I’m just loco like that

departures board.jpg

The chapter we’re studying in my Spanish textbook is called “Ida y Vuelta,” and it’s travel-themed. Yesterday, we split into two groups for an in-class activity in which each group had to come up with a travel adventure plan to present to the other group. Details were to include where we’d go, what we’d do, how long we’d prepare for the trip, and how we’d finance it.

I sheepishly reported to my group that I have a real-life travel adventure plan I am hoping to put into action soon. When I told them what it was, it sounded so much like fantasy that I started passing it off as such to hide my embarrassment. “Primero, voy a ir al Senegal para practicar mi francés, y luego voy a ir al Argentina para seguir aprendiendo mi español, y voy a ir de un país al otro país por, erm… no sé… viajar alrededor los otros países del mundo, quizas?” Which, if I spoke proper Spanish, would translate to, “First I’m going to go to Senegal to practice my French and then I’m going to go to Argentina to continue learning Spanish, and I’m going to get from one country to the other by traveling around the world, maybe?”

We ended up fusing that plan with everyone else’s much more modest travel fantasies (tomar el sol en Florida, conducir por México, viajar a Praga para ver los museos) and decided we would finance our now wildly-untenable trip by working really hard in a restaurant for two months beforehand and selling our travel photos to National Geographic during our trip – which actually sounds much more plausible than the idea of me circumnavigating Africa in-between language immersion stints.

At one point while trying to explain the plan, my classmate asked the teacher, “Cómo se dice, ‘crazy'”?

I piped right up, “Loco!” Because if you harbor a dream as far-fetched as mine, you’re going to know that word in many languages.

[Photo: Fumigraphik]


my poor foot.JPG

Setback one: After spending day after day checking airfare alerts for the best deals (and there were many: $525 to Seoul, $400 to Hong Kong, $330 to Paris, $275 to Martinique), I ended up buying two decidedly non-deal tickets to the two places I wanted to go to most: Mexico City and, erm, somewhere else nearby.

I leave next Thursday. Last Wednesday, I ran too far in my newish running shoes that just don’t fit very well, and I’ve been increasingly hobbled by my big toe since then. While the day after the run it merely ached, today it is so bad that I’m limping around wondering if I might have somehow broken my toe simply by running on it.

I had planned to spend the entirety of my vacation wandering aimlessly around the streets of the cities I’m visiting, as is my wont, but now I’ll be lucky if I can even step into and out of the taxis and buses I will be relying upon to haul me around. Panicked! Calling a doctor tomorrow…

Setback two: It’s time to register for my next semester of Spanish at work. In order to do that, I need to submit an updated letter from HR saying that I’m expected to be contracted through the end of the course. Problem is, in the pursuit of this letter I found out that my contract will almost certainly not be extended past December 31.

I’ve been at this job long enough to know that anything is possible, including that my contract will be miraculously renewed month by month until April 19, at which point I’ll have filled the post for the full year that it is allowed to be held by a temp. Even if that happens though, what’s fairly certain is that I won’t be able to take a free Spanish class next semester.

Nadie va a escribime la carta, y sin lo [la?? ella??], no puedo tomar el clase. I wrote that without the help of Google Translate! This class has taught me so much, it’s the highlight of my Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and I’m so, so sad that I won’t be able to continue with it in the new year.


what can I say? not much.

I feel weird writing anything new on a blog about all things foreign without acknowledging first that what has transpired abroad over the past three weeks – in the air over Egypt, in Beirut, in Yola, in Paris, in Bamako, and in many smaller terrorist attacks that didn’t make the front pages – is a tragedy on the order of which no words, or at least not mine, can do justice. (Which is why I didn’t try to write any at the time.) The subsequent backlash against refugees – people who are themselves fleeing terror in their homelands – as well as against Muslims in general, is another sickening attack on our shared humanity.

