couple of jaunts to a friend’s house in Vermont for skiing and hiking, the five of us hadn’t traveled anywhere together in a long time. I’d taken various combinations of the kids places over the years but it had been on my bucket list to try to squeeze it in one more vacation en famille before it was too late. Before the older ones went off and started their own families or moved far away or joined the priesthood. Or the circus. Something like that. So when I downsized last year, I set aside a little nest egg for all of us to go away together somewhere special.

And it was the best money I ever spent.

I knew the kids would have been happy planting their butts on the beach of some all-inclusive resort in Mexico for a week, but I dreamed of going zip lining through the jungles of Costa Rica or channeling my inner Marcia Brady and riding a donkey down into the Grand Canyon or looking out over the City of Lights from the Eiffel Tower alongside those eight little eyes I made. I wanted to share with them the joy I got from traveling. From experiencing new cultures and meeting new people. I really wanted to give them an adventure and not just a vacation.

But either airfare was nuts or the season was wrong or the language barrier seemed way too daunting to go forward with any of those initial ideas. I already knew I’d play the role of tour guide for this vacation and didn’t need a foreign language to add to any stressful moments while getting us around. I don’t know about your family, but things can get tense for us when we all need to come together to make a decision. And if someone (read: me) needed to then find someone to parlez-vous anglais to help us make that decision, our family anxiety level would have ratcheted up to about a Level 12 out of a possible 10.

And, since I was thinking really big, the idea of going to London just came to me one morning while sitting on my couch at one with my laptop. I’d been across the proverbial pond a couple of times with the kids’ dad for really fast and fun weekends for his job and loved the city. But we’d never really done any hard-core touristy stuff. We’d seen some of the bigger sites but at that point in my life, I was just thrilled to get away from our four kids for a few days and have some fun. I never bought any guidebooks or read up on the history of the city. We just kind of walked around without an itinerary and did what we pleased. Since none of the kids had ever been to London, I thought it might make the perfect destination for our big adventure. Something we could discover together.

And it was.

We spent about five full days canvassing London between Christmas and New Year’s and it was exhausting and fun and probably the best vacation I’ve ever taken. Sure, it would have been way easier (and cheaper) to just take two or three of the kids still living at home. But it wouldn’t have been the same. I wanted something the whole family could experience. To create all those shared memories and maybe, just maybe, help bring us together after a bad divorce and that dark era I refer to as “The Teenaged Years” that fell upon our home for a good decade. I mean, I still have two teenagers but things seem to have lightened up a bit, which tells me either I’m getting really good at managing those surly beasts or I’ve developed an immunity to their poisonous ways.

Either way, our little family really needed some team building. We needed to feel a little less fractured.

So when I tentatively floated the idea in a text to the kids in September of going to London as a family Christmas present, they jumped all over it – especially the bigger kids. Bosses were consulted, time off was taken and in no time we were making plans about where to go and what to wear.

Okay, that’s not totally true. In reality, I literally stalked the Internet for weeks looking for cheap flights, a place to stay and researching all of the things there are to do with a family of big kids in London. I would send the children links (emails, please, texts from me can get so annoying) from time to time – attractions I thought might be fun or BuzzFeed lists of top places to eat – but no one really looked at them. In fact at one point I was told to “stop with all the links.” And really, that was fine because as much as I pretend to give the people in my life options, I really just do what I want to do anyway. So their indifference totally worked for me.

Unlike vacations of long ago, jaunts to Vermont or Disney World with sometimes cranky – often indifferent – children, traveling with big kids is an infinitely more satisfying experience. My kids were so into London and approached and executed each item on our pretty packed itinerary with enthusiasm and curiosity. No one complained about riding the tube, the hour-long wait to get into the Churchill War Rooms or the two-hour walking tour we took of Westminster Abbey (in fact, that information-packed trip turned out to be the highlight for my two daughters).

And I would be remiss right now if I didn’t extend a special thanks to my friends at Netflix whose perfectly-timed release of “The Crown,” which all of us (aside from the 14yo boy) gobbled up before the trip, helped bring so much insight to the history of the city and the royal monarchy as we toured all week. It was pretty thrilling to stand in the spot in Westminster Abbey where Queen Elizabeth was anointed during her coronation and later, over at the Tower of London, getting to see the jewel-laden crown she wore during that historic ceremony. Even better than my own fascination was seeing that same look of curiosity on my children’s faces. People, who wouldn’t pay to see that?

We departed the day after Christmas and returned New Year’s Day and I couldn’t think of any people I’d rather be with in London to celebrate the end of one year and beginning of another other than my four children (obviously, since Ryan Gosling is now married with two children of his own).

But seriously, all joking aside, it was probably the most glorious week of my life. I will forever treasure the memories I have tucked in the coziest spot of my brain of the kids seeing Big Ben for the first time as we rounded the corner atop our double-decker bus or watching all of them hustle to keep up with our Beefeater Yeoman Bob on our fun Tower of London tour. Best was sitting in our ride waiting to head back to Heathrow to fly home and my oldest jumping in the seat next to me, slamming the door closed behind him and turning to all of us to ask, “Okay guys, favorites?” and then he quickly answered himself, “Alright, I’ll start.”

