A Little Summer/Fall Reading List

This summer, instead of working on my tan or my fitness or my blog producing skills (hello! Zing!), I’ve been reading. Like, not just US Weekly but actual books.

I’ve turned to actual books, in part, because I cancelled my subscription to US Weekly after about seven too many glowing cover stories on a certain family headed by a bumbling Nacho Cheese Dorito who, (and this makes me shudder every single day) will one day have his very own presidential library, even though he can’t even be bothered to read anything more complicated than a tweet.

Speaking of books: here’s what I read this summer. And all of them were longer than a tweet.

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April — For me, the summer reading season kicked off with the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners. As a former journalist, I love to read the stories that win this prize every year, but since I’d already glutinously consumed so much news this year, I decided to take a slightly different approach and read the Prize winner in fiction, Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less.”

I would describe it as “Eat, Pray, Love” with a gay protagonist. It was good, very, very funny.

May — Next up, since I needed some book recommendations, I decided to join the Girl’s Night In book club, which has a chapter here in Old Town, Alexandria. Unfortunately, the first book out of the gate was Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion.” I’m afraid I didn’t like this one at all.

It’s ostensibly about womanhood, loyalty and ambition. I just kept thinking to myself, “How does this female protagonist end up writing a book, living in a Brooklyn brownstone, and becoming a key voice in the feminist movement by her mid-20s after literally having just one clerical job?”

June – This month, I plowed through three books, in part because they were all kinda fluffy, quick reads and in part because work slows down quite a bit for me mid-summer.

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I stumbled on Tara Isabella Burton’s “Social Creature” on Twitter. I think someone I follow mentioned it when it was published, and the way she described it totally hooked me in. It’s a story about obsession and status featuring a con-artist/grifter/murderer (sort of an Anna Delvey-type but more murder-ey, obviously) who uses Instagram and social media to continue her con and cover up a murder. Perfect summer read. Vastly unsatisfying ending.

Another GNI book club read. “The Ensemble” by Aja Gabel was ok, not great. It’s about a group of friends (but are they though?) who are in a musical quartet and how their friendships with each other change over the years. It was difficult to understand whether they really liked each other or whether they were only with each other because they needed the quartet to stick together. Needed more rock-and-roll.

Since we were still in the throws of the Summer of Scams, I read “Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director” by Gary Vikan. I’m actually a tiny bit obsessed with art heists. I blame it on Pierce Brosnan’s Thomas Crown Affair – still one of my favorite movies. I already read “The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft” and loved it.

But the main reason I read Vikan’s book is because of an art heist much closer to home. A few years back, a former PE teacher/driving instructor/blackjack dealer tried to anonymously sell a Renoir she had “discovered” at a flea market to The Potomack Company, an auction house here in Old Town. Major family drama ensued as “Renoir Girl” and her brother fought over who owned the stolen painting. Exactly who stole the painting back in 1951 is still unresolved (it’s got to be the mom, right?), as Vikan details in his book, but it has been returned to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

July – For the GNI book club, the powers that be selected Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. I had wanted to read this one for a while, but figured it’d be hard. While I did not grow up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho, I had a similar upbringing to Westover’s in a lot of ways. There was abuse, neglect, and (undiagnosed) mental illness. And like her, I knew from an early age that the way out of my circumstances was through education.

I also knew that the road to getting that education would not be easy, but like her, I probably wasn’t quite prepared for how difficult it would be or the costs that it would require. I personally have found that getting out in the world and changing your life can cause a huge chasm between yourself and those you leave behind, and sometimes that gulf is just too large to bridge. I’m different because of my experiences and education. There is no going back. When people say “don’t forget where you come from,” I just don’t get it because every single thing I did was specifically to distance myself from where I came from, which was a very bad place.

Anyway, this one really struck home and I really, really liked it even though it brought up a lot of bad memories.

The next book I read was recommended by another GNI book club attendee and since I was looking for something on the opposite end of the spectrum after “Educated,” it was a welcome relief to escape into “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou. Thankfully, I have no experience with Yale students who drop out of school to start a revolutionary blood testing startup in Silicon Valley, all while wearing black turtlenecks a la Steve Jobs and taking gobs of money from venture capitalists and investors while lying about the entire company, its technology and capabilities.

This book was head-shakingly, gob-smackingly good. I could not believe what Elizabeth Holmes got away with from a lot of smart people who should have known better. Seriously. If this was the Summer of Scams, she is the undisputed queen. The balls on this chick. Maybe my favorite book of the summer. Although…..

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August – I really, really loved “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood. It’s a historical novel based on the true kidnapping story in the 1940s of 11-year-old Sally Horner, which ended up inspiring Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Not gonna lie: it was creepy, definitely was on the edge of icky, but it was so, so good and just heartbreaking. I could not put it down.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – This was another GNI selection and was also on the summer reading list of the two big O’s – Obama and Oprah (Oprah’s Book Club 2018 Selection). It’s about a newlywed man who is wrongly accused of a crime and ends up going to prison for five years before his sentence is overturned. Obviously, the marriage takes a hit and he returns home to try to reclaim his life and his wife. Another heartbreaker and also good, but a bit frustrating. It definitely made you think. What’s fair in a young, fledging marriage that’s been interrupted like this? What do people who were once in love owe each other? When is it ok to let go? Ever?

Finally, one of my favorite Instagram feeds, @notenoughhangers mentioned he was reading this book: The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne de Courcy. It’s about the many, many American Gilded Age heiresses who married into British aristocracy at the turn of the century and how that worked out for everyone. Spoiler: mostly not great, but I did love hearing all about their amazing stately homes, fabulously over-the-top parties, and all other ways they blew through their daddy’s fortunes to console themselves.

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SeptemberThe Alice Network by Kate Quinn – Only got about 20 percent into it before I ditched it for my current read. Loved the history angle and the female empowerment idea of the story (based on the true story of female spy outfit in France during World War II), but couldn’t stand the writing and the way the story was being told.

