Greece 2016: Traveling Solo – New Fears and Old Brain Cells

Whether it’s for business or for pleasure, travel has always offered me the element of surprise and exploration of the unknown, while permitting me a below-the surface opportunity to grow. Traveling by myself is a great exercise for my maturing brain, whether that means renting a car and finding my way in an unfamiliar city or taking a plane to a foreign country and wondering what will come next.

One of my more challenging solo trips happened a few years back when I joined my brother on his cruise ship in Hong Kong. John spent 30 years between two cruise lines playing piano on elegant ships visiting many international ports 15-20 times each over the course of his tenure as an entertainer. That helped him develop a penchant for favorite restaurants and hangouts in places like Singapore, Rome, Rio de Janeiro and even Capetown, South Africa. Although the long flight to Hong Kong was excruciating, once I grabbed a taxi for the Hong Kong cruise ship terminal, I had a personal tour guide for 12 days through countries like Vietnam and Thailand – places I would NEVER have gone if he weren’t offering me a free place to sleep, eat and float the entire time.

Such was not the case on my trip to Greece this past September. While I was familiar with parts of Athens because of my stay there for a year of college some 40+ years ago and subsequent trips in between, I wasn’t familiar with ALL of Athens. I attribute my lack of desire to find places on my own more to laziness than to lack of intelligence, but I just always had someone else along for the ride to rely on. And while I speak the language like a 3rd grader and can make myself understood in conversation, older age has introduced new, disturbing and entirely unexpected demons to my once confident, younger persona.

As I mentioned in earlier blog posts, the purpose of this trip was to simply BE in the same place as my brothers and relatives for what might be one of the last times all these factions could come together in my adult life. The trip was planned only 6 weeks before departure, so I worked feverishly to arrange everything as best I could. Having experienced AirBnb accommodations in Paris, London and a host of American cities, I felt confident I could find just the right place to unpack my bag and rest my head. So I booked what I thought to be the perfect apartment not far from where my cousin lived. I was set. That is — until seven days before my departure, when the landlord cancelled my stay citing building maintenance problems. Suddenly my choice of apartments became limited to what was not already booked a week out. The place I chose was in a part of Athens I had never visited in this sprawling city. It was, however, within walking distance of central Athens, so that gave me some comfort, while Googling the location made the neighborhood sound like the next best thing to sliced bread.

Problem is, what Greeks consider urban gentrification is not my idea of contemporary beauty. I described parts of my apartment discovery process in one of my first in this series of blog posts, but I did not speak of how I feared being unable to locate my building again once I left my apartment. This was an entirely new and strange feeling. Picture a huge European city with thousands of apartment buildings, large and small, many of which look the same. Every neighborhood has tiny eateries and little neighborhood squares where businesses are located. Graffiti covers almost every square inch of neighborhood walls and building fronts (that’s an entirely other blog post), so very little of what you see seems like a signature sight or monument you can readily recognize during the first few outings from your cozy studio.

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Another fly in the soup was my almost useless cell phone in an era of instant information. Before I left, my husband contacted our mobile carrier and arranged what he thought was comprehensive international cell coverage, whether calling, texting or using a GPS function online. My plan was to rely heavily on that to help me get my bearings. Unfortunately, it did NOT work, and I was left to scrounge for free wifi locations at restaurants or in hotel lobbies while being unable to actually CALL anyone on my phone.

 

So except for visits with relatives, here are what most of my days looked like, all due to my lack of female huevos and reliance on a technology I had only spotty access to:

  • Wake around 7 am, grab my laptop (my apartment had excellent wifi except when I wanted to watch TV, when it stopped operating altogether) and sit up in bed with a pillow on my lap.
  • Clock in and work my online customer service job, surf the web, and get caught up on social media until noon.
  • Take a shower in hot water — unless I forget to flip the hot water switch on ahead of time. I suddenly recall what a cold shower feels like.
  • Choose from among my many (black) summer outfits and dry my short hair using an electrical outlet ten feet from an available mirror or – wear a hat with the one of the 5 pair of sunglasses I schlepped along for extra glamour.
  • Call up a car using a freshly loaded Uber-like app on my phone called “TaxiBeat” (Uber has not yet taken off in a country where half the population drives cabs for a living). Of course, I must stay inside my apartment to make sure I am still connected to wifi for this.
  • Once the cabbie finds me (it’s usually the younger ones who are on this system, since older taxi drivers are not interested in tech-savvy changes to their livelihoods), I climb in, name my destination and ask for their taxi wifi password. Yes. There is free wifi in most of these cabs because they use GPS to find you and drop you off.
  • Depart the vehicle at the general locale within which I want to explore Athens. Usually it’s in or near the Plaka, Monastiraki or Constitution Square in the heart of great shopping (my bad) and air-conditioned hotel lobbies with free wifi.
  • Sit down for lunch at an elegant-looking outdoor restaurant or café with a great view of passers-by. I could sit there for hours, surfing the web on my phone while wistfully watching beautiful, dark-haired 20 -year old women strolling by with their equally gorgeous boyfriends. My brain relived my earlier days, when I sat in cafes with my girlfriends, flirting with strangers at the next table. But only my brain.
  • Shop some more, not really buying anything, but having some fun conversations with shop owners, who always manage to tell me where their American relatives live.
  • Call TaxiBeat to fetch me and dump me off at my little place around 5 pm. Keep in mind that I have not entirely grasped the geography of my apartment’s location so I am relying almost 100% on the driver to find it.
  • Wait for my cousin Dimitri to text me asking me if I wanted to get dinner with him later on, to which I always agree.

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That’s it. Throw in a trip to Hydra with my cousin and a visit to the Acropolis Museum one more time during the course of my 12 days in Athens, and you have just sampled much of my existence on this trip, which felt more like a month to me at the time.

There are, however three significant departures from this theme, all of which I am very proud and all of which make me believe I am not yet ready for a nursing home:

  • A trip to my old college, when I braved the Athens Metro only to find the station nearest the school still required a trip by taxi.
  • The morning my apartment wifi crapped out, forcing me to find a café where I could work on my laptop. This occurred during one of my last days there, making me realize what a lunatic I was for not doing this earlier even WITH operable wifi at my disposal back at my apartment. It felt downright adult-like.
  • Meeting the cousin of friend of mine for coffee near the Acropolis. Lillian was cyber-introduced to me by my wild friend Frosene. “You gotta look her up!” she messaged me by Facebook. “She’s a hoot, speaks perfect English and loves to meet my friends who visit Athens!” I soon became fast friends with this native Athenian who learned English with a New York accent but had never visited the States. Lillian and I compared life stories and even celebrated my birthday together on the Piraeus waterfront. Other friends with whom I had hoped to visit simply did not materialize this time around, so I will forever be grateful to Frosene for getting Lillian and I together and to Lillian for being an entertaining, delightful new acquaintance.

So there you have it. I am not certain I will ever travel that far alone again, but I hope I never get too old to feel it’s not an option. I did, after all, miss my husband (and — oh God — it was great to see how much he missed me!). But I also got to know Athens from an unexpectedly new perspective – an entirely unstructured (sometimes desperate) one that was a bit scary at first.

Travel hope springs eternal.

 

Greece 2016: Island Dreaming

It has always struck me that many Greeks consider travel extremely taxing. Perhaps that is why many of them have never seen parts of their own homeland (a country the size of the state of Ohio) nor visited many of the islands, all within a mere few hours’ boat ride.

