toby, train, tracks, dancing
Adventure, Travel Advice, U.S.

What to Do with a 10-Hour Train Ride

I’ve done that thing again.

That thing where I look at plane tickets, look at train tickets, enter all available data into an elaborate equation (something like, Value = Adventure / Cost + Adventure x Time + Cost/Environmental Cost) and decide to take the ten-hour train.


You see, adventure counts twice in my calculations… and I value my time a bit differently.

So I’m sipping on free hot water (having exhausted my ten-hour snack supply in just over seven hours), watching an obstinately rainy day pass me by—all the way from Vermont to Philadelphia.

It’s not a bad day for a train ride, I have to admit. The sky is a study in gray. Wisps of cloud catch in green hills, blur the horizon, put me to sleep.

I wake up quickly; I think my feet are getting frostbite. I set up camp in the cafe car. Consider diving into a pile of work. Think the better of it. Return to staring out at the nondescript, along-the-tracks landscape.

I’ve taken so many absurdly long train, bus, and ferry rides, keeping count lost all meaning a long time ago. Barcelona to London: Why go in two hours when you can take two days, via Paris and the Chunnel? Tangier to Barcelona: What fun is the plane when a thirty-hour boat ride gets you 100% there? Stockholm to Turku: Thirteen hours and no regrets! Goa to Kolkata: In hindsight, maybe forty hours was a a bit long…

A love of slow travel, a desire to lighten my footprint whenever possible, and a stubborn resistance to doing things the easy way all feed into these choices.

But I realize that whiling away an entire day—or more—on a train doesn’t come without practice. I haven’t forgotten my astonishment at my fellow passengers in Nepal, where I took some of my first twelve-hour bus journeys. They put me to shame, doing nothing for the entire journey, never complaining, and maintaining perfect serenity during the hours of touch-and-go traffic leaving Kathmandu Valley.

And so, if you have a ten-hour train journey ahead of you, or another trip just as daunting, I’d like to offer a few of my favorite activities to help you pass the hours:

  1. People watch. This activity could, without exaggeration, occupy all ten of those hours, especially when coupled with eavesdropping. The man in the seat behind me telling another passenger how he never learned how to read words, only concepts. The woman across the aisle discussing, at length, a petty workplace drama. The endless procession of human faces, voices, expressions—mundane and extraordinary at once. Yes, one could certainly people watch for ten hours.
  2. Crochet, or otherwise make things. When I traveled from Philadelphia to Miami by train in 2013, I spent about four hours of the thirty-hour odyssey crocheting a hat for a particularly odd and impressively drunk character sharing the cafe car with me. Activities that occupy the hands but leave the mind free to wander are ideal for long trips.
  3. Read. Bring a fresh book you know you’ll love. The longer the better. This time I brought The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, and it enthralled me. If you’d happily sit on the couch with a good book all day, you can stop reading right now; your ten hours are sorted.
  4. Write. Whether or not you’re a writer is beside the point. Write down observations, stream of consciousness, the funny things people said while you were eavesdropping. These words may serve some purpose later on, or you may never look at them again. Also not the point.
  5. Make lists. If you can’t think of anything else to write, there are always lists. I happen to love lists—the way they sit uselessly on my desktop after I make them, their satisfying list-ness, the irrational sense of efficiency I feel when writing them. Maybe you’ll be equally entertained by this activity… or maybe not.
  6. Eat. On travel days, I drop any preferences or pretenses I usually have about food. Today I feasted on cherries and leftovers, but sometimes it’s chocolate and chips. While normally I wouldn’t advocate for eating out of boredom, long train (or bus, or ferry) rides are a special exception. Entering a liminal space, free from the normal constraints of time and metabolic physics, is one of the advantages of traveling this way after all.
  7. Work. Just kidding—travel days aren’t work days! Be it a lack of reliable wifi or the soporific rattling of tracks, these journeys don’t usually support much work. But if you need to get things done, there’s certainly time.
  8. Do nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. Stare out the window and daydream about mountains that hold up the sky. Close your eyes and turn the rocking of the train into music. Lean back, put your hands in your lap, and just sit there. I think we could all do with a little more nothing in our days. A ten-hour train ride is a good place to start.