Which brings me to my current read: Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World by Wall Street Journal reporters, Tom Wright, Bradley Hope. Someone on Goodreads described it as “Bad Blood” meets “Crazy Rich Asians” and I was hooked. Just started this last night and I’m excited.

 

 

 

Put Down the Barbell and Pass the Canoli

In this era of increased awareness and discussion around mental health, I would like to know: what is going on with Teresa Guidice (of Real Housewives of New Jersey)?

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Girlfriend got jacked!

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This is crazy, right? Nobody (particularly those over 40) puts this much time and effort into completely revamping their entire body and look without there being some underlying issues.

I knew that she had gotten into yoga while she was “away,” but this is waaaaay beyond yoga body. This is even past Crossfit Cult levels of enthusiasm.

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This is a woman who has written four Italian cookbooks. A woman who likes her pasta and desserts. A woman who stopped by a diner for a breakfast sandwich and coffee before checking into prison in the middle of the night. A woman, who once “wrote” on her blog:

If you’ve gotten any of my 4 cookbooks, you know I love-love-love desserts! I call them “Happy Endings” because everyone deserves one! I’m releasing a new Fabulicious Dessert line and working on my next cookbook–all desserts!–but until they come out, I’ll post some of my favorite dessert recipes here for you.

Here’s a 2012 account of a typical day’s eats, including homemade pasta, cannoli, a mention of “Joe’s juicy meatballs,” and the line: “Honestly, I have no idea how some people deprive themselves.”

teresa desert

Is this the same woman? Getting to this level of bodybuilding had to take a ton of work and discipline and even deprivation, something that can’t be easy while basically being a single mother to four young girls.

Is this a cry for help? I ask because I care about all my Bravolebrities and I know she’s been going through a particularly hard time, with Joe in prison and everything.

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GIVE ME CARBS!!!

However, you cannot blot out your problems with copious amounts of fake tanner and Muscle Milk, Teresa.

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In all seriousness, I tip my hat to her, even if I do think she’s gone a bit too far. She’s always looked amazing, particularly for someone who has had four children (five, if you count Joe). I was just more impressed when she looked great AND ate carbs.

I’m not sure if the Bravo cameras were along with Teresa on this latest life journey, documenting it all for an eventual season 9.

But her transformation should make for an interesting reunion when Juicy Joe gets out of prison next March. He better watch his mouth because I’m pretty sure she could kick his butt pretty easily these days.

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Reality TV Time: Southern Charm New Orleans

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: having a cold sucks. Especially in the summer.

I’ve been sick for about a week. And it really sucks. It’s also been raining in D.C. for basically a month. Sure, there were a couple of days of modest sunshine, but mostly, it’s been rain: warm, humid, phlegmy rain.

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So even if I were feeling 100 percent, I’d be housebound.

You’d think that with all that time at home, I’d have been more productive. But, you’d be wrong. I just finished up my big client project for the year and was gearing up for prospecting mode when this cold laid me out. I’ve got another big client project with no hard deadline that I’m working on and a few smaller projects, but I’ve got some breathing room. If only my gunk-filled lungs will cooperate.

However, when one is sick and housebound and hopped up on Nyquil/Dayquil, there really is just one activity worthy of a doxylamine succinate-soaked brain — watching a lot of bad TV on Bravo, including Southern Charm (both the original and the New Orleans edition).

I, of course, watched Southern Charm Savannah and I got to say: I was disappointed. I just couldn’t get into it. It was just missing something. Maybe a Ravenal. Maybe a Patricia. I’m just not sure, but I didn’t find a single character that I really liked and instead found several that I despised.

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I’m sorry, Ashley. I really thought I would like you, but I just didn’t. (Photo: Bravo)

Southern Charm New Orleans snagged me from the first. Sure, it does seem that every marriage on the show is on the verge of collapse, which is never really comfortable or even fun to watch, but I dig this group of friends. They seem to genuinely be friends and have each other’s backs. I love how they can throw down and call each other out and then end up dancing to zydeco, all the in the same 10 minutes.

Don’t get it twisted: Tamica has a big ol’mouth and stirs the gumbo pot like it’s one of her many exhausting jobs, but, everyone seems to know that’s just how she is and not to take it too seriously. I especially love the tension and marriage-commenting that goes on between her and Reagan, neither of whom should be handing out any commitment advice right now. They are worthy adversaries who play off each other’s relationship blindness pretty well.

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(Oh damn. Just found this.)

But it’s the guys that especially made this spin off so great – all of them, even Tamica’s cousin, brother, and assorted hanger-ons. They’re all strong, successful, and just chill. They’re clearly used to high drama women and know how to brush off the nonsense. Plus, we saw a little bit of vulnerability in all of them: Barry trying to instill confidence in his daughter, Jeff wrestling with some serious family demons, Justin being a mama’s boy who’s afraid of ghosts, and Jon Moody, who just can’t seem to find a shirt (seasonally inappropriate turtleneck, notwithstanding) or a pair of pants that actually fit him (son, them pants this season were snug!). Poor thing had to go without a shirt most of the time.

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There is almost never a time that a turtleneck is needed in New Orleans. This is also one of those times. (Photo: Bravo)

I haven’t seen the finale yet (it’s on the DVR) but I’m fairly sure it will involve the N.O. gang and all their friends and relatives getting together to eat great food, drink too much, make drama and resolve it. It’s pretty much a Bravo finale requirement. Jon will, undoubtedly, be shirtless (for his art, of course). Reagan will wear a giant hoop skirt and some lion-emblazed, doorknocker jewelry that I think only she can pull off. Tamica will meddle in some people’s business and go a teeny bit too far. Justin will dodge efforts to get him married off after only dating his current love for ONE YEAR (y’all just leave him alone). Barry will be silent and supportive.

