Lake Ohrid and other splendors

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Sunset in Pogradec

We’ve been traveling through the Balkans for 5 days now: Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. We’ve seen the grandiose arquitecture of Sofia, a 150 year-old capital built upon the ruins of a 5th century Roman metropolis. In Macedonia, the slim miranets of mosques point up blue and white from the clusters of red brick houses. We arrived two days ago to Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. This lake is ancient, maybe 5 million years old, and it lays over the borders of Macedonia and Albania with the calm confidence of age.

We have been scrambling to communicate, but there’s little hope for us: The alphabet of Bulgaria’s Slavic language is slightly different from that of Macedonia, where they use a “j” and pronounce their country Makedonia, with a hard /k/. Albania’s language is not Slavic: in fact, it is unique in the European languages, and linguists think it evolved from an old Balkan language. This is all to say that my abilities to carry on a conversation so far have been pretty minimal, especially among the older population. I resort to miming: eating air barbarically with my hands and tickling the same air when I turn it into a keyboard to show I want to do some work. Smiling is culturally relative, and I’m realizing how language is fundamental to good manners: we have learned the words for “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” and greetings. Fala mendireet. Me fal. Tuña tieta. These are the phrases I’m working on now, in Albania. Soon, in Croatia, we’ll switch back to blogadaria and its friend izvenitye.

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The walk along Lake Ohrid is full of entertainment

Learning the words is a small hurdle to jump for the privialage of being here, near this beautiful body of water and the communities that have been established on its shores. We ate trout last night in Pogradec, while the entire city came out for its nightly 8:00 pm walk. Babies and their parents, young woman in heels, men wearing brand name t-shirts and elderly women in dark dresses and kerchiefs all walked slowly down the lake’s sidewalk, socializing in the most easy and natural of ways. We merged with the crowds to walk back to our room, where I fell easily to sleep under well preserved 90210 sheets.

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The view from our room over Lake Ohrid on the Macedonian side.

Quiet

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The Cathedral Church Sveta Nadelya has one of the most beautiful interiors I’ve seen. It has been restored many times, and was partially destroyed in a terrorist attack in 1925.

The night we left for our trip, the sounds of the city came together to send us off. At 3:00 am, I awoke to a couple dissessembling a refrigerator that had been abandoned on the sidewalk outside our bedroom window. They tried to load it into their idling van quietly, but large appliances don’t go down easily. They left, and were soon replaced by a horn-happy car. Then, a reggaeton blaster. A trash truck stopped by to grind the waste of the neighborhood. An old man with his salsa boom box. Soon the sun started rising and the upstairs neighbor started dropping his body building weights. By the time the school bus arrived to summon its passenger with more honking, I was out of bed and drinking coffee. There’s only so much noise I can take the night before a big trip.

Now, after a short stop over in Barcelona, we’ve arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria. Another city, and with it, the roar of traffic outside our window. The scream of graffiti on the building walls. The voices raised with alchohol outside the window in the wee hours of the morning. It feels quiet, though. I am quiet: I don’t know the language! In 24 hours, I’ve learned to say zdrasti (hi) and blogodaria (thank you) (but you can also say merci). I am quiet, and the people I see are quiet towards me, perhaps sensing that there’s not much for us to say.

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Lots of graffiti here in Sofia.

A friend here told us that the city is empty, with everyone leaving for the shore during the summer months. We’ve had no problem finding a table at the many sidewalk restaurants and cafes we stop at, where rosey tomatos are served with parsley and fresh white cheese. There are plenty of people to see, though: Bulgarian Orthodox priests in black cassocks. Friendly children playing hide and seek. The women of Sofia are fun to watch because they are flamboyant, floral women, often with a bouquet in their hand. Outside of the city, rose petals are pressed into precious oil that is sold around the world.

We visited Roman ruins and Bulgarian Orthodox churches with gold ceilings and domes. In the afternoon, we sat under trees shedding tear-shaped leaves that glowed in the afternoon sun.  I’ve learned how to say тих: it is the word for quiet here.

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Enjoying the Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski Russian church from the Tsarska Gardens.

 

On the West Side, a new “Eiffel Tower” is Under Construction

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Here is a piece I wrote that expanded on an earlier post about the Highline in NYC. I tried to get this published to no avail. What do you guys think? Do you have any tips of getting freelance writing published?