This from a guy who sometimes seems to work overtime to appear annoyed by most things that involve me.

But my very favorite moment of the trip happened quite organically and was not one of the many carefully researched activities on our itinerary. On our final full day we were looking for a morning activity before things we had planned later in the day and my oldest suggested we try to get tickets to see an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum – about a 15-minute’s walk from our hotel – that we got shut out of a few days earlier. Called “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970,” the exhibition documents that counterculture era and ticket holders don headsets that magically know where you are standing as you wander through rooms packed with all sorts of fashion/psychedelic/rock-and-roll memorabilia.

We all put on our headsets and wandered off to explore and it wasn’t long before I lost sight of the kids while becoming engrossed with reading the handwritten lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and examining Mick Jagger’s grommet-studded jumpsuit. The exhibit was so jam-packed with stuff documenting the confluence of the music, fashion, political activism and drugs during that era that I was a little annoyed the kids had seemingly raced through it.Wasn’t sex-drugs-and rock ‘n roll the stuff of young people?

But then I rounded a corner and found myself in a big, darkened room dominated by a movie screen wrapped along three walls and on it were Sly and the Family Stone jamming to “Higher and Higher” at Woodstock and there, sitting together on the floor, were my four children. I slipped off my headset and squeezed in between them on the faux grass that I guess was supposed to make us feel like we were there, sitting in that New York field in the Summer of 1969, and let the music surround me. I know my oldest guy loves horns, he’s a sucker for early Stevie Wonder, so I nudged his leg and imitated playing one and he nodded and I settled in to watch.

The Who came on next to perform “My Generation” and I remembered how much I used to love that famous line about dying before I got old. How I’d sing that part with a little more gusto than the rest of the song when I was a surly teen during the Jurassic era. And now, there I was, old and surrounded by my four children in a darkened room in London with the song blaring from all sides and realizing I was happy to be kinda old. Or at least old enough to really know when I was in the midst of one of life’s truly juicy moments, instead of looking off towards the horizon, waiting for them to come like some pirate searching for a treasure chest and not seeing all the jewels strewn across the sand. I can be guilty of blindly walking over gems — quiet moments and little victories – in search of that elusive big perfect life of mine.

And there I was smack in the middle of a sweet memory bubble, nestled between my four kids – surrounded by the artistry and the passion and the irreverence of Woodstock and all that it represented – and knowing right where I was. I could tuck it away and pull the memory out during all those less-than-perfect moments we all have and be reminded of that time when the moon and the stars aligned to give me that one beautiful ruby of a moment with my children.

And then Jimi Hendrix walked out on stage to play the national anthem and really, I could have packed it up then and happily flown right home. We sat and watched him riff on that most familiar and powerful of tunes and none of us moved. We sat transfixed and even though I’m always talking about wishing my kids were still babies, there’s something pretty great about hanging out with your grown up kids. Who no longer get antsy and bore easily. Who are interested in the history of other countries and trying new foods and are as riveted as their mom when a guy wearing fringe and a pretty spectacular afro walks out on stage with a guitar and starts to play. It was beautiful and passionate and moving and I loved that they thought so too.

I savored every moment of our trip and instead of feeling anxious about sticking to a schedule and getting to the next place, I enjoyed all our many moments together. Going for the second spin on the Crown Jewels conveyor belt when one of the kids suggested getting a better look at some massive diamond or learning how to navigate our way around the city via the tube and Uber. And even though it was absolutely freezing sitting atop that double-decker bus at night and I had the distinct pleasure of walking to not one but two hospitals on our second day, convinced my youngest had strep throat and needed antibiotics (which he did not), the sun will always shine brightly on the trip in my mind, making all the real gems sparkle there in the sand.

We came home tired but happy late on New year’s Day and my oldest left for work in Manhattan the following morning and the others took to their rooms and got lost in all the unlimited Internet they’d been deprived of for the week abroad and enjoyed some quality time alone. And I did too.

Until our next adventure.


Photo courtesy of Max Walsack. Top photo courtesy of Annie Walsack.

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It Would Be Wrong Not To

IMG_0121Here’s something you should know about me: I can be pretty spur-of-the-moment. It’s an attribute that helped get me invited recently on an amazing Caribbean getaway, but also may or may not be the reason why I ended up with so many kids.

It seems I prefer to let things happen organically.

Now, this type of life-strategy can be fraught with uncertainty. It can leave you wondering what you have in the pantry to feed your four children for dinner at 6 p.m. or whether you’ll be spending your golden years living in you daughter’s basement eating cat food.

But when it comes to vacationing, the what-the-hell approach really seems to be working out for me.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to be one of those people who can tell you where she’s spending her holidays through 2019. I have a girlfriend who’s already booked her all-inclusive stay in Mexico for spring break next year and Disney World the following summer.