In any case, I hope (and suspect) that Southern Charm New Orleans will get a second season and I can’t wait for it.

 

 

How I Plan to Be Super Chill and Eat Waffles in 2018

Here we are a week into the new year and I must say my overwhelming feeling so far in 2018 is that the dumpster fire that was 2017 is far from over.

That seems mighty pessimistic, I know.

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On a personal and professional level (and without getting too personal), last year was a bit bumpy, to put it mildly, pretty much from start to finish.

And the state of the world and society in general from a national and global level….well. I have thoughts and opinions.

You often hear people compare 2017 to a roller coaster. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. For one thing, some people really like roller coasters. And with a roller coaster, you can generally see the loops and dips and swoops that lie up ahead.

No, I think of 2017 as more like a pinball machine, where we’re all careening around recklessly, slapped about by seen flippers and slingshots yet also gut punched by those little knobs that pop up out of nowhere all the damn time.

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And while I can’t do much about the state of the world and society (I’ll leave that to Oprah for now), I can do something about my personal and professional spheres of being.

One thing that I subconsciously did last year was improve my interpersonal relationships. I didn’t set out to do it…I’m actually a bit of a hermit crab who wants to stay home, curled up on the sofa in my yoga pants with a cat on my lap and a glass of wine within reach, watching anything that Bravo wants to put in front of my face.

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But when I look back on 2017, the memories that pop out the most are the ones involving family and new and old friends. Times when I made an effort. Times when I stepped out of my comfort zone and reached out to people I barely knew or talked to people I had just met or reconnected with people I hadn’t talked to in a long time.

My sister came and visited me for the first time here in D.C. and we got to spend some time together for the first time in years. Some of it was great, like when I played tour guide and dragged her all over town in the freezing January cold or showed her some of my favorite Old Town spots. Some of it was difficult and uncomfortable as we sorted through some of our vastly different memories and perspectives on shared events.

And I made a point to visit her when I went to Texas for a freelance conference later in the year. Again, some of that visit was good and some of it was awkward as we continue to hash out the perimeters of our relationship, but I think that might be what family dynamics are all about. They’re not cut and dried. They’re actually quite hard. It’s a feeling and situation I’ve tended to avoid more often than not. But at least – on that relationship – we are making inroads, I think.

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About that freelancing conference: it was, quite honestly, pretty much a bust (in my opinion) and I won’t be attending it again. But by just attending it, I met and learned a lot from my fellow attendees (we even joked about starting our own better-organized and useful, practical freelancer conference – maybe a goal for 2019?).

I also came back from that conference convinced that 1) I’m actually doing some things right in this old freelancing biz, 2) I have wisdom, experiences and advice that I’m happy to share with others, and 3) I shouldn’t be afraid to make friends, even with people I view as potential competitors. What I learned is that there’s honestly enough work out there for all of us.

When I got home, I doubled-down on attending networking events and reaching out to other freelancers for coffee, lunch and drinks. And I checked my motivation and expectations at the door. I made sure that my efforts were NOT for the purpose of generating job leads—which has never worked out for me at a networking event—but just to be social and have a laugh, and sometimes to commiserate and share advice. That’s something that I intend to continue throughout 2018.

That bummer of a conference also allowed me to reconnect with old Austin friends, some of whom I didn’t even think had missed me or would want to see me! I left Austin about 15 years ago and I figured we’d all just grown apart and moved on with our busy lives so it honestly didn’t occur to me that they would want to rearrange their schedules to meet up while I was in town. I just didn’t think we were “those type” of friends anymore. But they did! And I was so moved and humbled by that. It really made me reassess how I myself treat old friendships that I thought were “in the past.” I look forward to the work I need to do on improving those friendships in 2018.

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So that’s my goal for 2018 — work on the stuff that I have control over, including and especially, relationships. That, and cut back on cussing, but that’s damn losing proposition.

Museum Hack and 5 Reasons DC’s National Gallery of Art is the ‘Best Museum in the Entire Country’

Assassinations, forgeries, illicit affairs–of both the straight and not-straight variety—Disney’s “Little Mermaid conspiracy theories and shark attacks. If any of these things interest you (and, let’s be honest: ALL of these should absolutely interest you), then you need to go on a Museum Hack “Un-Highlights” tour of the National Gallery of Art the next time you’re in D.C.

Museum Hack
Museum Hack’s motto

Museum Hack is a company that host hundreds of tours at museums in cities across the U.S., including New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But, as the name suggests, this company is out to hack the usual generic museum tour and make you fall in love with museums. The best part is that they do it in the sneakiest way: By employing a fun, irreverent, renegade group of museum lovers/tour guides to tell you all the juiciest stories behind those staid, stagnant pieces of art work.

Hannah was my excellent and entertaining guide during my two-hour tour of the National Gallery of Art, which she definitively declared (on more than one occasion) as the best museum in the entire country.

Museum Hack Hannah
Museum Hack Hannah

By the end, I think she had me and my fellow newly-initiated art lovers (Chris, Michele and teenager Ben–all from California) completely convinced and ready to argue the fact with anyone who disagreed.

Here are 5 of Hannah’s most compelling reasons.

1) Because it was built on the site of a presidential assassination

And surprisingly, not too many museums can say that! The National Gallery of Art occupies the former location of the Baltimore & Potomac Railway train station. It was here, in July 1881 that President James Garfield—seeking to escaping D.C.’s oppressive summer heat with a little lobster-roll-filled vacay in New England–was shot by an assassin on the station platform. The nation’s 20th president then lingered for 11 weeks before finally dying in a most gruesome and puss-filled fashion. Then some other stuff happened and the National Gallery of Art was built and opened in 1941.

2) “Museum sugar daddy” aka Andrew Mellon aka Hannah’s main man.