Whenever any of my family visited the old country, we would rent a car, spend a few days in Athens, then get out and explore the mainland, both north to my mother’s native village (Nympheon) or south my father’s family’s Peloponnesian village of Isari. Along the way north there were the beaches of Nafplion, the waterfalls of Edessa, and the forests of Metsovo and my father and brothers even visited Mt. Athos, possibly the most interesting monasteries in the world. Going south, we saw Olympia, the majestic monasteries atop the rock formations of Metora and the beautiful town of Kalamata, located at the southern tip of Greece and boasting some of the country’s most beautiful beaches. When we weren’t doing that, we were on a ferryboat going to an island. Then we would re-group back in Athens for a final family visit before heading home. To this day our family there does not understand our penchant to roam, so we stopped trying to explain it to them long ago, simply offering the customary Greek backward hand wave to them as we drove away.

Greece has 6,000 islands; only 227 of them are inhabited. Between age 13 and now, I have set foot on ten of them: Crete, Rhodes, Aegina, Mykonos, Kos, Patmos, Spetses, Kalymnos, Santorini, and Hydra — some for only a day and others for a week at a time. Each island has its own flavor, architecture, and specialties. Once you have seen this part of the Mediterranean, it lives inside you, beckoning you back at every opportune moment. The blue, crystalline water, the delicate sunlight, the whitewashed houses and smooth-rock-paved pathways with chalky-white grout, the tiny churches and the sounds of cackling old women dressed all in black, never having stopped mourning the loss of their husbands – it’s all like a fairy tale to me when I am back home in California.

All this made me wonder just how much of Greece my nearly-50-year old cousin Dimitris had seen. Like many other highly educated Greeks, he has been unable to get employment for the career he studied for. So he began working as an insurance adjustor and very recently, hung his own shingle, working from his Maroussi district apartment, close to many of the 2004 Olympic venues he helped to develop as an environmental engineer. Dimitris is tall, good-looking, unmarried, and very personable. He has learned a lot about life over the past few years since I saw him last and now possesses something I think very few Greek men have – humility, and the ability to put perspective on his role in the relationships he has had with the people in his life. Of course, he gets two thumbs up for speaking excellent English.

Before I left California I emailed Dimitris telling him how much I was looking forward to seeing him and that I intended to whisk him away from his daily routine to see an island he had never visited. I thought about Hydra not only because of its proximity to Athens (only a 90 minute fast-ferry ride), but because there were no cars there – something I thought would be a refreshing change for both of us. There were never any roads on the island that cars (apart from an occasional construction vehicle) could use and mechanized vehicles (even bicycles) are not allowed. That means you walk (or take a donkey) anywhere you go and luggage is hauled on tiny handcarts to their hotel destinations.

After some wrangling of appointments to make sure he can join me, we choose my first Saturday there. Dimitris goes online to get tickets that morning only to find the ferries are all sold out, but says the usual “mee-stenohorYESeh” (don’t worry)… we’ll just show up and buy a ticket. I am perplexed, but it dawns on me why Greeks find travel so taxing. So he picks me up early that day and we head to the port – the same port where I arrived so many years ago wondering which relative would come and discover me. He pulls right up to the very boat we are supposed to take. “How did you know, out of all the boats going to different islands, that this is the one?” He shrugs his shoulders and tells me to hop out and get tickets while he tries to find a parking place.

I maneuver my way through a queue of people already in formation to get on the boat (seats are assigned, but Greeks don’t really believe much in that convention), walk up to the ticket window and nonchalantly ask for 2 tickets to Hydra while handing her my debit card. And presto! We have tickets. So I guess the words “sold out” online is only a suggestion. Now I am worried my cousin will not find a parking spot, so I stare anxiously at the entrances to the area for him. But he appears, saying he is not sure if he parked legally. And he truly questions why I ever had any doubt he would arrive in time.

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The numbers on our tickets tell us our seats are on different levels of the ferry, but Dimitris does not accept this. Just before the ferry leaves, people begin playing musical chairs and soon he is seated right in front of me. The boat pulls away and we are on the Aegean. Late season tourists are as prevalent as Greeks as they walk around and settle themselves. I see a few throwback types from my own era with hippie garb on and chuckle under my breath.

When we step off the ferry, Hydra’s main town lies before us, dotted with open air cafes and impressive yachts bobbing in the harbor. I see my cousin dialing his cell phone. “Who are you calling?” I ask, telling him to take time off work for a change. “I’m calling my friend,” he says. “The one who lives here.” Dimitris had told me he knew someone who had lots of information about going to Hydra, but – honest to God – I don’ t recall him telling me he actually knew someone who lived here.

 

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As he sucks on his vapor wannabe cigarette, my cousin and I sit at a café and take in the beauty that is Hydra without having walked more than 30 yards from the ferry. It is turning out to be a sunny, warm, breezy September day. Within minutes a petite, fashionable millenial appears. She is no more than 30 years old and adorable – the way I would want to look at almost any age. I look at Dimitris as she is walking towards us and he gives me that look – repeating she is too young for him, and besides, she is taken. Her name is Eleni and her boyfriend owns a restaurant here as well as one in Pireaus, traveling between the two. Soon we are all in rapt conversation, me struggling with my Greek, but understanding most of their conversation and grateful for small language brain cells redeeming themselves. “I want to show you our restaurant and take you by where we live!” says Eleni. And we are off on foot, of course. The restaurant is adorable as is Eleni’s house with its two rescue dogs, one of which is lassoed to accompany us on the rest of our walk. We pass the island’s art and historical museum where it tells us how Hydra was once owned by Venice and was also briefly a part of the Ottoman empire as well. This tiny, historically warn-torn island has also furnished Greece with one president, five prime ministers and numerous cabinet members.

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The bulk of our walk is spent taking the island’s promenade walk, where tiny restaurants and bars overlook a craggy coastline, speed boats fly by and tourists sun themselves on the rocks down below. The views, of course, are breathtaking, as we sit with beers and cocktails in our hands in the middle of the day. Dimitris turns to me and says he wonders why he had never thought of doing this before. I smile.

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Our day ends as more of Eleni’s friends join us for a late lunch atop a seafood restaurant overlooking the harbor, where we are soon surrounded by so many plates of fresh seafood, fish and salads, I am overwhelmed. And no Greek meal is complete without someone either secretly paying the entire bill or fighting over it, with the loser acting as if he or she is angry over the result.

We board our ferry back to Athens and I remind Dimitris of how this is an inexpensive get-away for him for a long weekend, and that he need not stick around the big city all the time. My God. He can even make phone calls from there and there is wifi everywhere.

He looks at me as if to say that he realizes his older foreign cousin may know a little bit more about how to enjoy life than he does….

 

Greece 2016: Meet the Family

I have always envied large, loud, playful Greek-American families, because I grew up with only a nuclear version of one. I had but a handful of first cousins growing up of which only 3 remain. So when my father introduced me to his collection of cousins in Athens when I was a teenager, it was like discovering a new side to life. These cousins had kids and now their kids have grown kids, making it so much more fun to visit my hyphenated homeland.

When you are nearly 14, visiting adult relatives who do not speak your language is not exactly your idea of a good time. There were lots of sighs and harrumphs heaved while wondering when the visits would end. Sporting gross, curly (wannabe) Beatle bangs and silvery braces on my teeth, looking like someone under construction, I was more interested in the dark-haired bus boys shooting me occasional looks than sitting for hours on hard-backed sofas and chairs at a relative’s house. But watching my father reunite with these warm, happy faces he had not seen in nearly 20 years was enough to tell me that he was crazy about them. An excerpt from my eBook, Climbing St. Friday:

Some of our favorite stories were the ones about our dad’s nine-month-long stay in Europe when he was only nineteen. Armed with what must have been one of the first portable movie cameras ever made, my father was able to show us a personal travelogue of his adventures, animatedly narrating it differently every time. To this day, I can watch footage of my great grandfather in his traditional leggings as he hiked the vineyards surrounding his Peloponnesian mountain village home, as well as film of my young buck father chasing a donkey while his cousin (who later became the village priest) chased him—all thanks to my father’s fascination with gadgetry. “When you’re older, you kids should do what I did,” Pop would say, as if we could snap our fingers to take us to magical destinations across the sea. “Travel is the best education.” He sounded wistful, as if no one could imagine how wonderful it had been for him. 

