Tag

United States

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 Though a bit withdrawn at first impression, M– proves quite garrulous on any subject when engaged.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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Culture

“Paying the Rent”

It seemed about time to talk about what I am currently doing for money “to pay the rent.” As previously mentioned, I have five jobs at the moment. Only one, however, really pays the rent. It struck me recently that this one job may actually be pretty unhealthy for me.

That job is waitressing.

I identify myself as many things. As a writer, a yogini, a dancer and a wanderer. As a Jew, an artist, a woman and a traveler. Fairy, unicorn, and bird sometimes slip into that list as well. But never that I can recall have I identified with my current occupation. Waitressing, or “serving,” is something that I do to earn money, wholly separate and distinct from my essence or self.

Now, before any servers start raising their hackles, I am not offering judgment on the value of food service professions.  I have a coworker who has payed her mortgage and supports herself through waitressing. This can only be viewed as impressive, and I respect her and anyone else who chooses to make a living as a server. I only wish to observe that I do not identify as such, probably because of the negative qualities that this profession has begun to hold for me. The longer I spend in it, the more conscious I am of its advantages, and its shortcomings. Most importantly, I am realizing that these are really two sides of the same coin. In writing this, I hope to explain why I am doing this work to begin with, and why, ultimately, I do not like it.

While I do not intend to pass judgment, I am fairly certain that it also steals a little bit of your soul. Make of that what you will.

So here they are, The Advantages of Waitressing… and Why They are not so Advantageous for me:

Pro: There is no contract.
That’s right. You can leave whenever you want (though it’s courteous to offer at least two weeks’ notice, especially if you hope to be welcomed back), and, if you find a good place, it is very likely you can come back whenever you want. It is also fairly easy to get shifts covered or traded. This makes being a server the ideal job for travelers, musicians, mothers, or anyone else looking for a flexible work schedule. For example, I am taking a week off in the middle of the busy season to go to a festival. What other kind of work would allow that?
The Flip Side: There is no contract.
Slow night? You might get cut (sent home). Over-staffed? You might get cut. Chef doesn’t like you? You might get cut. Really. There can’t possibly be a workplace more subject to the vagaries of individual whim. No contract means no promises, and that cuts two ways. I was recently cut from the schedule for several weeks at my second restaurant job due to over-staffing (as far as I know, no personal dislike was involved), and that’s fairly normal.

Pro: You work for tips.
Many times customers have tipped me 30 or 40 percent, or handed me an extra twenty for no apparent reason. (Maybe they liked my face?) There are a lot of generous people out there. Plus, in the U.S. it is convention to tip 18 percent on average.
The Flip Side: You work for tips.
Your hourly pay is about four dollars. If it’s slow, you make $4/hour. Plus, there are a lot of obnoxiously stingy people out there, and there are no actual laws on tipping. That means, outside of automatic gratuity, nothing is guaranteed. You depend entirely on the generosity of others for your wages.

Pro: You work on your feet.
You are constantly moving (running) around, with barely any time to drink water! Out of a six-hour shift, you spend six hours on your feet. There is very little need to add any additional exercise if you do this full time.
The Flip Side: You work on your feet.
You are constantly running around, with barely any time to drink water. It’s kind of exciting, but mostly it’s dehydrating and exhausting. Sure, I’d hate to be at a desk all day, but that doesn’t mean I love the unadulterated chaos.

Pro: You get to work with people.
New faces every day. Cool regulars that you get to know as the months go by.* I can’t think of a more effective way to hone communications skills.
The Flip Side: You have to work with people.
Horrible, self-important regulars who never tip well. Screaming children who insist they hate pasta as soon as the pasta they ordered arrives at the table. Every person who stubbornly refuses to notice you are waiting for them to leave so that you can go home. A lot of humanity passes through a restaurant’s doors… you end up wishing half of them would learn to cook and leave you alone.

