Sunshine State

I went to Florida in March and it was GLORIOUS.

I attended a conference in “St. Pete” as the locals say, and then my boyfriend Allen met me and we spent a few days in his hometown of Tampa. I had never been to these lovely cities before, so I did many new things. Here are the two that made the birthday list:

  1. Eat a devil crab.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, Allen shared his fervent love of devil crabs, which can only be found in Florida. As he spoke, I would nod my head as I pictured us eating crab meat out of a shell…as one would with a mussel or oyster.

I searched for restaurants that served devil crabs and came across a place that ended up being a trolley alongside a highway. We decided to check it out because it was named Seabreeze, which was the name of a seafood restaurant that Allen and his family frequented during his childhood. It turned out that it was the same family of owners; the restaurant was torn down for an undisclosed reason and now the husband and wife sell live devil crabs and also serve cooked ones out of a trolley.

Imagine my surprise when I was handed my devil crabs:

 

 

 

 

 

 

What? They looked like potatoes! But they were, in fact, balls of shredded crab meat in some kind of red sauce and breaded. That’s hot sauce in the plastic container. Once I got over the surprise factor, I enjoyed these tasty breaded balls of fish.

We had devil crabs again at Brocato’s. The breading was completely different but the inside tasted the same.

Cuban sandwich, black beans and rice, and devil crabs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Visited Big Cat Rescue sanctuary

When I’m planning a trip, I always check TripAdvisor for recommendations. Big Cat Rescue is #4 of 196 things to do in Tampa. I am a cat person and love all animals, so I added the sanctuary to our itinerary. Visitors go on a guided walking tour with a staff member. There are more than 80 cats at the sanctuary, so we walked around to see who was out and about. We were given ear buds and an audio device, so whenever we came across a cat, the staff member would play us that cat’s story.

We saw at least 20 cats. They were all beautiful and they all had heartbreaking stories. The cats come from all over the country. Usually they’ve been kept in horrible conditions and have become sick, etc. Many were in shoddy circuses or were kept as exotic pets.

The cats seemed very well taken care of at Big Cat Rescue. They even get to  go “on vacation” a few times per year in a large area that’s designated for vacationers. The organization is also involved in advocacy, which is wonderful. If you’re ever in Tampa, I highly recommend a visit here. I’ll leave you with a few of the dozens of photos I took of the cats…

 

 

20–Year Love Affair

I realized the other day that I was wrapping up my semester abroad in England 20 years ago this month. I chose to study in England because I didn’t have proficiency in another language…and I’m convinced that I was destined to start a love affair with England.

I went from studying at a small state college a 30-minute drive from my family to studying at a large research university with tens of thousands of international students thousands of miles from my family. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m eternally grateful for it. I studied at the University of Leeds with my two friends, Sam and Ellen, which eased the homesickness.

Many of my experiences were those of a typical college student. I remember that the coursework was tough and I was glad that my grades didn’t factor into my GPA at home. I joined the chorus and sang Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols in the city streets in December. Ellen and I joined a musical theater club and performed in the musical Chess. I subsisted on jacket potatoes with shredded cheese at the refectory (dining hall) and spent hours at a time doing this new thing called emailing in the computer lab. I lived in Clarence Dock, a dorm that was far from campus, so I spent many nights taking the “women’s minibus,” a shuttle that departed from campus and dropped people off at their dorms/apartments.

Not-so typical experiences included weekend trips to Liverpool, where we consumed everything Beatles; Dublin, where we drank Guinness in pubs and saw The Book of Kells at Trinity College; and London, where my wallet was stolen (I don’t remember anything else from that trip).

I consider that I started on the path to adulthood during my semester in England. Even though I had traveled abroad in high school, it was here that I really grasped that there was a whole world outside of the United States. I gained a newfound appreciation for my family and friends. I learned from people of other cultures and they learned from me.

Another opportunity of a lifetime tied to my semester abroad was the three-week trip around Western Europe that I took after the semester ended with Ellen and my friend Daisy. Twenty years ago at this very moment, Ellen and I were sitting in a bohemian bed and breakfast in a frigid Corfu, Greece, watching American movies with Greek subtitles and listening to Radiohead’s The Bends album with a small group of new friends.

We had just come from Rome, where we were blessed by the Pope on Christmas Day. We would be meeting our friend Daisy in Milan next and heading to Venice for New Year’s. And then back to Rome and on to Spain and France. Armed with Eurail passes, a thirst for adventure, and not enough clothing for one of Europe’s coldest winters, we visited countless museums, ate delicious and sometimes strange food, and made friends of fellow travelers along the way. If I could turn back the clock and do it again, I wouldn’t change anything.