I’d also love to be one of those people who has traditional annual getaways marked on her calendar. The Presidents Weekend ski trip you’ve been doing with a bunch of families since the kids were small or the end-of-summer beach house your extended family has been renting for years.

Sadly, I am none of those things. It’s expensive taking four kids on vacation. Throw in all their different schedules and the ten-year disparity in the children’s ages, and we haven’t all gone away together in years. I would also like to add that coming off a decade of having at least one teenager in the house might also be a contributing factor. Sometimes it’s hard enough sitting down to eat dinner together, much less paying to share a hotel room.

And since my divorce six years ago, the few traditional trips we did enjoy as a family have become a thing of the past (well, for me anyway). I loved our annual ski weekend at the Scooby Doo House – so named because the place was so dated it looked as if the Mystery Machine could pull up at any moment –with friends and cousins. While the house was pretty creepy, like I’d arrive bearing my own sheets and blankets, it was ski-on/ski-off and slept a ton of people and the mountain was manageable enough that the kids could go off on their own and feel like they owned the place.

For a few years towards the end of my marriage, I would accompany my husband to London for a long weekend in February. Say what you will about the man, but my ex can be super fun and for some reason, we were always able to push aside whatever strife was disrupting our stateside life and just enjoy those U.K. trips.

Nowadays when I travel it’s generally on the coattails of somebody else’s planning and often, arrives last minute. Which is where the benefits of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-life come in.

I just returned from one of those trips.

A few weeks ago, a friend texted and asked if I wanted to jump on her 50th birthday jaunt to St. Barth’s. Her husband had rented a villa so pretty much I just needed to get myself there. I knew that the trip had been planned for couples and tried to weigh the potential fabulousness of an island getaway with, once again, playing the part of the fifth wheel.

“We are so NOT couply,” my pal texted and when we spoke later, she explained that two of the couples had dropped out and she was trying to fill the open spots with girlfriends instead.

“Why wouldn’t I go?” I asked her, reasoning that I was also turning 50 this summer and didn’t really have anything planned to mark the occasion.

“Exactly,” she said. “It would be wrong not to.”

And just like that, a catchphrase was born.

Throughout the five-day trip, whether the question was whether to have a rum punch at 9 a.m., eat one of the little sugar-crusted donuts filled with Nutella that were delivered in a basket each morning, or take off our swim tops (See: starting the drinking day at 9 a.m.), the answer for all eight of us was invariably, “It would be wrong not to.”

In fact, had I not applied that way of thinking to a last-minute invitation I received a few years ago, I would not have met the birthday girl in the first place. Two friends from town were flying to one of their places in Florida for the weekend and they asked me to join them. We were going down on a Thursday night and would be joined the following day by the homeowner’s college roommate. But I was more than satisfied with the company of my hometown girls and didn’t really give much thought to the college roommate’s arrival.

Early the next morning, in walks the college roommate. We eyed either up and down. “I love your shorts,” she told me. “I love your shoes,” I gushed. And the rest, as they say, was history. It was love at first sight and we’ve stayed in touch well after that fateful trip.

Maybe another way of framing “It would be wrong not to,” would be: “When opportunity knocks, open the damn door.”

For my daughter, a recent college graduate, that meant saying “yes” to her first job offer following her very first interview. She came down from her bedroom to share the good news she had just received in an email while I was sitting outside on our deck drinking a bottle of rose with a pal. My daughter’s initial reaction was to reject the offer. It was so soon after graduation and she didn’t know if this is what she wanted to do with her life. And then my friend gently suggested, as only someone who is not the mother in that situation might do, that my girl had nothing to lose and so much to gain. A salary. Life experience. The opportunity to start figuring out what she really does want to do with her sweet, wild life. And before I knew it, I had a child with a Big Girl Job.

For my younger daughter, saying “Hi” to opportunity means juggling all-manner of odd jobs this summer, and it seems one gig has led to the next. She’s got a group of families for whom she babysits, taking kids to the beach or hanging out with them after a day at camp. She’s been helping a local caterer do some food prep as well as deliver dinners she prepares for customers. And someone in town hired her a few weeks ago to put together IKEA bedroom furniture. For someone who started the summer with not many job prospects, the girl is always working.

Last fall, my mom asked if my 13yo son and me wanted to join her for a November trip to Disney World. One of my sisters had dropped out and the villa she’d rented had enough room for us to tag along. Now, at the time, I was undergoing a financial downturn as I waited for the sale of my house to go through. I knew the villa was paid for and that my mom would probably treat us to most of our meals, but I still had to fly us there and pay for the park tickets.

But my youngest had never really been to Disney and none of us was getting any younger and, I reasoned, when would I ever have another opportunity to go with my own mother to Disney World? Or anywhere else with her, for that matter?

So I booked it. And guess what? It would have been wrong not to.