The surviving cousins I will visit during this trip to Athens consist of three elderly sisters: Katina, Sophia, and Soula. The other sister and a brother are gone now. My brothers and I first visit Katina. She is the oldest, a feisty gal well under 5 feet tall (I recall seeing a photo of all the 5 siblings as kids with Katina looking like the youngest because of her height) with a distinctive voice and signature appearance. She was stricken with severe scoliosis as a child, making her neck somehow fuse so there was little movement in it and causing her to hunch over at an early age. Katina became her parents’ caretakers, as is the case with many families who have a remaining unmarried daughter. But most of us who know her sense Katina had a secret life with an occasional paramour thrown into the mix. Now moving slowly at 95 and suffering from minor dementia, she tells stories from her past and laughs a wicked little laugh when my brother John refers to himself as her boyfriend. Last time I saw her was in a hospital I can only describe as looking 3rd world, after she had fallen and broken her leg. My relatives reassured me it was the best public hospital in the country, however, and that despite the surroundings she had the very best of medical care. That was five years ago, so I suppose their claims have merit.

As my brothers and I enter Katina’s tiny apartment building lobby, an tiny elevator greets us. It is so small it can fit three Americans holding their breath or four average Greeks. One of my brothers and I opt for the winding stairs instead. When I reach the top, my diminutive auntie greets me and hugs me with a vengeance. She looks the same as she has on every visit, with olive skin that never seems to age. Her furniture-crowded little apartment boasts a collection of framed family photos, curly-cued bowls and flower-painted candy dishes as we sit on tufted sofas and chairs.

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We visit for a while and my brothers ask me to translate occasionally. The fact that we can barely understand Katina’s rapid-fire now-slightly-slurred Greek doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we are there. With her. And we know our parents, whom she dearly loved, are hovering over the room smiling at the scene. The second sister, Sophia, arrives to join us for lunch, which (because Katina rarely gets out of the house) we insist on having lunch downstairs at a restaurant only a building or two away from her own. The walk there is VERY slow.

It’s always interesting to hear native Greeks order at a restaurant. Menus seem unnecessary to them, since all that truly interests them is what is freshly made each day. They usually have a long conversation with their waitperson. In fact they treat restaurant folk, from the owner to the waiter to the bus boy, as if they have known them for years. I notice this with everyone, not just my auntie. Most restaurants in Greece have not changed their table accoutrements since my first trip there in the ‘60s. A fresh piece of paper is placed over the tablecloth and clipped to the edges and thin napkins are stuffed into a single container at the edge of the table that contains salt and pepper. The kitchens in many old-style restaurants there are generally open to the restaurant seating area, so you can not only hear what goes on there (including conversations) but also smell the aromas of cooking lamb, veal, pasta, and greens. It’s heavenly. Soon the table is covered with food and everyone digs in. We were thrilled that Katina puts away her weight in pasta and meat sauce, dolmades, and village salad, while Sophia, the more sophisticated and worldly of the three sisters, eats delicately after ordering a number of dishes.

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By evening the three “Mentis kids” are on a train to the tree-lined suburb of Kifissia to visit the third cousin, Soula, and mother of my all-time favorite cousin, Dimitris. Being with my brothers as we sway back and forth on a commuter train in Athens is both nostalgic and life-affirming to me because I remember taking this short train trip on a much older, rickety train sitting on wooden seats with them when I was 13. Their goofiness, thriftiness, and worldviews have always been a source of entertainment and affection for me. We enjoy a great evening with Dimitris, Soula, her husband Nick and their entire family. Amazing food, lots of laughs and great memories. Dimitris is the person I will, not surprisingly, be spending most of my time with on this trip. He was 5 years old when I first met him and the darling of his parents’ eyes as are all boy-children in Greece, where men dominated bars, restaurants and cafes while women stayed home with kids and old people. That is, up until the current era. Now few young people marry any more. Young Greek women are simply stunning, if I may say so. They dress beautifully, move beautifully and know they look good. Unfortunately, unemployment is rampant among Greece’s youth and most of these beauties as well as the men they may have partnered up with in life live at home with Mom and Dad.

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Suffice it to say that I love my family in Greece and wish I could simply snap my fingers and be there whenever I wanted. My brothers and I part ways and I realize I will not have their gorgeous hotel room to visit any more as they hop in their rental car and explore the Greek countryside.

Suddenly I am TOTALLY on my own. I remember the feeling.

 

Greece Blog 2016: First Day’s Nostalgic Walk

My brothers and I inherited a love for Greece when we were teens, even though we recognized the country itself to be a bit of a throwback back then for some basic conveniences — like TV and air conditioning. We loved the light, the aromas, the gushing love of our relatives, and, of course, the food. The only Greek we had heard spoken before that was our parents holding secret conversations or the constant buzz and laughter at loud family gatherings. Adults attacked us with sloppy kisses while we stuffed our faces with spicy meat and rice wrapped in grape leaves, tasty bits of roast lamb and all manner of food topped by paper-thin pastry dough.

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After waking up feeling sleep-drugged the morning after my arrival, I venture out from my little apartment wearing my usual chunky heeled shoes. I know. I am such a creature of fashion habit and realize now it’s a big mistake. Athens sidewalks are a patchwork quilt of uneven, unmatched tile and lumpy concrete, ripe for an ankle roll. My brothers are staying for free in a posh hotel in the heart of Athens (one of them is a travel agent) and I am determined to figure out where I am on my way to see them.

Using a street map, I make my way to the tail end of Ermou Street without incident, asking a few folks along the way to confirm I am going in the right direction. That brings me to my ability to speak Greek. By rights, the college year I spent in Athens should have made me fluent in the language. As it was, I arrived here not being able to say more than “nice to meet you” and “thank you”…. As the year progressed I learned some phrases and was able to name a few things, but I was never truly forced to converse in Greek very much except for visits with relatives, where I usually had a bi-lingual cousin somewhere around to rescue me. The reason my fluency sucks? I lived in a dormitory full of Americans, Brits and English-speaking Greek girls. It wasn’t until I had graduated from college and moved in with an immigrant woman in San Francisco that I began learning to converse. She feigned lacking fluency in English, but I found out months into my tenure with her that she got along quite well in the language when one of my friends visited. She had me fooled. Since then, I picked up more ability to speak the ancient tongue, but I have never been able to do so at a level of pride. I make up for my lack of vocabulary with my creative ability to paint pictures with the words I already know. This may work every time, but it makes me patently lazy…

Ermou Street is part of a fashionable shopping district that becomes closed off to traffic as it nears Constitution Square. Also called Syntagma, the huge plaza holds a lot of memories for me. It is here that I walked arm-in-arm with my girlfriends. This is where I visited the American Express office to pick up packages from home. And here is where I used to sit at open-air cafes with my friends and flirt with handsome foreign strangers or backpacking American hunks. My familiarity with it is also colored by the fact that every hotel my family has ever stayed at in Athens was located nearby. The most tourist-y parts of Athens are within walking distance – the Plaka, the Acropolis, the Parliament Building, St. George’s (Lycabettus), the King’s Garden, and a host of museums. It is a bustling, car-packed, exciting hub that locals try to avoid and tourists are drawn to like flies.

 

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Walking up the far end of Ermou Street means filing down streets selling junk. Flea markets hold treasures for some and look like garbage heaps to others. I am a member of the latter group, never having been one to sift through dirty artifacts of the past to find gems. As this part of the street ends, small cafes begin to populate the hardscape, followed by department stores and chain stores like H& M, Sephora, etc. Along the way,  the famous byzantine Monastiraki church sits like a relic amidst commercial buildings and bag-laden shoppers.