Additional uses of time that may inspire you: listening to music, meditating, talking to strangers, walking up and down the aisles, stretching, deleting old files off your phone, gobbling fresh air in the areas between coaches…

Think that just about covers it!

How do you pass a long journey? Please share your favorites with me!

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coffee, slow food
Africa, Culture, Food, U.S.

Coffee Culture, Slow Food, and Why Cape Town Has Both

cape town coffee culture slow food

A side alley off Buitenkant Street, Gardens, City Center, Cape Town

The first sip is bitter, sour, almost acrid, before my palette adjusts and the taste mellows into a more complex configuration of nutty, earthy, sweet and rich.

This is good coffee.

I’m sitting at my favorite Cape Town cafe, Deluxe Coffee (also called YARD, the Dog’s Bollocks and the Bitch’s Tits), where motorcycle parts, vintage bicycles and canvas sacks of wholesale coffee beans make for original decor.

I’ve occupied this stool at the counter for well over an hour now, and nobody cares. Par for the course.

Cape Town has an exceptional coffee culture. (The reason I’ve consumed more coffee in the past three months than probably the last three years prior—well, that, and the fact that a cappuccino costs a bit more than a dollar.)

What is “coffee culture”?

Well, to answer in negatives, the U.S. does not have a coffee culture—or a cafe culture, to be more precise. A coffee culture does not “run” on coffee (like Americans run on Dunkins), but rather stops. Sits. Stays. Connects.

And when you stop to taste your “cup of joe,” quality matters. Deluxe Coffee may be my favorite spot, but easily half a dozen others tie for second. There is a lot of good coffee in this city.

To-go cups are more rare, too, and at least among my friends, “going for coffee” is an hour(s)-long undertaking—not a five-minute quick fix.

Cape Town generally moves more slowly. Less rush, less stress, none of the high-powered, shiny, corporate velocity of New York, London or Hong Kong. None of the humorless, chain-brand cafes, either.

Starbucks hasn’t made it to Cape Town, yet, but I hear it’s coming. When it gets here, I hope Cape Townians will put it out of business.

In a cafe culture, independent roasters, brewers and purveyors of coffee thrive. Character and personality matter—or maybe that’s just me.

And I think there’s a common denominator between coffee cultures and Slow Food. Shared values. An appreciation of quality, and a willingness to wait for it.

Many of the cafes where I go to do work have some of the worst service I have seen anywhere in the world. Friendly, but extraordinarily slow.

But, good food. Good coffee.

See the connection? I do.

I am more than a little bit enamored of the Slow Food movement—and of Cape Town’s coffee culture.

I like the pace, the time for detail, the space for real connection. This is what a cafe should be, in my opinion.

This is how coffee should taste. This is how life should move.

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Kenya V United States (A Fun Chart)

This blip of time back in the U.S. has offered me some perspective on both Kenya and my home country, and a chance to reflect on how the two compare. So I had myself some fun and made this chart.

Granted, some of these are generalizations based only on my own experiences; nonetheless, I think the following juxtaposition could be both entertaining and illuminating. Enjoy!


United States
Airport employees mostly smile.
The women working security at the Mombasa International Airport are delighted at my attempts to speak Ki-Swahili, try to convince me to find a Kenyan husband, and totally crack up when I joke that I already have seven and I don’t want any more.
Airport employees rarely smile.
I try to make a joke with the woman directing the passport control line about the man who seems to be trying to cut in front of me. The look she gives me is closer to shock than anything else.
Pedestrians are responsible for themselves.
Crossing the street is on you. Try not to get hit.
Pedestrians are the drivers’ responsibility.
There are crosswalks. Cars stop at them.
Salad could be anything made from vegetables, be it mango salsa or tomatoes and onion… or mixed greens!
Divisions (or the corresponding linguistic term).
Caeser salad; cobb salad; garden salad; waldorf salad… you get the point. So many kinds of salad out there, and we will name them all!
People have been using digital currency for a while. Not a big deal.
Apple Pay.
You can pay for things with your iPhone now. It’s a big deal.
All the time. Everywhere. Buses blast awesome music (sometimes too loudly), as do shops, restaurants and motorcycles. Usually I like it.
The usual suspects (restaurants, bars, retail) play the usual tunes, and then yoga classes, of all places, blast terrible hip hop. I don’t like it.
Police take people’s money and call it Christmas. (As in, “So, what did you get me for Christmas?”)
Police take people’s money and call it the law.