Many years ago, a colleague told me that on the advice of some spiritual counselor or other she had chosen a three-word mantra to repeat every day. (Of course this was in Los Angeles.) I liked the idea and thought long and hard about what mine should be, before settling upon “courage – tolerance – compassion.” For awhile I would whisper the words to myself once or twice a day, and it did have a very grounding effect, though the habit didn’t last long. Seems like a good time to revive it. I believe in the primacy of those three words now more than ever.




A couple of months ago I found myself out late, hungry, and in a self-indulgent mood in Midtown East. Conditions were ripe to finally go to Aquavit, the two-Michelin-star Swedish restaurant on 55th Street that I had been wanting to try for years but had never gotten around to because the last neighborhood I’d choose for an occasion is Midtown East.

So I grabbed the chance to pop in without a reservation at 9:30pm on a Tuesday and sidled up to the bar to order the tasting menu.

I love Swedish food to such a degree that even Ikea’s meatballs taste gourmet to me. So, actual gourmet Swedish food was sort of mind blowing. But the best thing about the meal was the cultural fusion that took place when I realized the man behind the bar was from Manila and I told him about my trip to the Philippines last year.


Because Joey is the classic bartender/storyteller hybrid, this led to him sharing a crazy tale about crushing on his older brother’s friend’s girlfriend as teenagers hanging out in Marcos’ abandoned office in the presidential palace on the night of the revolution (since both of their fathers worked for the opposition leader). Joey moved to America as a young man and didn’t see the girl again until a serendipitous encounter many years later. He picked right up where he left off with his crush, and after a long-distance romance, she moved to New York and they got married.

This incredible story, with too many plot twists to count, unfolded over eight courses of the tasting menu, all of which were presented like works of art.

smoked salmon

crazy good dessert

They were almost as amazing to look at as to eat. The chef took traditional Nordic dishes and spun them in totally inventive and delightful ways. It was a (very) expensive meal but well worth it, once in a lifetime, for the experience of being transported from the everyday to the extraordinary – by way of Sweden, the Philippines, and – most surprisingly of all – Midtown East. More and more lately I’ve been reminded that even in one’s decade-plus home, it’s always possible to see the world with a foreigner’s fresh eyes.

it wasn’t so easy this time

Blythe Sleepy Eyes

Sleep-deprived two Speakeasies in a row. I guess my beginner’s luck had run out because this time the words did not magically flow from my uncooperative brain.

As I was expending copious amounts of energy trying to say anything like something an actual French person would say, I was simultaneously having an out of body experience in which I was hovering above myself taking great pride in every single word that came out of my mouth, because here I was speaking another language, which is just nuts considering I don’t speak another language.

At the same time, I realized with a jolt that the person across from me was opening his mouth and effortlessly releasing words that flowed intuitively one from the other. There was absolutely no struggle on his part because he had been speaking this language from infancy the same way that I had been speaking English. For him, French is neither fun, nor frustrating, nor anything other than utilitarian.

It struck me as utterly bizarre that his native language was my foreign language and vice versa – that what I experience in a French conversation is 100% different than what he does. It’s not as though I have never thought about this before, but at that moment it felt like when you repeat your own name over and over until it sounds completely unfamiliar.

I should really get more sleep before I go back to one of these things…

[Photo: Valeri Passon]

passport, please

world passports

Though I was born and raised in the United States, I’m a dual American/Israeli citizen. I stopped by the Israeli consulate this morning to renew my passport for the fourth time in less than ten years. That’s because the last two times, they inexplicably extended my current passport for a year instead of actually renewing it. This consisted of pasting an extremely forged-looking document onto the second to last page, so that at first glance it still looked to foreign border agents as though my passport was expired, and I had to point the extension out to them while praying they wouldn’t accuse me of fraud and/or send me back to where I came from.

So this time I made sure to ask whether I could get a brand new ten-year passport as per the terms I had read online. I was told that while I was finally eligible for a new passbook, it would only be valid for three years. This seemed completely arbitrary to me, but I learned it’s because the last time I visited Israel was seven years ago, and my passport cannot extend ten years beyond that date.