IMG_0378If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten to watch my 13yo son happily push my 4-month-old nephew’s stroller through the throngs of people at the Magic Kingdom one morning, pausing to stick his head under the stroller’s canopy to make the baby laugh. Or I’d have missed seeing my child walk hand-in-hand with his 4yo nephew. I wouldn’t have walked with that Tiny Husband down one of the side streets of Hollywood Studios, fresh off a spin on the Rockin’ Rollercoaster, and have him grab my own hand and hold it as we strolled towards the exit, happily chatting about what to do next. And, had I not said “yes,” I would not witnessed my mother – who is the opposite of me, a planner and always in control – deliriously out-of-control one night in Epcot.

We’d gone to the park after an early dinner to walk around and see if we could jump on any of the rides. We walked past spraying fountains timed to music and watched my 4yo nephew jump up and down when Nemo swam onto the screen in a darkened theater. Later, we strolled past the thrill ride Test Track and saw that there weren’t the usual long longs waiting to get in.

And maybe because she had just dipped and swooped over the majestic state of California on a ride called Soarin’, or maybe it was just being out of New Jersey and in Florida on a balmy November night, but my usually reticent mother seemed to be feeling a little more adventurous and before we knew it, six of us were on the line and moving towards the ride.

The last time I’d been on Test Track was when it first opened years ago and my only recollection was that it kept breaking down throughout so I guess we never really got the ride’s full effect. It’s pretty much like you’re pretending to test a race car – its brakes and steering, stuff like that – and in the end you kind of open it up and test its speed capabilities, but I didn’t remember it being particularly thrilling.

So we all climbed into our vehicle – my brother, 4yo nephew and his dad in the front and me, my mom and the 13yo in the back – and set off on our journey. The car jerked around the track as it went through its various tests and we were all laughing and pretending the 4yo was driving the car and yelling at him to stop being a crazy driver.

We twisted and turned through the course, dipping down sudden hills that gave our stomachs little jolts that made us whoop with delight, and about 3.5 minutes in were alerted that we’d arrived at the Barrier Test Area. The vehicle began flying down the track towards a wall that pulled apart at the last second and we sped outside into the warm Florida night. A light rain was falling as we whipped around the track and I turned to see my mom sitting next to me laughing harder than I’d ever seen her laugh – like, from deep within her belly – and her usually perfectly arranged hair flying in every direction. I’d never seen her so raw. So free. I sat next to her and tried to take it all in, imprint all the details of that moment – the rain, the force of the six of us hurtling down the track, my mom’s laughter – in my mental hard drive. I savored the sweetness of that moment like I do when I bite into that one perfect peach each summer. I know from experience that there will be plenty more peaches to come, but few –if any – will measure up to that one exceptionally juicy bite.

When I returned home I wrote about it in my journal, placing that moment at the top of my highlights from the trip. Seeing my mother from a new angle. Watching her let go.

Man, it so would have been wrong not to.

Planning a vacation and have room for one more? Obviously, it would be wrong not to ask me. In the meantime, you can sign up to get all of my latest posts sent right to your inbox by typing your email into the box below. You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

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Newfoundland: Not Your Average Ladycation

The view hiking up towards Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland.

The view hiking up towards Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

I was reminded recently why I love to travel. Why I need to travel.

I returned last week from a four-day jaunt to Newfoundland with three other women and yes, I know, you’re not the only one who thinks this is an odd choice for a girls’ getaway. Why not Vegas or South Beach, you’re wondering.

Imagine the locals’ reaction when they learned the Girls From Jersey, as we came to be called, travelled to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for a vacation. It ain’t no Napa.

And initially, I thought it was a little weird, too.

The occasion was a close friend’s 50th birthday and she determined we should all head north. Like, really far north. But she proceeded to do all the research and make all of the reservations and I am a baby and deep down love being told what to do so happily agreed to join her. The four of us also happen to travel really well together. There isn’t a diva in the group and we’re all pretty flexible. Some of us like to adhere to rules more than others, but that causes amusement rather than irritation among the group. At least it does for me.

The birthday girl’s logic, when she later explained how she chose our destination, made perfect sense. She said beach getaways and wine tours were lovely, but she wanted a little more excitement. Something out-of-the-box.

“I wanted an adventure,” she told me.

And that’s what we got.

I’ve spent a lot of time since my return extolling the virtues of Newfoundland in particular and Canada in general and have been encouraging everyone to make plans to go today. And you really should because soon, you will not be alone. An expansion project in the works will double the size of the airport in St. John’s, the island’s largest city on its easternmost point, by 2020 to accommodate the approximately 2 million tourists expected to visit Newfoundland. You’ll thank me later.

On the three-hour flight home, my travel companions and I decided that what made Newfoundland so special was a combination of three outstanding features.

Hiking up towards Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland.

Hiking up towards Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The Scenery

 I don’t want to spend too much time giving you the history of the island or describing its geography. Let’s just say that initially, I assumed it was off the coast of Maine only to discover, right before I left, that it is significantly more north than Maine and way east. Like, we visited Cape Spear – just south of St. John’s – to take selfies standing at the easternmost point of North America. Keep going from there and eventually you hit Ireland (in fact many Newfoundlanders speak with an Irish accent and there’s a vibrant Irish music scene). Newfoundland is right under Labrador, where you’ll find arctic tundra and icebergs float by in the spring. And the combined population of the two regions, which comprise one Canadian province, is a little over 500,000. FOR BOTH. Just to put it in perspective, in 2014 there were 8.9 million people living in New Jersey.