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When I reach the square itself and look up, I am 18 again. Did I really live here for an entire year, taking buses and drinking watery orangeade? American Express is long gone, as is Papaspyrou’s, the mega-café that once spread from one side of the huge street to the interior of the square by way of an endless sea of tables, chairs and umbrellas. Waiters stood with trays as traffic lights changed just to get across to serve their patrons. Huge buses unloaded an endless supply of tourists craning their necks to find the Acropolis in the background or watching the “evzones” (soldiers dressed in traditional garb) changing guard in front of the Parliament building. Back in the ’70s, few Greek men were more than 5’8” tall. So these 6 ft.+ tall soldiers were practically freaks. Strangers were dressed in Bermuda shorts, while no Athenian would be caught dead in the downtown area wearing anything but suits, white shirts, or their best dresses.

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Today this part of Athens is somewhat stripped of its color while remaining stately — unless riots or demonstrations are the mood of the day. A Metro station’s escalator now carves a hole into the square, diving hundreds of feet into the foundation of an ancient European capital. So many artifacts were found as the transit system went in prior to the 2004 Olympics that entire glassed-in displays grace several of the metro stations. And gone is the aroma of fresh flowers from the dozen or so flower shops that bordered the square –  the most special part of my walk from the bus to the square I will forever miss.

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Horns blare and teeming crowds begin to surge across the street as I find my brothers’ marble-clad hotel, with its huge rotating door and uniformed bellmen. The lobby is elegant, air conditioned and wifi-enabled. I sink into a leather chair waiting for a sibling to emerge from a diminutive elevator, but I am not in my Athens any more.

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Greece 2016: The Arrival

Booking a flight to Europe only six weeks in advance is what I call a last minute decision. Never having done anything that impulsive before, it feels very strange. In fact, everything about this trip to Greece is about to be a night-and-day contrast from all the trips there before it. Airfare has come down in price, I book an AirBnb (not a consideration for me in the past) for under $55 a day that includes wifi as well as air conditioning in my own private apartment  — because this time I am going alone. My purpose for going is unique as well.

I base this decision on two ironclad reasons. First, my brothers had been planning to go there for the past year, repeatedly having asked if my husband and I wanted to go along. I kept turning them down, citing the amount of money we had spent on our house lately. But the more I think about how none of us are young upstarts any more, with my oldest brother pushing 70, perhaps being there with them might be a good idea. We have, after all, not been in Greece at the same time since our 20s. The other reason is to visit some of our Greek relatives, who are now getting quite advanced in age. Three sisters, all my father’s first cousins, are in their late 80s to mid 90s. To confirm my reasoning, I ask myself if my parents would want me to do this — to see these precious relatives in the company of my brothers while I still can. The answer was a resounding yes.  So honoring the memory of my parents, who loved these relatives dearly, is a huge motivator.

While he has no objection to my going, my husband George is simply not interested in accompanying me to Greece this time. We had been there together twice since our marriage in 2005, visiting both his relatives as well as my own. This time, however, he wants to stay home, play golf and watch our pup. I accept his decision and begin to look at this trip as an opportunity to reconnect with my adventurous side — the one that had taken me to Greece at age 18, when my parents took me to New York Harbor and waved goodbye as I steamed away on the Queen Ana Maria for a year of college in mid-1970.

I actually have no preconceived idea of what the trip will look like beyond seeing my relatives and reconnecting myself with Athens. There are no plans to travel or see anything in particular.  I had done all that several times over during my many visits to Greece. What makes things even more surreal for me is how sick I have become just ten days before my departure date. After a trip to San Francisco to have dinner and see a musical, George, his sister and I all got some kind of respiratory infection at the same time. Chills, fever, and wicked, projectile coughing has us hunkering down just when I am trying to gather enthusiasm-steam for the trip. With every hacking cough, I swear. Sometimes in Greek and others times in English. And when the aches go away or I get an unexpected good night’s sleep, I rejoice. My chest crackles with each breath, messing with every waking and sleeping moment. But canceling this trip is not an option, since the timing of it is everything. So after being dropped off at 3 am at SFO by my devoted husband, I warn the gate agent that unless she switches my seat to an isolated location, I already pity my seat mate. Thank God she believes me. It enables me to sleep almost the entire flight to Philly and then beyond to Athens with an empty seat next to me. I swear I don’t even remember those planes taking off. And I NEVER sleep on long flights to foreign countries. I am usually keyed up about getting to my destination.

After claiming my bag in Athens fully aware I look like someone who has not gazed in a mirror in 24 hours, I plant myself in the airport lobby to be claimed by my cousin, Dimitris, who, unbeknownst to me, decides to act as my de facto host during my entire stay. He had visited us in California a few years earlier, and George and I had stayed with him on our last trip to Athens. so there is a close, cousinly bond between us.  Tight hugs are followed by a walk out into the Athenian sunshine and his new little diesel car, where I envy his energy as he throws my luggage into the trunk. We maneuver the morning traffic as he GPSes his way to the studio apartment I had rented, eventually swearing about all the one-way streets in my adopted neighborhood. This place is not my first choice. My original hosts had bailed on me, citing plumbing problems with their apartment building. I LOVED that one. It had everything I needed, was close to the Metro and even came with gym privileges. So when they informed me my reservation was cancelled, I had to choose another property within days of my departure. Since I am a looks girl, I choose a hip-looking studio in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Athens but have no idea where it is, unlike the former one, which was located near my old college campus.

The district my cousin drives me to is called “Gazi”…. No. It’s not a strip in a Middle Eastern country, nor is it the name of a triage tape for injured bicycle riders. It refers to gas. You heard it. A neighborhood named GAS. I find it hilarious that words and names translated into English are ten times funnier than they sound in a foreign language. Soon we pull up to a modern-looking building in a tacky-looking neighborhood. Kind of like San Francisco’s South of Market area before the Silicon Valley techies gentrified it. Small, active cafes dot the streets and tiny shops operate underneath old buildings. My cousin repeats to me that it’s a really FUN place to be. He is referring to the night life of Athens, most of which begins around 11 pm and goes until 4 am….During the daytime, this place is quiet and subdued. Advance into the wee hours of the morning and there are people out in droves at the cafes, bars, and eateries. And they’re talking. Greek are ALWAYS talking. But I will get to that later. The reason for the neighborhood’s bizarre name comes from the gas factories that used to produce the synthetic gas used by Athenians before they switched to natural gas. The place is full of old warehouse-like buildings and the surrounding neighborhood once housed the working-class types who worked there. Over the past few years, it evidently became a district beloved by artists and actors because of the wealth of space and light, with these structures now housing theaters and art studios. travelyourmind-wordpress-com_-gazi_

We are greeted by a very attractive woman named Vicky – evidently a friend of my hosts who happens to live in the area and helps with orientations for their guests who stay at the gassy Mikalis 26. I can tell she is my bachelor cousin’s type and his eyes light up. She explains the keys, the bathroom, the hot water switch, the wifi and AC as well as how to stay in touch. Then she disappears. I thank my cousin profusely for his attention, hug him goodbye, and can’t wait to test out the bed for some much-needed sleep. I have not had nearly enough. It is still morning, and my brothers are not due to arrive until the evening, having located the world’s cheapest airfare by flying via Istanbul. I know. Istanbul.