(See the excellent John Oliver clip below.)

Are nuisances so problematic in Lamu that they were loaded onto boats and shipped to a remote island (Kiwayu), where they continue to be nuisances.
Are beloved pets.

Love him (from what I can tell). I even bought playing cards with Obama’s face on them a couple weeks ago.

Apparently at least 50% of citizens do not love him. And I’ve never seen Obama cards, though they might exist here too.
 Local food is the norm.
The main fruit and veg market in Kilifi features whatever is grown (which is a lot!). Imported foods are exorbitantly marked up.
 Local food is a trend.

I hope it’s a trend that will stick, but the supermarkets I’ve seen still stock masses of produce from around the country and the world.


And there you have it! Kenya V United States… Not so different? Not so similar? Maybe a venn diagram would have been better..

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Waiting For The Invisible, Part III

I think I could write about autumn forever. Something about this turning of the season insists on words. I would like to complete the series I began at the start of the summer, ‘Waiting for the Invisible’ (though who knows, there may be more to come), on the process of planting and growing and mostly waiting…

The invisible has made itself known in a brilliant display of flowering trees, fruit-bearing plants, and a startling array of greens. Now, so soon, it begins again to slip beneath the Earth’s surface. Exuberant vines shrink and fade to brown; trees begin to shake themselves free of their leaves, laying a blanket down upon their roots; and the flowers drop their petals and turn inward, arming themselves against the coming cold.
Though we still have hot, Indian Summer days like today, which bewilder us with the promise of a winter-less year, the brisk nights and turning leaves belie the charade. Autumn lurks in the corners, and at her heels, Winter.
As the summer picked up, gardening mostly lost out to other, more insistent commitments in my week. The weeding got away from me, until I could no longer where the paths had once lain. My cucumbers foundered in poor soil, and the squash—I forgot to check the squash, so I don’t know…
You could say I forgot to wait for the invisible to fully unveil, and like an unwatched pot, summer came to a boil while my back was turned, my attention elsewhere.
Soon, a crackling carpet of brown will cover the evidence. The lively communities that kept me company these past months will settle once more to a nearly inaudible hum underground. The creature who rummages each night in the compost pile will go into hibernation (or maybe not… I can’t be sure since I don’t know what he is, or if his kind hibernates!).
The invisible, irrepressible clamor of life and green and growth will have come and gone, and I don’t know that I will be any the wiser for the waiting.

But I will remember its exuberance. I will know, next time, that whether I wait and watch or not, heeded or not, the invisible will wake and unfurl and rise again.
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I Went on a Vision Quest and All I Brought Back Was…