Pro: You make other people happy.
I truly like this part of the job. I love giving people food, and I enjoy seeing them enjoy it. If it were that simple, I don’t think I would have so much to say.
The Flip Side: Making other people happy can be a pain in the ass.
Some people do not want to be happy. They want to be grumpy and discontented. They are demanding and unreasonable, and they can turn a day bad.

Pro: You make a lot of money.
The Flip Side: You make a lot of money.
Enough that it seems illogical to switch to something else. But these days, I kind of think it’s a trap. You do make a lot of money waitressing. That is why a lot of people choose to do it. That is why I chose to stick with it while I save money to travel. But the longer I stay, the clearer the flip sides become. The more painful certain customers’ arrogance, self-centeredness and smallness feels. The more the lack of any consistent real human connection begins to wear on me.

That is why I do not identify with this job. I am good at it (I forgot to mention that), but I can’t love work that yields negativity and spite in tandem with flexibility and profit. So I am scaling back, spending more time working for less money, and more time on writing, which pays nothing at present, but brings me joy.**

*I think I will do a follow-up piece soon to describe some of these characters in more detail!
**Stay tuned for the consequences of this ‘more writing’.

Sorry, no pictures to go with this post. I promise I will include a lot of pictures next time to make up for it!

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Food, U.S.

A Picnic Revolution

I’m starting a picnic revolution! Here’s how it came about:

Yesterday, my friends invited me to an outdoor concert at Lincoln Peak Vineyard (about 3 miles north of Middlebury, VT). After a busy day at work, this seemed like the perfect way to spend my evening.

Sunlight dripped like honey into the Adirondacks on the horizon, and its warmth melted away the constant action of the past few days of work. Vibrations lifted from violin strings. Blades of grass sprouted between my toes while Bluegrass music washed over my nose. For the first time in some days, I felt totally at peace. (I’m realizing that I need to step back from work, ‘other work’ and other ‘other work’ far more often.)

Due to my new-found engagement with social media, I snapped photos of my friends, lively grape vines, and, of course, our new picnic innovation and the subject of this post…

Naturally, Lincoln Peak Vineyard offers glasses of wine for sale during their outdoor summer concerts. Now, my parents, and probably many others, own special wine stakes meant to hold your wineglass in place while you use your hands for other things, like eating your beautiful picnic food. These stakes are somewhat unruly, however, and regardless, I don’t have any.

Feet, I discovered yesterday evening, are equally, if not more, effective, and you never run the risk of leaving them at home! How had it taken me so long to stumble upon such a simple solution? In no time, all four of us were holding our glasses up with our toes while we feasted on tomato basil and feta salad, millet bread muffins, chicken, cherries, and chocolate.

I suggested that this idea could revolutionize picnics, and I was only sort of kidding. Rise up with me against the tyranny of wineglasses over our picnic fun! Join my picnic revolution and take back your two-handed freedom! But seriously, give this a try and you may never picnic the same way again!

~

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Poetry & Fiction, U.S.

Snapshots of Living

Snapshots in words and pictures of the last three weeks of life in Middlebury– plant, animal, and human.

(Disclaimer: All photos were taken yesterday, when I couldn’t resist the sunshine and the realization that things were changing every day out in the garden, and I had better hurry up if I wanted to capture some of the journey. And so, as I am wont to do, I went on a photo-shooting spree after a month without touching my lovely Nikon. Really, it would be more accurate to call these “Snapshots of a Day at 56 High Street, and an Unconnected Assortment of Words.”)

Green tomato today… what will tomorrow bring?

New bean stalks rear dinosaur heads out of the cracked earth.

Love spills out of my ears.

Green tomato. Yellow flower.

Rabbits and foxes and hedgehogs, oh my! They eat everything except the chives…

One lost, baby-size sneaker sits on a windowsill outside a Main Street shop.

An abundance of thyme. No pun here. 

My neighbor, Mr. Cardinal, sits on his perch in royal ruby splendor, presiding over my morning commute along High Street.

Snow pea spirals to get lost in.

A vine explodes along the back deck. Green exuberance.

