Category Archives: travel

Without Risk, Can There Be Reward?

Spain in August, as perhaps you’ve heard, is hot. The house we’re borrowing has no pool, no A/C, no fans, even. If you leave anything outside the fridge, it is, in mere moments, claimed by flies, colonized by ants — or it collapses in on itself, like a black hole.

The house’s primary occupants only ever come here during the winter, and they warned us. “August?” they said politely, when we unfurled our plans. So excited were we to get a chance to come to Spain that we didn’t think too clearly or ask too many probing questions, like “How far is the beach?” or “What do you do for Internet?” It was a house! In Spain! How important could such quibbles be? And, of course, we’re grateful, stupidly grateful to be here. Don’t mistake me. This expression you see on my face, between the mosquito bites? That’s gratitude. It’s just: Oh man, those bites. We all have so many red dots everywhere that we look like ongoing games of Connect Four.

Last night we played the house copy of the original “Risk!” which hails from before the Kennedy assassination. The game has since divested itself of the exclamation point, perhaps in acknowledgement of our grimmer, postmodern times. In essentials, it remains the same. As Wikipedia puts it:

“Setup time: 5–15 minutes

Playing time: 1 to 8 hours”

It took us much longer since neither of us knew the rules — Mr. Ben had never played before, and I only vaguely recalled the endless furious battles for world domination that once took over my childhood. In fact, I think we’re still playing, even though we’ve long since packed away the board, complimented each other on a good game, and declared it a draw. In marriage, there is no draw; there is only victory assured and victory delayed, and each of us continues plotting that devastating sneak attack to secure Ukraine.

Speaking of Mr. Ben, my life’s companion, my heart’s desire, and my co-lugger of suitcases through five different airports, he has discovered in himself an ability to drive stick. Thanks to his intrepidity, we’ve also made it to a small public pool not too far away, and to the beach, where we have submerged our miserable bodies and found some relief.

We’ve also wandered around the distressingly touristy, overpriced Costa Blanca town of Denia,waiting to be inspired. Instead, we have mostly encountered mediocre food at alarming prices. In rough moments, I think Denia has all the charm, grace, & beauty of Tel Aviv, only without the character or the quality meals; then I repent and admit that some of the streets wind pleasantly through plazas, and there is, after all, a castle. Anyway, we’ve decided to take a break from our vacation and run away to the more gracious inland city of Cuenca, capital of La Mancha, for a few days. Next week, before we fly out via Madrid, we will probably spend some time in Toledo, too.

Basically, what I’m saying is, we are snobs, and also I am spoiled from having so recently, and at long last, been in England. History! Literature! Architecture! Quaintness and cuteness and politeness, oh my. If only I could package up some of Spain’s excess sunshine and bring it to Gloucestershire, I would lack for nothing.

As my reading list reflects, I have only left the UK physically. Since coming to Spain, thanks partly to the excellent library of my hosts, I’ve been on a mostly anglophile tear, making my way through:

* Foreign Affairs, the largely forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alison Lurie

* At Lastthe final Patrick Melrose novel, by Edward St. Aubyn

Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

* The Private Patient, by P.D. James — not her best

* One Man’s Meat, by E.B. White — American, but with a very proper British appreciation for dry humor, the past, and the foibles of his fellow man. And to give you a sense of how blurbs have evolved since the 30’s, when White first wrote this collection of essays, this edition quotes the Yale Review as proclaiming it “Good writing.”

* The second half of Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers — for the 52nd time, because it is here, it is her best (well, one of them), and I cannot help myself.

To Cuenca, I will probably bring Parrot and Oliver in America, and, of course, the game of Risk!

Tumbling Through Europe

The Great Escape is almost half over! We have made it through Lithuania and the Cotswolds in rural England; still ahead, a week in London, to which we’ve just arrived, and then the coast of Spain. Hopefully there at last we’ll get more than 24 hours between rainstorms.

View from the Woolpack pub in Slad Valley

After a drive that took us through Oxford, at which I panted out the window of the car like a forlorn hound, we’ve made it to our AirBnB rental in town. It turns out to be a boarding house we’re sharing with our host, her daughter, a fellow from Barcelona, a couple from Italy, a black-and-white cat, and possibly David Copperfield. Not 100% what we expected but no matter.