At exactly 3:00pm today, I passed the “Town of Middlebury” sign on Route 7.
I’m back.
Though it will be days, weeks, or perhaps months before I begin to understand the last ten days, I wanted to share with you my first impressions. A selection (hodge podge) of thoughts and verses from my journal. Some spiritual, but more not.
I will be recording more organized second, third and fourth impressions in the coming weeks, but I think this might actually provide a more visceral glimpse of my experience.
I could sum it up by saying nothing happened. Or everything happened. Reality is probably somewhere in between. But I would rather share the journey…
On Wednesday, September 17, the night before my departure, it takes me hours to fall asleep. Hours upon hours upon hours.
Thursday, September 18
I am searching for the cause of my searching.
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt made guest appearances in my dream. Really?
Friday, September 19
It is becoming clear that I brought far too many books to fill very little down time. (I packed a stack of ten…)
Saturday, September 20
I have decided to leave behind my camera (Sorry, that does mean no pictures), and my yoga mat. I have a feeling I won’t need them…
I am leaving behind the known. Soon I will begin (or continue!) to walk my path into being. Yes!
Sunday, September 21
Today, I found my place of power (location for my solo time: 4 days and 4 nights). I hope. It is a solid 45 minutes, maybe more, from base camp… a little bit apprehensive about the walk out after four days of fasting. Close to the shore (Lake Sommerset, Southern VT), but back into the woods a little ways, and in a lovely circle of young trees that sing back to the wind.
[Frog is making me laugh, trying to be so stealthy as he walks past my sleeping bag.]
Today is Monday, September 22
How many kinds of blue have passed before my eyes today, rippling across the lake? Could I name them all? Aquamarine. Periwinkle. Turquoise. Navy. Sky reflected in lake blue. Blue within and upon blue. What do we call that? Sky blue. Royal blue. Midnight blue. Blue that flutters in the wind. Blue that reaches beneath the surface. Blue that reflects a sudden bit of sunlight and sparkles. Do we have names for so many kinds of blue?
Broken trees and branches are guiding me through the woods today.
Sometime this afternoon it hit me: Shit, days are really long.
Today is Tuesday, September 23
I just spent the entire morning doing absolutely nothing. I’ve been lying on the rocks trying to take in as much sun as possible. The sun is hot, but the air is cold—I’ve had to keep rotating to keep warm. I feel no desire to do any ritual right now, no restlessness… I could do with a slightly more comfortable “do nothing” spot, though.
No matter what, I’m telling myself, I will come out of this stronger, and knowing myself better—for that alone it will be worthwhile.
[I’m hungry at this moment.]
The sun may not have set yet, but I am ready for bed, and to move on to the next day. I let my stomach know that we still had 2.5 more days until food—best not to dwell on it.
Waiting for Dusk
As the water turns from shimmering teal to gray,
And the last drops of sunlight fade from sight,
I am here, waiting for dusk.
She gathers herself—slowly, slowly—
One wispy purple shroud at a time,
Like the longest dimmer in the world, lowered without haste.
And still I am here, waiting for dusk.
The wind never tires, but my body asks for rest;
The birds chatter on, and the flies collect around my tarp—
The sky holds on stubbornly to blue,
As I rest here, waiting for dusk.
[Definitely still hungry. Dreaming about breakfast Saturday morning!]
Today is Wednesday, September 24
When I finally rise, the sun is already high in the sky, and the last wisps of fog glide silently across the water until they vanish. Soon, they will be only a ghostly memory. Now, the lake is a perfect mirror with foggy edges, and the grass along the shore sparkles with dew, iridescent.
I have never felt so much doubt. I don’t feel any different; still have no idea why I’m here, what I’m trying to find. My mind holds on stubbornly, along with my stomach, to normalcy.
My journey thus far, from Mother Earth’s perspective (abridged)
I saw here wandering through my forest, so lost.
I heard her cry out for guidance, but she will find her way.
I listened as she lamented her doubt, her lost-ness to Tree, to Rock and to Lake.
The brown leaves on which she sat carried them to me.
I heard, but I did not answer…
Maybe I will appear to her in spectacular fashion. Maybe not.
This journey she finds herself on—the truth and vision and clarity she seeks—
Well, it is all within her, and I can only play a supporting role.
When she learns this, she will be ready to meet me.
For then, it will no longer matter.
Today is Thursday, September 25 (Last day of solo time)
I want a fucking steak.
(On the last night of a quest, many people choose to stay up from sundown to sunrise in something called a purpose circle. Inadvertently marooned on my chosen spot, far from my sleeping bag and other gear, I managed to stay up all night. Not because I wanted to in the end, but because I couldn’t make it back in the dark, and because I would have turned into a popsicle if I didn’t keep moving!)
On the night of Friday, September 26, back in my tent and with food in my belly, I wrote this about the experience:
The Darkest Night
Strange calls rise up across the water, break this eternal quiet.
A faint light hums at the horizon, taunting me with the thought of dawn, but that is far away still.
There is no moon, this night.
There is no rest, this night. No respite in sight.
Icy dew falls heavy upon the earth, chills me to the bone.
Geese honk through the sky, in a hurry to get where they’re going.
I, too, am desperate to return.
I, too, have called, unanswered, too long. Slowly my voice fades from song.
I know there will be no more fire, this night.
Any warmth must be my own.
This is the darkest night, and nothing will break it but dawn.
But I don’t see that Light has been there all along,
Because it was right before my own eyes.