Listen, we wouldn’t even have a museum to hack if it wasn’t for ol’Mr. Mellon. Man, it is good to be rich. And if you’re going to be rich, you’ve got to find a way to spend that cash, preferably in a manner that will give you some major street cred, or a lasting legacy of beneficence. Mellon was, of course, a well-travelled man, and when he saw London’s National Gallery and realized that America didn’t really have anything equivalent to a national art collection in the United States, he said, “Let’s do this.”

3) The National Gallery holds the only painting by Leonardo Da Vinci on public view in the Americas.

Just let that sink in for a minute, because I had to when I heard it.

Da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci

What is widely considered the finest example of a Da Vinci painting—the double-sided “Ginevra de’Benci” —was acquired by the National Gallery after a protracted MMA-style museum-fight throw down with a ton of other museums, most notably, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the end of the odd and protracted negotiations with the Princely House of Lichtenstein, the Alisa Mellon Bruce Foundation (yes, those art-loving Mellons came to the rescue again), paid $5 million—a record in 1967—to bring Da Vinci’s first portrait and first work done exclusively in oil to D.C. Interesting side note: the $5 million supposedly went to pay off the gambling debts of the Prince of Lichtenstein. And the Met was left without a Da Vinci, which then led them to say all kinds of mean things about the painting in the New York Times. Talk about sore losers.

4) An amazing collection of Impressionist and French art (including a fake Van Gogh)

American banker and patron of the arts Chester Dale liked to play games. His primary source of fun was to lend out pieces of his amazing collection of French paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which he referred to as his “children”) to various museums throughout the country and then recall them at a moment’s notice when he missed them. No one dared say no because they were all hoping for the big prize—an endowment of his collection when he passed on to the great bank in the sky.

The National Gallery won, becoming the recipient of over 240 paintings, including a fake Van Gogh self-portrait that Dale apparently knew was a fake, but kept on the DL, saying, “As long as I’m alive, it’s a Van Gogh.”

Fake Van Gogh
Fake Van Gogh

5) It holds the largest collection of Edgar Degas sculptures in the world (again, thanks Mellons!)

This time it was Paul Mellon who had the good sense to snap up most of the collection when it became available at a New York exhibit in 1955 for the insanely low price of $400,000. The National Gallery owns 52 of the surviving 69 sculptures Degas created in his lifetime, including the original “Little Dancer” sculpture. You’ll see bronze copies of the “Little Dancer” at museums around the world, but the National Gallery has the original beeswax and found objects sculpture which features real human hair and tulle.

Little Dancer at the National Gallery of Art

So that’s 5 reasons, but honestly, Hannah gave us a ton more. For example, we got to participate in a tableaux vivant, which is a live recreation of a work of art. Ours involved a painting of London Mayor Sir Brook Watson, who lost a leg in a shark attack and then convinced artist John Singleton Copley to paint a recreation of the whole shark fight/rescue. I don’t know what the tableaux vivants at the other Museum Hack tours involve, but ours has to rank up there as pretty badass.

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Our Copley reenactment. I’m using my purse as shark jaws (I was the shark, in case that isn’t clear).

And I didn’t even get to the story about the lesbian Queen of Sweden who abdicated her Lutheran throne to become Catholic, thereby earning her apartments at the Vatican where she proceeded to hang the portrait of her former “bedfellow” Countess Ebba Sparre in her room at the Vatican. Tsk, tsk, you naughty minx.

Or the painting of Guiliano de’Medici who was killed during Easter mass in the Florence Cathedral in front of about 10,000 worshippers, which is recreated in the “Assassin’s Creed” video game.

Or the Van Dyck painting of Queen Henrietta and her dwarf, the very interesting and resilient Sir Jeffrey Hudson.

Or the super swaggish, Beyonce-posing Andries Stilte (and his modern day contemporaries brought to us by Kehinde Wiley).

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Making it rain (sort of) in the National Gallery’s Stuart room.

We also played games like “Find Ginevra a New Man” and “Match the Emoji to the Painting” and “Pose Like a French Statue.” Those are not official game titles, but you get the idea. Plus there was some elicit chocolate sneaking, and pictures and prizes at the end.

Seriously, I don’t know if I’ll ever look at a museum tour the same way again.

Museum Hack provided me with this tour free of charge. The opinions expressed here are my own, because, if you know me, you know I freely give my opinions. 

 

 

 

An Overview of Sri Lanka, Privileged Tourism and Getting in My Own Head

On paper, Sri Lanka was a no brainer for us—our logical next vacation destination. It has a lot of the things we gravitate towards as travelers—we like South/Southeast Asia (admittedly, one of us a bit more than the other). We love the spicy food in this area of the world, with the focus on fresh fish and vegetables. We like learning about a new country’s history, architecture, and culture. Sri Lanka presented us with plenty to see and do, the weather was warm (which always means there’s a good excuse to spend the afternoon by a pool with a cold local beer). And it’s very, very affordable.

Sri Lankan curry
The curry in Sri Lanka was out of this world.

 

Sri Lanka is very much trying to put its recent violent past behind it, but devoting so many resources to fighting a civil war has definitely left the country a bit behind the eight ball as far as development goes. It is very, very poor and people are struggling. They’re relying on tourism to help economically and, from a marketing standpoint at least, it appears to be working.

All during our year of planning, we kept hearing about other people who were going or had just been to Sri Lanka. I don’t know if it was because it was finally on our radar or if it had just reached the popularity tipping point, but all of a sudden, it seemed like Sri Lanka was more sought after than a hot cheerleader at prom (or, a Harvard acceptance letter. Shoutout to ya, Priscilla Samey). Bloomberg added Sri Lanka to its list of 20 places to go in 2017, Huffington Post said it was the one country you should go to in 2017, and even that travel authority Vogue declared it a “destination that stimulates all the senses.”