On the far west side of the crowded island of Manhattan, where space is dear and lives are conducted in close proximity, an alchemy of sorts is happening: space is being created where there was none before. Or, rather, one type of space is being turned into another type. Out of thin air, the West Side will soon have a new park.

This park is the centerpiece of Hudson Yards, a $20 billion mixed-use private real estate development by Related Companies and Oxford Properties. In addition to the park, the project consists of 16 skyscrapers, constructed on a platform above the West Side Rail Yard. The crown jewel of the project is a 15-story climbable steel sculpture that has been likened to a “snakeskin tea cup”, a “garbage bin”, and a “huge bed bug exoskeleton”. The illustrations of the interlocking staircases rising around an empty middle space on Hudson Yard’s official website remind me of a honeycomb beehive. For now, it is simply being called the Vessel. The Vessel is the creation of Britain’s celebrated and sometimes controversial designer Thomas Heatherwick, and will add one mile of vertical climbing to the park’s 14 acres of public open space. Stephen M. Ross, the Related chairman who enthusiastically commissioned the Vessel, says “It will be to New York what the Eiffel Tower is for Paris.”

My friend recently proposed to his fianceé on the top of the Eiffel Tower. A woman standing next to them was so overcome that she started to cry, so she’s become a part of the story by sharing in the private joy of two strangers. Our lives have a funny way of unfolding in public places. Sometimes we plan for that, throwing rowdy birthday parties at restaurants, or planning an elaborate marriage proposal. At other times, life takes us unpleasantly by surprise in the middle of the street. Whenever this happens, it’s nice to have somewhere to go to ride the drama out. New York City is full of parks and plazas where residents can witness each other perform and endure life. Though these public places are ostensibly there for leisure and recreation, to be completely successful they must accommodate much more: in a city, public parks serve as a common ground for the community of strangers. Though we may not acknowledge one another, we know that we are seen. “Public space is for living. Its value must be felt with the soul,” says Enrique Penalosa, Colombia’s happy-city Mayor of Bogotá.

One way residents and tourists can find the Vessel is via the famous High Line, which enters from the south along a formerly abandoned train track elevated above the streets of Chelsea. It’s not my favorite New York City park, but I’ve certainly meandered its gardens of native plants and battled its hordes of tourists my fair share of times. I’ve also been on the High Line as life grabbed me and gave me a few unexpected shakes. I was there a few springs ago, surrounded by shivering, sobbing second graders. We had gone on a field-trip in the middle of a very cold snap, and we were unprepared. I stood there, immobilized by the huddle of my miserable students, and I couldn’t help the bitter laugh I let slip to the chagrin of a nearby tourist wearing a warm-looking jacket. And it was on the High Line where my boyfriend confessed one summer night that he’d cheated on me. I remember stomping heedlessly through crowds of people to cry dramatically on a railing overlooking the Lincoln tunnel traffic below, feeling comforted by the imagined support of sympathetic strangers nearby.

Journalist George Packer writes that there are two types of public space in the modern city. “The first thrusts people together in a public space, a hive of activity. Its essence is accidental and spontaneous. The second leaves nothing to chance. It tells people that they are subservient to the state and, in a sense, irrelevant to it.” As overwrought as the High Line is, it is the first kind of space: available for us to simply do things inside it. There, we are welcome to live our lives. Mr. Ross and Mr. Heatherwick profess that they hope for the same outcome with the Vessel. Though the cheapest of the new Hudson Yards apartments are priced at $2 million, the space is advertised as enjoyable for all. “Vessel will lift the public up,” states Heatherwick’s studio website. With its 2,500 stairs rising to a height of 150 feet, the sculpture will certainly do that for some. But only time will tell if the Vessel will function as a viable public space. Susan K. Freedman, president of the Public Art Fund, worries about the mess of High Line crowds navigating 154 flights of stairs. In 2015, 7.6 million people visited the High Line. How will these numbers function in directionless, vertical space? The most viable traffic-control solution is to have free timed and ticketed entry, but that will certainly reduce the number of spontaneous visitors. Marriage proposals can fit into a schedule, but it’s less likely that a person will use their planned time at the Vessel to answer a difficult phone call. And so the accidental and spontaneous part of public life quickly starts to fall away.