I begin my nesting ritual.  This is something I do whenever I am staying somewhere more than one night. I unpack everything, put clothes in drawers and on hangers, line up shoes, strategically place makeup and hair items right where I might need them, hook up my laptop, and charge my mobile phone.  I look around my new digs. At first glance, it looks like the AirBnb web site photos, but like other elements of Greek life, it is a friendly facade. Like beautiful gates along a road that make you think you are about to enter someone’s elegant private estate only to discover the house is mediocre, something seems amiss.  The lined-up painted-black tree trunks that are part of the hip decor and act as a partial room divider are shimmied against the ceiling and floor with thick pieces of folded cardboard. The tiny bathroom’s shower is merely a way-station to the toilet. By that I mean a curtain that completely draws around you is the only thing keeping the water out of other areas, and the floor is perennially wet after a shower.  And slippery.

Athens has the oldest plumbing infrastructure known to man, so toilet paper is supposed to be thrown into a tiny bin next to the toilet. This has always grossed me out. The curtains around the apartment don’t quite spread out to cover the entire window area. And the clothes washer I am supposed to use is out on the porch behind the tiny efficiency kitchen, where my hosts evidently dry towels and sheets. An attempt was made to make things even more special, with colored lights in strategic locations around the room. A bamboo screen has Christmas lights attached to it. The bottom of a coffee table lights up in multiple colors with the flip of a switch. Only problem is that the cord to it is in plain sight, snaking its way across the living area. And last of all, when I switch on the TV, my wifi becomes inoperable.

As if an earned reward, I flop down on my Athenian bed. My delight comes with the realization that this one is SOFT. Yes. I am in shock. Every European bed I had ever slept on was like lying on two hard chairs put together, but this one is – well – dreamy. Greeks evidently don’t believe in fitted bottom sheets and the four pillows are either lumpy or so hard you could bounce coins off them, but no matter. I had my tiny airplane pillow on board; perfect for the face-sleeping I so dearly love.  All the other tacky things about this apartment are now moot because the bed is EVERYTHING. And I am out.

When I awake, it is dark and texts begin streaming onto my phone. It’s my cousin again, looking to find a place to eat with me. My temporary life in Athens has begun.

 

 

 

 

Truth, Fiction, TV and Me

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It is a humble ask. “Do you think they’d let me watch as they shoot some of the San Francisco scenes?” After all, who am I to expect to be included in all this?

My daughter’s assistant has just picked me up from Burbank airport and is taking me to her company’s corporate offices in downtown LA. I am about to be her guest on the #Girlboss Radio podcast, and because I do some customer service work for her company in my spare time, I have a meeting to attend there as well. What I am asking about, however, has to do with the 2017 Netflix series that bears the same name as my daughter’s popular self-help manifesto/memoir, #Girlboss. Hearing an “I’ll arrange it for you” from her delightful assistant sends my brain into warp speed about what it will be like to see my only child’s persona depicted by someone else. What I don’t realize, however, is that what I am about to experience, is about so much more.

The following week I begin exchanging emails with one of the show’s assistant producers – an articulate and responsive guy named Adam. I am aware that a Girlboss episode will be shot all over the city – from the Haight to Pacific Heights, on steep city hilltops and on grungy South-of-Market streets. In successive emails, Adam begins telling me when and where scenes are being shot during daytimes and at night. I choose the daytime Saturday shoot – one where there is a cable car, extras, and views of the Bay in the mix. The call time for actors and producers is mid-morning, so I can leave my house by 8 am or so and get there in plenty of time to leave my car downtown and Uber it over to their “home base” along the Embarcadero.

Thinking this will be one of those memorable (albeit short) car trips of a lifetime, I leave the top down on my car, thinking I have sufficiently lacquered my hair for the open-air adventure. When my bangs begin flying straight up I am sure I look like the mascot for a Bob’s Big Boy. So I pull over at an exit to take shelter under the ragtop and then get back on the freeway. Experiencing the many micro-climates of northern California, I drive from sunshine to overcast, hit fog on the Golden Gate Bridge, and into chilly sunshine as I speed down Van Ness Avenue, turn onto Broadway Street, and gingerly avoid hitting tiny people with huge parcels in their hands as I roll through China Town, through the Stockton Street tunnel and into the garage I use on almost every trip downtown.

Finding an Uber car in San Francisco means a wait time of 4 minutes or less, and distances simply aren’t very far in this tiny city. Soon I find myself at the staging area I am supposed to use to get a shuttle to the location. I look around the gate area and all I see are a few cars parked around me. No people. Nothing. So I call Adam’s cell phone. “Walk back toward the Bay, deeper into the lot,” he tells me. Soon I see a mini community of gigantic semis in the distance with huge trailers and elaborate equipment and I begin traversing the expanse of empty asphalt.

Peering between the trucks, I spy someone waving at me in the distance. “You need a ride?” says a friendly face as I get closer. We chat as the shuttle driver learns more about why I am there, driving through parts of downtown and up hills into the Pacific Heights area. It’s funny. All day long I am to experience people doing jobs on behalf of a story they really have no clue about because their function is simply to shuttle, provide equipment, or keep people safe – important ones at that. Story lines, my daughter, the book she wrote – none of it has been explained to them, and because they do what they do every day, they may have stopped asking about the nature of the show they are working on along ago. I am to find out later that 130 souls had driven or flown up from the LA area for this, including caterers. Local shuttle bus drivers take the various players everywhere; local security guards keep people at bay, and cast and crew are being housed at two different hotels.

We arrive at the intersection whose streets have been blocked off in each direction and I see a crappy old red car and a cable car on wheels in the midst of it all. Microphones are on mobile booms and worker bees are everywhere. Being ushered into this microcosm of people and equipment feels both special and a tad intimidating at the same time. I had agonized over what to wear; too fancy and fashionable and I would feel silly around people in jeans and sweatshirts doing their jobs. Too casual and I would not look like the mother of someone who owns a fashion company and wrote a bestselling book. So I had opted for a lightweight trench with a sleeveless black turtleneck and leggings underneath and my trusty high-heeled black boots and a bit of bling on my ears just to jazz things up a bit. I left the 100-degree heat of Sacramento behind and now I am cold. In reality, Mark Twain never said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” But those of us who are natives hear it said by almost every Bermuda shorts-clad tourist thinking they can stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge with a light windbreaker on in the middle of August.

“Are you Sophia’s mom?” Kay Cannon, a 30-something who has already collected awards for her writing for 30-Rock as well as two Pitch Perfect movies, greets me as though I am a celebrity. She is petite, adorable and looks like she can even play my daughter. Aren’t people that successful supposed to be older and a tad more wrinkled? Life can be so unfair. We become chatty as I am introduced to LaVerne McKinnon, one of the producers. Being treated like the Queen mother is not something I am prepared for, so now I am in full denial this is all happening. They walk me to the intersection where only one scene is to be shot throughout the day. We plebes who watch these shows don’t realize that camera angles, dialogue, extras – everything and everyone gets tweaked for hour upon hour so they can have footage to cut from and create the final product. In the middle of all this, my daughter messages me to snap smart phone photos and send them her way, regretting not having made plans to be there with me. Her uncles have even parked nearby, watching everything going on incognito but enjoying every second of feeling part of all this.

As Kay and I become better acquainted, I begin telling her why this is all so meaningful to me. Sophia’s maternal great grandparents came to this city from northern Greece exactly 90 years before, as did immigrants of every other ethnicity you can think of. My infant mother (her yiayia) can be seen in a passport photo, sitting atop her mother’s lap, having been processed through New York’s Ellis Island before taking the long train ride to the left coast. My grandfather had sent for them after having established a small mom-and-pop grocery store on McAllister Street, subsequently moving it to Guerrero and 16th, where he eventually acquired the entire apartment building that sat atop his tiny store. Through mutual relatives, my mom, a bobbi-soxed 17-year old, was introduced at a family gathering to a visiting Indiana-born Greek-American, a 25-year old Army officer who was recovering from a back injury in a Santa Barbara military hospital. And the rest is history. To me, San Francisco represents not only a breathtaking place, but a family legacy. And now my own daughter, who began her business by scrounging for vintage clothing in the mothball-aroma-laden used clothing stores of the Haight, is being depicted in a TV series about her crazy young life. And I am on hand to see this.