Sri Lanka sunset
Postcard material, courtesy of Sri Lanka. I took this picture. With a point and shoot camera. No filter.  Sunsets really did look like this.

The Lay of the Land

Sri Lanka is certainly diverse in terms of geography. This former Portuguese/Dutch/British colony—aka Ceylon—has beautiful beaches to the south (packed with foreigners, we noticed). The cooler, hilly mid-part of the country is much cooler and is incredibly lush, green and misty, and packed with tea fields/plantations (full of visiting tourists and smacking of British colonialism still). The northern, historic Golden Triangle area has caves and crumbling temple cities and all the accompanying tourists turning bright pink under the scorching sun.

Polonnaruwa temple
Sweating it out at Polonnaruwa temple

Sri Lanka is also quite the hikers’ paradise and everywhere we went—from the mountaintop cave temples at Sigiriya Rock Fortress and Dambulla to Adam’s Peak and Horton Plains Park near Ella, there were opportunities to slip and slide over some dangerous trails—if you could stand the heat and oppressive humidity (we could not).

Dambulla caves
At least it was cool (if a bit crowded) at the fabulous Dambulla Cave Temple in northern Sri Lanka.

Instead, we drove. Or, more accurately, we rode in the backseat while our driver Tillie ferried us around the country for 10 days. During that time, we saw wild elephants lumbering along the side of the road (there are over 2,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka). We drank from king coconuts, including one we purchased for 400 rupees from a man on the side of the road with his teeth stained red from chewing betel leaves, mixed with tobacco, and areca nut. We rode a very old train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. We spent a confusing and sweaty morning wandering around the old Dutch fort town of Galle–confusing because nothing, even churches, appeared to be open that day, and yet we almost got swept up in some sort of parade of some sorts. We talked to giggling school children who wanted to practice their English at the otherwise disappointing Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. And we ate. And ate. And ate.

Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy
An offering station at the very crowded and rather underwhelming Temple of the Tooth Relic.

As Vogue noted, Sri Lanka does stimulate all the senses. But the biggest “sense” it stimulated in me was a sense of déjà vu and maybe, even, just the slightest bit of a letdown, which, I know, sounds maybe a bit harsh.

What’s the Problem, Poe?

As we’ve previously encountered in other countries in Southeast Asia (I’m looking at you, Bali. And Thailand), there’s this major confusion over what tourists want, with a heavy reliance on tourist traps, whether it’s “turtle hatcheries” that house a collection of sad, little cement enclosures too small for the turtles living in them, or the “tsunami photo museums” which had neither photos (they were faded color print-outs from the Internet) nor were organized in anything resembling a museum.

Vendor in Galle
Vendor in Galle selling cool “joos.” NOT a tourist trap. 

Then there were all the tourist traps we just said, “no” to: wooden mask carvers, the multiple spice farms, the elephant sanctuaries, the moonstone mines, the stilt fishermen—all of which are (generally) staged, and less focused on education/more focused on accepting donations/taking photos in exchange for donations.

This reliance on tourist traps in a depressed economy is completely understandable. It is a very, very poor country. The people are struggling and are trying to find ways to get by—and increasingly, that seems to be relying on tourism. The saddest bit is the clustering and proliferation of one particular type of tourist trap. Instead of one spice farm or turtle hatchery, there would be like, 20 of them, all identical and all lined up right next to each other.

Railroad crossing in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuks at a railroad crossing in Sri Lanka

In the end, it all just comes off as feeling very exploitative – on both sides. I hate saying, “no thank you,” repeatedly. I feel defensive and like I have to keep pushing people away who really need the money and why don’t I just go to the damn moonstone mine and buy some damn moonstones even if I don’t want or need them?

Or, when we do cave in and visit one of these places, I end up feeling like it wasn’t a great experience and like I didn’t really learn anything. I feel self-conscious, looking at these sad, little makeshift tourist traps and expecting more. I feel like I missed the disclaimer that screams “all this place is supposed to do is elicit enough sympathy to make you reach into your pockets and throw some money at your guilt.”

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A Hindu wedding in Sri Lanka (NOT a tourist display….at least as far as I know).

So that was my struggle with Sri Lanka. And with travel and tourism in general. I know there are countries out there that need it, that are counting on it, and that want us to come and visit and spend our money. So go. Go see places, even if they might make you uncomfortable, even if they might make you sad or confused. Go and see if you can spot a wild elephant, slowly weaving its way in and out of the trees along the side of the road on a cool morning in the middle of Sri Lanka.

Wild elephant in Sri Lanka

 

Where to Safari? Tanzania or South Africa

It’s the question that everyone asks when they hear about our recent African safari.

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No, not I packed for essentially three weeks of travel (although, that would be my first question and the answer is: not that much). It’s not even whether we ever got bored of seeing many of the same animals day after day (answer: nope, not at all).

The question is: which African safari destination did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

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The answer is a bit complicated. Actually, it’s not that complicated for me. It’s just that it’s a different answer than my travel-companion-for-life, XFE, and it always feels a tiny bit awkward when we don’t necessarily agree. Especially as he is the one who does most of the travel planning. It makes me feel like I’m being slightly ungrateful of all his hard work or something.

Anyway, XFE liked the Serengeti (Tanzania) slightly better. I preferred Sabi Sands (South Africa). Which is just fine. I don’t think either destination is going to pack up their tents and call it a day based on our meager little preferences. And guess what? Neither of them suck. Like, at all. So don’t worry. No bad decisions here.

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Safari in Tanzania or South Africa? They both beat a handful of poop.

Look, the Serengeti is beautiful. Vast grass plains that go on forever and ever. Little purple and white “tissue” flowers signaling the approaching of spring. Rocky outcroppings that allow animals to hide in plain sight. Completely empty savannas with just a single tree providing shade for a couple of leopard brothers. The viewing is plentiful and easy.