The coastal views are stunning. Rocky shores. Picture-perfect lighthouses. The clear, dark Atlantic Ocean crashing against steep cliffs. It’s like walking through a postcard.

During the late spring and summer you can see whales who journey north to feed on the water’s abundant krill and icebergs float south from great glaciers in the north. Our visit was on the tail end of all that excitement but we did get to see a lot of puffins on a boat tour out of Bays Bulls and two bald eagles soaring through the sky. We also saw a giant mola mola or ocean sunfish eyeing us as he floated atop the waves until he dove down and sank out of view.

When we weren’t stomping around hiking trails and old fishing villages, we also enjoyed the sights of St. John’s colorfully-painted “jellybean” buildings and the interiors of a fair share of Irish bars.

And I’d be remiss if I did not mention the scent of the sea — and not the Jersey Shore low tide odor — but the ancient, salty blast that hit us as we descended from Signal Hill into the old fishing village Quidi Vidi. It was accompanied by a blast of cold air that cooled us down after a sweaty hike to the top and reminded us how everything about Newfoundland was unpredictable. We were constantly surprised during our stay.

Finally, we rented a charming house in the city’s Outer Battery section just steps away from Signal Hill that offered sweeping views of the city’s busy harbor. Beautiful spot to cozy up on the couch in our pjs to sip coffee and watch the fog roll in each morning and to drink a glass of wine and see the harbor lights twinkle in the background before dinner. But I mostly loved falling asleep each night with my head next to an open window and listening to the sound of the water hitting the rocky shore nearby and the moan of a lighthouse in the distance. We were sorry to say good-bye.

Our brunch here at Mallard Cottage included breakfast pizza and a smoked blueberry old fashioned.

Our brunch here at Mallard Cottage included breakfast pizza and a smoked blueberry old fashioned.

The Food and Drink Scene

 Would you believe that one of Canada’s top-rated restaurant – I repeat:  top-rated  – is right in downtown St. John’s? Prior to our trip, that little fun fact left me dubious about Canadian food in general. I mean, how good could the food be if the best place is on some random, barren island, I thought?

And so, to all of the good people of Canada, I’d like to apologize for my ingnorance. If Newfoundland is any indication, you people are eating like kings. At least compared to the food and drink found in my neck of the woods.

Some standouts:

  • I know it’s not very ladylike, but I am an enthusiastic carnivore. I dig meat. So I found myself drawn a few times on the trip to menu items that included bone marrow as a type of condiment. I spread it onto my hanger steak at Chinched and ordered the cheeseburger with house-cured bacon at The Social House where they slathered the marrow onto their homemade buns. Both dishes came with thin, salty frites, which also might have contributed to the beauty of these meals.
  • I’ve never been a huge oyster enthusiast. I think the only time I’d ever eaten them was when my first husband and I went to New Orleans with another couple to get away from all our babies and toddlers and kind of drank our way through the city as an escape one weekend years ago. I believe oysters were involved. And lots of beer. But since then I’ve stayed away from them. I mean, who’d want to put that weird grey stuff in their mouth? But a plate of them arrived at our table at Chinched on Saturday night on a bed of ice and once I heard they were from Prince Edward Island – right around the corner – I knew I just had to try them. I squeezed some lemon juice and plunked a dollop of the sweet and slightly spicy mignonette on top and tipped the cold shell to my lips and let the whole gloopy mass slip inside my mouth. And then BAM. It was like taking a sip of the sea, all cold and briny. Totally magic. It was probably one of the best things I’ve ever tasted and we ended up eating oysters everywhere we went because when in Rome, brother, eat the oysters.
  • Have you seen my veggetti? I actually don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it here but love to talk about it ad nauseum to people who have to put up with me in real life. And although it sounds very dirty and scandalous, I use my veggetti to do awesome things with squash and zuchinni. Wait. Stop. Now you’re getting weird. It’s a spiralizer that turns veggies into long spaghetti-like strips you can sauté. Someone got their hands on one at Chinched and used it on a potato that was then wrapped around a big fluffy piece of cod and the whole thing is fried, I suppose, to make it a yummy crunchy coating around the fish. Divine.
  • When they are not coming up with amazing things to do with cod and marrow, Newfoundland restauranteurs are also concocting amazing cocktails to drink. I have a thing for Old Fashioneds and sampled them all over St. John’s during our stay but the standouts had to be the classic rendition at the bar at Blue on Water and the smoked blueberry variety I sipped at Mallard Cottage with my brunch on Sunday. Heaven. My partners in crime would tell you that they enjoyed the cilantro margaritas at Chinched and the El Camino at Adelaide Oyster House  (please enjoy with one of their fish tacos which I could eat every night of my life).
Getting "screeched in" at Christian's and becoming honorary Newfoundlanders.

Getting “screeched in” at Christian’s and becoming honorary Newfoundlanders.