As I sit with my Twinings tea and McVittie’s Ginger Nut cookies, I insist that if you are thinking about studying abroad or know someone who is thinking about it, you/he/she/they DO IT. It’s worth every penny of the extra student loans.

England now feels like a second home to me—and my mother! She visited me when I worked in London for six months after graduation (that 20th anniversary is next December). And the rest is history, as they say. We’ve visited England five or six times since and have many wonderful and funny memories. I feel lucky that we fell in love with the same place.

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Requiem for R.E.M.

I was a Casey Kasem top 40 kid in my early teens. I fully own my former obsession with New Kids on the Block. I was not alone, OK?

And then a shift happened in 1991, when I discovered R.E.M.

It’s oddly fitting that R.E.M. is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Out of Time (the first album of theirs that I bought) as I am mourning the 5th anniversary of their breakup.

I still have the cassette version of Out of Time that I bought 25 years ago. I remember watching the music videos for “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” and “Everybody Hurts” on MTV time and time again.

I loved Michael Stipe’s voice. I loved the lyrics and the melodies. I just plain loved (and will forever love) this band. Their music was a soundtrack of my late teenage- to middle-aged life. Therefore, I was devastated when they broke up in 2011. To this day, I try to be mature and tell myself stoically that they had a right to break up and they did so because they felt like it was the right thing to do. But deep down inside I silently weep whenever I’m faced with the cruel fact that there will never be another new R.E.M. album or concert tour.

Luckily I had the foresight to keep most of my concert ticket stubs in a book, so I am able to look back and confirm that I’ve been to 10 R.E.M. concerts.

The first time I saw them in concert was 1995. I don’t have the ticket stubs handy for these two concerts because I think I have a separate R.E.M. memorabilia book packed away in an unknown location. But I have photos of me and my college friends sleeping outside of a record store/ticket seller the night before tickets went on sale to buy tickets for their show in Buffalo, New York.

Overnight crew
Overnight crew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soon after that, a few college friends and I drove 5.5 hours to Philadelphia to see them. I remember all of us trying to memorize the lyrics to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” on the drive down. On the drive back, we wrote all over ourselves in pen like 20-year-olds do.

Philly crew
Philly crew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw the boys (minus Bill then) four years later at the Tweeter Center outside of Boston, on September 11, 1999. Four years later, I was back at the Tweeter Center on October 5, 2003. Three days afterward, I was on a plane to Baltimore to see them at George Mason University.

I do remember the euphoria I felt at the October 29, 2004, concert in Boston because I scored sixth row seats thanks to the fan club.

Stipe from the sixth row, baby
Stipe from the sixth row, baby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven days afterward, on November 5, I was watching them at Mohegan Sun casino. I remember the odd, cheap hotel room in nowhere Connecticut that my friends and I piled into at the end of the night.

My most momentous R.E.M. concert occurred in July 2005. My favorite band (R.E.M.) was playing in my favorite city (London). And I had tickets! As luck would have it, my mom and I were going to be in England at the same time as R.E.M. This was 2005, so my tickets arrived by Royal Mail from across the pond. I still have the envelope.

My mom and I went to England’s Lake District first, planning to spend the end of our trip in London. On July 7, we called a taxi and as the driver took us to our destination he asked us if we had heard about the bombing.

No.

Four terrorists had bombed three London subway stations and one bus.

My mom and I turned on the TV news when we got back to our hotel and watched the horror unfold. We were sickened, worried, shocked, saddened. Once the shock started subsiding, I immediately thought about R.E.M. I hoofed it to the town of Keswick’s post office, where there was a computer with Internet that one could use for a fee. I think the R.E.M. concert was scheduled for a few days later, so it was, not surprisingly, postponed. It would be held a week or so later, long after we had returned to the States.

I immediately searched to see if they were playing anywhere in the U.K. I found that their show in Cardiff, Wales, was still on for July 10. I took this news back to my mom and said something along the lines of “You can stay in London but I’m going to Cardiff to see R.E.M.”

I don’t remember how agreeable she was about my news at first, but she didn’t want to stay in London alone (or maybe didn’t want me to be in Cardiff alone). So I went back to the post office computer and bought two concert tickets and reserved a hotel room in Cardiff.

We returned to London a day or two after the bombing. For some reason, I had to physically buy or pick up the train tickets at the London train station we would be departing from. I will never forget being on the Tube on a weekend afternoon with only a couple of other people in the train car…because the city had told people to avoid taking public transit. But those terrorist bastards were not going to take R.E.M. from me. So I picked up the tickets at the station and we were set for our impromptu journey.

My mom was none too thrilled about being in an arena with thousands of people a few days after a terrorist attack. But she was a trooper. The concert was very cathartic, especially when thousands of us sang along to “Everybody Hurts,” which the band dedicated to London. I felt the power of music that night. The power to uplift and comfort and unite.