Quite close is a neighborhood called Shepherd’s Bush, and I will try manfully not to snigger every time I walk by. Considering we passed Maidenhead on the way in, I’m assuming the British have excellent restraint, or perhaps are merely used to giggle-inducing names. Can you imagine a suburb of DC called Virginity? I mean, really.

Although of course there is “Virginia” …

Anyway. London! At last! England is my Oz, which makes London my Emerald City. I almost cannot contain my excitement at finally getting to explore this place I’ve read so much about, except that I must, because I’ll be on baby duty all week and will only be able to accomplish so much. Life is long and will bring me back to London, right? There’s no need to maximize.

I wrote more about Vilnius for Lilith Magazine and about the traumatic trip from Eastern to Western Europe for The Billfold. For more regular updates vacation updates — pictures, quick thoughts, and the like — check out my new Tumblr.

Summer Abroad

The “Great Escape” Mr. Ben and I originally considered involved going away for six months or a year. We figured that while babygirl was between nine months and two years old, she would be portable — or, at least, as portable as she would ever be outside the womb. (Taking her anywhere, even as a small ten-month-old with few material possessions, is still reminiscent of the scene in the desert in Spaceballs, when the crew has to shlep all of the Princess’s matched luggage. It’s enough to make me nostalgic for the relative ease of pregnancy.)

Well, we had to scale back the dream a bit, for various very sensible reasons. But the dream lives. For an entire year, I will focus on writing: the manuscript of the novel I’m currently working on, a revision of the novel I wrote when I first came to New York, perhaps more short pieces for the Internet, since the thrill of contributing to Slate and the Hairpin and those kinds of places has yet to wear off. To start the year off with a bang, I signed up for the Summer Literary Seminars program in Vilnius, Lithuania, to study fiction with Jami Attenberg in the mornings and non-fiction with Alex Halberstadt in the afternoons. Since both of these writers are Jews living in Brooklyn, it feels appropriately inefficient and complex — you know, Soviet! — to come halfway around the globe to an Eastern European capital from which my ancestors fled in droves to take workshops with them.

Best of all, Mr. Ben knit together seven weeks of leave from his job of vacation time and FMLA leave so that he could come too and bring babygirl. (By contrast, I parted ways with my job, where I spent four interesting and meaningful years and still have coworkers I care about.) After my two weeks at SLS, we go to Britain in order to fulfill a dream of Mr. Ben’s (about which more later), and then the coast of Spain, where family friends have an empty house that they have offered up. Old-world capital, English countryside, Mediterranean coast: this is “Eat, Pray, Love” done the Balynker-Gloom way. As my Aunt Marjy put it, Lara’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay is going to be the best ever!

Basking in the Eastern European sun
Basking in the Eastern European sun

Our passports got stamped in Copenhagen, where we spent an endless layover thinking wistfully about the sophisticated Scandinavians — so clean and organized, and yet so child-friendly! — and whether we were crazy to take an infant to the Baltic. Then a plane as long as two minivans lashed together whisked us away from Danish paradise and dropped us off on a rainy Lithuanian tarmac. The weather only got soggier as we made our way to the apartment we secured on AirBnB, and babygirl only got more upset as we set up her travel crib and put her in it for the first time. (Eighteen hours on the road and all I get is this big mesh box?) There were bright spots even then, though, specifically the apartment, which reflects the taste of its owner, a talented graphic designer. It’s hard to be unhappy in a place with a bright yellow vintage fridge.

The next day the sun came out, as cheerful as a bright yellow vintage fridge, and we ventured forth into a walkable and surprisingly lovely, low-key city that didn’t feel too different, after all, from Copenhagen. We’ve met a couple of motorcycle-riding Lithuanians who have a daughter Lara’s age, and a plethora of poets (“Which MFA program are you in?”) with inner-arm tattoos, which seems to be the thing these days, like side shaves. We’ve overheard some live foreign-language Christian rock (“Yesu, Yesu …”) and lots of recorded hip hop, which is a bit jarring in a country full of pale blond people, and eaten lots of dill and some ham already by mistake and really good Latvian yogurt.