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And, as far as sheer numbers of animals, you cannot beat the Serengeti. You don’t just see one lion, you see a whole pride of them, scattered out in a dry river bank, nursing their babies and snoozing and washing themselves and just generally being cats. The Serengeti has the Great Migration, and herds and herds of wildebeest participating in a truly awe-inspiring, bucket-list experience. We saw plenty of everything, especially the Big 5. (But between the two destinations, we saw the Big 7 – that’s the Big 5 plus cheetah and African wild dog).

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A whole bunch of hippos in the Serengeti.

We also saw plenty of death, which bummed me out and contributed to my personal preference for Sabi Sands.

But actually, for me, it comes down to the focus on conservation, which varies greatly between the Serengeti (a vast, open public park) and Sabi Sands (a private reserve set in the midst of a public park).

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A couple of young Sabi Sands lions, approximately 18 mos old. They had been part of the Ottawa pride. They’re mother had been killed by a hyena (!), but they were adopted and raised by the rest of the pride. Our guide Stefan knew all of this.

In Sabi Sands, the drivers and guides know the animals—they know who their parents were, they’ve given them names, they have whole identity kits on each of them and they have spent years acclimating the animals to their human sounds. They approach new or unknown animals very cautiously and respectfully, so as not to scare them.

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Making friends with a new group of skittish rhinos in Sabi Sands.

The guides in Sabi Sands also coordinate over the radio so that there aren’t too many vehicles converging on an animal at once—a vehicle will drive up, spend a few minutes viewing the animal and then back out. And they only drive off the established trails when they’re chasing a Big 5 animal.

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Sleepy cheetah in the Serengeti

The Serengeti is a bit more casual, much more Wild West, if you will. And the guides there are a lot more focused on making sure you (the paying and tipping customer) get your NatGeo-worthy photo, rather than the comfort of the animals. For example, when we rolled up on some sleeping lions one day, our guide began clapping his hands to get the lion to wake up and look up, so we could get a better picture. We assured him that that was not at all necessary and to just let the lion be.

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Believe me: there was more than just the one other vehicle.

In addition, there are a lot more vehicles around in the Serengeti, including all sorts of private guides from outside the park. So there’s no coordination amongst them. The day we finally found black rhinos still makes me cringe, as about half a dozen (at least) trucks encircled the two rhinos. Even though most everyone kept their distance (to some extent), I still felt like we were pinning them in and they really had nowhere to go (they were trying to retreat back into the bush and trees along the river bank behind the trucks–including ours).

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Serengeti family. No names, but lots of babies.

The guides in the Serengeti also do not know the names or lineage of the animals, and in fact, when I asked about the name of our first lion sighting, I got a bit of a strange look. And they definitely drive off the trails quite a bit, in pursuit of any animal. And I do mean pursuit. A couple of times it felt (to my sensitive soul, at least) like we were chasing animals, which I did not like.

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Mom coming to the rescue of a couple of young cheetah brothers we went offroading to see in the Serengeti.

There are a few other things: I much preferred the guides in Sabi Sands. They were knowledgeable and excited every day. Both locations are a little difficult to get to, but Tanzania was definitely more difficult. I also liked the safari style of Sabi Sands–morning game drive, break in the afternoon, evening game drive. There were no nighttime game drives in Tanzania, so it was an all-day safari drive. Although, eating breakfast and lunch out in the wild in the Serengeti was amazing in its own right.

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Leopard climbing up the tree for the snack he’d saved (upper left, hanging). He had a name, I think it was Dayone? Definitely not Scotia. She was a female.

But for me, it ultimately comes down to the entirely different focus—animals first or clients first. Neither is wrong, but I definitely preferred one approach over the other.

Plus, Sabi Sands = honey badgers!

The Basics on Planning an African Safari, aka: Should You Use a Travel Agent?

Let me start by saying: there’s nothing basic about planning a safari trip to Africa. I mean, come on! It’s beyond exciting! It’s the trip of a lifetime! We’re talking bucket list stuff! You gallop headlong into it with visions of the “Lion King” and “Out of Africa” dancing off in the distance. You start buying khaki and olive colored clothes, because, obviously, you’re going to want to fit in and look the part. You envision bush lunches with zebras relaxing nearby and sundowners at watering holes with rhinos and all the glamorous aspects of a safari vacation.

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It’s all sundowners and friendly rhinos in South Africa.

And you should have all those safari expectations because guess what? They’re all going to come true. But first, my little dreamer friend, you’ve got some serious planning to do.

When we first began to plan XFE’s 40th birthday trip to Africa, we knew we wanted to go back to South Africa, and Sabi Sands in particular. There were several reasons: we had a great time when we were last there in 2014, we loved Savanna Lodge, we liked the fact that it was a private reserve and therefore, less busy.

But we also knew we wanted to try somewhere else, which led to tons of research and double guessing ourselves. Should we go to Kenya? Maybe we combine Kenya and Tanzania. What about Namibia? I’ve read/heard good things about Zambia—should we go there?

After we finally narrowed in on wanting to see the Great Migration and spending a few days on the end of our trip on a beach somewhere, we were really torn between two places: Kenya and Tanzania. They both had a lot to offer but I think it ultimately came down to two considerations: price and crowds. Kenya was much more expensive based on our initial research and Kenya was, we’d heard, a lot, LOT more crowded.

(Above: giraffe in South Africa and giraffe in Tanzania. Or do I have that backwards?)

Now that we knew where we wanted to go, the real work began. There is no doubt that planning a safari trip to Africa is totally overwhelming. There are just so many options—hundreds of lodges and camps in every imaginable price range located on dozens of different national parks, which then have different reserves within them. Then there’s all the different visa and inoculation requirements, the limited or convoluted transportation/transfer options, the time of year and weather considerations.

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For example, perhaps you want to know if you will you be sharing your plane with some local fruit?