 I don’t know exactly what I learned or what I am bringing back from my time away, but I intend to find out.
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Why I am Doing a Vision Quest

(This article was originally published here at elephant journal. I decided I wanted to share it on this blog, too.) It’s just settling in that I am leaving to do this tomorrow…

On the 18th of September, I will leave Middlebury for 10 days, 4 of which I will spend on a solo fast.

I have decided to do a vision quest.

Anthropologists coined the term “vision quest” to describe a particular Native American rite of passage. The practice of going alone into nature, fasting, and seeking vision, insight or clarity.

However, this practice is ubiquitous across human histories and beliefs. Jesus, Moses, and Siddhartha Gautama all completed “vision quests” of a sort. I’m not trying to say I’m like any of them, of course. My point is this: such a tradition has roots in so many groups and cultures, and belongs to none.

The program I have chosen to participate in strikes me as an archetypal rite of passage, following the classic anthropological characterization. There is a beginning (“severance”), a middle (“threshold” or “liminality”), and an end (“reincorporation”). There are, additionally, a fast and a period of isolation. The form, meaning and context of the ritual, however, depend on the individual.

The vision quest has a rich and varied history. Still, I find myself sheepishly telling some that I am “going camping” for 10 days. Others, I know will understand and support my intention immediately. And some, upon hearing my real plans, ask, “Why the hell would you want to do that?” An answer is never quick to reach my lips.

And so, I am sharing this letter of intent (requested by my program) for the first and the last category of people. For those whom I have not had the courage to tell, and for those who have not understood. Because I am proud of myself for choosing to embark on a journey that twines with the sacred and echoes across time. I want those people, and others like them, to understand why.

I want to do a vision quest because the prospect of going alone into nature, facing my fears, finding my path, and meeting my deepest self appeals to me on a primal level.

I feel that I am at a moment of deep transition. I have recently graduated from college, and stand with one foot through the door to the rest of my life. Not just the physical trappings, but also the emotional, metaphysical, and spiritual material of my life seem to be hovering in limbo.

I would argue, too, that physically the last 23 years have comprised a prolonged transition from total protection and dependence to total self-sufficiency. These shifts call for ritual. I believe we need ritual and ceremony to mark significant passages, and I have chosen that which speaks to my Truth.
I see my preparation for this journey as an opportunity to articulate for myself and for others the kind of transition I hope to undergo.

I want to bury frivolity, selfishness and vanity. That is not to say I wish to let go of levity—the six-year-old girl who laughs unstoppably at silly jokes and chases after bubbles can stay. That is also not to say I wish to part with confidence, for that is possibly the greatest strength I possess.

The 18-year-old woman who tested her power at the expense of others can stay in the past, though. So too can my high school make-up and gratuitous “selfies.” The pride that stops 22-year-old me from asking for help or accepting criticism may stay behind as well.

Every coin has two sides. I would like to exchange frivolity for meaning, selfishness for generosity, and vanity for humility. I want to discover the outlines, the shadow, even, of the path I am on—the underlying purpose of my actions, choices, and the work I find myself doing. I want to explore the gifts I have not had the chance to cultivate, and then I want to share them with those who might benefit. Finally, I hope to do this for the right reasons, to avoid both praise and confrontation. I intend to return quietly, with grace.

Moreover, I invite an abundance of joy, laughter, adventure, magic, spirit and stardust into my life. I wish my journey to be a never-ending pursuit of these things.

Now the hard part. What obstacles block me? What do I really fear? I am afraid I don’t know my weaknesses. I don’t know what I really fear. That in of itself seems a major lacking of knowledge. I cannot fully know myself without it. Maybe it is dangerous to wish for, but I hope to find my fears while I am alone. Until I know what they are, I can’t confront them. Until I know what they are, I can’t defeat them. I am, undeniably, afraid to find out.

Lastly, my strength. It flows from water. From the moon. From the earth and the stars. I do not connect with these sources often enough. That is, to end where I began, I do not spend enough time alone in Nature. When I stop to listen, though, the wind whispers secrets in my ears. The trees teach me to grow roots. The birds teach me to grow wings. The earth sets a rhythm for my heart to follow, and the rivers sing as they flow through my hair. They know why I am drawn to do this. I want to do a vision quest so they can tell me too.