Even my ancestors would, I think, appreciate this town. I can hear them crowded around me as Lara plays in the sandbox at the heart of what was once the sprawling Jewish ghetto: “Hmph. Not too bad, when the clouds disperse. It has potential.” And then, inevitably, “Her hat! Make sure she keeps her hat on!”

A Little Frivolity

What with all the growing up around these parts lately, my brain feels pretty fried. The growing up is not over, either — or rather the acting grown up, on the assumption that, like faith, if you act as though you have maturity, maturity will be given ye. We are looking at real estate. Yeah, that’s right, REAL estate, and it is called that for a reason. (Um, because it is real? I’m only guessing.)

There’s a great, affordable condo in a house in Sunset Park with its own garden and so many bathrooms every one of you could come over and use one at the same time. It’s close to the park (that view!), close to the subway (the R train counts as subway, right?), pretty, and well-kept.

There’s another great place on the fringe of Ditmas Park that’s even cheaper because it’s on the wrong side of the tracks. How much do the tracks matter? That has yet to be determined. The apartment itself is really lovely, recently renovated by its artist owners, and it just feels great — lots of good juju there. Prospect Park isn’t far away, and neither is Courtelyou with all those white-people amenities like coffeehouses and bagel shops, brunch places and farmer’s markets, that Sunset Park lacks.

For more money, there are smaller-but-nice places with gardens in Park Slope I’m checking out this week. There’s even one place close to where are now in our price range. What has made it affordable when all other local apartments are hundreds of thousands dollars more? I can’t wait to find out!

All this has made me equal parts excited and exhausted, and I can’t wait to say “Fuck this shit, I’m going to Montana,” just like the New York Times advised all of you to do this past weekend. Come stay with us! We’re renting part of a house while we’re in East Glacier and you can totally sleep on the couch.

Til then, I’m distracting myself with frivolous thoughts. Like, Mila Kunis or Natalie Portman?

Battle of the Tiny Jewesses

Mila Kunis, right, by a long shot? Natalie strikes me as being forced and stiff on camera. Though apparently millions find her sexy, I found her attempt to portray a stripper in Closer pretty horrifying. Whereas Mila radiates warmth and intelligence, as the reviews of Friends with Benefits attest.

What about Mila Kunis or Emma Stone? That’s really hard. I think I’d go with Emma Stone, who is also a charming presence on screen and is apparently livening up Crazy, Sexy, Love in theaters everywhere; it’s pretty early in both women’s careers to say definitively, though. Emma Stone or Amy Adams is also  hard (battle of the comedic redheads). I’d probably have to go with Amy because she’s been around being consistently good for a longer time. Thanks to her, I even enjoyed Enchanted. But the fact that it’s even kind of close already speaks really highly of Ms. Stone.

Clearly, when I go to the writer’s retreat later this fall at VCCA, this is what I should write about. This is my very first writer’s retreat, by the way! The idea of getting to spend two weeks in the idyllic-looking town of Amherst, Virginia — a name that strikes me as a being something of a contradiction in terms, like jumbo shrimp, but never mind — working on a manuscript in the company of other keyboardists is so blissful that I want to go RIGHT NOW.

I will contain myself. Glaciers first. No, house-hunting first, then glaciers, then keyboardist camp. But it is so nice to have things to look forward to.

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Time Travel

A new piece of mine is up on ThoughtCatalog: “The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Time Travel,” which offers some really useful advice. (“Bring condoms!”)

It occurs to me that it would be fun to put together a collection of these, called “The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Everything: Practical Advice for Improbable Situations.” Like:

— Staging a coup

— Running for President

— Running a country

— Winning a Nobel prize

— Space travel

All ideas welcome.

A Jewish Studies Wedding

Gorka! Gorka!” the crowd shouted.

And, in a manner that called to mind my ten-year-old self when first I played Spin the Bottle, the bride and groom leaned into each other and kissed.