Honestly, planning a trip to Africa almost requires the use of a travel agent. They’re experts, they can work with your budget (if you have a set budget in mind) and they usually work closely with certain lodges. Plus, they can sometimes get you a discount.

After finding out that Savanna Lodge was already fully booked a year out, the folks at Savanna suggested we reach out to Shereen at Pride Lodges to find another Sabi Sands lodge. Shereen was great. She is hands down an expert on Sabi Sands and South Africa and was even helpful in guiding us a bit on the Tanzania part.

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Notice that live animals and plants (like the fruit we flew with above) are merely restricted while obscene materials and pornography are completely prohibited.

I will say: we don’t typically use a travel agent. We actually like doing research and reading reviews and finding places that we think will suit us. Travel agents, while they tend to work with certain lodges (and that’s great and all) often aren’t up to date on some of the deals the lodges might be offering, such as “stay three nights, get a fourth free” or “book with us and we’ll add in a couple of nights at our partner lodge.”

Plus, agents tend to not be so great at breaking things out and explaining the pricing. They just hand you this very large number, so you don’t really see where your money is going or have the ability to shop around a bit to see if there are other options. For example, when we reached out to a travel agent affiliated with a line of luxury lodges we ended up NOT staying at, she quoted us an exorbitant amount that didn’t include the lodge’s current web deal but did include a crazy price for the regional flights. When XFE asked her about the flight legs then went and priced them out on his own, it became clear that the quote was way off.

(Above: South African white rhinos on the left, Tanzanian black rhinos on the right)

This particular agent had also included an overnight (really, a six-hour stay) at a very nice and expensive coffee plantation (gourmet meal included) when really all we needed was a place to shower and flop until our early morning flight. I’m sure the place was lovely during the day (we would be arriving at around midnight) and the gourmet meal was delicious (the kitchen would not be open when we arrived), but it really wasn’t necessary when all we needed was the African equivalent of the Holiday Inn.

But, I can absolutely see how and why people end up using a travel agent in Africa. Doing all that legwork on something that involves quite a bit of money and logistics is exhausting and stressful. And Shereen at Pride Lodges is great.

I’ll also say: it’s Africa. It’s unpredictable. Things happen. Flights get delayed, or you didn’t leave yourself enough time to transfer between flights (no exaggeration: give yourself 3-4 hours at the airport.) For example, we had a flight on a regional carrier who had upgraded their computer system in June and no longer had any record of the flight we purchased in February. Luckily, we had a printed out copy of our February confirmation and record number. But what followed was at least an hour of standing around while the desk agent tried to sort it all out over the phone. And that was AFTER we’d already waited 45 minutes in the check-in line to begin with (note: there is no premier access or first class line at most of these regional carriers).

(Above: South African elephant mama and baby on left. Tanzanian elephant mama and baby on right)

That’s just one example of an instance where a travel agent might come in handy. Think of them as your insurance policy or personal advocate. If something goes wrong (and, it’s Africa, so it will) they can try to help fix it or figure out another option.

Later this week, I’ll start reviewing some of the lodges we stayed at and I’ll answer the question we get asked the most: which did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

Eight Reasons We Need a Real Housewives of the Olympic Village

The Olympics are on and they are totally messing with my Bravo viewing.

I’m not a fan of the Olympics and not just because of the TV viewing disruption. I just think in this day and age, when there are so many other platforms and international competitions and accompanying viewing options for all of your favorite sports (all of which occur without waiting four years in between), the Olympics have sort of lost their shine.

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If I was into gymnastics and trampoline (that’s a sport!?), maybe I’d feel differently. But since I can literally find even table tennis or rugby on TV in just about every part of the world, I don’t feel the need to tune into the Olympics.

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Trampoline: an Olympic sport. I shit you not.

Also, it seems like it’s a total shit show for the host country every single time. A financial disaster, a PR nightmare and little or no return for a lot of effort.

My opinion, however, is a minority opinion. Clearly. You can tell by the all-out, wall-to-wall coverage blitzkrieg NBC is putting on to cover every single second of the games. Since NBC is already live streaming it everywhere, including your phone and OnDemand, I really don’t understand why they have to disrupt the entirety of the Real Housewives franchise.

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Table tennis: Also an Olympic sport. Again, not kidding.

Now, I have to wait two weeks to see RHNJ’s Jackie call Teresa a crook to her face (the ONLY thing even remotely interesting happening on Real Housewives of New Jersey this season). Two weeks to see RHOC newcomer Kelly Dodd mess up another dinner party by calling someone the “c” word (my money is on Shannon being the recipient of that particular doozy). Two weeks until we finally see RHNY’s Bethenny break the Tom/Playboy-bunny cheating news to Luann. And I have to wait two whole weeks to see if Brooks ever returns Vicki’s call!

So, what I propose to the Amazing Programming Genius/National Treasure Andy Cohen is that he get stepping and create a Real Housewives of the Olympic Village. Here are just a few reasons why I think this would be a great addition to the franchise:

Home Improvment1) Housewives and Olympians love a home improvement project (see: Heather Dubrow, Chateau Sheree, Moore Manor), and the busted Rio Olympic Village certainly sounds like a major home improvement project. Not only have there been a ton of complaints about the lackluster accommodations, but several countries have apparently brought in their own repair teams to fix damages.

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2) Olympians, like the Real Housewives, are a super horny bunch (looking at you, New York crew: ie, Luann, Sonja and Ramona). Hundreds of Rio Olympic athletes are active on Tinder, likely making use of the record 450,000 condoms distributed at the Olympic athletes’ village. Some big name Olympic Tinder users include swimmer Ryan Lochte (the Sonja of the Rio games) and golfer Rickie Fowler.