My day is spent outside, chatting with people who work around the set, as well as sitting in a van with Kay, Laverne and a handful of others, watching two video monitors as they repeat the scene as changes are being made. By 2 pm, it’s time for lunch. The ravenous crew piles into huge vans to take them (and me) several blocks away, where the caterers’ trucks are parked. An elaborate buffet is served up on long tables along a sidewalk and the workers and executives seem to know what food they already enjoy from this selection – prime rib, grilled chicken, ahi tuna steaks, huge cheese-filled ravioli with paprika cream sauce, marinated tofu, three different varieties of salads – and the list goes on and on.

We take our plates into an emptied old restaurant and we spread all over the place — some socializing in small groups and others off to themselves, preferring to bury their faces in their cell phones to get caught up on missed emails and messages. If you ever saw the 1997 movie, The Game, with Michael Douglas, and recall a huge cafeteria scene where all the people who had put him through his “experience” were sitting in one place, that’s what this feels like to me, even though I know few of these faces. Actors and extras are still in costume, such as the cable car conductor. Britt Robertson, the tiny actress who plays my daughter, has donned sweats, since the shorts and platform knee-high boots she wears in the scene are simply not enough to keep the chill out. The effect is something strange, fun and (I suddenly realize) a world few of us will ever be privy to. It is then I realize that I have had my dollop of fantasy and would not be able to absorb much more.

I thank and hug my hosts as they invite me to visit their LA shoots any time I am down there visiting my daughter, I graciously accept that plan, and I tell them I am honored to have spent time with them. My heart is full, and I know I would have endured even more than the agonizing commute I experienced that time of day on my way back to my lazy Sacramento suburb — just to be on hand for this very special moment in time. My grandparents, my parents, and all who came before my baby girl would have as well.

Life takes its turns and shows us new realities – and even a few fantasies. This one is one I shall not soon forget.

 

 

Good Pals, Graceful Falls and Furry Friends

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Some experiences only register as adventures when you look back on them. Such is the case for the car trek on which I took two of my dearest friends this past week to a beautiful national park.

Less than a year ago, my visit to Chicago with my college friend, Kay, revealed that she had never looked up at sheer granite walls amidst towering redwood trees, never experienced the mist of a powerful spring waterfall on her face, and never, apparently, had a squirrel enter her living quarters. So before my time with her was over, we made a plan on her next visit to my side of the U.S. to see Yosemite National Park – one of America’s greatest natural wonders. We invited Cheryl, another dear friend from my childhood Kay had met on a previous trip, to join us and we were set to go. Kay and Cheryl arrived within a few days of our road trip, armed with snacks, emergency meds (Cheryl is a nurse practitioner), clothes to layer themselves for changeable spring weather and a good deal of enthusiasm.

Leaving early on a weekday morning, we arrive at the park entrance around 10:30 with the top down on my convertible, ready to take on the sights above us unobstructed. As Kay holds her smart phone up for photos, we pay the meager $10 for this bunch of “senior” ladies to enter the park and find our way to the valley floor, with its concessions, shops, tents, campgrounds, hotels and restaurants. Armed with a confirmation and what I thought was a photo of our lovely hotel, we begin looking for our overnight home away from home.

But first, a bit of recent history. The park’s services had been taken over by another company just months before our trip who, to the chagrin of those of us who have been visiting Yosemite our entire lives, changed the names of places within the park. The Ahwahnee Hotel was renamed the “Majestic Yosemite Hotel” and Curry Village was renamed “Half Dome Village” among other changes. All over the park, canvas tarps with the newly printed names covered the old signs that had been there for at least 50-60 years. We stop to ask a park employee where our magnificent hotel is and she acts puzzled. “There is no big hotel in what used to be Curry Village.” I show her our reservation – a fairly costly room with a full bath, a living area and a fireplace. She says she has never heard of it. I think it’s because of the name changes, but I am wrong; she has never heard of it because it doesn’t exist.

We finally find our way to the newly named Half Dome Village, where there is a registration desk surrounded by bus stops and tiny cabins. The front desk clerk studies our printout. “Wow. You got the best room in the park!” she says with delight. We look at one another and then ask, “Where is the big hotel?” She laughs and says the only big hotel in the park is located in Yosemite Village. Our room is a large log cabin – right there in Half Dome Village. To this day, I have no idea what photo I had pulled up on Google that convinced me we were staying at a resort-like lodge. And I feel in no uncertain terms that I had deluded two of my besties. We proceed to check in, but are told the cabin is being cleaned and we’ll have to re-park the car anyway.

When I find a “lucky” close-in parking space with a curb next to it, I happily display my parking pass on the windshield and eagerly begin to exit the car with my friends, ready to take our luggage to our unusual-sounding cabin. Little do I know that the parking curb beneath my feet is not flat. As I step out, the dome shape under my foot finds me taking a step, rolling my ankle to the outside and falling to the park asphalt. I hear a discernible crunch and the next thing I know (after the pain subsides), a park ranger in a golf cart pulls up, having witnessed my spill first hand.

My embarrassment is surpassed only by my anger over this klutzy move and what it portends for our entire stay at the park. After my friends register the appropriate amount of shock, awe and sympathy over the accident, Ranger Lucy compassionately tells me my fall was a graceful one – almost slow motion in nature. “Can you stand on it?” she asks as she helps me up. I can. “That’s a good sign,” she reassures me. “Let me radio ahead and let the emergency clinic know we’ll need a wheelchair to meet you.” A wheelchair. And I have been at Yosemite for all of 30 minutes. With that, we all pile onto her golf cart and get our first tour of the valley floor. My foot (in shock like the rest of me) rests on the golf cart dash.

After the paperwork and insurance card are exchanged at the clinic and everyone is assured my foot is not broken, we wait for our savior Lucy to reappear to take us back to Half Dome Village. By then my foot is tightly wrapped, I am supplied with an ice pack and my friends have had time to pick up a few snacks before their blood sugar drops precipitously. Lucy gives us a verbal history lesson as she putts along the park byways to our lodgings. As she graciously loads our bags into her cart, I stare at the dastardly rounded concrete strip that caused my calamity and whisper a four-letter word. Then I offer my goodbye to Lucy, but not before thanking profusely for her above-and-beyond level of service and goodwill.

The cabin is not what I would call luxurious, but it’s large, charming, homey and lovely. We dump our stuff all around it and proceed to take a breather after our 3.5 hour drive and my physical drama. Kay sinks into a huge armchair and soon begins having an imaginary conversation in her sleep. Ex-hippie Cheryl flings the cabin doors wide open and goes outside to see if her smart phone can attract enough wifi to communicate with her grown daughters. I lay down on the sofa with my foot higher than my head and soon begin passing out from exhaustion. As we slip into and out of sleep, I begin noticing a scratching sound. Being prone with my leg up, I can’t look around me very well and at first think Cheryl had come back in. I begin to see a small figure near the fireplace moving furtively. A tiny squirrel suddenly overturns a short, empty garbage can. I  wake Kay up by announcing the critter visit. My expressive friend’s eyes grow wide and she begins to freak, as if a horror movie were being filmed before her very eyes.

I hobble to the open door and inform animal-lover Cheryl of our visitor. She quickly gets up and enters the cabin ready to watch the little guy in action. Seeing Kay’s reaction, however, she begins looking for it everywhere just to calm our friend down.  Then Kay announces, “I’m going to the office to get a manager! We need someone who’ll know what to do!” And she is gone. We listen and look everywhere and can’t find a thing. By the time a clerk arrives, our tiny friend has taken flight. Kay is clearly not convinced the creature will not be atop her face with claws fully extended in the middle of the night, so she keeps pointing to places she thinks we had not checked. Finally, she is convinced the scene has ended.