I will, clearly, be mostly ‘off the grid’ for the next ten days. I look forward to sharing some of my experiences when I return.
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Servers Love When You Do These Things (Just Kidding. Never Do Any Of It!)

After a few years working as a server, sometimes part-time, sometimes full-time, always questioning my sanity, I think it is time to let you all in on a few trade secrets. Servers really hate when you do these things:
Hide your credit inside the checkbook.
We don’t have x-ray vision, and it is impossible to know if there is a card in there or not. On a busy day, your server will only have time to glance over, and will assume you haven’t looked at your check yet if there is nothing poking out of or sitting on top of it.
Split checks.
Okay, sure, it’s convenient for you. But really, how hard is it to figure out what your lunch cost and put in that much money, or to split the check evenly between a few cards? Does that dollar difference between your meal and your friend’s really matter that much? And anyways, you probably eat with these people every week. Why not go in rounds—you know, I’ll pay this week, you pay next week? It will probably work out.
Be impatient when you ask to split the check six ways.
So no one has cash and you have to split the check. It happens. No worries. But realize it takes a lot of time to run 6 cards through the credit card machine. No magic wands here. Sorry.
Hold the check hostage when it is brought to your table.
You want to sit a while. That’s okay! (Unless it’s busy and there’s a long wait for tables, in which case it’s not really okay. But we’ll say it is.) Just pay for your food so we can close your table and forget about you. There’s no implicit contract saying that once you pay you must leave immediately, so calm down and hand over the checkbook.
Stand right in the line of traffic while waiting for your table.
Everyone will dislike you for doing this. When things get busy, we are running, and getting in the way is hazardous for all parties. Fifteen minute wait? Go away, sit in a corner, or stand off to the side. Be anywhere but that spot. Please.
Ask for extra dressing. Wait for your server to bring it. Ask for more bread. Wait until they return. Ask for another beer. Repeat ad infinitum.
Oh, your table is low on bread, beer, and dressing? Why not save us three trips back and forth and ask for it all at once? Waiting until your server brings one thing to ask for the next is one of the most inconvenient things you can do.
Tip poorly.
There is no excuse for tipping less than 15 percent. I tip 15 for bad service. Good service gets 18 at least, but anyone who realizes that minimum wage is $4/hour and isn’t a miser generally tips at least 20. Regulars who never tip over 15 might be the worst; clearly you like the place. For an extremely comprehensive guide to tipping, check this out:
Say you are ready to order, then take 5 minutes to make up your mind.
Every minute spent at your table is a minute a server can’t be doing any of the 50 other things they need to do, like running food, bussing a table, making drinks, or going to the bathroom. Have pity, and don’t ask to place your order until you are actually ready.
Complain when you receive the food you ordered.
We want you to be happy and enjoy your food. However, that statement has limitations. If a mistake has legitimately been made, by all means say something. But if you’re unhappy that the garlic potato soup you ordered has too much garlic in it, or that the salad you asked for is too salad-y, sleep in the bed you made.
Wait to complain until it’s too late to do anything.
If you are unhappy and there is a way to fix it, don’t say everything is fine when your server checks in on you (unless you are actually fine with it). Once you finish eating, your complaints no longer count.
Complain, and then insist on doing nothing about it.
Don’t complain unless you want something changed. Letting your server know the burger is under-cooked, “just to tell them,” is utterly pointless. Don’t take advantage of the free-dessert-to-unhappy-customers-policy, either.
Be the last people sitting when it’s closing time.
At this point, you are the only thing stopping your servers from breaking down, sweeping up, and going home. Don’t be those a**holes. When you realize the restaurant is suddenly empty and the servers are sneaking glances at you every minute or so, it’s time to leave.
Play music loudly on your phone, sit with your chair way out blocking the path, or otherwise disrupt the meals of other diners.
A restaurant is not your private dining room. Please remember to be a respectful human being while there.
Invent your own menu options to order.
Most restaurants will be flexible around modifications and substitutions. Within limits. Yes there is a chicken sandwich, pesto, and asiago chese on the menu. No, it does not say “build your own sandwich” anywhere. All of you no cheese, no gluten faddists are also getting old. The researchers who discovered non-celiac gluten intolerance now think it may not be a real thing (, so why not enjoy the bread?
As always, I present these comments to you with love and appreciation for all those kind, considerate, easy-going diners that find their way to my tables as well. And ultimately, if you must do any of these things, it’s okay. Just realize that they are inconvenient, time-consuming or disruptive and remember to say thank you!