Gorka! Gorka!” the crowd continued to chant, as insatiable as only drunk crowds can be, egging on each other and the newly-married couple. Russian relatives began to count, making it to ten (dyecyat’!) and then fifteen (pyat’nadyecyat’!) before the couple broke apart to breathe and the crowd erupted in applause.

This tradition is the Slavic equivalent, apparently, of the groom removing the bride’s garter. I have never seen that done — the weddings I’m invited to are generally high-brow affairs, full of literary pomp and godly circumstance. But I have heard garter removal is a thing, like bouquet tossing (does that too happen in real life, or only in movies?).

My old friend L., with whom I recently reconnected, married her long-term boyfriend S. this past weekend in Somerville, Massachusetts, and even by the unconventional standards of my friends’ nuptials, their celebration was unique. Instead of a rabbi, they tapped a friend of theirs, an earnest, bearded, young PhD candidate, to officiate; instead of a cantor, they asked another friend of theirs, also earnest and scholastic but much taller, to chant. No conventional authority figure at all, in fact, was there to solemnize the union. Instead, the bride and groom — both serious students themselves — canonized Academia itself. With help from Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism and several other texts, the couple redesigned the ceremony to fit their principles, explaining as they went the significance of each amended ritual.

I’ve been to Jewish weddings before, of course, but this was my first Jewish Studies wedding. The professors in the audience looked very proud.

It was also the most Russian of any wedding I’ve ever been to, since the groom is himself an immigrant. There were vodka shots (served with pickles) and, in lieu of an American-style wedding cake, a proud Russian aunt’s home-made “Napoleon,” the product of two weeks of work. It was, appropriately, large enough to serve an army.

“Could you eat the entire thing?” my table-mate whispered to me. “If you had to? If the lives of your family members were at stake?”

This table-mate, R., had been seated next to me by chance. I introduced myself; she stared at me with such intense focus I half-expected her to kiss me on the mouth. Instead she asked, “Did you live off Oregon Avenue?”

“Uh,” I replied. “Yes?”

“I know you!” she said. “We used to ride the bus together! Oh my god. Oh my god. I know you. This is too strange. We were really good friends.”

I looked at her, trying to remember her (remembering is one of the things I’m usually good at). She beamed while I flailed.

“This is so embarrassing,” she said, “but I …  well, I was four years older than you, and you were my little friend. We sat together on the bus! Until, well, one day … I hit you.”

Hit me? Why?

“I don’t know! I think it was some sort of power thing! It was totally unprovoked.” Her mouth twisted with the pain of the memory. “You were so small! And your hair was red?”

“It’s still auburn,” I said defensively. “Especially in the sunlight.”

She looked unconvinced but went on. “Anyway, it was terrible! I hit you! Then you told your mom, who called my mom, and I got in trouble. We weren’t friends after that. And then I switched schools. But oh my god, I can’t believe I get a chance to apologize. I’m so sorry!”

Nothing about this sounded familiar. Yes, I rode the bus, I lived off Oregon Avenue, and yes, I was small with redder hair. But if I had been hit — for no reason, by a girl four years older than myself — surely that would have left an emotional mark?

Her eyes pleaded with me and I did the only reasonable thing. “It’s totally okay,” I said. “I forgive you.”

“Really?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “You’re absolved.”

“I can’t wait to tell my mother!” she said. “I’m going to text her right now.”

Gorka! Gorka!” cried the crowd. It seemed like the increasingly raucous guests were not going to be happy until the bride and groom actually did it on the floor in front of everyone and managed to conceive a child.

“Russians,” I said to Mr. Ben, shaking my head. He grinned at me. Then the Klezmer band started up, leading the guests in a parade across the street, back to the bride-and-groom’s apartment courtyard, where we danced until we could dance no more, and Rachel Adler had nothing whatever to say about it.

The Great European Cities Tour of America

My very first Hairpin piece is up! Check it out: The  Great European Cities Tour of America.

“It is a fact both true and sad that Europe, while awesome and filled with classy old buildings, is expensive. A boyfriend  backpacking there after the decline of the dollar told me he missed fruit, which cost too much, and made the wistful  request that I eat grapes for him. He also gave up shaving rather than shell out for razors.

But unsightly facial hair and scurvy need not be the prices you pay for travel! Not if you do it right. …”

Go read it! Then come back for a meta-discussion.