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3) Real Housewives require real private chefs and the Olympic athletes are also enjoying some hand-prepared specialties in the Olympic Village. Although, it’s hard to imagine the ladies of OC or Beverly Hills eating carb-heavy and fried salgadinhos. But I know those ladies would throw down some caipirinhas (also on the Olympic Village menu).

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4) Real Housewives love an excuse to enjoy a yacht (see: “We Got the Yacht” Luann). So do some Olympians, especially the Team USA basketball crew. They decided to skip the Olympic Village and shack up on a luxury cruise ship that sounds fit for a Housewife. “The boat has beds that will accommodate 7-footers (sorry, Bogut), a spa, multiple dining areas, a bar, a cigar lounge and an open-air pool. A weeklong cruise typically costs about $13,000.”

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5) Real Housewives like a good spa day, as do many Olympians who are enjoying the services of his-and-her salons in the Olympic Village and getting free patriotic manicures. Or, you could really go the extra mile as the Team USA men’s basketball team did and go to a “spa,” aka, a brothel. I guess the spa on their luxury cruise ship wasn’t exactly providing the services they so desperately needed.

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6) Speaking of spa services, as we saw on last week’s episode of Real Housewives of Orange County, Shannon Beador is a fan of the Gwynnie-approved therapy known as cupping. Turns out, the US Swim Team is also into cupping, which apparently confused the hell out of a lot of mainstream, TV-viewing Americans the other night. Luckily, thanks to Goop and Real Housewives, I’m up to speed on all the latest kooky health trends. So be sure to be on the lookout for leeches, people.

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7) Real Housewives like, no, need, to travel with a whole lot of luggage, as do Olympians. In the case of the team from Great Britain, they traveled with 3,000 pieces of luggage (9 of which have apparently gone missing).

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8) Finally, just like Real Housewives of New Jersey, the Olympic Village has its’ own tax evader in the form of Brazilian soccer star Neymar. Although, to be fair, Neymar probably isn’t staying in the actual Olympic Village. I’m sure he’s staying on a yacht somewhere with Luann and crew.

Is it a Dress or a Cover Up? Billboard Music Awards Edition

Hi. Remember me? I like to hang out here sometimes.

When last we spoke, I was eating my way through London. Ah, those days.

But let’s just go ahead and jump back into this whole blogging thing, shall we? Because how can we not talk about the fashions at the Billboard Music Awards.

My friend Katie and I often play a game when shopping at H&M. One of us will hold up a “garment” and ask the other, “What the hell is this? I mean, is it a slightly long shirt  or a really short dress? Is it a tunic? What do you wear on the bottom? Do you wear something on the bottom? Where do you wear this? Does it come in a jumbo? Am I too old for this?”

The answer to that last question is invariably, yes.

I thought of all these questions and more when I began to see news stories about Sunday night’s Billboard Music Awards, aka: Garments Purchased at Forever 21 and Worn as Formal Wear. And I say, “when the news stories” came out because I’m an old lady and I couldn’t stay up to watch the damn show. I need my sleep.

Let’s start with this young lady, Tove Lo. Now, I have no idea who she is, but she is channeling some Game of Thrones/Lisa Bonet-ness in her orange crochet cover up, I mean, dress. I think you can even see her white bikini! And those are definitely some beach platform wedges.

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And, the official cover up counterpart.

I don’t know what Hot Miami Styles is, but they’ve got some bootylicious cover ups completely suitable for your next red carpet event.

Next up: Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra.

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Priyanka is on “Quantico,” so not really sure why she was at the Billboards. And, since it’s not the “Real Housewives of Quantico,” I’ve never seen it.

Maybe Snow Patrol wrote a song that appeared in an episode and that’s why she was invited? Or, better yet, Desi and Marnie! How great would that be? Or, perhaps Priyanka is dating a musician? Maybe she presented the award for Best World Music Album? Is that a thing? No idea.

Anyway, her dress immediately reminded me of a swimsuit cover up they used to have at Victoria’s Secret in like, a bazillion colors. Alas, they don’t have it anymore. BUT, fear not. I found something similarly beachwear worthy for your next big event from the aptly named clothing line, Venus. Because, truly, don’t you want to feel like a beach goddess at an awards ceremony?

On to one of the award ceremony’s big winners – Taylor Swift.

Actually, my bad. Apparently, she wasn’t at the 2016 event. But she was the very first picture that popped up when I Google image searched “2016 Billboard Awards best and worst dressed.” So, I’ma gonna go ahead and share the beach cover up option, which comes courtesy of those masters of elegance, Forever 21. Also, I had to take that “screen grab” with my phone, so apologies.

But they’re pretty similar, right? In hindsight and with more knowledge thanks to the Google machine, I’m sure they put that peach number in production right after last year’s awards just to capitalize on T. Swifty’s jumpsuit moment. Well played, F21.

OK, back to badly dressed people who actually were at the 2016 event: my gurl Zendaya who said, “You know what? F-it. I’m young, my hair is super on fleek and my body is freaking fantastic. I’m going to this bad boy in my bra and a slip.”

And that’s exactly what she did. That’s taking beach wear as formal wear to a whole other level. The peach number on the right is by a delightful new clothing line I discovered while researching this post known as Yandy. They have quite the selection of cover ups and assorted other tawdry wear for the major events in your life. Like this one:

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I might be mistaken, but I don’t think it qualifies as a “beach cover up” if you’re not wearing a bathing suit underneath. Also, can you just imagine the tan lines? Yikes.

Which brings us to the Queen of Inappropriate Red Carpet Wear. The one. The only. It’s Britney, Bitch.

Again, beach cover up brought to you by Yandy. And, dare I say, the beach cover up is a hell of a lot more demure than the actual Reem Acra bodysuit that Britney chose to frame her muscular, rugby thighs.

I’m actually kinda into the Yandy version of this cover up. You know, maybe as a top with a long peach skirt or something. To wear when I hang around the convent or to bed at 9 pm on a Sunday night.