Did I miss anything? Feel free share your addition in the comments!
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An Ode to Small Towns

In the spirit of Buzzfeed and the general ethos of blogging at present, I would like to begin this post with a list.

You know you live in a small town when…

1. Your customers for lunch show up at your other restaurant for dinner.

2. You run into your “regulars” all over town. They always seem surprised to see you.
3. Going grocery shopping consists of 2 parts socializing and 1 part buying food.

4. “Downtown” is Main Street.

5. Your yoga students show up for dinner, and your dinner customers show up for yoga.

6. When you walk into the local coffee shop, it takes 30 minutes to get to work, because you have to stop and greet everyone already there.

7. When you throw a party and invite people from various parts of your life, there is no need to make introductions.

8. Going to the “City” (Burlington) is an excursion you indulge in about once a month.

9. You expect greetings from strangers, and find it odd when people don’t say hello.

10. At least a couple times a week, someone you know drives past you as you’re walking to work and offers you a ride.

11. Everyone talks about their garden like most people talk about the weather.

12. No one calls you a hipster when they see you a. fermenting things, b. knitting or crocheting, c. baking, d. biking, or e. wearing flannel.

Soon-to-be homemade sauerkraut.
Above all, it is a small, small world when you live in a small town. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, I live for those coincidences and connections. On the other, I hate gossip, nosy neighbors and unattainable anonymity. For better, for worse, or for bizarre, I currently reside in Middlebury, Vermont, and that deserves a poetic tribute…

An Ode to Small Towns

Oh, small towns,
I can’t decide if I love or hate you.
You are full of people who compulsively read Front Porch Forum,
Scanning for nuggets of gossip to purloin,
or petty arguments to join.
Still, your characters rival those of the Big City—
Where else will my neighbor ride his tractor down the road,
Wearing a cowboy hat and white Santa beard as he goes?
Oh, small towns,
I can’t spend a day on your streets without running across a friend, or twenty-two.
If I have news in the morning,
They’ve all heard it by noon.
If I see Main Street I’ve seen all there is to see,
That is, everything but the dump, the gym, and the local brewery.
A night out with friends often ends with drinking tea.
Oh, small towns,
By your community I feel supported-
Strangers offer rides into town
When the rain is pouring.
Yet at the end of the day
When I look around,
I see all the same faces,
Hear all the same sounds.
What you lack in variety you make up for in warmth,
But even so, small towns,
I think my time with you must be short.
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Culture, U.S.

