Category Archives: vacation

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!

Early Christmas card from the Balynker-Glooms

Perfect form!
Originally uploaded by shorterstory.

Hi Everyone! Happy It’s-Virtually-Christmas!

Day by day, sunlight recedes, flowers droop, tans fade, and hurricanes gear up to wallop our fair cities. Last year at this time the RNC introduced Sarah Palin and the NYT introduced Unigo! (Now that we all have some perspective, the question to ask is, Which flopped harder?)

I always get down in the dumps in September, but the fact that this summer was disappointingly unsweaty makes me even more morose.

To mark and improve these waning days, some of us decamped to Splish Splash, the water park of kings. The journey was not for the faint of heart: we had to travel into the depths of Long Island via a subway, two trains, and a shuttle bus. Ultimately, though, we arrived at a haven as splish-splashy as promised, and as removed from our daily lives as we could hope.

Even that, as it turned out, was a mere teaser for Mr. Ben’s and my more extended vacation in glorious Costa Rica.

We took a puddle-jumper from San Jose to the remote Oso Pennisula, where we stayed in a hacienda owned by a family friend. He visits his mountain-top paradise four or five times a year, usually with as many guests as he can entice to join him.

Together, we explored jungles, beaches, and tropical fruits that required Inglorious Basterds-type methods to get to the insides. He took us out to eat, to hike, to meet his ex-pat friends, to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, and to fish.



Once, while relaxing on his shaded porch, with fans whirring overhead and fresh-fruit smoothies in hand, birds quarreling faintly in the trees and the sun dipping into the Pacific on the horizon, I said, “I feel like a colonialist.” Turns out that’s a Think, Don’t Say in the developing world.

Awkward realizations aside, it really was a fantastic experience from beginning to end. Except for the back of my leg.


More pictures TK. Hope you’re all well!

Ben & Ester

On the Edge of Things

Paradise, I’ve discovered, dwells in the borderlands. It makes sense: being in the center can be pleasant and safe, but it is rarely glorious. The house where Mr. Ben and I are now staying in Costa Rica sits at the top of a mountain, next to the rain forest, and at the edge of a cliff, and it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. A string of bushes beaded with coral-orange flowers separates us from everything below. In the distance and far beneath us, the Pacific Ocean foams at the mouth. Howler monkeys scream at the sun for coming up in the morning and frogs make mellow sounds at twilight.

Otherwise, insects make virtually the only noise. I knew, when I arrived, that I would have to be less jumpy about critters than I usually am. I try and I fail and I continue to try. Our first morning, in a bed-and-breakfast in Alajuela, Mr. Ben and I opened the door to the shower and something large and black flew at us from the darkness. Of course it was only a moth, but *you* try not to scream when something with wings comes at you first thing in the morning.

Our flight over Friday night had been exhausting. Half of Holland had been emptied out onto our plane for some reason. The looming, affable Dutch stood for the most of the ride, leaning over each others’ seats, laughing, talking, and even breaking out into song. They ignored us completely and we in turn felt like we were flying 2,000 miles in a bar in the Hague. Of course, the flight was late, and of course there were no movies, and of course by the time the stewardess made it to the very back row with the food cart, where we sat trapped between the Nords and the bathroom, she had given away everything except little hamburgers that get microwaved in plastic bags. The vegetarian meals we had ordered had long since been handed over to someone else.

But who cares? The hunger and the inconvenience were a small price to pay to get here. Our little adventures — finding the door of the B&B shower broken and ourselves locked in; arriving for our 9:00 AM local flight to Palmar Del Sur on time but at the wrong airport — seemed funny as soon as they were over.

We have shopped and swum and cooked and marveled at the landscaping here at the top of Mel’s mountain. Mel is the family friend whose hospitality we’re enjoying. He bought his house five years ago and has transformed it into a private tropical getaway. Last night we played poker until almost midnight on the porch with a crowd of his ex-pat friends. Today we’re going to go fishing for our lunch. I am supremely blissful, even while I am on the watch for scorpions. And tomorrow we head into the rain forest! With any luck, we will make it out again.

Best Christmas Ever

It’s a very simple recipe. Combine:

1 hotel room in a grand, atmospheric hotel,
1 TV with cable
1 jacuzzi
1 hot lava massage
3 fancy meals
1 accommodating shuttle driver
1 deserted, charming town at the end of the world
2 beaches
1 “Seal hike” through the woods for an hour to a clearing from which you could see actual seals lazing around like paunchy middle-aged men on the rocks, plus an hour trek back
2 fireplaces
1 chess game
1 sex partner
0 family members
1 bottle of Klonopin.

Let sit, and serve.

This was all as necessary and as it was restorative, since I hadn’t been feeling like myself since that small but vital part of my brain broke on Election Night. The new apple of my eye, Dr. Russian, first prescribed me a medicine that, in the long run, will have me running marathons and presidential campaigns simultaneously, but in the short run left me under house arrest. Like Madoff! Perhaps the nausea and constant panic I was experiencing were actually *his* and he spent some of his $50 billion transferring them to me. Since he doesn’t know me personally, I can only imagine he chose me because he figured the Jews hadn’t yet suffered enough.

Regardless, after one really bad day where I made it into work only to collapse and have to be taken home in a cab by coworkers, Dr. Russian, with an acknowledgment that I “seem to be very sensitive to medication,” cut my dosage and later prescribed an ameliorative second pill to be taken with the first. Glory of glories, hosannah, praise the flying spaghetti monster — I felt new again. And by “new,” I only mean “normal.” Well enough to enjoy the misty, desolate splendors of off-season Long Island, well enough to go to bed later than 9:00, and well enough to be back at work today.

Yeehaw! Now onto New Years, and the new year, in which hopefully I will again and consistently be the master of my own brain.

Remember the Maine

On our trip to Maine last week, we decided that we had to eat either blueberries or lobster every day. In effect, we decided to eat lots of blueberries, because it turns out that lobster is hella expensive even in Maine, where I figured they basically give you two just for waking up in the morning. But we all got gold medals in blueberry eating: in pie, in muffins, on yogurt, on ice cream, and straight off the bush.

Also, I learned that Maine is about much more than food. It’s also about really cold water. The water up there was clearly on loan from Titanic. One lovely day, just outside the idyllic, remote town of Machias, we decided to risk hypothermia, just for fun. We swam out to a bridge, let the river’s rapids carry us, screaming, to the other side, and then swam quickly towards shore to avoid getting dragged out to sea and ending up dropped on a beach in Newfoundland looking like the Montauk Monster.

It was awesome. And, to thaw out our purple fingers afterwards, the lovely family we were visiting gave us all china teacups of homemade lobster bisque. It was as salty as the many locals who cut their eyes at us at rural gas stations along Coastal Route 1.

We also spent one long, hilarious night playing Settlers of Catan, a German colonialist board game. It’s like Diplomacy meets Monopoly meets Sim City, and it’s so absorbing we were up til 2:00 AM. We didn’t even remember to watch the Olympics.

The area where Ben’s dad has a beautifully decorated house is peaceful and small; there was very little to do except to tire ourselves out walking in the woods or on rocky beaches during the day, cook a lot, and then fall into a stupor not long after sunset. We did make it to an adorable little library, watched over by a woman who knew the name of everyone who came in. I listened to her making personalized recommendations and I realized that, in another life, I would totally be her. And pretty happy, too.