We get ready to head to dinner fully intending to have a few stiff drinks before enjoying a gourmet meal at the hotel that reminds us of the one in the movie The Shining. I was the last to dress, trying on shoes that would no longer fit my fat foot. Outside I heard Kay and Cheryl identifying a squirrel frolicking near the cabin. “There he is!” says Kay, pointing to what she wants to think is the very critter who invaded our luxury accommodations. I stifle my laugh.

The rest of our stay there is, of course magnificent, despite the slowdown my bum foot causes and the crowded bus rides that get us places later than anticipated. Yosemite Falls cascades in its powerful glory and Kay is in tourist heaven. Cheryl and I reminisce over past visits to the park but are no less impressed with what we see. We are a motley crew — Cheryl layered in five different patterns of earth mother, Kay decked out in her sensible clothes and coiffed hair, and me with my REI duds and permanently placed baseball cap. A lady stares at the three of us curiously the day we leave, asking where we are all from and clearly expecting us to be aliens. We look at one another and burst out laughing after she walks away.

There is something special about hanging out with old friends – people who knew you in your much younger days. There are no judgments, no preconceived thoughts — just our unvarnished selves, ooohing and aaahing at what we see and loving every second of it. We marvel at nature and ourselves, ending our time together later that week as if we had spent a month in a foreign country. It’s a trip we won’t soon forget. And now that we are Yosemite veterans, we are already planning our next, more involved visit there — one we KNOW will include even more adventures and definitely more laughs.

The Bag From Hell

“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions” ~ T.S. Eliot

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I once worked in an airline baggage service office for a day. One. Day. And it was a disaster.

Let me take a few steps back and ‘splain a few things. Some airline ground personnel are better than others at the various airport jobs. Back when I worked for Pacific Southwest Airlines (the precursor model to Southwest), we had some agents who were lightening-quick at ticketing, evidenced by how quickly their passenger queues disappeared. Others had smooth, flawless ways of announcing flights and keeping an entire gate area calm and handled, even during a weather or mechanical delay. I prided myself in being one of those folks.

Then there were people who were simply stellar at passenger empathy and loved working independently, away from the crowds, good at problem-solving and adept at soothing what I call “travelers’ angst.” Those were the people who worked at baggage service – a place where every person approaching the service window has a problem.  Unlike our planes with smiles painted on in perpetuity, the only time smiles occur at this office is when passengers were notified their bags were found.

I happened to make a day trade with one such baggage specialist, figuring – how hard could it be? It was the 1970s — LONG before 9/11. There was no TSA and there were no rules about bags being required to accompany their passengers on the same plane. So if you checked in too late and your bag didn’t make the baggage cut-off for the 11 A.M. flight from LAX to SFO, the baggage service agent would encourage passengers to wait for the arrival of the next flight from LAX, usually arriving just an hour later.

Most of the time it worked. People grumbled but retrieved their bags after an hour or so and disappeared. The fateful day I worked baggage service, however, this tactic didn’t work.

A well-dressed woman approached my counter complaining that she waited until the rest of the shuffling crowd had claimed its bags, but hers never made its way down the chute to the carousel. I politely spewed the company line about waiting an hour and she was okay with it at first, subsequently returning every hour for 3 more flight arrivals, but ultimately having no luck.

Then things turned ugly. I kept checking my noisy, archaic teletype machine that notified me when unclaimed luggage appeared at other PSA stations, but nothing contained in its transmissions resembled the bag in question. In between flights, I put up my “back in 30 minutes” sign and took a dinner break. By now this woman was frustrated enough to give up and head to her hotel. But before she left, she informed me that she was furious I had abandoned my efforts for 30 solid minutes. I tried like hell to make nice and assured her we would deliver her bag to the hotel as soon as it was found. She gave me an untrusting look and disappeared.

Toward the end of my shift, I found the bag was sitting in Oakland. I called her to let her know the good news. Then I went too far.

Instead of simply saying “We’re doing the best we can to get you your bag as soon as possible,” I explained the process by which we got lost bags into our hands. Instead of arranging the bag to be delivered via taxi from Oakland, we would reroute it back to LA to be placed on another flight to SFO. It was a case of TMI. I was young, pretty dumb, and WAY too transparent.

Before I closed down my window for the evening, however, I left clear hand-written instructions for the morning agent. The passenger in question was staying at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, but her room was registered under another name, which I provided in my note. I felt I had offered the next agent enough information to get the bag there safely and securely, then I headed home.

To my surprise and dismay, the morning agent did not heed my instructions. An attempt was made to deliver the bag, it failed, and the bag came back to SFO. It got re-delivered, but by then the passenger was almost ready to return to Los Angeles.

The following week, I was called into my manager’s office. Evidently, a FOUR PAGE letter had been received by him, outlining everything that had gone wrong with this woman’s experience flying PSA, citing me as the central reason for it. The letterhead was on New York Times stationery and the woman was a journalist.

I was asked to sign a union warning citation and suddenly realized that by a comedy of errors and missteps (not all my own, but I took ownership nonetheless), my ass was temporarily grass.

Within the next week, I decided it might be time to leave heavy public contact work for a while and join the guys on the tarmac, tidying up and pushing back planes, throwing luggage into aircraft bellies, wearing red uniforms with our names sewn on them and sporting Redwing work boots.

I must admit — I looked pretty damned good as a ramper.

Pretty Cars, Watershed Realizations and Horse Trading Moments

For as much time I have spent occupying this earth, how did I not see this coming? When my somewhat publicly-known daughter was about to sell her almost-new car in favor of one she would not be recognized in (she mentioned its brand in a book she wrote), I was beside myself with concern that her stunning piece of automotive jewelry would not remain in the family.

Shame on me. I coveted her car. So she gave it to me.

My daughter is an amazingly generous person, but aside from her nostalgia over it being her first luxury car, her main reason for simply handing it over to me was that she wanted me to be safe. I was deeply touched and soon I flew down to her half of California to drive her gorgeous car home like a person who had just won the Lotto.

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For one year I drove a car that did not appear to belong in my Sacramento suburb. Did it make head turns? Absolutely. In fact on several occasions I found people waiting for me in parking lots where the car was parked just to tell me how gorgeous it was. And they were right. Every time I got behind the wheel it felt elegant. It was white, it was sleek, it had curves and it gleamed.

It also felt uncomfortable in ways that had nothing to do with looks or physical comfort. The car was huge – at least as long as many SUVs and a good foot longer than most sedans – and I was accustomed to a very used-but-nimble little 2-seater sports car. I misjudged the distance to curbs. I trembled each time I parked it. And this was despite (and because of) a small TV dash monitor that audibly warned me how close I was to objects, including the Starbucks drive-through window. All this was bearable, however, since I rationalized that I would master it over time. Then the deal changer happened.

After I parked the car the first night upon reaching a recent road trip destination, one of the tires went flat. Normally I would not be terrified about needing a new tire. But these high performance car tires each cost as much as a round trip business class ticket to JFK. I breathed a sigh of relief when I found the tire was not really damaged and could be easily repaired, but in my mind I began to do a “pile on.” Reasons to not keep this car added up: the high cost of regular maintenance, my inability to get used to maneuvering the car in small spaces, the cost of insurance, the price tag on brakes and all the other things that can happen to a car that is no longer covered by a warranty – something that would happen in another 10,000 miles – and I began to understand that despite my penchant to LOOK as if I were a moneyed person, I am simply not in my daughter’s league. I would always be a big phony in a car I had never earned except for having given birth to a successful kid.