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Almost three years later, on June 13, 2008, I was back at the Tweeter Center. It was another amazing experience because our seats were in the 20th row.

Now we come to the last time I saw R.E.M., a day later at Jones Beach Theater on Long Island. The theater is an outdoor venue and it was raining. My friend and I huddled under our umbrellas, soaked but having a good time. Until the thunder and lightning started.

The concert stopped and we were told to take shelter under the seating area, where the restrooms and concessions were. I don’t remember how long we waited—maybe 30 minutes? 45?—and the concert started again.

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Since R.E.M. broke up, I feel compelled to attend every concert of my favorite musicians…because you never know when the last concert will be.

‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

Birthday #41

This summer went by faster than usual. I’m still in denial that it’s over…but in four days, it’s the official start of fall and there is no denying it.

So here is a belated birthday recap aka the last item on my birthday list. I like to avoid renting a car on my birthday trips in order to save money. And that’s how I decided on Hyannis on Cape Cod. I had read that Hyannis was the biggest “city” on the Cape, and the bus station was a short walk from town. This was only my second vacation on the Cape in 17 years…many New Englanders would be appalled by this admission.

Hyannis was just waking up for the summer in late May, but most of the shops were open. We ate at some interesting restaurants (Common Ground Cafe) and had delicious seafood twice (Black Cat Tavern and Baxter’s). Allen (and his car) stayed for the first half of my trip, so we visited the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory and Cape Cod Beer, which are on the outskirts of town.

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One out of my three days there was sunny. The day that we went to the beach was not sunny.

At least we had the beach almost to ourselves?
At least we had the beach almost to ourselves?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Allen left, I visited the JFK Museum.

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There is a JFK Museum here because Hyannis, and Hyannisport, were the beloved summer home of the Kennedys. It’s a small museum, but the exhibits were interesting. One featured JFK’s history of sailing; another detailed his relationship with his brother Bobby.

And I got a glimpse of the “Kennedy compound” when I took a sunset cruise. We could barely make out the houses, but the father-and-son cruise team were very knowledgeable and explained who lived in all of the different houses over the years.

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On my last day, I had a lovely Italian meal for lunch and ate ice cream at the harbor (it was the one sunny day!).

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I had a lovely visit and it may have just sparked an interest in visiting other towns on the Cape…

Past-Life Regression

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Past lives—what do you think about it? Are they real?

I’d never given it much thought until my mother, one of the most logical, “black and white” people I know, had a few “visions” in England. I witnessed her experiencing one as we toured Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District. It was pretty wild. She experienced a traumatic event; let’s just keep it at that.

So when I won a travel package to Salem, one of the items was a free past-life regression session with Susan DameGreene. I skimmed her website and watched a video interview with her before my session. I liked her! She seemed gentle and wise.

Her office is on the floor above Salem’s post office, which I totally love. A few rooms on the floor are rented out but most of them are empty. All of the doors are wooden with the old cracked glass panes and many still had gold lettering on the glass.

When I arrived, Susan greeted me warmly and offered me water. She asked me some questions about myself and explained what we were about to do. There would be three parts: first, I would recall a past life. Then, I would go to some “middle place” that had a cool name but it escapes me now. I would experience my own death and loved ones who have died would greet me. Lastly, I would have a conversation with someone who hurt me. I was a little apprehensive because I didn’t know what to expect. Would it work? Would I remember a traumatic event in a past life?

I sat down on the couch, head propped up on pillows. And Susan started guiding me through the hour-long experience.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if it worked 100%. I struggled a bit at first and didn’t really “see” myself in a former life. But I did either access one or make one up. As Susan asked guiding questions, I told her that I was a baker in England’s Lake District and was married to a sensitive writer with a mustache.

BUT, let me interrupt myself and say this: I do believe that past-life regression can work if you have something in your life that you want to work on. As Susan said, in other countries, this is considered a type of therapy akin to talk therapy. I just happened not to have a trauma to work through at this time. Lucky me, right?

So back to the second part of the experience. Again, lucky me: I’ve only lost one loved one so far: my paternal grandmother. I never met my maternal grandmother, but I know we would have been best pals. So I talked my way through my death of old age (my husband preceded me in death) and was greeted by my two grandmothers. I don’t recall if we had a conversation or not…

The last part of the session was a catharsis. Susan told me to get mad at someone who has hurt me and encouraged me to whack a pillow that she was holding. I have trouble getting angry in general, so I did the best I could. I voiced my anger at an ex-boyfriend and quite enjoyed whacking the pillow as I did it.

Overall, it was an interesting experience. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a different way to work through an issue. My mother is interested in seeing Susan when she visits in a few months, and I can’t wait to see what transpires!