The People

There are plenty of beautiful places to travel in this world. And plenty of destinations where you’ll find outstanding food and drink. But the reason you should visit Newfoundland is for the people. They behave the way we are supposed to behave as humans. They are polite. They are considerate. They are kind. They are curious. They are knowledgeable. Time and again we had encounters with the locals that left us shaking our heads and marvelling how certain things would never fly where we live. I’m taking about:

  • The woman working behind the counter at a remote post office where we stopped to buy postcard stamps and ask where to find a hiking trail, who let me use the bathroom in back. Actually, she let all four of us use the restroom and I’m pretty sure in the United States, that would be considered a federal offense.
  • A gentleman we started talking to at a local liquor store walked us to the walk-in beer cooler in the back to help us pick some interesting brews to bring back to our house and it was only after we parted ways that we realized he didn’t work there but was only an extremely helpful fellow customer.
  • The security guard at a museum/cultural center called The Rooms travelled with us from room to room and explained how historical events influenced much of the artwork on display, giving us a mini lesson in Newfoundland history. His knowledge completely enriched our experience.
  • The women working at the museum gift store not only took the time to tell us how to get to said liquor store but Googled what time it closed.
  • Taxis not only showed up for early morning pick ups scheduled after very late night drop offs but drivers were a font of information for places to go and things to do and also happy to let you walk off with their map. In fact, they insisted.
  • The TSA agents at the St. John’s Airport greeted us with a friendly “bon jour” and when one of our travel party members was unable to access her boarding pass via the Internet, a very helpful agent showed her how to take a screenshot on her iPhone to avoid a similar situation in the future.

I’ve joked in the past that friendly people make me nervous but honestly, after a few days in Newfoundland, I was sorry to return to a decidedly less kinder and gentler place to live. Where oncoming traffic doesn’t stop to let you pull out of a parking lot and TSA agents don’t bark at you to take off your jacket.

On our last night we ate dinner at a hot new restaurant on Water Street called The Social House. We sat at a high top table and slurped our final plates of oysters and chatted with our charming young server named Jordan. He told us he’d grown up in Sweden and moved back to Newfoundland – where his dad was from – a few years earlier and was finishing his last year at university. The 21-year-old talked about his internship in broadcasting and thoughts about breaking into sales and we asked him where — with all those plans — he thought he’d wind up after graduation.

“Right here,” he said, spreading his arms. “We have everything we need right here.”

And so they do. I’m glad I got to experience it for myself.

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My Hong Kong Trip, Part One

The kids and I at the top of Victoria Peak.

The kids and me at the top of Victoria Peak overlooking the harbor.

In the ten days or so since I returned from my spring break trip to Hong Kong, I have experienced the following: searing jet lag; a day-long road trip to visit my father who lives a two-hour drive south; lunch and a visit with my mom who lives much closer; the theft of my purse and wallet while walking at a local park with a friend and subsequent scramble to prevent said thief from making any further purchases beyond the $1,500 spent at Target and Lowe’s or from buying, say, a new car in my name; a visit with college friends in Brooklyn that gave me the impression I’d stumbled into an episode of “Girls” cast 25 years in the future in which I played the schlubby pal from New Jersey; and yet another college tour as the big decision day approaches for my 17yo requiring a total of about eight hours of driving, the consumption of two bacon cheeseburgers in 24 hours and lots of smiling.

I’m tired, and I don’t even have a banana in my house at the moment, much less ingredients to produce something for dinner later this evening.

I’ve also had a Jiminy Cricket of a hard time trying to wrap my arms around my Hong Kong experience to tell you about it. It hasn’t been easy summing it all up in 1,000 words. I think it may need to be done in a couple of posts, so I’ll begin with some overall impressions of the trip along with my thoughts on combining drugs and alcohol for air travel (spoiler alert: I’m a fan).

It seems trite, referring to a vacation as a “trip of a lifetime.” Like, until recently, I couldn’t have really told you what that meant. I mean, aren’t vacations — by their very definition — all memorable?

But now I know, some destinations stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. Like Hong Kong.

As we prepared to board our plane departing out of JFK and had our boarding passes scanned one final time, I actually started getting a little hysterical as the kids and I started down the ramp, toting our backpacks, neck pillows and assorted reading and viewing material.

“We’re going to China,” I cackled and proceeded to laugh uncontrollably as we neared the plane door until my 17yo told me to calm down. “You’re gonna get us arrested or something,” she hissed. Ever the alarmist.

But in the days leading up to our departure, I had begun feeling a little unhinged about flying half way around the world with my two youngest children. It had just seemed so – I don’t know – BIG. I mean, who goes to China for spring break?

Not a lot of people in my neck of the woods.

I know this because the nearby Billabong store was keeping track of where all of its customers were traveling over their various school breaks. The store had propped a piece of poster board behind the register divided into boxes bearing the names of the different destinations, and they used tally marks to keep track of how many customers were headed in each direction. We’d stopped in the store a few times before our own trip – to pick up a bathing suit and some shorts for the 12yo – and had mentioned on the first visit that we were flying to Hong Kong, which the Billabong folks happily included on their getaway chart. It seemed the majority of spring breakers were headed to Florida, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico but there were some other pretty exotic destinations listed on that poster board – like Ireland, Ecuador and Fiji.