After discussing this with her, she was gracious and acknowledged my reasoning, thank God. And soon I began looking around for another car. I missed running around in a convertible, but this time I decided to hunt for one that had a rear seat and was a bit larger than my last one to honor my daughter’s wish for more safety. So I called my old mechanic who specialized in the brand of car I liked. He told me about the models he considered the most reliable and I took it from there.

The hunt begins …

Before you judge me for being a woman unversed in judging good car flesh, let me give you some background. I grew up with brothers, had a hustler of an ex-husband that taught me everything I needed to know about cars and had long ago learned how to buy a pre-owned vehicle. I look for flawless cars 3 – 6 years old. This means NO dings, NO prior accidents, a pristine interior, new car smell, all service records, one owner, ridiculously low mileage for its age, and newer tires and brakes. I am willing to pay high Blue Book, Edmunds or Car Guru pricing for something that has had an anal-retentive owner who – believe it or not — cares where the car ends up. I know the feeling because that is the kind of car owner I am. The looks people give me as I sit on an upturned paint bucket detailing my car wheels on my own driveway is enough to know I am not like most chick car owners.

Finding that perfect used car, however, takes patience and fortitude. I scour only warm weather states for just the color, condition, make and model I want. It’s like looking for that perfect dress in that perfect color for the occasion. Having driven a car that was clearly a head-spinner, however, I was hooked. I knew I must wear my next car with pride because I kind of got used to the attention. My bad.

After a week or so of searching locally, I found one on Craigslist that appealed to me in — of all places — Las Vegas, a destination we were just about to visit in honor of our ten-year wedding anniversary. How fortuitous! According to the articulate way it was described (yes, this matters to me…) it ticked off every box I mentioned and then some. But his price was high, even according to the figure various car-judging web sites that indicate what cars in “excellent” condition should command. So the dance began.

At first, I wrote the owner one of those anonymous Craigslist notes. In it, after some banter back and forth, I told him the high watermark price I would be willing to pay if the car was everything he represented. It made allowances for the extras he said were of value, but it did not reach the price he was asking. He said he was out of town, would be returning in a few days from the east coast, but did not address my potential offer. Still, he remained in communication. We agreed that I would try to see the car the evening we arrived in Las Vegas.

As it turned out, we arrived later than anticipated. To be polite, I texted the car owner that we would not make it there until the next day; if he already had a solid buyer, do not wait for me. I followed that with a frown-y face so he would know I would be sad that the car might escape my capture. The seller told me how many people had seen it and how many people wanted to see it, but said he wanted to offer me first right of refusal since I had come so far to see it. To me, anyway, that meant NO one had brought up the dollar figure I had. Then he told me someone else was coming to see it after I did. That’s when I had to (tactfully) state my terms: I would not be strung out all week while he entertained other offers on the car. If my offer was not accepted on the spot, he could kiss it goodbye. After some time went by and dots on our texts continued to flash, he agreed and said he wanted his gorgeous little car to go to a good home. I was 90% there. Communication is, to me anyway, everything.

When I go to see a used car from a private party, I always judge the car by the neighborhood in which it resides. His house was stunning.The moment the car owner opened his garage door, I noticed that this vehicle occupied space on a perfectly epoxy’d garage floor capable of being graced with knife, fork, and a folded cloth napkin. I barely had to walk around the car once to see it was everything I wanted. We struck our deal and did the bureaucratic paperwork we had to in order to bring an out-of-state car into California. And the next day (after some hearty winnings at the craps table that paid for our entire anniversary trip) we caravanned home. As I drove my new friend home, I reveled in being able to see the front of my vehicle, how nimbly it handled and how its smaller size suited my tastes and driving capacities.

Why am I telling you all this? Perhaps it’s because I like to share stories of lessons I’ve learned as well as convince myself I am still pretty good at buying used cars. All I know is that each time I stare at my new beauty in my garage, all is suddenly well with the world.

The Waiting Game

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It’s a first for me, this idea of drumming my fingers as I wait for word from big time publishers about my book idea.

Having found my calling in midlife, for the past 18 years I have delighted in seeing my byline in newspapers, being the co-author of someone else’s book, or being mentioned as “editor” when I basically wrote a book for someone else using their ideas but my words. I’ve paid my dues writing online and print columns for consumers and produced many a blog – a solitary but rewarding exercise in keeping my writing muscles toned. While I did produce my own coming-of-age memoir eBook about 5+ years ago, I have never been at the mercy of book editors in a position to expose my writing to the universe. So here’s an abridged version of the story, pretty much from the beginning:

Being the mother of an only child, I figured I’d have it easy. As we listened to frenzied and sometimes manic stories of parents who were juggling several kids at once, my then-husband and I were ultimately okay with the idea that even if we never planned on having a sibling-less child, one would be enough in the big scheme of things.

Then our daughter was born. And the child was ready to take over the world.

After my having collected countless parenting books, conducted trial and error experiments meant to help her make sense of the world around her, put up with repeatedly tense parent-teacher conferences and fidgeted in the overstuffed chairs of five or six therapists, my daughter was as fully formed as I could get her despite a number of misgivings about having taught her everything she truly needed to know by kindergarten. By age 18 she was ready to take on adulthood armed with the gifts, moxy and determination God gave her — all with the memory of having had a mother who scored off the anxiety charts and had developed analyzing skills on steroids. I let go and let her find out just how the rest of the world would cope with the limit-testing she subjected me to for much of my motherhood. It was painful, it was scary and it was necessary – for both of us.

Before her 30th birthday, however, my daughter took it upon herself to tell her own story – in a book that instantly hit the New York Times Best Seller list and stayed there for 18 weeks. While it received rave reviews from young women like her and a host of people in other demographics, some commenters blatantly referred to her as a “parenting failure” — despite her meteoric rise to success — because of the colorful, non-mainstream experiences she admitted to putting herself through to find her reality. To say that didn’t pierce through me would be dishonest. Through it all, I would smile and tell people asking me about her, “Oh, yeah. Someday I will tell my side of things.” I figured that would take place by the time my baby girl had brought up babies of her own so that we could write that book together.

But time waits for no mom. Because of my now-married daughter’s encouragement (she swears her experience will probably be NOTHING like mine, and I think she’s right) and everyone around me telling me a book about challenging children was sorely needed out there, I mustered the courage to write an inquiry letter to the same literary agency that represented my precocious child. They read it, sounded excited about it and asked for a formal book proposal. Then they said my idea was so good they wanted to run with it and began pitching it to the big book boys and girls in New York and elsewhere. Today, my proposal is in the hands of dozens of editors being read, mulled over, included in meetings and evaluated for its marketability and potential for success in the now very exclusive world of traditional book publishing. And the waiting game has begun.

One thing you must understand: just getting this far with a book idea has been on my proverbial bucket list for some time, even if it goes no further. At least I could someday say, with a wistful look in my eye, that I made it to “also-ran” status in the daunting world of non-vanity-press-published authors. But I have to ask myself — what if it actually happens? My OMG moment would mean being in Writer’s Digest heaven over the idea of telling the stories of people like me and many others who survived to tell the tales of their amazing-but-off-the-wall children – kids who possess seeds of greatness that can blossom into the world’s future business owners, entrepreneurs, ideamakers and rocket scientists. And even if they don’t become famous, that oddball/crazy-kid that used to drive you nuts can apply his or her well-used blinders and delightful strangeness to find a new watermark in the world – as long as you keep on keepin’ on as their loving, supportive parent.

As this story unfolds, unlike many writers who keep things under wraps, wondering if talking about a book just might jinx it, I want to take you along for the ride – through my disappointments, my learning experiences and if nothing else, to tell the ending to this waiting-for-Godot story. Please know that as I write this, just by the act of reading it you are holding my hand, saying “There, there, Dena. Everything will turn out fine”… And I thank you for that. Because the waiting is driving me to drink.