Dreaming already of fiori di zucca!

I notice two red glitter hearts stick to the pavement as I walk to work. They leave a smile in my thoughts that lasts the day.

A teenage boy on a bicycle shouts at me as he zips by. His words are unexpected: “Have a good day!”

So much green. An abundance of green. A superabundance of green! Green green green.

Watermelon in Vermont? You bet! Gifted to me today at the Middlebury co-op, and planted by my neighbor’s granddaughter in a sunny patch of ground.

Welcome summer.

     Vibrant

          Fresh.

              Green.

                  Joyful.

                 Abundant.

~~~
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Food, Nature, U.S.

Waiting for the Invisible

I expect this garden will teach me many things this summer. Though garden is perhaps too tame a word to describe it– too civilized. No tidy rows or neat squares here. On all sides of my house the land extends outward and upward in near vertical lines, and the eye loses track of the boundaries between the cultivated and the wild. Pockets of arable soil dot the landscape, reclaimed from the hill by sheer determination. Vines tangle with maples and violets fraternize with garlic chives and clover. Beans that were planted in one patch willfully assert themselves in the neighboring one– “volunteers,” as my friend Rae calls them.

Nine days now have passed since I planted what remained of these plots. (The owner had already planted beans and peas, chives and thyme some weeks prior.) I contributed squash and zucchini, cucumbers and collard greens, turnips, parsley and arugula. Nine days later and I begin to lose patience. Where are they?

The herbs and tomatoes I bought as starters stand strong in their pots by the driveway. Turnip shoots emerge from the earth in droves; the zucchini begin to display a few shy leaves; and the rest… the rest remain hidden, continuing along a mysterious, underground journey that I can only guess at. Well, thanks to high school Biology I can do more than guess, but even so, where are all the rest? I ask, exasperated. I don’t even like turnips!

Calm down, I remind myself. Breath. In and out. These are seeds, not magic beans, and they don’t in fact grow overnight. When I ‘woofed’ (worked on an organic farm) in Sicily, I arrived in June, at the start of a lengthy harvest season. Zucchini already a foot long and figs falling off the trees. There was no waiting; I enjoyed an instant gratification of food production matched only by… supermarkets. And fairy tales.

But in the real world of dirt and seeds and seasons and cycles, there is a germination period: 4-12 days for cucumbers, 7-14 for squash. That’s a lot of days. Nine days in, and I have to remind myself to have patience; to quiet the pessimistic, doubtful voice in my head whispering, they’re never coming.

Where are those darn plants? They’re coming. Are we there yet? No, but we’re on our way.

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U.S.

Next Stop World, First Stop Vermont

Dear readers, friends, internet… I’m back in Blogland.

I think I have for some time now unconsciously defined The World as “that which is not here.” There is The World, and then there is Brookline, MA (my hometown). There is The World, and then there is Vermont (my current home). The title of this blog, begun as a travel blog in autumn of 2012, reflects this mindset. I was Here, and I was going There.

Always reaching waiting longing for There, I think I have sometimes inadvertently obstructed my experience of Here. Of Vermont. I only kept a journal when I traveled; only blogged; only wrote poetry. As if only that stimulation– of the new and the changing Elsewhere– only those inspirations, merited contemplation. Here was the place I settled for when I could not be There. Here, the mountains were Green, but There, they were Emerald.

But from where I sit presently– dappled sunlight prickling the deck of my new house (I moved this past weekend) and wrapping me in its warmth; birds singing about today, only today; wind chimes punctuating my thoughts– Here seems Emerald-bright. Last I wrote in this blog, my focus was on movement, wandering, physical musings through space. And never fear: the wanderlust burns steadily and I will travel again soon. But for the next few months, I hope to focus on finding stillness in stillness, as well as in movement. I will tend my garden, practice yoga, work my five jobs, and I will write. About the food I grow, prepare and eat, about the woods I explore, the mountains that pulse beneath, the people I meet. About the abundance of adventure, inspiration and daily wonder to be found Everywhere– Here included.