As of the day before we departed, there remained only one check mark under Hong Kong.

But we made our way towards the back of the plane and settled in and one Valium and two (or maybe three) free plastic cups of red wine later (pour moi), we were landing in Hong Kong (my strategy for mixing drugs and alcohol to get through the long flight was to keep my intoxication level just under Judy Garland territory, so I refrained from singing).

Upon my return, the Number One Question – other than “How was the food?” – has been “How was the flight?” I’ll be honest, sitting for 16 hours in coach is no picnic, and I’m a lazy person who generally enjoys sitting around and doing nothing. Although I am not a tall person, my legs started freaking out at one point and I had to get up and walk around and perform some light calisthenics while waiting for the lavatory.

But for as kind of shitty as the flight was, I’d do it again in a second just to see our friends’ faces as we made our way out of baggage claim to where the five of them stood anxiously waiting for us.

It was an amazing moment and had I not been so delusional at that point, I might have thought of something more emotional/sentimental to say to them other than the first thing that popped out of my mouth, which was, “We’re in fucking China.”

And that brings us to Hong Kong.

It. Was. So. Worth. It.

(And visiting Asia was never on my bucket list of places to go. Who knew?)

Being cooped up on a plane for 32 hours (look, I’m doing math) is a small price to pay to be able to visit Hong Kong. It’s stunning – lush, green mountains alongside a dazzling skyline and surrounded by the greenish-blue South China Sea. And there is so much to see and do.

For those of you who don’t know — and really, until my friends moved there, I knew not one thing about Hong Kong (other than the whole British relinquishing colonial rule in 1997) — Hong Kong is kinda where East meets West. Everybody speaks a little English (except the Cantonese-speaking taxi drivers). You can find a burger and pizza alongside dim sum and fish balls, sometimes right next door to each other and sometimes on the very same menu. It’s interesting. There’s even a Hong Kong Disneyland.

Here are 10 facts, courtesy of USA Today.

Hong Kong at the bottom of China and is composed of four main territories. My friends live on Hong Kong Island in the southern section near the beach and to the north of the island lies the city and the bustling Victoria Harbor. Across the harbor is the city of Kowloon, which is at the bottom of China’s mainland, but still a part of Hong Kong proper. It’s actually where the tallest building in Hong Kong is located and where you can find markets filled with weird things you never knew people wanted to buy. Or own.

All this shiz is happening at the bottom of China.

All this shiz is happening at the bottom of China. We mostly stayed on the red part, Hong Kong Island.

Traveling to Asia let me experience something so unlike my life here in New Jersey – the sights, the sounds, the smells (and some of you more snarky folks might have thought New Jersey had the ripest odors of all) – that I think made the trip not only a memorable experience but an important one for all of us, especially my kids. I really think the journey will prove to be life changing for them because now they know just how big the world is. And kind of how small it is at the same time.

It was so satisfying seeing my two children — who are in their prime obnoxious teen years — just get it. They totally got how lucky we were and how special it all was.

Over the course of our week-long stay we did lots of amazing things, like jump off a junk boat …

This is how we celebrated Easter, jumping into the South China Sea.

This is how we celebrated Easter, jumping into the South China Sea.

… visit a giant Buddha …

The Big Buddha on Lantau Island.

The Big Buddha on Lantau Island.

… take a terrifying ride in a clear-bottomed gondola …

I shit you not.

“Try not to think you’re in China,” I kept telling myself during the 25-minute ride.

… and walk around a local fishing village.

Fascinating Tai O fishing village.

Fascinating and smelly Tai O fishing village.

I’ll share more pictures and all the details over the next few days.

In the meantime, here’s the bottom line: Do not let fear stand in the way of going to new places and doing new things. There is a whole great big world out there — and things to discover right around the corner, too, not just on the other side of the globe. The experiences and the memories more than make up for any anxiety you may feel bubbling within you.

I know they did for me.


Make this your motto. Credit:

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Postcard From Paris

Spring time in Paris, courtesy of my 16-year-old.

Springtime in Paris, courtesy of my 16-year-old daughter.

I didn’t leave the United States until I was 23 and out of college. Up until then, the extent of my air travel consisted of a handful of trips to Florida and a visit to St. Louis to stay with my aunt and her family the summer my parents separated when I turned 12.

As the oldest of six kids, before two more would join us after my mom got remarried, vacations didn’t really happen much for me as a kid. We did drive from New Jersey to Orlando one year – my parents, five siblings, a grandfather and me, and I was tasked with sitting in the way back of our station wagon with an 18-month-old struggling with diarrhea (sister, you know who you are). And for about five summers I joined my mom’s parents on their annual journey to western Maine, with the occasional pit stop on Cape Cod to stay with a great uncle.