For the Berlin section, editrix extraordinaire Edith Zimmerman and I went back and forth about what a funny motto for  Berlin would be. I suggested, “The city where the sweet old man feeding pigeons in the park may have turned your Nana  into a lampshade!” She pointed out, politely, that that was a bit of a shift in tone from the rest of the piece.

After much deliberation & brainstorming, I presented her with the following less macabre alternatives:

* “BERLIN: The city that runs on Spaetzle.”

* “BERLIN: The city where even six-year-olds are cooler than you.”

* “BERLIN: Where even Hitler fell in love.”

* “BERLIN: Where they are really, really sorry about that thing that happened.”

Which one do you like best? Can you suggest something better? Edith went with “spaetzle,” which WordPress spell-check does not recognize as a word, btw. But I have eaten it at the Neue Gallerie’s restaurant and I have learned it is for real. It is real inside you for DAYS.


ETA: This has now been cross-posted on the Awl. Wow. The day a girl comes across herself on Google reader is a happy day indeed.

The Big Easy

This is the fantastic Google map we put together for our holiday vacation 2010, codename: “Persistence.” Twice JetBlue canceled our flights to New Orleans because of the blizzard — you know, the one that was highly anticipated and yet took everyone by surprise, much like the difficulty of raising children. (I imagine.)

So, on the day that Brooklyn was flooded with snow, and no one had shoveled sidewalks or plowed streets, Mr. Ben and I threw on expressions of great determination, and dragged our suitcases behind us to the subway station — an exercise that gave me new insight into what it must be like to dispose of a dead body. We took that train to Penn Station, where we waited 45 minutes for a delayed and usuriously overpriced Acela train to DC.

My little brother, god rest his soul, volunteered to pick us up at Union Station and ferry us over to Don’t-You-Dare-Call-It-Reagan National Airport. And from there, at long last and great expense, we caught a new, on-time flight to New Orleans, where the weather was a crisp 40 degrees but the ground blessedly free of snow.

We made it to our hotel on Bourbon Street and collapsed. Yes, I know, Bourbon Street is Boobies Street, a hilarious choice for a non-drinker and non-exhibitionist who likes her sleep, but when you plan things last minute, you have to make some concessions. The hotel itself was pleasant enough but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t enjoy hopscotching around puddles of vomit on their way home at night.

Virtually everything else about our trip to N’awlins though was vomit-free and, frankly, spectacular. The food — from crayfish omelettes to hidden Vietnamese cafes! The music!

As vain as a fat man can be

That’s New Orleans’ own Dr. John, with whom we had an appointment at the famous club, Tipitina’s. We made it to the very front row and so stood close enough to the old-time blues man that we could make out the paisley print on his buttercup-yellow silk shirt and smell the marijuana drifting off the stage.

The houses!

Look at that porch!

This one was in Treme, where American music was born — at least according to the guide of our walking tour and our friend Robert, the docent of the Backstreet Cultural Museum:

These things are made by hand

Robert was full of stories from the many years he spent working for the mob bosses who own and run the French Quarter. Incidentally, he makes those fantastic Mardi Gras Indian costumes — one a year — by hand.

In short, whether tromping through cemeteries or parks or museums or zoos, we were in Heaven. Isn’t this what Heaven looks like, after all?

Photo by Mr. Ben

Photo by moi

These and more, btw, on Flickr.

How to Offend Midwesterners in 3 Easy Steps

First, accidentally insult their taste in literature, like so:

SETTING: Airport bookstore.
PERSONAE: Two middle-aged blonde ladies, nicely blow-dried and made-up, browsing the mass-market paperbacks, and me, a compulsive know-it-all.

LADY 1: Is this any good? [holds up Girl with the Dragon Tattoo]
LADY 2: Oh, I don’t know! I was wondering that too!
ME: Yes! It’s great. I read all of them. They’re good! And I don’t even usually read that stuff!


LADY 1: Oh! … What do you read?

Next, get really flustered, look blank, and when you finally begin speaking again, use the lord’s name in vain.