I don’t know how often, but let’s try for every week or two. And please, hold me to that. Remind me if I forget. Welcome to Here. Fasten your seat belts, and enjoy the ramble.

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U.S.

On Going Home


Here I am. London Heathrow International Airport. 1:11pm. Twenty-three degrees Celsius. Gray skies.  Eleven months, 21 countries, one visa problem and one stomach bug ago I set out for my “year”-long journey. My goals? To explore. To learn. To play.  I didn’t want to change the world. And more importantly, I didn’t want to change.  I wasn’t seeking enlightenment, wisdom or self-improvement.  I didn’t go abroad “to find myself” in the Himalayas, and I didn’t travel to discover the secret of life in that elusive elsewhere.
Nonetheless, I did search. And in the clear blue skies of the Himalayas, in the phosphorescent seas of Cambodia, in the jagged black rocks of Sicily and in the cosmopolitan bustle of Berlin, Bangkok and Belgrade I found answers.  Truth, beauty and joy. In the winding, tangential, abstract manner beloved of Buddhist scriptures and Beat poetry, the world answered me. Like a garrulous friend who prattles on without encouragement, the faces and places I encountered over the last 11 months have taught me so much more than I could or would have asked of them.
I will return in much the same condition I left.  Zero piercings, tattoos, or drastic hairstyle changes. A few barely-visible scars. I don’t know if I look or sound like someone who has spent the last year traveling.  I don’t know what such a person is supposed to look like.  I don’t have any brilliant conclusions to offer.  I am less certain of what I want to be doing than I was before starting this trip—whatever I found, it wasn’t direction.  At this moment I mostly feel bewildered. Where am I going now?
I’m going home. I guess. I’m flying to Boston, where I grew up. But since my parents moved to London while I was away, one could argue that I’ve actually just spent the last two weeks “home” here in London. Since I’ve lived and studied in Vermont, and spent a good portion of my summers there, I generally call it home now. And yet it doesn’t feel quite complete.
Home is wherever there are people who love and care about you, and those people are spread out across the globe for me. Home is where you feel welcome and comfortable, and I have felt at home after one day at a Rainbow Gathering in the mountains of Sicily, after one evening with an old friend in Hamburg, after two days with like-minded people in India. When it came time for my parents to sell the house I grew up in, I was somewhere in Southeast Asia and I felt… indifferent. As much as I had loved that house, it was only that: a house. Walls and a floor, paint colors I had helped choose and rooms upon rooms of memories, yes, but just wood and paint after all.  I realized that I had begun to carry “home” with me.  Home was my body. Home was the network of friends, family and strangers that stretched out in a shimmering web to catch me where and if I needed them. Home was laughter, handmade bread, and warmth—home was everywhere and anywhere I wanted it to be.
You could say I’m going back, then, I suppose.  But back to what? To “normal” life? As if this year were somehow removed from the rest of my life, a collection of adventures on which I will look back with longing and nostalgia, which will sustain me as I spend the next several decades sitting behind a cubicle desk speaking with belligerent self-importance of my year abroad. Hate to break it to you, but this is my reality. Truth, beauty, and joy are not temporary ideals, applicable only to some fantasy alternate life with an expiration date; they are a worldview, an optimism and a set of values by which I will, hopefully, continue to live, be it traveling abroad, studying, working, at “home” and “away.”
So no, I am not going back.  I am continuing a journey that is not defined by national boundaries, a search that is not defined by questions, and an adventure that is not circumstantial, but inherent.  This life is an adventure and a journey, full of the potential for truth, beauty and joy. That is neither a secret nor an answer; it is my own personal conviction.
I am going back to the United State with a broken backpack full of dirty clothes and not much else.  I am going back to one of the many places I choose to call home. The answers and the secrets can wait; I have never felt more content—full of joy and gratitude—and that is enough for me.
“Home”-made pizza in Sicily.
Home on my mat.
Feeling at home in my hammock, Don Det, Laos.
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