Oh, the Characters of Middlebury

One of my favorite things about working in restaurants is the unlimited entertainment potential of observing the characters that pass through. Middlebury, Vermont does not disappoint.
Once, in High School, I took a class in Nonfiction Prose. The first week, the teacher had us walk around the neighborhood, observe the people around us, and write a few character sketches. A few descriptive lines that form a verbal portrait. They can be straightforward or metaphorical, humorous or serious. In what seemed an apt metaphor at the time, and in retrospect more like poor judgment, I distinctly remember comparing my teacher to a baboon. Better choices have been made. Regardless, I love this exercise, and I would like to present to you some of the characters of the – Café. No names, of course, will be named.
M— is a tall, odd man. He almost always comes alone and almost always orders a hummus salad to very precise specifications. It is shocking when these two things are not the case. He wears a bucket hat and leans slightly when he walks. Though a bit withdrawn at first impression, M– proves quite garrulous on any subject when engaged. He does not like ice in his water, and he eats very, very slowly.
G—worked in the foreign service, but I would never have heard it from him. It took a long time for him to decide I was worth conversing with at all. He must have his soup piping hot and immediately. He comes for lunch with various friends. Last week, he asked me if I had seen any sea monsters lately in Otter Creek. I suspect he is hiding an eccentric sense of humor.
Mr. and Mrs. – are my favorite regulars. They are understanding, appreciative, and very sweet. They always drink iced tea—many, many glasses—and sit for a while.
C— sits at the bar and has a Switchback beer with his lunch. He might be in his seventies. He speaks gently, likes golf, and has a wife that I have never seen. We don’t have many things to talk about, but he is kind, pays in cash, and tips well.
J—and A—, whether they come separately or together, are strange and, in my opinion, wonderfully entertaining. They have raised friendly banter to an art form, and on a busy day it is best to avoid them as much as possible. On a quiet day, a conversation at their table is a great way to fill up time. J—is tall with very short hair, and always leans in to speak. He likes Caesar salad and sometimes quiche. A—has curly hair and an old, lumbering dog who waits outside.
Mr. and Mrs. A— are always very nice, and they always order the same thing. Always. I could tell you their exact order, but that might give it away. Inside, they like the table in the corner. Outside, the table against the wall. They like straws and lemons with their water, but they only sometimes use the straws. They never tip over 17%.
The I—‘s would be lovely if they weren’t so troublesome. An order for two can be a foot long with all of their additions, substitutions and peculiarities. They usually come for brunch, order more food than I think a person could eat, and finish it. They think the — Cafe is their private kitchen, and we do nothing to disturb this conviction.
The lawyers are very important people. They never have more than 50 minutes for lunch. They like their soups and salads first, and M—with the blonde hair must have her soup extra hot. With all that, they are surprisingly agreeable, and they never linger.
Mr. D—owns something in town. He is also a very important person. He likes his iced tea with no spoon in it. His lackeys drink soda, sometimes; they defer to him in all matters. There are usually four of them; only Mr. D— orders an appetizer. As far as I can tell, only Mr. D— speaks. He takes up twice as much space as those around him, in every sense of the phrase.
When I was little, and we had to eat at McDonalds on family road trips, I would order a cheeseburger without the burger. We called it a Toby Special. Now that I am not six years old however, one, I avoid McDonalds at all costs (along with the rest of my family), and two, I order off the menu. I can make myself a sandwich with no bread and nothing on it at home.
When work is slow and I have time to, I often wonder how people come to have such exact, particular peculiarities. Likes and dislikes. Demands. Needs. Are they born that way, or is it a byproduct of aging? Are they raised to need straws in their water with no ice, to demand that their soup be hot enough to give third degree burns, and to require, absolutely, that there be no trace of onion on their burger? Are we all so peculiar in our tastes, only more self-conscious of demanding their satisfaction? Do I just have lower standards? Were our parents less indulgent? Are “characters” just average people whose idiosyncrasies have gone unchecked? Possibly.

Or maybe, as my experience as a server indicates, idiosyncrasy is the norm, and those without restrictions, requirements and specifications are the exception. Maybe this pattern is a unique result of American culture and values. That seems likely, for in all the time I have spent outside the U.S., I have never seen someone order a sandwich without bread.*

*That is not to say there is anything wrong, necessarily, with ordering a sandwich without bread. It is simply interesting, and  maybe indicative of something, to observe the frequency of such requests.
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Nature, U.S.

Waiting for the Invisible, Part II

(I promised lots of pictures this time…)

Watermelon flower. I think I am a little bit in love with these plants.

It’s official, there is nothing invisible about my garden now. Two strapping zucchini vines are nearly two feet tall, competing with the flowers I didn’t know were already planted there. Tomatoes have turned from green to orange. Red is just around the corner. The turnips that I don’t want to eat and will probably give away are pushing round white haunches out of the earth. Even the watermelon vine (Yes, watermelon in Vermont!) displays one tiny fruit the size of my pinky nail, and several flowers. The haricots vert, too, are in bloom, with the scrawny beginnings of green beans dangling beneath.

Teeny tiny baby watermelon!

Soon we will be enjoying fiori di zuccha (zucchini flowers), stuffed with cheese and fried, fresh tomatoes and basil warm from the sun, and… something with turnips. (Maybe I will grow to love turnips.) Here they are, round two of garden photographs:

Purple basil flowers. I hear you are supposed to clip them, but they’re too beautiful!

Oh turnips, what will I do with you?

Tomato before.
Tomato now.
Zucchini before.
Zucchini now.
The haricots vert survived the rabbits, hedgehogs and foxes!

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do! Check back for Part III.
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