Just below Hudson Yards in Chelsea, long-time residents have felt displaced in their neighborhood as bodegas and laundromats are replaced with art galleries and cafés, which are then replaced with corporate headquarters and luxury bakeries. Once popular hang-out spots have been converted into spaces that don’t serve lower-income residents and thus feel unwelcoming. With less space, the chance street interactions that make a neighborhood into a community become less common. Chelsea will soon have a new park, and at the center will be the Vessel. But the privately-owned-and-operated Hudson Yards will most likely become Packer’s second kind of public space, where entry and movement are controlled and monitored, and citizens are left feeling beholden to a highly curated experience. “You won’t have experienced 21st century New York until you’ve walked to the top of the Vessel,” said Ross at the groundbreaking of the project in April of 2017. New York City is a space that we experience together, usually accidentally and often spontaneously. The Vessel is a $200 million sculpture, and it will be crawling with tourists. That is not everyone’s New York City.

Recently, I visited the Hudson Yards’ construction site. The Vessel calmly waited, assembled but unfinished, in the center of the activity of skyscrapers rising all around. Red protective sheeting covered the guardrails, highlighting the shiny undersides of the soon-to-be famous staircases. I asked a security guard standing nearby what he thought of the sculpture. “I think it’ll be a great place for someone to jump off of,” he laughed. Maybe he’s right: One way or another, the public will find a way to live out their lives, in public.

Baggage

Questions I ask myself as I pack for a 6-month journey. What packing tips do you have?

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First choose the bag. Small day-trip backpack, or huge rolling check-on? If I plan on scaling mountains, I’ll bring my sticky, sweat-stained mochila with its dozens of swinging straps.

Next choose what to bring. Do I want to blend into the shadows of forests and mosques? Do I want, for the first time, to dance in a spotlight with tall, sparkling shoes? Will I need the contents of my medicine closet, or can I trust in the remedies of the countries I visit? This could be my chance to read a tome like Middlemarch or War and Peace. This could be my chance to write a tome, unnamed as of yet. This could be my chance to read the James Patterson and Sue Grafton books that wash up upon the shore of my trip. Technology. Shoes. Jackets. Games. These are things that prop me up in my day-to-day life, but I suspect they’ll weigh me down on the road.

The question is: Can I pack a little space to grow?

Flirting with danger

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I did something crazy the other day. Something dangerous. It was risky, and exciting, and definitely scary.

I bought a bathing suit online.

Not just any bathing suit: a red bikini. In a cut I’ve never tried. On the model, the bikini bottom looked sporty and sleek: high-cut legs with an even higher, snug waist band. A lifeguard might wear this swimsuit, or a volley ball player. On my fuel-efficient body, though, those high leg holes could easily end up being snug highlights for the extra I carry around my hip bones. A too-tight waist-band might leave me with bumps in unexpected places. As for the backside…so many things can go wrong! Aware of the realities of my body, I bought the bikini anyway, seduced by the look the model presented me with.

It arrived today, neatly folded inside of a bag inside of an envelope inside of a box. When I held the red bottoms up for inspection, they looked like huge red granny panties. What a disaster: Did I order too large? Slipping them on, I noticed that there was none of the familiar tightness of ill-fitting clothes. They pulled up easily over my calves, my thighs, my hips… suddenly I was comfortably wearing a red bikini bottom, perfectly snug in all the right places! At least it felt that way: the final test would be the mirror. It was time to see how  my dimensions looked in this flashy style. Baggy fabric, bulging seams, see-through fabric, strange shadows, these are among the terrible possibilities of an unfamiliar swimsuit. I reminded myself I like the way I look no matter what. I erased the model’s image from my memory and, without sucking in my stomach, I faced my reflection.  Incredibly, unexpectedly, joyously, I looked great! It was me that I saw, pale and full, nothing like the model, but rocking a red bikini that perfectly flatters the body that I have. Living dangerously has its pay-offs.

Perspective shift

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Lying on my back with my legs in the air, I can reflect on how beautiful my feet are. The blood that has pooled in my toes drains back down, joining the reverse current of a rare low tide. I am fascinated by the pulse of the vein near the tendons that link my toes to my ankle. The left foot has a slower pulse.  It pushes my skin with less vigor than the right one. I wonder what this means.