But when I finally travelled to Europe with a girlfriend for two weeks in the spring of 1990 — a super-low-budget affair funded using my VISA card and cash advances — I got bit by the travel bug. We rode the train from Paris to Rome to Florence to Nice and back to Paris and frankly didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We did, however, stuff in as much as we could – including the Louvre, St. Peter’s, a day-trip to Cannes and a makeout session with some Italian guys – before heading home.

Unbeknownst to me then, I’d be married six months later and a mom less than two years after that. International travel was pushed to the back burner while I learned to navigate the foreign soil of breastfeeding, night terrors and potty training for another dozen years.

So when I had the opportunity to join my then-husband for his annual trip to London around 2006, I jumped at the chance even though farming out four kids and their assorted schedules – basketball games and birthday parties – for a long weekend was akin to brokering a Mid-East peace deal.

But it was worth it. We had tons of fun – we were always good at having fun together – and got to hang out with an assortment of people he worked with in shipping from all over the world, and I returned with him two more times before we split up.

In the perfect world, we would have introduced our kids to international travel as they got older but, alas, the marriage went the way of the pound and with two college tuitions coupled with an addiction to Amazon Prime, I couldn’t exactly swing taking four kids to Europe on my own.

Which is why I encourage them — constantly – to to jump on any opportunity that comes their way to get out of the United States and see the world themselves.

My oldest daughter went with her high school to Italy over spring break of her junior year. She traveled to Rome and Florence and came home with an appreciation for wine and Nutella and artsy photos she took of the Coliseum.

I’ve been trying to push her to spend a semester abroad now that she’s in college, but she just drags her feet and her older brother says he doesn’t want to miss anything going on at school – a rocking tailgate or fraternity party – and that Europe could wait.

What they are both failing to understand is that if they don’t go somewhere now, they’ll never again have the opportunity to be immersed in another culture for an extended period of time and able to travel from there, on their parents’ dime.

They’ll be stuck jacking up their credit card balances to cram as much as they can in 14 days and staying in sketchy pensiones, unable to afford anything but like the cattle car on the overnight Eurorail from Paris to Rome. Believe me, I know.

My 16-year-old daughter took off for Paris Saturday afternoon for a 10-day trip with her high school. I literally scraped together the money – which I really didn’t have any business spending – for her to join many of her good friends tour the City of Light and discover that there’s a whole world outside the good ol’ US of A.

We really spent a lot of time getting her ready for the trip — making sure she had appropriate rain gear, walking shoes and a fashionable Old Navy ensemble – unlike when her sister flew to Europe three years ago. Back then, I don’t think I was involved in the clothes she packed and couldn’t tell you if she even had an umbrella, and I think that it’s a sign of how much things have changed around here since then.

Three years ago I still had four kids living at home and had started working full-time and I don’t think I could even see straight, much less worry about how many pairs of jeans my daughter had packed for 10 days in Italy.

I didn’t even know what time to pick her back up from the high school the day they returned . I actually had to call another family whose son was on the trip, people I didn’t really know well, to find out and you should have heard the tone in the dad’s voice when I had to lay my clueless cards on the table. He was surprised, at best. He had obviously never spent any time trying to operate as a disorganized, working, single mother.

But to my older daughter’s credit, she didn’t really need me. Later, I learned that some of the kids had called their families while in Italy, but my girl left her iPhone at home and never really felt the need to check in. I probably don’t blame her.

Flash forward three years, one job and two fewer kids later, and I had a lot of time to focus on my younger daughter’s trip. And, unlike her sister, she brought her phone along and I’ve already gotten filled in on the adventure so far through iMessages and Snapchat. There’s Wi-Fi in her hotel, so I’ve gotten a picture of the view from the rooftop and one of her pretending to lick the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

I asked her to sum up the experience so far in three words and she wrote back: “Foreign. Fabulous. Frightening.”

“What’s so scary?” I asked.

“It’s just so different here,” she texted. “And I can already tell they hate Americans.”

I reminded her to keep smiling and to try to use the little French she knew – lots of pleases and thank yous – as much as possible and she’d be okay.

“I’m trying, it’s just hard,” she wrote. “But I’m loving it.”

As the kids started to board the bus yesterday that would take them to the airport, I grabbed my daughter and pulled her aside for one last hug. I looked into her big blue eyes and tried to impart important final pieces of wisdom: Don’t talk to strangers. Sleep on the plane. Take notes on everything interesting you see and hear. Be careful because the alcohol there is a lot stronger than it is here. We laughed and she gave me one more big squeeze and I could feel my throat tighten and the tears start to sting my eyes.

“Stop,” she said and gave me a kiss and got on the bus with a wave.

As the bus pulled out of the high school parking lot, past the group of moms and dads gathered to wave the kids off, I had to wipe the tears leaking past my sunglasses.

Because as thrilled that I was that she was on the cusp of this great and possibly life-changing adventure, I hated to see her go.

It scared the shit out of me.

But, like figuring out how to navigate the Paris Metro or an overnight layover in the Milan train station – or, hey, even a divorce – these challenges have made for a richer, fuller life.

Just add Nutella.