ME [flailing pathetically]: Oh! … God, everything … books …

Finally, exacerbate the problem by continuing to babble and then running away. 

ME: I’m sorry, that sounded so snobby! I didn’t mean — uh —  I mean — bye! 

I am officially almost as bad as Sarah “Um, all of them” Palin

Otherwise, my first visit to the hot, beating heart of America, St. Louis, MO, went smoothly. Except for the fact that, five minutes into the first big group meeting, I dropped a pretzel down my shirt and couldn’t find it. I didn’t want to be caught staring into my own cleavage, but come on! A chunk of wheaty goodness covered in salt doesn’t just disappear.

Being that it was 100 degrees out there in flyover country, I had to worry what kind of radioactive effect my bosom would have on that pretzel — would it turn into Spider Man? or the delicious mutant equivalent? Worse, would it decide to stage a re-entrance by falling out of my clothes at an inopportune moment? 

Even went I ducked into a bathroom to fiddle around with my bra, I couldn’t find the offender, so I had to give up and live in fear. Luckily, the pretzel and I both emerged unscathed from the experience: it showed up later, looking all innocent, on my hotel room floor, and I managed to give away every business card I’d brought with me without being overtaken by a monstrous sweaty monster bursting out of my shirt. Win-win! 


Mr. Ben has photos up from our tour through Israel on his Flickr page, as well on the Book Face. They show an experience of extremes: tranquil scenes on the Sea of Galilee and refugee camps in Jerusalem; old churches and modern beaches; desert hikes and a Netanya wedding for one of the most beautiful brides I’ve ever seen, the sick-but-beaming, accommodating*, eminently-deserving Tamar.

Well, that’s the holy land for you.

And now for a short tangent:

Who among you hates the subject of Israel/Palestine? Could I get a “whoop, whoop!” please? Certainly I’m not the only one.

The subject has been coming up persistently over the last month or so, mostly in my office but also, of course, in the news. Without getting into the details, I can say that it’s been frustrating, and I have had to talk to and/or listen to people who do not meet my stringent standards for conversation on the topic.

What are my stringent standards? I’m so glad you asked:

1) No Bumper Stickers. I am thoroughly uninterested in anyone whose thoughts on the subject can be summed up by two words and an exclamation point, unless those words are “It’s complicated!”

2) No Assholes. Do you write emails in Comic Sans bold? Do you roll your eyes and/or sigh heavily a lot anytime anyone else talks? Do you refuse to admit when you don’t know enough about a subject to venture an opinion? Then go talk to a message board filled with your compatriots, friend, and stop making my ears bleed.

With that in mind, I was a bit nervous about heading over to Israel. As it turned out, I needn’t have been: I’m a lot more comfortable talking Israel/Palestine politics while in the neighborhood, so to speak. Maybe it’s because, if my discussion buddies are there too, that testifies to a certain level of understanding and commitment to the issue? I’m not sure. At any rate, Mr. Ben and I talked to each other, international strangers in our Tel Aviv hostel, and folks on our Im Amim tour, and we never had a problem. That was a significant relief.

Politics aside, we had a wonderful time. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to be home, to tell the truth. And seeing Tamar get married to a great guy ten years after we lived in Israel together, and spent most of our time moping to the Indigo Girls, was a nearly-transcendental experience. A whole cluster of us traveled over from the US to celebrate with her — and that included improvising a mikvah experience** in the Mediterranean Sea at sunset and fetching chairs for the hora and finally cutting the neglected wedding cake and dancing to techno remixes until our legs collapsed beneath us. I am so privileged to have gotten a chance to be there.

*This is not flattery. The huppah started an hour late, after the sun had already set; the rabbi overfilled the ceremonial glass of wine (red, not white), and then splashed it on Tamar’s wedding dress; the cake was forgotten about until after the guests had left; and yet despite these, and other provocations, Tamar remained radiantly graceful and happy. What’s the opposite of a Bridezilla? A BrideTeresa? The world needs a new word.

**The Hebrew word for immersion in a mikvah, “t’vilah,” is the same verb used for immersion in baptismal waters AND for immersion in water that leads to drowning. That sums up a pretty complex and crazy country, doesn’t it?