I have wide feet with high arches. The curve of my insole gracefully hugs the ball of my other foot. It is comforting to nestle my feet together like this. My feet have always been beautiful to me, even when I suffered from not enjoying my body. My feet are very functional. As a child, I was barefoot for most of the summer, even in the city (I’m not sure what my parents were thinking). Now I take care of my feet: in the shower I scrub them with pumice, and at night I rub some coconut butter into my soles. I don’t paint my toenails, because ever since I temporarily lost eight of them the polish seems to do more harm than good. I still let vanity persuade me to make bad shoe choices though, and even now I am nursing four blisters. These feet get me around. They hold me up. They are the perfect place to begin a perspective shift: feet to the sky!

 

 

 

Frozen

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It is hot in New York! But this photo reminds me of the cold old days, not many months ago. Doesn’t it look refreshing? I’m posting in response to Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge, as water and also whale, because even though there isn’t a whale, the frozen water reminds me of one somehow. Thanks, Cee!

 

 

 

I’m bad at Good-Byes

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“I’m no good at good-byes.”

Have you said this before? I certainly have. And I’ve chosen a life-style that, until recently, had me saying “good-bye” every few years as I moved my life around countries and continents. In every new city I fantasizing about starting a home there, but soon I knew (even if I didn’t admit it to myself) that I would be leaving. “Good-bye” became a part of every interaction, every experience, every home, even if the actual leave-taking was months or years away. When I finally left a place, I mourned the life I abandoned. I dreamed of a victorious return. But then I moved on. My real home was my parents’ home, and it was potent enough for me to feel content with my dozens of makeshift ones around the globe.

I’ve now lived in New York for longer than I ever lived anywhere besides my parents’ place. Time, relationships and maturity have helped me start a real home here, a home of good friends and layered experiences. I am making this home with someone else, and we have decided to leave it. The “good-bye” we’re planning is a temporary one (we will return!). Somehow, though, this leave taking is dredging my soul in an unexpected way. I’m just no good at “good-byes!”

We plan on leaving for 6 months. We will be traveling around the globe, together, being a home for each other in the midst of new places. But I am sad to leave what we have here: The home of our routines. The home of our proximity. Leaving is scary in a way it never was when I was in my twenties, when I hadn’t let myself commit to anything yet. “Good-bye” for this temporary leave-taking looks like a mishmash of hasty coffees and dinners with friends I only see occasionally. It looks like a party we haven’t planned yet, and trips, canceled and undertaken, to see my beloved parents and my far-flung friends. It looks like a real good-bye, a messy one. The kind I’m good at.

I feel like I am losing something because of this good-bye. We are losing jobs. We are losing that comfortable rut that we’ve carved to bind the weeks of the past with the weeks of the future. But these are things we want to lose: that it why we are making this jagged leap in a new direction. Is it possible this feeling of loss is simply a by-product of all of the bad good-byes I have said before, both the heart-wrenching and the flippant? Maybe there is a ghostly raft that floats deep inside of me of all the people and places I said good-bye to and left behind forever. They are mad at me for taking leave so dishonestly (“I’ll be back!”). This time I mean it though. I’m just no good at good-byes.

 

Hidden Fountains in Manhattan

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The fountain in Samuel Paley Park, on East 53rd Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

 

If you walk around midtown Manhattan in the summer, you’re going to get hot. Not only hot, but you’ll get thirsty, and maybe those new shoes you bought will be starting to rub your heel the wrong way. If you’re like me, you might even be starting to get disgruntled with the hundreds of pedestrians around you, all of whom walk at a different pace, in a different direction, in groups or with phones held in front of them, stopping and starting and crissing and crossing unpredictably.

If you find yourself disgruntled, or in pain, or just hot, duck into one of the tiny parks  tucked into the cross streets of this concrete jungle. These little every-man’s spas often feature fountains, which offer their cooling spray and calming sound to the frenzied minds of city dwellers. Sit down at one of the cafe tables and relax for a bit. Kick those shoes off, if you must! The sound of rushing water kills the sirens and honking, the drills and the drones of Manhattan airwaves. You’ll leave feeling refreshed and ready to walk a few more blocks until you discover another secret fountain.