Now, I don’t know whether this is customary practice in other countries. It may well be de rigueur around the world. But it struck me as a quintessentially Jewish thing to do: punishing me for not doting enough on my mother (country).

It is almost as if Israel is telling me, “You don’t call, you don’t write.* Oh, but you want something from me? First come for a visit, then we’ll talk.”

The day I return to Israel I become eligible for a ten-year passport. Until then, I’m in the doghouse. As annoying as this is in a practical sense, I can’t help but enjoy the appropriateness of this policy for a people who have perfected the guilt trip.

[Photo: Baigal Byamba]

*You don’t speak.

translating spoken language

G20 Interpreteres

Being a United Nations interpreter has always struck me as a glamorous and relatively easy job for someone who knows two languages fluently. Then I read a short and fascinating article in this week’s New York Times Magazine that has me rethinking my assumptions. It actually sounds quite mind-boggling.

The interpreter quoted in the piece is the same one who took the reins from Gaddafi’s personal interpreter after he had a meltdown trying to translate Gaddafi’s hour-plus-long oration.

[Photo: Downing Street]

home is where the Hungarian is

Hungarian Pastry Shop

Tonight, in a mood, I abandoned my more ambitious plans for an idea that sprung to mind last minute, as I was walking to the subway from work. Instead of heading downtown, I took the train to my old college neighborhood, where I drifted down a familiar path to my once-favorite cafe to do my Spanish homework.

Hungarian Pastry Shop would have delighted me even if I were walking into it for the first time. It’s a miraculous vestige of a bygone era, when individual shops had individual styles, when cafés were authentically warm and cozy instead of corporate. It’s bohemian without being crunchy, perfect for both studying and socializing, a community hub that is somehow also off the beaten path.

The objective amazingness of it was enough to warm my heart, but not enough to account for the visceral sense of goodwill, sentimentality and promise that washed over me when I sat down and took it all in. The fact that this place continued to be here day after day, unchanged, while I went away and came back years later, much changed – and having accomplished much of what I daydreamed about doing then, in this place – that was the fairly overwhelming thing.*

I started this blog for my love of the foreign, but at moments like these I’m well aware that there’s no place like home. (Especially when home is New York City.)

PS I wrote this instead of doing my Spanish homework.

PPS I’m now turning to eavesdropping on two underclassmen on a cute first date. The girl just said, “You never hear of a pet squirrel.”

* disclaimer: hormones may also have had something to do with it.

the simple things


I live in a Dominican neighborhood so I have plenty of opportunities to speak Spanish if I so choose. I haven’t thus far because I’m so limited in what I can say and understand.

But this weekend I held the door open for a little old lady with her granddaughter, and she said “Gracias” to me. It took me far too long to switch gears and respond, “De nada,” but I still counted it as a full conversation entirely in Spanish, and I was pleased. You’ve gotta start somewhere.

[Photo: mckinney75402]


Christine @ Speakeasy

Early Monday morning I had been asleep for about four hours when my radiator came on making sounds like it was being beaten by an angry mob of hammers. It didn’t stop even after I closed the valve, and I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

Both drunkenness and sleep deprivation severely affect my ability to speak a foreign language – but not always in a bad way. They can sometimes render me mute and flailing, but they can also lower my inhibitions and inspire stream of consciousness-style gabbing far more advanced than my wide awake and sober self is capable of. It’s always a toss-up which extreme I’ll swing towards, so I didn’t know whether my Spanish class on Monday afternoon and French Speakeasy event that evening would be disastrous or miraculous.

Turns out it was a little of both. In Spanish I couldn’t put two words together and did more miming than talking, but in French I was transcendent. (Relative only to myself.)

One of my speaking partners was a woman, Christine (in the picture above), who is harboring remarkably similar dreams to mine right now. I think it was four years ago that she took a cargo ship from France to the United States in search of adventure and now she wants to travel the world, learning new things in each country and picking up jobs along the way taking photos for non-profits. We agreed it would be fun to conspire together, and in the meantime I signed up for the next Speakeasy in November…